Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Episode 48: A Saviour is Born

You know me. You followed me around the country. You loved me on the TV when I had you in stitches with jokes about my penis. You followed me in the tabloids, you supported my charitable works. Then you didn't. I don't know why. You just stopped. Now, I have people who love me again. So much that they made me their mayor. This is my new story, From Under Dark Clouds.


Roni swung her camera round to capture the scene in the bedroom. Tears ran down her cheeks. She did celebrity exposés, this had become a war zone. The Chinaman had been a shock but now she was filming someone she had known in life, with the life removed. She had met her children. She had been a character in her narrative, a mother, now a cadaver.


Twitshot
I was calm, collected, speechless and willing to agree to anything. “I’ll go!” ping ping! Mike was signalling NO but he wasn’t here, he wasn’t here and he should have been. “I’LL GO! You won’t see us again!”
“NOOO!” Ares cried. He would have looked like the child at the supermarket checkout screaming for the candies were it not for his statue and suit.
Wirey and Excavator took another step back, just like you do at the checkout in case someone thinks that the child is connected to you. Genuine fear in their eyes.
“YOU WILL CONFESS!”
I pleaded him to let Roni go and she nodded fervent agreement. “Let her go!” I dropped my head. “let me go, please.”
“YOU FUCKING QUEER! YOU WILL CONFESS!”
I am not proud. I thought I was but pride is a luxury and it had been replaced by another feeling, deep mortal fear. I confessed. I confessed. I confessed.
Ares got it all on his phone. He began swiping and tapping.
“Mike! Forfucksake, do something.” I yelled into the air. There was no ping. I knew he knew where we were, I knew he could have called the police, sent someone to our location. He did nothing. Ares persisted in swiping and tapping then yelled his frustration at the device, throwing it at the wall. Splinters rained on the hard tiled floor. Roni and I would be next. We looked at each other without words, we both knew what was coming. We would not be going to the airport. Roni’s work would finish here and now as an obituary, if it were ever finished. Maybe Jude would see that it was completed. Attend the premiere with a somber face, accept the awards on Roni’s behalf, hopefully tell of his warm and inspiring relationship with me. Send his heartfelt condolences to my wife and sons. My work would be talked about, my books hit the bestseller lists again, generating some royalties for the family. This would be my punchline. I looked toward the bedroom, the door had swung closed but I could still see the disassembled secretary’s calves and feet. Her vital body flashed through my thoughts. Just a few days before, she had been warm, passionate. Just a few days before, she had been in my bed. 
Roni kicked my shin. The men had left the room, probably to decide who would off us.
When they came back in, I stared forward unblinking, tears blurred my vision, snot running down my face. Roni was terse, resolute, bold. Wirey pulled a sack over her head then mine. My tears stopped then my fear was gone. It would be quick.
Purgatory was the back of a van. It was hot and dark. I could feel the presence of another body and by the smell I thought it was the lifeless body of the well-assembled secretary. Judgement day had come and we were travelling freight class.
The twists and turns threw us into each other until our heads hit the bulkhead and the doors swung open. “GET OUT!” There were only two bodies in the back of the van, one mine and to my relief the other was Roni. Alive. We were pulled from the van and pushed into the back seats of an awaiting car.
“Where the fuck were you taking them?” I heard voices from outside the car. I couldn't discern the reply. “You were supposed to…” They had handed us over to others, associates? They were arguing about something.
“The Greek girl...? Malaka!” Then the seat in front of me was filled and the door closed. We sped off
I heard the voices from up front but none of it made sense to me. “He is going to be really pissed off!”
“Yeah!”
“You heard?”
“Yeah!”
“FUCK!”
“Yeah!.. Malakas!”
“Malaaakas!”
We had taken maybe five or six corners before a hand reached from the front and pulled the sack from my head and my gag down, my hands were still tied.
“You are safe, Sir.” I didn’t feel it but we were alive. “Mike gave us your location and we saved you.” I tried to look grateful. These were not familiar faces and that was the only thing I needed.
A phone rang and the unfamiliar face in the passenger seat picked up. The voice on the other end did not wait for familiarities and greetings. It was pretty sure that it was Socrates and he was on full tilt. I heard most of what was said but could not comprehend the words. It wasn't until he hung up that my fears were confirmed. The hoods were shoved back over our heads with apology. The car stopped and we were pushed out of the car onto the road.
The car screeched away leaving the bitter taste of exhaust fumes and burnt rubber. Soon there were voices and hands on me. I heard Roni squeal but no one was taking the hood off.
“Roni! Are you OK?” I yelled. She didn’t answer and I needed her to. “RONI!”
“FUCK! Someone just stepped on me.”
“Can you see anything?” Some arms pulled me to my feet. “RONI!”
I was dragged up some stairs then turned around. The hood was taken off. The sun blinded me but my arms were still tied. Roni was being manhandled up the stairs and we were both pushed through the doorway into the shade. We were safe in a police station. Safe? My arms still tied, I was marched into a room and planted on a chair. My hands were untied but I didn’t move.
“Where is Roni, the girl with me. Where is she?” I demanded.
“She’s OK. You need to worry about yourself!” the uniform leaning over me said. He pulled a cigarette from his shirt pocket and lit it blowing smoke over my head. I asked for one but he just smiled. “Last one.”
“I was kidnapped! I was nearly fucking murdered!”
“You need to watch your language!”
“But I, I'm the mayor!”
"I didn't vote for you." 
The smoke smelt tangy and I needed some. “I demand to see the chief!" 
"He didn't either."
"Get me some smokes. I’ll pay.” I search my pockets and found a crumpled note.
“Can’t run errands. We have serious police work to do... Sir.”
I reminded him of his responsibility, his duty, to protect and serve.
“We are not your police! Now tell me. Tell me how you got lost in the wrong neighbourhood.”
“I was kidnapped by Ares Mavrides. He was going to… he killed…”
“Now accusations like that are going to get you in trouble.” He left me sat at the old school desk, still engraved with adolescent graffiti and slammed the door behind him.
I was still getting used to being free. I wasn’t tied to the chair but I might as well have been. Something kept me there acquiescent, compliant. I needed a cigarette, a drink. I had four cold walls and a desk.
Fuck this shit! I stood and walked to the door. The handle was stiff, I pushed, I shouldered the door. I was locked in, banging didn’t bring help.
I went back to the chair. there was nothing else to do, one desk, two chairs, four walls.
The door clunked and in strode Socrates, he was carrying a bottle of Irish and a plastic cup.
“You’ve really put the wind up those Nazis.”
I was pleased to see him, I really was. He broke the seal on the bottle and poured a shot. I looked at it, it sang to me but I shunned it.
“Got any fags, I need to smoke.”
He pointed to the ‘no smoking’ sign, “Can’t.”
“Roni? How’s Roni, I haven’t seen her since we got here.”
“She’s ok.”
“OK SHIT! Socrates, I’m sick of hearing OK. Where is she, what are they doing with her? Why aren’t we together?” I stood. “FUCK! Let’s get out of here, Socrates.”
“Calm down. We have to talk first.”
“I was fucking kidnapped, I want out of here!”
“Soon.”
“I want to go eat at a friendly taverna and drink.”
“I brought your favourite.”
I eyed the plastic cup. I wanted it but I wanted not to run away, to feel, to know.
“I want out!”
“There is a whole bunch of press outside. We need a plan.”
I necked the contents of the plastic cup. Socrates filled it again.
“Why didn’t they ask me about…”
“They don’t know.”
I know I should have told them. I know I should have sent them round to where ever she was laid out on the bed. I know, I know. I wanted out and she didn’t want anymore. Not like I did.
“Now, listen. The elections are coming and they’re coming fast. We’ve done well to get this far but you are still a novelty act—”
“Socrates! Shit! I have been kidnapped and nearly killed!” I heard my own words. “Fuck, Christina!” I said her name for probably the first time, she had always been the well-assembled secretary but now she was disassembled.
“Yeah, yeah he went too far. I told him—” He filled my cup, I had drunk it before I decided I shouldn’t. “Eggs will get broken but—”
“Eggs! She’s dead, Socrates. She’s dead and you’re using omelette metaphors?”
He paused an rephrased. “Some soldiers will fall.”
I didn’t know what to say but I was saying something. He wasn’t listening. He stood and went to the door and knocked. I called him. The door was held open for him and her turned, looking through me. “We need to find the hero in you.” And walked out. The key turned in the lock.
I ran to the door and pounded on it then turned to the bottle on the table. I had to stay lucid. I focused on what we had done over these months, the progress we had made but I kept returning to the one logical conclusion.
I should take this all and write a book, do a show, tour. The Americans would love this. Mad goings on in uncivilised Europe, it’s just what makes them feel superior AND for once it’s a war they didn’t start! It was simple. Yes, I would go back to London, join my family and do funny again.
The key turned and Socrates walked in. I told him I couldn’t do it anymore, I told him that I didn’t understand what was going on, I never had and I was going home.
“Yes! and that is exactly why you… WE need to make sure these animals don’t get in. Just imagine the blood on your hands if you give up now.”
“My hands? You said I was just a novelty act!”
“You are and novelty is your strength.” He put a full plastic cup in my hand and grabbed my chin, forcing me to looked in his sharp eyes. “These people need you, they need your British stiff upper lip, they need your wit and huge heart. They need you. They may not know this yet but they do.”
He was right. I could see the potential in these people, maybe the same potential the wife had seen in me all those years ago. They just needed a heavy but loving hand.
“But, Roni?”
“Don’t worry about her. Her career was made today.”
I emptied the plastic cup and Socrates went to the door. He exchanged some words with the officer and returned. It was time to go. He glanced at the plastic cup and I emptied it. The bottle I had refused to drink was at half mast. He said we’d leave it for the officers. There was always more where that came from.
Roni was already at the station door when we arrived. I touched her arm and she tugged a smile, half a lip between her teeth. Socrates opened the door and the press sprung into life. I had done this so many times, I could do it again. I drew breath and dropped my head to put my face on. But before I could project my defiant smile, I heard my name.
Roni had taken the stage and was telling the cameras and microphones of my courage, my unwavering contempt for bullies and how we may not have been there if it hadn’t been for my heroism in the face of people who should never be given power.
“People of Greece! I tell you now. If you don’t want this man, I will take him back home to Britain and I will not rest until he is our democratic leader!” She took my hand, folding it into a fist and held it aloft. And for the fist time in my life the press cheered me.
Socrates took my other hand, smiled and held it high. And, ladies and gentlemen I swear my feet left the ground.




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Thursday, 28 June 2018

What's in a Name?...

This is not Sparta!

So Nova Scotia gets its independence and decides to call itself The Republic of East Maine. The Walloons of Belgium break away and chose to be the Former Belgian Republic of Champagne, The Scots Upper Cumberland, China Greater Nepal, Pakistan North India. For that matter Canada would have every right to call itself America, It is on the North American continent, has shared heredity and by omitting the ‘United States of’ part could not be accused of inciting confusion. You get the picture and you’re probably laughing at my ridiculous notions but that is exactly what has been happening in the Balkans for the past 20-odd years. Since Yugoslavia fragmented, the southernmost state has been claiming right to call itself Macedonia.

Twitshot
Macedonia (Macedon) was the birth place of Alexander the Great and a key part of Greek heritage. In fact, the claim over Alexander has as much to do with the dispute as the name and territories. He was born in Pella, which is still a small town in Greece. He was Hellenic, the group of ancient civilisations that shared language and culture, though at that time not a unified nation. He was tutored by Aristotle until manhood. He was what we now consider to be Greek.
The area of Macedonia has been shaved by wars and politics over the centuries and while the majority remains in modern day Greece, some is in Albania, Bulgaria and the area that claims a right to the Macedonian name, an area that the Greeks insist on calling by the name of its capital city Skopje or FYROM.
So what’s the big deal? So many years have passed since then and it could be argued that modern Greeks have little to do with the Greeks of antiquity. But it is a big deal, to both the Greeks and the former Yugoslavians. So much so that the former Yugoslavian state named their international airport ‘Alexander the Great’, named major highways after him and in 2011 a huge statue of Alexander on a horse was erected in the centre of the capital, named Macedonia square. It is a big deal to them.
The Macedonian identity and heritage means a lot to the Greeks, as the Parthenon does, as heritage means a lot to many nations it is often confused with nationalism but common heritage is imperative to all peoples, it is what bonds the residents of an area into a tribe of common goals.
Families are the smallest building blocks of community, they have a name and members are easily recognisable by this name. A chance meeting of individuals with the same surname will often spark the question of shared heritage, my name is quite rare outside Ireland and when I do meet someone who shares it, I will ask about their family history. This has on occasion sparked a feeling of kinship. Names matter. People who have grown up in the same area will have connections of memories or friends or schools or places they played. We need to have bonds. We live in an age where Europeans are encouraged to identify as one people but it will not happen and if it does, it will come at great cost. The larger the geographical reach of ethnicity becomes, the more abstract it becomes. The USA has managed this well but it began with a melting pot of Europeans who were looking for a new life far from home. That said, it has taken a lot of flag waving jingoism to maintain. The American dream, Superman, The Super bowl, a common language.
Greece has had a hard time adjusting to the Eurozone architect’s dreams of a unified republic, more than most, it just wasn’t ready. Protests at the imposed austerity were regular but since the capital controls of 2015 the fight seems have left the Greeks. Now they are reemerging with zeal, the prime minister, Alex Tsipra’s capitulation to external pressures have made him a traitor to his people and the Greeks are angry again. Tsipra has sold his address to secure his mortgage with implied promises that putting this matter to bed will be favourable to a restructuring of the bailout loans from the TROIKA of creditors. The Greeks are back on the streets but I fear now as before, no one is listening.
Macedonia is Greece, its culture, its history and its antecedents. It is as Greek as The Parthenon and as that it is a piece of world Heritage. It will not be long before whatever prefixes to the name Macedonia that are agreed by the each party are dropped in favour of the simpler Macedonia. Eventually, in the name of unification, the Greek and Slavic versions of the Story of Alexander may become homogenised.
We are trained to consider the greater good, the big picture, international relations, the smooth running of trade but identity is the base on which all these must grow. Denying where we come from will only confuse where we are going. The former Yugoslavian republic realised that early on and their leaders recognised the need for history, they found a powerful if tenuous narrative for their people and have stuck doggedly to it. To reverse this now could be catastrophic for them to continue would be a lie.
What’s in a name? Just think of when a colleague or acquaintance got yours wrong or ask a Canadian where in America he is from or a Scot if he is English, an Austrian if he is German. What’s in a name? The first thing they do in prison is take your name away, they know why and so do you.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Contactless Cards are a Major step Forward For everyone Except Consumers

You’re running through the London underground, you don’t have an Oyster card or time to stop and navigate the ticket vending machine or the bemused queues. You need a drink and nip into a shop but only have big notes to pay and can’t stand the jangling coins in your skinny jeans pocket. You’re wasting your life in the express queue at the supermarket waiting for everyone in front of you to rummage in their pockets for the change to pay for the 10 items or less. But, we now live in the future, a time when each of us carries a reusable coin that only needs to be tapped on a machine to complete our transactions. Welcome to the world of NFC technology, contactless cards where your entire bank balance and even your credit limit is available in your pocket just waiting to satisfy those moments when antiquated methods of payment are just oh too time consuming for our modern pace of life.

Twitshot
The advantages of tap and go payments are just too numerous to mention. Just think of the savings to governments of minting notes and coins, according to the US Federal Reserve it costs between 4-9 cents to strike a coin and 5-13 cents to mint dollar bills. There are nearly 30 billion coins in general circulation and 40 billion notes. General adoption of cards will slowly but surely reduce this expense. Plus, unlike cash, digital card payments leave a trail that can be very useful for governments and marketers alike. Forget Facebook, nothing profiles a person like their purchases. Eventually, it is the aim of all economies to eradicate all cash currency and with it the black economy. Strikes me that it could make it difficult for MPs and senators to get their back-handers, maybe they’ve thought of that one already.


The head of the Bank of England doesn't trust contactless 

So, general adoption of our flexible friends makes so much sense, not to mention the next step which is the integration of NFC chips in our phones so we don’t even need our cards. We have come so far from Pieces of silver with our sovereign’s face stamped on it. Or have we?
The trouble with cash is that it is instantly transferable, you give it to someone and they can use it. The same goes for if they stole it. Credit and charge cards gave us a signature with which secured our cash, remember how we used to get traveller’s cheques that could be cancelled if we got pickpocketed or mugged in some far-off land. Security has been the main selling point of cards. From signatures we went to chip n pin, again we had to verify a transaction with our mark. If our cards got stolen, we could cancel them and stop anyone using our hard-earned. The bank could verify this with the signature or block it with an incorrect pin. I had my card cloned once in the UK and didn’t lose a penny despite the perpetrators going on a spending binge racking up nearly £2000 of transactions before I had even noticed.
Now, contactless doesn’t have the same security, up to a certain limit per transaction if someone gets your card, they can go up the high street merrily tapping and going and with no verification, you will have a hard time proving that they are not your transactions. Basically we are back to cash. The sheer volume of small contactless transactions is too much for the banking system to process in real time so they have thousands of offline transactions that can be processed in bulk at times of lower traffic. So, it could be days after realising and cancelling your card before the real damage can be seen.
My wife recently lost her card. She realised it fairly quickly and cancelled it. When she ordered a replacement, she requested that it be non-contactless. “We can’t do that, they are all tap n’ go now.” She was told proudly. She asked if this facility could be disabled at the bank end as she never uses it. “No, we can’t do that.”
“How can I be sure that someone doesn’t steal my card again and spend my money?” she asked.
“Well, they can only buy up to a limit.” The helpful bank clerk assured her.
She couldn’t tell her what the limit was, it seems to vary (and will vary in the country that you are reading this) and she couldn’t tell her how many contactless transactions could be made in a time period but she could sell her an insurance policy. She could sell her a SMS alert service that could add insult to injury by notifying her of each time she lost more money.

How to disable your contactless card

I spoke to a bank employee who gave me very little more information apart from the fact that statistically online fraud is much higher than contactless and while there are fears of having your cards scanned while in your pocket or bag, they are quite easy to safeguard against. Apparently, an anti-NFC wallet (RFID blocking) will protect you from cyber-pickpockets although, I have read much to dispute this. Keys and other metal objects, including wrapping your cards in aluminium foil can also block the swipers.
This is an immature technology which seems to have many advantages for banks, governments and thieves and a few conveniences for us. The impetus for improved security will only come from pressure from you and I and will probably come wrapped in more intrusive data mining. In the meantime, don’t be seduced by the ease of use and the new svelte line of your trousers.

Further reading:
The head of the Bank of England discusses her mistrust of the technology and how demand for cash is actually increasing


Practical instructions to disable the contactless ability of your card


America, who is usually so quick to embrace new tech especially when it is ease of payment has been slow to adopt chip and pin and contactless. We Europeans are quick to judge the Yankees, maybe the joke will be on us


The Swedes are a trusting people but there is a limit


Friday, 1 June 2018

My Rebirth in Athens

Christ! 5am might be a good time for monks and people with serious careers but it was playing havoc with my circadian rhythms. All I had to counter it was instant coffee and a cold shower. I took them grudgingly and dragged my bag to the door. I stopped and took stock, shoes on feet, trousers fastened and shirt on back. It wouldn't be the first time I’d left a house at such an ungodly hour without one of these. Shit! Getting out of anywhere with the shirt on my back was a huge bonus in this day and age. I stepped into the lift. I would normally take the stairs, they offer a much more authentic experience of gravity, but my legs couldn't be relied on, the mutinous fuckers would love an opportunity like this to see me sprawled out on my face at the foot of the stairwell, my underwear and travel-sized toothpaste spewed on the floor.


Twitshot


My driver was familiar so I maintained an air of grateful indignation. The nightclubs had closed their doors to revellers no more than an hour before so the roads were clear and soon enough we were pulling up outside airport departures. I alighted the cramped vehicle and she didn’t. I promised to call and patted the pocket that contained no phone.
Airports before sunrise are an anthill of activity. The travellers tend to be going somewhere to do something rather than the child-dragging escapees who’ve staked their annual savings on two weeks burning their skin, drinking cheap cocktails and preying the kids don’t drown in the sea.
No, pre-dawn flyers have to be in an office discussing things they don’t trust the phone with or gathering in hotels for conferences about stuff while dreaming of tanning their skin, drinking Tequila sunrises and preying the kids would shut up and drown already. I, dear blogees was one of the latter. The Toastmasters convention in Athens was entitled ‘Rebirth’ and I only had vague circumstantial evidence that I had experienced it the first time, birth that is.
I was flying to Athens, the crucible of democracy, western philosophy and so much more at a time when my ancestors were still figuring out how to get 100 tons of stone 200 miles from Wales to stand on Salisbury plains. And, that many years later we still haven’t worked out why.
In my seat was a young woman who was already looking nervous. She asked if I wanted her to move and I said I didn’t mind. We briefly argued about who didn’t mind the most and she stayed put. My seating was random, I had opted to save the €3 so all she had achieved was to randomise my random seating, worth €3 of anyone’s money. She was peering out the window shuffling in her seat.
“Looks a long way down, eh?” I agreed with the thought that she had not verbalised. “But you’ll hardly notice it once we get above the clouds.”
She turned and pursed her lips, I was sure I could detect a smile.
The crew took their positions to show us what to do in the event that gravity interrupted them selling us perfumes and cute, anthropomorphised plushy aircraft. We wouldn’t be flying over the sea so I ignored the bit about topping up the life vest. I mean, they love showing that video of the guy landing his Airbus in the Hudson river but we all know that air travel was never intended to be survivable. You hit the sea from 35,000 feet, you’re gonna be a smoothie with foreign coins in your pocket, you hit a mountain and you are destined to be some other passenger’s brunch. No, if I feel the earth accelerate towards me, I’ll turn my ipod volume up past the recommended safe level and try to edit the boring parts out of my life flashing before me. That said, a well-pumped life vest could go someway to breaking your fall were we to clip the top of mount Olympus. Aw! Ever the optimist.
The exhilaration of acceleration always sends a tingle up my trousers, this time it was augmented by my new travel companion’s nails in my forearm, not nearly as unpleasant as it sounds! I wondered if she’d react the same way on landing but I was too polite to request.
I opened the book I had been reading and watched the words swim around the page for a while, the instant coffee had done nothing for my concentration. Domestic flights in Europe never last long and just as I'd got settled in, the flaps on the wings started their downhill dance.
We touched down and for a moment I felt the landing gear and fuselage quarrel over direction, this sharpened my focus to the life jacket. If I was thrown from a gaping hole in the aircraft, would the inflated vest soften the impact with Terra Firma as I had previously hoped? My synapses were sparking faster than I was accustomed but I knew I wouldn’t be able to roll a cigarette and light it before the end. And anyway the no smoking lights were still lit. I reached for the duty-free bottle I’d procured before leaving the departure lounge but her nails snagged in my arm. Was this how it would all end? Thrown from a budget airline seat to be spread like jam on the toasted Athens runway and would the cramp in my legs subside for this? I would probably break her fall and be hailed a hero. At least the compensation and bolstered book sales would give my wife and kids a more comfortable life than I had managed to give them while I had been the right size and shape to fit into trousers.
Unfortunately, I was in the smokers cabin in the arrivals hall scribbling these very words when I realised none of this had actually happened. These glass-walled aquariums of shame played soothing music while extracting the smoke and advertising the sponsor’s particular brand of tobacco freedom. The rugged middle-aged model in the pictures bore no resemblance to someone who would reach for a packet and lighter before opening his eyes in the morning then hack his lungs between his first drags of the day. Modelling had never been a career option for me but in the name of honesty I made a note to self to contact Imperial Tobaccos for an audition. I reached into my bag for the bottle but it wasn’t until I was replacing the cap and putting it back that I seriously considered the folly of my actions. It was 7.30 and I still hadn’t had a decent cup of coffee, there is much to be said for keeping events in the proper sequence but saying it was a close as I got. I took one more nip before deciding that.
There was one last bag rounding the carousel when I emerged. I guessed it must be mine and took it. I headed to the first java franchise for some hard, hot and black.
I was well into my second when another flight safely touched down from the north carrying two vibrant balls of enthusiasm who were to accompany me to the conference. One of them had a plan, which was more than I had.
On the train into town they fizzed with excitement about the upcoming events, the gala ball, the keynote speakers and soon my discomfort became palpable.
I told them I’d need to dump my luggage, I could only speculate that it was mine but if people could believe that our existence was down to a huge explosion in the universe or the hand of a bearded guy who was never born, I could believe this bag between my legs was the one that contained my underwear.
I called my host for the weekend. It was obvious that I’d woken her, shit! She told me to get off at Monastiraki station and head for the ancient columns. I asked again, this was Athens, the capital of ancient, I knew I would be sleeping on a park bench trading favours to be allowed to snuggle into a flea-bitten mutt for warmth… again!
My fizzy companions got off the train. One said she’d see me soon. The other asked if I’d be ok. I doubted either.
Things were looking up. I exited the station and just outside were some columns. I took a place in the shade and rolled a cigarette. A herd of Americans passed extolling hyperboles of awe in their metallic burr, the same that makes tourist trap scammers around the world rub their hands in glee.
I finished my cigarette and ventured into the square. The stalls were hanging with hats and sunglasses and sundry tat that while professing to the contrary would never pass Greek hands until money changed hands. Many of the tourists may in fact be taking the trinkets back to where they were made.
A tall slenderman thrust a piece of handwritten paper in my hand. I gave it straight back and looked defiantly non-American.
“NO!” I said.
“Habla ingles?” he asked.
I went back to the columns for safety.
My host arrived with a smile, kissed me on both cheeks and told me I must be thirsty. I was, was it that obvious. We scurried past the made-in-China Parthenons on a chain and ducked into a bar. My watch was chiding me but I ignored it which by the second beer became easier.
We headed back into the heat and she gave me the tour of the neighbourhood. There were three supermarkets but this was her favourite. She told me to pick up a basket. I was dragging a wheelie case wearing a backpack and now trying to balance a basket that was rapidly filling with bottles and cans. I had my reservations about the cans but chose not to share them at this time.
We passed a guy sitting outside a carpet shop and my host called him by name.
“Hey! This is my English friend who’s come to write about us.”
“Are you a journalist?” he asked in perfect English.
“Well…” I began to answer but before I could I was introduced as a great writer who had a particular interest in the sub-cultures of Athens.
We spread our cache from the supermarket on a table that was hurried from inside the shop along with a bottle of a clear but potent liquid. We were joined by a parking attendant from a open space opposite that was infeasibly chequered with vehicles. They quizzed me about my life in Greece, most of which was answered by my host. They talked of a Greece that was the mother of wisdom in antiquity, a paradise on earth for tourism but had gone to the dogs in the modern context. The carpet salesman told me that he had a post-graduate in Greek literature but had been waiting for his call-up from the education authority to teach in high school, the parking attendant was a lawyer who never had the connections to get a foot hold in the profession, my host was a philosophy major who taught German at a private school while volunteering at a psychiatric ward. I felt like a hack but inspired by the potent clear liquid, the setting and hubris I invoked the Socratean method and Douglas Adams' 42.
“You see, the poverty of the modern age is not answers, we have no end of them!. No, our poverty lies in our questions!”
My company nodded in sagely agreement.
I drained another glass and fleetingly remembered my purpose in Athens, the convention. I remembered my promises to my fellow Toastmasters but we had begun to delve into the truth of Socrates’ existence and the potent liquid clarity had burned a path down to my deep-rooted acquiescence.
I looked up and just over the rooftops, high on crag of rock stood the Parthenon, and I was convinced it was gloating.



Next: I find a stage

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

Writing can be Damn lonely



Writing is something that I've always done. No matter what has interested me, I have always gone back to it. But, DAMN it’s lonely! Anyone who knows me will attest that I am not a wallflower, not the bookish shadow in the corner, I love people, I love attention. I have given seminars and speeches in front of hundreds of people and while my colleagues are pouring over their PowerPoints or eyeing the exit, my nerves are a beehive of excitement. Don’t get me wrong, I am nervous but for me it’s an elixir, pure adrenaline. Now I have responsibilities and a family and me and time have had a major falling out so I have to fit more of what I love into what I have left. Just last week I found the impetus to marry two of my passions.
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World storytelling day is observed on the spring equinox, this year it fell on 20th March. I found out about it the Friday before but after some reading, it turns out that it begins a week of oral literature so I had some breathing room. I found a venue at a little boutique hotel in town and began rallying the troops. I set up a FB event and called on my mates at the Toastmasters club I have been a member of for a month or so.
The day arrived and me and the family made our way downtown. Now, I'm usually pretty cool about talking in front of a crowd but I noticed a drilling in my head, a stiffness in my back. I was anxious. This was my story I would tell, I had poured over the words and phrasing to get the impact I wanted. What if I fluffed my lines? what if I missed a scene? What if they didn't like it? I've gotten rejection letters for my work before, I've had readers who didn't get it, but to have to look them in the eyes while they did it… I didn't know if I could take that. This meant too much to me.
This is Greece and 6 o'clock is more an advisory concept than a time. Greek time pieces have rubber hands and blurred faces so when I arrived and found just a couple of faces my heart dropped and yet it also embraced a kind of relief, I might not have to do it and I can blame others. Get off scot-free. After a half hour wait, however I had enough who had made the effort to come not to be able to back out. I launched into my preamble about the importance of storytelling. More began to arrive and by the time I reached the end we had a good turnout. There was even an American lady who had wandered into our room to wait for a friend. My plan was to call on others to take the floor and share their stories before I told mine but while I looked to them, they looked to each other and it was clear that I would have to fill the void.
“This is a story about sex, the insatiable appetite that drives us all. This is a story about love and how it hides in its shadow…
I guess I could have picked a lighter story but I have been working on a video for this story and I wanted to hone the performance, plus I was pretty sure I would remember it well and be free enough to immerse myself in the role.
I gave it my all and despite fluffing lines and drenching the armpits of my shirt, I reached the end delivering the final lines that left most staring, silent. It was maybe the hardest thing I've done but I'm glad I did it.
Eventually, I managed to coax the others up to tell their tales. If I'm honest, this was thanks to my son who was the first to volunteer. He told a wonderful story of how he had gotten away with some mischief at school. After that no one really had an excuse not to join in. Most didn't really know what to expect. Hell! I didn't but it was so good to tell and hear stories from people I knew well and many I didn't.
We had three hours without phone twitching, no one checked-in, no one shared and calls were rejected. At the end of our allotted time in the hotel’s meeting room, we all agreed that it should be repeated. We talked of interesting and inspiring venues and even outdoors in the park on the seafront.
What I learned that day was what I really care about. The reason I could take a stage and talk for hours was because at the end of the day, it wasn’t so important. This was important and too important not to do again.
I am looking forward to doing it again. See you all there.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Storytelling

World Storytelling day is coming and you may groan at yet another world 'something' day but this is one that I feel we should take greater heed to.


"World Storytelling Day is celebrated every year on March equinox and the following week. This year it starts on Tuesday March 20. The idea is to have as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible. Doing so we promote oral storytelling all over the world. We also get a chance to build friendships across national and cultural borders in joyful ways. As if we meet around a global campfire."

With it come some misconceptions. First of all, as you have seen, it is not a day it is a week and secondly, well secondly, allow me to elaborate.
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 Storytelling is a wonderful medium of entertainment. We tell our children stories to help them sleep at night. Right? Wrong!

Storytelling pervades our lives on such a powerful level that we just take for granted. If you are in marketing or advertising, you already know what I mean.

Storytelling is one of the most ancient human arts, in fact it is prehistoric, pre-language even. We know this because the earliest creations of man, cave art told tales of hunts, of ceremonies and a need for moments in life to be passed on to later generations. Even the most primitive cave art, the hand stencils in France, Spain, Indonesia, Borneo and many others that date back 10,000 - 40,000 years display a need to transcend lifespan with their tale of existence. So how can a bunch of hand stencils tell a story. Well, the same way six words can not only tell an entire narrative but also evoke deep emotions.

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

In this work by Hemingway we can understand the power of narrative... it is the reader who writes the story. I showed this to some young children and their interpretations were quite different to yours or mine, this is called schemata and it is the way we connect our own experiences with the words.

Stories are eternal, common and unique and are written in the reader or listener. 

Aesop taught morals not by lecture but by stories. In fact, his "The boy who cried Wolf!" is my favourite tool for teaching the folly of lies. Plato passed Socratean philosophies through narratives of his mentor's exploits.

The Celts chose their leaders, not just by their prowess on the battlefield but by their skills to spin a yarn. A great leader, Churchill was a modern exponent of this skill, drawing on common schemata can inspire his people to achieve heroic acts.

Christ! just think, who are the most applauded writers in the English language, (and this applies to most, if not all languages) was it Isaac Newton or Charles Darwin, who wrote volumes on the most ground-breaking discoveries. No, it is Shakespeare, who wrote stories. 

Then came a man called Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud. He turned public relations and advertising on its head when he realised that emotions sold soap, cars, insurance and even ideologies better than information. And, it wasn't long before they realised that stories were the most effective conduits for emotional response.

So why is this?
  • Stories invite us into the lives of others. Some we relate to, others we abhor but all are fascinating.
  • Stories give us context. We understand the environment in which motivations develop.
  • Stories ask and answer the question 'Why?' We can understand why things happen because we make similar choices to the protagonists. 
  • Stories evoke empathy and take us to a place where we open our minds to new ideas.
At a recent presentation I attended there were two speakers, one employed a narrative to explain how she was sceptical about some new methods and materials asking "Why should I change something that has worked so well for so long?" then proceeded to explain why she did exactly that. The audience empathised and engaged with her. The other gave us information about how it operated and pretty soon, the phones came out and facebook was being checked.

Storytelling is one of the most important skills we can develop.

Steve Jobs was not the greatest inventor or innovator, Steve Wozniak did most of the heavy lifting but we bought his story and his phones.

Stephen Hawking may have had his equals and dare I say his betters but we bought his story and his theories and many were inspired enough to go into science. Maybe even inspiring his successor.

Elon Musk is doing the same...

It is no coincidence that the best selling books of all time are by Agatha Christie and God and he must know a thing or two about inspiring mankind.

"Would you like to organize your own event?
It could be a cosy gathering in your kitchen or a school event with stories by pupils, teachers or professional storytellers. Or an evening at the storytelling club, library or a museum. Or a big festival or anything you and your friends can come up with!" Click to enter the World Storytelling Day site.


            

Monday, 12 February 2018

My Reward Video

Generation X, The MTV generation. If you were born between the mid 60s and the early 80s, if you grew up listening to Punk, The Smiths, The Cure and Depeche Mode. You came home from school with the door-key in your pocket. This is for you. We defined teenage angst but now as we have kids of our own and The Smiths are played on BBC Radio 2, the station our parents or even Grandparents listened to, we are defining a new phenomenon, Midlife Angst.

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The soundtrack is "QUIET" by This Will Destroy You, who have graciously allowed me to use this track. I strongly urge you to check them out.

From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY