Saturday, 28 February 2015

Wireless Operator, continued...

Unless something else comes up, I shall continue with this until I have posted the whole book. (The copyright, by the way, is mine.)

Friday, 27 February 2015

You won’t tell me, so I found out for myself.

Daily readership — or at least click-on-ership — of this blog varies widely, but rarely rises above 20. So I thought there must be some technical glitch when I checked this morning and found that, yesterday, 462 people (or one person 462 times, or … well you know what I mean) had looked at it. Naturally I investigated further, and found that nearly half of this figure was due to one entry, made long ago, which consisted simply of one scanned page from ‘Wireless Operator’, my book of translations of the poetry and short prose of Nikos Kavvadias; it was my version of his poem ‘Mal du Depart’. The edition of 500 copies of the book has almost sold out, and Nikos’s niece, who holds the rights to his work, (though not in fact to my translations of it) is stubbornly making obstacles to its re-publication here in Greece, against the urgings of respected publishers and critics. Anyone who wants to buy one of the few remaining copies should e-mail me.

I have never expected to make money from any of my writings, whether original or translations, so, whenever time and circumstances permit, I shall post scans of the whole book, page by page, here in the blog. If only people had, as I keep asking, told me what they wanted to see here, I could have done this long ago. Anyway, here for a start is the front cover: 


Thursday, 26 February 2015


Scientists in Germany have discovered that dogs can tell the difference between a happy human and a cross human.

Dogs in Germany are hoping to teach humans to tell the difference between a happy well-fed German child and an unhappy starving Greek one.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015


When I first came to Greece there were lots of things you couldn’t get in the local shops. You couldn’t for instance get coffee. Well, you could get Nescaff, and the dust Greeks use to make thimblefuls of hot mud, but not coffee. A couple of shops sold dull, pale beans for people who like to grind their own dust, so I used to get these and roast them to a decent colour in a device I made by punching lots of holes in a Quaker Oats tin. Yes, you could get porage oats — they came in a tin. I bought lots, and got funny looks when I explained to the shopkeepers what I did with them.

Vegetables? In winter anyway only onions, potatoes, cabbages and carrots. Fruit? Oranges of course — many people in England don’t know that they’re winter fruit. And I didn’t know until I tried to pick some that orange trees have long vicious thorns. Oh, and you couldn’t get bananas. Not that that bothered me; I don’t like bananas unless they’re still hard and green. But the reason you couldn’t get them was interesting: their import was forbidden as it might damage the indigenous Greek banana-growing industry. Er… the indigenous Greek…? Well, quite. Actually, some years later I did come across, in southern Crete — if you look in the atlas you’ll find southern Crete is further south than much of north Africa — a few very high plastic greenhouses where they were, not very successfully, trying to grow bananas. I suppose that was it.

In those pre-Common Market days, Brits weren’t supposed to stay in Greece more than three months at a time. I often got away with much longer, but once I was caught and told I had ten days to leave. So I took the ferry to the mainland and got a lift the width of the country with a very nice Kiwi who was driving her ancient Chevrolet through Europe. As we rolled down from Yannena to Igoumenitsa the clutch packed up, and we coasted into a garage where we were told the spare parts would take months to arrive. But, as is the way in Greece, they cobbled something up, and Kiwi and Chevrolet limped onto the Ancona ferry.

My ferry took me to Brindisi, and I planned to take the same boat back in a few hours. I whiled away the time looking at Roman remains, bought myself some outrageous electric blue swimming trunks, (I was much younger then), and, of course, a lot of proper shiny hundred-per-cent-Arabica coffee beans. Oh, and at the last minute, a big bunch of bananas for a friend back in the island.

I got back on the boat. Passport control was on board, and I noticed to my horror that the chap with the rubber stamp was the very one who had let me into Italy a few hours earlier. I handed over my passport and gazed nonchalantly out of a porthole, hoping he wouldn’t recognize me. He did of course: ‘Just a minute — aren’t you the chap who only just got off this ferry?’

‘Um… er… well, yes, I suppose I am.’

‘So what the hell are you up to?’

‘Oh. Well, you see, I have this friend who likes bananas —’ (holding up my bunch of the said fruit) ‘And so… er…’

He said something very rude, which I shan’t translate, about what one might do with bananas, but he stamped my passport and let me back into Greece.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Goin’ Down to the River…

In the 1920s the phrase was a black American euphemism for suicide.

Travelling by road through Bangla Desh can take longer than expected. Not so much because of the roads or the traffic — the roads, though narrow, are often asphalt or at least pounded-down rubble, (one sees gangs of women labourers at the soul-destroying job of smashing bricks), and the traffic, once one is away from the pullulating honking chaos of the cities, is almost non-existent — as because of the rivers, many unbridged. One must wait for the little flat shuttle-ferry with a ramp at each end to come back — it’s invariably at the other side, or worse still has just left this side of a wide river.

Where there are bridges they’re usually ones made by the Brits in colonial days; the ones made later tend to fall down, more by design than accident, as then a new UN bridge-building grant can be applied for. But even some of the old Brit bridges can be alarming — I know one that carries road, rail, and pedestrian traffic, but is only about six feet wide. Pedestrians simply squeeze up tight against the side railings when a car or train comes along, but if a train starts at one end just as a car has entered the other end…

The ferry disaster that has just happened in Bangla Desh — and similar disasters have happened so often I was surprized this one made international news — did not involve a river crossing: this one was a boat that goes up and down river. It’s the standard means of long-distance travel for most people, though no-one who can scrape together enough to buy a car would dream of going by ferry. They are notorious death-traps: foreigners, of course, never, ever, use them.

What, never? Well… yes, I have, but I didn’t tell anyone about it until I got back. If I listened to all the people who are so concerned for my welfare I would have nothing to write about here. It was an overnight ferry — the most dangerous of all — going from Dacca down the Jumna river to a village on the delta. You buy your ticket, find the right ferry, and barge your way up the gang-plank among hundreds of others, most of them carrying suspicious-looking white-cotton-shrouded long floppy bundles over their shoulders, and try to find a place to sit or, if you’ve paid a bit extra, lie down: space can often be found on the very lowest decks, below the water-line, to which only the foolhardy descend.

If you have seen ‘Fitzcarraldo’ you will remember the ship: imagine something like that — shallow draught, and far too many upper decks, all of them full water-line area. And imagine such a craft left abandoned, unrepaired, unpainted, up some forgotten creek for decades before suddenly being brought back into service.

There was no attempt to count the number of people boarding; it was much like the London Underground at rush-hour. Nor did there seem to be any navigational rules: every few days one heard of yet another collision, usually at night: the ferries would sink in minutes, and people on the lower decks stood not a chance.

I made my journey — evidently I survived it — more than thirty years ago. Even then the government was under pressure to introduce some sort of regulation of the river-ferries. Radio news reports of the latest disaster show that nothing has changed.


Saturday, 21 February 2015

Cosi fan Tutte

I have just been listening to what many people think Mozart’s finest opera, ‘Cosi fan Tutte’, and I wanted to say something here about it, but find that I already have. However it was over a year ago and almost nobody has bothered to look at it, so here it is again:

I mentioned 'Cosi fan Tutte' yesterday. (i.e. in December 2013) It is generally reckoned to be one of Mozart's best operas, yet it has a plot almost as silly as a message on Facebook.
The title 'Cosi fan Tutte' is difficult to render in English: something like 'They all do it' or 'Thus do they all', but Italian being an inflected language the grammar shows that the 'They' who do 'it' are women.
Two young men are boasting to each other of the virtues of their girlfriends: how beautiful, how devoted, and above all how faithful they are. As is the way with idiotic young men, each insists that his girlfriend is in all respects better than his friend's. They are interrupted by their cynical old friend Don Alfonso, who tells them their girlfriends would betray them at once if they got the chance. Much indignation, and finally they lay a bet on it. 'But', says Don Alfonso, 'You must follow my instructions to the letter'.
Don Alfonso goes off to see the girlfriends, who conveniently live together, in fact I think they are sisters. He brings them the dreadful 'news' that their boyfriends have been called up and must go abroad to fight the Turks. The boys turn up with military uniforms and long faces, then set off to catch the boat. Don Alfonso and the two girls sing the trio 'Soave sia il vento, tranquillo il mare' (May the winds be gentle, the sea calm.) It is typical of Mozart that this heart-breakingly beautiful trio is sung by a cynical old deceiver and the two airheads he is deceiving.
The boys gone, the two girls sit around drinking hot chocolate and bemoaning their fate, until their maid Despina (suborned of course by Don Alfonso) suggests they divert themselves with a couple of nice young men from the invading Turkish army. Don Alfonso duly supplies two nice young men, who are of course the original boyfriends in Turkish disguise, and each of them sets about trying to seduce the other's girlfriend. At first they are unsuccessful, much to their secret delight, but Don Alfonso gets them to fake depairing suicide, from which they are revived by a pupil of Dr Mesmer (In most productions 'he' wields an enormous horseshoe magnet; it is of course Despina in drag) and the girls relent. A double marriage is arranged, each 'Turk' marrying the (real) other's (real) girlfriend. Just as the notary (Despina again) is reading the marriage contracts, Don Alfonso dashes in to warn that the original boyfriends are back from the war. The two Turks rush offstage (to do a quick costume change into their original gear) and come back on as 'themselves'. They 'Discover' what has been going on, but everyone lives happily ever after and the girls are forgiven: Cosi fan Tutte after all.
And this outrageous mean calumnious sexist trick is what Mozart chose to hang one of his finest operas on. But: The music is beautiful.  

Friday, 20 February 2015

Looking-glass Logic

Scientists investigating autism have found that people on the autism spectrum have different levels of various proteins in their saliva from the levels of the same proteins in ‘normal’ people’s saliva. They are hoping to develop a simple saliva test to diagnose autism.

Scientists investigating anorexia have found that anorexics have lower body weight than ‘normal’ people. They are hoping to develop a simple weight test to diagnose anorexia.

OK I made the second one up, but the first is real, and contains, I believe, the same confusion of cause and effect.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

What’s a Grecian Urn?

Not even the price of a cup of tea these days.

For the benefit of those as simple-minded as myself, I offer the following analysis:

1)      Greece, in its anxiety to be ‘Modern’ and ‘European’, asks to join the club.

2)      The club, pleased for political rather than economic reasons, (insofar as it is possible to separate the two) says ‘Yes, all right, but you’ll have to comply with the following conditions:’

3)      Greece prepares a set of ‘massaged’ (i.e. false) figures that seem to meet the conditions.

4)      The club pretends to believe them and welcomes Greece with open arms.

5)      Too open: they realize they will have to support Greece with grants and loans.

6)      People in the rest of the club get cross about this.

7)      The club, finding it can no longer get away with the deception, throws up its arms in outraged innocence; ‘Oh, how could those naughty Greeks deceive us so? We must punish them!’

8)      Greece is reduced — at least in the cities, not, thank God, everywhere — yet — to conditions not seen since the German occupation: children fainting from hunger in the classrooms, beggars on the streets, fathers hanging themselves for shame that they can no longer feed their children, the homeless freezing to death.

9)      Greek elections return a leftish government which seeks a decent resolution of the problem; one that would allow the Greek economy to recover, make money, and perhaps eventually repay the loans.

10)  The rich members of the club — out of, as far as one can see, sheer vindictiveness; it cannot possibly be to their advantage to continue to impose austerity — refuses the Greek proposals.

11)  Who knows? Wars have broken out for far less than this.


Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Towards the end of Auden’s long poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ the four characters play on ‘Mirlitons’. Now as I’d understood it, a mirliton is a toy musical instrument looking like a trumpet, but I checked on Wikipedia. There was a lot on ‘Mirliton’ meaning some kind of fashion accessory, and even more on a vegetable called a ‘Mirliton’. Almost nothing on ‘Mirliton’ as a toy musical instrument, though it said it was also known as the ‘Eunuch Flute’. But when I looked up ‘Eunuch Flute’ on Wiktionary there was no entry, so I wrote one.

I think both ‘Mirliton’ and ‘Eunuch Flute’ can be used to mean what most of us know as the kazoo — you know, those little submarine-shaped tinplate things: you sort of hum down them, and a membrane in the conning-tower of the submarine modifies your hum into a surprisingly rich falsetto (so eunuchoid) sound.

I imagine some readers saying ‘Oh, come on, Simon: aren’t you the chap who wrote a piece on the ‘Tristan’ chord, and at least two pieces on a late Beethoven quartet? And aren’t you currently learning the Bach two-part inventions on the piano? So what is all this shit about kazoos, for God’s sake?'

Anyone who thinks the kazoo cannot be taken seriously should seek out — it’s probably on YouTube — ‘One Hour’; a recording made in 1929 by the Mound City Blue Blowers, which features, among others, Coleman Hawkins on tenor sax, a young Glenn Miller playing a beautiful trombone solo, and Red McKenzie playing his heart out on kazoo.


Tuesday, 17 February 2015

God’s Own Country

I am pleased to discover that my blog has at least one reader in Ireland. For all that the English make jokes about the Irish — every nationality chooses some other about whom to make jokes — The Irish (if one may generalize that way) have a great respect for literature — unless things have changed, professional writers in Ireland are exempt from income tax — and it would only be a slight exaggeration to say that most of the great English writers turn out to have been in fact Irish, or at least with Irish Forebears. See how many you can identify from this little gallery:



Monday, 16 February 2015

Bugger Botany

‘Bugger Bognor’ are said to have been the last words of some English King or other — was it George the fifth? — who caught the pneumonia that killed him while on holiday there. Serves him right for not going to the Greek islands, where he could have caught ‘Grippi’, just like everyone else in Greece at the moment.

Anyway, I shall no doubt write more botanical verse soon, but we haven’t quite finished the alphabet of animal limericks. The next letter is ‘W’. Only yesterday my botanical friend told me that in reading famous people’s recreations in 'Who's Who' she discovered that someone had listed ‘Wombats’ among the things he liked to do. She wondered what one could do with a wombat; I suggested one could use it to play wom. So it’s a shame that today’s animal is not in fact a wombat:

Pity the innocent Wildebeest!
How fear of de Boers must fill de beest:
Van der Merwe and Piet
regard him as meat:
they come out with rifles to kill de beest.

Here are three of them:
The one in the middle is an attractive red-head.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

Another Abject Apology

The only prize I ever won at school was for spelling, and I’ve always prided myself on my correct spelling. I’m afraid Allium cearulium in yesterday’s blog post should have been Allium caerulium. Foolishly, I took the spelling on the authority of the person who sent me the picture and asked for the poem.


Saturday, 14 February 2015

Judenrein and Allium cearuleum


In America the roadside signs announcing one’s entry to, say, Redneckburg have the place’s population on them. In Germany, (the last time I was there anyway) they have the times of church services. During the Nazi era they used often to have the proud addition ‘Judenrein’; literally ‘Jew-purified’; that is to say, the town had not a single Jewish inhabitant; they’d all been rounded up and taken away.

The German government (we’re talking now, 2015, again) has just set up a committee of distinguished experts to combat anti-Semitism. There is not a single Jew on the entire committee; it is Judenrein.


Allium cearuleum

            Let’s call this one ‘Purple Sensation’:
            It’s not quite the right appellation,
            But the full Latin handle,
            An orthographer’s scandal,
            Might cause you some consternation.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Dear Dot: Must Dash.

Sadly, that ‘History of Inventions’ that looked so promising is not the thing at all. One looks at the entry for, say, the electric telegraph, (this is an imaginary example) and it says, let us say, ‘The invention of the electric telegraph is usually attributed to Wheatstone. Born in 1793 of a fishmonger father and sempstress mother, he was educated…’ blah-blah-blah for several pages about what a nice chap he was, then ‘However, some attribute the electric telegraph to Samuel Morse, born 1812…’ and lots more of the same sort of stuff, and nary a word about how the damn thing works.

Here are pictures of a Wheatstone telegraph and an early Morse key:


Thursday, 12 February 2015


Here are details of one of the books currently on my bedtime reading shelf; it promises to be great fun:




Fourth Edition,