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Saturday, 12 February 2011


Befogged in Venice we met people also awaiting passage south. One fitted the picture of a Greek citizen I’ve only read about. His parents had been on the side that lost in the Civil War and earlier in the resistance – “my father, part of the andartiko” - exiled to iron curtain countries, brought up doing Marxist-Leninism at primary school, disallowed Hellenic citizenship until the 1980s, acquiring Bulgarian and other middle European languages alongside his parents’ Greek, serving in the merchant marine, marrying an Englishwoman, living in the Midlands, eventually being able to come home with full citizenship. A novel biography. We ate and drank together in a pizza place on Lista di Spagna and talked – a lot. The wife is English with roots in Poland, not speaking her birth language. “He taught me to speak Polish” she said. We joked at our struggle to learn Greek. “It’s difficult,” she said “I thought I’d never get it, then one morning I woke up and I could speak Greek.” We wish. Oh how we wish.
Our hotel was phoned before first light; the fog cleared. We joined the ferry and stood on the top deck looking at the passing scene as with the help of a squat tug, occasionally churning mud from the bottom of the canal, our ship headed out to sea, the deck speakers streaming multilingual safety instructions between bursts of muzak while all who needed to hear were focusing on watching and photographing the city - La Serenissima.
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So we're in Ano Korakiana again. The ferry, a rattling behemoth, dropped us in Corfu in weather too warm for the clothes we'd worn for the chill at dawn as we rumbled by the snow topped Albanian mountains south of Vlorë under a clear sky, the smudge of Erikoussa of the Diapontian islands, looming first to starboard and soon the familiar shape of Pantokrator, strewn across the dawn horizon. First we met Yianni who was waiting with our car. Stop. First I put a hand flat on the concrete jetty to touch the blessed place and saw a text on my Greek mobile from Paul and Lula “Welcome home. X.”
Driving out of the harbour we parked and walked to Alpha Bank behind the Liston to get cash and pay Yianni. All the staff seemed new. We were gently shunted between desks and asked to provide more than the usual amount of information to confirm we weren’t laundering money. “Yes” said Lin “this is all part of the tightening up.” Being good on paperwork we'd all we needed and were allowed notice on what we hadn’t provided like the deeds of the house, a marriage certificate, birth certificate and the address of the local shop in Ano Korakiana, how many times a week we…
So we drove north stopping to get essentials at Lidl before coming to Ano Korakiana up Democracy Street where we hugged and kissed our dear neighbours and found the house aired, ready for us; the landscape waiting to be admired from our balcony.
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I’m going to have a go at Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić, translated from Serbo-Croat. This book is, at first sight, a 300 page joke, serious in intent, promising hard work, given that, intrigued by the Balkans – an Ottoman collective term for fuzzily bordered nations that adds insult to centuries of self-injury – I’d far prefer to read novels like Kadari’s and the wonderful story by Ivo Andric The Bridge over the Drina, that explain things, without resort to magic realism. Pavić’s book circles round the vanished Khazars, a tribe living somewhere between the Black and Caspian seas on the edge of Russia, destroyed in the 9th century after their ruler had invited three of the greatest scholars of the day – Christian, Muslim and Jewish – to debate which of their religions he and his people should adopt. 6oo years later, in 1689, three different people – also Christian, Muslim and Jew - encounter each other during a battle near the mouth of the Danube and at the same time die. Hm? 300 years after this, in 1982, three scholars – Muslim, Jew and Christian – meet in Istanbul to reconstitute a book published in 1691 – The Khazar Dictionary of which but one survives. Two of them die. This is Pavić’s invented history. To add to the vexing whimsy my book is the ‘male edition’ of the dictionary, differing by one paragraph from the 'female edition' - see the easily discovered spoiler. With its constant cross-references to Christian, Muslim and Jewish sources in the book’s three main sections, DoK is probably best read digitised with hypertext x-references, so one can jump around inside it as with a dictionary or encylopaedia, but we’ll see.
I prefer writers who describe mystery rather then writers who mystify me, but I’ve enjoyed surprises. Just finished Graham Hurley’s One Under. This is how an artist takes a medium – in this case police procedural – and as le Carré does with spying - transforms the small scale squalor of an ugly universe and the banality involved in policing the jacqueries of human nature stirred by global connectedness into something that stands on a shelf beside Conan Doyle, Simenon, Camilleri, Mankell, Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Dibden, Paretsky, Chandler, McBain, Chandler, Dickens and Dostoevski. What are the ingredients? I’ll no doubt find who coined the term ‘police procedural’, but it’s for me the ordinariness of police work, its jargon, bureaucracy and politics, alongside imaginative depravity of the kind that stops people talking about their work when they come home. Suppose Dante had been a policeman, returned from his tour of hell disinclined to talk or write about it. I recall Sue as she lay on the deck of our little boat in the middle of the Atlantic long ago working through The Inferno - the first book of his Divine Comedy - as our boat self-steered through the Trades. “It’s not so bad at first. But after a while it grows on you. The relentless awfulness of hell.” A police procedural should take you there. Banality of evil.
I’m hearing a hint in the casual tales our beloved daughter describes of events in her working life when, as we sit together as the evening before Lin and I left for Greece, she tells a typical tangled tale of a husband phoning the police as a last resort. His wife – separated amid divorce proceedings – had phoned him to say she couldn’t cope with their baby, in her care. He being in a custody dispute with his wife was not supposed to have the child with him unsupervised. No threat of abuse but these are the rules. The wife had phoned social services but they despite promises to come back to her before the end of the day, had not, nor even phoned. Wife takes child to husband who knowing he’s not supposed to have the child alone phones his solicitor who advises phoning police. Police, now knowing an illegal situation has been logged, must act. Police try to contact social services to get temporary fostering. “We can’t exactly put the baby in a cell” smiles Amy. Trying to sort this out tied up three officers through most of their shift. “So what happened?” I ask our Amy half-knowing I’m not going to see rolling credits. “We don’t know. I finished work.” It’s soap, serial, picaresque with her. Nothing’s ever sorted.
Hurley would take this material and make it into a narrative with at least the vestiges of a beginning, middle and end and I’d finish it in 24 hours of concentrated reading, in this case on the ferry from Venice to Corfu, only putting it down now and then so as not to finish too soon. Ingredients: create a place – Paris, Rome, London, Pompey?; know the argot of the police; know the jargon including the acronyms of the bureaucracy; include hi-politics as it affects mere mortals on street and front desk; think constantly of budget restrictions; know the fuzzy line between formal and informal rules; know the dystopian universe, the mean streets and a moral being who walks them; be bleak, existential to the tune of sacred music and faith’s melancholy, long, withdrawing roar, retreating, to the breath of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear and naked shingles of the world.
I had this picture the other night of Moses Dawkins descending from the heights of Mt. Sceptic to find his chosen people - I among them - have, in his absence, abandoned trust in atheism and herded themselves into Magdalene Chapel to listen in jubilant awe to the Matthew Passion. “F*ck” he mutters. Bursting past the crowded door, pushing through the surging congregation; “Out, out, craven apostates” he cries, silencing the orchestra, scattering the scores, dispersing them, the players and choir and their audience into Oxford’s wintry passages, turning to me "Really Simon, I'm disappointed. Come on down to the Eagle and Child and share a pint of Old Rational."
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I thought for a while I had discovered someone else who’d made contemporary recordings – at a time when VHS recorders were not so widespread – of my stepfather’s broadcasts of episodes from Out of Town and Old Country in the early1980s or before, but a couple of days ago I got this email:
Re: Jack Hargreaves. Hello, Simon. I am sorry to have taken so long to reply (I have only just gone on-line and seen your message) and to have to disappoint you but I no longer have the video recordings. Some time ago, the tape had disintegrated to the point where it was not only unplayable but un-repairable as well and I threw it away, albeit very reluctantly, along with several other (unrelated) tapes. I can assure you that if I had thought that it could possibly have been any use, even if only in part, I would have kept it and would have been delighted to be in a position to pass it on to you but I am afraid that this is not the case. I do hope that you will have more success with your search elsewhere. I can't believe that I was the only person to record some of the episodes and, with a bit of luck, someone else has and subsequently took better care of the tapes than I did. You know better than I what a great man your step-father was. Not only were his broadcasts and books a pleasure but also an inspiration to me and, no doubt, a great many others. All the best. Paul Chignell
" the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world" Lawrence Durrell Prospero's Cell

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Simon Baddeley