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Saturday, 29 December 2012

My best Christmas present?

Drab monotonously wet weather persists, twirling the garden windmills, swaying tall leafless trees between the houses. The buffeting wind has become the sound of the city; its mechanical rumble muted - by recession, migration and privacy. The sodden faded greenery between the houses is abandoned, a march for crows and pigeons and the small birds that visit the seeds and nuts hanging outside our kitchen window.
On Christmas evening I was ill with norovirus, confined myself to bed and home between bouts of stomach wrenching vomiting, recovering on water and cups of tea and porridge, feeling frail. Lin caught this a few weeks back; Richard's Emma had it a day after me, and then Lin's Dad, back in Cannock, came down. Thanks to our diverse population Richard found a chemist open - Calstar Pharmacy on Lozells Road. She sold us loperamide hydrochloride - Diah-Limit - to calm my insides and oral electrolytic powder - Dioralyte - to replace water and salt. When your weak it's difficult to imagine being strong but within 24 hours I was fine - but not feeling like eating any left over turkey.
 "It might have been those oysters you had on Christmas eve" suggested Lin.
"It won't put me off oysters. That place serves the best in Birmingham and it's the first time I've ever felt ill after eating them. More likely someone with the virus didn't wash their hands"
For presents, Linda gave me a knapsack full of foreign procedurals, marmite and a remaindered library book Stories from Greek History by Marguerite Desmurger with a note inside...
Glancing through them I recall the enchantment of Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales, the words and the rich illustrations...
When Jason, the son of the dethroned King of Iolchos, was a little boy, he was sent away from his parents, and placed under the queerest schoolmaster that ever you heard of. This learned person was one of the people, or quadrupeds, called Centaurs. He lived in a cavern, and had the body and legs of a white horse, with the head and shoulders of a man. His name was...
Good Chiron taught his pupils how to play the harp ~ Edmund Dulac
Why do people want drugs when this stuff's legal, damn near free and keeps you high for the rest of your life. A bat squeak of glee at setting Hawthorne's 'queerest schoolmaster' among the semantic pigeons)
Jason appoints Tiphys to be helmsman ~ Edmund Dulac
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Maria Strani-Potts has published her latest book on-line - an e-book, When The Sun Goes Down - Island Stories. I want to read, but I yen for the heft of a book. Corfucius writes a review:      
I declare an interest: I know Maria and to sit and talk to her is an enjoyment separate from the powerful solitary pleasure of reading her. She is the most unwriterly writer I know: talk is talk, writing is writing; she gets the job done. I still treasure her Cat of Portovecchio [Η Γάτα του Πορτοβέκιο] as one of the most stunning novels I have read. Barely fiction for the pulses it taps; I live in Corfu and it opened my eyes and heart to my paradise home. This collection is short stories and her pacing is spot-on. I've worked in the book business and touted short stories by famed novelists who just haven't pulled it off in the challenging discipline of condensing it down. The PR puff talks of capturing 'the atmosphere and distinctive character of several different islands in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic.' Piffle. No 'capture' about it; the reader is right there. As with the best movie scores, you don't notice the expertise and talent because you're engrossed in the world of the story.

SWIMMING IN BERMUDA: Tourist meets local. They talk in perfect pitch, Strani-Potts nailing the patois and the poshois. Like an onion, dark truths unpeel.
REHEARSING I DO: light-as-a-soufflé humour set on a French island, letting the deft words do the humour, no canned laughter, nothing rammed in your face . I wouldnt be surprised if readers who didn't 'get it' read this right thru, still enjoyed it, and wondered what had glided over their heads.
THE EXPLOITATION OF PANOREA: familiar to all who read 'To Poúlima tns Panoraías' [Το πούλημα της Πανωραίας], the no-punches-pulled exposé and battle-cry against the disgraceful desecration of our environment, in this case the ruthless exploitation of 'an island in the Ionian'. No guesses. 
ON THE BEACH: Tight and merciless. Women enjoying lulling and lolling over the usual evening ouzo, Suddenly a floating dead body. In the midst of pampered leisure, Life - red (in this case, bloating) in scale and claw. A wake-up call that Strani-Potts keeps local, makes universal. 
A remarkable collection. If I was handed them as separate sheaves, I'd not swear them as by the same nib. Chameleon brilliance. Mark of a bred-in-the-bone writer. Deserves to be spotted by some alert editorial assistant in one of the major houses and given the international readership Ms Potts deserves, and will achieve.
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Greek Reporter rounds up news stories of 2012 - a miserable inventory...
...There was such a tsunami of trouble for Greece that there literally was almost no good news because the real heroes: NGO’s helping the poor, the soup lines set up by the Greek Orthodox Church as the government abandoned people, doctors providing free clinics and services, volunteers reaching out the disenfranchised and disaffected, people coming together to create social grocery stores and help each other were back page stories as the media concentrated on the obvious mega-stories....and Amalia Melis cries out in an essay of passionate anger at her country's corruption and depravity Screaming From Inside the Sealed Vault:
I have traveled as north as Canada, as east as Japan, as South as Australia but the diagnosis is the same: Heart Greek, Mind American. What are the odds that I will find a cure? None. The thread always leads back to here the only place that makes sense to me: the island village my family is from: Apikia in Andros. With this disease ever present, I choose to live in a country that is undergoing one of the most turbulent changes to its social and financial makeup. You all know which one I mean: Bad, bad Greece...
....Greece has survived the brutality of the Nazis, the wrenching hatred of Civil War which followed. Parts of Greek society allowed a seven year military dictatorship to take hold, further tearing the country apart. Foreign powers were happy to frolic in the same bed with Greek dictators in the name of lucrative business deals. Greece was given hope when the Socialists were ushered into power with the winds of Change–those words brought me here in 1981 as a single young woman eager to discover the country my family comes from. It was a historic time when anything was possible. Anything; and the public, from left wing to right, would have supported that Prime Minister’s vision. That historic moment echoes inside me still; precisely because it was made barren, depleted, robbed, rejected, lost, forgotten by the ones whom I thought knew better.
While the rest of us regroup, cut back on superficial things like going out to a taverna, travel, extra trips to anywhere, my husband and I seriously focus on how to keep our eleven year old car running, how to maintain our home which was bought by paying off two bank loans to acquire it, school tuition, our teen’s needs and wants. How will we pay all the new extra taxes added on to other new taxes we have already paid on everything we own? We are not alone. Our friends are in the same boat and there is no end in sight to what the near future might hold for all of us.
I am thankful that I am not hungry. Yet. I still believe I can contribute to this new situation in Greece by looking for a ray of light...
...Even as I become poorer each day I also become richer. I have crossed paths with so many creative minds who linger here even against all odds. Something tells me I should keep plowing ahead by gathering writers from all over the world to come to Andros each summer to write and be part of a writing community I created with much love and dedication. I will continue to open my arms and welcome them to this country, this island that has inspired so many and will inspire new stories from the richness that is Greece. Something tells me I should linger with my daughter to listen to island songs played by my uncle’s santouri, by our friends’ tsambouna, laouto, violin at our village feasts. Something tells me I should give my daughter blog posts to ponder, give her reason to question political choices each of us makes, that she will one day make. While Greece undergoes growing pains, looks into the mirror to see its ugly and strong side, something tells me I must write to exist.
Amalia's diatribe brought to mind the words of the Ionian rizopasti Ilias Zervos, contemplating the consequences for the seven islands - the Septinsular Republic as might have been - embracing enosis with a Greece governed from Athens.
Zervos’ of Cephalonia believed Britain's power over lonian affairs did not decrease with the end of the Ionian Protectorate in 1864, instead the islands became ‘a Pandora's Box’ for British influence on Hellenic politics (*Calligas p.300). Zervos found himself opposing his radicalism to that of Zante's Constantinos Lombardos with his popular and nationalistic triumphing enosis with 'Mother Greece'. Instead of ‘freedom’, Athens had given Corfu and her sisters:
...the pollutant of political corruption, which has brought this miserable nation to its present deterioration and produced as many unscrupulous exploiters as a decaying corpse produces worms.
Eleni Calligas on p.301 of her thesis, quoting from Elia Zervos’ autobiography Βιογραθία Ηλία Ζερβού Ιαχωβάτου Συντεθείσα παρ αυτού (1880) edited by Ch. S. Theodoratos, Athens 1974
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There's a BBC Radio 4 programme on Lawrence Durrell in a few days
Is he being consigned to the memory of those who first encountered and were entranced by his writing - as I dip now and then into Prospero's Cell, invariably finding something I missed before - or is he a writer who might attract the attention of new readers? I read the Alexandria Quartets when they were passed on to me by my stepfather in the early 1960s. I don't recall my reading preferences at the time but I know I'd already enjoyed Joyce's Ulysses, been slowed down by Finnegan's Wake, been through just about all of Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and read Lady Chatterley's Lover, A Passage to India, Lord Jim and loads of other wonderful stuff, Bond books, P.G. Wodehouse, Ernest Thompson Seton and The Lord of the Rings and and and...Durrell's four connected novels were breathtaking, my first encounter with the idea that there could more than a single first person narrative in one epic - Justine's, Balthazar's, Mount Olive's and Clea's. It was a baptism in the greater reality of subjectivity and the way genius could shape-shift - gender, age, ethnicity etc.
How many such works had been written in this way? Probably plenty but I hadn't some across anything like this before. In those days too I had all of Russia yet to go. It was not until I was 31 I read War and Peace and another decade before Don Quixote during a ramble along the coast of Galicia in 1975.
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Linda's posted this on Handsworth Helping Hands Facebook page (ref - scroll down here):
We are making preparations for using our Community Chest grant to help individuals in our area. Assistance is available to residents who are unable to do the required jobs themselves due to age, infirmity, medical problems or lack of necessary financial resources.
The work we envisage doing includes garden and rubbish clearance, home security measures such as fitting doorchains and window locks, small DIY jobs such as simple repairs and putting up shelves, supply and fitting of low energy light bulbs, emulsion painting of sitting room or client's bedroom.
Two levels of assistance apply:
1. Free work for residents requiring assistance and on low income.
2. Subsidised work for those requiring assistance on the grounds of age,
infirmity or medical problems.
Please note that assistance is only available for those genuinely in need of help and the criteria will be vigorously applied.
Minutes from our last meeting:
MINUTES: Tue 18 Dec 2012, 1900 at 34 Beaudesert Road
Present: LB, DF, SB, MT (chair) 1.     Apologies and approval of minutes for 16 Aug’12: Minutes approved. Apologies from JR and LP
 2.     Finances and van MOT: On 4 Dec’12 MT phoned Sira Motors Ltd on Crompton Rd - 523 2603 - re them carrying out this year’s MOT on the transit van. They referred MT to Villa Cross Garage Ltd, 12 Heathfield Rd B19 1HB on 554 4963. Mike will arrange.                                                                      LB reported that the £4000 Community Chest Grant cheque was received in October and paid into HHH’s Unity Bank Account – giving us a credit balance of £16,947 3.     Training in use of power tools: SB described regulations surrounding the public or ‘official’ use of power tools by HHH and the legal challenges relating to Health and Safety and Public Liability. All and any public use of our tools will require us to invest in training to obtain essential accreditation. It was discussed whether we should sell the more dangerous power tools. It was agreed to delay training for the time being and continue to store the project’s power tools.
 4.     Community Chest grant progress: There was a discussion of work opportunities in line with the goals of the project. LB would seek contact with local places of worship, e.g. St Mary’s, Handsworth? United Reform Church? Sister Helen at the Lozells Neighbourhood Forum. SB would contact Andrew Simons. MT will ask NS to check his church. Rachel Chiu was suggested as a point of contact and source of information. We recognised that we need to generate work without generating demand we cannot fulfil.
There was discussion of identifying skilled local handypersons with liability insurance who’d passed CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks who HHH could employ to do work requiring skills we do not have.
It was suggested that HHH tidy at the top end of Livingstone Road allotments; tidy planters on Putney Ave, Leslie Rd and Church Ave, possibly printing notices saying ‘work done by HHH – find us on Facebook’. MT identified a request by a resident – Carol Reid – in Maxwell Ave to do work for them. SB would make contact.It was agreed to meet at 1200 noon next to the Wellington Road embankment on Thursday 3 January 2013 to do litter picking and bulb planting.
 5.    AOB: Next meeting to be on 3 January at 1900 at 34 Beaudesert Road
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I've posted one of my usual passing grumbles on Birmingham City Council's Grounds Maintenance website now their contractor has returned to the vexing habit of using herbicide on our grass verges.
I am Chair of Beaudesert Road Residents. 10 years ago we submitted a petition to the contractor responsible for mowing the grass verges on both sides of this street signed by every resident asking that there be no use of herbicide on street obstacles (trees, power poles, notices, etc). This has been been well observed until now. The effect of using herbicide to control the small amount of growth that is not cut by the mowers that normally maintain these verges was never a source of complaint, unlike the large spreading muddy bald patches round the many trees and notices on Beaudesert Road damaging the street scene, in some cases removing over 50% of the grass on some verges. I do not want to have to collect another petition on this. There are very few grass verged streets in Handsworth. We've gone to considerable trouble to persuade visiting motorists not to park their cars on the grass verges and we have our own voluntary litter picks from time to time. (SB 27 Dec 2012)
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This is when I may be ambushed by bruising sadness; when I'd be getting ready; my tickets bought; food packed for Oscar and my picnic on the journey, a good book to enjoy on the day-long train journey to Inverness to spend Hogmanay in Strathnairn. A friend wrote:
What I wanted to say was how marvellous your mother sounds. So elegant and delightful. so intelligent, interesting, compassionate. Funny and always right! What a wonderful woman to have as your own mum. How lucky you are to have her genes. I know how sad you must be feeling. I still talk to my dear father - who died in 1988 - every day. Such a super memorial tribute - even in note form on your blog. Since we began our discourse you have walked your daughter into marriage, seen the birth of Oliver , and watched your beloved mother die. How blessed are you? Most of us don't overlap with our loved ones...Probate is so dreary, I agree...You clearly have the best of both your mother and father within. And a supportive wife. So onwards and outwards we must go. Love and a hug

Strathnairn in winter from Mains of Faillie

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Our loveliest Christmas card, sent from the Greek side, The Entry of The Mother of God to The Temple, Εἴσοδος τῆς Παναγίας Θεοτόκου. The High Priest stands on the bema at the entrance to the curtained sanctuary, receiving the Mother of God, Her parents, Anne and Joachim follow just behind; behind them, almost invisible, young women hold tapers. The shadow of the pillar sets off the light that shines from the holiest part of the temple.
There are golden birds, buds and flowers on the carved surround topped by the mandylion - a cloth not-made-by-hands - acheiropoietos αχειροποίητα - the whole crowned by cherubs. This painting was made over two centuries ago in the Ionian Islands. A mystery indeed. I thought it showed Mary and Joseph bringing the boy Jesus to the Temple. Instead our Christmas card shows an event observed as one of the holy days in the Orthodox Church - 21 November I think. It's an episode in the life of Mary told in the apocryphal Book of James more or less suppressed by Latin Christianity, product, apparently, of curiosity among early Christians about the life of Christ's parents and grandparents. This text demonstrates a revelatory mix of  fear and wonder at the idea of bringing a female, even a young woman into a place from which they have been immemorially excluded....
...And the child became three years old, and Joachim said: Call for the daughters of the Hebrews that are undefiled, and let them take every one a lamp, and let them be burning, that the child turn not backward and her heart be taken captive away from the temple of the Lord. And they did so until they were gone up into the temple of the Lord.
And the priest received her and kissed her and blessed her and said: The Lord hath magnified thy name among all generations: in thee in the latter days shall the Lord make manifest his redemption unto the children of Israel. And he made her to sit upon the third step of the altar. And the Lord put grace upon her and she danced with her feet and all the house of Israel loved her.
And her parents gat them down marvelling, and praising the Lord God because the child was not turned away backward.
And Mary was in the temple of the Lord as a dove that is nurtured: and she received food from the hand of an angel...[The Book of James: 7.2 -8.1]
I'm curious as to when the sorting, censoring and selection went on that determined what texts were to be labelled canon and what apocryphal. I can sort of see why a venerable set of scholars might have decided that the Book of James was a little 'iffy'. It's not that the canon shys at violence and sex but I can see the problem when Salome, Mary's midwife, checks - with her finger - that even after the Saviour's born Mary remains a virgin and Salome for her doubt finds her hand burning.
...and Salome made trial and cried out and said: Woe unto mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God, and lo, my hand falleth away from me in fire. [Book of James 10.1]
But an angel tells her to hold the baby. Salome is forgiven; her hand restored. That does sound a wee apocryphal. Nonetheless in this text, the Orthodox Church preserves an account that tells more about Mary then anything I've encountered in the Latin canon. It's true that Titian depicts the young Mary entering the temple, so I suspect the Book of James has wider currency, but how well these two depictions of the event exemplify Leigh Fermor's essay in Mani - chap 15 - on the contrasting way artists, West and East, depict the foundational events and figures of Christianity - the west emotive, expressive and individual; the east, hieratic, symbolic, universal. In the Christmas card Mary is untouchable mysterious ineffable hardly mortal, a small adult; in the Titian, she's a young vulnerable but heart-achingly confident girl who might be my daughter or young sister. In the Ionian icon Mary, parents and priest hold their arms and hands in a codified way eschewing the expression and naturalism of the Titian where Mary approaches the High Priest a little like Victorian Lord Fauntleroy's first meeting with the Earl of Dorincourt. It's interesting that the Ionian Icon is dated around 1700 long after  the influence of humanism and secularism had led western religious portraiture away from the formalism of this icon, in such contrast to its wooden frame - carved as free flowing and naturalistic. The icon is unsigned, its form predetermined, a means to worship and reverence; deliberately eschewing emotion or sentiment. Mary is no the longer a mortal young girl but a small sacred adult, not a human woman but part of a sacred assemblage, free of time and space. Titian has painted a story to display in an academy of sculpture, painting, and civil architecture, fluid, colourful, lively, evocative of a real event in space and time, a spectacle to be enjoyed and explored. The icon, like all true icons, is meant to be a kind of enchanted surface through which, like a dark looking glass, a worshiper may approach, and pass through, to the mystery beyond. Which of the two pictures seems most dated?
The Presentation of the Virgin Mary by Titian (1534-38) Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice

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Simon Baddeley