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.

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