Monday, 10 March 2014


The blog is temporarily suspended as something important has supervened. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible. (As the BBC used to say when it had employees educated enough to know the difference between the active and passive voices.)

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Some People Say I've Done All Right (for a girl)

Oh yeah yeah yeah. Why do we need an International Women's Day? Why is achievment - of almost any sort - more remarkable when it is a woman's rather than a man's? Why do we (and that includes women) expect less from women than from men? And why do women want to do not just the good things men do, but the bad ones too?
A few years ago I decided to make some marmalade from the many 'nerantzia' - Seville oranges - that grow here and are regarded by the Greeks as inedible, so they fall from the trees and rot. (The nerantzia, not the Greeks. Though come to think of it ...) The only ingredients are nerantzia and sugar, but you need equal weights of each and I have no scales. I discussed the problem (over a whisky; the WD40 of the imagination) with the young woman behind the bar. She thought for a moment and said 'Get a piece of wood and find its mid-point, and...' 'Bravo!' I interrupted, catching the idea, 'You have a male mind!' I suppose I'd meant to compliment her but realized at once I had insulted her.
Is it too much to hope that today of all days I will get some readers' answers to the questions I opened with?

Saturday, 8 March 2014

The Aloni (again)

Today, another issue of 'The Aloni'. I think I have put issues one to three on the blog, so here is issue four. If people are bored with 'The Aloni', they can tell me so. Otherwise I shall continue from time to time to put issues in the blog, in their original order. If there's a particular issue people would like to see, again, they have only to tell me.

Oh dear. As always seems to happen when I try to put both pages in, the second page has come out too tiny to read. I think however that if you click on it you should be able to make it bigger.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Donna Leon, 'Death at La Fenice' and others.

The other day, in order to avoid talking about Crimea, (I care very much, but our democratically elected leaders are not interested in the opinions of those who elect them), I talked about my bedtime reading. Someone has written to say she thought it was rather erudite: a fat book about Bach and a book of essays by a psychoanalyst. But next to those is a book by Donna Leon, whose detective novels set in Venice were recommended by the same someone. (No names, no pack-drill.)

I’m selective — well, all right, snobbish — about Detective Fiction. I’ll read PD James, but then she uses the detective genre to write novels that are every bit as ‘literary’ as those of, say, AS Byatt. I’ll read Raymond Chandler for the setting — for an Englishman who spends much of his time in Greece, the West Coast of America is more exotic than Venice — and the demotically expressed moral seriousness of the Marlowe/Bogart character. And I’ll read Margery Allingham because hers are the essential classics of the genre. So I wasn’t at all sure I’d like Donna Leon.

I was told I should start with ‘Death at La Fenice’. The death is that of an ageing and very famous opera conductor, fairly obviously based on someone I’d better just call H von K as I found myself wishing it were a true story. There was a lot of action and dialogue; very few page-long passages of reflection. Not the least interesting part was the detailed map of Venice, which let one check and visualize the movements of the characters. I enjoyed the book but felt, as I’d been told I might, that this was ‘light’ reading; entertaining and undemanding.

Now I’m on my third book of the series. It’s just as entertaining, but my judgement was too hasty: paradoxically, Leon is a much better writer than she seems to be. The reason there are no dense, actionless, dialogue-less passages of reflection, the mini-essays one finds in ‘serious literary fiction’, is that Leon is obeying the first big rule of fiction: ‘Don’t tell; show’. For instance in this book, ‘The Anonymous Venetian’, which concerns what seems to be the murder of what seems to be a male transvestite prostitute, (I haven’t finished it yet and anyway don’t want to give too much away), rather than treat us to a homily or a sociological essay on conventional ‘straight’ attitudes to the wilder shores of sex, Leon has sexually orthodox Commisario Brunetti gently reproved by his wife, having dinner with a gay art critic, and actually meeting, neither as a customer nor an arresting officer but person to person, the very people he might earlier have dismissed as beyond the pale. This does the work of a homily or essay without either boring us by preaching or interrupting the flow of the novel.

So, for this and other reasons, I recommend Donna Leon’s entertaining and, yes, ‘intellectual’ Venetian stories.

Thursday, 6 March 2014



Today is Michelangelo’s birthday.

I was going to continue today to talk about the contents of my bedside bookshelf, but have decided instead to talk about madness; a subject on which I’m quite knowledgeable, both at second hand from the many books about it I’ve read, and first hand from the many periods of more or less severe madness I’ve been through.

Today, just a little story that used to be told by Ronnie Laing, generally regarded as the father of the anti-psychiatry movement. (Forget, if you can, Thomas Szasz or whatever his name is — sounds like a Turkish musical instrument — he’s just someone who feels about the mentally distressed much as the Nazis felt about Jews.)

The story concerns a patient in a Glasgow mental hospital in the 1950s, when some of the ‘treatments’ were of a barbarity not seen since the middle ages. It seems this chap was tormented by voices which made obscene suggestions, and he would go about muttering ‘Away tae hell, ye filthy-minded sods’. ‘So’ they gave him a frontal lobotomy; an operation to remove parts of the brain or, in ‘milder’ cases, ‘merely’ to cut the connections to and between them. The operation was only partially successful: after it he would wander about the grounds muttering ‘What’s that ye say? Speak up, ye sods!’

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Crimea River


No don’t worry; I’m not, like those airheads to whom the BBC panders by broadcasting their fatuous ’phoned-in ‘reactions’, about to give you my opinions on events in Ukrania. Anyone who can’t see at once what America and Russia are up to is unlikely to be enlightened by me.

Instead, Il faut cultiver notre jardin: what’s in the row of books by my bed just now?

First a fat volume by Paul Elie, ‘Reinventing Bach’. Unfortunately Elie belongs to the insulting ‘Let’s make it humanly interesting’ school of biography; you know the sort of thing: ‘As he came down the steps of the Forum, Caesar glanced up at the darkening sky, shivered, and pulled his toga tighter. Would he get home to Calpurnia and a nice bowl of hot pabulum before Jupiter emptied his celestial chamber-pot over Rome?’ But the book is much more about the reception of Bach’s music since the invention of sound recording. Here too there is far too much contentless unevidenced emotional gurgling about what Casals or Schweitzer ‘must have felt’ as they prepared to record, and a fair amount of factual inaccuracy and contradiction: in one bar Schweitzer is recording onto a wax cylinder, in the next onto a disc. There is not a single musical example and very little serious discussion of key-relations or musical form. This is the sort of book that publishers describe as ‘accessible’ and ‘free of technical jargon’. Just when was it that failure to make any demands of the reader became a virtue?

Nevertheless the book is entertaining and well worth reading. At nearly 500 pages it necessarily contains lots of stuff that will be already known only to professionals, and will very much interest mere amateurs like me.

Next, something that does indeed make demands of the reader: a book of essays by Adam Phillips. Phillips is a psychoanalyst, and to be any use at all a psychoanalyst has to be well-read. The Standard Edition of the works of Freud fills a good yard of bookshelf, and one needs to know a fair bit of the German literature and above all Greek mythology to which Freud refers; that’s just for starters. Phillips is quite startlingly well-read in many fields, as the quotations forming epigraphs to these essays show. It would be impertinent of me to say anything about the essays themselves: they are, as teenagers say last time I checked, ‘Awesome’. And to say 'Oh, they're only about psychoanalysis' would be like saying 'Oh, they're only about everything.'

'Bother' said Pooh: I’m only half-way through the little shelf: there are still a book of poetry, a detective novel, a translation studies journal, and two little fascicles of stuff off the internet. But I’ve been told to keep my blog posts short. More tomorrow perhaps, unless people write in to protest.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

At the moment, rather to my surprise, I seem to have more readers of my blog in the US of A than anywhere else. Next comes Greece, then a few in England, and a scattering of odd readers here and there in other countries. But a couple of weeks ago I was pleased to find I suddenly had a number of readers in Poland, perhaps because I had mentioned Nicholas Copernicus, the astronomer and, as we might now call him, cosmologist who did a great deal to establish the idea of the heliocentric planetary system. He was of course Polish. So the following is for the benefit of Poles, and of course anyone else who can read Polish.

And as a bonus you lucky people get a picture of me in characteristic pose; that is to say, with a glass of whisky in my hand. The picture was taken at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, which belongs to Drue Heinz of Heinz Baked Beans. She spends some of the Heinz fortune in inviting writers to stay and work (or drink whisky, or both) in her castle. Splendid lady.

Monday, 3 March 2014

The Name of the Phone

Today is — or would have been; you know what I mean — the birthday of Alexander Graham Bell, the Scots-Canadian inventor and therapist for people who had hearing difficulties who invented the Bellophone, into which one bellows.

Adler, an early colleague of Freud, had a theory that people’s occupations were dictated  or at least influenced by their surnames; a sort of reversal of the way many surnames themselves developed: people called ‘Smith’ for instance had an early, pre-surname ancestor who was in fact a smith. (Since there are many different kinds of smith, there are now a lot of Smiths.) The theory is now largely discredited, partly because when another colleague asked Adler where he found the many examples he used in his paper on the subject he said ‘I made them up’, but mainly because it’s one of those ideas that depend on ‘anecdotal evidence’ — we remember the cases where the idea seems to be ‘confirmed’, and don’t even notice the many more where it isn’t. Even so, it is interesting that the man who invented the telephone, and worked on ideas to help deaf people communicate, should have had such an appropriate name.

As Spike Milligan said, the first telephone was in fact useless: things only really got going when someone invented the second telephone. If anyone out there would like to have a better idea how telephones work, there is an explanation in my ‘Book’ (not published in actual book form) ‘The Anatomy of Wireless’. This is available as a pdf document from me, free to anyone who asks.

But back to Adler’s theory: I once discussed it with the psychiatrist Julian Goodburn, and he told me that his father had been a fireman.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Carrying Cards

I was in the Communist Party for many years. Yes, a real ‘card-carrying’ communist. What an odd expression that is. I imagine most political parties have membership cards, and the CP card was not particularly large or heavy. Red of course, and very like the old UK driving license; a fact that sometimes disconcerted policemen when they stopped one and asked to see one’s license. ‘Card-carrying’? I am also, as it happens, a ‘Card-carrying’ member of the Victory Services Club. Wake up, MI5.

Like other CP members I used from time to time to get big envelopes in the post from ‘King Street’, as we called party headquarters in Covent Garden. These were prominently labelled ‘Communist Party’ and people’s eyes would widen as they saw me pick up my post from the pigeon holes at the various colleges I attended in those years. I would smile enigmatically and mutter ‘My orders from Moscow’ and I think many people believed me.

We didn’t get ‘Orders from Moscow’ of course; no-one in the party did, not even the people at King Street. Up there they would get advice and suggestions from Moscow, but not orders: no-one got shot if they failed to follow the advice. Actually the pusillanimous General Secretary of the time did in fact slavishly follow the ‘Moscow Line’; one reason I left the party.

The ‘Advice and suggestions’ from Moscow usually showed a total failure to understand British social conditions, and were characterised by a complete lack of humour. Here is an example, quoted by Claud Cockburn in his book ‘Crossing the Line’:

‘The lower organs of the party in Britain must make still greater efforts to penetrate the backward parts of the proletariat.’

Saturday, 1 March 2014

Sorting the Sheep from the Goats

At least in the Orthodox calendar, and except for the minority ‘Old Calendarists’, it is carnival time. Carne Vale; farewell to flesh. ‘Carne’ is taken by most people to mean ‘Meat’, and one is supposed to stop eating it. Well, not yet; first one takes a fond farewell to it by eating so much of it that, like drinking too much alcohol, one feels only too happy to give it up. For a while, at least. I suspect that the original meaning was that one should, for Lent, give up the pleasures of the flesh in general, which include rather more than eating it.

Here in this little island there was a big party with lots of food, and a group playing ‘Traditional Greek Music’: an electric organ and two electric bouzoukis, all amplified to ear-splitting levels. Tickets were sold; more tickets than there was room for people and as late-coming adults arrived, children were forced out of their seats. Well, the girls were: boys kept theirs. The girls sensibly retired to an upstairs room, away from the noise, to engage in serious conversation. I had already eaten at home, but went along for a sphinaki (little wedge, from the shape of the glass) of whisky, and was given a container of food as I left.

The main dish was ‘Katziki me manestra’; goat with manestra, which is small pasta that looks like grains of rice. In country places this is the traditional food for celebrations and it’s very good. I like goat meat, but don’t like lamb or mutton, which most people think it resembles. Shepherds keep mixed flocks of sheep and goats, and Feta cheese is made indiscriminately from the milk of either or both.

There is a small airport in the nearby island of Skiathos. Deserted in winter, it becomes very busy on two or three days of the week during the tourist season. It’s a couple of miles out of the harbour town and, provided I don’t have too much luggage, I usually walk to it when travelling to England. Most people take taxis, but the walk round the coast road is pleasant, provided that one doesn’t happen to cross the road at the end of the runway just as a plane is coming in; timing it wrong can be literally hair-raising. One stubborn old shepherd still keeps his flock in a field beside the runway, and one year I asked him ‘Don’t the roaring arrivals every half-hour of monster aeroplanes freak out the animals?’ ‘The goats don’t take any notice,’ he said, ‘but the sheep go crazy.’ which tends to confirm common beliefs about the characters of goats and sheep.