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Despite the new attempt at an Orwellian Ministry of Truth from the Washington Press Spokesman in this statement that crowds at the 45th US President’s inauguration were huge, but Media coverage doctored, and of what has been universally described as a low turnout, I’ve been a bit confused by the coverage too, on TV and especially Radio Four. With commentators, although mentioning minor riots in Washington, in fact talking about the razzamatazz, glamour, triumph and good support. Perhaps we should all have been invited to the parties, or they are trying to ride some wave.

To me the entire thing felt and looked like a funeral, subdued, fearful, ominous and Trump’s speech was sinister.  That super hotelier of a President, who does not read, clearly looked as if he needed a hug, and at times you were even tempted. But when he came out with that frightening garbage, I and I hope any of the civilised world, hung their heads in shame.  It lacked any breath of oratory or Statesmanship – from sea to sea, from ocean to Ocean (!), blah, – and was Messianic in its American bombast and virtually illiterate.  Protectionism, Isolationism, America First, wiping things from faces of the Earth, God leads us, We The People, or You, when he lost the popular vote. God, what a contrast to Obama’s superb and needed oratory, especially after George W.’s damage, so much a part of the rise of World Terrorism, with the arrival of a First Black President and his inspiring humility on his departure. Not that oratory is enough, but then, as Edith Clavell once said too, Patriotism is not enough either! Or not enough for the Planet now.

Trump is not only a Plutocrat with a dodgy history, but the First Americo-Russian Oligarch. Probably why he so seems to admire Putin. Or is that Putin’s grabbing of Pussy Riot? Perhaps that’s unfair, America was forged by big business men too, from Carnegie to Rockerfeller, as Putin’s power was secured with the rise of the Oligarchs, but you’d hope something might move on and it was Government’s job to hold their likes in check. His scornful comment about those people congratulating him who had once attacked him though is so totally to misunderstand what difficult but always preferable Democracy must deal with, and why others were at such pains to celebrate the peaceful transfer of power.  But now his arrogance and stupidity, not in the commercial sense, I’m sure he’s very savvy about how big business bullies, or he does, how his wife can get a commercial leg up, or how he goes serially bankrupt so he can make more money, as others loose out, and according to Channel Four advised by a lawyer to Crime Families , will try to take a chainsaw to complex checks and balances.  Rowe V Wade, the EPA, the PAA already negated, the end of abortion assistance in Developing countries, you name it.

Is it right to attack the corruption and swamp of Washington though, as if the only movie Donald ever watches is Mr Smith Goes to Washington?  He’s certainly no James Stewart or Frank Capra. Well actually I think elements are right, have experienced the corruption at the top,  yet the power of The Hill and US social divides is really about the problems of Super Capitalism and Wall Street, exactly what Trump is such an arch and tasteless exponent of, despite what he claims. Now in his cabinet he has several members of Goldman Sachs, that ‘Universal Spider’ so implicated in the Greek crisis. What is so wrong with a liberal elite anyhow, in comparison to a new hyper Conservative and Right wing elite of pure money and capital? Though it must be said that the Liberal Media seems to have just got it spectacularly wrong in the new series of Homeland, predicting that a Woman and Anti War President would now be in the Whitehouse.  Perhaps they are indeed deeply out of touch. As for movements, Hitler too really was a revolutionary, though at least he far Trumped Trump in being  a very eloquent demagogue. I am sorry though America, but for a Country that is rather great, the only Super Power, actually perhaps you deserve the Politicians or the Democracy you get.

So, The Paris Accord on Environmental initiatives and emissions is now a dead letter, because, er, it’s just not true, cos The Donald says so, any reference has been removed from the Government website, those guys are just making money out of it, Tump’s bottom line, and because we don’t want or can’t afford for it to be true! Um, it is true, 95% of scientists agree, while it is fatuously obvious that the little Earth is a finite resource, Rainforests are being decimated, species vanishing every second and the Ice caps going. Now admittedly, in the bewildering Extinction and Evolution of species, once upon a time the entire Earth was one great big snowball, but frankly that was 65 Million years ago and I don’t think the super survival of Donald Trump and family is the pinnacle of Human or Animal Evolution, or indeed taste.  Meanwhile Russia becomes more and more aggressive, but Trump denies that his own Secret Services are right in pointing to Russia’s attempt to influence the election, precisely because he is exactly of Putin’s dictatorial stamp and we will see far more of that. Already he has struck at Nato. His Office’s attacks on the Press are also symptomatic.  While here, We The Fractious People of once Great Britain, are now rushing as ever up America’s special arse, which included Tony Blair’s corrupt and also semi-messianic support of the war in Iraq, that caused so much extremism, because we are still obsessed with having once had an Empire, including America.  Can’t we see that now is exactly the time to turn back to a United Europe though, with the values that made or make us too, quite as much as anything American?

Britain always trailed its feet in Europe, could never take any lead and perhaps a tragedy is that was just a fact of life, De Gaulle never wanted us in, although many here wanted reform, especially with the terrible example of Greece.  In that sense Europe is as much to blame, though Brexit is surely greatly to blame for Donald Trump, even more  worrying with the growth of far Right parties, and if a leader emerged who could sound that clarion call, economic, political, but cultural too, including the needed culture or awareness of World Environmentalism, perhaps there might be a Geopolitical shift away from what is happening now. But where is that kind of leader made in Britain anymore?  Nowhere.  It certainly isn’t Jeremy Corbyn, who seems eternally confused. Well, there is an interesting moment with the Supreme Court ruling here that both houses of Parliament need to decide on the enacting of Article Fifty to take us out of Europe. Ironically of course a true lead probably needs to come from that most recently reviled of Empire builders, Germany.

Henry Kissinger was interesting in saying maybe Britain can play the most unique of roles in still uniting America and Europe, but there is nothing that suggests it will do so in the right way for the World, or for what still drives the most decent and admired of British values. That Little Englander Nigel Farage is also a Trump kind of guy, our Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson makes fatuous jokes about punishment beatings, which forget that not everyone had fun at Eton and why should Europe give Britain everything it wants, and Theresa May has potential, though is no Margaret Thatcher, if I’ not sure if that is a compliment. What is it intellectually though that any of them can truly stand up for in the arrival of Donald John Trump, or that inauguration speech? These are very nervous times, or interesting times, as the Chinese might say.  Just before Christmas one of the most famous Shorters of shares and markets, Bill Bonner, who predicted the fall of Communism, The Dot Com Crash, The Japan Crisis, and 2008, and has a very interesting track record, came out with an almost apocalyptic prediction about a crisis beginning in America, the like of which the World has never seen.  Because of trillions in US debt, and the absence of actual physical US currency, since up to 50% and higher is in Foreign hands, and the ability of global bankers and private individuals to take vast amounts suddenly out of the Markets, he talks of ATM Machines just stopping, fuel stations running out,  Social Security cheques ending.  He says he doesn’t want it to happen, but feels duty bound to warn people how to protect their friends and family.  It has a survivalist American stamp, and of course he is a natural shorter who benefits by calamity, while his warning preceded a suggestion we buy into his monthly newsletter at his Global company Agora, which has two million followers around the world. Most people can’t afford to play at that level anyway. But even the FT this weekend was talking ominously about Black Swan theory, of unseen things around the corner, of Neom Chomsky’s warning now about the biggest and most dangerous centralisation of power in the form of the American Military-Industrial Complex.  And of course America’s spending on the Military is massively higher than any Nation on Earth and about to go up, as The Don talks new Arms Races and First Strike capabilities.  It is also the greatest consumer of Energy on Earth.

Well, what can you say?  Donald Trump has certainly stuck to being Donald Trump. If in fact his words have always wobbled like any businessman. Perhaps he is planning Soviet Style Show Trials of the likes of Hilary Clinton. Does he have a vision for American regeneration though, the likes of which Roosevelt used to inspire and unite a Nation?  I doubt it very much.  Roosevelt’s National works programme, that helped to build access to the Grand Canyon, was rooted in a sense both of Nature and good works.  Meanwhile, as the machine hurtles on, and we are all caught up  and implicated in it, Government should always have acted to enforce new Research and Development initiatives into different energy capture technologies, storage, emissions targets and so on, by powerful companies, to make them responsible at every level.  We could do with such a Roosevelt style initiative of regeneration in Britain. In the meantime, as Bill Bonner might say, you have been warned!  Then everything about Trump was a warning and America still let him in. Go on, The Don, give the World some hope, don’t put up walls at everyone else’s expense.






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Albania – With a clear blue eye on the wounded ox, in the city of Nymphs…

“What Country, friend, is this?”
“This is Illyria, Lady.”
“And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
Perchance he is not drown’d: what think you, sailors?”

Twelfth Night – William Shakespeare

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“And Hoxha did good and bad, but built 700,000 bunkers across our country of Albania”. It was possibly the most astonishing and depressing fact too, in an astonishing but only sometimes depressing day. It deserved a bit of the Borat treatment as well, from that ‘Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’, as our coach snaked up the Albanian coast to the ancient citadel of Butrint. Leaving behind the six story hulk of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth Cruise liner, monstering it in the charmless port but more beautiful bay of Seranda. Which USA Today included this year as one of the top 10 undiscovered cruise destinations. We were making for a citadel anyone interested in history or civilisation simply cannot afford to miss though, especially at 56 Euros. But as our tour guide Davina, trained in the Albanian Capital of Tirana, spoke of the facts of her country and the place where ‘Our Dictator’ was born too, Enver Hoxha, in part of that all or nothing attempt at Tourism, you wondered if she might joke that if you didn’t like the food they’d be attaching electrodes to your privates or, if you did, selling you their younger sister. Hoxha’s 45 year rule may have brought rapid economic growth and improved literacy too, but it was notorious for the suppression of opposition, detainment camps and the use of the death penalty.

No such horror stories now, on an easy day out from Corfu, forty minutes on the hydrofoil. Although to me packaged coach tours (lunch included), are always depressingly ‘Communistic’ somehow. With the dodgy looking bloke in the white jacket overseeing us, that very human tendency to behave like sheep and the few Euros guided carefully from your pockets via the unnecessary early restaurant stop. In a town that is winning more tourists – the guide said 80,000 to Albania as a whole, although most to the riviera are Greek or Italian – but which is a skeletal facade of dreary half-built breeze block hotels and empty bars, that may well harm future tourism, and the faint sproutings of small ‘International’ businesses. Nearby Corfu’s charm is it’s living history, its style, it’s comparative complexity, while Sarande’s lack of it is its functional emptiness. Yet when you see how little there is around, you forgive the simple packaging, and enjoy the ride and views, especially with the glorious weather that October brought here, which forgives so much.

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So to dispense quickly with any depressing bits; Albania’s obvious poverty, especially compared to thriving and culturally rich Corfu, the romany shanti-towns on the reasonable roads, the lack of any skilled artisinal crafts to bring anyone real ‘Suvenir’ sales, over cheap plastic tourist tat, unlike all those crafts in Corfu’s old town, and the rubbish strewn not only on the verges but at supposedly natural oases too. Or the little girl begging at the coach, you see in London now too, and, at a harbour restaurant where all the moulded plastic chairs seemed to have broken their backs, the bruising looking guy in white socks who almost threatened to buy me a drink, to try and talk to me. “Where you from?” It might be no different in any struggling port, but I had just seen ‘Taken’ on TV. Then I felt guilty at the stereotyping of Albanians, so common across the water in Corfu, and on mainland Greece too, where something like a million emigrated after those iron ‘walls’ came down. In the old days the searchlights roamed the straights at Kalami and the small Albanian town beyond Seranda that means six, from the six mile gap of water, and people were shot too. While the husband of an English friend on Corfu had his boat stolen to be used by Albanian drug runners though, and crime has tarnished the image of some of whom have made it into the Greek Middle Classes, of course desperation and economic migration have happened a great deal in Italy recently as well.

Then to revelations though, only to underline my ignorance – that Albania, which uses the Lex, is Muslim, for instance, although its Communist past ruthlessly suppressed any faith. The guide defined it as 70% Muslim now, 20% Greek Orthodox and 10% Catholic, pointing at the church and simple hilltop mosque, as if atheists and agnostics had been eradicated in the new Dawn. She assured us folk live here in peace and intermarry easily too. Not much was said of Albania’s year long Civil War in 1997 then, although if I had a Euro for the number of times the guide used the word privatised, I could probably do a lot to help the Albanian economy.

How different the terrain on the mainland is to Corfu though, with those expansive, now half-drained and cultivated marshlands, where Gerald Durrell went hunting as a child and recorded it so elegiacally in “My Family and Other Animals”. From the coast, Albania is a four tiered hunchback of steep mountain ranges, feeding the many rivers that bring an astonishing variety of trees, giant bull-rushes and burgeoning flaura and fauna, among the dusty scrubland, burned by the Mediterranean sun. So we were quickly on the edge of the new 86 Square kilometer National Park and lake Butrint, ringed with half submerged cages for the huge mussel production here, in the brackish half-salt, half fresh water lake. The whole landscape suddenly seemed to glow a kind of electric mauve-green, dancing with vibrant, healing colours. Colour and light are the things I’ll remember the day for most, a draw to artists and water colourists for centuries. Like the Frenchman Dupre, and the limerick-writing Edward Lear, who came here in the 19th Century, along with those celebrated Grand Tourists, like Lord Byron himself. It pleased the Finnish Construction engineer, who had turned to painting and natural photography instead. Not least in our visit to the ‘Blue Eye‘, a bubbling natural spring that rises from more than forty metres through solid rock and is the visible source of the Bistritza river. When you’ve nothing you always make too much of something, perhaps. So the simple eco-cabins tried to compete with the broken down saw-mill and abandoned boats, or the Double Eagle of the Albanian flag, black on red, fluttered humbly but hopefully by the US and EU ones. Then Unesco’s intervention to define a world heritage site also helped create the national park. At first I wondered if the 40 minute excursion was worth it, for these ‘Naturalistic Learnings of Free Albania’, but that water is so pure it seems made of glass and in the afternoon light it suddenly looked as if you were gazing across a holy river in India.

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Perhaps above all though came the revelation that this is claimed to be the land of the ancient Illyrians, proud soldiers and master shipbuilders, which vaguely competes with the miserable image of modern Albanians, not least to many Greeks, as dirt poor Armenian peasants. “What do you call an Albanian peasant?” someone joked, “An Albanian.” So to a natural diversion though and that quote from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, when Viola is shipwrecked and believes her brother Sebastian has been drowned. “What country, friend, is this? – This is Illyria, Lady.” Whether Shakespeare ever traveled literally or not, his very English plays were vitally informed by the stories, legends and histories flooding into a Renaissance London, that also had very practical experience of seafaring and piracy in ‘Europa’, as England exploded as a maritime power in the late 16th Century and started competing with the likes of Venice. I believe the start of so much that is still not enough understood in the beginnings of World and American Capitalism. Of course Illyria, like Bohemia in The Winter’s Tale, is chosen as a place of exotic difference, for it’s mystery and otherness, to welcome and test a foreigner in a strange land, as Shakespeare usually proves himself a friend of strangers. Perhaps also as a kind of creative gateway to that dominating imaginative landscape inside Shakespeare’s mind and education though, before science had herded the forces of Psyche and Eros into the clothes of modern psychology – ancient Greece and classical Rome. ‘What Country, friend, is this?” is exactly the point of so many of Shakespeare’s themes, inner and outer. One that Greeks might not take for granted either, considering the disparate ethnic histories here and their own Nation only being founded in 1830, as Albania was in 1913. Yet the literary point for someone living on Corfu is that Illyria perhaps adds a bit of credence to the tale Gerald’s brother Lawrence’s scholastic friend relayed in his own little travel gem, Propsero’s Cell, claiming that Corfu was the magic isle that Shakespeare had in mind for The Tempest. I still think Shakespeare’s greatest bark was his avid reading and all assimilating imagination, devouring the patterns of storytelling and myth, that ran like a river through trading London, while the magic of Shakespeare’s isle is really his own art. But that imagination ranged so often back to this world, not only in Twelfth Night and The Tempest, but in Timon of Athens, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Comedy of Errors, that you start to wonder. Like the marshes though, at times it could all be taken for Elysian Fields.

First in the day we had made for Butrint though, by one of the castles of Ali Pasha and the old rope ferry over the canal, sparking in the sunlight, to discover the remains of so many days. Perhaps it is because Butrint is such a microcosm of competing civilizations and changing, impossible time. With its re-positioned doric columns rising in front of the sturdy Venetian tower, Butrint was a wonderful revelation for me. Only touched by visiting Epidavros, or the much under-rated port of Ostia outside Rome, that so tops treking even the Forum itself. The acoustically perfect little amphi-theatre here was re-built by Roman settlers, under Julius Caesar, who established a Roman colony eleven years after he had invaded Britain. So the original Greek Agora and Acropolis (hilltop City) expanded, beyond the huge 4th Century BC ‘Caeclopean’ walls that began the fortified settlement. Which you can also see in Etruscan fortresses in Lazio, like the one above Florence in Fiesole, as well as original settlements in Mycaenean Greece. To remind us that everything lasting began with fortified towns, before Nations or Ideologies, with tribes and City States. So to the Roman period though and those heads unearthed here of different kinds of dictators, that makes it all a more seamless and intimate tapestry. Like those of Augustus and Livia in the museum, that became as common and recognizable symbols as the Holy Family, or as an important a meme as the coinage. Then came the building of a pillared Baptistry nearly a half a millenia later, once Constantine had turned Rome to Christianity. With a very natural ‘Christian’ mosaic circle, sporting birds and flowers and animals, sadly covered at the moment by sand to protect it. The large Basilica too, which originally meant a kind of market and meeting place, rather than a Church. As a side note, it was fascinating too to find that Partridge as an early Christian symbol also used here, related to work at Phoenix Ark Press on that carol, the 12 Days of Christmas, and a Partridge in a Pear Tree.

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Like Shakespeare reaching back to the psychic source of the Gods though, it was the original remains that had the most power to me. Like the fine stone gate on the edge of the sleepy, lime blue and green lake, almost a secret scar in the rock, a magic doorway, that Virgil perhaps immortalised in the Aenead. Was it really here then that Aeneas himself, Trojan emmigree and mythical founder of Rome, after that 10 year war over a woman, landed on his way to Italy, in a still mythic world, that understood history as storytelling in a struggle between eternal fact and the needed journey and qualities of any individual life? – “I saw before me Troy in miniature, a slender copy of our massive tower…and I pressed my body gainst a Scaen Gate.” With that competes the much later carved gateway that at first I thought depicted a Wild Boar, but which is in fact a lion, devouring the head of a bull. Butrint’s name actually means Wounded Ox though, when the Greek foundation supposedly saw an Ox let ashore and killed by another animal, to prove auspicious omens. The city was also mentioned by Cicero though, after a friend with a country villa near here complained about Roman development and urged him to lobby against it in Rome, who in his letters wrote “Let me tell you that Buthrotum is to Corcyrca (Corfu) what Antium is to Rome…the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.” It shows how lively Corfu was at the time too.

For all the interest of the monuments though, and despite the aging guard in his overblown outfit blowing on his whistle as if Dictatorship had no tomorrow, or the fascinating artifacts in the little museum, so depleted by thefts in 1997, Butrint has something else that could wake Keats to his greatest song – “Thou still unravished bride of quietness, that foster child of silence and slow time………” It is the enchanted setting, on a sparkling day, wandering through sylvan groves blooming with wildflowers, edged by that wide blue-green lake, lifting with herons, as a fisherman tilted dreamily at the waters with his rod. Resources of fish were one of the reasons for the place’s ancient economic importance, though with those mussels Albania has other exports, like the wine on display in plush bottles in one of the port bars. For all the coachloads too, which must be far worse in high summer, you can hang back and find a space off beaten tracks to contemplate those vanished ghosts, of fact and mind and time. It is exactly what would have appealed to that 19th Century imagination obsessed with ‘the fragment‘ too. Those many ravished fragments of Butrint, crossing so much time, were picked out for me most in the sacred well of Minerva, bound by the hard rock, as firm as hope. Then the discovery of a Nympheum, a temple to those Nymphs and Dryads that sported through an ancient imagination, when Gods and Goddesses were living in everything. Then, to prove this was a City of Nymphs, by another well they found some Roman graffiti, in the achingly moving little dedication by one inhabitant “Julia Rufina – lover of Nymphs.” The painted head of Dionysus adorns one of the Nypheum’s alcoves, although I would take issue with the guide that he was just the God of Wine, rather than of natural Ecstasy and a transport to the Divine, unlike his debased Roman counterpart Bacchus.

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Of course those super efficient conquerors and engineers, the Romans, stole everything from the ancient Greeks, except the Aqueduct and the Arch. But there was an older ‘religion’ here then, since 400 years before Chirst Butrint was a votive centre to the healing God Aesclepius. Where real sacred snakes, to wind symbolically around the staff of the Cadeucus too, were kept in pens and laid on the stomachs of the sick to induce dreams. As those wrestling with life and mortality took baths and visited the theatre too, a sacred space, as Shakespeare knew it was a sacred space too, and a place of artistic magic, even in hungry, entertainment driven, Reformation London. Everyone came here though, from ancient Greeks, to Romans, to Byzantine Greek Christians, Ottomans, Venetians, the gruesome but effective Ali Pashi, by which time Butrint had near vanished under the mud and topsoil, to bad old Enver Hoxha. Who closed off Albania completely, as paranoia saw him building all those pointless concrete bunkers. Then that fear and militarism deep in the Soviet psyche too has a very long history among regional warlords in the Balkans.

Forget it. Time is trying to and if they had the money in Tirana, or could persuade either some philanthropic Oligarch or Unesco, they should pour in as much money as they can to exploit its archaeological heritage, in the best sense. Only 60% of Butrint has been excavated, for instance, and the ancient town of Finiq, obviously linked to those tribal and seafaring Phoenecians, hardly at all. Come to think of it Phoenix Ark Press has to discover the etimology of the Phoenix and whether there is any link. Yet before Hoxha was even fighting in the mountains as a Partisan, or Mussolini made Albania as cheap a conquest as Abyssinia for his Fascistic dreams of Ancient Rome and invasion of Greece, Italian Archaeologists had begun to uncover the City again, in the twenties and thirties. What a glorious experience it must have been for those archaeologists. Mussolini renamed Seranda Port Edda, after his favourite daughter, who turned against her father on the execution of her husband, Count Ciano, and fled to Switzerland. To sell her husband’s diaries to Alan Dulles and the Chicago Daily News. It is written up at Phoenix Ark. In fact Hoxha, from an important local family, crucially linked Archaeology to the creation of Albanian National Identity. He and the Fascists too were wrong though thinking it provided any convenient truth, in that such sites really link the movement of peoples across deep time, and the long process of real Civilisation. It could be an even more powerful gateway to tourism then, if uncontrolled building doesn’t ruin the riviera and they learn the charm of real local family bars and restaurants. But Albania has something else shared by Greece, Bulgaria, up into Romania too, perhaps Romania above all, that reaches back to the nature worship of the ancients. Namely astonishing natural scenery, wildlife that includes wolf and bear and some of the most pristine but now threatened forests in Western Europe. It is exactly why the Albanians must try to keep an enlightened and open blue eye on its wounded ox of a country, shutting tight in Seranda, if it is to develop and change, as it might. But they also need to remember too that real prosperity has a far deeper and wider meaning that just the ‘Capitalist’ discovery of quick cash.

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As the T-shirts saying ‘I Love Albania‘ flapped unconvincingly in the breeze then, the guide was cheerful, jokey but half apologetic, suggesting it would all be better in a few years and then those mosaics might be on display too. Like the man who apologised when I gave that little girl some Euros, or the waiter doing his damndest to offer good service, but looking rather small. Then there is a shame in that negative image of Albanians, its down-at-heelness and its recent past. But a great deal has changed too and in ‘Six’ families and kids were doing what everyone does, going to school or playing in playgrounds. Then the collapse of Communism opened another vital door to Butrint too and saw more archaeological work up to 2005, which has spruced up the museum and produced a National Park. More understanding and proactive engagement might come from Greece too, despite its own woes, meaning perhaps Greek efforts too to open up and make capital from a heritage where many people’s have intermingled for so long. Though the girl leading me to the hydrofoil was quick to point out she was part of the Greek Albanian minority, a community that revolted before the First War, and the association of religion with ethnicity has caused such harm around the world. As for Butrint, of course nothing especially important to the Greek lady who shrugged and said ‘it’s just a pile of stones’, to make my hair curl and remind me of an American who had said exactly the same thing years ago passing under the Lion Gate in Mycenae.

No, it is not just a pile of stones, it is literally one of the theatres of everything, so related to that healing son of the Sun God, Apollo, for those you like their sun worship intense. Where votive shrines to pure and natural wells first sprang up, as all settlements spring from rivers and clean waters. So came the burgeoning of trade, thought, literature, philosophy, and a symbolism that refers to everything still: the theatre of Gods and Man, the theatre of art, the theatre of magic and medicine, sadly the theatre of war too. It was only getting the Flying Dolphin back though, as the sunset burned the big white ships in Corfu Port a fiery bronze, making them look as if Vulcan had returned them to their smelting yards, that the full significance of Corfu’s Venetian Fortresses came into view in my head. Not so much on the tip of the Eastern headland, but the old Fort with its square, lionine eye to the little island of Vidos, and to Saranda and Butrint just beyond. Because it was dominating the straights of Corfu that was the key to shipping and trade, the gateway to the Ionian, and why the Venetians bought Butrint in the 14th Century to straddle those straights like a Colossus. Venice did so too, even as the Ottomans held Albania, Turkey and ‘Greece’ in their grip for five hundred years, at times pushing to the gates of Vienna. Until Napoleon marched into that “Drawing room of Europe”, St Mark’s Square, and the Venetian Empire came to an end, then the Balkans convulsed into the politics of ethnic hatred. Meat to remind you too though of the threats and unreformed horrors of now, and how significant that fall of Byzantium was in 1485, when Memmet II stamped his unreformed Islamic shields on the walls of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul. Then Monotheistic Religion is like Communism, it attempts to impose an absolute truth, which is why it should be separated from the State. Except perhaps that religion of the ancients, when the Gods were a reflection of the psyche of humans, good and bad, but magic forces lived so deeply in nature too. But so a fascinating and profoundly colourful day came to a close, back home on Corfu. In the end making me feel that if they keep that blue eye clear and open, this part of Albania and Butrint National park especially, could long be the quietest, coolest, most pleasant place in the world.

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David Clement-Davies October 1214

The photographs are in Copyright to Phoenix Ark Press – They show Lake Butrint, The Port of Seranda, The ‘Blue Eye’ spring, Bistritza river at its source, the ancient amphitheatre in the Temple of Aesclepius, the pillared circular baptistry, a fragment of lake and city, the ancient gate Virgil may have described as ‘Troy in Miniature‘, the later ‘Lion’ gate, the Albanian flag and a submerged boat opposite one of the little castles of Ali Pasha.

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The island, she won’t let you go,” whispered the hazel-eyed local on Corfu’s Agios Gordios beach, on the West Coast of my magic isle. She told me about her struggle and satisfaction in becoming a tourist rep, the legend of Nausicaa finding naked Odysseus here, washed up in the surf, and noticed the Disk of Phaestos hanging around my neck – Crete’s un-deciphered Linear B. I had bought it in my favourite artisan shop in Corfu town, where I get charming old postcards too. Then I’d been upset when it had tarnished in the bath and had taken it back to complain. “Life is never straight, my friend” the owner had twinkled nomicly, trying to convince me it made a better story too, as he assured me it was Stirling Silver, that very British hallmark. I was pleased above all that I hadn’t been lied to by him or been made a fool of either.

On Agios Gordios, this sudden Nausicaa and I joked about life, the real island of Corfu, ‘mad and wild’ Corfeats (according to other Greeks) and paradises naturally lost, or sometimes won again. If Corfu really was Homeric Scheria, at Thucydides claimed, home to those westernmost Phoenicians too, and so perhaps that link with the teacher of Zeno, Parmenides, she plays the strangest role in his rebirth and journey home. A symbol of half unrequited love, perhaps half mother figure, so much so one British scholar remarked that Nausicaa’s beach encounter and laundry scene is so realistic it meant that blind Homer was really a woman. Then the translations of Linear A on Crete turned out to be a laundry list! On Scheria cunning Odysseus, ship wrecked by Poseidon for tricking and blinding his one-eyed son Polyphemus, had to penetrate the palace of Nausicaa’s father, to get help, or breach what Wikipedia so anachronistically calls its magical ‘security systems’.

Since life is a beach though, what could be more magical then than to drink cold beer in the golden October sun, to swim in crystal waters but abandon some of the cliches too, as time and contact help me really experience a place. It has been a wonderful five weeks writing Dragon In The Post here, living in my rented house on Paradise Island, with its gentle garden, a place of recent barbecues and a new Dutch friend who was born here picking garden herbs for the marinade. So it was a bit of a shock to discover time rushing on, as ever, like Chronos eating his own children. The little ferry to Vidos from Corfu port has already stopped running, after three days of very heavy rains and gloomy skies. The Liston arcade in Corfu town still lights up and throbs at night, and the tourist shops bristle in the day, the electric evenings too, as a Maestre, a masterful Northerly wind, sweeps in to dispel the clouds around the great Venetian fort and the 18th century shuttered houses. But the season here is definitely winding to a pleasant autumnal close. Winter threatens in the falling leaves, the coming browns, the cooling airs, the death of each year’s life, but with something far less threatening than England and home.

On Agios Gordios we went swimming together at sunset in front of that burning red fire disk of exploding Hydrogen and Helium, so far beyond the real horizon, seemingly dissolving into a near-whispering, wine-dark sea. The bay held us like a friend, as the slanting afternoon sun painted our skins more golden and that renewed clarity of low afternoon light made everything sharp and real and very fresh and beautiful indeed. It picked out the shape of ‘Buddha Rock’ too, lying on his back on a nearby islet, beyond the Black Rocks, that to me looks more like a jolly Norwegian Troll, with a gigantic, bulbous nose. Then something of the ancient Gods descended, and light and sea and dying sun-disc became a filmy one.

The water does feel different suddenly, like warm silk, below the vaulting Cypresses climbing the slopes like markers to the island’s vigour, and as you stand in the sea, looking back at the hills, smiling or laughing, opening your arms, who would want her to let you go? The generous rains are the cause, and Corfu’s miracle micro climate, although with 10-15 days solid rain in September, it has not exactly been the perfect season. I’ve seen more of Corfu than I ever did last year though, swapping a battered bicycle that once kept me fitter for a sharp-engined white Mercedes (thanks to a free Airport upgrade, although with a struggle). So doing far more of the winding mountain roads, to Halikounas, Sinarades or Paliokastritsa, with its beetling Castello St Angelo and plunging, impossibly turquoise blues. Corfu always gives you a newly inspiring vista and opens your heart and mind, whenever you get locked too much inside yourself. “Oh, think twice, it’s just another day in Paradise” beats the Phil Collins song incessantly from Corfu Radio, of course, with its warning about forgetting other people’s problems. No, sorry, not at the moment.

It was driving up to a beer festival in Arillas in the North West this weekend though that I got to see much more of the ‘interior’ too – Those ever fascinating twisting, witch-hair olive groves, tipping down the slopes into mysteries of cool shade, the lifting massifs of hills, a sudden plain rich with wildflowers, pomegranate trees and pools of yellow sunlight, a flock of very smelly goats and, of course, among such lush vegetation, God-tall Cyprus trees everywhere, like perky sentinels, or officers of the watch. “Do you know their sex?” whispered someone in my garden, with a wink, as if introducing me to some great life secret, and of course the tall, straight ones are boys and the rounded, shorter, pear-like ones are girls. It’s all quite simple really.

I prodded my new friend on Agios Gordios and impressed her talking not about natural Phallic symbols, but the Omphalos, the World Navel and so the belly button. Also a time marker at ancient Delphi, once centre of the ‘known’ and imagined, where those weird women sat on their tripods, breathing in natural hallucinogenic vapours and whispering impossible oracles, or riddling warnings! She countered with talk of columns and the light on Delos, where the place seems to give birth to light itself. Perhaps then, while I learnt her real names are a feminized mix of the ever-present Orthodox Saint here and anti-Turkish intercessor Saint Spiridon and Alexander himself, such a green and fecund isle is an eternal antidote to that superstitious Greek association of Cyprus trees with death, misfortune and graveyards, like the sound of Scop’s Owls hooting in the night.

They are superstitions and legends much explored in the novel I’ve been reading here too, by Sofka Zinovieff, The House On Paradise Street. It is not a masterpiece, no Homer, with little of the literary panache or indeed sparkling charm of a Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but it is compelling and more importantly valuable. In solid prose it moves between the present, especially that moment of recent Greek ‘crisis’ of 2008, where many worlds seemed to fall apart, and the Occupation by the Nazis, until 1942. Then the bitter tragedy of the Greek Civil War, through the dictatorship of The Colonels too. They could certainly make a far better film of it than that atrocious Americanisation of Captain Corelli with Nicholas Cage. Zinovieff writes like a journalist discovering fiction, which I believe she is, and with that name but also an agent in London, you wonder if English is her first language. She is married to a Greek and has two children. In a sense it is always a story somehow in exile from itself, seeking its own heart, but it is most fascinating both in providing a foreigner’s eye and experience too, with the detail of a tour guide and travel writer, sometimes a touch of the poet, and for its discussion of the British legacy too.

On Corfu they still play cricket!” is the patriotic hero Nikitas’s dismissive quip that references this island in the novel. Nikitas’s sudden death provokes the historical investigation by Antigone his mother, an exile to Soviet and then modern Super Capitalist and ‘Cowboy’ Moscow, forced to abandon him to her sister as a baby, and his English wife Maud, bringing up their children in the anguished environment of student riots and the modern ‘Crisis’ in Athens, while coping with death, loss, age and decay that springs out so suddenly in everyone’s little life. The novel moves chapter by chapter between their competing narratives and one of its biggest flaws is that as such it internalizes none of its male protagonists, perhaps men are the book’s real Greek mystery and threat, but also creates few characters you can really love and so passionately identify with.

Its two central stings in the tale, most clever in the use of the seeming acronym ‘Wasp’ to reference those endless political groups from ELAS to PASOC, and least emotionally satisfying in the revelation over the British protagonist Johnny’s real human love affair, could have been far better handled dramatically. Meaning their power, outrage or beauty are not sought out from within for the reader and so lose effect. Yet they sustain the action and the themes and help a book approach depth and sometimes passion too, if, and precisely because of it’s dark themes, it is perhaps an attempt to avoid passion and get at fact and clarity in recording events many don’t know about. “Passion,” sparkled the girl on Agios Gordios, “That’s what Greeks are.” Meanwhile a book relayed the story of the brave women of Souli opposite Corfu dancing to their deaths in 1803, rather than surrendering to the Turks, or the 400 pleats in the traditional costumes of freedom fighters to mark every year of Ottoman occupation, as it reminds you that passion also brings a talent for tragedy.

I felt peculiarly British then as I saw them playing Cricket the other day in white flannels on the green in front of the Liston and the beautiful Archaeological Museum in Corfu town. “Pakistanis” observed a Greek friend though, with more than a hint of that schadenfreude that sometimes brands all Albanians too, and which is far more prevalent, and redolent with a threat that you can’t feel on Britain’s little island, so much closer to that real fault line of modern Europe; Turkey and the Bosphorous. That evening we listened to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here in the tiny Time Machine bar, then of course I saw the headline about UKIP’s victory back in the UK and its effect on the Tory Party and remembered the threat of atavism or real economic and cultural conflict is spreading everywhere.

That bar was part of the delight of getting to know Corfeats and a place though. Like tea and backlava with my friend and a young mathematician and Wikipedia guru opposite the Cafe Bristol. Or a game of ‘Gringlish’ and 1980’s Trivial Pursuit in my friend’s half built house with a view, as a storm fired lightening bolts across the bay, and too much booze after supper in my favourite restaurant here, Stimati in the village of Viros. There Spiros deals with his talent and ache as an artist by covering the walls with paintings bright with those ‘Iconic’ or primary Byzantine colours, although unfolding erotic Jungian dreamscapes, instead of God, in between the cooking. While his Scots wife Margaret bustles through with efficient practicality, stopping to discuss Scottish Independence, or to share some clear-eyed jokes and fun.

As for things being not quite cricket, or perhaps exactly Imperial Cricket, down in Corfu town I had noticed how I had noticed several young Pakistani players with surprise too, since this is what equates to a National Greek Cricket team. As the odd African peddles watches on the beaches, or there are so many cheap China stores here. Meanwhile a vastly tall, aging Greek Heavy-Metal hippy, with an Archbishop Makarios beard the length of a shaggy dog story, begs defiantly among the pretty cobbles and the wealthy trippers in the Old Town. Thankfully Corfu is no island to embrace the likes of Golden Dawn though, except perhaps in humorous talk of Independence for Corfu itself. Then, with its highly successful tourist industry and relative wealth, including a deal of British ownership, nor has it faced quite the hardships on the mainland. Despite complaints about sudden house taxes imposed, more than temporarily too, stories of local graft among doctors, to plump the Middle Classes, or that eternal accusation of political corruption at the top in Athens. More than that though, however bad things get, Corfu has an expansion and generosity that is in the landscape itself.

The British legacy is of course very strong on Corfu, the map of which looks a bit like Britain turned upside down. Not only with the cricket, but Prince Phillip having been born at Mon Repos, and celebrated English visitors here, from Edward Lear and the Durrell brothers to Joanna Lumley. ‘Kensington-on-Sea’ they call Kassiopi, South East of Sidari, the island’s most Northern point, bulging in the summer with rich Notting Hillites from London. Both of them above Kalami, where Lawrence Durrell and his lover had that White House on the sea, the property I think now owned by Lord Rothschild, or perhaps that’s above. Lawrence was of course a very different creature to his brother Gerald, that oh so British naturalist of the charming My Family and Other Animals. Whose practical, observant, scientific echo reminds you of the Brit care of local animals here; the tiny kittens like pocket watches and the battered cat families that survive around the dustbins. Perhaps I share fictional Nikitas’s prejudice against Right-Wing people, (except when you’re trying to get some decent service, or to fix my fridge, yet again), but I would translate it to people who don’t like animals instead.

Lawrence’s different kettle of fish to his brother, like some familial fault line at the centre of Paradise Street too, was in his attraction to Eastern philosophy, his protracted philandering, that help some remark he was ‘not a nice man’, but his skill too at history and very gorgeous travel writing, that did a great service to Greece. I’ve never read the Alexandria Quartet but know his painting the island of Corfu as ‘Prospero’s Cell’, referencing a bogus local legend a friend told him that Shakespeare’s The Tempest was set here. As if imagination and literature, from Homer to now, are not a country to themselves, as Martin Amis once remarked in shock at the Islamic reaction to Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. Well, the art of the novel, and of course the older ‘God Consciousness’ of Myth too, in the very emergence of language and storytelling itself, is that they aren’t entirely separate countries either, if they have power and meaning.

As for the map, physical and internal, and my obviously scruffier end of the isle below the airport, whose open runway always gives me a strange buzz, it is apparently Agios Stephanos to the North of Kalami that attracts the true cognoscenti and the elite ‘Philhelenes’ so questioned in The House on Paradise Street. So the novel discusses that superiority of knowledge and power that in the eyes of Nikitas made the British almost as bad as other conquerors, from Lord Elgin to even mosquito-bitten Lord Byron, but especially Churchill, with his carving up of Europe with Stalin at Yalta. A pact that saw both British and American influence after 1947 go unchallenged by the Soviets, although a role that other Greek protagonists in the story are very grateful for. It made me think of the pretty waitress in the Tea shop who had said so warmly “I like the British”. In the factual historical postscript to the book and with regard to Metaxa and the Colonels, who I first heard about personally on holiday visits as a child with my parents, when Greece was still a Homeric dream, comes that phrase that has haunted the World from London to Iran since WWII – “supported by the CIA.”

Meanwhile my chance friend on Agios Gordios tried to mimic being so ‘verrrrry British’, although she hardly knew where to look when I told her that at Edinburgh University I had once visited a friend at Broom Hall, only to see a tiny bit of the Parthenon on the Drawing Room wall.  It was the Bruce home, and so Lord Elgin’s house and to be fare to myself I tried to pierce the grandeur of it by pretending to steal the cutlery. That Elgin Marble thing, or how you rewrite or correct history in a globalised World, or indeed if you should in a multicultural epicentre like London and The British Museum, serving so many visitors and scholars too, is an aspect that is intelligently dismissed by Nikitas in visiting Maud in London.

So instead to the human horror of war and especially Civil War and the atrocities on both sides, which was of course redefined by that super battle that began before World War II ever ended, the function and ideology of money and so power, Capitalism versus Communism, as the Cold War began. Fought with such vigour by the likes of Allen Dulles in Switzerland and then from America. That East Coast lawyer, OSS man and first Civilian director of the CIA, and great share holder in the American Fruit Company too. It is Churchill’s role I don’t really know about though, who incidentally was brought to power instead of Chamberlain partly through the offices of my grandfather Clement Davies, as Liberal leader and head of the All-Party Group in the UK Parliament.

The novel is fair minded by giving different voices and perspectives, just as one character says Greece was not a British Colony. Although what truth can be reached if Greece still thinks it was ‘them’ doing it all cynically, like modern day Politicians up at the top? When graft can go from top to bottom, all humans have potentially murderous instincts, the British Empire bankrupted itself fighting Nazi evils, for any Imperial evils, as America achieved a new Hegemony, and that ruling instinct was always towards law and order, especially in the vicious and tragic maelstrom of the Balkans. Churchill did not have the power to impose his will at Yalta and had to engage in real-politique, just as the Philhelene ideal was perhaps betrayed by the horrible realities of war, resources and survival. Something to wake up to, as much as Communist Idealists in softer countries woke up to the horrors of Stalin.

A historical postscript reminds you of the fact Greece did not become a country until 1830 either and then references the ‘catastrophe’ of Smyrna in 1927. Not so much Ethnic Cleansing as Ethnic Rearranging, shifting 500,000 Turks and 400,000 Greeks, always the problem of the Nation State, especially when religious identity and ideology steps in too – Christian versus Islam, that fault line so much clearer at the Bosphorous. One that competes with a ‘Greece’ that stretches back to Byzantium and the Eastern Empire. “I’m orthodox and respect their faith,” one waiter had grunted, looking out to sea and talking of ‘them’, after new beheadings on TV, as I failed to get the boat to Vidos. But he certainly didn’t agree when I gave him my weak-livered ‘One Planet’ liberalism. It was of course Ataturk though who tried to modernize a sclerotic Ottoman world, removed his mother’s headscarf in public saying she was too beautiful to hide her face, shifted the Capital to Ankara and tried to separate religion from the State.

Fatherland and God are defined as powerful forces in Greece in Zinovieff’s novel too, as they were in Spain, against those supposedly ‘Godless’ and youthful instincts to create a new world among the often Communist Partisans fighting the Nazis from the mountains or the idealistic Red Brigades. Meanwhile though The House on Paradise Street attempts a story that heals with the instincts of a woman and mother, while not sitting on the fence either. That phrase then – ‘atrocities on both sides’ – which is such a challenge in places like Syria now, is not quite good enough and is countered with the instinct to expose the Right Wing prison camps, the suffering in women’s detention centres, being much a book about women, and indeed the often ruthless support of the British Establishment up to 1947, that included decapitations of at least dead soldiers.

All potentially at the heart of modern debates too about the role of Greece in Europe, or Germany in Greece, just as a new German company was just exposed as one of the most corrupt of all. Or what happened when the European Troika insisted both on restructuring and savage cutbacks, and the actions of the likes of the Universal banking Spider, Goldman Sachs. It was interesting to see Zinovief take a differently slanted line then in the story of Maud’s children, echoing many things I have heard too, from my Economics teacher friend, or local mothers, about the old fashioned rote teaching methods here, in a sense the patriarchalism of history and National loyalty, and that much of it is about the frustrations and bewilderment of young people. So it references the murder of a young student by police, or the student deaths under the Colonels too, but balances that with a skepticism about ‘hoodie’ anarchy and lost generations. So too I’ve heard among new younger friends perhaps a worrying tendency to grow old or give up too soon, though it’s something many feel facing the vast capital gulfs of today. Don’t give up. Remember the light, the beauty, the future and the Gods that make you eternally young. Greece does have a working Democracy, it is investigating the crimes of Golden Dawn members and it also has a right to talk about the flaws of the European or Global Capital model too. Meanwhile Zinovieff can use the protection of fiction to address things that might cause offense here, or furious over-reaction, like why driving is so challenged, smoking is everywhere, or how the loud shouts of malaka at every slam of a backgammon piece sometimes frightens the non natives. Others might find it a quality of foreign difference and charm.

Much meat for my Greek guest at a barbecue who seemed convinced everything from to Ebola to Iraq is a global conspiracy and that old bug bear too, an Israeli one. With that you can’t really argue the facts though, as much as I might agree with the potential conspiracy of Capital and Corporations to always reproduce themselves, sometimes at deep human cost, because it usually descends into a kind of paralyzed mysticism. Yet I also wanted to chat to him about Parmenides, and one theory that the belief the entire history of Western Civilization is based on Socratic rationalism is in fact a misreading or writing of Plato, Parmenides writing just one fragmentary poem on Nature, and about the Snake and the Cadeucus, theatre, dream caves and Aesclepius too. Perhaps that was the lead in to the discussion too of how to learn and earn the joys of just living simply, free of the storms of the world, in such a beautiful place.

As for Britishness, my other experience of it here though was far less dramatic or imperial, at a friend’s birthday in the little Paradise bar overlooking ‘Mouse Island’, Pontikonisis, just below my house, where someone said the Albanian owner foolishly watered the wine. A group of fifteen English ladies, a German and my fiesty American friend, met for drinks and oily snacks. All of whom had married Greek husbands in the heyday of their romance with Paradise, like Shirley Valentines swept into a sea of passion and new possibility. Another English wife I talked to the day before in Corfu Town though now finds that roots are roots and that for her there remains a gulf of understanding or experience at times with her Greek man. The ladies at the supper are mothers, have jobs teaching, or working in the tourist industry, face the common issues of survival and every day life. Sometimes perhaps a cultural paucity too, or a lack of stimulation perhaps, common to young locals too, though Corfu Town is home to the Ionian University, that makes the likes of the Arillas beer festival a weekend must, engagement with the amateur theatre group vital, or talk of celebrity a place of a special frisson. The big, exciting world.

Now though, since the day Jude Law came, to be naughty or not in his villa, the reps have to sign special non-disclosure agreements. We all like the wild, the naughty and the indiscreet too, life-gossip, if not quite the loucheness of Kavos in the far South. I drove down one day, in search of who knows what, to find Kavos, even emptied of tourists, a gaudy horror story of strip pubs, indecorous lounge pools and Medical Clinics seemingly every 100 metres, to take in the drunk and the wounded, from the evening fights or the blow job competitions. The mayor complained loudly when a British Documentary about it was screened, as if it had offended Greek Honour, or Manhood. In that it probably does offer a cliche of a Brit Package Tour, ever pilloried as being the drunks or thugs abroad. But Corfu is big enough, sexy enough, roomy enough, to allow for that too, like a touch of the dark side in the Southern subconscious. I now call Kavos Corfu’s Torrid Zone.

So to sitting in the immortal Robins Nest in Agios Gordios, the charming little bar run by a sparky lady from Chicago who has been here 29 years, seems to have done everything, lets people flow through her place like magic and say’s she dislikes money and is ‘a trader’, the trade being human potential and fun. From dressing up parties, to the beautiful hand painted rocks that litter her place. “We don’t have Greek comedians” said the young car mechanic glumly, over a Trivial Pursuit question, and there are not many jokes in The House on Paradise Street either, but here there’s lots of laughter. So folk come, year in year out, friends and near family, Robin has four Greek children – from America, Britain, Norway, Serbia, although not everywhere. Since Robin thinks I’m far too posh, and that Pink Palace Hotel above is so very pink, it brings a slight yearning for the days when Sir Frederick Adam got so romantic with his Greek wife. As for how little I know, I never realized William Ewart Gladstone was a High Commissioner in Greece. But that world is gone, as the novel warns modern Greeks should embrace a new if however confusing world that they can only understand by jettisoning both some of the prejudices and especially bitter memories of the past, that essentially feed on the dead. The problem is that Greek identity or the search for it among the sense of pride and self worth is so mixed up in the past, and Soumian’s Marble Steep, that abandoning it sometimes seems like abandoning the Gods themselves, or the roots of language. On the other hand, one of my friends hates all that Greek Bazouki music and all life movement is a battle between past and present, localised or wider horizons. Last year my attempt to contact The Lawrence Durrell Society, for instance, as a Brit writer perhaps dreaming of Consulates, exotic Balkan Trilogies or sexy spies, resulted in a very desultory response. With not only the discovery that the budget had been slashed, and the lease on their building gone, but that lunch up North was far more appealing than making an effort to have a drink with a nosy Brit like me.

Hey ho, perhaps Corfu needs some brand new writers and poets, I thought, if anyone reads anymore, especially as I watched a gaggle of Russian sailors decamp around Corfu town last month, in those huge, flat, wide-brimmed sailor’s caps, that always look decidedly fascist. Apparently one of Russia’s largest warships was in port, The Moscow, docked among the giant ferries sailing between Turin or Venice, and bristling with missiles the size of White Mercedes. Young men in a foreign town, they sat politely in the Souvlaki restaurants, or gathered to drink beer and smoke cigarettes, as they got snaps and it all became part of their life memories too. Perhaps, with Mr Putin’s taste for muscle-flexing and the anguish in Ukraine, they’ll do what the Brits did, and not so long ago according to a nostalgic English friend at super who told me her husband’s stolen boat turned up on the news, used as transport for Albanian drug smugglers, and invite the growing phalanx of Russian package tourists swarming to the island on board for evening cocktails. You hear the Slavic voices in my local shop, Nikki Foros, or on the promontory below the big hotel beyond Mouse Island. It all seems so unreal though, on this generous, gentle island, where EasyJet plans to open Winter routes next year. Except when the sun sets and that nagging warning voice comes again, as you watch the News or look at Mr Putin’s face, that history not only repeats itself, but never learns the lessons of history.

So to what’s above me on the hillside, and apropos of a friend writing to ask me if I had been to the house and palace of Sisi. That rather bizarre and tragic woman, Elizabeth of Bavaria, Empress of Austria, murdered by a young anarchist in 1898, often lived in the Achilleon, the fine white marble mansion bursting with old curios, wide terraces with marvelous views and statues of the ancient Gods, to remind you of Germanic Philhelenism. Achilles is the centre piece, of course, the greatest of especially Greek warriors, only to remind you his wound was weak humanity, or mortality itself, as his mother dipped him in the river Styx, but had to hold him by that Achilles’ heal. Perhaps we should remember though that Athens, the home of those lost marbles, Democracy and Pericles, was also a warring City State, built by men and founded in slavery, or that the best of Greece, like the best of anything, was always a kind of myth.

The Achilleon is far better and more proudly preserved a place than the likes of the dusty museum on Mon Repos, open to 8pm everyday of the year, at 7 Euros a pop. It is of course also the place where the Greek experiment in Europe was first hammered out and then the bailout too. I didn’t visit again, but had an ice cream outside and enjoyed the Cypruses and the glowing evening sunlight, just beyond the sleepy village of Gastouri. Where thanks to lost English friends I first came to visit Corfu, three years ago. I thought of one whose father was murdered and told my new Dutch friend about it. “It happened” he said, “though it doesn’t really now. Often with two warnings and then a shotgun.” The crime has never been solved. That new friend of nostalgic British memories at the birthday supper had offered me a little flat to buy in Gastouri, but do up too, that wouldn’t exactly break a very down trodden bank yet, unless I got caught up in too much skimming off the top. Which my dutch friend remarked in his father’s experience of building, as he criticized the mentality here, especially in blaming others, planned to return for some Eco-living and bravely defended the honesty of his Albanian neighbour too.

Such things remind you always of real people and real lives beyond the borders, images and isms, washed up or not, which is what The House on Paradise Street is about too. I suddenly wondered and thought too it would not be remotely possible if the economy was not down. So to the real question, whether to stay on here writing through the winter, perhaps renting, and where any roots really are now? I thought of the little painting I had given my Scot’s friend for her birthday, a pleasant watercolour of Mouse island, bought in an art shop in Corfu town, then of that US girl who had so strangely wanted to get a very confusing tattoo – “Sail on Ulysses”. Then of the big eyed girl on Agios Gordios, who had so suddenly vanished that evening at Robin’s bar, with no reason and little rhyme, that put me in a bad mood for days. Who had told me of the ancient legend, that Pontikonisis had been the boat of Nausicaa, transformed by the Gods. It added to Nausicaa’s paradox, because while it was the Phoenicians who took poor, belabouring Odysseus home to Ithaca, and Nausicaa is said to have married his son Telemachus, that name never mentioned to patient Penelope actually means ‘burner of ships’. Hmmm, whatever the myths or truth, sometimes it is so lovely here I wonder if the island will let me go.

David Clement-Davies October 2014

Around the World? The photo is from the road above Agios Gordios on Corfu.

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Well, it’s not often you come around the corner, through a forest of shedding pines trees, to see two sealions clapping flippers and gulping fish. It was in a little seabound enclosure off the tiny islands of Vidos, opposite Corfu town, where a glass bottomed ‘underwater’ cruise boat opposite Albania had stopped for the fishy show. Vidos is a kind of island nature reserve and camping site, just a ten minute boat trip from Corfu island, modest at 2 Euros, and populated by rabbits, tame pheasant and Guiney foul. If the mark of a people’s civilisation though is how they treat their animals, the people behind the trip should triple the size of the enclosure, with little hit to their profits. At around 30 by 12 feet in the water, it is not nearly big enough for two adults, however deep, although they certainly looked sleek, healthy and well fed. It helped a little Human economic enterprise and yet, as the boat left, there was still the mournful bark of trapped nature in their cries. They could easily increase its size.

Back down at the restaurant with the human animals, one of the cheapest, best and emptiest around, intrepid Phoenix Ark Press was attempting some investigative travel writing again, which of course can only be the Gonzo journalism of an unhearing world! The sweet waiter put it brilliantly when he said that now it’s ok, you cannot see it in the touristy months, but when winter comes people feel the effects of the cuts everywhere. He was convinced, like many, Greeks would be rich if they still had the Drachma. But he also told me that just two nights back Roman Abramovich had hired the whole island after five PM (surely just the restaurant) for a little party. Russsians sang for four hours. Perhaps it’s because Vidos served as a hospital and quarantine for sick Serbian soldiers during WWI and 5000 were buried at sea. The white flowers still on display were courtesy of the Chelsea Football Club owner and of course the man linked to that meeting near Kassiopi with British Labour peer Lord Mandelson. Ah, to dream of life in the fast lane.

Determined not to have any relevance to the modern world though I was simply concerned with trying to engage with the pretty English redhead at the next table, determinedly locked in her ereader. Courage was useless, despite pretending to be interested in her bus timetable, as I discovered she had astonishing eyes, was an International teacher, dreaming of Greek romance, no doubt, but caught up in The Hunger Games! Woe. She hurried away and I got the boat back, discovering how long it takes to discover a place, and real people in it, beyond surface travel. Lovely to see Corfu town though from a different angle, the big Venetian castle, the pretty nineteenth century shuttered houses, the promontory topped by the old English fort, and why seeing life from a boat is such a different thing from land. Wind comes in, weather, tying up alongside and navigating both people and hard matter. All in our isolated cells, trying to connect, or dock, or be a pirate. We raced towards the giant five story Cruise Liner out of Medeira, with a funnel like a fluking blue whale, billowing smoke, and hooted them bravely before drifting back to land. The tourist season is slowly closely down here, with clouds massing around the island and a brilliant electric storm last night, but it makes the edges clearer, the colours purer, the painters isle a richer place.

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