Thursday, 23 April 2015

By George!

So, today is St George's Day. A day when about one-third of the Greek population celebrates their Name Day, and every red-blooded Englishman or woman proudly boasts his or her heritage.

Or not.

Old George is a popular fella. In addition to being England’s patron saint for some reason (more on that later), he is also celebrated in Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Georgia (the clue’s in the name), Greece (of course), Herzegovina, Romania and more, as well as in cities like Genoa (Italy), Beirut (Lebanon), Qormi and Victoire (Malta) and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.

Getting back to England, it has always struck me as strange how apathetic many of us (including me) are about our patron saint. Let's face it, despite the fact that he slayed a dragon, for goodness sake (no mean feat even in those heroic days of old), we English treat poor old St George a little bit like an embarrassing relative. Like the loopy old aunt you invite over for Christmas dinner ("She's got no-one else in the world, poor dear") who then proceeds to suck all the chocolate off the brazil nuts before putting them back in the box for other guests to enjoy. It's as if going around slaying dragons is really not the "done thing".

Like dear old auntie, St George is acknowledged, even loved, but we English aren't going to go out of our way to advertise his existence.

Not for him the revels our Celtic cousins put on for their saints. Just take a look at St Patrick's Day parades - and more - around the world on 17 March, or heady celebrations in honour of St Andrew by those from north of the border on 30 November. Even the Welsh wave their daffodils and leeks with gusto for St David on 1 March. As for the English, when 23 April rolls round, we read in the paper that it is St George's Day and say "Oh yes, so it is" before going back to the crossword.

That's not to say that English patriotism is dead - it just tends to be most visible at sporting events (at least the ones we manage to win) or by rabid isolationists with a sometimes shaky understanding of history.

Maybe that's the problem? Perhaps patriotism is now seen as the domain of hooligans, and demonstrative English pride is considered rather unseemly in polite society? I suspect that patriotism has been hijacked by those who flaunt their indigenous "British-ness" as a justification for open bigotry and thuggery, making it something rather inappropriate for ordinary moderate-minded folk.

I'm not hugely patriotic - and I wouldn't be caught dead wearing a Union Jack, Cross of St George or any other flag for that matter - but I am very proud of certain things about the English: our sense of humour; our tolerance (or even celebration) of eccentricity; the inexplicable rules of cricket; that our history has woven so many diverse cultural threads into the fabric of society; rolling green fields; Radio 4; our willingness to make fools of ourselves for a good cause; a decent cup of tea.
But as for going nuts in honour of a dead bloke on a horse, it just doesn't happen.

History shows that St George has no real link with our green and pleasant land. He was a soldier of the Roman Empire from Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), who came to be venerated as a Christian AND Islamic martyr. According to legend, when an edict was issued in 303 A.D. authorising the systematic persecution of Christians, George was ordered to take part in the persecution but instead confessed to being a Christian himself and criticised the imperial decision. As a punishment, he was tortured and decapitated, and became a martyr of the early Christian church….

….Hold on a minute, I hear you cry. What about the dragon?

What indeed?

The story of St George slaying the dragon probably first emerged during the Crusades, raising the romantic profile of a saint already revered in the Eastern Church. Apparently, a dragon had made its nest at the spring that provided water to the city of Cyrene in Libya. To dislodge the dragon from his nest for a while to gather water, the citizens had to offer a daily human sacrifice, chosen by lots. All was well, until it was the turn of a princess to be fed to the hungry dragon. Then, out of the blue, came St George (just passing through at a time when the life of a nobly-born maiden was in danger), who slayed the dragon and rescued the princess. The grateful citizens abandoned their ancestral paganism and converted to Christianity....
....and they all lived happily ever after.

Not a smidgeon of a link to England to be found anywhere in the legend.

I'm willing to bet that if it were not for the media reminding us, most English would not remember the exact date of St George's Day. Probably about as many of us who know it was also (very conveniently) the birthday of someone England can justifiably be proud of: good ole Will Shakespeare.

So, do poor old George a favour today and don't just raise a cup of luke warm tea to the Patron Saint of Apathy.

Instead, dust off your rusty schooldays Shakespeare, mutter "Once more into the breach, dear friends", and really think about where you’re going to put your all-important X when (if?) you visit your polling station on 7 May. 
Cast your oh-so-English apathy aside, and don't "Vote for change" (possibly the world's most over-used campaign slogan), just "Vote, for a change".



Friday, 20 March 2015

Lunch break




She leant back into the rain-specked anoraks and scarves, hoping their clammy embrace would swallow her up. Banish her from the world of malicious notes slipped into her bag, vicious taunts, barbed comments and public humiliation. 

The playground was too open. The library too obvious. The toilets downright dangerous.

Why had they singled her out with their sharp tongues and sharper nails? Why take out time from bikeshed snogging, smoking and carving boyfriends’ names into their arms to make her life a misery? Though dumpy and unkempt, there was nothing obvious about her to put the invisible “Kick Me” sign on her back - just some literary pretensions and words beyond the accepted vocabulary of conformist teenhood.

She put pen to paper. Words would wreak her revenge, long from now, when her tormentors had grown beyond teenage spite. Her bullies had given her a gift, which she would upwrap slowly and nurture until it bloomed to success whilst they lamented in regrets and reliving High School glories. 

The bell jangled through her thoughts, signaling the end of lunch break. Her heart thumped in her ears, she took a deep breath and prepared for Double Maths and Malice.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Headline news from humanity’s frontline

An abandoned shopping cart standing like a modern-day ‘Marie Celeste’ by the roadside. That streetlight that always flickers off the minute you get within ten feet of it. The succession of motley moochers in mismatching off-casts waiting for an undefined something on the wall outside my apartment block. The empty eyes and broken smile of the trolley jockey who greets me on my weekly trip to the supermarket.

They’re all mundane, everyday sights, but ones which arouse my curiosity. Make me wonder about the story behind the everyday, the banal. They set my mind off on a voyage of possibilities which can end up in the ordinary or take me way beyond where I usually let my imagination wonder. Sometimes, they take me to dark places – often inspired by reality. Sometimes, there are more than enough monsters or horrors in the real world.

I started my working life as a newspaper reporter, and that probably shows in my writing. I guess it’s the journalist’s inborn curiosity combined with the training to condense a story into as few words as possible without losing the facts, or the feeling behind them, that draws me to short stories as a genre.

I think of my flash fiction as headline news from humanity’s frontline. An anthology of short stories can be like a broadcast news bulletin. Sometimes, the headline tells you everything you need to know. Sometimes, it takes a few sentences to illuminate you and set you thinking. And sometimes, it leaves you with questions and the desire to learn more.

The tone of my stories often surprises me. I’m generally an upbeat, obstinately positive person, refusing to give in when the going gets tough and always seeking out the silver lining. My fiction, however, is often melancholy, dark, even sinister. But perhaps that’s another reason I write? Everyone, even those who have led the most charmed lives, have dark ghosts lurking in the corners of their soul. Writing casts out those demons and places them in tales where they can take on a life of their own, at a safe distance from my own psyche?

Story telling is as old as humanity itself. It was born long before the written word was, passed from mouth to ear around the communal fire built to keep the wolves, and other monsters, away when darkness fell. It entertains, challenges, questions. It can make us cheer in recognition, laugh, cry, or take a sometimes uncomfortable look at ourselves.

And while most writers harbour a dream of publishing some great opus in novel form, it’s the bite-sized offerings short stories that keep us entertained around that fire.

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Words have been Mandi Millen’s friends since she was a child growing up in a house filled with books and story-tellers in Surrey, UK. She started telling her own stories young, and she’s still at it – for her own pleasure, to amuse others and (occasionally) to exorcise her demons.
After leaving school, she became a reporter with weekly and daily newspapers in the south-east of England, and later went into press & public relations.
Everything changed in 1989 when she left her job, her home and the UK for a six-month working holiday in Greece. That was the plan – until a brown-eyed boy in Samos persuaded her to stay. Today, he is her husband and father to their 18-year-old son.
Mandi lives in a suburb of Athens, works in Corporate Communications for an international company, and in her spare time writes short stories and general burblings for her blog.

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This post appeared this week as a guest post in the “Why I Write Short Fiction” section of the Short Story & Flash Fiction Society website.
It's a great resource and place to connect with like-minded folk, if you’re interested in reading, or writing, short fiction, check out it at
www.shortstoryflashfictionsociety.com

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

You’re not in Surrey any more, Cynthia (Book Review)

Adrian Mole grew up, Bridget Jones left her singleton status behind, and we’ve all reached the Age of Reason. Or so they tell us. 

Now we have a new heroine to give voice to the trials, tribulations and unexpected absurdities of middle age in the person of Cynthia Hartworth, suburban Surrey housewife suddenly set adrift in an unfamiliar world by the wholly unforeseen (at least to her).

In her debut novel, “Dear Beneficiary”, Janet Kelly takes us on an unexpected adventure with Cynthia after she becomes a widow at 60 when her impeccably dull husband Colin suddenly drops dead, and she tries to expand her horizons beyond Waitrose and the Bridge Club. It’s a romp that sees oh-so-proper Cynthia dive into the unfamiliar waters of the internet, explore aspects of her womanhood she’d never known existed, travel beyond middle class respectability, get up close and personal with the kind of people she would previously have crossed the road to avoid, and become the unwilling owner of a foul-mouthed fowl.
One thing’s for sure, it changes the way she sees the Home Counties forever.

Kelly hilariously tells her tale of innocence overcome and boredom beaten, with more than a few bumps along the way. In Cynthia, she has created a character we all know or can identify with, and her journey takes us where many might imagine but few actually go.

A great read which had me laughing out loud at times, I hope “Dear Beneficiary” is the first of many more to come from the talented keyboard of the sassy Ms Kelly.

If you don’t believe me, see for yourself. It’s available for download as an e-book now at

Friday, 6 March 2015

A whole day? Just for me and my girlies? Gee, thanks (but no thanks)

It’s already started.

The ads for “Sexy Boy Live Stripshow”. Promos for “Ladies’ Night” special cocktails. Offers to teach middle-aged matrons how to defy gravity with pole-dancing lessons or workshops to bring out their inner Burlesque diva. Banners popping up on my browser for heart-shaped pizzas “especially for the ladies” (no doubt made with ‘Lite’ ingredients). Price-hikes at the florists as they prepare for the onslaught of bosses who want to gain the approval of their female staff by presenting each with a red rose on their “Special Day”. 
And me, sitting at my keyboard, seething at the screen.

Yes folks, International Women’s Day is just around the corner – this Sunday in fact.
And I, for one, am dead against it. I know that probably won’t win me many friends, but there you go.

I reject International Women’s Day on a personal level, based on the fact that I am lucky enough to have been born and raised in a time and place where a lot of the battles of my sex have been won (but certainly not all).  I grew up in a family that encouraged me to believe that I was entitled to equal opportunities and treatment regardless of what bodily equipment I lug around with me. I have the background, and perhaps the temperament, to be work hard for whatever I set my heart on without being discouraged by the “nice girls don’t” prescripts.

I don’t need to given a pat on the head and told how “special” I am, thank you very much. Nor do I need to be granted a WHOLE DAY in the year devoted to me and my sisters around the world to understand my worth. 
I know I’m special – just as every man, woman and everything in between is – and I certainly don’t need a wilting force-bloomed flower sitting forlornly on my desk next to a sad slice of taste-free pizza to tell me that.

Frankly, I’d feel a lot more appreciated if we could finally get rid of the pay gap, the glass ceiling and the pigeon-holes some male colleagues slot all females into (“hot” or “menopausal”). I’d also love not to being considered a bitch or harridan - or worse the victim of my hormones - when I am strong, assertive or simply plain pissed-off at someone’s rudeness, incompetence or ignorance.

I shouldn’t complain. We’ve come a long way, even in the past few decades. Many of my female friends feel we longer need feminism, shifting uncomfortably in their seats when I start getting all Germaine Greer and telling me “We've won the important battles” and “I like being a woman/feminine”.

Despite my short hair and sometimes strident words, I like being a woman too. I’m happily married to a man I consider my best friend. I love cooking. I even do the ironing (though with little joy). I enjoy the company of both sexes. I wear make-up. I don’t own a single pair of dungarees, and I have never burned a bra in my life. I love the intimacy and support of female friendships that most blokey relationships never come close to. 
But I am a woman on my own terms. And being patronized is not on my wish list.

Here in the developed world (for want of a better phrase), the whole International Women’s Day concept has been kidnapped by the commercial interests who want to squeeze dosh out of us. Not least, they want to convince the decent fellas in our lives that they have to buy more stuff and serve up special treatment to show us their supportive, fem-friendly side (just as they pressured them to produce enforced romance on St Valentine’s Day).

Missing the whole point, much?

In the same week I’ve seen offers for Ladies’ Nights and special girly pizzas (extra glitter anyone?), the headlines have made depressing reading.
In an interview, one of the men convicted of the horrific gang rape and resulting death of a student in Delhi states that women are more to blame for rape than men, and that she made things worse by trying to fight off the attack.
Girls are still being subjected to genital mutilation at an age when most of us were blissfully unaware of the details of what goes on down there.
Young women are kidnapped and enslaved en masse to make some idealogical point.
Female children are raised to believe that they have less value than their brothers, fathers, sons and male friends (if they’re allowed to have any).

Even in ‘enlightened’ societies, we’re brainwashed into thinking that we’re somehow less of a real woman if we fail to match up to the copy/paste ideal of half-starved, Botoxed, body hair-free, ‘Come and get me big boy’ prototype that is thrust in our faces by every available media outlet. The only acceptable alternative is the holy state of motherhood (believe me, your average mother of a pre-schooler feels very far from a sanctified paragon of virtue).

And don’t you dare get fat or old, girls.

These are the things we should be shouting about on International Women’s Day, not pink drinks and wilting roses. So let’s stop missing the whole point and, men and woman alike, start making the kind of noise - every day of the year - to try to put right some of the wrongs still left on our ‘To Do’ list.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Season’s bleatings

Right now, I have the armpits of a Wookie.

Most of the time, I can avoid the issue, pretend it doesn’t exist, by refusing to look at the bathroom mirror in those split seconds between peeling off the final inner onion layer of clothing and diving into a hot, reviving shower.

It’s just as well.
By the time the end of the winter is in sight (it is, isn’t it?), what lies beneath those layers is not what anyone would call a pretty sight.

It’s not a matter of body image issues – more the inevitable results of insulating yourself against the cold chill outside (and inside too, in these days of pinched budgets and rising heating bills) for months on end.

Throughout the winter, I have continued to function on all fronts, in every way. I walk, I talk, I even brain-storm, problem-solve and occasionally clean house. But beneath the thermal vest, extra thick tights, leggings, double-thick socks, slipper boots and thick swampy sweater, there’s a neglected maggot-like blob just waiting for the kinder climate to cast off its shackles and flit free on new wings among the weeds poking through the soil in my equally neglected plant pots.

My body is in something like an awakened state of hibernation.
Expanses of pale, pasty skin have taken on the colour of feta forgotten at the back of the fridge for three weeks.
Legs are hairier than my hubby (and he’s Greek!) and could probably harvest enough to knit a small scarf once I finally attack them with His Nibs’ razor.
Knees, elbows and back are in such dire need of exfoliation, I reckon only industrial sand-blasting will do the job.
And toenails that your average Horned Eagle Owl would envy.

It’s been a longer than usual, colder than usual winter here in Athens – and it’s not over yet.

The country too, is still in the grips of one of its longest metaphorical winters in living memory. One that has dampened the warm, exuberant spirit of its people, which has offered few rays of hopeful sunshine for many - despite our enviable summers.

Greece has been suffering from the national state version of SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) for five long years now. Wrapping itself up in layers of austerity, angst, shame, blame and bitterness – with a smidge of xenophobia thrown in for good measure – the country has bowed its head, buckled down and tried oh-so-hard to stave off the cold blast of an increasingly unfriendly international climate.

The nation is ready for a long-overdue change in the season. People are raising their chins, just a little, in the hope of spying somewhere on the horizon an end to the big chill and some sunny prospects  ahead.

On a personal level, I’m ready for the new season. I can’t wait to cast off my layers and feel the sun and gentle breeze playing on some exposed flesh as I saunter through streets dotted with new growth in the tree branches and window boxes, or sip a Sunday morning budget coffee on a pavement cafĂ© as I read a book, chat with friends or simply watch the world go by.

I need it. Greece needs it. We all need it.

Bring on the spring. 

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Walking Dead (Athens edition - late January 2015)

This week, spare a thought for the lost, the lonely, the displaced of Greece.

You may have seen them already, shuffling aimlessly through the streets of Athens in dust-smudged designer suits and expensive silk ties. 

They’re the ones mumbling defunct campaign promises, trying to shake the hands of random strangers, and approaching small children to plant a slobbering kiss on their cheek.

You’ll know them from the dazed look in their clouded eyes and their repeated demands for directions to Syntagma Square. You might even spot them trying to climb up onto any elevated surface to deliver a rousing speech no-one will listen to, or evoke the name of some long-dead relative to stir up brand loyalty (few have the heart to tell them that – in the immortal words of Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch – such loyalty has “ceased to be”).

Be kind to them, for they are ill-prepared for the harsh chill wind of reality that most Greeks have adjusted to in the past few years. They’ve spent most of their working lives in the cosseted corridors of power, stroked daily by admirers and buoyed up by well-connected supporters with the means and the influence to ease their route from their luxury homes through the grit and grime of the city.

They’ve never had to search their pockets for a ticket for the Metro (even if they used public transport – something most considered below their station – they were entitled to ride for free, unlike the country’s army of unemployed).

They’ve never had to hustle for the last empty seat on the bus. 

They struggle with the concept of paying for a meal or a coffee, having been treated as non-paying guests by honoured proprietors keen to make the most the VIP patronage of their premises.

Little wonder, then, that they feel lost and utterly abandoned now that the Parliamentary rug has been pulled out from beneath them. 

Quiet tears course down their smooth but grimy cheeks as they contemplate the TV screens on which they were holding court to a captive audience not so long ago, but which now show a slightly chubby-faced 40-year-old – with no tie! – walking up the steps of the Prime Ministerial mansion to take his oath.

They shake their heads in disbelief at the sight of back-packs being carried into the corridors of power by what look like overgrown college students.

They cover their ears in horror to the sound  of “Rock The Casbah” and “People Have The Power” at rallies instead of the sonorous, serious tones of Hatzidakis, Orff or Theodorakis.

Be kind to them. Point them gently in the direction of the nearest coffee shop (explaining that they must pay for what they consume) and let them sit there sipping the thick bitter beverage of defeat until they come to terms with the fact that they are no longer Members of Parliament.

Just don’t turn your back on them. For all their forlorn looks, they’re survivors, prepared to do pretty much anything and form the strangest of alliances to assure their survival. By the time they’ve drained their last drop of coffee, they’ll already be plotting their return.

You have been warned.