Saturday, December 19, 2020


One month before my sixteenth Christmas, my uncle in Athens telephoned my maternal grandmother to tell her that he would be over for lunch, as soon as he finished work. Complaining of a headache, he asked her to prepare for him an omelette. Not half an hour later, his car was found pulled over at the side of Mesogeion Avenue. Suffering a brain aneurism, he was dead at the age of thirty-five.

We found out in Melbourne at four o’clock in the morning. The incessant ringing of the telephone woke me from my slumber, and jarring screams jolted me out of bed. I ran to the kitchen to see my mother keeled over, tearing at her hair, howling her brother’s name and keening in the harsh guttural cadences of village grief. Soon after, my great aunt arrived, her wails intertwining themselves with those of my mother, lifting them higher, only to drag them down to Hades, sobbing: «Μαύρα Χριστούγεννα θα κάνουμε εφέτος.» There would be no Christmas decorations that year, no carols. It was determined that I would be sent to Athens, to spend that most holy time of the year with my grandmother, because the family consensus held that she should not be alone.

My grandmother in Athens did not sob or cry, as she brusquely informed me that there was to be no Christmas lunch the next day and that I was free to seek same in the homes of any other relative of my choosing, should I wish to do so. In her small, dark home, redolent with the dank smell of rising damp, a kandili lit before a silver-framed photograph of my late uncle, holding a cigarette, while looking over his shoulder, directly at the viewer, as if in an afterthought at the fleeting nature of life, provided the only source of light.

She sat mutely before it, her miniscule, coal black eyes like flecks of obsidian fixed upon her embroidery, as her lips turned upwards in a scowl. Her thick fingers moved incessantly, making faint clacking sounds, as she squinted to appraise her handiwork.

On cue, I rose from my chair to switch on the light.

“Turn it off!” she barked. “Turn it off right now!”

Startled, I flicked the switch and watched her recede into the darkness. The shadows were gathering now and the rays of the light emanating from the kandili were reflecting off the glass before my uncle’s photograph like a halo. Instinctively, I rose to give the glass a wipe.

“Get away from the photo!” my grandmother snapped, not even glancing up from the intricate choreography of her threads.

Submissively, I once more took my seat. In the gloom, I could faintly discern the profile of her immense double chin heaving in anger. I could not blame her. Just two hours before, we were at the cemetery, where, as the lofty cypresses loomed over us ghoulishly, mute and angry, she watched me slide open the glass partition of my uncle’s grave and remove the censer.

“You do it,” she scowled. Slowly, I placed the coal upon it and struck a match. A breath of wind gusting from the trees immediately blew it out.

“Hmmmph!” my grandmother snorted in derision. I tried again, and then a third time but at each attempt, as if bid by powers unseen, the match would blow out. Frustrated I stood up and began to proceed further down the grave, in search of a more sheltered position. In doing so, I inadvertently walked through the half-open glass partition, shattering it and spreading its shards over the cold white marble.

“You idiot! You bumbling fool! You complete ignoramus!” my grandmother began to roar, her hands landing on my back with the force of windmill arms. “You imbecile. Why couldn’t…” I looked up, ashamed and horrified in equal measure and she fell still with a despairing curtness.  Kneeling down, this time, I managed to light the match. Holding it against the coal, I blew gently, watch the coal glow red. Then, as my grandmother collected the shards of glass, I placed two pieces of incense on the coal, watching them bubble as they sent their sweet-smelling fragrance into the heavens. Muttering, as I had watched my paternal grandmother in Essendon do every day of my life, Pslam 141: «Κατευθυνθήτω η προσευχή μου ως θυμίαμα ενώπιον σου,» I then placed a dried olive leaf I had collected earlier, on top of the coal, observing its acrid smoke pierce the sweetness of the incense. My grandmother’s eyebrow rose in mute query. Her hands grasped the shards of glass and I could see drops of blood dripping from her fists, down on to the ground.

“Give me the glass, I’ll throw it out,” I offered.

“Κοίτα τη δουλειά σου,” she responded, but taking hold of her hand, she allowed me to remove the shards that had pierced her flesh, flinching at my touch, as I concluded the censing and guided her home. As we walked, the biting cold wind lashing at the furrows in her forehead, and stabbing at my earlobes, the neighbourhood church’s bells began to toll for vespers.

“What time is church tomorrow?” I asked, timidly.

“How should I know?” she retorted. “Why are you so eager to go and worship a God who takes children from their mothers?” We trudged on.

Now, in the murk, my uncle appeared like a Byzantine saint that had unwittingly stumbled into an icon and had remained trapped there ever since, each clicking of my grandmother’s needle assuming the sound of him tapping on the glass, begging to be released from his realm of sanctity. Even though it was just as cold inside, the wind outside battered upon the shutters, demanding to be let in, in symmetry to my uncle’s pleas to be let out.

“Why did you put an olive leaf on the coal?” my grandmother suddenly asked in a voice that startled me completely, as, for the first time since I had arrived in Athens, it bore neither overtone of pain, nor grace note of fury.

“My other grandmother always does this around Christmas,” I explained, unconsciously switching to my paternal grandmother’s Samian dialect. “The Samians say that on the night that Jesus was born, it was very cold. The cave was freezing and Panayia was severely discomforted. Joseph resolved to light a fire but he could not find any wood. Exiting the cave in search of even the smallest dry stick, he soon returned empty handed. In desperation, he took some hay from the manger and set it alight. As soon as Panayia saw it, tears fell from her eyes and she blessed it, saying that from that moment onwards it would always be golden.

After a short while however, the hay was burnt through and the cave grew cold again. Joseph ventured forth from the cave once more and this time he stumbled upon a dry stick. It was a rosemary branch. Joseph brought it back with him and set it alight. Panayia was moved. She blessed it, so that from that moment onward, it would smell sweetly and adorn the icons of the Saints. Again however, the fire lasted only a short time and soon, the cave grew cold again.

It was then that Joseph heard a faint voice emanating from inside his sack: “Go, Joseph, to our mother, the olive tree, who grows on top of this cave and tell her that baby Jesus is in peril. She will be mortified if she learns that we knew of her plight and did not inform her.” Rummaging through the empty sack, Joseph came across a few olives he had forgotten there earlier, along with a dry crust of bread.

Joseph climbed to the top of the cave and encountered an ancient, gnarled olive tree. At his approach, it began to shed it branches, dropping them continuously over the entrance of the cave. Joseph gathered the branches and set them alight. They burnt brightly all night, warming the baby Jesus and by the coming of the morning, there was nothing left of the compassionate olive tree except for some stump roots and a few dried leaves. When Panayia saw the stump roots, a tear fell from her eyes. She caressed them, kissed them and blessed them saying: “May you never wither. May your oil nourish and illumine all people. At night, may you fuel the kandili of Jesus and may you be a companion to all those who grieve or are alone in dark times.” At the place where Panayia’s tear fell, new shoots immediately began to sprout. By the next morning, the ancient olive tree had been restored to its former condition. It is for this reason, that even though the olive tree may wither, it never completely dies. New shoots always grow from its roots and the tree lives again.”

A deep, primeval shriek tore the ensuing silence asunder. My grandmother, clutching the photograph of my uncle to her bosom, had collapsed to the floor, her frame wracked in sobs as she lamented: “My boy, my beautiful boy, my root, my green shoot.” Gently, I embraced her as she wept for what seemed like an age, never letting go of the photograph for a moment. Just as abruptly as she had given way to her grief, she unexpectedly stopped.

“Help me up,” she commanded. “We have a lot to do. We need to prepare Christmas lunch. Call my boy’s children, my tender shoots , and invite them. Let’s get started now. Otherwise, there won’t be enough time after we return from church.”

“You’re coming with me to church tomorrow, yiayia?” I gasped dumfounded.

“Of course I am, you silly boy,” she snorted. “I’ve lost a son. Panayia is giving birth to a son that she will also lose. We have much to discuss.”


First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 December 2020

Saturday, December 12, 2020


«Εμείς εδώ φυλάμε Θερμοπύλες», the elderly president of a regional brotherhood remarked as he showed me around the mouldy, crumbling club premises. He was off course, referring to Cavafy’s renowned poem «Θερμοπύλες», which, taking the sacrifice of Leonidas and the three hundred Spartans as its inspiration, ostensibly extols the virtues of staying the course, fighting the good fight and never retreating, even though one knows that the battle will be lost. The Spartans famously blocked the pass at Thermopylae, in order to arrest the Persian army’s descent into Greece. Ephialtes the traitor revealed a path to the Persians that allowed them to outflank the Spartans and instead of retreating to safety, they remained behind and were slaughtered to a man. In the poem, Cavafy pays honour to their sacrifice:   

“Honour to those who in the life they lead 

define and guard a Thermopylae. 

Never retreating from their task, 

consistent and just in all they do 

but showing pity also, and compassion; 

generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor, 

still generous in small ways, 

still helping as much as they can; 

always speaking the truth, 

yet without hating those who lie. 

And even more honour is due to them 

when they foresee (as many do foresee) 

that Ephialtes will turn up in the end, 

that the Medes will break through after all.” 


In Greek-Australia, the poem is often quoted in the context of those who strive to keep the Greek language, culture and identity alive: they derive their legitimacy and also a sense of nobility from the fact that they know that whatever their efforts, they are doomed to failure. Nonetheless, they persist and it is their persistence, rather than the fruits of their labours that seem to vindicate their endeavours and quite possible, earn them a place in history.  


Yet as always, with Cavafy, not all is as it seems. First of all, as laudable as the Spartan sacrifice is, it could not have been occasioned without the existence of an Ephialtes. The Spartans need Ephialtes to betray them in order to add meaning and value to their defence of Thermopylae. In this way, as an agent of the sacrifice, Ephialtes is just as important a catalyst as the Spartans in ensuring their immortality. 


Similarly, in the third line of the poem, the subversive Cavafy makes an important point about those who never retreat from their task: while their commitment is praiseworthy and admirable, it is their inflexibility, their stubbornness, their inability to adapt their behaviour and their perspective to the changing situation that brings about their downfall. The fact that the Spartans are, according to Cavafy, magnanimous, decent, generous and compassionate merely highlights the extent of our loss in having these splendid men give up their lives, practically for nothing, for had they retreated, the world would have benefited from these attributes. A further question however ought to be asked: in whose estimation are they magnanimous and decent? Ours, or their own? 


Furthermore, Cavafy cleverly suggests here that there is always a mountain track to be found around Thermopylae, and rather than appreciating the nobility of their steadfastness, the poet is actually juxtaposing the Spartans’ inability to think laterally, to canvass possible permutations of strategy and to adopt a more broad perspective as to their defence that takes into account anticipating changes in the enemy’s plans and of course, having their own plans stand up to scrutiny, against their unshakeable but fundamentally flawed, narrow self-assurance that they are doing the right thing.  


Viewed from this perspective, it is the Spartans who crave honour for their lack of introspection and perspicacity, from us, in order to obfuscate their manifest failure at their appointed task. Cavafy’s specific mention of the fact that they speak the truth without hating those who lie is thus ironic. The whole premise upon which they have built their self-worth is a lie. Their truth, that of the worthy sacrifice, is in fact, self-delusion. They are lying about their situation and in craving honour from us, seek to make us complicit in that lie. 


The knowledge that whatever they do, the Medes (Persians) will come, magnifies the lie to the same extent as the overall tragedy. Those Spartans insightful enough to anticipate the coming of the Persians and the overwhelming of the Spartan defences are so invested in the myth that they have constructed around themselves that they are either powerless or unwilling to take any step to avoid their fate or mitigate their loss. Unable to face the bankruptcy of their myth, they take refuge in honour, an honour that is increasingly hollow when, with the benefit of hindsight it is considered that the sacrifice at Thermopylae in no way aided the Greek cause, that the Greeks carried on regardless, defeating the Persians in the sea battle at Salamis and that it was only after a protracted resistance marshalling all the resources of the Greek people that the Persians finally retreated to Asia Minor. In this way, Cavafy subverts the usual interpretation of the battle of Thermopylae, hinting that sweeping romantic gestures and isolated noble sacrifices, which focus on the glory of the individual, while able to capture the imagination, are of little practical use to the collective whole and can actually be counterproductive. The lives futilely lost at Thermopylae could have conceivably been used to better effect at Plataea and elsewhere, had the Spartans the maturity to rationally assess their circumstances. Instead, their fundamentalist approach ensured their downfall. 


Highlighting the egocentricity of the Spartan sacrifice, is Cavafy’s line: “still helping as much as they can.” Rather than co-ordinating their efforts in concert and consultation with the rest of the Greeks with a view to best serving a broader strategy for the benefit of all, the Spartans have taken it upon themselves to determine how best everyone else can be helped. In reality they are assisting no one else but themselves, reinforcing their own inflated sense of importance and seeking safety and legitimisation in their fanatic adherence to rigid codes of conduct that have no bearing upon their present situation. Codes of conduct and adherence to traditions and values are all well and good, Cavafy seems to conclude, but not at the expense of survival. To refuse to question, to adapt, to refuse to think, to analyse, to assess and to alter one’s understanding and practice based on empirical evidence, is to invite annihilation. His poem, rather than a paean to the physical Spartans, is a cry of their cerebral opposites. 


Accordingly, when our own local cultural doyens assure us that they are guarding our very own Thermopylae, we can therefore be forgiven for raising an eyebrow and beginning to be concerned. For we too often seek refuge in hidebound ideologies, ideals and values which often have no bearing on the new and challenging situations we face and which, in the face of change, render our conceptual framework redundant. Too often we are invested, as a community, in replicating antiquated structures and mores, in the fear that to not do so will highlight their redundancy. We revel in the making of grand gestures, that while impressive, are of no lasting significance or effect for our continued existence as an entity. It is in the ability to take nothing for granted, to continuously interrogate and doubt what we know to be true, to anticipate, before they sneak up upon us and outflank us, the challenges of the future, the lacunae in our narrative, the fault-lines in our discourse, to address these and compensate for them, that true heroism lies. And it is the staying power of those who fight the battles they can fight, retreating tactically only to return to fight again an innumerable amount of times, each time in a different way, responding innovatively to the obstacles before them and advancing our cause just that little bit further, that will ensure our perennial relevance and our survival as a coherent cultural community. For if there is anything to be learned from Cavafy’s Thermopylae, it is this: that Ephialtes or no, the Medes break through only at Thermopylae, before the blinkered. They retreat at Salamis and at Plataea, before the insightful, the flexible and the self-aware. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 December 2020

Saturday, December 05, 2020


«Οι μάγκες δεν υπάρχουν πια, τους πάτησε το τραίνο»……
Manolis Rasoulis. 

“C’mon Latrobe, I’m doing the best to educate the masses but we have to work in tandem. You give them Kazantzakis, I’ll give them Kazantzidis..” Thus spake Manny Cockaflopoulos, the self-proclaimed «Αρχιεπίσκοπο of μαγκιά» and Youtube viral sensation, who is mesmerizing the Greek Australian community with his short video clips, musing and pronouncing upon the essence of Greek masculinity and more besides, on the weighty subject of LaTrobe University’s proposed cancellation of the Modern Greek language studies programme. 

I was directed to Manny by my koumbaro and was immediately transfixed by his compelling presence. I felt like I have always known him and indeed I have: He is the guy that grabbed me by the shoulder at Rebelos Bar on Russell Street in the nineties to reveal, uninvited, the deeper meaning behind Lavrentis Mahairitsas’ ode «Ένας Τούρκος στο Παρίσι,» the fellow who, seated opposite me at a friend’s wedding, interposed himself between my girlfriend and I and spent the rest of the night explaining to her why, based on his observations of my body language, I was the antithesis of the paragon of chivalry while in him, these quantities abounded, and especially, given the fact that Manny transcends the generations, a multitude of older uncles, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of all Kazantzidis lyrics, in which they maintained is encoded, Kabbalah style, hidden knowledge. 

Manny knows everything, sees everything and has the solution for everything. As such he is a force of nature, a Titan, as elemental as Kazantzakis’ Alexis Zorbas. There is in him, no self-doubt, no inner monologue. As such, he comes at you with the force of the West Wind, warm, but penetrating nonetheless. He fixes you with his hypnotic glare (true “manges” never smile) and expounds his truths, ranging from an analysis of how the true Greek-Australian “manga” uses expletives and how their context  changes with modulations in pronunciation, to an overview of laconic communication by means of subtle Greek facial expressions, which he terms “economy of movement,” in strident cadences that brook no contradiction.  

Significantly, Manny does so in a broad and distinct, Brunswick inflected Greek-Australian accent, spoken out of the sides of one’s mouth, quite different to the high pitched and thick “woggy” accent perfected by the Acropolis Now team, where consonants were elided and vowels slurred. Manny’s resonant diction is crisp, precise, and as psychologically devastating as his own conception of his masculinity. 

His choice of surname is an interesting one. Cockaflopoulos has connotations of an alpha-male rooster preening himself before the hen-house. Given that he is approaching middle age, it also may belie a deeper-seated anxiety over the prospect of a loss of virility, cunningly subverting the very premise upon which the character is constructed. 

Manny Cockaflopoulos’ appearance in social media is a timely one. Between the Acropolis Now generation of comedians whose material dealt with growing up as an urban “wog” in Australia up until the eighties, and the present, there has not been any significant or serious attempt to portray the evolution of the Greek identity in Australia since. Yet as Manny will attest in his ruminations, a lot has changed, both in social structure and self -awareness. Firstly, like many of us who achieved “manhood” in the nineties, Manny doesn’t identify as a “wog.”  

Whereas up until the eighties, the Acropolis Now generation were linguistically and culturally estranged from that of their parents, mystified and burdened by the social mores imposed upon them from another time and place, Manny, who is a fluent Greek speaker, displays tremendous insight into his parent’s generation and an extremely close relationship with Greece. If the raison d’etre of the “wog” is that estranged from his parent’s generation and excluded from the mainstream, he finds solace in and identifies with other assortments of excluded “ethnics,” the dialectic of Manny’s sphere of existence and its inherent tragedy, is that he is fully conversant and integrated both in his parents’ worlds, and that of the mainstream, even though these inhabit different planes, are informed by different values and are, in effect, irreconcilable. 

In a series of monologues on a dedicated youtube channel, Manny Cockaflopoulos’  inveighs upon the topics of the day. Celebrating multiculturalism and the diversity of foods to be enjoyed in Melbourne, he pronounces prospective partners who neglect to strain yoghurt before making tzatziki as a relationship deal-breaker. Citing his time as a wedding videographer, a declining fixture of our cultural presence in this city, he contemplates the discontinuity of the often morbid, or desperately despondent lyrics of songs played at what purports to be one of the most joyous occasions of one’s life, ones’ wedding. He refashions this as a moving and profoundly complex symbol of the dualistic and polyvalent nature of Hellenism, joyous and mournful, light and dark at the same time. 

Brilliantly, while Manny may be considered to ape the outward forms of the “manga” as observed from his parent’s generation, his version of the genre is anything but that. Admittedly, the manga is cool, unflappable, detached, in control and decidedly monolithic, but this is where the similarities, superficial as they are, end. In a subtle and subversive manner, Manny employs his recollections of the first generation to juxtapose the subtext of violence, aggression, dysfunction and Darwinian survival of the fittest inherent within the toxic masculinity of that era, against his own moral code which is decidedly different. Throughout the pandemic and its lockdown, the seemingly nonchalant Manny has been asking us if we are OK, enjoining us to wear a mask and encouraging us to seek the assistance and to talk over our problems in case of depression.  

In a recent clip where he purports to respond to viewers, he castigates a critic for applying labels, urging him instead to consider the underlying reasons of the display of certain phenomena, and calling upon him to show compassion. For all the “magka” rigmarole, this is a wise-cracking, off-beat larger than life individual ,who actually cares and is ingeniously using his persona as a vehicle through which to explore and express aspects of historical trauma that underlie the Greek psyche and which, evidently, are inherited, manifesting themselves in unexpected ways in the present. As such, the personage of Manny is ultimately redemptive  and given its deep level of scrutiny of the ontopathological rifts running through the Greek-Australian identity, unique and historically significant as a comedic form. 

To assume the guise of Manny is an act of resistance. Perpetually at odds with his manager, the ever-demanding “Arabatzis,” of Garlic Breath Productions, (again an inspired metaphor of his persona, given that garlic has traditionally been considered undesirable and offensive to the mainstream, but although pungent, is inherently beneficial) he campaigns to maintain the purity of his message, in a realm created for him, by him, independent, uninfluenced and not dictated to by the ideological requirements of the dominant culture or beholden to the commercial whims and dictates of an “ethnic comedy market”. The comedy, which must be seen to be fully appreciated in all its genius, is possessed both of integrity, as well as authenticity, considering that unlike the current generation of “ethnic” comedians who parody mother cultures they do not understand, producing an almost racist discourse, it unfolds on a multitude of levels, from the visual, to the linguistic, the cultural, the social and beyond. 

In a side-splittingly amusing podcast sketch, Manny condescends to be interviewed by a completely inane and platitude spouting ABC reporter, keen on exploring him as a cultural phenomenon. In a few short minutes, Manny manages to invert the English language, turns prevailing ideologies of inclusivity and diversity on their heads, exposing their hollowness and inability to truly comprehend, let alone enter into dialogue with the complex identities held by the community whence Manny comes. The nature of the man is irrepressible and his knowledge of the discontinuities comprising our ontology, awe inspiring. 

What is ever so more poignant about Manny Cockaflopoulos is that even as he has recently emerged, his comedy is about identity in transition. Inhabiting the generation I belong to, I appreciate him as encapsulating elements of my own experience. To latter, emerging generations however, his accent, his preoccupations and his perspective assume the guise of social history, navigating a world that still exists but is fast becoming peripheral and silent. We should all be grateful to him for giving it a voice in such a skillful, outspoken but in the end immensely affectionate homage. No higher accolade can be afforded it than that used by the man itself. It is “niiiiiiiice,” and absolutely compelling viewing. 


First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 December 2020