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Saturday, 10 April 2010

Work and play

We set about laying out and tidying the downstairs dining room, corralling tat, stacking and storing, mopping the marble floor before laying a carpet to go beneath table and chairs. I cut extra shelves to go on the book shelf we’d recovered from the roadside, now sanded, filled, painted and screwed to the wall; pruning and rearranging the wisteria; mending the climbing frames for that and the bougainvillea; digging out rubble from the floor of the apothiki as a base for more plaka under the veranda; cutting and storing more firewood.
Jacinta dropped by “There are lots of wooden doors and windows by the bins on the lower road.” We drive down with tape measure, and ease into our little car a pair of white painted doors and two windows in their frames – one set just what we need for the dining room dresser front, once part of its present recess is chipped away to fit the frame as square as we can make it. The work gives time to savour words on the acute difficulty of translating Homer, which I came across in a scruffy old book [The Writers of Greece and Rome, Gilbert Norwood & J.Wight Duff London:Oxford University Press 1925] I got for €2 from a table-top sale in Ypsos. ‘Greek is more flexible than English, possesses a vastly larger proportion of long melodious words, is retarded far less by the clotting of consonants.’ wrote Gilbert Norwood, Professor of Greek at University College, Cardiff...
...Moreover in the hexameter Homer employs a measure native to Greek, and capable of lightness and speed as well as dignity. The result is that, whenever he wishes, he can be amazingly rapid and elastic and yet – here is the difficulty of English – without becoming glib and trivial. The greatest poetry in our tongue, not only Paradise Lost but the comparatively agile verse of the balcony-scene in Romeo and Juliet, is necessarily slower – in Milton immensely slower – than Homeric poetry.
Norwood can speak of Homer’s two defects though. ‘First there is a lack of humour… (an absence only noticeable because on the rare occasion he tries it, his humour flatly fails e.g. when Glaucus and Diomedes exchange
armour, vi.234-6)). Whenever Homer mentions laughter, it is laughter at something pitiable, helpless, wicked or mean. The other defect is the illogical expansion of minor passages’ - elaboration that interrupts rather than enriching the story. I know what he means, but I wonder if such longeurs occurred in recitals when the audience wanted an interval, or if the story-teller, at a feast, meant to stoke tension; have listeners murmuring “get on with it!” Norwood was writing in the 1920s. We've learned that Homer being recited in public used adjectives to held the rhythm rather than describe the noun. Rappers use the same technique.
After the dining room Lin argued that we postpone, for the moment, hopes for a new stairway and balcony on the side of the house, and repair and protect the one we have, filling between planks with foam, sanding flat the place from which we first enjoyed a view of nearly all Corfu, the Kerkyra sea, Albania and mainland Greece. Then with this job on hold, awaiting a choice of surfacing, Lin turns to completing the plaka jigsaw of the garden.
I’m reading Jim Potts' just-published book The Ionians Islands and Epirus, to be launched in the Friends’ Room at the Hellenic Centre in London at 7.15pm on 4th May under the auspices of the Ionian Society and Signal Books (free entry but confirm attendance on +44 20 7563 9835 or The book plug refers to a 'mosaic'. It’s more a most readable stream of highly educated consciousness from someone married to a Corfiot - Maria Strani - speaking Greek, who’s known the Ionian islands and Epirus and the rest of Greece for over forty years, with miles to go before he sleeps.
Potts' commentary is, at last, the book I couldn’t get in bookshops in Corfu, where one proprietor, when I asked about a 'proper' history of Corfu, told me I must go the university for "that kind of detail." Potts modestly quotes the many good histories preceding his, but most are untranslated or slipping out of date, and none deal with the controversies of the last sixty years – the present moral landscape of the area and the rest of Greece and indeed all us xenos who have so invented, fetishized and commodified the place. Seldom was Wildes’ phrase geographically truer - ‘each man kills the thing he loves’. I shall revert to this book which so skillfully bridges the gap between a thesis rich with indexed reference and a guidebook for the visiting traveler and resident alike. Jim Potts' sensibility reminds me of my stepfather's intentionally unpublished ode to 'the book I never wrote' which included the words ‘They claim the sun that used to bake the hay. And breathe the breeze in which the pointing dog caught a hundred scents. They walk out in trainers and T-shirts that say “Save the Rain Forest”. “Stand back!” they say. “We have a right to walk where we please!” But we look where they trod before and shudder for what follows in their footsteps. I said I must write a warning. But I was angry and - as the Japanese say - to be angry is only to make yourself ridiculous. So we will live out our days in the cracks between the concrete. And then they will pour cement on top of us.'
Jim Potts' book is no threnody. He finishes with a seventh chapter on ‘New Perspectives’ which includes such concerns for the commons – as access to places for the disabled, potholes filled to save the lives of people on cycles and scooters, the value of re-binding the Ionian Islands by restoring reliable and frequent sea ferry services between them instead of thinking only of road and air transport to and from the mainland, and - writing from a male perspective - respect for women and the memory of their oppression, as well as the deconstruction of narratives that have outlived their uses, yet which, in our mingled mongrel world, still fuel futile animosities. Potts knows that for all the grieving we do about despoiled landscape, practical solutions, resolutions and reconciliations begin in the landscapes of our imagination. Matthew Arnold said it at the end of Dover Beach
Ah love, let us be true to one another! for the world, which seems to lie before us like a land of dreams, so various, so beautiful, so new hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain...
Potts' most controversial thrusts are questions, gentle but accurate, not accusations, even his strongest reproaches – illustrated by diatribes from other writers, visitors and residents, foreigners and natives – are conditional, based on charitable understanding of the frailties – including the greed for excess pleasure that runs through our nature, the blind march of ignorant armies. He ends by quoting the hopes and dreams of Greeks, friends, wives, husbands, brothers and sisters, hosts and guests convoyed to Ithaka under the escort of painters, musicians, the designers of school curricula, writers and poets- Cavafy’s lines:
Ἒτσι ποῦ τὴ ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδῶ
στὴν κώχη τούτη τὴν μικρή, σ’ ὄλην τὴν γὴ τὴν χάλαδες
(Last lines of The City: 'Just as you've wasted your life here, in this tiny niche, in the entire world you've ruined it.' ) I know a secret about Jim Potts. I met him for coffee and mezés on the Liston at Zisimos at the end of January. He’s as sure as scholarship allows of threads connecting classical and modern Greece; not the forged links of propaganda and government schoolbooks, kitsch monuments and municipal pageants, viewed as duplicitous and burdensome among many Greeks, but something subtler, too elusive for politics; a form that dissolves before it enters the liminal, like déjà vu. As he disposes myths, he corrects ancient misquotes (that famous one ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ is mistranslated from a caution to a prejudice ‘beware of Greeks even when they bear gifts’) and deconstructs without ridicule a host of over-cherished stories. Over my coffee and his chocolate he said "I've been quite controversial, I think."(Hilary Paipeti's review in the April Corfiot)


  1. Beginning "Work and Play", I had no idea that it would encompass these very interesting comments on my book. Thank you for the careful reading!


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Simon Baddeley