Saturday, July 27, 2019



From the sunken pillows of the weathered leather couch, Yiayia’s pinprick black eyes peered intently at the bulky form of the priest looming over her. Slowly, he fumbled with a small metal case, the unintelligible fragments of barely audible words emerging from his mouth as he did so. As the priest raised a spoon, Yiayia, who had been lying prone for weeks, suddenly sat up, ramrod straight and pulled her black headscarf over her hair. As she opened her mouth, her eyes flickered, flecks of anger and distaste flashing across her dilated pupils. The pre-sanctified Body and Blood of Life was about to enter the body of one who was about to taste Death. It was this irony that rested upon Yiayia’s eyebrows and jerked them down into a frown. One hundred and five years of banality, punctuated by moments of indescribable anguish and sublime joy, only to have as a coda, the promise of life everlasting, even as the terrestrial life ebbed away. Yiayia was furious. She swallowed her spoonful of Life mechanically, as if in protest and lay back on the couch, turning her head away from the priest, towards the clock on the wall, which had stopped. She sighed.
«Γιαγιά, είσαι καλά;» I asked.

«Καλά,» she scoffed, shaking her head sideways, the way old ladies from the village do when their bodies seek to negate or invert the meaning of enunciated words. It would be the last word she would ever speak. I did not suspect this at the time, because my olfactory nerves cannot detect death. Even as the room became infused with the heavy, somnolent odour of mortality, causing my grandmother’s daughter to open the sliding door behind the priest and to comment: «Θα πεθάνει τώρα η μαμά,» all I could smell was Life. So too could my aunt, who asked the priest if her grandchildren could take communion as well. “No,” he said, almost wistfully. “If you want them to take communion, you need to bring them to church. This is for the infirm and the d….”

My auditory nerves also cannot sense death, which is why my ears could not decode the requisite resonances so as to enable me to process that which was imminent. Yiayia could though, which is why she lingered for two days longer, just enough time, according to her calculation, for me to reconcile myself to her end. It didn’t work. I held her in my arms for hours, until all the warmth had passed from her body, looking at her still, black eyes staring sightlessly at my tears. I looked at her mouth, her thin lips wincing, in the exact position they had assumed just prior to receiving communion. I reached out a finger to touch them and then held back. It would not do to touch the Holy of Holies. I buried my face in her neck instead, feeling it turn, in discernible stages, from Yiayia, into a cold parody of life.

Yiayia was there for my first communion, I am adamant that this is the case, even though I was barely a year old when I was baptised. I remember walking on my first birthday. I also remember Yiayia’s black eyes boring into me from the church iconostasis, where she was ensconced, even as I struggled to accept the fire that was raging down my throat. Her gaze commanded silence. I stopped crying and was still. My mother argues that I am conflating Yiayia with Saint Paraskevi, but in our church, the black clad Saint Paraskevi is situated at the north end of the iconostasis, whereas Yiayia was right next to the Royal Doors, wearing a red headscarf, holding my uncle Pavlo who died as a baby, in her arms.

My paternal grandmother, a frequent church-goer, always referred to communion as μεταλαβία, that which is passed on to be received, my maternal great grandmother, who rarely went to church, referred to it as κοινωνία. As a child, this word for me meant society, or community, and I could not understand why she asked me when I visited every Sunday, whether I had socialised, or communed. «Κοινώνσες μάνα᾽μ;» Nor could I understand why, when answering in the affirmative, she would invariably respond: «Άι, βοήθειά᾽ς,» my paternal grandmother having imparted that μεταλαβία was perhaps the most powerful of help mankind could ever receive.
Sometimes, I wasn’t sure what to answer. Sure I had taken communion, but I actually hadn’t socialised with any of the ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ waiting outside the church to greet my parents. Painfully shy, I would shun their company and walk right past them wordlessly to hide behind the corner, leaving my parents to catch up on the latest news. “No, I didn’t commune, Yiayia,” I would respond. “Sometimes, I get embarrassed.” As Yiayia was the Life-Giver, she needed no third party account of what had transpired, appreciating my predicament instantly for she could read my thoughts much as she allowed me the limited means to read some of her own. As I grow older, the thick black veil that bars entry to her thoughts gradually recedes and becomes transparent. When its completely fades away, I will know that my time on this earth is up. “Ignoring or denying the people around you is to slap the face of God,” she once pronounced. «Να επικοινωνείς». It is a terrible thing to slap the face of the Living God, almost as terrible as being slapped by the Living God oneself.
Yiayia never slapped me with her hands, only with her words. One Sunday afternoon, having been dropped off at her house earlier than usual, after asking me «Κοινών’σες;» and receiving the ritual answer, she asked me to tell her the time. “I don’t know how to tell the time in Greek, only in English,” I told her. That was an outright lie. I did not know how to tell the time at all, except for the hours. The Life-Giver locked my eyes upon her own and drew herself up to her full height of five feet. «Κοινών’σες είπαμαν μάνα᾽μ;» she enquired, flecks of sarcasm flying from her tongue. Then, stretching out her arm, she pronounced: «Να πεις τς μάνα᾽ς από μένα, μπράβο!» I returned home that night , her rebuke stinging my ears, and almost miraculously, began to tell the time.
Yiayia took communion for the last time at 4:35 in the afternoon. All three of my children took communion at exactly 10:35 in the morning. I know this because I glanced at my watch at the moment the spoon entered their mouths, in case Yiayia asked me later. I do not know at what time I took my first communion, because I could not tell the time then and neither could Yiayia. I know that that the last time I took communion, a few weeks ago was at 10:41 in the morning. «Αρτύθηκες πριν να κοινωνήσεις;» my mother asked me, as we emerged from the church later, refusing to kiss me, as I was now the repository of the Holy of Holies. Fasting before communion is mandatory, for how can you be full of Life, if you are full of foodstuffs already? And if you are already full of those things you desire, then how can you receive those things that the act of communication has to offer? Communion presupposes emptiness.
The truth was that I had not eaten in a day and it being the anniversary of my great-grandmother's death, my heart was heavy. I had not heard the Triumphal Hymn, nor had I with one voice and one heart glorified and praised His most honoured and majestic name. Consequently, the Body and Blood of Life burned its way down my oesophagus and into my stomach with such intensity, that I almost called out in alarm. It was then that her eyes pored once more into mine, relentlessly from the iconostasis, next to the Royal Doors. From the glass that covered her image, I saw reflected from the back wall of the church, the clock, stopped at 4:35. I suppressed my cry, and was still.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 27 July 2019

Saturday, July 20, 2019


“The slightest object from the Acropolis is a jewel.” Lord Elgin

“but molest not yon defenceless urn:
Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre.” Lord Byron

Lord Byron famously remarked, probably in reaction to his friend, the Romantic poet Percy Shelley’s love of ancient Greece that he despised antiquities. Nonetheless, he considered the ancient ruins of Greece to be the sepulchre, or burial ground of a lost civilisation and thus, these took on a sacred character for him. As such, their removal was tantamount to desecration. As he wrote in his seminal poem, “Childe Harold”: “Remove yon skull from out the scatter’d heaps: Is that a temple where a God may dwell?”

Lord Byron thus poured considerable scorn upon Thomas Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, who obsessed with "Phidian freaks, / Mis-shapen monuments and maimed antiques" was removing most of the friezes from the Acropolis and shipping them to England. As the ravaged Parthenon became even more despoiled, Byron railed at the ultimate degradation of what he considered to be the corpse of a whole culture: “Tis Greece – but living Greece no more! So coldly sweet, so deadly fair, We start – for soul is wanting there.” Filled with indignation, he channelled his immense rage against the ignoble depredations of the rapacious Elgin in many stanzas of “Childe Harold,” thus:
"But most the modern Pict’s ignoble boast,
To rive what Goth, and Turk, and Time hath spared:
Cold as the crags upon his native coast,
His mind as barren and his heart as hard,
Is he whose head conceived, whose hand prepared,
Aught to displace Athena’s poor remains:
Her sons too weak the sacred shrine to guard,
Yet felt some portion of their mother’s pains,
And never knew, till then, the weight of Despot’s chains.
Cold is the heart, fair Greece! that looks on thee,
Nor feels as lovers o’er the dust they loved;
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatched thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorr’d!”

Yet this indignation is nothing comparted to the shrieking maledictions he utters in  his vitriolic poem: "The Curse of Minerva."
In that poem, Lord Byron sits alone within the walls of the ruined Parthenon. He invokes a golden Olympian sunset that illumines the whole of Greece:
“Slow sinks, more lovely ere his race be run, Along Morea’s hills the setting sun; Not, as in northern climes, obscurely bright, But one unclouded blaze of living light; O’er the hushed deep the yellow beam he throws, Gilds the green wave that trembles as it glows..”

Suddenly, Minerva, the Roman name of the goddess Athena, appears in front of him. He can hardly recognise her as she has been completely ravaged, by Elgin:
“Yes,’twas Minerva’s self; but, ah! how changed,
Since o’er the Dardan field in arms she ranged!
Not such as erst, by her divine command,
Her form appeared from Phidias’ plastic hand:
Gone were the terrors of her awful brow,
Her idle ægis bore no Gorgon now;
Her helm was dinted, and the broken lance
Seemed weak and shaftless e’en to mortal glance;
The Olive Branch, which still she deigned to clasp,
Shrunk from her touch, and withered in her grasp;
And, ah! though still the brightest of the sky,
Celestial tears bedimmed her large blue eye;
Round the rent casque her owlet circled slow,
And mourned his mistress with a shriek of woe!”

 She addresses Lord Byron:
“Mortal! -’twas thus she spake – that blush of shame Proclaims thee Briton, once a noble name; First of the mighty, foremost of the free, Now honour’d less by all, and least by me: Chief of thy foes shall Pallas still found. Seek’st thou the cause of loathing? -look around.”
Minerva then reveals that the goddess Venus has avenged her: Lord Elgin’s cuckolding and divorce are a punishment for his sacrilege against the Greeks:
“Yet still the gods are just, and crimes are cross’d See here what Elgin won, and what he lost! Another name with his pollutes my shrine: Behold where Diana’s beams disdain to shine! Some retribution still might Pallas claim, When Venus half avenged Minerva’s shame.”

Further in the poem, Minerva attacks Elgin’s Scottish homeland, which paradoxically, is also the ancestral homeland of Byron, likening it to Boeotia, which he considered an infertile and uncultured part of Greece, using this motif in order to call Elgin’s pretensions to culture into question. Ingeniously, in order to avoid being tarred by his own brush, he identifies with the Boeotian  poet Pindar, claiming that just as Boeotia produced a few great men, so too was there hope for selected Scots, “the letter’d and the brave”, provided they were prepared to leave their native land. The poet’s reply, is thus a skilled attempt at blame shifting, one that is necessary, since Byron was not averse to defacing monuments such as the temple at Sounion, upon which he carved his name:

 “Daughter of Jove! in Britain’s injured name,
A true-born Briton may the deed disclaim.
Frown not on England; England owns him not:
Athena, no! thy plunderer was a Scot.”
Minerva bids him to carry her curse home to his native shore. The pronouncement of Minerva’s curse is severe: Lord Elgin, like Eratostratus, who set fire to the temple of Diana at Ephesus, will be forever hated. Furthermore, the British State, a receiver in stolen goods, will also bear her curse:
“First on the head of him who did this deed
My curse shall light,—on him and all his seed:
Without one spark of intellectual fire,
Be all the sons as senseless as the sire:
If one with wit the parent brood disgrace,
Believe him of a brighter race:
Still with his hireling artists let him prate,
And Folly’s praise repay for Wisdom’s hate;
Long of their Patron’s gusto let them tell,
Whose noblest, native gusto is—to sell:
To sell, and make—may shame record the day!—
The State—Receiver of his pilfered prey.”

In a remarkable diatribe against colonialism, Byron presciently predicts that Britain will be punished for her crime against Greece, through the loss of her colonial Empire. Ominously, the revolt of India is envisaged:
“Look to the East, where Ganges’ swarthy race
Shall shake your tyrant empire to its base;
Lo! there Rebellion rears her ghastly head,
And glares the Nemesis of native dead;
Till Indus rolls a deep purpureal flood,
And claims his long arrear of northern blood.
So may ye perish!—Pallas, when she gave
Your free-born rights, forbade ye to enslave.”

Ultimately, and eerily considering the present surreal Brexit climate, Byron foresees that Minerva will strike at home too. Britain will fade into obscurity, an impoverished nation, bereft of values, isolated, with political leaders that are laughable:
  “Look last at home—ye love not to look there
On the grim smile of comfortless despair:
Your city saddens: loud though Revel howls,
Here Famine faints, and yonder Rapine prowls.
See all alike of more or less bereft;
No misers tremble when there’s nothing left.
‘Blest paper credit;’ who shall dare to sing?
It clogs like lead Corruption’s weary wing.
Yet Pallas pluck’d each Premier by the ear,
Who Gods and men alike disdained to hear;
But one, repentant o’er a bankrupt state,
On Pallas calls,—but calls, alas! too late:
Then raves for’——’; to that Mentor bends,
Though he and Pallas never yet were friends.
Him senates hear, whom never yet they heard,
Contemptuous once, and now no less absurd.
So, once of yore, each reasonable frog,
Swore faith and fealty to his sovereign ‘log.’
Thus hailed your rulers their patrician clod,
As Egypt chose an onion for a God.”

Is Teresa May therefore a mere manifestation of Athena’s curse against Lord Elgin, delivered so long ago? Will Boris Johnson be the rod of our righteous anger, in whose hand is the club of our wrath?

In a note to his book “A Journey through Albania and other provinces of Turkey in Europe and Asia to Constantinople,” Hobhouse, Byron’s travel companion in Greece,  wrote: “I cannot forbear mentioning a singular speech of a learned Greek of Ioannina who said to me: “You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks – our forefathers preserved them well -we Greeks will come and re-demand them.”

Of all philhellenes, the cynical Lord Byron perhaps understood us the best, writing to Ioannis Marmarotouris in 1811: “To talk, as the Greeks themselves do, of their rising again to their pristine superiority, would be ridiculous.” His prescience was appreciated by Allen Upward, who wrote: “If Britain gives birth to Byrons, she also gives birth to Elgins; and the Byrons are usually in exile, while the Elgins are in office.”
Yet to those who despair of Britain ever returning the Parthenon Marbles to Greece and being the recipient of retribution, or even of Modern Greece ever becoming a viable country, Lord Byron, in “Childe Harold” provides perfect consolation, for those willing to play the long game, a game as exceedingly long as Byron’s…stanzas:
“A thousand years scarce serve to form a state;
An hour may lay it in the dust: and when
Can man its shatter’d splendour renovate,
Recall its virtues back, and vanquish Time and Fate.”

Let the wait begin.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 20 July 2019