In sunny Crete, it's easy to forget this is a country on the brink of economic collapse.
Is it acceptable yet to talk about holidays? Being neither a pundit nor a politician (thank God) I had no need to rush back during the riots and instead watched them unfold on TV in a taverna in Crete, where, I’m embarrassed to say, I still am. I’d normally be in the village of Orford, on the Suffolk coast, which is still my favourite place in the UK, but last year I packed the car, raced excitedly up the A12 and then spent a week watching the rain travel horizontally across windows which were being shaken out of their frames by the prevailing wind coming in from Siberia. The dear old British weather. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just unpredictable. Which is worse.
And I worry that a light is going out in Orford – quite literally, in the shape of our little red-and-white lighthouse which has been blinking cheerfully for a hundred years but which is now being abandoned to coastal erosion and which will collapse at any time. For economic reasons, of course.
The powers-that-be say that ships will manage perfectly well with satnav. Could there be a clearer metaphor for the changing face of the Britain I knew as a child? Meanwhile, the horizon is pin-pricked by wind turbines – alien, out-of-proportion, invading the entire country. But you can’t argue against them, it seems. I’m sure these ones are providing enough power to keep all the light bulbs blazing at nearby Sizewell.
So I’m sticking to Crete, where the glorious views and sunshine make it very hard to believe that this is a country on the brink of economic collapse. Drive 10 minutes into the hills and you come to villages where the men still drink raki and play cards outdoors while the women sit on their doorsteps dressed in black (I’ve asked my wife to do the same when I’m gone) and nobody has even heard of the eurozone. But there are reminders.
This month saw a particularly aggressive taxi strike which hurt business everywhere as tourism, their one certain asset, took the hit. As visitors found themselves unable to leave cruise ships or airports, it struck me as mean and even suicidal… the same mentality as too often displayed by London tube drivers, I would have said. And I heard a depressing story at my local taverna a few days ago. At Greek weddings, it is the practice to pass envelopes bulging with cash to the bride, but in recent times, hard-pressed guests have been bulking out the euros with paper napkins. Sad that Greeks bearing gifts should come to this.
Partly as an intellectual exercise but mainly to immerse myself in this culture, I’m trying to learn Greek. Out here, even saying yammas (hello) to a passing stranger elicits a smile, so imagine if I can compliment them on the landscape and their donkey too. At least, that’s the theory.
But the Greek language is incredibly difficult. They seem to have five syllables for words that really only need one or two and there are about half a dozen different letters simply to make the “i” sound. And it’s not like other languages where you can more or less make yourself understood. Get a couple of stresses wrong and instead of asking someone the way to the beach, you’ve insulted their sister. On top of that, there are the obvious pitfalls. The Greek for “yes” is nai. How dumb is that? The Greek for “south” is norta. I simply can’t get my head around all this, although I now have a Greek teacher who comes every day for two hours. She is about 23, studied French and Japanese at Cambridge and also speaks German. Today she taught me the Greek for “inadequate”.
Before I came here, I spent six months with Rosetta Stone, which sounds like a character in a James Bond novel but is in fact a language programme that you can learn at home. I’m surprised how much I’ve managed to absorb… although it does have its strange limitations. For example, although I’ve got to the end of level two, I still can’t ask for a cup of coffee with milk but no sugar. On the other hand, should I wish to tell the world that a cat has jumped onto my computer or to make the somewhat dubious assertion that the young boys like to dance, I’m fine.
In the meantime, the work goes on. A new series for ITV, another novel, early research on a possible new series of Foyle. People say that the best thing about being a writer is that you can work anywhere, but I’m not quite sure it’s true. Writers have to be plugged in… in my case to the grime and graffiti, the noise and confusion of Clerkenwell, even the occasional riot. I need meetings. They remind me that I’m actually employed and that there are deadlines to be met. And lunches. It’s always good to know that there are still producers and publishers out there who want to buy you lunch. My agent telephoned today and wants to set up a call with a United States production company about a possible screenplay… a big project with a big-name director.
But I look out at the perfect blue (galaxios) Aegean Sea, the sun is shining, there’s a light breeze – and I wonder to myself if I can really be bothered. Which only reminds me that I need to get home. I need to suffer.