A Greek Easter in London

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The Greek Orthodox Church celebrate their Easter a week after the rest of us. They call it Pascha and see it as the most important holiday of the year. More important even than Christmas. Herself is as Greek as Athena, so last Saturday night, she took us to St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Bayswater, West London, for the Resurrection Mass.

Setting-out late, we arrived to find the chapel filled out the door, across the grounds and down the street. It looked like half the Greeks in London had turned up and she says it’s the same back home; if you don’t go early then you won’t get in. The evening was warm and we’ve never minded standing so we found ourselves a plot amongst the gathering and settled. The church had rigged up a sound system on the street for us, but I don’t speak a word of the language so I just nod when I’m told and try not to draw attention to myself. She tells me that they have a torch in the cathedral brought specially from the holy land and that it’s all part of their tradition. They bring it into the country on a special flight, says she, and the flame never goes out. I’m not too sure if I believe her, but I didn’t have any of the appropriate facts in my possession at that time and anything I have found since has shown her to be right.

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Coming up to midnight, she reaches into her bag and pulls out a pair of candles and a couple of boiled eggs, their brittle shells painted blood-red in watercolour. She hands me one of each, keeping hold of a set for herself, and says that we need to wait for the right moment. I have no notion as to what’s happening, but soon enough the priest says the magic word over the speaker and everybody gets to shaking hands and kissing one another on the cheeks. Then he lights a candle on the holy torch and shares the flame amongst the congregation to multiply throughout the crowd outside. Whether you go in for religion or not, it’s a beautiful sight as the discrete light spreads through this midnight assembly of hushed celebration.

photo 3(1)Christ is risen, she says and we light our candles and kiss. She tells me to hold out my egg upright and then smacks it with the top of her own. The brittle shell top of my eggs is pulverised. We flip them and I do the same to hers. My egg cracks again. She wins. We kiss again. They call it Tsougrisma, which means to hit with each other and they use the term to describe a falling out between two lovers. According to custom, if you lose then you have to eat your cracked egg. I know that her parents mailed those things to her over two months ago, it’s going nowhere near my mouth – prolapsus is no way to end a weekend.

On the walk to the train, I put my arm around her and laugh that with the world banks looking to get their loan settled, the Greeks would be wise to keep ahold of those candles. They could be using them to light their homes soon enough. She says this isn’t the occasion for that kind of talk. She’s right. She’s always right.

Market Day in the East End (Street Art Gallery)

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We woke up late and after a breakfast of eggs and coffee we made our way to Brick Lane to see what we could find. It was a Sunday morning and the East End was alive with the rattle and chaos of the weekend markets. If you’re not partial to being pushed and shoved by strangers then I would advise you to stay away from this part of town around this time.

You can find almost anything on Brick Lane if you know what you’re looking for and every week tourists, artists, students and the more affluent city residents (i.e. people with more money than sense) come here in their thousands to spend some serious money on all manner of junk – vintage jewelry, goofy shoes, eclectic furniture, esoteric books, overpriced imported cereal, it’s all on sale here. The more scrupulous stall owners put a lot of effort into making you believe that the rubbish they’re selling is worthwhile and you can usually spot this kind of hawker from a mile off. They usually dress like idiots and are fairly handy with the spiel, but they’re not bad people and are just trying to get along in this world like the rest of us.

If you’re looking to eat a curry, then you won’t be long looking for one on Brick Lane. The street is lined with dozens of curry houses, but don’t let anyone tell you these are Indian restaurants. They are Bangladeshi establishments and proud. Although, a great many non-Asians don’t seem to know or care about the difference.

We go to Brick Lane more than we need and spend most of our time on the cheaper side of the market where the traders sell what I would call merchandise of questionable origin. You will find top end clothing and electronics on sale at very agreeable prices here. The traders on this side of the neighborhood do all their business in cash. They won’t let you take pictures, but if you don’t ask too many questions as to where their stock came from then you can haggle them down to a price that works for both of you. If you say something that they don’t like then they have no reservations about spitting and cursing at you, but they also have a steady weakness for charm and will try just about anything to get you to part with your money.

We didn’t buy anything on this trip but we did get to see some of the newest street art that has appeared in the area over the last couple weeks. The council has all but given up trying to clean this stuff off the wall and the locals say that it adds some color to the otherwise rather gnarled looking urban landscape. My camera wasn’t working but herself was kind enough to lend me hers. I’m no photographer, but I know what I like and I did my best. I hope you enjoy.

I couldn’t tell you who painted what but I’m sure that if you look online for long enough, you can find out.

Some Notes on the Razor Clam

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Razor clamming is a simple past time and it is a wonder that more people living in coast regions do not take part in the exercise. Not only would a fair portion of them not be able to tell you where to find a razor clam, a great many wouldn’t even know what one is in the first place. This is a double shame because (1) they can be foraged for free without a license– at least that is the case in Western Europe – and (2) just about anyone can learn how to catch one.

This tan-coloured mollusc, shaped like an old-fashioned straight razor, is called Ensis arcuatus by marine biologists and can be found on the coast of just about any country with a North Atlantic shoreline. They are burrowing creatures and most commonly found in abundance under the sand of intertidal flats or subtidal zones in bays and estuaries. When the tide is out, the clams can be found by way of a keyhole shaped dimple they make in the sand that is easy to spot once you know what you are looking for.

800px-Razor_clams_in_market_on_Fondamenta_Sant_Anna,_Castello_(6293554520)Retrieving the thin clam from its vertical burrow is a relatively straightforward undertaking and as far as I am aware there are two main methods you can employ for the task. The first method is an elementary affair and involves little more than locating the mentioned breathing holes and pouring salt over them. The razor clam has a limited ability to tolerate high levels of salinity and so the salt will severely agitate the creature. Its first reaction will be to burrow its way further down into the sand. The razor clam may be a very stupid creature, but it will not take long before it realizes that digging is no way to escape the salt. Instead, it will then make its way to the surface whereby it can be collected by hand or dug out of the sand with a shovel. There are dozens of articles to be found in glossy magazines and cook books that will explain exactly how you can do this and it is all well and good if all you want is to pick as many clams as you can in as short a time as possible. However, as anyone who knows what they’re talking about will tell you, this method entirely lacks any kind of skill and misses the point of the exercise almost entirely; that it is as much about how you catch the things as it is about catching them.

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The second method is a slightly more difficult enterprise and more rarely practiced due to the hazard of painful injury it contains. The older gents who spend all afternoon down at the bay during the summer months will tell you that this is the only way to catch razor clams and it is also my own preferred method. These gents are the same types who will tell you that nothing is ever achieved without working for it and that there is no such thing as a free supper. They generally don’t mix well with others (that’s why they are on the bay in the first place) but if you get one on a good day and are able to flatter him then he will show you what you should be looking for and how to get the job done properly. To the best of my knowledge, the way they catch clams has yet to be written down and it is only for this reason that I am telling it to you now.

You need little more than a steady hand and reasonably trained eye to get your clams this way and the more you do it, the better you will get at it. And the better you get at it, the more you will enjoy doing it. You will also want to take off your shoes, roll up your trouser cuffs and dip into the shallow pools of salt water that linger in the bay after the tide has just about gone out for the afternoon. In the water, it’s not a breathing hole you’re looking for but a coin-sized white spot on the sea bed. At first you might confuse the spot with a shard of old shell that has been buried in the sand, but what you are looking at is the clam’s siphon. When they’re covered by water, razor clams will always come closer to the surface and once you know what you are looking for, you will start to see them everywhere.

640px-Achill,_Corraun_to_Croagh_Patrick_03_(3585768584)You want to lean forward and slowly bury a hand with your palm facing upward – like you are scooping honey out of a jar – into the sand about 5 inches from the white spot. From a distance, you will look like you are making a crooked tripod of yourself and some onlookers will think you have taken leave of your senses. When you can feel the broad side of the clam’s shell with the tips of your fingers, you want to gently push it sideways against the sand, that will stop the little rocket from shooting away. What you don’t want to do is grab the whole thing in your fist, you will startle the clam and these things can burrow like nothing else. If you have a hand wrapped around one of them when they decide to scarper, they will cut you something fierce. You want to bring your thumb in on the other side of the shell so that you’re holding it as you would a cigar. Withdraw the creature from its burrow slowly but firmly; you don’t want to snap the foot from the shell – This appendage is certainly not the most attractive of protrusions, but it is dense with meat and some would argue that it is the most flavourful part of the entire clam.

On the walk back across the bay to the road, you can search through the seaweed and between rocks for any loose mussels that might have escaped the tide. These go down very well with the clams, but remember only to keep the ones that are still closed otherwise you will end up eating a dead mussel and putting yourself in bed for three days, during which time you will have a wicked fever and ruin several pairs of pyjama bottoms.

800px-ElblingOn a good day you will go home with a chest full of sea air and a cheap meal that you can be happy to tell yourself you have earned. The clams can be eaten straight out of the water or steamed in a pot with a little garlic and parsley. They are a simple food to be enjoyed simply, ie. with a few slices of good toasted bread and a cold glass of good wine. Collect enough of them and maybe you can find a restaurant that will buy them from you. If you are going to show other people how to razor clam like the old men on the bay, make sure to show them properly as you don’t want to be the one explaining your friend’s missing finger to the seaside doctor and I want no part of that.

A Rural Idyll in Steady Decline

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The people of that plainly built farming town led simple lives and were proud of the hardship and forfeiture rural existence assumed of them. They knew their place in that world and – as is customary in such isolated surroundings – they conducted themselves with the same sheltered constancy as so many of their forebears had done for generations before. In summer, they worked on the bog, cutting and footing the turf as the midges ate at their faces and the sun reddened their necks. In autumn, they collected the dried turf in sacks and stacked the load on rented wagons for bringing home. They burned the dried sod for fuel during the winter and prayed to the mother, the father, the Holy Spirit and all saints in heaven that it would be a short cold this year and that spring would not be long in arriving. As soon as they were able, the women mothered children until their exhausted bodies could no longer endure the drudgery of incubation. They cared for their young and when it was needed they helped the men on the land. Most of the husbands earned their living as laborers on the farms, some were employed as tradesmen and others did spot work around the town when it was on offer and they were able for it. A few of them brewed poitín in makeshift pot stills built behind locked shed doors and sold the cheap spirit to their trusted neighbours who understood that such a transaction was to be of no concern to the law. They were big men and not given to preoccupying themselves with things they had no need to understand. Their children wore clothes that were ten years too old and five sizes too big for them. In school they did their sums and read about the heroes of the ancient world. When their parents thought them old enough, they finished with school and learned about hay bailing and how to handle the livestock.

On Sundays, they packed the churches and twice passed around the collection plate for the unfortunate. They understood austerity as an instinct and for what they lacked they did without. With no knowledge of an alternative, they trudged quietly through obscure lives uninterrupted and without question. Nobody, least of all the people of that town, could possibly have foreseen the changes that have taken place in this country over the last half century. With expectation replacing contentment, the young no longer anchor their interests to the sturdy honesty of rural life. Low on the patient regard for life that their parents had embraced so ungrudgingly, they move away as soon as they’re able, leaving the old and the unambitious to take care of themselves.

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I cannot properly recall what possessed me to settle there, but it was cheap to rent and I needed to save money before I was to run away to London. I was working as a cook and living alone in a modestly furnished flat above a musical instrument store on a narrow terrace just a short walk from the town square. It was a conservative neighbourhood, housed mostly by the retired and the widowed, but not without its own sedentary charm. Nothing was a matter of urgency in that town and brevity was an article in short supply; the rain fell at a pace of its own accord and the sun shone when it felt up to the task. I remember my washing machine breakingdown and having to wait over a month before my landlord found someone to come around and look at the thing. For weeks I had to scrub the guts and gravy stains from my work whites in the kitchen sink. I could have used the launderette on main street, but the lady who ran the place had the habit of opening late afternoon and closing early evening – and besides I was at work during these times.

I was living two doors down from a cantankerous and semi-retired coal merchant who doubled his living room as his office. As straight backed as his stoutly posture afforded, he faced the world with the reticence and certainty of an old praetorian sentry. Cigarette in hand and stood on his front porch step, he would spend hours watching the business of everyday life unfolding on the street like a superintendent of the quotidian. He knew everyone and would about the goings on in town with the kind of interest only enjoyed by county sorts. If there was nobody around to humor him, he would talk to the dogs, the birds, sky, the moon, anything , and I can’t be sure if he was crazy, drunk or the most straightforward person I have ever met. In the hotter months, I would catch him under the cool shade of his front doorway. Being from the old stock, he was not one short of words so we never struggled to find conversation.

“What do you think about that then?” He started, offering no indication as to what we were to be discussing.

“Not much, now, not much.” Was the fit response.

He was not an easy man to impress and generally paid little service to what I had to say. He had seen all there was to see and knew all that was needed to be known. Like so many with such a belief, it was incredibly difficult to excite any interest within him. To a man who believes he has seen everything the world has to offer, no one can persuade him differently. He has his own silent idea of what matters in life, but not the time to share his findings with anyone else. Nevertheless, I liked him and always felt I had achieved something by talking with him.

“You’re young and fit.” He would laugh as he sauntered from his post in search of a cup of tea and a sit down “You don’t want to be stuck here. Here is for the old and the unambitious”

When I wasn’t working, I was drinking. Everyone in that town was a drinker because there was not much else to do of a weekend. It would be a real task to find a young man in that town that didn’t empty most of what he earned into the bar. The guy in the flat directly beside my place drank himself stupid every night, and a more shambolic and sour a drunk you would never find yourself in want to meet. I only ever talked with him once, but I could hear him arguing and crashing around in there until all hours. He never worked. He was a plasterer by trade but hadn’t had a contract in years, One time, things went a little too far in there and in a rage he hit his woman. The police took him away in handcuffs, but he was back the next evening and so was she.

838ab60914bd4a0b3d7908b79b45a29dI remember a couple of elderly brothers who lived together in an house across the street. They had both spent a fair amount of time in England but were called home to look after their mother in her final years. Neither man had married. Both of them had physical disabilities as well as a whole stack of mental problems. The older lad, I know, was working on the building sites in London for years. Tall and thin, he was a strong young horse, but an accident on a site had smacked his corned beef to bits. Some concrete fell on him or he fell on some concrete and it had left the poor lad deaf, half blind and a quarter witted. I don’t know the whole story about the younger one, just that he was even more damaged upstairs than his brother. I may have been told me it was dementia, but I can’t be sure. The younger brother never left the house, but I would often see the older lad shuffling down the street most evenings. He never wandered too far away from the house and I remember he had this odd habit of bunching up the lap his trousers with his fists and kinda pulling them up as he walked. Even with his rattled nerves, it was up to the older one to take care of the both of them. But they weren’t completely alone. The health service sent a care-worker to check in on them every few days. She brought them food and made sure they were doing alright in there. You could ask anybody in the town and they would tell you that they were no harm to anybody.  Some people believed that they had been touched by the hand of God. They were trusting men and well known around the town. They rarely locked their door.

Except for the brothers and the drunk next door, all the residents on my street lived alone. They had lived beside one another for a lifetime and there was no need for airs and graces between them. Every miscarriage and infidelity, every divorce and baptism, every death, ailment and indiscretion was out in the open and well known. They did what they could to help one another no matter the nature of the request. They trusted one another. I was never treated as an outsider and I think they were happy to have me in the neighbourhood. The old women would bring me the leftovers from Sunday dinner and the widowers would spot me for a pint whenever they saw me in the pub. In return I helped them with painting, sweeping, cleaning and whatever else they needed whenever I was able. Over tea they told me about their children who had taken the first opportunity they could to get out of that town and gone to work in places like Canada and The United States. Sons and daughters who had fallen in love with the locals over there and would never be coming back. Who started families in foreign suburbias with green cards, happy hour, cable television, and backyard swimming pools. Who endeared themselves to their adoptive communities and joked that they were from the very far end of the middle of nowhere when asked about the strange and interesting and cute way their accents sounded to their neighbours. They worked comfortable jobs and could afford to dress their children well. Every few years, they visited home and were welcomed with open arms and thankful weeping, but they had outgrown the cradle of the small town existence and had no interest in ever going back to such a place.

I lived in that town for little over a year. I made my money and was soon on the way to London. When I left, the old women lit candles in church and told me to travel safe. I shook hands with the merchant and he told that I was right to be going and anyway this town was only for the old and the unambitious now.

I was in London a month when I read about the brothers. Some drunk maniac had let himself into their house in the middle of the night and battered the two of them to death with a slab of timber. The bodies were found by the care-worker the next morning. One was in a downstairs bedroom and the other in the backyard. It was a brutal scene. Nothing was stolen. The victims never knew the man who killed them and no motive for the attack was ever found. When he was caught, they said he had a history of psychiatric difficulty and placed him on self-harm and suicide watch. The two of us are the same age. In the courtroom the accused said he was sorry for what he had done and his mother wept as the judge read out the charges. Half the county attended the funeral; the priest said that the town had been overshadowed by a darkness and the head of the state called it an act of savagery. They were buried next to their mother.

It looks like it’s getting worse there every day. Last year someone was shot and killed while filling his car at a petrol station on the outskirts of town. A few months later, there was a guy chased down the high street by a gang of a dozen lads. When they caught him, they beat him to the ground and kicked him senseless. He crawled into a local shop for safety, but they followed him in and stabbed him in the stomach while staff and customers looked on in shock. It was the middle of the afternoon. The security guard was too terrified to do anything but watch. They had to close the shop for the day because there was such an amount of blood on the floor.

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When I’m home, I sometimes pass through that town to see what’s changed. The people are much the same, but now mind to lock their doors at night. There are fewer jobs and a lot of the bars have closed, but there are still places to find a drink if you’re after one. I always drink too much when I go back there and we always find ourselves talking about those brothers and those violent crimes. And it’s hard to get people to acknowledge that something has gone wrong here. Or even that anything is different to how it used to be. It’s like looking at an oil painting of a perfect rural landscape; green rolling hills; a weaving stream of transparent water; a flock of birds outlined against a clear blue sky; all of that. But when you take a closer look, you find that something has been scratching away at the outer edges of the image. And every time you return to the painting, another small section has been scraped or damaged – but barely enough to notice much change. And soon you get used to the new scratches. Over time it gets even more damaged until eventually it’s impossible to remember what the picture looked like in the first place. But the decline has been so gradual that you’re not even sure what’s changed. I’m not able to name the feeling I have for it now. It’s like a sadness at something come undone. And when it’s late and I’m tired and drunk and too sentimental, I imagine that everything was better years ago, but I’m sure I must be wrong.

A brief lesson in cool

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Just once I’d like to enter a party like this:

The clip is from the movie Cinderfella (1960) starring the incomparable Jerry Lewis. The story goes that this sequence was shot in a single take and at the end of the scene, when the Cinderfella character runs back up that very same staircase, Lewis actually suffered a heart attack and was rushed from the set and taken to hospital.

Clips like this takes me back to my childhood, watching old movies at my grandmother’s house on Saturday afternoons. She would charge up my brothers and I with sweets, chocolate and Coca-Cola (we were rather spoiled) before handing these hyperactive and sugar stuffed kids back to my parents at the end of the day. We were like a pack of rabid teddy bears. What old films take you back to your childhood?

As If I Wasn’t Busy Enough, Now I Have Multiple Sclerosis

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“Only fools and rakes fall ill, my boy. You know me: I am busy from morning till night and abstemious, so of course I am well.” Nicholas Bolkonski in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

With the appointment confirmation letter neatly folded into the breast pocket of my winter coat, I arrive ten minutes early at the National Neurology Hospital in Central London on a fresh Wednesday afternoon to meet with a highly regarded medical researcher and practitioner who informs me in a softly-cultivated Anglo/Indian accent that the inflammation they detected in my brain five months back was neither an isolated nor an inexplicable happening, but is instead attributable to my having developed Multiple Sclerosis.

02dw_0_This was not the news I had hoped for and it really kicked the chair as regards a pleasant transition into the second half of the week. I was told much of what I already know, i.e. that the spectrum of MS is a very broad and that there is a chance that symptoms of the disorder may never make themselves known again. I’m told to increase my vitamin D intake (although initial studies have so far failed to indicate any association between  increased vitamin D levels and a reduction in the severity of MS) and to ensure that I get my flu jab every winter so as to lower my body’s exposure to opportunistic infections. We chat about music, work, and my headaches. He tells me that any other information I may require will be provided by a nurse back in the waiting room. I’m then escorted to the hospital’s phlebotomy department to have a blood sample taken before once again being strapped into an MRI machine and asked if I would like to listen to a particular radio station (I asked for BBC Radio 4 – which is perhaps the most British thing conceivable, second only to lapsarian guilt and an innate inability to complain about poor service in restaurants) while they stream magnetic energy through my organic bowling ball. Back in the waiting room, I’m given a few pamphlets and a phone number should I have any further questions. They make an appointment for a check-up in 6 months and, with a professionally honed but clearly insincere smile, I’m told that I’m free to go and wished well. The middle aged lady with whom I share the elevator to the ground floor tells me she has had MS for almost 20 years, she’s in a wheelchair and has some difficulty getting the words out of her mouth on account of her poorly functioning facial muscles. I don’t smoke, but cadge a ciggie from a guy standing outside the hospital entrance and go for an expensive breakfast at a cafe round the corner. I’m annoyed that I took the whole day off from work for this bullshit.

It’s two weeks later and I have before me a copy of the letter sent from the consultant neurologist to my GP. According to Doctor Kapoor:

The findings of lesions in the brain scan confers a reasonably high probability that further clinical attacks may occur over the years,

A prospect – I’m sure I don’t need to tell you – that fills me with nothing but excitement and expectation for marvelous times ahead. It’s difficult to explain just how unusual an impression this kind of news leaves on the mind. Some of my immediate thoughts were just too fast, scattered and voluminous to even begin attempting to articulate through words. As soon as I go about trying to structure what I’m thinking into any sort of coherent expression, I am already presenting a thoroughly lacking and vastly misleading account of what’s actually going on inside my head. The truth is that I’m not thinking about this in an organized or pragmatic manner at all, while I was in that consultation room, sensible or detached thinking was almost impossible. And it’s not like I am even dedicating the entirety of my attention to the matter because life goes on and the world does not stop for bad news; bills need to be paid, friends entertained, meals to be cooked, bins to be emptied. I’m devastated, of course, but also morbidly fascinated as to how this disease will show itself next. I’m not the first person to get ill, and I won’t be the last. Terminal illness may be an intriguing topic for reading, however, chronic illness is not and I have no immediate plans as regards dying.

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For now, my most immediate course of action is to carry on living as usual, and what is to happen will be addressed as it so chooses to happen. I am just as angry, spiteful, vindictive, childish and lustful about life as before. If it is true that “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner” then there is much more that I have to learn, and would be very grateful of the time in which to do so.