Sunday, 31 August 2014

Further Notes on Driving in the Aegean Islands

Which Side of the Road?: Whichever takes your fancy; favourite is straight(ish) down the middle. (See a previous post). Don’t worry about anything coming the other way: you are more important and they will swerve into the ditch or over the precipice at the last moment.

Parking: Remember that driving is a competitive activity: the aim is always to assert your importance, your superiority to all other road-users, by causing them every possible inconvenience. Park wherever you like, but especially good places are just round blind corners, right across the entrance to a shop or bar, across side-roads, or just bang in the middle of the road, especially if there are already cars parked on both sides. And do not forget the magic button: this is usually situated in the middle of the dashboard so may well catch your eye should you happen at any time to look through the windscreen. Pushing this causes the little yellow lights at the corners of the car, or those of them that happen to work, to flash on and off. The flashing of these lights automatically exonerates you from all possible blame should anyone have the temerity to complain that you are endangering other road users.

Hill Starts: These are easy. When you have parked the car pointing uphill, simply get in and release the handbrake. The car should start rolling backwards downhill. If it doesn’t, stamp on the clutch and wiggle the gear-lever until it goes into neutral, when rolling will start. Now look in your pockets for the keys. When found, start the engine, put it in a forward gear (any forward gear) and push the accelerator hard down to the floor so that the engine screams. Now quickly take your other foot off the clutch pedal. The car should leap rapidly forward, rolling over the people and other vehicles it has crushed while rolling backwards.

Special rule for male drivers: It is mandatory, imperative, always to overtake the vehicle in front of you, regardless of road conditions, speed, danger, and other such trivial considerations. Failure to overtake vehicles in front causes your testicles to drop off. On the other hand, success in overtaking causes the other chap’s testicles to drop off, which is satisfying.


Saturday, 30 August 2014

Sporadic Driving Skills

Drivers in this little island haven’t quite got the hang of the rules of the road, perhaps because there are so few of them. Roads, that is: there is one running up the spine of the island, and spurs run off that to various coastal villages. There is also one, the busiest, from the main harbour town up to the Old Village at the top of the hill.

There used not to be many drivers either, but there are a lot more now and in the summer one has to contend not just with Greek drivers but also (horrors) with Italian ones.

Drivers here have special difficulty with the idea of driving only on one side of the road. The authorities tried painting a white line down the middle of some parts of the roads, but this actually made matters worse: drivers assumed it was just a handy steering-guide and one was supposed to try to keep the line between one’s wheels.

The most recent idea was, for the last hundred yards or so of the Harbour – Old Village road, where things often went badly wrong, to put a row of posts about half a metre tall down the middle of the road.

The photograph below speaks for itself:

Friday, 29 August 2014

Metaphors sans Frontières

The World Health Organization announces it has ‘launched a road map’ against Ebola. One must hope it is printed on waterproof paper. I suppose the idea is to contain the virus by so confusing it that it won’t know whether to travel by land or sea.


ON THE 29TH OF AUGUST 1839 Michael Faraday discovered Electromagnetic Induction. (We can date it so precisely because his notebooks have been kept ever since in the very place where he wrote them.)

Hmm… Yes … I can almost hear nearly all of you putting on that special jokey voice, beloved of BBC presenters, that seems to suggest that ignorance is respectable and knowing these things is a bit weird: ‘Well… Ha-ha… Michael who? Electro-what?’

If you really want to know, which I doubt, you will have to read at least parts of my ‘Anatomy of Wireless’. Just ask and I’ll send it.

In the picture below Faraday is the didactic little chap on the right, explaining things to his large puzzled friend on the left.


Thursday, 28 August 2014

Greetings from Yunanistan

Readership of the blog suddenly octupled yesterday. It can’t really be because I’ve taken to putting the odd picture in? You can’t really all be so infantile that you’ll only look at things with pictures in them?

No of course not. My readers are intelligent, discerning people. Perhaps my recent posts have been even more clever and witty than usual? Surely a near impossibility.

But I am being like those people who gaze at envelopes during breakfast saying ‘Now I wonder who this can be from?’ not noticing that their breakfast-companion is gritting his teeth and clenching his fists to stop himself throwing his cornflakes at her while shouting ‘Well open it and see, you silly cow!’ There is a thingy (technical term) on the blog that enables me (and only me) to see not just how many readers I’m getting, but also where they are. (Don’t worry; it only tells me what countries they’re in, not who they are.)(In fact, come to think of it, it only tells me in what countries they have set up their computers to seem to be in, but most people aren’t that devious yet, though the intrusive behaviour of Google, Microsoft et al will soon drive them there.)

Where was I? Oh, yes. On checking I found a sudden surge of readers in Turkey. Greetings to you all. If Turkish readership continues, I shall write here about my two or three trips to Turkey, which took place before many package-holiday companies had ‘Discovered’ the country. I went in fact as companion to an oriental rug-dealer, and we visited some very strange places and met some very strange people.

Another day, perhaps.

Since pictures are now compulsory here is one that might seem totally irrelevant,
but it was in fact taken in Turkey.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

‘On This Day’

In 1883 Krakatoa erupted: the explosion could be heard round the world, and the dust-particles too, having reached the upper atmosphere, gave rise to a period of very colourful sunsets.


In 1950 a just-recognizable television picture was sent across the channel; the bit of water separating England from France. Naturally they chose the narrowest part of the channel, that between Calais and my home town of Dover. It’s about 21 miles. In Dover we say that if you can see France it’s going to rain, and if you can’t see France it’s probably raining.


In 1944 Paris was liberated from German occupation. The liberation of a city is not usually something that, like a volcanic eruption or a wireless signal, can be pinned precisely to a time; let’s just say it happened around the end of August.


Looking at readership figures, I think what attracts you simple people out there is pictures. So here, just slightly relevantly, is a picture of Dover Castle:


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

One Library’s Much Like Another to a Barbarian

The picture I put in yesterday’s blog is not in fact of the destruction by the Germans of Leuven library in 1914. It is in fact of the destruction (by the Germans) of Holland House library in London, some time in the 1940s. It also shows the typical phlegmatic English reaction to such events.

I am not sure whether the following sign, seen at Swansea University, shows a wish to protect literature or simply contempt for it:

Monday, 25 August 2014

Late Summer Miscellany — Mass Stupidity, Occasional Brilliance


Richard Attenborough, actor and film director, has just died. He was after all 90.


On this day in 1914 the invading Germans, quite deliberately and knowing exactly what they were doing, destroyed the great library of Leuven University.


On this day in 1609 Galileo demonstrated his telescope (he didn’t actually invent it but he improved it, and had the imagination to point it at the stars) to the great and good of Rome. (It was Rome wasn’t it? Anyway somewhere important in Italy; excuse my ignorance.) The cardinals however refused even to look through it, lest they saw something that cast doubt on the church’s teachings about the nature of the universe.


At one time, when a gentleman thought himself insulted by another gentleman, he challenged him to a duel. Duels were usually conducted in rural areas, to avoid the attention of the authorities with their trifling objections to people killing each other.

On one occasion, duellist number one strode into the railway ticket office and bought a return to, let’s say, Hicksville. He affected not to notice when duellist number two approached the ticket window, but when he heard the words ‘Single to Hicksville’ he couldn’t resist saying ‘Aha! Not too confident about coming back?’

‘On the contrary,’ replied duellist number two: ‘I always use my opponent’s return half.’


Sunday, 24 August 2014

Tattooed Poetry

It is often said by ignorant philistines who want to be thought witty — people like Public School housemasters — that a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. I am a specialist in Nikos Kavvadias. Who? Well exactly. In spite of my best efforts, Kavvadias is virtually unknown to English readers who may well have heard of Cavafy, Seferis, and Elytis. Fair enough, compared to those giants of twentieth century Greek poetry, Kavvadias is a minor poet, but in Greece, especially among those who don’t often read poetry, he is perhaps more loved than those three put together.

So I was not entirely astonished, when I went for my morning coffee in the square yesterday, to be told by Eleni the waitress ‘Hey Simon there’s a chap outside who’s got a poem by Kavvadias tattooed on his arm.’

I went out to investigate. She wasn’t kidding: an unusually difficult, strange and above all long poem of his, covering one arm, in small Greek handwriting, nearly all the way round and from shoulder to wrist. He told me his girlfriend had been instrumental in his getting the tattoo, so I warned him, out of her hearing, of the fate of William George Allum, a stoker about whom Kavvadias wrote another poem: poor William had a picture of the woman he loved tattooed on his chest, and when she betrayed him he tried to erase it, with bleach, caustic soda, acid — nothing worked and finally in despair he stabbed himself through the heart.

Dear me. Nothing like that will happen to Elias; he and his girlfriend are very happy together. Oh, the poem? Well as I said it’s an unusually difficult one for Kavvadias, so not one I included in my book of translations. It is oddly like John Donne’s ‘Goe, and catche a falling starre,’ and here are just the first four of its nine verses:

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Greek Railway Stations Revisited

I am pleased to say that there has at last been a little more of what we are supposed to call ‘feedback’. It comes from someone in my local (Sandwich area) group of members of the Society of Authors, who was intrigued by what I said recently about Greek Railway stations.

Here is the cover of the screenplay of Angelopoulos’s film ‘O Thiasos’ about a travelling theatre troupe. Though not quite like King Otto’s drawing, it is fairly typical of Greek provincial railway stations, which are nothing like any other building you will see in Greece.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Embarrassing Mishap in the Louvre

On the morning of the 23rd of August 1911, the staff of the Louvre noticed that the Mona Lisa was missing, and decided that it ‘must have’ been nicked the day before. (Security was astonishingly lax there in those days; painters were allowed to borrow pictures to copy at home, so no-one batted an eyelid when people strolled out carrying rather more than they came in with.) Among those suspected of the theft was a young and rather disreputable Spanish painter called Pablo Picasso.


P.S. For Eyvor et al: A picture of a Greek provincial
railway station will be posted on the blog soon.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

A Revolt and A Revelation

On the 21st of August 1831 Slaves in Virginia revolted. Their leader, Nat Turner, was arrested, tried, and killed a few days later.


In 1999 NASA sent up a rocket, or spaceship, or probe or something to investigate a comet, the plan being that it should get close enough to scoop up some of the stuff comets are made of — stardust — and send it back to Earth.

In 2010 the first little pot of stardust came back to Earth, and since then scientists have been investigating its tiny particles.

Today, a scientific spokesman made an announcement about their findings: an astounded public was told ‘These particles are not all the same.’ He did not explain further.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Leon Trotsky? Oy, Vay.

It was 74 years ago today that Leon Trotsky, in exile in Mexico, was killed by an agent of Joe Stalin.


It is now quicker and easier than ever before to send ‘information’ from one place to another. Never mind the quality, feel the bandwidth. In the case of written information, most people consider the characters of one alphabet or another all they need. In an increasingly philistine western culture the ability to punctuate, either according to the old school rules or even (like Shakespeare and myself) by one’s own made-up rules has been lost; a text by a present-day young person often gives the impression that, after she wrote it, he thought ‘Oh I’d better put in some of that punctuation stuff’ and bombarded it randomly with apostrophes and commas.

As for tone of voice, it is of course lost in the written word, though a good writer can describe it, or even indicate it within quoted speech by subtle word-choice and punctuation.

In illustration of the foregoing, consider the following little story, which I may have put on the blog before:

Stalin gets a telegram from Trotsky (who was a Jew.) Stalin is pleased, as the telegram reads ‘Dear Comrade, I was wrong; you were right: I should apologise.’ Stalin shows the telegram to his secretary (who happens to be a Jew.) The secretary — a brave man, as befits someone working with Stalin — says ‘I’m sorry, comrade, but you have misunderstood. Actually the telegram reads ‘Dear Comrade, I was wrong? You were right? I should apologise?’

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Off to Play Golf with Ralph

Which is pronounced ‘Orf to play goff with Rafe.’ There are plans for a golf club here in Alonnisos. There will be difficulties — water? — but I wish the organizers luck. More quixotic enterprises have done well in this increasingly surprising little place.

I don’t play golf; what I don’t know about golf would fill a large volume. All I know is that a friend of mine was once invited to play at a big club. After the game he went to take a shower and, not knowing the club house, accidentally went into the women’s showers. Fortunately there were no women there at the time, and he didn’t realize his mistake until, stepping stark naked out of the shower, he heard a group of women coming in. Desperately seeking concealment he dodged behind a row of towels hanging up to dry, but this concealed only his upper half: his — er — nether regions were still on full view.

The first lady exclaimed ‘Oh! Who can that be?’

The second said ‘Well, it’s not your husband … come to that, it’s not mine either.’

The third thought for a moment and said ‘He’s not even a member of the golf club.’

Monday, 18 August 2014

Advice to those about to marry

Don’t. So said the magazine ‘Punch’ about a century ago. Here, in the not-very-good 1866 translation by Lady Wallace (she’s taken out all his scatology; it’s a wonder there’s anything left) is part of a letter from Mozart to his father:


Mannheim, Feb. 7, 1778.


HERR SCHIEDENHOFEN might have let me know long ago through you that his wedding was soon to take place, and I would have composed a new minuet for the occasion. I cordially wish him joy; but his is, after all, only one of those money matches, and nothing else! I hope never to marry in this way; I wish to make my wife happy, but not to become rich by her means; so I will let things alone, and enjoy my golden freedom till I am so well off that I can support both wife and children. Herr Schiedenhofen was forced to choose a rich wife; his title imposed this on him. The nobility must not marry for love or from inclination, but from interest, and all kinds of other considerations. It would not at all suit a grandee to love his wife after she had done her duty, and brought into the world an heir to the property. But we poor humble people are privileged not only to choose a wife who loves us, and whom we love, but we may, can, and do take such a one, because we are neither noble, nor highborn, nor rich, but, on the contrary, lowly, humble, and poor; we therefore need no wealthy wife, for our riches being in our heads, die with us, and these no man can deprive us of unless he cut them off, in which case we need nothing more. 

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The Defence of Poesy

I have already written, several times, about my readers’ very evident dislike of poetry. This dislike has a long history among respectable people: I am currently reading, among other things, ‘The Ordeal of Richard Feverel’, George Meredith’s novel of 1859 about a father’s Rousseau-like imposition of his educational ‘ideas’ on his son. Here is a brief extract:


Sir Austin, despite his rigid watch and ward, knew less of his son than the servant of his household. And he was deaf, as well as blind. Adrian thought it his duty to tell him that the youth was consuming paper. Lady Blandish likewise hinted at his mooning propensities. Sir Austin from his lofty watch-tower of the System had foreseen it, he said. But when he came to hear that the youth was writing poetry, his wounded heart had its reasons for being much disturbed. 

"Surely," said Lady Blandish, "you knew he scribbled?"  

"A very different thing from writing poetry," said the baronet. "No Feverel has ever written poetry."  

"I don't think it's a sign of degeneracy," the lady remarked. "He rhymes very prettily to me."  

A London phrenologist, and a friendly Oxford Professor of poetry, quieted Sir Austin's fears.  The phrenologist said he was totally deficient in the imitative faculty; and the Professor, that he was equally so in the rhythmic, and instanced several consoling false quantities in a few effusions submitted to him.  

Saturday, 16 August 2014

How to listen to the VOA

To a much greater extent than the BBC is of the British State, The VOA is the mouthpiece of the United States Government. Listening to it is much the same, and needs the same skills as, listening to an American politician, ‘Government Spokesperson’, or President. Above all, one is not listening to the ‘Voice of America’  — the ordinary decent people of America.

What are the above-mentioned skills? well, if you read poetry properly, listen (I mean really listen) to music, or can understand and even take part in a conversation in a language other than your mother tongue, then you already have these skills. As you listen to the VOA, (the president, the government spokesperson, the politician), you turn on these skills, as you might shove a Babel-fish in your ear. Some examples:

When the President says ‘I did not have sex with that woman’ he is not exactly lying: he’s using ‘Have sex’ in a special sense; a sense in which many things we lesser mortals had thought were ‘sex’ are excluded. Fellatio, Cunnilingus, and no doubt all sorts of other fun things are not, in the VOA-President-Politician-Government-Spokesperson sense, sex.

When the VOAPPGS says ‘America does not practice torture’, your babel-fish should explain that this means ‘Heavens no! We pay foreigners to do it abroad for us’, or sometimes, rather as it is with ‘Having Sex’, ‘Torture’ is being used here in a special sense: tying someone to a plank and pouring water into his mouth until he is just on the point of drowning, reviving him, then repeating the process over and over again until between bouts he gasps out whatever he thinks you want him to say, is not (in this special sense) ‘Torture’: it is an ‘Enhanced Interrogation Technique’.

Sometimes one hardly needs one’s babel-fish: when the VOAPPGS says ‘We shall continue to monitor the situation and consider appropriate action’ you need little more than average intelligence to work out that VOAPPGS has found an ingenious and impressive-sounding way of saying absolutely nothing at all.

At weekends, VOA’s international news is replaced by something called ‘Encounter’, which is advertised as ‘A free-wheeling, no-holds-barred programme in which advocates and opponents meet to discuss important issues in the news.’ For instance, the ‘Advocate’ might say that America should send many more troops to Iraq, while the ‘Opponent’ says no, no more troops, or not many, but lots more ‘Military Advisors’. They range freely over the whole gamut of views from A to B. No-one would suggest that perhaps America shouldn’t be there at all, still less would America’s God-given duty to be the world’s policeman be questioned.

So why would one bother to listen to the VOA? Well, provided you can keep your cool and a robust sense of humour, and make sure your babel-fish is in good health, you can learn a lot from the VOA. Certainly far more than from the BBC’s relentless dumbed-down populism, rushing to get the dull stuff out of the way so as to concentrate on ‘Sport’.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

VOA and the Beeb.

I’d planned — well vaguely thought about — a short piece comparing news coverage by these two national broadcasters, but when I turned on VOA this morning I heard that Russia has granted Edward Snowden a three-year visa and a residence permit. Two pundits were setting forth the rights and wrongs of the Snowden affair. Well the wrongs and wrongs: many people consider Snowden a hero rather than a villain, but you won’t hear their views on the VOA.

One of the pundits said ‘Nobody has the right to put his own conscience above the interests of his country.’ He said it as if it were almost a truism; there was much wise nodding of heads and not a single raised eyebrow. (Yes all right this was short-wave radio, but you know what I mean.)

It would be an exaggeration, though a mild one, to say that this pundit’s view epitomises all that’s wrong with America and Americans.

In fact, of course, (well all right: in my opinion, shared by many good, decent people) everybody has not just the right but the duty to put his conscience before the interests of his country.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

“You know how to whistle, don’t you?

You just put your lips together and blow.” Both BBC World Service and Voice of America chose that line to play a recording of this morning, when they reported the death of Lauren Bacall. It’s from her first film, ‘To Have and Have Not’, based on the Hemingway story. In the film we can watch Humphrey Bogart, always a sucker for a coquettish young girl — Bacall was twenty then — become totally besotted with her.

Personally I think the bar scene between them in ‘The Big Sleep’, where they use a witty and sometimes quite raunchy exchange of horse-racing double-entendres to work out whether their relationship will remain strictly business or might become something else, shows the now slightly older Bacall’s talents better.

I was going to go on to compare the merits of Beeb World Service and VOA news coverage, but I must remember Honey-boy’s advice to keep blog entries short. Tomorrow perhaps.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014


Here in this little Greek village there is a café/bar in the main square. It has been there some years, and has become the place where the more discriminating, one might almost say the more intellectual, go for their morning coffee and their evening nightcap. One can see people playing chess, or working on poetry translations on their laptops, or having deep conversations about the prettiness of this year’s tourist girls.

In early summer this year, ‘someone’ complained to the council that this café’s chairs and tables were blocking the way through the public square. They weren’t of course: the proprietors, whose family have lived on the square for generations, have the taste and intelligence to place the seating in the shade of the several trees, out of everybody’s way. Nobody’s passage had ever been obstructed: even mules carrying refrigerators teetering on their pack-saddles had no trouble crossing the square.

Nevertheless, the mayor (who, oddly, was not available for comment, having left the island on urgent business) sent council employees up with a plan, and a tape-measure, and a pot of paint: ‘Paths’ were marked out across the square. Paths of which no-one had ever heard before. One of them passed right across the front of the café/bar. Others just happened to pass right under each of the trees in the square. Tables and chairs were not to be placed on these paths. They must be crowded together in the remaining little triangles of space, with no shade. The mayor, when he was eventually found, said the café/bar must put up umbrellas; they could not use the shade of the trees any more.

Of course, when bemused customers came next day for their morning coffee and found their accustomed tables in obviously silly places, they dragged them back under the trees. Whereupon ‘someone’ telephoned the police, who came up and said that they were obliged to act on any complaint, however silly, and would the proprietor please return the tables to the newly-assigned places.

This happened again and again: customers arranged their tables where they liked them (and where they were not in anyone’s way), and a little later the police arrived because ‘someone’ had called them.

Things carried on like this and then one day, as happens early in the summer every year, a couple of gypsies arrived with bundles of rushes to repair those of the rush-bottomed chairs that had worn out. They settled on the ground under a tree and set to work, to the delight of the camera-bearing tourists. Suddenly the police arrived and berated the café proprietor for ‘letting’ the gypsies sit in the ‘road’. ‘Someone’ had rung the police to complain. The gypsies of course downed tools, packed up and left.

Meanwhile just off the square, an enterprising — some would say quixotic — lady had opened a little café/bookshop. The usual prophets of doom and gloom said it could never work — there were enough cafés in the village already, and no-one ever read a book here. I suggested that that was perhaps because until now there had been nowhere to buy one. It was slow to take off, but once the season got under way the place did start to do business. Mostly on the café side, but some books were sold. In fact, things went so well that when the Athens publisher ‘Aiora’ brought out a new Greek/English selection of Cavafy’s poetry — the English translator is David Connolly, who is the best — the café proprietor organized a Cavafy evening at the shop. The publisher came and gave a talk about Cavafy, I gave a short talk about how I had got to know Cavafy’s work and incidentally his flat in Alexandria, and some of the poems were read, in both languages, by three young Greek women. It was a great success; a large audience gathered (see the picture below) and some of them even bought the book.

A few days later the police came to the shop. ‘Someone’ had rung them to say the bookshop proprietor didn’t have all the necessary permissions and licenses for her business. Well of course she didn’t. No-one has, at least not in the first year or so of business: the Greek system is that you find out what is required, make sure you comply with all the rules, and apply for the necessary papers, and wait. And wait. Sometimes for years. Greek bureaucracy. Meanwhile you start business of course. That’s what everyone has always done. The policeman agreed but said he had to act on any complaint. Never mind that all around there were plainly visible much more blatant contraventions of the rules, this was the one he had to investigate. The scene was reminiscent of the opening of the first Inspector Clouzeau film, where Peter Sellers as a French policeman is giving a blind organ-grinder a hard time about a ‘Lee-sonce’ for his ‘Minkee’, while behind his back a bank robbery is in full swing.

Now the bookshop lady is a brave and strong woman. She will carry on defiantly, though theoretically she is supposed to shut up shop at once. No doubt ‘Someone’ is proud of what he has done, or rather failed to do. Congratulations, ‘Someone’.

These ‘someones’ exist in every village in the world, and every language has a name, or several names, for them. They are not the most loved members of society; even the police regard these little creeps with contempt. They don’t of course advertise their identity, but people always know who they are.

Monday, 11 August 2014

A Noisy Noise Annoys An Oyster

Readers are reminded that in these hot summer days when many people have their windows open, playing loud music can annoy the neighbours.

Another good way to annoy the neighbours is to bang dustbin lids together at three o’clock in the morning.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The effect of poetry on readership

Well it really worked: perhaps as I had put very little poetry in the blog recently, readership climbed steadily throughout August, reaching a peak on the 6th. On the 7th I put in that poem by Villon, and at once readership went down and has continued to decrease steadily ever since. Much the same has happened many times in the past; you really don't like the stuff do you? Here instead is a pretty picture:
It's me and a girlfriend at the Acropolis.

Saturday, 9 August 2014


I was saying (well, writing in an e-mail) to a friend yesterday that people often, in daily speech, quote someone without knowing whom, or from what work, indeed usually quite unaware that they are quoting. I mentioned the phrase ‘One fell swoop’ as an example. Predictably, she asks today where the phrase comes from, and I told her it’s from the Scottish Play. (I worked in the theatre for many years, and one of its superstitions is that this play must not be named (or indeed quoted from offstage.) But we’re not in the theatre now, so: Macbeth.) But I didn’t say where in Macbeth. Not so long ago, she would have had to find a copy and wade through it (though ‘wade’ is perhaps not the word; it’s as gripping as any popular modern murder mystery) to find the words. Now of course she can find the play’s text on the internet and use a text search to get the phrase. Bingo, instant knowledge.

That’s what’s wrong with most ‘learning’ from the internet. It doesn’t have to be like that, but human nature being what it is most people just use a Google search to find the tiny scrap of information which is all they think they need just now. So they get impressive quantities of isolated knowledge, but they don’t learn to ‘Only Connect’ (another quotation) in the sense the person who said ‘Only connect’ had in mind. It’s rather like studying English Literature by reading the Oxford Dictionary. You’d find out all sorts of stuff. That’s all you’d do.

The Internet can make you into a smartarse; it’s unlikely to educate you. (Unless of course you read my blog.)


Friday, 8 August 2014

Robin Hood and his Merrie Banke Robbers

Today is the anniversary — about the fortieth I think — of what became known in England as the Great Train Robbery: a carefully planned hold-up on a remote country railway bridge of a train carrying vast (for the time) amounts of money. They got away with the loot, and at least one of the small gang remained ‘at large’ (his name was Biggs) for years, having his idea of a good time in South America.

What really got up Authority’s nose was the public reaction of ‘Good for them! Hope they never catch them!’ Approval would have been complete were it not for the fact that the gang severely injured one of the train crew.

Something similar on a smaller scale had happened a few years earlier in Oxford. At that time two of the four corners of Carfax, the big cross-roads at the centre of the city, were occupied by banks. Carfax, a mere hundred yards or so from Oxford’s main police station, was also where the uniformed beat policemen stood and chatted all night, usually in the doorway of one or other of the banks.

Nevertheless, one morning when the boss came to open up one of the two banks, he found a dirty great hole in the ceiling and all the money gone. The robbers had installed themselves comfortably in the offices on the floor above and worked in a leisurely sort of way through the night, stopping for tea breaks, witness their shocking failure to wash up the mugs afterwards. I don’t think they were ever caught.

Again, the public reaction was ‘Good for them!’ I was living in Oxford at the time, (no, it wasn’t me, but then I would say that, wouldn’t I?), and when the news got round there was a distinct brightening of everyone’s mood: people smiled at each other, and smirked and giggled as they walked past the embarrassed policemen at Carfax.

Those two occasions were cheering confirmations that the spirit of Robin Hood lived on under the surface respectability of the British people. But that was forty odd years ago — has it survived, does it live yet?

Thursday, 7 August 2014

François Villon, ‘Ballade’

As readership of this blog has suddenly shot up, I'm going to put a poem in again, in sure and certain knowledge that it will lose readers. This is by the great mediaeval poet and general rogue Villon. He wrote it for a girl called Ambroise — note the acrostic, which I have preserved (at the price of some clumsiness of diction) in my translation.

François Villon, ‘Ballade’

From Le Testament.

Au poinct du jour que l’esprevier s’esbat
Meu de plaisir et par noble coustume,
Bruit le maulvis et de joye s’esbat,
Recoit son per et se joinct a sa plume,
Offrir vous vueil, a ce desir m’alume,
Ioyeusement ce qu’aux amans bon semble,
Sachiez qu’Amour l’escript en son volume
Et c’est la fin pour quoy sommes ensemble.

At daybreak, as the sparrow-hawk takes flight,
Moved by joy and noble honoured ways,
Beat thrush’s wings; she calls in her delight,
Receives her mate, and in his feathers lays.
Offering, inflamed by passion’s rays,
In happiness, what seems good to the lover:
See how, in her book, this Love displays:
Each only for this end brought to the other.

Trans. Simon Darragh.




Wednesday, 6 August 2014


Only one country has ever actually used nuclear weapons. Yes, that's right: 69 years ago today American forces dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima; three days later they dropped one on Nagasaki. Some people say that it was worth it because it shortened World War Two.

Someone has at last sent me an e-mail saying that he and his spouse like my blog. It is an anonymous e-mail, offering no possibility of reply, and in any case I was brought up to ignore anonymous letters. Even so, thank you; it is good to know my often rather acerbic posts are read and enjoyed.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Febrile Moan

There was a time when mobile phones were quite rare. Their owners were proud of their new toys, and would ostentatiously use them in public places. Never mind that what they said into them was of mind-numbing banality, (‘My train’s just leaving now, dear,’) and certainly never mind that they were irritating those around them, in fact that was the point: the important thing was to show everybody that one had a mobile phone. They hoped everybody would think ‘Gosh, he must be an interesting chap if people need to talk to him even when he’s travelling, or in the café, or even (God help us) in the bookshop or library.’ The rest of us put up with it. Perhaps we even pitied mobile phone users: transparently, their need to show everyone how interesting they were was motivated by a terrible fear of the truth: that they were in fact utterly boring.

Now that ‘everybody’ — everybody in the ‘developed’ world — (except me) — has a mobile phone, that explanation for their use where it will annoy others can’t apply any more, but people still do it — just as one is nodding off to sleep, or settling down to concentrate on an interesting book, there it is again, often heralded by the fairly standard ring-tone of a waltz by Tarrega (a side-effect of the damn things is that classical guitarists have had to cut what was once a lovely piece from the repertoire): ‘Hallo? Yes I’ll be home about 8.30. What? Burger and baked beans? Oh good.’ The only explanation now must be what had always been a part of the explanation: arrogance and bad manners. They don’t give a damn whom they annoy.

True, just occasionally having a mobile phone might get one out of a difficult or dangerous situation. How often? One call in a thousand? One call in ten thousand? Is it worth it?

I began to think of jamming devices: things to prevent the use of mobile phones anywhere nearby. Shouldn’t be, technologically, very difficult: first find out what frequency range mobile phones use — apparently it’s around 800 Megahertz — and then build a small transmitter, preferably with a rather unselective band-width, to match. But my skills in electronics belong to the era of big glass valves and sets that took five minutes to warm up; I never really got on with semi-conductors beyond the germanium diode. Perhaps one could buy one, ready-made? In fact, don’t they use them in places like hospitals and theatres, knowing that mobile-phone users would simply not have the decency (see above) to turn their toys off?

Yes, you can buy mobile phone jammers. They are rather expensive. Also — and this is shocking and infuriating — their use by private owners is, almost everywhere one is likely to want to use one, illegal!

That is to say, the ‘right’ of ill-mannered morons to disturb the rest of us with their noisy vapidities is actually protected by law! There could not be a more telling symptom of the sheer philistine vulgarity of modern western society.
By the way, there was a panic some years ago at reports that mobile phone use caused brain damage. Users need not have worried: it is in fact brain damage that causes mobile phone use.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Writers who get up the Greek Church's nose.

Readers may know that Kazantzakis, author of, among many other books ‘Zorba the Greek’, was excommunicated by or do I mean from the Greek Orthodox Church. Rather like being put on the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum, this sort of thing often has a pleasing effect on sales of one’s books. Another Greek writer who was excommunicated was Andreas Laskaratos of Kephallonia, who is not well-known outside Greece, though in his case it’s easier to see why he wasn’t flavour of the month with the church. Here, in my translation, is a brief extract from his book ‘Behold the Man’:


The Monk

Monasticism is masonry; the monk a mason.

In the garden of his monastery he cultivates his monkishness and becomes a sworn member of the monastic order.

He dresses as his fellows do, feeds as they do, lives as they do. And he believes just what and just as much as the other monks believe. These are the limits, beyond which one is not accepted in the monastic club.

Just like masonry, monasticism has its mysteries. The monk’s mystery is to take care of himself all his life, to live at ease all his life, and — if it’s true what they say — to be worthy, finally, of a heavenly paradise.

It’s true that life in our monasteries is a filthy one, brutal, abominable: but then, our monk is nearly always himself of a backward social class. Thus, however filthy and ill-fed he is in the monastery, the novice finds there more than enough bum-fodder, and a blessed unconcern and freedom from care.

Our monk is happy with his animal feed: as he himself tells us, he always has a choice of food; never the same two days in a row. If he ate garlic yesterday, he eats onions today, leeks tomorrow, garlic sauce the next day, and beans on Sunday.

Those among them who are lettered, and know how to dot their ‘i’s and cross their ‘t’s, read the Lives of the Saints and are disenchanted. For such, the acme of human endeavour is to have one day a chapter of their own, with their own miracles, entitled ‘Saint So-and-so’.

Sometimes it happens that one of these unfortunates is so overcome by the idea of saintliness that he violates his real nature, loses himself, and becomes the plaything of his obsession. He is determined to become a saint.

Then it is that the cunning enemy of mankind, that overweening anti-God, entering the monastery like a farmer his chicken-run, gets into the monk’s cell and breathes into his brain…and then, in his religious fervour, this plaything of temptation is weighed down, sickens, becomes serious, and gives himself an air  of vile, grandiose ideas!…

One day future generations will pray to him, offering incense to his relics, celebrating his name!…

Already his sick fantasy sees the pious little ladies of the future running to his shrine, one with a great candle, another with oil for the lamp, another with frankincense, another with some other thing …

May it not be that this vicious cycle of cunning, stupidity and brutishness survive into the approaching twentieth century! Then, people will dignify themselves otherwise, and the pious little ladies, somewhat brighter than they are today, will find better uses for their time, their money, and their humanity.


Friday, 1 August 2014

C.P. Cavafy

A few days ago I mentioned that there would be here in the island a ‘literary evening’ at our new bookshop/café about the great Alexandrian Grecophone poet Costas Cavafy. This duly took place  yesterday evening, with a talk by Aris Laskaratos, publisher of David Connolly’s new translation (about the fourteenth, but there’s room for more) of Cavafy’s poems into English, and a talk by me about getting lost in Alexandria trying to find the flat where Cavafy had lived. (I did finally succeed, just as I was about to give up.) Poems were read by three young women: Margarita (13), Anastasia (14) and Vaia (17 I think). The eldest of these included one of Cavafy’s somewhat raunchy poems, about a very brief homosexual affair.

Below is my English translation of a Cavafy poem not included in David’s selection:


In the Dives…

In the dives                                                                             and bordellos
of Beirut I wallow.                                                     I didn’t want to stay
in Alexandria; not I.                                                   Tamides has left me:
he’s gone with the mayor’s son                                            just to get
a Nile villa                                                                  and a house in town.
It wouldn’t do to stay                                                in Alexandria —
In the dives                                                                 and bordellos
of Beirut I wallow.                                                     In cheap debauch
I squander my life.                                                    All that saves me
like a lasting beauty,                                     like a lingering scent
that stays on my flesh,                                              is for two years I had
Tamides my own,                                                      that magnificent boy,
and not for a house                                                    or a villa on the Nile.