From Corfu to Zagoria – meeting Roy Hounsell

I started dipping into the book over dinner at the enchanting Thoukididis Guest House in Kapesovo, one of the 46 villages of the remote, mountainous area of Zagoria in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

I had started my trip in Corfu. So had the author.

I was seduced by Zagoria. So was the author.

I was hooked by his story. He by the village of Koukouli.

Roy Hounsell had run out of advertising ideas. Disillusioned, he and his wife Effie had left England for Corfu in 1980, with no plan and in search of adventure.  Several years later, having fallen into a swimming pool business, they thought Corfu was being over-developed.

By chance, they visited Zagoria on the mainland, and were immediately attracted by its remoteness, traditions and serenity. After many challenges finding and buying a property to restore, they moved to the village of Koukouli in 1991.

The engaging, sometimes wryly cynical, always acutely observed story – The Papas and the Englishman – ends with Roy and Effie about to rent out a couple of rooms in their extended home, but firmly embedded in village life and accepted into the friendly community.

As chance would have it, my own journey – 25 years later – would take me to their village. On a July morning as sizzling as a Greek souvlaki skewer, I left Kapesovo and walked way down through forested hillsides, to the ancient stone bridge of Kokkori just below Kipi, and onwards to Koukouli.

At a traditional taverna under the welcoming shade of a vast plane tree, I guzzled an icily cold bottle of water and asked the owner if he had heard of Roy Hounsell.

I’ll show you the house if you like, once you’ve finished your drink.”

“You mean he still lives here?”

“Yes. But his wife Effie….she is kaput. Two years ago.”

Refreshed – and intrigued – I followed him through the traditional stone alleyways of a Zagorian village, terraced and climbing the natural contours of the Ottoman settlement. He pulled on the rope dangling down in front of some elegant, solid wooden gates, releasing the rustic lock mechanism and allowing us into the spacious hidden courtyard.

Roy“, he called.

A woman appeared. “Go up“, she said.

The bar owner nodded in the direction of some stone steps leading to the right hand one of two similar, handsome, traditional Zagorian houses.

I looked tentatively into the doorway and there, to my left, down a few steps in a slightly sunken room, was Roy Hounsell, author of The Papas and the Englishman.

Come in, come in“, he said, as though welcoming an old friend.

He was propped up in bed, cigarette in hand, whisky bottle on the cluttered bedside table, wearing pyjamas and a slightly louche look. Rather like Peter O’Toole after a night out with Oliver Reed.

I tried to shake his hand. He offered me the other one, awkwardly. “Had a stroke. About 4 years ago.”

The woman – his housekeeper, I think – appeared. “What would you like? Coffee? Tea? Whisky?

“A Greek coffee would be lovely. Thank you.”

A few minutes later, she brought a small tray laden with coffee as strong as the EU position on Greek debt, a glass of iced water and 2 slices of homemade cake, as I chatted to Roy.

For close to an hour, this charming and entertaining man regaled me with stories about his life, the book, his contacts, his health and his love of the village he and Effie had made home.

He answered a stranger’s direct – and often personal – questions unflinchingly.

Do you get back to England?

Not any more. What’s the point? Nothing there for me.”

He gave me his publisher’s contact details so that I could get a copy of the book and read it properly.

He gave me his own phone number so that I could contact him again.

But most of all, he gave me a warm glow. Roy is obviously no longer in the best of health, is without his beloved Effie and unable to drive, but even now – propped up in bed, coughing and uncomfortable – he exuded a lust for life and for language.

Have you read Bill Bryson? Funny writer.”

I thanked Roy for his spontaneous hospitality, wished him luck and headed back to the taverna, under the shade of a vast plane tree.

The Papas and the Englishman

 

City Lit Travel Writing Workshop

I’m indebted to my missus Gill and to my Mum & Dad for their generosity and thoughtfulness. They kindly paid for me to do the 3 day Travel Writing workshop at City Lit last week, for my birthday prezzie.

The inimitable Susan Grossman led a class of 11 eager students, sharing with us a wealth of knowledge and experience:

How to write evocative travel copy, work with the travel industry, get on press trips and sell your work. Theory plus observation and interview skills out and about in Covent Garden. For bloggers and journalists. 

We were set loose in Neal’s Yard, in the heart of Covent Garden, one hot Thursday afternoon in July. The brief was to write a short piece, within one of a few loose frameworks, but essentially to demonstrate what we had – hopefully – learned.

Here is my own humble offering. With a couple of small, but astute, tweaks from Susan:

A little slice of Italy in Neal’s Yard

We take the classic Italian pizza, but use very original ingredients for our toppings“, says the manager of Homeslice. Javier may be Spanish, but his piccolo restaurant in London’s Neal’s Yard is otherwise very much a small slice of Italy.

With a cosmopolitan twist.

Calabrian peppers are married with chervil and Lincolnshire poacher. Or try aubergine, cauliflower cheese, spinach and harissa. How about goat shoulder, savoy cabbage and sumac yoghurt? All cooked in a wood-fired oven with an Italian accent, using mozzarella flown in twice a week from Naples, and eaten as a 20″ whole or by the slice.

Va bene for any Italian in London missing those home comforts.

Neal’s Yard, on the fringes of Covent Garden – between Shorts Gardens and Monmouth Street – and on the way to Holborn, is worth tracking down. Named after the 17th century developer, Thomas Neale, it’s crammed with Victorian warehouses, now eating places, posh hairdressers, therapy rooms and a pungent cheese emporium. Some are painted brightly, others still retain the original industrial brick facades.

Together, they create the atmosphere of a more intimate and colourful Piazza dell’Anfiteatro in Lucca.

Buonissimo!

Across the courtyard, in the recently opened Casanova & daughtersmanager Pablo Castelli from Rome explained that all their produce – tuna bresaola, anchovies, capers, cheeses, passata and sun-dried tomatoes – is sourced from small family estates on the west coast of Sicily. And their unique range of olive oils, barrelled like vintage wines, is the culmination of a careful and passionate process of olive growing and selection.

Authentic? It wouldn’t be a surprise if Inspector Montalbano showed up, asking if you knew the dead peccorino cheese-maker.

So if you’re in London but yearning for Italian passion on a plate, hunt out historic Neal’s Yard and feel right at home.

L’appetito vien mangiando, as the Inspector might say. The appetite comes from eating.

 

Book review – The House on Cold Hill

I wrote recently about TripFiction, a website that panders to a couple of my lifelong passions – books and travel.

Tina from TripFiction kindly sent me a couple of books to review for the website.

Here is my second review:

A Sussex Ghost Story

The House on Cold Hill by Peter James

Ollie and Caro Harcourt are thrilled to be moving from Brighton to a dilapidated Georgian mansion, deep in the tranquil Sussex countryside. Their 12 year-old daughter Jade is initially less excited than her parents, but soon comes to love the acres of grounds, the natural landscape around them….and thinks having a ghost at Cold Hill is really rather cool.

But the plot rapidly becomes more and more sinister, and the ghostly being clearly has evil planned for the family, rather than a benign welcome. Rogue emails sent from Ollie’s computer threaten to destroy his web design business, the bed rotates 180 degrees overnight, malevolent texts appear on Ollie’s mobile phone before dissolving into thin air, and people start dying.

Will the family be able to understand the house’s sad history – and release the ghostly curse – in time for them to avoid becoming premature graves in the village churchyard, like previous residents of the House on Cold Hill…?

The spooky tale is deeply embedded in Sussex – the house is near the beautiful Downs, the Harcourts shop in nearby Burgess Hill and the author uses the location effectively as a separate character in the spine-tingling plot.

Who ever knew such a beautiful county could harbour such evil?

 

 

Theatre review – Abi Roberts: Anglichanka

Abi Roberts is a total original, a weird and whacky fusion of energy, language, comedy and song.

Screen Shot 2016-01-27 at 15.02.59

Her new show Anglichanka (Russian for English woman) is loosely scripted around her life in Russia – training to be an opera singer – in the 1990s, and her recent return as the first British stand-up comedian to perform there, in Russian and English.

Surreal, or what.

Throw in some graphic imagery of her wild time at Swansea University, her controlling Hyacinth Bucket doppelganger of a mother, a mastery of the Russian language, gentle abuse of President Putin, some audience participation, a lot of ad-libbing and a cracking bit of opera singing, wearing a Russian soldier’s hat (don’t ask), and you begin to get a feel for Abi’s unique brand of comedy.

Grab a bottle of vodka, open your mind and she will transport you to a 10th floor apartment in a Moscow apartment block with a mad family and a dog straddling the toilet, in the frozen depths of a Russian winter.

Thanks to the Guildford Fringe Festival and the Back Room at the Star Inn for providing the perfect venue.

Edinburgh…..are you ready for Ms Roberts?

Scotch Eggs – another referendum

We wandered down to the Godalming Food Festival yesterday.

I overheard somebody saying it was just like Borough Market. Perhaps that was a little overstated, but it was a cracking foodie-fest on a day that seemed – briefly – almost like summer.

All of the town’s restaurants and cafes had spilled out onto the cobbled high street, along with pop-up producers of sauces, cakes and breads, local brewers, gin distillers and cider pressers, German Wurst grillers, Thai satay skewerers, Mexican burrito constructors and Sicilian arancini makers.

We succumbed to some Thai chicken satay sticks and vegetable spring rolls, eaten messily by the bins outside Cafe Nero. And we bought some enticing Scotch eggs and a poacher’s pie from Simon’s Pies to take home.

We have just devoured the Scotch eggs for an alternative Sunday lunch, one an exotic combination of chicken and tarragon, the other piquant chorizo.

But I’m worried. Really worried.

What happens to Scotch eggs in our post-Brexit world, where it’s likely Nicola will engineer a Scexit from the United Kingdom and seek direct entry for Scotland into the EU?

We may once again be able to shape our carrots and bananas entirely to suit English tastes, but will we lose Scotch eggs?

But hold on….London’s very own Fortnum & Mason claims to have invented the crisply coated savoury snack in 1738. Possibly with some inspiration from India’s nargisi kofta, but with no help whatsoever from north of Gretna Green that I – or Wikipedia – can see.

So while we’re in a mood of defiant independence, let’s take back our eggs from Holyrood, wrap ’em with 100% English sausage meat, add a coating of fried Warburton’s breadcrumbs…and call them Brexit Eggs. Or Piccadilly Eggs.

They may be able to take our seat in Brussels, but we want our savoury eggs back.