A Chance Meeting in Camden

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On the walk to work the other morning, I caught a young lad doing a bit of spray-painting on a wall near the office.
“That’s looking grand,” I remarked, “I’ll have to take a photograph when it’s finished.”
“Thanks,” he said, ” It’s looking a lot better than it did yesterday. I went a bit off-piste and the woman was starting to look like a guy.”
“Well, she’s looking fine now.”
“She is. I blame it on the music I was listening to while I was working.”
“Oh Yeah?” I asked him.
“Yeah. I was listening to Aerosmith,” he told me with a smile, “Dude Looks Like a Lady.”
“Ara musha,” I said. I shook my head and was back on my way.

A Weekend in Greece

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If you ever happen to find yourself spending some of your very important and hard-earned vacation time in Thessaloniki, the capital of Greek Macedonia and the country’s second largest city by population, there are a number of details to which you will become privy about Greek culture that will forever change how you perceive this Southern European, democratic Republic and its largely Orthodox population. For instance, you will learn that although there has been a strict law effective from 1st September 2010 banning smoking and the consumption of tobacco products by other means, in all working places, transportation stations, in taxis and passenger ships, as well as in all enclosed public places including restaurants, night clubs, etc., without any exception, that very few people pay any mind to this piece of legislature. If you choose to eat visit any local and respectable bar or cafe, it is almost guaranteed that someone will be burning tobacco in one form or other in there, somewhere. We paid a brief visit to a hospital while we were on our very brief trip and I half expected to find the doctors enjoying a cigarette or two while tending the wards.

The Greeks do not like to see a person go hungry and they will continue feeding you until you can 1) no longer move, or 2) fall asleep right there at the lunch table – this is no joke, and please bear in mind that while you are eating lunch you will also be consuming large amounts of their highly alcoholic national drink, Ouzo, and the eventuality of a table-side dose of narcolepsy is an entire likelihood. Heading into the late afternoon, the heat and humidity are almost unbearable and you will just want to drink wine and nap until sundown, after which you will be all but commanded to eat even more utterly delicious food.The Greeks enjoy life and understand that sitting on a balcony on a warm late-Spring afternoon and watching the world slowly turn is one of life’s simple but immense pleasures. The seafood there is magnificent and the locals know it. You will note the surprisingly high number of wild dogs and disease ridden cats that freely roam the city streets and village lanes, and if you are eating outdoors, you will almost definitely end up throwing a significant portion of your meal to those desperate creatures. You will walk through one of the city’s many busy markets on a Tuesday afternoon and wonder if anyone in this country actually enjoys a position of gainful and consistent employment that they should be attending at this hour.

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The Greeks are a superstitious people and you will not have to look far to find a quack or hocus pocus salesperson will promise to read your future in return for a modest monetary donation made in their direction. These people are thieves and liars and are not to be trusted. They make their living off drama and unhappiness and you should never believe a word they tell you. I am informed that this phenomenon is a drip down from Greece’s more Eastern neighbours (i.e. Turkey) and apparently there is still a spot of bad blood between them.

Greece feels just as Byron described it and on a warm afternoon on the Mediterranean, eating a squid caught ten feet from your chair, you can understand why he was prepared to die for this place. If you take a brief drive East of the city towards Halkidiki, the landscape opens up before you and the Gods make themselves known to you over every mountains. On a weekend such as we had, you wouldn’t want to find yourself anywhere else. Talk to the locals and they will tell you where to eat. Don’t drink the Mythos until you are sure you’re ready for the heavy stuff and make sure you’re willing to spend the extra money for the good feta. It makes all the difference. If at all possible, get a local to do all your driving. They play by a very different version of the rules of the road of the here. Additionally, should you choose to tour the city by personal vehicle, you should do so under the expectation that any time you pull-up curb side for any amount of time and at any time of day then you will most probably get your ride surrounded, trapped and rendered immobile because, in Greece, it is perfectly acceptable to use the middle of the road as a semi-permanent parking space as and when any a driver sees fit. All the stereotypes about the driving in this part of Europe are sadly quite true.

Herself lived here for 25 years and so she was able to take us to some of the region’s most breathtaking areas. We only had three days but such a short amount of time was more than enough to inspire an obsession for this place within me. I could write so much about this place, there is novel just in the lunch, but instead I’ll keep it brief with the hope of inspiring in you the desire to go and see for yourself. We’ll be back a few more times before the year is through and I’m already getting excited about the idea of a retirement spent writing on a Greek balcony, overlooking the Thesoloniki bay with a cigar between my fingers and a glass of Raki to keep me warm until breakfast. You will love Thessaloniki but you won’t know why. Σαν τη Χαλκιδική δεν έχει

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If you’re ever on your way there then send me a message and I can tell you the best places to go.

A Night at The Castle

The locals at the The Castle are not afraid to tell you what they think of you, and I know of a good few people who won’t even go in there. You won’t see many women drinking in this scruffy pit, but you will find plenty of bucks from back across the water who wrongly praise this hole to be as close a thing to a pub back home as they are ever going to find in this city. They spend most days sat squat and haunched about their drinks with backs bent forward to such a wild degree that their shoulders press tight against their drunken Irish earlobes. These lads can go through a dozen pints of porter like no one you have ever seen and it will make you feel messy just to watch them do half it. The drink is cheaper here than in other neighbourhoods and there is a man who comes a few times of a week with a wicker basket full of jellied eels, cockles and potted shrimps. He sells them to anyone with shrapnel to spare and a remembrance that someone, long gone, used to eat those kinds of things. The pub do their own food, but even at your most hungry, you wouldn’t want to order any of it. There was a raid by the police on the squat above the pub a few years back and were found all manner of suspect and contraband materials. Items were seized and the appropriate incarcerations made. For such a thing to happen was never beyond consideration. Tacked to the lounge walls are signs to remind patrons of the now frequent and unannounced police visitations. All exits are under 24 hour close circuit surveillance, and there is a note written on foolscap A4 and taped to a front window that warns:

“No recording or flash images to be taken in the pub. Children and minors use this public house. Any person doing so will be barred and reported to the police. They only deal in cash and under no circumstances will they accept cards.”

The Christmas lights are kept up all year and on Saturday night the stench in the men’s bathroom is unspeakable. They have made a point of displaying bottles of wine behind the bar. Nobody has ever ordered so much as a half-glass. All the big sports events are screened here, but if you’re not a local, they will charge you an entry fee. The decor is sparse but hanging on one wall is a framed print of a painting by J. Lincoln Rowe showing the SS. Politician running aground off the north coast of the Outer Hebrides, Scotland on 5th November 1941. She was an 8000-ton freighter owned by the T & J Harrison Company of Liverpool, England and left the Alexandra Dock on 2nd February 1941. After a night on the River Mersey, she weighed anchor bound for Jamaica and New Orleans with 28,000 cases of malt whisky in the hold. Two days at sea and she stranded on rocks off Rosinish Point on the island of Eriskay. The island’s inhabitants looted most of the wreck’s cargo and the ship was declared a total loss. A witty sort, Rowe called his painting “Scotch on the Rocks.”

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When I have somewhere to be I might stop in for a quick half and a gawk around before jumping on the train, but I try not to stay any longer than I need and never try to chat around. The barman knows you are paying for a drink and not a conversation. Nobody is in there to make new friends. The trip in mention took place on a cold Friday night in January. I was to meet an old friend who was running late on account of some outstanding business he had to settle in the city. It wasn’t to take too long, he told me. It should be wrapped within the hour. I went into The Castle against all better judgement with intentions on a quick pint, a short wait and a swift exit. It was a busy night, but not so engaged that you had to worry about any kind of elbow knocking or side stepping. There was no hassle toward finding an empty nest at the bar. In the corner, a couple of middle-aged skin-heads were sinking vodka neat and talking to each other violently. They were wicked looking specimens with tattoos and fools-gold teeth, but they were no harm. No mind to anyone in there.

The barman was a loud beast of a thing with slicked hair and an overgrown pike of a beard. His facial hair such an entire and sprawling mass that it near-on engulfed that gargantuan cannon ball head of his and was as red as the hot iron. He wore soaked patches of sweat under the arms of his striped-blue shirt with indifference and stood proud as an oversized satyr at the tap like some kind of bastardised nightmare born of a thousand compounded pagan mythologies. His cologne was cheap, with a smell like boiling vinegar, and he was missing two of his front left incisors. It is difficult to discern as to whether they’d been lost to poor dental hygiene or on account of his big mouth. He cussed at the television and served every pint with a slander to its claimant. However, he was never an offence to those he did not know well.

Sat in modest clusters, the old gents were well into the evening’s drinking. A few had brought their wives. Together they sat without a word between them. Nothing left to learn from one another and no stories to share. Every man in there was waiting for something. For some, it was an already long postponed and futilely desperate opportunity to start something, everything, again. Others were looking for some kind of a relief from their disappointing lives. Then there is that rare breed of person who is always in wait of the next chance to ruin themselves and everything around them. That was the lot of us.
His first appearance, a reflection in the mirror behind the bar. An obscured glimpse at the object of the terrible stood beside me. He’s an angry man, it’s in his eyes. Mad, crazy eyes. Two stars set deep above hollow, incruent cheeks. Like the kind who is all smiles at the table but will meet you later in the alley with a pulled knife and no reason. A wild kind of madness that should never go overlooked, even for a moment.

“Now,” he gestured to the barman.

“What are you after, horse?”  The strawberry bull flinging a grubby hand towel over his broad shoulder as he approached.

“Don’t call me horse. I’ll have the same again.”

He was a thin man, but quick and tense.

“Alright, horse, no problem.”

“I said don’t call me horse, you mutt’s cunt smelling shite of a fool.”

He lifted his drink and pulled up a stool beside me and we got to talking. We talked about the Irish and our counties and nothing in particular. With words slurred on whiskey breath, we toasted Saint Peter as the rain starts outside. To the SS Politician, may she rest in peace. To the Mariners. And the mothers. Glasses clink and salutes are lifted above bowed heads. He buys a round for the two of us and says he has things to tell. He has known a prison cell as home for many years of his life. He remembers hard drugs and vicious crime as intimates. Haunting visions of the terrible. His madness, no act. Even his few virtues containing the abject. There is a daughter somewhere, he tells me. They don’t talk. She’s grown up now. The mother wants nothing to do with him.

“One Ireland, united unto itself. What do you say to that?”

It was serious business on his mind but I was in no mood for that kind of talk and little notion as to why he would want to bring any of it up.

“It’s a very complicated one. I don’t think I’m equipped to comment.”

“But you’re no Englishman. Not from the sound of you. The Irish is branded on your tongue.”

“I was born in Liverpool.”

“A plastic Paddy, that’s what we call you. Of course, you can tell by the gimp of you.”

“That’s what they call us.” I told him he was right.

“Are you a Catholic or a Protestant?”

“I won’t go into that now. No religion or politics.”

“They’re two different kinds of the same rubbish anyhow,” says he. “Nothing did more harm to Ireland than the Church.”

“I can’t say that I believe in anything.”

I was in no mood for fabrication and I thought he would appreciate the honesty. As coarsely as it may have been delivered. He nodded in understanding and leaned closer toward me.

“With the things I have done. If there is a lake of fire,” he said “I’ll sink straight to the bottom.”

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What he had to tell me next was to provoke a chill that stays with me still. It was as if all the goodness had been pulled out of the air between the two of us and only the horrible remained. He told me about the job of killing and what it’s like to hold no want for redemption. His response to life, an immersion in the mindless. His was privy to an acquired familiarity with the brutal. In another age, they could have found a use for him. This man who laughs like he cries. He would be marched in the direction of the opposing camp and ordered not to return until he had a scalp from every one of them. A task he would have completed with the vigour and facility of a man chopping wood on an autumn afternoon. His was a business carried out by few. That a creature such as sits beside me can make it into old age is a demonstration in the miraculous. However,it is not a sight to behold long. I won’t be the one stood listening to him. He asked what I thought of him.

“There’s a great roll to that pavement outside,” I said “It has a fine slope to the road about it. An absolute pleasure to walk on.”

He follows my pointed finger to the curtained window – my betraying mention of a world outside. Caught in a confusion, his eyes searched the room, hoping to find some kind of explanation for what he’d just heard. Finding nothing in the air between us, his gaze fixed back to me in a disappointment. He swiped his paw and turned away from me. He’s not interested. We won’t be friends after all. My friend called to say he wasn’t to get away. That we wouldn’t be meeting after all. I was about ready for my cot anyway. The maniac got up in a lurch toward the bathroom. I put money behind the bar for his next drink, not to owe him anything, and stepped out into the rain. I doubt we’ll ever meet again.

A Quick and Silly One

I spotted this sign whilst taking a break in Greece. I can’t help imagining that it is actually warning: “Please don’t chop up your own arm and then throw the pieces down the toilet,” or even: “Beware, death-ray currently in operation in the bathroom!”

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Do any of you have any captions that could be added?

Beautiful Kew Gardens

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We had fine weather in London last week, the sun was shining and a soft breeze kissed its way up the Thames and through the city. We weren’t going to let it go to waste. On Saturday herself and I took the train from our digs in the East-End and headed South-West to check out Kew Gardens in the Borough of Richmond upon Thames.

David Attenborough says that Richmond is his favourite place on the planet and if you ever get the chance to go there then you’ll understand why. It’s a beautiful corner of the world and on a warm spring afternoon you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. We were there for the best part of six hours and didn’t manage to cover even a half of its vast and sprawling grounds or even so much as scratch the surface of what this incredible place has to offer. We took some photographs but, of course, nothing can do the place justice as much as going there for yourself.

I should be writing more but when you have the weather, the surroundings, and good company then nothing else seems to matter.

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 egg 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 wallS 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.