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Monday, 15 September 2008

'By the first drop of rain summer was killed...'

On Sunday morning Lin's dad, Arthur, would have said "It's a bit black over Bill's mother's" warning Dot not to hang out the washing. By evening Lin, on our balcony, could still see lightning flashing beyond Agios Theka over Benitses, across the Ropa Valley, to the heights of the other Pantokrator above Mesonghi straddling the view south, south east across Kerkiraiki Thalassa - now calm - to the mainland mountains above Parga, over twinkling Sayiada, then north east over Epirus and Albania. During supper lightning blinked inside the house. The crash that followed shook the building. What a difference from the same time last year when the welcome return of rain - after nine months - had found us stemming leaks from a dozen places. Lambros and his men, found via Paul and Lula, made the main roof sound, and Alan, more recently, sealed with lead, the ends of the shallow pitched roof that joins up with Lambros’ work and the neighbours’ house. Lin checked the edges of our bedroom and the spare room, where last year she’d spread towels and flannels. “All dry” after a day of the same driving rain that found its way in so easily only a year ago. I phoned Alan as soon as we got in. “A big hug from us both!” “Oh blimey yes, thanks for ringing. I was so so pleased with my garden getting rain at last I left the studio open and I’m just clearing up now.” I’d watched the start of the predicted storm from Summer Song’s cabin where I was doing odd jobs. Val and Linda had gone to Corfu town, dropping me at the harbour as rain began to spatter from a darkening sky, thunder rumbling distantly. I’d hardly sat down with Lin’s packed lunch – made up from sweet soft bread just handed me by Leftheris’ granddaughter Dimitra outside the church, where there’d been a morning service for the saint, and I’d gone to see the source of the buzz of conversation in the Democracy Street – when, like a fever breaking, the rain burst forth with a rush of wind from the west. I closed the cabin; turned on a light. Rigging smacked against masts. Boats swayed at their moorings. Flags fluttered horizontal. One of the nicest sensations is to be in a secure harbour, sat in a dry boat, enveloped by cacophony, doing an odd job like fitting new slides to the spare sail.Lightning was constant from many directions, thunder echoing from the mountains but spread across all that I could see of the drenched landscape through cabin windows washed by the downpour, drumming on the leakless cabin roof.

After a while everything went quiet but for more distant thunder. Then, with the air cleared of rain, white cloud carpeting Pantokrator and the slopes on the coast towards Kalami, the wind rose again from the opposite direction, rapidly increasing, stirring whitecaps from the short Kerkyra waves between us and the mainland. These mean little to larger vessels working up the straits, but they’re trickier for small boats than longer higher waves. In the Solent, almost comparable in area to the sea between Corfu and Greece, I’d have assayed a sail to try out the new reefs. Not here. What impresses is the Hebridean abruptness of this weather. The wind was warm; the sea azure, even below a grey sky. Yet it’s hazardous, fiercely choppy, blocking progress. In an hour the wind went. The flags were drooping. I tied practice reefs and stood back to inspect the still sail. OK. Lots of bits of string and it’ll take time to get good at it if we’re rocking, but it seemed to set well enough. I shook out the reefs and sailed out of the harbour in zephyrs. Outside it was settling down and we had a breeze. I picked up a firmer breeze, sailed a while and turned for home. Closing the harbour, planning to berth under foresail, I dropped the main, but then found what I should have noticed the moment I’d unfurled it, that the piece of cord that stops the rim of the foresail furling hub rotating as the sail unfurls, had broken. I should have checked it. I didn't. I’d hauled out the jib, and the furling line wrapped itself itself round the forestay instead of winding onto its hub, so now I couldn’t furl a sail as large as the main. It’s quite complicated to drop a sail set in a grooved stay. With a crew all would have been fine. I put on the engine for safety, turned about and jogged along quarter of a mile offshore, went forward, swayed in the bows, glad amid the flying canvas and sheets that my glasses were attached with string, and laboriously unravelled the mess. Eventually I could rotate the hub, and knot ties from my pocket (see how I’m relearning all this stuff) around the hand furled jib - remembering ‘one hand for the work, one for the boat’ - before heading for harbour. The day before, in a sunny breeze, I’d gone out alone to test the autohelm. It will need tuning but just the zig zag reach across Ipsos Bay while I watched was encouraging (...and here's a picture taken earlier - in 1962). Lin and Val returned from the town where water streamed from the awnings and gutters spouted tributaries into a sandal drenching torrent down Nickiphorou Theotoki Street. Despite the link to Elytis' poem - summer is 'killed' - this warm rain evokes no sadness, reminding me of tea and muffins, damp sphagnum, dripping heather, noisy burns and Highland midges.
* * *
The Leftheris were away two days. We missed them – the conversation and the Dimitra playing lovely tunes on flute and recorder. Democracy Street is having a main drain installed. Our road is closed to all but scooters for at least ten days. We’ve been using, with other residents, different paths up to Democracy Street, carting shopping, groaning at the gradient – sometimes with steps – winding between houses.
* * *
Earlier in the week Dave helped me mark the mainsail for reefing points. I thought of DIY with grommets and strengthening canvas. He offered the latter and suggested asking a sailmaker to sew round the results. Once at the sailmakers – a cool interior off Kontokali’s narrow high street – Astrid looked at the sail. “You have a reef running through a baton pocket”. I saw myself fumbling in a squall. “OK. Move it down to miss that?” "Yes" I said. “You will need larger grommets at either end and more reinforcing canvas. The lines in between hardly matter. There’s the strain for which you must allow.” I imagined heeling in a gust, worrying about the reef holding. “Right”. “You say six ties for the first and five for the second. I’d say not so many – five and four?” Cut to reefing at sea. “Yeah right”. “Also your ties need to be higher than the edge cringles.” “I’ll go with your judgement and craft” I said Next day I collected the sail, put it back on the boat, cut lengths of rope and and tried both reefs. I’ve got a safety line snap hook to hold the mast end cringle. Just as I was inspecting the reefed sail, Dave turns up. By a fluke he’d obtained a second-hand sail with rare reef cringles that fitted Summer Song. The chances that would happen! But now I have a spare main for €30. “Now what I want is a self-steering” I said. From long ago I remembered the freedom this gave to make a cup of tea, fiddle about on the deck, check a chart and take a break from steering without the boat turning in circles - sails and rigging ashake. Two days later Dave invited us all over to his building plot below the village for a tasty joint of barbecued pork, salad and garlic bread and beer. We sat in the dusk, the two dogs – one Greek, one English - looking longingly at the juicy slices of meat on our plates and spoke of airlines going bust, planes clamped on runways stranding thousands; strain on cash flows as credit tightens and rumours circulate about banks. “I’ve got something you’ll like” said Dave handing me an oblong object in a plastic bag. He connected its hanging wire to a battery. With a whirring sound a stainless steel arm began to move. I panned the gadget in the dark – the arm, with a hole at its end to fix to a nipple on the tiller, went in and out, depending on your position. "You set that on a little compass rose on the body of the machine." “Just what we need, Dave”. “The mind boggles” said Lin amid giggles.The autohelm Dave has found me needs battery power, but here it could be more helpful than a wind vane, given the time we’re becalmed, motoring without even the sails to offer a bit of auto-steer without this gadget. We chatted about the state of cleanliness in Corfu General. “Doctors are fine but you should see the public conveniences there”. “It’s disinfectant on a mop and a cleaner” “I saw one reaching with an ungloved hand into a bucket of discarded needle in plastic bags to shove them in her wheelie bin.” “Ouch” “Yet they have no MRSA. None of our Streptococcus difficili.” “Yet?” We spoke of differences between wood and plastic kitchen cutting surfaces; of food that still looked like the animal it came from; of fussiness in eating, of over-attentive hygiene and living closer to the land, relying less on credit, more on one’s own handiwork. “The cicadas descended on our sweet corn last month like locusts. But the potatoes and most of the other vegetables are doing fine”. Building is delayed by the wait for an archaeological survey. If there was a temple here we’re in trouble.”
* * *
I’m remaking our little jetty with wood from a pile in the apothiki; invested in a battery powered drill, levered off the old flaking palette wood and rusty nails. The weather was torpid, sweaty. With the job started but needing more wood, I cycled to Dominoes, and sat in the pool. “Zat man’s got a drink in the swimin' pool” points a pigtail toddler in gingham under the eave of a watchful parent. “Are you in the police?” I ask. Her mum overlooks the charge with a grin. I continue sipping lager from an iced glass. Next morning, starting at eight, I finished the job before the heat set in. * * * We’ve visited the Museum of Asian Art in the Palace of St.Michael and St.George at the head of the Liston and got enticing glimpses of a private collection donated to the Greek State to which we’ll return. We toured Frederick Adam’s lovely house at Kanoni, it’s interior intelligently restored, built in the early 19th C. for his Greek wife – a neo-classical building of great serenity, ill painted outside and, suffering the unfortunate name ‘Mon Repos’ - not the Adams' choice. Incidentally, to explore the difference between the sublime and the ridiculous - the extraordinary as compared to the banal - the Achilleon Museum of kitsch with its collection of 19th century imitations assembled by the self-obsessed Empress Sissi at her 'pile' (as Bertie Wooster would have called it) at Gastouri, is a good place to visit, before or after seeing examples - especially at Delphi, and in Athens - of Greek sculpture. Mon Repos on top of Analipsis hill, near Kanoni shows, also, how 19th century Philhellenes could build in a way that honours and respects Greek history. The German Princess stayed there on her visit to Corfu in 1861. I imagine her being unimpressed by the simplicity and moderation of English neo-classicism. Her contribution to the architecture of the island - the Achilleon Palace - is a tasteless caricature of the Greek tradition, a Germanic version of neo-classicism, a precursor for the anorexic souvenirs of classical deities sold in trinket shops to visitors whose ideal nude cultivates the physique of a bicycle. Elisabeth von Witelsbach's adoration of the most aggressive of Homeric heroes was an infatuation shared by Kaiser Wilhelm ll who, bought the building, and built his own bridge to his mooring over the road by the shore near Benitses and wore military uniform on Greek soil. No visitor can entirely ignore the ominous 19th century swastika above the gates of Troy in Franz Matt's mural celebrating an atrocity. This, with other overblown decorations created by the high fashion architect Raffaele Carito, and the grossly expressive sculptures of Enst Herter, is in contrast to Sir Frederick Adam's earlier neo-classical achievement on behalf of his beloved Greek wife. (I'm not making an English-German comment. The Brits can do crass with the worst). In recent times the Achilleon found its true role as a gambling joint. I can fantasise a visit by Donald Trump followed by a bold decision to transport the lot to New York to help regenerate Coney Island. A plethora of over decorated 'palatial' villas built in the style and vernacular that Sissi and the Kaiser brought to Corfu, attest the collateral damage they've caused a sublime architectural tradition. I've another fantasy that UNESCO, now its given deserved protection to Corfu old town, might require, as a condition for continued support, that the Achilleon be razed after everything portable has been auctioned off to new money in Russia and China. We took a picnic up to the old fort on Saturday watching skiffs jostling in Garitsa Bay. Earlier in the week Lin drove us up to Arillas and Agios Stephanos, passing through compact villages via sinuous and ambiguously signposted roads, affording glimpses, between the abundant greenery, towards the north east of the island and back to the heat hazed slopes of Trompetta. Later she said “The drive was nice”.


  1. Hi Simon

    Good news on the mains sewage system they are putting in, do you know how it will connect up with the houses,as we will be below the pipe. will one run on the lower road and has anyone given a completion date?


  2. At our local shop I was told this morning that feeder pipes would be run between the upper and lower roads between the houses and that householders would pay between 100 and 200 euros to connect. I'll wait to learn more. Simon

  3. Great photos! I love the picture with the sea and the one with the window. Very artistic, bravo!
    I have been in for a long time after Vic's illness and I miss the countryside. But I have access to the sea at Garitsa for a stroll.
    Are you spending the winter here?

  4. So sorry. Thanks for your praise. I'm delighted these pictures please you as much as me. We are at our other home right now but will return via Sophia in January. Too long.


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Simon Baddeley