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Thursday, 4 October 2012

Η γάτα είναι εφτάψυχη

Among the regularly shifting family of cats that live between our houses, using their claws to make effortless ascents of walls and trees, Linda had taken a liking to the ginger kitten which has been around since April. It was killed by a car on Democracy Street the other evening. Katerina, her sister Nectaria and Vangelis and a couple of other children, used to the same cats as us, were standing around in the dusk looking down at its small broken body lying in gouts of congealed blood close against the corner of Lefteris’ house. The children drew our attention to it as we came up the steps to the street the other evening on the way to supper with friends.
“Oh no” said Lin
We looked down in the gathering dark on the little corpse. I contemplated collecting it up.
“If it’s still there when we get back I will”
We walked on. The body had been removed when we came home.
“I could never get near that kitten, you know. It was so wary, yet it was hit by a car”
The cats – our cats – are of course not ours. They’re feral, uncollared, living among us, valuing us for the food we give them, alley cats κεραμιδόγατος.
When we come to the door they will sometimes gather looking up expectantly tails high, waving. If they are nowhere to be seen we will tap a plate against a wall and cry “Γάτα! γάτα!” or “Naps! Ναπς!” Drawing out the ‘a’ – “naa-aaps!” - so that they gather for our gift, imparting the suggestion that we have influence in their lives.
It is a duty to feed a dog that is of your household, as much as to feed a child. In the case of cats we are making offerings. The pet food marketing people figured this out years ago and wrote copy that repeated an ancient distinction in the contrasting ways humans viewed cat and dogs. Dogs whether treated well or abominably, as some are, belong to people. Cats invoke superstition in humans. They are household divinities, seen by some as familiars, “which is why” I read in some study long ago “humans when cherishing dogs will love them like their children and when cruel to dogs will abuse them as some humans abuse children; while humans when cherishing cats will come close to worshipping them or, when cruel, will torture them in inventively brutal ways.”
Cats are not parasites. The presence of these beautiful beasts around our cluster of houses is encouraged by gifts of food. They are never allowed inside houses.
“Έξω! exo!” we cry to the bolder kittens that haven’t learned about thresholds, crying out “cat in the house” and chasing them out. Most understand and obey this convention despite exhibiting intense curiosity about the interiors of our homes. Once I found the desiccated skeleton and pelt of a kitten that had hidden and got trapped in the house when we’d left for England for three months. An awful fate. Now we take more care to check rooms for cats on departure.
A queen and her kits in Venetia
Two adult cats presently allow themselves to be stroked, even purring and looking up ecstatically with half-closed eyes when gently scratched and caressed. I don’t understand why these particular cats decided to be trusting.
“There's a family I know” said a British friend the other day “who paid €500 to have a cat’s broken leg set, and to take her and her kittens to England. It’s a bit over the top when there are families trying to live on €30 a week”
“They have a way of dashing out in front of the car” added her husband “and as we miss them I mutter, ‘there goes one more of your nine lives’” In Greece the British saying is altered - they have just seven lives - Η γάτα είναι εφτάψυχη.
I don’t worship cats. I delight in the look of them. I’d be fascinated to learn more about their habits, especially how they determine each other’s rank and territories and how far different cats roam the village - their beat as it were - and where they live in the cold and wet of winter.
We see them growling at each other, slashing out at other cats to defend their space and we hear, and now and then see, them screeching during violent mating. I’m pleased they kill the occasional rats; less so that they leave their small savaged corpses near our front door as misguided gifts.
When we came home the ginger cat’s body was gone. In the morning young Katerina explained that she and Vangeli had wrapped it up and ‘taken it away’. Only a small map of dried blood remained in the gravel at the side of the road.
“I really liked that cat” said Lin.
*** ******
There came a local wind – in the heat of the midday – that lasted hardly a minute as though some great tree had fallen or rock had tumbled displacing air. It blows across the village, gusting through and around the houses slamming loose doors - close and far – momentarily raising our curtains like streamers, moaning through the roof, sending a plastic bottle poppity along the alley, lifting loose paper; gone as abruptly as it arrived. A portent from the north. Yesterday these great gusts were coming at regular intervals blowing up little dust storms along the mole at Ipsos.
A catamaran we knew was in sound condition but whose owner died has been shifted from its original mooring in the harbour, where it had sat unattended for over five years. It's been beached on the shore where it lies forlorn - a desolate sight - halliards loose, its jib unfurled, slowly shredding, its dirty hull half in and out of the sea, at the mercy of waves from a southern storm.
I'd been down to inspect Summer Song, to check her moorings and cover. As Lin and I sat on a bench I noticed a new boat in the harbour, moored cosily among small fishing boats - of all things a Westerly 22, and not only that - with a gunter rig. I suspect these coincidences. This useful rig is so rare on anything but dinghies and I've not seen another boat of this kind all the time we've been in Corfu; yet here it was in Ipsos harbour only yards from our own boat. I made enquiries and by evening knew her owner and how she came to Corfu - sailed all the way from England.
I was entranced and filled with pleasant nostalgia, even a little envy, to see in such good condition a small boat of exactly the same type and rig as I and a friend had sailed across the Atlantic in 1965-66; a boat I'd know my way about in pitch darkness. Lin and I had been lent the same kind of boat in 1975. We'd sailed her from near Bristol to the Scilly Islands and back over a wet and stormy August. In the wiki piece I wrote about the man who taught me about the way to sail and attend to a small boat at sea, Denys Rayner - nickname 'Ben' his RNVR call sign during convoy duty - inventor of the Westerly 22:
...Ben Rayner's greatest peace time contribution lay in his approach to designing, building and selling such small craft. A fascination with making model destroyers at school evolved into the making of Robinetta in which for a few years he voyaged for pleasure - a pleasure which, after his long war service, he made available to thousands. Starting with Robinetta - based in 2006 on the River Orwell near Harwich and still sailing, and then the rebuilt Orchid to share with his youngest son, Rayner graduated via the one-off Corvette to the Westerly 22, to the Westerly 25, the Westerly 30, the Windrush (a re-worked W25), and the Nomad (a re-worked W22). Applying the husbandry, and inventiveness, that characterised his years as a professional sailor, Rayner applied design and techniques, including the crucial process of curing now recognised as so vital to enduring fibre glass construction, to products that sold themselves. In the recent words of one of his sons, "He was delighted when the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker arrived at the London Boat Show in the early 60s and put down deposits in cash. Boats at that time were produced by 12 men at 6 vessels per annum. With 12 men we built 50 a year. Their yachts cost £6,000. Ours were on a trailer for £1800." But if these small craft were swiftly made and so affordable, none left Rayner's factory unfit for the sea, of which he wrote "neither cruel nor kind ... Any apparent virtues it may have, and all its vices, are seen only in relation to the spirit of man who pits himself, in ships of his own building, against its insensate power."...
*** ***
The other evening, with Lefteris and his grandson and Adonis, I helped crush a 1000 kilos of red and white grapes for next years wine. Lin peeked at us over the garden fence as she cooked supper.
This evening after decanting the first fermentation the press will be applied to the crushed grapes, and the pomace composted.
*** ***
WiFi'd Amy who'd driven up to the Highlands with Oliver and Guy to be with her grandmother, and my sister Bay now at Brin Croft with mum after her flight from New York. I was showing Lin some pictures of Mum when she was a young woman and a girl. For all my pleasure in leafing through large books or drawers full of photos, it's good to have technology which so swiftly recovers a couple of pictures I had in mind - ones I scanned only a year or so ago.
My mother in the lower meadow at Mill End on her horse Oyster. The shadow of the photographer, my grandmother Bar. This must have been sometime in the mid-1930s. Another during a haymaking - mum and her sister with Gypsy, taking a mouthful from my mum's pitchfork.
Gypsy was still around when I was born at Mill End and old enough to be perched on his back in straw hat against the brightness of the sun. Yesterday afternoon I was skyping Amy and Guy, with my grandson Oliver sat between them, in the conservatory at Brin Croft.
There's a Greek philosopher whose name I can't remember. He was, I'm sure, one of the Stoics, a school of thinking - στωικισμός - that emerged, with other guides to life, after militaristic hubris had ended everything that made that brief brilliant era begun with the victory at Plataea, with the fragmentation of city states - the polis - entities which imparted identity, structure and meaning to their citizens; giving commonality to the Golden Age. The philosophy of stoicism is a richer vein of thought and feeling than the simplistic definition contained in our present notions of that word. As those organic societies withered, Greeks had to find an individuality separate from the body politic. It must have been dreadful - for all the liberties the loss of community may confer on people previously fixed in the amber of custom and tradition.
Human life, said this Stoic, could be compared to a great crowd toiling in a vast quarry from which, now and then at random intervals, a cutting out party would select an old man or woman, a mother, wife, father, husband, brother, sister, a suckling child, maiden or youth and take them away, never to be seen again. This image comes to me - one who delights in my surroundings in Greece, in England, in Scotland - with the words of Matthew Arnold
...for the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new, hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...
No place means anything without the people in it that you love, your dear neighbours and friends; the most sublime, most beautiful landscape on land or sea, whether the close-ups of exquisite detail or the distant prospect of mountains and plains at the rising of the sun or its going down, enchanted by moonlight as was the sea below the cliffs of Dover Beach, as Arnold strolled in the sweet night air with his new wife; none of this affords an iota of consolation when the cutting out party arrives in the quarry for someone you love. 

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Simon Baddeley