Monday, September 19, 2005


When the Greek Australian Cultural League of Melbourne was founded in 1974, many things were not foreseeable. In those days, the vast proportion of the Greek community had Greek as its first language and was comprised mainly of 'New Australians' who were struggling to put down roots in their adoptive homelands as well as to maintain their cultural heritage within it.
It was a time of unbounded optimism for the largely youthful Greek Community. Organisation upon organization was being formed, Greek was after a lengthy campaign instituted as a language at Melbourne University, politicians were sitting up and taking notice of our progress as well as courting our vote and the first batch of our community's professionals was emerging from the Universities. During this most vibrant period, the Greeks could not be blamed for gazing proudly at their accomplishments, believing that they had laid the foundations for a thriving Greek-speaking community for hundreds of years to come.
The passage of those thirty years has seen such confidence turn to dust as infighting, poor planning and the ravages of transplantation trauma have rendered most of our Community institutions irrelevant or maintaining a mere ghost like presence, for the sake of posterity. The teaching of Greek has receded from most Universities and from a largely Greek-speaking community, we are now a largely English speaking one with literacy levels in Greek at an unprecedented basic level.
One of the few organisations that has been able to weather the storm of redundancy is the Cultural League, simply by virtue of its democratic constitution. Whereas most Greek organisations had topography as their basis, something which becomes increasingly remote and less useful as a form of self-identification the longer the period spent away from one's place in origin, the League's sole purpose was to provide a supportive environment where aspects of Greek culture could be retained, explored and nurtured. That this task was taken so seriously as to keep it unsullied by the fractious politics that splintered and wounded so many of our community organizations is evidenced by the League’s continued success and relevance to the Greek community at large, something that has been recognized both by the Greek government and our own counterpart bodies.
Cultural activism is always difficult, for its parameters are undefineable and the temptation to create subjective boundaries omnipresent and the League has had to make difficult choices over the years though these have ensured its place as the cultural nucleus of our community. For example, the League was at the forefront of the campaign to reform the polytonic accentuation of Modern Greek to monotonic and also campaigned for the improved and more widespread teaching of Modern Greek in Victoria. Further through the institution of the «Πνευματικά Ανθεστήρια» and the publication of the literary journal "Antipodes" on an annual basis where all artists, authors and poets and indeed all interested parties are invited to compete against each other to produce quality works of Greek literature and art, the League established an early precedent and tilled an already fertile soil to produce remarkable works of an enduring nature. One of its founding members, the now departed poet N. Ninolakis has received critical acclaim both in Greece and Australia and there are scores of other authors and academics, who have laboured within the League throughout the years, to develop the cultural life of Melbourne to such an extent as to have our community accept the appellation of "the New Alexandria" by at least one noted poet and former Greek consul-general in Melbourne.
Those who would purport to purvey 'culture' are constantly faced with the danger of becoming elitist and exclusionary. After all, haute couture, hochkunst, call it what you will does not always appeal or is accessible to the majority. Whereas other organizations wielded their own particularity to devastatingly exclusionary effect, the League did something revolutionary. It opened its arms to the entire community, encouraging people of all walks of life to revel and soak themselves in the vast corpus of Greek cultural tradition, whether historical, literary, musical, visual or otherwise, informing them through lectures and other events as to the main benchmarks of our cultural identity but also providing moral support and encouragement to everyone to try their hands at interpreting and developing their own Greek cultural creations. Thus the League throughout its existence has presided over a period in our community's history where to quote the words of Mao, "a thousand flowers bloom and a thousands schools of thoughts contend," in a truly Democratic Cultural Revolution, without the prerequisite of killing sparrows.
The League is to some extent largely responsible for the creation of a literary genre particularly characteristic to Australia: the writing of memoirs about the first generation's sojourn and settlement in this country. In so promoting the development of this genre, the League served firstly as a salve to the wounds of the dispossessed as they nostalgically recalled their homeland and the trauma of their re-settlement and then as a friend and guide as these writers, through their pain and in many cases, limited education, found themselves suddenly emerging from their works as accomplished literary talents. It says much both about Australia and the League that within its embrace the 'common man' has found a literary haven. It is also quite interesting to trace the development of such works. While much of this work is introspective and deals only with the fringes of Australian society, it provides a valuable historical and psychological record of the effects of migration. Later works are more self-confident and broader in scope, displaying a community that has more or less come to terms with its transplantation and though the spectre of long lost Hellas still looms large, the community now has the luxury of self-assuredly plunging into the intellectual debates of the society of which it forms an intrinsic part.
Unlike other community organizations, the League has also spared a thought for the emerging generations who do not have Greek as a first language. All members of the community are invited to take part in the League's activities and special emphasis is given to permitting one to express their cultural affiliations in any language they feel comfortable with, without condemnation or interference. There is no linguistic elitism or snobbery here. Further, the youth that do concern themselves with the League and its activities, and there are not a few, are not simply ignored, undermined or excluded from its main activities. Rather they are encouraged to take an active part both in ensuring the smooth running of the organization and its functions but also to delve deep into the bottomless pool of Greek culture themselves. There are no end of well-wishers and well-intentioned artists of the first generation who selflessly and benignly assist younger members to find their own artistic voice and boldly exhibit it to the rest of the community. Indeed, there is no greater pleasure than seeing the anxious faces of youth encouraged or coerced into entering the League's annual literary competition break out in a smile of triumph and surprise as their work is rewarded and acclaimed, year after year.
In coming months, the League will launch volume 31 of its literary journal "Antipodes," a representative and thoroughly engrossing anthology of some of the best work in Greek and English garnered from community artists and writers. It is hoped that many more such volumes will follow, though the terminal decline in Greek linguistic competency that characterises the latter generations and their teachers seems to be frustrating the perpetuation of at least the Greek language component of our cultural heritage. If one considers though that cultural institutions function merely to reflect the culture of the community at a given time and to preserve a record of such cultural shifts over its passage, then the League has gone over and above the call of duty and we can safely expect that its determined members shall certainly rise to the challenges of the next age with the same devotion to Greek culture as has ensured its remarkable vitality to the present. Parties interested in the League can contact its president Ms Cathy Alexopoulos at

First published in NKEE on 19 September 2005