Friday, 27 June 2014

She's back - but this time, she's peri-meopausal!

Revival time! 

The Secret Diary of a Transplanted Brit Chick, Aged 44 & 3/4 has been reborn five years after its cruel abandonment the day I turned 45.

It's been renamed too: The Resurrected Ramblings of a Transplanted Brit Chick, aged 49 & a bit.

So, if you fancy following my burblings as I battle against the descent into Biddie-dom, check it out at

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Game

She watched, fascinated, as the bead of red bloomed out of the cut in the soft white flesh in the inside of her forearm. It formed glistening petals before breaking the surface tension to trickle down to the bend of her elbow, making patterns like naked trees against a winter sky.

It hurt surprisingly little - just a small drag of tension followed by a clean metallic sting as the razor’s edge bit into her skin.

She held her arm up to the bright electric light and admired the vibrant liquid as it pooled and dripped onto the enamel of the washbasin, making bright circles of surprise on the white. A sly smile crept across her lips when she thought of the questions that would be born in her mum’s mind when she found the broken blade in the wastepaper bin and spotted the bloody splashes that she would ‘accidentally-on purpose’ miss when she cleaned up after herself.

It felt good - grown-up, powerful, deep, in control, even glamourous. She was the romantic lead in her own movie, and surely the tragic heroine would get the attention of some tortured prince out there. Wouldn’t she?

The flow was starting to dry up, so she clutched the blade in her fingers and slashed a cross-hatching over the first cut to revive the wound. But she held a little too tightly and the sharp edge bit into the pad of her thumb and index finger. She dropped it with a clatter into the sink, wincing in pain, and tried to suck the ache away as it throbbed at the tips. She laughed at the irony of her nicked fingers, as she tracked the new trickle working its way down her arm, then held it up and twisted it to make it work its way around her arm like a shining amulet of ruby liquid.

An angry banging on the door roused her.

“Get on with it!” yelled her sister. “Get out of there - we’re leaving for school in a minute and I haven’t even cleaned my teeth yet.”

“All right, all right. I’m coming!” She wiped down the porcelain, scrabbled the soaked tissues into the bin and hid the blade in the back of the cupboard for later. The door burst impatiently open the moment she turned the key, and before she could cover the bloody tracks with the sleeve of her shirt. Her sister rolled her eyes in exasperation and muttered “Idiot” as she bustled past and grabbed her toothbrush.

“It doesn’t make you any more interesting, you know,” she said as the toothpaste frothed in her mouth, making her look like a rabid doll. “It’s not clever, and it’s not cool. It’s just stupid.”

The younger girl responded with a haughty supercilious smile from doorway, tossing her hair in what she imagined was exactly the same move as the girl in her favourite teen vampire series.

Throughout the day, she obsessively examined the reddened welts, stroking them, picking at their edges, enjoying the frisson of pain when she prodded it. She relished that sharp ache, just like she did the part she’d given herself to play. Her sleeves were left casually rolled up throughout the day, but no-one noticed – until Annie grabbed her arm in the playground, stared intently at the skin and looked up with glittering eyes and a vulpine grin.

“We’re blood sisters now,” she whispered. “Your pain is my pain. We’re connected, and I’ll always know when you’re hurting. Next time, we do it together.”

At the dinner table, she waved off her mother’s enquiries about the spots of blood in the bathroom, saying she had cut herself shaving her legs in a hurry before school. The muttered “Yeah, right” and cynical, accusatory stare of her sister went unnoticed or ignored.

“Mum, can Anna come round this evening? I’ve done all my homework." I Despite the sound of her older daughter slapping her forehead in exasperation, her mother nodded as she loaded the dishwasher. It was a Friday, after all, and she had a week’s worth of work to get through before Monday - having a friend over would keep her attention-hungry youngest out from under her feet.

Two hours later, behind the locked bathroom door, the game continued. Anna held the blade and expertly slashed her own palm, then swiped at her friend’s before fiercely clasping their hands together until the drops of their mingled blood oozed out and trickled down their embracing wrists.

“Do you trust me?” she demanded softly, all the while looking intensely into her friend’s wide eyes. A mute nod answered her. “Hold out your other arm.”

Anna drew a long line from inner elbow to outer wrist, admiring the flowering of scarlet that followed the blade’s progress. Her friend winced, and panic flashed in her eyes. She felt it bite deeper than before, flashing hot fear through her as she saw the flow well up out of the cut. Fat shining globules fell to the floor like hailstones in summer.

This wasn’t a game anymore – and now she didn’t want to play her role. 
But maybe it was too late now?

Friday, 20 June 2014

Flashback Friday: Secret Diary of a Transplanted Brit-Chick - and a question

Back in September 2009, I started this blog:

Here's what I wrote in the first entry:


Better late than never

Caffeine intake: WAY too much
Alcohol intake: Not enough
Days since stopped smoking: 1,168 (v.good)
Ciggies smoked: 0 (v.v. good)
Ciggies craved: 93 (not so good)
Stray hairs plucked: 4
Kilometres walked: 7
Chocolates eaten: 0 (am v. virtuous)
Weight: Don’t even go there – km walked & chocs not scoffed having no effect

Dear Diary,

I know it’s not really the ‘done thing’ to start a diary in September, but I only came across you this week when I ventured into the Black Pit (a.k.a. the spare room, where all manner of junk goes to die – or breed, not sure which) to unearth an exercise book that No.1 (& Only) Son needed for school. 

There you were, winking at me innocently from atop of a pile of free never-to-be-watched DVDs, silently accusing me of my good intentions back in January.

Oh well, better late than never. 

S'pose I’d better introduce myself first (it’s only polite after all). I was born in the south of England at the end of 1964, which means I am part of Generation X (sounds much more interesting than “Hello, I’m from Surrey”). In 1989, after my first (and very stupid) marriage that went pear-shaped and a series of disastrous attempts at relationships, I threw a wobbly about men, Britain, my brilliant career (ha!), etc. and packed it all in to come to Greece for six months. Or so I thought.
Then I met Nikos. 20 years later, we’re married with a millstone-like mortgage and a 12-year-old son to show for it.

Thanks to that millstone, and the habit of a lifetime, I’m a working mum. Since hitting the big 4-0, all illusions of immortality have melted away, so I try to eat right, exercise every day and keep off the demon fags. Oh, AND look drop-dead gorgeous at all times and keep my man happy in every room of the house (remember what Jerry Hall had to say about the bedroom, the kitchen, etc?).

Yeah, right… That’s the Cosmo-inspired dream. 
Reality bites. 

Aaaannnnyway… Today. 
Ignore 7am alarm, crawl out of bed at 7.15, kick No.1 Son out of bed & have argument about breakfast/schoolwear/homework, reject last night’s outfit choice, empty wardrobe in search of perfect emsemble, revert to last night’s choice, slap gloop on face. No.1 ignores my pleas for kiss before leaving, Other Half snores through my parting hug and I stumble out door and head for bus stop. Feel invisible (quite an achievement when you’re 5 ft 10 and unmentionable dress size).

Athens public transport for hour’s trip to office. Sit-down on bus (good, chance to read & look intelligent), stand all the way on train (bad, blisters already bubbling in new shoes). Try to adopt confident, casual and sashaying walk from station to office. Stumble over unseen pothole, lose all credibility, try to slink unnoticed to desk.

Eight hours tapping away, trying to look industrial, bashing out words for other people. Then home-time. Rewind morning commute.

Decide to be virtuous and walk last 20 mins from station to house. Regret decision 5 mins later as new-shoes blisters re-awaken.

Home to OH & No.1. They ignore me. Teenage pursuits and YET MORE shouty Greek party political blah on telly (elections in coupla weeks - hooray!) far more interesting than me. Make tea, ignore messy kitchen, and dive into cyberspace in a sulk.

Tired, time for bed. Bored. Restless. Can’t sleep. Remember washing not done, unironed clothes, bills not paid, zits not squeezed. Get up and shave legs. Hunt for Band Aid to stem gushing flow of blood from nicked ankle. Compromise with toilet paper. Fall back into bed.

(Note to self: Must make future diary entries more interesting – anyone who finds diary will think am most boring middle-aged wimp ever.)

It all came to a fairly abrupt halt when I turned 45 three months later, with this:


Older:Yes. Wiser:?

Status: Officially older, not necessarily wiser
Mood: Overwhelmed

Well, it's official. I can no longer say I'm in my early 40s. Or even live up to the claim of 44 and 3/4 my blog title claims. 

Doesn't help that the nice girl in the pharmacy I ask for a good face cream hands me one for "mature skin" (would it hurt them to call it "wiser"?)

Undaunted, am determined to be cheerful, upbeat and positive on my birthday. Chocolate eclairs and macaroons bought to share at office help (yum). 
[Note to self: Sweets bought to SHARE with well-wishing colleagues] 

Open up computer to a flood of well-wishers, including a message from Welsh Fran, loopy childhood friend who declares to world of Facebook that I'm "one of the most lovable, crazy, gorgeous people on the Franplanet"
Think (hope) that's a compliment....

Day passes in a blur of good wishes from more people than I have years on the clock, and a flurry of work (they had to pick today to get me busy?), then it's off home on the train-bus-train-metro-bus samba.

Two-and-a-half hours later, walk through front door to find No.1 dodging homework and Sister-in-Law and neices bubbling excitedly round the flat. SIL fails to twig significance of day despite Kiddo saying "Happy Birthday Mum" and me opening cards in post... 
....only when I explain combination code on lock of the cherry red suitcase I'm lending her for her first trip to London do her eyes goggle and jaw drops. 

Enter OH, armed with a bunch of roses, badly-written but loving card - and a killer migraine. So, a quiet night in then. (He'd better make it up to me at the weekend!)

Treat myself to spicy noodles with sweet chilli and cashews... ...but candles keep falling over into the gloop, so give in and pig out.

Here's to the next 45 years!

(If you're curious about what came between that beginning and end, check them out at ) 

Nearly five years later, I've started feeling a little nostalgic for that Transplanted Brit-Chick. What do you reckon, should I resurrect her?

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Stop the presses! Breaking news from the female frontline

As a woman (I know, I’ve checked), one who cut her professional teeth in the world of reporting and still holds great affection for the field, I absolutely have to get something off my chest.

This is not a journalist.

This is a model with a microphone. She appears on TV – but that does not make her a journalist.

Being drop-dead gorgeous – thank heavens – not one of the ‘must haves’ when considering a career in news gathering and reporting. Being relatively presentable can’t hurt, but it’s not a prerequisite.

Most female reporters I have had the pleasure of meeting, or working with, are at least part-slob – and they wouldn’t know a spray tan or a silicon implant if someone slapped it down on the newsdesk in front of them.

But, in these days of superficial TV reporting served up with the pace and depth of your average McDonald’s Happy Meal, it seems that many folk have developed a very skewed idea of what journalism is. Including some of those with aspirations to enter the profession.

It’s much more than the ability to hold a microphone and look pretty as you film those ‘noddies’ to be edited into that interview. It’s more than pressing Copy/Paste and Publish on a blog. It’s not just regurgitating news releases, word for word. And it has nothing to do with your cup size of come hither look.

It’s about being curious, wanting to dig beyond the press release, asking awkward questions, daring to go to some of the places your mother urged you never to venture and putting together concise, complete and informative copy in time for your deadline.

Your dress size is irrelevant – not so your IQ.

Believe me, when you’re facing a 9am deadline for a nugget of important local news gleaned from droning hours of the world’s most boring council committee meeting that dragged on until 11pm the night before, the last thing you’re thinking about are push-up bras, eyeliner and hair straighteners.  On some days, your count yourself lucky to find a semi-ironed shirt and had time to clean teeth before dashing into the newsroom or off in pursuit of some story.

Looking good is not a requirement for the profession. Sure, it doesn’t hurt, and it’s only human to WANT to be attractive – but that’s a matter of human nature and something entirely unrelated to what it takes to be a reporter.

The simple truth is that whilst there are some jaw-droppingly beautiful female journalists out there, most are simply…  ordinary.
Nothing wrong about that, surely? (Actually, it’s sometimes a huge asset!)

So just to set the record straight, here are a few examples of what real female journalists look like.

The clue is in the word – headlines. They come from the head first, sometimes from the heart, but rarely from a plunging neckline or buttock-grazing hemline.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Oh, balls!

I will not blog about the World Cup.
I will not blog about the World Cup.
I will not blog about the World Cup.
....OK, I’ve blogged about the World Cup.

It’s one of those times when I really feel my ‘outsider’ status. 

But it’s got nothing to do with being a transplanted Brit living in Greece. I felt this particular aspect of my ‘otherness’ just as keenly when in the UK as I now do in Greece. 

I don’t even feel conflicted about which country to cheer for. (I'm pretty confident that neither the Englanders nor the Bubble Boys will overstrain those patriotic muscles I usually leave unflexed. But, having said that and based on my track record of predicting winners, we’ll probably now see an UK-Greece Final).

The truth is I just am not remotely interested in football. Greeks who enthusiastically ask me who my team is shake their heads in sorrow and disbelief when I tell me "none", but that's the truth of it.

Nor am I remotely inclined to fake enthusiasm to get in with the tribal crowd glued to late night TV screens, clutching a beer can in one hand, a slice of pizza in the other, screaming abuse at the ref and roaring like a pride of lions when a ball happens to connect with the back of the net.

I’m the one usually pointedly doing the washing up and gathering the assorted detritus of their soccer viewing, whilst shooting barbs as those avoiding domesticity by daring the enjoy “The Beautiful Game” and being yelled at to get out of the way as some player with a name that ends with '-inho' prepares to take his free kick.
Alternatively, I’ll be slumped in the corner, trying to read a book. During one World Cup, I planted myself in full view of the fans in our house, very obviously and studiously reading “The Football Tribe” by anthropologist Desmond Morris. 
No-one noticed.

As I write, we have just one game under our belts, and who knows how many more until 19 July. I have more than a month ahead of me in which to find new and interesting ways to fill my time against the backdrop of whistles, kicks, cheers and cries of “GOAL!!!!!!”. Maybe I should abandon the draining board and the bookshelf, slump myself down next to the menfolk, grab a slice of pizza and amuse myself by annoying the hell out of them by asking moronic questions about the Off Side rule?

But I wonder what it’s like to be soccer-indifferent in Brazil? I mean, I know that it’s virtually a religion there – despite the protests going on in parallel to the current Footy Fest – but statistically, there must be some folk in the country who really don’t give a flying f….ig about two gangs of grossly overpaid eternal adolescents in shorts running round a field trying to shuffle a leather ball into a net.

I assume throw themselves into the whole Fiesta side of the event, painting their faces or bodies in the chosen team’s colours, hugging strangers in the crowds, joining in with chants they don’t know the words to, getting up and down at the drop of a hat to form a human wave around the stadium, ogling the buff bodies of some of the better preserved and painted fans. With a bit of effort, I'm sure they can make all these activities fill their day and become part of the action without even looking in the direction of the 22 blokes dashing around a field like ants whose nest has been smashed by a clumsy hiker.

I played football once. It was a lot more fun than watching it. Sadly, my team mates sent me packing shortly after I whooped with joy at my achievement of putting the ball in the net for the third time (when I put my mind to it, I'm really good at enthusiasm).
I guess the look on our goalie’s face should have been a clue that I should have been aiming at the OTHER end of the pitch. 

In my defence, no-one told me we switched ends at Half Time.

I know what’s going to happen. Despite my protestations of not needing to run with the herd, I'll get sucked into the Footy Fest frenzy eventually.
Unless I check into a nunnery for a month’s spiritual retreat.

Considering the fact that I'm about as spiritual as a house brick, and the kind of trouble my mouth is likely to get me into with the Mother Superior, I guess I should start brushing up on my copy of “The Idiot’s Guide to the World Cup”.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Celebrating our differences (whilst banging my head against the wall)

I like the Greeks. I love their lust for life, their too loud voices, their sense of community, their connection with their past, their unashamed Mediterranean nature, their appetite for….well, pretty much everything.

Let’s face it, after 25 years here, I’d be a fool (or a masochist) if I didn’t.

I’d like to think that I’m pretty flexible and have assimilated with Greek society, without abandoning my innate Englishness (though my definition  of Englishness is probably very different from that of certain others I could mention – but that’s another story for another day).

But no matter how much well-meaning friends tell me “Ελληνίδα έχεις γίνει” - Translation: You’ve become Greek (I haven’t, just as Uncle Mitsos who’s been living in leafy Surrey for the past four decades hasn’t forgotten to yell “Opa!” and give us an impromptu sirtaki on the dance floor at the drop of a plate), there are some things I will never get used to. Even in those nearest and dearest (and therefore more annoying) to me.

Here are just a few of  the English/Greek differences that never the twain will meet, but which I have somehow had to learn to live with in order to stay sane…  and married.

Timing (or should that be ‘Ti Ming?’)
I am borderline anal-retentive when it comes to time. If I have a date with someone I will be like a frog on hot coals if I am prevented from setting off in good time to arrive at least quarter of an hour earlier than agreed. I have spent many an hour and additional Euros on that extra (solo) coffee whilst I wait for Greek friends to stroll up. It’s taken me more than two decades not to have my suitcase packed and waiting in the corner a full week before any planned travel (but I still have the contents sorted and folded in my head, ready for packing at the earliest point which will not invoke merciless mockery from the Beloved). And I insist on getting to the airport before the Check-In desk has even acknowledged the existence of my flight as a possible future event.
The love of my life is Greek. Actually, in this respect, he’s SuperGreek. His favourite word (and the one that drives me furthest up the walls) is “θα” stuck in front of any verb, indicated that things “will” get done at some vague point in the undefined future. He views my obsession with being ready or arriving early as an amusing foible from which he can derive even more entertainment value by delaying everything as much as possible.
For him, time is not to be managed, but to be filled with a multitude of piffling tasks: making coffee, smoking a fag, enjoying a full body stretch and scratch, staring out the window, smoking another cigarette, checking the weather forecast, phoning his mother, shouting at the television, looking for his lighter….   you get the picture. All the while keeping a sneaky eye on me squirming in the corner as I feel the seconds, the minutes, the hours of the day dripping away to be lost in the sea of time.
It’s not that he doesn’t get things done. He does. But it’s all at the last minute, with all the stress that entails. He’s the King of the Last Minute. And, as it turns out, I must have the constitution of an ox to have survived so far.

Birthdays vs Name Days
I have no Greek Name Day. My name was not handed down to me down the generations to honour my grandmother. It’s not taken from the Bible, or even from Greek mythology. It has a Latin root, and therefore does not feature in the gallery of Greek saints each of which have their own special day of the year.
I do, however, have a birthday. Unfortunately for me, it’s just days before the Other Half’s Name Day which inevitably means lots of well wishes in the first week of December – for him. Whilst I sit there smiling patiently and smiling indulgently, inwarding seething and waiting wanting to scream “Oi! Where’s my cake?” (The answer to which will probably be “You tell us” as it’s the one celebrating who’s supposed to provide the treats.)
Back in the days Before Parenthood, we used to throw a big party to mark my birthday/his Name Day, and I tried – believe me, I did – not to be bothered by the panoply of whisky bottles and other male appropriate gifts that piled up next to the paltry selection of packages from those close enough or thoughtful enough to think of me too.
Though birthdays have become more widely celebrated in the years since I’ve been in Greece, they still play second fiddle to the Name Day, and all too often are barely acknowledged. And if you’re expecting the fanfare, fuss and special cards that are showered on significant birthdays – 18, 21, 40, etc. – in the UK, forget it. And as for special birthday cards, well let’s just say it’s not one of Hallmark’s prime markets.
Oh, and another thing. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s enough to wish your cousin-in-law “Many years!” on his Name Day. If you don’t want to experience a full-blown Greek mama cold shoulder, you’d better make sure you call her to extend your wishes to her too.

Midday, Afternoon, Evening – it’s all relative
In the UK, we think of morning as being any time from when we get up up until 12:00 to be morning. Anything after that is afternoon, unless it’s after 6pm, by which time we’ve moved into evening. Simple,  right?
Think again.
In Greek, midday is usually considered to start at around 3pm and afternoon is probably until at least 8pm. The evening really only kicks off after 10pm.
(Come to think of it, that might be what’s at the root of my timing issues with my Greek friends.)

Coffee – commitment or quick pit stop?
You average Greek can make a coffee last at least forty minutes. I think my record (on a very good day, with extreme effort on my part) is 14. And I’m much better than I used to be, and streets ahead of visiting Brits.
Perhaps it’s because that it’s only in recent years that we Brits (or some of us) have actually learned to make and appreciate real coffee. Most of us chuck the brown stuff down our throats as fast as we can without fatally scalding our gullets.
Greeks make an art of savouring their coffee – especially the thick, rich, grainy Elliniko variety that simply cannot be rushed. Try downing that in a hurry and you’ll find yourself choking on the grinds that collect the bottom of the cup. Believe me, I know. From personal, public and highly embarrassing experience. The trick is to sip it with a slurp and a sigh of satisfaction, in between your animated discussion about politics, football or plans for world domination, or alternating with carefully considered moves in your game of tavli (backgammon to us Barbarians) or loud comments to whoever will listen on what’s written in your morning paper.
I’ll admit that the Greeks have probably got it right on this front – but I just can’t stretch out my cup to Hellenic time. And anyway, I’ll probably be too busy itching to get moving in order to be stupidly early for that appointment to savour the brew.

“You don’t eat no meat? No problem, I’ll make lamb”
It may be a line from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” but I’ve lived it first hand.
Despite the cornucopia of fresh fruit and veg in their traditional cuisine, most Greeks don’t really consider a meal to be a “real” meal if it doesn’t involve meat in some form or another. I seem that flash of panic in the eyes of friends and family when told I don’t eat meat ahead of some festive gathering. Usually followed by a barrage of incredulous questions about why, how, what (“What? Not even chicken?”) and even puzzlement as they try to reconcile my dietary eccentricity with the fact that I’m built something like an East German shotputter circa 1974.
I always assure the hostess that no special effort needs to be made for me. The contents of the average Greek dinner table usually more than cover my needs – pies, cheeses, salads, and much more. But some take my vegginess as a challenge to their skills in the kitchen. One was a well-meaning aunt who presented me with a beautiful, golden brown, gently bubbling dish of to enjoy while the others tucked into their roast suckling pig. My very own…   ham soufflé.

Don’t bore us, get to the chorus
Greeks love to talk. And Greeks who have attained some position and sense of self-importance love to talk even more. That’s why, almost every public event – from the opening of the school year for a bunch of six-year-olds to a concert staged like the local pensioners’ choir – will have lengthy preludes and votes of thanks topping and tailing the action that you’ve come to see.
This is usually accompanied by me hiding somewhere in the wings or the back of the crowd rolling me eyes at hubby, hissing “Gerroff!” in the direction of the stage and making subtle wrist-slashing gestures, whilst my Other Half gently kicks me and shoots me warning looks that could kill whilst feigning his own show of respect and attention to those droning on and on…  and on.

The “Thank you” minefield
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a rude person. I’m quite polite, if a little impatient. I was brought up to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ like most middle-England children of my generation.  But even that can be a bit of an issue.
It took my father-in-law many years to stop getting offended every time I said ‘thank you’ for something. And, like most Brits, I say it a lot. I see it as simple courtesy, due to even to those closest to me. He saw it as a cold, formal acknowledgement of something which was taken for granted.
It’s to his credit that he managed to adapt to my habit faster than I managed to quit it.
To be honest, I still haven’t. And it’s not unheard of for me to apologise to a lamppost I’ve walked into.

But despite the differences, I have one big advantage. I’m foreign – and as such there are things I can get away with that my Greek girlfriends would never be forgiven for.

Just don’t tell the mother-in-law.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Words' worth

What I’m about to say might annoy some of you – but I’m going to say it anyway.

OK, here goes.
(Takes a deep breath and braces herself for the inevitable backlash):   
Words don’t belong a museum.

'Where did that come from?' I hear you cry (I do, don't I?). Well, I've been getting increasingly itchy and uncomfortable at public debates bemoaning the way we teach our children their native language.

A little while back, there was outrage at the news that England's school curriculum would include non-traditional examples of language in action, such as comedian Russell Brand’s interview on the BBC, writer Caitlin Moran’s twitter feed, and even (horror!) rap lyrics. Then, last week, Education Secretary Michael Gove worked himself into a patriotic hissy fit and decided that American literature should be excluded from English kids’ study list.

Here in Greece, where my own son is a year away from the culmination of his Senior High School career, I’ve again been hearing the bleating of traditionalists horrified at the proposed study of their beloved ancient language in less traditional forms – adverts, song lyrics, newspaper articles, even recipes – presumably because they think that thousands of years of living Greek couldn't survive the onslaught.

I'll take a well written phrase wherever I find it. And I see no harm in engaging our kids and young adults with something they can identify with and – heavens! – perhaps be interested in. After all, what better way to entice them into the wonders and power of language, used well?

I’ll admit I often find Russell Brand to be an annoying, loud-mouthed hipster-hippy with more issues that ‘Punch’ magazine, but there’s no denying the bloke knows his way around a dictionary. His style's a little florid for my taste at times, but anyone who can expand the teenage vocabulary of approval beyond “cool”, “nice”, “awesome” and “s’alright I spose” deserves some recognition.

As for Caitlin Moran – well, have you read “How To Be A Woman”? I zipped through it in a few days of commutes, and in the process alarmed many a fellow passenger with my explosions of laughter and expletives of approval of her pencraft. And anyway, isn't the 140 character discipline of Twitter is just an extreme, modern day version of what we used to call ‘Precis’ when I was at school?

Then there's rap. I'm not a fan, in general. But I find some of its cleverer lyrics to be the redeeming quality of the genre. Really, who’s to say that this:

"Like a crowd in my head, so loud.
I wonder what it's like to be dead, I hope it's quiet.
Noise in my head like a riot.
Any remedy you have for me, I'll try it."

is less worthy than a dusty, half-forgotten ode to some long-dead heroine of Victorian melodrama?  

And as for removing the Yank interlopers from our bookshelves, Mr Gove. Do you REALLY want to us to wave goodbye to Maya Angelou, Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Robert Frost, J.D. Salinger, Ray Bradbury, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Miller, Alice Walker, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allen Poe….  and more? 
I certainly don’t.

The joy of language is that it’s alive, constantly changing, mutating like an X Man mainlining caffeine. The route it takes from one form to another is a fascinating process – often an insult to our sensitivities, sometimes just plain wrong, but occasionally quite brilliant. Sadly, many gems are lost in the general condemnation of modernity.

The inclusion of more recent, informal examples of language use doesn't mean we have wiped Shakespeare off the curriculum, nor any of his literary chums. Nor does it mean ignoring Greek classics like Homer’s Odyssey – or even the cute little poems learned and recited parrot fashion by generations of Greek six-year-olds. (I’m thinking specifically of “Φεγγαράκι μου λαμπρό” - literally “My bright moonshine” - a trite set of couplets sung to the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” with which most Greeks feel a strong emotional bond. But the reason is not literary merit, but the fact that it describes a Greek child going to night school during the Turkish occupation when formal schooling in Greek was forbidden. Its significance is cultural, not poetic.)

I’m lucky. I grew up loving words. Thanks firstly to my mum and dad who read to me every night when I was small, and encouraged me to read anything and everything I fancied once I was old enough. Then there was a series of brilliant English teachers (take a bow Dorothy Griffiths, Bill Hazledene, Alex Gear and Dick Brewis) who revealed to me the power and beauty of words in action.

I’ve been a ‘language professional’ (yuck!) for more than three decades and I’m a fully paid-up member of the Word Nerd Club. I love me a bit of Shakespeare, or Voltaire, or even some of the saucier sections of Chaucer. I even found myself quoting King Lear on Facebook yesterday. But why does that mean I have to condemn other forms?

Advertising, when done really well, is a symphony of wit and vision packed into a 30-second spot. Quality journalistic writing can reveal more in a few paragraphs about the human condition than pages of some 18th century rural idyll ever will. Some of the best rhyming couplets the English language ever produced came in the not-so-dulcet tones of Ian Dury. And speaking as one who loves her food almost as much as her words, a well-written recipe can be a thing of beauty.

In our paroxysm of piety about the materials we use to teach our kids to use their own language, we’re missing something. If they can’t relate to it, they will simply switch off. All but the most devoted wordists among them will – at best – engage their literary muscles for as only long as they need them to get past their end-of-school exams. And they may never pick up another book again.

That detachment from good language use has led to the Copy/Paste culture and apostrophe abuse that I can often be found ranting quietly about in a corner of the room where I’ve been put to avoid disturbing respectable company. 

At the risk of being ostracised and even exiled from both my homeland and the country I now live, I pronounce loud and proud: Bring on the new stuff!

Let me wallow in the brevity of wit displayed on the smartest Twitter feeds. Let me bathe is the glory of a phrase in an article so elegant that I just have to read it out loud to anyone who’ll listen. Let me rejoice in the conscious-piercing barb of that ad for “Medicins sans Frontiers”.

Shakespeare, Dickens and Chaucer aren’t going anywhere. Nor is Aristofanes or Kazantzakis.  Byron and Wordsmouth will still be waiting patiently on the shelves for us to revisit their words whenever we feel the need. So too will the divine Roger MGough.

Words are not just to wander lonely as a cloud or ask whether this is a dagger I see before me. They are there for the taking, to explore, play with and rearrange in a way that helps us connect with the world around us and something that lies within.  

After all, do you really think that all the world’s great literature has already been written?

Sunday, 1 June 2014

The English Resident asks: “Read all about…. what?”

Imagine you’re an editor, news editor or reporter on a local newspaper.

Now imagine an anonymous email drops into your In Box. An email written ALL IN CAPITALS and in the language of a slightly obsessed grumpy old man with too much time on his hands. It tells you that a disused school building has become the haunt of junkies and pushers, and a popular dogging spot for illicit couples of all kinds.

What do you do? Do you:

(    a)  Treat it as a news lead?
- Send reporter with a burly photographer (or in these days of downsizing, a reporter with a camera and their scariest looking friend for company/protection) to check it out themselves. Ideally, find some of the druggies who use the building and interview/photograph them, anonymously if necessary. Even if no-one’s about, at least check for signs of recent drug use and free-range orgies.
- Walk round the neighbourhood and ask the locals what’s going on, what they know and if any complaints have been made.
- Talk to the local police chief, ideally quoting him (or her) by name.
- Approach the authority responsible for the building and get a quote from the respective official (named). Even if none is provided, a “No comment” is more telling that a pre-prepared manifesto.
- Make a note in your calendar to follow up the story in the weeks to come.

(    b) Copy/paste the anonymous email rank on the newspaper blog, under a headline liberally decorated with exclamation marks (that’s another rant, for another day) then walk away and leave it to usually anonymous commenters to talk about it among themselves?


(    c)  Put it in your ‘cyber spike’ folder and get on with the report of the local football match. [Note: In early-mid 1980s, every reporter’s desk had a ‘spike’ – a small wooden base with a metal spike where they impaled papers they’d either finished with or didn’t plan to use, but which might be needed at a later date.]

I know what I would do. (For the record, in case you hadn't guessed, I'd go for a) or if I came up against a brick wall - reluctantly - c). Anything but publishing unsubstantiated rumours that b) entails.)

But maybe I’m looking at things the wrong way?

I started my working life as a reporter on local newspapers in the UK. That was where I learned that journalism isn’t just a matter of being relatively well-informed and able to turn a fancy phrase or two.

It’s about being curious, asking questions, picking at the scab until you reveal the extent of the story lurking beneath the surface, and following up until you get answers. Sometimes, it means being a pain in the backside, and of course that means developing a thick hide and the ability to brush off personal attacks if something you write hits a nerve.

I learned that the facts and the reported views of involved people (named wherever possible to give credence) are usually more than enough to make a good story, and that there’s no need for the reporter to add their opinion. If it was felt it was a matter that required comment from the paper, it was handed over for the “Leader” column, where readers knew the editor – who they knew by name – stated his view on a story in the news.

Now, I know that much has changed in the years since my reporting days, and so have my circumstances.

We’ve seen the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ due to the instantly accessible nature of the internet, increasing pressure on editors to get material for free (often at the expense of quality and balance) and sometimes – frankly – lazy journalism.

I also now live in Greece, where the tradition of local newspapers is rather different to what I learned all those years ago in that messy, smoke-filled newsroom in South London.

There ARE some local newspapers here that make an effort to present a more balanced and complete form of reportage, and I applaud them. I’m delighted to say that one covering my own neighbourhood falls into that category. But, sadly, many seem to be caught in the  dual traps of antiquated amateurism and the blogosphere.

I know I’ll never be cured of the reporter’s bug, just as my Other Half knows that for the rest of our lives together he’ll be hearing my frequent rants when I see what I consider a failure of journalism – be it in print, online, broadcast, local or national.

But really, is it too much to ask that when a headline screams at me “Read all about it” (note, no exclamation marks required), the words that follow will actually leave me more informed than when I started reading?