Saturday, August 31, 2019


Generally speaking, Greek-Australians are a diverse tribe. They come from all walks of life and hold any number of political or religious ideologies. They love a good debate and whether in the regional brotherhood, the soccer field or a barbeque, they can be found disagreeing, arguing and putting forth their point of view. One thing that unites all Greek-Australians, is their disapprobation of Thomas Bruce, the seventh Lord Elgin, that thoroughly disreputable figure who in 1801, obtained a firman from the Ottoman Porte allowing his agents to "fix scaffolding round the ancient Temple of the Idols [this being the Parthenon] and to mould the ornamental sculpture and visible figures thereon in plaster and gypsum," but also "to take away any pieces of stone with old inscriptions or figures thereon."
The nefarious Lord Elgin’s agent, the Reverend Phillip Hunt, persuaded the local governor of Athens to interpret the firman broadly, committing brazen acts of vandalism against one of humanity’s most iconic works of art, violently chipping off and carting away, half of the Parthenon frieze, fifteen metopes, and seventeen pedimental fragments, in addition to a caryatid and a column from the Erechtheion. He left the Parthenon, which had survived a millennium intact as the Byzantine Empire’s third most important church, a Venetian bombardment and use as an Ottoman mosque, a ravaged ruin.
Elgin, and the British government, who eventually received Elgin’s stolen goods, was met with derision by such luminaries as Lord Byron, who wrote: “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.” He also predicted the downfall of the British Empire as divine punishment for this act of pillage. Ali Pasha of Ioannina’s doctor and leading scholar Ioannis Vilaras explained to Cam Hobhouse, one of Byron’s friends just how deeply the act of burglary hurt the Greek people:  “You English are carrying off the works of the Greeks – our forefathers preserved them well -we Greeks will come and re-demand them.” Two hundred years later, the Greek people, and many other sympathisers around the world are fighting an uphill battle for the return of the loot from Elgin’s heist, to Athens. The British Museum refuses to acknowledge the crime, let alone provide redress and restitution, indicating just how deeply entrenched colonialist and orientalist attitudes towards the modern Greeks actually are. In their view, they are still the worthy inheritors of the classical world, all the while implying the sentiments that have been levelled against the modern Greeks since times Byzantine: that they are debased, unworthy of their heritage and unable to look after it.
            The fact that Elgin’s name has been given to one of Carlton’s most iconic streets stands as a continuous provocation to the Greeks of Melbourne. The robber seventh Lord Elgin, has no connection with Australia, yet we are expected to acquiesce to honouring the memory of  cultural criminal, simply because our country was once part of the Empire he served. In honouring him, what we are doing in actual fact, is legitimising acts of theft against vulnerable or voiceless nations as well as becoming accomplices in racist ideologies that justify such appropriation. More and more Greeks in our community are beginning to resolve that the continuous existence of an Elgin Street in Melbourne is untenable. It should be renamed because the name of the vandal Lord does not deserve such legitimacy.
            For the Chinese community of Melbourne, Elgin’s name carries even more dire connotations. For notwithstanding the above, Carlton’s Elgin Street actually commemorates James Bruce the eighth Lord Elgin, the plunderer’s son, a thoroughly reprehensible individual. It was the eighth Lord Elgin who took part in the Second Opium War, a war prosecuted by the British with the sole purpose of compelling the Qing Empire to purchase British opium. In effect, the eighth Lord Elgin whose name is born by the homonymous street in Carlton, was a drug pusher in a state run narcotics cartel. When the Qing Empire resisted, concerned about the effects of drug-addiction upon its people, the eighth Lord Elgin led the bombardment of Canton, to great loss of life. When the Chinese continued to resist, the drug-pusher committed an act of cultural vandalism if not greater, than at least equal to that of his malign progenitor: he ordered the complete destruction of the Old Summer Palace, a complex of palaces and gardens eight kilometres northwest of the walls of Beijing, which had been built during the 18th and early 19th centuries, and was where the emperors of the Qing dynasty resided and handled government affairs. 
            With the arch-looter at the helm, the Old Summer Palace was set aflame by 3,500 British troops and burned for three days. Some three hundred remaining eunuchs and palace maids, who had hidden themselves from the British soldier, perished with the burnt palace buildings.
            Priceless cultural treasures, including fine porcelain, gold, jewels and statuary were carted off by the soldiers, the choicest artefacts being reserved for the eighth Lord Elgin, including bronze vessels prized locally for cooking and burial in tombs dating bac to the Shang dynasty and were up to three millenia in age. Like his father before him, the eighth Lord Elgin broke up the famous Zodiac Fountain, a structure that the Chinese government is now, slowly and painstakingly endeavouring to purchase, fragment by fragment.
            Charles George Gordon, later to achieve everlasting fame as Gordon of Khartoum, was present during the pillage, as a seventy-seven year old solider. He wrote with conflicting emotions of the rape of the Summer Palace:
            We went out, and, after pillaging it, burned the whole place, destroying in a vandal-like manner most valuable property which [could] not be replaced for four millions. We got upward of £48 apiece prize money ... I have done well. The [local] people are very civil, but I think the grandees hate us, as they must after what we did the Palace. You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.”
            Having destroyed this priceless cultural edifice and appropriated all of its treasures, the eighth Lord Elgin went on to force the Qing dynasty to accept the unequal treaty of the Convention of Peking, ceding the Kowloon Peninsula to the British colony of Hong Kong and parts of Outer Manchuria to the Russian Empire. He died of a heart attack in India and had no connection whatsoever to Australia save that he served the Empire of which Australia was also a part. Presumably, his name was given to the Carlton Street in order to celebrate the violent addition of Kowloon to the British Empire and the brutal opening up of Chinese markets to British narcotics.
            To maintain the eighth Lord Elgin is a suitable person to be honoured in Carlton is thus to be an accessory to violence, drug-pushing, theft and state sanctioned murder. The legacy of the unspeakably vile eighth Lord Elgin’s deeds are deep wounds within the Chinese collective psyche and a lasting mistrust of the West that endures to the present day and informs Chinese foreign policy to a significant extent. It is no wonder then, that increasingly, members of the Chinese community in Melbourne are expressing their revulsion at the continued use of the name of their oppressor as a name of a prominent Carlton Street. Some have reached out to the Greek community, finding common ground, as co-victims, in the manner in which the Elgin’s exemplify all that was heinous about the British Empire’s racist and violent ideology of appropriation, cultural and territorial aggrandisement in an age that may be long gone, though its wounds remain.
            Had the Elgin’s a connection to Australia, it could be plausibly argued that despite their crimes, they form part of this nation’s history, which we must accept, for better or for worse, and they should not be effaced in the cause of political correctness Yet that argument fails resoundingly, as the Elgins had no connection to Australia nor any impact upon its history whatsoever, making their commemoration ever the more so ridiculous, hurtful and inappropriate. It is high time that the Greek community stands in solidarity with the Chinese community in vociferously demanding that Elgin Street, far from the violent colonial past of vandalism and destruction it celebrates, actually do the opposite: that is, to commemorate the traditional owners of the land upon which the street lies, highlighting the fact that they too are victims of the same policies that saw the Elgins and so many of their ilk, thrive. A traditional name such as Bunjilaka, already the name of a Carlton museum, derived from the words in the Woiwurrung language of the Melbourne region, signifying 'creator', and ‘soil’, the land created by Bunjil, a creation ancestor from south-eastern Australia, or any other name referring to the significance of the are to its traditional owners is thus a fitting and appropriate form of redress and will have significantly more relevance to the area than the memory of a family of aggravated robbers, a festering wound upon the consciousness of three Australian communities. It’s time justice was done.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 31 August 2019

Saturday, August 24, 2019


When the envoys of Kievan Rus returned home from Constantinople, told their master, Prince Vladimir: “We did not know where we were, on heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this. All we know is that God lives there with people and their service is better than in any other country. We cannot forget that beauty since each person, if he eats something sweet, will not take something bitter afterwards.” 

You want to return the compliment when you listen to Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil in the glorious surrounds of one of Brunswick’s most iconic landmarks, the Protection of the Most Holy Theotokos (Pokrov) Russian Orthodox Church. Russian chant, with its dizzyingly high pitch, is a stairway to the Sublime, uplifting, propelling the listener ever towards the Celestial. In contrast, Byzantine chant, its progenitor, is grounded, resonating from the depths of doors of Hades to the Gates of Paradise, echoing throughout the oecumene as it girds itself around the Heavens and pulls them down to make them accessible to all who cast their eyes upward, while never forgetting where they stand.

To stand in the Pokrov Church and to decode its Old Yaroslavl-style iconography as the entire drama of the Gospels unfolds itself before your eyes is to witness the melding of the Greek and Russian traditions of old. The lean, elongated body of Saint John Chrysostom, looms over the iconostasis, while the Prophet Ilia is drawn into the heavens on a fiery chariot of such vibrant hues of crimson, they sizzle at a mere glance. A Greek icon of Panagia Portaitissa guards the north door, while to the south, a mournful icon of Tsar Nicholas II, transfixes the viewer. Yet the pilgrim’s eye is drawn ever up the impossibly lofty Russian iconostasis to Christ enthroned in the Heavens and above him, His face upon the Mandylion, the cloth He, according to tradition, gifted to King Abgar of Edessa, taken to Constantinople and borne before the victorious armies of Byzantium. With the triangle formed by that face of Utmost Serenity, His Mother at the Door and the slain King, the entire history of Orthodox Christianity is implied. To the Greek worshipper, all this is familiar. A common aesthetic vocabulary is immediately identified.

It is for this reason that the recent performance of Sergei Rachmaninov’s All Night Vigil within the Church is so fitting. To listen to choir sing Orthodoxy’s most triumphant hymn: Τη Υπερμάχω Στρατηγώ (Thee, Victorious Leader) with such exuberant brio, such a contrast to the contained and confident triumphal Byzantine rendition, is to marvel at the complexity of context within the historical tradition. After all we celebrate the Theotokos’ delivering Constantinople from the hands of the Avars and the Slavs. Consequently, our Russian brethren, with enthusiasm and profoundly moving joy celebrate our delivery from their ancestors. Indeed, the Pokrov Church itself, commemorates this event. According to the Primary Chronicle of Saint Nestor, , the inhabitants of Constantinople called upon the intercession of the Theotokos to protect them from an attack by a large pagan Rus army. According to Nestor, the feast celebrates the destruction of this fleet sometime in the ninth century, and the Pokrov Church was built in honour of Panayia’s timely delivery of the Greeks.
Rachmaninov wrote his All-Night Vigil in 1915, in a Russia on the cusp of change. A revolution in the composition of Russian Orthodox sacred music, it made its first appearance just prior to the 1917 Revolution that would shatter the myth of Holy Mother Russia forever. The last great sacred music work of the old imperial regime, it is a swan-song to the complacency of eternity, interwoven throughout with stoic acceptance of the trials that are to come, and the serene confidence that endurance, in the Brave New Iconoclastic World, where the old is shattered and the new is worshipped in its place, is based on remembrance of things past. It is a divine drama that is still in the process of unfolding in the present day, its permutations both predictable for those steeped within the iconography of sound and yet unfathomable.
In his selection of troparia and psalms from the Vespers, the Matins and the Prime Canon, Rachmaninov not only signals the coming of the new by offering completely new arrangements but also, expertly interposes these with conscious counterfeits. He deliberately imitates three primary Orthodox styles: the Znamenny, a unison, melismatic liturgical chant which melds the Slavonic and Byzantine traditions and was in use until the Russian church moved towards western polyphony in the seventeenth century, the Kievan, with its shorter and rhythmically simpler melodies and more pronounced distinctions between recitative and melismatic passages, and the Greek chant, most apparent in Rachmaninov’s “My Soul Doth Magnify the Lord” which retain as a base, from which to soar among the clouds, the version of the chant still sung in Greek Orthodox churches to the present day. This then is work that proclaims a tradition that is common to all and that is comprised of the sum of its parts. As such, it is powerfully oecumenical and post-nationalist.

This melismatic approach to the tradition held in common by the Greeks and the Russians is also exemplified in the manner of composition. Each voice is divided into as many as three parts, signifying the constituents of the tradition. The hymn “Glory to the God in the Highest” includes an incredible eleven part harmony that creates intensely dense, evocative textures unseen in other sacred works. Though employing a classical western vocabulary, Rachmaninov avoids the more Occidental choral traditions of contrapuntal and fugal writing following the chant in mostly step-wise motion within modal harmonies. His then, is the music blueprint for fixing a place of ancient ethnic traditions within a broader, much younger mainstream perspective. Evoking Byzantine chthonic practice, his basso profundo regularly descends to the lowest C and on one occasion, lower, to the B flat. Prior to its first performance, the choir conductor is said to have asked, “Where do I find such basses? They are as rare as asparagus at Christmas.” The answer of course, lies within.

In keeping with Rachmaninov’s, all inclusive, love letter approach to hallowed heritage, it was perhaps fitting that the Melbourne Chamber Choir’s recent performance in the Pokrov Church featured remarkable Greek-Australian contralto, Alexandra Amerides, a breathtakingly talented performer who began her career at the age of sixteen and has held scholarships with Melbourne’s most distinguished choirs, most notably, the Choir of Trinity College and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. As a contralto, possessed of the lowest vocal range for a female singer, her deep, burnished sound arrests the upward propensity of the chant and grounds it, only to send it soaring into the sky once more. Her artful command of vocal colour and range, combined with her young, vibrant physical presence, underlies Rachmaninov’s convictions as to eternity, placing her at the epicentre of the composer’s complex use of harmony, textual variety and polyphony.

In an increasingly intolerant and totalitarian world, a performance of Rachmaninov’s articulation of Orthodoxy’s eternal truths is as timely in Melbourne as ever before. Banned in 1918 by the Soviet Regime, and its sixth movement appropriated most recently by Russian feminist protest punk rock group Pussy Riot as the basis for its protest song "Mother of God, Chase Putin Away," the All Night Vigil is an irrepressible voice of protest against all forms of insular dogmaticism and a most profound tone poem for the rapturous bliss of unity and the splendid elation of common humanity. 

After all, that is what the Protection of the Theotokos, confers. According to Sacred Tradition, the Theotokos appeared at the Blachernae Church in Constantinople in the tenth century. Early in the morning of 1 October, St Andrew the Blessed Fool for Christ witnessed the dome of the church opening and the Theotokos entering, moving in the air above him, glowing and surrounded by angels and saints. She knelt and prayed with tears for all faithful Christians in the world. The Theotokos asked Her Son to accept the prayers of all the people entreating Him and looking for Her protection. Once Her prayer was completed, She walked to the altar and continued to pray. Afterwards, She spread Her veil over all the people in the church as a protection and vanished.
Long after the music had ended, I remained transfixed, looking up at the point Rachmaninov’s musical mantle had inevitably led me to: a fresco of the Resurrected Christ hauling Adam and Eve from their graves. As the audience continued to clap, an old woman, veiled in a headscarf sitting next to me with a thick Slavic accent observed: “They just don’t get it do they?” 
“What don’t they get?” I asked, my eyes still glued to the fresco.
“That this is not a performance of an obscure piece of music. It is existence, life itself.”
I turned to answer, and she was gone.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 August 2019

Saturday, August 17, 2019


One Greek community experience that has been indelibly etched within my memory, took place just a few years ago. A Greek community organisation had recently replaced its committee with members of the second generation. That committee had come up with a new vision for the organisation that required restructuring and rationalisation of its assets, and accordingly, had called a General Meeting in order to explain their vision and obtain the members’ approval for its execution.

When the president, a young, educated professional woman, extremely respected within her field of career expertise got up to address the members, she was met with howls, wolf-whistles and screams by the elderly male members of the organisation. As she bravely continued despite the hysteria, an old man in his seventies, his face contorted with rage stood up and pointing towards his crotch, shouted: 

- Τι λες μωρή 
καργιόλα; Κατέβα κάτω να σε γαμήσω.

Several months earlier, I had been called upon to give advice to the committee of another Greek organization, which was comprised exclusively of males over seventy. They wanted me to interpret the organisation’s constitution in such as a way as to ensure that female members could not be elected to the committee, but rather, could only participate in the «Γυναικείο Τμήμα». When I asked the reason why they did not want women in the committee, they made comments such as “Women belong in the kitchen,” “women will only mess everything up,” and, most revealingly, “because we don’t want so and so’s wife coming in and telling us what to do. She is a real bitch.” I informed them that excluding women from committees was not legally possible and that even if it was, I would not assist them to do so. I invited them to consider what type of legacy they were leaving in a club that was supposed to embrace, not exclude participation. They abruptly got up and left, making disparaging remarks about my legal knowledge and sexual orientation.

Discussing the fate of one particular club that is struggling to survive, owing to lack of interest from younger generations, I asked some female friends, whose families have a long history of participation therein, why she did not get involved. One answer was revealing: “To do what? So that the old “uncles” can yell out “make us a coffee, go and get me some food. Clean the tables? No thanks. These people only have one tone: negativity. I occupy a place of great responsibility in my profession and am highly respected in my field. Why should I attend an organisation whose vision is limited to holding barbeques, and submit myself to humiliation? What’s worse, why would I let me children see their mother humiliated by older Greek males? I’ve brought up my kids to be in awe of Greek culture. The only way they will keep that is if they stay away from actual first generation Greeks.”

Another, who was listening, exclaimed passionately: “I was one of the first younger members on the committee. I was encouraged to put my name up for election, believing that the older male members of the committee wanted fresh ideas and would support exploring new directions and possibilities. It soon became apparent that they only supported me because they wanted to use my votes for their ticket and were completely uninterested in my approach. I was supposed to be a poster girl, and they demanded by complete obedience. When I suggested opening the club to other members of the Greek community, I was mocked and chastised. When I tried to vary the type of functions we were holding, I was subjected to continuous and humiliating criticism at meetings. I was expected to do all the organisational work but nothing I did was good enough for the men on the committee. At one stage I was called upon to justify why I had spent a particular amount of potatoes for a dance. I was called stupid, inadequate and incompetent. It got to the stage where, in order to undermine me, the male members of the committee would call members of the organisation and tell them not to turn up at functions, and then, when I would make up the numbers with non-members from the broader Greek community, ensuring the event’s success, they would subject me to a barrage of criticisms and insults, alleging I was trying to “sell-out” the club under its members’ feet. 

“During the time I was involved with the club, I devoted all of my spare time to it. It even began to impinge upon my work as the mostly retired male members of the committee would insist on having meetings during the day and I would be forced to leave work to attend, to make sure decisions weren’t being made without my knowledge. My club involvement also took its toll on my family life as well. My husband became indignant at my treatment and we would argue every time I had to do something for the club. My children, who were in the club’s dance group were picked on by the grand-children of the committee members. I began to have panic attacks, my confidence in myself was shattered and I was distraught. One day, after a particularly nasty barrage of insults at a meeting, where I was actually told to “Shut Up,” I discovered I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown. I came to the realisation that I don’t need this kind of behaviour in my life. I resigned and have never been back. I look upon my time at the club with regret. Certainly, if my children expressed the desire to take an active role in a Greek brotherhood or club, I would do everything I can to stop them. The culture of these clubs is totally misogynistic. They are not places to which you would want to expose your children.”
Of course there exist within our community, a multitude of organisations where anecdotes such as those related above appear bizarre, at worst, relics of the past. In many such groups, members of all sexes work together to ensure the vibrancy of their endeavours, often under difficult circumstances, for the lingering memories of past mistreatment, along with the struggle to maintain their relevancy to the modern discourse, and the rise of social media as a key preoccupation, means that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract younger members. Generally, it is those organisations that enjoy the active participation of their female members that are making efforts to restructure and position themselves for the challenges of the future. Organisations such as the Justice for Cyprus Committee, Pontiaki Estia, the Pan-Corinthian, the Pan-Messenian and Pan-Arcadian Associations have or recently have had younger generation women at their helm. In smaller, more isolated regional brotherhoods, however, the reality is many of these, are still dominated by first generation males, even as they lapse into obscurity.
We have the historical and residual presence of entitled sociopathic males within Greek community organisations, displaying toxic masculine behaviour towards women and members of the younger generations partly to thank for feelings ranging from indifference to anger and disgust directed towards local Greek organisations. I asked one former committee member of an organisation, who had a particularly acrimonious relationship with a second generation female committee member, which led to her resignation, whether he regretted the abusive manner in which he treated her. After much prevarication, he admitted: “Could I have been politer? Maybe. But we are not there to be polite. We are there to make sure things are done our way. Each of us has an opinion that we want imposed. And you do anything and everything you can to make sure that happens. That’s politics. She should have known that. It’s the same whether she was a 70 year old male. It has nothing to with her gender. But that’s the problem with your generation. You are all soft. You can’t take it.”

But it has everything to do with gender and generation. Second generation committee members are generally subjected to a power imbalance based on the fact that a) the proceedings of these organisations are largely conducted in Greek, limiting the ability for most of them to express themselves with as much clarity and force as they would like, as well as to refute opposing arguments, b) the age disparity means that older community members cannot be treated as equals and subjected to the same level of criticism as younger members and c) otherwise assertive second generation Greek females are often called upon to internalise and perpetuate outmoded and deeply entrenched gender stereotypes when engaging with community clubs. Furthermore, there is often a complete disparity in perspective. While some first generation committee members view their involvement in their chosen organisations largely as a political process, one where they can indulge in conflict, impose their will and validate their egos, second generation members tend to view their clubs as places where they can socialise, enjoy other’s company and explore their regional roots. They are often thus ill prepared for the illogically antagonistic culture of governance pertaining to many of these clubs. They are also often ill prepared for the side effect of this phenomenon: its flow on effect to second generation males, some of whom replicate the reprehensible conduct of their forefathers.
Although gradually, toxic and antagonistic behaviour of the nature described above is declining, it still subsists in pockets of the organised Greek community. It, or its memory is one of the key causes of women turning away from active involvement in our community organisations and a main contributor to the belief that many such organisations are not safe spaces for children to participate in.
While community service is not always harmonious at the best of times, it is high time that our community resolve that moving forward, all those members of Greek community organisations who engage in displays of toxic masculinity and all those who enable their deleterious behaviour need to be named and shamed. There are a menace to the survival our community.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 17 August 2019