Book review – Things Can Only Get Feta

Inspired by our own recent trip to Greece, I asked for Things Can Only Get Feta as a birthday present from my family. From the Amazon synopsis it sounded entertaining. And I’d like to visit the Peloponnese, the rugged three-fingered peninsula south west of Athens.

After an Arctic winter, a British recession, and a downturn in the newspaper industry, two journalists and their dog embark on an adventure in the wild and beautiful southern Peloponnese. A perfect plan, except for one thing – Greece is deep in economic crisis. And if fiscal failure can’t overturn the couple’s escapade in rural Greece, perhaps macabre local customs, a scorpion invasion, zero dog-tolerance, and eccentric expats will.

Marjory McGinn and her husband Jim are the escaping journalists. They settle for a year in a remote hillside village in the Mani region, middle finger of the peninsula and beloved home and resting place of famous explorer and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor.

One of the hooks of the story is their dog, Wallace. But the yappy, ill-disciplined Jack Russell terrier is also a problem, terrorising the locals and messing with my own head. The pesky pooch dominates way too much of the flimsy narrative, to my mind.

Sure, there are some charming people, places and incidents uncovered by the author, as she embeds herself in the timeless rural community. And I enjoyed the insights into the Greek language and psyche, descriptions of the Mani terrain and some of the more bizarre incidents encountered in their year’s adventure, But I found her writing style a little annoying, I’m afraid, and I’m not sure I came to like the couple.

Worst of all, there are typographical and spelling errors sprinkled throughout Things Can Only Get Feta, like specks of the oily cheese crumbled on a Greek salad.

Stick to reading the master, Patrick Leigh Fermor, for better writing and a far deeper insight into Mani and its people. Without the dog.

 

 

Crowdfunding – shark-infested waters?

I wrote a couple of months ago about my own first tentative steps into crowdfunded investments.

There is some real momentum behind this relatively new alternative finance phenomenon, technology and awareness giving entrepreneurs access to a large pool of potential individual investors.

Crowdcube is the largest platform, providing a bridge between the entrepreneur and investors. As of today, it has 283k investors on its books, and £165m has been pumped into 406 successful fund raises. It may be an unfair comparison, but Crowdcube could be considered the Tescos of equity crowdfunding, piling the deals high and selling them off cheap.

But at what price to investors…?

The Solar Cloth Company used the Crowdcube platform to raise £967k from 400 individual investors just 17 months ago. The Directors projected the business would be valued at £100m in just 3 years after the funds had been raised.

The Times has reported today that the Solar Cloth Company has just gone into administration, blaming a downturn in the solar power industry, and cuts in government subsidies.

Another significant failure with Crowdcube’s name all over the fund raising was Rebus. A claims management company, it raised £816k from 100 investors just months before it collapsed in February 2016. Investors through Crowdcube were not aware that Rebus had previously engaged a restructuring expert to advise them how to plug a cash flow chasm.

Crowdcube – and other equity crowdfunding (“ECF”) platforms – must start performing proper due diligence before listing investment opportunities. Otherwise the FCA should step in to ensure there is sufficient investor protection. The current “hurdle” – someone signing up to an ECF platform has to self-certify that they are either already a sophisticated investor, or a high net worth individual – is about as low as a limbo-dancing snake in a BHS store.

Crowdcube should also be much more transparent on their site about previous fund raises. I’d like to see a detailed summary of all businesses that have successfully completed ECF rounds, showing the timing, amount raised, key commercial milestones relative to business plan projections, any subsequent capital raising efforts….and all very clearly linkable from the Crowdcube home page.

And its failures should be even more transparent, giving investors a much louder warning that their hard-earned cash is at significant risk.

ECF is growing fast, and has the potential to be an even greater weapon in the fund raising armoury for start-up and early stage businesses. It would be a real shame if the platforms blew that opportunity.

Spin commute – genius idea

I love spin cycle sessions in the dedicated studio at my local gym. As I wrote a while back, it’s a great way to push through the pain barrier, with the help of a sadistic trainer and some pulsating tunes.

And I love these guys at 1Rebel, funky new fitness gurus I’ve invested a small amount in, via crowdfunding.

They have dreamed up a great concept for their own oversubscribed spin classes, for time-poor cash-rich London commuters….a mobile spinning studio – on a bus. How cool is that! Why waste all that time when you can travel to work AND spin those wheels at the same time.1rebel2.jpg

1rebel.jpg

And when you’re done, have a cool down and shower at the 1Rebel studio in St. Mary Axe, and grab a refuelling smoothie before hitting the office. BOOM!

1Rebel are talking to bus companies now and hope to launch the service in a few months, if demand is high enough. If I were still working and had a London commute, I’d sign up as quickly as Lance Armstrong had blood transfusions.

Book review – The Boys in the Boat

Just finished reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, Barry’s selection for our latest West Surrey Boys and the Book Club.

Boys in the boat

Essentially a sports book, its tag-line is An Epic Journey to the Heart of Hitler’s Berlin. But it does so much more than tell the story of the Washington University’s all-conquering nine-man rowing team and their quest to win the gold medal at the 1936 Olympic games.

The author skilfully weaves the narrative around Joe Rantz, a young lad abandoned by his family and struggling to find his way in the world. But it also reveals much about the Great Depression in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s, and the rise of Hitler’s National Socialists in Germany at much the same time.

And it’s a morality tale of the American Dream, and how the impoverished sons of loggers, farmers and shipyard workers pulled together to defeat their local rivals from California University, more privileged rivals from Ivy league colleges on the East Coast, then the elite teams of Oxford & Cambridge, and – ultimately – the representatives of Hitler’s Third Reich, in the German boat at the infamous Berlin Olympics, just 3 years before the outbreak of World War II.

A vast amount of research, from talking to Joe before his death in 2007 at the age of 93, from journals of the rowers and their esteemed coaches, newspaper reports and much more, has resulted in a long book of close to 400 pages.

But I hung on every word, enjoying the historical, political and emotional under-currents, as much as the perfect synchronicity of the team’s minds and oars in every race.

Already being called Chariots of Fire on Water, I can’t wait to see the book retold on the movie screen. The Weinstein Company have recently announced the cast….Daniel Radcliffe and Bradley Cooper will star, Ken Branagh will direct. Prepare to be pulled along on a tide of emotion.

59 and descending

May 10, 2016.

I’m 59 today.

A year from now, I’ll be in the 60s Zone. No longer Middle Aged, I’ll be starting the long, slow descent into Old Age. There will be no Renaissance period for me.

30 years ago, I had a Miami Vice themed 29-and-holding birthday party, in the garden of our rented Bermuda home. We were tanned, lithe-limbed, supple, sockless and solvent, the dollars flowing as freely as the rum.

Now I’m unemployed and it’s more likely to be an artisan macchiato, or a peppermint tea, than a dark-and-stormy. Joints ache, hairs sprout, pee gushes. More blustering Boris Johnson than dashing Don.

Small craters erupt on my creased face, like the foothills of Kilimanjaro on the Serengeti plain. I hope they’re not harbingers of skin cancer, often recently afflicting my family. And they didn’t even get to enjoy a few years in a sun-drenched tax haven.

So I’m going to carpe that diem like it’s never been carped before. Grasp that nettle as tightly as an expat does happy memories of 30 years past.

Time for a 59-and-clinging-on party, perhaps….

 

 

Greece

You know that feeling when you do something, or go somewhere, or eat something, and it’s so good that it exceeds even your most optimistic expectations?

Well, our recent trip to Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, blew our little socks off.

The people, the food, the history, the landscape, the culture….all were an absolute joy. We were Greek virgins before we went, now we’re already checking flights for the next visit.

Reading Victoria Hislop’s The Thread had given us real insight into the city’s tumultuous history. Walking and eating tours in our first couple of days brought all those centuries to vivid current life. Ottoman hammams, Byzantine-inspired spices in the market, the Jewish memorial, the narrow atmospheric streets of Ano Poli…layer after layer of Thessaloniki’s rich history was laid out in front of us.

And the food…….ah, the food. I’m salivating at the memory of all the fresh fish, fruit and vegetables on offer at the city’s vibrant markets, ending up on plates of the eateries tumbling into the cobbled streets of Ladadika, now trendy but once the olive oil and red-light district.

We were in Thessaloniki as guests of the city’s Hotels Association, to promote the city and other nearby places in northern Greece. And it was all thanks to those lovely people at Silver Travel Advisor – The Voice of Mature Travellers – for whom I’ve written some articles on our magical Greek experiences.

I’ll add links to the articles as soon as they’re live, and hopefully they will add colour to this relatively monochrome summary of a dazzling adventure.

Thessaloniki was an absolute delight, from the moment we landed at Makedonia Airport. The whole trip was orchestrated by the remarkable Evdokia Tsatsouri, from the Hotels Association but now with the estimable Electra Hotels group.

Like a master puppeteer, she pulled all the strings of everyone involved in our expeditions to Halkidiki and Mount Athos, Meteora, Mount Olympus and Pieria, ensuring our hotels, meals, sightseeing tours were all organised impeccably, and gave us a flavour of the real Greece and its people.

Efcharistó, Evdokia.

The separate articles on Silver Travel Advisor will flesh out our experiences, but here are a few more images of some unforgettable memories from northern Greece:

Sun sets on New Day

I wrote in March about Trinity Mirror’s surprise launch of a new daily printed newspaper – New Day.

I found it uninspiring, but the worst crime I thought – for a print medium – was the proliferation of typographic or grammatical errors. In its first week. Was it a suicide message?

Its target audience was supposed to be readers who no longer bought a newspaper. Well, guess what…..they’re not buying New Day.

It’s just been confirmed that the last edition will be published on Friday, just 2 months after a fanfare launch. The hope had been to sell 200,000 copies a day, the reality was closer to 40,000.

So New Day will soon be Old News.

The digital revolution continues.

 

Olympiada – Loulou’s story

My entry for The Telegraph’s Just Back weekly travel writing competition:


Loulou carried plate after plate out to the sunny terrace. Kiwi fruit, yoghurt, feta cheese – drizzled with oil and specked with oregano gathered on Aristotle’s mountain. Tomatoes from the small garden, fat olives, pale green peppers. And freshly baked bougatsa, a traditional Greek breakfast pastry, dusted with sugar.

And then the main dish – a round terracotta ramekin with steaming baked eggs, tomato, peppers and pastourma, air-dried meat rooted in Ottoman history.

Her husband quietly dug the vegetable patch as we ate, joking that despite his retirement, he remained as busy as ever, restoring every room of the Liotopi himself.

The family own two hotels and a beachside restaurant in Olympiada, a small village built around an arc of sand, where the Strimonikos Gulf of the Aegean sea kisses the shore on the knuckle of the third finger of the Halkidiki peninsula.

Olympiada is named after the mother of Alexander the Great. The partly excavated ancient city of Stageira stands above the village, high on a rocky promontory to the south and en route to the monastic haven of Mount Athos, at the fingertip of the peninsula. Stageira is the birthplace of Aristotle, Greece’s most favoured philosopher and tutor to warrior Alexander.

But Olympiada wasn’t always so alluring.

The Alexiadou family were expelled from their Asia Minor home in 1922, escaping from Smyrna along with thousands of other Orthodox Greeks, to avoid a brutal death at the hands of marauding Turks. At the same time, long-settled Muslims left Greek Macedonia to cross the Aegean in the opposite direction.

After breakfast, we strolled along the road to Loulou’s other hotel. Here, she posed proudly underneath a grainy black and white photograph of her grandparents. When the Alexiadous arrived in Olympiada in the early 1920s, it was a desolate, marshy place. Many of their friends and fellow refugees died from malaria, others fled to Thrace or safer places in Macedonia. Access to the village was by boat only, the first road not arriving until the 1960s, winding down to the village through densely wooded hills.

But Loulou’s grandparents stayed, carving out a new life through hard work and a desire to grow fresh, enduring roots. The refugee family’s mantra was passed down through the generations: always care more for people than for money. And every moment you spend at the Liotopi, you feel confident that sentiment will endure for another century.   

We had been given fruit liqueurs and delicate homemade cakes as soon as we had climbed the wide, steep steps to the hotel’s entrance hall. And, arriving back in our room late that night, a mince pie-like fresh pastry rested on a small tray on the bed, against which lay a hand-written card and the message:

Good night – with love – Loulou, Tina, Anastasia



Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Four things I didn’t know about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the revered poet of Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan fame:

  1. He had a serious opium addiction for most of his adult life
  2. He travelled throughout the Mediterranean in the early years of the 19th century, mainly to Sicily and Malta, ostensibly for health reasons….but his opium addiction only became more intense
  3. He lived at Nether Stowey in Somerset in 1797-98
  4. The Coleridge Way is a long-distance footpath, covering 51 miles from Nether Stowey to Lynmouth, on the Devon coast

We’ve just got back from a couple of days in Somerset, for the very happy occasion of seeing Mike & Kirsty Dear get married. The wedding was at the Holford Combe Hotel in Holford, but we stayed at the rather splendid The Old House in nearby Nether Stowey.

Gill sorted out the booking and we ended up staying in The Coleridge Suite. STC’s friend and patron Thomas Poole owned the house, and let the poet stay here before he moved into a nearby cottage with his family. The Book Room was where STC, and occasionally his fellow Lakeland poet William Wordsworth and other literary luminaries of the time, would talk and work.

What a pleasure to stay in such a historic and poetic space, and to find out more about STC from the articles and books lying around. The well-thumbed biographies by Richard Holmes – Early Visions (1772-1804) and Darker Reflections (1804-1834) – were particularly informative.

And the day after the wedding, we walked a 3-mile stretch of The Coleridge Way, into the Quantocks ‘twixt Nether Stowey and Holford, on paths oft trod by poetic legends and good friends Coleridge & Wordsworth.

Another thing to add to the Just Retiring list….complete the rest of The Coleridge Way, and find out more about this intriguing character.