Friday, 9 September 2011

The best of all possible worlds...

Common swallow tail on our balcony
Attempts to preserve a Panglossian perspective are assailed by Richard’s choice of films for us to watch here. Monday night we watched Ajami; last night Animal Kingdom. Superbly filmed and acted they start off at low points – the casual street assassination of a young boy in Palestine, a youth watching an Australian version of Deal or No Deal finds his mother dead in the same room of an overdose - and descend from there in the proper form of tragedy, consequential and predictable – but unlike classical tragedy no relieving conclusion, though I suppose the young man finally shooting his murderous uncle and becoming the family's new strong man in the Animal Kingdom was a catharsis of sorts. In Mike Leigh’s Another Year the happy couple worked an allotment with their happy son, a cyclist, with his sweet sensible girlfriend, but misery revolved around them as unchanged as dead moons circling a living planet  - the last image a long hold on Mary’s desolate face, silenced amid animated conversation about travelling the world.
“You don’t half download some films Richard” said his mum over the phone
“You mean too realistic?”

In a fortnight Anthony Scoville and his wife Helen will be our guests, their first visit to Greece; the first time he and I will have seen each other for forty six years. Tony was attached to me by Prof Russ Ackoff for a few months in the summer of 1966. I had a minor temporary post as research drone at The University of Pennsylvania. I had been supposed to join a Norwegian tanker as a fieldworker to observe the effects of a socio-technical design – which in line with the Norwegian Industrial Democracy Programme begun after WW2 – was intended to create a humane and efficient relationship between the work seamen did and the work done by machines. I still have the telegram.
In May I got a terse message via Russ from my future employer Prof Fred Emery, at the Tavistock, that my ship had ‘blown up’. I’d done anthropology at Cambridge; I’d spent 6 months sailing to America. It seemed like a perfect assignment. Instead I was directed to work at the Wharton School on a project funded by Anheuser-Busch helping analyse data from a survey of US drinking habits, relying, for the calculation of percentages and standard deviations on electric - not electronic – calculators, working through piled in-trays of completed force-choice questionnaires – work that a few years later would be mechanised, results transferred to IBM punch cards, for analysis by computer.
Our focus was to find an answer to a question put by the mightiest beer company in the world “Could Americans be persuaded to drink English bitter?” Guinness had a steady market among the miners of Pittsburgh but could there be a significant market for a brown stout brewed from hops – what some who’d visited Britain called “lukewarm English beer”. Many years later we know the situation was entirely reversed with lager becoming Britain’s default ale, especially among the young. Our theoretical perspective, to assess which I and others were processing data, was that people’s drinking habits evolved, starting as social drinking – where identifiable flavour and even alcohol content were of no great importance – graduating, as people grew older, experienced its up and downs in varying degrees, to one or the other of two main approaches to drink; reparative - drinking to face reality, and so not interested in getting intoxicated, and indulgent - drinking to escape, valuing a drink’s intoxicating qualities. There were plenteous intervening variables but a picture was emerging of the drinks preferred by each type. A spectrum, light in the centre, and dark at either end, with light and flavourless beers popular among the young, and stronger beers, at either end of the spectrum, preferred later. The most bitter at one end were chosen by reparatives, the sweeter at the other, were associated with indulgence.
At various points on this dividing scale people might switch from beer altogether because other drinks better fulfilled their needs - social, reparative,. indulgent and combinations of these. The marketing-production strategy prompted by this research entailed identifying one of these switching points and designing a new beer with a new brand that competed with the profile of the drink to which the consumer was planning to switch. A few years later it was this understanding of social drinking that led to Guinness introducing the first British lager – Harp. Young people, typically men, enjoy the company of their peers but socialising as been known in history, myth and later social research, is inhibited by peer rivalry. Young men are wont to claim they can rule the world, certainly the roost, but very privately they have doubts about this. The company they seek, as they escape the orbit of elders, to allay such hidden insecurity is one most likely to exacerbate it - other men their own age. Inject social drinking into this simmering testosterone soup and internal group rivalry and fear of intimacy is suppressed and companionship enjoyed. Thus was the new lager branded the lad’s sociable tribal drink, quite different from the individualised and classically reparative medicine of dark bitter Guinness preferred by men who ‘can take their drink’ rather than those who seek to become egregiously smashed in the company of peers. As for the indulgent I realised the import of the astute slogan “There’s a promise in a glass of Mackeson” – the brand, in its extreme, of the lonely toper sinking into sugary oblivion. I would have preferred to be at sea – a predisposition that Fred Emery, a brilliant man who switched twixt indulgent and reparative in his drinking, referred to as ‘oceanic’ and I’m not sure where that puts me as a drinker. I recall being in a dark temporary flat in Philadelphia wearing shorts and a T-shirt listening in stifling sweating humidity for the six-o-clock cloudburst to rattle on the corrugated iron stoop roof sipping an ice cold beer, feeling bereft and lonely in my aloneness - something I've never felt when on my own at sea.

Just a year ago, helped by the web, Tony Scoville got back in touch. I replied ‘you made those months in Philadelphia interesting’. He replied, to my surprise, he thought it was the other way around. I recall weekend journey’s with him and several friends by train, plane and automobile from our whitewashed shared basement flat in narrow east-west Pine Street, in whose sitting room he’d found me a bed and book space, to the house he’d designed, and with our help, was building on a ridge above a rolling wooded panorama deep in the Connecticut countryside; no settlement for miles and miles; American space and scale. Le Corbusier was Tony’s architectural exemplar. His house, its lower floors complete enough for living, was called Corbu. We roamed between finished rooms and the skeleton of the future building – minimal difference, stark modernist. There was at least one musician. I recall a lute played from a reclining modernist chair; poetry recited over an American breakfast dish – French toast - bread slices steeped in whipped egg, skillet fried, served with maple syrup to taste, before we set to work. One chillier weekend Tony shot a deer – clean and quick; gralloched it by the edge of a deep pinewood. I was sure this was Robert Frost territory. I felt my lack of talent in this company, hence my astonishment at Tony’s recent reply about our old friendship.
One thing I thought I had going for me amid the Wharton School’s scary reputation for smart practical research for corporate America was that I’d just sailed the Atlantic, but the switch from months of ocean swells sprouting flying fish, azure sea and white sands below trade blown palms to serried desks in air conditioned neon lit offices had created in me a depressed insensibility that matched the repetitive work to which I’d been assigned, while trying to make sense of socio-technical theory from papers sent from England, readying me for the ship-board fieldwork that would take me back to England on the Irish Spruce.
Tony shook me from my daze, making my first sojourn in America a memorable interlude of extended conversation about ideas and events in the world, rather than the start of a sentence. He lent me his Landrover to drive a thousand miles south to Miami and trail my boat back to Washington where I’d managed to sell it to two young lawyers.
Just now we’ve been exchanging emails – about seeing the remains of the ancient in modern Greece, about what he and Helen might make of the Acropolis and its new museum, what they might see in the Peloponnese; their route over the Gulf of Patras to visit coach crowded Delphi; catching the ferry to Corfu from Igoumenitsa, how to get to us in Ano Korakiana; recognise our house in Democracy Street; plan a visit to Albania and later Zagori.
Dear Tony. Yes the Greek code is +30 and Helen’s Greek SIM card will work, if it’s like ours, up to 50 miles outside Greece. Do you recall it was you who introduced me to Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus - and here I am two centuries later again reading Camus’ The Outsider. I realize I understand it better than when we read it at school because our French teacher left out key passages. I’ve only just realized this (we were reading L’Étranger in class in the late 50s in French). Our teacher left out just why Meursault might have helping out his friend Raymond in connection with the woman with whom he’d been having a failed affair. That omission – censored because about a sexual liaison - made the killing look as if committed entirely without motive and Meursault, a ground breaking example of that familiar inhabitant of modern fiction, the predatory psychotic as anti-hero. I’d always thought that was why the novel was notorious. It’s not like that at all, Foolish violence – yes; but the murdered man had, with friends, been trailing Meursault’s friend Raymond threatening revenge for the beating he’d given their sister. Raymond had asked for help. When Meursault came across one of the men on the beach, his victim had drawn a knife at which Meursault drew a revolver. I’ve been labouring decades under a misapprehension that Camus had described a motiveless murder. (:))
But then it is in long retrospect astonishing what in the 1950s we – in our teens - were not supposed to read or know. When Monserrat’s bestseller The Cruel Sea came out, we were reading – at prep school – the 'cadet’ edition. We’d compared passages in full edition one of us had smuggled into school. It revolved round a cuckolded sailor’s wife appearing at the top of the stairs just as he’d come home unexpectedly. She had ‘something on her nightie’. The amount and intensity of censorship seems astonishing now. I recall the courage it took me, at 16, to buy a ticket to The Windmill Theatre where, so long as they didn’t move, women could be on stage without clothes. Things changed with the failed prosecution for obscenity of Penguin, the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.
“Is this a book you’d allow your servants to read?” asked the barrister for the prosecution. I’d been taught by my mother the confidence that sexual passion was neither dirty nor shameful. She mentioning things in passing, gave me John Donne's Elegies to read...

Licence my roving hands, and let them go
Before, behind, between, above, below...

...also Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress – 'And yonder all before us lie deserts of vast eternity'. In a round about way I came to understand that most of the unhappiness between people who tried to live together stemmed from something wrong between them in bed – a cruel circumstance because that was something which in those days, and even now, people have no more idea how to discuss with each other than I had in early youth of how a woman could stand naked on stage in front of people. For a good while I was incapable of understanding how men and women who wore clothes got, at some crucial point, not just to take them off but to do it in front of each other – with the lights on, perhaps in the middle of the day, even out of doors.
On reading the headlined verdict, I went in a break to a bookshop in Victoria Street and bought a Penguin edition of Lawrence’s novel. I started reading it unhidden as I strolled back to school, utterly absorbed and moved, especially when Connie in pouring summer rain deep in the forest sees the keeper’s baby rabbits and stroking them begins to weep uncontrollably and Mellors begins to caress her. … Years later I remarked to my 10 year old son that we ought “to chat “ and he no doubt alerted to the possibility of such an approach said, in a wearied manner, “Let me show you my text book from school” In this he had written and drawn things under the tutelage of his human relations teacher which if not in style or emotion exceeded the details I’d explored in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Being the 1980s there was now information about how the AID’s virus could and could not be transmitted.
I mentioned my annoyance at being so long confused about the Outsider, and Linda, who’s also just read it again, exclaimed “Yes that’s the same version I was taught at school. There must have been an expurgated Outsider – the same we read all those years ago.”
“I’m quite vexed about that” I said.
*** ***
On Tuesday evening we were at a WiFi’d hotel to do our mail and swim, a place for Brits Abroad – cacophonous, bleach blond or bald and all ages plump - spraying Sky Sport with frenetic voices over a tape of pop relayed through speakers to the pool and its grassy surroundings, chat peppered with curses; wingeing toddlers. ‘what a fuckup‘ faces. “Why do we come here?” I asked Lin “I’m not sure” she said. “For respect and quiet we’d do better in the company of outlaws.”

** ** **
I was up early this morning in time to see the sun rise over Albania, coming round the corner of Pantocrator. A house away beside Leftheris garden a neighbour has chickens, the cock crowing as the village wakes, still setting too early to avoid the heat, though the days are growing cooler already.
*** ***
We were up late last night as Lin, as the Treasurer for the Central Handsworth Practical Care Project's rescue group, composing a letter appealing against a £300 penalty for being late submitting the project's tax return. It was nearly 1800 words overflowing with detail, summarising extenuation:
....Taking into account the detailed information supplied above, the Voluntary Advisory Group, on behalf of the CHPCP Committee, are appealing against the imposition of the penalty charge by HMRC on the basis of the following extenuating circumstances:

• On 19th May 2011, as a result of the death of Ms Foley and lack of management of the Project thereafter, there was no officially appointed agent with responsibility for submission of end-of-year figures.
• On 19th May 2011 CHPCP was entirely without the means to manage its affairs, with its financial circumstances unknown to the Committee and no responsible individual available or authorised to communicate with HMRC.
• No member of the Committee was aware of the workings of PAYE and the requirement to submit end-of-year figures.
• No member of the Voluntary Advisory Group was aware of the requirement to submit end-of-year figures until informed of this by BVSC in July 2011.
• No member of the Committee had access to or an understanding of the financial information required for the submission of end-of-year figures.
• End-of-year figures were not available until the Voluntary Advisory Group completed examination of CHPCP finances in July 2011.
• Although BVSC were supplied with accurate end-of-year figures on July 17th 2011, figures (which were inaccurate, as already explained) were not submitted by BVSC until August 11th.

Had it not been for the hard work over recent months of a small, unpaid group of dedicated volunteers, the March 2011 situation would have continued indefinitely.
** ** **
The sounds of the village are all about, reassuring, embracing. Lefteris prepares a little wine from his surviving grapes, Fortis takes the kindergarten books from the closed school - soon to be a special school for Corfu - to the bandroom in the centre of the village, Thanassis Spingos on the village website reports a 50th anniversary DVD celebrating the village band and recording its history.
Between times we've been at work on the house, sanding and painting another window frame, general cleaning including the minutiae of niches and corners, preparing the dining room walls for a damp resistant treatment that involves injecting a silicone solution at six inch intervals over the core area of dampness - a problem that has created an impressive landscape of shades on the stucco, leaving a musty smell in the room even in summer. Lin, after I'd drilled, blew the dust out of each hole with a straw, her face covered with a towel, in imitation of the Swallowtail with its proboscis dipped in our Bougainvillea. It's good to be here.

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