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Monday, 22 February 2021

In London long ago

... The tone of a violins is influenced by the varnish, making it an important element of the instrument ... one cloth should be used only for the strings and the fingerboard, which should be wiped well. If the strings are thick with rosin, their tone will suffer and produce noise. The fingerboard becomes dirty with sweat from the fingers ... The violin is so delicate it will creak and pop if exposed to the wind of an air conditioner ... stored in high humidity and temperature the top and bottom plate will swell, changing the thickness of the body, causing the sound post to collapse ... the body of the violin has many curves, so it's not safe to just place it somewhere without thought...

I have had few close encounters with real talent. In the 1960s, we had a young American violinist upstairs. I was a post-grad, aimless, in a big old place on the Earls Court-Kensington border a mile north of the Thames. I'd hear her practising through two floors. We'd nod in the hallway. One evening - before she was due to play at QE Hall on the South Bank the following week, I was giving a supper party with tables pulled together for about twelve ex-uni friends (when food was cheap). She knocked on my door.
"Come in come in, Elizabeth"
I knew her name. Lots of people did, and here was I looking as if she was an extra guest. Wow!
She said "Hi! I won't eat. I'll have a glass of wine. If that's OK?"
So she joined our happy conversation.
After about half-an-hour - can't remember - she said "Hold on" and dashed off.
Well that's that, I thought. A minute later she's back - with that violin. Wood like fine porcelain, looking as if held together by polish.
"Would you like me to play?" (No. Can't you see we're having a nice conversation?)
"Yes yes yes"
So she did. Standing just beside me. Except far off, from the stalls, I'd never seen a talent at work. When she hit the strings with her bow I swear bits and pieces flew off. She near looked to break the thing. I couldn't believe the volume she drew from it, fighting it, driving it like I've only seen in close-up shot on tele, but you know how with boxing even the close ups don't show the violence and the danger that excites some people. I saw. We saw and heard. So so beautiful. And she made it look easy. Heart stopping. I was weeping, shaking in a most un-English way - and do now - as I recount that 30 minutes of her generosity to me and my friends.

Sunday, 21 February 2021

Locked down in Birmingham

Athens on Friday 19th Feb 2021. I had the Acropolis all to myself one rainy day in April 1958

So it's snowing in Greece - the dear country, the wondrous land. The woman, Xristoo, told me when I asked about the weather in Greece. She'd phoned me  from Athens to try and sort out my 'customer problem' with Alpha Bank. My debit card was eaten by an auto-cash machine outside Corfu Green Bus Station two years ago, and though I reported it the same day, I've been trying to get a replacement since. We've been at our other home in Birmingham since December, in Handsworth. 

A small incident on Soho Hill, gateway to Handsworth. A mile and half from Birmingham city centre

'... down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honour - by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.' Raymond Chandler 1945

In the last few weeks two people, one of them a 15 year old, have been murdered on roads near us - Linwood Road, Holly Road, and someone shot through a window in Antrobus Road a friend told us. “You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullsh*t and you know it.” And everywhere in streets, on pavements, in nooks, crannies, frontages, rubbish and more rubbish. I've been working the allotment in my 'bubble' - so pleasantly cosy in the greenhouse when there's even a smidgin of sun. 
A cup of tea in the warmth of the greenhouse on Plot 14, Victoria Jubilee Allotments, Handsworth

I've been shopping, filling the capacious pannier of my bicycle with favourite things from the city markets - fruit, cheese, pastry, vegetables and the company of humans - where a stall sells bacon and egg sandwiches and a cup of tea, good for warming the hands. A capacious mask causes my glasses to steam up indoors so I wait near the door for temperatures - mine and the shops - to even, before buying wine, bread, milk and treats.

Someone driving fast down a back street didn't know he'd hit a cat and ended the ninth of its lives. Someone else picked up the broken body and dropped it in a wheelie bin, with other stuff they picked up, clearing litter. The bin was packed too high, seen as unacceptable by the bin-men, so it stayed un-emptied with other tipped rubbish beside it at the end of a Handsworth cul-de-sac. 

Last time we did a clean-up that way, HHH volunteers emptied the bin, shovelled up the surrounding rubbish - leaving odds and ends for the circling scrap-metal kites. When we'd filled our transit van, the limp corpse was separated and buried in soil to feed the vegetables on our allotment, close to where we'd buried Oscar dog who died in August 2019 - after a far better life than this magpie cat.  Since then Handsworth Helping Hands has been unable to do any of our usual work. Perry Barr Recycling centre is closed to charity waste disposal during lockdown, so we cannot carry out street clean-ups. We've kept up our presence on the social web - passing on warnings of on-line scams. local news, give-away items, information on Coronavirus, vaccination and testing locations... We've also been meeting with other local people sharing information about the problems of our area, talking with local politicians - on-line via ZOOM

Cllr Sharon Thompson, Birmingham City Council's Cabinet member for Homes and Neighbourhoods (3rd line, 3rd from left above) asked us to submit evidence to the city's Scrutiny Committee who are looking at the impact of Exempt Accommodation on the inner suburbs. HHH's witness statement, prepared by Lin and I with help from our fellow committee members, was submitted just before deadline.

Lin gets briefed by someone managing a social housing association that strives for best practice

A WITNESS STATEMENT FROM HANDSWORTH HELPING HANDS (HHH) ON EXEMPT ACCOMMODATION submitted to Emma Williamson, Head of Scrutiny Services Thursday 18th February 2021

Our witness statement is based on family residence in Handsworth and Birchfield for over 40 years, and from 10 years working together as a small charity, Handsworth Helping Hands (HHH), carrying out environmental work, whole street ‘skip-it don’t tip it’ days, ‘green-up clean-up projects’, as well as a miscellany of services for vulnerable people in Handsworth, Birchfield. Lozells and part of Aston. As HHH’s work includes tasks on behalf of people in Houses in Multiple Occupation (HMOs), we do not mention names, addresses or specific streets.

Handsworth Helping Hands: our last meeting not on-line

- What issues are faced in Birmingham by residents and agencies associated with exempt accommodation?

When it comes to examining their social impact on the life of the inner suburbs of Birmingham, we do not want the impact of HMOs not classed as ‘Exempt Accommodation’ to escape the attention of Scrutiny. We know Exempt Accommodation, managed by Registered Providers, is exempt from regulations and Local Housing Allowance caps that apply to HMOs, but, for the purpose of this statement, Exempt Accommodation and HMOs are in effect synonymous, creating similar issues for residents and other agencies such as the police, social and ambulance services. 

‘Rachmanism’ was a term given in the 1960s to the exploitation of tenants of slum properties by unscrupulous landlords. Scrutiny members are now examining a problem that matches the social depravity of Peter Rachman, but one made worse by the complacency, even the support, of government - a messy, mostly unwilling, collaboration - blighting the social capital of Birmingham’s inner suburbs.  By ‘social capital’ we mean those residents of an area who have roots in it, have lived there with their families, worked there, and have invested their time and their money in an area. They know the neighbours, know the local shops, take part in voluntary activity, send their children to local schools, attend public meetings, attend local places of worship. They may be defined as belonging to and sustaining a community, enjoying where they live, valuing the network of relationships that enables society to function.  

The social capital of any one street might be measured by the capacity of the people who live in it to look after neighbours and be looked after by them. If the ratio of residents who constitute a street’s social capital, compared to those individuals living in Exempt Accommodation and HMOs, becomes imbalanced, as has happened in many streets in Birmingham’s inner suburbs, then what was once a neighbourhood with the resources, in partnership with local government services, to look after its most vulnerable neighbours, becomes a population of strangers. 

As numbers of these categories of property increase in an area, eventually a tipping point is reached. Neighbours become overburdened with appeals for help from the vulnerable in their midst - requests for food, cigarettes, money, the use of their phones. They get tired of calling ambulances for people collapsed on the pavement, seeing drugs traded openly in the street, are vexed by pilfering of anything left in their front gardens, having their car doors tried, seeing police cars parked in their street, being kept awake by loud music late at night, or annoyed by it on summer afternoons. They despair at seeing bulky objects dumped in streets, at having to pick up rubbish spilling onto the pavement from over-filled bins, at bins being left unemptied by Fleet and Waste when recycling and household waste have been mixed. They become suspicious of strangers and worry about the safety of their children going to and from school or playing in the streets. The extra insult is to find that such concerns, when voiced as objections to an HMO conversion, are not acknowledged under planning law. 

As family properties are converted for multiple occupation, the loss of accommodation for more stable residence negates the sense of place that is part of community. Houses for sale in Handsworth are visited by a queue of potential buyers interested in converting the property, initially to an HMO, with the possibility - in many cases the intention - of it later becoming Exempt Accommodation.  Every decision by city planning services, to allow conversion of a family home to an HMO, has the secondary effect of driving from the area the last remains of the stable 'community of place' that could otherwise have supported lower numbers of transient residents, many of whom hardly know where they're living. Our elected members are seldom able to vote against officers' 'legal' recommendations.  

When residents move in and out of Exempt Accommodation and HMOs, bulky objects and other belongings are abandoned on the frontages of properties, spilling onto pavements. Fly-tipping in the area becomes endemic, exacerbated by the activities of unlicenced waste collectors, who, for ‘cash-in-hand’ from a colluding landlord, remove beds, used mattresses and cut-rate furniture, and dump it close to where it was collected. 

The transient tenants, who constitute our area's 'population of strangers', are, more often than not, uninformed, and, through such vulnerabilities as mental ill-health, drug dependency, alcoholism, learning or language difficulties, uneducable about waste disposal arrangements. Fly-tipping and littering become a chosen method of waste disposal. Waste collection and street cleaning services are made less effective. Streets become a wasteland, strewn with litter, bottles, piles of foul-smelling black bags filled with who-knows-what, soaking-wet carpets, old clothes and mattresses and mountains of broken furniture. The correlation between the character of this street environment and levels of crime and violence can’t be ignored. At this point, neither householders nor tenants of Exempt Accommodation and HMOs can be assured the same promise of ‘a good quality home and neighbourhood to live in’, made to social housing tenants in the government’s November 2020 ‘Charter for social housing residents’. 

- Are City Council processes fit for purpose, sustainable, efficient or exacerbating any issues?

The  Cabinet brief for Homes and Neighbourhoods should overlap the brief for Street Scene and Parks, in a way that gives attention to the connection between the social atomisation caused by too many HMOs and Exempt Accommodation properties, and the overwhelming of inner suburban streets by litter and fly-tipping. Other councils in the West Midlands – Coventry, Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell - give greater attention to regulation and enforcement as these relate to permitting conversion to HMOs, issuing licences, registering accommodation as ‘exempt’ and monitoring the consequent required provision of extra support services.

Birmingham’s enforcement services have been skeletonised. Even with a recent, substantial grant from Government, a small number of conscientious council officers are hopelessly overburdened in checking for and dealing with breaches of HMO and Exempt Accommodation regulation and legislation in properties catering for approximately 18,000 tenants. 

Birmingham’s planning portal offers advice to applicants in submitting applications to convert properties to HMOs and advice on how to respond if an application is refused, but is not correspondingly user-friendly for those submitting objections to such conversions, or reporting breaches of planning or building regulations by those doing the converting.

- Why do people use exempt accommodation? 

Exempt Accommodation and HMOs offer a step up from rough sleeping to the homeless, the vulnerable, people struggling and failing to gain secure work or the income needed to rent or buy their own property; a social class, sometimes described as the ‘precariat’. One academic has referred to ‘generation exempt’. Tenants of Exempt Accommodation and HMOs include people unable to find work, people made redundant, ex-prisoners, people with mental health problems, struggling with addiction, escaping domestic abuse, people made homeless due to family break-up – a population of fellow citizens existing without predictability or security, with intermittent employment or underemployment, some trafficked as modern slaves. 

- What are the drivers for landlords to enter into providing exempt accommodation? 

Successive governments now rely on the private rental sector to provide accommodation for anyone unable to buy or rent their own home. Birmingham’s inner suburbs offer a lightly regulated zone for investment in private rental properties.

A scan of the internet reveals a national industry, promoting the financial gains to be made from HMOs, touting them as ‘investment opportunities’. Landlords are tempted into HMO investment through being able to take advantage of housing benefit rules, linking the rent they can claim to the number of bedrooms of the legally habitable size. This encourages owners of HMOs to increase the number of bedrooms in their properties, thereby increasing rental income, by subdividing rooms, or by adding extensions to properties, sometimes without obtaining planning consent, sometimes with false information being entered in planning applications. 

The acquisition of ‘exempt’ status allows even higher financial gains to be made by unscrupulous landlords willing to commit what is essentially fraud. 

To become ‘exempt’, a property must be leased to a ‘Registered Provider’, to be ‘managed’ by them, but not necessarily involving them in providing the extra services required for gaining exempt status. In some cases, the only ‘management’ involved may be dealing with the initial benefits application, receiving the enhanced benefits, and, after subtracting their charges, sending the landlord what remains. 

It must be said that some Registered Providers give excellent service, ensuring that HMO standards, although not mandatory, are applied, that the extra services promised and paid for from the public purse, irrespective of whether they or the landlords arrange the provision of those services, are delivered, that the welfare of tenants is paramount. Unfortunately, however, even for Registered Providers managing many properties, this is not always the case.

The current Exempt Accommodation benefits system enables the exploitation of Exempt Accommodation tenants and of taxpayers, by both Registered Providers and landlords, by those among their number who claim to provide, but don’t necessarily deliver, the extra services necessary to enable vulnerable tenants to live with an appropriate degree of independence. In some cases, the only reliable ‘service’ is delivery of illegal drugs by local dealers. 

The lack of legislation to effectively regulate the Exempt Accommodation sector stigmatises the social contribution of honest landlords and Registered Providers who, in running their businesses or not-for-profit organisations, offer conscientious support to their tenants and strive to maintain good relations with the community who live around their properties. 

- What role can Planning legislation play within the confines of existing legislation and how can planning be used or amended to manage the growth of exempt accommodation?

If Birmingham City Council is to combine concern for the tenants of Exempt Accommodation and HMOs with concern for communities, steps must be taken to stop other local authorities diverting vulnerable people to Birmingham, into the regulated, but poorly enforced, HMO and the unregulated Exempt Accommodation sectors. At present HHH volunteers are struck by an impression of ‘lawlessness’ - a shameful failure to implement even existing planning law and building regulations, with many properties converted for multiple occupation without planning permission, where reported infringements of the most blatant kind are ignored, especially when a conversion is completed before those affected by it can query it, where council planners and building regulators fail to reverse illegal work, once completed. Such ineffectual planning regulation, applies to other services the local authority is supposed to provide for vulnerable citizens.

We also believe that the council’s database fails to reflect the actual numbers of legal conversions, let alone those erected or converted without permission.

Regulatory services are ill-staffed to cope with the challenge of enforcing the laws and regulations, as they relate to HMOs and Exempt Accommodation.

Although not, currently directly related to Planning legislation, housing benefit rules that enable landlords of HMOs and Exempt Accommodations to substantially increase profits, in some cases fraudulently, by sub-dividing and extending properties should be changed. If three-bedroom family homes could only be operated as three-tenant HMOs or Exempt Accommodations, they would quickly become less attractive to those landlords whose only interest is to maximise income, and would have the potential to be returned, eventually, to the family housing market.

- What are the health needs faced by this group of vulnerable people?

The worst health needs come from loneliness. An individual is given a transport fare to an unfamiliar address in a city they don’t know, lodged among strangers in a converted property, beside mistrustful and apprehensive neighbours. This isolation breeds ill health – physical and mental. Perhaps worst is the lack of political engagement. Handsworth’s famous group Steel Pulse - old men now - who many enjoyed in local places before they became famous in the late 70s, were signalling in their music and lyrics the troubles of the 1980s that made Handsworth nationally notorious, but also became associated with a multi-racial cohesion that continued almost into the recession of 2008. 

Thousands of lonely men and women in HMOs hardly know they live in Handsworth, Birchfield, Aston, Holyhead or even in Birmingham. They have no engagement with the area or with one another; little impulse to rebellious creativity, political organisation or collective reaction to their condition. The harm of this condition is drug addiction, alcoholism, petty crime, theft from shops, homes and cars with the amplifying corollary of an atomised population of victims upon whom criminals can prey, trafficking people, encouraging drug pushing, dealing in weapons, fencing stolen goods and fly tipping. 

- What can we learn from people’s experiences and best practice in other parts of the country?

Birmingham City Council’s failure to regulate the amount and distribution of HMOs is notorious across the UK. Certain types of profiteer circle our city’s inner suburbs like carrion crows. Properties judged suitable for multiple occupation in Birmingham’s inner suburbs are advertised by property agents in Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool, where local authorities have made it more difficult for unscrupulous landlords to profit excessively from converting family homes to HMOs and Exempt Accommodation.  Scrutiny members might, as part of this enquiry, investigate approaches to permitting, licencing and monitoring HMOs and registering and monitoring Exempt Accommodation in those cities - if only by making a few phone calls. 

Simon Baddeley (Hon Sec), Linda Baddeley (Hon Treasurer), Nick Jolliffe, John Rose, Sister Simone Hanel, Mike Tye (Chair) Handsworth Helping Hands. Queen's Award for Voluntary Service 2019 

Friday, 1 January 2021

Greece from far away

My blood pressure as measured soon after the June 2016 Referendum on leaving the EU

On a day in June 2016 I was the subject of one of many research projects into healthy ageing at QE Hospital 
"Your blood pressure's a little high" said one of the researchers.
She showed me her readings; in the hypertension range.
"That's odd. That's never been a problem for me"
"Well I need to point it out. Check with your GP"
"Gosh Emma, do you think I'm stressed by the Referendum result?"
"Could be." she said "We'll see how your blood pressure looks on your next visit next week"
Sunday lunch with the family - Oliver, Amy, Guy, Hannah and Linda. - weekend after the June 2016 Referendum. New potatoes from our allotment in Handsworth 

Three and a half years after the Referendum vote to leave the EU,  a friend posted on her Facebook page:

1st January 2021. MM: I wanted to write a Happy New Year message but ended up writing this instead. If you hate doom and gloom please scroll by. This is an X-rated post.
And so it comes to pass (weeping emoji's). We have woken up today no longer able to call ourselves EU citizens. And I am unspeakably sad. I don't know whether, in the long run the UK, will be better off in or out. I don't know whether there will be queues in Kent or food shortages in Tescos. But I do know that all of us who value that delicious sense of tumbling into a new culture, a new language, a new landscape have been left immeasurably poorer by the UK's decision to leave the EU. 
I speak for all of us in here who one fine day, wearing but a pair of skimpy shorts and an old T-shirt, clambered onto a charter at Gatwick to some random destination in Greece and drank so deeply of the delights of this beautiful country that we mysteriously find ourselves decades later sharing our (zoomed) βασιλόπιτα with children who speak two languages, in-laws who have never set foot on the green shores of Britain and Greek friends and colleagues who we hold dear in our hearts. 
We are heartbroken that the next generations will not know this. Those who already made it out of the gate will have their rights protected. The (richer) retirees will retire. The well-heeled will inevitably find a way. Some of our young will no doubt make it through the portcullis even after it clangs shut. But please allow us to shed a tear on this inauspicious day for all those who won't, and will never come to know what we know.

SB: Happy New Year, M. In your eloquent lament you write "But I do know that all of us who value that delicious sense of tumbling into a new culture, a new language ..." I know so well what you mean. I didn't so much 'tumble', given that my Dad - divorced post-war, then married to Maria in the lovely little church of Panagia Kapnikarea off Syntagma in Athens in 1949 - first invited me to beloved Greece when I was 16, during Easter 1957, and I, on my occasional stays with the 'Greek' side of the family in England was used to hearing my dad and Maria speaking Greek. I never looked forward to those brief childhood visits on which my mum insisted. Too much shouting and disorder and kissing and hugging among unruly half-siblings, though I liked being entrusted with a glass of wine now and then. It took four days, travelling alone on the Simplon-Orient from London, turning Balkan-wards after Venice, to get to Larissa where in the middle of the night this callow English youth, with a compartment to himself, was interrupted by a wedding party bursting in, joyfully noisy. I - a foreigner had the nerve to glare at them and ask them to be quiet. Instead of taking justified offence they laughed uproariously "Oh Englishman!" and had the effrontery to offer me a drink which I turned away. A few hours later I arrived in Athens…There, at dawn, on a low platform, the Greek side of my family awaited with joyous greetings and many disturbing hugs and kisses. Through a tiny window from the loo of Yia-yia's flat in Kolonaki I saw the Parthenon - no longer the familiar schoolbook illustration, the real place!.. ... ... Well! ... Two weeks later, when I departed from Greece, all had changed; changed utterly and forever, but that's another story, a good one. That first visit over 60 years ago was the start of an affair that I will take to my grave. You could say that 'some enchanted Easter' long ago, I saw Greece 'across a crowded room.' Even now, in dear Ano K, strolling or cycling on a small back road I hear a family, perhaps on a Sunday afternoon, laughing and talking under their veranda, and I'm possessed by an impish impulse to stroll over "Excuse me! Με συγχωρείς. Θα μπορούσατε να είστε λίγο πιο ήσυχοι!" They will laugh indulgently, even ask me to join them. I know that the UK leaving the EU can never efface - nor portcullis block - that 'delicious sense of tumbling' you describe so beautifully and which I still feel over and over when my old feet touch the soil of mother Greece.

James S, neighbour on National Opposition Street below our Democracy Street in Ano Korakiana: it’s exactly that Simon! The total mind opening of travel that Brexit seems so ignorant of!

Hi James. For people who have learned - or, in my case, taught against my will - to be happy the new border bureaucracies may bring temporary impatience, frustration and even misery, but love finds a way. I 'tumbled' (M's good word) into Greece long before the UK joined the EU, when post-war restrictions enveloped all Europe, customs examined our cases spilling out our belonging, transfers of cash were strictly limited. Through Yugoslavia I saw how the communist guards abused their own citizens, fellow passengers trying to cross their border (they were scowlingly deferential to me on my dad's diplomatic visa stamped in my dark blue passport). I was alerted by my father about the dreadful psychic scars of occupation and civil war in Greece - things that could not be spoken of, better forgotten. I've learned to accept - or, at least, to live with - queues, rationing, paperwork, inconvenience. I've been abused by immigration on arriving in New York, waited hours to enter Canada and Australia. I suspect from now - COVID restrictions notwithstanding - there'll be a couple of years of 'pain' as this bizarre event is sorting in the wash, but far worse pains have been surmounted in the past. I voted Remain, but I know other people voted to Leave the EU. who enjoy other lands beyond the English Channel as much as I.
The mainland of Greece across the Sea of Kerkyra from our home in Ano Korakiana 

I know about inventing paradise. Byron, Μπαϊρον, who came first in 1809 called her 'the wondrous land'; sailed to Greece in the brig Hercules in 1823, arrived at Kefalonia on the 4th August, to die at Mesolóngi eight months later. I first came to Greece, to Athens, by train via a three day stop in Venice - walking for hours, entranced, along damp paved alleys - in 1957, but in 1962 I sailed to Greece from England with a friend, my skipper Chris Jameson. In July we left Messina in Sicily. The first morning of our two day crossing on Danica ...
...bouncing and swaying on a swift etesian reach; came on our reverse, a sleek Greek frigate cutting smoothly through the cresting waves, heading west. In return to our salute, we saw a young sailor in perfect whites, almost sprinting to the fantail to dip her flag to us. My chest swells at the memory of seeing that lovely ensign falling and rising again in the seconds of her passing as though official Greece was saying "yasus" - just to us. 
That was 59 years ago. After that swift reach from Sicily. sunrise on the third day, the good wind abandoned our small vessel on a limpid mirror. The moment remains as dreamlike as at the time; glimpsing the forms of land melded to white sky and coppery sea - a way to the mainland of Greece between Kefalonia and Zakynthos into the Gulf of Patras. Next morning we made Byron's landfall. Shapes - north and south - that appeared and disappeared and might have been no more than dawn shadows - though we knew otherwise - lay before us. All day, in zephyrs, we sailed towards them, passed between, and anchored off Killini in Ilia where we rowed ashore to be sat at a table (my memory is flawed by so many photos of Greek tables and chairs), offered ouzikis and welcoming curiosity, before a polite policeman - reproached by our hosts - "po, po, po" - told us we were supposed to clear at Patras, but "please finish your conversation." 
170 miles from Piraeus and the city to which I’d determined to return.

I spent, as I recall, my first twenty five years in a fog of schooled and inherited insensibility, almost impervious to the wisdom of generous parents – English and Greek - who probably knew that, as perhaps for them, only time would tell me. 
In 1968 I was with the Greek side of my family again. They’d flown on to Greece. My dad wanted a car while we were there. Over four days I drove his small Hillman through Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy and by ferry to Greece, sleeping one night in a field above the sea, a few yards from a winding road through olives. From Piraeus I took another ferry to join the family in Aegina. We returned to Athens for a day, where, with my diplomatic family, I attended a house party somewhere near Vouliagmeni, hosted by a man whose bald head I glimpsed for a few seconds, Colonel Stylianos Pattakos.
It was only in Detroit, married a year later, meeting American Greeks - and Greek exiles from the Junta - that I grasped the discomforting notion of ‘sides’;  of Greece as a polity, of animosities and moral positions, words and facts and opinions that left the paper-fragranced sentences of my superlative education – in one ear as others' thoughts, out of my mouth as words for conversation and essays, and out of the other ear, unedited. Though it seems so in memory, I could not have been quite that one-dimensional, except perhaps at my mother’s breast. My CV, by the time I was thirty, was enough to ease me into academia where, mostly fuddled, time did begin at last to tell and I began to listen.

It was 25 years before I came to Greece again.
After many years, return to Greece in 1995 with Amy, Linda and Richard

Standing in the cockpit of our Airbus (full of screens and no joystick) where passengers could – pre-9/11 – still be invited for a pilot’s glimpse of the world ahead, I stood behind my family, as with Linda, Richard and Amy, we flew high over the border of Greece; able to see, to port, the glow of Thessaloniki; ahead the greater glow of Athens; to starboard a moonlit Ionian Sea and far below, in inky blackness, clusters of tiny glittering diamonds - villages in the foothills of the Pindos.
“Children! There’s Greece”
In the dim cabin tears welled from my eyes with the delight – and the idea – of sharing ‘my’ Greece with my wife and children. I could not speak for a moment, and Linda, more English than I, was irritated at me. 

A third generation in Greece - our Amy with her cousins Natasha and Anna at sandy Pylos in 1995

*** *** ***
A decade later we spend months in Ano Korakiana on Corfu. Πέρα δόθε:

Winter 2009: The sun came up into a cloudless sky. It’s so bright and hazy, but for the crackle of awakened logs I’d mistake this winter morning for summer. Yesterday as we pottered on tasks I became so chilled I began to sniffle. By evening I was squeezing fresh lemons to mix with honey to warm in a glass. We’d been down to CJs Bingo Quiz in the evening, me in two under vests and long johns, to struggle with questions that were almost entirely about things in films and TV series. Our friend Trish, in CJs after cold day’s work cleaning charter boats at Gouvia, won. She was playing with Sally who runs CJs for Chrissie and John, also there - the latter cursing merrily to the delight of all. Trish is married to Dave, met at Ipsos Harbour in the first hour of our arrival in September 2006, who first raised our spirits as we surveyed Summer Song’s worn and musty interior, wondering if we’d been sensible buying her on ebay, sight unseen. “We’ll make a list” he said “Norman and Pauline loved that boat and she’s worth it”. And so she was and is. Dave keeps an eye on Summer Song – not only on the boat but also on the harbour politics that allow us to keep her safely berthed there. C remarked from far away on the Pacific coast. “Enjoy Corfu. Greece, no matter what, is a beautiful place to wake up in the morning" but I’m as superstitious as any atheist about reflections on the rewards of fortunae. 
'Greece, no matter what, is a beautiful place to wake up in the morning'
The names of people who rejoice in their luck are selected by a divine factotum and placed face-down on a gilded dish that passes around the table on timeless Olympus. Amid merriment, each God selects the human whose card is to be their post-prandial plaything. Here a brilliant climber says “There’s a window for the summit at dawn”; there a mother says “Our child is so perfect”; and over there a father says “There are police officers, a man and a woman, at the door. Must be about those parking fines”; and here a wife who says “no need to hold the ladder darling. Go and make us a cup of tea”; and there, in the deep ocean, an exhausted sailor says “We’re through the worst” but see this one, here’s a gem “The war will be over by Christmas”, but what about that popinjay Confederate General who said “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…” Far below a fisherman on the Peneios and a woman waiting for a train at Litochoro know they hear, not the rumble of endless thunder reverberating among the peaks of Olympus, but laughter.
Good Friday picnic on a shore in Corfu. A fourth generation in Greece
In England in early January 2021 Greece seems remote - for all the continued contact via the social web. Here in the inner suburbs of Birmingham Lin and I are locked down under Tier 4. I am not to go further from our front door than our front garden. Linda - under 70 - can shop. Our neighbour, J, 'allowed to meet one other person outside', sat for a chat with me by our porch and passed the time of day. He works for Fareshare, one of the neighbours who've offered to shop for us if necessary.
Covid Tier 4. Restrictions from 00.01 Thur 31 Dec 2020
The weather is intrusively grey, wet, creating a world of pervasive sogginess that sticks to shoes hands and sleeves; which I can't avoid trailing into the house when I bring in logs, damp and stuck with rotting leaves, slimy too. I dry the wood in front of the stove before we can enjoy their warmth. Kindling I've even put in the oven for 30 minutes to get things burning in the mornings. 
Before the latest lockdown was announced I could cycle in and out of town, visit the rag market, buying a baked potato mashed with butter, salt and pepper plus a cup of tea, or a butter croissant and filter coffee eaten stood warily in on New Street. Wednesday morning I called in at the Birmingham Donor Centre in New Street to give blood. The first drop during the preliminary test for sufficient iron wouldn't dawdle down the green liquid filled test tube as it's meant, but Sarah - name off her tag - tried an alternative test. ""Yup, that's fine" "Phew". I lie in the plastic chair arm pierced skilfully almost painlessly to extract my very common 0 positive blood, but after a few minutes I'm being ministered to by three, no, four, nurses, urging me to squeeze my fist and wiggle my toes, as my blood's not coming out. "Oh no!" I think, but then "There we go! Fine now" says Margaret cheerfully. Privately I suspect the needle wasn't accurately placed in the vein.  After 10 minutes, I'm on my way, exiting through a world of masked donors and masked extractors, making another appointment in March - if I'm not breaking rules. Once home I get a text message thanking me for my blood. 
From Greece we've brought a lemon from one of our citrus trees, which, after two years barren, has fruit - - a generous load - following scale insect infestation affecting citrus, and now, other shrubs and trees, all Corfu. 
Perhaps our treatments have begun to work, as recommended by Sophia and Niko, neighbours, and Evangelina at the new Tzoulou garden shop. She recommended we spray a mix of Sivanto (2.5 m/l to 5l water) and Electro pesticide (ditto mix), to kill, and by resting on the leaves, break the life cycle of what she calls the ‘black spiny insects’.   
A lemon from Corfu back in Brum
Checking lemon leaves for citrus scale insects

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With some poignancy I travel 10 years back in my time machine to Ano Korakiana in February, when the village celebrated its annual Carnival ... February Carnivali, brightening the greyest chilliest and wettest day of the year. Part of the band in motley, military, priest and police, made 'oompa oompa' with drum and fife. The king enthroned, priapic with crown on his heart-covered float, accompanied by courtiers, male as female and other reversals of carnival, paraded upwards preceded and trailed by bouncing umbrellas, a phalanx of pink parasols, women in silvery wigs dancing up to the start of Democracy Street, twirling round a ribboned pole amid whistles, bangers and music.
Stopping and starting the procession gathered more people – some in masks, a long nosed Pinocchio, some as they were; streamers and confetti thrown from windows, hugging and greeting, planned and spontaneous, impossible not to smile and laugh in the chill wet. Up we went to the bandstand, round the carpark and back down the street in rain that poured from low cloud obscuring views to the sea. Nico and Sophia, standing by their front door, invited us in from the cold and wet for coffee and rich chocolates to meet their family.
“All the news is bad”
“Indeed it is” we smiled.
At 7.00 two hundred or so were gathered in the upper room of the Farmers' Co-op on the lower road to watch a demonstrably hilarious dialogue between two women we didn’t understand but clapped with everyone else. Then a formal reading by a top hatted master of ceremonies naming people in the village to theirs and everyone else’s amusement and applause.
Then a more disposable carnival king was carried out to the road and burned, with a bit of diesel to overcome the rain. Everyone began moving through a small door down short steps to the lower room to sit at long tables under a beamed roof. We were ushered to Leftheris’ family where dishes had been brought to pass with village wine in jugs, water and cola – lamb, pork, salad, cheese pies, olives, bread in chunks. As we tucked in along with every age, the dancing started with a band that created the mood of the evening, responded to people as they danced and sang – dances for couples became threesomes, foursomes until chains of us were stepping forward six steps one way, two back in that way that can’t help look elegant because the clumpers like me are carried hands held in the ring, six right, left two, unpausing until well after midnight the band made up of two guitarists, lead singer, keyboard and lighting mixer – played unceasingly. The dancing space was seldom empty. If not filled with pairs and chains, it was taken by men and women dancing solo amid clapping support, nimble and beautiful. I danced with Lin and in the circles – like Scottish reels.
“We all drank a lot of wine” said Katya when I saw her at the shop a couple of days later. As at a family wedding, wine added to the enjoyment; none crass. There was a break in the music around one in the morning. I thought we were going home, but after a few minutes, the room filled with lively chatter, the band came back with renewed energy. It wasn’t only the young on tables, though one couple danced with especial virtuosity, the young man - minutes previously in ballet skirt, tights and pigtails now entwined with a young woman who’d begun alone shivering her hips in the Arabian style. This duet had others joining in. The whole room floated on the music and swayed with the singing, happiness making us all even more good looking, and some especially handsome and beautiful. As the band said its goodbyes, an older lady led the Ano Korakiana song singing two line verses, unaccompanied, the chorus picked up by the moving circle. We walked home just before three-o-clock. “I’ve so enjoyed myself” I said “Me too” said Lin.
The song to the dance is a paeon to Corfu "Kerkyra, overflowing with greenery and beauty...into each and every corner and the seashore..." a list of all the green island's attributes 

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Simon Baddeley