He was a member of a charmed circle of Hellene and Philhellene intellectuals just before and after World War II, experiencing modern Greece and seeing it as a place rich in beauty and a stimulus to artistic creation. Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose biography by Artemis Cooper I just put away almost in tears—like a magical night with a girl of one’s dreams, I didn’t want it to end, but end it did—was a second Byron in Greek eyes. I found the book unputdownable, as they say in Boise, Idaho, especially the rich descriptions of rambunctious jaunts in tavernas and places where I had spent my youth.
There is always a feeling of imminent loss where Greece is concerned, an anxiety of what is in store, and no one captured it better than the Nobel Prize winner George Seferis—a close friend of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s—when he wrote:
And yet we knew that by the following dawn
nothing would be left to us, neither the woman drinking sleep at our side
nor the memory that we were once men.
This mood of apprehension, foreboding, and fear of oblivion is very, very Greek. Every invented paradise soon turns into hell, starting with Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. After all, we Greeks invented the “T” word.
The second Greek poet to win the Nobel Prize was Odysseus Elytis, ten years or so after George Seferis. Elytis’s brother was the non-playing captain of the Greek Davis Cup team, and he and I didn’t exactly get along. His name was Alepoudelis—“little fox” in Greek, Elytis being a pseudonym, and he was always trying to buy a used car from me for peanuts. I loathed that petty little man who had not named me in the singles against Spain back in 1964 because I had gone out all night with a queer bullfighter and his entourage. (I was hoping to meet Ava Gardner, a friend of the gay caballero.) Yet when I asked the little fox for an intro to the Nobel Prize winner for literature, he uncharacteristically gave me a glowing one. I met Elytis in Kolonaki, the chic residential section of Athens where we both lived.
At Café Byzantium, the first question I posed was the usual boring and unimaginative question that hacks ask of those whose work they know little about: “What does winning the Nobel mean to you?”
“I’m getting more pussy,” came his answer. I thought it so great I grabbed his hand and kissed it. (The one-sentence interview appeared in a Greek newspaper with glowing letters to the editor following.) We then proceeded to drink ouzo and chat up the girls.
But back to Paddy and his circle of friends. The leading players were the painter Niko Ghika, George Seferis (the “Colossus of Maroussi,” as Henry Miller immortalized him), George Katsimbalis, and our hero Paddy. I only met Ghika and Paddy once—in 1978 or ’79—under unfortunate circumstances. Ghika is Jacob Rothschild’s father-in-law, and his paintings throughout his life have been fresh and clean and pure and naked of all pretense. I was lying at anchor in Corfu on Gianni Agnelli’s boat when my host asked me to go up at the Rothschild villa and ask them down to lunch. Back then it was the only way to communicate, unless the Rothschilds understood Morse code.
I went and ran into a strict nanny-like woman sunning herself on the terrace, asked her if Jacob Rothschild was there and was told he was out, so I left a message that the Agnellis were expecting them for lunch in the bay below. The nanny was not best pleased. In fact she was downright rude, but I don’t do rude from foreigners in my own country, so perhaps I was a tiny bit rude also. (“Listen you old hag, just give them the bloody message.”) Then the Ghikas and the Rothschilds arrived, me never having met any of them before. And they looked rather peeved. The nanny turned out to be Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who had stayed behind.
The atmosphere did not improve after Agnelli asked me to do the introductions—a strange request, as I had not met Paddy or Ghika before. I got them right, of course, but then introduced Jacob’s wife as his mother and his mother as his wife. Had it not been for Paddy’s brilliance (he recited poems and sang and told nonstop stories), the lunch would have been a disaster. Afterwards the Rothschild woman went to the Spectator’s editor, called me scum, and asked that he fire me. She did not get her wish, as well she should not have, because it was a totally honest mistake on my part. Both women were rather plain, and I didn’t know them from Adam, so there.
I started this column with the intention of explaining Paddy’s Greece and why he loved my country so. I got sidestepped with trivia, although Nat Rothschild still laughs at my Corfu story. As publisher John Murray wrote on the dust jacket, “No one wore their learning so playfully,” which in today’s ghastly world of untalented people who hold themselves in high esteem is such a welcome relief from the pompous and self-important. Greece is olive groves and hills covered in pine and myrtle, thorns and cypress trees standing at attention before gray-green mountains that turn yellowish as the sun sets. Henry Miller waxed lyrically on the Greek light. He maintained that the Greek “lived amidst brutal clarities which tormented and maddened the spirit…urging him to war.”
No longer. The EU suits have turned the Greek into an effete, cowardly nonentity who plays along. Achilles is now Antonis, as in Samaras, the prime minister who has sold out the country. While 400 years of Turkish occupation did not snuff out the flame of Greek passion, the Brussels scum have. Goodbye Hellas, hello Belgium.
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