Saturday, April 28, 2012

Ants and Stoves

Friday 20th April

Penny Royal stands at 82750 words so I’m steadily climbing back to the point I’d reached before excising all that stuff about Tuppence. Again I’d hit a wall and that point where Raymond Chandler would walk in someone carrying a gun. And, as always happens, the answer when it came to me seemed blatantly obvious, almost preordained. In this case the man with a gun has been supplanted by a vengeful prador Father-Captain in a wartime dreadnought because, in the end, Penny Royal did not just have dealings with human beings.

I just watched a delightful BBC news report about acid attacks in Pakistan on women. Of course the ‘I’ and ‘M’ words weren’t mentioned. Obviously, a fundamentalism that consigns women to second-class status and considers rape a viable response to them not walking about draped like Daleks under dust sheets, and considers stoning them to death a viable response to them being raped, has no effect on the attitude behind these attacks.

Sunday 22nd April
A guy called Dimitrios delivered our wood yesterday. He spoke pretty good English and along with my broken Greek we had a chat as we unloaded the wood from the back of his truck. He’s a prime example to dispel the myth of Greeks who don’t work hard enough. It’s a given that he’s chopping up wood and selling it to make a buck, but other things arose during the conversation. At one point he must have thought I was tiring and suggested I take a rest. Affronted I said in Greek, ‘I’m not old!’ This led in to some talk about his 50 year-old mother. Apparently they have something like a thousand olive trees and just he and her harvested their olives this autumn and winter. Now, I’ve done this job with a few other people on maybe twenty or thirty trees and, believe me, it took a week and was thoroughly knackering. Enquiring then about more wood I learned that he has a limited time to cut some, first because the fire season is starting so he cannot burn off the scrub and branches that are the inevitable result of pruning or cutting down trees, and secondly because he’s returning to his summer job at the Mikropoli hotel. There he will be working 15 hours a day because he’ll be doing the jobs of two people, for less money, and with the hotel owing him €3000 from last year. That, then, is the reality for a lot of Greeks now.

And another myth to dismiss: if you read any tourist publications about Crete you will learn that, apparently ‘cats are cool’ or that ‘Cretans love cats’. This is total bollocks. Most Greeks don’t like animals unless they can be used to hunt things or be eaten. If you see the cute cats down in the coastal bars you must be aware that they are only there for you, because the Greeks know that a lot of Europeans are soppy about animals. Next year there will be different cats because the ones you saw the year before were abandoned during the winter to starve or be poisoned or shot. Here in the village a local guy doesn’t like them shitting in his garden so he’s out on his balcony in the evening with an air rifle. Almost certainly he is the reason why it is a rarity for us to see any of the cats we saw last year. Now some local kids join him there to take part in the fun. Caroline saw one of those kids snap off a shot at one of the cats she was feeding, and now thinks it is probably dead.
(Update: he missed)

But really, one has to be realistic about this stuff. The cats are wild and they are fertile so is it a great idea to feed an animal that can produce two or more litters of kittens a year? You only have to do the math: a healthy male and female here can result in eight more cats by the end of the year. If half of those were female, then by the end of the following year the total would be 52 cats. If everyone was a kind-hearted cat-feeder here, this village would be overrun with thousands of them, every garden a cat litter, and many of them would be quite hungry enough to take on the local chickens. And really, the cats only love you because you provide dinner, and sometimes it is difficult to accept foreign definitions of vermin.

Monday 23rd April
We brought the Wii here with us from England have continued dancing for half an hour every day. This, on top of being a lot more physically active than I am there, has taken my weight down to 13 stone (on average – it was 12st 10lb this morning). I’ve also had to punch some more holes in my belt and 32 inch waist jeans would drop to a teenager-fashionable level without a belt.

Curious about how this related to my BMI I did a few calculations. If I wanted to have a BMI right in the middle of that 18.5 to 24.9 my weight would have to drop to 10st 11lb. This seems crazy to me – at that weight people would be offering to buy me something to eat. I would probably need 28 inch jeans and generally a whole new wardrobe. I then calculated for the top of the index at 24.9 and got 12st 0.7lb. This seems wrong too – through weight training and the like I carry a bit of muscle so surely that normal BMI is wrong for me. Then again, am I kidding myself? Have I been too much influenced by the opinions of those around me, most of whom who are overweight and in a bit of denial about it?

Whatever, I’ll continue aiming for my own particular index – call it the clothing index. If I am conscious of a gut and love-handles while I have my t-shirt tucked in then I’m still overweight. If I still feel the need to get out of jeans in the evening and into loose tracksuit bottoms or, as we call them round here, comfy trousers, I need to be a bit active and a bit less piggy. I’m close to being in that index now, so maybe 12st 7lb...

Tuesday 24th April
Wonderful day the day before yesterday. First we had flying ants coming out of the living room ceiling so I had to spray insecticide about and of course plenty of clearing up ensued. Later I stripped off the outer leaves of some lengths of bamboo I acquired, bagged them up and shoved them in the stove to get the fire going in the evening, since it still gets fairly cold here when the sun goes down. I lit up the stove but it just struggled – smouldering and igniting intermittently and blowing smoke out inside the house. We had to abandon house a few times and I spent time waving about large plastic blanket container to try and drive the smoke out. In the end, after one of the door glasses cracked, either because of a falling log or because of a vacuum created in the stove, I gave up.

Surely the stove pipes couldn’t be blocked since I’d run a brush through them recently (one I bought in England and had fun bending the rods to fit it in my suitcase since I haven’t been able to find one here). Was it because the evening was so still, because the bamboo was damper than it appeared, does bamboo simply not burn too well? The next day I ran the brush down the chimney and through the pipe running across the ceiling, loaded the stove with dry wood and paper and tried again. Not so much smoke this time. The stove simply kept going out and even firelighters wouldn’t burn. I was baffled. Maybe the pipe rising up from the stove, the one that never gets blocked, was blocked this time? I banged this a few times and listened to crap dropping out of it. I lit the fire about five times, banging the pipe every time. On the last occasion, and when I was about to give up, the fire flared into life and burned beautifully. Lesson learned then: never make assumptions about that last damned pipe!

Going back to that living room ceiling... It is original on the inside and very old: beams supporting bamboo, a layer of reeds then mud on top of that, which is just how roofs were here before concrete arrived. However, on top of that now is reinforced concrete and then tiles. I would guess that it is about two feet thick and I am certain that the ants must be living in that layer of mud. I’ve now decided I must finish a job I started five years ago. I began filling between the lengths of bamboo because I was informed that scorpions might be living up there and occasionally dropping on our heads. No sign of them, but the thing always sheds dust and if ants are now living in there I want to seal it off.

A few shots here of Sitia market here. There are about thirty stall like this loaded with local fruit and veg. In the second picture here the red net bags at the front contain snails.

Wednesday 25th April
After removing 18,000 words from the Penny Royal book a couple of weeks ago and reducing it to 70,000 words I’ve now managed to bring it back up to 88,000 words again. The prador Father-Captain slots in much more logically and story threads are sprouting from him like growths from a crystal dropped into a chemical garden (I’m trying to remember the chemicals used ... the solution was egg-preserver as I recollect?). I will have to keep control of those threads, though of course the sheer nastiness of prador society and politics has its attractions and there’s still plenty of world-building to do concerning them.

It looks like it’s going to be a hot one today. The temperature was up to 19.2C at 9.00AM and the overall temperature for Crete is predicted to be 28C. The timing of this is pretty good since the Cabbiano (or Gabbiano depending on whether you take the spelling from their sign of their napkins) is opening today and we’re heading down there for a meal. I’ll be having paithachia meh skortho (garlic lamb chops) which became a particular favourite of mine last year.

Thursday 26th April
We popped over to a village called Agia Triada yesterday – beautiful displays of flowers:

Last year, the son of Yorgos – one of the brothers who run the Cabbiano – crashed his bike and broke his back. He had various operations here but, from the break downwards (it was in his upper back) he was paralysed. Last night we asked how things were with him and discovered that while work had been done on his back here it hadn’t been straightened up properly. As far as I could gather, two vertebrae, or two parts of a broken vertebrae weren’t lined up and where pinching the spinal cord. As far as I could work out further, the doctors concerned here were not doing their job properly. Stelios, another of the brothers, has a Bulgarian wife who organized for the boy to go to a private hospital in Bulgaria. There he was operated on in a private hospital, said operation involving a bone-graft. Within two weeks of that feeling was returning to the boy’s lower body and upper legs and there has been a steady improvement since. If he had not had the operation when he did he would have remained paralysed. The operation and aftercare in Bulgaria cost a total of €10,000. A similar private operation here would have cost €80,000. Greece has its version of the NHS. Considering the state Greece is in at the moment I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Fuck, flying ants coming out of another part of the ceiling right now.

Note to idiot BBC presenter: Chernobyl didn’t ‘explode’, it caught fire. Tosser.

I tried to take night shots with the camera last night because the entire valley in front of our house had filled with cloud. Most of them were unsuccessful, but these two are sort of okay.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Chairs and Stuff

Friday 6th April

You would think, with all the problems Greece has, all the austerity, riots, wage freezes and sackings and people shooting themselves outside parliament, that there would be some effect on prices here. Things should be cheaper, and almost certainly they would be if Greece didn’t have that huge millstone round its neck called the Euro. Instead, everything is getting more expensive as the government sucks harder and shoves up business costs, and while the Greeks pursue their idiot inclination to screw the maximum money out of every sale rather than reducing prices to sell more. Let me give you an example.

Last year as we completed work on our ‘ruin’ we of course wanted windows. From a local supplier they were more expensive than what we would have paid in England, however, because of the hassle involved in getting hold of anything cheaper, and of course the extra cost in shipping or whatever, we just paid up. After that we wanted a 2 metre kitchen unit with integral sink. This was silly money, but we paid it anyway. However, on the basis of the price of that unit and sink I damned well wasn’t going to buy a new kitchen here for the main house.

Instead, while in England, I went to Screwfix then a carrier called Nomad. The result of this is that we’ll get a flat-packed kitchen, consisting of 3 metres of work-surface, six cupboards plus doors and a sink with all taps and fittings, delivered to our door at just £100 more than we paid for the unit up in the ruin. Of course I’ll have to fit this all myself but it’s not exactly rocket science. Without any tiling I reckon on a couple of days of work. End result? Buying the kitchen in England, paying to have it shipped and then spending two days fitting it myself will have saved me, at a minimum (because I’ve heard how much others have paid for their kitchens here) about €3,000.

It’s a ridiculous situation and, until Greece gets out of the Euro, until it brings its prices down to where they should be, which by some estimates are a third of what they are now, until someone lets the pus out of its artificially inflated economy (and bloated government), it’s not going to change.

Here’s another price for your delectation: petrol is now €1.95 a litre here.

Ooh, bit of luck today: Michalis arrived with his strimmer, which he was going to loan to me to knock down the weeds on our bank, and did the job himself.

Saturday 7th April
Yesterday I only managed to write just over 800 words rather than my target of 2,000, but never fear, I have justification. I’ve reached a point in the story where I’ve realized I been overdoing it with the plot threads. Two characters seem to be blending and indistinct, and one of them is turning into a complication that distracts from the main thrust of the story. I’ve mentioned this character before. He’s called Tuppence, with his sidekicks Dr Whip and a troodon dinosaur called Harriet. I really enjoyed writing about these – their general weirdness, power and strange motivations – but they are too much. I am, therefore, stripping out the entire plot thread involving them.

I don’t know who said it, and I’m not entirely sure of the exact quote involved (of course if I was on the internet I could give it to you verbatim and appear knowledgeable) but someone said that in writing it is necessary to kill your babies. This is what I am doing now. But in reality this particular baby, or collection of babies, won’t die. I’ll transfer the thread I strip out into a file called ‘Tuppence’ and it is quite likely this will form the basis of either a novella or another book. Thereafter, with the present book reduced by 18,000 words from 88,000, I can concentrate more on the main threads, the main characters: Isobel Satomi, Thorvald Spear and Penny Royal.

Monday 9th April
We’ve had four days of lovely low twenties weather which, with the powerful sunlight here, means shorts and sun lotion (especially on my nose). Over the last week I’ve been tracking the temperature at 9.00 in the morning every day and it climbed from 12 to 18. Now, however, it’s dropped back down to 12. No matter, since it’s still a lot better than it was this time last year.

I just watched a BBC report on alpine resorts going green. Apparently they need more power there but don’t want to spoil the mountain views with power lines. The answer? They’re building great big banks of solar panels which of course look so much better. I despair.

Tuesday 10th April
Some thoughts...

I’ve always been of the opinion that if I was to get something like lung cancer or oesophageal cancer (like my brother) I wouldn’t bother with treatment other than pain killers and, at some point, sleeping pills and a plastic bag. The odds for both of these have always been crappy, something like one in twenty of surviving for five years, with treatment. I’ve seen what that five years means with a neighbour who died of bowel cancer. You might survive for five years but you don’t live them. At the beginning of his treatment he had six ‘good’ days a week and by the end of it he had none. On balance, how many ‘good’ days would he have had if he’d had no treatment at all? And with by brother I’ve seen what it means when the treatment doesn’t really work at all.

However, my opinion is in a state of flux, mainly due to reading numerous science articles on various sites and the generally optimistic stuff on places like Singularity Hub. We’re right on the edge; we’re entering the age of miracles. When you read threads in which scientifically literate people are seriously discussing whether or not any of the baby boomers will enter the age of permanent life extension you have to think a bit more deeply about these things.

A few years ago I read about a scientist who had managed to tissue engineer a human bladder, now I read that he’s making these things constantly and implanting them in people who need them. I’ve always been fascinated by the development of exoskeletons, now one example has passed all inspections and is actually being used ... cripples are walking. Stem cell advances are occurring every day, heart muscle and other tissues being renewed. Magic bullets for various cancers are being designed all the time and the odds of survival just keep on changing. I was reading about new treatments and understanding of Alzheimer’s almost on a weekly basis, which is why I would say to Terry Pratchett, just hold on a minute. So, in the light of just these few examples I take the view that maybe a visit to Dignitas should be delayed for as long as possible. You could be taking that drink just at the moment that someone, somewhere, is having a Eureka moment.

Wednesday 11th April
So much for the wonderful sunny weather here. On Monday the morning temperature dropped 6 degrees with cloud gradually filling up the sky. It started raining in the afternoon and ever since it’s been cloudy and cold with frequent downpours. The forecast today is for sun all across Crete but there are no signs of it yet this morning – the 9.00AM temperature is 9 degrees.

I’ve again worked my way through Penny Royal and am back on the word counts hoping to polish off 2,000 today.

I’ve been noticing how the exchange rate of the Pound with the Euro has much improved this year, well, for me. Last year I don’t think it went much above €1.16 but now it seems to be hovering around €1.21. Unfortunately I don’t think this means the Pound is on the rise, but rather that at the moment the Euro is winning the race for the bottom.

Saturday 14th April
Heh, as well as writing, gardening and doing stuff on the house I’ve found myself some more chairs to repair. The Belgian neighbour bought some cane furniture just like the chair I repaired a couple of years ago and two of them have collapsed. I suspect he bought them new. This was just the kind of furniture we originally wanted for outside, but five years ago decided it was too expensive. Seems we may have made the right decision.

Monday 16th April
After severe weather warnings for the Midwest of America the tornados duly turned up, people are being killed and property is being damaged – all this coming after that really cool video clip of a bloody great truck being tossed about in Texas. And all throughout the reports on this is the implication that, ‘Oh my god! Something is changing! The weather is going crazy!’ I wonder, is the place where this is happening called Tornado Alley for a reason? Could it be that tornados have been having a yearly gathering there for hundreds, thousands or tens or hundreds of thousands of years? But it is absolutely true that something has changed in the last few centuries. Now, when the tornados touchdown and churn across the landscape like titanic wood routers they are no longer just tearing up grass, trees, buffalo or the occasional unlucky Indian. In the place of these are buildings, loads of people, trucks and cars and all the infrastructure of civilization. It’s the population, stupid.

Thursday 19th April
I was hoping our remaining wood was going to last until the temperature ramped up but it looks like that is not to be. Yesterday, it being cold with a wind sucking the heat out of the house, us having the stove on all day and having just a few days of wood left, I decided to go in search of some more. We’d been told of a local guy selling it for €100 a pickup truckload so via some friends in a nearby village sought him out. He’ll deliver either today or tomorrow, which in Greek could mean any time in the next few weeks, if at all.

€100 is a good price because others have been charged as much as €180 for the same amount, yet I still wince at the price of wood here. Back in England I could venture out with a chainsaw and in a morning collect an equivalent amount in trees knackered by Dutch elm disease from a few hedgerows. However, I have to rationalize this. It costs two or three Euros a day to heat the house and I compare that to how I’m quite happy to spend €10 on a couple of carafes of wine in some local bar or much more than that on a meal out.

Oh, and now we’re getting some more wood delivered it’s still and sunny with the temperature rising rapidly. Meanwhile, for Paul and Heidi, here’s how the veg patch is looking:

Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Technician Kindle Promotion

Yesterday, for the first time in a week, we ventured onto the internet. We didn’t want to use one of the places down in Makrigialos for this but our Belgian neighbour had kindly offered to let us use his connection. Nice to see a conversation ongoing on the open thread on my blog but, since I didn’t want to intrude too much with our neighbour, I didn’t join in, just as I didn’t venture onto Twitter or Facebook. As usual there were piles of junk mail to be simply deleted but one email did turn out to be important and urgent. Bella Pagan informs me that The Technician is appearing in an Amazon Kindle promotion between March 30th and April 12th. The people at Amazon want an exclusive blog post from me to a maximum of 500 words. Bloody good timing since this time of year is the longest I am away from the internet. Anyway, along with this I’ve emailed said post to Bella. I hope it isn’t too late.   

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Back on Crete

Sunday 1st April

A slight whiff of mould hit us as we opened the door but it was gone in an instant. The inside of the front wall had bubbled off paint and there was a small patch of mould on the wall in the bedroom, but the rest of the house was completely dry. The three roof windows and four vents through the walls had done their job. Besides applying a couple of square metres of paint, there’s very little else to do inside. The place is so lacking in damp that I loaned our dehumidifier to our Belgian neighbour, whose bedroom ceiling is black with mould and whose bathroom ceiling looks like it has been carpeted.

One of the first things I noted here was that our Greek neighbours have reacquired their pick-up truck. This vehicle has been sitting in a garage, after having had a lot of work done on it, for getting on for four years. The owner of said vehicle once wanted me to pick it up for him, but I demurred. I suspected some sort of con involved whereby I ended up paying the garage bill. He now has his truck back by dint of selling a patch of land to the Belgian. There’s some sort of dodgy situation there too, since the Belgian has some ruins between his house and this land which he has discovered he has no building permission to renovate. You really have to watch your step here.

Annoyingly, since being here it has been warmer in England, just like it was for the last two years. We have been seeing London temperatures of 20 and above while here it’s been in the teens during the day and in single figures at night, so we’re steadily burning through our supply of wood for the stove. However, it is very dry and we’ve only had one light sprinkle of rain this last week. Also, when the sun is out, it is very bright and does feel very hot. There’s a large difference between shade and open sunlight temperatures here, whereas in England it’s not so large. And of course there’s an approximate 5 degree difference between the temperature up here in the mountains and that down by the sea at Makrigialos. I wonder if the same weather pattern as the last two years will prevail: another soggy summer for England.

We’ve been busy with the garden since getting back. Most of the weeds are now pulled out, I’ve planted seeds for radishes, onions, beetroot and various salad leaves directly in the garden and in pots started off peppers, sweet corn and many different kinds of flowers. €5 bought me a great mass of seed onions which, after digging over the back garden, I planted half of there. I little later in the year these will provide spring onions and later still, pickled onions. I note too that our cherry tree back there is covered in blossom so maybe we’ll be getting fruit from it in its first year. Since Mikalis sorted out the inner garden walls over the winter I’ve also put up trellises for geraniums ... that’s about it. I’m now starting to wonder about looking for jobs to do.

The above, which will be boring to some, is just my warm-up towards producing some fiction. Since on Monday Caroline has an appointment with the dentist in Sitia, and that is the day I scheduled for getting back to writing, I’m aiming to get a head-start on my 2,000 words. Then again ... I need to grind the edge off the gate, which is sticking after I painted it, bring in some more wood, chop up some of the longer lengths back there, clean the front door...

Wednesday 4th April
Right, I’m back on the horse. I finally sat down to write yesterday and found it difficult to get my head back round Penny Royal. I have so many things I want to do and it’s difficult sitting at a laptop writing when it’s sunny outside. However, I have to acknowledge the reality that I wouldn’t be here but for the writing (or but for Macmillan publishing my books and you lot buying them) so I have a job to do, money to earn and a duty to fulfil. I stuck at it, without internet distractions, and polished off my 2,000 words by 2.30. The feeling I had getting started was, ‘Where am I taking this now?’ which is of course a feeling familiar to any writer. All I have to do at this point is recognize that the question is one I always ask myself, to different degrees when approaching the day’s work, and that the only way to answer it is by writing, not fretting. Penny Royal (or whatever it’ll be called) now stands at 84,000 words.

The weather here on Crete has not been as bad as it was last year when it started off with two good days followed by two rainy and cold days – the good days gradually increasing in number all the way through to May when we were still using the stove. It has been chilly here in the evenings and at night, but the days have been warmish and we’ve seen little rain. Today it will be interesting to see how the weather turns out. The forecast last night for Crete was cloudy with a possibility of rain later yet, when the temperatures were given, we were gobsmacked to see a prediction of 27C. It being 16C this morning at 10.30 I somehow doubt they’ve got that one right.

Oh, and this picture is for Heidi and Paul - seeds coming up on week after planting:

Okay, to work.