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.

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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


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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.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Did I tell you about when... I didn't save a life

Have you ever thought about the time you’ll be called up to the plate, when you’ll be asked to go beyond the call of duty to help your fellow man. Maybe to save a life. More and more people these days have completed some kind of first aid training, CPR, heart massage, recovery position, but do you know how you would react if you really had to use it, if it was you standing between someone and ‘the light’. Many of you do and have made a crucial difference to the course of someone’s life. I had that opportunity once and it didn't go so well.
It was a scorching midday and I was taking a breather at Fat Yianni’s after performing my morning obligations. The ice in my frappe had all but melted and I was pondering a dip and a snooze before the evening’s rush, when I heard the panicked screams of a girl. Soon she was running past, calling for help. I stood and called her back. All I could illicit from her was that her grandma was unwell and she was in the pizzeria round the corner.
I ran, almost dragged by the girl. What I found was three generations of family surrounded by bystanders, standing by. Two generations distraught and at the epicentre, the third, an old lady in her eighties laid out on the stone floor. She had had some kind of attack. She wasn’t breathing and I found no pulse. I tilted her head back and checked her airways. I tried to find out if she had choked or anything but all I could get was that she had fainted and fallen from her chair.
“She was fine. She just fainted. Just fainted.” These words became a mantra, over and over to ward off the possibility of anything more sinister.
My mind danced cartwheels trying to remember what I had learned. I looked around, maybe someone with more to offer than me would stand forward but that person had already stood forward and it was me, just me. I opened her mouth, took a breath and gave it to her. It returned like a deflating balloon. I tried again. The same. I kept at it until a friend arrived.
“You know about this stuff?” I asked. He shrugged.
I kept going. I stopped and asked if anyone had called an ambulance, you know how easy it is to forget the most basic things in these situations.
I heard mumbles of “maybe” and “Did you?”
“No, I thought…”
“CALL A FUCKING AMBULANCE!” I shouted. “NOW!”
I joined my fists and began to thrust above the diaphragm, counting. I didn't know what I was counting but it seemed the right thing to do. I reached 20 thrusts and put another breath in the old lady. When I was at school, our biology teacher had procured a pair of pig lungs from the next-door abattoir. We took turns inflating them. This is what this felt like. The chest rose and fell blowing dead air into my face. I returned to the thrusting. 1-2-3-4-5-6…20 blow. Was there a blockage? Would I need to do an emergency tracheotomy? Did I need to intubate? WHY WOULD SHE NOT BREATHE?
I don’t know how many times I went through this cycle. I don’t know how many breathes I had put in but she seemed no closer to gasping than I was to giving up
The holiday rep had arrived and was comforting the family.
“WHERE IS THE FUCKING AMBULANCE?”
I couldn’t tell you how long this went on but I felt futile, impotent. I turned to someone, I don’t know who and demanded, “How long had she been here?”
“They came for coffee…” Then some conferring.
“How long had she been like this before I arrived?”
More conferring.
“Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes.”
I dropped my head. She had been long gone before I arrived. I had been trying to wake the dead.

...

The ambulance never did arrive. I think a doctor arrived. But the final nail in the coffin was when a old Datsun pick-up was brought to remove the body. The family were inconsolable. I remember telling them it was the most discreet method to move the body. I told them that she had gone with her family around her, with the sun on her face. I didn't know what else to say. They wanted to believe me but I knew I was just covering up things that just should not have been covered up.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Did I tell you about when... I was really hungry

Have you ever been hungry? I don’t mean missed-lunch hungry, I don’t mean Hollywood-diet hungry, I mean 3rd world hungry. I have. It was November and the tourists were long gone and they’d taken all their money with them. I had put some money away for my flight home but that had quickly become a ticket on the magic bus which had become 1000 drachmas, little more than the cab fare to the next village and back and my cupboards were bare. I had bought a bag of lentils and some assorted veg and made soup, a lot of soup. Each day I would take out a bowl of soup and pour in a cup of water. The water was beginning to win out.

Now that sounds really grim but the upside was that almost every night a car stopped outside my apartment to take me out drinking, I had been living on a diet of beer and bar nuts for about a month and I was hungry.
I visited friends and left with their potato peelings. Don’t get me wrong, they would have fed me but something had kicked in, something stoic and British. I would let them feed me when I had money, I would take some beers or retsina, but now I had nothing and I couldn’t, before I was poncing, now I was begging. I couldn’t beg.
Twitshot
It was that same pig-headedness that had got me in such dire straights. I had had one too many animated altercations with Fat Yianni. I refused to sell five portions of chicken stew that had been bouncing round the kitchen for days.
“You couldn’t sell the ice cream in the Eskimos!” Fat Yianni spat at me. He had a big problems with mixed metaphors, but not only did I understand it, I was offended.
And I might have risen to the bait but I had asked the cook for a portion the day before. She shook her head grimly and brought me souvlaki, a fact that I had yelled at him in front of a packed restaurant.
That was late August and the end of my revenue stream. I got a little job on the scooters but there were no meals and I’d forgotten what an expense that could be. The ladies from the kitchen would feed me when Fat Yianni was away and leave care packages on my doorstep from time to time but that ended with the tourists.
The cycle continued with the car outside taking me for beers that were given freely by the bars that I had sent tourists to all summer. I guess it was gratitude or maybe just payment for my lunatic antics that spiced up a dull off-season in Halkidiki. I didn’t care. I got beer, I got nuts, I got wasted. The same car, I think, would then drive up outside the village and dump me on the roadside. A drooling lump of Essex laundry with a grin who could continue to entertain himself on the short walk through the village, singing made-up songs to himself, before passing out in the general vicinity of his apartment. Yes, sometimes I did not get all the way.
So, one night I was zig-zagging my way home when I heard a familiar sound. Familiar but this time it had new resonance, new meaning to a man who had been sustained on spot-the-lentil soup for too long. It was the clucking of a chicken. It sounded clucking tasty. I was clucking drooling. I looked around me and vaulted the fence. Now, I was of the opinion that chickens came in buckets and were finger licking good but I had some experience of turning a living thing into satisfied tummy back when we used to visit Uncle Ted. Uncle Ted had a small holding with goats and sheep and even a cow but most importantly in my education, he had rabbits and chickens. Uncle Ted had, when I was about 13, made me wring a chuck’s neck. Now, Uncle Ted had hands like two pound of Wall’s bangers, I did not. He took the poor dumb creature by the neck with his fist inverted and swung its body over the back of his hand. The chuck’s body did most of the work. It was still twitching but it had clucked its last. Then he looked at me. I took it in my boyish hand, “SWING IT!”. I did. In fact, I did it so hard, afraid that I wouldn’t do it hard enough that one of its claws nearly took my eye out. The adrenaline pumped hard, the chicken twitched. I did it. And, I could do it again. Difference was this time I didn’t have Uncle Ted to catch the bastard and hold it for me. I picked the one that looked a little slow on its feet. Was it lame? Did I care? I leaped and slipped in chicken shit but I got it. SWING! I shoved it into my jacket and zipped up. I couldn’t vault back over the fence holding the bottom of my jacket to stop the wriggling lump from falling so I climbed gingerly. A nail snagged my nads. My quarry fell on the floor. Now, many would have you believe that chickens run around after they are decapitated, it’s true they do twitch a lot and I guess if you were to put them on the ground they might run, but they don’t. That said, this one was doing a bloody good job of escaping. Its kinfolk were clucking and flapping while it lay back on the coup side of the fence giving its last. The sun wasn’t long to peer over the horizon and the last thing I wanted was to get caught chicken rustling. I leaned over scooped it up and launched my right leg over the fence. My jeans gave a rip! and unsnarled from the nail and I was off.
Back at the homestead, I pulled out the chuck and stuffed it into a saucepan. My biggest still had the remains of a soup that had sustained me so long so I went for the next down, it didn’t fit but it would have to do. I went to the balcony to suck a few lung-fulls of calm from a cigarette.
Now, what I did know was not much but I did know that plucking a cold bird is a hiding to nowhere. Those feathers need to come out warm and fast. I searched the kitchen for a plastic bag but I hadn’t bought anything for so long that I had nothing. All I could do was use my spare pillowcase and remember this was not a clean white bird, it stunk. I took it to the bathroom and ran it under a hot shower, some of the bits of grit hopped away.
I plucked, I’m not a cluckin’ plucker, I’m a cluckin’ plucker’s son and plucked some more then stuffed it back into the pan and fell unconscious on the bed satisfied with my labours.
I woke in the afternoon with chicken down in my nose. I had left the balcony door open and the breeze had got to the pillow case. I made a cup of tea, I hate tea but someone had left me a couple of boxes of Lipton bags before leaving. I had no milk or sugar but it was better than the taste of my own mouth. And I was spitting feathers.
The chicken’s legs were sticking out of the pan and it still needed gutting and cooking. I had images of mum’s roast chicken but I didn’t have an oven. I dreamed of chicken schnitzel, chicken chow mien, sweat and sour then I found half a bottle of medium sweet red wine, it was a little darker than I remembered. To be frank, I didn’t remember acquiring it or drinking it.
Coq au Vin!
Soon with blunt knives and brute force, I had it gut-free. I put the remains of the lentils in another pan and swished it round under the tap. Ready, Steady, Cook! It was as much as I could do not to nibble on bits of the carcase. I think the stock ended up with a Knorr cube and two parts drool, I was having problems staying objective.
As it was boiling, I went through the cupboards adding pinches of green stuff, red stuff, I even found one of those leaves mum used to put in the bolognese, at least I thought it was.
A knock at the door. Shit! Was it the gamekeeper? Or was it someone smelling my creation and inviting themselves for dinner. I froze. Again, a knock. I swallowed my lungs. I could hear my muscles creaking. Eventually I heard steps away from my door and I sucked in as much air as I could and nearly spat up my throat, fuck! that wine was tart!
I knew it would take an hour or so to cook but I didn’t want to leave it so I moved a chair into the chicken, I mean kitchen and tried to read. After watching the words dance around on the page, I gave up. I brushed my teeth, twice and swallowed the toothpaste. I tidied my room. I collected the feathers. The chicken boiled and boiled. I tried to nap but my stomach had turned on me, growling and griping. I couldn’t take any more. I went to the kitchen and fished out some of the meat that had turned white and brought it to my tongue, which was hanging around my knees. And ate.
The meat was tough but it tasted like Christmas. The juices needed some bread but the bakers would need me to give some bread and I had no bread.
It only took a plate full to make my stomach push against my belt, so unaccustomed to anything more than beer and peanuts, and I slept. I slept Christmas-day-in-front-of-The-Sound-of-Music sleep.
I woke full of beans but added some more coq to them before making my way down to the village square with a scribble pad and a head full of ideas. I slipped round the back of one of the tavernas that had closed for the winter and lifted a crate of empty Amstel bottles and took them to the supermarket. Ten Drachmas a bottle plus the crate got me two full bottles and a packet of Camels.
I pitched up on a wall at the square and began scribbling, poems and lyrics mostly.
A couple of old codgers pitched up within earshot.
“Come on Kosta, you know you can’t count!”
“No mistake. yesterday, I had twelve. This morning, I had eleven.”
“Malaka, It was hiding in the coup.”
“I'm telling you! Bloody Albanians stole my chickens....”
“Well... one.”
"Yeah! one..."


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Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Did I tell you about when... I got picked up by the fuzz

So there I was, scurrying along late and lost, as usual. It was a balmy moonlit night and I was going to pick up a friend's kid from night classes. I had circled the neighbourhood and finally found a space miles away from the music academy. Looking at my watch, it was 10.30 and getting close to the time when the kid would be looking for me and making panicked calls to his parents.

I was in full scamper when I heard the farty toot of a police horn, I looked round in curiosity. It was Papaki squad, two bikes loaded with four officers locked and loaded. Who were they after? I doubted they were going to ask for directions but maybe I might have seen some suspicious type running away from a crime scene. One of the pillions was standing and they tooted again. I stopped in a who-me? stance. The standing officer alighted and approached, was this really happening?
Twitshot
He told me they just wanted to do a little check; blood pressure? customer satisfaction? 

He asked me if I live in the area, I told him I didn't. I told him to make it quick as I was going to pick up a kid from classes. He told me it would take 2 minutes, so I played ball. Word to the wise, Greeks baring gifts can and usually is very pleasant, Greeks talking minutes is tears en route.

I was asked if I was carrying anything illegal, I said I really hoped not as this wouldn't be the best time. He deadpanned the same question again until I told him that I was not carrying.

He asked me to turn out my pockets and normally I would have told him to turn out his first but instead I turned out my pockets and everything was carefully scrutinised. It was about this point when I realised what was really happening. No just cause, no suspicious behaviour, just a 40-something late and lost.

I raised my arms and accepted a full body frisk. One minute I'm doing my bit for community relations, next I have my nuts in a copper's palm. Thankfully he had gentle hands.

Once they had satisfied themselves that I was no immediate threat to society they asked me if I was from round here, I told them again where I lived, not my address, just the area. He looked at me and asked the question again. I knew the question he wanted to ask, my accent had set off alarm bells. He persisted with variations of the are-you-local question without directly mentioning ethnicity. I told him that I'm British and he corrected me saying Greek-British, I told him English-British, BBC-British, Marks and Spencer British... British! Then the short one next to him started demanding papers. Now, I rarely carry ID as such, credit cards maybe but if you've ever lost your passport or driving licence you’ll understand that the risk of a night in the cell is worth all the hassle and cost of getting it replaced.

I told shorty that I took them on holiday abroad and I didn't realise that I would need to prove my identity crossing the municipal line. Shorty tells me that I am abroad and had to prove my legal status in the country. Yes, this really is happening. I told him that I'm a Greek tax-payer and European citizen. He asks me again if I had any ID, I tell him again that I was under the assumption that I was free to move around as I would be in Britain, yes I know this was taunting but by this time I had had enough of their bullshit. He told me that they would have to take me down the station if I wanted to continue (read: keep it up, sonny!) 

I offered my hands ready for cuffing. "If you are going to, get it over with..." 

They had two bikes and two pillions, how they would get me there was anyone’s guess.

Finally, shorty told me that due to having to pick up the kid they would let me off… Let me off for doing nothing, stopped with no just cause and after discovering no illegals on me; how fucking gracious!

I told them how grateful I was for their kindness and wished them a good evening, whatever that may entail.

As I shuffled off, I slowed my pace to a gentle mince in order to furtively readjust the two kilo bag of coke and various fire arms I had previously shoved up my arse... Nah, not really!


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From Under Dark Clouds

The Century of DIY