EDWARD LEAR, SKOP’S OWLS AND EMPTY COFFERS

“I hate life,” wrote Edward Lear, “unless I am working, always.” With the sun burning across the wide, blue bay, it was impossible to hate life, walking up the steps of the elegant, British built Museum of Asian art in Corfu town. We had already had the low-down on some of Corfu’s grander visitors, like Stephen Spielberg, Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter and Kate Moss, so close to Albania and Italy, where the North East, with its smart homes and influx from London’s Notting Hill, is now dubbed Kensington on C. The main exhibition at the Museum, almost empty and also with a fine collection of chinese artefacts, was of Lear’s drawings and water colours, the way he really made his living and expressed himself beyond “The owl and the pussycat” and those famous children’s limericks. He travelled constantly through Europe in the 1850’s, still a feudal world, and left a prolific record of a long vanished time, except for the recurring permanence of the landscape and his own escape into nature. No great painter, Lear’s work has charm, colour and precision, though it suggests something of the loneliness and eccentricity of such an isolated figure. Not so isolated, the wealthy collector who spent his fortune on his chinese collection, then gifted it to the State, in return for the post of Curator and a small stipend to live on in his fading, Corfu years, a very nice place to fade away.

You wonder what he and Lear would have thought of the headline in a local English paper, warning that the Greek state coffers will run dry again on August 20th. So, after hearing the battles constantly relayed on Newsnight in London, now we hear directly of locals not being paid for months, of medicines running out in pharmacies and the general feeling of unease lingering under the surface. But on such a relatively rich island, where Lawrence and Gerald Durrell both found such inspiration, and on holiday, it’s very hard to feel connected to that. Instead there are the rolling mountains, straightened by noble cypress trees, the marvellous blue, green sea, the gigantic nights skies of brilliant, twinkling stars and a very particular sound, among the cock crowing or barking dogs. It is like some peaceful cuckoo, sounding steadily in the singing night. We saw one, standing in the middle of a country track and as the car got closer, its saucer eyes and squat body, with little hanging ears, took wing into a neighbouring tree. The Skop’s Owl is a regular on Corfu and I think the same kind of owl that modelled the mechanical messenger in the movie Clash of the Titans. Certainly a symbol of wisdom, like the fleet-footed Hermes, messenger of the Gods. The argument here about Papandreou’s thwarted attempt to take cut-backs to the Greek people was that at least it was democratic, and so might reconnect people with a sense of engagement and responsibility, even if such cuts had to be accepted. Well, now we will see where Greece can go, but hopefully something can be done that reflects the wisdom of the gods!

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