Sunday, 30 November 2014

Fairy Tales

My regular readers (you can probably delete that ‘s’ )  may remember a post of a week or so ago in which I moaned about the failure of anyone to turn up to our ‘Fairy-Tale Afternoon.’ Nothing daunted, Kyriaki got the shop ready again yesterday afternoon, and to our delight (and I hope and believe theirs too) three children turned up: a boisterous 8-year-old girl, a rather quieter younger girl, and a rather subdued very small boy. The mothers too came. The children were provided with cake and at once ran off, heading, in spite of the dark and wet, for the deserted playground. Kyriaki meanwhile was busy preparing ouzo and mezés for the mothers, but something had to be done at once to recapture our escaping audience. I was therefore rather dropped in it when Kyriaki screamed after the departing children ‘We’re starting!’ and went back to preparing mezés. ‘You tell the first story, Simon.’

Hmm… three Greek children who had probably heard of but never yet seen this strange Englishman, and I had to entertain them … luckily my friend Jane had sent me a good text of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (not the same as ‘Jack and the Beanstalk) and I had read the first part. So I told them, in Greek, about the killing of the first giant, domesticating the story a bit with Greek references. (e.g. goats rather than sheep). Of course, they particularly liked the bit where the giant sticks his head out of the pit and Jack lops it off with his axe, so I embellished this by saying he brought the head back to show to the mayor as proof he should get the reward.

I finished by telling them that if they wanted to hear what happened to the next giant (I still haven’t read that bit myself) they must come back next week, with friends. Then I went outside to join the other grown-ups for a crafty fag, and so missed Kyriaki’s telling the children a story from the Thousand and One Nights.

I think they had a good time; I know I did. I think they will be back next week.


‘Once Upon a Time’

Fairy Tales for children from three years old to ninety years old.

Told in simple Greek by Kyriaki Theodorou and Simon Darragh.

Every Saturday afternoon from 5.30 until the cows come home,


In Plateia Christou (the main village square).

All ages and nationalities welcome.

There will be cake for the children, and the bar will be open for the grown-ups.


Saturday, 29 November 2014

More Illiteracy from the BBC

On BBC World Service News this morning we heard that in Port au Prince there are ‘Protests against long-delayed elections’. The identical phrase was used again an hour later, so it wasn’t just a slip by a busy editor.

Now if, as seems reasonable, that means what it says, it’s very odd: the people of Haiti don’t want elections? But nevertheless they are displeased that elections are long-delayed? Well yes; I suppose if the unwanted elections are inevitable, then best get them over with rather than put off the evil moment.

Odder still, BBC News notwithstanding, I have heard from other sources that in fact most of the people of Haiti are keen to have elections, indeed that they have been protesting against the delays, not against the elections.

Is it possible that that is actually what the BBC meant? That is to say, something quite other than what it said? I might be thought to have a bee in my bonnet about the Beeb, but when the writers of its international news show themselves incapable of meaning what they say or saying what they mean, it’s time they were replaced by people who know how to express a meaning in good English.
'It must be true: I heard it on the BBC'.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Owl

Such are things in America that one could almost be forgiven for feeling confused about which particular case of white policemen shooting dead unarmed young black people is currently causing riots. Almost.
BBC World Service, with its usual sense of proportion, is no longer giving much time to the matter, in its haste to spend up to a third of its International News talking about a cricketer killed by a ball hitting his head.

Perhaps the wisest move for sane people is simply to wait quietly for people like the BBC and the American Police forces to come to their senses. It could be a very long wait, so, talking of wisdom, here is today’s limerick:

‘Don’t expect me,’ said the owl,
‘to mix with day-birds, cheek by jowl.
I come out at night;
Edward Lear was quite right:
the owl is an elegant  fowl.’

This is a Great Horned Owl.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014


There is not much any of us individual, normal, common people, unorganized into protest groups and living far away from events, can do about the blatant racist injustice that is happening in America just now. That is in fact happening all the time over there. We must of course register our disgust, but we must also try to enjoy life and not get too depressed by those who make a hell in heaven’s despite.

So let us return to the limericks:

Said Jill, ‘Whatever’s the matter, Jack?’
As he dropped his pail with a clatter back
Down in the well:
‘There’s no need to yell,
Toads are harmless: it’s only a Natterjack.’



This one looks as pissed off as many of us are feeling. Natterjacks are also among the toads who can do that blowy-up thing, which I think acts like the bag of a bagpipe and thus enables them to make toadish noises for longer at a go.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Acute Shortage of Blog

'Acute' does not mean 'Severe': it means, rather, temporary. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible, but I felt unable to write anything or even to paste in one of my limericks today because I am horrified by the legal decision that a policeman who shot a young boy in America did nothing wrong.
'Matilda told such dreadful lies / it made one gasp and stretch one's eyes' but it seems Obama can tell worse lies and no-one bats an eyelid: following the high court decision he said that American Society was based on the rule of law. The very slightest glance at the history of America since the disaster of Columbus's 'discovery' of the place shows that on the contrary it is based on a virulent racist violence that persists until today.
But let's not dwell on these wickednesses: here's a pretty picture to keep you going until I can write here again:

This is in fact the city of Volos as seen from the mountain village of Makrynitsa.

Monday, 24 November 2014

English as She is Spoke

A long time ago, ‘Oxford English’ was regarded as the standard of pronunciation to which we should all aspire. Not entirely snobbery: it would surely be a good thing if we could all understand what other anglophones were saying, and for that a single standard is useful.

Eventually however it was realized that ‘Oxford English’ wouldn’t do. For one thing, the real people of Oxford speak with something close to a west country accent, and for another the University people — who are about as ‘Oxford’ as an American airman in Okinawa is Japanese — all too often don’t so much speak as bray and whinny.

‘BBC English’ became the standard. The English of the News reader, who was required to wear full evening dress with tails to read the nine o’clock news on the radio. (The radio, mind: this was before television.) All over the world, wherever English was taught as a foreign language, ‘BBC English’ became the standard, and those abroad who had radios would listen eagerly and copy.

Later, regional accents became acceptable which is fine so long as they can be understood by all anglophones including learners. More recently, grammar has become optional.

I have taught English as a foreign language. I found that I had to warn pupils about the BBC: they too had heard that BBC English was the standard, and would say ‘But I heard it said like that on the World Service’, and I would have to tell them (what they found hard to believe) that the people on the radio now have never been taught grammar or diction; that they probably know in fact rather less about their language than, say, a Greek child studying for the Cambridge Proficiency exam.

Grammar can be considered a branch of logic. To speak ungrammatically is often to make  little or no sense. Today’s rant was in fact provoked by something a BBC presenter said this morning, and whose meaning I am still trying to work out: she was talking of how useful something or other would have been had it been available after a recent disaster:

‘Twice as many lives might not have been lost,’ she said.



I must apologise for the picture above: the newsreader (Frank Phillips)
 has had the temerity to remove his jacket and appear in his waistcoat.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Why does one bother?

Kyriaki, the proprietor of the little bookshop cum café here in the village, recently had the idea of ‘Fairy Story Afternoons’: every Saturday at 5.30 in the afternoon, children could come to the shop with their parents and listen to fairy tales read by Kyriaki and others. Refreshments, as they say, provided, for both children and adults. She spoke to the school teachers about this, especially the teacher at the infants school, also to any parents she met. Many said ‘What a nice idea; of course we’ll come.’ She made posters and went round putting them up at the schools, the Post Office, the Town Hall, the supermarkets, the bakeries…

On Saturday afternoon she gave the shop a special clean and swapped the bar stools for lower child-friendly chairs; she put away all the ashtrays and when I turned up at 5.15 I found her outside having a crafty fag; she told me that this afternoon we must smoke (if we must smoke), outside for the children’s sake.

She had the first story prepared; she was going to tell one from the Arabian Nights. I had found — with the help of a friend in England — a good version of ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ (not the same as ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ but a specifically English — well Cornish —tale, so unlikely to be known by Greek children) and had worked out how to tell it in Greek.

Cigarettes finished we went inside for an ouzo, and waited for the first people to come. And waited. And waited. We gave up around 6.30. Not a single parent or child had bothered to turn up.


The Bully


It’s a cliché – and like most clichés true – that the bully is a coward.

The archetypal bully – the one we all, or at least all who have ever been their victims, remember – is the playground one. Stocky, ugly, slightly overweight, surrounded by his[1] jeering cronies, he goes for the direct attack, first verbal, then, if that doesn’t seem to his limited perception to have hit home, physical. I mean violent.

I said ‘Direct attack’ and ‘Limited perception’ but a striking (!) feature of the bully is the uncanny intuitive precision of his attack: just where it will hurt most, physically or emotionally. Uncanny, intuitive: he hasn’t intellectually worked out the precise point on his target; some more primitive force is at work: something like a vile perversion of the instinct that makes the lion go for the belly of the wildebeest.

There is also a less easily identifiable kind of bully: one met more often in ‘adult’ life than on the playground. This is the sort whom it would occur to almost nobody to call a bully. Quiet, respectable, unassuming; a nowhere man. He pays his bills promptly and always puts his rubbish out on the right day, properly sorted into the right recycling bins. An unremarkable job in an office; ideally somewhere like the council or the DHSS with its wide opportunities for his joyful pastime.

If, as I believe one can but perhaps shouldn’t, one divides people in general into those whose existence is a net gain and those whose existence is a net loss – and I am still hopeful enough for humanity to think that the former group is far larger than the latter – then this second type of bully is on the debit side. Not individually a vast bank-breaking loss like Hitler or Thatcher; just a nagging discrepancy in the petty cash account. He has never done anything really wicked, but then nor has he ever done anything really good. He has just lived quietly, absorbing what he wants from the world, giving nothing back. He has never loved anyone, and probably never been loved. No-one notices him.

But, distasteful as it will be, one ought to notice him: there’s a good chance he’s one of these closet bullies.

His modus operandi is to lie low and say nothing, just wait, watchfully, possibly for years. Perhaps waiting for a victim to swim into his bottom-feeding fishy gaze, perhaps patiently watching an already-chosen victim. Then he darts out and attacks, retreating at once to his previous impassive position. It is by the uncanny, unerring, instinctive pin-point precision and timing of his attach that one recognizes him as a bully.

Usually no-one notices the attack: not the victim – at least not at once – not the onlooker, and very often not even, consciously, the bully himself. If and when the victim does notice, he rarely retaliates or complains: this meekness is one of the factors in the bully’s choice of victim. If, however, the victim (or more likely some concerned third party to whom the victim has complained) tries to hold the bully to account, he will hold his hands out in a Pilate-like gesture of innocence and say ‘But all I did was… And indeed he has been careful to leave no obvious mark. Just a deep, invisible, unhealable psychic wound.

A thorough psychological study of the Bully Character would be valuable; perhaps someone is writing one or has already done so. An inquiry into what goes wrong in infantile development, at what stage it is arrested, that turns someone into a bully.  

[1] The usages ‘His/her’, ‘She/he’ etc. are inelegant and not a solution to the perceived sexism of what we once knew as ‘The inclusive he’, which I continue to use. There are of course as many female as male bullies; victims too.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Fast-track Gonzales

Or ‘You kip; we’ll do your dirty work for you.’

What’s worse than a full-blown racist shouting ‘Kick out the wogs!’ (Mexicans, Jews, bicycle-riders, queers…)?

Answer: a pusillanimous little creep who tries to hide his racism behind a sudden pretended concern for the constitutionality of presidential decree, or the usurpation of British sovereignty by ‘Brussels Bureaucrats’.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Marmosets, Friends, and Franco

The Latin American Marmoset
Is rare over here. To see far more, set
Sail for Peru:
Not counting the zoo
They don’t live in Sussex or Somerset.

As you can see below, some marmosets are very small: 


Today is my friend Anastasia’s birthday.

A more general reason for celebration is that this was also the day, in 1975, when Generalissimo Franco died. Special hygiene arrangements have had to be made at his grave because of the huge number of visitors who come to spit on it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Abraham Lincoln

Today is the 151st anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln’s speech made in an era when some politicians could without irony be called Statesmen, and could speak eloquently.

Although his has become about the best-known face in American history, he was self-conscious about what he thought his ugliness. He grew his famous beard in response to a letter from a young girl who suggested it might improve his appearance. (And so I suppose his chances of election by a trivial-minded public).

When a rival candidate for the presidency publicly accused him of being ‘two-faced’ he turned to the audience and said ‘If I had two faces, do you think I would use this one?’

Here are two pictures of him, one with beard, one without. To be fair, I suspect the aspect ratio of the beardless photo has gone wrong somewhere.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Llama and the Lama

The Latin American Llama
is sometimes confused with the Lama.
Two ‘L’s for the beast,
one ‘L’ for the priest
in Tibet, who knows all about karma.


During daylight train journeys, even ones I’ve done many times before, I prefer gazing aimlessly out of the window to reading, or doing the ‘Guardian’ crossword. One gets glimpses into strangers’ lives as the train goes past their back gardens, sees tempting deserted river banks, once a flasher in woodland displaying himself to the passing train, and is sometimes surprised by the incongruous: between Paddington and Oxford once my mental running commentary said ‘There’s a farmhouse, and that’s their cabbage patch… now a field full of sheep, and there’s a bull all alone in his field… now a flock of Llamas… Llamas? But the train was going too fast (in itself incongruous) for me to do a double-take.

Here are a Lama and a Llama; the one ‘L’ one is feeding an already well-fed goat, and doesn't himself look too ascetic:

Monday, 17 November 2014

Polytechnic Day

Today in Greece we celebrate, if that is the word, the uprising against the military dictatorship. The students of the Athens Polytechnic occupied the building, and on the 17th of November 1973 the government sent a tank crashing through the college gates. In the subsequent fighting somewhere between 18 and 50 students and others were killed and over 1,000 wounded. The dictatorship claimed that 11 of their people were killed.

Although the day has not yet become an ‘Argia’ — a day, such as saint’s days, on which shops etc. are closed — school pupils have the day off, though there is usually a small peaceful march-past, or a singing of a song written for the occasion, ‘Tipota den paei chameno’; ‘Nothing is ever in vain’.

The picture shows school pupils decorating the monument to the students.

Sunday, 16 November 2014


Of the Kite the poet now sings —
What, one of those things that has strings?
But that’s too absurd —
We’ve inferred that his word
Referred to a bird, that has wings.

When I lived in London I used to on Sundays to Parliament Hill Fields — the recognized venue — and fly a kite. Apart from the kites themselves, the first thing one noticed was the absence of women and children — the kite flyers were all men over fifty, old and wise enough to have discovered that the answer to life, the universe, and everything is to go and fly a kite.

I took it very seriously — I had a large cloth kite, of the design called a ‘War Kite’, whose wooden spars I had replaced with aluminium tubing, and a large reel bought from a specialist shop, which held enough special line — none of your fishing nylon — to enable me to fly my kite so high it couldn’t be seen. Quite what the point of that might be I don’t know, but I enjoyed watching the puzzled expressions as people followed my line upwards with their eyes but could see, like myself, nothing.

Here in Greece there is one day in the year — late winter, early spring, I can’t remember the exact date — when everyone is supposed to go out and fly a kite. Paper kites appear in the shops a few days beforehand, and are lost or torn on the day, and next year you buy another. I have been in Greece long enough to have taken on Greek fecklessness: every year I turn up without a kite of my own, and every year I say to myself ‘Before next time I must make a really impressive cloth kite’ and then forget.


Saturday, 15 November 2014

Gnats and Camels

‘Big nations must not bully small ones.’

Thus President Obama of the USA at the G20 summit in Australia. Even more remarkable than his having the chutzpah to say such a thing is the fact that, apparently, the entire conference chamber did not gasp at the enormity before collapsing in hoots of derisive laughter. Ever since it got big enough to do so, America has relentlessly bullied every country in the world smaller than itself. That ought not to need saying; it is blatantly apparent.

Given certain minimum levels of education and democracy, people get the governments, and particularly the Prime Ministers and Presidents, they deserve.

Friday, 14 November 2014


We have reached ‘J’ in the limerick series:

The Jabberwock said ‘I’m not real,
whatever Charles Dodgson might feel —
(I must say I think he
was just a bit kinky) —
but my portrait’s been done by Tenniel.’

Children have somewhat tougher tastes nowadays, or rather, parents have a different
 and perhaps more realistic idea of what upsets children, but when the Tenniel-illustrated
 versions of the Alice books were first published, author, illustrator and publisher
 considered leaving out the Jabberwock picture in case it frightened children. I have
no such fears; here it is:


Thursday, 13 November 2014

Robert Louis Stevenson

Today is Robert Louis Stevenson’s birthday. Or would have been if he’d made it to 164; you know what I mean.

Except for those with a special interest, Stevenson is now mostly remembered for ‘Treasure Island’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Treasure hidden in deep, dark, damp and smelly caves, powerful people who seem frightfully nice and good but are really utterly evil (and vice-versa), the child who proves to be the most powerful of all — as good art always does, Stevenson’s work moves us by its half-hidden appeal to our secret hopes and fears: things that only began, slowly, to be talked of explicitly after about 1900, the year Freud’s ‘Traumdeutung’ was published.

There have been several films of ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Most are made unwatchable by Hollywood crassness; the best is the one in which Spencer Tracy does some disturbing on-camera transformations between the boringly nice Jekyll and the interestingly wicked Hyde.

Like many an intelligent Scot — and Stevenson was as Scots as single malt — he was happiest as far away as possible from his birthplace: he lived — and died — in Samoa. Here he is where he longed to be, albeit with his family:

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Trafficking in Human Misery

From time to time one school year or another here takes a day off for an ‘excursion’. That is to say, the pupils are sent or taken to some place or other and left to run around, while the teachers sit and smoke and chat and drink coffee.

Yesterday’s excursion was to the harbour town. An odd but easy choice; nearly all the pupils live in the harbour town and the schools themselves are there. Later that day one of the pupils told me all about it, as the ‘excursion’ had proved unexpectedly dramatic.

As pupils were hanging out on the ferry jetty, they were surprised by the sudden arrival of the police, in the uniforms they rarely wear, wearing also surgical masks and carrying weapons. They told the pupils they must move away from the area, but they were able to see what was happening: the Port Police, also masked and armed, brought in a heavily-laden boat, carrying about fifty passengers, including pregnant women and small children: a fisherman had found them wandering lost and confused on the nearby deserted island of Jura, where they had been dumped by one of the mercenary parasites who take all the refugees’ money for the promise of entry to an E.U. country.

The Port Police did the decent thing and gave the refugees bread and mineral water, and fruit juice for the children, paid for out of their own pockets. (The refugees had nothing but the clothes they stood up in.) These Syrians (as they are thought to be) will now be taken to a refugee centre in Volos on the mainland.

That’s all; I have no comment to make and I have no photographs, but as, at least here in the island, false and exaggerated rumours will by now be circulating, I thought I should give the eye-witness account of about the most level-headed and intelligent of the pupils, my young friend Anastasia.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Armistice Day

Today, of course. Not, technically, the end of the war; ‘just’ what the dictionaries call ‘The cessation of hostilities’, but the difference is a matter for the politicians and not the poor bastards they sent out to die.

As a child I had a dreadfully romantic idea of the First World War, fostered by the fat illustrated volumes called ‘The Great War’ which I would pull out from my grandfather’s bookshelves, to pore over jolly pictures of gallant British and German officers meeting in ruined houses in France to play Schubert on grand pianos that had survived. Grandy, as I called him, would smile indulgently. He had been a stretcher-bearer, I think, working out of the big hospital in Salonika, and eventually a patient there after being wounded. He never talked of the war. What distresses me now is the knowledge that he must have seen and experienced the full horror of that war, but nevertheless kept on his shelves that set of books that made the whole thing out to be ‘An awfully big adventure’. Politicians have always relied on the sad fact that simple, decent people like my grandfather believe and even die for the myths they are fed.

When someone ‘important’ — the officer and poet Siegfried Sassoon, noted for his extreme bravery in battle, showed perhaps even more bravery in publicly denouncing a war that was being unnecessarily prolonged for political gain, what did the authorities do? They daren’t make a martyr by shooting him as a traitor: They declared him mad and sent him off to the loony bin.  

Monday, 10 November 2014

Do Not Try This at Home

This little hilltop village is plagued with rats again. When there weren’t many about I used to catch the odd one using a Ξυλόγατο, a ‘wooden cat’, which catches them live in a little cage; then I would deport them to some remote spot from which they were unlikely to come back to the village. ‘It’s not their fault they were born rats,’ I reasoned. (Unless of course you take the doctrines of Karma and reincarnation very seriously.)

But now it’s no more Mr Nice Guy, and I have invented an electric trap which will, I hope, kill them quickly and fairly painlessly. Here is a photograph:


(The clothes peg is there just to give an idea of scale.) I will explain how it’s made and works (if it does) so that — er… you will not try this at home:

A large-ish tin lid (I used the lid of a Feta tin) is drilled through the centre and a large-ish nail, fitted with a thick plastic sleeve to insulate it near the head, is passed through the hole. One conductor of a piece of mains cable is soldered to the head of the nail, and the other to the tin lid, which is then glued to a dry wooden base. The other end of the mains cable ends in a plug; I have kept the cable short so that one can see at once if the thing is plugged in or not; one doesn’t want to handle it when live.

To use it, you fix something-tasty-for-rats (here, a sliver of bacon) to the top (pointy end) of the nail and put the apparatus in a place frequented by rats, but making sure that no other creatures can get near it. Then you use an extension cable to plug it in to the mains. The idea is that the rat comes along, smells the bait, and finds that to reach it he must stand on the tin lid. Then, when his nose or front paws contact the vertical nail in trying to nibble the bait, he gets a blast of 220 volt mains electricity, which I hope will be enough to kill him at once. (Might not work in places, like much of America, that have a mere 110 volt supply.)

I set it up in a secluded part of the balcony yesterday evening, but have not found any electrocuted rats beside it, and the bait is intact. However the absence of other evidence suggests there were no rats about last night: they are quite intelligent, and may have seen me out on my balcony workshop making the thing.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Ichneumon Grammar

Mon Goose

Mes Geese


The nocturnal Egyptian Ichneumon
eats crocodile’s eggs by the new moon
on the banks of the Nile;
a habit so vile
one could almost believe he were human.

‘Ichneumon’ derives from ancient Greek ‘Follower of a trace’. No I don’t understand either, but never mind. He is also known as the Egyptian Mongoose, which sounds better, especially to those who remember Kipling’s story ‘Riki Tiki Tavi’, of the mongoose whose flying leap at a snake saved a small child.

By the way, is the plural of ‘Mongoose’ ‘Mongeese’ or even ‘Mesgeese’?

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Honey Boy

Dimitri, a.k.a. Honey Boy, keeps bees here in the island. (Alonnisos, Northern Sporades.) (Duh.) He uses only natural methods and so the availability of honey is more up to his bees than to Dimitri. For much of the summer the bees were sulking owing to the lack of rain in the spring, (not enough flowers), but I am glad to report that now they have provided a rich harvest: I popped by Honey Boy’s village workshop yesterday afternoon and he showed me the great 200 litre barrel he is filling: it’s nearly up to the brim and he says there’s more coming. Pity most of the foreigners have gone away now; they are missing the best honey in the world. It keeps of course — they say the honey found in the Pharaoh’s tombs was still perfectly edible, (or could it be that the Mummy’s Curse that caused so many untoward deaths among the archaeologists was in fact something in the ancient honey they tried? No, don’t be silly) — but demand is likely to be high. Current price is €12 a kilo (that’s 12 euros; the euro sign doesn’t come out right on some people’s computers) so if you want some you’d better ring or e-mail Dimitri at once:

Telephone (Mobile) 6947428585


Friday, 7 November 2014


My blog posts — the individual dated entries; there must be about 400 of them — rarely get more than two or three readers, and it might even be the same reader two or three times. Just here and there a post might creep into double figures. The exception is a post called ‘Wireless Operator’, which is the title of my book of translations of the poetry of Nikos Kavvadias. That post, which consisted simply of one scanned page from the book, has had to date 272 readers. Probably there is a link to it from some other site. It suggests there is an interest in the work of Kavvadias among anglophone readers, so here’s my translation of another of his poems:


Nikos Kavvadias.

The sailors who I live with say
I’m vile, thick-skinned and base,
and never go with women; that
I hate the female race.

They say I take hashish and coke,
caught up in some dark passion;
they talk of tattoos head to foot
in deep, obscene incision,

And many other filthy horrors —
all made up, all lies:
what cuts me to the quick I never
told, and no-one knows.

But now, as tropic night falls, and
the Marabou fly west,
I’m moved to set the secret down,
the fixed pain from the past.

I, novice on a postal ship —
Egypt, Southern France —
she, an alpine flower — we loved
as brother, sister, friends.

Slim and sad aristocrat,
a rich Egyptian’s daughter —
he’d killed himself — her sorrow sought
rest on land or water.

She had Bashkirtseff’s Journal* — loved
Avila’s Saint Teresa —
she’d read me sad lines of French verse,
or gaze at the horizon,

And I, who’d only known whore’s flesh,
my soul dulled by the sea,
would listen with lost infant joy,
a prophet’s ecstasy.

I clasped a small cross round her neck,
took the purse she gave.
Then — the world’s most sorry man —
the port where she must leave.

On freighters I would think of her
as guardian angel, hope;
her picture my oasis in
the desert of the ship.

Here I would stop — the hot wind burns
and my hand is shaking —
the tropic flowers stink — far off
a Marabou is croaking.

Well … one night in some foreign harbour —
whiskies, gins and beers —
I staggered to the lost and stinking
houses of the whores.

Shameless women catch the sailors —
someone playfully
pulled off my cap — an old French trick —
I followed, doubtfully.

A small room — dirty like the rest,
paint peeling off the wall —
a human rag, with croaking voice
and dark eyes, straight from hell.

We came together in the dark;
my fingers felt each bone.
She stank of absinthe. I woke up
“With rosy-fingered dawn.”

A sorry sight she looked, and damned,
by the light of day —
horror shook me as I took
my wallet out to pay.

Twelve francs … she screamed, she stared wild-eyed —
now me, now the purse —
then I noticed, hanging there
round her neck — a cross.

I ran out capless to the street,
wandered, staggering, mad,
the sickness that still tears my flesh
already in my blood.

The sailors who I live with say
I’ve let no woman have me
for years; that I sniff coke — but if
they knew all, they’d forgive me.

My hand shakes … fever … lost, I watch
a Marabou on the bank.
My loneliness is like his, as
he stupidly stares back.

Translated by Simon Darragh.

* Marie Bashkirtseff, 1860 - 84; painter and memoirist whose Journal was published in France.

If you want more, you could always splash out and buy the book. It’s available from Enitharmon Press.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Christian Values

Among the sillier items on BBC news this morning was the story of a gay couple in Ireland who ordered a cake with the words ‘Support Gay Marriage’ written on it in (no doubt pink) icing sugar. The bakers refused the order, saying it went against their ‘Christian Principles’. Instead of going to another baker, the couple made a fuss to some government department charged with enforcing equality, and the bakers are being made to pay compensation to the couple. I’m not sure if they’re also going to be forced to bake the cake.

Dear me. What messes people do get into.

Support Gay Marriage? Well, personally I’m not sure I support any kind of marriage. It seems to me very irresponsible to swear to what is supposed to be a life-long commitment to one person, especially when one is perhaps in that highly neurotic and judgement-clouding state called being in love.

Christian Principles? I am an admirer of Christ’s teachings and I try to model my own moral beliefs and even behaviour on his. For instance, I rarely go to church. Christ was notorious for consorting with ‘Publicans and Sinners’ and his best girlfriend was a whore. And then there’s the much-misunderstood parable of the Good Samaritan, a modern equivalent of which might be an Israeli story of the Good Palestinian, or a German one of the Good Jew. I have noticed many times that people who openly call themselves Christians are uptight, intolerant, quick to judge — all the things Christ wasn’t. It seems the mere profession of Christianity gives one a licence to behave badly.

A government department to enforce equality? Well, I suppose so; some manifestations of prejudice should be illegal, but I am reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut story in which beautiful people have to wear masks and ballet-dancers leg-irons.

And why didn’t the couple just try another baker’s? Could it be that they wanted to provoke a big fuss, or exact revenge?

There is something that might have saved everybody in this whole silly story: a sense of humour.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Eleonora Falcon

The ‘News’ today is dominated by an idiotic American election which seeks to convince people by means of blandly populist slogans that they themselves rule their country, so let us turn to the more serious matter of limericks about animals.

Today’s animal is in fact a bird; I’m not much on taxonomy but I think a bird counts as an animal:

The Hawk swoops on things from the air,
and carries them back to his lair.
I suppose it’s not nice
for the little field-mice,
but the hawk doesn’t care — so there.

Here in this island we see various hawkish sort of birds, including buzzards and very rarely a Golden Eagle. A resident is the Eleonora Falcon; here’s a picture:

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

How the Giraffe got its long neck

‘Please don’t mock us,’ said the Giraffe t-
o someone who thought their necks daft;
‘a diet arboreal
needs six foot or more. We all
think it’s quite rotten you laughed.’


Please excuse excruciating rhymes and enjambments.

Superficial consideration of the giraffe has led many people into the misunderstanding of evolution known as Lysenkoism. ‘Well, you see,’ these people explain to their benighted children, ‘some giraffes managed to reach up higher and get more leaves to eat, so they lived long enough to have baby giraffes, who inherited their parents’ stretched necks, and so over the centuries…’

Bullshit. Acquired characteristics are not inherited. What in fact (if you accept that Darwin’s theories correspond to fact) happens is that the parents’ genes are subtly (or grossly) altered by what Darwin called ‘Chance variation’, which we now know to be atomic radiation reaching us from the sun. If the affected gene happens to be the one labelled, as it were, ‘Neck length’, then the affected giraffe’s children will be born with long necks, so that they will stand a better chance of surviving to child-bearing age. Since they have inherited their parents’ altered genes, their children too will have longer necks, and so it goes on. In the case of giraffes the cosmic radiation part of the story probably happened many times, sometimes leading to yet longer necks, sometimes to short-legged or two-headed giraffes or other Chernobylesque horrors. I don’t know how many thousand years it took the giraffe to get its long neck, but the point is that neither its nor its parents’ personal neck-stretching exercises had anything to do with it.


It was on the 4th of November 1922 that Howard Carter found the entrance to Tutankhamen’s tomb.


Monday, 3 November 2014


In the old days his life was a hard’un,
but now the Fox gets in the garden,
where he generally craps
after eating the scraps,
without saying ‘Thank you’ or ‘Pardon.’


Foxes are notorious for their cunning. There are two common ways of supplying electricity to an electric railway engine (you’ll see what I’m on about in a minute): most countries use an overhead catenary cable with a pantograph on the engine’s roof to pick up the current. The other way is via a third rail, the electricity being picked up by a metal ‘shoe’ sliding along it. The third rail system has many disadvantages and is quite unsuitable for any country with high rainfall, snow, and deciduous trees growing near the track. Guess which method British Railways used when they introduced electric trains, starting with the Southern Region, my home area. When the local foxhunters chased a fox towards the line on one occasion, the fox leapt over the live rail and escaped, but the pursuing hounds blundered into it and were electrocuted. Now I don’t think it was cunning, just luck, and I felt some Schadenfreude  when I heard about it, though of course it’s very sad that the poor hounds should die for the unspeakable would-be upper-class poseurs who chase foxes.

Here is a picture of a fox in a tricky situation which he will need all his cunning to get out of:

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Bach’s ’Cello Suites, Continued

Would it matter if it turned out that those beautiful ’Cello Suites were Anna Magdalena’s rather than Johann Sebastian’s? Isn’t it like the recent fuss about Jane Austen’s novels; the suspicion that they were largely the work of a publisher’s anonymous copy-editor? Well as to that, a copy-editor’s usual job is to introduce a slightly higher degree of literacy into the scribblings of popular novelists. (With the corollary that they also introduce some illiteracies into the work of those of us who can write properly, but never mind.)

And never mind about the authorship of Jane Austen’s novels either — we have the books, and they’re among the best novels ever written, no matter by whom exactly.

So isn’t it the same for Bach’s ’Cello Suites? Well, no, it isn’t. Bach’s works are not just ‘among the best ever written’, they are the best. The great ’cellist Paul Tortelier once said that anyone who didn’t think Bach was the greatest of all composers simply wasn’t a musician.

Bach is not just ‘Head and Shoulders’ above all other composers, past, present, and future. It is more as if the history of western music were something like the landscape of England, with the odd hill, and of course the Pennines, and then suddenly one finds, half-way up the M1, Mount Everest. There can be no sensible comparison of Bach with other composers.

Either it’s all nonsense, and it’s just that, as with many others of JS’s works, Anna Magdalena’s fair copy is the only manuscript of the ’cello suites to survive, or we must suppose that the extraordinary, hitherto thought unique, genius of Johann Sebastian also possessed Anna Magdalena, and perhaps indeed other family members.

It is intriguing, and in this case, yes, it does matter.


I forgot to mention an important centenary the other day: Dylan Thomas was born on the 27th of October 1914. Here is his portrait, done by Alfred Janes:

Saturday, 1 November 2014

A Glimmer of Intelligence at the BBC

I don’t usually bother much with Beeb World Service any more. The five-minute news summaries are quite good and usually read by someone who knows how to speak English, but the half-hour programme about — what? ‘World Events’? Something like that — is relentlessly trivial, rushing through boring stuff like wars and plagues to get with all-too-evident relief and glee to the important business of ‘Sport’, i.e. football, pronounced ‘Foop-Baw!’

However, on Saturday and Sunday mornings I sometimes give BBC a try, because at weekends VOA replaces its excellent International Edition with what it calls ‘Free-wheeling, no-holds-barred discussions’ which run the gamut from the A of whole-hearted approval of all things American to the B of muted criticism of Mrs Obama’s hair-do.

This Saturday morning between 5.30 and 6 A.M.G.M.T., BBC had the first of a new weekend series about ‘How the world has changed during the past week’; a title vague enough to allow for anything, and the presenter and/or script writer seemed to be not only intelligent but to allow the possibility that listeners too might have the odd brain cell. But this is only the first programme in the series; no doubt it will soon be dumbed down.

Let’s enjoy it while we can: the most interesting and important item today, though only about 30 seconds was given to it, is that careful examination of the manuscripts, together with musicians’ critical opinions of the music itself, suggest that Bach’s ’Cello Suites may have been written not by JS himself, but by Anna Magdalena, his second wife; you know, she of the ‘Notenbuchlein’, the joy or bane of novice pianists, which was (or most of it) certainly written by JS for AM.

I have been told to keep blog posts short, to match your pitiful attention-spans, so I will wait until tomorrow to write more about this interesting possibility.