Long time no see

Dear friends

I don’t even know how to start writing this. How can I write while using both hands to cover my face in shame and simultaneously rending my clothes and rubbing ashes in my hair in contrition?

I don’t know how I can have gone so long without writing to you. Or rather, I do, but I still feel bad about it. I wordlessly hang my head and look up at you with sorrowful eyes, like some weird two-legged puppy who has chewed your slippers.

It’s no excuse, but I have started writing this on a number of occasions. There have been at least four different versions of this letter over the last few months, spaced several weeks apart, and I have abandoned each of them, always with the same thought: who cares?

It’s not just letters to you that I’ve left unfinished. On a sunny afternoon not so long ago I took my editor for a walk on the promenade, deep-breathing through the sickly, heavy feeling in my chest that I more closely associate with break-ups, and explained to her that I would not be delivering the book I promised to write. She tried to persuade me that perhaps I should, but I explained that I have nothing to say, and I don’t know how to say it, and that I cannot persuade myself that anyone would want to read it anyway, especially not me. That’s the problem, you see: they tell you to always write the book you’d want to read, but I had grown so heartily sick of myself that the thought of reading anything I’d written made me want to give up reading, let alone writing.

At the beginning of the first week of the first lockdown I was told that the newspaper for which I wrote my weekly column couldn’t afford me any more. This is a disadvantage of being a good negotiator of fees: when a pandemic strikes, you’re the first one they can’t afford, and there’s a little glint in their eye when they tell you so.

Then at the end of the first week of lockdown, I was officially told what I’d already guessed: that my first play, which was scheduled to premiere in the second half of the year, would not premiere in the second half of the year.

In the second week of lockdown, I bought land in Greece. This was both surprising and not surprising. I very seldom buy things. I am by nature something of a miser and a spendthrift. My family was very poor when I was young and we seemed to be constantly teetering on the lip of the financial volcano, so for me money in the bank has always been a rope around my waist lest I start sliding towards the lava. The only time I part with money is just after a loss, and in the second week of the first lockdown I had lost my column, my play and freedom of personal movement, which, I have discovered, seems to matter disproportionately more to me than to most of the people around me, so I bought, along with my partner, a hillside on the Peloponnese: 8200 square metres of olive trees and spring flowers and views of the Saronic Gulf.

My land in Greece

I have never set foot on the land – I have never seen it real life. My partner found it on the internet, not far from an island where we spent part of last year, and within a day we had bought it. There is no house on this land, and no electricity or piped water: these are all things we’ll have to design, build and install. I can do none of these things. What we bought, more than a piece of land in a country I love immoderately, was the illusion of agency. It was an impulse-purchase assertion of the ability to make my own choices and determine my own future. Of course, none of us can really determine our own futures, but illusions are there to save your life. I decided that I would use the house as a kind of lever to learn things: how to build, how to wire things, how to speak Greek, how to make a garden, how to wrangle bureaucracy, how to keep bees, how to be patient, how to DIY, how to be happy.

We have been working with some Greek architects to design the house. We want it to be something like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s house in Kardamyli, on a peninsula of the Peloponnese not too far away. We want it to be thick-walled and cool in summer and protected from the north wind in winter, and we want shaded terraces and views of the sea and of the weather and vessels that come in from the sea. We want book-lined studies for us and guesthouses for our friends. All of this, our new Greek home-building friends inform us, costs money.

The mention of money and the prospect of parting with it caused me some concern, especially when I chewed my pencil and worked out that I’m some way short of being able to easily pay for it. There would be some cash-flow problem in about a year’s time, I calculated, unless I had some windfalls between now and then. But then my partner reminded me of something I wrote in my last book: “Of all the things we absolutely need,” she intoned, jabbing a finger at the final page, “money’s the easiest to get more of.”

It is hard to argue with your own better self, but it seemed very clear to me that that had been written at a moment when I didn’t feel quite so urgently the need to get more money. Oh well. In for a penny, in for quite a lot of euros.

I do have some irons in the windfall fire, but one of the things that made me feel better about committing is the fact that for the past twelve years I have had a day-job with a local television soap. It pays well and doesn’t take up much time and I’m good at it and the show does well – it has 5.2 million daily viewers and last year won its umpteenth South African Film and Television Award for Best Local Soap Opera. When I’m feeling melodramatic I complain about it as a form of bonded servitude, but I can work on it from anywhere, and I had made calculations of how many bricks on the Greek house each hour of work would buy, and I am very grateful for the past twelve years. On this Friday just past, for reasons that seem to involve some clash of executive personalities, the show was cancelled by the channel.

And with that fourth loss – the column, the play, the book, the day-job – I felt a great weight lift from me, an easing of a nagging psychic burden. There is a lightness to the worst happening, because the worst is never as bad as you think it is. Nothing is ever as bad or as good as you think it will be. Things change because they always change, and there is nothing to do but to continue, not with the donkey-trudge of a dumb beast going uphill, but with a new nimbleness in the heels. I feel a sort of lightness now, a clarity of mind and heart. I honestly feel – and I don’t think this is just the denial-phase of grief – a kind of joy, a sense of possibility. I feel somewhat liberated from myself. I feel as though I can write to you again.

I’m sorry this letter has taken so long, and I’m sorry about all your troubles and worries. I’m sorry that the world is uncertain and hard right now. (I’m sorry that it is always uncertain, and often hard, but that it feels even more so now.) I can offer nothing except this fine and perhaps fleeting feeling I have that it’s going to be okay.

Shall we stay in touch? I would like to. I have a feeling that I’ll be better company in the future. In a year or so, maybe you can come and visit on our hillside, and we can sip retsina in the cool of the evening and watch the sea turn purple and we can remember 2020 and how it could have been worse.

Much love to you


Wreck of Angels


Dearest friends

I have no idea whether you’ll be interested in this letter or not, but I’ve been giving much thought to the lost art of letter writing lately, and it occurs to me that even the most prolific letter writers sometimes really just banged on about what interested them.

I’m reading a selection of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s letters at the moment, and he is very funny and gossipy and affectionate and all of that, but sometimes he just yatters on for pages on end about the inscriptions on a church in some remote village of the Mani, or whether or not some moth-eaten local fisherman might plausibly be descended from Constantine XI Paleologos, the last Byzantine emperor who fell defending the walls of Constantinople against Mehmet’s Turks in 1453, or whatever. Terribly fascinating to him but not to me, and not, I suspect, to his various correspondents, but still, you read it because there’s something to be said for someone with interests in this world, and besides, it’s one of the privileges of friendship that we should all of us be allowed to be boring sometimes.

So this is my news: last week I took a ferry from Poros, where I’m staying, to Hydra to spend the weekend in a small stone house up from the harbour, and to attend the 19th annual Rembetiko Festival at Douskos Taverna in an old square at the foot of the hill. It’s a lovely square with a dense canopy of vine that casts a green shade during the day and is strung with small lights in the evenings.

You can’t see the square in this photo – it’s a bit to the left.

They serve a good ouzo from Plomari in Lesvos and their smoked aubergine dip is very good and as night fell people gathered from all over the world to hear some rembetiko. I went with Joanna and with Kate. It was Jo who first introduced me to rembetiko, the mad, sad songs of the Greek underworld. Oh, she’s a rembetis, all right – she goes quite mad for it.

Once the music has taken her and the fire is in her soul, when she is possessed by what the Spanish call duende, why, for two cents she would chuck it all in and run away to be a scar-faced hashish smuggler with a dagger in her boot. This is not Kate’s experience. Kate is a legal philosopher and the music lights nothing in her soul. She smiles politely and sort of nods her head to the music and makes encouraging comments like, “She has a nice voice”, and “Oh, this song has a nice rhythm.”

You know she’s faking it, because most rembetiko doesn’t have a particularly nice rhythm. Rhythm isn’t the point of it. Rembetiko was the seedy tavern music born in the early 20th century in Smyrna and the Greek towns of Asia Minor, the music of the mangas. A mangas can be male or female, but it quite delightfully means “a strong man who needs correction”. In Mandy Wiener’s book Killing Kebble, Mikey Schultz makes the distinction between being “naughty, bad or evil”. A mangas is naughty, and maybe sometimes bad, but he isn’t evil.

Rembetiko is all about a heartbreaking and heartbroken voice hoarse in a smoky dockside tavern in the small hours of a black and blue night, crooning about loneliness and pain, about hope and homesickness and hashish and missing his mother. Some of the best rembetiko singers are men. Some of the other best rembetiko singers are women. It’s a music of regret and the knowledge that you’re not going to change; a music of Dutch courage and Greek exile and defiance and pride. It came to mainland Greece in the years after the population exchange of 1923, when the Greeks living on the Turkish islands and mainland of Asia Minor arrived in Piraeus and Thessaloniki with only the clothes on their backs and their songs stowed tightly in their hearts.

Sotiria Bellou, beloved female rembetis, singing “I wander like an exile” 


In the 1930s rembetiko was banned by the right-wing Metaxas dictatorship for the immorality of the lyrics and the lifestyle, and was rejected by the revolutionary left because the lyrics were insufficiently political and probably didn’t use the right pronouns. Slowly, rembetiko died out. One by one the old bars and clubs closed, until by the end of the century there were only a few places left in Athens and Piraeus serving the real stuff, and to find them you had to know someone who knew someone. But an art form reviled by both the far right and the far left? That’s the art form for me!

It has made a comeback in recent years, mainly though the labour of academics and afficionados and musical nostalgists. I’ve listened to rembetiko in Athens, late at night at a joint called The Wreck of Angels, and at a May festival on the distant island of Ikaria I’ve watched old Ikariots and young Ikariots performing the zeibekiko – an improvised solo dance, usually performed by men, in which the dancer enacts a stylized performance of exposing his drunken pain to the world while other men and women frequently kneel in a circle around him and clap to tell him that he is not alone. But I’ve never really felt that I’ve truly experienced the bruised heart and smoky lungs of rembetiko.

1 May 2018: Stefanos, the demon zeibekiko dancer of Armenistis.


Just before midnight – in other words while the bazouki strings are still being warmed and coaxed and worked by the fingertips of their soulful lovers – Kate yawned and said it had been a lovely night and left to go to bed. And maybe it would have been wise to do the same, but my friends! That is not the way of a mangas!

At 1am a woman in a red dress came from the audience and joined the band and belted out passionate songs of smoke and ruin with a gravelly voice and an air of transport and ecstasy.

At 2am a wild-haired woman jumped up to announce that the last time she was on Hydra was in 1973, and she sat that table over there with Leonard Cohen and his friends and they drank ouzo and listened to local men singing these very songs. She began to cry as she remembered it and they were tears of happiness at the memory but they were also tears of heartbreak that it is not 1973 and she isn’t holding hands with Leonard Cohen at that table and what lay ahead then doesn’t still lie ahead and the world doesn’t slow and wait for us as we thought it would when we were still young and beautiful. They were very sad tears because they were real tears, tears brought on by the truth. They were rembetiko tears. (They were also drunken tears, which is also quite rembetiko.)

At 3am the taverna closed and we were chased away and went stumbling away down stone alleys smelling of jasmine and nychta loulouthia to the harbour, and I saw a gleaming superyacht impossibly called the Xanax, which was gone in the morning so I might have hallucinated it, except that I found a picture of it on my phone. There was a young couple necking on the edge of the dock, and a broken moon on the water. I wondered where I could find more ouzo.


I knew that I still hadn’t found the real rembetiko: they were modern musicians, some of them young, playing excavated songs – how could it be the real thing? But there’s a danger in longing too hard for the past, the way the original rembetes longed too hard for what they had left behind. The world is with us now and it has pain enough and joy enough and enough moments of beauty, and we ourselves, imperfect as we are, and inadequate compared to the past and to our past dreams of who we would one day be, still we are enough to respond to it.

This letter has rambled on. Thank you for letting me yatter on about the rembetiko. I hope you’re having a good time, wherever you are, and that whatever happens, you never, ever have a hangover as bad as mine was on the ferry back from Hydra.

Much love to you


Poros, October 2019


“Markos becomes a minister” – the famous rembetis Markos Vambakaris offers a solution to political instability: he will become prime minister and will eat, drink and smoke hashish with the other members of parliament.






My favourite paragraph

I’m soon to venture into the Mani peninsula of the Peloponnese so I’m reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, one of the great travel books of the 20th century, written by a man so urbane and well-traveled, so erudite and witty, so encyclopedic and self-taught, so extraordinarily confident that on page 3 of his book he had the sheer nerve to write this, my favourite ever paragraph, which delights me with its music and its show-offiness and its eye-twinkling reminder of all the inexhaustible wonders of this world.

It comes as he is preparing to set out to the mountain village of Anavryti. He has heard the stories that the people of Anavryti are all somehow Jewish, and although he doubts this:

“Yet the Greek world, with all its absorptions and dispersals and its Odyssean ramifications, is an inexhaustible Pandora’s box of eccentricities. I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores, the Linomvaki – crypto-Christian Moslems of Cyprus – the Donmehs – crypto-Jewish Moslems of Salonika and Smyrna – the Slavophones of Northern Macedonia, the Koutzo-Vlachs of Samarina and Metzovo, the Chams of Thesprotia, the scattered Souliots of Roumeli and the Heptanese, the Albanians of Argolis and Attica, the Kravarite mendicants of Aetolia, the wandering quacks of Eurytania, the phallus-wielding Bounariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamanlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf, the Ayassians of Lesbos, the Francolevantine Catholics of the Cyclades, the Turkophone Christians of Karamania, the dyers of Mt Ossa, the Mangas of Piraeus, the Venetian nobles of the Ionian, the Old Calendrists of Keratea, the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Thassos, the Nomad Sarakatzans of the north, the Turks of Thrace, the Thessalonican Sephardim, the sponge-fishers of Calymnos and the Caribbean reefs, the Maniots of Corsica, Tuscany, Algeria and Florida, the dying Grecophones of Calabria and Otranto, the Greek-speaking Turks near Trebizond on the banks of the Of, the omnipresent Gypsies, the Chimarriots of Acroceraunia, the few Gagauzi of eastern Thrace, the Mardaites of the Lebanon, the half-Frankish Gazmouli of the Morea, the small diasporas of Armenians, the Bavarians of Attic Kerakleion, the Cypriots of Islington and Soho, the Sahibs and Boxwallahs of Nicosia, the English remittance men of Kyrenia, the Basilian Monks, both Idiorrythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards’ Club, the merchants of Marseilles, the cotton-brokers of Alexandria, the ship-owners of Panama, the greengrocers of Brooklyn, the Amariots of Lourenco Marques, the Shqip-speaking Atticans of Sfax, the Cretan fellaheen of Luxor, the Elasites behind the Iron Curtain, the brokers of Trieste, the Krim-Tartar-speaking Lazi of Marioupol, the Pontics of the Sea of Azov, the Caucasus and the Don, the Turcophone and Armenophone Lazi of southern Russia, the Greeks of the Danube delta, Odessa and Taganrog, the rentiers in eternal villaggiatura by the lakes of Switzerland, the potters of Syphnos and Messenia, the exaggerators and ghosts of Mykonos, the Karagounides of the Thessalian plain, the Nyklians and the Archamnomeri of the Mani, the little bootblacks of Megalopolis, the Franks of the Morea, the Byzantines of Mistra, the Venetians and Genoese and Pisans of the archipelago, the boys kidnapped for janissaries and the girls for harems, the Catalan bands, the Kondaritika-speaking lathmakers of the Zagrochoria, the Loubinistika-speakers of the brothels, the Anglo-Saxons of the Varangian Guard, ye olde Englisshe of the Levant company, the Klephts and the Armatoles, the Kroumides of Colchis, the Koniarides of Loxada, the smugglers of Ai-Vali, the lunatics of Cephalonia, the admirals of Hydra, the Phanriots of the Sublime Porte, the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India, the Whittals of Constantinople, the lepers of Spinalonga, the political prisoners of the Macronisos, the Hello-boys back in the States, the two pig-roasting Japanese ex-convicts of Crete, the solitary negro of Canea and a wandering Arab I saw years ago in Domoko, the Chinese tea-pedlar of Kolonaki, killed in Piraeus during the war by a bomb – if all these, to name a few, then why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?

(Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani, John Murray, 1958)

Three ages of Paddy – aged 25, 63 and 93