When I lived in Athens in the early 1990s, working as a teacher of English, I spent a couple of winter weekends on the island of Ydra (Hydra). The first time, while walking around the coast I met an older Greek man with a large moustache. He turned out to be a sculptor and paid for me to change my ferry ticket so we could travel back to Athens together – which we did, playing tavli (backgammon) on deck as the sun went down.
We were friends for a year. Many a time, recovering from my latest heartache, I wanted someone to take me home and look after me; and that’s what he did, lending me his t-shirts to sleep in and making me peppermint tea in the morning. I’m sorry I lost touch with him.
I recently read Brenda Chamberlain’s A Rope of Vines: Journal from a Greek Island, written in the early 1960s by the Welsh writer and artist. When someone first told me about the book, he said Chamberlain was always falling in love with unsuitable men, then taking herself off to a convent for a few days to recover. I was intrigued, and frankly hoping for a few tips and directions to the convent.
I was soon hooked by Chamberlain’s personality, her artistic sensibility. From the first paragraphs of her introduction we know her new friend Leonidas is serving a sentence for manslaughter of an English tourist – and that, sequestered among the nuns to contemplate life and pray for him, she can ‘take a siesta in a juniper tree’ if she feels like it.
The island was then more populated than now, with 3,000 souls. One of them must have been Leonard Cohen, who had arrived as an unknown poet in 1960. The expat community of artists and writers on the island in those years including Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift, who had started out on the Dodecanese island of Kalymnos but found it too remote, and preferred Ydra for its proximity to Athens and for its literary associations; Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell had lived there in the 1930s. In the 1950s it was a hotspot for filmmaking, drawing Sophia Loren, Melina Mercouri, Brigitte Bardot.
Chamberlain doesn’t mention any of them, although perhaps it was this too that she was escaping when she spent her days living up near the wells, with the nuns. She says:
‘International travellers throw an unreal glamour over the port, but step out of the harbour and you will come upon club-footed boys, women withering with the sun’s luminosity, mal-fed children grossly fat, dwarfs with sun-smitten faces.’
It’s a clear-eyed, unsentimental journal and yet filled with beauty of the austere high places, ‘breeze, and heat, and golden promontories’, fresh-caught fish that she guts with a broken-handled knife, people harvesting wheat while others scream at one another, spiders’ webs like steel wires. She wants to be more like the nuns and live in the Spirit alone, patient and secure, but cannot.
‘I am for ocean, the tumult of Thalassa… for black-skinned seamen bearing baskets of coral…’
There is much darkness in the journal, and in the sea in her mind. She also writes of ‘fire-gleaming, passionate waters… Light-filled depths…’ Thalassa is not blue but ‘Indigo, green of jade, white, silver, black.’
The cover is a gorgeous painting by the author showing dark-eyed fishermen returning with a catch. The text is scattered with her spare, evocative line drawings. She reminds herself to hold on to the clarity of vision induced by disaster, to try to be wiser through suffering. The book was written during her first few years on the island. She died only six years after publishing it, at the age of 59, after returning to north Wales. According to online sources, it was from an overdose of sedatives.
Also over this summer I received a book about Greece in a different style, Panayiota, a novel by Rhodes-based writer John Manuel. The novel is loosely based on what he learned of his wife’s family background, set against well researched real events.
It takes place partly in contemporary times in a hospice in Bath, England, and partly in wartime Athens – when 40,000 people died in the city from starvation alone, quite apart from executions and shoot-outs.
The heroine of the tale is Panayiota, born in 1925 into a family who ran a taverna in the Plaka district under the Acropolis – a merry place to grow up with the sound of traditional musical instruments played under the influence of ouzo or tsipouro or retsina. The city was still a collection of villages, and everyone had a bit of land with some oranges and olives and vegetables. Panayiota has a happy childhood; ‘we’d hear our fathers and grandfathers arguing about Italians and the refugees from Turkey and stuff, but we were more interested in having a good time’. The city was full of life.
This all changed in April 1941 when the Germans bomb Piraeus, hitting a British ship, and that is more or less where the story begins, telling of the following dramatic years with their terrors and moments of joy. Manuel gives fascinating insights into an extraordinary era.
Which reminds me: Doug Gold’s book The Note Through the Wire, already a number one bestseller in New Zealand, will be published in the UK next spring. Doug’s book is also based on his wife’s family story, and part of it gives a vivid description of the Kiwi protagonist’s experiences fighting in the ill-fated Greece campaign and escaping in the Peloponnese. Injured, he was eventually captured and taken as a prisoner-of-war to Slovenia, which is where the love story with resistance fighter Josefine begins.
And that reminds me about The Lost Lyra by Richard Clark, about a friendship that begins between an escaping British soldier and a resistance fighter in the mountains of Crete. Yet another gripping read.
Finally, John X. Cooper’s The Sting of the Wasp is a contemporary thriller set in Athens against the memories of the Civil War. His new book, Dead Letter, also featuring detective Panos Akritas, was launched on Kindle at the start of the summer. To enter a competition to win a copy of the Kindle edition, please share this post somewhere and let me know.