Sunday, 10 February 2019

A head in books


I turn on the lamp and start to read a book. They’re a good thing books, though I curse them every so often. Friends. Faithful friends. They never abandon you.                                                              RITSOS

Two weeks ago, I finished and submitted my PhD thesis on Yannis Ritsos, one of the greatest poets that Greece produced in the twentieth century. I started it as a part-time project in January 2008 and expected to have it done by 2015. But the small matter of a posting to Athens intervened, delaying things by four years. 

The world has changed markedly over the course of the decade or so that I was writing my doctorate. I filed my application papers with the university about the time of the run on Northern Rock in September 2007: the first bank run in the UK since 1866. That event seemed extraordinary enough, but it proved only the harbinger of system-wide, transnational failure. The troubles of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac in the US; the collapse of Lehman Brothers; the failure of the Icelandic banks; the bail-outs of RBS, Lloyds TSB and HBOS in the UK; the impact on the sustainability of sovereign debt across the western world, most calamitously in Greece:  all of this lay ahead, as I sat down and started to think about the state of scholarship on the life and work of Yannis Ritsos.

I was fortunate in several ways during the financial crisis, personally and professionally. Not an economist or a Treasury civil servant, I never contributed directly to the fire-fighting. But I had a ring-side seat at two important phases in the unfolding of events.  From August 2008 onwards, I was running the office of a Cabinet Minister who sat on one of the sub-committees dealing with the crisis; so I read the official papers and discussed what was going on with my Minister. A unique experience for me. And in February 2012, as the Papadimos Government in Greece was agreeing the country’s second bail-out, I was appointed to be our next ambassador in Athens, with a start-date of January the following year. My preparations for the post took place against extraordinary political turmoil in Athens, and that turmoil continued through much of my time in Greece.

Inevitably, my work on Ritsos took a back seat during the years I spent in Athens. But three-fifths of the thesis was already written and I intended to complete it after the posting was over. While I was in Greece, I got to know many people who had known and loved the poet, and I learned more about the history of his papers, the location of various archive deposits and the gaps and occasional silences in the scholarship. I also had the enormous privilege of getting to know Ritsos’ daughter Eri, who showed me the family home on Samos, where Ritsos often worked and wrote, and talked to me about her father. 

My thesis is now with the examiners, so I won’t say anything now about the argument I have set out. But I can heartily recommend the experience of writing a slow-burn doctorate. It has been wonderful to have this project for a decade now always somewhere in my mind; in the last two years, it has wholly monopolised my thoughts and energies. It is a real privilege to get close to a great poet and to enter deeply into his imaginative world. 

The experience has changed my life in many ways. And those changes continue. I am sitting down now to plan a book on the Greek crisis and the crisis of European populism. There is much still to be said and written about the ruptures and failures we have lived through and are living through. As Ritsos himself knew, it is not enough just to live through turbulent times: we should try to reflect on them, to learn and grow through them; and in this, books are good friends.

John

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Festive Greetings


I am in the closing stages of preparing my doctoral thesis for submission. So I was unable to blog in November. And December is proving no easier.

Any one who has written a PhD or a book or a long, complex report will recognise the challenge. I am wrestling with endless footnotes, an enormous bibliography, a complex argument sustained across one hundred thousand words and ten years of work, an awareness of my own intellectual weaknesses, a nagging perfectionism. It feels exhilarating and nightmarish, in roughly equal measure.

So I hope that you will forgive me if I reflect simply and briefly on Christmas.

Christmas is still important to me. It starts too early, goes on too long and lacks rhythm (what happened to the Advent fast?); and its commercialism and materialism are crass. But I love the opportunity it offers to renew contact with friends and family, to give gifts as tokens of love, to remember and valorise childhood. And it is always moving to stand in church for Midnight Mass and hear the great gospel of Christian hope: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. These words introduce one of the great reflections on who we humans think we might be and where we might belong. The words bring hope and renewal: a new year, new goals, new possibilities. 

I thank everyone who has read my blog this year. Whatever faith and hopes you have, I wish you all the greetings of the season: 


Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

John

Γιορταστικές ευχές


Ολοκληρώνω τα τελευταία βήματα της προετοιμασίας της διδακτορικής διατριβής μου ενόψει της υποβολής της. Έτσι δεν μπορούσα τον Νοέμβριο να γράψω το μπλογκ μου. Κι ούτε ο Δεκέμβριος είναι πιο εύκολος.   

Όποιος έχει γράψει διδακτορικό ή βιβλίο ή μια εκτεταμένη, περίπλοκη έκθεση κάποιου είδους αναγνωρίζει την πρόκληση που αντιμετωπίζω. Παλεύω με άφθονες υποσημειώσεις, με μια τεράστια βιβλιογραφία, με ένα περίπλοκο επιχείρημα που αναπτύσσεται σε 100.000 λέξεις και δέκα χρόνια εργασίας, με σαφή συνείδηση των δικών μου διανοητικών αδυναμιών, με μια επίμονη τελειομανία. Μοιάζει εξίσου αναζωογονητικό και εφιαλτικό.

Οπότε ελπίζω να με συγχωρέσετε, αν συλλογιστώ τα Χριστούγεννα απλά και σύντομα.

Για μένα είναι ακόμα σημαντικά τα Χριστούγεννα. Ξεκινάνε πάρα πολύ νωρίς, διαρκούν πάρα πολύ χρόνο και τους λείπει ένας φυσικός ρυθμός (τι συνέβη στη προ-χριστουγεννιάτικη νηστεία;), και η εμπορευματοποίηση και ο υλισμός που συνδέονται με αυτά είναι σκέτη ανία. Αλλά λατρεύω την ευκαιρία που προσφέρουν να ξαναβρεθούμε με φίλους και οικογένεια, να χαρίσουμε δώρα ως δείγματα αγάπης, να ανακαλέσουμε και να τιμήσουμε τα παιδικά μας χρόνια. Και είναι πάντα για μένα βαθειά συγκίνηση το να βρίσκομαι στην εκκλησία της γειτονιάς μου την Παραμονή των Χριστουγέννων για τη Θεία Λειτουργία και να ακούω το μεγάλο ευαγγέλιο της χριστιανικής ελπίδας: Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν λόγος, καὶ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν λόγος. Με αυτά τα λόγια ξεκινά ένας από τους πιο σπουδαίους στοχασμούς πάνω στο ποιοι πιστεύουμε εμείς οι άνθρωποι ότι ίσως να είμαστε και πού πηγαίνουμε. Τα λόγια αυτά φέρνουν την ελπίδα και την ανανέωση: το νέο έτος, νέους στόχους, νέες δυνατότητες.

Ευχαριστώ θερμά όλους όσους διαβάσατε φέτος το μπλογκ μου. Όπου κι αν πιστεύετε, ό,τι κι αν ελπίζετε, στέλνω σε όλους σας τις ευχές της μεγάλης εορτής:

Καλά Χριστούγεννα και Ευτυχισμένο το Νέο Έτος

Τζων

Friday, 26 October 2018

My Thessaloniki


Yesterday I had the pleasure of giving a talk on Thessaloniki at the Hellenic Centre on Thessaloniki. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of my first visit to the city, and I leapt at the invitation from the Centre. I took the hubristic title of ‘My Thessaloniki’ and gave the audience ‘a personal tour of the city and its culture’.

The glorious basilica of the Acheiropoiitos
There are many ways to think of Thessaloniki: as a Byzantine city; as the second city of Greece; as a great Northern city; as the Balkan city; or as a cosmopolitan city. It has many aspects to its personality.

In the classic travel writing about Greece, Thessaloniki is often neglected. Michael Carroll’s recent book, Greece: A Literary Guide for Travellers, does better than most, covering off St Paul’s travels to the city, and those of William Leake and Osbert Lancaster; it also has an interesting letter from one of the ‘gardeners of Salonica’: an officer in the British Expeditionary Force, writing in November 1915. 

I don’t think anyone ever encouraged me to be interested in Thessaloniki. Rather, the idea was kindled by small sparks, random hints, marginal comments and whispered asides. 

I first started to think about the city in 1987, when at Cambridge I was learning about the transmission of classical texts from antiquity to the modern day. The names of Thomas Magister (1270-1346) and, particularly, Demetrius Triclinius (1280-1340) loomed large. Both were classical scholars in Thessaloniki; and Triclinius had the good fortune to come across a manuscript of nine otherwise unknown plays of Euripides. We owe their survival to him. 

Aged 20. On Olympus. Contemplating Thessaloniki.
In the summer of 1987, I saw Thessaloniki for the first time: from the slopes of Mt Olympus. And I determined to visit the following year.  In 1988, the city made a big impression on me: the liveliness of the waterfront, the Byzantine monuments, the museums, the walls – I walked the whole length of the city walls. And from then onwards, I made a habit of visiting Thessaloniki as a tourist, whenever I could. 

In 2011 and 2012, I really started to spend time there. I devoted the summer of 2011 to Macedonia: we based ourselves in Thessaloniki, exploring it carefully, and travelled west to Kastoria and east to Kavalla. In November 2012, the Foreign Office sent me to Thessaloniki for five weeks, to perfect my Greek. I was due shortly to take up post as Ambassador in Athens and the idea was to master macro-economic Greek. 

I had a lovely flat to myself, high above Mitropoleos, a few blocks down from the cathedral. I spent my mornings in Greek conversation; the afternoons I had to myself: to wander freely, to talk to whoever I wanted to talk to, to do whatever I fancied doing. It was a magical time. The autumn was ending and the winter drawing on; the city was in transition. 

When you turn an unfamiliar corner in Thessaloniki, you’re often granted an unexpected view of the sea. It’s one of the city’s most wonderful characteristics. But in December, the mists start to roll in from the Thermaic Gulf: the sea, the sky, the air in the city streets - all become a single shroud of silvery fog. Melancholy, perhaps, but perfect for thinking, for a little εσωστρέφεια, a little interiority. 
Mosaics in the Rotunda

As Ambassador, I developed good links with the city. The British Council has a large operation there. We were always busy, particularly in 2014, when Thessaloniki was the European Youth Capital. The presence of no fewer than three universities in the city was a great blessing. We had less luck drumming up business, but we devoted real effort to it. Political contacts were very rewarding, particularly with the Mayor Yannis Boutaris: a man who has been a positive force for the international image of the city and its own sense of itself: past and present. 

Paying respects at the Holocaust Memorial
And it was a privilege to work with the Jewish Community of Thessaloniki. In 27 January 2015, I gave a public address at the 70th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz. To meet holocaust survivors – mentally tough, but physically frail men and women in their nineties; to listen to their stories; to have the humbling task of finding and delivering appropriate public words in Greek – this was one of the most moving things I’ve done in my life.

In those years, Thessaloniki really became part of me. 

Prophet Elijah. Sublime.
In my tour for the Hellenic Centre, I took the audience on three journeys by foot: first, from the White Tower through Galerius’ palatial complex, up the Byzantine Walls to the Acropolis, and down through the Upper City; secondly, we walked along the mesmerising waterfront, all the way from the port to Symphony Hall; thirdly, we explored the Jewish monuments in the city and looked forward to the creation of the new Holocaust Memorial Centre. 

Domaine Gerovasiliou. Great wines.
For me, there are many, many high points of Thessaloniki: my three favourite buildings (the Palaeologan churches of Prophet Elijah; Saint Catherine; the Holy Apostles); the city’s modern literature (e.g. Anagnostakis; Christianopoulos; Ioannou); its atmosphere and vibrancy; its culture and food. We closed on a real high note: Domaine Gerovasiliou at Epanomi. Who could resist the great wines of Thessaloniki? And who could resist, in particular, the hospitality at Mr Gerovasiliou’s restaurant, museum and vineyard?

For me Thessaloniki is much, much more than just the ‘alternative’ to Athens. I admire it for being proud and cultured, for trying to manage its history, for standing at an angle to the mainstream. As a northerner myself, I love it for being distinctively the Northern City of Greece. I will be back in 2019!

 John



Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Ένας Έλληνας ποιητής στο Νόργουντ

Μια λαμπρή μέρα το καλοκαίρι, έκανα ένα σύντομο προσκύνημα. Με ποδήλατο. Κατά το μεσημέρι. Εφτά χιλιόμετρα περίπου απ’ το σπίτι μου, σε μια περιοχή που με δυσκολία διακρίνεται από το Τούτινγκ, είναι μια από τις πιο εντυπωσιακές και λιγότερα γνωστές ελληνικές συνοικίες του Λονδίνου. 

Σε μια γωνία του Νότιου Μητροπολιτικού Νεκροταφείου στο Γουέστ Νόργουντ, έρχονταν τα πιο πλούσια μέλη της ελληνικής κοινότητας του Λονδίνου, πάνω από 100 χρόνια πριν, για να φτιάξουν την τελευταία τους κατοικία.  

Όλα από τα σπουδαία ονόματα είναι παρόντα: οι Ράλληδες, οι Σκυλίτσηδες, οι Αργέντηδες, οι Κασσαβέτηδες, οι Καβάφηδες, οι Ροδοκανάκηδες. Τα μνημεία τους είναι μεγαλειώδη. Όλοι οι αρχιτεκτονικοί ρυθμοί που συναντώνται σε μνήματα βρίσκονται εδώ: νεοκλασικός, μπαρόκ, βενετο-γοτθικός, αιγυπτιακός κ.ο.κ. Σπουδαίοι αρχιτέκτονες ανταγωνίστηκαν για να τα ανεγείρουν εδώ. Το νεκροταφείο ιδρύθηκε το 1842, και τρεις δεκαετίες μετά, απέκτησε και ένα μεγάλο παρεκκλήσι, με πρωτότυπο έναν τετράστιχο δωρικό ναό, αφιερωμένο στον Άγιο Στέφανο τον πρωτομάρτυρα. Μετά από πολλά χρόνια παραμέλησης, ο δήμος προσπαθεί να συγκεντρώσει κονδύλια για να αποκατασταθούν τα κύρια μνημεία. Το αξίζουν. Ο τόπος είναι μαγικός. Μοιάζει σαν το αγγλικό παράρτημα του Α΄ Νεκροταφείου Αθηνών. 

Αλλά αυτή τη φορά, δεν ερχόμουν για να αποτίσω φόρο τιμής στις σπουδαίες οικογένειες εφοπλιστών. Στη ΒΑ γωνία του νεκροταφείου, μια απλή και ασήμαντη επιτύμβια πλάκα πληροφορεί τον επισκέπτη ότι ένθαδε κείται ένας αξιοθαύμαστος αλλά σχεδόν άγνωστος Έλληνας ποιητής και φιλόσοφος, ο οποίος ήρθε στην Αγγλία, για να σπουδάσει στο Καίμπριτζ, το 1939 (παρεμπιπτόντως, ο Καζαντζάκης βρισκόταν την ίδια εποχή στην Αγγλία). Μόλις πέντε χρόνια μετά, πέθανε στο Λονδίνο από λευχαιμία, στην τραγικά νεαρή ηλικία 32 χρονών. Το όνομά του ήταν Δημήτριος Καπετανάκης και η επιτύμβια πλάκα του, που μαρτυρεί την αγάπη του για την ελληνική καθώς και την αγγλική ποίηση, έχει δυο επιγραφές – μια στην ελληνική, μια στην αγγλική γλώσσα:

Ο Τάφος του Καπετανάκη
Για δες καιρό που διάλεξες,
Χάρε μου, να τον πάρεις

I am re-begot
Οf absence, darkness, death: things which are not.

(Ξαναγεννήθηκα από την απουσία, το σκοτάδι, τον θάνατο·
πράγματα ανύπαρκτα.)

Ο Καπετανάκης (γενν. 1912) είχε φύγει από τη Σμύρνη με προορισμό την Αθήνα, λίγο μετά από την πτώση της πόλης στα χέρια των Τούρκων το 1922. Σπούδασε στο Πανεπιστήμιο Αθηνών, κι έπειτα πήγε στη Γερμανία για να σπουδάσει στη Χαϊδελβέργη, όπου έγραψε τη διδακτορική του διατριβή στη φιλοσοφική σχολή με τίτλο «Έρως και χρόνος». Το 1939, το Βρετανικό Συμβούλιο του έδωσε υποτροφία για σπουδές στο Καίμπριτζ. Στην Αγγλία πλέον, καταπιάστηκε με την αγγλική λογοτεχνία: ποίηση και πεζά. Κι άρχισε να γράφει ποιήματα στην αγγλική γλώσσα και γνώρισε μια πρωτοποριακή παρέα Άγγλων συγγραφέων που τον έβαλαν στον κύκλο τους. Μετά τον πρόωρο θάνατό του, εξέδωσαν έναν μικρό τόμο του έργου του στα αγγλικά:  Δημήτριος Καπετανάκης: Ένας Έλληνας ποιητής στην Αγγλία.

Ο Καπετανάκης είναι ελάσσονας ποιητής, αλλά προσέλκυσε πρόσφατα την προσοχή μερικών καθηγητών. Οι φιλόλογοι Ντέιβιντ Ρίκς και Δημήτρης Παπανικολάου έχουν γράψει ενδιαφέροντα άρθρα για αυτόν. Και η Αθηναϊκή Επιθεώρηση του Βιβλίουεξέδωσε τον Μάιο μερικά σπουδαία άρθρα για τον ποιητή. Μου αρέσει η λεπτή του συλλογή αγγλικών ποιημάτων – για διαφορετικούς λόγους: την τεχνική αριστεία τους, το περίεργο σκοτάδι και την απροσδόκητη προοπτική που εκθέτουν (την βλέπεις παρακάτω στο σονέτο του «Friendship’s Tree»), την απομόνωση, τη περιθωριοποίηση αλλά και το θάρρος ενός απ’ ό,τι φαίνεται ομοφυλοφίλου συγγραφέα, ο οποίος δεν έμοιαζε καθόλου με τον Καβάφη. Και βέβαια, μου αρέσει το γεγονός ότι, σε αντίθεση με τον Κάλβο (που, δυστυχώς για μας, επαναπατρίστηκε από το Λίνκολνσαϊρ τη δεκαετία του 1960), αυτός ο νέος ποιητής, μετανάστης από τη φρίκη της Καταστροφής, κείτεται εδώ ακόμη σε αυτή την ήσυχη γωνία του ΝΔ Λονδίνου: ένας ακόμα δεσμός ανάμεσα στην Αγγλία και στον Ελληνισμό, μια ακόμη έκφραση του αμοιβαίου θαυμασμού μας για τη πνευματική ζωή. 

Τζων



Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Mackenzie's Memories of Greece

Paddy Leigh Fermor and Compton Mackenzie from Greece in My Life
This photograph, which I discovered quite recently, has become an immediate favourite. It shows two great writers, warriors and philhellenes standing together at Thermopylae in 1959, admiring Simonides’ epigraph in honour of the last stand of Leonidas and his 300 men. The two writers were separated by a generation or so: Sir Compton Mackenzie, born 1883, and Sir Patrick (“Paddy”) Leigh Fermor, born 1915. These days, Paddy Leigh Fermor is by far the better known figure; I have myself blogged about him and contributed (in Greek) to a bilingual book in his honour

But we are shortly reaching the end of the commemorations for the centenary of the Great War, and I have been reading not only recent histories, but also contemporary memoirs, particularly by veterans active in Gallipoli, the Aegean and northern Greece. Compton Mackenzie is probably best known now for his 1947 novel, Whisky Galore,  which was turned successfully into films in 1949 and 2016. But he played an active and unusual role in the Aegean theatre of the Great War, and has left behind four fascinating volumes of reminiscences: Gallipoli Memories (1929), First Athenian Memories (1931), Greek Memories (1932) and Aegean Memories (1940). The publication of the third volume was a notorious event, because it occasioned Mackenzie’s successful prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. Copies were impounded and pulped (I own one of the copies that escaped the injunction!), and the memoir was reissued, with changes, in 1939.

The British state was sensitive for one simple reason: from 1915 to 1917 Mackenzie was head of British intelligence, first in Athens and then across the Aegean, with his base on Syros. His memoirs are a uniquely intimate telling of the intrigues in Greece in those fateful years of the national schism.

When the war broke out, Mackenzie was 31 years old and of weak health; although he tried to get a commission, he was unable to pass the medical examination for service in the armed forces. Eventually, he was recruited by Sir Ian Hamilton, the Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, to work on cypher operations for Gallipoli, and commissioned as a Lieutenant in the Royal Marines. He reached GHQ at Kephalos Bay on Imbros in late May 1915. For the next few months, he was active there, on Tenedos and on Lesbos. But he fell ill from dysentery and was evacuated from Imbros in August 1915, a few days after the unsuccessful Suvla Bay landing. 

He found himself in Athens, where, almost by accident, he became responsible for building up British counter-espionage operations, as part of what was then called MI 1(c): the later MI6. This was an extraordinary period in Greek history, when King Constantine and Prime Minister Venizelos were utterly at odds over Greek war aims. The country was officially neutral, but Constantine, at the very least, expected a German victory and was attempting to position the country accordingly; his Prime Minister believed and was doing the opposite. Mackenzie gives a detailed and often thrilling account of the tensions and murderous conflicts between the parties and their various supporters (including the competing foreign legations) in Athens from August 1915 until the November Events of 1916, after which Venizelos’ provisional government in Salonica took Greece into the war alongside Great Britain and our allies. For the next ten months, Mackenzie transferred his operations to Syros, where he set out to support the provisional government’s control over the Cyclades. 

This is a controversial and still painful period in Greece’s history, and I wouldn’t be crazy enough to step on the territory of professional historians. But I do think that Mackenzie’s memoirs are highly to be recommended. First because they offer a first-hand and unusual British perspective on the intrigues between the Greek Court and Government in those years, alongside the interactions and interventions of foreign powers. Secondly because they are superbly well written and addictive. Compton Mackenzie was a man who could write, and his love of Greece shines through. He had learned ancient Greek from the age of nine and acquired an astonishing knowledge of the language; although he decided to read history not classics at Oxford, Greece and Greek were in his bloodstream. Like Paddy Leigh Fermor in a later era, he admired not just ancient Greece, but also the modern country and the Greeks he encountered in those years of war. In 1959, he recorded for the BBC, ‘The Glory That Was Greece’: one of the first TV series that attempted to explain Greek civilisation to a broad British public. The account of the filming in his later memoir, Greece In My Life (1960), is itself exceptionally interesting.

In the tetralogy of war memoirs there are many excellent pieces of writing. I have posted on my twitter account Mackenzie’s magnificent description of Sounion in springtime. But I will close this blog with his telling of his first arrival at the British Legation (=Embassy), then on Klafthmonos Square; it is characteristically evocative and I hope it inspires some of my readers to check out the books:

The British Legation in Athens completely fulfilled my notion of what a Legation should look like. I can imagine no residence more eloquent of its vocation. To turn aside from the garish whiteness of Stadium Street and pull up in the carriage before that mellow house overlooking a large garden shady with dark pines and the feathery light green foliage of false-pepper trees was an experience of which the sharpest savour could only have been tasted after such weeks as I [had spent] among the tents of Kephalo.  As richly as the perfume of apricots gathered in boyhood, there returns upon my senses as I write these words the smell of the warm stone mingled with an aromatic breath of pines, with acrid whiffs of dust, and the sweaty leather of the horses’ harness. Smith, the Legation porter, hurries down the wide steps from the great front door to help with the bags….

                Mackenzie, First Athenian Memories



John

A head in books

I turn on the lamp and start to read a book. They’re a good thing books, though I curse them every so often. Friends. Faithful friends. ...