The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Huffing and puffing

It’s hard to know what to say when you get bad news.  In the local paper:

Omg it's very sad news thinking of her family and friends at this sad time :( r.i.p ur a angel now xxxx

Better say nothing.   

When your train does not come on time, there’s a platform announcement which always ends: ‘We apologise for any inconvenience caused.’  I like the any, as if a kind of traveller exists who is not inconvenienced by delay.  You can be lucky sometimes, down the line, if the flight you miss goes on to crash.  But this idea won’t cheer you up when you’re staring at empty rails, where the station rats are going about their business, undisturbed.  There’s nothing you can do.  You can’t even be rude to the officials.  That’s verbal abuse.  That’s against the law.  Better say nothing.    

Enter a sense of helplessness.  I overheard two old ladies in the launderette.  They were pining for the old days, when people were healthier, less greedy and more honest.  I assume they put themselves in the ‘old days’ basket. 

It’s not easy to change someone’s behaviour, or the way they are.  In a recent BBC report, we saw that tactics which have worked with smokers could be used on the obese.  People are smoking less due to advertising campaigns designed to frighten them. I suppose you could upset a fat person with some graphic images, but many of us eat for comfort.  While non-smokers are winning, thin people aren’t.    

Social pressure has also worked on smokers. 

‘Somewhere along the line, people said, “Would you please go outside and smoke,” or, “I've got an allergy to smoking.”’

To light a cigarette, smokers in the UK have to leave public buildings, but you can’t expect fat men and women to do the same just because they are fat.  You will also have trouble getting the potbellied out of your home.  If you say you’re going to sneeze, they won’t blame themselves.  Even if you do manage to cast out the corpulent, what then?  After a ten-minute break, smokers will finish their cigarette, but fat people will still be fat. 

It’s a wispy line, too, between shock tactics and revenge.  A teacher once locked a rebellious child in the toilet.  It was after school on Friday.  Detention was over.  Normal detention, I mean.  There was no one else around.  The school was closing for a two-week holiday.  Sir didn’t push the boy inside the toilet.  He just quietly turned the key while the little chap was going about his business.  The caretaker found him late that evening. 

At one school, the assistant explained to me why the children behaved so badly: “They have no god.”  Divine revenge is best.  A UKIP councillor has blamed destructive floods in Britain on the government’s decision to allow same-sex marriage.  The Prime Minister had acted “arrogantly against the Gospel.”  No man, however powerful, the councillor went on, "can mess with Almighty God with impunity," adding: “and get away with it.”

Better say nothing.  However, if God is Wolf, don’t build a house of sticks or straw.  Like the councillor, an Indonesian cleric blamed a devastating tsunami on the godlessness of the people. Losers.  We saw the proof on TV.  In the entire town, his mosque was the only building left standing.

It was also the only building made of bricks.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

A review of My Father as Mariner - Seven Essays, by Christopher Wells

In the preface to his collection of exquisite essays, Wells wrote: I might catch a glimpse of the whole man

This we do, and while the past cannot return, his gracefully crafted prose admits no sentimentality about his father – a man whose own craft made impressions on the sea each time they sailed, and whose influence is still being felt today.  Alongside this shoal of memories, the author has set some atmospheric prints from his own wood engravings, poignant snatches of the coastline which his family loved so well.  After all, it is near the shore that most people’s understanding of the sea begins, and perhaps where other understanding begins as well.

A charming memoir, a boat built to last, instinct with humanity and, most of all, deep love.

Monday, 13 January 2014


During a lesson, a small boy gave me a bookmark.  It didn’t look shop-bought.  He must have made it himself.   The delicate paper rectangle had been carefully coloured in.  He was very serious, as if handing over a piece of treasure.  It was one of those magical moments which teachers talk about.

             It turned out that he had stolen the bookmark from another child.

            You can steal ideas, too, and storylines from authors who are respected in the book clubs.  My next volume will have a touch of magic to spice things up, like a cinnamon-flavoured condom.  I see this panorama: an everyday object, mislaid decades earlier at the family home, is discovered by chance, leading a young woman on an emotive quest across oceans and cultures, particularly Asian ones, unlocking secrets which are centuries old and, where necessary, allowing her to travel back in time herself.  With this simple family treasure in her hand, she will find out the truth about her mother’s past, re-evaluate her own life, and appreciate the riches which have lain unnoticed in the world around her, in the people close to her, and – most importantly – inside herself.  The plot will reference historical genocide, caring for a relative who is terminally ill, and the American Civil War, but readers can absorb the bitter moments, and even condone the heroine’s incessant luck, if they value the power of family cohesion.  Not for this volume: vampires; erotica; space ships; a medical thriller.

          The young lady will, of course, also find romance.  My new book involves two lovers from different countries and different centuries. The time travel, remember?

don’t stay too long in Turkey
in the 18th c. or on
that beach in old Siam

when someone gives you syphilis, you’ll need tablets

Monday, 6 January 2014

Champions will be needed

When Australia was hit by a series of natural disasters – earthquake, flood, fire, and hail – someone likened it to Armageddon.  Sydney was obliterated by a dust storm.  One resident, Tanya F., told a journalist, “It was like being on Mars.”  She did add, “I haven’t been there.” 

            It’s important to tell the truth.  It’s even more important to be on the winning side. I borrowed The Valley of Fear from a library in Essex.  Someone had written on the pages.  Names were highlighted, sentences underlined, and alert questions like Is McMurdo Douglas? were pencilled in the margin.  At the part where McMurdo says, “I am Birdy Edwards,” I found the words I knew it! 

Knowledge can be a hollow thing.  Luck is more important.  When I was teaching in India, on sports day a pupil was hit by a javelin.  Of all the children in the school, competing, watching or just idling about while javelins fell like toothpicks from the sky, he was the one who got speared. 

You need to be in the right place at the right time.  In Australia, at the age of ten, I joined a new school, but was sick at home for the first couple of days.  When I finally made it in, I sat next to David W.  I had no choice.  It was the only seat left.  The other boys had been clever.  With two to each small desk, the chairs were practically touching; metal chairs, grey and cold, even in the summer.  I was on David W’s left.  As soon as we had taken our seats, he began to pick his nose with his left index finger. After a few seconds, he wiped a large lump of snot onto the edge of my chair, just below my right trouser pocket.  It was more than just wiping.  It was sculpting in wet clay, carefully making sure the stuff would stick.  And he did it openly.  There was nowhere else for me to sit. 

I don’t remember much about that boy.  He was demoted to another class the following term, but at a camp several years later, we had to share the same tent.  When we were packing up at the end, he found a piece of cardboard the size of a bookmark.  He passed it over, saying, “You can comb your arse hairs with it.”  It was the last thing he said to me.  What are the last things I say to people?

There is an apricot tree in my back garden in East London.  It no longer bears fruit.  On a warm evening, the terrace house behind it burnt down – not the house on the left or the house on the right, the one exactly behind it.  I watched as orange flames picked out the ink lines of its empty branches.

A little way down the road there is a girls’ school run by Roman Catholic nuns. For most of the summer, a canvas banner hung on the wall, promoting the Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries, “where champions are raised for end-time exploits.”  A logo put black mountain peaks in silhouette against orange flames.  The Ministries offer three-hour Sunday worship, Wednesday Revival Hour, when I guess you perk up after the rigours of Sunday, and Monthly Deliverance, ‘Strictly by Registration.’ I'd push straight for Deliverance.  I don’t know why the nuns let the Mountain of Fire and Miracle Ministries advertise on their wall, but if the end of the world was near, I suppose the local girls’ school would be the first port of call for a lot of champions.