Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Pedal Ineptitude


One of the very few useful things politicians do is to inadvertently increase the general level of merriment among the rest of us. I have mentioned here before the British politician who said of some proposed new coercive measure for making people do what the government wants them to do that it was ‘Less top down stick, more bottom up carrot’. Now, a Russian politician on a visit to a rifle range has managed to, quite literally, shoot himself in the foot.

Actually, the expression ‘To shoot oneself in the foot’ is now mostly used incorrectly, or, since meaning is now it seems determined by majority usage, has changed its meaning: people now say of someone who has done something hilariously inept, and damaging to himself, that he has shot himself in the foot, the suggestion being that it was a clumsy accident. But the original saying, dating I think from the First World War, referred to a careful deliberate action which, though it damaged its perpetrator, could also save his life. If you shot yourself in the foot, it would certainly hurt, and you would be in trouble if there was a suspicion you had done it on purpose. But you would have rendered yourself useless as a soldier, and so would be taken away from the terror and misery of the front line.

Monday, 28 December 2015

Moving House

Sorry not to have written anything here for a couple of days; I am doing that complicated thing, buying a small piece of land, and considering what to put on it. Favourite so far is something I'm afraid I won't be able to find here in Greece; it was made by someone in America. Just look at this:

Saturday, 26 December 2015

‘Inappropriate’



Were I to draw up a list of un-favourite words, ‘Inappropriate’ would be near the top, along with ‘Hi!’, ‘Absolutely!’ and of course ‘Hopefully’ used non-adverbially.

I few days ago I was reading an article about Asperger’s syndrome and it said that Asperger’s people often gave ‘True but inappropriate’ answers to questions. I can’t remember the example the article used, but here’s one I made earlier:

Mr Normal is ringing up Mr Asperger; the dialogue goes like this:

Mr N: ‘Hi, Mr A, what are you doing?’

Mr A: ‘Er — I’m talking to you on the telephone.’

You see? ‘True, but inappropriate.’ But what ‘should’ A have replied? Should he have guessed that N didn’t really want to know what A was doing right now, but rather what he had been doing before the ’phone rang, or perhaps would be doing later? But no, A took the question literally, and in fact if so taken then his answer was both true and appropriate. (True but inappropriate answers might be ‘I’m breathing’ or ‘I’m balancing vertically on the soles of my feet’.)

My sympathies (as you’ve probably guessed) are with Mr A. Why should he have to guess what N really wants to know? Why can’t N say what he means and mean what he says? English verbs have no shortage of tenses; why should A be forced to (all but) lie, simply because N can’t be bothered to use any but the present continuous?

‘Normal’ people think they must make ‘special allowances’ when dealing with Asperger’s types, when actually the boot is on the other foot: Mr A is obliged to accept that the Ns of this world, who are unfortunately the majority, rarely say exactly what they mean, or mean exactly what they say. They are always lying, or very nearly so. Faced with the Cretan Liar paradox in nearly all his encounters with it, no wonder Mr A finds the world so puzzling.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Why is ‘Art’ so Difficult?

At a poetry reading once, a woman in the audience asked T.S. Eliot what he meant by the line ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.’ He replied ‘I meant “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.”’ One can just imagine the prim, tight-lipped, bank-clerk smile with which he said it; imagine, too, the titters of the audience and the mortification of the woman who had asked.
The bastard. The smart-arse. The total shit. Yet he was right. Of course, if he’d been a nice man, (which he wasn’t), he’d have gone on to explain, which he didn’t.
The point is, if there had been a clearer way of saying what he wanted to say, then, if he was a good poet, (which he was), he would have used it. Poetry is in the business of extending the boundaries of language; of what can be said. It will seem strange, even incomprehensible, at first; it will take time for the rest of us to catch up. Lines that seemed nonsense a hundred years ago often seem quite clear now. Sometimes it takes longer; Gerard Manley Hopkins was born just a hundred years before me, and his poetry, though most of us can now see how good it is, still seems strange:
 
Our hearts’ charity’s hearth’s fire, our thoughts’ chivalry’s throng’s Lord.
 
When I used to review new poetry books, I soon found that the better the poetry, the harder it was to say anything about it.
The same goes for all the arts. The easier it is to explain, the less good it is likely to be.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Haven't We Been Here Before?

The Danish government, which had already sacrificed its few remaining principles in order to keep the support of the extreme right, is now considering passing a law allowing the police (and / or I suppose customs and immigration officers) to search the luggage of immigrants to, as the BBC in its pussy-footing way says, 'help pay for their stay'. We have not yet been told if special provision will be made for immigrants with gold teeth.
 
 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Simon’s Amazing Hydraulic Log-splitter


 

Not this Simon, but a local man, actual name Yorgos, who took the nickname Simon. This can lead to confusion in this tiny island, as we have other similarities, not least of which is a love of machinery that extends to making strange devices. Yorgos has the advantage of access to unlimited scrap metal and broken machinery as his family has a scrap yard; the only one in the island.

In this yard he found a large hydraulic something-or-other which had been part of a JCB belonging to his brother. He would look at this longingly and finally his brother let him have it. Soon afterwards he announced excitedly in the bar of an evening what he was going to make with it. ‘Yes, yes, bravo old thing,’ I said. (In thirty-odd years in Greece I have got used to people’s ‘going-tos’ and tend not to take them seriously.) But the fact is, he’s done it. To do so he had to buy, from England, a special two-stage hydraulic pump and various other bits and pieces. It has cost quite a lot, but it doesn’t matter; it’s an amazing device and he is justly proud of it. Furthermore, because of the big demand for firewood, it won’t in fact take him long to recover the cost.

‘Go to’ (as they say) YouTube and look for Alonnisos09, (note the spelling), where you will find several of Yorgos / Simon’s videos, including one that shows his hydraulic log-splitter in action. The whole thing is mounted on its own trailer so that it can if necessary be taken to where the wood is rather than vice-versa.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Flight of the Enchanter



I have just added ‘The Escape of Sigmund Freud’ by David Cohen to my bedtime reading shelf. This tells the story of Freud’s leaving Vienna — only just in time, and variously helped and encumbered by daughter, sister, wife, dog etc. — and, after a week or two in Paris with Princess Marie Bonaparte, finally getting to London and settling in — where else? — Hampstead. Well, actually the southern end, where Belsize Park merges into Chalk Farm, but NW3 has ever since been the home of psychoanalysis.

It would by any account be an adventure story, and it has been told before — my favourite bit is when SS officers came to him in Vienna and made him sign a paper declaring that they had not ill-treated him, and he added — confident that SS officers would not understand irony — the P.S. ‘I heartily recommend the SS to everybody.’ But what distinguishes Cohen’s account is that he examines the neglected sub-plot of the rôle of Anton Sauerwald, appointed by the Nazis to take over Freud’s Vienna practice.

I was surprised to find recently, courtesy of ‘Karnac News’, (an e-mail newsletter on psychoanalysis and related matters), about twenty minutes of home-made film, taken by Anna and others, and with a commentary by Anna, of the flight across Europe, and Freud’s last birthday party in London.

Of course, this was back in the days when England had a civilized and humane attitude to those seeking refuge from persecution.
 
 

Monday, 14 December 2015

How Politicians Tell the Truth



One good reason for learning at least the elements of grammar, logic, maths and science is that, thus armed, one is less likely to be fooled by politicians, whose speciality is saying something that is, technically or literally, just about true, but which they can be reasonably confident will be misunderstood by most of the public, who will think the politician has done something wonderful when he has in fact done something dreadful or nothing at all.

This morning, for instance, VOA told us that President Obama has ‘Shrunk the rate of acceleration of carbon emissions.’ Now leaving aside the curiously mixed metaphor, par for the course among populist radio announcers, what does this actually mean? Is he farting less? Well, let us allow that here President Obama is a synecdoche for American Industry. Does it mean that American Industry is now emitting less carbon, that is to say, carbon monoxide and dioxide, than it was before Obama was elected? No, it doesn’t say that. Does it mean then that carbon emissions are at least not increasing? No, nor that. Does it mean that the yearly, or daily, increase (say, 20% more each day) is not itself increasing? No; that, staying with the curious notion of ‘acceleration’ in an attempt to understand what he is said to have done, is merely the speed with which carbon emissions are increasing daily. Does it mean, then, that at least it’s a steady speed of increase, that there is no acceleration? (say, 20% more today than yesterday, but 40% more tomorrow than today.) No, it doesn’t even mean that. It means, if anything, merely that the rate of acceleration (the acceleration of the acceleration, if you can handle that) is not increasing. To carry the strange metaphor a little further, Obama (or American Industry) has not taken his foot off the accelerator, has not even kept the accelerator in the same place, is indeed continuing to push the accelerator towards the floor. BUT (Gosh, three cheers) he’s not actually pushing it down any faster or harder than he was before. We are supposed to congratulate him?

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Philhellenism



There are as many kinds of Philhellenism as there are Philhellenes. Byron of course: his love of Greece was as great as his love of freedom, and he came to Greece to offer what help he could in the liberation of Greece from Turkish rule, and died here. (Not in battle, but from malaria contracted in the unhealthy marshes of Missolonghi.) That Byron was a frightful poseur and closet transvestite, thrilled to discover that it was acceptable for men to wear skirts here, detracts from this not one jot: the mere presence of an English Lord and celebrated poet on their side did wonders for Greek morale. (‘Jot’, by the way, derives from the smallest letter in the Greek alphabet: iota subscript.)

Then there are the ‘Glory that was Greece’ types, with the emphasis firmly on the ‘was’ — professors of Ancient Greek who are disappointed to discover that the locals seem not to understand them when addressed in a 2,000 year old language spoken with the artificial Erasmian pronunciation; these go home when they discover that ‘Olympus’ is actually pronounced ‘Olly-boss’.

Last and least are the people who come on holiday, claim to have ‘fallen in love with the place’, regard every Greek they meet as a ‘quaint local character’ and make no attempt to engage with Greek culture.

Not quite last: there are also some who come to see what it’s all about, like it enough not to bother to go ‘home’ when their two weeks are up, stay, learn the language, settle, and have more Greek friends (and enemies) than they ever had where they came from. I believe it is to this last group I belong, and that this gives me an excuse, even a right, to tell what I think I have learnt of the place, the people, and the culture.

Friday, 11 December 2015

Please do not kill the drummer; he is doing his best

Earlier this year, a literary festival held near my home town in England ran a competition for a detective story in 100 words. I did it in 99, but didn't win, and forgot all about it. Just now, in tidying my hard disc, I found my entry, and thought it might do as a small pearl to cast before you:

‘Obviously strangled,’ said inspector Lestrange, examining the dead drummer. ‘The suspect could be one of the band. Who might dislike the drummer, I wonder?’ ‘All of them I should think, sir,’  remarked his assistant, an amateur musician. ‘We’d better wait for the pathologist.’
When he arrived, Doctor Trepan took one look at the victim’s neck and said ‘The guitarist, from behind.’ ‘Good Lord sir, how d’you reckon that?’ ‘Take a look at those marks. Both sides, but the ones on the right have broken the skin. Guitarists have short nails on the left hand and long on the right.’

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The 'Inspiration' for 'Moby-Dick'?

On BBC World Service 'News' (now a vulgar populist magazine chat show) yesterday I heard that a film is to be made of Nathaniel Philbrick's book 'In the Heart of the Sea'. I remember reviewing this book for the 'London Magazine' some years ago, and have just recovered my review from my hard disc:
 

A Whale ain’t Nothing but a Fish

 

In the Heart of the Sea  by Nathaniel Philbrick. Harper Collins, £16.99

 

On November the 20th 1820 the Nantucket whaleship Essex, sailing in the Pacific somewhere between the Galapagos and Marquesas Islands — about as far from land as she could be — was rammed by a sperm whale and quickly went down. The entire crew of twenty escaped the wreck, but only eight made it back to Nantucket. One of these was the First Mate, whose account was published soon after his rescue. Only twenty or thirty years ago the cabin-boy’s account was found, and it differs in more than just writing style. Using these and various secondary sources Nathaniel Philbrick (No doubt it’s bad form to say so, but the name is perfect) tries to reconstruct the full story.

So far, so good — well, appalling of course, I mean good for the reader — but we are also told loudly, not just by the publishers in their hyperbolic press release, but also on the title page, that this is ‘The Epic True Story that Inspired Moby-Dick’

Now just a minute. ‘Inspired’? I was about thirteen and interested chiefly in wireless, not at all in arty matters, when I sat goggling in awe through the Hollywood film with Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. My vocabulary contained useful words like ‘Pentode’ and ‘Superhet’, not ‘Symbolism’ or ‘Allegory’. Nevertheless when I came out of the cinema I had the new knowledge that it is possible to say something about one thing by talking about another: Ishmael had been telling us about something much bigger than a whale. Such considerations seem not to trouble this book’s author or publisher any more than they did the producers and directors of the film. To inspire is to provide with a plot, Ahab was seriously weird, Ishmael that fashionable thing a survivor, whale-oil was what the Pequod was after, and Moby Dick was just a big fish. (Yes, a fish — Melville himself insists on this.) Ultimately this doesn’t matter: ordeals and quests, especially sea-quests, have always caught the imagination, and it would take more than Hollywood crassness to conceal their wider implications and deeper significances. Much of Moby Dick is written in a flippant pseudo-scientific style, and it may be only hindsight wisdom that credits — if it is a credit — Melville with deliberately setting out to write something meant to enter the canon of big-L Literature.

The opening chapter of In the Heart of the Sea tells how the white settlers of Nantucket took to whaling and how Quakers — pacifist toward humans, but not toward whales — came to dominate a close-knit, rigid, typically small-island society. It seems women had unusual power in Nantucket — the men were away for three years and home for three months — but (perhaps for the same reason) many were addicted to opium. The obsession with whaling is well-illustrated by the odd pieces of knowledge Philbrick has picked up: young men would wear small items of harpooning gear in their lapels so that the girls, pledged to marry only successful whale-hunters, could be sure in their choice. A mother is pleased when her little boy uses a dinner-fork tied to a ball of wool to harpoon the cat. We are also introduced to Thomas Nickerson, joining the Essex as cabin-boy. While there is much here that is clearly backed by research, as a sprinkling of quotation-marks shows, there is also a lot of the speculation common in popular historical reconstruction. Philbrick spares us ‘Little did he know on that fateful day…’ but there is plenty of ‘Must have’ ‘Probably’ and ‘Doubtless’ and at least one ‘Fate had in store’.

Most of the book is taken up with an account of the Essex’s  voyage, its sudden end and the harrowing events that followed. A straightforward ripping yarn. Only a few days out, with an inexperienced captain, the ship is taken broadside and tipped on her beam-ends by a squall. Two whale-boats are lost; a dispiriting start. Later there is a near-mutiny when rations run short in fo’c’sle and steerage, but the central event is of course the sinking, and this is described vividly and without too many explanatory asides or speculations on the crew’s feelings. Rammed twice, the ship sank to top-deck level within ten minutes. Astonishingly, those aboard got off in the spare boat, and a black steward even  managed to salvage compasses, quadrants and nautical almanacs. The two other boats had been out catching whales. Twenty men in three open boats in the middle of the pacific…

What became of them is told well, and sometimes with more detail than may suit many readers’ stomachs. Nantucket Quakers die hard; when lots are drawn to see who shall be eaten some men object: gambling is wrong.

At the time much was made of the whale’s unsporting conduct, and it seems still to puzzle present-day writers. Given what whaleships set out to do, and the now-proven intelligence of their prey, naïve readers such as myself might wonder why it didn’t happen all the time. Perhaps the poor benighted beasts are better pacifists than their hunters.

For the thorough-going and scholarly there are fifty pages of notes, with no distracting indices in the main text, and a ‘select’ (a mere 150-odd books and articles) bibliography. For the rest of us there are two generous wodges of photographs: vast whale jaw-bones, survivors in later life, contemporary illustrations and documents, even a fantastic seventeenth-century engraving of a cannibal orgy. There are also maps: one of the Essex’s voyage from Nantucket to the point where she sank, and another showing the routes of the ship’s boats. Necessarily, the first shows half the world, and the second the South Pacific from Polynesia to Chile, the equator to Cape Horn. The imagination boggles at the distances sailed.

There is much else to strain belief. How was it possible that Owen Chase, dying of thirst and hunger, often too weak to pull himself up to the gunwales of his tiny boat, kept a log? It was this log, written up later by his literary friend William Coffin, that Melville read before writing Moby Dick. Even more surprisingly the cabin boy Thomas Nickerson also made notes and some fine sketches of the disaster, some of which are reproduced here. His work was only discovered just before Philbrick started writing.

Harper Collins paid a quarter of a million pounds for the right to publish this book, and seem to have invested as much or more in publicity for it. They have decided to make it a best-seller, and it probably deserves to be, though not for its literary qualities. It’s none the worse for being nothing to do with Literature with a capital ‘L’, only for pretending to be: it tells us no more about Moby Dick  than a history of the Danish court does about Hamlet.

Simon Darragh
 
 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Kavvadias 10, Complacent English Philistines Nil



Φοβού τους Άγγλους και ντοκουμέντα φέροντας.

Beware of the English Bearing Documents.

Yesterday evening at our tiny bookshop here in Alonnisos we did a presentation, with speeches and readings in English as well as Greek, about the popular Greek poet Nikos Kavvadias, whom I have translated. Kyriaki gave a talk in Greek, followed by one in English from me. Two young local Greeks read some of the poems in both Greek and then in English translation, and Costas Kyriazis sang some musical settings of the poems. The event was well-publicised, by posters, word of mouth, Dave’s website, and individual e-mails. The shop was packed; standing-room only, with an enthusiastic audience. Nearly all Greek — mostly the local people who, though knowing little English, enthusiastically support the English Pantomime — one French, one Swede, and one Italian. NOT ONE SINGLE ENGLISH PERSON from the large Ex-pat 'community' turned up. Yet in England people complain that 'they' (i.e. immigrants) form cliques and don't engage with British culture. I felt foolish and ashamed as I explained, in English, to a Greek audience who knew him well, who Kavvadias was, but everyone was kind, appreciative and understanding and expressed surprise, disappointment and even in some cases disgust at the total indifference of the English.

All that by way of preamble: I should like it known that from now on the many English people who come to me asking for explanations of some Greek document will be told where they can put it.

 


Sunday, 15 November 2015

Lack of Interest

There will be no new blog posts for a while, owing to lack of interest. Mine and yours.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Apology

Sorry, folks: very busy. I shall make a new blog post soon. Meanwhile here is a picture:
This is my younger sister's house; her husband is what used to be called
'Something in the city', so their house is somewhat less humble than mine.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Transatlantic Electrical Shenanigans



My efforts to restrict the size of my bedside book pile have been defeated by the possession of a Kobo, into which I load anything that looks interesting. Thus it was that this morning after breakfast in bed I read the following mysterious passage from a hand book for theatre and cinema electricians, published in America in about 1914:

‘Numerous cases are on record of persons being killed by 110 volts under favorable circumstances; as, for instance, while in the bath receiving a shock from a so-called vibrator.’
 
 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Palestine — Israel Conflict



Readers will have their own opinions on this subject; I won’t tell you mine. I will however show you a series of little maps. The one at the left shows the area as it was in 1947, the one at the right as it was in 2010; there are two in between at various intervals. The areas in red are those under Palestinian control, those in white under Israeli control.
 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Music Quiz



If you ask people to hum or whistle John Philip Sousa’s ‘Liberty Bell’, most shrug and claim ignorance. Asked to hum or whistle the ‘Monty Python’ theme (Sousa’s ‘Liberty Bell’), the same people will get it right.

So: with what shows, films, whatever do you associate the following pieces of music?

1)      The Harmonicats doing ‘Peg o’ my Heart’.

2)      ‘Rockin’ in Rhythm’ by the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

3)      Tarrega’s Waltz ‘Maria’.

4)      Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto.

5)      Khatchaturian’s incidental music to ‘Spartacus’.

6)      Sibelius’s ‘At the Castle Gate’.

 

Since you people out there show the sullen indifference of a class of English twelve-year-olds, I won’t even bother to ask you to send in answers, though I may, if you’re good, tell you them later.
This is a Sousaphone. (The brass instrument in front; the other one is a tenor banjo.)

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Further Thoughts on Ichabod



‘Ichabod’ was originally a name, but got its later meaning following certain unfortunate events. Similarly the Greek word Εφιάλτης — ‘Efialtis’ —, which now means ‘Nightmare’, was once someone’s name; the name in fact of the person who showed the invading Persians the secret mountain path that enabled them to circumvent the narrow strip of land between sea and mountain at Thermopylae, which was being defended to the death. Of course, no Greek since then has had the name. Efialtis himself was killed by the Persians; no-one loves a real traitor, which is why those like Snowden, or a certain Englishman who sought refuge for a while in this island, were branded traitors by their governments. Those who ‘Betray their country’ for ethical reasons are of course, far from betraying it, making, at great personal sacrifice, a last desperate attempt to save its honour. And as E. M. Forster said, if he had to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friend, he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country.

Certain names, then, become too sullied ever to use again as names. My German and Austrian friends tell me that no-one — except perhaps the unfortunate sons of Neo-Nazis — ever gets christened ‘Adolf’ any more, and I imagine many English parents, in choosing names for their daughters, now consider ‘Margaret’ quite out of the question.

A picture? Oh, how about this: it is from the recent edition of Cavafy’s selected poems, with David Connolly’s English translations, published by ‘Aiora’. Both David and the publisher are friends of mine, and will, I hope, forgive my infringement of copyright.
 
 

Saturday, 31 October 2015

Ichabod



This splendid word is the usual English transliteration of an ancient Hebrew word that translates as ‘The Glory has Departed.’ Words, at least in so far as they are names of concepts, presumably arise from necessity; there is something impressively tragic about a culture that felt the need for one simple word to express the idea of departed glory.

And what of modern Greek, which has many long and difficult words, and in some cases no word at all, for many things that are common currency in Northern European culture, but has one simple two-syllable word — ‘Fola’ — for ‘Poison for killing dogs’? Japanese goes one better, or worse: I have been reliably told that it has a simple verb meaning ‘I try out a new sword on a casual passer-by.’

Let us take an imaginary extreme example — a language that is identical in vocabulary to English except that it contains one extra word — say, ‘Glumph’ — meaning ‘something furry and unidentifiable forgotten right at the back of the ’fridge.’ Surely this would tell us something about the common housekeeping habits of the society?

Can’t think of a suitable picture to illustrate this post, but I do know that you out there love to see pictures on the blog, so here is one of the creature that impeded my use of the computer keyboard all day recently:
 
 

Friday, 30 October 2015

Winter Heating Revisited



In the Balkan countries — I have never seen them anywhere else — one can get stoves that burn central heating oil or diesel fuel. I don’t mean those awful cylindrical flue-less kerosene (paraffin) stoves that fill the house with fumes and generate about a pint of water (in the form of vapour) for every gallon of fuel they burn, but stoves that fit onto a metal flue, just like a wood- or coke-burning stove. I have one of these and it works very well.

I also have a small wood-burning stove which I made, with the help of an arc welder and an angle grinder, out of an old calor gas bottle. This too works very well. So every winter I have to decide — wood or diesel this year? Much depends on price and availability of the two fuels, and here in Greece that is very variable, as the local authorities permit or don’t permit cutting of certain areas in the island’s forests, and as the central government does yet more lunatic things with the price and tax on central heating oil. (One has to present one’s tax registration number, and an electricity bill, to buy central heating oil — this is supposed to combat the black market, which asks for no such things, so in fact, like most Greek government plans, it does exactly the opposite from its declared intentions.)

Actually I don’t really have to decide; either stove fits on the flue, and it’s a twenty-minute job to take one stove out and fit the other one. At least, it ought to be a twenty-minute job, and sometimes indeed it is, but sometimes Sod’s Law operates and it becomes a three-act drama, with flues collapsing in a shower of soot and gallons of fuel oil flooding the kitchen floor.

So this year — this morning in fact — I came up with a solution:
 
 

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Winter is icumen in



And those who don’t have their own houses but who, like me, would rather be hungry than cold, find themselves at the mercy of the mean and sadistic. In Athens, the owners of large blocks of flats — who are, almost by definition, far better off than their tenants, and who usually live far away — will set the timer on the central heating boiler to come on only briefly, and the thermostat to a miserably low temperature. Last winter there were several deaths of small children whose mothers, trying to keep them warm but not being able to afford supplementary electric heating, had put those deadly traditional devices known as Mangalia —  little charcoal braziers — in rooms whose windows were tight shut against the cold. But why should the landlord care?

A friend of mine, living in a house divided into individually rented rooms with common bathrooms and kitchens, co-operated with other tenants in finding an ingenious solution: the landlord of course lived in a warm house far away, so they investigated the ‘heating’ system but found that the thermostat was locked away in a little cupboard. So they took all the ice cubes out of the ’fridge, put them in a plastic bag, and attached the bag to the outside of the cupboard, thus fooling the thermostat into thinking it was even colder than it really was, and turning on the heating.

Technical note: most thermostats work on the bimettalic strip principle: if you fix strips of two metals with different coefficients of expansion together and then heat or cool them, the strip will of course bend. A couple of strategically-placed electrical contacts, and hey presto, the thermostat.
Sorry about the blurriness of the picture, but you should see the idea.
 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Loneliness of the Writer



It’s something writers like to moan about. Personally I’ve always regarded it — I prefer to call it solitude — as one of the profession’s great attractions.

Anyway it doesn’t have to be like that: once one has actually had a book or two published, I mean professionally as opposed to mere paid-for vanity publishing, (though now that writers have at last realized that most publishers are lazy greedy parasites, the line between self-publishing and vanity-publishing is vague), and belongs to a professional organization (a trade union, in fact) like the Society of Authors, all sorts of perks, with associated non-compulsory social contact with other writers, become available, and one can find out about them simply by looking in ‘The Author’ or one or two literary periodicals. (one doesn’t have to engage with such idiotic nonsense as Facebook or Twitter.)

As an extremely minor writer whom no-one has heard of, I have had —usually free or cheap — stays, usually of a month or more, at, among other places: the Neuschwanstein-like Hawthornden Castle, near Edinburgh. The lakeside campus of the University of East Anglia. Tyrone Guthrie’s big country house near Monaghan. The old British Admiralty building in Rhodes. An upper-middle-class big house with huge garden in Reigate. Then there have been the weekend conferences, among them a long weekend in Athens, which included a one-day cruise around the nearer islands, complete with a quite ghastly orchestra — a cross between Mariachi and Bouzouki band — for the fat wives of publishers (and the wives of fat publishers) to dance to.

And all the above free or nearly so, and with the socializing entirely optional, and no-one thinking any the worse of you if you decided to hide in your room, or the library, and actually do some writing.

So, writers, stop bitching about the loneliness of your sullen craft and art, and get applying. You have nothing to lose except your gloom.
 
This is Hawthornden Castle.
 

Monday, 26 October 2015

Why we like Chopin



I mentioned yesterday in passing a difficult left-hand chord near the beginning of Chopin’s Mazurka in A minor, Op. 67 No. 4. The chord is, from the bottom upwards, E flat, A, C, F. Rearranging that into root position it runs F, A, C, E flat, so it is the dominant seventh in the key of B flat. Now the key of B flat (major or minor) is about as distant from the A minor key of the Mazurka as you can get, yet it still has two notes, A and C, in common with the tonic chord of the piece.

It is this sort of thing that goes, I think, part of the way to explaining Chopin’s attractiveness to the Western ear, especially the musically conservative one. Most of his melodies are, when shorn of their decorative twiddles, straightforwardly, comfortably, diatonic: you can hum along to them, although I wish you wouldn’t. But the harmonies he chooses to put under those melodies are often quite wildly adventurous. So, while being reassured by a pretty hummable tune, we can allow ourselves the delightful frisson of hearing exotic harmonies.

One finds a similar combination of simple tune and unexpected chords in Country and Western music.

I should perhaps add that I have a high regard for Chopin; all the higher since I have started to learn to play some of his easier pieces. Here, just in case anybody’s really interested, (and even if you’re not), is the first section, repeated with twiddles at the end, of that Mazurka:
 
 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

What is this blog for?



People in my local café often say ‘Hey, Simon, if you did this, or that, more people would look at your blog.’ They take it for granted that getting more people to look at these pages must be some great ambition of mine. Actually their main function — indeed I’d say their main purpose as far as I’m concerned — is to give me an opportunity to vent my spleen; to rant about the general stupidity and ignorance of the human race; then I feel relieved, and can get on with more important things, such as learning to play Chopin’s Mazurka No. 49, Opus 67 No. 4 in A minor. (Ashkenazy does it well, so did Rubenstein, and some of those little Japanese girls one finds all over YouTube do OK, though I suspect they have reduced the huge chord in the left hand at bar 4 to a more manageable size. Most of the others suffer from Glenn Gould syndrome; the notion that the composer is a mere vehicle for their own self-expression.)

I admit I’m quite pleased — but also mystified, because I can never work out quite why it’s happened — when the readership suddenly jumps from a gentle ten or twenty people (or perhaps the same person ten or twenty times?) a day to 200, only to fall back the next day. But I won’t go out of my way to attract readers, indeed some might say I seem to go out of my way to repel them. People may look at it or not, as they please: I don’t give a nun’s wimple.

 

This rather macabre picture is in fact a photograph of casts of Chopin’s hands. Large hands aren’t always an advantage in piano playing: they help you play chords that involve a stretch of more than an octave, and Rachmaninov, who had very large hands with very long fingers, seems, judging from some of his scores, to have taken a mischievous pleasure in writing chords no-one but himself could manage. But big hands and long fingers can sometimes get in the way. (I’m talking about piano playing.) My own hands are large, and the fingers are quite long, and I can stretch my left hand a long way because of years of playing classical guitar. But my fingers are also too fat, so that they often get stuck between two black notes, so that instead of playing the white note between them, I play it and the notes a semitone above and below, with somewhat unmusical results.
 
PS Only now do I notice that Chopin seems to have had two left hands.
This could explain a lot.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

The Fart: Further Cogitations



I have been wondering how that figure of 10% (see an earlier post on cow’s farts) was arrived at. There is a simple device, occasionally used by doctors (or more likely some poor bloody nurse), called a ‘Flatus Tube’. This is shoved up a patient’s arse to release trapped gases when their volume and pressure reach dangerous levels. There is also a device called a Spirometer, normally used to measure exhalations at the patient’s other end. I suppose a researcher armed with these must have spent a full 24 hours with a cow, inserting the tube every now and again and noting down volumes. (Judging from the photograph I posted the other day, cows don’t much mind what happens at that end.) One would then have a figure for the daily volume of farts produced by one cow, which one would multiply by the number of cows in the world. Perhaps measurements would have to be taken in various environments; perhaps Indian cows fart more (or I would guess less) than American ones.
 
 

Thursday, 22 October 2015

The Environmentally Hazardous Fart



According to a recent article in the ‘London Review of Books’ — (so it must be true) — about 10% of the gases causing global warming are farted by cows. Considering that there must be many more goats, sheep, and other farting herbivores than cows on the planet, we can surely add another 10% for them. Should we turn our attention away from cars a little, and consider that perhaps we should, to save the planet, stop eating herbivorous animals and their products?

Or might we fit catalytic converters up their — um — exhausts?
 
 

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Hell for Leather



Last night we were discussing in our local bookshop/bar — and how wonderful it is to have such a thing as a ‘Local bookshop/bar’ — the mistakes, harmless or disastrous, one might make when choosing somewhere to pop in for a drink, and I was reminded of the time I was riding a motorbike — a Velocette Venom Clubman, a serious post-vintage thoroughbred — from Canterbury to Oxford. My route — there are several possibilities — took me through Earl’s Court, and my bike chose that area in which to have a minor breakdown; it rumbled to a halt just outside a pub. It was summer and much of the clientele was drinking outside; many were dressed in leather jackets. ‘Oh good,’ I thought: ‘obviously a biker’s pub.’ I propped the bike against the kerb and got out a few tools to fix what I was sure was a minor magneto problem.

I was a touch surprised when, after a few minutes, no-one had come to offer advice or a spanner, as bikers of course always do. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘they don’t know me; give them a few minutes.’ But in a few minutes I had fixed the problem and, as it was a hot day and I was dripping with sweat inside my heavy leather motorcycling coat, I popped in for a quick half.

A young woman came and sat beside me. ‘I like your coat,’ she said; ‘is it German?’ ‘Yes, it’s actually a Second World War officer’s coat: I’ve had it for years; just the thing on the bike.’ I was a touch disconcerted when she started to stroke said coat, and then the penny dropped: in my innocence I had thought this a biker’s pub, but it was in fact one for leather fetishists.

(Of course, I wouldn’t want to deny the possibility that a Venn diagram of the two classes might show some overlap…)
 
 

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Wrong End of the Stick



Ever since the ‘crisis’ began — incidentally, something that continues for years cannot correctly be called a crisis, but these days journalists and politicians use words as Humpty-Dumpty did — successive Greek governments have shown a quite remarkable ability to get hold of the wrong end of the stick, in fact very often the wrong stick. It often looks as if they’re simply taking the piss, or trying to raise the general level of hilarity and despair inside and outside the country.

You may remember that one of their first moves, when there were complaints that not enough tax was being collected, was to cut the salaries of the tax-collectors. Who of course then went on strike, so that rather than a little tax being collected, none at all was.

Now, ‘capital controls’ (as I think they are called) have been introduced. These are (said to be) designed to make sure that money stays in Greece rather than going abroad. One result of this is that if you try to order something through the internet, you are now asked not just for your card number, but also for your e-mail address, your date of birth, your tax registration number, your passport number, and your bank account number. BUT — and this is the real stroke of genius — this only applies if you are yourself within Greece, and ordering something from a company that is also in Greece; i.e. it only applies if there can be no question of the money’s leaving Greece. If you, from Greece, order something on the internet from a company outside Greece — so that your money will be leaving the country — all is exactly as it was before and is everywhere else. The new rules, that is to say, discourage buying and selling in Greece, and encourage people in Greece to send their money abroad. They do so with such neatness and ingenuity that one is forced to the conclusion they were carefully designed to sabotage the Greek economy.  
 
 

Monday, 19 October 2015

BBC English



There was a time when BBC English was some kind of standard, and indeed in its laziness, imprecision, inelegance, and lack of respect for grammar and syntax I suppose it does now reflect majority speech, but it has lost all credibility as a standard towards which learners might strive.

I listen to BBC World Service news every morning that the feeble downgraded transmitters allow reception. The usual presenter has adopted the irritating mannerism of putting an ‘Uh’ or ‘Er’ between every three words, and today, among other infelicities of speech, he talked of ‘A wall of razor-wire’ on a Hungarian border. A wall? A fence, perhaps? What am I to say to my young Greek pupils, trying hard to learn English?

The person who reads the actual news summary at the beginning is usually rather better, but today he came out with the following gem:

‘They are accused of crimes in three Australian states, including theft and arson.’

The Australians usually tend to be reticent about the origins of non-native settlers, witness the person — I think it was Noel Coward — who, when asked if he had a criminal record, displeased the immigration officer by replying ‘Oh, is it still a requirement?’ I had not realized that Australian states are in fact named after crimes.
 
 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Costas Karyotakis

Today, a poem by Costas Karyotakis, in my English translation. The original appears below it.


ALL TOGETHER…

All together, in a rout,
seeking end-rhyme, we set out:
such a well-bred, fine intention
has become our life’s ambition.

By lexical manipulations
we change our paper hearts’ emotions;
our poems in the papers show it:
we earn the right to be called ‘Poet’.

Free in the wind our long hair flows,
also our ties: we strike a pose.
Prose we judge beyond enduring,
normal people far too boring.

Just for us God made each creature,
and indeed the whole of nature.
Sending reports to depths terrestrial,
we raise ourselves to heights celestial.

What though we spend our days unfed,
under bridges find our bed?
That’s our sacrificial fate,
victims of ‘Time’s Current State’.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Grave Parking Problems



In the summer many people drive up to this little village for the evening, and there isn’t room for all those extra cars. So the Mayor and Council, in their wisdom, decided to excavate and level a large area of the steeply-sloping land behind the (until recently) peaceful cemetery at the western edge of the village, with the results seen below.

I knew the chap whose wood-surrounded grave (he was a carpenter) has had one end undermined and is collapsing. I hope the reports that, until the gaping hole was hastily blocked with stones, his feet could be seen poking out are exaggerated.

What sort of island community is this, that will elect, for a second term of office, a Mayor and Council that will desecrate graves so that money-bearing summer visitors can park their cars more conveniently?
 

 

Monday, 12 October 2015

Practice, practice.



That’s what the New York policeman said when asked how to get to Carnegie Hall.

Now, leaving aside the largely forgotten English spelling ‘Practise’ for the verb — the American ‘Practice’ has taken over for both verb and noun — ‘To practice’ has two meanings. It can mean to do something, and it can mean to rehearse doing it. A qualified Doctor practices medicine; he does it ‘for real’. A medical student might be said to practice medicine, meaning that he’s only trying it out, not yet practicing in the other sense.

Got that? Yes, it can be confusing. When my cousin was considering marriage to a Nepalese Muslim she had met, I asked my Aunt ‘Do Muslims practice polygamy here in England?’ ‘They not only practice  it,’ she said, ‘They do it!’. My uncle looked up from his newspaper and murmured ‘I should think practicing it would be more fun.’
 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Rats!



As usual at this time of year, there are rats in the village. They are attracted by the huge quantities of rubbish left outside their houses by the departing tourists, The inadequate and overflowing rubbish bins which the council ‘forgets’ to come and empty, and by the fact that the cats, fed to satiety by the tourists, no longer bother to hunt.

They like to dance about at night on my balcony, and I set a variety of traps. The usual one here is the ξυλόγατο, ‘wooden cat’; a cage-like live trap. When this works one has the problem of disposing of a live rat. I also use the other type, with a big strong spring that whaps down when the bait is touched, usually breaking the rat’s neck. I set one last night and this morning went out to check. No trap; eventually I found it a couple of metres away, with half a tail under the spring.

A local friend points out that the loss of his tail is disastrous for a rat. I had thought they used them only for balance — one sometimes sees rats scurrying along overhead cables; they rarely fall off. But it’s not just that: apparently they use them to eat or drink olive oil: the rat dips his tail in the oil pot, carelessly left uncovered, and then licks it off. I have also heard from several people the story of rats stealing whole chicken’s eggs. I’m not sure I believe it, but they say two rats are involved: one grasps the egg with all four paws and rolls onto its back, then the other drags it back to their lair by its tail.
 
 

Friday, 9 October 2015

Αρχίδια με Λουλούδια



‘Bollocks with Flowers’. I learn a little more Greek every day, and I’ve only just come across this delightful expression. You see, I’ve been having some trouble translating a Greek novel written 200 years ago by a Kephallonian. Not only is it written in ‘katharevousa’ (‘Purified’ Greek; an outmoded language with different grammar, vocabulary and syntax) but it is sprinkled with Italian words in Greek type, and many specifically Kephallonian dialect words and expressions. And I was lucky enough the other evening to meet, in our little bookshop / bar, an educated Kephallonian woman who had been doing a summer job as a waitress here. Her taverna being now closed, we met again the next evening in the same place, and this time I had the book with me. She helped with many words and phrases that were quite unknown to me.

After she’d gone, one of the regular customers — he comes for the drinks, not the books — looked up from the corner where he’d been lurking and said ‘Nice lady you were talking to,’ and went on to make the usual male remarks, which I won’t give here. I responded in a very ψηλομύτης (‘high-nosed’) manner that such considerations had not crossed my mind; we had been engaged entirely in discussions of a literary nature.

‘Αρχίδια με Λουλούδια’ he replied.

 

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

‘Economic Migrant’



It has become almost a term of abuse; ‘You—You—Economic Migrant, You!’ but what is so sinful about travelling in search of a better life? Have not successive British governments — especially Conservative ones — advised that, if you haven’t got a job, you should get on your bike and go and look for one? Is it, perhaps, a case of ‘Two wheels good, boats bad?’ It hasn’t, of course, (heaven forfend!) anything to do with nationality or skin colour.

Anyway, this little Greek island has become a staging-post on their frightful journey. They are dumped on one of the neighbouring deserted islands and told ‘You’re in Greece,’ which, technically, they are; but they might as well be in the middle of the Gobi desert. No food, no water, no shelter. Sooner or later they are noticed by a passing fishing-boat, and the coastguard goes and rescues them, bringing them here, where they wait in the amphitheatre near the town hall, before being taken to the mainland later that day, or perhaps the next. There, they are ‘processed’ — I don’t quite know what this entails — and then pushed out onto the streets. The special refugee centres are overfull and can take no more.

I am pleased to say that their brief time in this little island has become a sort of holiday for them; they probably have a better time here than they have had, or will have, for a long time. First of all, as soon as news gets out, people rush down with food and clothes. Then, if they are here for more than a few hours, a big communal meal is prepared for them. Any in urgent need of medical attention get it.

Today yet another bunch arrived. The previous group of 50-odd only left the day before yesterday. This group, like the others, has been generously treated; plenty of food and clothing was brought for them. The group, this time, included a fair number of very young, very bewildered children; my young friend Anastasia had the imagination to take them what she no longer needs — her teddy-bears.
 
 

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

English as She is Spoke



One of my young pupils has some trouble with pronunciation of English; her father tells me her pronunciation of Greek is also not much cop. I got her to listen to Sir Ralph Richardson reading Keats’s ‘Ode to Autumn’, telling her not to pay too much attention to the meaning, but to concentrate on the sound. Keats of course is a little advanced for a twelve-year-old Greek girl, so it occurred to me that since we were interested in sound, not meaning, she might find a nonsense-poem more entertaining. I shall try her on this well-known piece by Lewis Carroll:

JABBERWOCKY

Lewis Carroll

(from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, 1872)

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.


"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
  Long time the manxome foe he sought --
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
  And stood awhile in thought.
And, as in uffish thought he stood,
  The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
  And burbled as it came!
One, two! One, two! And through and through
  The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
  He went galumphing back.
"And, has thou slain the Jabberwock?
  Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!'
  He chortled in his joy.


`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
  Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
  And the mome raths outgrabe.
 
This of course is Sir John Tenniel's well-known picture of the Jabberwock. (I don't think there was ever more than one Jabberwock.) Such were the delicate sensibilities of the bourgeoisie of the period that it was thought better not to include this picture in some editions of the Alice books; they thought it might be too disturbing for children. How little they knew of what children really like.
Oh, and by the way, the word, as you see here, is 'borogoves'. Many later printings of the poem make it 'borogroves'.