Tag Archives: Montenegro

Your Arse

I was walking with Bella, the dog, to West Ham Park for our daily constitutional. We passed a house from which we could clearly hear Fairytale of New York. This was not the recorded version. There were two voices, a man’s and a woman’s, exchanging the insults crafted all those years ago by Shane MacGowan when he wrote the song. They were accompanied by a piano. Their voices were live. From the street they sounded as if they might have originated in the Indian Subcontinent.

You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it’s our last

they sang.

Then there was the peremptory sound of someone tapping on a hard surface to attract the singers’ attention, so that they stopped singing, and then there was the sound of a third voice, also I would guess from the Indian Subcontinent, possibly the pianist’s:

“Not ‘Happy Christmas your arse’. Not ‘your arse’. ‘Yer arse.’ ‘Yer’. Again!”

As we passed on up the street, Bella and I, and out of range, I could hear improvement, a distinct MacGowanesque sneer. I wondered in what context the finished performance would take place. Would we be allowed to hear it?

I told the story to our neighbour Maria. I had dropped in on my way home from the park to apologise that Augustus Sly, who had been despatched to Vienna to investigate possible links between her bottom and that of the model who sat (‘sat’ is of course is absolutely the wrong word for what she did in this instance, but there is no other one) for Egon Schiele, seemed to have disappeared. He had not reported to me and he was no longer picking up calls to his mobile. In fact I was rather worried, and also cross, since I had paid for him to go to Vienna in the first place.

“Has he got your credit card details, there in Vienna?”

“No, he hasn’t, and anyway I trust him to that extent, but he’s quite capable of getting bored with your bottom and going off on a wild goose chase. When I first met him, as a matter of fact, he had taken himself to Montenegro to travel the length and breadth of that country, tracing the tracks – so he told me at the time: the forced marches, the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. We met by coincidence when I was uploading a post to my blog from a café in Montenegro that had WiFi.”

“Ah, Apa’tman. He is my country too,” said Maria.

“Apa’tman was in Romania too?”

“Great bloodshed.”

“A great man, I think, in the end.”

“Great bloodshed.”

Actually I know little of the detail of the career of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman, so I changed the subject and told her, as I have related, the story of the performance, overheard from the street, of Fairytale of New York.

“’Yer arse!’”, she exclaimed.

“That’s what I call multiculturalism,” I said, “a song about America, written and recorded by Irish people living in London and now being redone by Indian people living in London. What a great city we live in!”

“No, that’s not multiculturalism,” said Maria, frowning. “Multiculturalism is when people say that because I am Romanian I am prostitute and a thief and I can complain about this, which is hate crime. I am told this by a person from the Council.”

“Multiculturalism has different aspects,” I said. “It is a subtle business, this multiculturalism.”

“I am not prostitute and a thief.”

“It never occurred to me that you were.”

“My good friend Lavinia is both, but I am not prostitute and a thief.”

I wondered whether to return conversationally to Apa’tman or to call it a day, and decided on the latter.

“I’ll be on my way. I just thought that you might be curious about what Augustus Sly might have discovered about a link between you and the woman in the Schiele picture.”

She drew the different conversational strands together:

Yer want to see my arse?”

We escaped.

“Aren’t people difficult?” I said to Bella.

Obviously, being a dog, she neither understood nor replied, but I suspect that she sympathises. When we are in West Ham Park she avoids the company of other dogs. I believe that she regards this as a sensible precaution since she was bitten there by a liver-coloured bitch, but I don’t think that she warms to other dogs in principle. People too she will accept if we introduce them to her but they are of no interest otherwise. When we stand outside food shops, which the better half enters alone since Bella would be a health and safety issue, and people come up to us and try to engage her attention, she regards them with contempt.

“Does he bite?” they say, shivering deliciously and prodding at her from arm’s length.

“Seldom,” I say, wondering yet again why cynophobes are usually so incapable of sexing the objects of their fear.

Augustus Sly has sometimes accused me of having imaginary friends. He believes that Amy is a metaphor and has often said so, though not to her face. Bella certainly has imaginary friends. Her favourite is Dead Rabbit, a constant bed-fellow and companion whom she always gathers up into her mouth at times of excitement. He has a limp and vestigial physical existence but his friendship is entirely imaginary.

Lest this sound cute, she then shakes him vigorously so as to break his neck, again. She is a terrier, after all.

Some people have said recently that the Jesus and the Rabbit sequence, on the restricted access part of this blog, is rather running out of steam. Perhaps I should introduce Dead Rabbit into it. That would beef it up as bit.

Actually if I am going to do that I should continue this whole discussion on the restricted access section. I’ll do that now, if you’ll excuse me.

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A bit of high-level intellectual colloquy

‘Fire away,’ I said to Augustus Sly.

‘Montenegro,’ he said. ‘Ah, Montenegro.’

We were in London.

‘Or Crna Gora, as the locals have it,’ he said. His pronunciation was just so.

‘Montenegro,’ I said, ‘since you are interviewing me on the subject, is a boost to creativity. Of course, as a country, you shouldn’t judge it by February. It was cold and it rained. It reminded me of the west of Ireland from the days when I used to go there. In Ireland it rained and the cold got you deep down. Ireland and Montenegro both, you would hunch in front of some electric fan heater so that your face burned and your feet still felt like ice. It couldn’t be as cold as it felt, to judge by the temperature gauge in the hired Corsa: I suppose that it was the damp that got into the house and your bones and could only be dispelled by living there.

‘The difference between Montenegro and Ireland,’ I said, ‘is twofold: the music and the gossip. In Ireland there is always music: furious music through an open door, as Mike Scott says.’

‘Waterboys,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘Just so. Room to Roam. In Montenegro, there’s also always music, but it’s Europop…’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘At best.

‘And in Ireland,’ I said, ‘there are always stories. There’s gossip about the people who live there. So and so has become a lesbian. So and so has become a potter. So and so was JFK’s real father, still alive, by God. Such and such a church is the oldest in Europe, celebrated in poems and songs now lost. In that valley they still talk Latin – away from the incomers and the tourists, of course. In Montenegro there are probably stories too, but they’re lost on me, not having the Serbo-Croatian. So I’m driven to making them up.’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘He’s real, actually – but I have made him do things that he didn’t really do. He’s cool with it. No, I was thinking of Apa’tman, the great Sixteenth Century warlord who put his enemies to the sword and then subdued the nation with the benign aid of kefir, but would not survive a Google search.’

‘Apa’tman,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘is not a happy creation. With respect.’

‘Please don’t say ‘with respect’,’ I said. ‘It nearly always comes across as either rude or smug.’

‘In my case?’

‘Smug.’

‘Apa’tman is wholly unbelievable,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘Like Dame Jenni ™ Murray, another of your obviously made-up characters that you lay on with a trowel.’

‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘that there is a danger of making the whole thing more self-referential that it already is if we continue in this vein?’

‘Were you planning to record our conversations?’

‘This?’

‘Yes.’

‘Post them?’

‘Of course.’

‘That was the plan: if your questions were sufficiently amusing. My readers like nothing more than a bit of high-level intellectual colloquy.’

Augustus Sly studied the end of his pencil. He was on his mettle now.

‘Great Secret Miss,’ he said.

‘Ah. Tricky, that.’

‘Where is it, do you think?’

‘I can’t of course say exactly where it is or it would be inundated by my thousands of Followers, which would spoil its peculiar ambience. Soho, I suppose, with The Kingdom further up towards the Euston Road. It has certain Magic Toyshop qualities, though, hovering between real life and the world of dreams. You may not be able easily to see it from the street.’

‘And Uncle Edgerton…’

‘Everyone hates Uncle Edgerton.’

‘No. No. The whole zombie thing. Fascinating. In a way…’

‘What I felt, I’d been very brave. Credit was due.’

Augustus Sly ignored that.

‘The whole zombie thing,’ I said, ‘as you call it. What’s your take on that, then?’

‘Oh,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Post-ironic anomie. That whole thing. It’s a rather important element of my thesis, actually. Won’t say any more if you’re, you know…’

‘… posting. Of course. Internet piracy. You wouldn’t want anyone else stealing a march.’

‘I’ve been burned before,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Peer review! Ha! Peer theft more like.’

‘Not on your alablague research?’

‘No. No. A thing on Barthes. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? Peer theft more like.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it. If I do a post about this do you want me to take out the bit about post-ironic anomie?’

‘Yes please,’ said Augustus Sly.

He stared at the end of his pencil again.

‘What will you call it?’ I said. ‘Your thesis?’

‘Before the colon or after?’

‘Ng?’

‘All titles of theses are split about a colon. Pilate Jests: Truth and Lies in the Alablague Blog. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? . That sort of thing.’

‘Is that it? There’s no Pilate in my blog.’

‘No it isn’t the title. That’s a secret. Of course there isn’t Pilate actually in your blog. That would be too blatant a channeling of Master and Marguerite even for you. ‘

Augustus Sly flipped his fingers into aerial quotation marks when he said ‘channeling’.

‘But ‘alablague’’, he went on, ‘ – ‘in jest’ in French; Canadian French anyway – is an obvious reference to jesting Pilate.’

‘Bollocks,’ I said. ‘It’s my surname.’

‘My daughter,’ I said, ‘like you an aspiring PhD, likes to drape her thesis titles around a semi-colon, incidentally, rather than the colon as more generally found.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I suppose you’re not telling me the title because of the post-ironic anomie business.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I’ll get it out of you.’

He fell silent and ruminated for a moment – figuratively, of course, on account of having only one stomach.

Or so I assume: our acquaintance is still too young for confidences of that nature.

Clearly he was working up to something.

‘Big one,’ he said.

I realised at once that he was not attempting to flatter me by using the vocative case. He meant, ‘This is the big one.’ It was usage I had come across before.

‘Mm?’ I said.

‘Who is Amy?’ said Augustus Sly.

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Augustus Sly

Last time we were in Montenegro it was necessary to use the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart to connect to the internet. In the meantime unfortunately it has passed on. The man who controls the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart has not died, but he has moved into the interior, where there are no tourists or Russians with motor yachts; to the little villages where life is slow, where the children stare at you unblinkingly as you drive through in your hired Corsa, and where the composition of a tweet is a matter for a family council.

(These family councils often take weeks and result in feuds, according to the Tourism Office.)

The hired Corsa: that was an adventure too. We had identified a hire company through one of those websites where you can obtain bargains. We had booked a VW Polo online. When we got to the airport, however, there was no little shed bearing the name of the organisation that had taken our order and our money. There were Hertz and Europcar and the others but not ours. We were beginning to suspect fraud when an unnaturally tall young man sidled up and muttered our name.

‘Alablague?’

He muttered it with the strong but musical tones of one who speaks the pure Serbo-Croatian only found in the environs of Dubrovnik airport.

‘Here your car.’

It was a Corsa.

‘It’s a Corsa,’ we said. ‘Not a Polo.’

‘Is same.’

It wasn’t same, as we discovered later when its little engine strained in an un-Volkswagen-like way at the vertiginous Montenegrin mountain passes, but that was academic as it was the only car that he had.

Anyway, without the ox-drawn Wi-Fi cart it was necessary to drive the hired Corsa into the local town, where they have Wi-Fi in the cafés.

I had sent everything that I needed to send. O and the better half had gone to climb a mountain, which rose conveniently straight out of the Old Town, and I needed a rest before attempting the second half of an enormous crêpe that I had ordered.

‘Alablague?’

This time the tones were pure Oxford: the English equivalent, I suppose, when it comes to purity of tone, of the environs of Dubrovnik airport as regards Serbo-Croatian. I turned to face a young man. I had never seen him before.

‘You have the advantage of me.’

‘Sly,’ he said. ‘Augustus Sly. I’m your greatest fan.’

‘In that case you’d better sit down. Do you like minced beef crêpes? I’m not sure that I’m going to finish this one.’

He inspected my plate with the air of one who customarily looks a gift horse in the mouth.

‘Not minced beef, I think. Krk.’

‘I’m sorry.’

Krk.’

Krk?’

Krk. The meat of feral dogs. A delicious sausage made from krk is a speciality of the monks of the famous Ostrog Monastery.’

‘I have not,’ I said, ‘visited Ostrog Monastery on account of the vertiginosity – if that is the word – of its approaches, nor sampled its cuisine. We did’ – I pushed the plate across the table to him – ‘visit another monastery. They had three fragments of the True Cross, the hand of Saint John the Baptist and the whole of Saint Nicholas. It was rather moving. I lit a candle for the dead.’

‘That would be Cetinje,’ said Augustus Sly, tucking into his krk crêpe.

‘You seem very familiar with local ways.’

‘One of the three fragments of the True Cross has been the subject of scepticism in certain quarters.’

‘Ng?’

‘MDF,’ said Augustus Sly, in a whisper.

‘No!’

He ate in silence. I sipped at my green tea. One of the nice things about Montenegro is that a request for tea, tout court, yields green rather than black tea. I made a mental note to tell Amy this when we were both safely back in London: me from Montenegro and she from China, or Kettering. Amy loves green tea as much as I do.

‘What you haven’t explained,’ I said, ‘is how you know me and why you addressed me by name in a café in a small Montenegrin port.’

‘If I am familiar with local ways,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘it is because I have travelled the length and breadth of this country, over some six weeks now, tracing the tracks – the forced marches: the triumphal processions – of the great Sixteenth Century Balkan warlord Apa’tman. Does that answer your question?’

I was lost for words.

‘Even now,’ persisted Augustus Sly, ‘you see traces of him everywhere: his name on handwritten signs beside the road…’

‘I’m fairly certain,’ I said, ‘that I made Apa’tman up.’

‘Exactly,’ said Augustus Sly.

Had he not been English, I might even have written: “‘Exactly!’ cried Augustus Sly.”

‘Humour me,’ I said. ‘I am far from home. I have eaten half a crêpe filled with dead dog, to which I am not accustomed. Pretend I am very stupid.’

Augustus Sly licked his fork and put it on his empty plate. Then he licked his lips.

‘Fine krk. Fresh, I’d venture.’

I sighed.

‘I am a student,’ he said.

‘As are we all – in this vale of tears.’

‘You misunderstand. I am a student. My jacket is of corduroy and the elbows are patched. I have a grant. And I have committed to deliver a doctoral thesis to the University of P-.’

‘If it is a thesis about Apa’tman I would not be confident of your securing a pass mark, on account of his not having existed.’

‘No, you fool. Not Apa’tman. Alablague. You.’

‘Goodness,’ I said.

‘So we need to talk.’

I thought about this. Should I be flattered? It was too sudden, really, to tell.

‘You need to talk,’ I said. ‘I’m not sure that I do. What’s in it for me?’

‘I can be useful,’ said Augustus Sly, with, I am afraid, a leer. He took my bill (they give them to you as soon as they serve you in Montenegro) and a grubby banknote from his pocket. ‘Tovarich,’ he called, to the not unattractive young woman lurking nearby for just that purpose.

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What Ho, Jeyes

We are again on the Mosquito Coast. Our friend O has a spare house here and she has been having trouble with the people who look after it for her. She gave her keys to friends a month or so ago, so that they could have a holiday there. The friends reported that the place was in a shocking state, the crockery smashed, the bed linen soiled, and the windows and the doors broken; they had cleaned up and replaced what needed to be replaced. O had phoned the man in the village who held the only other keys to the house. Putin-like, he had blamed ‘foreigners and gypsy elements’. It was necessary to confront him.

I wrote before of this man. He keeps a pig on the top floor of his own house. O’s first suspicion was that he had used the house himself, or allowed his friends, or indeed gypsy elements, to do so. He had a duplicate of all the keys, except that to the bathroom in the annex, for which O has the only key. However, the guests said nothing about discarded apple cores or the grosser signs of occupation by pigs, so he had to be given, provisionally, the benefit of the doubt.

We arrived in the village under lowering skies. Actually they had finished lowering and it was now pouring with rain. The better half has an amusing ‘app’ which tells her where she is wherever she goes. She showed it to me with a grim smile. ‘Unnamed street’, it read. We forced open the door. It was not a pretty sight, or smell. Mildew clung to the walls like lesions. Light fittings hung from the walls and ceilings where there had been unsuccessful attempts to remove the bulbs. The hob was a puddle of festering grease. Again, the crockery and the cutlery, even the cleaning materials had gone; the cupboards were bare. With a small cry the better half set about her with cleaning fluids and wire wool. She keeps these for just such circumstances, and goodness! the trouble decanting them into containers of not more than one millilitre or whatever it is for the purposes of being admitted as cabin luggage with British Airways earlier in the day. I retired to bed. At least, I thought sourly, as the wind ran through the broken windows and the rain lashed the walls and the lesions darkened, I shan’t need the anti-mosquito preparations; it is after all February. I put on a second pair of woolly socks and my tweed hat and addressed myself to sleep.

A tiny noise assailed my ear. I opened one eye. A small insect, clearly at the end of its tether, wobbled towards me through the air. It collapsed onto my wrist and with its last strength administered three bites. Then it died. It had lived, no doubt, but for this hour.

The better half seized my shoulder and was shaking me.

‘I’ve scoured all I can,’ she said. ‘Now for the pig man.’

‘I’m asleep,’ I said.

‘We need muscle.’

She explained that things had been taken from all the rooms, but that the only door to be damaged was that to the bathroom in the annex, which had been jemmied. Here was kept the washing machine, which had been used by the intruders, repeatedly to judge by the empty packets of washing powder on the floor. This of course was the only door to which our man had no key. It was time for a showdown.

It was dark by this stage. There were no street lights and the houses were for the most part deserted. I lashed out with my stick at the feral dogs. In stories you can see their red eyes in the shadows, but here the darkness was total and I hit out by instinct. It worked, for we arrived unscathed. The pig took our coats.

I guess that we were expected. Our man sat surrounded by his family. By his chair lay an old rifle, ethnically carved but apparently functional. There were four of his adult sons, his Russian child bride and his youngest daughter, a baby of some eight months, who smiled vaguely in our direction, wreathed in cigarette smoke. He glared at us. We formed our faces into returning glares but we were distracted by the sight of the baby.

‘It’s enormous,’ exclaimed O.

And so it was. It was a baby out of Russian folklore: the sort that eats people, and, in between, smiles and smiles.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the mother proudly. She explained that at three months old it had eaten a melon, and now regularly demolished whole fish: heads, bones and all.

‘Did she strangle snakes in her cradle?’ I said – but no one answered as I said it in English. I am sure that the Herculean reference would have been lost anyway, even so close to his old stamping grounds.

O and the better half addressed the man in Serbo-Croatian. This is not a language in which I have ever attained fluency and although I caught the odd word, such as ‘Jeyes’, ‘pigsty’ and ‘keys’ I was able to follow events more by looking at the faces of the protagonists. I myself maintained a scowl in my role as muscle.

‘Keys,’ said O again, holding out her hand. The word in Serbo-Croatian is very close to its Russian equivalent. The better half said something forceful too. I was so proud of her. The pig-man shuffled off and returned with a filthy piece of cloth, which he unwrapped. As he took out O’s set of keys, and handed it unwillingly to her, a bullet fell onto the floor. With fixed smiles we complimented his young bride again on her remarkable child and left.

Today the sun came out and a builder came. He said he could deal with the lesions, no problem, and sort out the locks and the doors. Except he said ‘sort oat’ because although Montenegrin he had learned his trade over many years in Canada.

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Of Ducks and Drugs

“I am reading,” Amy said, “a very good book about a duck. In English; this book not translated for Chinese.”

Since she discovered that Anthony Powell was a writer she has become a keen reader of English fiction.

“About a duck?”

“It is a big duck, very dignity, and sometimes he changes into another person, very bad, have a good time. Then he is a duck again.”

“A duck: an aquatic bird found often on farms and also, once dead, in the windows of restaurants in Gerrard Street?”

“Not bird.” She laughed shortly. “Big big man. Very important man. Downton Abbey. Duck Ellington.”

“Oh, ‘duke’,” I said. “But I still don’t know a book about a duke who turns into another man. It sounds like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. But he was a doctor not a duke.”

“Yes, yes. Doctor Jekyll. Not Duck Jekyll. Doctor very important people.”

“In Edinburgh, certainly.”

I wondered what she was making of Anthony Powell. He is famous after all for dissecting the relations between the English classes. Although his novels are not unsympathetic to the natural world – his cast of characters includes for example Sultan, Eleanor Walpole-Wilson’s dog, and Maisky, the monkey that kills the butler, Smith – there is little investigation of the social relations between species: unless Maisky’s killing Smith counts.

Amy’s confusion, I reflected, merited further thought. Of course her pronouncing ‘duke’ as ‘duck’ was amusing but neither here nor there: she knew what she meant. Muddling doctors with dukes was a different matter.

I’m not sure that I have actually read Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but, like most English people I feel as if I have. To Amy, on the other hand, coming from south-east China by way, possibly, of Kettering, it was entirely fresh. She wasn’t to know that late-Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh had a ruling caste which included doctors but didn’t include dukes. The nabobs of Edinburgh were Scots; dukes were to be found further North, in the grouse-infected Highlands, and they were English.

Doctor Jekyll transforms himself into Mr Hyde by means of an elixir, a drug of his own devising. I have a vague memory of Spencer Tracy in a film version wrestling with retorts and pipettes as the effects get to him. Was hair on the back of the hand involved, or was that werewolves? Amy also wasn’t to know that dukes do not prepare their own elixirs. Persons on lower grades of the peerage might. Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time has an Earl of Warminster living at about the same time as Dr Jekyll who is known as ‘the Chemist Earl’, and he was no doubt a dab hand at both retorts and pipettes. But earls are earls and they are not dukes. If a duke wants an elixir he rings for it.

Amy is much more knowledgeable than I am about many things, but one of them is her own elixir, kefir, as regards which she is currently presiding over a curious see-saw effect involving me and my double, the assassin Alfredo. I have recorded that Amy’s kefir is the real stuff. The sheepskins within which the intestinal flora of sheep were first combined with dairy products to create the original Culture from which Amy’s product is grown were first beaten, so as to advance the fermentation process, by camp followers of the Sixteenth Century Montenegrin warlord Apa’tman, and in more recent times by Kurd Maverick and his Valkyries as they carried the Culture across the sea. Amy’s kefir bears as much relation to that purchasable in little Eastern European corner shops as a forty-year-old Ardbeg does to a bottle of Old Tartan Trews Blended, purchasable for £7 from the same sort of shop. For one thing, it is much stronger.

Like all drugs there comes a point at which it stops working. Kefir is a benign drug and the solution is not to take more but to stop and rest for a week or two. That is what I am doing, but the traces still surge through my blood and where they would formerly have stimulated my dreams now they just keep me awake, and, as I have recorded, they coat daytime life with a baleful veneer. And even though I have stopped taking the drug, I still wake up, having finally achieved some sleep, with the true kefir headache, what Goethe, bless him, called Kefirs Katzenjammer.

At the same time Alfredo is in the joyful opening sequence. He cannot get enough of it. For a few nights now he has not come back to our flat at all. He stays at Great Secret Miss nearly all the time. Sometime you see him in the lobby reading a couple of the magazines that he likes to buy at the international newsagent on the corner, but usually he is in one of the back rooms. Amy has assigned three of her girls exclusively to help him and they work round the clock, eight hours each. She is rather proud of their progress.

“He has many bad things. He process them in dreams.”

“And he processes them so that the dreams themselves are not bad?”

“Yes, kefir dreams benign. Vivid but benign. Even with Putin.”

She spat.

“Sometimes there are very large snakes, but not usually. Depend on person. Putin,” she said, “obviously not processing very bad things. Has kefir every night, so we are told, but goes on doing them. Probably low-grade supermarket product.”

One of the girls gave me to understand that the details of Alfredo’s ‘many bad things’ were hair-raising. But of course discretion is the absolute priority and I shall never know what Alfredo doesn’t tell me himself.

“Like Dr Jekyll,” I said, drawing a parallel. “He has the elixir, becomes his evil self and emerges purified.”

Amy gave me to understand that his was an absurdly sentimental interpretation of a rather hard-headed book. Not, as I say, having read it I didn’t argue.

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Yachts Setting Out

I love to watch yachts setting out. It’s like dogs: the same sense of intent but inscrutable purpose. With yachts it might be a rendezvous with a drug dealer at sea, an attempt on an unknown passage or fishing field or a voyage to a medieval city. With dogs the purpose is even more inscrutable but usually involves smells.

I like the way that they set out using their engine, intending to hoist sail once outside the bay.

After a very good lunch of locally and recently caught calamari, watching boats embark from the Mosquito Coast, I am reminded of Albania in its phase as a glorious Marxist beacon of freedom, where there was in principle the same access as here to delicious calamari but it was illegal to seek them out in boats, as experience suggested to those benevolently guiding the affairs of the glorious Marxist beacon that anyone with a mile of water between himself and said beacon would scuttle off to Italy and never come back.

I came down here early. I have secured a kefir culture for Amy. Discrete enquiries revealed that in this matter British Airways could not be bribed, and of course the culture could not be concealed among our luggage and smuggled in, contained as it was in a great sheepskin and apparently still requiring a beating every few minutes from adolescent girls. It was of great antiquity, going back at least to the Sixteenth Century.

The great Balkan warlord Apa’tman had famously used kefir from this very culture to provide his crack troops with appropriate dreams. These were of such invincibility that Apa’tman’s army had prevailed against great odds at the appallingly bloody but decisive Battle of The Black Applefield (1508) and then afterwards the kefir had encouraged dreams of such docility that the people had acquiesced without a murmur in his bloody but decisive rule.

Of course Apa’tman’s culture was at best a remote ancestor of mine. Nevertheless the lineage had preserved its mystery. No trace of it would be found in the kefir to be found in the supermarkets: some farmhouses in the mountains, yes; the general public, no. It was a privilege to have secured some for Amy and it would be invaluable for her in combating her competitors in general and Mr Lee’s stakeholders in particular.

In the circumstances it is properly respectful to capitalise it: The Culture.

The privilege was owed to the mayor, as was my introduction to the man who would carry The Culture for me to England. Kurd Maverick…

(METAFICTION SPOILER ALERT

(Alert readers may have spotted that not everything in this blog is entirely true. The dog, for instance, does not really talk. (Of course this is admitted in the post entitled A Moment of Truth, but only in the rather Sternian (if that is the authentic Eng. Lit. expression) and therefore unreliable context of a fiction within a fiction within a fiction within a fiction.) (He really does have a problem with whisky though.) Neither Apa’tman nor the Battle of The Black Applefield will survive even a cursory Google search. Kurd Maverick however is as real as a poster campaign can make him. Unlike other men who feature on posters by the roads in Montenegro, particularly those aspiring to political office whose instructions to the photographer appear to have been: ‘Try and make me look as shifty as you can’, Kurd is a magnificent if two-dimensional presence in his singlet and designer stubble, brooding, snarling and muscle-bound.

(I imagine that he is something in pop music.

(Which is a pity as Montenegrin pop music is probably the worst in the world. It is witless and disco and it is everywhere. Spending time in most Montenegrin shops, restaurants or beaches without ear plugs is like living in the losing rounds of the Eurovision Song Contest without the frocks.

(Kurd Maverick is real. His involvement in running kefir cultures across national frontiers is however fanciful.

(But enough of this.)

…met me at the quayside

I have, he said, the boat, The Culture and the girls.

The girls, indeed: they were statuesque, with big hair, costumes out of Barbarella and a travelling bag each.

Are the girls strictly necessary? I thought … a mature culture … no longer any need.

Very desirable said Kurd firmly. They will beat The Culture in relay. If it is bad weather I will beat The Culture too.

I remembered what the mayor had said. Kurd’s instinctive feeling for kefir and for the intestinal flora of sheep and how to combine them with a subtle thump was of the sort that comes along once in a generation. The pop music was just a way of supporting a life dedicated to dairy products. It was a privilege to get his services.

Even so, the expense.

As if he read my thoughts, Kurd said, Girls complementary. No extra.

Was it a leer on his face? With all the Botox it was impossible to tell.

OK, I said. Keep in touch.

And without more ado the yacht pulled away from the jetty. The Culture stood proudly in the bow, like Queen Christina in the Garbo film or more recently the plump one whose name I could no doubt Google had the Wi Fi cart not just left, from that film about the Titanic. I watched the boat with pleasure until it rounded the headland and was lost to sight. Just for once, I knew its purpose.

As always the ridiculous followed the sublime. I fell asleep – last night I had dosed myself liberally with supermarket kefir and I needed more dreaming – and when I awoke the better half had joined me and there was another yacht leaving the jetty.

(Just remembered – Leonardo di Caprio.)

This yacht was owned by an entrepreneur whom I had met the previous evening. He had told me that he had had an opportunity to acquire a large number of rich but nutritious dinners and in order to stop anyone else getting them he had eaten them all. The truth of this boast was evident halfway down his front, especially as this morning he was dressed only in shorts.

His yacht set out and then stopped, drifting back whereupon it was secured to the jetty; and the process was then repeated. The entrepreneur was yelling at the crew. His face became red. I thought that there was something wrong with the engine, but the better half, who could understand what was being said better than I can, explained that they were practising leaving the jetty and coming back.

I could get into that. Yachts setting out, do it at all do it right.

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A Pilgrimage Not Taken

You will be wondering how I manage to upload posts, without, as is our situation here, most of the accoutrements of modern civilisation. There are Wi-Fi hotspots in some cafés in the towns but none out here in the villages. We rely instead on the Wi-Fi cart.

There is an old man with an ox-cart. For as long as anyone can remember he has travelled from village to village along the coast selling such things as pomegranates and old transistor radios. With the advent of Wi-Fi he ditched the radios and pomegranates and bought a generator and a receiver, which he makes available to the people in the villages for the brief transitory period as he passes through and for a fee.

I would not like to give the impression that ox-carts are still common here: his is the exception rather than the rule; nor that the system is fool-proof. Yesterday for instance, as you may have noticed, the system uploaded a first draft rather than the most recent one.

More significantly, oxen are slow – proverbially so – but not always slow enough. Often the cart is trundling out of the village and out of range before one’s work is done. What people then do is to bribe the old man to stay. Money, unusually, will not do the trick, but rakia, the local brandy, will. Two people are required for this process: one refilling the old man’s glass with rakia and the other desperately sending (or ‘pinging’ as the charming Montenegrin dialect has it) emails while they still can.

As a result the old man is paralytic by the end of the day. Decisions as to motion, direction and so on can be delegated to the oxen, but these cannot, being dumb beasts, cry the old man’s wares. He must do this, but his call of ‘Wi Fi for you!’ becomes so incoherent by six in the evening that it sounds like nothing so much as a deranged muezzin.

(I am assuming that the muezzin is the man not the message. The ox-cart will not return for some hours so I cannot Google it to check.)

Now, a deranged muezzin is the last thing that you will hear in Montenegro. Since the break-up of Yugoslavia these things have been parcelled out country by country. Croatia has Catholics. Montenegro has Orthodox believers and Cyrillic script. If you want a deranged muezzin you must go to Bosnia.

(I am not suggesting that you would find a deranged muezzin, let alone one who was drunk, in Bosnia or anywhere else; I’m simply describing the sound of the old man as like what a deranged muezzin would sound like, you understand.)

Anyway, the republics of the former Yugoslavia have set their faces against multi-culturalism. There is a phrase for the process, which I have temporarily forgotten.

This was brought forcibly home to me.

Nearly fifty years ago, when I was a schoolboy, I went with five friends to Yugoslavia. One of us, a teacher at our school, had a driving licence. Another had worked in the school holidays as a dragoman and knew sophisticated words of abuse in a number of languages. He is now a QC. The rest of us had no apparent skills for what was then rather an unprecedented adventure. Tito had only very recently opened the country to tourism from the West. We took the train to Belgrade and then hired a car, driving south through what is now Bosnia, and where ox-carts were still the standard form of transport, as far as the Albanian border. Albania was then an impossibly romantic place, entirely closed to foreigners. Their dictator had recently fallen out with the Russian one, as had Tito, but instead of the possibility of welcoming English schoolboys and British currency had opted for the charms of his Chinese counterpart and the thrilling possibility of a cultural revolution of his own.

The highlight of this trip was the town of Pec. I remember the river running through it and the naked little boys surfing the rapids on tin trays. I remember the minarets and the constant muezzins, and side by side the Orthodox churches with golden roofs. There seemed to be music everywhere. I remember in the pompous way of an English schoolboy announcing that the city fathers of Belfast and of Beirut should visit Pec to see how people of different religions could live together in peace.

Memory has no doubt improved Pec, but not that much, as I still have the 8mm film of the trip, transferred to DVD.

I told the better half that we should make a pilgrimage there, and see if it was changed at all. We made some enquiries.

The first strange thing was that Google Maps refuses to admit the possibility of travelling from the Mosquito Coast to Pec.

The second was that the car-hire company said, not in our car.

I asked the owner of the local restaurant (on whose veranda I sit typing this, the sea twenty feet away, the better half on a chaise longue reading Vanity Fair). He laughed like a drain. Have you met Albanians, he said.

Eighty-five per cent of the buildings in Pec were levelled in the war. It is now in Kosovo. Only Albanians live there. They would kill you, no question, he said, either the police or the gangsters. Actually you can’t tell the difference.

But I went there, I said

He looked doubtful.

Forty years ago, I said, trimming a few years out of vanity.

Ah, he said, Tito. It was good then. It was safe, but it was good too.

What people say is that Tito, like Stalin, Saddam and Mao, suppressed religious and cultural practices so that they temporarily ceased to infuriate, and that’s how people were able to live together as now they can’t. But that’s not how I remember Pec, which was vibrant with religious and cultural practices. Well, people went home and complained to each other over the dinner table, the better half says, and she has direct experience of similar things happening before and after the Soviet Union broke up and I suppose that must be right.

It made me very sad, not least because I couldn’t think of any conclusions to draw. I asked the mayor what he made of it. He gestured at the stupendously beautiful bay, the fishing boats, the rich Russians’ yachts, the funky wooden island-hopping yachts, the sinister Soviet-style sanatorium across the bay, now deserted, its windows broken and cypress trees threatening the roofing, the rusty contraption on the jetty in which an old woman is distilling rakia.

One door opens, another closes, he said

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The Animals of Montenegro

Yesterday there was a small earthquake. They are not infrequent here and sometimes serious; but this was only brief. It could have been a train passing by. If you were talking at the time you might not notice, but the animals did.

Earlier in the day we drove to Dubrovnik to take our friends Nadia and Olia to the Airport. We stopped outside Kotor to pay a bribe to a traffic policeman. As the mayor says, the army and navy have been stolen, there is only the police force left and it is for sale. After dropping Nadia and Olia off we drove on into Dubrovnik in order to see the famous old town.

It was immediately apparent that although it was October many other people had had the same idea. The central square was packed. There are two types of people in the old town of Dubrovnik, the crowds from the cruise liners, lurching around following their leader, unneeded fleeces tied round their tummies, and gay men of all nations with their iron-grey hair, toned and unfleeced tummies and shorts of precisely that length that straight men never choose.

There are wonderful buildings and romantic alleyways, but the better half truly remarks that there is no sense of a once-important city, from which sailors set out to explore and subdue the world or to whose libraries scholars flocked from the north and the east.

I have an old friend who is working in Dubrovnik for a year and we joined him for tea at one of the countless restaurants. He told me that he had decided to become gay for the duration of his stay. It’s so much easier, he said. Croatian girls, you spend hours afterwards picking hair out of your teeth – and that’s just from a kiss on the cheek. He laughed coarsely. I pointedly didn’t join him.

It was a satisfactory outing and it was particularly nice to get away from the mosquitoes. When we turned right off the mountain road back to our village the sky darkened and swarms of them hurled themselves against our windscreen causing the honest Korean workmanship to groan and splinter.

We now have a menagerie and it was waiting for us.

There are three dogs. Two are friendly mutts, mongrels and flea-ridden but companionable and ready to be sent on their way when their attractiveness palls. There is a third dog, owned by the mayor. He is black and sleek and there are actual breeds recognisable in his make-up. He is also flea-ridden but he has the good manners to take himself a few feet away to scratch.

We also have a family of cats. There is a mother and three kittens. She is still breast-feeding them and is protective of them. When we first arrived she would not approach us and would not let the kittens do so. She would hiss in a way that would be genuinely frightening if the appropriate allowances for scale were made. Food had to be left and we would then retire to a suitable distance. The kittens got more and more bold. She still hisses but out of form, I think. There is a semi-absentee father, who has only three workable legs. When food is made available, the pale Montenegrin sausage for instance, she will secure it, parcel it out to the kittens (ensuring that none of them gets an unfair share by, for example, sitting on the head of another one while it to tries to eat) and then to the father and finally to herself.

(Come to think of it, with the pale Montenegrin sausage I would be inclined to be similarly generous.)

She can see off the dogs, no problem.

Nadia says that each year there are young cats but they are always different ones, so it is a short life but a happy one. I just hope that their destiny is not the unfleeced tummies of the enormous Montenegrin snakes that we have glimpsed slithering away from the pathways.

Without delay we prepared the homestead against attack. We lit the little spirals that give off acrid smoke. We sprayed each other with industrial strength Autan. Only then did we turn the lights on and looked round in the dusk, taking stock. The mosquitoes had retired, as did we vis-à-vis the cats, to a safe distance from their food. We were, with our Autan and smoke, as it were hissing impotently at them. Anyway, there they hung like a curtain of flesh – my flesh, actually – through which the trees beyond could be seen only indistinctly. There were bugs of all sizes, from individually invisible midgies through mosquitoes to enormous ponderous beasts. I assumed that these were hornets but for all I know they were the assassin drones that Mr Obama sends to keep us in order.

The dogs took advantage of the temporary respite, ceasing for a moment their scratching, and staring impudently at our tormentors.

This was the moment of the earthquake.

The better half, who was talking, did not immediately register, but as I say the animals did. Everything stopped. The curtain shivered. The dogs whimpered. The kittens went into a three-kitten ball. Their mother girded her loins to defend them to the death, whatever this strange new threat might be.

Some birds flew into our small sanctuary.

A hedgehog crawled into our circle, blinking – or at least it seemed to me to be blinking.

A small pig arrived.

Then two bees. Whose side were they on!

Then there was a much more sinister intrusion, rustling almost silently under the curtain of mosquitoes and along the ground.

Ah! Think it’s a –

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A Postcard from Montenegro

We are staying in Montenegro, or as the people who live here call it Crna Gora. We are on the fabled Mosquito Coast, which was to prove fatal to empire-builders from Byron onwards. The sun beats down relentlessly and the insects dance in the light waiting their turn to sally in and drill more poison into one’s inflamed skin. Last night I stumbled on the steps in the garden and grazed my knee. They descended on the wound in a cloud; within seconds it could no longer be seen. They say that the local wine, liberally washed onto the sores, will alleviate the fever, though nothing will ease the pain.

We are in the tiny village of B-. It lacks facilities for the dead, and every day a little steamer arrives from the port of T- to remove the bodies, nearly all of outsiders who were rash enough, as we were, to venture here. Some are dead of the fever, but as many hack off their limbs in agony and die when the wounds fester. The local men stand on the quayside. ‘Yankees!’ they say and spit on the ground. The wounds of Clinton’s bombing war are still fresh.

More often in fact it is Russians rather than Americans who steam in on their luxury yachts and swan ashore in improbably diamantéd leisure wear. There is little love lost there either and not all of them leave intact. Bodies are occasionally found floating in the harbour at dawn. Sometimes they are beheaded but always the scraps of costume jewellery will have been carefully picked out of the designer denim shorts: this is not a country with riches to spare.

The local mayor invited us to dine with him. He said that the entire village had noted our arrival and clearly it was for him to decide if we were to be allowed to stay. He was very hospitable. He showed us a log book charting his past as a sailor on the international freight ships. He has had an eventful life; there were entries for Liverpool, and San Francisco. He served us the local brandy, which he made himself, and pork from a wild boar that had apparently lived upstairs in his house. He liked to have a wild boar staying, and now that this one was dead he had replaced it. The new one, as had been the practice of the one we were eating, would join the family for half an hour before dinner. The people would drink brandy and the boar would have an apple. As a relationship, friendly yet distant, and ruthless where necessary, it reminded me of that between parents and children in good families in the early part of the last century, where the children would be allowed to come down from the nursery, scrubbed and well-behaved, to spend that intermediate period of the day with their parents. When the time came however the boar became sausage and the sons were sacrificed on the Western Front.

The mayor warmed to the subject of the country’s poverty. Everything was stolen, he says, after the wars. What was not stolen was destroyed. Beneath the deep blue of the bay lies a submarine. Two mobsters stole it and then fell out over which should have first go on it. Unable to agree, they sank it. We no longer have a navy, he says, spreading his arms in a gesture that is a tiny bit too pat. Be that as it may, some days the wreck belches out a great bubble of gas from its innards, composed of God knows what in the way of nuclear fuel and decomposing sailors. For three days after such an incident the fishermen stay at home and catch no fish. The mayor insists on it.

Apart from fish and pork, the local kefir is a speciality of the region. After two sleepless nights I dosed myself with it. My dreams were violent and complicated but ultimately benevolent. I texted Amy, who has had problems of supply of kefir for Great Secret Miss. Her competitors in the murky world of kefir bars have been trying to corner the market and experience shows that they are not to be trifled with. She agrees that I should try to procure a culture and bring it back. Her girls are trained in striking the bags containing the milk to which the intestinal flora of sheep have been added, but they have other duties and sometimes forget to strike the bags as they pass and the more that it can be pre-prepared the better. Who knows whether British Airways will be happy to carry the culture or whether they will plead health and safety and it will have to be carried by land. I’m assured that €20 will probably do the trick.

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