Archive for July, 2011

More than surprised, I was actually rather shocked by the venom and silliness of William Feaver’s review in The Spectator  (June 25th 2011) of Ian Collins’ new book, a generous and extensive – indeed, the first ever – survey of John Craxton’s work, John Craxton (Lund Humphries; 2011). In fact, his article is less a review than a personal attack on John.

Tate Britain has organised a small exhibition to coincide with the publication of the book. The paintings are few and the show does rather give the impression of having been cobbled together to coincide with the launch of the book.

That said, I do not see how anyone could fail to be struck, for instance, by Pastoral for P.W., its wonderful movement and harmony and the striking colours: a perfectly balanced and dynamic composition. Music, in fact. And John often used to say, “The difference between my approach and Lucian’s  (Lucian Freud, the friend of his youth) is that Lucian has to have something to copy, whereas I paint from my imagination. For me painting is like composing…”

Or the big land- and seascape, based on the island of Hydra: an abstracted, schematic representation of the bare elements of the island – rock, angularity, spikiness – set  in a tessellated sea, a mosaic of dashes of brilliant, audacious colour against the distant mountain coastline of the Peloponnese.

Or the Cretan gorge, one of many that he painted, its architecture articulated and emphasised by the double and triple bright-coloured lines that are such a distinctive feature of John’s painting, the depth of the gorge pierced by a single broken line representing the penetration of the sunlight.

Feaver dismisses such paintings as “slotted together on Graeco-Byzantine lines”!

John was interested in the flat planes and schematic representation of Byzantine icon-painting. He said that going to Greece enabled him to get back behind the Renaissance and its influences.

“Not yet twenty and already well-versed in overgrown styling and poetic self-pity” – this is Feaver on John’s early work. Well, first, you might have thought, a young man of that age – a teenager, after all – might be forgiven a rather mannered introspection. But, included in the Tate show, are some wonderfully playful and entertaining letters that John wrote to EQ Nicholson, who was a kind of surrogate mother to him at this age. A read of them should have shown Feaver that self-pity was not something John indulged in and I never saw a hint of it in the fifty years I knew him.

There is something oddly personal in Feaver’s dismissiveness. John did not live an idyll, underlain by “scratchiness”; he lived a life like anyone else, painting, finding his way, and, yes, like most people who spend their lives painting or writing, he was often short of funds.

The “emblems,” as Feaver calls them, that recur in John’s painting were not a “hedonic mosaic of favourite things with which to fill pictures.” They were not “taverna enticements”; they were the elements of life in the poor, sun-baked, traditional rural society that Greece was in those  days. Men lived out on the mountain with their sheep and goats, shearing and milking by hand, sleeping on the ground, accompanying their animals at all times, as they still do. They fished, living on their small wooden boats, eating little, sleeping on the deck. They did their military service, the only time many of them ever went away from home. Their pay was not enough to keep them in cigarettes for a month. Their entertainment was comradeship and dancing: it was their means of self-expression – they did not read books; there was not any television. There was a NATO naval base at Souda, close to where John lived, whence the dancing sailors in his painting. “Tintin graphics,” indeed!

Life was poor, harsh, formal and ritualised. John’s painting reflects this. I can only think it is too great a leap of imagination for Feaver to understand how very different from sludge-coloured, blurry England the world that John had entered was.

He quotes some youthful, not very illuminating bit of philosophising about life that John had indulged in as a youngster and accuses him of “burbling away.” In fact, he goes out of his way to make this unusually articulate man, whose conversation was always full of wit and originality and startling insights, seem inane,  while, elsewhere,  allowing Lucian Freud to utter such profundities as, “The world is rather floorboardish,” without comment!

Perhaps it is just that Feaver is a fully paid up member of  the Freud claque, as Brian Sewell calls it. For John and Lucian did fall out, and badly. And I don’t suppose Brian Sewell’s repeated suggestions that John Craxton was the more accomplished artist and had taught Freud a thing or two have gone down particularly well with the claque.

Here is my little contribution to the Craxton/Freud feud. I was having lunch with John one Sunday not long before he died, when an old friend from the art world phoned to say that he had just lunched with Freud and had mentioned John’s name to him. “Oh, is he still alive?” Freud had replied, with exaggerated indifference. John’s reply – I could of course only hear his end of the conversation: “Next time, tell him I haven’t yet died of ‘art failure!”


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At the risk of upsetting my Greek friends… even further!

In 1980, when I was living in Greece, I wrote a piece for the International Herald Tribune about Greece’s accession to the EEC, as it then was. The gist of the article was that it was all very well going on about Pericles and co and Greece being the cradle of civilisation and democracy, but this tended to obscure the fact that Greece was more different from its new EEC partners than any one of them was from the others. The article was not published.

‘Greeks themselves,’ I wrote, ‘speak of “going to Europe,” as if Europe were somewhere else. Indeed, because of its isolation from the mainstream of European history and its late arrival on the scene of economic development, both of which were consequences of its incorporation in the Turkish Ottoman empire, Greece belongs in many ways more to the Levantine than European tradition.’

Although a few things obviously have changed, I think I was rather far-sighted!


A little history

‘Four centuries of Ottoman rule,’ I wrote, ‘are clearly partly responsible for the arbitrariness and secrecy that are characteristic of Greek institutions. But this has  been compounded by the traumatic history of the last fifty years. General Metaxas’s dictatorship in the mid-1930s, with its fascist paraphernalia of youth movements, crude patriotism, police power and persecution of all liberal elements in Greek life, paved the way to the estrangement of moderate conservatives, the dominance of the Communists in the wartime Resistance and, subsequently, to the division of the country into two warring camps in the bitter years of the Civil War (1946-49). The Communist insurgents were defeated, but victory gave power to the most reactionary forces in Greek society, which did their best to hamper the sort of liberal, democratic reforms that are regarded as commonplace in other Western European countries.

 ‘In the climate of tension, suspicion and economic difficulty that inevitably followed the Civil War, the ultra-conservative Right consolidated its hold on government and public life. Anti-Leftist phobia persisted. Numerous people remained in gaol for political reasons throughout the 1950s; political executions only ceased in 1952. People’s livelihoods were endangered by the taint of Left-wing sympathies… The police and military gained a position that was largely beyond the control of the civilian authorities, and remained so for many years, witness the murder of the MP Lambrakis in 1963 and the Colonels’ dictatorship from 1967-74, whose protagonists were well-known anti-Communists from the Civil War, who promptly re-imprisoned all their enemies from that time.

 ‘While the country enjoyed relative stability and, in the 1960s, entered a period of spectacular economic growth, it failed to develop some of the more fundamental institutions and attitudes that are taken for granted in 0ther democracies… In such circumstances, secretiveness, arbitrariness and authoritarianism flourished, along with the most vitality-sapping indolence, bureaucratic bloodymindedness and inefficiency…

 ‘Time has merely confirmed these tendencies. The state is generally seen by Greeks in all walks of life as the enemy, not the servant, of the people. Their response has been to find their own ways round it, chiefly by cultivating elaborate networks of personal relations and the widespread use of bribery…

 ‘Despite the modernisation of the Greek economy, this “Levantine mentality” has survived unscathed…’


 A litany of fiddles

Greece of course is not alone in functioning like this. A Turkish friend says it is exactly the same in Turkey and his wife, who comes from an Arab country, says it is like this throughout the Middle East. Clientèlisme rules!

There has been a tendency to present the current violent protests in Athens as the courageous resistance of the proletariat to the overweening arrogance of the international financial community and Greece’s own exploitative capitalist  classes. Whether severe austerity is the best way to deal with a financial crisis like this, I do not know, but one thing I do know: every last Greek, from the richest to the poorest, has been diddling the system since time began – if it makes any sense to say that, when diddling IS the system!

This is a country of around 10 million people. On June 30th, the day I last flew out of Athens, the TV news announced that out of 800,000 people  registered as self-employed, 500,000 claimed to earn less than €8,000 per annum, the threshold figure for income tax. A likely story, when this includes professions like lawyers and doctors! And already the Inland Revenue tells you what you earn, because it does not trust anyone to be truthful about their earnings. Not that the Inland Revenue is itself irreproachable; they always used to say that if you went for an interview, the tax man would show you a chart: you pay a bribe of this amount and you will pay tax of that amount. I could tell a story or two, but I won’t! Until the euro came in, people were affronted if you dared even to ask for a receipt.

Juliet Du Boulay, in her much-respected 1974 Portrait of a Greek Mountain Village, found that truth-telling is not a virtue in Greek culture. And that is certainly my observation after fifty years of living in and visiting Greece. In a sense, objective morality does not exist. The defining concept is “being one of ours,” “dhikos mas”; essentially, that means family, in the widest sense, or clan, and includes people to whom you are bound in the same network of services or favours rendered and received. There is a whole vocabulary to describe these relations and – to an outsider – the dishonest behaviour that goes with it. Except, of course, that it is not dishonest in a society where only those to whom you are bound in some such personal way can be trusted not to do you down. To answer truthfully to someone outside the clan is to give away information that will almost certainly be used against you.

And the state itself is venal. If you want a successful outcome, even something that you are entitled to, never mind something you are not entitled to, you have to pay for it. My daughter’s junior school  teacher was arrested on a drug charge; she spent seven months, in prison, awaiting trial. Her panic-stricken father flew over from Australia, to be told by the defence counsel he engaged that they would have to bribe the prosecutor: and so it was. In the corridors surrounding the courtroom where the hearing was conducted, there were crowds of professional witnesses touting for business.

You have a friend who is ill in hospital. You ring up to check visiting times. When you get there the porter won’t tell you what ward your friend is in; it is not a visiting day, he says. “For the price of a beer?” you say. “Oh, that’s all right,” he replies and finds your friend’s name in the ledger. “Thanks,” you say and turn to go. He grabs your arm: “And the beer?” If you are admitted to hospital as a patient, the doctors won’t take any interest until you have handed over the infamous fakelaki, the little brown envelope. I say to my friends – they were employing illegal Albanian labour – that the village policeman had seen them. “Don’t worry about him,” they say. “The regional commander, we feed him!”

You have to protect yourself. For many years after WWII, getting a permit to open any kind of small business meant going to the police; all it took was someone whispering against you, that you were a secret Communist and that would be that. Indeed, for many years you had to have an official certificate that you were what they called ethnikofron – nationally-minded, i.e. not an untrustworthy Leftie.

A teacher fails his pupils so that they have to take private lessons to improve their grades. And who is the teacher at the private cramming school? When I worked in a Greek school, I ran a department responsible for preparing Greek students for entry to British universities. I was investigated twice by the University of London’s examinations security chief. He told me the two countries in the world with which they had most trouble were Greece and Nigeria. There is no shame attached to cheating; you are simply a koroidho – or laughing stock, one might say – if you are caught. One year the Greek school-leaving certificate exams were stopped in mid-flow, nationwide, because someone was found to have been selling the questions in advance of the exam.

 A thousand and one such stories, some trivial, some not at all.

Shepherds living in reed huts tell me with pride that their daughter is engaged to “someone from the ministry.” I am surprised, but then it turns out that he has a humble job as a doorman, which of course gives you the power to say no, to refuse entry. No one wants to be rebuffed so early on in their quest, so they offer a little sweetener. This is one of the reasons – tenure and guaranteed pensions are another – why jobs in the public service are so sought after… and offered as carrots.

The current leader of the opposition in the Greek parliament, Antonis Samaras, is vehemently opposed to the government’s austerity measures. One of the things it is trying to do is reduce the disproportionately large number of public servants, whose salaries and perks have to be paid for out of government receipts, which, given that nobody pays his taxes, very soon leads to massive debt.

Samaras was elected to parliament for the first time in 1981, if memory serves. One of his school friends, very proud of him, went to see him in the Parliament building, expecting to find him busy with important affairs of state. He was going through lists of names of constituents to whom he had promised jobs in return for votes. This happens every time there is an election.

For a country short of funds, one of the most scandalously profligate projects I know of is the scheme to dam and divert the waters of the river Achelöos to irrigate the cotton fields of the Thessalian plain. It has been condemned on environmental and cost-effective grounds by everyone you can think of; it contravenes numerous agreements Greece is a signatory to. It has been ruled illegal, more than once, by Greece’s own Council of State. It began in 1987 and  has stopped and started ever since. God knows how many millions of euros have been squandered over the course of twenty-five years in wrecking one of the most beautiful stretches of mountain river and scenery in the country, and achieving absolutely nothing. The only reason for it is buying votes. At the moment, I believe, work has again stopped. (For an up-to-date account of the project, go to www.water-technology.net/projects/acheloos; you can also see an article I wrote on the subject for The Guardian  in 2000, if you go to ‘journalism’ and ‘damming the river Achelöos’ on this website.)

Love it or hate it: it is called the elliniki pragmatikotita, “the Greek reality.”


Akhelöos: Sikia dam 2006

Akhelöos: Sikia dam 1987



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