Monday, August 17, 2009


“Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” E. L. Doctorow

One of the chief joys of purporting to pen the Diatribe, apart from exasperating its editor with its proliferation of adjectives that quite possibly do not exist in the English language, disembodied punchlines, and mastaba approach to paragraph formation, is that on the odd occasion, the content thereof serves to enthuse or interest readers in some of the most unlikely of places. For example, a Diatribe I had written earlier in the year about Dimitrios Tsafendas, the assassin of the South African Prime Minister Werwoerd elicited a detailed response from a researcher who had obtained further, extensive information on the subject and was in the process of making a documentary. I have been advised that a Diatribe on the Vlach Principality of Pindus is referenced in a Wikipedia entry on Baron Gyula Cseszneky. Other readers just want to share their own thoughts or parallel endeavours. Diatribes devoted to emotive subjects such as the Pontian Genocide also tend to elicit informed responses from readers who are keen to share their own endeavours in recording or coming to terms with this traumatic historical event. Much of the information I receive puts me on a train of enquiry that inexorably leads to the composition of further Diatribes. After all, as Sidonie Gabrielle quipped: “Writing only leads to more writing.”
Most recently I had the pleasure of receiving an email in response to a Diatribe I had written a few years ago now: “I was fascinated to read your summary of the life and significance of Theo Stephanides, on your blog. Currently I am editing the reminiscences of my mother, Vivian Iris Raymond who was born on Corfu, and knew Theo Stephanides and the Durrells. [Lawrence Durrell, the famous author and Gerald Durrell, the zoologist]. As a matter of interest, she was present at the birthday party when Gerald was presented with the little boat that came to be known as "Bumtrinket", and my mother remembers things about the house and events that are not recorded elsewhere. These will be in her book. She also has recollection of Theo Stephanides that will be new to posterity, and will be included.”
After providing this tantalising snippet of information about a family that through Gerald Durrell’s “My family and Other Animals,” were constant childhood companions, Vivian’s son goes on to relate a fascinating tale. During the Second World War, at the age of twelve, Vivian was evacuated to Crete and actually witnessed the battle of Crete, possibly one of our finest hours. Her son is now currently researching these events now to make sure that Vivian’s recollections do not conflict with the historical facts. To his delight, he finds everything his mother recalls to be a true of the events transpiring at that time. He continues to check the facts, as his discovery of salient events from diplomatic dispatches and from other records occasionally trigger a recollection from her that was lost but incipient, and these are filling out the book.
Vivan’s son then seeks to enlist the help of all gentle Diatribe readers out there, especially those cognizant of things Cretan.
During her stay in Crete, Vivian lived with her family on the Venetian estate known as Bella Capina. This was family property of Sidney Merlin. This was also the residence of King George II, before he was evacuated from the island. On the 20th of May the invasion began. Most of the Germans landed to the west and south of Bella Capina, but a small group of Germans landed in the fields around Bella Capina. They were very quickly defeated by the New Zealand force in the area. This is recalled by Vivian, and military records confirm this: it was the B company of the 18th battalion.

On or around the 23rd of May a field ambulance commandeered the house to set up a hospital. The records are not clear, Vivian thinks this was the fourth field ambulance. Her son feels would be helpful to know which field ambulance it was, and if this even was connected to the known bombing of the Red Cross hospital that occurred. In the confusion of battle this information was not recorded and is lost to official archives.
More important to Vivian and her son, is the question regarding the location of Bella Capina, which they have been unable to discover. Vivian’s son pleads: “Is there anyone who can give me an exact location - it would be most helpful to see it on the Google Earth?” If it no longer exists, to know where it had been located would be crucial in setting the scene for his mother’s reminisces.
Vivian recalls that while she and others tending to wounded and dying, orders arrived to evacuate to Sphakia. In her memory they and the personnel walked one day and one night to get to Sphakia, and were evacuated by RNS Napier on the night of 28th to 29th. The evacuation is confirmed in both British and New Zealand war archives. Both she and her brother are the two children registered in the archives as evacuees. In hindsight, Vivian agrees that her amazing trek across the island, reminiscent to that described in Stanley Moss’ “Ill met by Moonlight,” (also a movie starring Dirk Bogarde) may have actually included one full day, one full night, one day hiding in a cave and another half a night of walking. This seems more likely, given that most other reports of the trek suggest that it took two or three days to cross the island, given the difficult circumstances - despite the fact that the cartographic distance along the road is only 35 miles. King George, who left Crete on the 19th of May, and was accompanied by helper troops and assisted by partisans, and travelled on empty roads, took three days to reach the other side of the island.
In the despatches of Major General Freyberg, the estate Bella Capina is described as lying about two miles to the west of Chania. In several other sources, including some diplomatic records, Bella Capina is described as being in Platanias. This is at least 5 miles west of Chania and the location of the estate could be as much as 7.
Now time for speculation: If Bella Capina is in Platanias, then it was over-run by Germans on the 25th of May, and in that case the orders to evacuate must have been given early on that morning at the latest, and would have been local orders only, perhaps orders to move to Galatas, where a new front was being organized. The evacuation from Sphakia had not yet been organized, and the ships were still in Alexandria, Egypt. It is simply not possible that orders to evacuate to Sphakia were given on that day.
However, if Bella Capina is only two miles west of Chania, then it could have been used as a field hospital right up to the 26th of May, when the orders to evacuate to Sphakia were given. It was late on the 25th that decision to evacuate was agreed by High Command, and the ships set out from Alexandria early the next day.
Consequently, Vivan’s son, as historian, has anything from three days to just one day on the road after leaving Bella Capina to account for. In order for him to complete a plausible, verifiable account of his mother’s experience, he would thus need the answer to the following questions:
(1) Where is the estate Bella Capina?
(2) How long would it take to walk from Chania, via Askifou, to Sphakia? The walk was a forced march, but people were tired, thirsty, some wounded and the road was crowded and in a bad condition, and the people were being straffed by German aircraft. Assuming a moderate walking speed, would it be possible to make this crossing in a single night?
If the answers to these questions prove elusive, then publication of the book will be halted and presumably I will never find out the gossip pertaining to Gerald Durrell’s birthday party. Wishing Vivian’s son well in his literary endeavours, we leave you this week, along with our entreaty for information and wonderment as to how heroic Crete continues to inspire, with these words of wisdom by the master himself, Oscar Wilde: “I put all my genius into my life. I only put talent into my works.”


First published in NKEE on 17 August 2009