Tuesday, 29 September 2015

What the Middle Classes Don't Like to See

My late Uncle Tony — actually he was always early, getting up in the dark to arrive at his pickle factory before any of his employees — came from Kingston upon Hull. Other notable residents have been the poets Andrew Marvell and Philip Larkin, and William Wilberforce, the campaigner against slavery. There is a statue to the latter on top of a high column; he is shown handing some sort of large rolled-up charter to someone or other. This must have been some important event in the campaign against slavery; I don’t know the details but it doesn’t matter; what matters is that from a certain viewpoint it looks as if he’s holding something else altogether. When the statue first went up, this viewpoint was right in the middle of one of Hull’s great fishing-boat docks, so it was seen by, and invited ribald comment from, only hardened Hull fishermen. But such is capitalism that the dock was filled in and became a public park, where young middle-class mums would take their offspring for a stroll. The matter came to the attention of Alderman Fairbottom of the City Watch Committee (I kid you not), and steeplejacks were sent up to turn the statue round. When I first went to Hull, the offending viewpoint was in a slummy run-down back street, inhabited only by proles, whose sensibilities of course don’t matter. That area has almost certainly been ‘redeveloped’ by now, and the proles packed off to one of those soulless housing estates, far away out of sight of the people who matter. I wonder if they’ve had to go up and re-orient poor Willy again?

Monday, 28 September 2015


Usually the notion of ‘schools’ of writers is a mere hermeneutic construct, invented by critics, who bunch together a load of writers who have probably never met each other or even read their stuff. The ‘Oulipo’ bunch however is self-consciously a school: they meet — usually in France, the home of pretentious intellectual bullshit — compare notes, and invent difficulties for themselves, like those other loonies who, say, decide to carry a refrigerator to every pub in Ireland and then write a book about it. Oulipians (if that’s the word) typically like to write texts that leave out a particular letter of the alphabet. In many European languages, ‘e’ is the most common letter, so writing a text that avoids that letter is a virtuoso Oulipian work. There are even translators who take such texts and put them into other languages, following the same arbitrary and artificial constraints.

It’s all frightfully clever, pointless, and above all modern. So how about the following, published anonymously and without fanfare in, I think, about 1883?


A jovial swain should not complain

Of any buxom fair

Who mocks his pain and thinks it gain
To quiz his awkward air.

Quixotic boys who look for joys,

Quixotic hazards run;

A lass annoys with trivial toys,

Opposing man for fun.

A jovial swain may rack his brain,

And tax his fancy's might;

To quiz is vain, for 'tis most plain

That what I say is right.


Signs of Life out there.

Ally Teck

That is, apparently, someone’s name, or pseudonym. He or she has responded to my post about ‘Explosive Cakes’ with the comment ‘That made me laugh!’. That pleases me; writers always want to move their readers to some sort of expression of emotion, and if you can’t make them cry, then make them laugh. (Only now do I remember that in that post I described how when I was very young the destruction of a birthday cake made me cry.)

Unfortunately, Google, in its infinite wisdom, (witness its founders’ inability to spell the word ‘Googol’), provides no way to reply directly to those who comment using the ‘comment’ clicky-thing on the blog. That’s actually why I ask people to comment via my e-mail address. Anyway, thank you Ally; I think you must be about the third or fourth person, in five or six years, to have commented on one of my thousand or so blog entries.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Lunar Eclipse

It’s Full Moon tonight, and the Moon happens at the moment to be closer to the Earth than usual, so it will look bigger. Furthermore, there will be a total lunar eclipse. What happens here is that the Earth is passing directly between the Sun and the Moon, so that no direct sunlight can reach the Moon. But the Moon doesn’t disappear altogether: Sunlight is refracted and diffused by the Earth’s atmosphere, so enough light ‘gets round’, as it were, to give the Moon a spectacular red colour. I’m not sure if a total eclipse will be visible from everywhere.
If you’ve not seen a total lunar eclipse before — or even if you have — it’s worth staying up to watch. Totality should occur, if my limited knowledge of astronomy is correct, at ‘real’ (what is known as ‘sidereal’) midnight, i.e. half-way between sunset and sunrise; clock time varying according to which time zone you happen to be in.

Irregular Verbs

A highly amusing subject today, you're thinking? Well yes. Try the following anonymous verses:

Sally Salter, she was a young teacher, that taught,
And her friend Charley Church was a preacher, who praught;
Though his friends all declared him a screecher, who scraught.

His heart, when he saw her, kept sinking, and sunk,
And his eyes, meeting hers, kept winking, and wunk;
While she, in her turn, fell to thinking, and thunk.

He hastened to woo her, and sweetly he wooed,For his love for her grew—to a mountain it grewed,And what he was longing to do, then he doed.

In secret he wanted to speak, and he spoke:To seek with his lips what his heart had long soke;So he managed to let the truth leak, and it loke.

He asked her to ride to the church and they rode;They so sweetly did glide, that they both thought they glode,And they came to the place to be tied, and were tode.

Then "Homeward," he said, "let us drive," and they drove,As soon as they wished to arrive they arrove;For whatever he couldn't contrive she controve.

The kiss he was dying to steal, then he stole,At the feet where he wanted to kneel, there he knole,And he said, "I feel better than ever I fole."

So they to each other kept clinging, and clung,While Time his swift circuit was winging, and wung;And this was the thing he was bringing, and brung:

The man Sally wanted to catch, and had caught—That she wanted from others to snatch, and had snaught,Was the one that she now liked to scratch, and she scraught.

And Charley's warm love began freezing and froze,While he took to teasing, and cruelly toseThe girl he had wished to be squeezing and squoze.

"Wretch!" he cried, when she threatened to leave him, and left,"How could you deceive me, as you have deceft?"And she answered, "I promised to cleave, and I've cleft!"


Saturday, 26 September 2015

The Linguistic Faux Pas

Unnoticed by its ignorant perpetrator, and usually too, in these semi-literate times, by those who hear or read it. But a source of harmless fun to the embattled minority who know how to read, write, and speak English. A few examples:

‘One cannot underestimate the importance of Freud.’ (The Secretary of the British Psychoanalytic Society.)

‘Then of course there’s the sheer enormity of the place.’ (Matron of the late lamented Friern Barnet Mental Hospital.)

‘Jeffrey Archer’s autobiography fills a much-needed gap.’ (O.K. I made that one up.)

‘Decapitated Heads.’ (BBC Newsreaders, time and again.)

I have lots more, but I see I haven’t made a blog entry for several days, so that will do for now.

Friday, 25 September 2015

German Efficiency Versus Greek Τι να Κάνουμε;

Greek electricity meters — items of quite spectacular ugliness — must by law be affixed (more or less) prominently on the front outside wall of the house. They contain, as well as the meter, a main circuit-breaker, and there is a little lever on the outside of the box enabling one — theoretically — to reset this should it trip. The lever rarely works, because the circuit-breaker is cunningly fitted — or just left hanging on its wires — a centimetre or so clear of the lever. Greece being Greece, this breaker is usually of a lower rating than the biggest breaker in the house’s internal fuse-box, so it often trips even though nothing indoors has tripped. So one goes outside and fiddles with the lever. One usually fails, and then the only thing to do is break the seal on the meter-box and reset the trip directly. Sometimes I do this for a friend or neighbour, having been given permission by the local electricity company man, because local electricity man trusts me (Yes, really) and getting me to do it beats coming away from a warm TV-side and up to the village. But it is of course Streng Verboten, which brings me to my point:

As I mentioned the other day, we have been having the first big autumn rains, with their accompanying power cuts: the electricity would go off for a few minutes or a few hours, then come back for another few minutes or few hours. Each time it went off, my German neighbour rushed out and fiddled with the lever on his meter. Sometimes this ‘worked’; that is to say, the power came back on while he was fiddling. But usually it didn’t. Eventually he came to me; ‘Simon, I don’t understand how this meter system works…’ I tried to explain, but he doesn’t really believe me: he remains convinced that each time the electricity comes back on, it is the direct logical result of his lever-fiddling.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Good Heavens, Water Falling from the Sky!

Here in the Northern Sporades in the last few days we have been having the first heavy rains of Autumn. People — Greek people anyway — have been throwing their hands up in shocked, horrified surprise; streets have turned into rivers, water has gushed over the thresholds of their houses and dripped in through gaps in the roof, and of course the electricity supply has failed. ‘Simon, Simon, what on earth is going on?’

The heavy rains have come, in my own personal experience, at about this time every year for the last thirty-five years, and I somehow think much the same has been happening for many thousands of years. Of course, no-one expects Greeks to be actually prepared for the event; to have taken precautions such as fixing holes in the roof beforehand, (I should admit to being sufficiently Greek by now to have failed to fix a couple of leaks in my own roof), nor do we expect the electricity company to even consider making the supply weather-proof. That would be quite contrary to all we know, or think we know, of Greece and Greeks. But the horrified surprise? Just how many thousands of years does it take for people to get used to a regular annual event?

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Transatlantic Idiocies

VOA’s ‘International’ Edition, which now concerns itself exclusively with American matters, informs us this morning that Volkswagen has been cheating in American emission tests for its cars. How did they manage that? Surely the government agency that conducts the tests would be wise to all the tricks?

What government agency? VOA explained that, in America, the stringent tests to make sure all new models conform to legal requirements on emissions are conducted by — wait for it — the car manufacturers themselves, who then tell the government that — guess what? — all their new cars are OK.

The other thing VOA got excited about today was the Pope’s visit to America. Their ‘Religious affairs’ correspondent told us that while in America the Pope will ‘Canonize a Saint’. This will certainly be a first, because of course a Saint is someone who has been canonized. We were not told why the Pope is wasting his and indeed everybody else’s time in such obviously supernumerary activities.

But what really got the Religious affairs correspondent going was something that must be, I suppose, quite jaw-dropping news for Americans:

‘The most remarkable thing about the Pope,’ he said breathlessly, ‘Is that he doesn’t regard the United States as the centre of the world’.

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Readers? Who Needs Them?

Well, all writers of course. But I sometimes think that one of the real reasons for writing books (or blogs, or newspaper articles) is to keep one’s readers at a distance: they can read one’s stuff, but surely one doesn’t have also to meet, face to face, one’s readers?

Here, the first heavy Autumn rains have arrived, so as I was sitting inside our local bookshop/café late yesterday evening, a group of customers came bouncing into the tiny space, sat down and ordered drinks. One of them (few customers show much interest in the fact that the place contains books as well as beer, ouzo, etc.) idly picked up a book from the counter-top display and began leafing through it. It happened to be one of my books, and as the proprietor served the drinks she said to the customer ‘And did you realize that the author himself is sitting right here at the bar?’ I cringed, and called the proprietor a number of things, of which the politest was ‘Traitor’. She said ‘But Simon, surely you should know that readers like to meet the writers of the books they’re reading?’ I said ‘Well, yes, I know, but have you considered whether or not the writers like to meet their readers?’

Fortunately this particular reader showed no interest whatever in me personally, but seemed quite interested in the book. That is as it should be.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Η Καïμένη Ελλάδα.

Just a few words about the fifth — or sixth if you count the recent referendum — Greek General Election in six years. When I went to my usual café this morning I met a few local people who had just been down to the harbour to vote. They were faced with a choice of nineteen different parties to choose from. Or twenty if you chose to ‘vote lefko’, that is to say, to drop a blank piece of paper in the box, indicating  ‘A plague on all nineteen of your houses’.

But the general feeling is that whichever party ‘wins’ the election, it makes no difference: Greece is no longer ruled by the Greeks; it is a mere colony of Europe, ruled by the various international banks. Voting used to be compulsory in Greece; I’m not sure that law has in fact been repealed, but anyway lots of people are simply not bothering to vote at all this time.


People Who…

People who, when the bill comes after a meal with friends in a restaurant, say ‘Now let’s see; you had the steak, which is more expensive than the fish I had. And you had more wine than…’

People who, in similar circumstances, or rather, just a few minutes before the bill arrives, suddenly feel frightfully tired and must at once go home; they then put down on the table an amount accurately calculated (whether consciously or not) to be rather less than their share, but not so very much less as to excite comment at the time or be worth following up later.

People who own several houses in Greece, not to mention whatever they may have in other countries including their own, who, after an evening with friends in a bar, look suspiciously at the bill and complain that the prices are too high.

These are just a very few examples of a common trait. The possessors of this trait — the perpetrators of the above sins, among others — are often not aware of the nature of their behaviour. If made aware of it, they will call it being ‘careful’ or ‘economical’ or (that most boring word in the English language) ‘sensible’. They are almost always very comfortably off; in many cases better off than the bar-keeper or taverna owner, who is struggling in difficult circumstances.

Give me, any day, the careless generosity of the poor, who will cheerfully share what little they have, rather than the cold, grudging charity of the rich.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Somewhat Soft Foundations

There being no main drainage, most of the houses in this little village have a cesspit under the ground floor. I won’t bother to amplify the symbolism. But as this is a hilltop village, with very few horizontal areas, this can sometimes mean that the cesspit of one house leaks down through the walls of a house below, especially as foreign visitors use or rather waste in two weeks more water than the rest of us use in a year.

Just recently my friend ‘Honey Boy’ (he doesn’t mind the nickname as it would be hard to doubt his heterosexual orientation, and besides he’s built like a — well, like a brick shithouse) had the unpleasant experience of finding that the cesspit of the house just behind his business premises, where he has the centrifuges (not yet bombed by the Americans) needed to extract the honey from the combs, was leaking stinkily into the little yard just outside his door. (Not, thank God, into the premises themselves.) He complained, and the huge tanker and pump used by the council to deal with such problems came up — twice — to empty the offending cesspit. But of course it’s only a temporary solution. In true Greek fashion, a slightly more permanent solution has been found; here is a picture:

Friday, 18 September 2015


That’s your actual Greek, that is. And if you know the Greek alphabet, but not so well the language itself, you may have puzzled it out and decided it means ‘Ruffians’. But it’s one of those ‘False Friends’ between languages; words that look much the same but have different meanings. In fact Roufiani, as we might transliterate the word, are that lowest form of life, common informers; people who go to the authorities out of sheer malice, or perhaps in the hope of some creepy little reward, to say that so-and-so is doing something illegal, and why don’t you go and do something nasty to them? Not even the police who use them like informers.

As in other third-world countries, so in Greece one theoretically needs a licence — for which the relevant official must be paid a ‘fee’ — to fart or pick one’s nose. In fact of course no-one minds and no-one bothers, but if someone brings it to the attention of the police that old Barba Yanni who sits outside the café all day twirling his worry-beads and leering at the girls doesn’t actually have a licence to do so, then the police — who are usually engaged in similar occupations — are obliged to go and make Barba Yanni stop or get a licence. So Greece is a paradise for roufiani, who can’t bear the idea that someone somewhere is more-or-less-innocently enjoying himself when they themselves aren’t.

I mention all this — common knowledge to those who are lucky enough to live in this beautiful country — because there is a certain restaurant here in this village which remains open during the afternoon siesta time, when all the others are closed because everybody is sleeping, screwing, swimming etc. So I like to go there for a quiet afternoon ouzo; I am usually the only customer at that time. Then a couple of weeks ago I found it closed during siesta time. ‘Oh well,’ I thought; ‘I expect they decided it wasn’t worth staying open just for me and have gone off to sleep or etcetera.’ But it didn’t open in the evening either; it remained closed for about two weeks. What had happened?

The usual sources told me. During August, the busiest and noisiest time, they had decided it would be pleasant to have a bit of live music in the evenings. Not a huge rock band with great big loudspeakers; just a traditional group of bouzouki, violin and guitar, playing old traditional tunes on the restaurant’s rear terrace, which faces out to the sea to the north. Nothing that could reasonably be said to disturb, and nothing at all in comparison with the noise from other restaurants and bars. But someone discovered that they had no license for live music, and informed the police, who, much against their will, were obliged to impose a punishment: not just no more music, but closure of the whole restaurant for a while.

It’s open again now. I happen to know who the roufianos was. He has never been seen in that restaurant, (and certainly never will be), and he doesn’t even live in the island; he’s just a brief though regular summer visitor. No doubt he feels a warm glow of satisfaction that he has, albeit briefly, destroyed a pleasure that others enjoyed but in which he has no interest himself.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Real History

'History' at my schools was all about Kings, and a few Queens, and many battles. I found it very boring, and it has only been quite recently that I've discovered that not all history books are written in the style of my schoolteachers. To remedy my ignorance, and to get some idea of the order in which things happened, (one always hopes there will be some sign of 'progress' or 'improvement' in the behaviour of mankind over time; one is always disappointed) I have been taking note, each time I am reminded of them, of events that seem to me important, and adding them to my chart. In the couple of years since I started it, Microsoft, bless them, have made 'improvements' to the Word application, which I have just had to spend an hour in stripping out as of course they had completely screwed up my little document. Here is how it presently stands:

Magna Carta
Chaucer busy writing the Canterbury Tales; Langland’s ‘Piers Plowman’ published.
Fall of Constantinople.
Caxton sets up his press in Westminster.
Spain takes Granada from Moors. Columbus sets sail.
Shrove Tuesday. Savonarola’s bonfire of the vanities.
Tyndale’s New Testament printed in Köln.
6th July Thomas More beheaded in London for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of Church (over the Pope) in England.
Tyndale burnt in Holland, after bungled strangulation, for just about the opposite reasons for the killing of More.
Birth of Shakespeare
Mercator’s Projection.
Death of Elizabeth, accession of James.
Gunpowder plot. First performances of Macbeth and Lear.
Monteverdi’s 1610 (Duh) Vespers.
King James Bible.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.
Galileo’s ‘Dialogue on the two world systems’ and trial.
Ottoman forces reach the gates of Vienna.
Outbreak of English Civil War. Death of Galileo, birth of Newton.
First Edition of Paradise Lost. (Second in 1674.)
Births of JS Bach and Domenico Scarlatti
In December in St Paul’s Churchyard William Blake meets Thomas Paine and warns him not to go home as the police are after him. Paine goes to Dover and crosses to France.
France invades Switzerland, thereby losing the vestigial sympathy of radicals such as Coleridge.
First Edition of Lyrical Ballads.
Discovery of Rosetta Stone
Humphry Davy joins Royal Institution.
October. Nelson wins at Trafalgar, ending threat of Napoleonic invasion.
25th of March; nominal start of Greek war of Independence.
Publication of de Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’.
Birth of Freud.
Madame Bovary, Les Fleurs du Mal.
Publication of Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’.
American Civil War starts.
Publication of Freud’s Traumdeutung.
Ulysses, The Waste Land, Duiniser Elegien, Sonette an Orpheus, Das Schloss. The Smyrna Disaster.
French defeated at Dien Bien Phu; Geneva accords partition Vietnam



Tuesday, 15 September 2015


Some years ago a small publisher brought out a book of mine called ‘Unscrewing the Inscrutable’. It was a collection of my English translations of poems from various languages, with the original on facing pages. Unsurprisingly, it disappeared without trace; I’m not even sure if I have a copy myself.

Anyway, it is usually the Chinese who are called ‘Inscrutable’, and I think that reputation may come in part from their insistence — at least on the labels and in the instruction books of products for the foreign market — in doing their own English translations. Many people have the quaint notion that if one knows a foreign language, one can translate a text into it. Translators themselves know that one can only produce a decent translation, or even one that makes sense, working from the foreign language into one’s native tongue. The portentous Confucianism of labels on Chinese products may be a translation artefact; quite possibly the original Chinese made good sense.

I mention this because the other day a friend gave me a disposable plastic cigarette lighter made in China. Here are the words of everyday wisdom printed on it:


Sunday, 13 September 2015

More Art Snobbery

Unsurprisingly, the response to my piece on art snobbery has been underwhelming: no-one at all has written in to say ‘Don’t worry, Simon, you are not an art snob.’ What is even more surprising is that neither has anyone written in to say ‘Yes you are the most ghastly art snob’.

So what have I got to lose? Here is more evidence, this time musical, that I am indeed a snob in artistic matters. A couple of years ago my piano teacher turned up with a little waltz in A minor, so simple as to be within even my capabilities. The copy she had found had no composer’s name on it. I tried for a while to learn it. Both teacher and I wondered who it was by; I suggested that it might have been something Chopin wrote when he was very young. Anyway I abandoned it after a while. Then just a few days ago I came across it again, while searching the excellent Petrucci site for a piece by Chopin I had just heard at our local bookshop/café. Sure enough, this little waltz in A minor is by Chopin, but has no opus number and is not included in the usual catalogues of his works; it is identified as ‘KK IVb Nr 11’, which refers to a catalogue by a Polish woman with those initials. (It’s odd that several composers, notably Mozart and Domenico Scarlatti, have had their works catalogued by people with the initial ‘K’.) Anyway, suddenly, now that I know the piece is really by Chopin, I am making enthusiastic efforts to learn it properly. Yet it is precisely the same piece I rather turned my nose up at a couple of years ago. Now that, surely, is snobbery.

Here’s the first page; it’s really not very difficult, and once one knows it’s by Chopin one can even find, especially in the choice of note-distribution for the left-hand chords, some of the figures he used in other waltzes and in the mazurkas:

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Explosive Cakes

I was writing here yesterday about the possibility of a cake’s exploding. Yes I was. It reminded me of an occasion when one did in fact explode, though at sub-atomic level. It was in the sixties, which as everyone knows started about 1965 and ended about 1980, and happened mostly in London. I was there, and having what, in retrospect, must have been a pretty amazing (if not necessarily always good) time. In those more liberal pre-Thatcher times, before the world was taken over by timid, frightened people only interested in money and the security they think it buys, even the Arts Council was adventurous: it supported, among other things, that much-maligned activity, guaranteed to cause apoplectic fits in Tunbridge Wells, ‘Performance Art’.

When the Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market moved Sarf of the River, the empty space was, for a few years until the money-grubbers grabbed it, turned over to the arts. Not ‘The Arts’ in the form of snooty expensive painting galleries, or studios for established artists and rich dilettantes, but more experimental and even quite loony stuff; even a performance artist could get assigned a little space there. I was staying in a friend’s flat in the area, and a frequent visitor was one such chap. One morning at breakfast he appeared carrying a parcel. I asked ‘What have you got there, anything interesting?’

‘Oh, it’s a big chocolate cake my grandmother just sent me.’

‘Oh. I thought it might be something for your performance stuff.’

‘Now there’s an idea: I don’t actually like chocolate cake, so…’ and he was off before I had a chance to say that I did like chocolate cake.

He filled the cake with a mild explosive and fitted an electric detonator and cable. At his little performance booth he placed the cake on a plinth and unrolled the cable to what he considered a safe distance, and connected it to one of those exploders so often featured in cartoon films, consisting of a wooden box with a magneto inside, and a T-shaped plunger on top. Having gathered a small audience, he called ‘Stand back!’ and pushed the plunger. A muffled ‘Bang!’ and the surroundings, including the audience, were spattered with little bits of chocolate cake. Polite applause; day’s performance over.

One must hope Granny never got to hear about it.