‘Greece: In admiration of Corfu’s picturesque past’

Apr 13, 2021
Could this have been the Greek kafeneio that Durrell visited? Source: Getty Images

It is strange how things that really matter seem to be always there, just below the surface of our consciousness. As a very good example, I once took a hike from inner-Sydney’s Annandale through the adjoining suburb of Glebe — towards the CBD, I suppose. But that’s not important. What was so surprising that afternoon was in crossing Johnston’s Creek, the waterway that divides those two suburbs and on whose bank was an old-time sawmill.

There’s nothing surprising about seeing sawmills in that part of Sydney, for it seems that in the days when Sydney was a ‘working port’, Rozelle Bay, into which Johnston’s Creek flows (dribbles might be better) seems to have been allocated the task of receiving and distributing bulk supplies of timber, sometimes from as far away as Canada.

But on that day, a strong smell of something hit me right between the eyes. I don’t know what wood they were then dressing, for I had walked past that particular timber yard at least a score of times, but immediately, I was carried back to a prefabricated public-school classroom at Chatswood. Whatever they were cutting, it was exactly the same timber from which my classmates and I, in 1955 or 1956, were making models of Australia’s fighting ships of the then very recent World War II. Although 40 or 50 years had elapsed since that childhood experience, it was as if I had actually returned to that classroom in real time, recovering every minute detail I had assumed was long forgotten.

I had a similar experience recently when ‘baching’ with one of my sons. He’s of a different generation and our enthusiasms are never quite in synch, but in the interests of not being a pig-headed relic, I decided to let him decide whatever DVDs we would watch. His decision was the Bourne trilogy, a three-movie series based on the books of the same name by the popular American writer Robert Ludlam.

I’d never seen them, I’d never read anything by Ludlam, but when you’re baching with your son, you have to be up for anything. Yet, I was surprised to find it quite enjoyable, with plenty of gadgetry and bullets and car chases but mercifully free of the petroleum-billowing explosions, which embellish every modern spy movie. I’d call it John LeCarre on speed, so different from the languid, louche, oily, ogling James Bond who dominated my adolescence.

The Bourne Identity actually held my interest for the entire two-hour storyline. But it was the postlude that knocked my socks off. Right at the end, an aerial shot of a barren headland with an alabaster-white temple on top, glided into view over the bluest possible sea, bluer even than a Brett Whitely cobalt, to reveal the picture-perfect harbour of Mykonos.

I’ve never been to Mykonos. I’ve never been to Santorini. Or anywhere else in the Aegean or Ionian seas. But, in my 77th year, if I have to put my finger on one nerve that still aches, it must be that I have never set foot on Greece. I asked my son to re-run the footage, demanding (silently) of Matt Damon, how come you’re on Mykonos and I’m not, when it means so much more to me? I tried to maintain an air of sang-froid with my enquiring son, as I explained: “I’ve never been to Greece. I’d always assumed that I would get there eventually — almost inevitably — but it just didn’t happen.”

“You never know what might happen yet,” he replied. They were words intended to console with the opiate called hope, I guess, but the emptiness of reality told me it could have been the sneer of the young for the ashen dreams of the old for all the good it would do me.

I had been obsessed with Greece since the 1960s. It wasn’t from watching Zorba the Greek that did it, because even then, I found Anthony Quinn too extravagant a persona for the role he was required to play. It was, instead, a book that did it, one of only three in my life that made such an indelible impression on me that I was prepared to risk the sack by reading it under the desk while at work.

The Magus, by John Fowles is probably the most riveting story I have ever read, but long after its details left me, the Greece, and particularly the Greek islands, he describes has become a symbol of enchantment and aspiration; but now a symbol of disappointment. (I wish there was some spirit-figure out there who gave you the timely tap on the shoulder, whispering, “Do it now” or Go there now — because there isn’t a moment to waste!”)

I’ve bought many books on Greece over the years — novels, histories, cookbooks and travellers’ tales — and seen much film footage, too (and eaten a lot of galaktoboureko), and they have all compensated. But when it came to indulging this last rite of passage — that of life’s great regrets — there was only one that deserved to be consulted: The Greek Islands, by Lawrence Durrell. He is forgotten now, but in his time he was the greatest Hellenophile since the poet Lord Byron. And, while Byron was there at the beginning, in the early days of the Greeks’ revolt against Ottoman rule, Durrell was there in Greece’s finest hour.

Durrell’s family were then living on Corfu, the large island on the north-western perimeter of Greece, an island with a history of 100 years of British overlordship in its past. Whether that had anything to do with what happened next, I do not know and Durrell does not tell. But in April 1941, when the anti-Hitler forces were at their lowest ebb (with both the Soviet Union and the United States clinging to an uneasy neutrality) the dark cloud of invasion hung over Greece.

One evening, Durrell went down to a quayside kafeneio, nursed his retsina and simply listened. And I’ve never, ever forgotten what he recounted: here were several dozen Greeks, everyday people, discussing earnestly among themselves whether their country should submit, expediently, to the overpowering force of the Nazis or stand and fight.

That in itself would be deserving of respect, but for the grounds upon which they based their decision. It was not whether they could withstand the imminent Axis invasion, which all knew they could not, but how any decision they took would be seen from the vantage point of classical Greece, the time of democracy’s birth. What Lawrence Durrell heard that night was a sense of history and a sense of principle. Spoken, universally, not by philosophers in an ivy-cloistered tower, but by noble people who just knew what was right, not what was in it for them.

And that’s why whenever I heard the occasional Aussie slagging off the Greeks a couple of years ago about their profligate, debt-crippled economy, I would always say: “Sure, that may be true but you weren’t there on Corfu in April 1941.”

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