writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: February 2017

Return to Leros

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My friend, Chris Mitchell, pictured above, is going back to help refugees in the Greek islands. A big, friendly bear of a man, Chris worked with me in the Council for many years, retired, and decided to do something practical about the refugee crisis on Europe’s borders rather than sitting around bemoaning it, as most of us liberal-hearted types do. I’m going to get him to describe what he’s looking to do in his own words; and then, with his permission, I’ve cut and pasted some Facebook posts and photos from his time on Leros last year to give you a flavour of what he found back then.

If you want to contribute to Chris’s campaign, you can do that here. He’s already raised his initial target, but let’s see if we can double it, eh?

Chris’s appeal

Hi folks,

I’m off again next week to Leros in the Aegean to work with a local refugee group for three weeks. Last year it was people climbing out of rubber dinghies, getting some respite, food and clothing whilst papers were sorted, then back on a ferry to Athens and onwards. That ground to a halt whilst I was there. Europe closed its borders and hearts to people fleeing horrors, and dumped the whole crisis on a Greek nation who they had only just plunged into the worst of austerity. Now thousands of refugees are just stuck in camps or worse, in limbo, going nowhere, with nothing to do; school, college, earnings, lives, relationships on hold. Leros Solidarity, who I am re-joining, are trying to make those lives a little less sterile with education, language classes, activities and maybe even a little bit of fun in a bleak situation.

Like last time I’m running an appeal, targeted at feeding minds and souls, now that mouths are generally being fed on Leros. Find it here.

The appeal is hosted on Just Giving through a charity, Aegean Solidarity Network Team UK. One resource is the 15 ukuleles and a teaching pack I’m taking with me (yes!? There are thousands of school kids and adults in Fife and beyond who will understand why instantly). This needs £280 of funding and I’m hoping to raise at least £1,000 in total so ASN can use the rest for other refugee relief projects I may be involved with.

If you gave to my appeal last year, thank you. If you would like to give again, thanks again. I’m self funding so donations go to helping refugees not me.

Chris’s story from last year

21st February:

Arrived in Kos 21st. £200 gone straight into buying food for 140 refugees who arrived in the two nights it was “safe” to cross to Kos. Weather bad. Since appeal began 3 weeks ago, refugees to Greece have doubled, fatalities up by 96 a third. Need immense. Donations will help.

26th February:

Handed over an AED defibrillator and batteries to Kos Solidarity. These inspiring and dedicated local people on Kos find refugees landing on their beaches. Some including kids, are very poorly. They provide dry clothes, support and no doubt some reassurance and hope that there is some humanity to be found. Thanks to and you all who made this donation possible with your crowdfunding help. Still time to donate.

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29th February

The favoured mode of transport offered to refugees fleeing to Europe

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25 refugees had just landed on Kos after a long, cold night at sea. They were the last, of over 200 who had arrived in that 24 hrs. At 8am the morning before, I called my hotel to check out and go to nearby Leros. There I was told volunteers were much needed, refugee landings were in daily hundreds.
At 8.15 our first call to the port where 10 boys and men had been brought ashore by the Italian Coastguard boat. Off with dry clothes, shoes, food and water to distribute at the camp. A ferry to Leros would wait.

In the next 24 hours, 3 more boats and some 200 refugees would arrive: mothers with babies, young children, pregnant women, people on crutches and wheel chairs, old men from the east.

From the last grey beached whale of a boat at dawn, one father carried ashore a child in a blanket. Eyes closed. Cold clawed hands. No pulse to be found. No response. Then a rasping breath to my ear. Dad pointed to his own head. The boy, who he could have held in his arms since Syria or beyond, was, he reassured me, profoundly disabled. I hoped so. A call to MSF for a doctor to check at the UNHCR hotel. Another economic migrant?

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One day to go in our appeal. When we launched it 3 weeks ago, 54,00 refugees had made it across from Turkey to Greece by sea, 309 died on the way. UNHCR count 121,00 now and 410 fatalities. European governments have now abandoned Greece to contain and encamp people fleeing chaos and horrors. Local island communities and their Solidarity groups like on Kos and Leros where I am now, are showing super humanity. But like Pipka, the children and families camp I volunteer in now, they do so on a shoestring. Any donations made to this and subsequent appeals will provide lifesaving and care for the refugees and the groups who also care. Please help if you have not already given. You can also help if you have the time to volunteer, and by taking your holiday this year in the Greek Islands. The people need your support and have holiday business to keep going.


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2nd March
Across the bay from Lakki town, Leros, lies Lepida, a former long term psychiatric hospital of the old school. Now it is a ‘Hot Spot’, one of five the EU directed the Greek government to construct on the Aegean islands, to hold refugees. This was built to EU enforced deadlines and opened under military control last Friday.

Moored alongside sits a warship. Opened means the buildings and high fences are in place to contain 600 but without the necessary infrastructure to meet refugees’ basic needs. It already has some 400 refugees including women children and older people. Ferry tickets onward to Athens are being drastically cut back as Athens is overflowing. This morning I saw refugees in a race along the harbour as word spread the ticket office was open. Soon this camp and Leros will overflow as refugees keep coming.

On Monday evening, NGOs were called to the camp where the army asked them to provide food, rubbish bins and collection and other basic camp infrastructure at least for the next 4 days. The army still cannot provide it yet. Some NGOS such as MSF will not work at the camp under police or military control. Others find themselves under huge moral pressure to feed hungry refugees and supply basic products such as nappies and baby milk. Tonight, I passed through two sets of 15ft high fences equipped for razor wire to deliver and help serve out good food provided by Leros Solidarity, the local community group and two other small NGOs. The gates are locked and guarded by the army so refugees cannot get out to source their own food and medical products, unless their registration papers are through. Those from Pakistan or Africa will only get out to be deported, unless an asylum claim is successful. This is effectively a detention camp where those doing the detaining cannot feed and provide basic care to those they detain.

Earlier last week an experienced aid worker predicted to me the camps would open to meet the political imperatives but the infrastructure to make inmates lives tolerable would be at least two weeks away. He was right.

At the root of this is the EU forcing the Greeks to keep the refugees, to meet impossible deadlines and at the same time closing borders to the rest of Europe.

In the forthcoming referendum, the moral coward David Cameron wants us to endorse his ill gained and mean spirited curbs on refugees’ rights. He could have urged participation in a principled European project of peace and humanity, driving foward the values of solidarity, human rights, dignity and equality enshrined in the EU Constitution. Instead he is complicit in Fortress Europe. Is that the reason to vote yes?

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A Tale of Two Cariñenas

I should really start this wine recommendation, as indeed I should preface all my wine recommendations, with ‘I know what I like.’ In other words, I have no formal qualifications whatsoever as a wine expert. All I can claim is a limited and partial knowledge and interest in the topic, gleaned from years of highly motivated research.

Despite this, friends and colleagues, when we’re out somewhere serving the stuff, will almost invariably pass the wine list to me, saying, ‘Andrew, you know about wines, what do you think?’ What they really mean is, ‘Andrew, you seem to drink a lot of wine, so you should have it worked out by now, surely, ya lush?’

They may have a point on the quantity, although, dear reader, I’m not generally to be found on the floor of the bar at the end of the night grabbing at legs. Not these days anyway. I almost always drink responsibly (the Sambuca Shot Incident at Christmas being the exception that proves the rule) and so should you. Thing is, lightweight that I am, when I do drink anything at all I’ve found that wine, and red wine in particular, is the thing my system seems to tolerate best, particularly along with food.

Anyway, enough about me and on with the wine, I hear you say. Fair enough, dear reader, fair enough. Today’s lesson concerns a little-known wine region of Spain called Cariñena, which is geographically located a few miles south of the city of Zaragoza, and roughly half way on a line between Madrid and Barcelona. Baking hot in summer, freezing cold and harrowed by a wind called el cierzo in winter, the region is not without its challenges for its wine growers, even if it’s been cultivated here since Roman times.

However, despite its never having reached the upper echelons of La Liga in terms of Spanish wine regions, it’s one which I’ve always found, when it comes to supermarket reds, is a sure bet for a decent bargain. It’s a bit like a South African region called Robertson: although I know virtually nothing about South African wine regions, I know to grab a bottle from Robertson any time it appears because it’s always been a cracker.

So far as Cariñena is concerned, on the other hand, I know a wee bit more from my travels in Spain: that corner is between the big producing regions of Rioja and Catalunya, and like its neighbours, Campo de Borja and Calatayud, is a bit undervalued as a result. It’s not sexy like other northern areas like (especially) Ribera del Duero, and it’s not even got the industrial scale that other lesser regions like Castilla-La Mancha have.

So, when I saw a couple of bottles in Asda from the Cariñena region the other week, I reckoned they were both worth a go. They were Casa Luis Reserva, 2012 (currently reduced from £5.50 to a fiver) and Extra Special Old Vine Garnacha, 2015, reduced from a fiver to a mere £4.25. Here’s what they look like:


Now, my finely honed drinking instincts told me the Casa Luis would be the better drop of the two. The gold string’s by no means a guarantee of quality, but the fact it was a reserva (the categories of ageing and length of relationship with the oak barrel in Spanish wine being tinto, crianza, reserva, gran reserva) suggested someone, somewhere in the winery had reckoned this one was worth the investment of time that the status requires.

However, on opening the bottle initial signs were not so encouraging: the cork crumbled half way up and I needed to execute a delicate piece of surgery with the old sacacorchos to retrieve the bottom half. On inspection, the business end of the cork didn’t appear discoloured and didn’t give off any indications of the wine being corked (I’ve read that the red end of the cork should either smell of cork, or of wine, and if it smells of anything else, it’s corked). However, I still wonder if that was the problem with this particular bottle, because very disappointingly, it was undrinkable and had to be used up in my Southern French Chicken recipe.

The only problem with the Garnacha was rather more self inflicted as, somehow, the first bottle of it managed to knock itself off its coaster and only an act of couch-borne athleticism unparalleled in Olympic history on my part managed to save some of the contents from emptying themselves onto the living room floor. As it was, there was only a limited sample left for research without getting down on my knees and sucking it out of the carpet fibres, and even I have my standards.

Fortunately, other bottles were also available from the same retailer and I can confirm that it is, in fact, a belter. The label chunters on about 45-year old Garnacha vines: for those of you interested, I do have it on good authority from Bosi, my charming guide round the fantastic Cambrico winery I posted about last year, that old vines of that kind of age produce less grapes, but much more concentrated flavours: the balance for the winemaker, of course, is between volume and quality.

For those of you less bothered with specifics, fill your boots! This is a big, bouncy, fruity red that’s good with pasta dishes, spanish tortilla, and, I’d imagine, the usual red wine staples of red meat and strong cheeses. It’s a ridiculous price for wine of this quality.

Not so good as a carpet cleaner, but, well, that’s not what it’s for, is it?

Brutal News

I’m delighted to announce that the first Isaac Brutal album to feature yours truly, Trailer Trash Apocalypse, is now available on Bandcamp. That noodling on the keyboard going on in the background? The occasional random stabs of piano, and that harmonica? Yep. For reasons that will become clearer in my next post, I’m particularly chuffed to be cast as a keyboard player of some sort. Fortunately, those ‘skills’ of mine aren’t likely to be tested in the battle conditions of a gig any time soon, as I get to retreat behind a guitar (with occasional harmonica) in the current live set.

My personal favourite of TTA, btw, is 4th of July.

Speaking of gigs, there’s a support slot for the Véloniños coming up on 4th March – FB event is here. Really looking forward to this, not just because the set features two of my songs, but mainly because things are sounding absolutely excellent in rehearsal. I’ve never played a gig at the Leith Depot before, but it looks good. Pictures, at least, will follow…

Meantime, work continues on the next Brutal album, which I dare to say is going to be awesome!