Saturday, December 18, 2010


Just before school broke up for the summer when I was in year 10, at a time shrouded further in the murky mists of the past than I care to remember, our year 11 co-ordinator advised us to prepare for VCE English by keeping an eye out for pertinent issues in the media. One way of achieving this, she suggested, was to view day-time television talk shows, and assess them for content. It was in this injunction that my worship of the divine talk-show trinity, Oprah Winfrey, Jerry Springer and Doctor Phil was born.
So that the nature and hypostasis of this Trinity is understood, a brief doctrinal exposition follows: In the beginning there was the One, and the One was Oprah and her spirit, in the form of Jerry Springer, moved upon the televisual waves. Doctor Phil, her progeny, is generated by her and yet, in order to defeat any outbreak of the pestilential Arian heresy, there was no time in which he was not, for he is of the same essence as Oprah, though possessed of two consubstantial natures: one talk show guru, the other, moustache.
It is axiomatic then, that when in 2002, Christianity Today, published an article called "The Church of O" in which they concluded that Oprah had emerged as an influential spiritual leader, I was enmeshed in throes of rapture. Quoth the daily Christians: "Since 1994, when she abandoned traditional talk-show fare for more edifying content, and 1998, when she began 'Change Your Life TV', Oprah's most significant role has become that of spiritual leader. To her audience of more than 22 million mostly female viewers, she has become a post-modern priestess—an icon of church-free spirituality.”
Her spiritual leadership has over the years taken many forms. Through her segment Oprah’s book-club, she can move and co-erce otherwise not inclined to literacy followers to the reading of main-stream books that could do with the extra marketing. Attempts to have the Diatribe feature on Oprah’s book-club have foundered only due to Oprah’s well-known and long standing feud with Neos Kosmos English Edition’s editor, the unspeakably deep Fotis Kapetopoulos, who (oh the horror!) indulges in literary criticism, when not attempting to gag garrulous diatribists.
Some viewers claim the show has motivated them to perform acts of altruism such as helping Congolese women and building an orphanage. I know how they feel. After one particularly inspiring show, I was moved to build an orphanage for elderly Cypriot women, no Congolese being available in my suburb. They were to be educated upon the reading lists of Oprah’s book-club and empowered by being told how wonderful they are and how they could do anything as long as they believed it. Indeed, I began to preach to them, the “Secret” a self-help program endorsed by the divine Winfrey, in which it propounded that one can change their lives through positive thoughts, which will then cause vibrations that result in good things happening to them. Invariably, the prospective recipients of this noble endeavour informed me that they had been orphans for a considerable period of time, and furthermore any change in their financial status would totally destroy their standing at Centrelink. Furthermore, what good thoughts was I talking about, after the litany of misfortunes that had befallen them in their lives? I was compelled to retreat hastily, firing as a Parthian shot, the fact that a scientific study by psychological scientists at the Universities of Cambridge, Plymouth and California discovered that watching an Oprah Winfrey 'uplifting' clip caused subjects to become twice as helpful as subjects assigned to watch a British comedy or nature documentary, whether voiced by David Attenborough or otherwise.
It is for this reason then, the power to uplift, levitate and sway the masses that Oprah’s status as a spiritual leader par excellence cannot be disputed. Indeed, she may be even more than that, as it appears her power transcends the most implacable and insurmountable religious divides. According to The Wall Street Journal, MBC4, an Arab satellite channel, has centered its entire programming around reruns of her show because it was drawing record numbers of female viewers in Saudi Arabia. Oprah's modest spiritual dress, combined with her triumph over adversity and abuse has caused women in Saudi Arabia to idealize her.
There is much mystery around the personage of Oprah, including unanswered questions about her long-time disciple Gayle King. And then again there are the signs of her majesty: She has been proclaimed "arguably the world's most powerful woman" by CNN and, “arguably the most influential woman in the world" by the American spectator. All this, coupled with the contract of secrecy that those who would serve her must sign, compelling them to silence as to the variety of her manifestations and energies for the whole of their lives, lead me to believe that if Oprah is not a deity, then quite arguable, she is the long awaited Mahdi who is bringing justice and the final judgment to the world.
The signs are plain. On the season premier of her 13th season Roseanne Barr revealed the divinity of Oprah, stating: "you're the African Mother Goddess of us all," inspiring much adulation from the instantly converted studio audience. If this were not enough, the animated series Futurama alludes to her divinity by suggesting that "Oprahism" is a mainstream religion in 3000 AD.
It is therefore evident that Oprah’s arrival in Australia, along with her sophisticated, polished and classy disciples, ushers in a new age for humanity. For though they may stroke the koala, all this is merely to coax psychobabble and misty confessions from would-be heretics and opponents of their crusade to spread Oprahism throughout the cosmos. After all, it was Oprah who proclaimed that "God is a feeling experience and not a believing experience. If your religion is a believing experience, then that's not truly God.” Oprah feels. She feels koalas. This therefore, is an incontrovertible sign.
Before the gentle reader dismisses the above as the ravings of a deranged prophet, consider a caveat if you will: In her televised sermon to her disciples back home, the Great Goddess has asserted that Australians refer to men as "blokes", women "sheilas" and that they like to hang out at "hip joints" called McCafes to down gourmet lattes. This is because it is through the communion of foodstuffs purchased at MacDonalds, that ye shall know her, and fall down upon your knees and worship. After all, you knew that the coining of the McFrappe was a sign and yet, you did nothing, like the seven virgins in the Oprahian parable who were sent to Maccas’ in the middle of the night to get a soft serve, only to find their local store shut in their faces.
Greek and Italian barristas and coffee shop owners howl their discontent at their own peril and we beg them fervently to stop. For if they do not, Oprah will turn her divine gaze away from Greece and decline to set her holy shoes upon that country. And let us face it: Greece is sorely in need of an Oprah. The advent of a plethora of screaming disciples hitting the Athens MacDonald’s should revitalise the Greek economy and cleanse it of its woes in a way in which the Olympics never could. Oprah could publicly endorse fellow American George Papandreou as perennial prime minister and thus do away with the running costs of democracy forever.
Yet the question which begs asking is why Oprah chooses an easy target like Australia for her evangelism, one spoon-fed on the doctrines of the new age and not a hard case like Greece which is in dire need of her gospel. I attribute it to the presence on Greece of a pantheon of chat-show queens furtively sharpening their claws, inflating their breasts and preparing for the onslaught. Oprah against the combined forces of Roula Koromila, Tatiana Stefanidou, Eleni Menegaki, Eleonora Meleti and the knee numbingly stunning Vicky Kaya? Here is Armaggedon, the final battle of the Apocalypse, where all men shall be compelled to choose sides and the prophet of the new age will remark that verily when he was upon us, we did not know him.
But fear not gentle readers, though we shall not know the hour or the day of the final battle, we do know that it is fast approaching, heralded by Her coming. As we prepare for the End of Days then and the dawning of the Eternal televisual age of peace and touchy feely, reach for your McLatte and feel good about yourself. You can do it. And if you can’t, Oprah will show you how.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 18 December 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Undeniably, one of the most enduring images of Melbourne would have to be the tram. This form of vehicular transportation is an experience and microcosm which transcends culture, creed and class. Whether it is by way of stories of rickety W class trams trundling young migrants off to school or older migrants to their place of work or recreation, the conveyance of students and pensioners on innovative concertina trams that are the limousine of public transport, riding rough and ready to the western suburbs or those sleek, ultra low floor, funky streamlined marvels of the technological age gliding designer jeaned paragons of fashion perfection effortlessly down velvet tracks to the eastern suburbs, the tram is an integral part of Melbourne’s identity and of the migrant’s experience. It is in effect, the capillary of communication in the veins of this city.
Such is the effect of the tram on Greek-Australian consciousness, that it has inspired and forms an important and singular motif in Greek-Australian poetry. Second-generation George Mouratidis’ poem “Το Τράμ” evokes a nightmarish scenario of passengers, victims of their own sloth and narrowness of horizon, stuck in a tram, forever compelled to follow the same tortuous route ad infinitum, without the hope of escape and is a startling treatment of various issues of identity, tradition, the stagnation of modern culture and the alienation of people from society, in a novel but very Melburnian way. This is Greek –Australian poetry at its best. In another poem by yours truly, the incessant travelling of trams along their tracks has the effect of wearing them down until they sink deeper and deeper into the ground, till their roofs form the tracks of the trams for the next generation, who are doomed to repeat the process. This is supposed to be a paradigm of the stability, stagnation and relevance of tradition to identity. On its literary merit I reserve comment. After all I should not want to toot my own horn, or in keeping with our tram motif, clang my bell.
One of the observations that second-generation Melburnian Greeks used to make in the eighties, when holidaying in Greece for the first time, is that it lacked trams. Instead, there were these strange mulatto bus-tram crossbreeds known as trolley buses whose top half resembled a tram and the bottom half, a bus, in imitation one would think, of the anatomical structure of the ancient centaurs. The illogicality of permitting such a strange vehicle to roam the streets of Athens unchecked was not easily fathomable. Many were the Greeks who attributed Greece’s lack of development as compared with Australia at that time, not to Greece’s abandonment of the ancient and hallowed traditions of Socrates and Plato, but to the fact they had not introduced trams to the country. Nor could cryptic remarks by Athenian grandmothers, alluding obscurely to a time before time, when Athens was betracked, be fully understood.
Yet it emerges after careful investigation that Greece did indeed enjoy a tram system and this, towards the end of the nineteenth century, when in the common conception of the period, Greeks were still wearing the foustanella and riding on donkeys to the borders of the new Greek state to expel the last remnants of the invaders. It emerges that this is not entirely so. For Greek warriors could rely on the humble tram to get them at least, through the centre of Athens.
The tram first made its appearance in Greece at the beginning of 1880. More specifically, on 21 September 1880, a contract was signed between the Greek government and the Belgian company Laminoirs, Forges Fonderies de Jemmapes, Victor Demerbe et Co for the creation of a Greek Tramway Company, which would enjoy a monopoly of the entire prospective network until 1931. The company began to lay tracks throughout the centre of Athens and Pireaus and by 1882, the network was complete. The new Greek tram network comprised of twenty-seater carriages that were open in summer and closed sixteen seater carriages for winter. These carriages were pulled by three horses. For the purposes of the trams, eight hundred horses were imported from Asia Minor. The small Anatolian horse, nervy but lithe was, considered ideal for the hilly streets of Athens as well as the frequent stops. The first tram network connected the centre of Athens with the inner city suburbs of Patissia, Ambelokipoi and Kolokynthou, while there was also a separate line linking Omonoia Square with Zappeion and Kerameikos. Later, in 1902, this network was extended to cover Hippocratous, Mitropoleos and Acharnon streets.
The advent of the steam engine caused a revolution in the tram network. There was enough power to pull five to seven carriages, increasing the number of seats available to thirty. The steam driven trams were a source of much amusement to Athenians. They were known as the «κωλοσούρτης» or ‘arse-dragger’ as they were tortuously slow up-hill and owing to the lowness of their carriage, they seemed to be slithering on the ground. It was not an unaccustomed sight in turn of the century Athens to see passengers alighting a tram and having to push it up-hill. It was the almost-farcical steam trams that inspired Athenian wits to write the well known song:
«Ταράμ ταράμ ταράμ,
σταμάτησε το τράμ,
και μπήκε η χοντρή
κι έσπασε η μηχανή.»
Unreliable and prone to breakdowns, the steam tram system continued in Athens right up until 1909, providing a service every forty minutes. In 1909 however, a steam engine exploded, causing injury to many and the steam line was discontinued.
Meanwhile, other Greek areas were experimenting with trams as well. Samos, then a principality under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Sultan was a world centre of tobacco production and its far-seeing Prince felt that trade would be augmented by way of the construction of a tram network through the major port town of Karlovassi. These were inaugurated on 25 September 1905. Two tramlines were built, one through the town centre and another along the shoreline, through the main industrial precinct towards the port. This service was designed only for industrial use, the conveyance or produce to the port. Both services were horse driven and did much to boost the local economy. So popular did the Karlovassi horse-drawn tram service prove that it continued right up until the Second World War.
In Athens however, steps were taken to electrify the tram network. The steps, which began in 1906 and were scheduled to take as long as the Athens Metro to be completed, were finalized quick-smart in the wake of the 1909 disaster. The first line to be electrified was that of Larissa Station. Athenians now enjoyed an unprecedently smooth service. The new Belgian made trams were closed, of a beige colour, with electric lighting and – in a surprising development – had comfortable upholstered seats for sixteen people. These trams made a vast impression on the Athenians. When they were first introduced, many would jump on and ride the tram to the end of the line three or four times, out of sheer delight at the new form of transport. It is rumoured that the price of the new tram ticket, being 10 lepta as compared to the old 35 lepta payable for the horse drawn service did much to make the new electric trams popular.
So popular was the tram system that between 1908 and 1910, that the Greek Tramway Company constructed further lines, extending the network to a total length of 65 kilometres, a transportation feat of the age. These lines took the number of lines in the tram system to 16 beginning in the centre of Athens and concluding in various suburbs. The port of Pireaus also had 6 lines and it is remarkable that this mini tram renaissance saw the number of passengers rise dramatically from 23,250 per day in 1910 to 63,000 per day in 1925.
The Athens tram system, considered one of the most sophisticated of its day was well thought out and provided easy access to almost all of the city. While the Greek Tramway Company had been dissolved in 1931 and a new transport company formed by the government which began to experiment with buses, this did not lessen the trams’ appeal. In 1931 and despite the novelty appeal of buses, 60,000 Athenians used buses daily while 190,000 remained loyal to the tram. This caused a major rehaul of the tram system in 1939 while 60 ultra modern, aerodynamic trams with automatic doors, leather seats and collapsible backs were purchased in 1940.
Unwittingly, these trams were to prove of historic significance. For it would be in these trams that euphoric Greek volunteers packed themselves into to conscript themselves for service to the Albanian front. Nevertheless, after the war, the level of devastation that Athens received as a result of the ‘Dekemvriana’ civil conflict which resulted in the tearing up of tracks and the disruption of all services, along with the highly suspect tearing up of tracks at Chauteia and Kypseli in 1953, sounded the death knell for the Greek tram system. The Greek government used this latter incident as a pretext for announcing that the entire tram system would be abolished given that it obstructed the free passage of motor cars, which were becoming ever more prevalent.
Of course this is a complete antithesis to modern town planning which seeks to minimize traffic in the inner city and augment the operation of public transport. In that cursory decision, the Greek government consigned the bustling but easy going city of Athens to the dustbin of historical nostalgia. Instead, for illusory considerations, they facilitated the development schizophrenic and highly dangerous traffic purgatory which forms the main characteristic of Athens today.
Owing to the pitiable state of the Greek treasury, the tram system had to be dismantled in stages. The last tolling of the tram bell took place at Agia Triada of Kerameikos at midnight, 16 October 1960. The humble tram, which had trundled Greece out of the age of Deligiannis and into the age of the Dictators, which in its 52 year life span serviced the needs of millions of people was exiled from its roads. Greece of course has now seen a comeback of the tram, notably in Athens, since 2006 though it is uncertain whether its network will spread.
Perhaps it is not coincidence that the major wave of Greek migration to tram friendy Australia took place after the abolition of the tram. It was perhaps these indignant devotees who in the puritan tradition took to the seas to establish a tramocracy in their host countries.
Farce aside, it cannot be disputed that the tram has played a significant part in the histories of both Greece and Australia. Whether a repository of nostalgic dreams, of cherished experiences or of the banality of everyday life, the humble tram, for aeons to come will trundle along its tracks, secure in the knowledge, as Cavafy puts it, that it is not the destination that counts, but rather, the journey.


First published in NKEE on 11 December 2010

Saturday, December 04, 2010


In the 1989 fantasy film, "Field of Dreams," Kevin Costner hears a disembodied voice whispering "it you build it, they will come." As a result, he sets about building a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield, despite his peer's belief that he is rather lacking in sanity. Finally, when the field is completed, ghostly baseball players of the past come out to play, along with Costner's deceased father.
Whether GOCMV president Bill Papastergiadis hears voices, as opposed to the anguished wailing and gnashing of teeth of the dispossessed opposition is something that has never been disclosed in the various campaign literature and community newsletters. One could however conjecture that if he does hear voices, they are those not of the departed but rather, of members yet to come.
This would after all, go some way in explaining the urgency in which the matter of developing the decrepit GOCMV HQ on Lonsdale Street is being dealt with. Despite cries of caution, impassioned pleas that other alternatives be looked at for development, such as the vast impassable wasteland at Bulleen, or that at least a committee of mathematicians be convened in order to consider the combinations and permutations of the precise order in which one could sell off various unproductive GOCMV assets in order to finance such a grand enterprise as a fully engorged tower, standing proud and erect on a street-corner for years to come thus ensuring the perpetual virility of our community, an annual general meeting is to be held in order to obtain member's consent for the erection of such a marvellously large edifice.
Despite the justifiable misgivings many may have as to the process in which the construction of the tower is to be funded, it cannot be disputed that the refurbishment of the GOCMV's building is a necessary and beneficial undertaking. It is nothing more than the manifestation of the crest of the wave of momentum that has revitalised the GOCMV's other undertaking - the running of Alphington Grammar School, among other things, the admirable galvanisation of prominent members of the community to take an interest and donate generously to it. There is now within the administration of the GOCMV a can-do and let's get things done ethos that would put the most fervent Obama supporter to shame. Furthermore, there is a vision for the future, something that though extant in the past, tended to lose itself among the Byzantine micro-politics and fractiousness associated with a membership intent upon pursuing rather irrelevant political and personal agendas rather than the true function o the organisation - to forge us into a community and a family. Today, there is renewed interest in the workings of the GOCMV by sectors of the community that hitherto felt it was not their place to be so involved, or who felt excluded from its vision and workings owing to their political, religious or regional affiliations. This opening of the GOCMV to the broader Greek community is timely, coming as it does during an era where the small, insular tesserae within the mosaic of Greek community organisations are beginning to come unstuck, exposing frightening patches of stark white plaster in their stead.
Consequently, we stand upon the threshold of the GOCMV that, given the correct choices and addition of the requisite amounts of goodwill, is poised to become larger, more representative, and finally, able to provide tangible benefits to its members - something that hitherto has not been possible - all neatly packaged and contained for easy storage in a large and quite appealing building. Or at least one hopes so. For among the chief selling points of the tower, (and one that is particularly appealing is the fact that we shall have, in the heart of the city, a great big skyscraper, or at least a modest but tasteful and respectable one, to attest to our presence and importance to Melbourne in a way that a few novelty shops along Lonsdale Street, or a neo-Greek theme park in out of the way never could. Furthermore, should we perish from the face of the earth; we shall always have this lofty construction as a fitting monument to our passing. Indeed, we could in that eventuality, emulate our Zoroastrian brethren and transform our ziggurat into a tower of silence, whereupon our bodies may be exposed to the fowls of the air, in the hope of a righteous resurrection,) apart from the fact that it represents probably the last opportunity we will have to prove that working together as an organised Greek community and actually achieving something tangible is not just something that was done in the past and indeed that we are not just a motley collection of pontificating, self-interest and totally impotent contemplators of our own fundamental orifices with not even the suspicion of a capacity for collective action, is its capacity to house various vital cultural facilities.
It is at this point that we deserve to make poise. Other organisations, notably Pontiaki Estia, also planned the construction of "cultural facilities" on the site that they now wish to sell. To adopt the "if we build them, they will come" attitude, common to all brotherhoods who struggled to acquire and pay off their buildings,για τα παιδιά τους, only to contemplate empty and dusty halls at the conclusion of their endeavours, to culture is a recipe for failure. It has been proven time and time again that it is not enough to idealistically embark upon projects in the hope that these may strike accord with generations and interest groups that have not been consulted.
The centring of cultural facilities under one roof certainly makes sense and will have the consequence of causing the projected tower to become the cultural hub and fulcrum of the Greek community in the future - that is - if we truly are into culture - something that is arguable to say the least. However before any determination as to the nature of these cultural facilities is to be made, it is imperative that the GOCMV conduct a proper enquiry and needs analysis as to the present state of Greek cultural activity, especially among the youth. In actual fact, the most common pursuit of those youth who concern themselves with Greek culture is Greek music and traditional dancing. They are certainly not represented in any significant numbers in any of the Cultural Associations that exist. Thus, though one would stand in awe and rapture at the prospect of having a lecture theatre, auditorium, lending library and perhaps small cinema room within the complex, is this firstly feasible and secondly, would future generations make use of these facilities? Would indeed, they feel welcome to do so? To this it would be frightening if there could only be one answer: "If you build them (hopefully) they will come."
Ultimately, everything depends on whether the members of the GOCMV have the courage and self-knowledge to realise that we are at an important crossroads, with regard to our future. While the tower represents an amazing opportunity and challenge, if we continue to utilize our organisations as a means for the little man to play politics, if we continue to foster within them a climate of unfriendliness, suspicion and exclusion, no project aimed at bringing people together will succeed, for no one, unless they are psychologically ill, wants to socialise in an unhealthy environment.
Notwithstanding the many questions that need to be answered about the construction of the Tower, in my mind, a large centrally located building that can welcome all Greeks to it, assist in the co-ordination of their activities and provide real benefits to its members in the form of cultural and social facilities, assist members of our community who are in need and indulge in our inherent need for gossip and light-hearted social interaction, is a project worth fighting for, especially now that the State Government has pledged its support. For the alternative, a continuation of the slow, nasty sinking into the foetid quagmire of insularity, alienation and stagnation, is too beastly to consider. The GOCMV general meeting therefore is not an opportunity to thwart perhaps the most visionary idea we have had in decades, simply because we harbour a dislike for its proponents, but instead a veritable chance to put aside past squabbles, link arms and project our existence, decades into the future.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 4 December 2010