Blog News

1. Comments are still disabled though I am thinking of enabling them again.

2. There are now several extra pages - Poetry Index, Travel, Education, Childish Things - accessible at the top of the page. They index entires before October 2013.

3. I will, in the next few weeks, be adding new pages with other indexes.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Please go away now

I have recently been rereading the late Pete McCarthy's hilarious travel book, The Road to MacCarthy. I have just finished the chapter where his attempts to travel around Tangier are dogged by the determined, though self-appointed, guide, Mohammed. Mohammed is there whenever he leaves the hotel. Mohammed is there if he pops out for a coffee. When he thinks he has given him the slip and let's down his guard, Mohammed pops out from some previously unnoticed side alley and ambushes him. Mohammed is ubiquitous.
I know the feeling. I've been on the receiving end of far too many such "guided tours" to even think that there is a slight sense of exaggeration in the description.
Without doubt though, the country where, for me, the problem reached its very zenith (and correspondingly my moral, its very nadir) was Egypt.
I don't know if it's a cultural difference, or if it's my lack of tolerance, or if it's just a few extremely overzealous locals but I do know that walking around in Egypt is not a terribly enjoyable experience for the tourist. I'll go further. It can be a downright unpleasant experience. Now I'd expected it when we visited the pyramids and similarly when we visited Luxor they are tourist sites and as such we are fair game but it really was everywhere.
At the pyramids the would-be guides were, at least, a slight distraction from the constant official fleecing of the tourists. Besides the site entry fee they charge an entry fee to each pyramid, a further fee simply for carrying a camera, whether you use it or not (which, as there is nowhere to safely leave a camera, is effectively mandatory, a further camera fee if you wish to carry your camera inside any particular pyramid and a fee to visit the museum. I'm sure there were other fees that I missed. The constant entreaties from unofficial guides, souvenir salesmen, camel and donkey owners and the like are a mild irritation by comparison.

Anyway, as I say, it wasn't just at the tourist sites that there was a problem. When we camped at a site outside Luxor I ran into it again. The group I had been travelling with for a couple of months had become divided into cliques and I wasn't actually in any of them, though occasionally I hovered around on the periphery of a couple. When I awoke on the morning after we arrived I found that most of them had departed for various parts before I was even awake so I shared a taxi out to Karnak with the one remaining person in camp from the group, who was unfortunately also the one person that I actually didn't like. At the site I did my very best to lose her but sharing a taxi seemed, in her mind at least, to mean that we would also share the sight-seeing. Even in a place the size of Karnak it proved to be impossible to shake her, though I consoled myself with the thought that at least it would halve the taxi fare back to camp. She had enough dogged persistence to be suspected of being at least part-Egyptian herself.
Karnak is a large complex of temples which were once the most important in Egypt and was built over a period of 1500 years more than four thousand years ago. For several hours I explored its maze-like byways - poking into one temple after another, taking endless photographs and discovering the mysterious secret of how such ruins were constructed when I happened across an extremely large crane hoisting blocks onto the top of an as yet unfinished section. Or possibly this was reconstruction work, I’d hate to be dogmatic about my archaeological theories.

It was in the afternoon that things got more than a little annoying.
Back at camp, I decided to take a walk down into the town of Luxor - at a moderate ambling pace it was about half an hour away. This proved to be harder than you might expect. The concept of ‘taking a walk’ appears not to exist at all in Egypt. For the entire two kilometres my footsteps were dogged by an apparently endless succession of taxi drivers and carriage drivers who were completely unable to comprehend that when I said ‘no’ what I meant was ‘no’. The word, such as they acknowledged it at all, was only ever interpreted as being an initial bargaining ploy. The idea that my walk might be an end in itself and that riding would defeat the whole object simply could not be communicated to them. A typical conversation was along these lines.
“Mister, you want carriage.”
“No thank you.”
“I make very good price. Where you go ?”
“Nowhere special, just taking a walk.”
“Five pounds anywhere. I give you one hour ride.”
“No thanks I’m enjoying walking.”
“Is very good price.”
“I’m sure it is but I’m going for a walk.”
“Good. Good. You go for walk in my carriage.”

I realise that they are trying to earn a living but I find it wears me down.
Eventually, still dogged by these nuisances I reached town and started to look around. Luxor temple was much smaller and a good deal less interesting than Karnak so I photographed it as I passed and didn’t bother with a visit. In town I discovered that there was still no respite from the hassles. It wasn’t long before I was heartily sick of being dragged this way and that as a succession of persistent salesmen tried to get me into their shops. Whether it was carpets or jewellery or shirts or belts or jackets or hats or souvenirs or any one of a thousand other things I didn't want or need I was pulled, pushed, prodded, harangued, inveigled and generally bothered at every step. The one thing that I could have used, a nerve tonic, wasn't offered.
Even when I was between shops, at a sufficient distance that they felt their entreaties would be better addressed to closer tourists, there was still no break. Here the touts for various shops fell in beside me as I walked and neither ignoring them nor curtly acknowledging them had any discernible effect.

I confess that I was briefly amused at a carpet shop to see a large and intricately woven carpet in the pattern of the cover of the previous year’s Explore brochure, complete with the name and address of the company, but my smile at the sight was a mistake as yet another salesman mistook it for interest providing yet another
“I make you good price”
“I don’t want a carpet.”
dialogue before I could make good my escape. In the end I dodged into an Internet cafe, had a cup of coffee and checked my e-mail before giving up and taking a carriage back to camp. Even then I couldn’t escape. The whole journey was a battle of wills as I tried to convince the driver to take me where I wanted to go instead of on a tour and that I didn’t want a tour tomorrow either. Only by getting out of the moving vehicle as he attempted for the third or fourth time to turn off the correct route and threatening not to pay hi at all did I eventually succeed in making it home. Once back in the camp I vowed that I would be moving from it with the whole group or not at all, and I stuck to it, spending the remaining day reading in my tent or sitting by the pool - though, to be fair, a rather unpleasant bout of stomach trouble was probably as much of an incentive as the unappealing prospect of a repeat of yesterday.

What surprises me about all of this is that my reaction can't be that uncommon. Surely other tourists get as sick of it all as quickly as I did. If the taxi drivers, carriage owners and shopkeepers had adopted a more low key approach I would have spent a couple of hours in town, almost certainly bought a few souvenirs and they'd have been richer and I'd have been happier and this blog would never have been written. I cannot understand why they seem totally unable to grasp that the last way to get an Englishman to buy something is to try, so persistently, to sell it to him. Whether this is a comment on Englishmen or Egyptians I'm really not sure.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Zombie Killer Arson Probe

I wouldn't normally bother making a post for something this short, but it amused me.

On the BBC early evening news last night, "Police believe that Christopher Foster committed suicide after killing his wife and daughter. He then set fire to the house."

Thursday, 25 September 2008

A Time Machine Part II

Further to my previous decision to rewrite some of my much older poetry now that I am (ha!) older, wiser and slightly more clued up on how to do it, this piece is a very slightly modified version of the second poem from the book I looked at last time. The pieces must not be in chronological order because I actually remember writing this one and I had already left University. I know this because I remember sitting at my desk in a third floor office watching the bird on the outside ledge of the window that was the border between his infinitely free space and my hermetically sealed one.
I wrote quite a lot of poetry in that office, mainly because I had no idea what my actual job was supposed to be and no one seemed especially interested in telling me.

Anyway, here, almost too slight to actually be a poem, is

The Sparrow

There is a sparrow
Perched on the ledge
Between your bread
And my biscuit.
It eats your bread
And leaves my biscuit.
And flies away.
I wonder what the metaphor was.

That's it. Trivial, wasn't it? Never fear! The next poem in the book runs to approximately a hundred and fifty lines of free verse. It needs rather more work than the last couple have though so I'm not sure how long it will be before I get round to posting it. Long enough for you to emigrate to some remote island without computers if you really feel the urge.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Logging on

I overheard a very interesting snippet of conversation as I was walking into town from work tonight. There were two teenage girls and a teenage boy and they had clearly been arguing about something. The argument seemed to be at an end and one of the girls, pointing at the boy, was shouting at the other girl.

"Dat conversation's done. Done. Dat conversation's over. Why you keep loggin' on to him?"

From the context I'd guess it means, "starting to interact with him again".

I thought it was an interesting usage. I wonder if it's a common bit of teen language that has somehow passed me by or was some bit of idiolect peculiar to this one girl.

A google search for the phrase "logging on to him" produced only two hits, neither especially relevant, and I couldn't think of a way to search for "logging on to her" which eliminated the thousands of her account/her computer/her etc constructions. So, if it is a piece of emerging slang, it's very, very new. I suspect it isn't. I suspect it's a bit of private slang between those particular people and their friends.

Either way it's a fascinating, and bizarre, yet somehow logical, extension of the normal usage.

Do you still beat your wife?

The Powers That Be at my college are trying to insist that we all work at least one evening or community session. I can't begin to express how pleased we all are at the prospect. (Memo to self: teach class about sarcasm.)
But that's not what I wanted to talk about, I wanted to give another example of words shaping reality. Today my boss walked in to my classroom after a lesson and asked, "Which would you prefer, working an evening session or working out in the community?"

This is a deeply manipulative question. It's a "Do you still beat your wife?" question. There is absolutely no way to answer it without accepting the basic premise and incriminating yourself. I told him so but, apart from raising a smile, it had no actual effect. The question must, he insisted, be answered.

In it's way of course it's quite beautiful. A very elegant and economical use of language. It's a question phrased so that there are only two possible answers and both of them create the reality that I'm going to work at times or in places that I don't want to work. Cunning and devious. Worthy of a politician.

Can words create a reality? Damn right they can.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

The war on abstract nouns

The phrase "the War on" followed by an abstract noun (usually with a capital letter to show that it is Important) has taken on the status of a snowclone. It's everywhere. Browsing the first few pages of results after googling "The War on" reveals that there are wars on terror, crime, poverty, drugs, global warming, freedom. religion, greed, waste, inefficiency, sedition, piracy, democracy, obesity, hunger and even fornication.

This is a very fine example of a discussion we've been having over at wordcraft concerning how far it is possible for words to shape reality. Every single one of the above examples is creating a false analogy. They are giving the impression that it is possible to wage a war against a concept. It isn't. To take just one of them: you might wage war against criminals but you cannot wage war against crime. Of course what happens is that by setting up such a false analogy you can justify almost anything in its name. If you had a war on criminals you would have to act against criminals. If you have a war on crime you can then justify draconian measures against all individuals on the grounds that you need to take those measures to prevent crime. You can remove civil liberties, imprison without trial, burn books and ban the Internet in the name of your war on crime and you never need take any action whatsoever against any actual criminals because.. well hey, this isn't about criminals, it's about crime.

Ditto for terror, ditto for waste, in fact ditto for all of the examples. When you start to "wage war" on abstract and possibly indefinable concepts then you don't have to have any rational logic to your actions. So, in the case of the war on terror, sorry, I meant the War on Terror, you can impose whatever sanctions you like on whoever you don't like and say that it was necessary. You don't need to catch or convict or even look for a single terrorist.

This phrasing is doublespeak at its pernicious best.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Blair/Scieszka Alice

I want to write about the latest addition to my rather extensive collection of Alice In Wonderland books, but first of all you need a bit of background because not everybody is quite as obsessive as I am about Alice In Wonderland.
I don't think there is any doubt at all that the most famous screen version of Alice is the Disney animation. There are other versions that I like better and other animations that I think show more imagination but it's undeniable that the Disney version is by far the best-known.
It is a true classic of children's film making and one of the best loved pieces ever created by the Disney studios. I have a couple of DVDs of it and between them the soundtracks are available in no less than a dozen languages. It's popular.
Now the studio have released a book. This is, you may say, nothing new. There are dozens of editions featuring stills from the movie already. There are none like this one though!
This one collects the art of Mary Blair and adds new text by Jon Scieszka. Mary Blair was a conceptual artist for the Disney studios who worked on such features as Cinderella, Peter Pan and, of course, Alice In Wonderland. The job of a conceptual artist is to create the look of the film before the animators get to work. This edition of the book collects together her artwork and an intriguing piece of work it is too.
Many of the illustrations are familiar from the finished product - The Walrus ushering the oysters along the beach, the garden of live flowers, the card guardsmen chasing Alice around a maze, the Queen of Hearts. All of them are strikingly similar to the film. However there are also striking differences. Blair's concepts were a little darker and a little more surreal. Her Alice is less consistently rendered and not such a conventionally pretty young girl. I have never been the whole-hearted fan of the Disney version that others often are. It seems rather too bright and twee and sentimental to me. (And what would have been wrong with using Carroll's songs, eh? Answer me that.) Had the studio embraced completely the look that this conceptual art had we would have seen a very different animation, darker and more sinister and altogether stranger. I have little doubt that it wouldn't have been a success, not everyone shares my particular tastes in art. Nevertheless it's great to have this edition as it shows an Alice of an alternate, and rather more nightmarish reality.

So what about the text in this new version. To begin with, there is very little of it. The general presentation of the book is rather good with a full page illustration opposite a page with text. These text pages rarely run to more than a single short paragraph and in some cases have as few as twenty to thirty words. In one case only four words! I have other versions with even fewer but they have been specifically abridged for very young children. This edition will, I think, appeal more to collectors - both of Alice and of Disney.
Is the text any good though? Actually, for what it is, it isn't bad. It owes very little to Carroll but that's OK for it hardly owes more to Disney. Instead Scieszka has very much put his own mark on it. It reuses some Carrol jokes and some Disney ones and adds some new ones and occasionally veers off in the general direction of an Abbot and Costello routine but on the whole does a fine job of accompanying the pictures - and make no mistake, the pictures are the important bit here.

So the final verdict? It's not my favourite illustrated edition but that's OK, it's not my favourite film version either. It is pretty good though and the novelty of seeing these pictures in print counts for a lot. The only real gripe, as I mentioned before, is the lack of Lewis Carrol's name on the cover.

(Incidentally I had a similar gripe many years ago when I hired from my local video library the film of the Tempest version that stars Toyah Willcox as Ophelia. It had on the cover in very large letters "DEREK JARMAN'S The Tempest" and in considerably smaller letters by William Shakespeare.)

Peloponese and the Ionian Islands: Part 5: Ithaki

Concluding the description of my old trip to Peloponese. I hope you enjoyed it. An even longer detailed description of one of my trips can be found on my other blog at .

Tuesday was another travel day with a bus ride to Sami and then a ferry to Ithaki. However that was due to start at twelve thirty which left the morning free. I was feeling in a solitary mood so I decided to follow a route that I had found on one of the printed hand-outs take a walk around the area.

I started at Napier's Garden which is a public park in Argostoli. It has been allowed to become very overgrown is now particularly unattractive. Named after Sir Charles Napier who was the Governor of the Island from 1822 to 1830 it is part of the way up the hill overlooking the main square. It was clearly once a very beautiful park but now the weeds, the tumble-down buildings and the graffiti are nothing but depressing. The walk down through the square lifted my spirits after this downbeat start, especially as it was early in the morning with everything bright and clean and almost completely empty of people. Before the 1953 Earthquake the square was smaller than the modern one but the rebuilding has been well done so that the square still presents an appealing if slightly tacky appearance. In the corner is a statue of Panaghis Valianos who was a merchant at the start of the last century who spent a large part of his fortune supporting Kefalonian institutions. Diagonally opposite, past the pizzerias and restaurants, deserted in the early morning apart from staff washing down the pavements, is King George II Avenue. This was built by Napier and his engineer Captain Kennedy in 1835 to expand Argostoli northwards and relieve the overcrowding at the centre of the city. Over the succeeding decades grand neo-classical houses were built along its length although many of them were destroyed by the Earthquake. I strolled slowly down this broad avenue past the rows of purple oleander trees which line both sides. The first building listed on my guide as being of note was the 'Philarmonika' which was reconstructed after the earthquake and houses the town band school. A little further on the left, almost hidden by the trees is the first storey of the Kosmetatos family mansion which is one of the only two pre-earthquake buildings on the road which were not demolished afterwards for safety reasons.
At the other end of the avenue I reached a much smaller square which is cool and shaded by pine trees. This is Maitland square, named after a former English High Commissioner. Ironically the statue on the central park commemorates those active in achieving independence from the English in 1864. Following my map I went straight through the square, past the bizarrely ugly Naval School which has been designed to resemble the bows of a ship and past the squat wooden building which once housed the Red Cross but now resembles a tumble-down garden shed. You look at it and expect it to be full of rusting tools and bike frames without wheels. Soon however things took a turn for the better as my route led up the hill and out of the town. Here there were literally no people. The smell of the plants, including that curry smell which I still couldn't pin down to a particular species, was intoxicating and the sun was hot on my back as I climbed. At the top of the road I paused to look at a wide low memorial with a white marble cross at the centre of it. This was erected in memory of the Acqui Division, Kefalonia's Italian garrison during the Second World War. The whole garrison, some 10,000 men were massacred by the Germans in 1943 after the break up of the Axis Forces.

From the monument, I left the road for a footpath that led down through a pine wood. Here my walking dawdled to a very slow pace and eventually stopped as I sat down on a tree stump to just listen to the bird song and watch the butterflies. It was so peaceful that I could have stayed there all day but I was too aware that time was pressing and so, after a few minutes, resumed my walk down the path to the coast road.

Yesterday at Sami, as we walked along the beach we had passed a large Sea Mill. On the coast here is its twin although unlike the other one this seems to no longer turn. In 1835 an English resident named Stevens discovered a fast flowing stream of sea water underground, apparently heading inland and after excavations built a corn mill powered by a sea driven mill wheel on it. Sadly the flow was drastically reduced by the earthquake leaving the mill as little more than a curiosity. Strangely dye tests have revealed that the water plunges inland into a subterranean cavern and fourteen days later reappears ten miles away on the opposite side of the island of the coast at Sami. At the mill I met Kate who was doing the same walk in the opposite direction. After a few minutes chatting we continued on our way, she up the wooded path and I along past the charmless Chapel of St. Theodore towards the Katavothres lighthouse on the small Isthmus named after the chapel. This lighthouse looks like a single tiered wedding cake with its circular construction and ring of columns and from a distance seems very pretty. Sadly close up the curse of the twentieth century, graffiti, reveals itself as slogans in Greek have been spray painted over much of its surface. Retreating from the lighthouse I was momentarily startled by an enormous insect that resembled a bee in general appearance and behaviour but was about an inch and a half long and jet black all over including its wings.

From here the walk became a little less interesting, following the tarmacced road along past hotels and a large and very seedy looking disco before winding on through some fairly unimpressive olive terraces. It was a relief to reach the point where I had to turn off the road again and head up the sandy track that climbed the hillside. At the point where I passed a tiny family chapel shaded by an enormous oak tree from which a brass bell was hanging, I was startled out of my reverie by being almost run over by two screaming Greek youths hurtling down the hill on a moped. I continued on, past another family chapel until I reached a row of single storey buildings where a construction gang were busily extending them and converting them into two storeys. Here I cut left down some steeps and followed a steep path back to Napier Gardens where I had begun. Looking at my watch I found that the entire walk had taken me three hours, leaving me time for a quick drink at the Hotel before we started our travelling to Ithaki.

From the ferry first impressions of Ithaki are that it is a wild and barren place with little or no habitation. I stood on the deck as we sailed round it in the early afternoon sunshine. The sunlight playing on the water looked as if there was a city deep below the surface where people where constantly switching their lights on and off in a hypnotic rhythm. We were sailing round Ithaki to reach the town of Vathi on the opposite side to Kefalonia so that the island was constantly in view without my having to move from my spot on the rail. Occasionally there was sight of a building, too far away to identify, but not once did I see any sign of people until we entered the calm Eastern harbour where Vathi is situated.

Entering the harbour you sail first past the small island of Lazareto which until the earthquake had venetian buildings on it. The unusual sideways approach to the dock affords a unique view of the town which lies sprawled attractively along the semi-circle of the shore and climbs back up the hillside like an amphitheatre. Some of the older buildings survived the earthquake and the post-1953 additions have all been deliberately designed to give the town a uniform look.

We hauled our luggage by hand around the quayside to reach our Hotel which was an old white fronted building with a strange internal layout that had the rooms set onto corridors that radiated out from a triangular central section. After checking in Drew and I went for a stroll to find a cold beer and at a quayside taverna met up with Jenni, Ann and Caroline who had already started. We sat chatting until it was time to return to the Hotel and change for dinner.

Dinner turned out to be at the very taverna that we had just come from. We sat outside in the garden under the trees, shaded from whatever breeze there might have been by a wooden fence. Afterwards we moved on to a pub which was playing a selection of seventies rock music - Genesis, Steely Dan and the Who among others - where I could happily have stayed all night. It was not to be. Several people had said that they wanted to find a disco and our Ithaki guide, Anthea, knew of one. Anthea worked at the Hotel and was a Greek-Australian in her mid-twenties. She led us to a disco which was completely empty apart from the DJ and the barman. When I checked the bar prices I understood why. After a little while, even though the place had started to fill up a little with locals and with a group of Germans I left and went back to my bed. Discos disagree with me.

Wednesday was another of those optional days. Several of us set out after breakfast with Jenni to walk to the Nymphs' Cave where Ulysses is reputed to have hidden his treasure when he returned to the island. The walk wound up a road before veering off onto a dirt track. We passed a spider's web on the ground which was like a sheet of fine net laid down over the top of a carefully constructed funnel at the mouth of which sat the spider, a large light brown creature with a darker brown zig-zag pattern on its abdomen and dark brown strips on its legs.

At the top of the path there was a hut and three Greek men who were looking after admission to the cave. Jenni said that she had been in before and so the rest of us - besides me, John (without Angela who had gone sunbathing), Kristine, Caroline and Drew - went in. At the bottom of a steep flight of iron steps we came into a poorly lit cave with many deep holes in the floor and dark recesses in the walls. Our Greek guide spoke almost no English but nevertheless tried to communicate the legends of the cave to us. Drew called me over to show me another spider. This was a strange cave dwelling species. Its furry body was spherical and no more than an eighth of an inch across but its legs were about an inch and a half, long spindly things similar to a daddy long legs. What was most unusual about it though were the palps which must have been easily three inches long and waved about constantly as it moved. I straightened and looked towards the others who had followed the guide towards an illuminated alcove. I stepped onto the rock intending to follow them but my next step found only air beneath my foot. Awkwardly I twisted trying to slow my fall but it was no use. A moment later I was on my back wedged into a dark hole with deep grazes down my back and side. The guide helped me up and I painfully climbed out of the cave. Outside Jenni swiftly took out her medical kit and cleaned the graze with alcohol swabs before wiping iodine painful into the broken skin.

In spite of the injury we continued our walk, moving on up the hill past a small chapel to a flat stone area which seemed to have been at one time a threshing floor. From here Drew and Caroline continued on up the hill while the rest of us turned to follow one of the many footpaths back to Vathi. This went down through some quite fearsome gorse that plucked at the arms and legs viciously as we forced our way through it. We broke frequently to look at any interesting plant or insect. A particularly memorable specimen was a cricket that was fully three inches long and nearly invisible while it rested against the long grass but an eye catching emerald blur when it danced into flight at our passing.

In Vathi we sat and ate Chicken pittas while deciding what to do with the afternoon. Several of the others had gone around a path in the opposite direction to seek out a beach for sunbathing. Most of us decide to follow on during the afternoon but I decided that first I would take a shower, clean off my injury and have a nap for an hour. When all that had been accomplished I set off to find this beach. On the road I met Drew who was also heading that way and a little further on we found Kristine, also following the same path and Roy and Louise who were headed back towards Vathi having done a strenuous coastal walk involving much scrambling over wet and slippery rocks. Drew, Kristine and I wandered on until we reached a fork in the path. One led up and was in the wrong direction. We chose the down path and followed it past a sandy cove where a group of Germans were swimming and throwing a ball to each other in the water. Further round we came to another, larger cove, but there was still no sign of any of our party and we were by now much further than we believed they had gone so we decided to sit in the shade without going further. Out in the bay two large brown and white vessels were anchored. These had been designed to look like schooners and carried full and clearly functional rigging, but they were equally clearly of modern construction and, as we found out when they moved off, had powerful engines for this calm weather. They were a pair of German tour boats and their 'crews' of holidaymakers were all in dinghies on the water or sunbathing on the shore or swimming in the bay. Kristine and Drew both went for a swim. All too conscious of how saltwater would feel on my back I sat on the wall leaning against a tree and read some more of P.J. O'Rourke's unbiased political journalism. About half an hour later Caroline approached along the path and joined us. She too had been in search of the sunbathers but not found them. We concluded that they had decided that this beach was too stony and returned early to the sandier beach at the Southern end of Vathi. When we had had enough lazing about we followed the path back.

Whether it was a consequence of the fall, or heat stroke or perhaps even of some stomach bug that I had picked up I couldn't tell but by the time I reached the town I was feeling distinctly out of sorts. I had that light headed distant feeling and was cold in spite of the day. I went to bed for another lie down and although I went to dinner I was soon feeling so unwell that I had to return to the hotel and my bed leaving the others with my apologies and my pizza.

All night long I tossed and turned, first so hot that the sweat covered my body and soaked the sheets and then so cold that I was reaching for my sweater to warm me up. By morning the worst of it had passed but I still felt pretty rough.

This was another travelling day, the second half of the holiday seemed to consist of little else, when we were to take the ferry across to the mainland at Astakos from where we would make our return trip to Athens tomorrow. Several other people, notably John and Kristine seemed to be developing the same symptoms that I had had directing blame away from the fall or heat stroke and towards the Chicken pittas which all of us had eaten. We decided that rather than haul our own luggage he few hundred yards to the ferry we would send it on by taxi and walk round with just day packs. Drew had thoughtfully had my uneaten pizza from the night before boxed up and I carefully transferred the slices into a plastic bag to eat for lunch on the ferry.

The ferry trip was short and uneventful although the ferry itself was much smaller than the ones we had used so far. We all sat out on the upper deck, some in the sun some in the shade, and enjoyed the journey. After a few minutes Kristine, who was by now feeling very ill, went below decks to sit in the cool and try to sleep.

Astakos is an ordinary and unlovely town although walking along the harbour you see a great many fishing boats which are the primary reason for the towns existence. The few hotels that are there are seldom full even at high season and there is not much that would recommend the town to tourists. We sat around and drank lemonade then went down to the beach. I decided to try for a swim and although the salt stung at first the sensation soon wore off and the relaxing warmth of the water eased much of the tension from my muscles.

Friday's itinerary looked horrendous. It consisted of more than six hours of travelling, mostly by bus but with another ferry journey in the middle. By now Jenni, the tour leader had developed the same bug and was feeling terrible. One of the reasons that I would hate her job is that if I feel ill on holiday then I can do nothing and rest and hope it goes away. As the tour leader she still has to organise things and still has to try to be pleasant and smile. There is no rest for her.

We gathered at the bus station at lunch time after a morning of sitting around and reading. The bus journey was comfortable enough but incredibly boring. By now I had finished with P.J. O'Rourke and gone back to my own holiday book, Paul Theroux's wonderful 'The Great Railway Bazaar'. I spent the journey alternately reading, gazing out of the window and dozing in the light sleep that travel in a hot vehicle always induces. We drove through any number of coastal towns before taking the short ferry ride back to Peloponese where we rejoined our bus to take the main road to Corinth and then on to Athens. We arrived late so that there was time for a brief drink then a meal at the small restaurant across the road before heading for bed for the two and a half hours sleep that we would get before our wake up call for the trip home.

Thursday, 18 September 2008


The latest addition to my Alice collection is a recently published volume from the Disney studios which collects together the conceptual designs of Mary Blair which were later worked into the classic Disney animation. I intend to discuss the art more fully later but one thing that immediately struck me is the curious lack of the name "Lewis Carroll" involved with the book. There is a passing mention on the flyleaf ("THE FANTASTICAL TALE...has delighted children since Lewis Carroll wrote it...) but otherwise... nothing.

The front cover declares it to be "WALT DISNEY'S Alice In Wonderland retold by JON SCIESZKA, Pictures by MARY BLAIR.
The back cover, besides the ISBN, carries only the words "Alice, curious as ever, did exactly what you would do." The imprint page carries a great deal of copyright information but fails to mention Carroll at all.

I'm absolutely certain that it complies with every necessary bit of the law (Disney lawyers will have pored over it into the wee small hours to make sure of that) and the retelling is... well we'll discuss that later too, but I'd have thought it would have been a courtesy to at least put the original author's name on the cover.

Monday, 15 September 2008

A Time Machine

I'm sure that sometimes everyone wishes that they had a time machine, that they could go back and change the things they got wrong, fix things.
Well in one sense poets, especially the great mass of unknown, unpublished poets, can do just that. I've been writing poetry for a long time now. The earliest ones that I have copies of were written when I was about eleven or twelve years old. And they are pretty bad, but they are by no means the worst. The worst ones are the teenage ones. They are the kind of angst-ridden nonsense that teenagers have written since teenagers were invented. And yet. And yet I can go back and revisit them, go back and adjust them. Rewrite the past.
So I've dug out my early books of verse and am embarking on a project of rewriting. I probably won't do all of them but I'm sure there is potential in quite a lot of that old stuff.

So, here's the first revamped, dusted-down, seriously flawed piece of work. It was originally written in the first person not the third, with shorter lines, looser rhymes and a few more, now completely excised, lines. There are a lot of other changes too, not least of which is the title.


He is driven by the fear of living.
He lies to preserve his illusions.
He despises those that offer comfort.
His pain is sharp and cuts confusion.
His words, like razors, rip the silence.
As by his reactions he tries to prove
The reality of his grim existence
And seeks for love at one remove.
He is carried on by his momentum,
And by the power of his self-loathing.
He does not pause for contemplation.
His verbal armour, protective clothing.
He finds he can't relax the tension.
He finds he cannot speak the truth,
So no one understands the problem
And he remains a transient youth.

OK, it's still fairly poor but this is the first trip out for the time machine. And that was the first poem I found on page one of the teenage me's notebook... and I'm not completely ashamed of it.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

A Matter of Stress...

This morning I heard the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, in an interview, vigorously denying that his words in an interview some months ago had carried the implication that the press had read into them. The words were "Labour can win the next election".

I didn't hear them at the time so I have no idea of what stress and intonation he used but by coincidence I heard exactly the same words from Business Secretary, John Hutton barely an hour earlier.

The heart of the matter is this. When someone says something "can" happen does that merely imply the possibility of it without saying anything at all about the likelihood or does it, as it was interpreted when David Miliband originally said it, carry an implication that while it is possible, it is also unlikely?

David Miliband said today, and he has good point, that he had chosen the word "can" rather than the word "will" because you should never take the electorate for granted as complacency is dangerous in politics. He didn't add, though it would also have been a valid argument, that the use of the word "will" might have seemed too arrogant.

So what do the words mean? When John Hutton said them, and I am certain this wasn't his intention they were inflected as "labour CAN win" with a rising tone on the stressed syllable. Said in this way they sound distinctly as if the speaker is unsure, in fact as if he is trying to reassure himself. In short they lack confidence. This is how they were interpreted when Miliband said them and how I immediately reacted when Hutton said them. That it isn't what he meant is clear from the fact that everything else in the interview was supporting Gordon Brown and toeing the party line. I suspect that what happened was that he has doubts which he intended to keep to himself but his voice betrayed him as he unconsciously used a questioning inflection.

Let's have a quick look at the possible ways he might have said it.

"labour can win": flat and neutral with the advantage that no one is likely to put any adverse interpretation on it but the disadvantage that no one is likely to take any notice of it at all.

"LABOUR…CAN…WIN": loud with strong emphasis throughout, upbeat and positive but rather more strident than we are used to in British politics. More of a rallying cry than anything else.

"LABOUR can win": probably the best way to say it as the implication of this emphasis is that while Labour can win the other parties can't, which is surely what he meant.

"labour can WIN": almost as good, positive and upbeat, the implication being that they can't lose.

"labour CAN win": the form actually used and just about the worst possible choice as it definitely carries the implication that while they can they might not and with a rising question intonation on top, the implication that they probably won't or at least that people think they won't.

So, of all the possible ways to say it, it's a pity Mr Hutton (and perhaps Mr Miliband before him) chose the worst one.

None of this proves anything at all about politics or politicians but it does all go to prove that it ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it, that really matters.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Peloponese and the Ionian Islands: Part 4 : Kefalonia

After our last night in Peristera we had a very early start as there was a lengthy day's walk ahead of us. We were to start with a drive to Ano Potamia and then trek to Zahloru village via the Profitas Ilias chapel and the Mega Spelaion monastery. Straight after a very brief breakfast we piled into the back of two pick-ups, luggage and all and set off for the start of the trek. This began with a zigzag ascent on a dirt track through beautiful green meadows filled with all manner of flowers in bright reds and blues, violets and yellows. Half way up is the Profitas Ilias (Prophet Elijah) chapel which is a small building on the hillside. Like most Greek chapels it is still in use and is not an especially impressive sight. It does however provide a welcome respite from the heat and a chance to refill water battles from a relatively clean supply.

We continued on up the hillside to reach a saddle beyond which Mt. Petrukhi rises stark and massive against the clear and cloudless skies.
The ascent of this peak was once again optional and I chose to wait with some of the others on the shady ridge. To pace the time I started to read a book which John had lent me, P.J. O'Rourke's book Give War A Chance. This is a collection of journalistic pieces from the foreign correspondent of Rolling Stone magazine. To describe O'Rourke as a fascist is the understatement of the century. I realise that Americans are often regarded as very right wing and that some commentators suggest that the furthest left they get is still to the right of our Conservative party but his opinions make Margaret Thatcher look like Karl Marx. As a sample the opening chapter is titled 'Hunting Nice People, And How to Catch and Skin Them' and is a vicious and uncompromising attack on liberals everywhere. In another chapter he describes his preferred solution to the Gulf war which had just begun when he was writing. This was simply to nuke Baghdad but only if the sudden end to the war didn't mean that the American defence budget got cut. Nevertheless his style is funny and entertaining and providing that you just ignore his actual politics it is an entertaining book.
Whenever I got bored with reading I wandered about taking photographs and enjoying the view or chatting to Ann and Kristine who had also decided to sit this one out. When the returning explorers rejoined us we set off down the hillside. The ground was covered in a thin gossamer layer of spiders web that reflected the bright sunlight in an eerie shimmering way as the slight breeze disturbed the grass. In a tree I saw a ball of web about the size of a bowling ball with a dark round hole in one side. There was no sign of the spider. Before long we entered a path into a forest and in a clearing beside the river we sat having our lunch. As we saw the Feta and Sardines coming out again we were all quietly thankful that today was to be our last lunch on the trail and that tomorrow we might have something else for lunch. The clearing was filled with wildlife. Two brightly coloured butterflies danced above the opposite bank. A half inch long spider with a pale yellow almost spherical body and legs and an elongated dark green abdomen crawled slowly over the rocks. A snake about eighteen inches long and as thick as a toilet roll tube with irregular yellow markings on a black background slithered from the shade of a bush into the water and then behind some rocks. John the birdwatcher went exploring with his binoculars trying to find some of the many different species that filled the day with song. It was an idyllic setting that went a long way toward compensating for the overly familiar lunch.

After lunch we started out along the Ladhopotamos valley which rapidly dried up into a harsh white rocky canyon where the trees started about half way up the sides. Even here though there were splashes of colour from brightly-coloured insects and motion from large brown moths that seemed to be doomed to wander all day in search of suitable shade. We crossed the valley and moved up towards the trees where a steep ascent took us eventually to the top of the Psilos Stavros ridge.. Here a complicated arrangement of cut out wooden pipes carried water into a large wooden box from which a plastic pipe emerged and ran down the hill parallel to the path. The water comes originally from a stream even higher in the mountains and the pipe carries it down to the monastery at Mega Spelaion.
This was the path that we followed down, detouring only briefly to look at a derelict fortress, to the monastery. At frequent intervals we were soaked by leaks from the pipe that sent fountains of water cascading down the hillside. So common were these that we were forced to wonder if any water actually reached the monks at all.

The story of the founding of the monastery is similar to many other religious legends. Two itinerant monks, fathers Symeon and Theodore travelled around Greece on pilgrimages to many of the famous chapels. As they rested they received a vision of Saint Luke and Saint Andrew telling them to go to the banks of the Bouras river. Here they met a young woman tending goats who told them of a cave in which there was a mysterious wax icon of the Virgin Mary. They went to the cave to retrieve the icon but were faced with a huge serpent. A bolt of lightening sprang from the icon striking the serpent dead and they took it and founded the monastery which soon became a centre for pilgrimages from all over Greece as the icon was reputed to work miracles.

So much for the legend. The monastery itself is a good deal less impressive than might be expected. From the outside it resembles nothing quite as much as a block of Blackpool holiday flatls and inside there is a commercial aspect that seems at odds with the function of the building. As in many monasteries women entering it are required to wear long skirts, even if they are already wearing trousers or jeans. It is not the sight of female flesh that the monks object to, it is the very knowledge that women have legs at all. When you pay your entrance fee you find that inside there is a small but quite interesting museum displaying the history of the monastery, a reliquary filled with bits of dead saint (as reliquaries always are), the chapel in which the icon is housed and in which the few people who are genuine religious pilgrims make their prayers, and a room recreating the legend of the founding. This room, crowded to overflowing with people visiting is a strange affair. Life size cardboard cut outs of the main cast are assembled unconvincingly in a polystyrene cavern and garishly illuminated with coloured lights. If not for the endearing ineptitude of the display it would all be rather tacky.

After the monastery we made our way down a short walk to our hotel for the night where we found a new problem. All of the rooms that had been reserved for us were doubles rather than twins. Nobody was particularly keen on that idea so alternate arrangements were hastily devised. This was easier conceived than accomplished. The idea was that as some of the double rooms also contained folding chair beds we should move these around until the requisite number of twin rooms had been achieved. Tonight I was to share a room with Andy. His bed was currently in the room being occupied by Ann and Caroline. We moved it out into the corridor and then along to the door to our room. Then we hit a snag. No matter how we twisted and turned it, it simply could not be manoeuvred in through the door. Opposite the door was a window which we opened and then twisted the chair bed outside intending to use the extra space to give us a way into the room. Still no luck. After much pondering we went back to the room it had come from and with a lot of struggling and pushing took it through that room and out onto the balcony. This had pipes and cables and washing lines along it as an additional hazard but somehow we managed to get it along the balcony to the other door to our room. With one last effort and several pieces of broken bed we hauled it in through the door. I collapsed in a heap on my normal bed while Andy set about the additional task of unfolding his chair bed. Several bits seemed to be missing but after a hunt along the corridor and the balcony and in Ann and Caroline's room we located most of them and finally he had assembled what looked more like an instrument of torture than a bed. I was glad that I didn't have to sleep in it.

The last day of our walking dawned. Simon had been up at four thirty to take a photograph of the local train that went through the village at five. The rest of us arose at a more sensible hour and ate breakfast. Our luggage was going through on the train and we were walking along the track. The theory was that we would flag down a later train for the last five kilometres of the walk into Diakofto. We started out at about nine thirty, following the narrow gauge track as it plunged through spectacular ravines. There were several bridges and tunnels to be negotiated all of which was accomplished without problems. We had been warned that today the walk might be more boring than we were used to but in the event the scenery was spectacular and the walk pleasantly cool as the sun did not penetrate this area until mid afternoon. Enormous aggressive spiders ran from the shade of the tracks at our approach. Birds of prey rode the thermals high above the mountains. In places the river plummeted down short but fast waterfalls gaining momentum as its channel narrowed to final force itself out incredible pressure into a natural water cannon. Bright red blooms as large as a fist covered the slopes.

At the point where we had intended to flag down the train we waited. After a few minutes we heard the sound of it descending but to our surprise it ignored us completely and we were left to continue on down the final five kilometres on foot. This was, apart from the last kilometre not as uninteresting as we had feared. The path continued down through much the same kind of scenery as before and eventually turned into a proper road leading into Diakofto.
Here we sat in a cafe opposite the railway station and had our first lunch in a week that did not include Feta. I had a plate of sausage and chips. As is often the case in Greece it was served lukewarm and would in other circumstances not have been especially appetising. However the change was sufficient to make it more than palatable.
Andy's train back to Athens left about half an hour before our train to Petras. We said our goodbyes to him and watched as he sprinted away to his train.

Another concept that seems alien to the Greeks is that of material upholstery. The bus we had taken from Athens to Bouzi had had awful stick plastic seats and this was now also true of our train. We sat on the bouncing and rickety train, occasional peeling ourselves from the seats and reading and chatting. At Petras we had a short hike down the road to the bus station carrying all of our luggage and there Jenni went in and bought our tickets. The bus, miraculously, not only had real upholstery but also had darkened windows and air conditioning. The half an hour ride to Kilini was the most comfortable journey we had made all week. At Kilini the bus drives onto a ferry although we had to leave it on the shore and walk on. There is none of the complicated embarkation/disembarkation that English or northern European ferries have here. We walked up the same rickety ramp that the vehicles drove over and carefully picked our way around a woman unloading boxes of chickens from the hold before making our way upstairs to the lounge. Above decks it was a ferry like any other and once we were on our way the crossing was surprisingly ordinary.

When we arrived at Kefalonia there was another forty minute bus ride to be endured before we reached the town of Argostoli where we were to stay on the island. There was barely time to register and shower before going into the main square to eat our first meal in a proper restaurant for some time. The restaurant was called 'The Captain's Table' and featured an extensive menu and an eccentric waiter. When I asked him what the difference was between Tuna Salad 550DR and Tuna Salad 750DR he shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes and said
"There is no difference, one of them is Potato Salad."
After a delicious meal we went in search of somewhere to drink and, after rejecting the Paradise Pub as its prices were approximately ten times anywhere else, we settled on a waterfront cafe where we sat sipping Metaxa and listening to a guitar and bazouki duo in the warm calm night until it was time for bed.

On Monday everything was optional. There were various possible things to do, a walk around Argostoli or a taxi to a secluded beach for sunbathing or a trip to see the Drongorati Caves and the Mellisani Cave at Sami were among the options. Early in the morning I went to the bank to change some money and then had a stroll around the town intending to buy some T-Shirts and a guide book. The guide book was easy but the T-Shirts were all of the 'ALL MY FRIENDS WENT TO GREECE BUT ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY T-SHIRT' variety so I didn't bother. The group for the caves were meeting at lunch time and I decided to go with them. I sat in the hotel bar with a long cold drink and waited as the group arrived. Those going were Jenni, Roy and Louise, Caroline, Kate, Ann, John and Angela, Keith and Kristine. We walked together the few hundred yards to the bus stop and boarded the bus. At that moment I realised that I had left my camera on the bar. I sprinted back along the quay through ninety degree heat praying that I could make it to the hotel, find the camera and then back to the bus in the four minutes before it departed. Somehow I managed it but I was so drained that for the first half an hour of the bus ride I just sat next to Ann trying to get my breath back while she kept up a very one sided conversation.

We left the bus at a bend in the road that looked like every other bend in the road. A group of very bored looking goats ignored us completely as we followed the small sign that pointed off along a side road to the Drongorati Caves. At the caves we found a cafe and a gift shop as well as the caves themselves which are smaller than they had appeared on the map but nonetheless quite impressive. Once they must have been even more impressive because the approach down steps through a canyon was once the outer part of the cave system which has collapsed some time in the past. The caves have been imaginatively lit to show them to their best advantage although the most remarkable feature is a series of translucent stalactites near the entrance which resemble enormous rashers of bacon hanging from the ceiling.
Back outside we had some cold drinks at the cafe and then set out for the walk to the other cave that we were to visit, the Melissani cave. This walk turned out to be rather longer than anyone had expected taking us the best part of an hour in ninety degree heat through some fairly dull urban scenery. After a while the frequent half built houses and grey concrete start to get a bit depressing and it was with considerable relief that we eventually reached the cave. Here there is the inevitable gift shop and then a very brief boat ride round an admittedly beautiful cave. The water is a deep clear turquoise and filled with small fish while the uncollapsed half of the cave forms a high dark dome but bearing in mind the price of admission and the walk to get there it is a little disappointing. Afterwards we bought ice-creams and debated what to do. Somewhere along the line we had lost Roy and Louise but the rest of us were still together. We decided to walk down to the shore, about twenty minutes away, and then follow this round to Sami which is the main resort on Kefalonia where we would spend the afternoon swimming and sunbathing and then take taxis back to Argostoli. At Sami Keith and I found a convenient bar and had a couple of cold beers and then headed back to join Ann, Caroline, Jenni and Kristine on the beach. John and Angela had found themselves a more private spot further along. The water was not particularly clear but it was deep and calm and warm and very suitable for swimming. I swam out about a hundred yards and trod water for a while looking back at the shore. Sami I decided was a much nicer place to be than Argostoli. Later I asked Jenni why we weren't staying there. The problem with Sami, it seems, is that none of the Hotels are willing to let rooms for less than a full week so that our two night stay was forced to look elsewhere. I swam back to the beach and lay in the sun until it was time to meet up and go back.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Well that couldn't happen here...

In the film Donnie Darko, an English Literature teacher is hounded out of her job for teaching Graham Greene's "The Destructors", a pivotal scene of which the eponymous anti-hero is accused of copying. When I originally saw the movie, my first thought was, "Well that's not realistic nowadays".
My second thought was, "Well maybe in America, in the Bible Belt. There are some educators with some very narrow minded ideas."
My third thought was a smug and rather self-satisfied, "Well it certainly couldn't happen here. This is England."

It seems that such smugness, as such smugness usually is, was misplaced. A work by poet Carol Ann Duffy has been removed from the syllabus because of its content and because of complaints by people who have so clearly missed the point that it seems remarkable that they can claim to have read it at all. The poem is called Education For Leisure and begins "Today I am going to kill something. Anything." Its detractors seem to be entirely unaware that far from a glorification of knife crime, it is a bleak polemic about the need for education as a kind of antidote to the narrator's utterly hopeless and nihilistic point of view.
The poet's response was to pen another poem, Mrs Schofield's GCSE, which points out, in the form of a series of exam questions, just how much knife crime there is in Shakespeare. Mrs Schofield was one of the people complaining about the poem and crowing triumphally when it was removed from the syllabus.

I sincerely hope that the response to the response isn't a call for Shakespeare to be removed from the syllabus on the same grounds.

(Incidentally my favourite Shakespeare play is one that sometimes has its authorship disputed: Titus Andronicus. It features rape, mutilation, insanity and murder. Not to mention cannibalism. Good wholesome stuff.)

Monday, 1 September 2008

Peloponese and the Ionian Islands: Part 3 Further Adventures on Peloponese

Continuing the diaries of one of my old trips.

Tuesday began with a ride, relegated once more to the cheap seats, in that pick-up truck I knew from yesterday. This was a short trip to visit the monastery at Ayios Yiorgios. Here, when Andy had last visited there were only two monks remaining, both of them over eighty. We were surprised to find that it was a well kept building with a large wooden cross, overgrown with roses, in a neat and beautiful central courtyard. We were even more surprised when a monk in his twenties came to show us round but not as surprised as when he started to speak and we found out that he was Canadian. Seven new monks had come, three of them from Canada, to join the two original ones and repair the monastery. Personally he had been a monk in Canada since he was sixteen but had only recently joined this particular order.

He showed us the chapel with its ceiling frescoes of the flood and he showed as the secret school where the Greek language was kept alive in hiding during the long years of occupation, first by the Turks and later by the Communists. He also showed us a scrapbook of the most appalling atrocities that the communists had inflicted on the local people.
After our guided tour we were given glasses of water and small bowls of rose petal jam which had a pleasant perfumed taste but was so sweet that it could have sent a diabetic into shock from six hundred paces.

We started the days walking back in the village with cheerful farewells from our hosts who had been almost ridiculously pleased to see us. Normally I am cynical enough to believe that they were ridiculously pleased to see their paying guests but this once I don't believe that was the case. Throughout my extended visit yesterday I had been treated like an honoured guest and we hard been served last night with effusive hospitality and unbelievable friendliness even if the food had been rather rustic. (I can't remember the last time I ate rabbit.)

Now our host stood and watched us make our way through the village and up the hill towards the church until it was no longer possible to see us. We ascended steadily on good paths, sometimes steep, sometimes less so until we reached a grassy col where we had lunch which strangely enough consisted of Feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumber, onions bread and sardines with fresh oranges for desert. There was a chance to ascend an 'optional' peak but once more the meaning of the word had mutated. Now 'optional' meant 'you will not' rather than 'you will'. Everyone was pleased at this definition and no-one insisted preferring instead to take along siesta.

On our descent, which was steep but not difficult as it led down through a ridge of trees which made the walking quite easy, John and Angela led a rag-tag choir at the back in a performance of as many popular songs as anyone could recall the words to. I was told that this was a repeat of yesterday afternoon.

The descent finally levelled out onto a track which was flat and even and this turned after a mile or so into a tarmacked road leading to the village of Zarouhla which was to be tonight's overnight stop. Long before the village was in sight Simon had strode off ahead of us intent on reaching it first and getting a bottle of Heineken. This, like train spotting, seemed to be an obsession with him. I could not tell if it was the reward or the reaching of it that was important to him. Perhaps it was just that he preferred his own company. By the time we reached him there were two empty bottles on the table and a third on its way. We all ordered beers and sat around talking and watching a three inch long beetle crawl along a wall while Jenni and Andy went off to check our accommodation. When I take a holiday I know how to have fun - I don't actually do it but I do know how.

When they returned they led us up a final few hundred yards of path alongside a stream to a refurbished mansion tower house. In this we would be sharing four to a room which necessitated the two couples splitting up for the night. The building looked impressive, if not quite finished, from the outside but inside it was more so. The room that I was sharing was large and spacious with plenty of room for the four beds that were in it and had its own en suite facilities. These were a bathroom completely clad in pine except for the immaculately tiled floor. The sink had a plug, a mirror and a shaver point. The shower had hot and cold running water and a shower curtain. Something had to be wrong. When I took a shower I discovered what that was. The shower curtain seems to be a relatively new concept to the Greeks (it's the only one I've ever seen there) and they haven't, if you'll excuse a dreadful pun, quite got the hang of it. In fact they had missed the hang of it by about six inches so that fully closed it was this distance outside the shower tray meaning that the bathroom floor got just as soaked with it closed as with it open. Oh well, ten out of ten for effort.

Ablutions done I strolled down into the garden (or building site) where Roy and Louise (wearing matching Morris Dancing T-Shirts !) were standing chatting and John the birdwatcher was peering into the distance through his binoculars. Simon was also there watching John. Eventually he asked
"When you've seen them do you underline them or tick them off in your book ?"
John gave him a puzzled frown.
"Neither," he said as if it should be obvious "I remember them."

It was Simon's turn for puzzled frowns but he wandered away without further comment.
"He's a train spotter," some remarked "He probably thinks you should write down the leg and wing arrangements."

Gradually the number of people hanging around increased. John went inside and got his bottle of Jim Beam and shared what was left among us and we made our way down to the village for a delicious supper consisting of about six pounds of char-grilled lamb chops each. Afterwards we strolled back up in the clear evening air looking at the stars and chatting. All it had been a pretty good day.


Breakfast, we had been informed, was to take place in shifts due to a lack of capacity in the kitchen. The men were to go first, at eight, the women second at eight-thirty.

At eight, when we arrived the woman who had come in to cook breakfast had put a gallon kettle of cold water onto the gas stove but did not light the gas under it until eight on the dot. When it actually boiled, at shortly after eight thirty when the distaff half of the group were already impatiently waiting for their turn, she proceeded to fill a half pint jug from it and place it in the middle of the table. Half a pint filled one and half of the cups that were sitting in front of the eight of us. She then took the jug, hobbled back to the stove, heaved the kettle down with enormous difficulty and filled it again. Then she hobbled back, put it down and waited. On the sixth trip the last person filled his cup leaving over half a jug full of by now tepid water. She waited. Obviously she intended to do nothing until her jug was empty. It was by now past nine and the women were all giving us 'hurry up' glares. Taking our cups we moved away and let them try their luck. Outside the owner of the house, a belligerent fat man not at all like our previous charming hosts, was explaining to an uncomplaining Jenni that it would be no use if she did complain because the house was only for twelve people not sixteen. This would have had a better ring of truth if they had managed to serve the first eight with some semblance of organisation. I went upstairs to complete my packing.

My knee was by now much improved although towards the end of the previous day I had been beginning to limp a little. On the other hand Caroline who had lent me the Kenneth Williams book was having problems with her Achilles' tendon from a too tight boot so that today was to be her day to ride down in the truck. I had already given back the book as the promise of a pot of gold wouldn't have tempted me too finish it. I wished her luck with it as she climbed into the passenger seat.

Our walk led initially up a path along the side of the stream and then angled off up a quite steep slope into a wide grassy meadow where the smells of Oregano and fennel mixed with a strange curry smell from one of the plants that most of the group didn't seem to be able to detect at all. We continued on across the meadow until we reached a gently ascending dirt road. As we paused for a water stop in the shade of a few scrubby trees Angela and Ann said that they were going to go on ahead. Andy agreed, saying that it was not possible for them to get lost as it was a single road. They should, he told them, wait for us when they reached the saddle. I strolled up the hill with Angela's husband. He was a some-time drummer with a wide knowledge of Rock music and as we strolled we discussed such weighty matters as whether Gary Moore can function in a band or only as a soloist, which ten people are the greatest drummers in the history of the Universe and why Live Albums are always terrible. As the week wore on our conversations were to become more and more surreal and our companions more and more lost in the bizarre intricacies of our minds' workings.
"John ?" I asked. We had been silent for a couple of minutes thinking of our favourite keyboard players.
"Isn't the 'saddle' the bit where all that tedious uphill stuff turns into equally tedious downhill stuff."
"It is." he agreed.
I thought for a moment.
"And aren't we heading rather steeply downhill at the moment ?"
"I take your point." he said without slowing down.
"Shouldn't we have passed Angela and Ann then ?"
We continued to amble on down slowly, accompanied by John the birdwatcher and Drew.
"Still going downhill. " I observed needlessly a few minutes later.
We paused.
I had an odd sense of déjà vu. From a long way behind us a distant tiny voice could be heard shouting
"stop.... stop.... stop"
We turned. Racing down the hill at a sprinter's pace was Andy. He paused as he reached us.
"You should have stopped at the saddle." he panted pointing back along the trail.
"There are more ahead of us." we pointed out.
He nodded breathlessly.
"I know."
Then he was off down the trail again at a dead run. We turned and started back up the slope. It took us about ten minutes to reach the point where those who had been behind us were all waiting. Before the others who had been ahead of us got back I had had time to relate my similar problem in Peru when I had wandered six kilometres further up the trail than I was supposed to before anyone found me.

When everyone was sufficiently recovered Andy told us that we were going to leave the trail for a while and climb up through the trees to a grassy spot where we would be able to have lunch. There was no path as such through the sharp and spiny trees but as long as we were heading upwards we couldn't really miss the place. In the trees it was cool and very beautiful with carpets of flowers and several stops for the orchid watchers to kneel down and examine various plants and take pictures. As we came clear of the trees we did indeed find ourselves at a very scenic lunch stop. Mountains rose dramatically around the horizon with nearer smaller ones straight ahead of us. We sat down and started lunch which was the usual fare. I found that was beginning to develop an aversion to Feta and Sardines.

Afterwards there was an optional, this time in the conventional sense of the word, scramble up to the nearest peak. A few of us set out and after a few minutes climbing were at the peak much sooner than I had expected. We waved back to the others at the distant but strangely still audible camp. Several of our little group elected to stay where we were while the others went on to try a second peak nearby. They reached it even more quickly than we had reached this one and soon they were on the way back. Joining them as they passed us we re-descended to the main party.

The afternoon walk began as a reprise of our extra-curricular walk from the morning but soon we had passed the furthest point that any of us had reached and continued on down the dirt road which would eventually bring us to Solos village where we would take a rest for a few minutes before the final section of our day's walk to Peristera. Andy pointed out an unremarkable site which was the scene of the Bloody massacre of Turkish-Egyptian forces by Greek partisans in 1827. The Greek forces were led by Nikos Soliotis, a hero of the Independence wars whose home was reputed to be a tower house still present in Solos village where the church still has a shrine dedicated to him. Several other villages in the area also claim to have been his home but Solos' claim is as good as any.
After our rest stop at the restaurant in Solos we retraced our steps briefly and then descended to a ford where the river was cold and fast flowing and about knee deep. As carefully as possible we crossed it barefoot and then continued on our way. Ten minutes later we reached Wednesday's accommodation in the village of Peristera. This was another village house, albeit one that seemed to have been specifically converted for tourists. It was a large, pleasant building with only one problem - there was only a single bathroom between all of us which contained the only toilet, the only shower and the only sink. Jenni drew up a rota allocating half the group ten minutes each in the evening and the other half of the group ten minutes each in the morning. We were to stay here for three days. Everyone took the situation calmly. As I was on the morning rota I got a five second wash in cold water, a change of T-Shirt and an early choice of seats in the Restaurant for a couple of additional beers. After dinner (a rather fine grilled trout) a few people, including Jenni, went home but most of us stayed around drinking. Andy said he would teach us phonetically a Greek equivalent of Old MacDonald Had A Farm which he did with great gusto. Our final, somewhat chaotic, rendition of the song lasted about fifteen minutes and brought the house down. There were standing ovations from the locals who found the whole thing hilarious. Particularly well received were the 'mosquito' which was accompanied by a whining buzzing noise followed by all of us simultaneously slapping our cheeks and the Donkey which was performed solo by John who put his whole soul into a positively explosive 'Eeeeee-Haaawwww'.

Finally, with promises of a reprise before we left we took our leave of the Cafe and strolled back down the hill to our lodgings.


I was third up on the morning shower rota which allowed me ten minutes to shave, shower clean my teeth and use the toilet. Surprisingly I managed it and then hurried back to my room to dress for breakfast. Back at the cafe, now without our audience of the previous night, tables had been set out under the trees and we ate a gorgeous breakfast of yoghurt so thick and creamy that it could have been sliced with a knife and honey with a sweet perfumed taste that contrasted beautifully with the tart sharpness of the yoghurt. This was accompanied by delicious hot home-baked bread and mugs of tea. Today we were to visit the source of the river Styx. It was in the river Styx, which was supposed to give invulnerability to anyone who bathed in its waters that Thetis bathed her baby Achilles because the oracle had prophesied that he would be a great warrior. She immersed the child completely in the waters except for the heel by which she held him and in which he later received the wound from Paris' poisoned arrow that ended his life.
Last night over dinner one of our more frivolous conversations had been a serious of increasingly bizarre speculations about the exact nature of protection afforded by the water. If it made you invulnerable we decided then it must also make you immortal and it stood to reason that if you had a cold when you bathed in it it would also make the germs immortal so that you would spend the rest of eternity sniffling and wheezing and blowing your nose. Everyone agreed that we were all thankful that no-one had got Diarrhoea.
The walk began with an easy but quite exposed walk up a dirt track in blazing sunlight. Eventually it steepened slightly as we met the tree line and wound our way in and out of the pine forest along a steep mule path. Several times we dropped down onto scree to cross gullies, each one a little more difficult than the previous one. Louise gave up after one of these and spent the rest of the day on an isolated but shady outcropping while the rest of the group continued on. After another descent into a gully and up the opposite side we reached the point where we were to have today's lunch. However before that was the rest of the trip across to the source of the Styx. The picnic stop was a large tree covered ridge called the Huntsman's Saddle. From here there were excellent views back to the previous ridge where Louise had remained and forward along the valley to where we could see the massive Maveroni Falls at the foot of which was the point we were aiming for. Several people decided to drop out and stay at the saddle. They would, they said prepare lunch for the rest of us.

We went on.

After a few hundred yards the path disappeared and we were on a steep bank of loose scree which we had to traverse. Andy kept on going ahead to find a suitable path but rain had washed out all of the ones that had previously been there. After one particularly hard and unpleasant scramble I decided that if the chance was available I would go back. A couple of other people said the same thing. When Andy returned from a foray down a gully to the river's edge he said that the route got easier but those of us who had decided to go back stuck with the decision and headed back.

Among the defaulters was John although Angela had chosen to go on. As we finally reached the path that led up to the saddle he remarked.

"I'll chose life over immortality any day."

Back at the saddle we explained that the others would be some time and that we thought we should begin lunch without them. Diving into the bags we found Feta cheese, sardines, bread and tomatoes. Every day the fare that had seemed so appetising at the start of the trip looked less and less appealing. Nevertheless we tucked in, making sure that there was plenty left for those who had gone on. After a while Kate announced that she could see them and sure enough they had descended right to the river and crossed it and were now climbing the much easier grassy bank on the other side. For about ten minutes they were in sight before they disappeared again around a bend in the valley.
We spent the next few hours relaxing and reading and exploring our immediate environs before Kate announced that she could see them again. They were now higher up and further round and had evidently reached their destination as they seemed to be coming back. We watched as several times they appeared to lose the route and stand discussing it but finally they reached the grassy bank and thirty minutes later they were eating the remains of lunch and telling us how good it had been.

After that all that was left to do was retrace our steps back to the village and have a few beers and some dinner.


Friday was to be an easy relaxing day. The walk was a simple descent along good roads and tracks which would see us arriving at a Lake Tsivlou, high above the Krathis river gorge, for lunch. At around five we would be driven back on another of those ubiquitous pick-ups. There was only to be about three hours walking all day. We began, straight after another yoghurt and honey breakfast, by leaving the village on the tarmacced road but soon we left this for a path that led along an overgrown trail through some fairly heavy pine forest. In among the trees it was cool and refreshing although from time to time the sharp needles of the trees scraped painfully along our exposed arms and legs. The trick was to try to only brush against the much lighter green growth at the ends of the branches where the new needles were soft and spongy and had not yet hardened and darkened into the wickedly pointed instruments of torture found further along. After about an hour of this we cleared the trees and came out into a rocky river valley leading towards a sandy road. John and I were passing the time discussing who would be the stupidest possible presenter for Question Time. Danny Baker and Chris Evans were both strong contenders, as was weather man Ian McGaskill but in spite of a late challenge from Marcel Marceau we eventually agreed on Dougal from the magic roundabout. By then we had reached a small village with a strange little church built like an air raid shelter. We paused here for a moment's rest before continuing down the hill to the lake and to lunch.

Lake Tsivlou is a famous local beauty spot and deservedly so. As you approach down the hill you see its wide and remarkably blue waters spread out below you in an irregular diamond shape. The shore line is two thirds surrounded by a wide sandy looking beach which runs up to the tree line which then slopes up and away to the horizon so that the lake looks like a smear of blue paint in the bottom of a green bowl.

We descended towards the lake and in among the trees was a picnic spot with wooden tables and benches. To nobody's surprise lunch was Feta cheese and the usual trimmings. We struggled through it and then went round the edge of the lake to the nearest of the beaches. On close examination this turned out to be stonier than it had looked but all the same everyone changed into swimming costumes and alternately sunbathed and swam.

The water of the lake was warm and calm and filled with fish to the extent that if you swam with your hands open you could catch them without trying. I did a couple of relaxed lazy lengths of the lake and then sunbathed some more. Eventually the truck arrived to take us back. The first group climbed aboard and the rest of us stood at the top of the road waiting for it to come back. I watched a small light brown spider crawling over the leaves of a broom plant. As I tried to get closer to make some notes to pass on to my spider crazy brother it scurried round the leaf and out of sight. Turning it over I was just in time to see it make a prodigious jump onto the next plant where I lost sight of it. After about thirty minutes we decided to start walking and about half a mile down the road we were met by the truck.

After the evening meal Roy and Louise organised some folk dancing which several of us refrained from participating in necessitating some of the locals, in particular the restaurant owner's wife, being press-ganged into taking part. After about forty minutes they got bored and returned to sitting around drinking and chatting. For the benefit of those who had missed it we reprised the animal song from the night before and once again received a standing ovation from the locals.