Shortly after I began presenting the folk programme for BBC Radio 2 some fourteen years ago I found myself out in Austin, Texas to cover the South by South West Festival there, recording interviews and making programmes. Nic Barraclough and Bob Harris were out there also for their programmes as was my executive producer John Leonard. One night, as we were sitting round the dinner table I said it was a pity that we didn’t have a Folk Music Hall of Fame similar to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
We chatted on, looking at various possibilities: could there be a Folk Centre somewhere in the Midlands perhaps; could Cecil Sharpe House become a folk music Hall of Fame. We came to the conclusion that getting a building would be difficult – but we could at least have an awards ceremony like the Nashville awards that recognised excellence in Folk.
From that simple idea came the Folk Awards. The BBC put up some money (to hire venues, put up acts in hotels, pay their airfares etc.) and John got on with the work of contacting festival and folk club organisers, record company execs, folk journalist and folk programme presenters asking them to be judges.
There are 170 of them and each year they are asked to do two things…
1 – sign a form saying that they will not vote for anybody that they have a personal or financial interest in
2 – fill in a form with their nominations for best singer, best new song, horizon award etc.
The forms are scrutinised to check that the judges are not voting for acts they record or represent – none ever have …EVER
That is all – no swearing to secrecy, no cloak and dagger
The people who receive the awards do, on the whole, represent the best on the folk scene at the present moment. It may seem to some that unknowns are not represented, but that is the same in any profession – we all have to serve our time. The notion that somebody can pick up a guitar one week and appear at Cambridge the next is just nonsense. There may well be great undiscovered acts out there – but if they’re all that great they won’t be undiscovered for long. I spend hours trawling the web and listening to links people have sent me as does my producer Jon Lewis.
The nominations come from the judges on the basis of their personal judgement and are not drawn from the playlist for my programme – whether or not I have played most of them is neither here nor there.
After the first round of nominations 4 names come forward in each category and the judges then vote on these. The end results are announced on the night of the awards together with the Good Folk Award and Lifetime Achievement Awards – these are made to people who have done just that – been good to the folk world or worked all their life in a very special way for folk.
There are no cliques / cabals or covens.
All we are trying to do is further the music we all love.
I don’t know who the other judges are and I don’t care. I know enough about both the BBC and my producer John Leonard to know that everything is above board.
Trust is everything.
I don’t particularly care whether the names of the judges become public knowledge or not – they weren’t kept secret they just weren’t published.I suspect that both Smooth Operations and the BBC thought nobody would be much interested in knowing who they were– I would however point out that…
1 – Judges might not want their names known because they could possibly become the subjects of either lobbying or abuse
The lobbying I doubt simply because there ain’t that much money in folk that a big record company are going to start flying Fred Bloggs the organiser of WIlberswick Folk Festival to Cannes. Also I suspect that the folk world – because of its very roots – is fundamentally anti big business and is still at base a world in which honesty and being rooted is very important– you couldn’t find more rooted and honest people for example than Chris Wood and Martin Simpson two of this years nominees.
Abuse (as from the evidence of this “transparency” campaign) is much more likely.
2 – The campaign to “out” the judges seems to be generating hot air, hysteria, misinformation and personal attacks that are completely unnecessary. I deeply believe that if the names were made known, the trolls that are rubbishing the Folk Awards at the moment would just move on to rubbishing the judges. It’s a no win situation. I for one would just like to get on with making good programmes (please) and would love to be able to open my Facebook or Twitter pages and find it clear of nagging, false information, abuse and silliness (e.g. the recent tweet to “Occupy the Folk Awards”).
The Folk Awards came about because of the music we love – not for any monetary or egotistical gain – it was simply to share the good things of the folk world – and we managed to get the BBC to spend a good deal of time and money working on them. Not everybody agrees with the result but I think that many people feel that it does largely recognise and applaud all the good stuff that is happening on todays folk scene. I too have my reservations about some of the results – but the voting is fair and honest so I accept the decisions. That’s what happens in any voting process. Look at the long list of people who’ve received awards over the years and tell me that people like the Copper Family, Christy Moore, Joan Baez, Spiers and Boden, Chris Wood, Andy Cutting, Nancy Kerr and James Fagin, Martin Simpson, Ewan McLennan, Norma Waterson, Eliza Carthy, Jackie Oates, Lucy ward etc. are not worthy of nomination.
We have one hour a week of folk on BBC mainstream. We should be making it easier for the BBC to work with us, not harder.
Subject: Mailshot April 03
Date: Sun, 06 Apr 2003 18:21:19 +0100
So the cattle prodder and the thumbscrew eventually worked and Spike blubbering and gibbering gave up the secret of the Rosicrucians and the master CDs of Rooted and One Man Show.
One Man Show was the first real live grown up album I made after Mrs ‘Ardin’s Kid and A Lancashire Lad – a double album with such classics of the genre as Napoleon’s retreat From Wigan, Talking Blackpool Blues and The Crumpsall Cream Cracker Corned Beef Cubs Go To Camp. It’s been deleted for years and now thanks to the wonders of medical science and a pair of Boots Thumbscrews it is available once more in full digital glory.
Rooted is the album I made after a tour of Oz in 1981 when I performed at various arts festivals in Australia and gathered enough material for several albums. I wrote a series of articles for the Guardian and in one of them I described a wine tasting trip down the Barossa Valley. The valley was developed by German immigrants and is quite bizarre in a way because it has along its length some very Germanic looking Schloss (castles) with people in lederhosen wandering about and Oompah Bands on every corner. Quite unsettling when you1ve just driven past hundreds of kangaroos, emus and such.
The wine in those early days was quite good but hadn’t yet got to the stage where you’d enthuse about it. I didn’t. “Young with a hint of gumboot.” was how I described one wine.
The Australian Press were furious when they read the article- I got home to a bunch of angry letters and some clipping from a press agency in Sydney. One clipping from an Australian daily had the headline “Pom Comic Rubbishes Oz Plonk.” I didn’t send them a review copy of the album.
Rooted contains such songs as – She’ll Be Right Mate, When The Martians Land In Huddersfield and The Wath On Dearne Blues.
Listening to One Man Show and Rooted all these years later they bring back a lot of memories and though they might seem a bit tame when compared to the effin and jeffin of much of todays comedy they (like much of my stuff) are children of their time – a gentler and more innocent time perhaps when humour didn’t need to rub your nose in it and when it did seem as though there was some hops.
Seeing as this is such a short newsletter I’m sticking in a bit of the autobiography I’m working on – Playing The Piano Upside Down. This is
Me Cissy Worswick And The Cannibal Queen
I don’t remember how she did it but I do remember that one day my mother tricked me into going to school.
‘You’ll like it’ she said, ‘Colin Duff goes and he likes it.’
Colin Duff was a Catholic too, a year older than me. There weren’t any other Catholics in our street. He lived with his gran in the next street. She was a little old lady with a mole on her top lip and she always seemed to me to be very kind and very gentle.
Colin was all right but I didn’t play with him much because he lived in the next street and because I was too young to be in his gang.
That first day my mother took me to school.
The baby class was in what had been the stable block of the old lawyer’s house that was now St Anne’s Roman Catholic School Crumpsall. The Catholics had bought the house and turned it into a school, building a wooden church in the grounds where I went with my Nanna to Mass and Benediction.
It was warm and sunny as my mum walked me hand in hand to the school and it seemed to me that it would be much better if instead of going to school I stayed home and played out. It would probably be hot enough to melt the pitch in between the cobbles and I could play with it, digging it out with a lollipop stick. But my mother insisted that I would have an even better time in school. I almost believed her.
When we got to school there were lots of other children in the playground: running round squealing, playing tiggy, playing trains and whip and top. My mother held my hand while I looked at this mass of humanity. Outside the crowded beaches of Blackpool I’d never seen so many people in one place at the same time.
A lady (who I would later come to know as Mrs Barnett the dinner lady) came out with a bell in her hands and rang it and all the children ran and stood in lines outside their classrooms. We went over to the infants and my mum handed me over to a lady called Miss Worswick who had steel rimmed glasses and her hair up in a bun like my Nanna. I thought her terribly old but I expect that she was probably only in her late forties, if that. My mum had somehow de-materialised and left me on Planet School where Miss Worswick, the Emperor Ming, took me by the hand and sat me at a table with a boy with a runny nose. Twin candles of snot slid down towards his top lip from his nostril slowly crawling downwards until they reached the edge of his lip at which point he would give a powerful sniff, jerking his head back at the same time so that the twin trails would vanish back into the caves of his nostrils. I found this disgusting and fascinating at the same time.
The room smelt of plasticine and stale pee and there were friezes on the wall of The Gingerbread Man and Jack and Jill tumbling down the hill.
Miss Worswick gave me some wooden shapes to make letters from. I could do that easily because I could already read, so I made the letters and then rolled a plasticine snake. This together with counting cowrie shells and a strange thing called sleepy time blanket when we were all made to lie down and pretend to be asleep took up most of the day. At home time my mother collected me and took me back along the warm afternoon streets.
The next morning she woke me up and told me to get washed and dressed.
‘Because you’re going to school.’
‘I went yesterday.’
My child’s mind saw school as a one off, a one day event, like going to the park or the zoo. You didn’t necessarily have to do it again.
Moaning and wailing I was dragged through the Crumpsall streets shouting my grief to the chimney pots. Old ladies clucked as my poor mother struggled with this snivelling ball of misery who’s world had suddenly ended, shaking their heads saying, ‘He’ll soon get used to it.’ and ‘Mine cried for a month before he settled down.’
Eventually we got to the door of that gloomy old building, arriving long after the other children had gone in and the door was closed.
Miss Worswick heard my wailing and came to the door.
‘He won’t go in.’ my mother said.
‘Oh yes he will.’ said Miss Worswick.
She took a grip of my jumper and pulled.
I got one foot on each side of the door jamb and leaned back flailing and screaming. I might have been small but I was rough and tough and also half-mad with grief at being wrenched away from the world of play and fun into this world of plasticine, pee and snot. Throwing my head back I screamed as loud as I could, aware of the small faces staring at me from their crayons and cowrie shells.
‘If you go, he’ll come in.’ said Miss Worswick.
My mum went home, I went in.
Two minutes later with well smacked legs, sniffling and gulping air I was staring at the head of the boy with the snot yo yos and reading some rubbish about John and Jane and a cat called Fluff. I never tangled with Miss Worswick again. She was one mean hombre.
The next day I walked to school with Colin Duff who filled me in on all kinds of stuff to do with school. Miss Mac Walter and Mrs Clark ran the top infants which he was in and they were a doddle compared to Miss Worswick so if I was good and showed that I could read and do my numbers I might get sent up to the top infants. I resolved to work my way out of the Worswick gulag as soon as I could.
The boy with the snot had been moved on to another table so I was sat with a couple more children who seemed pleasant enough. In fact one of them, Bernadette Lakeland I thought very pretty. When I got home that afternoon, quite an old hand at this school thing my mother asked me who I was sat next to
‘Bernadette Lakeland and a boy called Cannibal Queen.’
‘A boy called Cannibal Queen.’
And no matter how many times she asked she got the same answer. She took me to school herself the next morning and asked Miss Worswick who I was sat next to.
Years later, when I did the routine about Miss Worswick and the Angel’s Bum on BBC television, a woman wrote to me to say that she’d known Miss Worswick. Cissy and her had trained together as teachers and after a long number of years working in primary schools they had met up again. She had married and had children but Cissy had stayed single, living with her elderly parents looking after them through their frail and fading years.
‘She told me that every Sunday after dinner, her parents would go and lie down for a couple of hours and Cissy used to pull all the curtains, take all her clothes off, pour herself a glass of sherry and walk round the house naked for a couple of hours. She said it made her feel deliciously wicked.’
This lonely and loyal woman who walked naked round a quiet suburban house of a Sunday afternoon to my five year old eyes had been one of the fearsome giants of the grown up world and for most of my growing life I’d remembered her as a kind of ogre. We know so little.
The Second BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards
London 5th Feb 2001
There is an old Yiddish proverb that goes ‘Gatkis shmekkle – reem kaif chavver’ which translates as ‘What goes up must come down.’ Danny and I had this very much in our minds as we said goodbye to the Greek Gods and crawled off the fragmented summit of Olympus.
Since most deaths occur on descent; and since last week a Polish climber had gone to meet his maker down the Kaki Skala while descending from Olympus; and since Danny had a library book that he wanted to take back and didn’t want the fines to accumulate as he lay in a Greek hospital bed with tubes sticking in him; we took extra special care on our way down.
Dropping down the gully, making controlled sliding descents down near vertical slabs using our backsides as braking systems, we descended a few hundred feet to the traverse: then singing songs to ward away the demons we girded our loins, didn’t look down and scrambled back to the lip of the cauldron where Dimitri was waiting for us.
By his side were four strangers, two couples in their twenties who had, like Dimitri, decided the summit ridge was too much for them. They all clapped Danny and myself as we pulled up onto levelish ground.
‘Do you speak any English?’ I asked the strangers.
They shook their heads.
‘They’re Belgian.’ Dimitri explained.
‘Very nice chocolate, Tin Tin and Jacques Brel” I said smiling at the Belgians.
They smiled back.
Then I turned to Dimitri and gave him two minutes of very good Manchester swearing which included references to the fact that not only had he organised this trip and left the fruit of his loins and myself to do the last nasty bit while he lay snoring in the sun but that also he was a page boy at his parents wedding and not a member of Mensa; and furthermore if he ever asked me to climb a mountain again two words not unconnected with sex and travel would spring to mind.
The Belgians laughed. They did not understand the words but somehow the sentiment had communicated itself to them, particularly my cheerful mime showing that any future schemes of this sort would result in the impaling of Dimitri on one of his own sheek kebabs.
Having got this off my chest we began the descent, so elated at having climbed the mountain from sea to summit one of the hardest that any I have ever made, only eclipsed by the descent from the Gangalwat Pass in the Hindu Kush.
Not only had we just climbed 3,000 feet, the last five hundred a sever scramble, but we now had 6,000 feet of descent to make, most of it through piles of mule crap.
I won’t tire you with a blow by blow account of the heat, the dust, the flies that followed me down the mountain in clouds licking the salt sweat off my skin, only leaving me when I came to a particularly fine pile of mule crap – So they preferred mule crap to me!
On we trudged muttering and groaning in the heat – in the words of Captain Bloodnok “God it was Hell I tell you – no more curried eggs for me!”
By the time we got to the road head we were hobbling like spavined mules. (I don’t know what a spavined mule hobbles like but it’s a fair guess it looked like us.) Anyway oy gevalt ! Enough already! We made it to the car with kneecaps exploding and boots on fire and drove immediately down the treacherous mountain track to Litohoro where we staggered into the nearest Taverna after I had instructed Dimitri not to pass Go and not to collect two hundred pounds.
The first pint didn’t touch the sides but fizzled and hissed when it reached the dry sandy bottom of my belly. The tavernist, or whatever it is you call a man who drives a tavern didn’t even ask us if we wanted any more but brought three more tankards of chilled nectar toute suite.
‘We Mount Olympus have just climbed’ I declared in fractured English
‘My twelve year old daughter did it on Sunday with her school’ he said in perfect English, smiling.
‘He’s lying” I said to Dimitri as we got in the car to continue our pilgrimage
‘He has to be lying, either that or there’s another smaller Olympus with steps up it.’
And so we bade farewell and aloah and drove into the sunset towards Meteora our final destination where we were to spend a few days of rest and recuperation looking at some interesting monasteries that were built centuries ago on completely inaccessible rock pinnacles.
Everything, including the monks had to be hauled up in baskets and this isolation,
– according to Danny, who is a student, served two purposes – being several hundred feet higher on a rock column sticking up off the plain brought you just that bit nearer to God so that you could meditate and pray in peace and silence and it also meant that worldly distractions such as red headed ladies with big bosoms and Turkish marauders who wanted to chop you heads off couldn’t get near you. I suggested to Danny that perhaps they just haul up the red-haired ladies with big bosoms and leave the decapitating Turks far below. He thought about it for a moment and then said ‘In AD786 Musselman the Significant made his entire army or thirty thousand murderous muluks dress up in sheath dresses and fish net tights and don red wigs. Thus accoutred they infiltrated all the rock column monasteries of Meteora and decapitated all the monks. That’s why even to this day there is a Greek proverb which says ‘Beware red headed women with big bosoms bearing scimitars.’
I tell him that not only do I not believe him but that when we get to the Taverna we are staying at it is his round.
We arrive at the Koka Roka our hostel for the night. It is built under the shadow of a massive rock with a monastery on the top. The landlady’s son has spent thirteen years in Australia. He sounds like a cross between Harry Enfield’s Stavros and Edna Everage.
While he brings us beer his mum cooks chunks of lamb sprinkled with rosemary over an openfire and as the moon rises over the monasteries of Meteora where bearded monks lie troubled by dreams of red haired women with creamy thighs our little adventure draws to its close.
Once beyond the last straggling stands of the forest we are in arid semi desert conditions with the fanged peaks of Metaxa ahead of us and the broad sweep of Kastro, another of the peaks of the Olympus range to our left. There are deep swathes of snow still in the gullies of Kastro, not many, but enough to show how difficult these mountains can be earlier in the year. You have to wait until June or after for the snows to have cleared enough to make the mountains safe for ordinary hillwalking.
Dan and I wait for Dimitri who is having difficulty with the temperature and the height. We’re now approaching 9,000 feet another thousand to go.
The flies which are so much part of life in the forest, attracted there by the mountains of mule dung left behind by the pack trains, accompany us on our upward journey, clotting around the sweat on our faces and generally making life miserable. We are above the tree line, not yet at the snowline but obviously still within the bluebottle line.
The temperature is already in the top thirties and rising, Dimitri is not in his thirties and isn’t rising – well he’s rising, but gradually like soda bread. Dan as befits a young chap full of testosterone, lox and bagels is set fair to run to the top. I plod along at my usual pace dripping with sweat and wild haired, cursing the fact that I didn’t have time to get my hair cut before I left and realising that I now look like Ben Gunn on Treasure Island, the madman who spends his life looking for a bit of ‘Christian bread and cheese’ – what’s Pagan bread and cheese I wonder?
The farting burping Germans who turned last night in the mountain hut into an unwanted but spectacular son et lumiere are gaining on us. Dan and I wait for Dimitri to catch up and the Fahrtenwaffe zoom ahead of us towards the Cauldron and Kaki Scala. I had hoped the flies would follow them but they don’t, they prefer us sweating English types.
I should explain here that Mount Olympus is really a massif of several interesting peaks, that look down into something called the Cauldron. The Cauldron is a huge corrie fifteen hundred foot deep and fringed at its south western rim by the fangs of Mitikas, the main peak of the massif, some ten thousand feet above sea level. The ascent of Mitikas – or Metaxa – as I have renamed it in honour of the brandy – is described as a Òmoderate scrambleÓ in the Cicerone guide to the Greek Mountains. This otherwise excellent book, part of that otherwise excellent stable of books overseen by the otherwise eminently sane Sir Walt Unsworth is remiss in only one respect. A moderate scramble would to me describe something of reasonable difficulty, with say three points of contact with reasonable stable rock at all times and minimum exposure. Anybody following the route that Dan and I took to the summit will see from the teeth marks on the rock that our interpretation of ‘moderate scramble’ is different to the guidebook’s.
When we get to the rim of the cauldron Dimitri lies on his belly, peers over the edge and looks at the way we have to go and says ‘No’. This I decide is a pretty brave thing to do because any fool could say ‘Yes’ and then go on to climb beyond their ability. Which is what I do because the next couple of hundred feet are pretty hairy and consist mostly of holding on to things and trying to be brave.
The route is named in the guides as the Kaki Skala. This is translated in some books as Poor Staircase. The true translation is Shitty Staircase – and in case you think I am making this up – it’s there in black and white on the maps. To get to the Kaki Skala we drop down off the Cauldron rim onto a bit of a crumbly arette that then brings us to a traverse of several hundred yards of bad rock with a five hundred feet drop beneath us. There are two bad steps where we crawl round the fangs of Metaxa and at these points we have a drop of five hundred feet on one side and fifteen hundred on the other. On the first of these Dan freezes on the rock and I have no alternative but to climb round him and lead him on.
After the second bad step we are in a broad gully with great slabs of rock and, every so often a clump of bright green grass. Our tortuous way up this ‘moderate scramble’ is marked with splashes of red paint put there by the Greek Mountaineering Club. I send Dan ahead so that I can keep an eye on him, telling him to follow the red paint marks. I then notice that he is going all over the place scrambling erratically and climbing into impossible situations. I tell him to stop where he is and take over the lead. I ask him what the hell he is doing not following the red paint marks and he tells me he is red green colour blind. He has been following the tufts of grass. What am I doing climbing Mount Olympus with a red-green colourblind junior rabbi? I ask myself.
I lead up some smooth slabs with poor holds that look as though they will be more of a problem on the way down. By now I can see the Greek flag on the summit and realise that we are going to make it – the first Joint Jewish Lapsed Catholic Manchester Olympus Expedition scrambles out of the gully and we hug each other, drink some water, eat some chocolate, look at all the holes around us and decide that it is no wonder the gods decided to live here. There is no sign of Zeus. we ask one of the other gods and he says that Zeus has probably gone off in his swan costume to give Leda another seeing to.
They pick our driver up of the floor, dust him down and give him another ouzo and bottle of beer in case he has a sudden attack of sobriety. I ask Dimitri what the Greek is for ‘We have changed our mind. We will sleep on the pile of mule crap outside. Please do not trouble the lorry driver any more.’ but at that moment two and a quarter Germans arrive in the hut. The two are man and wife, the quarter is their four year old son and they have just returned from climbing most of the way up Olympus. The last stretch was too dangerous for the child. They offer us a lift back down the mountain road. we accept. With profuse apologies to our Greek driver who is on the floor again we pile in the back of the German’s camper-van and in an hour we are back at the little hotel we left this morning. I decide that Einstein must have worked out his Theory of Relativity while climbing a Greek mountain. How can it take less than an hour coming down and all day going up?
The landlady laughs at us and gives us our rooms back. She knew we weren’t going to make it. Why didn’t she tell us and save us all that trouble? I notice that she is wearing stockings held up just under the knee by rubber bands and also that she has a hairy mole on her chin. ‘Ha’, I think, ‘I might not be able to climb mountains but at least I don’t have a hairy mole on my chin or wear stockings held up by rubber bands.’
We have some food and go to bed glum deciding that tomorrow we will be real mountaineers and not shnorrer nebbishes who take all day to do the Litahoro Gorge. In the room above mine the Americans who stumbled up the mountain a few days ago on a diet of red wine and marijuana are smoking more dope and drinking more red wine and arguing about which country they are in. They finally decide that they are in Finland. I shout at them to shut up in German and the debate starts all over again.
In the morning the landlady gives us some more pretend orange juice and frozen eggs and we set off again for the mountain. This time we drive to the hut at Paranoia following the hairy mountain road and avoiding the mountains of mule crap that are not marked on the map. We leave the car and gird our loins all three of us in good heart. It is 8.30 and cool, the sun just edging over the rim of the gorge. We fill our water bottles and with good heart and a cheery disposition we enter the forest. Four hours and three thousand feet later we are sitting in the sun on the benches at the mountain refuge. Easy peasy this mountain climbing we decide just over three thousand feet more and we’ll be on the top of Metaxa, the main summit peak of Mt Olympus eating Ambrosia and talking to Zeus and Mrs Zeus and all the other Greek gods.
Danny and Dimitri go for a lie down while I sit in the sun watching climbers come and go. From the mountain refuge you can see all the way back to Litahoro and the coast and all the way up to the serrated ridge of Metaxa which looks, from here, like the fingers of a splayed hand. A group of German blokes arrives very noisy and covered in dust and sweat. I hope they aren’t billeted in our bunk room then find out that they are.
Dinner is good and is cooked on wood fires fuelled by the windfall in the forests.
After dinner we crash ready for the climb ahead. As Danny and I lie on our bunks Dimitri starts to organise his pack, taking (and this is no lie since I timed him) forty five minutes, during which the room is filled with the noises of somebody trying to be quiet and failing miserably. Plastic bags rustle no matter what you do and after forty five minutes of Dimitri and the plastic bags Danny shouts at him in Yiddish and Dimitri gets back into his pit and all is quiet for three minutes.
Then the Germans come to bed. All night the Germans fart and whisper. The whispering is bearable but the farting is quite unbelievable loud and long and widespread, eight Teutonic sphincters in uncoordinated cacophony, and when one of them gets up to go to the toilet lighting his way with a cigarette lighter I half expect the refuge to be blown off the face of the mountain.
I hate bunk houses and lie there sleepless and cursing wondering what the hell I am doing climbing a mountain with a junior rabbi and a Manchester Greek taverna owner. Instead of counting sheep I secretly machine gun the trouser coughers in my imagination and soon the room is littered with the bodies of farting Germans.
The next day’s journal entry reads ‘Vas ein tag! Mein gott in himmel! Up at 5.30 to photograph the sunrise which is quite boring – without cloud the sun has nothing to play on and rises like an unpoetic orange balloon. The farting Germans come out too late and just to get my own back I tell them that it was the best sunrise I have ever seen. They fart some more and then go in to breakfast.
We pack and are off by 7 am. At first our way leads through forest and is a cool dander, then the forest thins out and gives way to rougher stony ground. Ahead of us Olympus beckons. Behind us we can see the Germans, a cluster of tiny farting dots following us up the mountain.
With the bells of the town graveyard still ringing behind us we drop down into the Litohoro gorge. The early morning sun is already hot enough to fry eggs on the pavement but having brought neither eggs nor pavement we carry on walking and sweating. The heat in the gorge thickens and we climb steadily in its narrow confines going from close to sea level at Litohoro to where the old shepherd’s track we are walking on climbs up to a narrow stone gate on the cliff face where there are great views of the gorge ahead and the coast and town behind us. Having gained this height we lose a good lump of it again dropping back to the river. The temperature now must be close to forty and for hours we follow a switchback path along the river. I am lathered in sweat and though I’m drinking a lot of water it doesn’t seem to be enough and I can feel the beginnings of cramp in my calfs – I knew I shouldn’t have brought them.
In two places the path leads out across the cliff face high above the river. Over the winter the path has fallen away and twice we have to shuffle along twelve inches of crumbling dust with a lot of nothing underneath us. Dimitri is very quiet at both these points while Dan mutters phrases in Yiddish that have words like ‘shnorrer’ – ‘shlemiel’ and ‘meshuganah’ in.
At 11.30 we stop for a food and water stop at a side gully where a winter avalanche has cleared a break in the forest. There is a stream and waterfall with tufa formations on the rock similar to those in Gordale Scar and we sit for an hour rehydrating and eating our nuts and fruit. Dan decides that being the first junior rabbi on Mount Olympus isn’t such a bad idea. Dimitri has a quick snooze and I eat a bag of dried apricots, remembering too late that it was eating a bag of dried apricots in the Pakistan Himalaya that earned me the title of ‘the sahib with the exploding trousers’ amongst the Balti porters.
After the gully the path is much more difficult with boulders and fallen trees blocking our way forward. Most people climbing Olympus ignore the Litohoro Gorge and go straight to the road head at Paranoia. Spending the day in an airless gorge scrambling over landslides in a temperature of forty degrees centigrade was my idea – which is why I am a meshuganah shnorrer.
Danny is going strong now over the difficult terrain, I’m much slower and Dimitri is finding the going a lot harder. He’s climbed Snowdon and Kinder recently but all his other climbing has been up and down the stairs in his Manchester taverna, and this is the first time he’s carried a heavy pack. I’ve had some kind of a virus infection just prior to leaving for Greece which I’ve managed to defeat with echinacea tincture but I’m not on best form so I too am finding it hard going.
I’ve drunk a lot of water but have lost more through sweating in the unforgiving heat and about an hour after the gully I cramp up badly at one point lying flat out on a rock both calf muscles locked solid, the pain so bad I describe it on my journal as ‘like giving birth with your legs’. After bearing down and doing my breathing exercises I manage to carry on. For the next two hours I hobble on slowing everybody up.
We have not seen a soul all day then suddenly twelve German walkers appear upstream powering down towards us their trekking poles flashing in the sun, all but two of them are women, mahogany brown and fit as butchers dogs. The two men trail behind them and I ask them how far it is too Paranoia. They are not in the mood for talking but hurry on down shouting ‘Not far – maybe one hour’ over their shoulder. The guide book reckons the gorge should only take four and a half hours. It’s three o’ clock now which means we three shlemiels have been shlepping for seven hours (six if you deduct the water stop) and are still an hour off Paranoia.
We plod on. Dan mutters something about Moses and forty years in the wilderness. Dimitri is too knackered to mutter. I mutter anyway just to keep Dan company.
A little way on we come to a chapel built into an overhang under the cliff where a stream resurges flowing through the chapel before falling down to the river. Inside the chapel an oil lamp burns before a handful of icons.
We move on up the gorge and within a kilometre of the chapel we see a ruined monastery amongst the fir trees on the opposite side of the gorge. Dimitri looks in the guide book.
‘The German’s destroyed it because the partisans were using it as a base.’
‘No wonder they were in a hurry to get down.’ Dan says.
‘It was nearly sixty years ago.’ Dimitri tells him
‘They didn’t look that old.’
Dimitri and I look at each other and wonder whether he’s kidding us but decide to leave it. The path is much easier now and a slow and steady pace brings us to the little taverna at the road head at Paranoia exactly eight and a half hours after setting off. We are all completely trashed so any thought of going on the extra two and a half hours to the refuge on the mountain goes out of the window.
We sit and drink, rehydrating in the shade and Dimitri manages to cadge a lift back to Litohoro with a swarthy brigand who drives a small truck up here every day bringing supplies for the mountain huts. Beyond here it goes on mules. I watch the driver throwing ouzo and beer down his throat as though he has heard a rumour that that there is to be a world shortage of the commodities and I wonder whether we shouldn’t walk back. Greek mountain roads are bad enough with a sober driver – this guy is off his tree. I silently curse the pope for demoting St Christopher from saint to ordinary mister and watch in silent terror as our driver throws another glass of ouzo and pint of beer down his gullet. He wipes his mouth and burps before falling off the bench onto the dusty floor. We look at each other glumly. Here we are in Paranoia in a beer hut – no beds – a drunk driver – a long journey back down the mountain to start all over again tomorrow.
‘Oi gevalt’ Dan says which I think is Yiddish for something very bad.
The story so far – This column, accompanied by Dimitri and Daniel has just landed at Thessalonika as the joint Lapsed Catholic Comedian / Greek Restaurant Owner / Jewish Student expedition to the summit of Mount Olympus.
Day One – continued
We land at Thessalonika and are met by Tassos who is the brother of Nikos who works for Dimitri in the Manchester Taverna. Nikos has the mien of a young Greek monk and the young Greek monk wants it back.
Tassos takes us to a seafood cafe down by the docks in an old flour mill and treats us to a wonderful meal which includes something called eggplant shoes. How do they get the shoes off the eggplants I wonder? Do the eggplants put up a struggle? Dimitri is driving so doesn’t drink. Danny and I have a couple of circumspect glasses of excellent wine and feel the glow of the holiday suffuse us already – the mists of Manchester are forgotten and we bask in the Greek sunshine, even though we are down the docks under an old grain silo. Tassos and his wife and little daughter wave us off and we leave on our journey into the unknown full to the gills with eggplants shoes and other excellent Bubble nosh (Bubble = Bubble and Squeak – Greek) The Greeks are amazingly hospitable people – like the Irish only with garlic.
We wobble off to our hire car and set off for Litohoro our base for Olympus arriving as the afternoon sun strikes the mountains and from the plain we can see our goal the summit of Olympus, Mitikas – which I have rechristened Metaxa in honour of the Greek brandy of that name and also because I have trouble remembering names. Shakespeare might have had a vocabulary of 400,000 words but what good did it do him? Where is he now I ask? Dead is the answer. The summit is 10,000 ft. above sea level – which is where we are now and we aim to get to it in three days. From where we stand on the plain we can see quite clearly the fragmented summit with its great serried fangs. The temperature here on the plain is 34 centigrade. It’s going to be hot in that gorge – approaching forty.
We plan to walk the gorge to Prinoia and then on to the main refuge on the mountain the first day, spend a rest day on the hill then go for the summit on the third day returning that same day to Prinoia where we can hitch a lift from the roadhead back to Litohoro. Sea level to summit and back in three days – easy peasey.
We check in the hotel have a quick souvlaki then go to sit in the town square with a beer and watch the world go past.
I notice a raddled looking non-Bubble type staggering round the square and go over to talk to him. It turns out that he’s an American just come back from Olympus. Strangely for an American he has bad teeth. In that land of the Orthodontist and the whitewashed gnashers a man with teeth like a mouthful of dimps is as rare as an Eskimo with sunstroke. I ask him how long it took.
‘We were kind of loose man. Took a lot of wine and a lot of grass, We kinda got lost for a while – took us twelve hours to Paranoia (I decide that this is a much better name than Prinoia – and as it turns out much more fitting) and there was no way up or down so we slept out in the open. Like it was miserable man. Then man we walked to the refuge and stayed there two days we were like so out of it. They were so sorry for us they gave us a map for free. Then like we went to the summit.’
I had heard various stories about the extent of exposure on the last pitch to the summit and asked him how it was.
‘Man I held on with everything I had and three, four times I just froze on and prayed. No way am I ever going back up there.’ And he wandered off across the square. I saw him later on the balcony of his hotel with a couple of other Americans smoking rolls of wallpaper and drinking bottles of retsina.
I go back to Dimitri and Dan and take out the guide book. It’s one of the great series of guides published by Cicerone Press and written by Tim Salmon. The last pitch is described as a ‘moderate scramble’. I say nothing to the others and we buy fruit, nuts and bottles of water from a late night store and go to our rooms to pack and make ready for the morn and our assault on the Mountain Of The Gods.
Day 2 Egg Lollies
The man in the next bedroom has been up all night taking showers and turning the television on and off so I emerge red eyed and trembling from my pit at 7 a.m.
The landlady brings breakfast which is some bread and honey, a couple of hard boiled eggs that have been kept in the freezer so that they are now egg lollies and a glass of reconstituted orange juice. And this in a country that is sinking under the weight of its fresh oranges.
I bang on the door of Danny and Dimitri to hear answering grunts. Either they have been eaten by bears or they are not happy campers first thing in the morning.
By 8 they have had their egg lollies, we have paid the landlady, left some kit in storage and set off walking out of Litohoro. We follow the high street out of the village passing the town cemetery where an old lady pulls on a bell rope tolling a dirge as we walk past. I see this as an omen. I am later proved right.
We follow an aqueduct for a while then meet two men on a bridge who tell us to leave this easy route and follow a shepherds’ trail into the forest. The sun is burning down, the temperature already in the mid thirties. Within an hour we have climbed to the summit of an outcrop on the gorge’s flank at 650 metres sweating and breathless and stop to get our breath.
We can see Litohoro and the sea far behind us, before us the gorge and at it’s head the fangs of Metaxa, far distant we can still hear the bells of the cemetery.
Will our heroes get to Paranoia? Will the fangs of Metaxa be too much for them? Tune in next month for another dose of the same……