Saturday, November 22, 2014


My octogenarian great aunt, my grandmother’s sister, is a most formidable woman. Possessed of a steely brow, piercing eyes and thick hair, carefully restrained within a plait the thickness of a handspan, that reaches all the way to her knees, she is renowned within the family and beyond for her practical, no nonsense approach to life, an approach that can be likened to construction machinery, as she bulldozes through life’s innumerable obstacles.  Such an approach came to her in her youth where, back in the village, charged with administering injections for the local doctor at all hours of the night, she happened to be walking through the village in the darkness, when she was accosted by a sleazy male, who made various lewd suggestions to her. Without a moment to lose she waylaid him, subjecting him to a beating so severe that no one in the village ever so much as raised their eyebrows in her general direction ever again. Given that my aunt’s forearm are twice the size of my own, such a beating was not inconsiderable.
Aptitude for self defence notwithstanding, my great aunt is also possessed of a religious temperament, and as a child I loved to sneak upstairs her creaky Victorian terrace home gaze at her iconostasis, comprised of icons lovingly arranged upon a mantelpiece. At their centre was an extremely old icon of the Resurrection, executed in baroque, manneristic style. Its triumphalism and deep passion would always transfix me, until that is, my aunt would materialize silently behind me and whisk me away, so as to do no damage. My aunt’s religiosity also is the cause of the mortal peril in which I happened to find myself one day, when in conversation, I casually remarked that Jesus Christ was a Jew. My remark was met with an ominous silence as I saw my aunt turn various stages of pink, red and then violet. “What?” she eventually snapped. “Who told you that?”
“Well, everyone knows that he is a Jew,” I replied sensing I had committed a grievous error but not quite knowing just what that error was. “You do know that he is a Jew, don’t you?” I continued, apprehensively.
“Rubbish!” my aunt spat, as she threw her arms up into the air. “Absolute rubbish. Jesus was Greek. His mother was called Maria. She was Greek! Who teaches you this twaddle?”
            Carefully, I picked up her coffee cup, which, in her indignation, she had sent sprawling across the coffee table and replaced it upon its saucer. I then opened her Bible, which always stood upon her sideboard and turning to the first verses of the Gospel of St Matthew began to read aloud: “Book of the Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah - This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers...”
“What was Abraham, aunt?” I asked. “A Jew. What was Isaac? A Jew. Jacob? Judah in particular? All of them were Jews. How can you say that Jesus was Greek when even the Bible states that his ancestors were Jews?”
“Give me that,” my aunt said, snatching the Bible from my hands. She sat there, lips pursed, mouthing every syllable, as she attempted to absorb the information I had just given her, thick forefinger, following the text in front of her. As she continued down the page, the furrows in her brow became ever more pronounced until finally she put the Bible down and looked up at me:
“This Bible has been written by Communists and Jehovah’s Witnesses,” she shouted. “This is disgraceful Now get out of here.”
            This memory is germaine to the recent attempts by the Greek tourism board, to appropriate the Twelve Apostles along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, in their advertising campaigns. Greece of course, has no shortage of wondrous natural and man-made landmarks to offer to travelers for exploitation, for the purposes of extracting funds from them and thus, the appearance of the testament to the erosive properties of the Southern Ocean in a Greek tourism campaign can only rendered explicable by a thought process akin to that of my aged aunt, to wit: If Jesus is Greek, it stands to reason that the twelve Apostles, are also Greek and therefore, the Greek ministry of tourism, headed by the western educated Olga Kefaloyianni, (whose name, tortuously belabouring the motif of this paragraph literally translates as Head-John’), is entitled to claim them. Furthermore, the word apostle is Greek and if indignant Australians continue to poke fun at Greece’s righteous claims upon this landmark, the Greeks can demand the payment of royalties from them, for the continued use of the world ‘Apostles,’ and utilize these funds for the re-payment of European bail-out. If this is refused, then Australia should be compelled to rename them the “Twelve Emissaries,” instead. At any rate, the onus in upon Australia to prove that the Twelve Apostles were not Greek, having regard to the propensity of communists and ne’er do wells to alter the text to suit their anti-Hellenic agenda.
            Mystifyingly, the Greek ministry for tourism did not cite any of these cogent arguments in support of its appropriation of the Twelve Apostles. Instead, it concocted a nebulous justification that has regards to the stars above the Twelve Apostles, all of which apparently are Greek, including the Southern Cross, which of course, goes by the sobriquet of Stavros. 'When the day is done,’ the narrator pronounces,  ‘the moon and her stars paint the sky in brilliant constellations, named from astrology by ancient sailors, navigating their way from island to island across the broad sea,'
In one section of the advertisement, entitled  'Gods, Myths, Heroes' (because according to the Greek tourism board, there is nothing worth seeing in Greece that took place after the mythological era), the video pans over the Twelve Apostles under a starry night sky, while the English narrator tells how it is here that Aphrodite, goddess of love, lust and kindness, 'emerges from the waves.'
            This is fascinating, as it is common knowledge that Aphrodite emerged from the waves off Paphos in Cyprus, where there exists one Twelve Apostle-like protuberance. One wonders why the Greek tourism board did not appropriate this image instead. One also wonders why the Greek tourism board and its buoyant minister could have possibly thought that the existence of Greek-named constellations in the night sky could act as an incentive for people to visit Greece. What will be next? Video footage of the Palace of Westminster and the Capitol to invite people to Greece as the home of democracy? Footage of the Scienceworks museum that will move tourists to flock to Greek shores to pay homage to the home of systematic science, or indeed, photographs of Peter Singer and Bertrand Russell to showcase Greece as the home of philosophy?
            It did not take long to wiggle my way back into my aunt’s favour. I did so by diverting her religious sensitivities to one of her favourite topics, the life and works of St Kosmas the Aetolian, one of the Geek nation’s most famous enlighteners and evangelists. It is to whom now who the talented people at the Greek Ministry of tourism should turn, using 1950’s footage of Billy Graham and current clips of Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen to lure people to Greece, as the home and place of origin, of evangelism.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 22 November 2014

Saturday, November 15, 2014


The year was 1987. I was accompanying my grandmother on her weekly excursion to acquire groceries, when, passing by the local opportunity shop, we chanced, in the window, upon a rather large 19th century Greek icon, accompanied by a large framed tapestry with the Greek words intricately embroidered upon it: «Το πεπρωμένο φυγείν αδύνατον.» (It is impossible to escape fate). My grandmother shrugged her shoulders, as she walked past: “That belonged to old Maria. She died last week and already her children have cleared out her things. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Walk on…” When I ventured to suggest that she purchase the icon, as it was beautiful, skilfully executed and probably would be worth a significant sum in the future, she shook her head: “I will not bring the curse of an old lady who has been dishonoured by her children into my house. Let’s go.”
                In those days, most homes were decorated in the Balkan Baroque style. Antimacassars or doilies, most often crocheted by the grandmothers themselves, covered the tables, arm rests and head rests of all chairs, while, at least in the homes of my aged relatives, the couches and some walls would be covered by hand knitted «βελέτνζες,» often sporting colour schemes louder that Al Grassby’s choice of tie-wear, thanks to the available range at Spotlight. Duller, two-chrome counterparts for the floor were known as «στράτες,» and these were strategically placed upon those areas in the house that received the most foot-traffic, regardless of the fact that all that they were protecting was carpet.
                Above the mantelpiece of a fire-place that had long been bricked up and converted into a gas-heater, my grandmother placed two oil lamps, which she had brought with her on the long journey to Australia. Also prominent, were two plaster statues of the goddess Athena, purchased on the first trip back to the motherland in 1973 and in between these, occupying pride of place, an impossibly long and inordinately heavy iron key, the key to the door to a home that no longer existed, across the waters, in Turkey, a reminder of a first migration that was the precursor of the second. On the adjoining wall, the sombre and jaundiced visages of both sets of my paternal great-grandparents gazed down at us sternly, from yellowing photographs encased in thick, wooden frames.
                The obligatory painting of the Last Supper hung in the formal dining room, complemented upon the opposite walls, by two matching, gaudily painted plates depicting  a burly gent clad in an implausibly short foustanella, blowing a trumpet, (most likely his own) in front of the Parthenon. The wall of the living room, wherein, for reasons unknown the refrigerator was also housed, was adorned by a print of a scantily clad woman lying languidly upon some lush grass at night. When I asked my grandmother whether this woman was Persephone, and the scene the underworld, she dismissed my question summarily. “No idea. This was hanging here when we bought this place in the fifties. It is part of the history of this house, so we left it alone.”
                Apart from these items, my grandmother’s house was sparsely decorated, furnished only with the glossy, pseudo-high grained furniture of the time, including complementary cigarette lighter and ashtray stand, and powder blue telephone. In my aunt’s cabinet of curios however, there existed an amazing array of traditional storage vessels and cooking pots and even an old tsimbouki, a pipe that was two metres tall and lovingly decorated with geometric designs. Most bizarre, was a pair of shoes, made out of reeds. These were objects of fascination for all of the cousins and woe betide anyone of us who was to be found playing near said cabinet.
                Mindful of the many curses that our progenitors advised us befell those who dishonoured our ancestors, my grandmother’s various paraphernalia were packed up after her death and have been preserved until the present day. Yet not a week goes by when the personal effects of the deceased elderly members of our community make their modest appearance at local second hand shops. With their passage into other hands, an entire history can either be transmitted or lost.
                Restaurateur, benefactor and enthusiastic collector of Greek ephemera John Rerakis recently was moved by the discovery of a pair of stefana in an opp-shop, complete with original stefanothiki. He purchased them, in order, as he stated, to save these sacred items from desecration by those who do not understand their significance. Among the many Greek-Australian items he has been able to collect, mostly embroidery, he singles out this and a large suitcase clearly marked with the words “PATRIS,” as his most poignant finds. This was obviously the suitcase that accompanied a now departed Greek migrant upon his voyage to Australia, and is thus, replete with a meaning for al of us, that ought to be preserved.
                My own find of poignancy on the other hand, took the form of stumbling over the complete Greek library of a prominent local poet, weeks after his demise. The books, covering a gamut of Greek literature and poetry are not only inscribed with the poets distinctive signature, but also heavily annotated, giving a unique insight in to the appreciation and critical thought of a Greek-Australian of significance. I have chanced upon other, smaller caches of Greek books in shops around Melbourne and have acquired as many as I can, believing that in this way, I am preserving the collective cultural yearnings of a lost generation, at least until my own progeny, separated by my own yearnings by generation, language and zeitgeist, determine that they should divest themselves of the burden of their progenitor’s psychological clutter.
                Nonetheless, in the increasingly solitary homes of the elderly in Brunswick, Fawkner, Oakleigh, Preston, Carnegie and beyond, a whole way of furnishing homes, firstly in the sparse style transplanted from the motherland, then with the nostalgia expressed by kitsch souvenirs, and lastly, when firmly established, with aspirational bourgeois Franco Cozzo style décor, representing a philosophy of combining nostalgia with practicality and the need for an invented past, is slowly passing away. When it does, much of what is tangible of the pioneering ethos of the first migrants will pass away and become irretrievably lost. This is the way of all things yet it is incumbent upon us, even when it is not possible or feasible to preserve all the ephemera that bear witness to their sojourn and foundation of the community in which we live, to at least record their natural habitat, even as it diminishes, before it vanishes. For this reason, let all of us descend upon the homes of our elderly, cameras in tow and photograph, the quaint, the stereotypical but ultimately, the warm, the vital and the endearing in the history of our home decoration, prior to the devastation of modern tasteless minimalism. We owe at least this to the people whose homes were built in hope, optimism and ultimately, immense love and to the interior decorators of the future, so as to determine the precise placement of the doily, when, in their infinite innovative wisdom, they resolve to bring it back.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 15 November 2014

Saturday, November 08, 2014


On Late Night Live a few weeks ago, the sagacious Phillip Adams asked Graeme Blundell if 3XY, a Melbourne radio institution still exists. Graeme in turn mused that it had probably been dissolved. It was to this conversation that my thoughts turned, when I beheld the breathtaking Yiannis Ploutarhos on the stage of Hamer Hall. Clean-cut Yiannis, the sort of person you would have no qualms taking home to meet your mother except when forming the sneaking suspicion that she may try to steal him from you and take advantage of his boyish demeanour, generously offered to fly the long distance to Australia in order to perform at a charity concert for the benefit of Agapi Care, Frontitha and the Australian Greek Welfare Society. He did so at the behest of 3XY Radio Hellas, which is definitely in existence and this year, celebrates 20 years of Greek broadcasting. 
I remember in October 1994, the founder of Radio Hellas, Spiros Stamoulis calling us excitedly and stating: 'Τώρα έχουμε φωνή.᾽ For the first time ever, our community would have a twenty-four hour radio station, run by the community for the community. What followed completely transformed our community, as we then knew it. Firstly there was the novelty of having a Greek voice reach each and every available home at any hour. For years, our radio, permanently tuned to 1422AM, would be on during every one of our waking hours. In those days, local actors, journalists and would-be media personalities all scrambled to contribute to this audacious undertaking. We would avidly listen to the radio-play Ἡ οικογένεια Στουρνάρα,῾ following the fortunes of a typical Greek-Australian family, and laugh at George Kapiniaris' humorous "Hair Loss is not a Greek Island." Visiting Greek educator and historian Kostas Tsonis produced a remarkable set of programs tracing the multi-faceted history and culture of the various regions of Greece, whilst the presenters of the current affairs program 'Ο κόσμος σήμερα,᾽ Dimitris Papanikolaou and Panayiotis Souvatzis, became overnight celebrities, feted at Greek functions for years. In those days, vast number of Greeks would gather around the table, and engage in heated discussions on the topics presented by the station. In many families, such as my own, that tradition endures, with a new generation of broadcasters.
The key to the success of 3XY Radio Hellas has been the accessibility and relevance of its content. For the sports fans, there are live sports-casts of the various leagues. For home-keepers, there are programs devoted to recipes and handy hits around the home. For children, there are fairy tales and children's songs. For students, there is the long running NUGAS programme. For music-lovers, there is a wide range of the latest, as well as the most traditional of Greek music, often played by enthusiasts who wish to share their love of any given particular singer. The Kazantzakis-worshipping Dimitris Tsambasidis, who ends his program with the catchphrase "I love yous all," enjoys legendary status among his followers. Unbeknownst to many, there has existed within Melbourne, a large coterie of non-Greek fans of 3XY, who tune in, simply to enjoy the music. 
Even its advertisements are historically important for they would provide the sociologist with ample material to study the needs and attitudes of the Greek community in Melbourne. Some of those jingles are purely magical. Take for example, this pearl from an advertisement for Nicholas TV Service: "Αν χάλασε το βίντεο, το στερεοφωνικό σου, αν έπαψε να παίζει το τελεβίζιο σου...῾ Then there is this emphasis on healing by Goumas Smash repairs: ᾽Γκούμας, γκούμας, της τράκας ο γιατρός...᾽ By far the best advertisements however, where those produced for the car dealer George Kotses, one of which in particular, is significant because it possibly is the first Greek-Australian rap song ever-written: Ἑπούλησα το ακίνητο, να πάρω αυτοκίνητο, να σ᾽ έχω στο αμάξι, μη βρέξει και μη στάξει, Κω, κω, κω, κω κω, Κωτσές.᾽ Absolutely brilliant, and definitely not as disturbing as the advertisement for George's Lingerie, which begins: ῾Σέξυ, σέξυ...᾽ and ends, ᾽για σένα το φοράω μωρό μου, για σένα᾽. We would do well to realise that a generation of Greek-Australian children have been brought up upon these jingles and harness this knowledge to better effect.  
Most importantly, for those who are bereaved, lonely, ill or isolated, 3XY Radio Hellas is a lifeline that brings into the home, a social context and sense of community that many would have otherwise have lost. This is why the fact that 3XY Radio Hellas is present at almost all significant functions of the Greek community, providing commentary for those at home who cannot make it, or encouraging others to make the effort, or relaying the Orthodox church service for those to ill to attend their local parish, is of intrinsic importance to our community. Furthermore, without 3XY Radio Hellas' generous commitment to community fundraising, the raising of necessary funds for worthwhile community endeavours and charities would prove a difficult task indeed. Quite apart from the annual radiothons for Aged Care and other facilities, one can remember just how united the community was when it scrambled to raise money for the survival of Heidelberg United soccer team, or when it donated generously to the appeal to raise funds for the Greeks of Northern Epirus. In encouraging and facilitating us working together, Radio 3XY is an inestimably intrinsic part of the complex glue that binds us all together.
The commitment of the Stamoulis family to the community as exemplified in 3XY Radio Hellas and its many other endeavours has now been assumed by an Australian-born generation of that family. This commitment has intensified, adapted itself to the changing demographic and cultural needs of a diverse community so that a nuanced, sensitive and inclusive approach to Greek broadcasting is achieved. With no less a personage as the ubiquitous and passionate Deputy Victorian Multicultural Commissioner Ross Alatsas as manager, 3XY Radio Hellas has elicited the praise of Federal and State Governments, including, just recently, that of the Prime Minister himself.
My own association with 3XY Radio Hellas has been a long and rewarding one. In 1999, having returned from accompanying the Archbishop of Albania Anastasios on a visit to the Greek villages of Northern Epirus, I was requested by Spiros Stamoulis, who was then also the president of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia, to present a four-part programme on the region. He also asked me to write an accompanying article, in Greek, which was published in the newspaper TA NEA. For a young Greek, still not out of university and knowing nothing about radio, this was a big deal, and I remember how carefully I attempted to craft the narrative around a selection of admittedly cacophonous polyphonic Northern Epirot funerary dirges, some of which were culled by Spiros Stamoulis, in the interests, as he stated, of not frightening away listeners, possessed of a less hardcore tolerance to he music of the region.
In 2003, I was back, this time presenting an arts and literature programme in Greek and in 2005 I returned yet again at the behest of Spiros Stamoulis, presenting the Epirus programme every Wednesday night, ever since. The programme, punctuated by telephone calls from Spiros Stamoulis in the early days, demanding that we play happier songs, has proved to be my own window into a community that is demanding, devastatingly critical and yet, infinitely supportive. Week after week, listeners will call in, to offer suggestions and opinions, share memories, or in many cases, because they are lonely and just wish to speak with someone. It is a humbling and yet infinitely heart-warming experience to know that, through the radio waves, we are all linked together and can reach out to each other, via the same frequency, if and when we need to. Other volunteers, such as the committed presenters of the Pontian, Macedonian and Cypriot programs have expressed similar sentiments and provide invaluable services, not only to their compatriots in the narrow sense, but to all of us in general.
It is for all these reasons and more that there was such an outpouring of good-will and joy at 3XY Radio Hellas' 20th birthday concert. For it cannot be disputed that Greek communal life is now inconceivable without 3XY, an institution that has deftly incorporated itself within the warp and the weft of the intricate tapestry that is the Greek community of Melbourne, and without which, one would hazard a guess, the community itself would begin to unravel. Twenty years ago, the late Spiros Stamoulis, in his own words, gave us a voice and we are externally thankful. It is now up to all of us, via our own engagement and participation with, along with our support of, 3XY Radio Hellas to ensure that this voice will be continue to be heard and understood, far into the future. Paraphrasing an old 3XY Christmas jingle:
᾽3ΧΥ, 3ΧΥ Ράδιο Ελλάς,
δέξου τα χρόνια πολλά 
από τους ακροατάς...῾

Saturday, October 25, 2014


There are a number of reasons why OXI, an event that took place some seventy four years ago, still resonates with the Greek people, quite apart from the obvious fact that it is an event that is still within living memory. OXI is one of those events that fits neatly within the national mythology of the small, plucky, fiercely independent and ultimately patriotic and self-sacrificing people that we have constructed around ourselves. We may be dysfunctional, fractious and self-destructive, but when all is said and done, we come together in times of crisis to defend our fraught patch of earth, with fearsome results.
            The traditional celebration of OXI thus invites parallels with other events in Greek history in which it is believed that similar traits are exhibited. The 1821 Revolution in particular, is considered to be a close parallel, for there, much like in the case of the 1940 fighters, an oppressed, weak David combined to slay a gigantic Goliath and in the process, secure freedom. Furthermore, as was the case in 1940, that freedom was largely secured in the mountains of Greece.
            Those who seek to prove doughtiness as a Greek trait may even be tempted to proceed further into the mists of history, seeking parallels in the Persian Wars of ancient times. In those wars, the fragmented and perpetually squabbling Greek city states put aside their differences and combined to defeat a superpower, in much the same way as the Greeks did in 1821 and 1940. If one was to draw the parallel further, one could claim that in the century after the Persian Wars, the Greek people combined under Alexander to take the fight to the Persians themselves, though this may be stretching the paradigm too far.
            Our characterization of ourselves as indomitable rascals who come through in the end acts as balsam to our assuaged egos, at times of crisis. We tend to point to key events in our history such as OXI, 1821 and the Persian Wars, in order to prove that though we may be bankrupt, socially disintegrating and lacking in the esteem of the rest of the world, we still harbor within us, the dormant seeds of greatness, which seek only some further crisis as the catalyst by which to re-generate it. National poet Kostis Palamas expresses this aptly in the prophecy section of his epic poem “The Dodecalogue of the Gypsy,” in which he foresees: “Having no further step, down which to descend, upon the stair of Evil, you will feel, for the ascent which calls you, the sprouting of your wings, your former, great wings.” It comes as no great surprise that Kostis Palamas penned this work in response to another great catastrophe that blighted Greece: the failed war of 1897 and Greece’s resulting bankruptcy.
            Yet to view these key events isolated from the context in which they took place is to perhaps obfuscate our true nature. For while it is true that the freedom loving Greeks sacrificed a good deal in order to secure their independence in 1940 and we are right to commemorate them, it is also true that the organized freedom fighters also divided in warring factions, concerned more with securing their own position and interests (which generally corresponded with that of their patrons), so that with the inevitable withdrawal of the Germans from Greece, they could seize power. A bloody and brutal Civil War ensued, whereby patriots bent on securing the freedom of Greece exterminated each other for having different views as to how that freedom actually was constituted. This in turn caused the armed intervention and in some cases, occupation by foreign powers such as Britain and Yugoslavia. The bitter after-effects of this conflict have blighted Greek society ever since.
            Such internecine strife was not without precedent. The “glorious” 1821 captains, who so boldly led the Greek people in their fight against the oppressive Ottoman Empire, often proved to be more interested in abrogating to themselves, the perquisites of the Pashas, rather than securing the equality and freedom of their people. In the furtherance of these interests, they feel upon each other, squabbling for power and position and ultimately, causing the first civil war of free Greece, in 1823-1824, when the heroic Kolokotronis refused to return the fort of Nafplion to the Greek state, and then, the second Greek civil war, between 1824, 1825, when the noble Kolokotronis roused the residents of Tripolitsa against the local tax collectors of the government. As a result of the infighting, the Revolution itself was placed in peril and in fact it was through the intervention of no less a  personage than Ibrahim Pasha, who was well on the way to conquering Peloponnesus for the Ottomans, that Kolokotronis, captured by Kolettis, was eventually released. Finally, the intervention of a British fleet was required to secure the independence that Greek infighting almost lost.
            This too is not without precedent. For in the aftermath of the Persian Wars, the victorious Greek city states, instead of relishing their freedom, fell to fighting against each other in the Peloponnesian Wars and beyond. In doing so, they enlisted the assistance of their erstwhile enemy, Persia, which ended up, not only re-taking the Asia Minor coastline of Ionia, whose revolt proved the catalyst for the war, but also becoming the arbiter of disputes between the Greeks. Again, Greek rule of the Greek areas liberated by the Persians was decidedly more brutal than that of the enemy itself. Archaeologists generally agree that the cities of Ionia exhibited markedly greater development after their re-subjugation to the Persians, than during the time of their rule by their Athenian compatriots.
            Finally, if we are to include the Persian-empire busting achievements of Alexander within this paradigm, it is worthwhile considering that his diadochoi, fell to fighting each other, a fight that continued for centuries, culminating in their enlistment of the emerging Roman juggernaut as an arbiter of their disputes, and finally, their conqueror.      
OXI then should not only function as a celebration and conduit for the expression of national pride, but also as a cautionary tale. After all, if the Persian Wars have an Ephialtes, the 1821 Revolution has a Pilios Goussis and 1940 has any number of sell-outs or traitors. We have a right to be proud of our spirited defence of our motherland throughout history. We do not however, have a right to completely ignore our inability to maintain a state of cohesion and our tendency to turn on each other in pursuit of our own interests, at the moment of triumph. Celebrating, as we have done, OXI from the bottom rungs of Kostis Palamas’ ladder, we would do well to remember this, when next our erstwhile waxen wings sprout, and we fly yet again, too close to the sun.


Saturday, October 18, 2014


Little Britain is a British character-based comedy sketch show, comprising sketches involving exaggerated parodies of British people from all walks of life in various situations familiar to the British people. Little England, on the other hand, is a Greek film by Pantelis Voulgaris, comprising an inordinately long narrative of affluent pre-war bourgeois Andriots, in various situations familiar to the Greek people.
“The feelings portrayed in the film – love, separation, loneliness – are timeless. All these emotions have always been a part of the world of cinema. There is no such thing as decadent or marginal emotions. The characters’ emotions in the movie are not specific to any era or time period,” Pantelis Voulgaris comments on the film.
Little England, which is a sobriquet that seems only tenuously relevant to the isle of Andros’ relative pre-war prosperity, where the drama is interminably played out over an excruciating two and a half hours, concerns itself with the inevitable compromises and loss of love forced upon a young girl in order to secure her financial future. In a manner reminiscent to Euripidean drama, the doomed lover, Media-like, turns on herself in self-destruction, sacrificing her family unit and children, not when she is forced to marry someone she does not love, nor when she is is forced to endure years of living in close proximity to him, nor when she is forced to hear him make love to her sister, who he has married, but rather when, his ship, aptly named Mikra Agglia, sinks, with him on board. Here the symbolism to a Greek audience is easily identifiable. Ships are said to be the conveyors of dreams. When they sink, so too does hope.
Though the climax is easily foreseeable, such is the power of Voulgaris’ cinematography, ably evoking an antediluvian idyllic natural environment, in richly adorned scenes and juxtaposing it against the emotional trials of his heroines, that he is able to convey the viewer through some extremely stilted dialogue, as well as predictable and stereotypical behaviour of the characters in the movie. The males especially, appear to be two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, rather than well rounded human beings. One plays the patient, jilted and enormously wealthy but un-loved husband and father, the other, the dashing, entrepreneurial lover and raconteur, and the other, the distant, lonely, gentle pater-familias. We learn next to nothing about these men. We are given no insight into the way they think, how they feel about the situations they are thrust into or what the alternatives to their situation in life comprise their hopes. Instead, they plod along, more like pawns in a games of cross-chess played by the females of the movie than well rounded characters in their own right.
In one view, this is a flaw. The cuckolded, unloved husband displays no emotion when learning of his wife’s public declaration of love for her brother in law. Instead, emotionless, he packs up his children and exits the stage. Similarly, the closest the lost lover comes to emotion is in detailing the acquisition of his ship, which according to him, will “right wrongs,” and in, according to his lover’s post mortem account (and we do not know if that account is real or a fantasy) indulging in a bout of furtive love making. On the other hand, the pater-familias is also disengaged and silent, being silenced with just one statement when he dares to take his wife to task for engineering the destruction of her family.
Viewed differently however, Voulgaris has perhaps evoked, better than anyone else, the almost unreal and caricature-like quality that the almost always absent males evoked in the plans and consciousness of Andriot females. According to this view, given they are never home, they are extraneous to the real narrative which is female focused. Which view of the movie is correct is a vexed question, for while Voulgaris was presented with a brilliant opportunity to analyse the introverted, Byzantine composition of the female sub-culture of Andros, he chose not to do so in depth, giving us instead, tantalising snippets of repressed sexuality in scenes where the women dance with each other in male clothing, reminisce about retaining the taste of their man’s mouth on their lips years after his demise or lamenting the fact that they were not even able to wear out one set of linen. In this, we are presented with an idealisation of the absent males that is as intriguing as it is far from reality and judging how much the ideal male as opposed to the real male features in the Andriot women’s construction of their world view is a fascinating endeavour. Voulgaris here amply proves his mastery of the art of insinuation.
Where the movie possibly could be said to derail itself is in the inexplicably long denouement after the heroine’s mental and physical breakdown. It appears that Voulgaris is playing catch up, rushing to fill in the back-story and the lacunae in the script that are necessary for the viewer’s complete understanding of what has been left unsaid. One could suggest that this detracts greatly from the emotional intensity of the film, which appears, after it has resolved itself, to flow endlessly on, to no apparent aim. At any rate, it plays merry hell with its internal rhythm. Nonetheless, the agonizingly slow physical and mental decay of the heroine, coupled with the lapse into irrelevancy of her once dominant mother and the descent into bitterness by the once flighty and hopeful younger sister possibly serve as a cautionary reminder that when lives are built upon stereotypes, ideologies or bourgeois susceptibilities, things can go remarkably, tragically, irreversibly and rather blandly and lingeringly wrong.
Little England, not an easy film to watch, presents a novel retelling with Euripides Media, in that it is the mother’s ambition and lost love (one that is only hinted at), which proves the catalyst for the destruction of her children. Unlike Media, there is no dragon, or ship to descend and carry her away as a Deus Ex Machina. Instead, the only escape is ignominy and death, or, in the case of the already peripatetic males, flight. As a modern day re-telling, Little England, the feature of this year’s Greek Film Festival, is rich, symbol-laden and harrowing as it is absorbing.
First published in NKEE On 18 October 2014

Saturday, October 11, 2014


The traditional iconography of some of the “warrior” saints of the Orthodox Church has always disconcerted me a little. Saint Eustathios, Saint Minas, Saint George and Saint Dimitrios are invariably depicted in soldier’s armour, something that seems to fit uneasily with the pacifism of Christianity. In some of the nineteenth century, baroque inspired iconography, Saint Dimitrios, patron saint of Thessaloniki, is actually portrayed on a horse, in the process of sticking his spear into a man lying prone on the ground. This martial quality is emphasized in the apolytikion of the Saint, which at our Parish, being the parish of Saint Demetrios in Moonee Ponds, is chanted every week:
“The world has found you to be a great defense against tribulation
and a vanquisher of heathens, O Passion-bearer.
As you bolstered the courage of Nestor,
who then humbled the arrogance of Lyaios in battle,
Holy Demetrius, entreat Christ God to grant us great mercy.”

The apolytikion is not exaggerating when it suggests a global reach for the saint, for Saint Demetrios is one of the most popular saints of the Orthodox world, transcending ethnic and cultural boundaries. In Russian, he is called Dimitri of Saloniki and was a patron saint of the original Rurik dynasty from the late 11th century on. Izyaslav I of Kiev, whose Christian name was Dimitry, founded the first East Slavic monastery dedicated to Saint Demetrios and of course, the name Dimitri is in common use in Russia today. In Kosovo he is known as Shmitri, in Albania as Shën Mitri and in Lebanon and what is left of Syria, as Mar Dimitri or Mitri, a protector of the beleaguered Christians of the region.
From the Synaxarion of the Orthodox Church, we learn that Saint Demetrios came from a noble family in Macedonia and that he rose to a high military position under Maximian, Caesar of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, reaching the rank of proconsul. When Maximian returned from one of his campaigns to Thessaloniki, which was his capital, he had games and sacrifices celebrated for his triumph. Saint Demetrios was denounced as a Christian, and thrown into prison. While in prison he was visited by a young Christian named Nestor, who asked him for a blessing to engage in single combat with the giant Lyaios, who was posing as the champion of paganism. Saint Demetrios gave his blessing and Nestor, against all odds, slew his opponent in the arena, as David had once defeated Goliath.
 The enraged emperor, learning that this had occurred with Saint Demetrios's aid, first had Nestor beheaded outside the city and then had Saint Demetrios impaled in prison. Later Saint Demetrios’ servant Lupus was beheaded after using his master's blood-stained tunic and signet ring to work many miracles. The Thessalonian Christians buried Saint Demetrios and Nestor next together in the bath where he had been imprisoned. During the seventh century a miraculous flow of fragrant myrrh was found emanating from his tomb, giving rise to the appellation Myrovlitis, the Myrrh Gusher to his name. His tomb is now in the crypt of the great basilica dedicated to him, in Thessaloniki.
 Extreme popularity for Saint Demetrios is first attested in the sixth century. It grew because of his miraculous interventions in defense of Thessaloniki during the many sieges it endured during the early Middle Ages, particularly by Slavic tribesmen who overran the Roman provinces of Hellas and Macedonia during the sixth through to the eighth centuries. It is for this reason, out of insecurity and fear, that the saint’s martial quality have been so emphasized and indeed, the final liberation of Thessaloniki in 1913 has also been attributed to him.
The very first pages of the Russian Primary Chronicle, on the other hand, maintain the saint’s marital qualities but present him as a punisher of the Greeks. The Chronicle relates that when Oleg the Wise threatened the Greeks at Constantinople in 907, the Greeks became terrified and said, “This is not Oleg, but rather St Demetrius sent upon us from God.” Russian soldiers always believed that they were under the special protection of the Saint, Demetrius, who was always depicted as Russian in icons displayed in Russian army barracks.
Yet in the teaching of the Church, it is the spiritual warfare in which he engaged, that makes him worthy of emulation and in this way, his depiction holding weapons can be reconciled as merely symbolic and not an exhortation to or a glorification of violence.
According to St. Gregory Palamas, Saint. Demetrios was graced with splendid prophetic power and was counted worthy of "the apostolic and teaching diaconate and a high position". He was full of virtues and was not inferior to the saints in asceticism "and in their radiance of life"
The warfare which St. Demetrios waged within his heart was “comparable to the warfare of the great ascetics. He kept his nous pure of any unseemly thought, protecting the immaculate Grace of holy Baptism, had a will that harmonised with God's law "like a book of God and a tablet and plaque engraved by God or a writing tablet written by the finger of God and placed before all for the common use". In this way St. Demetrios was “chaste in both body and soul. He had his citizenship in heaven and walked on an equal footing with the angels, having a body as well. 
The patron saint of Thessaloniki was "both a teacher and an apostle, wise and chaste and holy, and we may say very beautiful and spotless, and made radiant by nature, zeal and grace".
For his encouragement of the young Nestor and his chastity, Saint Demetrius is thus regarded as a protector of the young, and is also traditionally invoked by those struggling with lustful temptations. Thus in his church in Thessaloniki, one of the only mosaics to have survived the Great Fire of 1917, depicts him as a young man, his arms draped protectively around the shoulders of two children.
Given Saint Demetrios’ significance for both the Orthodox Church and the Greek nation, it is not surprising that his feast of 26 October is an important event here in Melbourne, especially for those whose origins derive from Thessaloniki. This year, the significance of the feast is augmented for an event unprecedented in the history of Australian Orthodoxy has taken place: the parish of Saint Demetrios in Moonee Ponds has been granted the gift of a portion of the miraculous and myrrh-gushing relics of the Saint. In this way, all Orthodox Australians are able to feel and witness the immediacy of the Saint, when praying for his intercession, but also partake of a unique piece of history as well. In an age of hard-nosed economic rationalism, of materialism and of spin, the need to touch the ideal of the divine is felt as keenly as ever before. Whether one is called upon, as in the case of Iraq and Syrias’ Christians to compromise one’s faith in order to survive, or in the complacent world of western bourgeois capitalism, to compromise one’s principles and sense of decency, or to sacrifice to any modern day idols, the Orthodox hymns in honour of the saint are a lasting call to remain steadfast:
“Even though callous tyrants gave you over/ to be subjected to the most cruel and painful tortures,/ and thy much-suffering and steadfastly enduring body/ did undergo a multitude of various torments,/ you, O Godly-minded Demetrios,/ did not renounce Christ,/ neither did you offer sacrifice to idols,/ but endured all as if it were somebody else who suffered,/ awaiting future reward and the undying love of the Word of God.”

First published in NKEE on Saturday, 8 October 2014.

Saturday, October 04, 2014


“Controversy is only dreaded by the advocates of error.” Benjamin Rush
Recently, Neos Kosmos featured an important piece of writing penned by Elena Piaki, a year 12 student of literature who sought to portray “collapsing values, such as democratic or cultural values, that were longstanding in the history of Greece but are collapsing due to a rise in xenophobia and fascism - a concerning phenomenon in Greek society.” She attempts to achieve this through the framework of a very human story, involving the relationship between a brother, who has been seduced by Golden Dawn propaganda, his sister and Laila, a Pakistani migrant friend.
            From the outset, the reader is seduced by the expert use of language and clever juxtaposition of symbols. Thus the singing geraniums of Greece (evoking a seventies fun in the sun Greek movie – the basis of many a Greek stereotype) are contrasted with the crimson poppies of Pakistan, which are grown for heroin and thus symbolize exploitation and death. Greece then, is a land of opportunity, one that is a haven and a healer.
Piaki’s expert depiction of the Greek landscape is however, by no means conventional. Lavender walls, limestone churches with the sun bathing their arched windows in golden light, the palace of Knossos and the obliquely streaming sunlight is contrasted with the Golden Mosque of Lahore with its splendid domes and embellished arches. In this inspired passage, Piaki is challenging externally imposed and yet ubiquitously internalized constructions of our own esteem. Could we assume that it is because Laila sees the achievements of Greek civilization as naturally illumined by the sun and thus superior to those of her own, that she feels the need to share her own people’s accomplishments through a comparison with a man-made structure that does not give its own light but merely reflects it? Or is this what the cultural supremacist in all of us wishes to see? Piaki leaves all this tantalizingly ambiguous as she subverts her narrative to cleverly give voice to deep, dark, nefarious instincts and purposes that lurk beneath the subconscious and, in indulging in a masterly chiaroscuro of words, acquits herself brilliantly.
            Thus as the composition progresses, this natural illumination is diminished. In its stead, we are given a ring of street lamps producing a wan light, and a darkness that is overpowering. Gone is the warmth of hospitable, life-living Greece. Rather, it is now cold, the shop fronts are unlit and the fountain, a symbol of vitality, has now become an ‘ice-sculpture.’ It is in this hostile, unrecognizable territory, which forms a corollary to the increasingly unrecognizable brother, as he recedes from the light and warmth of friendship and family ties and falls further and further into the darkness of Golden Dawn, that a terrible crime of racial hatred will take place. Piaki inverts the physical environment and nature itself, in order to demonstrate just how unnatural and alien crimes of racial hatred are to civilized humanity.
            In keeping with Piaki’s understated approach, the actual abuse that takes place is not described. Instead it is left to the reader’s imagination and this merely serves to highlight the dramatic intensity of a piece that is sophisticated, well-constructed, multi-faceted and highly polished. We would all do well to look out for the youthful Elena Piaki’s future work as,  she is undoubtedly a writer that displays both talent and promise in equal abundance, one that deserves our community’s support and encouragement.
            Regretfully, both these aforementioned elements appeared to be lacking in the majority of reader responses when the piece was posted in social media. Instead, Elena was treated to a barrage of hatred all of her own by members of the Greek community affronted by her temerity to tackle her subject matter. Her skill in writing, her sensitivity of depiction, all these things passed them by as moths in the night, and instead, they accused her, simply by virtue of the fact that she dared to pen an imaginary piece about the bashing of a female migrant, of self-hate, racism and ignorance.
Some of her critics employed the tried and true Helladic tactic of prohibiting all right to analyze of depict Greece in anyway, if one is not born or does not love there, hence: “I’m sick and tired of the uninformed 'Australakia' shooting their mouths off at topics they know nothing of.”
Others adopted a similar approach, but instead enlisting the fact that Elena is young, in order to imply that her work has no merit:“Keep bagging Greece! Great stuff from a little ignorant kid...”
            These responses paradoxically reinforce the effect and power of Elena’s work. Some of the vitriol and indignation conveyed in them is reminiscent of some Turkish responses whenever the genocide of the Christians of Anatolia is broached. In short, it is difficult for some within the community to even countenance the fact that Greeks could be violent and intolerant and when their perceptions are challenged, they then do become violent and intolerant.
            Of concern however, are those responses that seek to castigate Elena not for implying that Greeks, just as all other people are capable of racism but rather, for considering that violence against migrants or foreigners is reprehensible. Thus:  “Naive , and uninformed is definitely what you are when you call the Greek reaction to 1400 years of muslim invasion , destruction ,slavery and genocide - racism.”
And then there is this which draws together all the elements of the previous responses while further making assumptions (in this case as to the legality of the fictional Leila, whose status is not set out in the original text) of its own:
“Illegal immigrants are deported in Australia on a daily basis! How dare you expecting Greeks to keep illegal immigrants in Greece?! You are right! You don't live in Greece, you have no idea on what's happening in Greece at all...all you do is to call the people there racist! Shame on you!”
In drawing out such deeply disquieting sentiments from her readers, Elena can be assured of the enduring poignancy and relevance of her work in a manner only to be dreamed of by other established writers. She also provides a mirror on a community which not only must address endemic racism as a problem instead of seeking to deny its existence but also on the sections of it which are nasty, aggressive, narrow in vision and incompletely incapable of providing that mutual support and encouragement that comprises a community’s primary role. If this is to be the young Elena Piaki’s first and traumatic encounter with the broader Greek community, one that supposedly prides itself on its offspring’s progress and accomplishments, we all need to exercise self-scrutiny when we ask why latter generations are fleeing organized community involvement and indeed its entire discourse, in droves.
This is because Elena, a writer already on the way to greatness, does not need us. Our community however, if it is to remain relevant and renew itself in the future is in dire need of the razor sharp pen and freshness of approach of every Elena out there, wishing to engage in discourse with things Greek, no matter how confronting or disturbing to our sensitivities these may be.
It was reputedly the Buddha who observed that: “In controversy, the moment we feel anger we have already ceased to strive for the truth and instead have begun to strive for ourselves.” We have Elena to thank for seeing in the sleek Meander, a deadly spider that has taken within us, a multiplicity of terrible forms.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 October 2014.