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Saturday, 26 September 2020

Getting to Greece

Our afternoon plane from Birmingham, first booked before Christmas for travel in April then changed to September, arrived in Verona at dusk. A 25 minute bus took us to the railway station. Checking a map on my laptop we walked to 1 Via Mura San Bernardino. A texted 5 digit door code let us in. A foreign river, whose name I’d never heard, winds through the city, flowing with striking speed, audible from the walled banks. Beam to its torrent, a sturdy rowing boat could overturn or be swirled against a bridge buttress. After reading instructions and drinking mugs of green tea, Lin and I strolled up Via Mura to a unaggressive castle with arched geometric battlements. Through its centre a cobbled footway led over a sociable bridge with side walls and niches on which you can stand to look over the swirl of the milky coffee coloured river. 

River Adige from Castelvecchio bridge

“One of these bridges would be great for poo sticks … but you’d have to dash across dodging traffic to see who’s won”

“On this one, you’d need only dodge roller bladers, bicycles and electric scooters”

There was a bar at the end of the bridge. We sat under plane trees sipping generous Campari Spritz with ice and a slice of orange. The helpings of bitter Campari were generous, so I bought a soda water can to top up.

I was glad to be ‘abroad’ at last, on our way to Greece. Lin and I boarded a train at dawn, trailing our bags from our lodging in time for coffees at Porta Nuova Station. Men in army uniforms and boots, pistols holstered, stood at the gate to say ‘Preggo’, reminding travellers to cover their lower faces. 

Our April tickets had been shifted by Trenitalia without the April concession. Lin dug out €60 extra for tickets to Bari. The day before we’d taken a 45 minute bus to Lazise on Lake Garda. Old and new money seemed to have prevented the usual mess that commercial free-for-all can make of a popular resort. From the bus stop, a paved path sloped gently to the water’s edge between affable houses wreathed in bougainvillea, via the stalls of a market where Lin bought me sandals and she some jeans. The summery haze made the further shore of the lake remote but for a tiny smattering of trees, the water glassy calm, now and then ruffled by small breezes. We sat on a bench beside the blue water. 

A line of sturdy pines lined the promenade, their roots enclosed by marble frames - clawed and knuckled webs. I watched a small triple decked ferry. Its distant passengers enjoying the leisure of the lake. Minutes later small waves smacked the shore. It could have been the sea. We enjoyed a meal – pizza, mozzarella salad, chips, wine. “Romans sojourned here and discussed the state of the world looking over the water”

An hour’s wait for a change of trains at Bologna, and time for coffee and butter croissant across from the station. Platform 12, via a broad tunnel, then, as timely as usual, an intercity train; we, in comfortable cushioned seats, reserved in one of the first carriages, ‘socially distanced’.  For six hours we sped down the length of Italy. Oddly the train was diverted from the main line, somewhere by a hamlet surrounded by a wood - an Italian Adelstrop. We waited in silence, mildly anxious lest the delay became longer. Starting again the train ate up lost time, at one interval of the journey, rushing through a landscape of grassy dunes – “like in that film of the kidnapped child” we agreed simultaneously - on past miles of holiday apartments and beaches, sparsely populated, coated in ranks of parasols, arriving a few minutes late at Bari Centrali. 

The hourly bus to the port would take too long if there should be boarding ‘complications’. A taxi costing €15 took us to the quay for ‘Grecia’. I could see the familiar top works of our ‘Superfast’ ferry over parked trucks.

We had to prove to the women at the check-in desk that we’d received an email confirming we had completed and submitted a Greek government pre-boarding health declaration questionnaire – a Passenger Location Form. The screen shot of the email (not quite the full page, as the whole thing didn’t fit on the screen, but at the bottom it showed the important bit – the applicant’s name, date of birth and passport number), was not accepted.

“I must have an email with both names,” she insisted. Lin told her the email only mentioned ‘the applicant’s’ name. “No, I need both names on the email. Forward it to me.” 

Having told her we had no internet – no smart phone, now the norm for all - she directed us to the on-site Wi-Fi café a few metres away.

Sat there with cold drinks, Lin opened the email and confirmed that, as she -  ‘the applicant’ - was the only name that appeared, though the online form had had to be completed for ‘all  family members’. Indeed, when filling out the form, Lin had to sign to confirm that only one form was being submitted for us both.

“So what are we supposed to do?” I said. 

Before forwarding the email to the check-in, Lin added my name, DOB and passport number below hers. When we returned to the desk, this unofficial addition had done the trick. 

“OK. Have a good journey.” 

On board the ferry with relief we sat among truck drivers looking down on a cargo deck wrapped by engine roar, an undecipherable cacophony of welcoming warnings and instructions over the PA, as below us international lorries were skillfully reversed into their parking for the crossing to Greece. The sun went down. Imperceptibly at first our ship moved off, gathering speed. Later, having bought WiFi time, we received, as promised but not entirely expected, our ‘quick response code’ “to be sent after midnight on the day of scheduled arrival in Greece”. 

Later in the night, we chatted on HouseParty to Amy in Gloucestershire. Amy, who’d spoken of the challenges of parenting in competition with the tempting, sometimes bizarre depravities available to children, mentioned that “Someone thinks it’s a laugh to make a version of Peppa Pig that turns into an imitation of the stabbing scene in Psycho” We retailed other example of sad things that pop up on smart phones, caught in time by a vigilant parent who must then explain the idiotic naughtiness of teenage fellow pupils circulating naked pictures of themselves thinking it’s smart, or a friend’s son, Asian dad long disappeared, suborned on his phone by an EDL member seeking friendship and the recital of hate for ‘Pakis’. She told him he might well be proud of his background ‘which can save you a lot of trouble in life’ and confiscated his phone.  Amy suggested that as parents struggled and some failed with the raising of their children, so our government seemed to be struggling with running the country. It’s got too complicated.  

We snoozed a while on bar settees. I woke to see lights passing on the shores of the Corfu Channel, quite close, either side. No moon. A little later the ferry backed up to the jetty at Igoumenitsa. The vast concrete apron has little protection or guidance for foot passengers. We trudged in the warm night towards the reception buildings where we were directed to walk yet further to a pair of busy women in full PPE – face masks, plastic aprons – who were testing new arrivals, though not truck drivers, and a man who came “from a different country”, with swabs for the virus. They bustled as we shuffled, checked our QR code.

“All done” 

“Thanks. What’s your name?” 

“Eleni Vasiliki” 

“By by Eleni” 

We set out again across the apron. 

“I don’t think any of this matters. It’s all a big waste of time” said the affable but slightly jaded official who’d pointed us to the testing place and looked after our cases the while. Half a mile along the port road – a familiar trudge bumping over the edges of pavements and potholes with our bags – we came to the smaller Corfu ferry, climbed up steps to sit on Nanti’s top deck to enjoy the sun rise and a gentle breeze over the Ionian Sea as our island approached. 

A quick shop in our hire car from ValuePlus – all employees in masks – and Lin’s driving the familiar roads to home in Ano Korakiana. Vasilikki saw us as we came down the steps. We knew we could not hug or kiss. We held our arms out in greeting before getting into the house, carrying in groceries, turning things on, putting stuff in the fridge and making cups of tea and coffee. 

“Blimey! We made it”

Monday, 29 June 2020

Mid-Atlantic blue

Dear Luke. Thinking about the Voyage to America I wonder if there's a chance of getting colour footage of a mid-Atlantic trade wind. I've searched the web. I find only dramatic images of storms or waves breaking on shore. This is not what the sea looks like mid-ocean in good weather with a brisk wind below fleeting clouds; water five miles deep, waves of some height but because of their great length are more like the gentle undulation of dunes. 

These grand waves - deep blue in troughs; a spectrum to almost transparent aquamarine under crests that occasionally break. Along slopes, perhaps quarter of a mile, the wind disappears in the troughs, leaving them smooth, before, as the next slope rises the wind blows again on the water, ruffling it as a hand stroking blue velvet might raise a nap transforming its tone.
Imagine such a slow shifting seascape - as these large waves catch a boat from behind, raising her gently up, bringing a grand panorama into sight, pass serenely, almost silently beneath us - but for the gentle sounds of the boat's passage, slappings on the hull, creakings in the rigging, lapping water at the bow - passing serenely ahead as we slip into the next trough and our horizon closes to the ragged line of the next wave. If we could capture a few seconds of such unforgettable beauty it would convey a vision that seems quite rare. See you soon.

Saturday, 26 October 2019


Before first light the parched island is soaked by a drenching downpour, a timely damping down of hectares of tinder. We lie in bed surrounded by unaccustomed gloom, lightning flashing through the curtains, crashes of thunder, constant rumbling. Mountains and sea are obscured; our forested foreground, now grey-green under a drifting overcast. The trees beside the house are wrung by the wind. Pouring rain spatters our windows, its fall muffled on the roof tiles, echoing in the downpipes. Water spills over the gutters splashing on the common path. Where I left a small gap in the kitchen windows, the counter’s wet. Water glosses the plaka under the veranda, the decking and concrete of our balconies, dribbling from the  yellowing leaves of the wisteria, soaking the green and red of the bougainvillea, bowing its branches. Abruptly a quilt is welcome on the bed and I switch to shirts with long sleeves and socks. I wear underpants again; even a jumper in the evening.
From this day of rain a fortnight follows of clear blue skies. The mountains in the east – rising in Epirus and the southern tip of Albania – return, during these unexpected days of early autumn , to their Wedgwood blue haze. The strip of sea between Corfu and the mainland could be mistaken for a placid lake, our green hills along its western shore, barer land over the strait.  
After weeks of washing clothes by hand – no great problem - we’ve bought a washer to replace the old one Lin couldn’t mend. Mark took it away for scrap after I’d unbolted its concrete steadying weights. I've carried them down to the garden where they stand as modernist shapes. From the same store on the road to Lefkimmi we’ve also bought a new wood stove – exact match of the one that came with the house 12 years ago. Age and misuse had warped the old stove's lid; its body leaked smoke from cracks at each corner. I manhandled three hundred weight of cast iron down the balcony steps, through the apothiki, to the garden where, filled with soil from the compost heap, the old stove sprouts a young bougainvillea we’ve bought.   
In search of context I’ve been reading a school text describing British economic and  social history from 1700. It ends in 1975 when I was 33 - just starting to live in a grown up way so it seemed; helping me to try understanding the next 44 years – my small life's window that included marrying Linda, her having our two children, getting our own house, the job I’ve had until I left the university a few years ago; my bicycles and my travels on them, the advent of Mrs Thatcher, the routing of the public sector, privatisation, the ending of the narratives and ideologies of modernism with its vision in many dimensions of 'one society'. About ten years ago I was strolling, with my folding bicycle, along the slab pavement of the Thames South Bank in London. Under my feet I found a commemorative plaque celebrating the Festival of Britain - marking its centre. For a millisecond I caught a full-body memory of a 9 year-old holding mum's hand in just that spot pausing amid many people - an enthusiastic crowded space - in 1951. "I have no wish to return to that time. I'd rather be in the now and the future" I thought. But I liked the thought of having been there long ago. 

So...the changing fabric, population and demography of our city, Birmingham, and other cities, the implosion of empire, the blatantly diverging fortunes of rich and poor, automation, artificial intelligence and the spreading role of decisions by algorithms indecipherable by their authors, the vast harvesting of personal data, the end - almost - of posting letters in mailboxes, the ubiquity of screens and roving phones, the hours spent dealing - over the phone - with energy service companies, the world wide web which I entered only in 1995, personal data harvesting, the dilution of place as a product of vast increases in the ease of transience "I'm both somewhere and anywhere",  identity politics "I'm a type on a bureaucratic check list which is useful to know, and I'm not at all which is also a lesson"; the tsunami of superficial distraction, but also my allotment, my continuing work with family, on getting the work of my stepfather  - Jack Hargreaves - restored and published, and also our project with his descendant family ("such a privilege") to give a a wider profile to the laic sculptor of Ano Korakiana, Aristeidis Metallinos (1908-1987), my involvement with local campaigns especially Handsworth Park, the Victoria Jubilee Allotments...
With our grandson, Oliver, on Plot 14 of the Victoria Jubilee Allotments (photo: Tim Hamilton)

... Black Patch Park and our small charity Handsworth Helping Hands,
Handsworth Helping Hands committee meeting

...our encounters with the law, my membership of 1000Elders and participation, as a subject, in research into healthy ageing, the growing up of our children, the arrival of our grandchildren, our homes in Handsworth, the Forest of Dean and Corfu, the boat Summersong, and, the long association with the Highlands from a childhood Christmas at Fasnakyle through the time my mother married again and went to live near Inverness for forty years, to go back to the 35 years before 1977, my childhood, my abrupt encounter aged 12, on a desk in the study of a schoolfriend's father of black and white photo's, in a hard backed book, of thin bodies bodies piled on trucks and being pushed by a bulldozer into a pit, and youth, my old travels on land and sea, sailing the Channel...
Sailing to France in Two Pearls in 1963 (photo: Barbara Hargreaves)
... the coast of Brittany, the Mediterranean from France to Greece, across the Atlantic in Young Tiger from the Canaries to the Caribbean, my time in America, the faces of those who loved me and taught me, long dead but ever in my mind, the panoply of art, literature, poetry, film, music, sculpture, design, architecture that educates me, and enriches my understanding, my ever-present confusions, vexations and perplexities…
I’m also re-reading – much more closely than in earlier years - Out of Town: A Life Relived on Television by Jack Hargreaves. Published in 1987
‘...this book, like my programmes – is concerned with those times, with the feeling of the old, small-farming life and the know-how of it’. The story my stepfather tells is of the time when his mother and father met in 1889 to 1929 when Jack would have been 18 - ‘until I left the farm to go to London University and read Veterinary Science’  
*** *** ***
There can hardly be a citrus tree on the whole island of Corfu that is not now infested and blighted by citrus scale insects, which over the last two years have settled in numberless scores on the underside of every young leaf, sucking its sap to access its sugar, bringing black mould to the leaves' upper surfaces. We are almost entirely bereft of once plentiful oranges and lemons. We see no end in sight for this grievous blight.
Our orange tree struggling against citrus scale insect infestation, beside three more similarly affected lemon trees

Some cut down their citrus trees. Others pollard them severely. Many paint the tree trunks with asvesti (white wash) but these insects do not travel up the trees from the ground. They move through the air on broad vectors across large areas. The insects, sometimes in a symbiotic relationship with ants, return as soon as new leaf shoots appear. Some spray with insecticide, which works temporarily but is not good for the fruit. We try regular spraying of non-toxic olive oil soap solution under the leaves. It works a little. So far we have avoided the blackened waste that has afflicted some trees we see in passing. We've heard that Bayer have a systemic insecticide applied to the soil around the roots which kills to insects leaving the fruit 'safe' after 3 weeks, and lasting a year. We are considering this option. Meantime we maintain the soap solution spraying with a pump action garden spray. Naturalist friends say there may be a chance of the trees learning to resist the harm caused to the vital photo-synthesis of leaves by insects and mould. They also say that a predator on scale insects may emerge. This is a low visibility catastrophe affecting tens of thousands of lemon and orange trees on Corfu and surely elsewhere. I'm always pleased when travelling on the island I see, now and then, a citrus tree bearing fruit, it's leaves unaffected and healthy. I saw a tree full of oranges in a garden on high ground in a village west of Agros a few days ago. Is it are resistant species? Have the pest insects not yet arrived? Waiting like a evil character in the wings is the olive tree plague Xylella Fastidiosa.

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Simon Baddeley