The Isle is Full of Noises

The Scops owl starts up every night with its unmisseable one note call.




If you really got your ear in, it would slowly drive you mad: the sound of a fire alarm battery running down. I love the Scops owl; small enough to sit on a human hand - about 5” high - with a hooked beak and expression of utmost ferocity, it clearly has no idea that it is not as impressively fierce or as romantically Gothic as its many cousins.

Scops Owl

Photo © Sharon Johnson

So, beep beep, like clockwork every evening... Meanwhile, Igor, the white dog next door on the goat-and-chicken smallholding (equally unaware of how small and, in his case, fluffily unimpressive, he is) opens up, newly surprised by it every night. Maria, Igor’s owner, shouts at him to pipe down. Eventually the Albanians down the lane’s bigger, gruffer, scarier dog joins in.

Beep. Yip. Beep. Yip. Igor! Yip beep yip.

IGOR! Kakos skylos! Yip!

WOOF! Snarl.



In May the Ionian nightscape is all wonder: fireflies and a million upon million stars. Points of light spark in the olive groves, and fill the skies from horizon to horizon.

Even the vast rubbish mountain outside my neighbour’s five year home improvement project has a strange and shimmering beauty. This is my other neighbour, the handsom luthier and professional bouzouki player of the serial romantic disasters.

He is restoring his nineteenth-century house. Just visible behind the spoil heaps of rubble, bags of cement turned into boulders by several long, wet Ionian winters, rotten floor boards, discarded white goods and bits of the last girlfriend but three’s car that he cannot, yet, bear to part with, the house is nearing magnificence and — who knows? — completion.

The stucco is a sort of Pompeian red, the window frames and shutters verdigris. But, he explains, the most recent girlfriend chose the colours and now – to live with the pain of memory or face the considerable labour of repainting the whole thing?

There are more elemental problems this year.

In the blackness of a winter’s night, a tornado struck the island. It tore through the 500 year old olive groves, wresting up the vast trees, lifting the occasional roof.

A narrow strip of island, formerly a place of dense woodland and dappled light, was reduced to stumps and jagged shards, a 40 metre wide strip of violent destruction.

My little hamlet was on the edge of it.


My terrace garden – formerly a shady bower under the ancient olive and fragrant lemon trees, hidden from the world - is now a sunlit open space, overlooked by goats, Igor (yip) , my elderly neighbours (wave), and the young Albanian family who have set up an alfresco sitting room furnished with the ubiquitous white plastic chairs, on the hillside above me. There they wave and, of an evening, roast lamb (or, I hope, goat) and, on special occasions, sing very long songs into the night.

But my musician neighbour laments only the two great pine trees, which, before the tornado, stood below his house. ’They were like lovers’ he says , ‘for so long, leaning towards each other. And now,’ he sighs, ‘it is finished. Like always. Broken.’

I have lunch with my Greek friend down the road. ‘That rubbish heap is disgusting’ she says. ‘What he needs is a woman.’


Greece: On the Eve of What Next?

The water pump is roaring on and on, blotting out all else. The water is pumped from a sterna which collects the copious winter rains but now it’s vibrating wildly and in the suspiciously hot smell I envisage a disastrous island conflagration known to have started right here.

I ring the pump expert. “Find the little box of electrics and hit it with a brick,” he says.

There is a brick suspiciously near the pump so I use it. The pump subsides; I can hear the cicadas again and the swallows again.


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Greece: a Rock and a Hard Place

Five days until the new elections here in Greece and I wake early. There are two things I get used to very fast when I return to Greece: the cocks crowing from 5.00am onwards – the cock on my elderly neighbours small-holding seems to be the sentinel bird for the whole valley – and the lighthouse; every couple of minutes its distinctive pattern of two long flashes and two short sweeps across my bedroom wall. On sleepless nights it’s something of a comfort. The constant rhythm of lighthouses and ports, fishing boats and ferry schedules is one of the constants of this nation.

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Vienna 2: What Lies Beneath...

I wrote my post-graduate dissertation on the dramatic and symbolic meaning of blood in Ancient Rome. I am profoundly blood phobic, and every time I picked up my central text, on blood-letting, I’d end up lying on my bed with a cold flannel over my face. My father had adopted the same attitude to his fear of heights: he chose to do his national service as an airborne gunner. It wasn’t the airborne bit which made him sick every time, or the guns, but the bit in between: jumping out of the plane at 10,000 ft.

These perversities of choice (and their failure) delighted my mother, a Freudian psycho-therapist.

Nevertheless, walking down the apparently endless Währingerstrasse on a grey winter’s day, past the neo-Gothic Votivkirche, a massive Coca-Cola advertisement not so much not so much emblazoned on the porch as offering some sort of annunciation- past the dusty academic bookshops selling surgical texts and plastic skeletons, to (eventually) the Josephinum, was something of an act of courage.

The Vota-Cola Cocakirche Votivkirche, Vienna

December in Vienna: On Music, Memory and the Basilisk

My emotional landscape has always been also a geographical one. When in a strange place I simply want to wander, to be surprised. I think my wandering is about a sense of being, for a while, un-findable; of a tiny edge of risk and possibility.

This year I went to Vienna twice. In February I went by train with my brother and sister; the first journey with just us together since we were children. We had picnicked in our tiny sleeper as the Rhine, its waters obsidian, its banks all fairy lights, rushed past us with castles lit like opera sets on their crags.

Just before Christmas I returned to spend longer there.

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Exquisite restraint on the Viennese Christmas Tree