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Saturday, 7 July 2012

What the Greeks went through

Dylan Thomas wrote to Lawrence Durrell in 1938 a letter from England which included the paragraph
...I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out a grey flat insular mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it, and the only necessary things I do are the things I am doing. Unless by accidents, and my life is planned by them, I shall be nearer Bournemouth than Corfu this summer.
Jim Potts mentioned these observations on his blog recently, and in a note to me this morning, included the sentence:
It's extraordinary what the Corfiots (and the Greeks generally) went through in the 1920s and 1940s.
This made me think of suggestions that Corfu's beauty, tranquillity and wealth is enervating, not a place for an artist to be creative...
Dear Jim. Indeed. At the time Kostas Apergis identified those initials carved by a boy in 1957 he said Marcos was still living in Ano Korakiana...It’s knowing what the Greeks went through in the ‘20s and ‘40s that puts the lie to the idea of the ‘enervating.... bucket of Greek sun’ drowning the creative muse, as compared to colder error of Dylan Thomas and even Cretan Kazantzakis who described Corfu as 'fatal for a fighting soul'. A picnic on the Lazaretto?...
Lazaretto isle
The shame and cruelty of the young men and women being taken out under 'a bucket of sun' to that pretty green place; Theodoraki’s laments for his brother and others who died there; gentle Despina Bebedeli, Δέσποινα Μπεμπεδέλη, singing 'Sleep My Little Angel’...
Κοιμήσου αγγελούδι μου, παιδί μου νάνι - νάνι
Να μεγαλώσεις γρήγορα, σαν τ αψηλό πλατάνι
Να γίνεις άντρας στο κορμί και στο μυα - λό
Και να σαι πάντα μεσ το δρόμο τον καλό
You know this is not a lullaby to a baby, but a dirge, τα μοιρολόγι, for a youth in the ground of Execution Island
Greece, marketed as sun, sea and sand for fifty years, with ruins thrown in, is an image of the country that deceived even Dylan Thomas and no doubt other intellectuals (tho' I can compile a rebuttal inventory starting with Robert Graves and D H Lawrence, Camus, Hemingway and Leigh Fermor - it’s not just Greece but the decadent sun of the olive belt) who need, or feel their muse is further north, as though Greece is winterless. 
Lazaretto ~ each flower marks an executioner's bullet (photo: Jim Potts)
Corfu is full of ghosts; worse - spectres. She overlooks, as you well know, a peaked landscape of the imagination stretching from Saranda to beyond Levkada. Things were done on Corfu by the signorini that are lost to all but family history, even then reduced to small anecdotes that hide the larger oppression. 
What of the Jews, Greek citizens, taken from their city so near the end of the war, to join the thousands of others from Ioannina, Athens and Thessaloniki? It’s true that the skulls are not on the surface as they are in the Mani, but they lie in similar numbers beneath the beloved island’s green turf. The flaw in the 'ennervation thesis' is that so many northerners know almost nothing of modern Greek history. They know little even of the time before that - of the loss of Constantinople Κωνσταντινούπολις. 
I sent two birds to the red apple tree, of which the legends speak. One was killed, the other was hurt, and they never came back to me. Of the marble emperor - το Μαρμαρωμένο Βασιλιά - there is no word, no talk. But grandmothers sing about him to the children like a fairy tale. I sent two birds, two house martins, to the red apple tree. But there they stayed and became a dream.
There are refugees via Cyprus and Crete on Corfu, some in Ano Korakiana, who hold the memory of the marble emperor and the loss of Greece’s Byzantine capital. E.M. Forster met Constantine Cavafy in 1918 in Alexandria living off a narrow street in a flat above a brothel - 10 Rue Lepsius. Alexandria. Or was it in a letter Cavafy wrote to Forster? The poet told Forster that the Greeks and the English were almost exactly alike, but for one crucial difference: 
"We Greeks have lost our capital -- and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital." 
Some suggest he referred to financial privation. Forster knew it was Constantinople. Northerners are confused by a hazardous semi-knowledge of what has happened here in the last 200 years. Greece's classical history - tho' in detail as exactingly complicated and messy as the modern one (see the actual alliances involved at Marathon, Salamis and Thermopylae for a start or the conditional liberties of Athenian democracy) - is so tremendous; fills such a vast part of educated people’s mental DNA, there’s hardly room for the utterly unfamiliar morally complicated Balkan mayhem of the Greek War of Independence.
“Wasn’t Byron involved?”
And what of the Souliotes betrayed by Pelios Gousis? ...πως ο Εφιάλτης θα φανεί στο τέλος. What of the women of Souli?
THe great schism? The big idea? The burning of Smyrna? The exchange of populations? What are they? Noble Kolokotronis at Dervenakia, Venizelos, Theotoki, Kapodistria, Mavromikali? Who are they? Klefts? The dance of Zalongo? Distomo? Kalavryta? Kommeno? The famine of Athens? Blokos?  The holocaust of Viannos? The dekemvria? The white terror, the red terror? Metaxa?
“Oh yes Metaxas, Very nice after a good meal”...
...and I haven’t got to the Stone Years, τα Πέτρινα Χρόνια. The Junta. (See Mazower's After the War was Over) And not only the 20th century but far further back. Thucydides
It was in Corcyra that most of these audacious acts were first committed and all the crimes that would be perpetrated in retaliation by men who had been governed tyrannically rather than with good sense and had the chance of revenge, or that would be unjustly designed by others who were longing to be relieved of their habitual poverty, and who above all were animated by a passionate desire for their neighbours' property; crimes too that men commit, not from greed, but when they assail their equals and are so often swept away by untutored rage into attacks of pitiless cruelty
Another bolster for the enervation thesis is that for the Durrell’s, Corfu was a childhood paradise. They wrote with unsurpassed brilliance about happiness. Their joy may have aroused envious critical suspicion; an inclination to treat them as fantasists or, if telling the truth, describing a lotus eating haven that eats creativity. Edmund Keeley wrote Inventing Paradise. His word ‘invention’ captures the point.
I cannot subscribe to the enervation thesis on the grounds of landscape alone - a place with panoramas that elude the painter perhaps, but cannot fall short of the Netherlands or England for inspiration. Just because I’ve been so happy on the island doesn't make it enervating in my book, but then I have no book. I rest my case. Best, Simon
*** *** ***
Public or private dentistry?
I needed an extraction, some cleaning and some tidying. I went to a private dentist and met a nice and competent seeming surgeon. His estimate after an examination came to £5803. I went to an NHS dentist and talked to another nice and competent seeming surgeon. His estimate, after examinaton, was £208. The difference? The first dentist would replace my extracted tooth with an implant, and possibly another - the process completed by December. The second offered a small denture - the process completed in the time it'd take to make the denture - just over a week. I could afford to go private but I've got better things to do with £5959. I spoke to Lin and worried the matter for a week then went to the NHS where they made a mould in ten minutes. I came back in a week, had a local anaesthetic. The tooth was out so quick I hardly noticed. I was cycling home, my gadget in place, within half an hour. My three little false teeth are finely wrought and comfortable, and give my mouth a better appearance than it's had for years, but I'm not a toothy smiler anyway.
*** *** ***
Saturday afternoon Richard showed Amy around his flat in town and we went to the Bull Ring, to Jamie's Italian where I bought them a rather too expensive late lunch and Richard and I both managed to hold Oliver without dropping him or making him weep.
Later Amy inveigled me into Gap where there was a 45% off sale, except her choices of baby clothes were not in the sale. Next door Apple was packed but a figure waved to me from the crowd - Niko, our tutor. We embraced.
"When can we have our next lesson?"
"I've been very busy. Christina and I our getting married in September"
"Oh no! We'll be in Greece"
"I'll send dates for us to get together"
I introduced him to Amy and showed him my grandson, fast asleep in the odious hubbub of the shopping centre.
Strolling up crowded New Street Amy bumped into two of her police colleagues on duty.
We walked on.
"Just after I went on maternity leave" she said "Operation Paragon started belt tightening. My area will have changed when I go back. It's larger."
**** ****
Scholarship on two wheels! John Martin and Alistair Walker with Annie Guthrie filming as they go, continue their great shared cycle ride across Canada, studying sustainable communities; writing their thoughts as they go, every sentence is the tip of an iceberg, with a hundred elaborations and examples to be pursued on the way to explanation and insight on the habits that make for sustainability.
John, Annie, Alistair
The metaphor of a community on a journey becomes more powerful as the reader realises that their propositions are emerging from a transcontinental bicycle odyssey. Every working community is indeed unique yet governments and individuals seek the guidance and even the shock of admonition derived from general principles. Uniqueness is the watchword. Creativity is vital. They're explorers composing, as they travel, a sophisticated yet practical map of imaginative intellectual territory that for many currently in power has been illustrated by exotic beasts and blank spaces. Their new map will assist more and more people and communities to make more and more unique journey’s towards sustainability, helping more and more to join ‘the long conversation’, spurring more and more negotiation with the dominant economic paradigm. The final map won't be overwhelmingly burdened with data, with acronyms and endless statistics. They will know all this of course as they noticed and felt, in the seat of their pants, the rich detail of the endless surfaces over which they pedalled. They’ll have breathed it all in. Their exposition will be more like those ingenious ‘mud maps’...
...the aboriginals use, which in context reveals more truths than the precise measures of modern ordnance survey about a place and its inhabitants
Given the requisite variety of communities there is an infinite number of ways of achieving sustainable outcomes. Each journey is unique. Every community is concerned about its success and continuity. The way they achieve this is an individual journey, at a point in time influenced by both externalities and the capacity and commitment of the people who constitute each community to adopt new ways of working. We have seen many communities in our journey across Canada, some more closely than others. Some are doing well, some not so. The question we are often asked is: what makes for a sustainable community? ‘Institutionalising’ or incorporating sustainable living practices into the formal regimes of society is, I believe, an essential outcome for building sustainable communities.A key success factor in this continuity is the extent to which...
*** ***
It's clear that the onion fly has been causing harm across the VJA site. I've been getting advice from other plot-holders planning for future crops of onions and leaks on the use of nematodes. I've clearly got a world of understanding ahead of me with these. One snag is their cost. During a rare sunny patch I harvested more spring onions and broccoli from the plot.
***** *****
On Sunday afternoon, Linda and I completed Wednesday's Handsworth Helping Hand's work in the Church Vale Triangle, laying out plants donated via Freegle, including perennial Geraniums, Lilac, Hypericum, Big Leaf Periwinkle and Alpine Strawberries. Three of the seventy or so Pelargonia we planted on Wednesday have been pinched. We replaced them.
*** ***
Letter from a friend on holiday in Corfu. She had asked for advice on places to visit while there with her daughter. I cautioned her on a general truth about contemporary Corfu - in this case the despoliation of Paleocastritsa - while describing the possibility of exquisite places to be discovered close by - especially on foot or bicycle:
Simon. Greetings from beautiful Paleo. Your bespoke guide has been invaluable. I carry a printout in my beach bag. Thank you. We are here for another 3 of our 14 days. It  has been delightful. We have only had a problem with the weather - a heatwave! Really - can't believe I am complaining but sometimes too hot to move from our shaded cove. Everywhere a noticeable lack of people which is great for us but not for the locals. We didn't hire a car so have been walking everywhere. We recommended guests to your friend Sally's hacking tours and they loved the trek. Monastery great - after all the awful half empty coaches have left for he day. Glorious dusk. Restaurants good. London prices unfortunately. xxx Beach just perfect. We also like being able to find different spots to explore and enjoy the peace and cicadas. We are celebrating. My beautiful daughter, Genevieve has got a First in her Part 1 Tripos - English. She got the news here so I think Paleo will always hold precious memories for her. Greek Champagne is delicious! love Fiona
Genevieve in Corfu


  1. Case powerfully made, and I am in full agreement.

    That doesn't mean that it's easy to work and concentrate, on history or creative writing, when the temperature is 35 or 36 degrees.

    I have updated my latest posting on Dylan Thomas to reflect my reasons for quoting that passage from his letter to Lawrence Durrell. As far as I know, DT never came to Corfu.

  2. Simon,

    I am interested in the suggestion that Theodorakis' brother may have been buried on Lazaretto Island. What is your source for this information? It seems very unlikely to me. I have a book in Greek about all the executions that took place, and I do not recall any mention of this.


    1. Jim. My source went unchecked. I'm embarrassed. See the comment by Kerkira (Jenny Mulder) - on a photo I published on flickr

      (quote) This is a photo of the islet Lazaretto. Lazaretto was the execution area for at least 112 political prisoners of Corfu between 1942-1944 and 1947-1949. A couple of years ago an old man told me terrible stories how people (mostly communists from the Epirus Mainland) were executed there. To make things legal there even was a public prosecutor present during the executions. The brother of Mikis Theodorakis is also buried here. Every year Mr Theodorakis comes to Corfu to visit the grave of his brother (unquote)

      On reflection I suspect 'brother' might have meant 'comrade'. The album of songs that Theodorakis composed supplemented this account - To Tragoudi Tou Nekrou Adelfou-Lipotaktes

      Thanks Jim.

    2. Simon,

      Now back in Corfu for a few days. Today will be the hottest day of the year.

      Anyway, I checked the book by the Lazaretto Association: "Yia sas adelfia: The Corfu and Lazaretto Prisons 1947-1949" (in Greek; Athens 1996). It has a complete list of all those who were executed- ten pages with all relevant details of 112 people. No mention of any Theodorakis. I don't think the book contains any mention of a visit to Lazaretto by Mikis Theodorakis, so if "The Ballad of the Dead Brother" drew any inspiration from Corfu's Lazaretto Prison, I imagine it would have been part of a more general
      sense of the tragedy of a fratricidal civil war. Jim

    3. Ah yes. See here for a webste on Corfu's Lazaretto
      Την Κυριακή 30 Οκτωβρίου 2011 και ώρα 10.00 το πρωί θα πραγματοποιηθεί στο νησάκι Λαζαρέτο της Κέρκυρας η ετήσια τελετή μας στη μνήμη των θυμάτων του Εμφυλίου πολέμου αγωνιστών της Εθνικής Αντίστασης και του Δημοκρατικού Στρατού που είναι θαμμένοι εκεί. Το σωματείο μας οργανώνει, όπως κάθε χρόνο για τα μέλη και τους φίλους μας την μετάβαση και παραμονή στην Κέρκυρα από την Παρασκευή 28 /10/2011 έως και την Δευτέρα 31/10/2011, ημέρα επιστροφής ταξιδιού.

  3. See also, on The Ballad of the Dead Brother:

  4. And this page too:


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Simon Baddeley