Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Oscillating Weather

Wednesday May 18th

I’m not a believer in the supernatural, but it seems almost as if the gods of Crete are smiling on me. First we had that close call on the road followed by the huge coincidence that our garage mechanic turned up in a minute or so and was able to help us. Next I find that trellis at the side of the road and, when I came to fit two pieces of it across the top of the garden wall, fully expecting to have to cut one to fit, I found them fitting exactly – they fitted with spooky precision. But of course, if the gods of Crete had truly been smiling, I wouldn’t have been run off the road by a tourist...

After the last Internet session at Revans, and feeling a bit sizzled from too much sun the day before, I decided to throw caution to the wind and take my first dip in the ocean. It was surprisingly warm and, rather than run screaming back up the beach, I did float around for a bit. Proper swimming next – over to Makrigialos harbour to see if I can lose this writerly gut.

Friday 20th May
Quite often when I light the stove the initial fire is very hot and quick and if I only have the lower vents open it starves of oxygen. What happens then is that it begins oscillating. It uses up the oxygen inside, dies whilst drawing in more, ignites again to use that oxygen. It does this very fast and sounds like an engine running, it can also start blowing smoke so when this happens it’s always a good idea to open the top vents. Here it seems the weather is oscillating in a similar manner, but with a cycle time of about four days.

Yesterday we went down to Sitia in shorts and ended up crouching in a cafe waiting out a monsoon, and drove back up to here on roads turned into rivers. In Papagianades it was cloudy at first, but then the storm arrived (with accompanying thunder and lightning) and it pissed down here too. Today we were going to go swimming, but this morning it’s cloudy, rainy and the temperature is just over 14C.

But on the upside, we got a bathroom cabinet for the ruin, which I put up, ordered a fridge and small cooker which turned up yesterday evening, and also have a bathroom fan I need to put up after I’ve boxed in the pipe. I also fixed wires to the front of the house to take climbing fuchsia, have the outside paint for the upper retaining wall of the back garden and the edge of the ruin roof.

On the writing front I can’t seem to settle into a routine – spurts of writing interspersed with work on the house and garden. I’ve only just passed 35,000 words on Jupiter War and would have preferred to be much further ahead with the end of May approaching. I’d like to pull about a year ahead of my submission schedule at Macmillan (which unfortunately means books finished about two years ahead of when you see them) then turn to some short stories and novellas.

Ah, so much for my pessimism. In the time it has taken me to write this the temperature has climbed to 15.7 and the sun is out. Perhaps I will manage to get a swim in...

Monday 23rd May
Damn it the weather here still isn’t that great. Certainly we’re getting some more sunshine, but still the temperatures are struggling. Caroline spoke to her parents yesterday and where they are, in Essex, it rained for the first time since we left England in March and the temperatures have been in the mid twenties. Here it’s still struggling to get above twenty.

So, rather than sit out on the terrace in the warm evenings we’ve been watching more TV. The latest we’ve watched is ‘Weeds’ about the widow Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) at the head of a somewhat dysfunctional family who grow and sell cannabis to make ends meet. After watching all six seasons we both agree that this was excellent stuff and up there with the likes of Dexter. Next on order is Spartacus Blood and Sand – when the price comes down a bit.

Meanwhile, here’s how things are now I’ve spread a bit of white paint about – it looks as if it’s been snowing up there...

Tuesday 24th May
What a strange and illogical world we live in. Watching BBC World I see that the Taliban is letting off bombs in Pakistan for the killing of Osama Bin Laden. So, Osama managed to live right in the middle of an urban area of Pakistan, near a military base, for six years without detection. He only ended up dead because the Americans went in and snuffed him and this, apparently, is somehow the fault of the Pakistani government?

The next news story to annoy me (with its false certainty and alarmism) was one about the recent tornado in America. Apparently this was the worst tornado they’d seen in six decades. Now what exactly did the reporter mean by ‘worst’? Was this assessment based on wind strength, area covered, amount of devastation caused or number of people killed? I wonder this because six decades ago any measurement of tornado strength or size would not be anywhere near as accurate as now, and six decades ago the world population was half what it is today. If there was more destruction of homes and more people dead, then that is probably because there are more homes and more people in the way. It’s like the Asian tsunami – if it had happened a couple of centuries ago then the disappearance of a few fishing villages might be there to be unearthed in some obscure document. To point at recent natural disasters and the resultant death tolls and destruction and then imply that ‘something is happening’ is to ignore the elephant in the room, which is six billion people.

I need to kill more people. Now, don’t take that the wrong way – I haven’t been using Dexter as a ‘How To’ DVD – but I have come to the conclusion that I’ve been waffling a bit in the latest book and need to inject a bit more excitement. Chandler said that when he felt a story was lagging he walked in a man with a gun, and I use a similar technique. In the Cormac series I walked in Orlandine, a massive runcible weapon and some assassin drones. In the books I’m writing now such outfield options are not available, so I need to ramp up the danger to, and the outright viciousness of, the participants involved. And of course if I told you any more about this I would have to shoot you.

Aaaargh! Fuckit fuckit fuckit! I'm sitting in Revans in shorts and it's started pissing down!

Blood and Iron -- Tony Ballantyne

I got halfway through this in March then put it in my hand luggage to read on the plane and finish here. The fact that I only finished it in mid-May is not because I didn’t like it, but because I’ve been running around, distracted, knackered and generally not in the right frame of mind for reading. However, every time I did sit down and read a bit more I enjoyed it thoroughly. This is an excellent follow-on from Twisted Metal and I could not help but think how simply it read but how brilliant it actually was.* You have a philosophical look at the human condition by allegory – taken from the perspective of robots – questions being posed about nature and nurture, reasons for existence, about the best political ‘solutions’ for a society and for individuals, in fact all the questions and quandaries that have always faced humans. And now you have actual humans here as contrast, which highlights the philosophical points being made. This is all wrapped up in a thumping good story with a central mystery still to be unravelled. I’m definitely looking forward to the next one and the denouement, whenever that comes. Nice one Mr Ballantyne!

*Just to continue on that point about apparent simplicity: I’m of the view that the best writing is the most transparent – writing that creates the illusion that an author doesn’t actually exist and that the words effortlessly lift of the page and insert their images and story straight into the reader’s brain. Struggling to read a book because some critical appraisal deems it ‘worthy’ is an exercise in pointlessness akin to flagellating yourself with a knotted rope to try and become more virtuous.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

For Chris & Anna.

Last time I brought my camera down here to Makrigialos the sea was too rough for me to take pictures to show how much beach has been regained with the sea-level drop. In fact it looked like the sea had risen again and all the beach had been taken back, but that is not the case. Here’s some pictures for you, Chris & Anna, hoping it will stay like this until August:

And here’s another you might like:

Wormeries & Shelves

Wednesday 11th May

Well, as predicted, we’ve had rain most of the day. Responding to various emails I received during my last Internet session I’ve had to grit my teeth whilst answering comments about me being out there in the Mediterranean sunshine. Yeah, right. It’s just stopped raining at 1.00 in the afternoon and the temperature has risen to a staggering 14C. However I remain optimistic and think it highly unlikely this crap weather will continue into June and from then until October we should have horizon to horizon blue.

After visiting a couple down in Makrigialos and discussing the quality of the soil in their garden (it has little organic matter in it and is like red clay and turns to concrete when it dries out) I learned that they feel their problem might also be related to a complete lack of worms. We have worms up here so I promised to collect some for them – hopefully to get a population established down there. Now something else has occurred to me.

The problem with composting here is that a standard compost heap turns into a pile of tinder during the summer – it just dries out and doesn’t rot at all. I’ve got round this by buying a number of plastic bins in which to compost waste vegetable matter. The problem with this approach is the fun to be had emptying out the stinky contents, especially in the summer when the reek is eye-watering and a million flies at once zone in. So I’ve now decided, considering the above, that I’ll attempt to build a wormery. Checking the Internet I see that they’re quite simple. What I’ll do is use two big paint buckets, one inside the other, the lower one tapped to take off the ‘worm wine’, the upper one with air holes and drainage holes and layer of gravel etc. I often have odd little enthusiasms like this...

Friday 13th May
I read in Athens News that 50,000 people have been employed to take a census of the population across Greece. What an excellent example of how to waste money in a country billions in debt, teetering on the edge of ‘debt restructuring’ and quite possibly having to dump the Euro. Anyway, a day ago I spoke to some guy walking through the village with a couple of folders and, after a struggle with the language, learnt he was taking the census but that he would send an English speaker to our house today. Um, auspicious date for a visit from a government official, and why do I keep thinking about fava beans and a nice Chianti?

It’s windy cold and horrible today yet again. I cannot help but hope that the likes of Piers Corbyn are wrong and that we’re not going to end up with two or more years of this, and that others are wrong about the possibility that we’re entering either a Maunder or Dalton minimum. I also recollect reading somewhere about a ‘correlation’ between the onset of cold and nasty weather and earthquakes, which have been prevalent across the world. However, knowing the danger of ‘correlations’, I’ll try not to read too much into that.

Monday 16th May
It’s been a successful few days, depending on how you measure success. On Saturday, finally getting fed up of never being able to get into my apotheche, I used a borrowed circular saw to slice down the frame beside the door. This took off enough pressure for me to at last pop the door open. I then spent about an hour planing and sanding the door frame and side of the door, before moving on to build the first of three shelves inside (using the wood from disassembled pallets). This was on the first day of warmth and sunshine for a while, though it was windy.

On the Sunday I built the other two shelves, moved loads of clutter and tools from the house and stored that inside before we headed off down to the ‘Golden Beach’ restaurant in Makrigialos for a meal. Previously I had spotted a large piece of wood dumped at the side of the road which I thought might be useful for more shelves so, on the way back from the restaurant I stopped to pick that up, however I ended up driving back with a car full because someone had dumped trellises at the side of the road too – perfect for the wall dividing off our back garden from the one next door. Why scrounge up wood from the side of the road? Wood that you burn in your stove here is upwards of €100 a truckload whilst the piddling amount of wood I bought to build a shelf in what I will call our wardrobe space cost €50. Incidentally, this was another day of sunshine and my back now feels slightly sizzled.

Today is the first day I’ve actually been able to sit outside in the morning drinking a cup of coffee. So at last, three consecutive days of sunshine – this morning is still and warm (19.4C at 9.40AM). Long may this continue.

Tuesday 17th May
It was such a lovely day yesterday I was struggling to stay in the house at a laptop. Caroline was sitting outside roasting whilst I was inside with a jumper on, considering whether to change out of my shorts and put on jeans. (Yes, it’s true that stone houses are cool in the hot sunshine, but it’s also bullshit that they’re warm and snug when it’s cold outside.)

In the end I gave up and headed outside, deciding to take on a job I’d intended to do for some time and of which Caroline had reminded me. I mixed up some sand and cement and laid some ‘karisto’ on the end garden wall, turning it into a useful platform rather than an expanse of stone you couldn’t even stand a cup on. By the time I’d finished, my upper back, where I’d smeared some sun lotion, felt okay, but my lower back was burning. I came inside and sat down to write a thousand words and the burning sensation increased. By the time I went to bed I really knew I had been thoroughly seared – it being too painful for me to slide into new positions in bed. There you go, four years here and I still haven’t gained enough respect for the power of the sun here.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Aquilegias and Off-Road Driving

Wednesday May 4th
Ah, I see in my last post I got the date wrong on the last entry. Losing track of time here is a common thing. In fact the only thing that keeps me on track is knowing whose turn it is to make the tea in the morning...

Day two with the shorts on, some warmth is being injected into the garden, and wandering round out there I see that everything is doing well. The chilli plants, which usually die each winter in England, are sprouting well and there are numerous other sprouts of chillies from seeds that dropped into the pots. I’ll probably separate these out in other pots to either plant here are pass on to others. The radishes, spring onions and salad leaves are all just a few days away from being ready, whilst other newly planted bits and pieces are close to being ready to put in. No sign yet, however, of my coffee, tea, Venus fly traps or pitcher plants sprouting, which is annoying.

I’ve also learnt, from a couple down in Makrigialos, that a shortage of magnesium can be a problem here and that the addition of Epsom salts to the ground and as a folia-feed can make a big difference. They had bought a 20 kilo sack of the stuff and provided me with a container full, some of which I’ve duly sprinkled around. I can’t use it as a folia-feed yet since my sprayer is still trapped in the apotheche.

Righto, I must now concentrate on getting back into a routine, working on Jupiter War each morning then the other jobs to be done around here in the afternoon.

Friday 6th May
Yesterday we took a short trip to the village of Pefki to visit Bob and Sue, it being the latter’s birthday. We stayed for about four hours, mostly chatting, but then took off when after the sun briefly showed its face before dropping behind a mountain dragging the temperature down with it. I drove back down from Pefki on the kind of road where James Bond discovers someone has cut the brake lines of his Aston Martin. No problem, however, and the views were astounding apparently (I don’t know – I was watching the road). Reaching the bottom I then drove a short distance along the coast road then headed back up the mountain road leading to our village. At the bottom of this there is a series of tight bends I took at a nice easy pace. Unfortunately, though I was on the right side of the road heading up, the tourists’ rental car driving down wasn’t.

I slammed on the brakes, veered to avoid the approaching car and skidded. In England the result of this would have been wheel marks on a grass verge or maybe a light contact with a hedge. Here my right-hand front wheel went off the edge of the road and dropped about two feet (I wasn’t going fast enough for the other wheel to leave the road), the front of the car dropped lifting the rear left-hand wheel about two or three feet off the road, and the car stalled.

So, there we were stuck on the edge of the road. Surprisingly the tourists stopped and walked over – a young man and woman who by their plastic wrist bands were from the Mikripoli hotel. They looked quite shocked and didn’t seem to know what to say and, from what little they did say, they certainly weren’t English. Now here’s where the story takes an interesting turn and tells you something about the Cretan people.

Whilst I was scratching my head trying to figure out what to do I stepped out into the road to ensure I could see both ways and thus make sure anyone approaching the bend slowed down. The first vehicle to turn up was a Cretan in a white pick-up truck. Instead of just slowing and going on past he pulled over and stopped. Hang on, I thought, I know this guy. As he stepped out of his truck my mind finally joined the dots: unbelievably, within a minute of us going off the road, the mechanic who had done various jobs on our car, had turned up. Manos wandered over for a look, a 4x4 turned up the driver and Manos had a brief chat and the other guy headed off again. Shortly after that a big white van turned up and a husband and wife stepped out. Jolly Cretan conversation ensued and I thought for a moment they were going to put out chairs and crack open a bottle of raki.

I found the towing ring in the boot of our car which Manos screwed it in place. He then made a phone call and now we were waiting for a tow rope. At this point I took pity on the two tourists and told them to bugger off back to their hotel. The wife apologised and they then headed off. Ten minutes later a boy arrived on a scooter with a tow rope. The rope was hitched to the van, Manos climbed in our car and controlled it as it was heaved back onto the road. There was no visible damage but best I take it to his garage ASAP to have it checked over. Who did I have to pay for this rescue and how much? Nothing. Just waves and smiles and the van and scooter headed off. Manos, who was going in our direction, drove slowly ahead of us until we arrived at the turn-off to Papagianades. A flash of the lights and he was gone.

Henceforth I’m going to heed Caroline’s assertion that I should drive slower. The speeds I drive at are perfectly fine if you make the assumption that everyone else on the road is driving sensibly, however, there’s always that old Cretan deciding to overtake on a bend because he’s still driving in a memory-land occupied by only two cars and the village donkey. There’s the young Greek travelling at the speed of a bullet whilst juggling both mobile phone and cigarette. And there are the tourists driving unfamiliar vehicles on an unfamiliar side of the road whilst looking at the wonderful views rather than the road ahead.

Saturday 7th May
It’s very very windy today but bright and the temperature is up to 13C this morning. With things carrying on like this I’m glad that a few days ago a Cretan called Sachis turned up to deliver two truckloads of wood, because we’re certainly going through the stuff. On talking to him I’ve decided to put any tobacco growing on hold until I know the facts. He seemed to think that growing tobacco would result in trouble – demonstrated as such by what they always do here in such cases: bringing the wrists together to indicate handcuffs.

Today we’re heading down to Makrigialos to pay our car insurance, which is getting rather expensive being paid in three-month blocks, have the car checked out at Manolis’ garage, and have a breakfast at the harbour. Our haunt for the last of these was a bar called Lithos but now the owners of that have moved on and the bar has been taken over by some Austrians who seem to have no interest in the previous main source of revenue there. We’re going to try the Olympio next door, though I wonder about the tendency here to luke-warm food and the attitude of the owner, Dimitrios, to having seen us walk straight past his bar for the last four years. I think it’s okay, since I’m told he always looks that grumpy.

In other news, we’re now watching season 5 of Dexter and enjoying it immensely. I also brought some DVDs out here of Farscape which I picked up in a charity shop back in England, but discovered only about four episodes in a pack one would expect to contain many more (old DVDs). Having enjoyed those episodes I then, for the first time, tried out play.com and ordered the complete first season. That has turned up and we’ll be watching it soon. We’ve also been provided with something called ‘Weeds’ which I’m told is quite good. Of course all of these are needed what with little opportunity to sit outside enjoying balmy evenings.

Monday 9th May
Yesterday was lovely and warm, but we didn’t see much of it since we spent most of the day inside cleaning off mould, treating and varnishing beams and repainting the walls and ceilings. Now there’s no need to swiftly turn out the light in the bedroom so as to avoid looking at the black mildew up above

During the aforementioned conversation with Sachis I acquired a new word to add to my Greek vocabulary. He asked me what work I do and after a few attempts I managed to say ‘sigrapheas’ (author) in a way he understood and that ‘grapho vivlia’ (I write books). Things became slightly more difficult when he wanted to know what they were about and, whilst groping for the correct words and checking my Greek dictionary, I found the word for star, which is (and it seems obvious now) ‘astro’. I then had an idea. Star Wars and Star Trek were worldwide phenomena so I just had to work out the translation for them. Here they say ‘kalo taxithi’ which means ‘good journey’ or ‘have a good journey’ so I tried out ‘astro taxithi’ on him and he seemed to recognize it at once. Then I tried out ‘astro polemos’ which is ‘star war’ and also recognized by him – I’m still having trouble working out the plurals in Greek, though I think the correct translation is ‘astro polema’. Using these I attempted to explain the genre science fiction, and that my books were similar to these two screen versions, though I did not go on to detail how my stuff is different – I’d need a Greek vocabulary much larger than the one I possess.

Cold but bright with the temperature rising this morning. Time for me to turn my attention to Jupiter Polemos ... and for some reason my Greek dictionary doesn’t contain the translation of Jupiter, damnit!

Tuesday 10th May
I’ve just checked through a new ‘Owner’ short story written a few weeks ago for some sort of publicity ebook release from Macmillan. It’s called Memories of Earth and I think it’s cool, but await Julie Crisp’s response to it. It’s set some time after The Departure, Zero Point and Jupiter War and is similar in tone to other Owner stories that appear in The Engineer ReConditioned, though from the POV of Alan Saul, who you will be meeting in September.

Chilly this morning, only now at 9.30 climbing from 12 to 16C and still we have to keep the stove on. Yesterday I wrote my 2,000 words then headed outside, actually able to wear shorts. First I checked out the apotheche door, which is still jammed shut and if it doesn’t sort itself out soon will be getting some router attention.

Next I sorted out a niggling bit of plumbing in the ruin. A pipe which connected to an outside tap had sunk out of sight back into its plastic covering, which was concreted in the wall behind the kitchen unit. I had to cut a larger hole in the back of the unit, chisel out some concrete and cut away the covering to expose the pipe. Then connecting it to the cold water required an extension, a T-piece, two elbows with olive connectors and two pieces of plastic pipe. Today I’ll turn the water back on and see if this all works...

After that I installed a French chimney pot for the main house – one of those ball-shaped whirly things – but I’ve seen no noticeable difference in how the fire burns. Perhaps, with the vortex such a pot creates, I will see a difference in the quantity of soot accumulating in the stove pipes.

With these two niggling jobs out of the way I was then able to get back to work in the garden, which is looking good.

Check out these aquilegias:

That's all for now...

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

April into May

Monday April 25th

The temperature has climbed in a minor way, hovering at about 12C up here in the mountains and maybe rising as high as 20 down in Makrigialos. It’s still nowhere near where it was last year and my shorts are still confined to a chair in the bedroom. The apotheche door is still jammed shut and I still have no need to divert grey water for the plants here.

However, on the good news front, the ruin is all but complete. But for the discovery of an unattached pipe for the water tap outside, the plumbing is complete and not leaking. The walls are painted, ceiling and other interior woodwork is varnished and the lights are up. Before we move the bed up there all that’s needed is a shower booth, things like toilet roll and towel holders and a bathroom cabinet. Then we have to get a fridge, a small cooker and other smaller items like waste bins etc.

Wednesday April 27th
So many of the programs we pick up on the satellite are platforms for snake-oil salesmen, whether that snake-oil is God or slimming pills or surgery, so I shouldn’t really complain about BBC World. However, those other programs make no claim on balance and integrity. Yesterday we were hit repeatedly with the phrase ‘refugees fleeing the violence in the Middle East’ yet all we got to back this up were interviews with young Tunisian men in railway stations. Now, according to the BBC, freedom and democracy have arrived in Tunisia, the despot has stepped down and all is tea and cucumber sandwiches. What we basically have here, as anywhere the welfare state hasn’t spread its stifling tentacles, is young men looking for work. These ‘refugees from violence’ are actually fleeing the thing that had them chucking rocks at their leaders in the first place: poverty. It’s the economy, stupid. Of course there doubtless are refugees from the violence in Libya out there, but they’re probably a bit far from the hotel bar for our intrepid BBC correspondents.

Ah, now that’s more like it. We went up to Handras and then Ziros to celebrate someone’s birthday and in a kafenion were put in contact with a guy selling a nice rose wine for €1 a litre. We bought five litres and will doubtless be seeing him again – he’s not going to be running out any time soon since he has 25,000 litres on tap...

We had more pissing rain last night, and there’s still no sign of the promised global warming. We’ve ordered another two tonnes of wood for the stove, which will maybe turn up today. I’m hoping we won’t get to use much of it this ‘spring’ and can save it for next autumn and the start of winter. But it seems that every time it’s looking like it’s warming up, another shitload of cloud comes over the horizon and the temperature drops.

Monday May 2nd
I moved the bed and some other bits and pieces up into the ‘ruin’ over the weekend (the words ‘the ruin’ have stuck despite it being cleaner, drier and newer than the main house) and can now concentrate on other work. Having cleaned out the spare room I bleached the mould on the walls and ceiling, treated and varnished the beams and used up the remainder of the paint on the walls. I’ve also been varnishing the pergola and generally working on other stuff until completely knackered. The weather is still crappy – cloudy, damp and cold – though things are looking better this morning. During the royal wedding, when I intended to go fishing with ‘the boys’ whilst Caroline watched the wedding with ‘the girls’, it absolutely chucked it down, so I ended up drinking far too much wine.

We’ve just seen on the news that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. Perhaps it is a good thing to have access to BBC World, since when Michael Jackson died we didn’t find out about it until about three weeks afterwards. Then again, does knowing these things make any difference to us at all?

The cynic in me immediately wondered what news was being covered up by this, that maybe the killing of Gadaffi’s family was something the powers that be wanted kept low key, but, just maybe, the announcement was being held over until after the wedding. Anyway, this is a good media victory for America and has reduced the number of murderous people-hating psychos by at least one.

Wednesday May 4th
I’ve just received an uncorrected proof copy of The Departure (thanks Julie) and here, for your delectation, is a picture of what you can’t have until September...

The temperature is climbing. This morning at 10.40 it is over 20C – the first time it has risen so high since we’ve been here. I’m actually contemplating putting on my shorts and venturing outdoors.

Meanwhile, I was going to post a picture of Makrigialos beach for Chris (Dutch physics teacher) showing how much the sea level has dropped here. However, the one time I remember to bring my camera down the sea is back where it was before.