Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Pedal Ineptitude

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

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

Monday, 28 December 2015

Moving House

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

Saturday, 26 December 2015


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

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

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

Mr N: ‘Hi, Mr A, what are you doing?’

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Why is ‘Art’ so Difficult?

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

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Haven't We Been Here Before?

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

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Simon’s Amazing Hydraulic Log-splitter


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

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

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

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Flight of the Enchanter

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

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

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

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

Monday, 14 December 2015

How Politicians Tell the Truth

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

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

Saturday, 12 December 2015


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

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

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

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

Friday, 11 December 2015

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

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

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

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The 'Inspiration' for 'Moby-Dick'?

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

A Whale ain’t Nothing but a Fish


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simon Darragh

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Kavvadias 10, Complacent English Philistines Nil

Φοβού τους Άγγλους και ντοκουμέντα φέροντας.

Beware of the English Bearing Documents.

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

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