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Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Shades of grey

In the Riksdagshuset in Stockholm hangs a vast tapestry in 200 shades of grey called Memories of a Landscape - a Swedish take on making policy in a Parliamentary democracy; so today’s landscape from Ano Korakiana. I woke to rolling barrages of thunder; the sound of rain from our roof gutter drumming on the polythene tent that protects the clothes drying on Mrs L’s washing lines. The sun, whose dazzling light leaks through the tiniest gaps, projecting sharp interior shadows, was warming other places, leaving us low grey clouds sifting through files of grey cypress wending up the ravines of grey Trompetta. Black is no colour; white reflects the spectrum, “So Is grey a colour?” “It’s a combination of what reflects everything and what reflects nothing. So you tell me,” murmurs Lin, concentrating on applying white undercoat to a window frame, I’ve stripped to wood and existing paint. Doing such jobs some humans must ponder the conundrums of light and colour. I need the shifting grandeur of this Ionian landscape to see what a nun, closeted in her cell, could discern in reflections and refractions around a glass of water; my son gazing across the backs of Handsworth and preferring black and white for a finished image – with illusions of grey created by variations of black pixel density; what a craftsman decorator intuits combining paint, fabrics, glazes, glass, skirting, stucco, and plaster. Thus a morning row disperses from dark vexatious squabbling as Lin, just up, admonishes me - to shift to something other than my favourite Messiah pieces – “I’ve had enough of them” – and points irate at the stove - “Have you seen this? Have you?” “What, what, what?” “This, this for god’s sake!” - to the dripping leak of resinous water from a crack in the stove pipe that has sprayed up her immaculate skirting and white wall adding to the smoky greying spreading on the ceiling she’d painted coming from the same problematic chimney. I clout the pipe to close the offending gap and bend to start wiping up the mess. “No no no! Not like that. Go away. I’ll do it, you idiot”, “Be more English” I say calculatingly provocative. “Just say ‘Oh dear’. Don’t make such a thing of it. It’s not genocide.” Last night we’d watched a film of Waugh’s bitter tragi-farce A Handful of Dust in which, amid imperial class, infidelity and death of the first born, the worst anyone says amounts to “oh dear” – impeccably re-enacted in a more expressive age. I used to be like that; learned from six years old, at prep then public school, to be Spartan about showing feelings, buttoning up like a Samurai. I found visiting the Greek side of my family troubling to say the least ("They shout at table so much!"). “Thank god we can have rows now” I said “that I can curse and call you things – and you, me”, “Yes. Well”. If Dad hadn't invited me to Athens in April 1957, to meet my Greek family in their own land. They met me at Athens station off a four day train journey from London; whisked me off to be pampered in a little flat in Kolonaki, from whose tiny WC window I caught my first glimpse of the Parthenon.Tuesday morning I rose earlier than usual to stem the chill by feeding the fire, down to small embers. Over a cup of tea I watched sunlight surging briefly across the mainland mountains, before vanishing behind clouds over a slate sea. The village lies in palpable quiet, wood smoke drifting languidly over the familiar landscape. Over roofs to the west comes the sporadic rev of a chain saw. Fran and Dave drop round and rouse Lin who stayed up last night reading by the quietening fire. She fell asleep, her book in her lap, coming to bed very late. “Nothing like a wood fire for snoozing by” said Fran. I popped to the shop for milk. On the way back Katerina grimaced “frio!” “ne, frio” “ti kanis?” “cala”. Later, on the unfinished hard soccer pitch below the village - a project started before we came – a figure in a modern Bruegel, spurts back and forth on his motorbike doing wheelies on the yellow gravel. A fish vendor followed by a greengrocer drive their vans along Democracy Street crying their wares over loudspeakers. Lin continued work on the garden. I collected and hand sawed firewood fallen from a long abandoned house on the lower path.Later the skies cleared and we made up a picnic, drove via the thirty hairpins to the edge of Sokraki, the village directly above us, parked and walked along a green lane running just inside the crags that tower over Ano. A man with a donkey carrying olives passed. The lip of the precipice was hidden by dense banks of hollyoak and myrtle but from landmarks far below we guessed when were above our house. * * * We put together a composter from wire netting and lino and cleared weeds from the garden. Yesterday, bright, dry and chilly with snow on high land over the strait. We’ve spread rubble where the garden’s still to be plaka’d, Lin finding a level to lay a sheet of sturdy wire mesh with a hole cut for one of the two lemon trees sawn down so the previous owners could find space for a two metre satellite dish. I barrowed pieces of mortar and broken tiles removed from our old roof to spread under the mesh. Larger pieces of rubble crumbled under the lump hammer to mix with tile shards. After a tea break – fresh bread, cheese, pork pie, home made Branston pickle – we went back to the garden. One of Lin’s nightdresses, also pillowcases were missing from the clothes line; a sheet dragged on the ground. The nightdress was lying near the garden gate – ripped; a pillowslip lay on the path to the lower road and even further down I found the culprit red-pawed chewing over the second pillow case amid purloined washing – an old off-white dog who stumps on stiff legs shacks up in an abandoned house below us. I confiscated a blanket from his collection of warm furnishings and we had a playful tug-o-war with it back to the house where he wagged his tail happily through a telling off from Lin. I left the blanket for him to drag home. * * * We like to read or in Lin’s case do puzzles in the WC. At intervals I’m reading – not Conundrums for the Khazi but John Reed’s account of the Soviet Revolution – Ten Days that shook the World. Despite an Introduction by V.I.Lenin, this riveting commentary published in 1919 was banned by Stalin, because it recorded the vital role of Lev Trotsky who’s red guards seized power in the name of the Soviet proletariat in Petrograd on 7/8 November 1917 (The pigs, Napoleon and Snowball are Stalin and Trotsky in Animal Farm, George Orwell’s fable of how the Bolshevik revolution went sour). In Reed’s account I came across the extract my stepfather had used years ago to explain to me how events, later recognised as historic, can seem ordinary, irrelevant, even invisible when they are actually happening, unless placed in the frame of an intermediary narrative. On the momentous evening of Wednesday 7 November 1917 strolling along the Nevsky from the Winter Palace in Petrograd, Reed wrote:
Here the street cars had stopped running, few people passed, and there were no lights; but a few blocks away we could see the trams, the crowds, the lighted shop-windows and the electric signs of the moving-picture shows – life going on as usual. We had tickets to the Ballet at the Marinsky Theatre – all the theatres were open – but it was too exciting out of doors….
I suspect that our ‘interesting times’ will find us participating in a great deal of normal activity, trying to focus on ‘business as usual’, with the emergent signs of catastrophe grasped only vicariously or not at all, until their effects become too intrusive to ignore. An e-mail exchange with a friend in LA. I wrote to Richard Risemberg on 5.2.09:
It’s not as if individuals are clueless. It’s as though people collectively are fixed in some sort of amber. Perhaps we’ve been spectators for so long now that the view through the window doesn’t seem as real as the one through the television.
R replies:
Simon, it's sad to say but many of them here in the US are indeed clueless. The old American habit that's come to be called "exceptionalism" nurtures that the view that "we" are exempt from the rules we believe others should follow, and even from the laws of physics. It's an endemic disease, though more people are healing themselves of it, it still afflicts the majority. Bike culture here (and urban bike culture is relatively new) is one of the bright spots. Too many traditional enviros are still driving around forests in SUVs to save them, when it's not driving in cities that will do more in that regard.
From me:
I’ve submitted a proposal to our city council regarding urban agriculture – something that I’ve been campaigning on for quite a while. I’ve attached it for your interest.
From R:
Very good. Urban agriculture is an absolute necessity for the survival of human culture. Any chance you'd have time ot rewrite it in more general terms for pubbing in New Colonist?
From me:
It may be that in drib and drabs the embroidery of an alternative way of living is beginning to emerge.
From R:
Yes...many people are choosing now to live in parallel with the dominant culture, but partaking of it little as possible. Live around it, and let it wither away as something new grows from the debris. The curves will eventually cross, one hopes. Regards, Rick [Richard Risemberg]
* * * Finding a car parking space near the old town centre in Corfu can be notoriously time wasting. I park further out, using a folding bicycle that fits easily in the back of the car, to thread swiftly and pleasurably through log jams of motorised traffic, and, because I can step off and become a pedestrian to stroll my bicycle over red lights or walk it against a one-way, as well as able to stop anywhere and fold to go indoors, I’m better adapted to the narrowest of Corfu’s alleys than even a moped rider. If Lin’s with me, she can get out of our car near the town centre, leaving me to drive back out to park, get the folder from the boot and rejoin her. My folder’s also good for the local buses; easily stored with luggage for a tiny extra fare, often not charged. * * * There was a comment on one of the political-management conversations I'd filmed and posted on YouTube with permission for moderated comments. Someone had commented on an exchange exploring how a manager relates to an opposition politician "What a lot of rubbish-bit like a chat over the garden fence. Do some work for the people you represent." I rejected it - with regret. I don't think I can get into a dialogue on this; one of my reasons for being so careful about posting this material on YouTube. What I would have wanted to say had I not felt too much distrust for the anonymous person's grasp of shades of grey; more specifically, their obtuseness in using the familiar 'chat over the garden fence' as a form of denigration, when the garden fence between neighbours is one of the primary sites of political activity, where to be politic in starting and maintaining conversation 'over the garden fence' is the basis of neighbourliness, including what I've called 'responsible gossip' - a much maligned social glue. If you lack the skill and inclination to anticipate or resolve possible tension between you and your neighbour, how can you hope to address the conflicts that arise across larger borders? But then it's partly to challenge some people's wilful lack of respect for political acumen that I was posting these in the first place, as a supplement to my teaching on the subject. On this occasion I failed and I'm sorry for it. I was thinking of the Frost poem just then, with his thoughts on fences and walls and neighbours - 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall' [Back to the future 15 March 09: I'm grateful to Stavros on My Greek Odyssey for introducing me to the word koinonia ~ 'rich in meaning ... used extensively in the New Testament. It can be translated as community, communion, joint participation, sharing and intimacy. All of which I believe go far beyond the mere description of a "close knit village." There is an excellent article on the concept in Wikipedia which I recommend.'] * * * At the back of the Apothiki, where we keep wood, and things taken from the house and garden - a ceiling made of flattened olive oil tins which we probably won't use, and rolled iron bars - part of a frame for a vine - taken down to make space for the previous residents' satellite dish, shutters, old paint, and different sizes of timber, which we will. At the back, I found - in shop condition - an electric garden vacuum and blower, missed by the previous owners. I assembled it from its scuffed box, attaching a bag that hung awkwardly beneath the two part plastic tube and, glancing at my watch to ensure we were outside siesta, I switched it on. The vacuum cleared the dust under the veranda in a trice, but I was surprised by my waning enthusiasm for it, compared to a brush and dustpan - cheap, light, easily handled and stored, silent with no cable to an electric supply, and with its sibling handbrush, getting dust from about anywhere. Brushing allows sorting - twigs that can go in a separate bin for kindling, leaves or sawdust for the compost or in a bag to damp the stove fire at night, insects that can be examined and allowed to go their way rather than be sucked into oblivion, small items like nails, screws and washers mislaid when working on the veranda which might be reusable and shouldn't go in the compost or into the vacuum bag, a button lost, a piece of crust for the birds. Brushing is soothing, giving time for reflection, letting me notice the details of the floor. It takes longer to brush - but given my profligacy with time I don't miss what I'd make up by using the gadget - half a chapter read, a couple of cups of tea, and what about the chatting time gained. The noise of the vacuum makes conversation impossible, blocking the sounds of the village.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Mr Simon,

    Nice post and pictures! Did it snow in Ano Korakiana today? Here in town we had some cold rain...


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Simon Baddeley