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How many times does one have to say these things?

In 1970 a man called John Pringle wrote a letter to The Times, describing the plight of his son, an undergraduate at Oxford University, who had begun to suffer from schizophrenia.

I will quote from it, for, forty years on, it seems to me, not a lot has changed.

“Failures in co-ordination and communication, seem to hang about the administrative management of schizophrenia almost like a grim parody of the condition itself.”
“Some schizophrenics make a partial recovery. Some stay in hospital for keeps. But thousands more in Britain… level off like my son at a low level of adaptation, physically fit and normal-looking to a casual outsider, but without application or anything that can be called will-power, and finding most inter-personal relations almost impossibly difficult. Drugs exist which palliate the grosser behavioural disturbances. They make life more tolerable for the sufferer and those around him, but it is hard to hit on a dosage which will not produce a somnolence as inhibiting to normal living as the excess emotion the drugs are designed to suppress or mask…”
“The community problem chronic schizophrenics present is that while not ill enough to be made the subject of a compulsory order, they are incapable of looking after themselves without special guidelines and supervision, notably of either finding a job or, still more, of keeping one…”
“Schizophrenics tend to leave behind them a trail of people who, righteously or despairingly, feel they have “done as much as we can” and it should be somebody else’s turn…”
“Such reactions are all too intelligible, bearing in mind the maddening vagaries of schizophrenics and the difficulty of fitting them into any normal pattern of living.”

I have no systematically garnered statistics to quote from, but I have lived with my own son’s illness for more than twenty years and have been in touch with many dozens of others suffering in the same way. I do not know whether they are a minority or a majority; I have no idea what their numbers are, but my experience suggests that there are significant numbers stuck, as John Pringle described, in that kind of psychological no-man’s-land, “at a low level of adaptation…incapable of looking after themselves without special guidelines and supervision…” And most definitely not recovered, in any normal sense of the word.

For the first ten or fifteen years of my acquaintance with schizophrenia, no one talked of recovering from the illness. Then, quite abruptly, six or seven years ago we started to hear about the Recovery Approach. The chief executive of the outfit supposedly responsible for looking after my son, literally from one week to the next, ceased referring to “your son’s illness” and spoke only of “your son’s journey of recovery.”

Presumably the expression comes from the same stable as “visually impaired” (blind), “deferred success” (examination failure), “less able to stand” (handicapped or disabled): that genteel virtual world from which all unpleasantness and nastiness, all categories that might be said to “condemn” people to permanent secondary status have been banished, by decree of the well-intentioned politically correct. All shall have prizes. And we know by now where good intentions lead…

I do not think it can yet be said that the failure to look after schizophrenics is a direct consequence of this evasive rhetoric, although in combination with the other orthodoxies of the day, empowerment, personalisation, consent and autonomy, it certainly is not helping. For, if everyone is in the process of recovering, where is the urgency? And the fact is, schizophrenics are not looked after. Does anyone keep an eye on their diet? Does anyone help them keep themselves clean and presentable, do their laundry, clean their flats or rooms, have a regular medical or dental check-up, look after their money sensibly? No.

Oh, they will tell you, we now deliver x-number of intensive customised services in the community. Well, that may be so, but it is not much comfort to the many people who are nonetheless not receiving them. And when you consider that an unwillingness to admit to illness in the first place or engage in any way with anyone is one of the most notorious characteristics of schizophrenics, a merely passive ‘offer’ is unsurprisingly not much use.

And in the UK at least schizophrenics no longer have any advocates. The organisation John Pringle founded, the National Schizophrenia Fellowship, was taken over by professional charity bureaucrats and renamed Rethink because, it was argued, the word schizophrenia attracted stigma, as if that were a major concern for people “incapable,” as John Pringle pointed out, “of looking after themselves without special guidelines  and supervision”;  as if changing the name of your affliction made any difference to the degree of your dottiness, unhappiness or loneliness.

Rethink, bless them, have embarked on a tour of the land to gather information about how schizophrenics are treated. They have called it a Schizophrenia Commission – pretty much the first time in ten years they have allowed the word schizophrenia to pass the barrier of their teeth, which we hope is a good sign. There is no doubt this is a good idea, and about time too. But what will they come up with?

The Commission consists of some eminent psychiatrists, some carers, a newspaper health editor and some “experts in lived experience.” What are they? you might ask. Well, they are what, in pub parlance, used to be called nutters. “Recovered” nutters, to be more precise. Their presence on all such occasions, on all such boards and in all such situations, is now de rigueur. Their presentations normally open the proceedings. No matter how peculiar their stories, no matter how peculiar what they say, they are received with extreme deference and gratitude, indeed one might almost say reverence. As it were, the word of God.

We know what the message is; we get the point. There is hope. People can get better. Look at them and, often, I can’t help feeling, “Look at me.” They have websites; they have published books, well, in some form or other… And good for them. But this does not mean that everybody can “recover” in any meaningful sense and it often does not mean, as far as I can see, that the “recovered” have themselves recovered in anything other than a very precarious manner. You could say, I suppose, that the mere fact they can stand up in front of an audience and make a speech is an achievement not many schizophrenia-sufferers could manage. How far this is due to anything one might sensibly call “recovery” rather than a sign that they were not so ill in the first place, I don’t know.

And their opinions – frequently, anti-medication, anti- the use of sections or any form of coercion, even anti-diagnosis – seem to me to be given far too much weight in the debate about how to deal with mental illness.

Schizophrenia is not “a mental health problem,” in the sense that, as we are told ad nauseam, one in four people in this country will suffer from a mental health problem at some stage in their lives. It is a different kettle of fish: it is a serious illness, the more serious for the fact that it damages, even destroys, people’s ability to process the ordinary sense data, practical and social requirements of everyday life in a normal, rational way.

Large numbers of people suffering from schizophrenia – majority, minority, it does not matter – need hands-on help, assertive, interventionist help, not “services” that will be “delivered in the community” if they are prepared to engage with them. And they do not get it.

Outfits like Rethink – John Pringle’s organisation, founded to help schizophrenics – actually contribute to their neglect by banging on about Recovery and organising anti-stigma marches. They encourage the powers-that-be – service-providers or whatever the horrible jargon is – in their endeavours to cut costs, by closing hospital beds and doing away with psychiatrists’ posts. For, where is the urgency: all these people living in communities – what a lie that is – happily bumbling along on their journeys of recovery?

And for those of us who every day have to deal with the disappointments, loneliness and misery of our sick children’s broken lives, who see what schizophrenia really means for thousands of people, who see that for them recovery is meaningless nonsense, all this sunny talk merely deepens our despair and even the toughest of us are forced to ask sometimes: what have I done wrong or not done, that only my child is failing to reach those uplands where the anti-stigma marchers and Recoverees all frolic in Elysian bliss?

PS – How about campaigning for free cigarettes by NHS prescription? All the schizophrenics I know smoke like chimneys and why should not they? They have few pleasures in life. Besides, there is evidence that the nicotine is also   a form of self-medication. They are all poor. Why should they be penalised by the interfering do-gooders who have pushed cigarette prices to £6 or so for a packet of twenty?

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.

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!”

*****

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

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!

Since I was interviewed by BBC Radio 4’s All in the Mind on June 15th and 16th (click on the name to listen online), there has been a big response from people, both buying the book (Schizophrenia: Who Cares? – available for purchase on this site if you click on “books” in the sidebar) and sending me messages, telling of their own troubles and how similar their experience has been to mine. Some of the tales have been devastatingly tragic and it is hard to know what to say. But my experience is that all of us who find ourselves in this same boat share pretty much the same experiences, the same griefs, the same terrors, the same foolish moments of hope, the same anger and frustration at the almost total failure of the “care system” as we know it in this country to provide for our sick children and relatives.

I don’t think the failures are due to malice – at least I hope not – but rather to an ill-thought-out, ill-coordinated and ill-funded system. Mental illness, even severe mental illness, is not on the whole life-threatening but it is most definitely life-destroying: it ruins people’s ability to maintain ordinary, expected relationships like friendship, marriage, parenthood; their ability to hold a job, of any kind, never mind one that is commensurate with their intellectual capacity or education. It ruins their ability to maintain a decent, attractive, comfortable home for themselves; to go to a shop and buy even cigarettes without the risk of some serious misunderstanding or misadventure.

People suffering from schizophrenia need help, not empowerment. They need to be looked after and by and large they are not. Professional care workers have their hands – and minds – tied by the idiotic rhetoric of political correctness: can’t do anything without the consent of the “client.” It is all about the inviolability of people’s rights, about not using language that might possibly be considered to consign people irredeemably to categories of inferiority by calling them fat or bald or, even, ill. For illness has been abolished, people! It is now all about well-ness; we are all more or less well and certainly not, Heaven forfend, ill! Recovery is the name of the game. And if, like me, you think recovery means getting back to the status quo ante and that, therefore, it does not really apply where schizophrenia is concerned, you will probably, like me, be referred to the website of the Social Care Institute for Excellence (www.scie.org.uk/publications/positionpapers) where you will learn the error of your ways: “recovery” means, in effect, if I say I am not ill, then I am not.

Yet another splendid theoretical excuse for not intervening and helping the one category of patients who really do need to be taken in hand, assertively and enthusiastically,  and helped.

The Swiss have decided they do not want minarets in their country.

It is of course an outrage, a violation of all that progressive thinkers hold dear: diversity, equality, ethnic and cultural sensitivity, minority rights.

At least they were asked. And don’t they have a right – the right  to say what should happen on their patch? For it is their patch, isn’t it?

In that ridiculous BBC TV Question Time programme with Nick Griffin, Bonnie Greer, sibyl of fatuous utterance offered to the world as timeless profundity, reprimanded Griffin for referring to indigenous people. “There is no such thing as indigenous English,” she sneered.

Whose country is it anyway?

We are not talking about purity of blood, although there are families who can trace their line back a long way on the same patch of ground, some even who have lived in the same house for several hundred years. My brother tells me that in the villages of the Welsh Marches there are still plenty of families bearing the names of men who fell at the battle of Mortimers Cross in 1461.

There is an obvious commonsensical case for my claiming to be much more indigenous than Bonnie Greer. I have been here longer. I can point to a long line of ancestors who have lived on this patch. They have shed blood on the Somme, preached from nineteenth-century pulpits, served with Wellington, sunk in Boat Races, died in the Sudan Defence Force, given their name to pubs in South Shields, collected and classified wild grasses. I belong here in a way that she cannot, no matter how hard she tries. And belonging in that sense is important.

Like plants, we are the product of a habitat. Climate forms us, geography, language, shared memories, both near, like the tunes we danced to in our youth, and distant, like Drake and his game of bowls, Harold dying with an arrow in his eye and the Crystal Palace. Not to mention the shared past that school gave us, in the days when education worked: Julius Caesar sighting the white cliffs, Boadicea, Gregory’s angels, the murder of Becket, the revolting peasants, the wars against France, Magna Carta, Cromwell’s Commonwealth; the poets’ lines learnt by heart – scepter’d isles and winding herds, mists and mellow fruitfulness; the philosophers, novelists, artists, and scientists – Watt and Newton, Locke and Hume, Jethro Tull, Arkwright, Abraham Darby, Faraday, Dickens and George Eliot… And underlying it all the long tradition of moral questing, the endless and continuing search for the best way to live, handed down to us via the Greeks and the Romans and, above all, Christianity.

These are the influences that have shaped us, formed the institutions that we have developed to frame our lives and help us live. Not all of us, perhaps, can name or enumerate the particular components that together make up Englishness, but we are nonetheless the product of them. George, who runs the stall in the street market where I buy my fruit and veg, and I recognise each other. We belong and we know it.

We belong not just to a culture but a patch of ground. Cross 40km of sea to Calais and even the set of people’s shoulders is different. Cross the even less visible line that separates France from Italy or Greece from Turkey and again everything changes: food, clothes, driving habits, attitudes to truth-telling. Our island does have a story, as does everyone else’s.

Nowadays it is considered childish, even mawkish, to talk in such terms, at least among the educated classes. It is uncool to be stirred by a sense of loyalty to England, to be moved by the Queen’s Christmas address or the rousing strains of Elgar. Working-class Englishmen are less troubled by feeling English and asserting their Englishness; look how many white vans and domestic windowpanes now display the flag of St George – an emblem that fifty years ago only flew from church towers. But then they are also the people whose lives have been most directly touched by the arrival of huge numbers of foreign immigrants: they are the ones who saw the streets that for generations had been theirs gradually taken over by strangers whose ways were very different from their own. Did anyone ask them what they thought about this alien influx? Did any government ever consult them?

The feelings involved in ‘belonging,’ in being ‘we,’ in considering this to be our patch, are certainly tribal, certainly irrational, but they are nonetheless authentic, natural, legitimate for that. Reason has little to do with it; think of Hume’s little finger and the destruction of the world. Reason is not the source of our strongest feelings. Norman Tebbitt’s loyalty test – which side do you cheer for at a Test match? – is not as silly as its deriders try to show.

When in Rome…

How should you behave when you go and live in someone else’s country? When in Rome, ran the old adage… When I worked in Libya many years ago European women were asked to dress modestly, wear longish dresses and keep their shoulders and arms covered: in other words, respect local customs. If, when I entered your house, I made a beeline for your wife or daughters, helped myself from your fridge, sprawled uninvited on your sofa with my feet on the covers, demanded that you let me stay for three months at your expense, how would you react? At the very least, my behaviour would be regarded as extremely bad manners. Probably you would try to throw me out.

I have lived and worked in France and Greece as well. I did not expect anyone to make special allowances for my Englishness, go out of their way never to say anything that with my cultural background I might find offensive. Equally it would never have occurred to me to attempt to interfere with their way of doing things, even if I thought mine might be better. And I made sure I learnt both languages.

I would have thought it was both common sense and good manners to be discreet, try to fit in, not make demands on your hosts, be grateful for the opportunities that you are allowed and, if there are fundamentally important things that you do not like about the place, remove yourself and go back home. You are the new boy on the block; you should not expect to receive special attention.

Multi-culturalism versus assimilation

I remember hearing Anne Cryer MP lamenting in a television programme about immigration just a couple of weeks before September 11th 2001, that “assimilation” was now regarded as an outmoded model: multi-culturalism was the fashion of the day.

We live in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, we are told ad nauseam. But what is this supposed to mean? If it is meant merely descriptively, to describe the blindingly obvious fact that lots of people of different races, from different cultural backgrounds, now live in this country, then one can scarcely object to it. If it is simply a plea to us all to live in harmony and not pick on each other for differences in colour, belief, diet etc, well again, fine. But it is not, of course: it is a prescription, a rallying cry, a policy, which  seems to mean in practical terms that anyone who wishes to live here as if he had never left home should be encouraged to do so.

And we are smug about it, proud of ourselves, for our openness and tolerance, especially in contrast to the dreadful republican French who go around banning things. I think Wole Soyinka is right: it is a kind of arrogance and it is blind, because very few Englishmen know any foreign languages any more or have any experience of living in cultures different from their own. We seem to think that there is no more to cultural difference than the chicken tikka massala or throat-singing or steel bands that so enrich our culture. That other cultures might, as a matter of course, regard women as chattels; might consider fathers or brothers honour-bound to kill sisters and daughters who so much as bid good-day to males outside the family circle; might consider anyone who does not rig an election or cheat at exams or answers truthfully when asked a question as a pitiable idiot, seems to be beyond their understanding. Indeed you are a racist and therefore not entitled to be heard at all if you so much as suggest such things. And yet anyone who has lived and worked pretty much anywhere in the world south and east of Rome and, more importantly, learnt to speak the language, knows this to be the truth. Why, when there is a vote-rigging scandal in this country, is there nearly always an Indian sub-continent name attached? Why did the University of London regard Greece and Nigeria as the greatest threats to exam security?

You do not have to pass a judgement on these practices. It is simply how people do things, in Iran, in Turkey, in Egypt, in Greece, in India. And if you do not do them also, you will never get anywhere – there. It is part of speaking the language, one might say.

But do you want to encourage people to operate in that way here, where by and large you cannot bribe the magistrate for a favourable judgement in a divorce case or buy the Biology A-level questions in advance of the exam or pay a million dollars to a couple of employees of the Inland Revenue in order to introduce a new accounting system?

The people who talk about multi-culturalism and advocate it seem to me to have little idea what they are talking about. Theirs are the muddled heads.

Sure, there is advantage to some in pursuing this line. Thousands of jobs have been created to monitor diversity and equality and ensure that our attitudes are “culturally sound,” as the mental health charity Rethink would have it. And there are immigrants who themselves have learnt very successfully to exploit this climate.

“Abroad, the emigrants threw themselves on the mercies of the civil liberties organisations. They sought the protection of the laws of the countries where the planes had brought them. They or their representatives spoke correct words about the difference between poor countries and rich, South and North. They spoke of the crime of racial discrimination and the brotherhood of man. They appealed to the ideals of the alien civilisations whose virtues they denied at home.”

These words were written thirty years ago by VS Naipaul in  Among the Believers, the book in which he described his journey through the Muslim states of Iran, Pakistan and south-east Asia. It seems rather apt to recall them in this week when Ali Dizaei, the police officer who was so quick to use the charge of racism, has been found guilty of behaviour very unbecoming of a policeman.

Indian Muslim separatism: legacy of the Raj

For thirty years Gilles Kepel, the French Arabist scholar, has been writing about Islam in Europe. In A l’Ouest d’Allah, published in 1994, he devoted a chapter to the history of the Pakistani and Bengali Muslim immigrants who established themselves in the Midlands and North of England in the 1950s and 60s. I have just re-read it in order to refresh my memory of what he has to say about the English way: multi-culturalism rather than assimilation or integration. It is really quite shocking to be reminded of the unscrupulous manner in which the self-appointed leaders of these communities, mainly people associated with the various mosques and their different rival tendencies, set about extracting from the local authorities (often only too ready to collude, generally for reasons of political expediency, i.e. Labour politicians losing their appeal for increasingly prosperous English working class voters) concessions designed explicitly to maintain the separateness of the immigrant groups – people like the Bradford Council of Mosques of Satanic Verses fame and the later Leicester Islamic Foundation. The pretext was preserving Muslim identity, children in particular, from contamination by the immoral, pornographic, materialistic etc (sic) English contemporary culture by association with English schoolmates. It makes the familiar charge that the natives excluded the immigrants rather laughable.

Kepel shows how this exclusiveness presented as a demand to be treated as a separate community was inherited from Muslim experience under the Raj post-1857 and the removal of the last Muslim Mogul ruler and imported, as it were, in the intellectual/political baggage of the first migrants, who were coming, it should not be forgotten, from a new state whose whole raison d’être was Muslim separateness and Islamic identity.

In 1966 Roy Jenkins, then Home Secretary, reassured anxious Muslims that Britain was a “pluralistic” society that valued and was enriched by its cultural diversity and was not going to require them to assimilate – the original source, I suppose, of  all those diversity monitoring forms that accompany every notice of planning application, charity membership questionnaire, Council document… If there are six of you, then you may be entitled to one twenty-fifth part of a Council post.

He rather changed his tune about the wisdom of this approach when one of the components of this rich diversity staged, in 1989, its own version of the Nazis’ 1933 burning of un-Germanic books. It is pretty difficult not to see a direct and obvious development from these “separatist” beginnings, the setting up of the Muslim Educational Trust, the proclamation of a Muslim Parliament, right through to the London Underground bombings and the terrorist risks of today. Muslim militancy has quite clearly been a factor in the equation since long before any war in Iraq or indeed long before Palestine became such a hot topic.

The author of the 1990 Muslim Manifesto told his readers that the acquisition of British nationality did not absolve them from the duty of jihad. One could be forgiven for thinking that this looked suspiciously like evidence for the existence of a fifth column. My mother was stopped by a policeman while walking across Hyde Park in wartime and taken to the police station. Why? Because the sharp-eyed copper had spotted a tiny swastika-shaped amulet on her charm bracelet!

The superior virtue of the oppressed

We hear endlessly about communities. The white community, the black community, the gay community… Suppose you are black and do not want to be part of the black community, do not think of yourself as being part of it. Suppose you come from Mali and do not want to be lumped together with the Sudanese. My mother once turned to my Greek wife who was describing the chaos that is Greek political and economic life (in 1981 – what is new?) and said, “I suppose what the country needs is a white man to run the place.” Are Greeks then not white? Are Albanians ethnic but not Slovaks? You have only to look at the way the categories on the diversity monitoring forms wander unsystematically among races and nationalities – it would seem sometimes that season might be a determining factor – to realise that the originators of these schemes have not a clue what they are doing.

Why do we go in for this nonsense? It is expensive, it is riddled with contradiction, it is clearly potentially dangerous. In fact it would be hard to think of a better way of loosening the glue of social cohesion altogether. And it is essentially anti-democratic. How can you have a proper democratic debate if the electorate will always divide along predictable lines, according to membership of definable groups which can in effect be “whipped,” rather than according to the merits of the case?

So why do we do it? I think there is a powerful element of Bertrand Russell’s Fallacy of the Superior Virtue of the Oppressed about it. All these poor disadvantaged people from backward countries whom we once so bitterly oppressed. Let us open wide our virtuous welcoming arms and make up for our past villainy and show them that really we do truly appreciate their wonderful colourful and various cultures.

It is as if we cannot bring ourselves to believe ill of our “inferiors.” We have no trouble being rude and critical about the French, but suggest – Heaven forfend – that a black person might be at fault… As happened last night: a dear friend had just lost her husband and was telling us that some of the nurses had been brusque and unhelpful and it was generally the black ones. Another friend, a kind and understanding person, immediately suggested that it was probably because black nurses had to go to a second job. And why should it not be the case that the black nurses were quite simply brusque and unhelpful? It is a complaint I remember my first wife making forty years ago when giving birth to my son in a London hospital. Different manners, different culture. Not always compatible.

In the aftermath of September 11th the Blessed Jon Snow frequently gave air time on Channel Four news to representatives of Hizb-ut-Tahrir to spout their nonsense about re-establishing a universal caliphate, presumably believing that thus he was upholding the great English tradition of balance and fair-mindedness. Since some of their co-religionists murdered a few of us on the Underground, their appearances have been less frequent, I notice.

A Muslim friend, an academic who taught for several years at SOAS and the LSE was pestered continually by these people,  trying to get him on board. Their methods, he said, were indistinguishable from the Socialist Workers of yore, bullying and threatening fellow Muslim students and attacking Jewish ones.

It is not fair, we are told, to tar the vast body of calm and law-abiding Muslims with the same brush as the extremists. Fair enough: but might it not be a good thing if they were not quite so quiet in their condemnation of the loud ones? Why are they so quiet? Is it just the response of the traditional timid villager afraid to draw attention to himself or a kind of inverted class solidarity: must not wash the dirty linen in public?

Can  villains smile?

Talk to any Pole, Ukrainian, Romanian, anyone who because of his status finds himself at the bottom of the social pile, having to rent accommodation from dodgy landlords or accept employment from dodgy employers. They will tell you many a tale of immigrants fiddling the benefits system; they are shocked at our stupidity in allowing this to happen.

Why do we refuse to recognise that some people are very much against us, not with us? That they will use the liberties that we allow for their own ends; that, as VS Naipaul said, they speak correct words and appeal to ideals that they most definitely deny in their own countries? Can we really not see that it is possible to smile and smile and yet be a villain?

I once had to pay off a Greek building worker. The man who had engaged him was a friend and I checked beforehand how much I owed this worker. When he came to receive his pay, he said that I had made a mistake and the amount was not right. I told him I had just spoken with his employer but would ask again to be sure. Would he come back the next day?

I checked again and was told his wages were the same as the others who had already been paid off: I was not to pay him a penny more. He was a man in his forties. He stood in front of me. “I who am your friend,” he said, “would I lie to you? I swear on the head of my son,” and tears ran down his cheeks! I phoned my Greek wife. “You are the Greek,” I said. “You deal with it!”

It is always easier dealing with your own villains. They speak the same language.

Our ancestors the Gauls

In France children’s first contact with history at school traditionally began, “Nos ancêtres les gaulois… Our ancestors the Gauls…” But as French teachers will tell you today, when they look out over their classes, they do not see many children who look as if they had Gauls for grandfathers.

Yet I believe this is the way to go. There must be integration. What is the point of living in someone else’s country unless you are going to try to be part of it? Why, if it is okay to protect the identities of small minorities of newcomers, is it not doubly okay to promote the identity of the English? What is more, I am sure children brought up on a full, rich diet of English history, literature and art will come to think of it as theirs. If that leaves the parents somewhat out of the picture, should not they be asked why they left their villages and came here in the first place? And what happened anyway to English working class children who received a proper education for the first time?

In Istanbul the cacophony of muezzin calls five times a day is stirring and romantic. Echoing down the valleys of the Lugg or Clun, it is rather less so.

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.

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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.

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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!

John died on Tuesday (November 17th). It is something I have been dreading for a few months now. There have been plenty of signs that he was approaching his end, though we still clutched hopefully at straws: when he perked up during a visit and began to reminisce in his inimitable way, responding always to an audience, recalling verbatim conversations he had with Kenneth Clarke sixty years ago, telling stories, describing some unorthodox and imaginative insight he had had into the origins of Minoan art or a painting of El Greco or some clear line of influence he had detected between Venetian Gothic, the Saracens, Copts and ancient Mesopotamia. But still it is a heavy blow and a great loss.

They asked me in the hospital if I was his son. I am no relation, yet in a way I have always felt that I was. He has framed my adult life. I met him in Khanià in Crete in 1963. He was forty-two and I was twenty-one. I had just come down from Oxford, packed my bags and returned to Greece, with typewriter and guitar, as I had always promised myself I would. Having spent my Post Office savings pursuing the dolce vita in Athens I found a job teaching English in Khanià.

On about my third evening there I found my way to Màrkos Anitsàkis’s on the square above the harbour. It was a wine shop chiefly, the big old barrels hanging off the walls, but Màrkos  served a few simple dishes as well. The only other customers were three men chatting in Greek over a glass of wine and a mezè. One of them, dressed in what looked like a Greek army greatcoat and forage cap, suddenly pronounced the name Charlie Mingus. I pricked up my ears as I have always loved jazz and got involved in the conversation.

The Greek “soldier” was of course John. Whether he really said Charlie Mingus, I forgot to ask him in the nearly fifty years that I knew him! But that is how I remember it.

I was renting a very simple room – bare boards, iron bedstead, tin basin. John found me a better one in a house that had once been the Italian consulate. Then, when the girl I married arrived, he found me a house right on the old Turco-Venetian waterfront next to his.

He was already king of Khanià, the centre of a little colony of foreign artists and writers, as well as being the rather outspoken self-appointed director of Khanià’s antiquities. He discovered the site of Minoan Khanià. When the authorities would not believe him he collected buckets of old pottery shards whenever it rained, until they had to concede that he was right. As he very often was, for he had a wonderfully original mind, his artist’s eye and imagination leading him to insights that duller spirits were not capable of. And there were rather a lot of them: they did not much like having their shortcomings pointed out, especially by a foreigner.

When Michael Kakoyiannis’s film unit arrived to make the film Zorba, John, who knew many of the people involved already, played host to them. I remember going into our local restaurant one evening to find a line of tables in the middle of the room, Anthony Quinn at one end, flanked by Simone Signoret, Alan Bates, Irini Pappa, Walter Lassally and others, with our ten-year-old peanut vendor, Orestis, sitting proudly at the other end of the table reading  a Greek newspaper upside down.

John was a wonderful story-teller and a man of great charm, who possessed the social graces in abundance. With his talent and the artistic connections he inherited from his family, he had an entrée into the most elevated social circles. In fact, he seemed to have met practically everyone who had been anyone in his generation and could recall in detail their mannerisms and conversation – which did not always redound to their credit.

Yet he was also very much at home with ordinary people and this was the Greece that he knew and loved and understood so well, not the Greece of the Anglo-Saxon classicist or philhellene, but the vernacular, “real” Greece of harbourside and sheepfold, of simple people who, dirt poor in those days, had only their traditions of heroic virtues to live by: physical courage, loyalty, family honour, the sacred duty of hospitality to strangers, endurance in hardship and resistance to endless enemies – all summed up in the notion of palikarià. Ian Collins in his Guardian obituary likened John to an ancient Cretan chieftain. And he was a sort of kapetànios, in his youth as well, a palikàri, one of nature’s aristocrats. There was always a certain lordly swagger to him, with his Highland regimental trews and old BSA motorbikes. He would pack me off to the mountains with packets of Matsàngou cigars as gifts for his shepherd friends, which, with a sly wink, they took as evidence of his aristocratic status – o lòrdhos Craxton.

He knew some real palikària too: George Psychoundàkis who had been his great friend Paddy Leigh Fermor’s (himself of course one of the greatest palikària) wartime runner; Manòlis Pateràkis, whose crack shot through the head of the German officer commanding had spared the women and children of his village from massacre; shepherds from the wilds of Sfakià who thought nothing of carousing day and night at a wedding and setting off back to the sheepfold in pitch darkness at 3am. He loved telling stories of how, on a visit to the local jail, he would be standing in the courtyard with the governor, when a voice called out, “Eh, John. Tell my mother you’ve seen me and that I’m all right!” It would be some young fisherman murderer, locked up for killing a man in a family feud.

The warmth and directness and shamelessness of the Greeks of those earlier generations appealed to him hugely. The Greek he spoke – not always grammatically flawless – was the Greek of the piàtsa, of the street. He understood that Greece and I am sure that helped him in his painting.

I am surprised there is so much emphasis on the neo-Romantic when people talk about his painting. I see nothing “romantic” in John’s mature work, that wonderful series of landscapes he painted from the 1960s onwards inspired by the Greek island of Hydra and the deep narrow gorges of his beloved Crete. They are the best Greek landscape paintings I have seen: that semi-abstracted rock rising from a glittering sea made of brilliant mosaic dashes of paint, spiky and angular with prickly pear, thorn and olive, the volumes all delineated and linked by his characteristic double and triple coloured lines; the deep rocky chasms of gorges dark and cool with shadow in the bottom, spiky bushes hanging over the void or an angular goat balancing on a tree… No painting evokes more vividly the still, silent, annihilating heat of a Greek summer noon and the delicious release of deep shade: the sensual, amoral, elemental, pared-down magic of the Greek landscape, presided over by the spirit of the pagan god, Pan, whose goatish profile he inserted like a signature disguised among the tumbling outline of rocks in a small 1988 painting that he called Metamorphic Landscape. I am amazed Greek collectors do not fall over each other to buy his work.

It is November 22nd as I write this. I cannot help remembering that forty-eight years ago this evening John came into my kitchen in Khanià and told us that President Kennedy had been assassinated and we laughed at him and would not believe him. Ever mischievous, you could never be sure that he was not pulling your leg. I remember once accompanying him to lunch with some rather glamorous and eminent woman journalist at our quayside restaurant. When at the end of the meal we took out our cigarettes, John proffered his matches. There was a scorpion in the box! And he played a central role in the controversy about the Metropolitan Museum’s Cycladic lyre player being a fake. He had met the sculptor on the island of Ios, I think it was, not in 1500BC but in 1947! When he pointed out to the sculptor that he should not be delineating the musician’s fingers or knuckles or something like that, the man replied in that splendidly unembarrassed Greek way, “Ma tha kànoume kàti kalìtero. We are making something a bit better!” That amused John hugely.

And he could never resist a pun. You could feel it welling up in him: some of them awful, some very funny. One of the sharpest I heard not so long ago, when someone phoned to tell him about a lunch he had just had with John’s erstwhile friend Lucian Freud. When John’s name was mentioned in the course of the lunch, Freud had apparently asked with feigned indifference, “Oh, is he still alive?” “Well, next time he asks,” said John to his caller, “tell him I haven’t yet died of ‘art failure!”

He loved his food too. He would recall all sorts of dishes he had eaten, where and how they had been cooked. And was he fastidious! If you put too much olive oil in the mayonnaise so that it had that rather dry, burnt taste or put the wrong sauce with the wrong fish or used the wrong kind of pan, you certainly got an earful! He loved Armagnac, but sadly could not drink it in his last days. When we brought him back a bottle – it had to come from the Gers – instead of drinking it he took the cork out and dabbed it behind his ear like a drop of scent.

He was one of a kind. And I shall be always grateful to him, for sending me off to the mountains – where I have tried to remain ever since.