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Greece is getting stick from all sides at the moment, in particular from journalists who do not speak Greek, do not know the country well, scarcely venture outside Athens and have little understanding of what makes Greeks tick. Greece deserves some sympathy.

Greeks themselves are certainly largely to blame for their economic woes. However,  they are not responsible for the enormous problems posed by the arrival of hundreds of thousands of unwanted aliens, from cultures completely different from their own.

Greece is a very special country, with very special traditions. For all the flaws in its system of government, it has, in modern times, always been a kindly, generous, safe place, with a strong sense of what constitutes honourable behaviour. It has no history of colonial conquest or oppression of others.

It is a little place, with a population of scarcely more than ten million. Its people have a strong sense of identity, a strong sense of what it means to be Greek. And until ten to twenty years ago, its people were exclusively Greeks. Whatever transactions you or they had to conduct were conducted with Greeks.

Things began to change in the 1990s with the collapse of the communist regime in Albania, when hundreds of thousands of oppressed and poverty-stricken Albanians poured unstoppably over the frontier. “Hodja (the Albanian communist dictator) kept us like rats in a cage,” as one Albanian put it to me at that time. Greece has absorbed them, pretty successfully now. They caused their fair share of trouble and resentment to begin with, but they shared a history and a culture not dissimilar to the Greeks.

That has not been so with the waves of illegal immigrants pouring into Greece in the last ten years. For a start they are mostly brown and black, or Muslim, from the wrecked or inadequate states of  Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. They look different, their cultures are different, their religions are different – and Orthodox Christianity is a crucial element of being Greek; we should not forget that they spent six centuries under the rule of the Muslim Ottoman Turks.

Greece did not invite them, does not need them (in that rather spurious sense that we are always told our entire economy and prosperity would disappear without waves of uncontrolled immigration) and does not want them. Why should it? Greece is Greek. Why on earth should it cease to be?

This is not a reason for hurting people or a justification for the brutish activities of the Khrisì Avyì party. It is, however, a reason why sanctimonious rights-obsessed outsiders should show some understanding of the very uncomfortable position Greeks find themselves in through no fault of their own. They are on the way to Europe; that is why the immigrants come. Why don’t they try to enter Europe through Bulgaria, which also shares a frontier with Turkey? Probably because they see Greece as a softer/safer  touch.

And Greece simply does not have the resources to cope with immigration on this scale. For one thing, it does not share that Protestant/utilitarian do-gooding, care-in-the-abstract tradition that engenders outfits like Amnesty; in Greece you care for others because they are family, because they are blood, because you are connected to them – you do not lose touch with your parents and allow them to die alone in forgotten flats or institutions. For another thing, Greece simply does not have the money or the physical facilities to provide for a population of illegal immigrants that amounts to around ten percent of the total.

Cut Greece some slack! Why is not Turkey doing more to stem the passage of these people across its territory, where, presumably, they are equally illegal?

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By way of an introduction

What to make of this? I have known Greece for nearly sixty years now and think I know a thing or two! So I was very gratified, when I first posted this blog, by the number of hits it received. At last, I thought, the world has woken up to my genius. I was soon disabused. In the original blog title, instead of “mess-up,” I had used that other, rather vulgar, English expression “cock-up.” It was quite clear from the “top searches” listed in my blog statistics, that most of the people coming to my blog were doing so in the hopes of finding something much more titillating and exciting than anything I had to say about Greece’s current crisis!

***

Elládha, Elladhára mas, Greeks used to say, speaking  disparagingly of their country and its ways. It means something like “Greece, Our Big Fat Greece,” rather in the same ironical vein as My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Endearing in some ways, in others ridiculous.

What they are mocking in particular is an odd conjunction of grandiloquent posturing and pomposity with a tendency to a kind of abject servility and venality. On the one hand, we are the cradle of western civilisation and the mother of democracy, the heirs of Alexander the Great and God’s chosen people. On the other hand, we have no qualms about selling you a ship that we know is going to sink before getting clear of the harbour.

Venality and melodrama

You are a foreign teacher who has just arrived in Athens to take up a post in a prestigious private school. You go to clear your household goods through customs in Piraeus. Hours are spent waiting in various offices scattered about the town collecting tatty bits of paper with rubber stamps. When, finally, you arrive at the warehouse where your possessions are stored – you can see them: half a dozen tea chests, unencumbered, easily accessible for the fork-lift – it is a quarter to two; the office closes at two. The official in charge is sleepy and bad-tempered. “Come back tomorrow,” he says. I say, “But it is only quarter to two and the chests are right there.” He won’t hear of it, clicks his tongue at me and tosses his head back. The following morning, he is better disposed. He asks me what I am doing in Greece. “I am a teacher at the College.” “Ah, a professor,” he says. “At the College? Why didn’t you tell me? Sit down. Have a cup of coffee, professor.” And then he informs me that he has two sons… Everyone wants to get their boys into the College and if you have some kind of entrée, know a teacher…

You are the only customer in a post office. The clerk behind the counter ignores you; she is doing something, you can’t make out what. “Excuse me,” you say after a minute or two. She looks up indignantly. “Have you got a family?” she asks belligerently and you see that she has a bowl of lentils on her lap, which she is cleaning.

You go to buy a replacement sparking plug for your scooter, taking the old one with you as a template. The spare parts man takes a look at it and goes out the back. He reappears and gives you a plug that is manifestly not the same. You point this out. His  retort: “It’s a spark plug, isn’t it?”

A middle-aged builder stands in front of me (this is an argument about how much money is owed; I have told the story in an earlier blog): “I who am your friend, would I lie to you? I swear on the head of my son,” he says, with tears running down his cheeks… And I know that he is lying through his teeth.

And far worse things happen too. A ship’s captain deals with the problem of African stowaways by tossing them into a shark-infested sea. After all, they are only blacks…

Facts? Evidence? What counts is appeals to emotion, theatrical gesture. Sometimes, of course, it is extremely effective. Remember the funeral cortege of Aliki Vouyiouklaki, Greece’s answer to Brigitte Bardot, or Melina Mercouri, chin jutted pugnaciously,  rousing the rabble in Trafalgar Square on Easter Day 1968 on the first anniversary of the Colonels’ coup d’état: “On this day I swear to you the Greeks… will give their lives for the Resurrection of what is the essence of the Greek soul, Liberty”  and she quoted Byron: “The mountains look on Marathon –/And Marathon looks on the sea;/And musing there an hour alone,/ I dream’d that Greece may yet be free.” We wept!

I am sorry for Greece at the moment. It is a mess and some people are obviously suffering. But I am also appalled, by the way in which some people are reacting: the gratuitous violence and destruction, the absurd rent-a-crowd antics of the so-called anarchists, who have turned out at every demonstration for the last fifty years, marched, usually  on the US embassy, calling for Greece’s exit from NATO, opposing membership of the EU as a capitalist club, while of course benefitting hugely from the vast sums disbursed in various forms of aid. They wrap themselves in the angry self-righteousness of anti-capitalism, set fire to a few cars and go home to freshly ironed shirts and dinner prepared by Mama.

It is always someone else’s fault: it used to be the Foreign Office, then it was the CIA; now it is the “troika,” the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF and the Germans. On the wilder shores of conspiracy theory, it is, as usual, all a conspiracy by the Americans, which means in reality the Freemasons and, behind them, the Jews.

And now they have wheeled out Manolis Glezos. He is good copy, a sort of colourful political Zorba, the undying image of Greek Resistance to…To what exactly, it is hard to say. He is a fierce-looking moustachioed old man, rightly celebrated for his courage in pulling down the Nazi flag hoisted on a corner of the Acropolis in 1941 by the occupying German army. He is a lifelong communist whose principal achievement has been the creation of this semi-mythic image of himself as Champion of the People. He was honoured by a Soviet postage stamp in the 1950s, if that gives you some idea of the role he has played. He can be counted upon to face the bayonets of the Oppressor with his chest bared…

And he blames the Germans – still unrepentant fascists – who owe Greece anyway, in payment for the terrible sufferings they caused the Greek people in the Second World War. They may not have won that war, but they are hell-bent on establishing a new kind of reich under the guise of the European Union…

You can’t argue with Greeks. Assertion takes the place of argument in popular Greek culture. Empirical is a Greek word, but its meaning has long since disappeared from the popular vocabulary. Demagoguery, on the other hand, reigns.

Bread, Family, the People, the Fatherland, Liberty, Orthodoxy, Hellenism… Invoke any of these and you put yourself beyond the reach of criticism and contradiction. These are self-evident goods-in-themselves. It is like wrapping yourself in the flag; and the Greek flag symbolises Heroism, Martyrdom, Virtue, the Virgin Mary, Pericles and Alexander the Great, all on your side. You cannot be in the wrong and anyone who opposes you ipso facto puts himself beyond the Pale. Greeks are the Chosen People. How do we know that Jesus was Greek? He went into his father’s business, he thought his mother was a virgin, while she believed her a son a god!

You would have thought that the behaviour of the Serbs in Bosnia under the direction of Milosevic, Karadzic and co was so appalling that no one could have defended it. The Greeks did. It was a difficult time for foreigners with friends in Greece; you risked losing lifelong friendships, unless you could share their unrestrained enthusiasm for “our Serbian brothers.” Banks – in Cyprus too – openly collected money for the Serbs. NATO’s bombing campaign against “our Orthodox brothers” was a crime against humanity.

When I first went to teach in Greece in the 1960s, many school classrooms were adorned with panoramic photographs of Constantinople, in spite of the fact that it had been in Turkish hands since 1453. I have some sympathy; it was indeed an evil hour when Constantine’s great city, seat of the Orthodox Patriarchate, fell to the Infidel. There is some Romance in the belief that some day it will be ours again, but you can’t call it realistic or pragmatic. It is one more of the great Woes and Tragedies to be borne by martyred Hellenism – not our fault, of course, in any way.

Greece’s woes: nobody’s fault but their own

But Greece’s current woes are not the fault of the Germans or anyone else but themselves: not the rich alone, but everyone last one of them. It is not a failing of the Greek character. It has happened because Greece, behind the façade of European modernity, has remained a Third World clientelist state and no one has done anything to change it, largely because it suits everyone to keep it so. There is no really entrenched class system; most people, through family or marriage, have access to someone more or less  “influential,” someone who can be made to feel under some kind of obligation to help, someone with whom some kind of deal can be struck, either to acquire some kind of good to which you might be entitled but which would not be forthcoming through the “proper” channels or quite simply to acquire some kind of good to which you are not entitled at all, like permission to build on a piece of land outside an official planning zone.

Poulimenos,” they say of someone, meaning that he has his price and has frequently sold himself for it. No one tries to do things through “official” channels: you will simply be obstructed. Public servants “sit on their arses and scratch themselves”: kathontai kai ksinontai. In a poor country, such as Greece used to be,  it means a job for life, a guaranteed pension and the power to pick up extra money through bribes from suppliants who do not want their petitions to be refused. So politicians have always bought votes through promises of jobs, whence the astonishing numbers of public servants. And in a country where no one pays tax, where does the money to pay them come from?

The best positions go, not to the most competent, but to the most pliable and those with the most influence and leverage with the powers-that-be. Greece has long suffered a serious drain of its brightest brains. I know many people who went to the USA – and elsewhere – for their education and, much as they might have liked to, never returned because there were no decent career opportunities. Of those who did try to return in the belief that the mother country needed their expertise, many have been bitterly disappointed to find that they were not welcome, butting in with their new ideas, and were denied advancement in favour of inferiors who were prepared to play the game. I was recently treated in a London hospital by a Greek consultant. He had been working and teaching in Athens, but had left in frustration at the endless politicking and dealing. A story that could be told a million times over.

The state, public office, is seen as a mechanism for enriching yourself and your clan, buying favours and paying off favours owed. Governments buy the acquiescence of the vast body of public servants they have created by conceding early retirement, bigger pensions, more holidays. Private individuals protect their own interests by offering favours, putting officials who might be able to damage those  interests in their debt: a lamb at Easter, several tins of fresh-made feta cheese…

Further west and further north, we call it corruption. But in Greece – not to mention further east and further south – it is quite simply the way things are done. You do not want to give the doctor a little sweetener? He won’t look at you. You want to make a fuss if the Customs officers help themselves to 20% of every container you import? They will help themselves to 50%.

Left to your own devices, with your own currency, you can probably muddle on like this. Many do: Turkey, Egypt… a whole host of other states. But tie yourself into a union with other “properly” functioning states, where everyone is expected to abide by the rules, you can twist and turn for a while, as Greece did – in the early days of its membership of the EU, civil servants from other member states were deeply shocked by the attitude of the newcomers – but the chances are you will be found out in the end.

How much money has the EU channelled into Greece over the last thirty years in development funds of one kind or another? (And how much money did the US spend on aid to Greece in the years following the end of the war? None of that acknowledged in any way at all, of course.) And how much of it has found its way into private pockets? I have no facts, no figures, but I have my suspicions. I have seen numerous EU LEADER projects in rural areas and wondered whether anyone  ever came to check where and how that money was spent. You would have thought a little gratitude might be rather more in order than Glezos-style hostility.

I do not know whether austerity and nothing but austerity is or is not the answer to a problem like this. It is, however, quite clear that it was not the Germans who created these problems for Greece. Greeks are quick to dish it out against others: the English, the Americans, the Germans, the Jews, but they do not want to hear it when the criticism is directed against themselves. Yet until they accept their own overwhelming responsibility for the jam in which they find themselves, they are certainly not going to get out of it.

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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

Akhelöos

Akhelöos

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I got incensed by Jack Straw’s interview with the Today programme’s Sara Montague this morning and fired off the following letter.

Dear Sara,

I caught the back end of your interview with Jack Straw about Cyprus and Turkish EU membership this morning.

Straw does not understand the Greek position (neither Greek Greek nor Greek  Cypriot). How could he? He does not know that part of the world, does not speak the languages and has a very Anglo-centric view of things.

I would just like to get a few things off my chest about this whole issue.

First, you have to understand that, while “modern” Greece is territorially and in many other ways insignificant, Greek influence, that is, the influence of what today’s Greeks call Hellenism, was the decisive cultural influence in the eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea from classical times until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 and in many important ways continued so until the First World War and, in the case of Alexandria, even the Second World War. The first Greek colony in the Black Sea, near modern Constanta, was founded in 600BC; my Greek ex-wife’s mother, still alive, was born in Constanta in the 1920s – i.e. they were still there! And they were Christians, of course.

The Muslim Turks overran what had been their patch for already 2000 years and oppressed and humiliated them continuously, even though they continued to play a crucial role in the economy and administration of the Ottoman Empire. The Turks were nomadic warriors in culture and looked down their noses at trade, industry and civil service. The whole of the Asia Minor littoral is packed with mementoes of both the ancient and Byzantine Greek presence, as is the National Archaeological museum in Ankara. Any idiot can see that this stuff is Greek, yet the Turks refer to it as one of the Ancient Anatolian Civilisations; they cannot bring themselves to utter the word Greek, when in effect the entire history of what is now Turkey was Greek until 1450. And the basis of Turkish oppression was essentially religious: the Greeks, like the peoples of the Balkans whom they also ruled and oppressed for the same five centuries, were Christians and oppressed for this reason.

In the Russian campaigns around the Danube in the mid-19th century in the run-up to the Crimean war, the Sultan roused his troops to battle fury by calling for jihad.

Of course religion is an issue in this whole business. The Turks are Muslims. The Christian Greeks, Serbs, Croatians, Romanians, Bulgarians, lived under oppressive Muslim rule for a very long time and had their noses rubbed in it continuously. Thessaloniki, Greece’s second city, only became part of Greece in 1913. These hurts are recent, within living memory even. Even in my lifetime (and I have been in and out of Greece since 1958; I speak Greek and Turkish), elderly Greek peasants would greet you with the words, “Good day, Christian.”

The post-WWI settlement dealt with most of the territorial question as far as Turkey and Greece were concerned, with the forced exchange of populations etc. Cyprus was not dealt with because it had been ceded to England in a special deal with the Sultan in 1870. The final Cyprus settlement came with independence in 1960 with a constitution that shared power between the Greeks and the minority Turkish population, a solution that was probably doomed from the start and would never have been agreed if Cyprus had not been in effect a British colony, for the simple and important reason that Cyprus is, was, and always had been a Greek island in the only sense that matters. The whole of the Greek world feels that, knows that. Yes, there were Turks living there but they were the conqueror, newcomers. Pretending that the Turks have any claim on Cyprus is like telling the Irish that really Ireland is English and Protestant because the English ruled it for a long time.

No one mentions it any more, but in this post-WWI settlement Turkey kept the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, both of them as Greek as could be (had been from Homer’s time). And what happened to the Greek population that remained on them? (And what, I wonder, does Straw have to say about our insistence on hanging on to the Falklands?)

Turkey is not the wronged party. It has continued to violate Greek air space and engage in other provocative acts for decades. And, of course, in 1974 it invaded Cyprus, doing yet again exactly what Greeks had come to expect Turkey to do: use violence against them.

Straw simply does not understand the underlying strength of feeling about Turkey. One might wish it were not the case, but it is  – and with more than a little justification.

And then there is the question of what sort of a beast contemporary Turkey itself is. I have some sympathy for Turkey. There is undoubtedly a large population, especially urban and young, who in appearance, manners and aspiration are indistinguishable from the youngsters of Europe. At the same time there is clearly a powerful resurgence of Muslim feeling. Even in Istanbul, especially in certain boroughs, you see thousands of black-veiled women – something you did not see forty or fifty years ago. It is true that you also see young women very colourfully and fashionably veiled but sporting a glimpse of belly button and smoking narghiles and cigarettes in public tea houses. There are those that say, quite probably rightly, that agreeing to cover up is a small price to pay for having dad let you out on the town where you can meet the boyfriend, light up and all the rest of it. Contemporary Turkey is a difficult place to read for an outsider. But there are plenty of modern, open-minded, free-thinking Turks who are very suspicious of the Erdogan government and its long-term intentions where religion is concerned.

Straw concluded his interview by saying that Turkey was a growing economic and industrial power and we would ignore it at our cost. Straw has obviously spent most of his life in ministerial cars and in others ways removed from life on the street. Antalya, Istanbul, Izmir, may look modern and emerging. Has he been to Van, Erzurum, Kayseri, Kars? Or the semi-troglodytic villages of the remote hinterland?

Being a journalist and expressing controversial views is still a dangerous business in Turkey, not to mention belonging to a non-mainstream Sunni branch of Islam. Corruption is rife, I don’t mean on the English or French scale, but on the Greek scale: in fact, it is the system, the way of life. Transactions of all kinds go through on the basis of who you know and what you pay. Much of Turkish life, and not just commercial activities, is controlled by a handful of family oligarchies.

Germany has a large immigrant Turkish population, whose differentness (there are always tales of honour killings) already causes problems. How sensible would it be to extend the free movement of labour arrangements of the EU to 70-odd million Turks, many of them ill-educated, poor…and Muslim?

I have sympathy for the Turks. Like us, they are an ancient imperial power fallen on hard times and having a hard time finding a new furrow to plough. I think they are in many ways a far fitter partner for the EU than the Arab neighbours whom they once ruled and rather despise, but… And it is a very big BUT. The EU is not a charity. It needs to strengthen its identity, not dilute it further. But Jack Straw, I suppose, is a Free Trader, a commerçant in the classic English manner: what is in it for us, how much richer are we going to  be? We don’t want any truck with those windy foreign abstractions: union, identity? Bah, humbug!

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I have fired off letters to the Press and others about this matter over the years, with about as much effect as pissing in the wind! Now I have a blog I thought I would give my thoughts a more permanent home.

In 2003, a former Lib Dem MP, Richard Allan, who likes to have himself billed as an archaeologist – presumably because he thinks it lends credibility to his case, although we are never told what his credentials are (am I a jazz musician because I have tried to play the saxophone?) – launched yet another campaign to have the Marbles “repatriated” to Greece. I wrote him a letter, the text of which, with some additions, forms the basis of this piece.

Greek lack of generosity

But, before I begin, I would like to say that for me one of the most disappointing things about this whole dispute is the lack of generosity on the part of Greek officialdom in making such a song and dance about the presence of the Marbles in the British Museum. For one thing, it is quite clear that if the sculptures had not been removed to England they would have in effect perished by now. You have only to compare the state of blocks that were recorded in pre-Elgin casts but remained in situ with their condition as revealed in contemporary photographs to see that. I can even see from amateur photographs that I took at Easter 1958 that the arêtes on the fluting of the Parthenon were much sharper then than they are now.

Secondly, through their presence in London the Marbles have served as ambassadors for the culture of classical Greece and spurs to tourism in Greece itself on a scale far exceeding anything that could have been expected had they remained in Athens. (And there is no charge for seeing them in London, unlike Athens, where not long ago non-Greek visitors were required to pay higher admission charges for visiting the Acropolis than Greeks.)

Thirdly, Greece itself is absolutely stuffed with glorious monuments of the classical age. Can’t they find it in themselves to leave these wonderful sculptures, which have arguably been far more influential in the subsequent intellectual and artistic development of countries other than their own, where they are, in one of the world’s great international collections? For the BM’s collection is INTER-national; that is half the point of it – it is not a matter of narrow nationalist pride.

***

And now, with some additions, for what I said to Richard Allan:

Greek claims based on  narrow nationalism not reason

Greece has no better claim to the Elgin Marbles than any other modern state has to objects or artefacts once found on what is now its territory and housed, for whatever reasons, in a museum on the territory of some other state. Are we to unravel the great international museum collections for this sort of petty cultural chauvinism?

Greece’s campaign to gain possession of the Marbles is based on emotion and little else: an appeal to a narrow kind of patriotism that has made a national virility symbol of the Marbles. It is entirely in character that it should have been launched by Melina Mercouri, whose only real talent was the histrionic display of “passion.” Noble, heroic little Greece, cradle of democracy, mother of western civilisation, for ever martyred, humiliated and despoiled, by the Great Powers, Turks, British, Americans, all its ills attributable to the ksèno dhàktilo, the foreign finger. In this instance, robbed of its greatest treasure by a dastardly Englishman and an aristocrat to boot. That, basically, is how the story goes. That is the essence of the appeal. And of course it works with the “passionless” English, who can be made to feel guilty, both for their lack of passion and for their Great Power past.

Appeals of this kind may win votes, but they do not confer rights or amount to an argument.

You make a show of disinterested objectivity on your website. All we care about, you claim, is the best possible future for the Marbles themselves. But you are essentially dishonest, for you proceed to present your case in extremely tendentious terms. You claim that the Marbles somehow embody the achievement of a free democratic people: no mention of the slave economy of 5th century Athens, of the total disenfranchisement of women, of Athens’ brutal mainmise on the treasury of its allies in the Delian League, not to mention its bloody “disciplining” of its allies. “Imperial Spoils,” Christopher Hitchens calls his book with unconscious irony. Dead right!

You claim that Elgin removed the Marbles without the consent of “the Greek people” – an anachronism if ever I heard one. There was no Greek state and never had been one in 1800. So what do you mean by “the Greek people”? Would you have polled the Greeks resident for centuries in the Crimea, Bucharest, Odessa, Alexandria, for example? Would you have included the Vlachs, the Albanians, the Macedonians, the Pomaks and the other minorities systematically repressed by the modern Greek state?

You talk of Greece being under Ottoman occupation. Of course, the Ottomans ruled what we now recognise as the territory of the Greek state. But then? There was not a Greece in the fifteenth century for the Ottomans to occupy, not in the sense which you are trying to exploit.

And you put this tendentious stuff out on your website and publish what you claim are the results of opinion polls. I would bet that 95% of the people whose opinions you claim to have sounded do not know what you are talking about and could not tell an Ottoman from a penguin. Besides, it is hardly surprising in our politically  correct times that if you present the BM’s possession of the Marbles as theft and ask people who no longer have much idea of history, classical or modern, whether they approve or not, they are likely to say no, just as demands for reparation for the evils of slavery are always aimed at England, as if the slave markets – with Christian Europeans the slaves in many cases – of Turkey, north Africa, central Asia and Arabia – had never existed, never mind continued to operate long after the trade was banned wherever England’s writ ran.

Neglect of all periods of history outside the classical and lack of interest in other people’s cultures

Greece suffers from a peculiarly narrow chauvinism, in the cultural as in other domains. It prizes exclusively that part of  Greek history which precedes the death of Alexander the Great. The Byzantine and, especially, post-Byzantine periods are largely ignored and their monuments neglected. Numberless early medieval chapels in Crete and the Mani languish in varying states of decay and neglect; even the main Byzantine churches of Thessaloniki have been “devalued” (to use your tendentious expression) by the overshadowing of modern apartment blocks. Mt Athos itself has been allowed to fall into serious disrepair. The rich heritage of eighteenth and nineteenth century architecture has been almost completely destroyed in the last fifty years. Of the grand old mansions of Kastoria, Siatista and many other northern towns hardly one survives in a reasonable state. In the 1970s the National Tourism Organisation of Greece bought four of the survivors (at that time) in Kastoria and over the next ten years allowed them to fall ever further into disrepair. Practically every provincial town in the country has been architecturally desecrated and Lord knows how many interesting remains lost through the unscrupulous activities of property speculators.

There are churches and monasteries throughout the Pindos mountains which have scarcely even been catalogued. Their frescoed walls and painted ceilings have been ruined by damp and repaired any old how with raw cement and their flagged floors concreted over because it is “easier to clean”. (The politicians in Athens have never even set foot in these places.)

I suggest that the proper appreciation of this more recent history is far more important to an understanding of contemporary Greece and its place in the world of today than the exclusive focus on the grandeur of the classical period and consequent playing down of all subsequent periods. The Greek government would be performing a far greater service to the people of Greece if it were to promote the proper teaching of these periods of history rather than the thoroughly cleaned-up version of events that passes for history teaching at the moment.

As to the contents of Greece’s museums, you will not find a single item of African or Oriental art anywhere in the country, nor an Italian Renaissance painting, nor an example of English or French eighteenth-century furniture, as if Greece’s cultural horizons started and ended with its own classical period.

***

It is rather noticeable that since the coming into being of the new Acropolis Museum the terms of the argument have changed: from being about the repatriation or restitution of the Marbles to being about their re-unification.

Re-unification of the Marbles a red herring

Well, a) it is pretty clear that for most people the interest of the Marbles is the beauty of the sculpting, NOT understanding the historical context, the significance of the Panathenaic processions et cetera; and b) re-unification is a term that anyway begs rather a lot of questions in this context, as fewer than half of the original Parthenon sculptures survive in any form. Christian Greek iconoclasts destroyed a goodly chunk of what they considered pagan work in the sixth century AD and a Venetian artillery shell landing in a Turkish munitions dump blew a further large hole in the south side of the building in 1687. It is difficult to see how any “artistic unity” could be restored in these circumstances.

A lot more heat than light is generated in most discussion about the Elgin Marbles. Nadine Gordimer and the Australians (a very large Greek migrant community there of course, whose feelings about back home may well be as irresponsibly nationalistic as American Irish support for the IRA used to be) seem to think that, were it not for the bloody-minded British, the Parthenon could quite easily be restored to former glory. Hitchens seems to think that the crucial factor is the villainy of a ferocious, predatory, horse-whipping  aristocrat, who “ripped off huge chunks,” “carried them off” to his “private home”  – a bit like Grendel, perhaps? “Only his bankruptcy saved them,” to the relief, I suppose, “of all us Philhellenes.” And is not that a give-away? For what is a Philhellene if not a sentimentalist, an uncritical worshipper of an ideal vision of all things classical Greek, and an essentially Anglo-Saxon vision at that? I assume he is not thinking of the baser practices of ladhòmata, rousfètia, fakelàkia and so forth.

My late lamented friend, the painter John Craxton (see my earlier post), who like me spent half a lifetime in Greece, used that to say that the Greeks had a chip on their shoulder and it was made of Pentelic marble!

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