Friday, July 20, 2007

Summer Poem

Racing Through Summer

We chase friendly weather fronts
through other peoples’ gardens,
distil the sun they have, eat picnics, jig-time
and always we are framed
by lush oceans of waving grass
and trees that foam through
fine cracks in cloud.
Daily our children grow
before our eyes,
more talkative than birds,
more beautiful than birch.
On gentle slopes swollen with jacaranda,
they pick up pace, blur,
and we strain to keep in touch,
another day.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007


Back from Greece. There during a heatwave and on the day I left 25 Athenians popped their socks from heat exhaustion. Have spent much time since staring wistfully at my blisters and occasionally tipping out a small pile of the dust of Attica from my ill-fitting Next Directory flip-flops because truth to tell there is no country like Greece, no landscape so beautifully bleak, no colours so blinding. In honour of Greece I reprint an article I wrote detailing my most confused time there.

Greek Diary


In the midst of a depressive illness, I go to see my doctor. He is an urbane and clever man who earned my unstinting admiration a few months ago by instantly recognising the seriousness of my condition.

“There’s no doubt about it”, he said, after a harrowing examination of my symptoms, “you’re fucked.” “Doctor”, I said at the time, “is ‘fucked’ the colloquial term for that existential angst brought on by a realisation of the gap in your life between what you are and what you thought you were?" He shook his head and reached for his prescription pads. That’s the measure of the man.

The good doctor has been on holiday and I am now to see him again. I have been looking forward to describing a strange feeling that develops in my kidneys whenever I think of my work. Imagine my surprise when I find him slumped over his desk in an attitude of complete despair. He looks up. “It’s all right for you”, he sobs.


Taking Doctor Crawford’s advice, I go on holiday. “Get the fuck out of Dumfries, he’d said, throwing prescriptions at me like a ticker-tape farewell.

I decide on a package holiday, reckoning that is the best way for a mentally discomfited person not to stand out from the crowd. There is a moment’s difficulty in the Travel Agent’s, where the enthusiastic assistant is giving her advice. “Kalymnos” she says, “Stoupa”, they’re real places. Corfu’s not real.” I eye her with interest. Once you realise there are different realities, everything’s up for grabs. I write Doctor Crawford’s name on her pad before I leave.


Stoupa is a little village tacked onto a beautiful and wide sandy bay. It is a quiet holiday location off the main tourist track. It is on one of the peripheries of mainland Greece, the Mani, a mountainous area not unlike northern Scotland. As is common knowledge, loonies head the furthest north or south they can. It explains why Shetland is the way it is.

True enough at dinner I meet another disturbed teacher, from Arbroath. He is scared of his headmaster who he thinks is a maniac. I tell him my headmaster looks like a Greek God. For some reason he is very impressed by this. Over our red snappers we express disappointment that teachers, with only 28%, have not met their nervous breakdown targets this session.


Back home in Dumfries I periodically go to see a strapping woman who wants to get to the root of my problems. When I told Dr. Crawford about this intention of hers he said, in a quiet voice, “Some things you don’t want to get to the bottom of”. I have often wondered if Dr. Crawford is one of the 1.55% of bogus GPs who, despite having walked in off the street with no medical qualifications, acquire a large and faithful practice, mainly due to their sound common sense and liberal inclination to sign people off their work.

Miss Prentice, that is the psychiatrist’s name, believes I need to go back to my childhood. It is a place I don’t want to go, but it is better than Kardymili where I have just sat through a traditional Greek night with dancing. Like traditional Scottish nights with dancing no activity of any historical or cultural validity goes on apart from robbery. I do not believe for a moment that any Greek has ever behaved in the manner depicted at a traditional Greek night with dancing, or he would surely have been locked up.
All over Europe people with too much money are attending traditional nights with dancing, drinking paint stripper and, to the discordant twang of some joke instrument made out of an old tennis press, are taking to the floor to the Estonian handkerchief dance, or the Icelandic Nasal Polka, all invented the night before at the pub. It is a gigantic piss-take controlled by the Mafia. Of course I am only jealous that the Scottish operation is already up and running, though there is still time for me to do the Dumfries Cultural Experience where visitors will sit in a disused church hall while drizzle falls steadily on their heads and I go through their jackets in the next room.


I hike to Agios Nikolaois, a small fishing village three miles south of Stoupa. I am supposed to get lots of healthy exercise and I know that walking for an hour and a half up the side of a mountain with 6 litres of the legendary Greek beer Mythos in a temperature approaching 46 is just the

When I arrive, the boats are coming in and the women are battering squid against the wall while the kids frolic in a surf flecked with blood. It is indubitably a piece of real life. The heat bursts like pure bubbles in my head but I sit and try to write partly because Miss Prentice says it’s important to catalogue your feelings, and partly because I’m supposed to be a writer. My catalogue consists of the words ‘Knackered’ and ‘Half-drunk’. Everything beyond the reality of pure colour and the heat seems an absolute indulgence. You’d need to be a painter to address primary truths here. I shut my notebook. An old gentleman, Greek Tourist Board Beard, sees my distress. “at this time”, he says, “you have to drink a lot.” This seems to be fundamentally true, at last.

Eclipse Wednesday

Hoping to better to see the effects of this phenomenon, I get more exercise, trudging north up a mountain to an even more distant village where I hope to see the eclipse’s effect on an ignorant and superstitious peasantry. I am encouraged by what I find; a ramshackle of whitewashed cottages, lolling dogs and olive trees. Unfortunately when the appointed hour arrives, everyone whips out the free eclipse glasses provided in today’s Kalamata News, or goes in to watch it on satellite TV. The only primitive figure in the scenario appears to be me, soaking wet in sweat and half dead with heat exhaustion, squinting painfully at the sky through a half torn packet of paprika crisps.


Miss Prentice also says (I believe she is paid by the aphorism) that I need to feel more pinned in place, so I spend the evening pinned in place in ‘Manoli’s Disco Every Hours’ a Happy Hours’ All Day Pub and Light System.’ After a few hours drinking Manoli’s Molotov Cocktails, I am better able to articulate the vague feeling of unease that has infected me since my arrival. I am surrounded by Euro-Youth. They have the same teeth, the same cut-off shorts, the same antennae. They are confident, gleaming, so spectacularly different from my contemporaries at their age as to resemble creatures from a different star system.

Euro –Youth are the reason why European unity is both a foregone conclusion and a dreadful prospect. They are an empire devoid of that most civilising agent, doubt. At their age I was riddled with doubt, and things have not improved any. Even my teeth were doubtful. These people behave as if their teeth could enamel the universe, and they probably could.


Things have gone from bad to worse and today I am imprisoned in a bar. I came in for a single drink – the legendary Greek Mythos – but every time I ask for the bill, the waiter, an entirely cheerful old man, brings me another beer. Thinking ‘bill’ to be some local euphemism for beer I ask to ‘pay’. With a great smile the waiter brings me another beer. At such times you feel there is a destiny working at you, chiselling away like the tide. You also feel that language differences may yet be the salvation of all of us. Overcome by joy at the human condition, I cry “Vive la difference”. Clapping delightedly, the waiter brings me another beer.


This is predominantly a German resort and many have obviously driven here to the various campsites which, even to my uncynical eye resemble bivouacs, with camouflage mosquito netting, field kitchens and anti-aircraft batteries. There is obviously a fashion this year for ex-Reichswehr vehicles. There is an old personnel carrier parked outside the Agricoli Tavern which some thoughtful Euro-Youth have driven down to remind the locals what their roads were originally built for. The Greeks bear no grudges, I think not because they have short memories but because they have very long ones, for after all who has not, at one time or the other, dumped on the Greeks? Even the Scots have, though we were probably pretending to be English at the time.


I go for a last drink at the pub with the kindly old waiter but it has disappeared, like Brigadoon.
Disconsolate, I send a telegram to Dr. Crawford telling him to clear his desk as I’m on my way.