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Saturday, 19 September 2009

'...the ravages of bitter civil strife...'

John Koliopoulos’ book Plundered Loyalties needs to be ingested in doses. Other than Thucydides, no historian attracts my respect so much, for being able to be so involved, so human and yet so scholarly, writing soberly of events associated with the Axis Occupation and civil strife between 1941-1949, but like the Inferno the awfulness of what’s described takes on the impetus of a depression shifting one’s mood like a gradual but relentless shift in the weather. I made a vow never ever again to pretend I understood or think casually about the matter of Macedonia and its northern neighbour.
Our route last winter from Igoumenitsa, via Ioannina, on the Via Ignatia, towards Thessaloniki passed well south of the West Macedonian towns of Grevena, Florina, Kastoria, Kozani, where Mark and Sally visited over Christmas, including Lia on Grammus. ‘People’ writes Koliopoulos, Professor of Modern European History at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki in 1998, ‘are made to slip into thinking of Macedonia or notions about the region as something with an unchanging identity …
the result of superficial knowledge of both the history of Macedonia and attitudes towards the place and its vanishing variety of cultural and linguistic communities, as well as of refusal to come to terms with that history when it is known…the uninformed visitor … can hardly imagine the fierce passions that tore the land to pieces and drove a sizeable part of the population to the four corners of the earth as refugees or emigrants…one has to travel higher up the mountain slopes and visit half-deserted mountain villages like Ano and Kato Melas, Kotas, Antartikon, Ano and Kato Kraniona, Mavrokampos, Chalara and Old Gavros to see the marks of war on the walls of abandoned houses, their windows like empty eyesockets and their roofs fallen. They are ghost houses, their bare red mud-brick walls still standing to remind visitors of the ravages of bitter civil strife in these well-watered and verdant valleys between high mountains, some of the most beautiful in Northern Greece…A visitor is given to understand that he is an unwelcome intruder in a world brought to a standstill by so much grief.’
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Watering the plants on the veranda I disturbed a wolf spider - as big as any I’ve seen here or in England - a clutch of her young spiders covering her back. We were intrigued. Mrs L came to see and suggested swiping it. “No no” we said “The spiders control the flies.” I nudged it back into the shade of the garden, some of her young jumping ship on the way.
After a morning bickering about small things we set about some odd jobs; painting the frames for the shutters we’re putting on the balcony doors; varnishing wooden coving for the small bedroom and starting to fix it up…much later we went for a walk – about three miles - west through the village’s small spaces, fruitful in evening greetings, leaving its lights clustered below the crags. The wind fluttered the olive leaves gusting to stir their branches until darkness turned them into sounds for the imagination.
A construction challenging the surrounding landscape, more Las Vegas than Ano Korakiana, nears completion on the outskirts - an imposing villa with an array of balconies and porticoes; yellow, pink and orange walls, columns and pilasters to attract the envy of people passing through the olive groves either side of the road from Agios Markos. An arrow, painted on a steep concrete drive, invites guests to park their cars below heraldic lions in golden bas-relief.
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As well as Calligas’ thesis which I took over to Richard Pine the other day so that he could have it on record at the Durrell School, wanting to invite her to a conference in 2010 on Ionian politics, I’m reading Rebecca Morris’ draft of her research on the meaning of giving blood via donation. It’s rather pleasurable reading about myself, even with all the ‘erms’ ‘um’s’ and sporadicity of recorded chat typical of the messy rawness of the data used to assemble contemporary understanding of the world. Fancy putting this in a dissertation – interesting to me but the kind of thing you’d leave out in the old days:
Simon is the only male participant I have in my study. He is also the oldest. At 65 (when I met him), I’d say that he is probably the wisest too! It also struck me when I first met him, that he is also very tall! I think I have a thing for being drawn to tall academics (given that all of my supervisors tower above me) as he is also one of ‘those’. …Educated at Cambridge University, Simon also knows about anthropology because he studied it there. This puts him finely attuned to the ethnographic endeavour, albeit one that is slightly different and ‘less (post)modern’ than mine. Simon is one of the chattiest people I have ever met. He’s like the older, male, academic version of me: loquacious! I immediately liked him and I was gutted when my Dictaphone ran out of battery power only 45 minutes into the first of our marathon conversations…. When I first met him, I was struck by not only his height, but also that he was carrying a fold-up bicycle in his hand…
I quite like this. Lin reading notes ‘loquacious’ and looks at me with a rueful grin. I’m thinking she’s thinking ‘prolix’. And while sunning myself in flattering biography I got an mail from Owen Sinclair who writes a blog called ’70.8%’ being the amount of the earth’s surface covered by sea. A self-confessed armchair sailor, Owen had asked to post my 40 year old account of sailing to the Americas. I’m proud of that, finding it tricky to imagine how we did it when we did and in so small a craft.
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Richard Pine has pointed me towards a Greek police detective Inspector Costas Haritos, trained in the time of the junta, a creation of Petros Markaris. Haritos may be as much or even more to my liking than the British author Anne Zaroudi’s ‘fatman’ – mysterious nemesis of wrongdoers on imagined Greek islands.
Visiting Richard in town up narrow stairs off narrower Philhellinon off Spiridon off The Liston; coming to an old door with a brass plaque and being invited upstairs to find books shelved around a spacious room with annexe above the bustle a floor below – home of Richard’s creation, The Durrell School of Corfu. To my delight he asked if I’d like to chat to one of the monthly gatherings – with wine - for subscribing members of the School. I suggested a discussion of how successive High Commissioners, from Maitland to Storks, had got on with the Corfiots.” “Good idea, but keep it short. They enjoy the wine and the company.” “I could have, thumbnail sketches, stories, mention of statues around the town, plus pictures of Ionian politicians and their opinions of the British and how they danced with their ‘protectors’”. “Ah! ‘Call it dancing with wolves’?”
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I was asked for this newsletter item in the September Newsletter of Birmingham Friends of the Earth (FoE):
Planning Application No. N/01514/03/FUL – Victoria Jubilee Allotments
In May 2004 Birmingham’s Development Control Committee approved - by one vote - an application to build homes on the Victoria Jubilee Allotments (VJA) next to Handsworth Park – a private site surrendered by a cabal keen to profit from the development value of their plots. Supported by FoE, people in Handsworth and across the city had campaigned for ten years against this loss of urban farmland. Government guidance discouraged building on allotments, and we presented sound evidence of local demand for plots on the whole site. Bitter disappointment at the committee’s vote was partly allayed by firm promises that the successful applicant would – under a Section 106 Agreement – hand over part of the land to the city to create:
- 80 new municipal allotments with a gardeners’ meeting room
- 3 playing pitches and a cricket square and a sports pavilion with parking
In May 2008, at a site meeting attended by councillors, allotments campaigners and people concerned with local sport, constituency planning officer - Alan Orr - gave assurances that the ‘trigger point’ – number of homes sold – had arrived; that the S106A would be implemented by Persimmon Homes that summer.
Summer passed. In February 2009 the city council’s allotments team opened a short-listing process in anticipation of allotments being available by this summer. Applications came in swiftly, but, as numbers went over 50%, we heard that undefined problems in the legal arrangements the land’s acquisition by the city meant no allotments this summer and indefinite delay on the rest of the agreement.
Council staff understand and sympathise with local frustration at yet further delay in honouring a contract concluded 5 years ago. Burdened by recession, the Council has born down heavily on its allotments budget – making cuts, according to the Birmingham Post, of 65%. Front line staff who provide excellent service to plot holders are under great pressure, yet here we have a legal agreement in place, at no cost to council taxpayers, to open the largest new allotment site in the UK since WW2. The problem is demonstrably at the highest level in the city.
Simon Baddeley, Handsworth Allotments Information Group (HAIG) TO GET ON THE SHORT LIST FOR A PLOT ON THE VJA WHEN THEY BECOME AVAILABLE PHONE 0121 303 3038, e-mail: or complete a form on-line.

1 comment:

  1. My old Bombadier killed a spider once. Bastard.


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