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Saturday, 21 January 2012

"Please, sir, I want some more"

After the last meeting of Handsworth Helping Hands we’d agreed I'd contact Jo Burrill at Midland Heart, who's also now chairing our local housing forum. I phoned first. She was positive, so I wrote at once:
Dear Jo. Thanks for the phone chat. We're hoping that in early March 2012, as a pilot, we could use the kit held by the HHH project  to carry out a first job, gain experience and show we’re back at work. Can we clear out rubbish from the frontage and rear of 36 Westminster Road and from the entry beween 1 and 3 Turville at the junction of Turville Road and Westminster Road? Can Midland Heart, once we’ve agreed a price, replace the stolen metal gate between 1 and 3 and provide the means for us to dispose of the refuse we clear? It seems to us a shovel-and-barrow job rather than a litter-pick. To be able to empty a barrow we need a skip rather than one of the 660 litre wheelie bins that I was mentioning on the phone. How much does Midland Heart usually pay for a job like this including skip hire, and how would the contractor judge the quality of our work?
Jo replied almost at once:
Dear Simon. Thanks for you email…In principle, we can assist HHH with your first job and I have spoken to Val Browne who is the housing officer for general needs housing on Westminster Road and Turville Road...I have provided some more specific notes below related to your enquiry…It may be possible to clear out the rubbish and the frontage and rear of 36 Westminster Road. If there is significant rubbish there at the beginning of March, then we can arrange for this work to go ahead. The average cost for the Westminster Road job would be in the region of £xxx.  1 & 3 Turville Road is a shared ownership scheme and are therefore not managed by the housing officers, who would be your regular port of call for any future jobs. A team called Commercial Operations manage any shared ownership, leased or outright sale properties. I will approach them about the issues that you have brought up regarding the rubbish and the gate, but I would recommend that we choose another different site that is a general needs property. I will consult with Val or any other Lozells, Birchfield and Housing Officers to identify a suitable job.
When dealing with other contractors, the price quoted to the housing officers would include the job and disposal (see the quote for Westminster Rd rubbish clearance above), so would not include any addition amount to cover the cost of skip hire. In my experience skip hire is around £100 - £150 a day, but I suppose the cost of disposal at the tip would be factored into a contractor’s prices….From speaking to Val about how she usually works with environmental services contractor. She will send them details of the job, they will return with a quote within around 2 days, if she accepts the quote she will probably expect the job to be completed within the next 7 days. Once the job is completed, the contractor would update the housing officer who would then release payment. Cost and efficiency of service are a housing officer’s main factors in preferring a contractor. Hope this is helpful – if you have any further questions, thoughts or queries please get in touch…Many thanks Jo (Facebook page Jo B Midland Heart and local news and events in the area)
We learn more already, about types of property ownership, the quoting process, prices with and without disposal. So. Fingers crossed.
*** *** ***
If wanted to be on my own, which I don’t, I’d stay at the Travelodge off the M5 junction for West Bromwich, 10 minutes cycle from Handsworth Park. My first afternoon in Ano Korakiana, as I went about checking the house, a text invited me to supper. Another the next evening. Only last night did I stop off at the butcher in Pirgi-on-sea to get some mince – the same word works in Greek, though it should be κιμάς - to make a spaghetti sauce. One of the canaries in the shop – twittering away - has a hatch of three. The butcher drew up a chair below a bank of cages. She took down one, gently shoo-ing the she-bird off a tiny nest in which a featherless brood lay snuggled.
“Επίσης” I said proudly “Κόρη μου…my daughter” I made a sign of a belly bump
“…είναι έγκυος;”
“βεβαια. Ένα γιο…το πρώτο μου εγγονός.” "A boy...my first grandchild"
I’d rehearsed this conversation about our Amy’s expected child with our tutor Nikos, so left feeling quite pleased that I’d at least been understood.
On lowest gear the ascent to Agios Markos where the road to Ano Korakiana levels for a couple of miles was easy pedalling. There were hunters with 12 bores stood at intervals along the verges looking out for the evening flight of blackbirds and thrush.
Thursday morning I bought a fresh crispy loaf, baked in the village, from Stammatis in the shop, grated a potato for hash browns, fried two fresh eggs with three rashers of bacon and served myself on the balcony.
Round midday, Adoni and his sister-in-law, Maria, were seeing to the delivery of olive firewood, strewn on the street from a small truck. I helped carry logs down our shared steps into their garden. Effie came out and we embraced. I must have a meal. Pressed to sit – I needed no encouragement – she plied Adoni and I with village rosé and a shared platter of cheese, sausage and fresh crusty bread and a plate of large beans - φασολιάς - in tomato sauce. Wages for our work. Vasiliki arrived. Again hugs. Later I took one of our long delayed Christmas cards to her husband Leftheris
“Ο Σάïμον!”
“O ‘Λευθερί!” I kissed my friend's afternoon stubble…both cheeks.
*** ***
Last lines of a straggly email from Lin with her parents as she takes her dad for his medical treatment:
I had a job getting online here, and the signal, which wasn’t there at all last night, is very weak. No doubt you’re already having a wonderful time. Give everyone my love and give the cats a stroke for me – if they’ll let you. Lin x
The sun was warm enough to dry the washing I hung in the garden. On arriving I’d turned on the water heater forgetting I’d turned off the water supply when we left. No boiler pilot. No hot water. I got ready to change a blown immersion element, taking a snap to remind myself of the wiring, unable to rinse away the stale of my journey, planning to cycle the next day to get a new element from the plumbers at Tsavros.
Then I noticed a tiny trip switch in the plastic junction box that carries the shaft of the heating element. The tip of a small screwdriver re-set it. Turned on the power, on came the pilot. I was punching the air, for sorting it and for the anticipation of a hot shower. Last time this happened I didn’t understand how anything worked or what needed replacing. I disassembled the bottom of the boiler including the drain plate releasing gallons of rusty water mixed with a kilo of lime scale on my head.
Outside the house, on the east wall that’s tricky to get to, Paul and Lula’s people have completed - so far as I can see - a list of small jobs; just the sort of things for which you need friends since this kind of piddling but essential work, is a builder’s curse, involving lots of time for small reward compared to a laying a roof or a building a balcony or painting a whole house. An a/c unit we seldom use, fitted by the previous owners, was stopping a French windows opening fully. Now I can, on a sunny morning, swing open both doors to the panorama that’s one of Ano Korakiana’s gifts. There’s now an elbow joint in the external stove pipe to drain away water and wood oil so it won’t get blocked so regularly. A messy surface of cracks and crumbling plaster around the kitchen window has been made good, along with a plate screwed over an unnecessary space above that window....
...I can’t check the effectiveness of two other jobs - the straightening of the roof gutter so that trapped rain drains at once to the ground, or the filling in of holes in part of the eaves that let rain leak down the wall of a bedroom. Corfu’s having an untypical winter drought - plenty of cold weather; no rain.
“The wells are right down” Mark told me.
“Suits me” said Sally, not having winter mud pools at her stables below the village.
I’ve removed a pretentious faucet over the bathroom sink – one that splashed water over the floor when you washed.  These things are hardly consequential, but like a hangnail or a minute splinter, it’s pleasant to have them sorted. We’ve no blood oranges this year. Normally in January our tree would be fecund with them, but we saw no blossoms back in October. Last year’s hot summer produced a dearth of pollinators. There are many many lemons. Their trees blossom earlier in the year. The dry weather means I couldn’t test the success of our efforts to make the big balcony leak-proof giving us a dry space below and protecting the wood from decay. All seems as we left it but the normal winter downpours and the oven heat of high summer will be the test.
I’ve been pootling about with minor housework, bringing wood from the apothiki to below the house, some to fill the log box by the stove; finding a discarded stapled grocer's box, fiddled it with wire, and a little paint, into a passable rear carrier for my larger bicycle.
Towards Friday evening the sky clouded over. The air grew milder and it was raining. I strolled with umbrella up to Paul and Cinty’s house to deliver the third late Christmas card.
“You’re washing’s getting wet!”
“I know. Do you want a cup of tea?”
The big room upstairs - but at street level - which combines kitchen and sitting room was warmed by a wood fire so efficient it needs hardly a small log an hour. We caught up with the news; Paul just back from a yacht delivery to France; Cinty’s daughter gone with her grandma to Australia. Where could I buy some wood? Another person buying a house in the village phoning Cinty to arrange a meeting to get a picture of the place from her.
“Aren’t we lucky living in Ano Korakiana?”
“Yes indeed” I switched to white wine and two kinds of good cheese. We spoke of favourite authors. Her interest in Edward Lear’s tours around Greece and Albania; his wonderful landscapes before the age of concrete. I mentioned the novels of Ismail Kadare, also The Bridge over the Drina whose author's name slipped my memory.
“Got it - Ivo Andrić. But some places haven’t changed so much”
She spoke of the new year tour she and Paul had made with Mark and Sally in Zagori.
“It seems you had Greece almost to yourselves” I said, a little envious, having seen some of their landscape photos and the friendly cosy interiors of their wood fired lodgings.
“Now there’s an area in which I wouldn’t mind driving a car” I said “up and down long winding lonely roads, crossing rushing streams with ancient dry stone bridges, brown leafed oak, dark pines, towering mountains… the parts of this country most people don’t know.”
We spoke of Australia again which her daughter is loving on her first visit, planning a job there to pay for travel. I related the places John Martin had taken me to over the three successive visits I've made there to lecture with him across the continent. Cinty\s mum recalled being at art school with Barry Humphreys "He was wonderfully strange even then - made an exhibition of paintings with pasta" I thought what an antidote he's been to those Ozzie stereotypes held by some foreigners of inadequate males jeering anything they didn't understand as poofie. Of indigenous Australians whose art I'd seen in Melbourne and later with some of my Japanese students in Tokyo, deeply stirred by the paintings of Emily Kngwarreye. Cinty mentioned a Victorian ancestor - an horrendous story - of treating casual his labour with arsenic-laced flour to avoid paying them.
Once home, a two minute walk up narrow Democracy Street under street lights by cosy shuttered interiors…
…I put the remains of yesterday’s spaghetti and sauce on the cooker, lit the stove upstairs and ate a slow supper - postponing Attenberg and A Separation in favour of comfort viewing - I watched Roman Polanski’s  Oliver Twist, a tale which like Dicken’s Christmas Carol, I must first have been read, in abridged form before I was ten; re-reading and re-watching it this last 60 years. Its characters and plot have the resonance of a founding myth for my time on earth. I was as I expected enchanted, moved, amused, sad and happy at the tale’s consoling moral symmetry, its depiction of criminality censored by Dickens, his publishers and his readers, many who must have known of worse depravity than picking pockets, housebreaking or even a single murder.
Rachel Portman’s music was perfect for this return visit to old villains and heroes – Oliver, Mr Bumble, Fagin, Artful Dodger, Bill Sykes, Nancy, Mr Brownlow, Bulls eye Bill's dog, the flame-lit  Victorian dystopia; its green sunlit opposite. Polanski - or was it Ronald Harwood’s screenplay - didn’t play to the Victorian box-office that goodness in Oliver might - even must - have to do with genteel DNA. That turn of the plot was left out; unneeded. Of course as I realised later., as well as telling a good story, Dicken’s chief target was not his notorious villains, but the torpid consciences of his own class gorging themselves at freighted tables, embellishing with righteous censure their judgements on the fate of the poor who passed before them.

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