Saturday, 31 October 2015


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, 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


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:


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'.



Monday, 5 October 2015

Busy, busy.

Apologies to my eager readers; I have been too busy lately to write any blog posts. Here is a recent picture of my desk, from which one might get an idea of my busy-ness:

Thursday, 1 October 2015

The Spoonerism

We all know what a spoonerism is, though explanations tend to rely on examples rather than definition: ‘Verbal parapraxis of transposing initial letters or syllables’ doesn’t tell most people much, but ‘Well, for example, “You have hissed all my mystery lectures”’ does. Incidentally that one is said to be one of the original Dr Spooner’s, who was said to make so many he gave his name to the (para)practice. I suspect most of the examples one reads are, as they say, ‘Apocryphal’, i.e. not true, but more interestingly Spooner himself is said to have been given to what might be called ousiastic spoonerisms: transpositions of actions rather than words. For instance, he is said once to have, on catching the down train, (the ‘town drain’, as he might have called it), kissed the porter and given his wife half-a-crown. But then, Spooner was an Oxford don, and given their reputation this might not in fact have been a mistake.