Thursday, 17 April 2014


The previous owners of this house cut down three trees in its small garden to make room for a dish that would enable them to view the same programmes they watched in England. They took it when they left. One of the amputated trees recovered. Lefteris thinks it's an orange. We don’t know. It’s not blossomed since it was cut a few centimetres from the ground. Now its leaves reach over two metres and it bears, for the first time we’ve been here, a few blossoms. 
Five clusters of flowers, hidden amid spiky leaved branches. 
At last! Blossom on the recovered tree? Is it orange or lemon?
Will the tree bear fruit again? Right next to our wooden balcony is a fine orange tree, blood orange – one that fruits bi-annually. It's fulsome with blossom.

“Every two years. How do you know that?”
“Last year no blossom. This year, as two years ago, a proliferation” 
“Perhaps that’s because the blossom wasn’t pollinated”
“There was no blossom to be pollinated”
“How do you know?” repeats Lin
“I remember” 
Many bees have been visiting the tree. Their industrious mumble starts at first light. Continues into late afternoon.
"We just need those bees to spread some pollen on the recovered tree"
"But is it lemon or orange?"
I wade in ignorance, but dip a paint brush into the flowers of the fecund orange tree's blossom and with its pollen yellow from the stamens dab the pistils of the few blossoms on the smaller tree.
"Try the lemon tree too?"
I repeat the process - collecting the precious dust from one of our richly blossoming lemon tree stamens, so that the flowers on the recovered tree may be doubly fertilised.
Pollen from the fecund orange tree's blossom - the yellow at the tip of the brush

"So if this works; if the pistil I've dabbed with pollen..will it turn into fruit?"
"Should do"
A few days later I'm hanging out laundry to dry and hear a buzzing round the little tree and see bees searching. Then as I stare, one, and then, two bees are all over two of the blossoms, searching, probing, touching stamen and pistil with their bodies. 
I've been reading John Crompton's 1947 book The Hive about keeping bees - not, in the first place, for their honey. 
Crompton, though not anthropocentric, is the more readable for unashamedly attributing wisdom to bees, interpreting their actions as if they thought and planned like humans. The odd thing is that despite his admission that his interest in beekeeping began with wanting to ensure the fertility of his fruit trees, he does not at any point in the book describe how pollination actually occurs and what follows its success...The Orange blossom has a stamen (anther and filament), pistil (stigma, style,and ovary), sepals, ovules, and petals...
I do hope Gill has managed to obtain a new swarm to re-populate the hive on Plot 14
Building a surround for Gill's empty hive on Plot 14
*** ***
We watch the series Game of Thrones  – first two seasons, and want to know what happens next.
"We're on series 4" says a friend
Earlier we'd watched Breaking Bad – sometimes three episodes a night. Then for a break from that story telling, a look at a Catherine Cookson yarn on DVD, her recognisable characters and familiar turns – the evil landowner, a self-made working class man, a fractured childhood love consummated at last. If it’s not film then I’ve my head in a book, perhaps two at a time. I embrace narrative.
"But you know these great stories, these assemblages of creative talent entertaining audiences across there world; their sucking my brain, leaching out imagination. Instead of inventing things out of words and thoughts on a page, all - music, sound effects, words, faces, places - are created for me to enjoy. Passively. These brilliant sagas use ingenious technologies to colonise what in a book I would be imagining."
"Oh yeah? Then why do you find it so exciting to see those bees cuddling the blossom recovered from the sat-dish placed over them?"
Scripts and above all coherent plots with beginnings and middles and ends, encompassed within a time-scale that fits my sense of the dramatic, stimulates me to excitement and fascination at ‘what’s going to happen now? The great war is anticipated; in minutes it’s upon our characters and then, wreaking havoc, it’s past, and the plot is picking up pieces on its route to a happy ending.
"Let's have coffee?"
“Isn’t it almost ironic” I said to Lin, after an especially gripping episode of Breaking Bad, “that we had to exercise will power not to go on to the next, even though it’s so late…yet here we’re living in a country in a crisis such as we’ve not seen in our lifetime. We struggle to grasp it’s drama. We’re like the crew of a vessel far out in the deep ocean that rides a tsunami unnoticed – except through our instruments -  because the wave that will wreak such harm on reaching land, raises us an imperceptible foot and it's hundred miles wide.
A cold grey day in the village. Lin and I wait for a bus to town to see our accountant
Whatever is happening here is often easily ignored, though on the bus a Greek friend broke off a five way conversation between fellow passengers, one that was started by the young driver as he collected our fares for Ano Korakiana at the Green Bus Station in the town.
"We are discussing 'the situation'"
Our impression is of people weary; exhausted, most of the time showing a brave, even cheerful face. But one of the passengers, a neighbour, has a problem with her heart. the clinic here says she needs an operation in Athens.
"It's financially impossible for her. There's supposed to be money set aside for the poorest, but it's not getting to them"
Panos Kokkinias’s Yiorgis

A young man in traditional Greek garb – white pleated skirt, embroidered vest and red pompoms on the tip of his shoes – is floating, his arms outstretched, in the still, turquoise sea. It’s unclear whether he’s dead or just resting from earlier battles with the open water. This photograph, more than any other piece shown in the new exhibition No Country for Young Men in Brussels’ Bozar complex, captures the question that many are asking about Greece today: What is going on with Europe’s first bailout victim?...
*** *** ***
It seems as if we never let up on jobs to prepare the house for the family arriving in a matter of days - painting, joinery, stone laying, filling and drilling...
Take apart a well-used palette, removing nails, sanding smooth, varnishing. Prepare the space between wall and carpet in the room where Oliver will sleep - no longer in a cot. Glue and screw the boards to the wall; top them with a trim; itself sanded to fit the top of each board, and then fill any spaces left between skirting and wall.
"He's got a lovely view from his window"
"Sure he can't climb out?"
Grandparents, as we did for our children, scan every inch that way
No job seems too small.
"Can you recognise the leg on this plastic table that has been replaced" I asked Sally when she came to lunch yesterday.
"Four new legs, Simon!"
Lin's been preparing the dining room as a temporary bedroom - a space for our friends and their baby.

"They need to be able open the stable door top without worry about mosquitoes and flies. I need to make a screen"
Getting that to fit the top of the curve exactly was tricky.
Getting DIY supplies from the ironmonger at Tzavros

Our shutters and several window frames are wooden. Their paintwork lifts under the Greek sun. Parts need sanding, undercoating and repainting.
Linda makes a neater step for the veranda door from pieces of recovered marble, bringing me pieces to trim with the angle grinder...

As Easter approaches young Lefteri and his father, Foti, paint asvesti - lime-wash - on the edges of steps to out two houses. That's being done all over the village; all over Greece.
"It's good if the rain holds for three hours!" says Foti
Which it does. The wet grey mix turns dazzling white in a sun burst through the chilly overcast.
Lin's applying her mix of blue paint to furniture - bedside drawers, chair, shelves, cupboard - for Oliver's room.
...and of course that unattractive of old men's attributes - nose hairs - must be plucked.

*** *** ***
Yesterday evening at Saint Athanasios at the bottom of the village...

Το Ευχέλαιο της Μεγάλης Τετάρτης
Γράφει ο/η Κβκ   
Τη Μεγάλη Τετάρτη το απόγευμα, η Εξομολόγηση και στη συνέχεια το Ευχέλαιο, έφεραν αρκετό κόσμο στον Άη-Θανάση. Ο χώρος στην πίσω πλευρά του ναού (πίσω από τα στασίδια) είχε πλήρως ανακαινιστεί από τους Επιτρόπους και εκεί ο ιερέας δέχτηκε τους προς εξομολόγηση πιστούς. Στη συνέχεια τελέστηκε η Ακολουθία του Ευχελαίου, στο τέλος της οποίας οι πιστοί δέχτηκαν από τον ιερέα τη σταυροειδή χρίση με το αγιασμένο έλαιο, προς θεραπεία του εσωτερικού κόσμου και ακολούθως προμηθεύτηκαν για το σπίτι αγιασμένο έλαιο από την αναμμένη κανδήλα που είχε τοποθετηθεί σε τραπεζάκι μπροστά από το Ιερό.
efxail2014c.jpg efxail2014e.jpg efxail2014d.jpg 
Και ενώ ο πολύς κόσμος είχε αποχωρήσει, ξεκίνησε όπως προβλεπόταν η Ακολουθία του Όρθρου της Μεγάλης Πέμπτης, πιο γνωστή ως τελετή του Νιπτήρος.
Έξω, βαδίζοντας προς το σούρουπο, η πτώση της θερμοκρασίας είχει ήδη αρχίσει να γίνεται αισθητή...

Sunday, 6 April 2014

"...a change in the heart of things"

Skimmed  by the bulldozers - the site of the new Victoria Jubilee Allotments in 2004

The soil spread by the developer, when re-creating the space for growing things, is acknowledged problematic. Didn’t Susan Green from Douglas Road, other side of Handsworth Park, phone me the day the site opened for inspection by those who wanted allotments?
“No way am I taking up a plot, Simon! The ground's full of rubbish. There’s dry clay just below the topsoil.”
My enthusiasm overrode her carping, but she had a point. The site's in a wonderful place, a great green space under two miles from the centre of Birmingham, marching beside Handsworth Park, whose trees provide its skyline, backdrop and, when the wind blows, sounds that override the city's rumble. In some parts the topsoil, such as it was, got bulldozed back into place, over the heavy-plant-compacted ground of the builder’s work yard. Ralph’s dug down several feet on his plot, broken up the hard surface down there, and, with pick and shovel, removed a ton of hardcore so his plot can drain. Our plot, next to the Park fence, is out of that zone, but since I’ve been working it I’ve removed the remains of the previous gardeners’ equipment, fragments of brick and slab, parts of greenhouses  - frames and broken glass - wire, pipes, guttering and plastic bags – skimmed by the bulldozer into a stew of soil, wood and shattered sheds that sat like a dyke, a good 15 feet high, 80 yards long, squatting for nearly a decade behind the terrace houses along Holly Road. I saw it through a friend’s upstair’s window.
“One day” I assured him “there’ll be a cricket pitch there and beyond that allotments”
“I’ll believe it”
For years I peered through a barrier as the developer's workers dug over the site
Of that agreement, only the allotments have so far arrived. The ground for them was laid out by sifting out the trunks of a couple of ripped up sycamores, and bulldozing the pile back into place across the north west corner of the site – 80 plots divided by gravel and drained paths.
Then in 2008 the layout began

The surface was raked of its most obvious obstructions and allowed to sit and grow weeds for a couple more years...
Weeds were spreading and the site was still not open in 2009

... until in June 2010 the Victoria Jubilee Allotments went public. Lin and I chose our plot in an ideal spot, adjoining a tap, near the remaining hedge, a gently sloping aspect down to Handsworth Park for whose restoration we and many others had lobbied over many years. I couldn’t have been happier, enjoying the extra pleasure of knowing that these allotments might never have been but for the prolonged local campaign I’d led to gain a city negotiated Section 106 Agreement that had the developer, who’d wanted the whole site for building, passing two thirds of it back to the public domain for allotments and playing fields - the latter still to come, despite an agreement made in 2004. Thereafter the challenge has been mine. John Martin teased me gently “Simon! You’ve been excited by the idea of working an allotment”
By 2013 I was arriving back from a time away, reluctant even to go out to the plot. It’s not just that the soil left us by the developer was so intractable. Far from it.  A few gardeners on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments have been producing successful harvests since they started here. I am not one of them. I have struggled to turn the 'idea' that John spoke of into a properly worked garden producing food that Lin and I can cook and eat at home or pass around the family. There’s a sturdy shed with the tools I need. Paths. There are fruit trees, and of course Gill’s beehive has a home here. I’ve won a few crops – broad beans, runner beans, potatoes, spinach. But they’ve arrived in desultory ways.
"How can I prepare something with your veg unless you warn me?" Lin complains
Other enthusiastic applicants for plots have left after a brief struggle with the ground, with couch grass and the latest annual weeds. I have no intention of ‘giving up’. The 'idea' keeps me going. I’ve argued with Ziggi.
“I’m generations from the land. My ancestors were city people from the start of the industrial revolution. We don’t do ‘back to the land”
She disagrees. We were at Dukes in St.James. She said she was as removed from the land as I.
“It’s wanting to cook and eat things you’ve grown”
We're both right. You must know how to grow; know how and when to crop and store and you must know how to cook and enjoy the eating.
What matters is that perseverance and a decision to work harder on the soil last autumn has marked a change. I've abandoned - at least for now - the idea of cheap home grown veg and spent money that would be beyond imitating the ideal envisaged in the 1908 Allotments and Smallholdings Act*  passed to help a working man feed his family in the city from an 'allotted plot'.
I've invested in manure. I've bought top-soil. I've paid our helper from Handsworth Helping Hands - Taj - to concentrate on digging and weeding, digging and weeding, digging and weeding; adding in the manure as he goes and removing the larger stones, piling them at the back of the plot or using them to edge paths. I - no 'we' - are beginning to get some degree of farming on this 200 square metre piece of ground. Even far away from it, I dream about the plot. I imagine seeds germinating, saplings blossoming, seedlings, if they survive the pigeons, settling in to grow. While Gill waits to find another swarm, I've worked around the empty beehive and replaced John's slightly shaky net structure...
...and in the last few days of England planted and planted - potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, spinach, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts. I dragged furrows. Laid topsoil there and bedded my young plants and seeds in it, watered them in and added another thin layer of new topsoil, friable as a nursery play garden's, and then raked a small layer of the cruder earth over the top, chatting to them the while like an idiot, keeping an eye out for Oscar watching at the steel fence for passing dogs to growl at; bitches to pursue via one of the opening's in the fence I've failed to block.
In you go, darlin's

At Luton in the night we waited for a dawn flight to Greece. I'd slept on the coach to the airport missing tedious stops on the way and now we chatted and did dopey things to pass the time.
At last we're in the sky, reading, snoozing, snacking, in the compact spaces of budget flight until we're 'aware of the horizon beginning to strain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet us... '
Karaburun Peninsula from our Easyjet to Corfu
 ...descending beside the Albanian mountains west of Vlorë, hardly a hundred miles north of the green island and beloved Greece where I kneel to touch the concrete half pretending a problem with balance.

In hours we're at work again, cutting the greenery that blocks the path below the house, tidying the small garden, and - at last - cutting out rotten sections of the wooden balcony...

...straightening the floor in the small bedroom upstairs where some 'lazy idiot' - we know who - had laid a chunk of flooring grade chipboard with no cross beams between joists... that it sagged the width of the small room. We sawed out the chipboard in two sections to extricate its edges from the wall plaster; put in cross beams, fixed them with angles screws to the joists while resting on battens I'd nailed to the joists. Screwing down the curled up edges of the chipboard, we removed its sag; all this before we can add varnished skirting of wood recovered from a dismembered palette waiting in the garden.
Rotting balcony wood replaced

*There are plans to remove certain statutory protection of allotments, by giving local councils more 'responsibility' when it comes to being blamed for implementing the new national planning policy framework:   The full list of secondary legislation, orders and regulations (with commentary provided by the DCLG) that the department intends to abolish or amend is as follows:
1. The Small Holdings and Allotments Regulations 1919 Remove. This required councils to get the consent of the CLG Secretary of State for certain actions in relation to allotment land, such as if they want to purchase allotment land or lease allotment land to an association or lease allotment land for more than a year at time.  It is not considered that these regulations have effect any longer and this will help clean up the statute book.  

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


Plot 14 on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments
I'm making a more robust surround for the beehive on the allotment, before Jill finds a new swarm to replace the hive lost in the wet; four 75mm x 75mm steel stake holders sledge hammered in a rectangle and four seven foot lengths of tantalised deal.  I'll add cross pieces for strength, a gate and staple on netting. At the same time I'm planting more potatoes, both for the crop and for improving the soil. It is time for spring cleaning...
Spring by Abel Grimmer 1607 - a picture from Antwerp drawn to my attention my Maria Strani-Potts

...but how the wind blows cold from the the east, often from the north east, with rain.
Wet cold weather in Birmingham

We're working through a list of errands. It seems that what we've doing every day for weeks. Vague things go wrong and have to be diagnosed, tools assembled for repair by us, or someone employed. Yesterday Alan came to install a replacement door in LIn's flat on the Hamstead Road...
...and as he worked Winnie and I emptied rubbish that had accumulated in the basement for a donation to Handsworth Helping Hands...

The previous tenant had for some reason removed the kitchen sink u-bend.

"Why?" asks Lin "Why would someone do that?"
They'd also managed to remove one and displace another aluminium edging strip, and somehow separated the same sink from its counter in a complicated way that cracked the formica. With a metal strap and a new leg to support the arrangement the worktop is useable again.

As we attend to these jobs and more, we've also been taking rubbish to Holford Drive scavenging rubbish from a front gardens at the request of the householder...
Handsworth Helping Hands

...taking scrap metal to a recycling company instead of leaving it for the profit of the local scrap collectors...
Tariq Ali at One Stop Recycling weighs our scrap metal delivery

*** ***
Jim Potts recommended a book which has just arrived
Greece and Britain since 1945, second edition, editor: David Wills
25η Μαρτίου... (from the Ano Korakiana website)
Παρά τις προβλέψεις και τη χθεσινο-βραδινή βροχή, το πρωϊνό της 25ης Μαρτίου ήταν γενικά ηλιόλουστο,γεγονός που επέτρεψε την πραγματοποίησης της μικρής παρέλασης που πραγματοποιείται τα τελευταία χρόνια στο χωριό. Μετά τη Δοξολογία στον Άη-Γιώργη και τον συναισθηματικά φορτισμένο επετειακό λόγο του Διευθυντή του Ειδικού Γυμνασίου Κέρκυρας, η τελετή συνεχίστηκε στην πλατεία του χωριού. Εκεί, υπό τους ήχους της Μπάντας, οι εκπρόσωποι των τοπικών αρχών και φορέων κατέθεσαν δάφνινα σταφάνια στο Μνημείο του Άγνωστου Στρατιώτη. Η κατάθεση στεφάνου από τους μικρούς μαθητές του Νηπιαγωγείου ξεχώρισε…

25thmarch2014b.jpg25thmarch2014c.jpgΑκολούθως η μικρή πομπή βάδισε τον κεντρικό δρόμο του χωριού, με τη Φιλαρμονική να συνεχίζει για την Κάτω Κορακιάνα και αργότερα για την πόλη και τους υπόλοιπους να κάνουν στάση στο Κοινοτικό Κατάστημα για ένα κέρασμα. Εκεί, ο ιερέας(παπα-Κώστας), η Πρόεδρος της Φιλαρμονικής Δώρα Μεταλληνού, ο Πρόεδρος του Τοπικού Συμβουλίου Φωκίων Μάνδυλας, ο Πρόεδρος του Συλλόγου Ανω-Κορακιανιτών Αθηνών Σπύρος Κένταρχος και η τελετάρχης και μέλος του Τοπικού Συμβουλίου Ειρήνη Βιτουλαδίτη, είχαν την ευκαιρία για μία γενικού περιεχομένου, συζήτηση…

Υ.Γ.1.Η δυτική πλευρά από τα κελιά του Άη-Γιώργη χρήζει όπως φαίνεται, άμεσης επισκευής, όπως παρατήρησαν διερχόμενοι κάτοικοι, που παρακολούθησαν τη σημερινή παρέλαση.
**** ****
This is one of the best briefings on the Greek War of Independence that I have come across, recognising the myths and respecting them but also showing the role of chance and the machinations of the great European and Ottoman powers, ones in which the wondrous land is embroiled to this day...

A comment in Facebook during a discussion of Greek Independence Day on 25th March 2014: Corfu was never but for a matter of weeks occupied by the a British citizen I have been brought up knowing 'we' have not been occupied by an invader since 1066; that we have been a haven for so many who have lost their country. England, Britain, has been threatened with invasion but we have never had to fight off a foreign yoke in our midst - one that in the case of Greece has dominated us for centuries, taken away our capital city, one which the rest of the world rightly calls Istanbul but which Greeks still call Κωνσταντινούπολις. The passion, glory, violence and cruelty of the Greek War of Independence are difficult for 'us' to understand. Even as I perpetuate my own, it can be difficult for me to see myths regarded as more important than history. It was only after I had learned a little more about the events of those decades at the start of the 19th century that I appreciated the words of Solomos' National Anthem "I recognise you by the fearsome sharpness, of your sword"; that I understood why Greeks are more protective of and sensitive about the honour of their flag, which signifies in its blue and white stripes, the colour of the Greek sky, nine syllables of the phrase 'Freedom or Death' Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος. When I hear the Greek National Anthem - Ὕμνος εἰς τὴν Ἐλευθερίαν - I get a lump in my throat; my eyes burn with tears, recalling that when Britain stood alone shortly before I was born, Greece of all the Balkan nations stood against the invader winning, before she was overwhelmed by the might of Hitler's arms, one of the first victories for the Allies. I detest flag-waving nationalism but I have to admit that other than my own I know no flag other than the blue and white - Γαλανόλευκη - that fills me with greater love and respect for another country.
Ὕμνος εἰς τὴν Ἐλευθερίαν
Greece one morning long ago
**** ****
On Monday morning an email from Christina in the Highlands; Christina who with her husband James so kindly took on the care of mum's terriers, Lulu and Bibi:
Lulu runs with Oscar, Malo and Cookie on the shore at Fort George, Moray Firth

Dear Bay Simon and Sharon. I am heartbroken to tell you the saddest news about Lulu and I am so sorry. Darling girl managed to get under the gate in the field at the end of a long walk with James on Friday afternoon and was run over on the road by a van. We rushed her to the vet but she died in the car on the way.
 We are so desolate as we had got to love Lulu so much and she had become a wonderful part of our family including the grandchildren's who adored her.   James and I have been in tears most of the time since  - singing hymns in church yesterday was not good!  
Anyway James dug a grave for her in our now rather large doggy cemetery in the lovely bit in our garden - so she is there with our little Bumble and all the dogs we have loved so much since James' grandparents time.
We have such lovely memories of Lulu including her running along with those ridiculously big sticks about 10 times her size! - James says she was such a fun little dog.   Mattie is rather lost too at the moment because they played together in the garden most of the day but darling Bibi just skips around as usual - thinking about food, whether it be her own or the llamas!
I am so sorry to make your Monday morning a rather sad one but we thought we should tell you asap however difficult.
We do hope all's well with you all.  We haven't met the new people in Brin Croft yet but see their motor home from the road as we pass. You may well be back in NYC Bay by now and you Simon in Corfu - must say the morning here could be in Corfu if it wasn't for the frost - the bluest of skies and the birds are singing madly! Sharon do hope I have your right email - I emailed at the end of last year and so hope it caught up with you - I think you may be having big worries with your parents.   Would you be able to check the email address I have used Bay and forward this to Sharon if needs be.
Anyway this brings our love - keep safe. Christina xx
Oscar and Lulu in the meadow below Brin Croft
Dear dear Christina. Thanks so much for taking the trouble to write to us. Writing must have been difficult and it's miserable for you. That’s what Mondays are for! I bind up little Lulu with missing mum and tho’ I’m sad such a lively little dog is no longer here I’m not not feeling as directly sad as you must be, or as devastated as we would be if our Oscar died. All of us know you and James did the best you possibly could for Lulu and more. It was such a consolation that you and James, even before mum left us, had assured us mum’s terriers would become yours, and they have and did - in the same country under the same sky. Lulu had, as you say, a streak of crazy mischief which would have had her leap into the Farnack in spate to capture a passing balk of timber ten times her size - the kind of unthinking pluck that wins medals. I shall think of the small spot in your lovely garden, under snow and frost and in the lovely Highland summer with the sound of the birds. I will tell Amy and Richard and Liz and Lin who also knew Lulu. We will all, especially Sharon, miss the biscuit coloured dynamo. Lulu had a good life. Let her run with mum. Dear old Bibi later. Lots of love to you and James and the family. We are all well. Amy expecting a daughter in July. X Simon
Sandra, Anthony, Simon and Lulu, Barbara, Bay, Raef, Susie at Coignafearn (photo: Dave Roskelly) 

With Lulu in Glen Orrin

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