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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 18 October 2019

"Bus Stop Symi" by William Travis

Travis and his wife went to live on the remote island of Symi (an eight-mile long Greek island crammed with 180 churches, chapels and monasteries, in one of whose campanile's hangs "the nose cone of a 1000-kilo bomb ... its tone is good and that is what counts", at the far end of the Dodecannese, near Rhodes, under the shadow of Turkey) for four years in the mid-1960s. They rented and renovated a house, attended weddings and funerals and festivals, and had a daughter while learning about the islanders and a different way of life on an island with no roads.

It starts with three mysteries: why does the road-less (and therefore bus-less) island have a road roller, hidden away in a warehouse, and two bus shelters?

Symi is in the Iliad (as providing three ships for Agamemnon) and is famous for Prometheus. Having stolen fire and carried it in a hollow fennel stalk (as Symi women do when taking glowing coals to light a new fire) he was punished by being turned into a monkey (simis in Greek) and confined on the Island

This is a charming and lyrical record of an alternative way of life. But there are realities and sadnesses. Symi's historical trade was sponge-diving (they held the Ottoman monopoly). They dived naked until the deep-sea diving suits came in, then they went down further. Without any understanding in those days of the dangers of surfacing too quickly, perhaps one in three of the divers died from the bends; many others were subsequently crippled. The author encounters two old divers in a tavern; underneath them is a pile of stinking rags because they can no longer control their bladders. There is a terrible story related by the heroic linesman who realised his diver was having problems and so pulled him up as quickly as he could; he is proud of having saved the man's life and has no realisation that his prompt action is responsible for the man's paralysis.

There is also a fascinating account of the troubles of the second world war and the destruction of the Acropolis when the Germans blew up their stored ammunition before leaving the island; one German breaking the secrecy in which this was supposed to happen and so enabling perhaps five hundred villagers to evacuate from the area before the explosion.

One of the lasting legacies was that this couple taught the islanders to swim. Before then, despite being a an island of fishermen and sponge divers, no one swam: "the sea was dangerous ... It tasted bitter and it choked you. It took the young men away to foreign lands and drowned those who sought nin its depths for sponges." (C 8)

There are wonderful anecdotes. One concerns how a priest (who are married men, often from the community, and treated without especial reverence, at a baptism, angry at being jostled, thrust his Bible at an offending woman, striking her in the breasts. She retaliated and pushed him over; he struck his head on a marble step and it required all the available holy water to revive him. The baptism had to be cancelled.

This is better than the Corfu trilogy of Gerald Durrell (My family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, Garden of the Gods). True it lacks the bizzare antics of the Durrell family and it lacks even more the purple patches of pure wondrous description that Durrell manages it. However, it treats the Symiots with respect, rather than just as quirky characters, and at the end I felt I truly understood the everyday lives of the islanders.

There are many moments of magic and fun:

  • "Like most of Greece, Symi is built upon the bones of her conquerors and has become a living monument to them all." (C 1)
  • "Borne on the shoulders of four men was the coffin - but open and with the corpse propped up for all the world to see, or, as an observer said; 'Taking its last look round' ... Here was Death itself for all to see - green-skinned, shrunken-faced with open rictus-set jaw and shrivelled, blackened tongue. Over one edge of the coffin dangled a skinny foot ... to show the townsfolk that the deceased was going to his grave properly shod and not as a pauper." (C 3)
  • "Baptisms are more important than battles and to hold a grandchild by the hand is to hold life. He who holds a grenade holds but death ... which is why they have bomb-cases as church bells, artillery shells as flower pots, gun barrels as candle sticks ..."(C 6)
  • "The month of May is considered unlucky for marriages to be solemnized since this is when donkeys - notoriously difficult breeders in spite of their lustiness - are coupled." (C 7)
  • "A couple of years ago a group of Symi's virgins were discovered in an empty building, high up on the mountainside, dancing frenziedly about Savas [a teenage village idiot] naked as Pan and quite as hairy, with garlands around his neck and mountain flowers woven in the mat of his pubic hair and adorning his rampant phallus. Maenads still exist upon the Symiot hills it seems, and bacchanals are still celebrated." (C 7)
  • "Who can call washing-up an unpleasantness when all that is required is to slide greasy plates and cutlery a fathom deep onto a bed of sea-urchins and return an hour later to find the crockery scoured bone-clean under the polishing jaws of the sea's scavengers?" (C 8)
  • "A greengrocer asleep on a bench outside his shop will be decorated by passers-by with his own goods." (C 9)
  • "The Orthodox Church ... insists that all its village priests are married - for how can a family-less bachelor, albeit a cleric, give acceptable advice to the labouring father of ten children?" (C 9)

October 2019; 221 pages

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):
Autobiographies of men who have achieved:
  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Life in exotic islands:
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

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