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Saturday, 7 February 2009

'History is a cruel mistress'

I saw graffiti on a billboard by the old port when we arrived two weeks ago that said, beside the anarchist logo, “F*ck routines”. I like breakfast, sometimes boiling eggs, making toast and cutting it into soldiers, if Lin’s up jostling over her share of yoke, she disliking white. Then some chat. Collecting and sawing firewood. Painting walls. Filling cracks. Picking lemons. Collecting windfall oranges. Buying soft crusty bread at the shop, 40 paces away, made in the village rather than delivered from a central bakery. Putting clothes in the washer. Having a cup of tea. Chatting about credit – from reciprocity to plastic. * * * E-mail circulated to me on 3 February 09 about current plans for the Old harbour in Corfu:
Please forward this letter I have sent you. It is about the project of making a marina for sailing yachts at the old harbour of Corfu (SPELEA). This is a project which should never have been thought about since it will alter the character of the old harbour, at the very moment when Corfu town has been designed a World Monument by UNESCO. Unfortunately Corfiot people weren’t informed on time about this project, or, even worse, they/we did not react early enough. But even if we cannot avoid the creation of a marina at least we can try to ensure some features of it will not look dreadful. For instance the breakwater jetty is supposed to have 3 meters height from sea level when ready. This will alter dramatically the landscape, since it will hide the view of Vido island. As far as common sense shows this height is not needed, since the actual jetties are 1.50m. high and they seem to be high enough to protect the ships from any storm up to now. On Tuesday 3 February, which is tomorrow at TELEKERKYRA TV channel, (this is not a good link I'm afraid try MyKerkyra? SB) at 10 o' clock in the evening, there will be a broadcast about this issue. My brother is moderating and they are going to show with virtual images what the whole area will look like after the marina will be finished. I consider it is important that people are properly informed about the issue. A second broadcast will take place next Tuesday (12 Feb 09) as well on the same issue. After that we are several people thinking of finding ways to react to what we consider a shame for our town. I am afraid people who do not understand Greek will not be able to follow the discussion on TV, so please send part of this English letter to them in order to keep them mobilized for any further actions. Thank you for your help. All the best, Katina Vlahou
* * *
Lin and I removed the stove chimney and cleared it of accumulated wood soot and hardened olive resin. We must replace the failed cap on the pipe that won’t revolve but it’s tricky to get to. With a cleaned chimney and old abandoned wood we’ve collected, the stove, which had become smokey, performed perfectly, though we didn’t need it until late evening after a warm sunny day with news of snow in England where’s there’s grumbling about conditions that appear unexceptional, except we have much more traffic on many more roads in an interconnected just-in-time economy while local council contracts don’t easily cover the levels of salt, employment and equipment for events that tend to occur ten or more years apart. E-mail circular dated 4 Feb 09 from Roger Blandford, Assistant Director - Maintenance & Utilities, The University of Birmingham
Dear Colleague. During the recent spell of frost, snow and ice, the Grounds & Gardens team have attempted to keep the University roads and footpaths as safe as possible by frequent gritting. However, this has severely depleted the University's stock of rock salt. We have used 30 tonnes this week alone, roughly half the amount we would normally expect to use in a complete year. It is difficult to replenish our stocks because all major suppliers have been instructed not to release stock until the local Council's demands are satisfied. Heavy snow is again forecast tonight and tomorrow and our remaining stock of grit is unlikely to be enough to maintain free and safe access everywhere on campus and surrounding properties. We will attempt to keep the main routes clear. All staff are advised to take extreme care and try to keep to well used routes that have been gritted where possible.
A man at CJs said all that was needed was snow ploughs on the front of the garbage trucks. I wondered why he wasn’t in government. Richard sent me a nice black and white picture he’d taken of snow in Whitehall Road in Handsworth.
* * *
Mark Mazower’s book Dark Continent: Europe’s 20th Century is the best history book I’ve read for ages. His account brings revelations. As a democrat sceptical about democracy, agreeing with Churchill’s view that’s it the worst form, but for the others and with Maine that it can be as much an instrument of despotism as monarchy, I’ve been less than supportive of those who saw democracy as a bright shining hope. Mazower shows democracies emerging over Europe after the first war, imitating Britain and America, and failing dismally, giving way to dictatorships with the willing collaboration of whole populations for whom the right to a free vote was less important than the right to work and eat. Another historian called the first part of the 20th century the age of dictators, culminating in a world where fascism and communism seemed to provide solutions to problems that for democracies and capitalism proved insoluble. Nazi success in reducing unemployment was widely respected; the advance of German soldiery across Europe in the late 30s was welcomed by many politicians and populations in the countries into which they marched, a means of replacing failing democracies and renewing the strength and vitality of decadent polarised societies; accommodation with Hitler’s hegemony was advocated by elements of the establishment in both Britain and USA. These collaborationist enthusiasms were understandably played down or expunged in post-war national histories. Mazower is an archaeologist of early 20th century European complicity in the defeat of its democracies. Reading his book, criticised by one historian, Prof. Raymond Pearson, for being overly negative about Europe’s 20th Century, my heart goes out to those who fought to preserve and maintain the ideals of John Stuart Mill and Thomas Jefferson, from intellectuals in arms to unread foot soldiers who knew that something was wrong with that bloke who’d only got one ball, not to mention poor old Goebbels who’d ‘no balls at all’. The complement to this is Richard Hillary’s The Last Enemy:
"Thank you, sir," she said, and took my hand in hers. And then, looking at me again, she said after a pause, "I see they got you too."
Hillary's initial reaction was anger at her presumptive comment on his ravaged face. He’d helped stretcher her from a blitzed house. Then he was enveloped in the realisation that his misdirected rage was really against the evil he and his friends and this dying woman and hers were fighting together. The historian criticising, while admiring, Mazower’s work, wanted more attention to the way democracy had, after the experience of Nazi misrule, spread across Europe in the century’s second half, made to work better and earned greater support from the mass of Europeans than in the century’s earlier half. To be fair Mazower says as much but none can read his work without becoming more hesitant in their confidence that democracy is safe in European hands – especially when capitalism falters yet again.
* * *
‘History is a cruel mistress’. Irishman Richard Pine is Director Emeritus of the Durrell School in Corfu where he lives. Writing in the Irish Times on 4 Feb 09, he argues that riots in Greece aren’t only about failures in the education system and income disparity…‘they can be the expression of a much older and more deep-seated unrest, rooted in the way a relatively new country can emerge.’ There had been a dream towards the end of the country’s first century of achieving an elusive national unity through recovery of Constantinople – ‘the symbol and centre of the Hellenic world’ along with its Greek inhabited littoral along the eastern shores of the Aegean basin. This big idea (the Megali Idea), pursued by military invasion of Turkey, conditionally supported by Britain, was defeated by the new secular leadership of Kemel Ataturk, whose vulpine face decorates Turkish currency today. Flickering black and white news film of burning Smyrna, Anatolia’s hub, its name changed to Izmir, are easily viewed on YouTube, and contemporary comments show Hellenes deeply aware of their fellow citizens’ massacre and mass expulsion in 1922.
‘In the folk memory and in the political memory, Greece is still coming to terms with that disaster. It is also still trying to understand the return of adults who, as children, were exported to eastern bloc countries by the communists during the civil war (1946-49). And it is also trying to cope with the presence of thousands of so called Pontine Greeks – refugees from former Russian territories in the Black Sea area, now mostly living in sub-standard housing in Athens: Greek but for the most part not speaking Greek, the victims and the agents of drugs and prostitution.
Pine argues that because Greece so long remained ‘the plaything of the major powers, right up to and after the second World War’ its civil war came much later than that of other countries struggling for unity.
‘The civil war, between communists and the right, was partly ideological, partly due to the rival economic strategies which developed in the 1930s to deal with the civil divisions in the aftermath of the Anatolian catastrophe, which had already resulted in two periods of dictatorship. Anatolia precipitated the crises of the 1930s and 40s, and the civil war, unmentioned and unmentionable in most arenas, is still precipitating today’s unrest, while the aftermath of Yugoslavia (especially the as yet unresolved problem of Macedonia) is a continuing problem on Greece’s borders.’
This is familiar - a preliminary to the nub of Pine’s argument about the future. Turning to such positives as Hellenic success in soccer, the staging of the 2004 Olympic Games, the new rail linked international airport in Athens, even its winning of the Eurovision Song Contest, Pine points out that Hellas has been a tiger economy ‘after Ireland, the most successful in Europe’, capable of giving economic leadership to ‘Bulgaria, Romania and even Turkey in a Balkan mini-empire’. The trouble is that continued economic development has policy imperatives and cultural trajectories ‘at variance with the horizons and experience of the majority of Greek people, 20 per cent of whom live below the poverty line, and it disturbs a deep resonance within the collective memory... A Greek is someone who, as novelist Vangelis Hatziyannidis puts it, “spends more time planning the past than he does planning the future”…Greece, like many emerging societies, is trying to come to terms with the transition from a rural economy and culture to an urban cosmopolitanism and the resulting change in demography.’ Pine makes comparisons with his own country. The journey from the many walled pastures, marshlands and green hills of Irish farm life to teeming new Dublin. My stepfather wrote and spoke about the same seismic changes in England. Weren’t Dave and I discussing the same thing in CJ’s by Ipsos beach last night – wondering, in the light of recession – how the new urban culture would cope with some of the self-help that might be needed to survive if things get worse. Pine celebrates Athenian Café society: ‘vibrant, and volatile…where young people debate the transition, and discuss the pain of that transition, with the past always forbiddingly looking over their shoulder. It is this fissure between old and new, traditional and modern, that lies at the root of unrest and fuels the riots.’ I’m back to my earliest intellectual experiences aboard an Irish freighter working for the Tavistock Institute trying to make sense of theories of change, unpicking ideas from Eric Trist and his colleagues first in the coal industry, then in other factories and, for me, in shipping – my role that of a bewildered research assistant – trying and mostly failing to grasp the effects of a lost tradition (at an age when I felt none), the challenge of its rediscovery, the possibility of its transformation – so that something of the human spirit connected to older ways, might survive amid the socio-technical changes of disenchanted modernity. Why sweat with handsaw cutting firewood? Why make wine at home? Why walk and cycle but for recreation? Why look after a donkey but for sentiments about past service? Roots, says Pine, are about everything Hellenic ‘not easily torn up’. Yet he’s saying they must be, at the very least, examined so that such vital Hellenic ideals as freedom, virtue and truth can grow in different soil. Is he also suggesting that young Aristotle, Pericles, Demeter, Antigone and Alkestis, should be renamed Tracey, Wayne, Aaron, Dustin or Chantelle or similar names from the pool of new celebrity? Pine mentions the enduring dynasties of Greek politics. I recall my 16 year-old Greek half-cousin Ioanna, in 1962, at her father’s house in Kifissia, dropping, with incomprehensible fervour to ignorant me, the names of admired Karamanlis and disliked Papandreou.
‘Today’ writes Pine ‘their descendants, lacklustre George Papandreou (leader of the opposition party, Pasok, and grandson to his same-name grandfather) and the obstinate Costas Karamanlis, prime minister (leader of New Democracy, the party founded by his uncle, Constantine Karamanlis), gesture at one another in polite, meaningless phrases that deceive no one. Plus ça change. Like so many present-day Irish politicians, there are dynasties at the centre of Greek politics. But you don’t have to be a cute hoor to succeed in Greece. If you aren’t born into the professional classes, no amount of cuteness will help. And that, in itself, has alienated most of the have-nots. Dynastic doesn’t work any more. The fact that neither New Democracy nor Pasok has an answer, and the additional fact that smaller parties on both left and right are unwilling or unable to enter political dialogue with the major players, suggests that current political rivalries are relatively unimportant compared to the problem of giving Greece a new sense of purpose that is linked, but not shackled, to the past.’
At the Leftheris the other evening young Mrs L gave me the piece of paper I’d asked for so I could draw a picture of our chimney problem, as well as a recipe her mother had for serving blood oranges. It was a Nea Dimokratia leaflet, blank on one side. I asked if they wanted it back, but they all smiled and gestured that some on the family were ND and others were Pasok. "Mama is that, papa is this" they said in jesting rivalry, one dismissing one party, another family member dismissing the other – with slightly resigned nods all round about the likelihood any could solve the problems of the world. Nonetheless I note with slightly guilty relief that while rubbish continues to stack up around wheely bins across the island, those on Democracy Street have been emptied and all signs of overflow tidied away. I suspect we are plugged in up here.

1 comment:

  1. I think that Professor Pine is quite right that Greeks have not come to terms with the nation's failures in the 20th century. Therein lies the rub. I am not sure if there is any appetite to dialogue about the past or the future. One is forgotten, the other is in doubt. Excellent post.


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Simon Baddeley