Books and Good Reading
Douglas Bullis spent a year living among Cretans in the old harbour area of Chania - trying to get to know the place and the people - the subject of this book.  At the start he was advised that even the great Kazantzakis, in all his words, only managed to capture the outside of the Cretans. In this picture portrait of Chania, Douglas Bullis only managed to capture the outside of only some of them, but some of his efforts are well worth a read.

Title: The Chania Town News: Author: David Bullis.
Publisher: Ateller Books.  ISBN 0-9706632-1-8
Published 2001.  Price: Around $20. 
Source. Bookshops.

Alternatively: Roka Carpets, Odos Zambeliou. Chania. (Signed Copies).

Douglas Bullis says that his book started as a series of letters he wrote from Chania to his friends, which probably explains the title and also the sub title  - "Daily Dispatches from the town of Chania, Crete."  This 166 page collection of 25 "Daily Dispatches" - really 25 chapters - starts, for example on a Saturday with "Meeting Mihaelis."  (Michaelis being the last remaining male Cretan weaver, who still weaves daily at Roka Carpets on Odos Zambeliou) - in the Topanas district of the Venetian harbour.  The following Sunday is "Potted History 101."  and so on...   A fairly standard way of arranging a book, although maybe a little different in that Douglas Bullis tries to describe the life of Chania as he saw it in only 166 pages.

The impossibility of this in words alone probably explains the presence of around 201 illustrations and photographs - several of them full page.  At least 59 of them taken from old postcards and "from George Hofnagel's sketches for the 1611 edition of Civitas Orbis Terrarum."*  This doesn't seem a bad plan - indeed it works well in places, but apart from the images on the covers, all are in black and white.  The great majority of the photographs look like they have been digitally retouched as water-colour images.  Or maybe they are watercolours, here in monochrome.  This gives what may be an excellent idea of what a colour-blind person sees in an art gallery!!

An annoying and recurring theme is the authors' repetition of the way others pronounce his christian name (Douglas), as "Dooglahs."  A few of his descriptions are to my mind so convoluted and flowery that one almost feels that he is trying to paint his words onto the paper - reminding one of the theme of the Don McClean song "Vincent" - a highly successful attempt to describe Vincent Van Gogh in song.  I don't think that "Dooglahs" succeeds as well as Don McClean did.

Chapters 3 (View from the Balcony); 4 (Morning Mundanities..); and 5 (Maria's Book) are very brief sketches of his immediate surroundings and people - snatches of life which seem incomplete, but which do contain some interesting information about the Topanas quarter and the Cavalierotta Santa Catherina Bastion.

Chapter six (Apostolis's Shop) is a pearl.  If you are coming, or have been to Chania you must read this!  All is most definitely not what it seems on 'Odos Machairadika.'  Or Odos Sifaka as it is now known.  Far from being the ancient Greek knife maker his presentation indicates -  Apostolis (the knife maker) turns out to have been born (of Greek extraction) in Turkey, makes mostly knife handles these days and does not sell a special kind of knife called an 'Armenis.'  He and his father took 'Armenis' - meaning Armenian - as their trade name when the locals who bought their knives began to call them 'Armenis Knives' because Apostolli and his father (who could not then speak Greek) were at first taken to be Armenians!  This chapter is full of "now you see it, now you don't" - a real eye-opener, real life and real history.  A pearl.

Chapter Seven (Marlena) is really about verbal tryst between a couple - Douglas himself & Marlena - the single 'thritysomethingish'  owner of a cafe just a few doors from his lodgings on Odos Zambeliou.  A set-up foursome arranged by the owners of his lodgings, Maria and Tassos, as a possible match-make - the contest  takes place at the harbour restaurant 'Karnagio' over a meal and is supplemented by the setter-uppers supporting their relative combatants!!  If you like word games or television soap operas this one is for you.  A psychological nightmare with word-games giving away no points at all....   But again, the feeling that you are at the same table is fascinating, and oh, the Knight doesn't win his Queen in this chapter.  A small paragraph on page 47 about the environs of Odos Zambeliou is another pearl.

The next couple of chapters - 'Yorgos's Bakery' and 'Spring Rain' - both about what the titles suggest are nice!  The Description of Yiorgo and his wife baking the days bread is almost poetry.  Spring Rain is a thunderstorm as the author sits in a Chania park - a bird bathing in the huge droplets.  The author seems to combine a description of an airline flight avoiding such storms and his own feet on the ground experience in the park without any incongruity.  The pictures which accompany both also seem to fit the text perfectly.

'Jenny's Place' (Chapter 10), for me is another pearl...  Jenny Payavla is the owner of the 'Well of the Turk' restaurant on the Splantzia.  The chapter is really about Jenny, although there is a fascinating description of the building and it's history, some of her own history and how she and her husband created the place.  About the menu, the food and certainly not least - Jenny's belief that "Money can buy either things or events.  Things don't last, but an event is with you forever.  You don't buy a meal at the Well of the Turk, you buy an event."  Douglas Bullis is at his best when writing of his conversations with people - this chapter is some of his very fine wine.

'Coming of Age in Chania' is a nice one - a bit of potted Chania history gleaned largely from the lips of Michaelis at Rokka Carpets.  A nice read.

Chapter 12 - 'A Day on the Quay' (at the Kyma Cafe) is to my mind an illustration of what Douglas Bullis is not at his best at.  Describing people......  He seems to turn his description of a whole day on the harbour-side into a hotchpotch of Americanised neologisms, then into, at times, pure flights of fancy (have a look at the 'Volta Hour' - particularly his descriptions of the balloon seller and particularly the descriptions of the balloons).

'Musical chairs' Is a neat but impossibly short sketch with the snippets of conversation between Douglas and Marlena - real though they may have been - seeming totally improbable.

'Market Day' (Chapter 14).  Attention grabbing. Impossibly short.  The promise and the disappointment.....

'Time Immemorial' (Chapter 15) is another of those magical mixes of conversation Douglas Bullis is best at.  This time two separate conversations during a car journey.  One with Michaelis (Rokka Carpets) brother-in-law Manoulis .  One with Michaelis himself -  mostly about some of the  old Cretan customs; about weaving; about wool; about dyes; about the past in Chania.  About olives.  The first, with the ancient and maybe cantankerous Manoulis  ("thirty years in Chicago ........... thirty years is too long anywhere!") is based upon Manoulis's unabashed and unstoppable homespun philosophy, which sounds like it came straight from Al-Capone himself.  Good reading.

Chapter16 'The fisherman's Wife' is a two short page pure reverie about what a fisherman's family must feel.  Nice idea but for me it didn't work too well.

'Sunday Morn' (Chapter 17) A word painting in prose and poetry.  I think that this is part of the true Bullis writing aim.  It clicks - you can see the pictures he describes as you read.  Share his vision..... I liked it a lot.

Chapter 18  'The menu of the Hands.'  Outstanding.  The evening Volta in the Venetian Harbour - is about the realities of working the cafe's and tavernas; about the best 'Shill' (taverna tout) in Chania - a superb description of the man at work, well worth a read.  Not forgetting the disguised 'fishing boat' with an unusual turn of speed....

'The perfect Squelch' Chapter 20.  Real life at it's best.  A 'Vespaturd' meets his waterloo!  Congratulations Douglas Bullis - anyone in Chania for more than 15 minutes has seen one.  Everyone who has would willingly have paid a dear price to have seen this one get his come-uppance!!  Buy the book and savor it any time!  For this alone I can forgive all the "Dooglahs's."  Very short, but oh, so very, very  sweet!

'Splantzia's Bastion.'  Another short reverie.  But look again on this one.  Get yourself down to the Sabbionara Bastion at daybreak - look around you in the early morning light and see this part of Chania in an entirely different light.  To steal a phrase from Jenny Payavla - enjoy an 'event.'  'An event is with you forever.'

Chapter 21 'Vue De La Ville De La Canee' (Chania).  Describes perfectly the holiday season delivery trucking of victuals - the ice cream; soft drinks; water; wine beers; potatoes; fish and so on necessary to keep the cafes and tavernas of the old harbour running from 10am today - first delivery time - until tomorrow.  All deliveries have to be complete by 12 noon when the day's business really begins.  This is held up against a fictional backdrop of the time an old postcard - 'Vue De La Ville De La Canee'- showing a sailing ship in the harbour whilst the same, this time fantasised, activities occur.  A time warp supported by several old illustrations.  Interesting.  First rate description of today, but the fiction - I'm not sure.

'Down by the Docks' (Chapter 22).  Take a walk with Douglas down to the east end of the Venetian Harbour while he waxes (or for me wanes) increasingly lyrical from a brilliant start to what can only be a poetically rhetorical question.  I was disappointed with this one - but you might like it.

Chapter23 (Rodhopou And Diktynna).  Dinner with Marlena  at the Fortezza restaurant on the sea wall side of the Venetian harbour.  If you have visited the harbour and had one of those illustrated 'Fortezza' cards pushed into your hands on the landward quay, and then walked on - this is what you were missing.  A magnificent sunset (most of them are in summer) over the Rodopos Peninsula - the magnificent Lefka Ori Mountains facing the restaurant to the south; the illuminated old harbour opposite and to the right, and in the book at least, the legend of Dytynna - as related by Marlena.  Nothing is said about the food or the restruant itself, but then Douglas was getting ready to leave Crete and maybe is was distracted by the poignancy of the situation....

'The Groves of Episkopi' (Chapter24).   Sheep-shearing at Episkopi.  Australian sheep-shearing films can be fascinating - power shears and all.  Cretan sheep shearing is still for the most part done with manual sheers.  This chapter gives a magnificent description of shearing at it's very best - complete with photographs and once again gives the reader the impression of being there - even down to the special meal which takes place afterwards.  Sadly this latter is not included in the description apart from a couple of photographs.  I liked this chapter a lot.

Chapter 25 (Cretan Wine).  The final chapter is based upon the day of October 8, 1970.  Perhaps on Douglas's first visit - I am not sure.  It describes harvesting the grapes for Cretan wine - and claims historical records going back as far as 1420 for it's export.  Full of historic detail, the chapter is also full of the life.  The preliminary breakfast; gathering the crop; lunching in the fields; taking the crop home; the traditional treading (which still goes on in the mountain villages); and the evening celebratory meal.  By which time many of the participants are fairly full of Cretan wine themselves.  Having done this personally, and having my own barrel of Cretan wine - and  a large exhibited photograph taken of the juice filtering from an old press as the grapes were troden, this chapter was definitely for me.  Very real.  Even now.  If you can never experience this event - more itself not a day out of your life but rather an additional day in, you can at least get a bottle of Cretan wine and read this chapter while you drink it!!

So is the book worth a read?  On the whole, as the sum of it's parts, maybe not.

As for some of it's parts - yes.  Very, very definitely.

The book is really, for me, an amalgamation of four different views of life in Chania.

The first - the main page writing is sometimes so good that it feels almost as if the reader is right there with him at the time - seeing what the author is seeing and listening to the conversations related happening - brilliant.  Sometimes being there is a real bore - Douglas rambling on almost incoherently in his attempt to weave together the illusive coloured threads of life in Chania.  But boredom is in the minority.

The second view appears on the many of pages as what seem to be factual side notes.  Almost mini pages within pages.  Maybe these are the authors' own notes - straightforward and factual.  Useful. I liked these.

The third and fourth views are the very old illustrations and modern (mostly looking like digital paintings) photographs. (Or maybe paintings looking like digital photographs). Anyone wondering about the history of Chania will find the illustrations interesting.  The modern pictures - not for me.  Maybe because I like colour.  One or two are good and to be honest the majority do fit the overall style of the book.

Did I buy a copy - I certainly did.