Sunday, 11 October 2015

My own Greek odyssey

When I was 19 I took a Magic Bus from outside St Pancras station and five days later ended up in Athens. From there I boarded a ferry bound for Crete. For the entire three months I spent there, I slept outdoors. Usually on a beach, sometimes under a grove of olive trees, always at peace. I have never been thinner, fitter, or browner!

In order to survive on my meagre budget, I'd pick fruit and vegetables from nearby fields and cook them up in scavenged 5 litre olive oil cans over an open fire. Most nights, I got extremely drunk. I was very happy.

After a few weeks of beach living in what was then the undeveloped village of Malia, I hired a Suzuki 250 and along with a Dutch lad I'd met, set off to explore the island. For me, a motorbike fanatic, a romantic and freedom lover, this was the ultimate trip. Riding without a crash helmet along mountain tracks and dry watercourses, across deserts and rocky plains and sleeping in the open air; for a born and bred West Londoner used to polluted, traffic-snarled streets and crammed cityscapes, it was incredible. I'd never seen so many stars!

Most nights we'd eat at a local cafe in whatever town or village we found along our way. I remember arriving in the ancient port of Rethymnon after a long, hot, dusty ride and then wandering through winding lanes until we reached the Street of the Leathermakers. At the end of the street where the road divided was a workers' cafe. We sat outside in the sultry evening heat and ate the most delicious food I have ever tasted. Greek salad with local herbs and spices, olives and feta, and calamari that had been caught an hour before and fried in golden rings that melted in our mouths, all washed down with rough red wine from a nearby vineyard. The cost, for the two of us, was five pounds.

We travelled here and there, without worrying about time or destination, and ended up in Chania, in the west of the Island, where we stopped and rested up for a few days, swam in the sea and generally revelled in life.  From there we headed back eastwards, ambling over mountains and down gorges, vaguely aiming towards Knossos, the fabled city of Daedalus and Ariadne, the labyrinth and the Minotaur. On our way, following maps that rarely matched the actual routes, we got hopelessly lost. 

Around noon on a searingly hot day we passed through a sleepy village. After a few hundred yards we discovered all the men eating their lunch outside a tiny restaurant. They watched in silence as we rode past and then seconds later, crash, because the road suddenly dropped two feet without warning. I cut my knee open and was grazed all over and Jan was similarly injured. I shook my fist at the watching men and cursed them with every Greek swear word I'd learned, but they simply sat there, utterly impassive and silent.

Leaving the unfriendly village, we limped onwards. The Suzuki's front tyre was punctured in the fall and it was hard going across a trackless waste that seemed to stretch on forever. Jan began to sob, wailing that we were going to die out here, in the middle of nowhere. I was surprised, thinking him to be a hardened traveller, but he too was only 19 and the crash had badly shaken him up. For some reason I felt the complete opposite, excited by what might happen and confident we'd find our way out of this particular pathless labyrinth.

After a few miles I spotted a tractor that soon disappeared over the brow of a hill. I followed in its dusty wake and ten minutes later chanced upon a rough track that eventually led us to a tiny village. As we rode along its one street scores of excited children ran out to greet us. They gestured for us to stop at the little cafe with the ubiquitous Coca Cola sign outside. Inside was an old man sitting at a table, who showed no interest in us at all. But the kids ushered us to a map of the world that was stuck to the wall and asked us to show them where we were from. When I pointed to London they gasped. They had never met someone from so far away and I had never felt so heroic. We drank ice cold cokes and then exited with many smiles to continue on our way. Before we left, Jan took a photo of me outside the cafe, which you can see above. The year was 1980 and in a few months I would be a world away at Liverpool university, marching against Thatcher, learning of John Lennon's death, watching Echo and the Bunnymen and the Human League and wondering what the fuck I was doing with my life. But in this moment, I was very proud and very happy.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Islamic State, the gift that keeps on giving

George Monbiot is spot on in his latest blog post: Beware of politicians making themselves look big by inflating security threats. But he could have taken the analysis further. If we look at what has happened in the Middle East over the last 60 years, we can see that the constant meddling of the Western powers, manipulating events, continually creating more trouble and strife, deliberately fomenting unrest.

In 1953 the UK and US governments sponsored a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Iran, because that government was about to nationalise the British owned Anglo-Iranian oil company (now called BP), and thereby return control and profits of Iranian oil to the people of Iran. With the full backing of the CIA, a military coup ensued, overthrowing the government and installing instead, the Shah of Iran as dictator. This was a progressive, socialist government, and Iran was fast becoming a modern, quasi-secular country. The Western intervention turned the clock back and led directly to the rise of fundamentalist Islam, the inevitable overthrow of the Shah, and the rise of the Caliphate, with the rights of women and democratic process drastically curbed.

This story is repeated across the Middle East. Western intervention has continually undermined social progress, even though the propaganda claims the opposite.

The West, particularly the US, created Saddam - they funded him, they backed him and then they toppled him when it suited them. After the two Iraq wars, the country was reduced to turmoil and rubble, and in the ensuing power vacuum, Islamic fundamentalism has once again, predictably, risen to the fore. The same happened in Afghanistan The same in Libya. Always a bogeyman is toppled, the West intervenes, chaos ensues.

And then in Syria, they West attempted to do the same. Dislikable as the Assad regime is/was, it was democratically elected and there was relative peace amongst its population as well as secular, modern values. Certainly far, far more so than in Western ally countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Cue the Western/Saudi/Qatari backed attempted overthrow of Assad, and the same pattern is repeated. Disintegration of society, massive loss of life, hoards of refugees and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.

Directly out of Western involvement in the Middle East, comes the rise of ISIS. These are once disparate rebels/freedom fighters/insurgents/terrorists (depending on how the West chooses to label them when it suits), who have been funded, trained AND armed by the Western allies. The creation of ISIS is no coincidence and one can only conclude it is deliberate. Why? Because the Western corporate/military complex loves nothing more than war and chaos. It always reaps from the whirlwind. It is about profit, and nothing else. And now David Cameron and the other Western allies have the perfect bogeymen, yet again, to justify even more war, military intervention, and ultimately, more profits for the major corporations who have always promoted war. And furthermore, this never-ending crusade gives governments the perfect excuse to crack down ever harder on their own citizens, to take away more basic rights of privacy and protest, to extend the power and control ever deeper.

For those who would manipulate us, the banking and oil cartels, the corporations and their puppet politicians, Islamic State is the gift that keeps on giving.

Monday, 22 June 2015

God bless Joni Mitchell

I came to Joni late, on my own, finally checking out an urge on YouTube that had lain dormant for 30 years or more. Cos I'm a guy. I never listened to Joni when I was young. I mean, you just didn't, right? Sure, I was aware of Big Yellow Taxi and subliminally grokked its environmental message, but Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin had my attention and then it was punk and New Wave and... well, the occasional woman would pierce my fatherless self-crafted manly carapace - Kate Bush certainly had my attention and my heart's wounds were touched by The Hounds of Love and I listened to Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde of course, but she was proper rock'n'roll..

...but a few years back I was sat alone in my front room, late one night, savouring a cold beer and maybe I'd smoked some spliff, I can't remember, but I thought, hmm, Joni Mitchell... what was the fuss all about? All those girls with her albums way back in the day. Was it some kind of female secret initiation rite? The album I chanced upon on YouTube was inevitably Blue. And I listened. And I was enthralled. River pierced me like no other song, brought tears to my eyes, but more, it spoke of a soul-deep sadness that perhaps all of us share, and now, as a fully fledged adult male and mature enough to have finally contacted my own heart-wound, I I was able to allow myself to open out and let Joni in. Blue, River, Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock, with it's prophetic lyrics that are mirrored perhaps in the sentiments of Jame's Cameron's movie Avatar (which is really a rip from Ursula Le Guin's The Word For World Is Forest), and again, a message that spoke to my soul. And now I discover that she is seriously ill and I've only just got to know her. God bless you Joni Mitchell.