Monday, 29 February 2016

Crete - a land where Guns and Religion sit comfortably.

In the second of my series on the Modern Greece, we again join Simon Reeves, our convivial tour guide as he travels to Crete, the largest of the Greek islands  and is positioned equidistant between Athens and Africa. Most Tourists stay on the coast, but to truly learn the character of the Cretans, it is better to go up into the mountains.

Simon embarks on a pretty novel and highly dangerous way of looking at the topology of the countryside. He sits on a flying trike with a parachute attached to the back. Launching this death trap involves a run up on the normal highway and involves a lot of shouting and gesticulating at the unsuspecting and surprisingly amenable motorists to clear enough road to safely ascend.  I do not think Mr Reeves is fully certain of the safety of this particular enterprise, but it certain reveals the rugged beauty of the landscape.


From the sublime to the Ridiculous, Simon’s next visit is to Father Andreas, a large ,bearded and Jolly man who is also a pistol toting sharp shooter and President of The Gun Club. He says that Religion and guns are closely linked in Greece and that many Greeks have a relationship with Guns. He says they even teach their children to shoot. It is hard to quantify how many guns are held by citizens as most are unlicensed. 

Now this got  me to thinking about how Greece stacks up against the other place which holds Gun ownership as sacred, the USA. So a quick search revealed the following.

Violent crime > Gun crime 
Guns per 100 residents
Greece 22.5 
Ranked 23rd in the world 

USA 88.8 
Ranked 1st. 
4 times more than Greece

Murder rate per million people
Greece 15.56 
Ranked 63rd

USA 42.01 
Ranked 43rd

Simon admits to misgivings as he is given a loaded gun to shoot, an alien thing for any average Englishman where of course, gun ownership is minimal. The island was flooded with firearms when the Island became a smuggler’s rest for weapons headed to the Balkan wars during the 1990s.

I do not really hold with guns generally but I do see a correlation  between the History of the Island( and Greece in general)  and the number of guns still in circulation. There does not seem to be the same amount of evidence for the USA who have not been under direct attack by foreign forces since the British were routed.

I agree that to truly understand why guns are so integral in Cretans lives, you have to examine the island’s Strategic positioning in the Mediterranean. Centuries have seen the island attacked countless times by the Romans,the Arabs, Vandals, Slavs and Ottomans, but the real trigger point came in 1941 when the Germans invaded. The Cretans fought back with old rifles and clubs and was the first real resistance that the Germans had met since their campaign to rule Europe had begun.

Simon Travels with Father Andreas to Anogia, the town of his birth and a centre of the resistance movement, where Cretans would fight the Germans and helped British Agents to Kidnap a Nazi General. German retribution was swift and without Mercy, every male within a kilometre of the village was slaughtered and every house in the village was set alight or blown up. Ten Members of Father Andreas’s family group are memorialised on the memorial stone and he shows two particular names, two girls aged fifteen and seventeen, who were tortured, Raped and ultimately killed because they were caught at the outskirts of the village.

Higher up in the hills Andreas and Simon meet young Shepherds, rough men in a tough terrain who believe that Germany again seeks to overtake Europe not this time by brute Force, but through Financial Policy. Whilst the Second World War is a distant Memory for much of Europe a cautionary tale  viewed through the lens of hindsight ,should a country ever get too big for it’s boots , it is raw  and present for these men.

 I do not wholly agree with their rhetoric, but see how the Greek Financial Crisis might be viewed that way as Germany does appear to be the driving force with most power in the Eurozone. They are not bad men, they just see the world filtered a different way, shaped by losses up fathomable to  countries where Nazi boots never fell.

After spending a freezing cold night in a fortified Shepherd Hut, used rather like the Pillboxes on British Clifftops during the war, Simon is ready to a Travel on and Back , further into history to visit a site  of extreme historical significance .

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Hospitality industry will never be the same.. The Night Manager on BBC One

 the sleek and clever titles graphics, Hugh Laurie giving a humanitarian  presentation in quite a posh voice (even for him) to the sight of the impossible handsome Tom Hiddleston walking through the embattled streets of Cairo, you know that new BBC Sunday Night Drama” The Night Manager” is going to be a corker.

Set in the midst of the Arab Spring , it is a modern reselling of the beloved book.

He plays Jonathan Pike, the Titular night Manager at a premium hoteliers Cairo. He is calm as chaos reigns outside the Hotel doors and his clipped English Tones only aid to his air of total sophistication and capability. 

It does not take a genius to work out he is an ex Millitary  man (and this being a Le Carre adaptation, it makes it almost a foregone conclusion) and it seems that the superior training may well come in handy as alluring guest Ms Sophie Alekan, the mistress of a wealthy and corrupt man and guest at Pike’s Hotel seeks his assistance. He looks pretty damn fine in his Manager Uniform and is well connected at  the embassy, so he was the perfect choice!  She rather pointedly gives him sight and then possession of some very damning documents about her benefactor and by association Mr Richard Roper, Mr Laurie’s character.

Russell Tovey makes an appearance as the Embassy man that Jonathan passes info to and he in turn sends the veritable cornucopia of weapons and toxins to a rather shabby and unassuming office in London Victoria to the International Enforcement Officer Angela Burr  played by the totally unsurpassable Olivia Coleman. 

Sophie is then attacked by her lover’s Goons  and the evil Richard Roper sanctions more severe punishment for her lack of loyalty and  so Jonathan and She flee to a safe house to decide her next move. They become lovers and he promises to help her escape to England.

Meanwhile in Whitehall the powers that be are obviscating over what to do about the Roper problem, diplomacy rather than justice seems to be the order of the day. When an important joint chiefs meeting is cancelled, Angela knows that Roper will get away Scott free again.Angela is not to be deterred and calls Jonathan to tell him to get Sophie out of the Hotel. 

He is too late, she has been murdered. The police refuse to take his statement that Hamid is at the heart of things. He knows that all is lost, that none will pay pay this death and the arms trading will continue.

Four years pass. Jonathan is now the Night Manager at a Swiss hotel and who should bowl up as a VIP guest with a whole cadre of acolytes and hangers on, but naughty old Richard Roper. Within seconds of them coming face to face of each other, a dynamic  forms between the two that is taut and mesmerising.  

After he recovers from the shock, he takes action.

Jonathan calls in Angela Burr to pass on burner phone sims he has retrieved from the party’s bins . She demands he decide how far he is willing to go to make amends for what befell Sophie.

There is such a strong British supporting cast  Including Tom Hollander, Douglas Hodge and Adheel Akhtar,so I think this is bound to be a success. With the three leads being so beloved and tremendous character actors in their own rights, this show will get a lot of attention, but I am certain viewers will become enthralled by the narrative as these actors inhabit their roles and the twists and turns, so inherent in a  story by the King of thrills, John Le CarrĂ© begin to pile up.

Definitely a quintessential British Drama ( broken radiators and dingy offices are remarkably close to reality in public sector jobs!) but with a little bit of US razzle dazzle to make the whole thing sparkle!! Think spooks with just a dash of Homeland!

The Night Manager continues on Sunday nights on BBC One, and arrives on US shores in April.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Book Review : Refuge and Romance in this beautifully told story of Friendship set in Greece.

The Illegal Gardener (The Greek Village Book 1)

A cut above the normal newly Single Woman moves to village in Rural Mediterranean, fayre.

I strongly recommend this book as a gentle and humanising way to look at the current Refugee crisis without the of politicalisation of the issues that has left  Greece in  the centre of the current Migration crisis. Written before the current crisis exploded, it tells the story of Juliet and Englishwoman escaping a broken heart and England. She meets and befriends Pakistani  immigrant Aaman  whose struggles strike a chord with Juliet, his dignity in the face of supreme adversity, touches her and ultimately galvanises her to help him.

His Trauma as an illegal seemed a little sugar coated but that is me being ultra picky. He is painted vividly and the altruistic reason for his arrival in Europe is a great plot device. He is not cliched or stereotyped in any way, a very sympathetic character.

 This is afterall a love story of sorts set in a rural  Greek town, the first of a strong series  and it’s magical affect on two  rather lost souls. A beautifully evocative picture of Greece , the sights, the smells the feeling of a slower pace of life and a nice twist that the Love story is so subtly realised and realistically brought to a conclusion.

March Marks the start of Greece season. With Simon Reeves and much more!

I have to admit to a bit of a love  affair with Greece. I have never been there, but still I love it.

Childhood memories of reading and then watching the 80s show based on the books of Gerald Durrell set on Corfu, the larger than life character Spiros and then further whimsical visits via books and Movies and the fact that we had  Greek neighbours at my Grandparents’s house where childhood was idyllic and the neighbours generous and jolly. 

The area of North London where I lived was a gathering point for Greeks and Cypriots so the sight of people queueing for whole haunches of lamb  for Easter was not uncommon in Palmers Green.

Thus when Simon Reeve’s programme about Greece was advertised I decided that like last month's Examination of India,  I would dedicate a month to the country that intrigues and bewitches me. 

I thus open GREEK MONTH!

Simon Reeve is a fresh faced young man who strikes me as just the sort of chap one would like to go travelling with, he is enthusiastic about his subject and his interest draws you in.

 In this first  instalment we will be  examining  how Modern Greece is coping in the economic and political upheaval  facing Europe in 2015/16.  We  will look at the effect of pollution on marine life, examine the real situation with refugees and it’s effect on the Greeks who are being forced to receive them.

The programmes are so densely packed with such interesting things, they lend themselves to more than two posts and allow me to speak to a myriad of different topics and will allow me to add related review and comment

Simon  meets first with a deep sea diving, Sponge Fisherman. Sponges were a huge industry for Greece and are still widely available on the tourist stalls. A  sponge Fish Merchant once dined at the table of Queen Victoria Herself! Natural Sponge is now a precious commodity. Demand waned after mass production techniques made nylon sponges popular across the planet.  It is also labour intensive and extremely dangerous as a occupation.There is little wonder that there are only  5 working Sponge boats still left fishing the waters around Kos.

 Agelis who Fishes these waters. He agrees to allow him to see how he gets the sponges. They cannot be fished by net or Rod as they have to be pulled away where they anchor to the seabed and so it is common to dive with a compressed oxygen tank, not modern diving equipment and the most  viable sponge grows deep.

Hundreds of Greek fisherman have died fishing in this way from decompression sickness by surfacing too fast and getting air embolisms. Two of Agelis’ own brothers have died as a result of “ The Bends” and as Simon comments, he must think of them every time he braves the depths. 

Simon joins him on a dive, he free diving whilst Agelis dives deeper and longer to get to the best sponges. Sometimes diving to seventy or eighty metres,the air hose can get tangled or torn.

Sponges are actually the Ocean’s natural filtration system, a very simple organism, but utterly vital to the fragile Eco systems of the sea.there used to be millions on the seabed in the Mediterranean. Now environmental factors and disease have decimated their numbers. In a matter of decades the whole balance of sea has changed, where once sponges, shellfish and fish thrived in comfortable balance, now there is a sparse supply of any of these .

 In their natural state they look black, almost oily but Agelis knows how to treat them to get that gentle yellow colour to come to the fore. He treads on them! The  dirt and “milk” that they contain is expelled and this process is further helped, it seems by battering them three times with a big stick! I love the specific nature of this, three times only!

Agelis  fishes with his son,they share a tiny cabin and can be out at sea for days at a time. There is a obvious strong affection  and loyalty between  them.Simon asks what they do if they have an argument, Agelis good natured and smiling, points to a small  knife! They all laugh heartily.He says they make up eventually and they survive by working together in sync his son agrees, saying that whatever happens they will be fishing from this boat. 

All joking aside, the dynamic here is important and I think it is worth noting. We have a specialised family business, passed down through generations, where profit and money making are not the primary concern, were it to be, the boat might have been used for tourist tours or some other enterprise that is more lucrative.

Away from home for months at a time, they are happy to return home to Tserimos, one of the small islands in the area. The population here is in decline as the Greek financial crisis continues to bite and the depleted sea stock also impacts the capacity people have to survive in these small communities.

Greece is actually made up of 1000 islands and 25 million visitors a year make up twenty percent of the National income. That amount increases to sixty Percent of  income of an Island such as Kos. During the winter though the life of islanders on Tserimos can be very sparse, if storms prevent the supply boat from arriving with bread and other staples. There is not even a resident Doctor. Thousands have left small islands like this to seek work on the mainland, some are left with only half the population of decades ago and most of those who remain are elderly

Agelis is worried that if Sponge fishing were to die out, that Tourism might not support the a Island economy. Thousands of pleasure seeking tourists pass through daily, but they eat on their boats and only venture into town for Beer or a Coffee and the only people in the Taverna on the night Simon visits are family and friends coming back for a festival, normally it is much quieter.

Next Simon visits Levos on , Europe’s Eastern border and on the frontline of a humanitarian and political crisis. As he drives towards he coast, abandoned life jackets told their own story. 

Two Thousand people had crossed over under cover of darkness during the colder months, but Simon is arriving in high summer and people were taking advantage of this to cross from Turkey in broad daylight. Simon watches in horror and shock as boats arrive filled with children, the elderly and other flotsam and jetsam escaping into Europe. If they were to get into difficulty there was little he could have done.

In 2015 five hundred people drowned off the Greek Coast .There are about forty people  on the boat he greets as it arrives, people shout for water, almost all are from Syria, but some came from Afghanistan. One man arrives using a child’s toy as a buoyancy aid. When asked how much they have paid for the short crossing between Turkey and Greece, a man says $1000. 

Here is the anomaly, the people on the boats are those able to raise funds, mobile enough to travel and believe they have skills that might be transferable into Europe. One man is trainee Pharmacist with nothing but phone. Another man proudly tells the crew he is a Cameraman, he brings his wife and small children. Simon is choked up when he wishes them luck in their forward journey and it is impossible not to be moved when you see the lengths they are willing to go to seek the things we as a Westerners take for granted, Religious freedom, equality and education for all.

The truth of the matter is just these sorts of people who should be rebuilding Syria, educated, driven and articulate individuals and yet they risk death ,forced out by tyranny. This is the biggest Mass migration since World War Two. Hundreds come, looking for a better life in Europe whilst Simon is stood filming and it is not going to end unless we in Europe assist the region  and try to create an environment conducive to growth and prosperity , ensuring safety and freedoms for all citizens are protected. 

By attempting to absorb this amount of people, we find ourselves thinking about the cost to us and forget the cost it has on the people in such dire straits that they cannot even consider attempting the journey, the sick, the old and the Impoverished.

The problem is  further compounded when you consider that this  flow of humanity is being concentrated in very specific ways to certain geographical areas, Greece is so close to turkey , where part of the country is in Asia and part in Europe and it is but a hop skip and a jump into the Eurozone via Greece. The inherent dangers of open dinghies do not seem to be a deterrent and Europe’s open borders  seem to have become a self fulfilling prophecy as Simon Discovers.

He meets Afghan school boys who thousands of miles away in Kabul heard that the borders are free in Europe and so they embarked on a journey to take advantage of western freedoms. 

However it is possible that the young single men who are arriving from strict Religious and Social confines may be unprepared to deal with the complexities and freedoms of western life, where women are (at least on paper) Equals, where Homosexuality is spoken of freely and Same sex unions are common.

Simon comes across this problem first hand when he sees a young woman struggling to carry a small child in the searing heat and offers her, the child and her English Speaking sister a lift to the next town in the relative cool of the air conditioned car. En route they happen upon  other male members of the family group and she is taken bodily from the car because she had not asked permission to be in the car from them prior to getting in.

Following them into a holiday village the juxtaposition of holidaymaker enjoying a beer or a model train ride in contrast to women, children and men trudging towards what they hope is a better situation is  strange to behold.

The following morning , Simon makes his way down to the bay where he meets Stratos Kabanos who makes his living from a small boat taking tourists out on snorkelling trips. He is being adversely affected by the influx of migrants, he says his trade has dropped by fifty percent and this is the worst year he has ever seen. He is wise in his reaction as another man shouts from the beach, the heckler says he feels sort for them, the women and children, but because their arrival is not being recorded monitored or policed, they could be hiding jihadis  and others out to carry out mischief in their midst.

Stratos puts it plainly and succinctly 

“If I am running behind you with a knife, you will not stop running. If you come to a wall you will climb it, you will not stop”

This is all too true and thus the decision to help or not to  help lies with every individual, despite his personal loss of business Stratos does help where he can, just the day before he and two paying passengers from Holland had stopped to help a boat carrying thirty people  inland.  He says he has no choice. They do not linger after all and hey seek ferries to Athens and onwards into western and Northern  Europe.

The stark truth is 60 Million people are currently displaced by worldwide conflicts and every one of them seeks a firm place to call their own even if it is just until their particular area of strife has resolved itself.

A lot is said about Refugees being opportunists and immigration and  migration have become political tools  to be wielded to score political points  in the UK , the European Union and even as far afield as the US presidential elections, but I was suddenly minded of a similar situation not so  long ago on American soil  when a predominantly Irish populace escaping famine at home, took part in a mass migration and sought to put down roots in the Land Rushes in the 1800s. They were refugees, they were taking advantage of the opportunities presented to them were they willing to risk it all and the making of the melting pot of nationalities that became what we know as the USA, are the Syrians so different, I think not!