Wednesday, 24 March 2021

Ο Φιλελληνισμός, χτες και σήμερα



Το μικρό καράβι, το οποίο κουβαλούσε μια ομάδα από περίπου είκοσι Βρετανούς τουρίστες και μαθητές, έγερνε μπροστά στον άνεμο μέσα στα ταραγμένα νερά. Ο Τζέραλντ, ο δάσκαλος και οδηγός μας, μάς διηγούταν ταυτόχρονα δυο ιστορίες και αυτές γίνονταν κάπου-κάπου συγκεχυμένες. Καθώς φεύγαμε από την προκυμαία της ωραίας πόλης, άρχισε η τοπογραφία να ξετυλίγεται σε όλες τις κατευθύνσεις. Πίσω από την πόλη, τοποθετημένη στην άκρη του κόλπου, διαφαινόταν πλέον κι ένα κωνικό όρος. Το νησί, προς το οποίο κατευθυνόμασταν, φαινόταν πλέον ακόμη πιο μεγάλο: με τις πλευρές του απόκρημνες και σκεπασμένες από δάσος. «Η παράδοση της Σπαρτιάτικης φρουράς που βρισκόταν στην Σφακτηρία, ήταν η πρώτη συνθηκολόγηση που έκαναν ποτέ οι Σπαρτιάτες,» δήλωσε ο Τζέραλντ, υψώνοντας τη φωνή του πάνω από τον θόρυβο της μηχανής. «Επρόκειτο για μια συναρπαστική στιγμή για τους Αθηναίους: μια στιγμή που τους έφερε σε αχαρτογράφητα νερά: νερά όπου δυστυχώς παραμόνευαν η Ύβρις και η Νέμεσις.» 

Τσιχλί-Μπαμπά
Στα νερά όπου πλέαμε κι εμείς, φαινόταν να παραμόνευε κι εμάς ένας αυξανόμενος κίνδυνος. Κατά τα φαινόμενα κατευθυνόμασταν τώρα προς την ανοιχτή θάλασσα από το νότιο στενό ανάμεσα στη Σφακτηρία και την ξηρά, και τα κύματα αυξάνονταν εντυπωσιακά. «Σε λίγο θα δούμε το μνημείο προς τιμή των Γάλλων ναυτικών που πέθαναν στο Ναυαρίνο», είπε ο Τζέραλντ, με τον αισιόδοξό του τρόπο. Το πλοίο σκαμπανέβαζε στα θυελλώδη κύματα, όσο πλησιάζαμε την σκάλα που είχε λαξευτεί στον πέτρινο γκρεμό της βραχονησίδας που ονομάζεται Τσιχλί-Μπαμπά. «Είναι πολύ επικίνδυνο να αποβιβαστούμε σήμερα - σύμφωνα με τον καπετάνιο, αλλά θα κάνουμε ένα μικρό περίπλου της νησίδας και ύστερα θα επιστρέψουμε για να βρούμε το αγγλικό μνημείο.»

Ήμασταν στα μέσα του Απρίλη του 1984. Ήμουνα δεκάξι χρονών. Επρόκειτο για την πρώτη εβδομάδα μιας εκδρομής τριών εβδομάδων στην Ελλάδα και κάναμε μια περιήγηση της Πελοποννήσου. Ήταν η ορθόδοξη Σαρακοστή και αναμενόταν να περάσουμε την Μεγάλη Εβδομάδα στην Αίγινα και την εβδομάδα του Πάσχα στη Σίφνο. Δεν είχα ξαναπάει στην Ελλάδα, αλλά εδώ και τρία χρόνια μάθαινα την αρχαία γλώσσα. Πρωί-πρωί της μέρας εκείνης, είχαμε επισκεφτεί το μυκηναϊκά απομεινάρια του Ανακτόρου του Νέστορα στο Επάνω Εγκλιανό. 
Ανάκτορο του Νέστορα
Τώρα μαθαίναμε για τα γεγονότα του Πελοποννησιακού Πολέμου το 425πΧ (την άλωση της Σφακτηρίας από τους Αθηναίους) και την Ναυμαχία του Ναυαρίνου στις 20 Οκτώβρη του 1827μΧ. Όσο μπαίναμε και πάλι στον κόλπο, μάς εξήγησε ο Τζέραλντ τη διαρρύθμιση του οθωμανικού στόλου (στην μορφή ενός πετάλου) και την τακτική και τεχνογνωσία των ναυτικών των συμμάχων, όταν ο Κόδρινγκτον, απαντώντας στην πρόκληση από τον στόλο του Ιμπραήμ-Πασά, εξαπέλυσε μια καταστρεπτική και καθοριστική αντεπίθεση. Από το αγγλικό μνημείο, στο Χελωνάκι, βλέπαμε, στο βόρειο τέλος του κόλπου, την επίπεδο λιμνοθάλασσα και το φραγκικό κάστρο του 13ου αιώνα στο Παλιό Ναυαρίνο. 


Αγγλικό Μνημείο

Σε αυτή την μικρή γωνία της Πελοποννήσου φαινόταν ότι κάθε εποχή της ευρωπαϊκής ιστορίας είχε αφήσει το δικό της αποτύπωμα. Η ομηρική μυθολογία, η αρχαία και μεσαιωνική ιστορία, οι θρυλικές μορφές από την εποχή των ευρωπαϊκών αυτοκρατοριών και της ελληνικής επανάστασης, τα φαντάσματα και τα βήματα του παρελθόντος - όλ’ αυτά είχαν μαζευτεί σε αυτό το συμπυκνωμένο περιβάλλον, σ’ αυτό το τοπίο εκθαμβωτικής φυσικής εμορφιάς. 


Οι πρώτες εντυπώσεις είναι καθοριστικές. Οι πρώτες μου εντυπώσεις της Ελλάδας άλλαξαν την πορεία της ζωής μου. Σε αυτό δεν είμαι μοναδικός. Ερωτεύτηκε και ο Λόρδος Βύρωνας  - πράγμα κάπως πιο σημαντικό για την πορεία της ελληνικής ιστορίας! - κατά την διάρκεια της πρώτης του εκδρομής στην Ελλάδα το 1809. Πραγματικά ερωτεύτηκε πολλαπλά· ερωτεύτηκε, με τρόπο που έμεινε γνωστός παντού, την Τερέζα Μακρή, την «Κόρη των Αθηνών», αλλά ερωτεύτηκε - ακόμα πιο επίμονα - και την Ελλάδα την ίδια: τα τοπία της, το μυθικό της παρελθόν, τον λαό της και τα έθιμά του. Και προ παντός ερωτεύτηκε την ιδέα της Ελλάδας: μιας Ελλάδας της ριζοσπαστικής ελευθερίας, απελευθερωμένης από τις οθωμανικές χειροπέδες. Σαγηνεύτηκε από την Ελλάδα (παρέθεσα παρακάτω μια αγαπημένη μου στροφή από Το προσκύνημα του Τσιλντ Αρόλδου), αλλά φαίνεται ότι για ένα μεγάλο χρονικό διάστημα δεν πίστευε πως οι Έλληνες θα εξεγείρονταν πραγματικά για να απαιτήσουν την ελευθερία τους. Ήταν ο φίλος του, ο ποιητής Πέρσι Σέλλεϋ, που τον δίδαξε φιλελληνικό πολιτικό ακτιβισμό ενός πιο δυναμικού είδους. Η ριζοσπαστικότητα και ο ιδεαλισμός του Σέλλεϋ ξεσήκωσε τον Βύρωνα και τον ενέπνευσε στην τελευταία του μεγάλη πρωτοβουλία, το 1823: την περιπέτεια που κατέληξε στον θάνατο του Βύρωνα στο Μεσολόγγι στις 19 Απρίλη του 1824 και στην απελευθέρωση ενός μεγάλου κύματος φιλελληνικού συναισθήματος παντού στην Ευρώπη και στις Ηνωμένες Πολιτείες.

 

Ο θάνατος του Βύρωνα, Μεσολόγγι

Ο Βύρωνας ήταν φιλελεύθερος και η συνεισφορά του στον ελληνικό αγώνα βασίστηκε στα φιλελεύθερα ιδανικά. Αλλά επί της ουσίας ο Φιλελληνισμός δεν είναι μια πολιτική ιδεολογία, αν και έχει, βέβαια, μια πολιτική διάσταση. Η ιστορία των βρετανικών επαφών με την Ελλάδα αυτούς τους δυο αιώνες που πέρασαν δείχνει ότι ο κατάλογος των παθιασμένων Βρετανών Φιλελλήνων περιλαμβάνει φιλελεύθερους, συντηρητικούς, σοσιαλιστές και τους απολύτως απολιτικούς. Κι επιπλέον θα ήταν λάθος κανείς να φανταστεί ότι ο Φιλελληνισμός, αν και έχει ιστορικές συνδέσεις και βαθιές ιστορικές ρίζες, ανήκει αποκλειστικά στο παρελθόν. Πιστεύω πάντως ότι ο νεαρός Βύρωνας μάς δείχνει από τί αποτελείται ο Φιλελληνισμός. Απλώς, πρόκειται για μια ερωτική σχέση που μεταμορφώνει. Τα εκατομμύρια των συμπατριωτών μου που πηγαίνουν κάθε χρόνο στην Ελλάδα είναι εξίσου ευάλωτα στη γοητεία της Ελλάδας όσο και ο Βύρωνας το 1809. Το εάν η πρώτη αυτή σπίθα της αγάπης θα εξελιχτεί σε κάτι πιο σταθερό και σημαντικό ή όχι, εξαρτάται από πολλούς παράγοντες, συμπεριλαμβανομένης της προσωπικής επένδυσης του χρόνου, της προθυμίας να μάθει κανείς την γλώσσα, να αποκτήσει μια γνώση και ένα μερίδιο του πολιτισμού. Για όσους ερχόμαστε στην Ελλάδα και την ερωτευόμαστε πραγματικά, η ερωτική σχέση αυτή διαμορφώνει τη ζωή μας: οδηγεί το παρόν μας και επηρεάζει το μέλλον μας, και γίνεται κι γρήγορα ένα αγαπημένο, αναγκαίο μέρος του προσωπικού μας παρελθόντος. 

 

Οπότε, σήμερα, μια ημέρα που μνημονεύει την επέτειο των 200 ετών από την έναρξη του αγώνα της ελληνικής ανεξαρτησίας, σκέφτομαι όχι μόνο τους ήρωες της επανάστασης - όπως τον Μακρυγιάννη, τον Κολοκοτρώνη, τον Καραϊσκάκη, τη Μπουμπουλίνα, το Μιαούλη, το Μαυροκορδάτο, τον Καποδίστρια, το Βύρωνα, τον Άστιγκα, το Τζώρτζ - και τους «αώνυμους» Έλληνες που πάλεψαν και επέμεναν, αλλά και τους σημερινούς Έλληνες: τους πολλούς Έλληνες φίλους και γνωστούς μου στην Ελλάδα, τους απόδημους Έλληνες που συναντάω στο Λονδίνο, τους πολύ περισσότερους Έλληνες που δεν γνώρισα ακόμη στην πατρίδα τους: στην Αθήνα, τη Θεσσαλονίκη κι αλλού. Σε όλους σας λέω το εξής: αυτή η ημέρα είναι δίκη σας ημέρα, εννοείται ότι μετά από 200 χρόνια της διατήρησης της λευτεριάς, αυτά που πέτυχαν οι πρόγονοί σας είναι δικό σας επίτευγμα. Όσο βαρύ κι αν φαίνεται να είναι το φορτίο του παρελθόντος, το αξίζετε και σας ταιριάζει. Εμείς που αγαπάμε την Ελλάδα, μοιραζόμαστε την χαρά σας και αισθανόμαστε αγαλλίαση για την ένδοξή σας ελευθερία. Σας στέλνω τα θερμότερά μου συγχαρητήρια και την αγάπη μου. Χρόνια πολλά!
 

Ζήτω η Ελλάς! Ζήτω η λευτεριά των Ελλήνων!

 

Τζων

Εορτή του Ευαγγελισμού της Θεοτόκου, 2021

 

Φραγκικό κάστρο, Παλιό Ναυαρίνο


Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto II.88

Where’er we tread ‘tis haunted, holy ground;

No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,

But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,

And all the Muse’s tales seem truly old,

Till the sense aches with gazing to behold

The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:

Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold

Defies the power which crush’d thy temples gone:

Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.

 


Προσκύνημα τοῦ Τσὶλνδ Ἁρόλδου, μέρος ΙΙ.88 


Εἰς οἱονδήποτε μέρος καὶ ἂν διευθύνωμεν τὰ βήματά μας, πατοῦμεν γῆν ἱερᾶν·

οὐδὲν μέρος τοῦ ἐδάφους σου καθιερώθη εἰς χυδαῖα μνημεῖα,

ἀλλ᾽ὅλη ἡ χώρα σου εἶναι εὐρὺ θέατρον θαυμάτων·

ὅλα τὰ πλάσματα τῆς μούσης φαίνονται ὡς τόσαι ἀλήθειαι,

οἱ δὲ ὀφθαλμοί μας ἀποκάμνουσι θαυμάζοντες 

τοὺς τόπους τούτους εἰς τοὺς ὁποίους μετεφερόμεθα τόσον συχνάκις

ὑπὸ τῶν ὀνείρων τῆς νεανικῆς ἡλικίας μας·

τὰ ὄρη καὶ αἱ κοιλάδες σου, οἱ λόφοι καὶ αἱ πεδιάδες σου, 

ἀνθίστανται εἰς τὴν καταστρεπτικὴν δύναμιν τοῦ χρόνου,

ὁ ὁποῖος κατηρείπωσε τοὺς ναούς σου.

Οἱ αἰῶνες ἐκλόνησαν τὰς μεγαλοπρεπεῖς οἰκοδομὰς τῶν Ἀθηνῶν,

ἀλλ᾽ἐσεβάσθησαν τὸ πεδίον τοῦ Μαραθῶνος.

Philhellenism, past and present


The Memorial to the English Sailors
The small boat, with its group of twenty or so British tourists and schoolkids, was leaning into the wind across choppy waters. Gerald, our teacher and guide, was telling us two stories at once and they were becoming occasionally confused. As we left the jetty of the pretty town, the geography opened up in all directions. Behind the town, itself set out on the edge of the bay, a conical mountain was rising. The island to which we were heading now seemed much larger; its sides precipitous and covered in forest. ‘The surrender of the Spartan garrison on Sphacteria was the first time that Spartans had ever capitulated,’ Gerald shouted, above the noise of the engine. ‘It was an exciting moment for the Athenians: a moment that carried them into uncharted waters - waters that were unfortunately stalked by Hubris and Nemesis…’ 

The waters through which we were being cοnveyed seemed themselves to be increasingly stalked, by danger. We were apparently now heading out into the open sea through the southern channel between Sphacteria island and the mainland, and the waves were getting bigger. ‘We will soon see the monument to the French sailors who died at Navarino,’ said Gerald, optimistically. The boat bounced on the turbulent waves, as we approached the stairs cut into the cliff of the islet of Tsichli-Baba. ‘It’s too choppy to land today - according to the captain, but we’ll sail round the islet and then return to find the English monument.’

The Battle of Navarino
It was the middle of April in 1984. I was sixteen. We were in the first week of a three-week tour of Greece and were travelling around the Peloponnese. It was Orthodox Lent and we were due to spend Holy Week on Aegina and Easter week on Sifnos. I had never been to Greece before, but had been learning the ancient language for three years. Earlier in the day, we had excitedly toured the Mycenean remains of Nestor’s Palace at Ano Engliano. Now we were learning about events in the Peloponnesian War in 425BC (the capture of Sphacteria by the Athenians) and the Battle of Navarino on 20 October 1827AD. As we re-entered the bay, Gerald told us about the disposition of the Ottoman fleet (arranged in a horseshoe) and the tactics and skill of the allied sailors, as Codrington, provoked by Ibrahim’s fleet, launched a devastating and decisive counterattack. From the English memorial on Chelonaki islet, we could see, at the northern end of the bay, the flat lands of the lagoon and the thirteenth-century Frankish castle at Old Navarino. In this small corner of Greece, every age of European history seemed to have left its mark. Homeric mythology, ancient and mediaeval history, legendary figures from the age of European empire and Greek revolution, the ghosts and footfalls of the past - all crowded into this compact environment, this landscape of astonishing natural beauty.

 

Yialova Lagoon, Navarino
First impressions matter. My first impressions of Greece changed the course of my life. I am not alone in that. Rather more importantly for the course of Greek history, Byron too fell in love on his first trip to Greece in 1809. He fell in love multiply. Famously, of course, with Teresa Makri, the ‘Maid of Athens’, but even more lastingly with Greece itself, its landscapes, its mythical past, its people and their customs - and above all, he fell in love with the idea of Greece: a Greece of radical liberty, freed from Ottoman shackles. He was entranced by Greece (I have placed below a favourite stanza from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage), but for many years, he does not seem to have thought that the Greeks would actually rise up and claim their freedom. It was his friend, the poet Percy Shelley, who taught him a more dynamic form of pro-Greek political activism. Shelley’s radicalism and idealism galvanised Byron and inspired him to his last great venture, in 1823: the adventure that ended with Byron’s death at Mesolongi on 19 April 1824 and the release of a great wave of philhellenic sentiment across Europe and the United States. 

Byron in Greece, by Vryzakis

Byron was a liberal and his contribution to the Greek struggle was motivated by liberal ideals. But at heart Philhellenism is not a political ideology, though it has a political dimension. The history of British engagement with Greece in the past two centuries shows that passionate British Philhellenes have included liberals, conservatives, socialists and the apolitical. It would also be wrong to think that Philhellenism, though it has important historical associations and deep historical roots, belongs exclusively to the past. I think that the youthful Byron shows us what Philhellenism is. It is quite simply a transformative love affair. The millions of my compatriots who go to Greece every year are as susceptible to falling in love with Greece as Byron was in 1809. Whether or not that first spark of love develops into something more lasting and significant depends on many factors, not least personal investment of time, willingness to learn the language, to acquire a knowledge of and a share in the culture. For those of us who come to Greece and truly fall in love with her, this love affair shapes our lives: it guides our present and moulds the future and soon becomes a treasured, indispensable part of our personal past. 

So on this day, which marks the 200th anniversary of the launch of the struggle for Greek freedom, I am thinking not only of the heroes of the struggle - Makrygiannis, Kolokotronis, Karaiskakis, Bouboulina, Miaoulis, Mavrocordatos, Capodistrias, Byron, Hastings, Church - and of the ordinary Greeks who fought and endured, but also of today’s Greeks: my many Greek friends and acquaintances, the Greeks I meet in London, those greater numbers of Greeks I have yet to meet in their homeland: Athens, Thessaloniki, and elsewhere. I say to all of you: This day is your day; it goes without saying that after 200 years of sustaining liberty, what your ancestors achieved is now your achievement. However heavy the burden of the past sometimes seems to be, you are worthy of it and you carry it well. Those of us who love Greece share in your joy and rejoice in your glorious freedom. I send you my warmest congratulations and my love.

 

Long live Greece! Long live Greek freedom!

 

John

Feast of the Annunciation, 2021


 

Lord Byron, Childe Harolds Pilgrimage, Canto II.88

Where’er we tread ‘tis haunted, holy ground;

No earth of thine is lost in vulgar mould,

But one vast realm of wonder spreads around,

And all the Muse’s tales seem truly old,

Till the sense aches with gazing to behold

The scenes our earliest dreams have dwelt upon:

Each hill and dale, each deepening glen and wold

Defies the power which crush’d thy temples gone:

Age shakes Athena’s tower, but spares gray Marathon.


Nestor's Palace, Summer 2016

Friday, 12 March 2021

An Anglo-Hellenic Voice from the 1930s

Although the laurels for making the English literary world aware of C.P.Cavafy go to the novelist E.M.Forster, the earliest known English poetry that responds to Cavafy’s work and suggests his influence is by William Plomer (1903-1973).[1] I had forgotten that fact, though not the name, when, in late 2019, checking over what was new and what was newly reprinted on the LGBT shelves in the Cambridge Waterstones, I discovered a finely bound selection of Plomer’s poetry. Within that new edition, brought out by Little Island Press, I found a handful of interesting poems about Greece and so bought the book.[2] As usually happens with interesting writers, one book led to another. And in the past few weeks, I’ve settled down to get to know Plomer’s life and work better.

Plomer, who was born and partly raised in colonial South Africa to English parents, is largely unknown now: in his own time, his own writing was highly esteemed, but he was also, as the reader at Jonathan Cape, the discoverer of Kilvert’s diaries and of Ian Fleming. He had a cosmopolitan outlook and was moulded by his early experiences of South Africa, England and Japan. He made only a single visit to Greece, which he describes beautifully in his autobiography - I’ve set out an extract below.[3] In 1930, accompanying the painter Anthony Butts (1900-1941), he spent some months in Athens and on Corfu, which at that time was almost entirely unvisited by tourists. During his weeks in Athens, he picked up ‘a voluminous anthology of Greek poetry’ and was captivated by the photograph of Cavafy.[4] Plomer was not only the first English poet to absorb elements of Cavafy’s work, he was also one of the first English writers to ‘rediscover’ the literary potential of Greece (Lawrence Durrell, for example, would not arrive on Corfu until 1935; Robert Liddell arrived in Athens only in 1939) and to find in Greece not so much the dead remains of classical antiquity as the vibrant possibility of contemporary erotic adventure. His experiences there would yield poems and short stories, all of which show a sharp eye for people, their customs and quirks, and for landscapes too.

 

Plomer was gay and he found working-class Greek men both to his taste and available. It wasn’t all casual and fleeting dalliance; in Athens he started what seems to have been the first serious love affair of his life with a Greek sailor called ‘Nicky’. The affair lasted some weeks but ended badly, with Nicky robbing Plomer and dumping him. But it left behind at least one ravishing poem (see below) and brought Greece firmly within the orbit of Plomer’s literary world. In those years, Plomer conducted a short correspondence with Cavafy and wrote several poems and short stories about Greece that demonstrate a knowledge of Cavafy’s poetry. Several years later, he was introduced in London by the publisher John Lehmann to the Greek poet, Dimitris Capetanakis, whose published work (in Greek and English) has recently been collated and issued in an edition by Emmanuela Kantzia.[5] Capetanakis had been swiftly accepted into the well-defined set of talented gay English writers and publishers (Forster, Auden, Isherwood, Spender, Sitwell, Ackerley, Lehmann and so on); he and Plomer became friends, until Capetanakis’ early death in 1944. Plomer recognised in Capetanakis’ English poetry the merits of ‘a real English poet’, observing that ‘the growth of his sympathy with England & the English would have borne much fruit if he had lived.’ This is a connection about which one would like to know more.

Before the new Little Island Press edition, Plomer’s own work was in danger of becoming unknown by the reading public, though it has attracted some interest in recent years among academics.[6] Everything except the new Selected Poems is out of print, but most things can be found through Abebooks and the online catalogues of second-hand bookshops. From what I have been able to locate in these months when the pandemic has closed our libraries, the body of Greek work is interesting and deserves to be considered as a whole.

 

There are five short stories about Greece, published in The Child of Queen Victoria and Other Stories: ‘Folk Tale’, ‘Nausicaa’, ‘The Crisis’, ‘The Island: An Afternoon in the Life of Costa Zappaglou’ and ‘Local Colour’. Three of these (‘Nausicaa’, ‘The Island’ and ‘Local Colour’) depict - unmistakably but with characteristic discretion - a complex homoerotic milieu.[7] They are skilful and charming. ‘Nausicaa’ depicts Corfu in an astringent, somewhat cynical manner entirely unlike that of the Durrell brothers, and is all the more interesting for that.

 

While he was on Corfu, Plomer became interested in the character of Ali Pasha. That too yielded a book: a surprisingly fine biography published in 1936.[8]

 

There are at least twenty - probably more - poems written about Greece. The largest set (‘A Sprig of Basil’) is in the collection called The Fivefold Screen. Others can be found in the new Selected Poems or in the Collected Poems.[9] The types of poem vary. Four are translations from modern Greek. ‘The Philhellene’ (1930) is one of the satirical ballads - a genre that Plomer practically invented; it describes, with mordant humour and calculated bad taste, the illusions and disillusion of a female American philhellene in Athens: ‘She had plenty of dollars, / But felt that scholars / Alone could master / Classical Greek, / The enclitic particle / Quite defeated her / And declining the article / Left her weak’. The most memorable lines are examples of English comic writing at its silliest and most playful: ‘Then one Papayannopoulos / Took her up the Acropolis / And began to monopolize / Most of her time.’

 

‘The Philhellene’ is an amusing if clever trifle. But the serious poems are a more lasting legacy. From 1930, ‘Another Country’ expresses a debt to Cavafy’s ‘The City’, while ‘Corfu’ captures wistfully the island’s melancholic aspect (‘Across the old fortezza fall / The crystal rulings of the rain’). ‘The Klepht’ is a good poem to read in this bicentenary year. ‘Archaic Apollo’ brings a modern, gay sensibility to the ancient world; in ‘The Land of Love’ that sensibility acquires a mordant tone. But the best two Greek poems, in my opinion, are ‘Three Pinks’ (1930) and ‘A Casual Encounter’ (1972). ‘Three Pinks’ describes a delicious moment in Plomer’s affair with Nicky. It is not, I think, a simple derivation of Cavafy’s work, but stands in the same relation to Cavafy as do some of Dinos Christianopoulos’ erotic poems, being both an emanation and an extension of the Cavafian style. ‘A Casual Encounter’, by contrast, is one of Plomer’s final poems, from the collection Celebrations, published a year before Plomer’s death. It is dedicated to Cavafy’s memory and is a sure sign of his abiding, life-long influence on Plomer’s work. Both can be found in the Collected Poems and in the new Selected Poems. I have set out a fragment of the later poem below and hope it draws you too into the world of William Plomer. It’s worth spending some time there.

 

John

12 March 2021  


 

‘Moderately Grand Tour’ - an excerpt from The Autobiography of William Plomer

 

Late in the afternoon, or sometimes in the morning, we went off to Glyphada or Vouliagmeni to swim and then to come out and sit in the sun and drink retsina under the pine trees. The colour and salinity of the sea, the piny fragrance of the shadows and the piny tang of the wine, the clearness of the wine and of the white-wine-coloured sea-water, the salty warmth of the skin and of the blood, the warmth of the sun and of the sand all seemed interfused, as if the elements of earth, air, fire, and water were one element, in which life was immortal. As often in those parts, a sensuous experience of a certain complexity seemed also a spiritual or at least a suprasensory experience.

 

A Casual Encounter

 

(in memory of Cavafy, 1863-1933) - an excerpt

 

They met, as most these days do,

among streets, not under leaves; at night;

by what is called chance, some think

predestined; in a capital city, latish;

instantly understanding, without words,

without furtiveness, without guilt,

each had been, without calculation, singled out.

 

Wherever it was they had met,

without introduction, before drifting this way,

beneath lamps hung high, casting

cones of radiance, hazed with pale dust,

a dry pollenous mist that made

each warm surface seem suede, the sense of touch

sang like a harp; the two were alone.

 

To be in private in public added oddness,

out of doors in a city with millions

still awake, with the heard obbligato

of traffic, that resolute drone,

islanding both, their destination

the shadow they stood in. The place

should perhaps be defined.

 

But need it? Cliff walls of warehouses;

no thoroughfare; at the end a hurrying 

river, dragonish; steel gates locked;

emptiness. Whatever they said

was said gently, was not written down,

not recorded. Neither had need 

even to know the other one’s name.

 

 

 

[1] I first became aware of Plomer in 2007, thanks to Prof. David Ricks's legendary module 'Cavafy: Reader and Read' in the then MA Modern Greek syllabus, sadly now discontinued (like so many British humanities courses), at King's College London. 

[2] William Plomer, Selected Poems (ed. Neilson MacKay) [Stroud, Little Island Press 2016]. There is a good review of this selection by David Collard in the TLS no.5948 (31 March 2017): https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/benign-muscular-owl-william-plomer-poetry/

[3] William Plomer, The Autobiography [London, Jonathan Cape 1975]. Chapter 26 ‘Moderately Grand Tour’ describes the trip to Italy and Greece.

[4] Details of Plomer’s life can be found in the fine and sympathetic biography: Peter F. Alexander, William Plomer: A Biography [Oxford, Oxford University Press 1989]

[5] Δημήτριος Καπετανάκης, Έργα: πρώτος τόμος - τα δημοσιευμένα 1933-1944 (επιμελ. Εμμανουέλα Κάντζια) [ΑθήναΕΚΕΠ & ΜΙΕΤ 2020]

[6] There are (censorious) references to Plomer’s presence in Greece in David Roessel’s admirable In Byron’s Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002). Specific articles looking at Plomer’s Greek work include Konstantina Georganta, ‘“And so to Athens”: William Plomer in “The Land of Love”’, Journal of Modern Greek Studies 28 (2010): 49–71 and Dimitris Papanikolaou, ‘Between Philhellenism and Greek Eros: Reading Christopher Isherwood’s and William Plomer’s “Greece”’, in Evangelos Konstantinou (ed.), Das Bild Griechenlands im Spiegel der Völker [Frankfurt, Peter Lang 2008]: 421-432.

[7] William Plomer, The Child of Queen Victoria and Other Stories [London, Jonathan Cape 1933]. All except ‘Folk Tale’ were reprinted several years later in William Plomer, Four Countries [London, Jonathan Cape 1949]. 

[8] William Plomer, Ali the Lion [London, Jonathan Cape 1936].

[9] William Plomer, The Fivefold Screen [London, Hogarth Press 1932]; Collected Poems [London, Jonathan Cape 1973].

Sunday, 7 February 2021

Travellers in Greece – An Occasional Series 1. Charmian Clift & Patience Gray

The post-war years witnessed the publication of many books in English by travellers in Greece. Many were written by former servicemen and diplomats who had served in Greece prior to or during the Nazi Occupation, or arrived with the Papandreou government-in-exile. One thinks of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Rex Leeper, Rex Warner, Xan Fielding, Osbert Lancaster, W. Stanley Moss. Other writers, such as Lawrence Durrell, Robert Liddell, Dilys Powell, had fallen in love with Greek life in the years preceding the war and would return after it. Another group came to Greece during the Civil War, responding in very different ways to the fragile, fraught environment: Kevin Andrews and Philip Sherrard are good examples of this.  

Charmian Clift
Charmian Clift

While not all of these travellers are well known now (and I will consider some of the lesser-known examples later on in this occasional series), male names predominate. But I want to start by looking at two female post-war travellers in Greece. Women travel-writers have tended to be unjustly neglected and, with the exception of Villa Ariadne and An Affair of the Heart by Dilys Powell, are largely out of print. But the early women travellers of the post-war years brought, I believe, special insights into aspects of Greek life that seemed of less interest to male writers, and may, incidentally perhaps, have anticipated the more anthropologically minded studies undertaken in subsequent years by writers such as Juliet du Boulay, Renée Hirschon, Sofka Zinovieff. Their prose often dazzles, capturing the sharp edge of Greek sunlight across the country’s harsh landscapes. And their openness and receptiveness to the country’s inhabitants suggests, at least in part, a genuine process of influence, learning and personal transformation.

In this blog my subjects are an Australian and a Briton. The Australian writer Charmian Clift (1923-1969) arrived in Greece from London in 1954, alongside her husband, the journalist and author George Johnston, and their two children. At first, they spent a year on Kalymnos in the Dodecanese before moving to Hydra, where they settled and bought a house. Clift’s slightly older contemporary, the British food writer and journalist Patience Gray (1917-2005), travelled to Greece in 1963, accompanying her partner, the Flemish sculptor Norman Mommens, to a remote area of Naxos in the Cyclades, where they spent the best part of a year. Both Gray and Clift have left us memoirs in the form of travel books accounting for their time on the islands, together with associated books in other genres.

 

Charmian Clift published two autobiographical accounts of her time in Greece: Mermaid Singing (Michael Joseph, 1956) deals with Kalymnos, while Peel Me a Lotus (Hutchinson, 1959) covers the opening years on Hydra. Both books are out of print, though Muswell Press will shortly reissue them with fine introductions by Polly Samson. The time Clift and Johnston spent on Hydra has been well covered recently in both academic and fictional writing, and my recent conversation with Polly Samson for The Anglo-Hellenic League is available on the League’s YouTube channel.[1] Clift and Johnston went to Greece for a project about the sponge-divers of Kalymnos; the project had collapsed before they set foot on the island, but they continued any way, glad of the opportunity to escape the drabness and frustrations of post-war London. While on Kalymnos, Clift collaborated with Johnston in the writing of a novel also set there, The Sponge Divers (Collins, 1955).  

 

Patience Gray

Patience Gray published two books from her time on Naxos, both of them appearing in print twenty years after the visit. Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, the Cyclades and Apulia (Prospect, 1986) is one of the most famous and admired cookery books of the last half century or so. Alongside the fabulous recipes themselves, Gray writes beautifully about environment, diet and customs in the Mediterranean areas where she had lived and learned: 

 

In Apollona we were living among the vestiges of Neolithic and bronze age life; the wild almond, wild fig, wild olive and the vine which all came, if sporadically, into cultivation seven or eight thousand years ago, these staples along with wheat, rye and barley were staples still, as were the original sources of sweetness, honey, the carouba tree, wild pears, grapes, mulberry, figs. It was not hard to imagine that the same nimble flocks of long-tailed sheep and little black goats had been treading the mountain for many thousands of years, or that the acorns of ilex and dwarf kermes oaks had always been munched by little grey-skinned pigs.

 

Gray’s autobiographical memoir, Ringdoves and Snakes (Macmillan, 1988), came out two years later and, unlike the cookbook, focuses exclusively on the year spent at Apollona on Naxos. She had struggled over two decades to find a publisher for it and it was never widely read or migrated into paperback; it is now out of print and hard to find. Gray and her partner Mommens went to Naxos primarily for the famous Naxiot marble: Mommens was hoping to sculpt enough pieces for an exhibition of his work. But like Clift, Gray was also looking for a simpler, more basic form of life, free from the pressures of her London-based journalism.

 

Elements of Gray’s and Clift’s stories overlap. Both travelled to Greece primarily because of their partners’ careers, and, on Naxos and Kalymnos, each found herself on a remote island, little touched by the tourism that was still in its infancy in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. Neither knew Greek. Both lived in very poor communities, experiencing a depth of poverty with which neither was familiar, since each came from a privileged background. Their stories are, therefore, in part stories of adaptation to traditional, subsistence-based lifestyles. Clift, perhaps because of the children, made the easier and more profound adaptation, and in her writing one gets the sense of a woman who has penetrated something of the reality of life in a highly patriarchal and, for women at least, restricted community. Because of their status as western women both Gray and Clift managed, however, to move between the male and female worlds, giving them a unique perspective. 

 

Both women learned and intuited a great deal about the communities around them and the books offer fascinating records of a now largely vanished way of life. Clift writes movingly about the often stunted lives of the sponge divers, many of whom sustained crippling injuries from their business. She is highly perceptive and perhaps surprisingly sympathetic when describing traditional patterns of Orthodox religion (e.g. baptisms and weddings) and the roles played by women in patriarchal family life. There is a gentle but insistent and necessary feminism present in her analyses. Gray is most interested in diet, in the careful husbandry of the land (both through gleaning of wild herbs and through subsistence farming), and in the grinding and clearly very challenging food poverty (particularly, of course, in winter) on a remote island. Like Clift, Gray captures something of the lives of the men and women around her, despite language difficulties, but clearly feels markedly different and apart from the women. The somewhat melodramatic events described in the closing chapters of the book suggest the limits of understanding between Gray and Mommens, on the one hand, and the community of Apollona, on the other.


Apollona, Naxos

 

Both Clift and Gray were highly talented journalists and writers. Although they responded with different, I think, levels of empathy and understanding to traditional island life, they each responded brilliantly and sensitively to the beauty of the landscapes and seascapes around them. You get a palpable sense of the mixed blessings of life on impoverished but jewel-like islands before the arrival of electricity, the water main and the conveniences of mass tourism. Their books are hard to find; they are worth tracking down.[2] I leave you with a strong recommendation and a wonderful example of the writing of each:

 

Those days, strung like equal and iridescent pearls which never knew a single cloud, challenge credulity, withdraw like myths. In the dusty gold of summer, we sat outside as the sun rose and saw the day, every day, tune up its brilliance. We watched the sun flooding the bay, quicksilver drowning in marbled foam. We saw the sea swirling, the earth dust and the rocks burning. Mad waves, speeding towards the shore, each one declaring its unique liveliness in idiosyncratic flashes, like silver pennants recklessly waving in a watery cavalcade, rode past the door to break against the rocks on the farther shore. And every afternoon we saw the bay wash gold cast on the waves by the sunstruck mountain.

                                                                               Patience Gray, Ringdoves and Snakes p.99

 

Chorio, like Pothia, is mostly blue, with a few houses painted yellow ochre, a few white. The touches on window-shutters and doors of pink and lime and cinnamon and grey are nothing short of miraculous. The blues range from the merest brightening of stark white, like a blue-rinsed sheet, to a thick, rich ultramarine. The variations on this one colour seem to be infinite, and combined with the subtle differences of wall textures, shapes, levels and the weathering effect of the sun, the blue sometimes produces fantastic optical illusions, particularly as the streets as well as the houses are covered with a thick coating of paint. Stairs melt into walls, corners curve, pavements swell into domed ovens. Sometimes there is no line of demarcation between house and sky, and walls soar up and thin out into pure atmosphere or the sky sweeps down to your feet…

                                                                                     Charmian Clift, Mermaid Singing, p.131


Pothia, Kalymnos

 

John

7 February 2021

 

[1] The most recent academic study of the creative ‘colony’ on Hydra is Paul Genoni & Tanya Dalziell, Half The Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955-1964 (Monash UP, 2018). See also the novels by Tamar Hodes, The Water and the Wine (Hookline, 2018) and Polly Samson, A Theatre for Dreamers (Bloomsbury, 2020).

 

[2] For more information about these writers, see the excellent biographies by Adam Federman, Fasting and Feasting: The Life of Visionary Food Writer Patience Gray (Chelsea Green, 2017) and Nadia Wheatley, The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift (Harper Collins, 2001).

 

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Η επέτειος των 200 χρόνων - παρά την πανδημία


Περνάνε γρήγορα οι μήνες. Σαν να μην ξεχωρίζει η μία μέρα από την άλλη. Οι κυβερνητικοί περιορισμοί καθώς και ο φόβος του κορωνοϊού μάς κρατάνε σπίτι, σε απομόνωση και μοναξιά. Είναι δύσκολο κανείς να θυμάται πως αυτή είναι μια εορταστική χρονιά. Αλλά πραγματικά είναι! Η επέτειος των 200 χρόνων από την Ελληνική Επανάσταση του 1821. Όπως κι πολλοί άλλοι, περιμένω κι εγώ αυτή την επέτειο εδώ και πολλούς μήνες, αν όχι πολλά χρόνια. Μέχρι τώρα βλέπουμε μόνο την ακύρωση και την αναβολή των εκδηλώσεων. Αλλά καθώς περνάνε οι εβδομάδες, το αυξανόμενο ποσοστό εμβολιασμού θα προστατεύει τους πληθυσμούς μας. Θα είμαστε ελεύθεροι και πάλι! Και όντως θα γιορτάσουμε. 

Έχει σημασία ακόμη η Ελληνική Επανάσταση; Έχει σημασία σε οποιονδήποτε δεν είναι Έλληνας; Πιστεύω ναι. Βέβαια η επανάσταση ήταν αιματηρό ζήτημα. Έφερε εμφύλιο πόλεμο στην Ελλάδα και, μερικές στιγμές, κόντεψε να αποτύχει. Αλλά χαρακτηρίστηκε από τον τεράστιο ατομικό και συλλογικό ηρωϊσμό και την αποφασιστικότητα των μαχητών, από τη στρατηγική φιλοδοξία και την τακτική τόλμη των συμμετόχων. Το παράδειγμα ενός λαού που ήθελε να απελευθερωθεί και απέκτησε την ελευθερία με μεγάλο κόστος δεν μπορεί παρά να εμπνέει. Είμαι επιπλέον περήφανος για τον ρόλο που έπαιξε κι η πατρίδα μου στον ελληνικό απελευθερωτικό αγώνα: όχι μόνο ο Βύρωνας και οι άλλοι φιλέλληνες, π.χ. ο Τζωρτζ, ο Κόδριγκτον, ο Άστιγξ, ο Τρελώνυ, ο Φίνλεϊ, ο Γόρδων, αλλά και οι σπουδαίοι πολιτικοί, π.χ. ο Κάνινγκ, ακόμη και ο Ουέλινγκτον, καθώς και οι υποστηρικτές στην Φιλελληνική Επιτροπή του Λονδίνου, και οι χρηματοοικονομικοί οίκοι του Σίτυ οι οποίοι παρείχαν το κεφάλαιο για τον αγώνα.

 

Και τελικά η Ελληνική Επανάσταση δεν ήταν σημαντική μόνο για τους Έλληνες. Όπως φοβούνταν και οι αντίπαλοί της, προανήγγειλε και ενθάρρυνε την αρχή του τέλους των πολυεθνικών, εξαναγκαστικών και αυταρχικών αυτοκρατοριών και τον ερχομό του έθνους-κράτους, υποκείμενου στην δημοκρατική συναίνεση και το κράτος δικαίου. Αυτό που ξεκίνησε στην Ελλάδα απλώθηκε στα Βαλκάνια και πιο μακριά.

 

Με τις πρόσφατες δημοσιονομικές και πολιτικές κρίσεις, οι Έλληνες κάνουν δύσκολες ερωτήσεις για το κράτος τους. Σε μια δημοκρατία οι πολίτες έχουν πάντα δίκιο να θέτουν δύσκολες ερωτήσεις στον εαυτό τους και τους θεσμούς τους. Η άσκηση της ελευθερίας δεν μπορεί να γίνεται ελαφρώς, ούτε η επιτυχία των δημοκρατιών μας να θεωρείται δεδομένη. Αλλά στο μυαλό μου τουλάχιστο, δεν υπάρχει καμία αμφιβολία ότι το ελληνικό κράτος είναι θεμελιωδώς πετυχημένο: κάτι πιο μεγάλο από αυτό που προηγήθηκε. Με την ανεξαρτησία της η Ελλάδα προχώρησε, στο χρονικό διάστημα που ακολούθησε, στην εγκαθίδρυση μιας πολιτείας που βασίστηκε στο κράτος δικαίου με καθολική ψηφοφορία και σύγχρονους θεσμούς. Η Ελλάδα ευθυγραμμίστηκε με τη Δύση και με τα συμφέροντα των φιλελεύθερων κοινοβουλευτικών δημοκρατιών. Άνθρωποι σαν τον Τρικούπη προσέβλεπαν στο παράδειγμα των δυτικών εκβιομηχανισμένων οικονομιών. Ακολούθησε κι η οικονομική εξέλιξη, όσο κι αν αργά και άνισα. Η ελευθερία του τύπου και του συνεταιρίζεσθαι απελευθέρωσε την ελληνική δημιουργικότητα: την λογοτεχνία και τις τέχνες, τη δημοσιογραφία, και την προαγωγή των πνευματικών ιδεών. Μέσα στην οθωμανική αυτοκρατορία η Ελλάδα ήταν απλώς μια πολύ φτωχή, κατεσταλμένη και παραμελημένη επαρχία. Ο επιτυχής αγώνας της ελληνικής ελευθερίας μεταμόρφωσε τις ευκαιρίες του ελληνικού λαού. 

 

Αγαπάω την Ελλάδα και τον ελληνικό λαό από έφηβος. Η πανδημία αποτελεί μια ενοχλητική παραζάλη – έστω κι αν φέρνει την τραγωδία σε πάρα πολλές οικογένειες. Αλλά είμαι αποφασισμένος να τιμήσουμε, στο Ηνωμένο Βασίλειο ως και στην Ελλάδα, αυτό που έκαναν πράξη οι Έλληνες αγωνιστές και να γιορτάσουμε την καταπληκτική χώρα που ίδρυσαν. Τα τιμητικά μας σχέδια θα πρέπει να είναι ευέλικτα. Αλλά θα πετύχουμε! Ο Αγγλοελληνικός Σύνδεσμος, στον οποίο προεδρεύω, θα φιλοξενήσει το Βραβείο Ράνσιμαν 2021 ως την κεντρική του εκδήλωση για την επέτειο στις (ας ελπίσουμε!) 17 Ιουνίου. Μερικοί θεσμοί συνεργάζονται, ώστε να παρουσιάσουν ένα πρόγραμμα εκδηλώσεων (βλ. https://21in21.co.uk). Ελπίζω κι εγώ να βρεθώ στην Ελλάδα στο δεύτερο μισό της χρονιάς: θα παρευρεθώ και θα μιλήσω σε εκδηλώσεις στην Αθήνα. Ανυπομονώ! Έχουμε πολλά να γιορτάσουμε μαζί.

 

Ζήτω η Ελλάς! Ζήτω η λευτεριά των Ελλήνων! Ζήτω η αγγλοελληνική συνεργασία!

 

Τζων

21 Γενάρη 2021

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Erasmus, Turing and the Mutilation of a European Ideal

That nothing compares to living in a country and being surrounded by the language day in, day out, is evident after a year abroad; my German came on better in my 5 months in Germany than at any point in the decade I’ve been learning it in the UK.[1]

 

The news that the UK is pulling out of the European Erasmus+ programme for education, training, youth and sport was the final gloomy burden loaded on 2020’s packhorse of pain. Many noted but few were surprised that the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had broken his promise not to risk the UK’s post-Brexit participation in Erasmus+. Just one more act of bad faith by a man whose career was founded on telling shameless lies about Europe and misleading British public opinion. 

 

A few days after the news filtered out, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, issued an oddly-timed press notice about the Turing Programme, which the Government had indicated would replace Erasmus+ across the UK.[2] The blustering lack of detail in the announcement, together with the absence of any signs of consultation with the devolved administrations in Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh, reflects, of course, the now well-known modus operandi of the Johnson Government and, particularly, his hapless Education Secretary. The Minister’s optimistic suggestion that ‘we have designed a truly international scheme’ scarcely masked the makeshift, impromptu quality of what he revealed. Observers have good reason to doubt not only the credibility of what little Williamson has announced, but also the long-term orientation of the Turing Programme.

 

In 1998-9, I was the UK’s education attaché in our then Permanent Representation to the European Union in Brussels and a member of the team that negotiated the renewal of the package of education, training and youth programmes that have in more recent years been called Erasmus+. In the first half of 1998, the UK had used its Presidency of the Council of Ministers to encourage debate about the future direction of the programme; the Commission’s proposal to the Council and the European Parliament emerged later that year. In line with the UK’s cross-party utilitarian consensus about the purpose of education and training, the UK had pushed for the new programmes to promote participants’ ‘employability’. The idea was that the education and youth programmes, like the vocational training programme, should be geared primarily to the needs of employers in the labour market. In subsequent years, a modification of this notion became part of the EU consensus, but it was very controversial at the time and still, in my view, should be. The negotiations in Council were lively enough, but the big battle was not between the fifteen governments, but between the Council and the European Parliament, which, encouraged by the Commission, wanted a very large increase in the overall budget. 

 

In the negotiation, my instructions came formally from the then Department for Education and Employment in London, but the reality was that instructions and tactical advice on the budget emanated solely from the Treasury. As the Council haggled with the Parliament in the Conciliation Committee, I was in constant touch with the Treasury desk officer, who was (very effectively) orchestrating support for a tough line among like-minded finance ministries in the capitals of net-contributing member states. In the event, a compromise was reached, though the increase in the budget was not on the scale envisaged by the Parliament’s rapporteurs.

 

The pre-Christmas announcement that we are leaving the Erasmus+ programme has the fingerprints of the Treasury all over it. Indeed, neither the UK nor the EU negotiators in the trade talks disguised the reason for the failure to extend UK participation in the scheme: the UK is simply unwilling to pay its proportionate share of the (rising) programme costs. No doubt, the Treasury would also have been worried about the UK’s lack of control over future management of the budget: associated non-EU members of the programme have observer status only (i.e. without voting rights) on the programme committees.  

 

Shorn of the need to concert even with likeminded finance ministries, the Treasury will have the upper hand over the scale and design of the new Turing Programme. Williamson’s announcement that the new programme will ‘deliver real value for money’ and will ‘benefit both our students and our employers’ is a heady sign of things to come. This programme will be shaped by Williamson’s extremist notion that the sole purpose of education is access to the labour market, and made subject to Treasury tightfistedness and doctrine.[3] We might rejoice at least that this is to be called the Turing Programme, rather than the Dyson Programme or the Tim Martin Scheme; but the philosophy and cost priorities are clear.

 

It’s also worth noting that the figures released don’t obviously add up. 

 

The Government’s announcement says that the Turing programme will be ‘backed by over £100 million, providing funding for around 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021.’ There are three doubtful things about this. First, what does ‘backed by’ mean? Is this a commitment to public expenditure or a hint about some future co-funding arrangement? Secondly, what time period does this funding relate to? This isn’t a clear commitment to spend £100 million a year, or indeed over any specific time period. Thirdly, where does the figure of 35,000 students come from?  In 2018/19, the UK exported 18,305 students and trainees to the rest of the EU under Erasmus+ and it imported 30,501 from the EU27 (48,806 ‘mobilities’ in total). The cost of this part of the programme was €145m (roughly £130m).[4] An annual budget of £100m for 35,000 students and trainees would not, therefore, be evidently out of kilter with the historical costs of Erasmus+. But note that the UK’s Turing scheme will fund only the export of UK students and trainees; it will not pay for incoming students from the EU or anywhere else. Since the global partnerships for the Turing scheme are not yet in place (and will be difficult to set up outside the established programme structures of Erasmus+) and the Department hasn’t released overall programme documents, let alone detailed application documents, it seems beyond optimism to imagine that the UK can double the number of annual participating students and trainees in the academic year beginning September 2021. Either the Government is overpromising and being unrealistic, or something undisclosed is hiding behind its announced figures and we are being misled.

 

The unilateral nature of the scheme proposed by the British Government gives additional cause for scepticism. At the heart of Erasmus+ are relationships and partnerships between the participating universities and between other participating organisations across the European Union. Under Erasmus+, European universities – to cite the best-known type of participating organisation – import and export students through a single budgetary framework and a common set of rules. UK universities will have to work harder, and cope with potentially competing bureaucratic requirements, if they are not only to export students under the Turing Programme, but also to continue to attract EU students under Erasmus+. The risk is that universities will be pulled in contrary directions and find it hard to sustain and build partnerships that work. The design and scope of a new national agency is important. It would be hard to get this right even at a normal time, let alone in the middle of an unabating pandemic.

 

The lamentable decision to pull out of Erasmus+ is only partly palliated by the promise (still vague and uncertain) about the new Turing Programme. Setting up something new and effective will take time and money. There is a real risk that UK universities – already reputationally damaged by Brexit and now facing the Government’s punitive immigration regime for EU students – will cease to attract Erasmus students. Since 2016, numbers are already substantially down and the UK has lost (to Spain) its position as the most popular country for Erasmus students.[5] The impact, direct and indirect, on UK universities and their local economies could be substantial.[6] But the narrowing of the British mind, if the Turing Programme does not prove a worthy successor and incoming Erasmus students dry up, would be a graver impact still.

 

John Kittmer

3 January 2021

 

 

[1] Statement to me by a recent Erasmus student.

 

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-turing-scheme-to-support-thousands-of-students-to-study-and-work-abroad

 

[3] Williamson is on record as saying, ‘We must never forget that the purpose of education is to give people the skills they need to get a good and meaningful job.’ https://www.indy100.com/news/gavin-williamson-education-secretary-university-tory-9612016

 

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/assets/eac/factsheets/factsheet-uk-2019_en.html

 

[5] https://www.euractiv.com/section/economy-jobs/news/uk-no-longer-top-erasmus-destination-for-students/

 

[6] Witnesses to a recent House of Lords enquiry about the future of UK participation in Erasmus+ argued that non-UK students ‘created a “global, outward-looking culture on campus”’, and ‘brought a “tangible economic benefit” to the UK through money spent on their courses and in the local economy of their place of study’. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201719/ldselect/ldeucom/283/28305.htm

Saturday, 24 October 2020

All Be Safely Gathered In

We celebrated harvest festival at my parish church in Tooting last week. We were doing it a fortnight later than might have been expected (harvest is usually celebrated on the Sunday closest to the Harvest Moon, which was on 1 October this year) and we are an urban parish, but whether we live close to the land or are confined to the cities it’s important we remember where our food comes from, to be grateful for the farming community and to give thanks for ‘harvest-home’.

 

I was brought up in the rural East Riding of Yorkshire. In those days, the farms still came down into the villages themselves and the farmers’ houses were surrounded by barns, haystacks, agricultural machinery. Because of its arable crops, the East Riding is known also for its husbandry of pigs. Until new housing started to push the farms out of our village itself, we lived close to pigs. Fifty yards or so away. Over the farm wall. (They’re intelligent creatures.) The sights, sounds and, sometimes, smells of farming life were all around us. 

 

Inevitably we celebrated harvest-home every year. Every year at the appointed time, the churches would fill with farm produce, much specially baked for the occasion. And the farmers would be dragged by their wives into church: maybe the only time in the year that they came. My twin brother and I used to sing in the choir. We had a great organist and the rector would train the treble and soprano voices himself after school, pulling out of his cassock an old descant recorder to find the pitch and, when necessary, melody for us. The size of the children’s part of the choir varied: we were usually around eight to ten voices. The adults were good: one of the farmers’ wives had the most beautiful and trained soprano voice. We had tenor, bass and alto singers too. So, though a small rural parish, we could easily do part-singing. At harvest and other important festivals, we would belt out – with gusto and some skill – Stanford’s great setting of Psalm 150: O praise God in his holiness, praise Him in the firmament of his power. 

 

But we were also loaned out. I remember the excitement of travelling in the inky black and autumnal chill of the night to sing at evensong harvest festivals in the churches of Skipsea, closer to the coast than we lived, and Sigglesthorne. At Skipsea the harvest suppers were particularly memorable and lavish. I must have been nine or ten at the time but I remember them well. We could certainly sing to match the occasion and the farming communities were kind to us for our efforts. The food was great. 

 

It feels a long time ago now and my life has become very urban. But like most who can trace their generations back through parish registers and census records in England, I know that my ancestors once worked the land for their living, as labourers and small-scale tenant farmers: in Norfolk and, by the mid-nineteenth century, Lincolnshire. Several were non-conformist preachers too. My great-great grandfather, Benjamin, was a tenant farmer in Fulstow, Lincolnshire and a mechanical engineer, manufacturing and selling corn-dressers in his home county and in Yorkshire (corn-dressers separated wheat from chaff). He died in 1888 and his interest in the farm was sold, along with all the farm equipment. He was, I’m sure, the last of my branch of the Kittmer family to farm the land, though my great-grandfather was in business as a butcher. Twelve years ago, I found myself – perhaps surprisingly – running the exotic animal disease unit at DEFRA. It was fun, as part of my duties, to visit farms and talk to farmers, about bluetongue controls and other such measures. An all too brief reconnection with my childhood in the East Riding and with my ancestors’ farming history.

 

Harvest-home, then, is always a thoughtful and necessary time for me, even in the city. Last Sunday, we weren’t, of course, able to sing the great Victorian hymns of harvest thanksgiving: We plough the fields and scatter and Come ye thankful people come. The pandemic has put paid to all congregational singing – for the time being at least. But the words still echoed in my mind, easily recalled from childhood: Come thou Church triumphant come / Raise the song of harvest-home / All be safely gathered in, / Free from sorrow, free from sin, / There forever purified / In God’s garner to abide / Come ten thousand angels come / Raise the glorious harvest-home.

Amen to that.

 

John

24 October 2020


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