Sunday, 30 August 2015

American Gun Lunacy

In the current ‘debate’ (as if any decent civilized people needed to argue about it) in defence of some imagined ‘right’ of just about anybody in America to buy guns, much is made of the second amendment to the United States Constitution, which gun-lovers claim enshrines that right. Here is the Government approved text of the relevant part of the second amendment:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Anyone who thinks logically can therefore see that the ‘Right of the people to keep and bear arms’ is conditional on the necessity for ‘A well regulated militia’. But the United States now has a police force and a standing army; there is no necessity any longer for a militia. Thus there is no longer any ‘Right of the people to keep and bear arms’.

Friday, 28 August 2015

You Can’t Have Your Cake…

A couple of months ago a relative had a birthday and, being a few thousand miles away with nothing material here to send, I looked on Youtube for a suitable silly video. I found a compilation of birthday-cake disasters. You know, the child leans forward to blow out the candles and falls flat on his face into the cake. Or a leaf or leg of the table collapses and the cake slides to the floor, or the proud cake-bearing mother trips on the way in and…

It was with mixed feelings that I attached it to an e-mail. You see, when I was very young — perhaps three — I lived with my mother somewhere in London; Queens Park I think. Every Christmas she would take me to Bertram Mills’ circus at Earl’s Court. It would be night-time; she would wake me up and off we would go by the underground, a treat in itself. I still have a cartoonish ‘wonders of science’ image of a tunnel sloping down into the ground and then back up again at Earl’s Court, with a worm-like train running through it.

The circus was, perhaps still is, one of the world’s greatest: there were lions in a cage, with a jack-booted whip-wielding master; tightrope walkers and trapeze artists; elephants; bare-back riders standing on their horses in balletic poses as they galloped round the ring; and of course clowns. There was a famous one called Coco, a big man with enormous shoes. And there were dwarves or midgets (I’m never sure of the distinction) who ran round on little dachshund-like legs; it was still OK in those days to laugh at people who would now be called ‘Vertically challenged’ or some such.

There was one particular sketch the clowns did every year: one clown, whose birthday it was, would sit expectantly in the middle of the ring, and another would enter carrying an elaborate cake with great pinnacles of icing. He would trip and fall face-down in the cake; everyone would laugh uproariously.

Everyone except me. I would burst into tears, sometimes so inconsolably I had to be taken outside. My mother would try to get me to explain, and I would blurt out between sobs something about the waste of a lovely cake. But what was really distressing me was something for which I simply didn’t have the vocabulary, for which I couldn’t, in full consciousness, frame the concept, let alone find articulate expression: the disappointment of the birthday clown, and the mortification of his cake-bearing friend.

I suppose it sounds silly, trivial, or worse still precious, but its psychological significance for me is huge. I remember that for years afterwards I would re-enact the scene, making cakes out of paper and cardboard, enlisting my sister or my cousin to play the part of the birthday clown. (I was always the tripping cake-bearer.) I would do it over and over again, trying to exorcise something. I never succeeded.

It has left me with a horror of a child’s being disappointed, and an almost murderous rage against anyone who disappoints a child.

I don’t know; make of it what you will: I felt the need to write about it; perhaps this will be the exorcism I failed, back then, to achieve. Anyway, what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write whatever you feel like writing?

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Quotation of the Day

'What is the use of Americans if they bring no money?'
Sigmund Freud.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Skeletons in Cupboards

It is of course easy to say that opponents of psychoanalysis are frightened of it for what it might reveal. Easy to say because it’s usually true. I have just discovered that one of its influential early opponents was Lord Alfred Douglas. Yes, that’s right: in earlier life the companion and enthusiastic bugger-er (is that the word?) of the worst kind of back-street rent boys, and the unspeakably creepy little catamite of Oscar Wilde. By 1920 he was a ‘reformed character’ and, I kid you not, head of the Catholic Purity League, from which eminence he campaigned fiercely against the growing psychoanalytic movement.

Lord Alfred was also known — well, by now largely forgotten — as a very bad poet; the sort whose stuff was probably only published because he was a Lord. The present Lord, Sir Gawain Douglas, happens to live near me when I’m in England; I’ve met him and have a signed copy of his own slim volume of verses; I’m afraid his stuff is even worse that his great-grandfather’s. In time I think the two Lords’ offences against poetry will probably be considered worse that anything else they may have done.

Here’s Lord Alfred with his lover Oscar Wilde:

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Is That a Tongue in your Cheek?

Among the books on my bedside reading shelf is ‘Freud’s Wizard’ by Brenda Maddox. It is a biography of Ernest Jones, one of the founders of psychoanalysis and a close friend of yer actual Doctor Sigmund.

Unsophisticated, unguarded, un-circumspect people often say and write things that are unintentionally funny; whose funniness is noticed not by themselves but by their more sophisticated, guarded, etc. audience. But surely a critically well-regarded biographer writing about the psychoanalytic movement wouldn’t write such things? And if she seemed to, might she not perhaps be playing a deceptive game, teasing us and perhaps mocking herself?

I hope so, because Brenda Maddox keeps doing it in this book; I would estimate about on average once every two pages but, like buses, the things tend to bunch. Here are a couple that have just jumped out at me, from within the same paragraph:

‘Alix herself had not planned to be analysed, but after suffering from anxiety attacks during a performance of Götterdämmerung she too became Freud’s patient.’

‘Freud, in time, found the Stracheys “exceptionally nice and cultured people though somewhat queer”.’

Here are Jones and Freud together: I think this picture was taken outside the house in NW3 (where else?) Jones found for Freud when he had to leave Vienna in a hurry in 1939.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Devil Take the Blue-Tail Fly

That’s the title of a novel by the American writer John Franklin Bardin, first published, to an underwhelming reception, in 1948. Penguin republished it in their well-known green covered Crime series much later; presumably they thought that pretending it was a ‘crime’ novel would increase sales. The blurb by Julian Symons (who should have known better and perhaps did, but many are the things people will do if paid) says it ‘belongs to the world of Highsmith and even Poe’, which is nonsense. It belongs, if anywhere, to the very small group — hardly a ‘genre’ — of convincing accounts of psychosis.

The story concerns a concert harpsichord player, who has a mental breakdown following her seduction as a student by a predatory folk-singer. Thereafter she becomes increasingly doolally, the momentum of her madness being given fresh impulse every now and again by the re-appearance (real or imaginary) of the folk-singer with his signature tune, the old black plantation song ‘The Blue-Tailed Fly’.

For most of the book the protagonist is pretty obviously psychotic. One plausible aetiology of psychosis is that the psychotic, finding the ‘real’ world intolerable, retreats into a made-up one. He or she can get away with this indefinitely, provided that the rules of the made-up world don’t make him or her do anything socially unacceptable, and provided no-one tries to ‘cure’ him. (As Ronnie Laing said, curing is for bacon, not people.) Margaret Thatcher, for instance, was so well-surrounded by a wall of sycophants that she was able to believe right to the end that the world was exactly as she told us it was. It is only when something goes ‘wrong’ that the psychotic falls into a chaotic hell. Very often, as in this book, what goes wrong is the well-meaning but disastrous efforts of therapists, friends and relatives to convince the psychotic that her world is not the ‘real’ one: to the extent that these efforts succeed, her suffering increases and will often be so intense as to kill her. There is some truth in the old-fashioned notion that madmen should be ‘humoured’.

This is a fascinating book, but its republication in an inappropriate series is likely to decrease rather than increase its readership: people looking for a detective story will give up after a few pages, and people looking for accounts of madness are unlikely to look at green-covered Penguins. Fortunately I am usually on the look-out for both, which is how I came to read it. I was lucky to find a copy; I recommend it to anyone else who can find another; I’m keeping mine.


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Artificial Brain in U.S. University

Well why not? Most other things in America are artificial, and if such a device could be used to replace existing brains, then the country could certainly use it. The fact that this brain is about equivalent to that of an embryo just before birth should not in most cases matter.

‘Seriously though’ (as they used to say) this is probably an interesting development. I say ‘probably’ because, unsurprisingly, the BBC report was at its usual infantile level, and failed for instance to make it clear whether this is an organic item, or made of electrical hardware. Does it look, that is to say, like the inside of a computer, or is it white and gooey like the inside of a head?

An early candidate for having an artificial brain fitted might be the BBC announcer who told us about it. He asked one of the researchers ‘Does it think?’, thus revealing his own failure to do so. Of course it doesn’t think; no brain does. People think, using their minds. There is probably some connection — expert opinion varies on this — between the mind and the brain. A brain no more thinks than a pair of shoes goes for a walk.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

How to Lose Pounds of Ugly, Useless Fat

Saw your head off.

The Natural History Museum in London (whose idiot director tried a while ago to get rid of the great dinosaur skeleton that is its most popular exhibit) has gone one better: the BBC reports (so it must be true, yes?) that the museum has in its collection a number of ‘decapitated heads’. Not severed heads — that term was not used at all in the quite long news report — decapitated ones; the expression was repeated several times by several different people, so I suppose it must be what they meant.

I should be interested to hear from anyone who can tell me what a decapitated head is.

Saturday, 15 August 2015



Here is the text I have been forbidden to read at today’s commemoration. No doubt the mayor of Alonnisos has his reasons for not wanting the story told publicly in a language most foreign visitors understand; it would be interesting to know what they are.


 The murderers arrived in our island in the early hours of August the 15th 1944, some landing at Mikro Mourtia, others at Patitiri. On their way up to the village they deceived whomever they met by telling them they were ELLAS fighters, and fished for information about the national resistance movement. They wore no German uniforms or insignia.

On arrival in the village, with the help of local collaborators who knew they were coming,  they gathered all the men over 18 years of age into this little space: Maniacally ringing the church bell they brought out everybody and announced that any man who didn’t appear would have his house burnt down and he himself be executed once found. It was now obvious to all that these so-called ELLAS fighters were the country’s enemies: murderous invaders and their Greek collaborators.

Next they read out the names from a list prepared by local collaborators of all those who belonged, or were suspected of belonging, to the resistance. Any who, hoping to escape, failed to answer to their names were pointed out to the murderers by local traitors. Once the deathly catalogue was completed, they stood the victims against the parapet and tied their hands, each man to the next, with the ropes from the pack-saddle of a nearby donkey.

During the few terrible moments of the execution, a bullet happened to sever the rope where it joined the last man to the series. Badly injured as he was he jumped over the parapet in a desperate attempt to escape. But the murderers had stationed a machine-gunner on the opposite hill, known as ‘Paliomylos’, (Where the restaurant ‘Astrofengia’ stands now) and the escapee was riddled with bullets. Nevertheless he managed to get away and took refuge in the nearby stream-bed known as Lakka. At once the women of the village, risking their lives, ran to give him — what else? Water. The seriously injured in battle always ask for water. After drinking the water he gave up the struggle for life. He was Athanasios  Xydeas, our beloved fellow islander, known as Thanasakis.

As soon as their dreadful crime was over, the German murderers and their collaborators set out for Patitiri where a boat was waiting for their escape. But before leaving local traitors led them to the house of Panayiotis Tsoukanas, near the church of Ayios Nikolaos. Panayiotis had been lucky enough to be out of the village when the roll was called. They burnt his house to the ground. Continuing towards Patitiri they reached, down by the Alonia, the house of Georgios Morisis, who had been among those executed. This house too they burnt to the ground.


The Victims:

Michael Kyriazis.

Nikolaos Alexiou.

Nikolaos Florous.

Agallos Anagnostou.

Agallos Agallou

Georgios Morisis.

Athanasios Xydeas.

Georgios Smyrnaios.

A tenth victim was Georgios Syrianos, a left-wing local politician from Volos, who was in Alonnisos at the time.

Two more people should be mentioned:

Yorgos Alexiou, who was fatally injured by the collaborating police officer Kourlos, and died on board a ship bound for Smyrna, where he was buried.

Nikos Athanasiou, a left-wing thinker, who was betrayed by Greek collaborators with the Nazis, taken to Peristera and tortured in an unheard-of manner: a metal band was fixed round his head and tightened with screws until the pain and brain-injury killed him.


From the commemorative speech given by
Georgios Athanasiou, August the 15th 2012.

Editing and translation ©Simon Darragh 2012.


The picture below shows Dr Yorgos laying a wreath at the 2012 ceremony.



Friday, 14 August 2015

The Circular Logic of the Blinkered Idiot

The 15th of August is, in the Greek Orthodox calendar, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary; one of the most important days, even for the not-very-religious, in Greek culture. Among the other events here in this island there is a ceremony in the upper square of the old village, dedicated to the memory of the victims there of the massacre on that same day in 1944. Our local doctor reads a speech, telling the story of what happened.

Understandably, the whole ceremony, including the doctor’s speech, is in Greek, so a while ago I suggested to the doctor that it might be a good idea if at least a resumé of his speech, translated into English, were read — this is of course the very height of the tourist season, and many foreigners have asked me to explain what happened. Doctor Yorgos thought mine a good idea, so I made an accurate translation of his speech, précised it, and was all set to read it after his own speech.

However, on the morning of the 14th, I was told by the waitress in the place where I go for my morning coffee, that the mayor has forbidden my reading. We telephoned the doctor to ask for confirmation of this, and an explanation. He said that indeed the mayor had forbidden my reading of a speech in English, that he didn’t know why, but would ring back. He duly did so: the mayor says there’s no point in there being anything in English at the ceremony, because no foreigners ever come to it anyway.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

It's the heat, you know.

Apologies for lack of blog. The heat is affecting me badly, much more than it used to when I was younger, and I feel exhausted and am probably dehydrated. I found some rehydration salts in my medicine box, but they are full of some nauseating artificial sweetener. I shall just have to make myself drink more water. At least here in Greece most cafes still keep the civilized custom of serving a large glass of water with each coffee.
Normal service will be resumed as soon as I feel better, or there is something really important to write about.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Space Travel

I’m never quite sure how I feel about space travel. When the first men landed on the moon one periodical — I can’t remember which — printed the picture under the heading ‘So What?’ and I was inclined to agree. But the fact is that — if human activity hasn’t already killed every living thing on earth first — the sun will eventually expand and the whole solar system will be fried. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, the C# minor quartet, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Der Rosenkavalier, the Schubert C major string quartet, the Brough Superior SS100 Alpine Grand Sports — all will be as if they had never been. So I think ‘Well, maybe there is some hope — maybe humans should continue with space travel and eventually colonize some hospitable planet at the other end of the Milky Way; they will take all these things with them of course.’

Really? I’m afraid that it will actually be two overgrown American schoolboys, who will hit a golf-ball about and leave behind a bag of shit.

A Decade Ago

Good Lord is it really that long? I used to publish a weekly English-language newsletter here in this little island. Here is the issue for this week in 2004:

I think if you click on the pictures you can make them at least bigger and perhaps clearer.

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Laurie Lee, 'A Rose for Winter'

Laurie Lee’s best-known book, which has the dubious distinction of being a set book in many schools — when I was training to be a schoolteacher we were expected to have read it — is ‘Cider with Rosie’. It’s an idyllic account of growing up in the perpetual summer (ha-ha) of the English countryside, including sexual initiation by Rosie. It’s a lovely book, and a hard act to follow — some of his other books have been dire.

I’m still not quite sure what to make of ‘A Rose for Winter’. The winter was spent by Lee and his wife in Spain, and the descriptive passages have much of the lyricism of ‘Cider with Rosie’. Like so many Englishmen abroad, he regards all foreigners as amusing children, to be indulged in their quaint ways. They had, generally, a jolly time.

BUT, and it’s a very big but indeed, the book was first published in 1955, and their winter travelling through Andalusia must have been only a year or two earlier. I started reading with the expectation, continued with the hope, and nearly gave up with despair, of finding some indication that there had once been something called the Republic; that there had been a village called Guernica; that many of his contemporaries had gone from England and other countries to fight and in some case die in defence of the Republic, that the country was now ruled by a brutal dictator. Not a word; not a hint even. By the time I was two-thirds of the way through the book I was pretty sure Laurie Lee was a moral imbecile.

But I gave the book the benefit of the very large doubt, and persevered. Finally, in the last quarter or so of the book, a few of the happy, carefree, irresponsible overgrown children who have been so generous to Lee and his wife take him aside and furtively whisper their stories; admit that, much of the time, they live in fear, with horrible memories.

Is the book thereby redeemed? Have I been crassly insensitive? Did Lee paint such an idyllic picture so that, when towards the end he reveals some of the truth, it will shock the reader all the more? I should like to think so. But I’m afraid it’s more likely that he regarded ‘politics’ as an unpleasant distraction, something about which he reluctantly said to himself ‘Oh, I suppose I’d better put something in about all that.’

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Women in Opera

Throughout the era of romantic opera — from, say, Mozart to about Puccini — the female characters were nearly all silly, passive, often the helpless victims of ill-intentioned or lustful men. Any disapproval or resentment the women might show would be laughed off, regarded as a tedious nuisance or even evidence of mental instability. Revenge for their behaviour was the province of their male protectors.

The plot of ‘Cosi fan Tutte’ is a cruel deception practiced on two perfectly nice girls, and when the girls come dangerously close to falling for the trick the deceivers themselves berate them for it before deciding that really one can’t expect any better of mere women, and in ‘Don Giovanni’ the peasant girl Zerlina, following her almost-seduction by Giovanni, goes so far as to invite her indignant boyfriend Mazetto to beat her up.

Things are a little better by the time we reach Verdi — ‘Rigoletto’ can be read, as I like to read it, as an exposure of the dire results of an over-protective attitude to women, and we feel sympathy for poor Gilda, but even so in the end she gets stabbed and tied in a sack, from which, absurdly, she sings her final aria.

Puccini? Well, here at least the plots become less ludicrous, even socially and politically significant. Mimi in ‘La Boheme’ has to die of consumption of course, but it would be hard to read ‘Butterfly’ as anything other than an indictment of the crass insensitivity and selfishness of men towards women. They are still, however, passive creatures, relying on the goodwill of men.

Only with Richard Strauss, right at the end of the romantic opera tradition, do women become properly, morally active — ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ is a surprisingly early work, but it is distinctly ‘modern’ (i.e. rebarbatively dissonant in places) and the main plot is decided and moved by the female character of the Marschallin. The two young lovers are a bit silly — it is after all a comedy — and at the end the whole romantic opera tradition comes full circle when, finding themselves together at last, they sing something that could have been written by Mozart:


(I doubt that it’s in C major really; I’m just giving you the tune from memory.)

So what, finally, is my point? Well none really; it’s just something I felt like writing about. I suppose one could conclude that opera is essentially a reactionary art, tending to conform to and even confirm conservative social values. A modern opera composer such as Harrison Birtwistle might disagree, but — though he is a fine and interesting composer — how many people who would flock to hear Cosi fan Tutte or even Rosenkavalier would leave their firesides and televisions to hear his latest?

Monday, 3 August 2015

Bread Pudding

I find to my surprise that my bread pudding — not to be confused with bread-and-butter pudding, which is quite different — is popular in this little Greek island. Whenever I make one I take it to one of my two regular evening places — either ‘Aerides’ bar in the main village square, or the bookshop / café opposite — and it is rapidly eaten up.

Bread pudding is one of those tasty foods invented by the poor, wanting to make the most of limited supplies. Here is my recipe; I don’t give quantities as a) they are not critical and b) experiment and variation are usually a good thing. Oh and c) I don’t really know what proportions I use:

Collect all the stale bread together and put it in a bowl with some water; leave it a while to soften, then squidge it around to break it up. Don’t use an electric mixer as that will break it up too small. Squeeze out as much water as you can, empty the water away and put the squeezed-out bread back in the bowl. Add margarine (traditionally one uses beef suet, but I find that rather gross), sugar, currants and sultanas, chopped-up citrus peel if you happen to have any, and – this is very important — lots of ground cinnamon. Mix it all up thoroughly and spread it into a greased baking tray. Put it in the oven and bake it until the top is brown and the inside has lost most of its squidginess. Cut into portions. Eat. (Can be eaten hot, warm, or cold.)


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Dickhead of the Week

Has to be the Canadian policeman who stopped three topless cycling sisters and told them to cover up their boobs. It seems that in that part of Canada it is in fact quite legal to cycle (and no doubt to walk, run, drive a car, ride a motorbike etc.) topless, but of course one expects policemen and such-like to disapprove and try to stop it. No; his dickheadedness, which will by now have made him a world-wide laughing-stock, was shown more when he later claimed that he’d only stopped them to make sure that their bicycles’ lights and bells were in order. Pull the other one dear; it’s got bells on.