Monday, 23 May 2016

Hair cut

There's no question that my hair needed cutting. But it leaves me feeling uncomfortable. Lefteris told me about a barber - Tantis - in the Jewish Quarter.
'Very good!"
I dropped by this morning at 10.15 and was sat down by the window almost at once, my hair cut with finesse in hardly 10 minutes for €8. Mike, Welsh by birth, is at least bi-lingual, clearly respected by his Greek customers.
"Just leave your folding bike outside. No-one will touch it"
Of course not.

After, I went to the butchers on M.Theotoki, and bought one and a half oven chickens. I'm having friends to supper on Wednesday.
Thursday, Friday, Saturday were days of grey weather, wet and even chilly weather...
...but Saturday evening hinted at the forecast for Sunday, when I decided to set out to cycle up to the top of mount Pantokrator again having tidied and tuned my larger bicycle...

...doing a last minute check on our upper steps just before 9.00am, then pedalling slowly and steadily upwards...

...Leaving behind the village dogs barking and cock's crowing. Just before St.Isadoras I turned sharp right off the road and up the rough track that cuts across the sides of the mountain above the village heading for Spartillas...

Hardly half a kilometre up the path I heard footsteps behind me. Stephanie on her morning walk-jog with the dog.
 "Blimey Steph! I thought I had the mountain to myself this morning"
She continued, just ahead, to a small perch in the verge, made by Wes, to have a drink before turning home...

...and touching a tree, reciting the lines from the sweet wise* anchoress Julian of Norwich
"All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well"
My path continued eastward, turning the corner towards different views from the slopes, my way roughened by rain-washed fissures in the path so that I'm wheeling over rubble...

...before the track smooths and leads over slopes, up and down, onto the metalled road that leads though vineyards to the road from Spartillas...
This is the track that Fokian, Mayor of Ano Korakiana, would like to see metalled all the way from Isadoras to Spartillas
...and so, to the turn upwards just south of Sgourades into the mountains where the landscape - north to the peaks of Albania and south towards Parga - grows panoramic.
The road that leads through vineyards and vegetable plots to the Spartillas Road

Just before one-o-clock I'm enjoying a diplo skirto and the views from the summit.
Albania from the grounds of the monastery on Pantokrator
It says in one of the recently unearthed Apocryphal books that ‘while life has no guarantee of ups to balance its downs, an elemental truth of cycling is that the discomfort of every ascent guarantees the free wheeling pleasure of an equal descent.

It took me just over four hours to get up to the top of the mountain - 900 or so metres - and less than two to dawdle back via Sgourades and Zygos. It took longer trudging up the hill to Sokraki where I had an early supper at Emily's, before descending on free wheels to Ano Korakiana.

I'm a little surprised and always delighted at the distances I can cover by walking, or, sometimes, when a slope is steep and I’m tired, by steady trudging. On the cycle journey to and from Pantokrator I walked three times: on the rough track from the church of St Isadoras up to the estancias beside the main road between Sgourades and Spartillas, about 3 kilometres; on the final ascent to the top of Pantokrator, an especially steep zig-zag kilometre; and 2 kilometres up the hill between Zygos and Sokraki, most of which I could have cycled earlier in the day, but now truly trudged.
Sailing, without a motor long ago, taught me how slow passages get you places. If a steady breeze gives 4 knots for 24 hours, you’ve covered more than a 100 land miles; at even 3 knots you cover over 80. Walking and cycling up long hills, skeins of invisible spider web, tickling my face, glimpsed as sudden bright lines that flash in and out of sight; the whippy tails of road-basking lizards scuttling into the grassy verge; birds unseen in the scrolling frieze of greenery – olive, cypress, oak, hollyoak, fig, prickly pear, bramble, bracken, and a jungle of summer flowers, some seeded into time clocks much bigger than dandelions’...
...lichen on drystone walls and roadside boulders; and, the kaleidoscopic surface of things, especially the road – a nail, a bottle top, the shape of a twig impressed in the tarmac when it was rolled. Layers of repair; starting cracks, some already moss riven.  Even fecklessly cast litter is defeated by the green abundance of beloved Greece in late May. I peer down wells beside the road; cool, sinister, echoing with a ‘plump’ from my pebbles. Kandylakia, tended with flowers, a wick flame floating in oil...
This stretch - hardly a kilometre - up to this Kandylakia from the Spartillas-Sgourades road seems the longest peddle

...The bicycle - faster than walking but especially when nearly as slow, toiling up a long winding slope - affords even more quiet than walking. No footsteps or stick-tap. In the morning I heard a cuckoo – intermittent as is their wont -  for half-an-hour along the track towards Spartillas. Now and then a gentle breeze from the north rustled the scenery, bringing the tinkling of sheep bells. In the late afternoon, just above the little bridge at Zygos, there came the sound of rushing water. Peering from the edge of the road, over nettles and tree tops, I could make out the sparkle of a stream fed by two days’ rain. All along my route every colour of soundless butterfly; bees everywhere, but invisible, amid the greenery; louder, a lone bumble bee bumping into flowers; and when resting on the ascent to Strinnilas, the muted soundscape of the whole island, the occasional rumble of planes leaving the airport, heading north over the mountains; the buzz of a strimmer and the up-down sound of approaching and departing cars. Many went by, and back past me, after visiting the top of Pantokrator, stopping now and then for their passengers to capture a memory of the landscape on a tablet. I saw bicycles too, ridden by younger more accomplished cyclists, on much finer machines than mine, climbing - effortlessly it seemed - up slopes too steep for me to cycle.
Mount Mikhalakadhes – 852 metres, 2700 feet - on route for the top of Pantokrator "I was cycling up the side of that!"

Supper in Sokraki soon

*I write 'wise' for her discourses following the revelation that 'it was necessary that there should be sin'. I know of no lamp that I, sans faith, can hold to the darkness of what I've read of human depravity since I first studied the Shoah שואה in youth. Julian wrote only God can allow us to stare into the abyss, yet see light. I strive to make sense of Primo Levi's suicide. He is a Jew, yet an atheist, who, in his life-time, I believed had, having been forced to descend into a hell, returned from that man-made inferno, to speak and write to us, with optimism - my catechism.

Friday, 20 May 2016

On the green island

It suppose it started with a family clamber up to Kassiopi Castle in October last year, when my 4-year old grandson Oliver was asking "Why?" - about everything. I invented explanations for the remains of that mighty fortress now in ruins,  inventing yarns about pirates coming in boats from the mainland to attack Corfu.
"Again!" he calls after I try to finish with "and so the pirates were driven away with lots of 'ouchies' and the villagers of Kassiopi lived happily ever after"
"Again granpa!"
I don't mention Turks or barbarians or try to recount how the Ionian Islands, especially Corfu, were, for centuries, the front-line between Christianity and Islam. But - for real - in July 1716 the Ottomans, well aware of the strategic importance of that foreign island fortified by infidels on a western border of their mighty empire, made yet another attempt to capture Corfu. That same August, the Venetian defenders, including many native Corfiots, led by the mercenary general Count Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg ended the Turkish siege, and drove the 'pirates' - with many 'ouchies' - from the island, never to attempt another invasion.
To celebrate the victory, Antonio Vivaldi was commissioned to write a musical work to be performed in Venice. Last Thursday it was performed in the grounds of the Old Fort in Corfu.
“Remind me of Italian names for women beginning with ‘G’" said Stephi.
We were trying to remember the name of that Renaissance artist who’d painted Judith and her maid-servant struggling to kill General Holofernes. I let the thing roam my brain as we stood, unable to get seats among an overflowing audience inside the church of St George, the old British Military Chapel inside the Old Fort  – venue for Vivaldi’s Juditha Triumphans. Outside the chapel windows, over the heads of people sitting in niches, I could glimpse the darkening sea ruffled by a wind from the south.
Wesley had asked me, with his friend, Derek, to join him and Stephanie for the evening, collecting me from Democracy Street, driving us to the city.
A name flashed up “Gentilissi?”
“Yes! Something like that”
“I’ll check on Google, my brain sucker, tomorrow. It’s a much more violent illustration than the one on the poster for the concert”
Abra and Judith killing Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi 1614
There was clapping, a few words of introduction by a descendant of the great General Schulenberg “who would surely have sorted out the current crisis of Greece”, more clapping, and then lovely music and singing.

Near the back, standing in growing warmth, I could see just the faces of the lead singers – four women, the tips of violins and dipping bows, and the heads and shoulders of the chorus when they stood. Four faultless voices backed by formal Renaissance melodies spun the grisly apocryphal tale.
Soprano: “A noble lady of the enemy has come to our troops asking after you, mighty Lord Holofernes. And soon, believe me, she will be yours – you have only to set eyes upon her” 
Yes indeed…
Soprano “It is not long now until the rising of the dawn; scattered across the heavens the stars are twinkling; within the tent the a flickering light is dying; the entrance stands open, I can see no-one. But alas, alas, what is this Blood everywhere! Alas, what a hideous sight! The headless body of my Lord lying drained of blood!..."
Chorus: "Hail, Judith, beautiful and undefeated, the glory of our nation and our hope of salvation. You shall forever be the ultimate model of true virtue glorious throughout the world.” 
Sound, in the great roomy cube of the chapel's interior, was sublime - a chance to stretch my attention span, and test the staying power of my legs – though, just before the interval, Stephanie and the others edged through the standing crowd ‘for a breath of air’ and I was glad of the excuse to leave at the interval. Next time I’ll make a point of arriving an hour before a concert starts, but this was the first of its kind for me – a reminder that Corfu has a capital city; that it may be an island but an island with a culture as far as can be from insular.
*** *** ***
Tordorrach Farm, Strathnairn, Inverness-shire
I love cycling. I’m a cyclist of the rambling kind, liking good but not the classiest of bicycles; travelling when I use my folding bike on buses, and all the other public transport where it’s available. I don’t measure my performance. I enjoy covering distances in the easiest way. Thus maps fascinate me, as do hints of new and simpler ways to get from A to B, pondering the means of combining buses, walking, and cycling. At the spanking new Green Bus Station, south west of Corfu's city centre, I collect the latest schedules on single A4 sheets. Richard P, to whom I’d sent a web link to the wicker coffin that Lin bought on eBay for Arthur’s funeral, complains about the new depot – Ο Νέος Σταθμός...
I have forwarded in turn to the daughters who will be in charge of the waste disposal when the time comes. I discovered to my alarm and despair that the bus station moved over the last weekend and one is now deposited in a no-man's-land near the airport. Too too shaming. RP 
Dear R. Is that bus station move a permanent one? Coming into town, there must be a point you can get off earlier with a reasonable walk to the city centre. I hope so as I too rely on the bus. S
It has been planned for years - a real, modern, bus station - fully functional, devoid of humanity, androids serving coffee, miles from anywhere because planners do not take people into account. At present there is no stopping point between Lidl and the terminus but they will surely have to invent one, as it goes everywhere except where one needs to. Bring back the old one - at the Spilia - sez I…  
I’m trying to work out how you get from the new and inconvenient (except for airport tourists) Green bus terminus. No problem where it is for me. I just use my folding bicycle which stores in the luggage compartment. I suppose there’s a shuttle into town, but there might be a convenient stop closer to the city centre. It seems rough on the local people who have no interest in being close to the airport and want to get into town. If you find out anything vaguely positive let me know.  
…there is a shuttle but that is presumably not a long-term solution - the bus into town goes up the long hill past all those shops selling electronics etc, down the other side, out onto the roundabout by the 'other' Lidl and there you are. In the middle of no-mans-land. The return is even more stupid as it goes all round the world, including San Rocco, to come out exactly where it should have started from, but doesn't stop!
I have just been at the new Green Bus Station. It’s as miserable as you’ve observed. But the staff are proud of the place. I strolled in wheeling my little Brompton bike and was ordered out again. I folded it up and was forgiven. But at once two cleaners arrived to wipe the floor where my bicycle wheels, leaving no marks, had passed. I gather there’s a stop on the way out of town by the Old Port – Café Sette Vente - which may make things a little better, but as I cycled into town from the new station up that brief stretch of firmly divided dual carriageway - Ethniki Odos Lefkimis - I passed a single file of tourists negotiating the narrow rough path (I wouldn’t call it a pavement)... 
Passengers from the new Green Bus Station making their way into town up Dinatou Dimolitsa
...that runs up Dinatou Dimolitsa, leading to a longish stroll up Mitropolitou Methodiou into San Rocco Square. A mess! I admit the old bus station was probably not so good on health and safety with people and buses and diesel fumes mixing it in that little space, but it was agreeably located. Like most things people will get used to it, but I cannot say or think anything good about this non-place, its access so unfriendly to anyone on foot. 
"people and buses and diesel fumes mixing it in that little space" are what bus stations are all about. Clinical health and safety is not. R 
I’ve been enjoying an hour fulminating with my neighbours in Democracy Street, leaving as the complaints about the new Green Bus Station became ever more heated...The new location is ‘μακριά from the centre of town; indeed ‘οχληρός’ for everywhere that matters - clinics, pharmacies, shops, offices, the ferries, friends! S
Two days ago. I lose track of time on my own in the village I took the 9.00 Green bus into town from Ano Korakiana - a blue sky day.
Lazaretto Island from the bus into town

Dawdled criss-cross the city, perfect for slow cycling and pretending to get lost; in and out of shadowed alleys and broader promenades, weaving gently among the most un-maddening of crowds; had two long filter coffees in an armchair at a marble table among the many bookshelves inside the panelled dimness of Plous and did my email – which was when I learned that Gill was bringing a new colony of Buckfast bees back to the allotment. I bought two mini-prosciutto rye-bread rolls with small wafers of Parmesan, poppy-seed sprinkled at Artissimo on M.Theotoki just off N.Theotoki. From there I cycled via Vrachlioti to Evgeniou Voulgareos – now nicely pedestrianised with bumpy cobbles – into G.Theotoki mixing it again with motorised traffic as I rounded San Rocco to steer left down one-way Dimoulitsa towards the new bus station.
I couldn’t resist trying out an unmarked diversion down a winding greenery lined road past apartments and gravelly car parks, relying on sense of direction I cycled round the back of the bus station, entered a cul-de-sac, escaped via a narrow footbridge into the car-park of Lidl...
The new Green Bus Station off a dual-carriageway - just beyond the man on the motorbike

...70 metres west of the station, easily approached along a new pavement, and in time to treat myself to a boxed portion of orange cake – portokalopita – from a nice woman at the café (no android) before boarding the 13.15 bus to Sokraki.
On the more familiar part of the journey via Tzavros, Dassia, Ipsos, Pyrgi, I savoured the two rolls. Then we began the long climb up to Spartilas, the view of the Ionian Sea widening, as the driver skilfully took his bus through the 28 hairpin bends into the village. Then we were winding on level road through olive groves and valleys to Sgourades after which the bus turned down the long hill to Zigos amid a visual assault of greenery along roads profusely verged with white, yellow, blue and red wild flowers. A hairpin at Zigos and we head up the even narrower hill to Sokraki.
Up the hill to Sokraki from Zygos

Two other passengers most of the way. The sea in the north appears in the distance, serried green ridges in between, dotted with villages; olive branches now and then brushing the roof of the bus. When we stopped in Sokraki I stepped out to find the driver had already unloaded my bike.
“You live on an island of great loveliness”
I had rehearsed in Greek, even so thinking it was a silly thing to mumble to a bus driver who does the journey every day “You are fortunate”
We shook hands
“Thank you for such a journey! Bye bye. Now I shall cycle down to Ano Korakiana”
“Ah” he smiled “Ano Korakiana”
First I cycled a few yards into the little square of Sokraki where I ordered a bottle of retsina, three souvlakia and chips with tomatoes and bread at Emily’s Taverna. The breeze was cool, the sun going in and out of fluffy white clouds, and I was glad of the waistcoat inside my thin jacket. After the meal I ordered a diplo skirto – a large Greek coffee – and asked if there was anything sweet. Emily’s daughter, whose name I didn’t catch, shook her head.
“Do you mind if I eat my orange cake with your coffee?”
“Of course not”
So I finished mixing coffee, water, sweet cake and the last of the retsina.

Dozy, I cycled happily to the edge of the village where the road snakes homeward – 29 hairpin bends. In a burst of love – and slightly tipsy - I rang my daughter
“Hi darling. Just wanted to say I’m on a mountain at Sokraki looking over the sea to Greece. I was thinking how much I love you”
“Yeah Dad” I could hear Guy and Oliver and Hannah in the background. The phone was on speaker “Hullo grandpa hullo grandpa hullo “
I could swear the last “hullo Grandpa" was Hannah’s voice, far clearer than when I saw her a fortnight ago.
Sokraki - I phoned Amy

The road from Sokraki to Ano Korakiana, from a corner where I can still see the sea on both sides of the island
In no time, though I stopped now and then to sit on a road side wall to gaze at the view below, I was home on Democracy Street, folding my bicycle, getting into small tasks and having ideas, on the next fine day, of my cunning route to the top of Mount Pantokrator, or another low road to the village...
In the heat of the afternoon I like to take the low road through the woods and stop for a picnic on the way

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Plot 14 after six years

One morning last summer

‘In the leaves of every forest, in the flowers of every garden, in the waters of every brook, there are worlds pullulating with life, as innumerable as the glories of the firmament.” Thoughts on Animacules or A Glimpse of the Invisible World Gideon Algernon Mantell (London 1846)
Two months ago a young woman walking in Handsworth Park called to me through the fence behind my allotment. She wanted to know how to rent a plot here. I told her the procedure
“Contact Birmingham City Council Allotments Section or fill in a form on the council website, naming Victoria Jubilee.”
I asked gently about her experience of gardening “None”
“Go for a vacated plot that’s had work done on it. The ground here needs a lot of work. It can be disheartening.”
I told her something of the history of how these allotments had been saved from being built over and how relatively recently they had been opened by the City Council, handed over in far from adequate condition by the developer of the neighbouring houses on the Victoriana estate.
Plot 14 backing on Handsworth Park - just after taking on the allotment in June 2010

A few months later Winnie tells me that, while I was away, the person who’d enquired had taken on the almost entirely unworked plot next to mine, and another next to it. Both!
A sample of the stones and rubble strewn across the Victoria Jubilee Allotments

Since then, a month ago, we’ve seen no-one working either plot. Both are thick with couch grass,
Couch rhizomes long and shallow, leaching nutrients
large stones and, I suspect, the same additional rubbish that, over five years, we’ve slowly cleared from Plot 14. On the other side – Plot 15 – an old Sikh man drops in now and again and does a little more heavy hoeing at one end of the plot, cultivating a bed of onions and garlic. His plot, outside a few square yards, is also heavily overgrown with couch grass and brambles. He comes and sits in the shelter of our shed veranda now and then. He was grateful to Winnie for running a strimmer over his plot – a measure that also helps prevent his weeds spreading to Plot 14. Sometimes I wish we had immediate neighbours from whom we could learn, but at other times I like the relative isolation. Active gardeners from further away drop by to look and chat – so sharing happens across the site. I also like many of the wild flowers cropping up on our neighbours’ fallow ground.
The first consignment of 'Black Gold' is delivered to enrich the soil of Plot 14 in 2014

March 2015 – into the fifth year from the month the new VJA opened – saw Plot 14 becoming the success I always hoped for but didn’t quite expect.

Yes. By the summer of last year we had gluts, and suffered insect attacks and other failures but, between us, Winnie and I had got on top of the weeds, especially the ubiquitous couch grass. The steadily enriched soil, greatly de-stoned, is at last loamy and fecund, accessible by spade.
June 2015

My best crops were potatoes, Jerusalem Artichokes, garlic, parsnips, onions, peas, beetroots, broad beans and runner beans. Cabbages and cauliflowers disappointed. Turnips and Brussels sprouts failed as did some potatoes – riddled by wire worm.
'The Winnie Hall Fruit Pavilion' in March 2016. One plotholder called it 'The Taj Mahal'

This year with Winnie, my essential partner on the plot, we’ve constructed a sturdy 15’ x 15’ fruit cage, after one I started last autumn was blown away by winter winds...
Failed fruit cage last November. 12 well-driven stakes jubilee-clipped to plastic coated steel poles support the new one.
I've bought, and we've set up, an 8’ x 8’ wooden greenhouse fitted, like the shed, with guttering to harvest rain in two butts.
Winnie and her son Dennis help lay the greenhouse foundations

The greenhouse - an Alton - is old but high quality, re-erected on a solid but legal foundation of rail sleepers and compacted rubble next to the shed, where I used to grow Jerusalem Artichokes.

A greenhouse opens up more possibilities of incubating seed and bringing on seedling plants.
A small pond, put in last winter, seems to have attracted frogs. We’ve an asparagus bed of mature crowns donated by a vacating plot-holder. I’ve made a map of the plot’s 24, now 26, separate beds and am keeping a log of activities – what’s planted, what’s harvested, mistakes and successes.
First map of Plot 14, combined with a log for work on each bed
We’ve managed to get free supplies of wood chip and gravel to lay on several walking areas, all of which are covered with weed suppressant textile. I’ve got working compost organised into three bays - helped on some days by my beloved grandson...
...and friends.

My fruit trees are getting older and may even produce fruit this year, while I’m hoping the raspberries, loganberries, gooseberries and strawberries planted late last year in the fruit cage will produce a harvest, as also our three two-year-old rhubarbs. I’ve now got potatoes more organised, having grasped the idea of first and second earlies and main crop. And, latest news, we now have a colony of Buckfast bees – brought in by Gill Rose to replace the bees that went berserk last June and were so sadly but necessarily destroyed. And a wren has made her nest in the shed veranda...
As Amy said "A hole in the roof's better than a well-formed bird house?"

We’ve got a BBQ and tables and chairs for visitors and have already happily celebrated two birthdays on the plot – the gazebo in the shed brought out to cope with rain.
BBQ on Plot 14 organised by Amy for my 74th birthday

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