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Monday, 11 May 2009

All of a sudden the fine weather's here

Last Wednesday the sun had moved far enough south to miss the steep slopes behind us, warming the village an hour earlier than the previous morning, steaming off months of exceptional damp in less than half an hour. How this island shows its fabled beauty, mystery – the greater for the contrasts between the former and the blemishes we, with frail lack of resolution, bring to it. Herodotus knew, and also Thucydides that we alone of the world's species foul our own nests.The pleasure of being able to access the internet sitting in the shaded yard outside Sally and Mark’s home, five minutes down Democracy Street. Who could be be so fortunate in their friends and Leftheris, Katherina, Sofia and Nico, Mark and Sally, soon Mark’s brother Paul, Katya and Thannassis Spingos, Kostas Apergis…and on the internet Liana and Corfucius - who just reminded me this Sunday was my name-day, Simonos!
Only the other day I re-entered the world of the Quennells – not read since childhood history lessons and then unappreciated, but the introduction was made, the books with their fascinating pictures were implanted, and of course Jack prized them {I'm pleased to learn they turned their attention to 'Everyday things in Ancient Greece'] At a recent table top sale in Kontokali I picked up for €2 two perfect volumes of their four volume 15 year project – A History of Everyday Things in England. Of C.H.B.Quennell who died in 1935, a friend and teacher, Frank Roscoe, wrote:
His chief characteristic was an unquenchable enthusiasm for things that are “beautiful and of good report”. He would journey for miles to see a well-built farm wagon or any good example of handicraft. He had about him no trace of self-assurance nor any of the windy rhetoric used by self-styled connoisseurs on art or architecture. Sometimes he would say, with a rueful smile, that he was too ignorant to understand the meaning of modern developments, but in truth he understood them well enough, and formed shrewd estimates of their worth.
I venture to believe that the Quennells would have liked Democracy Street. We’d certainly have enjoyed them. The same goes for Dorothy Hartley - who I met for an hour in London long ago. To quote her DNB entry, she shared the Quennells' fascination with 'the minute details of the relationship between an object and its function—the scythe to the height of wheat cut, the exact width of a linen sheet to the dimensions of the linen press.' She toured the British Isles by bicycle and car, with pen, pencil, and camera, writing weekly articles on country people and their trades - horse-ploughing, bread making, clog making, influenced by the poet farmer Thomas Tusser, gleaning material for her joint project with Margaret Elliot between 1925 and 1931 - Life and Work of the Peoples of England - and, better known, Food in England (1954) and Lost Country Life (1979) (Ref: Mary Wondrausch in the DNB). ** ** ** The other day Mark took us for a stroll in the woodlands near Sally’s stables, promising to show us a wild tortoise in its habitat. “Some people are nervous of walking here. Snakes. If you stay quiet you can hear them getting out of your way.” The land, tinder in summer, was richly embroidered with foliage, grasses and flowers - oak trees in place of more familiar olives. We meandered along green paths made by Sally on rides with the horses, collecting the tips of wild asparagus, Teal questing around us in the dog dimension brought Mark a tortoise – the first wild one I’ve seen in my life. We looked and returned it gently to the deep grass “Some here treat them as pests. They get into their vegetable patches.”A tile on the floor is πλακάκι, on the roof κεραμίδι. When I was trying to remember the word, Nick, who rejoices in the tens of thousands of English words rooted in Greek, said “Ceramic – don’t get it muddled with onions – κρεμμύδια.” We like the old Corfu tiles but they aren’t easy to lay, each being unique to the varied shape of the human thighs over which they were formed and the thumbs that smoothed them. Newer versions were made by hand on a standard form. Hand was replaced by a press mould, but the problem remained of ensuring an efficient overlap when roofing – one tile down, one up. Today machine moulding guarantees seamless overlap.To lay a roof with the old tiles – some of them over a century old - imagine making a neat job of tiling a floor in a room with uneven shaped tiles that shatter if you try to chip them to fit or even using an angle grinder with a stone cutting disk. A roof, especially one with hips, presents a variety of challenges. The new tiles being uniform, cuttable and reliably waterproof are much easier to lay and more efficient. As it is, tiling our apothiki with the old tiles is still relatively straightforward – two square sides of roof and an existing ellenite roof that’s already waterproof and sound without tiles. They are, in other words, as unnecessary as designer stubble, jewellery, perfume, lacy underwear, high heels and bottom pinching. (See Corfucius for double entendres on laying tiles) Division of labour involves me mixing mortar, and passing it up to Lin who’s placing Nick's tiles on the corrugated surface of the ellenite – no need of course for laying tiles under and over as laid by Lambros on our house roof this time last year. Experienced roofers, like him and his mates, throw tiles up to each other. I pass them up to Lin in a plastic bag on a hook on the end of a length of 1 x 2, having soaked them in a bowl of water after wire-brushing moss and earth from inside them. Lin selects shorter, longer, thinner, wider tiles from the pile under the veranda and lines them up for me. The trickiest ladder work is done and she's worked out how to get the mortar to stick to both tile and roof, sat on a cushion on the ellenite – calling out occasional instructions to me - wider, longer, shorter...more mortar, more water. Once Lin’s selected one for the space where she wants to put it, she wets the lower tile with a sponge, puts a dollop of mortar where the wide end will go, a smaller dollop at the other, lays the tile, removes any mortar squeezed out the lower end of the tile and points the crescent gap between it and the tile below. The tiles cannot be walked on, and once laid, the edges cannot take the weight of a ladder leaned on them. Work must proceed in ways that won’t make any part inaccessible. “They look beautiful – πολύ ωπαία (or was it ‘ωπαίος’ – comely)” said one of our neighbours as she walked by.
I rigged up a rope to stop her sliding off
* * *
Animals, like thoughts, are ever present – of course the cats, amiable roaming dogs, the spiders – outdoors and indoors - and hornets (occasional), wasps, bees, ants, shieldbugs, rose chafers (ungainly flying buzzers that Fran calls ‘flying olives’ - searching for holes to nest; called cetonia aurata, the beetle made famous by Gerald Durrell in his description of the 'Rose Beetle Man', a strange island peddler of wild animals, who tied strings around the beetles, attaching a host of them to his hat - an unattractive thing to do*), butterflies (tho’ no moths), mosquitoes, fruit flies, horse flies, house flies, crickets and fireflies. The other evening I asked Angele to catch us some, so’s I could put them in a paper lantern to show little Estelle, having supper with us, and Nancy and Nick, her parents, and Sally and Mark – but I suspect she’s already got the T-shirt on these insects which to us, from the north, are enchanting. “You could read by them,” said Nick “…so long as you keep blinking." Birds: eagles over the crags, gulls, turtle doves, pigeons, sparrows, swallows, a blue headed bird - name unknown - greenfinches, jays, a lesser spotted woodpecker. At night we hear skops owls, and some bird that brays - possibly a nightjar - and, especially at dawn, cocks crowing. For reptiles, the delicate lizards with brick coloured throats and now we’ve seen a tortoise and, very briefly, a snake wriggling into a drain hole; too many dead on the roads. The other day we found, in the house, a spider that seemed to have lost two legs. “That should be out of doors – a garden spider” Honey told us. Lin caught it in a spoon and let it out. Sounds: scooters, strimmers, airplanes – in greater numbers since 1 May – cars and trucks, grocers and fishmongers in vans with loudspeakers driving slowly through the village crying their wares, (Our street - Democracy Street - exemplifies shared space; no signs, road markings, traffic lights, or pavements, so whether sweeping a porch, walking, cycling, or driving, all negotiate their share of the street and it seems to work. See also 'Naked Streets'), the rare sound of a siren (ambulance? police, fire? The authorities checking a bonfire - illegal after 30 April?), a chainsaw (logs for winter), children at play, parents calling them, people chatting, musical instruments being practised on, the distinctive tone of the neighbour’s phone, barking dogs (some chained and bored), cats screechingly defending their territories from other cats, pottering sounds from next door’s garden, the muted mumble of a TV, and now and then - thank goodness, rarely – the disquieting vibration of aural graffiti, amplified sound from a passing car, and far away the grumbling hup-hup-hup and scrape of a mechanical digger - the acoustic landscape of the island.
*Gerald Durrell: One afternoon Mother and I, in a fit of extravagant sentimentalism, bought up his entire stock of rose-beetles and, when he had left, let them all go in the garden. For days the villa was full of rose-beetles, crawling on the beds, lurking in the bathroom, banging against the lights at night, and falling like emeralds into our laps.


  1. And I suppose the floor ones are plaques?

    Really interesting post. It's good to have the past and the present connected in this way.

    I like the photo of the poppies by the sea . . . and of the elegant tiler at work!


  2. Thanks Lucy. The red and blue are in such contrast - but did you glimpse the blue rubbish bags - piles more of them outside the picture. I finally gave away that Black & Decker vacuum/blower gadget to friends who've a much bigger area to keep tidy. So now it's only sweeping for us (:))
    I guess you're right about the plaques. Lin thanks you for the compliment. I'm proud of her and delighted to see the roof at least half back on, with the rest to be done later in the year.

  3. Didn't notice the rubbish bags!

    Happy sweeping.



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Simon Baddeley