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Monday, 6 August 2007

I entered the home of a woman...

Mum with Ann Muir on the road to Coignafearn - one of our walks beyond Garbole, about 18 miles south of Inverness. When we were here in February, the hills were covered in light snow, the ground was frosted, the river was full of ice; a chill wind from the east; deer were feeding in numbers on the flat of the strath. This day was mild. The dogs, who never chase stock, scampered happily up and down the hills. The valley was full of the sound of the waters of the Findhorn. My mother - 90 this year - sighs at needing a pusher. She'd prefer to be clambering to the higher ground with the dogs, but her balance fails her. Ann is from South Africa, from a farming family, here to help care for my mum until September. Coignafearn is owned by Sigrid Rausing, daughter of the Tetrapak billionaire Hans Rausing inventor of ingenious cartons for milk and juice. His daughter is a noted ecologist keen to protect the golden eagle population. In Strathnairn just south of Inverness at my mother's house. The Highlands are as I like them - misty and damp with midges and occasional intervals of sun to enrich the matte landscape, brightening violet heather, great purple thistles - symbol of Scotland - and lichened granite with dazzling light which later reddens a lingering watery gloaming. The wind roisters the birches round Brin Croft, Mum’s new home at Inverarnie full of bready smells, and the furnishings and decorations of Mains of Faillie - two miles north, now chill and empty with furniture marks on the scuffed carpets and weeds encroaching the gravel that for 40 years has crunched with our arrivals and departures. Lin and I arrived at Brin Croft late Wednesday night, after she’d driven north all afternoon – through the Lake District, to the border at Carlisle – not even halfway – through the lowlands past Lockerbie and Dunblane to the edge of Glasgow, a long dog leg by Stirling to Perth and the last hundred miles by Pitlochry and Blair Atholl before, at last Drumochter Pass, by the Boar of Badenoch and the Sow of Atholl and Dalwhinnie – the Highlands begins and dusk is on us as we pass Aviemore, Carrbridge, Tomatin, Ruthven and Moy and come to the slope before the turn to Fort Augustus that brings us by the low road to Inverarnie, to drink tea, with, for me a sip of Speyside malt (present from my eldest Greek sister) before a wood fire burning in a stove surrounded by slate slabs. Oscar joined the biscuit terriers clustered to delight each other with greeting barks that turned to growls, squeaks, smellings and lickings. Next morning, by sleeper, Kalvin and Emma – my relatives slightly removed – arrived to stay the weekend. Emma’s expecting a child in October and they’ve decided not to know if it’s a boy or girl. Amy came on Saturday by plane and train, sleepless from working late at the pub and rising early to get to the airport by replacement bus (her train to the airport cancelled by a security alert, or possibly a local flood). We’re a group of six. With mum helped by Ann from South Africa; Lin and me sleeping in the wood cabin my mother’s put next to her house, which she’s painted blue and white outside after a Swedish house she saw in a photo, but which by happy chance is Aegean blue. What an achievement, at 90, to have moved and settled in a new house inside three months! In my picture - Linda, mum, Amy (at the head of the table), Kalvin, Emma and Ann. Kalvin’s a central heating engineer with polyvalent enthusiasms. We can talk about anything. Because he knows about installing boilers I can even discuss local government without a polite change of subject. K’s also a painter. He showed me an acrylic – on his camera – of Billingsgate Market, near his birthplace, with fresh fish on ice, redskinned mongers and customers including a bearded Asian face of antique profile in a hoodie gazing towards a wet salmon. A portrait of Emma captured her gentle questioning amused face in the manner of Lucian Freud. Later when we were walking on the hills high above Strath Nairn we reflected on the latter’s portraits - how they captured such likeness yet if a man with a face like that walked in you’d wonder if he needed a doctor. ‘We see so little of what’s there.’ With Kalvin's enthusiasm I repeated a walk up and down one of the highest hills in the Strath that I'd done with Amy ten years ago - a photo here of her half way up. On Saturday morning I dreamed I entered the home of a woman who I was researching. I arrived at her house, got no answer to my knock but found the front door ajar. I started looking through papers in her sitting room which I assumed she’d prepared for our meeting. I could hear small movements in the kitchen. I thought it was a cat or a dog. No-one arrived, so I left. As I walked out my eye was caught by a notice in the small window on the left of the porch being held against the glass by the woman I’d come to see. On it was written ‘I CA’ in felt-tip capitals. I thought she was signalling for help – about me – to anyone passing by. I went up to the window and offered her my mobile, signing she could use it to phone for reassurance. After hesitating she raised the window enough for me to slip her the phone. We waited; me in the porch, she shut in the kitchen. My step-niece, Emma, when I told her about this over porridge at breakfast, had another explanation. ‘She couldn’t talk to you about the things you wanted to know. She was writing something that began “I can’t”. She’d left her door ajar and papers waiting for you to see, but when it came to talking about them she suddenly felt she couldn’t and stayed in the kitchen. Hearing you leave she scribbled a note but had only time to write ‘I ca’ before you were out of the door and away.’ But what did she make of the phone I gave her? That she should ring me? That I would ring her later on it and she could choose to answer or ignore the call? I’d thought she was phoning the police. Now I’m not sure she was doing more than holding my phone in dismayed indecision. I’ve just finished Keeley’s Inventing Paradise. It’s about a world, seemingly invented over a mere ten years, starting, in Keeley’s book, in 1937, during which modern Greece becomes Paradise for Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller as they roam the land and its literature, making their own wondrous realm out of what they see and read and learn from the table talk of their Greek hosts and their connections. Keeley gathers into this world the people who actually met and laughed, feasted and talked together over just a few years. The book was published in 1999 and Keeley mentions a Greece, more recent, with passing slaps at mass tourism, but insists on ending his book before he switches to the ‘first person singular’. Expulsion from this paradise came with the great European civil war; the Italian and German Occupation of Greece bringing miseries that gave added lustre to the memory of innumerable wonderful days and evenings of companionship with talents, present in flesh and in spirit, of Seferis, Katsimbalis, Palamos, Cavafey, Elytis, Ghika, Antoniou, Stephanides, Ioanna and Constantine Tsatsos (to name the main ones and not to claim for myself the familiarity with, or even knowledge, of their work this easy listing could imply).
There are two anecdotes among the many that I especially liked. First at the crowded public funeral of the national poet Kostis Palamos on 28 February 1943 when, among a great crowd of mourners, George Katsimbalis began at the open graveside to sing the banned national anthem – a whole verse on his own followed by silence – German soldiers looking on, his wife trying to shut him up, and Ioanna Tsatsos, George Seferis’ sister, tugging at his sleeve. He begins the second verse, feeling like a drowning man, then a fat Corfiot friend makes a duet, and then, ‘like throwing a switch’, thousands took up the hymn to freedom. And second when Ioanna Tsatsos writes on 12 October 1944, that the German flag on the Acropolis came down ‘as though swallowed by the Holy Rock, and in its place rose the flag with the beloved colour of our sky’. I am embarrassed at the thought that next to my own there’s no other flag I should so gladly see marking a moment of great happiness – even though I deprecate the waving of flags in triumph (except for my brother’s sacred football) and admire Dr.Johnson for saying ‘patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.’ The deeper significance of Keeley’s work is its extended comment on a greater Fall - something not yet worked out; certainly not in my mind [See entry 10/12/08]. The invention of Paradise was a product not only of the intoxicating mix of singular personalities – foreign and Greek – who figure in Keeley’s book but of a pre-war Greek culture that was first stifled then blighted by cruelty beyond previous imagining, events so far outside the imagination of its culture, beyond the reach of the philosophies of irony, stoicism and cynicism. Totalitarianism far beyond the authoritarianism of Metaxas, or the bullying of a village thug or the seedy dishonesty of a corrupt provincial official. This was a system unknown to Greeks - and many others across Europe. Talking to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940 of what might happen were Hitler's army to take over the British Isles, Churchill warned that "all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science." For us it didn't happen. To the Greeks it did.
Every symbol of Greek culture became sullied. I know how uncomfortable I feel seeing old photos of red phone boxes and English bobbies next to a German uniform in the Channel Islands. Suddenly there were soldiers in Wehrmacht and SS uniforms posing in front of the Parthenon and these filthy people were praising it as a monument to culture, infiltrated into every part of the Greek state, including Corfu. Even the evzone uniform was compromised, worn by a minority of collaborators. A new dark age did descend on the wondrous land, making everything ugly, affecting all they knew and cared for. Atrocities at Komeno, Kalavryta, LigiadesKessariani, Distomo, and the hostages [the woodcut is from p.343 of Mazower's account of the Nazi Occupation, showing a blokko (round-up) at Kokkinia, Athens on 17 August 1944. A masked informer is pointing out suspects to Germans troops and Greek collaborators]
netted by blokkos and stored for reprisal murders at Chaidari, marked a far greater swathe of one-off murders designed on purpose to be random to amplify fear and spread despair. To supplement mass murder came humiliation, deprivation, separation, displacement, vulgarisation and the suffocating ugliness of defeat, invasion and occupation and then the remorseless destruction of the oldest Jewish communities [This in Corfu alone - 10 June 1944] in Europe and their abduction and murder - a dose of deadly efficiency. Language falters before the risk of creating a league table of comparative wickedness. Beside these we find - ridiculous and obscene - almost positive remarks being made about the other two plunderers - Italy and Bulgaria - nicer rapists than the Germans, who might never have invaded Greece had Mussolini not invaded first and then sought help from an ally after the Italians were routed by the Greek army in the mountains of Albania. To imagine the frightfulness inflicted on dear Greece I have to imagine the truth of Mazower's observation about the Civil War that flared with the departure of the invaders. The joy described by Ioanna Tsatsos on 12 October was fleeting. True the swastika came down, but brave young Greeks had been pulling down Nazi flags including the one on the Parthenon throughout the Occupation [On the night of 30 May 1941, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas removed the swastika from the Acropolis. They were arrested on 24 March of the following year and sentenced to death. More on this seen on MGO and read on 13/03/08]. No, Mazower quotes a primary source for a series of formative events that were, in his scholarly view, ‘more traumatic’ for Greece than the Occupation – the British Civil Police Liaison log book in WO 170/4049 and the subsequent account of events in Syntagma Square on Sunday 3 December 1944 by 23rd Armoured Brigade in WO 204/8312 – ta dekemvriana. On that day an icon of our fight against the Nazis, the Spitfire, was strafing parts of Athens and Englishmen in English khaki were sniping at Greeks from the Acropolis and, something few knew about, ‘the percentages agreement’, informed the fate of the wondrous land. After the occupation came five years of Civil War already metastasizing inside occupied Greece, with the carcinogens of human weakness and constant fear brought on by starvation, brutalisation, grief and fear to add to the intensity of human division. And they have yet to endure the stone years and the armoured democracy that lasted until 1974. I haven't read Odysseas Elytis' Axion Esti, nor yet listened to Mikis Theodorakis oratorio on the epic poem, which I have on a CD sung and spoken in German, recorded by a Dresden orchestra and choir in Leipzig in 1982. I believe it may help prepare my understanding of how Greek artists have encompassed and transformed a great darkness and created the possibility of forgiveness and, if not reconciliation - for some differences of values should never be smoked in the same pipe or allowed a clinking of glasses - then a sombre unforgetting oblivion. Sacks and sacks of undestroyed primary sources remain to erode self-serving narratives and contradict polarised recollections. Thucydides would have been proud of the young scholars, mostly Greek, and all Greek speakers, leafing through them now.
* * *
I returned from America in 1973 and got a job at Birmingham University. I met Lin in 1974. My life began anew but we did not see Greece together until 1995.


  1. Although pieces of cloth can be exchanged or replaced, the sky cannot. Now Greece can only mourn the permanent loss of a sky that will never again be the beloved color of her flag.

    So much for democracy.


    Democracy is, for too many, a religion driven by faith, but it is just a form of government invented by Greeks who've been blamed for its imperfections. Saying 'So much for democracy' - if you will excuse me, because I'm flattered you've read my blog - is like blaming God for not stopping humans doing bad things.Once humans ate the apple we had choice. Ditto democracy and its role in blemishing or perhaps one day recovering the beloved colour of the Greek sky, or did you think the Colonels could give it to us? (Sorry that was below the belt.)

  3. Freebird Ashkatchew22 November 2011 at 14:29

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Simon Baddeley