Mr Brick-in-Sock

I’ve had quite an odd day today. Mr Insomnia’s opposite Mr Brick-in-Sock visited me last night and cold-cocked me for eight hours. I then got up and had a large breakfast whereupon he crept up behind me and knocked me out again for a further two hours. I felt absolutely knackered. I guess this was payback for lack of sleep and miles of swimming over the last few weeks. However, by midday I was starting to come around and started working on the copy editor’s notes and queries for Dark Intelligence.


This, for some reason, I found quite difficult, so diverted myself by cleaning my house. It was about time. Though I’m quite neat when it comes to putting things away and washing up etc, I have been neglecting the dusting and mopping. Next, at about 3.00PM, I felt hungry again so made some sandwiches. Obviously, this was Mr Brick-in-Sock’s cue to pay a visit again because after eating I collapsed for a further hour.

Now I’ve finished off the replies to the copy editor, done some ironing, swept up outside and am now wondering what to do with myself. It’s time, I guess, to get back to working through the next Transformation book: Factory Station Room 101 (working title until my editor tells me its too long, or something). Somewhere, in one of the notepads on this desk, I wrote down the page number I’d reached…     

Between The Rock and the Hard Place

My apologies for the title of this blog, but I couldn’t resist it.

So I met a guy down the pub the other day … let me rephrase that. I was down in Makrigialos and, since I sometimes find it painful to be in there, I avoided Revans and walked into a bar called The Rock.  
 On his way out of the bar was Tim, who lives in a village called Armeni up behind me (he’s the guy whose coffee bill has gone up because I keep stopping in at his house during my walks). He turned round and walked back in and we sat there enjoying a beer along with the owners of the bar: Chris and Claire. At one point Tim said, ‘You should go with Chris and his group – they go for a walk every Wednesday.’ Since I was in arrogant upswing mood I replied, ‘Nah, they’d never keep up with me.’ Later I listened a bit more closely. These walks are along various gorges. Later still, I meekly asked if I could go with them and, despite my gob, was invited.


This Wednesday I met Chris, Brian and Margaret in Makrigialos. Margaret drove us up the Pefki road and then up a fork from that, up and up until it terminated at a point where you just turn round and drive back. On the way up Chris pointed to a church and said, ‘We’re going a thousand feet above that (first picture below).


As we set out along what was effectively a goat track I realised this was going to be no pushover. Oh-oh, I thought, I’m about to be taught a lesson.


First stop was Vreiko Cave.


Thereafter the country got wilder and incredibly beautiful.


Here’s that church viewed from above on the other side – the white speck on top of that distant peak:

Here are Brian (with the hat) and Chris.

We negotiated a couple of gorges. Here’s just a few views – got loads and every one is a postcard.


While we were walking I was ever on the lookout for a plant called dictamus. This is the Cretan tea that is supposed to be a universal panacea. I’ve just been told by a guy called Martin, who is painting my house, that young Cretan men used to prove their manhood by climbing to remote spots to collect the stuff. I’ve also heard that people have been killed while collecting it. Anyway, I think the silvery stuff you see here in this ruined village is the real deal, but I’ve been wrong before so don’t take my word for it.


While we were walking, I kept checking my pedometer. Chris had told me that the walk would be about 15 kilometres, so about 9 miles. This is about what I’ve been walking up behind my house, but not on this kind of terrain.

I forgot to check the distance but, after a number of hours, we arrived at the village of Pefki where refreshments were in order.


After Pefki we walked down Pefki Gorge to Makrigialos with the temperature steadily rising all the way down. Up in the mountains it was cool. Prior to this walk I was worried that I might get overheated walking ‘down there’. What a prat. This walk was mostly ‘up there’ compared to where I walk behind Papagianades.


Finally arriving back in Makrigialos I went for a much needed swim. My pedometer read 10.3 miles. The things aren’t that accurate so it could have been less could have been more, but it was certainly one hell of a walk. Two days later now and I can still feel lead shot in my calf muscles.
Thanks Chris, Brian and Margaret.  

Silly O'Clock

Here I am awake at silly o’clock again so I might as well do a rambling blog post interspersed with the occasional and probably irrelevant picture. So what am I doing? Well, right now I’m wondering how I’ll get on walking 15 kilometres of gorges after sleeping for about 4 hours, and not 4 hours altogether, but each hour separate and distinct. This walk is one organised by a guy called Chris who along with his wife Claire runs The Rock – a bar in Makrigialos – and, having volunteered to go along, I can’t chicken out now. But then again I shouldn’t worry. Lack of sleep doesn’t seem to be affecting me as much as it should and, despite my best sleep over the last week being about 5 hours of raki-induced coma, I’ve walked 37 miles and swum 2.

All this insomnia, walking and swimming, combined with a lack of interest in food beyond it being fuel, has certainly had its effects. I actually have a belly that’s narrower than my chest now. When I lie down there’s a hollow there rather than a jelly mountain. My weight is beginning to dip below 12 stone, 2 stone lower than I was around Christmas and my lowest weight in perhaps 20 years. Of course, as is always the way with this sort of thing, while I am happy with this, others are not. I’ve been told to stop losing weight and that I’m starting to look a bit ragged, concerned females appear with plates of food and I’ve had shouted at me, ‘Neal! Where is your arse?’

So what else? Oh yeah, I am doing some editing on the second book of Transformations, provisionally titled Factory Station Room 101. But I have to say I’m finding it difficult to raise much interest in it. Then again, even at the best of times, once editing has moved beyond a certain stage, I find my interest plummeting. Perhaps I’ll just finish going through this next book, which won’t have to be delivered for a while yet, and try writing something new. I do have another section I removed from these Penny Royal books that I intend to turn into a short story, just like a previous section I turned into The Other Gun (published in Asimov’s).

Now, bouncing onto something else, what a crappy summer we’re having here on Crete. Usually by this time of year there is not a cloud in the sky, but this year the buggers are persistent. It has even rained in June, which I can’t remember happening before (though my memory is not to be relied on). Perhaps this is due to that global warming stuff – the prime mover of every weather event on the planet including snow in the Sahara, non-barbecue summers in England and probably rains of natterjack toads on Cairo. Oddly, this weather has screwed up my veg patch. Usually, it’s the heat that terminates my radish growing here – sending them rapidly to seed. This year they went straight there anyway and out of four rows of the things I’ve had about 3, and they were woody. Also my other salad veg had gone straight to seed. My only success has been spring onions, but I cannot live on them if I want a social life.

Finally onto the Greek. I’ve been finding things clicking into place in my skull lately. A major success was when Anna, my teacher, moved on from giving me verbs for ‘I do(whatever)’ to learn just in present, past and future, but all the other cases/versions. In English I fly, you fly, he flies, she flies, it flies, we fly, they fly, so it is all pretty easy. In Greek there is another version of ‘you fly’ that is a polite or refers to more than one ‘you’. And all of these are singular distinct words i.e. ‘I fly’ is one word, as is each of the rest, and as are the past tenses and the future tenses (though usually these last start with a separate ‘THa’ which is will or shall). Learning these lists of 18 verbs (he, she & it are all the same) I suddenly started to understand the rules. Now, if I learn just the ‘I do (whatever)’ verb, which I have to add is the only version you’ll find in Greek-English dictionaries, I can work out the other 17.

This is all great stuff, but sorting through list of verbs in my skull, or trying to work out the correct version to use, doesn’t much help with my conversational skills. By the time I’m ready with my reply the Greek in question has wandered off and trimmed a couple of olive trees. Now, therefore, the format of my lessons has changed: more talk and less writing.

Okay, that’s all for now. Time to get ready for my walk.      

Lost Towards Sklavi

Sunday 20th April

Yesterday I hooked my camera on my belt with the intention of heading up to where I walked the day before to take some pictures I thought might be engaging. These were to be of a wrecked wind turbine blade stored up on the mountain behind, turbine spare parts that look like a collection of items one might see at a NASA museum, and some shots of a particular valley that is becoming increasingly beautiful as everything begins flowering. I therefore headed up the road from my house but rather than take my usual route I left the road early along a path I had discovered on a previous walk. This was a mistake.

The way I discovered this path was, while on the way back from a long walk, by heading towards a church I thought I recognised as sitting alongside my usual route up onto the ‘wind turbine mountain’. When I passed the church I just couldn’t find my usual route. Perhaps I was distracted by the field of grapevine supports looking like a cemetery of steel crosses lying ahead. Anyway, I kept going, sure I would eventually hit a road I would recognise. Just when I started to feel completely lost I walked up a short concreted slope and found myself on the road just a few hundred metres up from my house. When taking my next walk to the mountain I realised I had crossed my usual route before – I just didn’t recognise it from an unfamiliar perspective. This is precisely what happened when I tried to retrace this newly discovered path. I took a wrong fork and found myself heading opposite to my intended direction, down into a valley.

Having realised my mistake I thought what the hell and just kept going. The village of Sklavi lay sort of where I was heading so I thought I’d go there. Deeper down into the valley the weeds got taller and the path kept disappearing. I found myself mountain climbing at one point, and in other places scrambling up through steep terraced olive groves. After about 2 miles of this I came up out of the valley, followed a track I thought might be heading in the right direction, and found myself back where I started next to the road above Papagianades.

Now somewhat miffed I took another route towards Sklavi. This took me past a house surrounded by a tall security fence from behind which a Rottweiler the size of a pony snarled at me. I accelerated my pace to high-speed casual stroll. After this I again began getting lost. I kept trying to get to Sklavi and finding routes looping away again. It was all like trying to follow a seawall path from one coastal village to another in Essex. Your destination village might be 2 miles away as the crow flies, but the path will take you on a 5-mile meander around the mud flats.

I found myself down in a valley again in the tall weeds with the paths disappearing. I scrambled through more olive groves and at one point wandered through someone’s garden. Eventually I saw the roofs of the village but as seemed usual was on a path taking me away from them. I scrambled through olive groves to find another path, followed this until it simply disappeared into weeds, then I went down through a steep grove, sliding on my heels down eight-foot tall terraces and eventually dropping out on the road above the village.

Here are some shots of the village of Sklavi where, incidentally, the first human I saw was a scot who frequents the kafenion in Papagianades. He refuelled me with tea and tried to offload some Greek pastries onto me (old ladies in these villages apparently think men should be as wide as they are tall).

Here are some shots during my walk back to Papagianades (by road) where I finally stopped for a cold bottle of Fix beer. At 5.5 miles this wasn’t my longest walk but with all the off-piste stuff it was as knackering.

Wrecked wind turbines next time!


A Walk to Handras

Here are some pictures along the way of the first walk I took.


The route leads from behind my house and up into the mountains.


The local Greeks don’t have much respect for signs – even on the main routes up here they have holes blown through them.


Up the top here I come to the wind turbines. I was told they had been turned off because those maintaining them hadn’t been paid for three months. However I have seen them running since. On the way up I had to stop to rest three times as the track is getting on for as steep as a staircase.


Over the other side of the mountain and down (Handras off in the distance to the left) I was floating and high on endorphins. Damn but I felt really good and knew then that I’d done the right thing in coming here and tramping about.


One of the numerous churches to be found around here.


This is the buzzing centre of Handras and it was certainly buzzing a few years back. Over to the left is a kafenion/taverna where Caroline and I were having some wine with some friends. While we were there an earthquake struck. The lamp post you see, along with others, was whipping back and forth like a sapling. I kept to my seat, since we were outside, others leapt up, while a Greek woman all in black rushed out of her house babbling to god and crossing herself.

The road out of Handras and one of the views along the way.


This is Etia – a Venetian village plus villa. Nice taverna here I’ll visit when it’s open.


And here’s a nice flowering tree in Etia.

I could of course fill this blog with hundreds of pictures. Generally up here you just have to point and click and you have a postcard. I have plenty of time to add pictures that might be of interest. I’ve since done this walk many times, with variations, and each time the distance has ranged from 6 to 7 miles.

Full of Illusions

On June 3rd of last year there was only this post that might have given anyone a hint that something was wrong:
Well, how odd that my last post concerned health systems. So, without going into personal detail, what do you think of the likelihood of this happening on the NHS: getting to see a doctor, without appointment, in quarter of an hour; less than an hour later getting blood and urine taken for testing at a microbiology lab; then an ultrasound scan shortly after that, but only when your bladder is full enough – being sent away by the technician to drink beer and water; then being sent by the technician to a specialist doctor for further check-ups and another scan (though having to wait for half an hour because the doctor was busy); and the next day – at midday – getting an MRI scan; and, in every case, being greeted by the professional concerned with, “Yes, I know who you are.” Actually, I wonder if this would even be possible in England if you went private. Quite a lot of this is to do with numbers of people.

Of course this was about Caroline who, though she felt fine at the time, had noticed some blood appearing where it hadn’t since before her (early) menopause. I wrote some more for this blog, but she didn’t want me to post stuff about her and, as things steadily went from bad to worse I just didn’t write about it any more. Writing is often cathartic. In this case it just wasn’t.

But why the title of this blog post? Well, here’s one of those unpublished posts from a week after the one above.

June 10th

Well, it’s been a traumatic week, hence the lateness of this blog entry. The hospital stuff I related last Monday concerned Caroline who, it turns out, has a cluster of growths eleven-and-a-half centimetres across in one of her ovaries. The internet being the perfect hunting ground for the hypochondriac, in that it is a place where you can relate any set of symptoms to some lethal malady, we were having fun looking at ovarian cancer. If she had that her chances were not much different to those of my brother Martin i.e. she could survive for five years, with treatment, but it wouldn’t be life. However, there are no growths outside of her ovary, her lymphatic system is showing no signs of anything nasty and it seems that these growths are benign. That being said they have to go.
A number of years ago we would have gone running back to England but now we know better. If we went back it seems likely that months of hospital and doctor visits would ensue, with lengthy waits between each, followed by another lengthy wait for an operation. Screw that – we’re going private here. What else are savings for if not for something like this? The gynaecologist is booking Caroline into a private clinic in Iraklion for an operation within the next ten days. Hopefully a result of that will be that she’ll lose all those twinges and back-aches, and regain her waistline – much to the irritation of many women here who already think she’s far too slim.
We were wrong about the tumours being benign, wrong about the survival time, wrong about staying in Crete for treatment, wrong about the kind of cancer it turned out to be … in fact it was from this point onwards that our illusions were steadily destroyed – the ground cut from underneath us week after week. But yes, she did lose her large belly after the oophorectomy and hysterectomy she had here in England and, of course, there’s nothing quite so slimming as something called cachexia.   

Totalitarian Europe

How about this for a bit of totalitarianism from the EU? This is from the Tobacco Products Directive and part of the stifling regulations they propose to bring into law.
5. Member States shall ensure that:
a) Commercial communications with the aim or direct or indirect effect of promoting electronic cigarettes and refill containers are prohibited in information society services as defined in Article 1(2) of Directive 98/48/EC, in the press and other printed publications, with the exception of publications that are intended exclusively for professionals in the trade of the products and for publications which are printed and published in third countries, where those publications are not principally intended for the European Union market;
b)Commercial communications with the aim or direct or indirect effect of promoting electronic cigarettes and refill containers are prohibited in the radio;
c)Any form of public or private contribution to radio programmes with the aim or direct or indirect effect of promoting electronic cigarettes and refill containers is prohibited;
d) Any form of public or private contribution to any event, activity or individual with the aim or direct or indirect effect of promoting electronic cigarettes and refill containers and involving or taking place in several Member States or otherwise having cross-border effects is prohibited;
e) Audiovisual commercial communications falling under Directive 2010/13/EU are prohibited for electronic cigarettes and refill containers;
You would think this is about something bad for you, like cigarettes, rather than about something that has allowed 7 million people across Europe to either quit smoking or cut down on their smoking. Do you see what the above means? A health revolution akin to the invention of the Polio vaccine must not be advertised, anywhere.
If you, as an individual, have given up smoking by using an ecig you are not allowed to talk about it on radio, on the TV or in the newspapers, or here on the Internet. All the media – newspapers, TV, radio, Internet – is to be gagged because if anyone in them talks about ecigs in any other terms than them being the product of Satan that will be the ‘direct or indirect effect of promoting electronic cigarettes’. The ‘cross-border effect’ can be ignored, since newspapers, TV, radio & Internet cross all borders. In fact most of the posts I have on this blog concerning ecigs will be prohibited. Meetings of ecig enthusiasts will be banned and ecig fairs will be prohibited, since just one tweet would make it ‘cross-border’.
Welcome to the future as it increasingly looks like The Departure
Here’s my Vamo which I recommend to anyone who wants to try quitting smoking.
Fuck EU.

Viscount Ridley’s Speech on Ecigs in the House of Lords

Viscount Ridley (Con):
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Astor, on securing this debate. It is an issue of much greater importance than the sparse attendance might imply and one that is growing in importance. I have no interest to declare in electronic cigarettes: I dislike smoking and have never done it. I have only once tried a puff on an e-cigarette, which did nothing for me. I am interested in this issue as a counterproductive application of the precautionary principle. I should say that I am indebted to Ian Gregory of Centaurus Communications for some of the facts and figures that I will cite shortly.
There are, at the moment, about 1 million people in this country using electronic cigarettes, and there has been an eightfold increase in the past year in the number of people using them to try to quit smoking. Already, 15% of ex-smokers have tried them, and they have overtaken nicotine patches and other approaches to become the top method of quitting in a very short time. The majority of those who use electronic cigarettes to try to quit smoking say that they are successful.
Here we have a technology that is clearly saving lives on a huge scale. If only 10% of the 1 million users in the country are successful in quitting, that would save £7 billion, according to the Department of Health figures given in answer to my Written Question last month, which suggest that the health benefits of each attempt to quit are £74,000. In that Answer, Minister said that,
“a policy of licensing e-cigarettes would have to create very few additional successful quit attempts for the benefits to justify its costs”.—[Official Report, 18/11/13; col. WA172.]
But who thinks that licensing will create extra quit attempts? By adding to the cost of e-cigarettes, by reducing advertising and by unglamorising them, it is far more likely that licensing will create fewer quit attempts. Will the Minister therefore confirm that, by the same token, a policy of licensing e-cigarettes would have to reduce quit attempts by a very small number for that policy to be a mistake?
Nicotine patches are also used to reduce smoking and they have been medicinally regulated, but there has been extraordinarily little innovation in them and low take-up over the years. Does the Minister agree with the report by Professor Peter Hajek in the Lancet earlier this year, which said that the 30-year failure of nicotine patches demonstrated how the expense and delays caused by medicinal regulation can stifle innovation? Does my noble friend also agree with analysts from Wells Fargo who this month said that if e-cigarette innovation is stifled: “this could dramatically slow down conversion from combustible cigarettes”?
We should try a thought experiment. Let us divide the country in two. In one half—let us call it east Germany for the sake of argument—we regulate e-cigarettes as medicines, ban their use in public places, restrict advertising, ban the sale of refillable versions, and ban the sale of e-cigarettes stronger than 20 milligrams per millilitre. In the other half, which we will call west Germany, we leave them as consumer products, properly regulated as such, allow them to be advertised as glamorous, allow them on trains and in pubs, allow the sale of refills, allow the sale of flavoured ones, and allow stronger products. In which of these two parts of the country would smoking fall fastest? It is blindingly obvious that the east would see higher prices—and prices are a serious deterrent to attempts to quit smoking because many of the people who smoke are poorer than the average. We would see less product innovation, slower growth of e-cigarette use and more people going back to real cigarettes because of their inability to get hold of the type, flavour and strength that they wanted. Therefore, more people would quit smoking in the western half of the country.
What are the drawbacks of such a policy? There is a risk of harm from electronic cigarettes, as we have heard. How big is that risk? The Minister confirmed to me in a Written Answer earlier this year that the best evidence suggests that they are 1,000 times less dangerous than cigarettes. The MHRA impact assessment says that the decision on whether to regulate e-cigarettes should be based on the harm that they do. Yet that very impact statement says that, “any risk is likely to be very small”,
that there is, “an absence of empirical evidence” and “no direct clinical evidence”, that “the picture is unclear”, and—my favourite quote—states: “Unfortunately, we have no evidence”, of harm.
There is said to be a risk of children taking up e-cigarettes and then turning to real cigarettes. Just think about that for a second. For every child who goes from cigarettes to electronic cigarettes, there would there have to be 1,000 going the other way, from e-cigarettes to cigarettes, for this to do any net harm. The evidence suggests, as my noble friend Lord Borwick has said, that the gateway is the other way. Some 20% of 15 year-olds smoke, and evidence from ASH and a study in Oklahoma suggests strongly that when young people use electronic cigarettes they do so to quit, just like adults do.
If we are to take a precautionary approach to the risks of nicotine, will the Minister consider regulating aubergines as medicines? They also contain nicotine. If you eat 10 grams of aubergine, which you easily could with a plateful of moussaka, you will absorb the same amount of nicotine as if you shared a room with a cigarette smoker for three hours. It is not an insignificant quantity. That is data from the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993. If we are worried about unknown and small risks, can the Minister explain to me why, as Professor Hajek, put it, more dangerous chemicals, such as bleach, rely on packaging and common sense rather than on medicinal licensing?
There has been approximately an 8% reduction in the use of tobacco in Europe in the past year. The tobacco companies are worried. A big part of that reduction seems to be because of the rapid take-up of electronic cigarettes. They are facing their Kodak moment—the moment when their whole technology is replaced by a rival technology that, in this case, is 1,000 times safer. Does my noble friend think that there may be a connection between the rise of electronic cigarettes, the rapid decline in tobacco sales and the enthusiasm of tobacco companies for the medicinal regulation of electronic cigarettes?
It is not just big tobacco; big pharma has shown significant interest in the regulation of electronic cigarettes. That is not surprising because they are, again, a rival to patch products and other nicotine replacement therapies. Perhaps more surprising is that much of the medical establishment is in favour of medicinal regulation. I never thought I would live to see the BMA and the tobacco industry on the same side of an argument.
The BMA says that electronic cigarettes cannot be considered a lower-risk option, but this completely flies in the face of the evidence. As we have heard already, electronic cigarettes are 1,000 times safer. The BMA says that it is worried about passive vaping, the renormalising of smoking and the use of electronic cigarettes as a gateway to smoking. The excellent charity Sense About Science, to which I am proud to be an adviser, has asked the BMA for evidence to support those assertions. I must say that there is a strong suspicion that the only reason the medical establishment wants to see these things regulated as medicines is because it cannot bear to see the commercial sector achieving more in a year in terms of getting people off cigarettes than the public sector has achieved in 10. Instead of talking about regulating this product, should we not be talking about encouraging it, promoting it and letting people vape indoors if they want to—in pubs, on trains and in football grounds—specifically so that they are tempted to vape instead of smoke? That would be of enormous benefit to them and to the country as a whole.
I end by asking specifically in relation to the agreement that, as we heard from my noble friend Lord Borwick, was agreed last night, what its impact will be on what is happening, and in particular on advertising. As I understand it, under the agreement reached yesterday, it will be possible for the advertising of these things to be banned as if they were cigarettes. What is the justification for that, given the proportionality and the evidence that they will actually save lives rather than harm them?

Killing Cancer like the Common Cold

This is excellent news.

“This is absolutely one of the more exciting advances I’ve seen in cancer therapy in the last 20 years,” said Dr. David Porter, a hematologist and oncologist at Penn. “We’ve entered into a whole new realm of medicine.”

In the therapy, doctors first remove the patient’s T-cells, which play a crucial role in the immune system. They then reprogram the cells by transferring in new genes. Once infused back into the body, each modified cell multiplies to 10,000 cells. These “hunter” cells then track down and kill the cancer in a patient’s body.

Ban Tea!

This is brilliant:

“Dear Sir/Madam

I would like to draw your attention to a situation that has gone under the radar for too long. Businesses up and down the country are, to this day, allowing this situation to continue, and are in many cases misguidedly encouraging it by providing and in some cases even allowing its consumption at the heart of the workplace, potentially risking the health not only of the person consuming it, but of those innocent people who have its effects forced upon them. 

I am of course talking about tea.”