Friday, August 31, 2012

Sports Fans

Continuing thoughts about sport, as the football season is almost upon us and tribal clashes will soon be the order of the day. I think I mentioned once before (maybe even more than once) the graffiti on road signs all along the ethnic highway and even all over signs on smaller roads, and some of it totally obscuring the sign, most of it meaningless though I am told, something cryptic like G13, also found as graffiti on once pristine walls, is the gate number at a stadium and is used by that particular tribe who feel they have to broadcast the fact to the whole world, senseless as it may seem. But then I doubt collectively they have much sense anyway. Certainly their behaviour indicates as much. I haven’t seen or heard much in the news for a while about football hooliganism in the UK but Greek football fans are prepared to go to quite a length to create merry mayhem, even so far as to letting off flares, throwing Molotov cocktails, setting fire to stadium seats and attacking anyone including police who try to stop them but at least, as far as I remember the last couple of seasons, there has only been one death, unlike Turkey where a football riot resulted in any number as did one in Egypt.
The Americans seem to have come up with a neat idea in an attempt to stop unruly behaviour. American football fans in the United States have been told they must take a four-hour online course costing $75 (£47) if they are kicked out of a game for unruly behaviour. The rules, which apply to most NFL teams, see those who fail to take the course, or achieve the 70% pass mark, arrested for trespassing if they are found at another game. One of the 14 topics of the course is entitled "skills for becoming less impulsive and improving judgment" and another five deal with alcohol. Dr Ari Novick, who developed the course and also runs one for Major League Soccer, has said “We're not trying to squash anyone's passion. We're just trying to say don't be violent.” Novick takes $55 (£35) for each test taken, with charities receiving the remainder. Daniel DeLorenzi, security chief of MetLife Stadium - the shared home of the New York Giants and Jets - also demands a letter of apology before allowing re-entry. He said: “Most of the time, they apologise for their behaviour.” Sample questions
Behaving badly towards other fans, such as fighting, swearing or threatening them, is OK as long as they deserve it. (Answer: False)
Every fan has a right to like any team they wish. Using abuse language towards fans who support teams you don't like will not be tolerated. (Answer: True)
I wonder if it would work in Greece.
I remember going to sports matches as a boy and never experiencing such bad behaviour among fans. Why has it changed so radically I wonder? There must be a psychological reason somewhere.
P.S. A couple more examples of Shakespeare’s dealing in business and real estate: ‘Bought from Walter Getley the copyhold of a cottage and about a quarter of an acre of land in Walker Street, Stratford.’ Sept. 28th 1602.’
‘1605 July 24 Conveyance to Shakespeare from Ralph Huband of Ippesley of the moiety of an unexpired lease of the corn and hay tithes of Old Stratford, Welcombe and Bishopton, together with a moiety of the wool, lamb, and other small tithes of the whole parish of Stratford-on-Avon, for £440.’
Willy was certainly worth a bob or two. How much would £440 be in today’s money do you suppose? £90000? Or more?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The 88

It is not just a mad mad world, my masters, nor a bad bad world, nor a sad sad world; though it is in my opinion at times all of these things, but it is an amazingly small world. A very large house at the bottom of our lane, across from the main road, was started all of fifteen years ago by a man named Manolis. A year or so into the building Manolis died and his son took over but the house remained an empty shell for all those fifteen years and we never expected to see it finished, especially recently with finances being what they are. But lo and behold! The house is finished and habitable because it was been bought by two Israeli brothers who have spent a small fortune on it. The walled swimming pool alone must have set them back fifty grand if not more. Anyway, a few nights back (ago?) they threw a housewarming party and there I met a Greek who started to talk about the Connaught Rangers mutiny in India in 1922, a subject on which I wrote a play, so you can imagine my surprise that he knew anything about it. It turns out however he was in London in 1979 and saw my play ‘The 88’ at The Old Vic. Not only that but, when it was published, he actually bought the script. It seemed that what intrigued him enough to go and see the play in the first place was the, with one notable exception, universal slamming it received at the hands of the London critics. Why, he wondered, did such a good play (his words) receive this absolutely vitriolic criticism? He was full of praise for the play, had a great evening in the theatre, and simply couldn’t understand what the critics were on about. So I told him it really was quite simple and (1) It is an Irish subject that does not reflect well on the British and the English it would seem only like Irish plays if they’re written by Irishmen about Irishmen leaving the Brits out of it and (2) It was a matter of the most unfortunate timing in that it opened very shortly after the murder by the IRA of Louis Mountbatten. It wasn’t just the critics who were up in arms about it. A company called Trident Television sponsored the play and the bigwigs of the company accompanied by their wives were at the first night and stormed out at the end kicking up merry hell and the following morning demanding the company name as sponsors be removed. This of course upset the applecart as far as the theatre was concerned; one of the Old Vic directors, by the name of Benham was heard to say ‘How dare they put on this play in my theatre?’ Note that will you? My theatre. The Vic being his personal fiefdom of course. And, instead of braving the storm, the powers that be weakly caved in and the play came off in a few days.
Now what I will never understand is how it got to a first night anyway if that was the general feeling; after all the script was available for months before rehearsals even started so surely the directors of Trident and the directors of The Vic must have known what the play was about. Or did they not read the script? Or did they not understand the script?
I can only say the audiences’ reactions belied the critics’ opinions. ‘The 88’ opened at the same time as ‘Amadeus’ which went on to be critically acclaimed and a huge success whereas ‘The 88’ died an ignominious death. But I am here to tell you, and I don’t care who knows it, I know which is actually the better play. I would dearly love to see it revived and given its proper appreciation without, as one audience member put it, my undoubtedly being made the subject of a hatchets job but, alas, I doubt very much that will ever be in my lifetime. But how gratifying to meet in Vamos of all places and 33 years after the event a Greek who not only went to see the play but who appreciated it for what it was worth: small small world.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Cross Words and Olympics

Crossword Puzzles – There is no way I could attempt to solve one from say The Times, The Sunday Times, or papers of that ilk. The clues in these are, as far as my limited imagination is concerned, pure gobbledygook. Even the Daily Mail on a Friday is beyond me. We get The Mail on a Friday for the film, theatre, and book reviews.  No, The Athens News is about my standard. Well, not even that actually as I share it with Douglas and, between us, we usually manage to finish it though lately there have been some clues so obscure we have had to wait for the following week to find the answer and even then we don’t understand it and cannot make the connection. Compilers of crosswords must have very devious minds.

Well, the 2012 Olympic Games are long time over. I have to admit to not taking very much interest in them. Lasted about fifteen minutes of the opening ceremony, same for the concluding ceremony and watched some of the diving; otherwise London 2012 came and went without a splash. So what happens now? The games practically if not altogether helped to bankrupt Greece and what is the legacy apart from that? Poor Greece managed two bronze medals in London and that is so sad.
In 2004, Greece quite magnificently hosted the summer Olympics, its athletes soaring, but today, the country is choked by the worst financial crisis in its modern history - and sport, too, has been hit hard. There is no longer the money to fix the air-conditioning inside the main track-and-field training facility in Athens. So Greece's athletes are left to swelter. The crash mats are torn - the stuffing bursting out - and the cushions on the equipment are fraying. The facilities have crumbled - all in the space of eight years. As the gloss of 2004 has worn off, reality has set in, the sporting legacy remains elusive and, for some, pride at hosting the Games has begun to fade. Many of the venues from the Athens games lie idle, locked up and empty, simply rusting under a baking summer sun. Attempts to sell the former Olympic buildings have failed. They're seen as representative of the short-term vision that got Greece into its financial mess in the first place. The hoped-for privatisation of many of the sites has been thwarted by a mix of bureaucracy and mismanagement.
"We have these facilities. What do you suggest we do? We try to rent them and we cannot", says Spiro Pollalis, who heads the company charged with selling the largest Olympic area - the Hellinikon complex south of Athens, containing the old city airport and many of the sports venues. He insists they should have been torn down immediately after the Games, leaving the six million square metre site free for possible private investors. Therein lies the problem, spending millions of euros for three weeks of sport before dismantling the buildings might not be the best use of a country’smoney.
Some estimates put the overall cost of the Athens Olympics at 10 billion euros.
 In London the estimated cost of £2.4billion resulted in a final amount of £9.3billion. What happens now?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Perpetual Pessimist

We are the voices of the wandering wind,
Which moan for rest, and rest can never find;
Lo! As the wind is, so is mortal life,
A moan a sigh, a sob, a storm, a strife.
Sir Edwin Arnold.

My bedside reading these last few nights has been a little paperback published by Pan Books in 1963, ‘The Perpetual Pessimist’ (An everlasting calendar of gloom and almanack of woe). The copyright holders are Daniel George and Mrs Hugh Miller and their research has really taken them far and wide in their efforts to discover just how truly awful life can be. For example we all remember the assassinations of people like Lincoln, John and Robert Kennedy, Mahatma Ghandi, Julius Caesar,  but what of Edward ll 1367, Richard ll 1400, Henry lV of France, President Garfield 1881, President Carnot of France 1894, Peter lll of Russia, 1762, King Umberto 1900,  President McKinley 1901, King Abdullah of Jordan 1951, King Faisal of Iraq 1958, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that led to the Great War, Czar Nicholas and his family, but just how many more have there been? Joseph Smith, a founder of the Mormon sect 1844 for example, well he was lynched. Remember this book was published in 1963 and there have been a whole lot since.  Some assassination plots failed of course. President Truman, Hitler, James ll and Napoleon lll escaped and the Cato Street conspirators failed to assassinate Castlereagh and his cabinet in 1820 but assassinations of public figures are much more numerous than those listed above.
The other thing I noticed was the number of massacres that have taken place over the centuries: 1692 Glencoe, massacre of 7000 Armenians by Turks 1920 (which Turkey still denies of course), massacre of Christian Indians by whites in Ohio 1782, Sharpeville massacre 1960, massacre of whites San Domingo 1804, Sicilian Vespers 1282, 8000 slain, Bulgarian atrocities 1876, massacre of Christians by Turks, Chios, 1822, massacre of Europeans in Borneo 1854, massacre of Protestants in northern Italy 1606, massacre of Janissaries Constantinople 1826, massacre of French missionaries Tien-Tsin 1870, massacre of Christians, Damascus 1860, massacre of Negroes, South Carolina 1876, Moslems massacred in Acre 1191, Moslems massacred in Jerusalem 1099, Peterloo massacre 1819, massacre of  St.Bartholomew 1572, Drogheda 1649,  massacre of Europeans, Meerut 1641, massacre of Europeans, Jamaica 1865, massacre of Danes, London 1002, massacre of Incas by Pizarro 1532, massacre of Paris workers 1851,
This is without taking into account numerous wars, the sacking of various cities, the massacres in China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the millions dead thanks to Stalin, the inquisition through which hundreds and thousands of so-called heretics were obscenely, cruelly tortured and killed, the holocaust, and ethnic cleaning, Shia versus Sunni and vice versa continuing to the present day, The Taliban and al Qaeda. It would seem, apart from his ability to breed, man’s most common talent is his penchant for killing.

When life’s a sheer unmitigated curse,
When absolutely everything goes wrong,
When things could not conceivably be worse,
Something just too bloody awful is bound to come along. –Anon.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Curry Night in Crete

Today is Douglas’s birthday and we are going to celebrate by having a curry! What! A curry? In Crete? Yes, seriously, folks, our friends Helen and Kristos used to run a little eatery in a village called Alexander Amagdali (Almond) where we used to love to eat out quite cheaply, on the deck in summer looking across to the mountains, and in winter, snug inside around the wood stove. That was where the police chief sitting by the door fired off his pistol into the road one night just for the hell of it or so it would seem. Cretans like guns, fire them off at every opportunity. A law was brought in forbidding the firing of guns at weddings, baptisms, festivals etcetera but the Cretan simply ignores it, especially if he is from Sfakia. The little taverna actually belongs to Kristos’ brother who lives in Athens and since the pair gave it up it has started to fall into wrack and ruin which is a shame.
Anyway, they have recently taken over a restaurant called the Stardust Tavern. It is situated in the most wonderful spot high above Georgopoli with a panoramic view across the bay and beyond. When we first ate there Douglas remarked that it was like being on holiday again. It reminded us of those wonderful holidays we took so many years ago in Plakias on the south coast that led to us deciding to come and live here. And, if it should all goes pear -shaped now, we have at least had sixteen fantastic years and never regretted a moment, made many friends both Cretan and expats and enjoyed their company, hospitably, and generosity, both materially and of the spirit; the constant ‘if you need anything,’ or ‘if we can do anything.’ It really is a community and recently they have started an organisation called ‘Helping Hand’ (in Greek of course – ‘vouithia keri’ – that’s the best I can do) to raise money, buy food, collect clothes, bedding  etcetera for distribution, to those in need on the Apokoronas since the financial crisis that has hit some folk so very hard. For example we are invited to a friend’s 60th birthday bash on Saturday – no presents by request but a contribution to Helping Hand would be appreciated. Mind you, looking at the heaving clubs, the crowded tavernas and the bars in Xania, you wouldn’t know there was a crisis at all and that Crete has the highest unemployment rate in Greece.
Anyway, back to Douglas’s birthday. Every so often Helen and Kristos throw a curry night, it so happens this one falls on his birthday, and here is the menu.
Samosas, onion bahjees, spicy ribs,
Bombay potatoes,
Mild chicken curry, Hot & spicy beef curry, vegetarian curry (medium spiced). 
Tandoori chicken skewers, 
Plum chutney, pea and mint raita, rice and papadoms. 
Lemon geranium and coconut cake. .
Book in advance to be sure of a table! Which of course we did and, as expected, now not a place to be had.

So happy birthday, Douglas and we look forward to this evening’s celebration.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


A boy who stabbed his foster carer to death after he was grounded has been detained for seven years. The 14-year-old attacked 34-year-old Dawn McKenzie who bled to death after being stabbed 10 times on the head and body. The court heard that, in the days leading up to the killing, the boy's X-box, mobile phone and laptop had been taken from him.
In his defence advocate Donald Findlay QC said his client had spent his early years falling victim to physical abuse from his natural parents - and that this prevented him from learning the differences between right and wrong.  He also said that his client's mental condition meant he was unable to keep being grounded in perspective and was unable to fully explain why he killed his carer. The court heard that the teenager was suffering from a mental condition, called a dissociative state, in which he was unable to properly distinguish between reality and fiction.
Defense council naturally had to do his utmost to explain the boy’s behavior and childhood abuse is a good enough excuse for sending someone off the rails though in the millions of cases of child abuse not many result in murder. Mental conditions are also pretty standard when it comes to an explanation but if you were to ask me (and I could be far off the mark here but somehow I doubt it) it had little if anything to do with abuse, mental condition or being grounded but everything to do with the boy being deprived of his electronic crutches at which he flew into a raging temper with this painful result.
I think I wrote once before about watching a family dining out here in Vamos and how one kid was quite simply not a part of the evening’s roistering (they seemed to be a very happy family otherwise) but was intent the whole evening in playing with his I-pod or whatever it was, to the extent that he didn’t even seem to be that interested in his food. An e-mail from a friend (a computer whiz by the way) taking a well-earned break of a couple of days out in the wilds had his two kids, as he put it, going cold turkey, deprived of their gadgets.
A 17-year-old has out-tapped the competition to hold onto the title of being the US's fastest texter. Austin Weirschke from Wisconsin beat 10 other competitors at the sixth National Texting Championship held in New York. Contestants had to do one task with their vision blocked and another with their hands behind their back.  (That is something else, wouldn’t you agree?) The competition - which is sponsored by LG Electronics and featured one device with a physical keyboard - put three skills to the test: accuracy, speed and dexterity. Two of the tests were straight-forward - memorising and then typing phrases as quickly as possible, and translating text abbreviations into "regular speak" such as TTYL (talk to you later). But others were more challenging, including writing words backwards - or text sdrawkcab as the round was dubbed - and having to tap out the words to the song Twinkle Twinkle Little Star within 45 seconds while wearing darkened glasses that blocked the competitors' view. Oh, hey!  Oi vey! What is the point?
 This is the point I’m trying to make, Austin Weirschjke said he typically sent 500 texts a day to his friends, but attributed his success to added practice with his mother. The writer Malcolm Gladwell once wrote that studies suggested that it typically took 10,000 hours - or 417 full days - of practice to become an elite performer. Is there no better way to spend one’s life than indulging in this futile occupation, concentrating on this little gadget in your hand to the exclusion of all else, even if it did mean a big monetary prize in the end. I mean, come on, get a life, listen to the birds, smell the flowers, look at the mountains, pet your dog, talk to people, but unfortunately this lack must apply to a whole generation, texting or playing endless computer games.
We had an American visitor who was taken down south to visit the ancient ruins at Phaestos and who spent the drive, instead of looking at magnificent scenery he would be seeing for the first and more than likely the last time in his life had his head down, eyes glued to his sat-nav, or I-pod or whatever it was, to tell him exactly where he was.
When you stop for a moment to think about it, it really is sad. Reality can only be experienced through an electronic device. That’s progress?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Further thoughts on Shakespeare

Continuing my thoughts on Shakespeare I think the biggest hurdle biographers have to overcome is not his boyhood with all its attendant myths, or the lost years before his arrival in London, but his return to Stratford where he would spend the last years of his life with occasional visits to London mainly it would seem (there we go, it would seem, perhaps, maybe!) on business and the purchase of property. He had money, there’s no doubt about that or he wouldn’t have been in a position to purchase a substantial house, New Place and an acre of ground, dabble in real estate, (Bought from William and John Combe 107 acres of land in Old Stratford for £320) and go to law issuing writs so the question I have to ask is, where did this money come from? Another question is, how did his family in Stratford keep their heads above water or the wolf from the door (two beautiful clich├ęs for you there) all the years he was in London? Did he send money home during the entire period he was absent? If so I reckon that would have depleted his budget somewhat. What money could he have made out of his poetry and the plays? Not very much I reckon. There was no such thing as copyright to protect a writer’s work and anyone who fancied using it could do so without offering any payment. This copyright problem lasted well into the nineteenth century when playwrights like Boucicault would hop over to Paris to see a new play, take notes and hop back to London to write their own version. And even today the laws of copyright are not always a one hundred percent safeguard as I know to my cost but that is another story which, if it ever comes to a conclusion, I will tell you all about. But getting back to Willy, what would his income have been as a jobbing actor? Probably not much; actors then, like now, being two a penny. (The star system still had to be invented.) Still, as a shareholder in the theatre he would have made money there so maybe that is the answer. Or was he supplied with a continual stream of the readies by a patron? The Earl of Southampton?
No, apart from, where did he get his money; it was his apparent mind-set that worries me. Was his behaviour symptomatic of a universal genius? Mooted as the greatest writer in the English language? How did he behave on his return to Stratford? Did he have with him copies of the plays or the poems? Was mention ever made of his career in the theatre? Was there even talk of plays? Did he not own a single book? Do we know if he could even write as all we have are those six signatures? There are those who believe that, being the offspring of illiterate parents and begetting his own illiterate offspring, William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon could neither read nor write. He describes himself as “William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon in the county of Warwick, gentleman.”  Maybe the coat-of-arms, originally applied for by his father was indicative of his standing in the community.
After His long absence and having made quite a reputation for himself how was he greeted on his return to his home town? As a famous man of letters? Someone of consequence, if not renown? Someone to talk about and applaud? A VIP of the period? Was there a fanfare of trumpets, the proverbial red carpet, a banquet, the equivalent of a ticker tape reception? It would seem not. As far as the good folk of Stratford were concerned he was merely another citizen and merchant albeit a rich one now. His reputation in the last few years of his life didn’t seem to amount to much but over the years, over the centuries, his history became so embellished that in the nineteenth century it got to the point of being what Bernard Shaw described as ‘Bardolatry’.
By now statues and monuments were springing up all over the place which brings me to the biggest mystery of all; the Shakespeare monument in Holy trinity Church, Stratford. The first sketch was made by William Dugdale in 1634. In 1656 it appeared in ‘Antiquities of Warwickshire’ an engraving by Hollar followed in 1709 by a copy. In all these illustrations Shakespeare is shown with his hands on what is possibly a woolsack indicating a merchant and it wasn’t until 1725 that suddenly a quill appeared in his right hand and a piece of paper in his left. Has there ever been an explanation for this?
In September 1856 a man named William Henry Smith of Harley Street wrote –

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE’S is indeed a negative history.
Of his life all that we positively know is the period of his death.
We do not know when he was born, nor when, nor where, he was educated.
We do not know when or where he was married, nor when he came to London.
We do not know when, where, or in what order, his plays were written or performed; nor when he left London.
He died April 23rd 1616.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Ken Follett and Fugu

Have been reading Ken Follett’s ‘Fall Of Giants,’  a ripping gripping yarn all 850 pages of it with a cast of millions (First Word War/ Russian Revolution) no, but seriously, folks, I really have enjoyed it, nose glued to the page whenever possible. But alas, oh, alas, another author for whom the past tense is summed up in only one word – “ago!” Damn it all ago ago ago ago when there are so many ways of describing the past. Am I the only reader to be irritated by it? Hang on, where did I complain about this before? Could it have been Ken Follett with ‘Pillars Of The Earth?’ A book I also thoroughly enjoyed. I don’t remember and I’m not going back however many Blogs to find out. If he is the culprit both times cut “alas, oh, alas, another author,” above, it obviously doesn’t apply – except I am now reading ‘Broken Idols’ by Sean Flannery and guess what – it’s ago time again! Turns out he’s another wordsmith whose only description of the past is ‘ago.’ Ago ago ago. Everything that ever happened happened ago. It’s a shame really that otherwise perfectly acceptable writing should be spoilt or is it just me being ultra-finicky in old age? I see I bought it in the second-hand shop in Xania for 100 drachmas so that must be all of fifteen years ago!
Human beings really are the weirdest animals. The world is full of the strangest and most exotic foods. Chinese supermarkets are awash with them; to most of which Westerners would turn up their noses or puke quite violently. The Japanese delicacy fugu, or blowfish, is so poisonous that the smallest mistake in its preparation could be fatal but Tokyo's city government is planning to ease restrictions that allow only highly trained and licensed chefs to serve the dish. Why would one want to eat something possibly so deadly when there is so much else to chose from? Chef Kunio Miura always uses his special knives to prepare fugu - wooden-handled with blades tempered by a wordsmith to a keen edge. Before he starts work in his kitchen they are brought to him by an assistant, carefully stored in a special box. Miura-san, as he is respectfully known, has been cutting up blowfish for 60 years but still approaches the task with caution. A single mistake could mean a customer’s death.
Fugu is an expensive delicacy and the restaurants that serve it are among the finest in Japan. In Miura-san's establishment a meal starts at $120 (£76) a head, but people are willing to pay for the assurance of the fugu chef licence mounted on his wall, yellowed now with age. He is one of a select guild authorised by Tokyo's city government to serve the dish.
In preparation the chef first lays the dispatched fish on its stomach and cuts open the head to removes its brain and eyes. These are carefully placed in a metal tray marked "non-edible". Then he removes the skin and starts cutting at the guts. Pulling out the ovaries “This is the most poisonous part,” he says. “But the liver and intestines are potentially lethal too. People say it is 200 times more deadly than cyanide.” The first recorded case can be found in Captain Cook’s logs in 1774 after crew members ate the fish.
Tetrodotoxin is named after the Tetraodontiformes order of fish, which includes blowfish. It is also found in blue-ringed octopuses, some toads, newts and other animals. According to government figures, since 2000 twenty-three people have died in Japan after eating fugu, Most of the victims being anglers who rashly tried to prepare their catch at home. A spokesman for the Health and Welfare Ministry struggles to think of a single fatality in a restaurant, though last year a woman was hospitalised after eating a trace of fugu liver in one of Tokyo's top restaurants. Tetrodotoxin poisoning has been described as "rapid and violent", first a numbness around the mouth, then paralysis, finally death. The unfortunate diner remains conscious to the end. There is no antidote. Maybe the hospitalized woman didn’t eat quite enough.
You don't need to dine out in a Japanese restaurant to sup on potentially fatal fare.  More humble foods could also be dangerous. Mushrooms, while benign in many varieties, can cause serous illness including kidney failure and even death. Peanuts can be dangerous to those with severe nut allergies. Potatoes with a greenish hue can be dangerous when consumed in large enough quantities. What is a large enough quantity?
Now in Tokyo fugu is available in some supermarkets and over the internet - one reason why officials think the strict rules need updating.
In typical Japanese fashion where artistry reigns supreme the translucent slices of fugu are carefully arranged in the form of chrysanthemum petals served up on a beautiful floral design plate, the fish sliced so thinly the plate pattern can be seen underneath. At least you will die appreciating the delicacy of it. In terms of cost, it is likely fugu would become available in cheaper restaurants  but going to a proper fugu restaurant to eat good wild-caught fish, prepared on-site, is quite a luxury - because of the cost, if nothing else - and also quite an event. For many, playing the equivalent of Russian roulette at the dinner table is the attraction of the dish; that extra thrill that comes with the knowledge that by eating it you are dicing with death; and your death will be recorded as such and such a time ago!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


So how about it if we get away from money, sex, and religion and have a couple or more uplifting stories instead? They come from South Africa and one actually does involve money but not in the way I’ve previously written about it.
The first story comes from Soweto. Theatre has come a long way in South Africa since I left in 1953, particularly in Cape Town, but Soweto, a township once home to former President Nelson Mandela, has opened its first theatre .The eleven million pound project aims to attract tourists and locals alike. When you think of Soweto’s history it is really quite a remarkable achievement considering South Africans of all colours have never been ardent theatre goers.
The second story is the one concerning  money “She's not a superwoman, she's just an ordinary person doing her job” is one anti-corruption campaigner's blunt assessment of Thuli Madonsela, the woman the press often calls just Thuli. Her investigations have led to the sacking of some of the most senior figures in the state, most recently the country's former police chief, Bheki Cele, who was suspended over a property leasing scandal in 2011. The softly spoken mother of two has become a one-woman corruption crusader. David Lewis, chief executive of the newly launched campaign group ‘Corruption Watch’ has described her as “South Africa's most important bulwark against corruption” who has inspired hope among millions of citizens looking for a better way of life. Mrs. Madonsela has captured the imagination of South Africans and the media for her no-nonsense style and her ability to deliver. As a former lawyer in the trade union movement during the fight against white minority rule and her involvement in the drafting of South Africa's post-apartheid constitution, she has the respect of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party and opposition alike. Over the past few months, Thuli Madonsela has overseen some 14,000 investigations. She accepts Justice Minister Jeff Radebe's argument that “300 years of colonial rule and 40 years of apartheid” cannot be corrected overnight and that the seeds of corruption were sown long before the first post-apartheid elections in 1994, “But,” she says, “if visible action is taken against corrupt officials now, then it sends the message to people that ‘if you are thinking about it - then don't.’” South Africa has shown that, with a free press and independent courts, it still has a chance of winning the war on corruption, and in many ways, Mrs. Madonsela embodies that hope.
The third story involves animals and in its way is as remarkable as the previous two. Lawrence Anthony, a legend in South Africa and the author of three books including the bestseller ‘The Elephants Whisperer’ bravely rescued wildlife and rehabilitated elephants all over the globe from human atrocities, including the courageous rescue of Baghdad Zoo animals during the US 2003 invasion, died on March 7, this year. He is remembered and missed by his wife, 2 sons, 2 grandsons and numerous elephants.
Two days after his passing the wild elephants showed up at his home led by two large matriarchs. Separate wild herds arrived to say good-bye to their beloved man friend. A total of twenty elephants had walked over twelve miles to get to his South African house in Natal’s Thula Thula game reserve. Witnessing this spectacle humans were in awe not only because of the supreme intelligence and precise timing these elephants sensed but also because of the profound memory and emotion the animals evoked in such an organized way. They obviously wanted to pay their deep respect honouring their friend who had saved their lives. So much respect that they stayed for two days and two nights. Then one morning they left, making their long journey home.
So when one reads stories like that, why is it so many humans have so little respect for animals? I find it hard to understand, even harder to accept.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Pope's butler

Blog 524.

The chic-fil-a story is worthy of a musical, probably along the lines of Spamalot. Moving on to number three - religion – though I am quite sure sex won’t be too far away. After all in the previous Blog there was a religious basis to both the sex stories so I don’t see why this one should be any different.
The Pope's butler has been released from custody and moved to house arrest. The Vatican said that Paolo Gabriele will remain under house arrest pending a decision on whether he should stand trial for leaking confidential papers to the media. He was charged after a series of leaks exposed alleged corruption and internal conflicts at the Holy See. The so-called "Vatileaks" scandal saw an Italian investigative journalist publish hundreds of secret documents detailing fraud scandals, nepotism and cronyism within the Holy See. (So, for goodness sake, what’s new? They’ve been at it for centuries.) Italian media reported that if convicted, Mr. Gabriele could face a sentence of up to 30 years for illegal possession of documents of a head of state, probably to be served in an Italian prison due to an agreement between Italy and the Vatican.
Well, secret police forces in various countries are nothing new but what about morality police? Ever heard about them? I hadn’t until I read an article in which a family in Saudi Arabia has accused religious police of being responsible for a fatal car accident. Reports say morality police argued with the driver of a car listening to children's songs with his family in a park.
The driver drove off, pursued by the police at speed before losing control of the car and dying in the crash. What was he so afraid of? A public flogging maybe? The officers involved have been detained and are being questioned. After being followed for several kilometres by the police, the fugitive’s car fell down a bank at an overpass that was still under construction. The man was killed and the 34-year-old's wife and two children survived the crash but were injured and remain in hospital.
The Emir of the Baha region is reported to have said he was appalled at how the religious police behaved. But supporters of the police say they have been unfairly blamed. Part of their role is to patrol the streets to stop what they see as infringements of the country's strict Muslim code.
Some have claimed that Mr. al Ghamdi drove through a police checkpoint but why should the religious police have checkpoints in the first place?  Mr. al Ghamdi's family wants a fact-finding committee to be set up under the direct supervision of the Emir of Baha. A new head of the religious police was appointed recently and he has tried to rein in some of its excesses. Incidents like this will only add to a public mood that is increasingly impatient with what many Saudis see as the religious police's arbitrary interference in their lives.
There – two religious stories and no sex. What can I say?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Homophbic chickens

So, after money, what tales do we have to tell about sex? There is never any shortage of those. How about this one for starters? Several Pakistani police officers have been suspended after they were accused of parading a couple naked in public. According to witnesses, police in the Sindh town of Gambat forced the man and woman to walk to the police station naked as punishment for trying to have sex outside marriage. Trying?
Incidents of public dishonouring are not uncommon in Pakistan, but this incident is particularly shocking because it was carried out by police and filmed on mobile phones. Last year, several men were arrested for stripping a middle aged woman naked and parading her round the village as punishment for her son allegedly having an affair with a woman in their family. So why punish the mother? The footage of this latest incident shows the man being pushed around and abused by police officers on his property. He is then forced to walk naked to the police station, alongside his alleged partner, as a large crowd looks on. Quite naturally (tell me you are surprised!) religion enters into it. The police said they took action in response to several public complaints against the man who has been reportedly holding drink and dance parties during the holy month of Ramadan.
Now here is another on a much larger scale. It would appear a certain question is creating a minor tsunami in the southern states of the US. Two Republican politicians have urged people to eat at a US fast food chain, amid a row over gay marriage. Crowds flocked to outlets in several states after ex-presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Mike Huckabee urged supporters of "traditional values" to eat at Chick-fil-A. Boss of the fast-food chain, one Dan Cathy said in July he backed the "biblical definition of a family". He also told the Baptist Press he thought those who supported gay marriage were "arrogant". Chick-fil-A restaurants in cities across southern states of the US were reported to be bustling with customers who turned out in support of the chain on Wednesday. The Houston Chronicle reports that branches in Houston, Texas, were packed and another restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia, was said to be so busy two employees were needed to direct traffic in the car park. Wowie! Think of all that lovely money just pouring in in the name of Jesus. Hallelujah, praise the Lord. Customers posted videos on line expressing solidarity with Chick-fil-A, and social media sites including Twitter hummed with contributions to the discussion.
"The goal is simple: let's affirm a business that operates on Christian principles and whose executives are willing to take a stand for the godly values we espouse by simply showing up and eating at Chick-fil-A," said Mr. Huckabee, a Baptist minister and former governor of the state of Arkansas.
It’s not going all their way though. The general manager of the only Chick-fil-A outlet in the north-eastern state of New Hampshire has become a sponsor of that state's gay pride festival, due to take place in August. In a statement, Anthony Picolia said his restaurant "has gay employees and serves gay customers with honour, dignity and respect". It’s a pity those southern fundamentalists don’t have his common sense if nothing else.
I still maintain the use of that emotive word marriage for same-sex unions has been a big mistake but anyway, what can you do with brain-washed Bible thumping good Old Testament southern Baptists? Not a lot.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Twenty one trillion dollars!

Thinking back over all I have written in these Blogs it seems to me, apart from deviations now and again, that three subjects predominate – sex, religion, and money. (Maybe deviations was the wrong word to use – should I have said going off on tangents?) Just as there are primary colours in the spectrum maybe these are the primary colours of life, as it were. Bit pretentious that but you will know what I mean. Sometimes it seems they all impose themselves on each other one way or another and to different degrees. What about politics you say? Well politics is influenced by all three so that goes without saying.
What little nuggets of information on any of these subjects do I have for you today? Well let’s start with money that reputedly (and in all likelihood does in fact) makes the world go round.
I read that the global super-rich elite had at least $21 trillion (£13tn) hidden in secret tax havens by the end of 2010, according to a major study. In fact $21tn is probably a conservative figure and the true scale could be $32tn. A trillion by the by is 1,000 billion. This is only with financial wealth deposited in bank and investment accounts, and not other assets such as property and yachts.
The group that commissioned the report, Tax Justice Network, campaigns against tax havens. They said the super-rich move money around the globe through an "industrious bevy of professional enablers in private banking, legal, accounting and investment industries. The lost tax revenues implied by the estimates is huge. It is large enough to make a significant difference to the finances of many countries. The report highlights the impact on the balance sheets of 139 developing countries of money held in tax havens that is put beyond the reach of local tax authorities. Fewer than 100,000 people worldwide own about $9.8tn of the wealth held offshore. Governments are evidently now trying to claw back all their lost tax revenue.
Colm O Regan on the BBC News Magazine writes, “The mind can't comprehend the amount. If it was denominated in $1 bills, it would fill nearly 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Provided the pools were empty and that it was possible to provide enough security personnel to guard all of the pools. Overwrought quantification metaphors aside, $21tn is a lot of money to stash. How would you even go about hiding it? With the entire output of the world's economy only being about $60tn (£39tn) or so, surely like an elephant hiding behind a curtain, you would notice the bulge somewhere?
Except now the elephant isn’t even in the room.”

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


I have read any number of books on the life of William Shakespeare. I suppose one should really refer to them as biographies but, as so much is invention, maybe fiction would be a better description. The problem is we really don’t know very much at all about the man so these books are littered with phrases like ‘we think,’ or ‘we believe,’ ‘it’s possible that,’ ‘it could very well have been’ ‘perhaps,’ etcetera. It takes quite a lot of these and some imagination and ingenuity to write a book of a few hundred pages on not just scanty but almost non-existent material. Taking a quick glance over my shoulder at the books on my shelves I see I have ‘A Life of William Shakespeare’ by Sir Sydney Lee 1898, ‘Shakespeare’s Lives’ by S. Schoenbaum, ‘Shakespeare of London’ by M.Shute, ‘’Who Was Shakespeare?’ by H.Amphlett, ‘Elizabethan Drama’ in two volumes by Felix Schelling, naturally choc-a-bloc full of Shakespeare, ‘ The Lodger’ by Charles Nicholl, described by James Shapiro in The Guardian as ‘Part biography, part detective story, Nicholl’s latest work ranks among the finest books ever written about Shakespeare’s life.’ Then there is ‘Shakespeare and the Earl of Southampton’ by C.P.V. Akrigg and ‘The Shakespearian Ciphers Examined’ by William and Elizabeth Friedman. ‘The Elizabethan Theatre’ papers given at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, 1972 with a number of contributors. I am sure the are more books on Shakespeare in my room, downstairs, and upstairs but you get the picture and, if I were to look up Amazon now, I think there have been half a dozen more published in this celebratory year as though not enough had already been written about the man and what can possibly be said that hasn’t already been said? Now, in all the books I have read with all their nebulous maybes and perhapses, of one fact they are in unanimous agreement and of which they believe there is absolutely no conceivable doubt, and that is, being a Stratford lad, Shakespeare obviously attended the Stratford school to learn a modicum of Latin and even less Greek, but whoa there! Now hang on a cotton-picking minute! There is another book I haven’t mentioned – ‘The Backgrounds of Shakespeare’s Plays’ by Karl Holzknecht and what do I read in this volume? Wait for it… ‘There is no evidence that Shakespeare attended Stratford Grammar School,’ and on page 22 ‘There are no records of the Stratford Grammar School for this period.’ So from where did all these authors get the fact that Shakespeare was schooled in Stratford?
To quote Mr. Holzknecht ‘Every outline of Shakespeare’s life should distinguish sharply between two kinds of material; (a) what is known to be true and can be verified by the records (very little) and (b) what may, could, or should be true – the incrustations of tradition., conjecture, and inference which surround the facts … universal gossip and surmise, repeated often enough and sufficiently embroidered with plausibility, soon acquire both the charm and the certainty of truth. (an awful lot). The big mystery is how, in the time he was in London, Shakespeare could have written 37 major plays, 160 sonnets plus epic poetry, not even burning the candle at both ends. It defies all sense of logic. And for those who won’t hear a word said against the man they come up with one argument they feel cannot be gainsaid - “Genius!” and that solves the mystery – or does it?

Sunday, August 5, 2012


I find it interesting, you might not but I find it interesting, how different authors say the same thing but each in their own way. I have just finished reading a novel given to us some years ago by an Australian friend. It is called “Loaded” by Christos Tsiolkas and, told in the first person, is all about a nineteen year old son of Greek immigrants in Melbourne. Published by Vintage it was sponsored by The Australian Council for the Arts. Its basic theme as far as I can work out is hate. His name is Ari and he hates his parents, he hates everyone in Australia, he hates himself for not having the courage to be himself, and he hates his home city of Melbourne. He would like to say ‘I adore you’ to someone he fancies like crazy but finds he simply can’t say it and every sexual encounter is, to put it mildly, short and brutal. In the course of the action which I suppose is over two or three days (not quite sure about the time scale) he takes enough drugs, alcohol and nicotine to kill a herd of elephants but doesn’t even suffer brewer’s droop, in fact just the opposite. The novel starts off with masturbation. It seems strange that not all that long ago books like “Fanny Hill” and “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (Would you like your servants to read this?) were legally banned but today as the old Cole Porter song has it, anything goes. “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking but now, heaven knows, anything goes. Good authors too who once knew better words, now only use four letter words, writing prose, anything goes.” And, my god does Mister Tsiolkas use those four letter words ad nauseum. It would seem he can’t get enough out of them and in the end their repetition becomes simply boring. Okay, I’m not saying that’s not how Ari wouldn't speak and think but it shows a great dearth of imagination that there are no moments of escape from it. I remember on the Braemar Castle when I was working my way to England as a lowly bathroom steward all those many years ago there was another young steward who couldn’t put two words together without the f-word coming in between. But what started me off on this? Well it is how Ari describes himself at the end of the book. “My epitaph;” he writes, “he slept, he ate, he fucked, he pissed, he shat… that’s his story.” Now how does Matthew Prior say the same thing? “What trifling coil do we poor mortals keep; Wake, eat and drink, evacuate and sleep.” There is nothing new under the sun, just a different way of saying it.
Christos does make one interesting comment continuing the theme of hatred, “The Serb hates the Croat who hates the Bosnian who hates the Albanian who hates the Greek who hates the Turk who hates the Armenian who hates the Kurd who hates the Palestinian who hates the Jew who hates everybody.”

And it won’t change. “Idols of the tribe are deceptive beliefs inherent in the mind of man, and therefore belonging to the whole of the human race.” Sir Francis Bacon, and “The only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger.”  Jung.

Friday, August 3, 2012

That Man

Evidently the Iranians don’t rate Alexander the Great as being so great. In fact in the war crimes category, had there been such a thing at that time, he would have been taken to court and severely punished for his vandalism.
Alexander the Great is portrayed as a legendary conqueror and military leader in Greek-influenced Western history books but his legacy looks very different from a Persian perspective. According to Ali Ansari, professor in modern history and director of The Institute of Iranian Studies at The University of St Andrews, Scotland, he is “that man” who destroyed the city of Persepolis, the ceremonial capital of the ancient Persian Achaemenid empire, it’s history told in three facts: (1) built by Darius the Great, (2) embellished by his son Xerxes, and (3) destroyed by that man, Alexander. History has it he razed Persepolis to the ground following a night of drunken excess at the goading of a Greek courtesan, ostensibly in revenge for the burning of the Acropolis by the Persian ruler Xerxes. Could that be a true story I wonder? The man feted in Western culture as one of the great military geniuses of history destroying his reputation at the whim of a Greek whore?
Persians also condemn him for the widespread destruction he is thought to have encouraged to cultural and religious sites throughout the empire. Alexander would have been familiar from boyhood with stories of The Persian Empire and, although characterised by the Persians as a destroyer, a reckless and somewhat feckless youth, and the evidence suggests that Alexander retained a healthy respect for the Persians themselves and came to regret the destruction his invasion caused. Coming across the plundered tomb of Cyrus the Great in Pasargad, a little north of Persepolis, he was evidently much distressed by what he found and immediately ordered repairs to be made. Had Alexander lived beyond his 32 years, he may yet have restored and repaired much more. In time, the Persians were to come to terms with their Macedonian conqueror, absorbing him into the fabric of national history.
The Persian Empire was in fact worth conquering not because it was in need of civilising but because it was the greatest empire the world had yet seen, extending from Central Asia to Libya. Persia was an enormously rich prize. There is ample evidence that the Greeks admired the Persian Empire and the emperors who ruled it. Alexander came to admire what he found, so much so that he was keen to take on the Persian mantle of the King of Kings. And thus it is that in the great Iranian national epic, the Shahnameh, written in the 10th Century AD, Alexander is no longer a wholly foreign prince but one born of a Persian mother.
Persian emperors Darius and Xerxes both invaded Greece, and were both ultimately defeated. But, remarkably, Greeks flocked to the Persian court. Themistocles, falling foul of Athenian politics, fled to the Persian Empire and eventually found employment at the Persian Court and was made a provincial governor, where he lived out the rest of his life. In time, the Persians found that they could achieve their objectives in Greece by playing the Greek city states against each other, and in the Peloponnesian War, Persian money financed the Spartan victory against Athens. How often does history repeat itself?

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Cults! ‘Oh, God!’ I hear you say, ‘he’s back on the religious kick. How boring.’ Well, yes, I suppose I am, but actually I probably never left it, well not for long anyway because of its endless fascination. Three events got me thinking about cults: firstly the Cruise/Holmes divorce, secondly, a song sung by George Leybourne that Chris has been working on called ‘Shy, Shy, Dreadfully Shy’ in which Leybourne evidently parodied a certain Shaker of the time and thirdly a news report on the capture in Japan of the last fugitive of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, ending a 17-year manhunt. Katsuya Takahashi is suspected of involvement in the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people and injured 6000. Another former member of Aum Shinrikyo, Makoto Hirata, turned himself in to police after nearly 17 years on the run.  Nearly 200 Aum Shinrikyo members have been convicted in connection with the sarin attack and other crimes. Thirteen are awaiting execution. Aum Shinrikyo began as a spiritual group in the 1980s, mixing Hindu and Buddhist beliefs but developed into a paranoid cult obsessed with Armageddon. Cult leader Shoko Asahara is among those on death row. Aum Shinrikyo has reinvented itself as the Aleph group, which continues to operate as a spiritual group and is believed to have about 1000 members.
So what is the difference between a cult and religion, between a sect and a cult? Maybe a cult becomes a religion after a long period of time when it gains millions of followers whereas a cult is of a brief duration and its followers may be fanatical but are relatively few in number. All religions must have started off as a cult and cults branch out from established religions and sects, witness the Davidians in Texas, an offshoot of 7th Day Adventists. Eighteen years after Waco that resulted in the deaths of at least 76 people there are still Davidians who believe that Koresh was God so, like the Aum Shinrikyo, the cult is still alive if in a different form. That cannot be said for the People's Temple Christian Church when in 1978 the bodies of 914 people, including 276 children, were found in Guyana South America after a mass suicide; the charismatic (mad?) leader of the cult, Jim Jones, killing himself with a bullet to the head. The dead, evidently intense fearful of the end of civilisation, had consumed a soft drink laced with cyanide and sedatives.
So what about Scientology? Is it a religion or is it a cult? Started in 1952 by a writer of science fiction, Ron L. Hubbard how different is it say to something  like ex-footballer David Icke’s belief that a secret group of reptilian humanoids called The Babylonian Brotherhood controls humanity? They include (he says) such figures as George Bush and Queen Elizabeth. So much for secrecy. .’ Oh, boy! . I was watching a programme on religion on the net and a young man was heard to say ‘I don’t really know what it is all about…but I want to go to heaven!’ It was a cry from the heart and that is the basis of religion, sect, and cult; but in the words of Christopher Marlowe, atheist and blasphemer, ‘We remember nothing before we are born and we will remember nothing after we are dead.’