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||The Cheshire Cat Blog
The rest of Athens in easy instalments
|Where on Earth has the Cheshire Cat been since September?|
What the Kazantzakis has he been up to?
And what has all this to do with high-stepping Evzones? *
All can now finally be revealed.
A special report by Simeone Else
"Catnapped!" ran one October headline, "Shanghaied in Athens" another. Survivors of the My Favourite Planet staff met the world's press early yesterday following a dramatic international rescue operation to free them from a tiny office in the Greek capital where they had endured a gruelling seven weeks in captivity.
Pale, thin and exhausted, but in good spirits, the freed journalists winced as they walked out of the "Black Hole of Athens" into the bright autumn sunlight and their first taste of freedom for nearly two months.
Appearing even more bedraggled than usual, the renowned Cheshire Cat, one of the victims of what has become known as "Acropolisgate", told the press of their ordeal.
"It was horrible!" He rasped, his voice hoarse with exhaustion and emotion. "Horrible. We had almost nothing to eat except digestive biscuits, mini-pizzas and a hoard of Fisherman's Friends we found in the editor's office. And all we had to drink was instant coffee. Instant! I ask you. Is that any way to treat people and cats?" He shook his head in disbelief and sighed. "A friend once told me: 'Life's too short to drink instant coffee.' Back then, I just thought it was one of his jokes. But now I know exactly what he meant. Horrible!" He tried to spit in disgust, but fatigue and dehydration thwarted his intention.
The usually unflappable feline looked close to collapse as he related how the nightmare began. "I received an e-mail from the publisher at the beginning of September saying that he had an exciting new assignment for me and that I should come to Athens 'ASAP'. With him, that only means one thing: 'immediately'."
He stopped to ask the gathered journalists if anybody has a bit of fish, or some milk, or something. One of the broadsheet scribes produced a half-eaten spinakopita from her bag and handed it to him. The Cat sniffed at it disdainfully, "Ah, spinach. Er, thanks." As he chewed hungrily on the oily pie, the hard-bitten press photographers rested their shutter fingers, in what passes in the trade for solidarity; even the Fox News cameraman suddenly realized that his lens needed cleaning.
"Um, where was I?" the Cat managed, between mouthfuls. "Oh yeah. When I got here, I was surprised to see all the other staff members and most of the freelancers here too. We later found out that he had sent us all the same e-mail, the rat. Our so-called publisher was nowhere to be seen, of course, but the editor was there, large as life and twice as ugly, and acting pretty shifty about the whole business."
The publisher of the vast My Favourite Planet empire, MFP International, is a mysterious figure known simply as the "Big Boss", who has managed to keep well out of the spotlight. All that is known about him is that he is a reclusive Patagonian billionaire and that he made his fortune by elbowing his way to the top of the fire escape trade.
Is this the shadowy MFP International supremo?
Photo taken at a recent MFP-sponsored sports junket
at Athens Panathenaic Stadium.
"The editor got us all together in the ugly open-plan office," the cat continued, "and told us that the Big Boss wanted us to produce a huge new travel guide to Athens, and that the deadline was the beginning of November. Well, you could have heard a pixel drop. At other firms this kind of announcement would have been greeted with howls of derision. But the editor is known for having the sense of humour of a Doberman, so nobody was laughing. And when the Big Boss wants something done, it gets done, or else heads - and other body parts - start to roll.
He said it would be a piece of cake, and that all the footwork had already been done. 'Look,' he said, pointing to the corner of the room in which heaps of 'raw material' lay, 'we've already collected everything you'll need: over 15,000 photos, 150 articles, a ton of notes and stacks of reference books, maps and diagrams... All you lot have to do is sort it out and tidy it up a bit, perhaps add some of your own inimitable arty touches, cross a few "t"s, dot those "i"s, get it ready and roll it out.'
Somebody behind me let out a strange choking sound, probably trying to stifle either laughter or a scream. Mercifully, the editor pretended he hadn't heard anything. 'Come on, for a team of your calibre it should be no problem: easy money.'
Jenny, one of the young sub-editors, who didn't know any better, put her hand up. 'Please, sir... talking of money... we haven't actually been paid for six months.'
The rest of us froze in our seats and waited for 'the sound of thunder'. 'Poor thing,' we thought, 'so young, so brave, so about to become mincemeat.'
But to our amazement, his face creased slightly to form something which on normal people would have been a smile. 'Yes, I understand, times are hard. The economic problems are affecting us all,' he cooed in an uncanny impersonation of an avuncular tone. 'But at least we all have jobs, haven't we?'
'Now he's going to go for the jugular,' we thought.
But he retained the crease and the tone. 'That's why we need to get this special guide out quickly, or we'll soon be out on our ears. The competition isn't sleeping, you know. But the good news is, if we meet the deadline the publisher has promised a big fat bonus.' (I noticed that he didn't say to whom he had promised the bonus.) 'So, I suggest we get our sleeves rolled up and get on with it straight away.'
Dutifully, we swept as one over to the corner of the office and began rummaging through the material for the guide. We quickly agreed to defer the deployment of piles of stuff, tasks and workspaces to Ruth, the most experienced team member, who knew the magic words for occasions like these: 'Izzy whizzy, let's get busy!' she sang in her delightful baritone (she worked for decades in a smoky Fleet Street office where it was a contractual obligation to smoke 40 Senior Service per shift). This cheered us up somewhat and we started to become engrossed in the task at hand.
What goes on in an editor's head? Not a lot, say experts.
Phrenology model in an Athens junk shop.
|So I guess it was nearly two hours before we noticed that we had been locked in the office. Ruth had delegated Jenny to go out and buy sandwiches and drinks for the team. ('That,' says Ruth, 'is what junior subs are for.') After making a list of our requirements and collecting our money, Jenny headed for the exit. But then she turned and asked, 'Has anybody got the key for this door?'
'It's probably just stuck,' suggested Tim Wolf, the Aussie photo editor, and got up to help her. Well, he huffed and he puffed, but the door would not budge. 'Definitely locked,' conceded Tim, breathlessly. 'And it's seems pretty solid too.' He gave it a manly whack, which he instantly regretted. 'Ow! Solid steel.'
|'One of those old-fashioned fire doors,' said Ruth. 'Better ask the editor for the key, dear,' she told Jenny.
'Oh, he popped out about an hour or two ago,' Tim informed her, nursing his hand.
Ruth and I exchanged knowing glances: we had both just smelled a dirty great big rat. We ran into the editor's office and ransacked it as thoroughly and brutally as a couple of highly-trained gorillas with a search warrant. By the increasing obscenity of Fleet Street expletives issued by Ruth, it was clear to the others that there was no key to be found. She went back into the main office and bellowed, 'Where's the phone? Somebody find me a phone. Now!'
But there were no phones. And though we had been provided with a bunch of ancient second-hand computers, there was no sign of anything resembling a modem connection either. We all grabbed our cell phones, only to find that we had no network. The building is one of those early 1970s reinforced concrete death-traps, thrown up by a speculator during the colonels' dictatorship, with a nudge, a wink and a few large envelopes stuffed with hard currency bunged in the direction of various officials. So much low-grade steel mesh had been used to keep the building standing that it acts like a Faraday Cage, allowing no radio signals in or out. Even Gordon 'Flash' Mcleod, our technical wizard, was at a loss as how to get around this problem. 'Don't look at me. My name's not MacGyver, is it?'
'Well, I'll be dipped in dogshit!' exclaimed Tim, who has a certain way with words.
Now the penny dropped. 'That explains why the rest of the office block seemed empty on our way in,' said Gordon. 'These days even the smallest firm needs cell-phone and wi-fi connectivity to operate. All the other tenants have long-since moved out. It wouldn't surprise me if the building was due for demolition.'
Then we discovered that the windows were sealed shut because of the air-conditioning, which, thankfully, was still chugging noisily along. (I tell you, we came to hate that noise over the weeks.) We were on the top floor, so even if we broke a window and screamed out for help, nobody would be able to hear us over the deafening roar of 24-7 traffic below, which was loud enough even through the double glazing.
'But, surely, the editor will come back, won't he? He's probably just gone to lunch and locked the door on his way out, automatically, without thinking, if you know what I mean.' ventured Jenny. In her naive way, she was trying to reassure us as much as herself. Ruth gave her one of her 'Ruth looks', feared by journalists, politicians, generals and rude taxi drivers on six continents for saying a 1,000 words, most of them unprintable, and for being as subtle as a pneumatic drill.
Many of you will remember that Ruth was the top battle-axe war reporter in her heyday. She made Kate Adie look like a garden party columnist. If Ruth wasn't at your war it wasn't happening. I'm sure she won't mind me telling you that when she finally retired, she went into travel writing as a kind of therapy. Bad luck for her that the editor talked her into working for this crummy outfit.
But Jenny just had to persist. 'What about the cleaning staff? When they turn up...' If Ruth's first 'Ruth look' was withering, the one she was now aiming at the hapless sub would have put Medusa to shame – and that was just one her level 3 efforts. 'Perhaps, not then...' surrendered Jenny, crestfallen and not a little shaken.
It was the perfect trap, and now all of us realized it.
"The Black Hole of Athens"
|Panic was in the air, but luckily, after her brief display of rage, Ruth quickly showed what a seasoned professional she really was and took control of the situation. She called a pow wow at which we all sat around and discussed possibilities of escape. Of course, it turned out to be the third most useless brain-storming session in human history. (Remind me to tell you about the other two some time.) Nobody really had any feasible ideas, but it was a useful diversion while we adjusted to the new reality.
Digging a tunnel through the concrete wasn't on, and we had neither bed sheets nor enough clothing on us to tie together for an Indian rope trick descent. The suggestion of throwing all the computers out of the window in order to attract attention to our plight was rejected on moral grounds: one or more of them might injure passers-by below. You see, we still had hope, and we would only revert to such a desperate measure when all hope was gone.
|The anger and frustration was quickly coagulating into despair and misery. Ruth said what we all needed was a nice cup of tea and something to eat, and delegated a couple of people to collect any food and drink they could find so that we could see 'what rations are on offer'.
Like I said, the editor's idea of healthy nourishment is severely challenged, but at least he'd had plenty of stocks shipped in, and in a store-room full from floor to ceiling with boxes of carbon paper, photocopier toner, telex paper, Tippex, pencil sharpeners and other useless, antediluvian office supplies, there were sufficient mini-pizzas, biscuits, instant coffee, sugar and powdered milk to feed the world's biggest geek jamboree. There was also an archaic electric kettle, a Rococo microwave, and an editor's ransom in paper cups, plates and napkins and plastic cutlery. Oh yeah, and loads of Russian cans bearing photos of what looked like indescribably disgusting ready-meals. Fortunately, there was no can opener, and as none of us had so much as a Swiss army knife with us, we were spared their dread temptations.
Those of us who had travelled far to get here and come straight to the office from the airport, had duty frees and comfort foods brought from their home countries. So, for the first night at least we indulged ourselves in a few luxuries and more than a few paper cups of 'Jimmy Walker' (or at least that's what it said on the label; special Moldavian blend, apparently).
Stranded on an island of cement.
Early evening in downtown Athens.
By the time we'd put together enough to eat and drink for everybody, and had our first, ahem, 'meal' together, it was late evening and two things were clear. First: the editor would not be returning, there was definitely no cleaning staff, and nobody was coming to rescue us any time soon. Second: our only chance of getting out of here was to submit to the Big Boss's demand and finish the guide. He would have to send someone to collect the completed work, and then... Several people muttered blood-curdling oaths concerning what they would do to the publisher and editor when they caught up with them. Most of these revenge fantasies included skewers and death by mini-pizza, I seem to remember. 'We'll cross that dark chasm when we get to it.' Said Ruth, pragmatic as ever.
We all tried to find some way of bedding down and getting some sleep, and the next morning we got cracking on the guide. Despite the weird circumstances, we quickly established a workpersonlike routine, which we kept up right to the bitter end. Now and again one of us freaked out completely and went into hyper-hysterics. 'I can't take this any more!' etc. But after a talking-to from Ruth, and perhaps a couple of slugs of the duty free Cognac we'd saved for such emergencies, they soon got back on the treadmill.
Ruth kept up the troops' morale with rallying calls such as: 'Keep your heads, playmates, and let's all get through this in one piece.' She had one wall of the office covered with telex paper on which anybody could scrawl their own inspirational musings or vent their frustrations in day-glo marker pen. One wag began marking the number of days with strokes, like a latter-day Count of Monte Cristo, over which another scrawled: '... all human wisdom is summed up in these two words - wait and hope.'
Then we papered another wall to map out a plan for the guide, with individual and group assignments and deadlines for each section. Jenny was learning fast, and it was she who came up with the idea of issuing the guide in instalments: she had served her internship working on a partwork about rain forests. 'We get the guide finished, transfer it onto this...' She flourished her brand new USB stick. 'It was a present from my boyfriend. Do you think 32 gigabytes will be enough?'
'That should do nicely, with a bit of file compression,' said Gordon.
Tim was already hatching a plot. 'We could deliver the first instalment to the Big Boss, on condition that he lets us out of here...'
'And pays us,' added Jenny.
'And puts us up in the Grande Bretagne for two weeks.' I put in.
'Dream on, Cat,' cautioned Ruth.
'... When we've finished the guide,' Tim went on unphazed, 'we copy all our work onto Jenny's stick and wipe the hard drives on these steam computers. And then we'll have him over a barrel for the rest of the instalments.' His conspiratorial grin looked a bit too manic, and I suggested he cut down on the instant coffee.
'We may gain some leverage, if we stick together, play our cards right and don't screw up,' warned Ruth. She pondered the probable moves of this new game-plan for a few moments, then said, 'Well, kids, shall we do it?'
The motion was carried unanimously and without further debate.
Now that we believed we had a reasonable chance of recompense, if not revenge, there was a dramatic improvement in morale, as well as the pace and quality of the work. 'It's just like during the war,' said Ruth, but she didn't say which one."
|Aspects of Athens|
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The long, dark happy hour of the soul.
Central Athens trying to look romantic.
|"Where's Drood?" asked an impatient journalist at the back of the scrum. It was difficult to tell if she was from Harper's or Hello.
"Ah, The Mysterious Edwin Drood," said the Cat, "I was just coming to him. As you all know, he's an independent through and through, and has some pretty influential friends. So he doesn't have to drop everything when a publisher snaps his fingers like the rest of us. Anyway, he had already announced that he was off on his autumn break before this all started. And when the Drood goes on holiday that usually means the boondocks: no TV, no radio, and definitely no phone or internet. As far as I know, he's never owned a Blackberry or even a cell phone."
There were audible gasps of astonishment, mixed with sneaky admiration and envy, at this unexpected revelation.
|"Ruth and I figured that he was not only out of the loop, he wouldn't even know about the Big Boss's bogus e-mail summons to Athens yet. But he had mentioned that he would be meeting up with his old friend Benjamin Arnolfini and his wife in the Ardennes..."
"Oh, Beano and Diana! Really? I was at their wedding, you know," squeaked the Harper's / Hello journette, whose father "parks" his yacht down at Piraeus out of season.
"That's the one, missus," confirmed the Cat, a little miffed at being upstaged. "But first things first. Three days ago, we were on about the last lap of the damned Athens guide. Almost done, but flagging a bit. I was on kitchen duty with Mike Spooner, our Cockney programmer, and he was rearranging the boxes in the store-room, in the vain hope of discovering something more interesting for the day's menu. I heard him exclaim, 'Love a duck!' Then he called to me, 'Hey, Cat, come here quick! What you make of that, my old moggy mate?'
He had cleared the far wall of dusty cartons of perished elastic bands, withered 1999 New Year's party balloons, dried up ballpoint pens... And there... there was a window, a tiny, wooden framed window... a window that you could actually open. Mike laughed. 'Looks like they bunged that in at the last minute and forgot about it. Real cowboy job. And it's on the piss.'"
"Excuse me, it was what?" asked the gent from The Financial Times.
"You should get out more, Jeremy," quipped the Cat. "What Mike meant was that the window wasn't level: not precision workmanship. It had literally been shoved into a hole in the wall and cemented in place for ventilation, probably long after the building had been finished. Happens all the time in these parts. Take a look at it yourself later if you need a precise angle for your news story.
Anyhow, before you know it, everybody was trying to cram into the store-room to stare at this miracle of modern architecture. Right away Gordon figured that if one of us could get their head and shoulders far enough out of the window, they should be able to get a cell phone signal and call for help. But who? That window really was small. Jenny said she was pretty sure she could squeeze through.
And who to call? The cops? It was pretty certain that the Big Boss had prepared some cover story for his atrocious behaviour, and we'd probably all end up facing trumped-up charges. 'Caught in possession of a stolen mini-pizza,' quipped Gordon, only half joking. All our friends and families were pretty far away, and what could they do, except fret and worry?
The southeast side of the Acropolis from the Pangrati district.
|The only person I could think of who had enough clout to trump the Big Boss, and the sense of ésprit and derring-do to be willing to act quickly and effectively was Beano. I can't claim to actually know him, apart from a pawshake or two at some book launches and exhibition openings I had attended with the Drood. But I was convinced he was our only hope. If only I had his number, or e-mail address, or something...
But then I had epiphany. Of course! If anybody could find him, then Toni."
"One moment, Cat. Who are these Tiffany and Toni persons?"
"Sorry, Jeremy, that's epiphany, nobody you're familiar with; and Toni is Dr. Antonia Martinez, Madrid University. You do read my blog, don't you, Jeremy?"
Jeremy's blush was a lovely shade of Anglo-Saxon scarlet.
"It's OK, Jeremy, I don't read yours either, so we're quits." A slight giggle arose from somewhere in the vicinty of where The Wall Street Journal correspondent was standing.
|"You all know the theory of six degrees of separation, right?" the Cat asked the crowd of journos. They all nodded. "Well, in Toni's case it's about 1.4 degrees or less. She knows just about everybody, and anybody she doesn't know she can get hold of in next to no time. So, we would have to concoct a short message to her, explaining the situation, asking her to find Beano and Edwin and call on their urgent help. It also had to be phrased so that she knew for certain it was really from me, and that it wasn't one of my occasional Cat pranks.
I wrote it in longhand, Gordon translated it into text-message-ese, and Jenny thumbed it into her i-phone ('a present from my mum') quicker than you could say 'and on the third day Steve Jobs rose again'.
Gordon and Mike rigged up a Heath Robinson safety harness for Jenny from computer cables and clothing (by now somewhat ripe and in urgent need of laundering - or incinerating), and Tim wrenched the window from its rusty hinges to make more room for her to squeeze through. Ruth put a chair beneath the window and helped her to step onto it. We all held onto the trailing ends of the harness while Jenny insinuated her slim frame through the miniscule aperture. She had to lean quite far out in order to get a signal, and we all prayed that she didn't suffer a sudden attack of vertigo.
'It's just like when Leonov made the first space walk,' whispered Ruth. Gordon and I pretended to be too young to know what she meant. 'Except that they didn't have mobile phones back then, of course.'
This was more like improvised bungee-jumping coupled with ouija-boarding than rocket science and EVAs.
We held our breath, waiting for that magic moment when Jenny pressed the SEND button. 'I've done it.' She called back to us triumphantly, and we all inhaled deeply of the musty, dusty '99 balloons. Then we started pulling at the harness to haul her back in. 'Just a mo,' she shouted. What was up now? She had to call her mum and her boyfriend, didn't she? What do you think? 'Yes, mum, I'm fine, everything's wonderful here. Where have I been? Oh, working, at the beach, you know. Yes, I know, I'm sorry. No, I couldn't call, er, because of the strikes. Oh, terrible, total chaos. But everything's fine. Yes, I'm eating regularly, I have dinner with the other people at work every evening. Yes, they've got proper food in Greece, mum. They've even got digestive biscuits and pizzas, just like at home. Yes, OK. Love you, too. I've got to get back to work now, mum. I'll call you again in a few days. Yes, I promise. Love to Rover and dad. Bye-eee!' The call to the boyfriend took a bit longer, and the rest of us created a curtain of small-talk in order to provide her with the illusion of privacy.
We had to go through the whole palava again a few hours later so we could find out if Toni had responded to the message. Good old Toni had indeed replied swiftly to say that she had already been in touch with Beano and Drood, and that they were putting together a plan of action. And there was even a message from Beano, telling us that the cavalry was on its way and to keep our chins up.
We were saved! It was just a matter of time now before we would be out of the 'Black Hole of Athens'. And the rest you know already. Well, you must do, otherwise you wouldn't all be here, right?"
Athenian tiger (distantly related to the Celtic tiger)
A little bit Rousseau.
|"And, did you get your guide finished?" asked the German ZDF reporter.
"You bet," replied the Cat. "And if you look over there, you'll see Gordon is on his laptop right now, uploading a safety copy to a secure server."
"So, you have a guide and your freedom, and the publisher has nothing - not even the first part. Is that correct?"
"I would say that we have him by the short instalments," grinned the Cat. "By the way, has anybody any idea where the giant rat might be?"
"Unconfirmed reports suggest he is somewhere in North Africa, trying to arrange an exclusive interview with Gaddafi's son, Saif al-Islam." said the BBC correspondent.
|"We heard rumours that he's in London, staying on Julian Assange's couch," countered the Al Jazeera stringer.
"Oh well," shrugged the Cat, "no doubt we'll find him or he'll find us before too long. He had planned to publish the guide on the 5th of November, but as you'll appreciate there will now have to be some, er, 'interesting' negotiations before that happens. There will no doubt be the usual press releases and a conference, if and when the guide does roll out."
"Was there any launch event planned?" Harper's / Hello wanted to know.
"Well, Ruth did ask the editor that question, and he said that the publisher had told him, quote: 'There will be enormous firework displays and events held throughout Britain on the evening of that day, and in Athens itself thousands will be raving on the streets.' Make of that what you will."
A special bus arrived to take the MFP team to a hotel, where they were to receive private medical check-ups, fresh clothing and rather a lot of champagne, before being flown to a charming villa on a Greek island. This all arranged by Messrs Arnolfini and Drood, who were looking forward with glee to sending on all the bills to the Big Boss.
"Well, ladies and gents," said the Cheshire Cat, "it's been fun, but I think it's time I went for a cat's lick and a change of flea collar. So, if you will excuse me, I must disappear." Which he did.
"I will not reign,
To serve I disdain,
The Cat I remain."
Sign ouside the tiger's house in the Pangrati district of Athens.
* And what has all this to do with high-stepping Evzones?
As it turns out, nothing whatsoever. An epsiode of this article involving the famous Evzone guards had to be cut at the last minute due to "technical reasons". Apologies for that, especially to all you Evzone fans.
|The first instalment of the My Favourite Planet guide to Athens|
is now due to appear at he beginning of December 2011
... Probably ...
Part 1 of the My Favourite Planet guide to Athens
is now DEFINITELY online:
The Acropolis photo gallery
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