Saturday, January 17, 2015
"Institutions and organizations are not eternal. People are." It was with these words that the late and much lamented journalist Kostas Nikolopoulos accosted at me at the Greek Film Festival last year, Kostas' propensity to apparate seemingly out of the ether, flash a smile as enigmatic as that of a Cheshire cat, pose a contentious conundrum and then reduce me to a quivering mass of inarticulation as he would then expound his own theories, was something of a tradition with us, having its roots in the way I used to flee in terror at his lofty height, piercing gaze and deep voice, as a child. Nonetheless, it was to the soothing sound of that same voice reading the news on SBS Greek Radio that I would wake up every morning.
Despite attaining the age of majority two decades ago, the almost imperceptible remnants of my irrational childhood phobias ensued that I never ceased to feel a small prickling of terror and unease whenever arguing with Kostas. Furthermore, arguing with someone that has known you since your infancy places you at a distinct disadvantage: they can anticipate how you think, how you will react and which examples you will utilize in pursuit of your argument. There is nowhere one can hide, no manner in which one can dissimulate in order to bluff through. In short, they know you, which is why in the presence of Kostas, I would generally not speak. After all, he had all the answers already.
The Film Festival was one of those times however, when I picked up the verbal gauntlet offered to me. "Nothing lasts forever," I responded, "but if institutions could be eternal, then people would be immortal. And certain people are institutions at any rate. Yourself for example." Kostas made a self-deprecating sweep of his hand before launching into a detailed line of questioning as to which institutions on our community could be said to be eternal. "That's a difficult one," I responded, "but you make me a list of those presidents of our community organisations who believe that they are not immortal." He raised his eyebrows knowingly and smiled.
Kostas Nikolopoulos was, and, notwithstanding his untimely demise, will always be a Greek community institution. Unlike other journalists who act as voyeurs upon a greater stage, Kostas was heavily entrenched within the fabric of the community, constructing both the stage and the players, as well as analyzing them accordingly. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the Greek community's history, his incisive and analytical mind as well as his playful cynicism permitted him to make lasting contributions to our community, whilst having absolutely no illusions, both as to the motivations of many of the people he dealt with, or the ultimate future of our paroikia. I remember sitting with him on the board of the Hellenic Council, of which he was secretary for a brief period of time. After a while, one becomes adept at identifying the political or personal motivations or alignments of all of those who purport to serve the Greek community. Watching Kostas preside over a Hellenic Council board meeting was an education of its own. He charmed, cajoled, exhorted his way through the meeting, assuaging concerns, papering over hurt feelings and bruised egos, in manner so expert, so defiant of definition, that it was sheer poetry personified. It became apparent that here at last there existed someone who had no vested interests, ideological hangups or other more nefarious motivations as there were relevant to the Greek community and was, in the clear presence of his compatriots, merely holding up a mirror to their own self-serving antics, they all the while being mercifully oblivious of his actions. Here then was someone to be admired and treasured for his insights and unique ability to reduce the mass of justification, obfuscation and excuse with which we seek to shroud our lives and petty purposes to clearly distilled nuggets of truth. We didn't always like what we found in the aftermath of his alchemical processes, yet in his infinite charity, Kostas' journalistic centrifuge, in which the egos of Greek community leaders were separated into their constituent parts, was assuredly a gentle one.
"I enjoy talking to you. Your mind appeals to me. It resembles my own mind except that you happen to be insane." Kostas once remarked to me mischievously, quoting George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four. In many ways we were the inverse - he, mostly measured, calculated and meticulously reasoned upon the page, but highly passionate in his interpersonal relations and I, hyperbolic in print, but silent and forever watchful in his presence. These differences notwithstanding, our world view on a diverse range of topics pertaining to the Greek community and much more besides was often uncannily similar and able to be mutually predicted. On the rare occasion where he believed my views were so enormously skewed as to require comment, he would exclaim: "What have you done? You have offended the powers that be!" It would only be after half an hour of questioning the oracle and obtaining suitably Pythic responses that I would once again return, slowly and surely to the realization that great was skill that remained to be honed and polished. Then he would flash that famous smile of his and immediately you would be reminded of what I believe to have been his guiding principal in life: not to take oneself too seriously.
If Kostas Nikolopoulos was not possessed of his rare journalistic talent and drive to provide the readers of Neos Kosmos with an alternate point of view, his job would have been extremely easy. All he would have had to do, was to paraphrase and/or translate the viewpoints and articles of the mainstream English-language media into Greek. He chose, not to repeat or re-hash these, but rather to absorb them, critique them and, in his elegantly phrased articles, formulate a particularly Greek-Australian attitude, not only towards Australian society as a whole, but that of Greece as well. In so doing, and in his often brilliant, no hold barred interviews with Australian politicians he taught the rest of Australia that not only do Greek-Australians have an opinion, but it is one that deserves serious consideration. That, in my opinion, was his greatest and most lasting contribution to our community - the one that will ensure that as an institution he remains eternal and this is why his corpus of writing must be collected, annotated and studied.
Two are the most enduring memories I have of Kostas. The first and most harrowing, is of seeing him break down over the tragic loss of his son Bill, whom I often played with as a child, in an accident some years ago. In in our community grief, like everything else in shared and I cried with him. The second, happier memory, is of seeing this cynical, penetrating man, stretch out his arms to greet the multitudes that had swarmed to catch a glimpse of Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis in 2007. He waved his hands, modulated his voice and whipped up the masses to a frenzy of excitation and only I could see that again, this master puppeteer of truth was holding up an enormous mirror to the crowd's self-delusion and insecurities; that rather than the event being a panegyric to Greece, a quasi-electoral campaign launch for new Democracy or anything else, it was merely an opportunity for Kostas to study them, to dissect and re-assemble their innermost thoughts and fears in order to truly comprehend the dynamic of a community which fascinating him since his arrival in this country. It is this irreplaceable breadth of knowledge, the complexity of a well concealed but limitless humanity and compassion and a remarkable facility to render this in words that will ensure that Kostas Nikolopoulos, journalist, community activist, reluctant mentor and friend will live on within me, and thousands of others, both as an institution and as the singular personality that he was, eternally. Καλήν αντάμωση.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 January 2015