Saturday, June 24, 2023



Kyr Yiannis, whom I encounter most Sundays at church, despairs of the Greek race, past, present and emerging. So much so in fact that every time he sees me, he invariably quotes James Madison, the fourth president of the United States of America, who reputedly observed: “Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly still would have been a mob.”

My response, to the effect that they may well have been a mob, but still, they are our mob, cuts no ice with him, even when I point out that the ruminations of a politician who opposed the African slave trade throughout his career only to later argue in support of a motion to place a duty on the importation of slaves as part of a broader import duty bill, cannot be given any credence. As far as I know, no modern Greek politicians have ever supported slavery, at least not openly.

Kyr Yiannis, for all his regular church-going, is a neo-pagan, who attributes his attendance to his abiding love for the Greek language in all of its gorgeously manifold forms. Accordingly, he is possessed of the unswerving conviction that the Orthodox concept of the Holy Trinity, like much else associated with Orthodox theology, is naught but a cheap knock-off of the ideas of the great neoplatonic philosopher, Iamblichus. Around about the same time that Saint Nicholas, full of holy zeal, was lending the heretic Arius an almighty head-slap, while arguing the nature of the Trinity, Iamblichus developed a system of belief, at the head of which he placed the transcendent incommunicable "One", the monad, whose first principle is intellect, nous. Immediately after the absolute One, he positioned a second superexistent "One" to stand between it and 'the many' as the producer of intellect, or soul, psyche. This he considered the initial dyad. The first and highest One (nous), which the Neoplatonist Plotinus represented under the three stages of (objective) being, (subjective) life, and (realized) intellect, was distinguished by Iamblichus into spheres of intelligible and intellective, the latter sphere being the domain of thought, the former of the objects of thought. These three entities, the psyche, and the nous split into the intelligible and the intellective, kyr Yiannis triumphantly points out form a trinity and he muses that the fate of Hellenism would have been markedly different had we stuck to neoplatonic ruminations and not adulterated them through the medium of Christianity.

I have absolutely no idea what he is talking about but I am keen to point out that Iamblichus, , was an Arab, descended from the royal line of the Arab kings of Emesa and according to credible sources, an ancestor of Lebanese chanteuse, Najwa Karam. For kyr Yiannis, who does not recognise any races not described in Herodotus’ Histories, the Arabs do not exist.

Yet Kyr Yiannis is not alone in sticking fast to the conviction that Greece would see better days if only she would revert to her pagan ways. In his “Athens: An Ode”, ostensibly written to bolster the Greeks for a confrontation with the Turks in 1881, poet Algernon Charles Swinburne urged: “the sons of them that fought the Marathonian field,” to return to a time when “Gods were yours yet strange to Turk and Galilean, Light and Wisdom only then as gods adored. Pallas was your shield, your comforter was Paean, From your bright world’s navel spoke the Sun your lord.”

While we do not know whether the Pallas referred to was an allusion to a budget-biting Victorian treasurer, we do know that to a friend, Swinburne wrote: “I am writing an anti-Christian ode on Athens. Watts says that the astute and practical Greeks will laugh at it and me. Let them laugh, in their God’s name and so prove that modern Hellas is an annexe of the Kingdom of Bulgaria.”

Considering Kyr Yiannis hails from Florina, his sentiments towards the Bulgarians are complex  and context-driven, even when I point out that one of their khans, who ruled in the eighth century was  called Pagan and that a religion known as “Thracian Hellenism” based on the worship of the Olympians has a following in that country. Instead, he shrugs and places the blame for the woes of Greece and the Greek community of Melbourne squarely upon the shoulders of his generation. In his opinion, the older generation is guilty of poisoning the latter ones with their Romaic contagion and the sooner he and the rest of his ilk shuffle off this mortal coil and allow their successors to purge themselves of their contagion, the better for all concerned.

I hasten to inform him that he is not alone in this persuasion and that as far back as 1834, English poet and member of the ruling class Baron Richard Monckton Miles cautioned all those who thought that Greece, “having at last attained the means of free action,” would quickly develop “anew in all its pristine energy… Until then this generation be extinct,  and carry along with it its wild instincts and savage virtues, the atmosphere in which Grecian politics are to work must be turbulent and dark.”

The future of the country, he predicted, in line with Kyr Yiannis, rested with bright youths whom the revolution had “detached from Oriental modes and habits.” When I point politely in the direction of Alexis Tsipras, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Ilias Kasidiaris, Kyr Yiannis hastens to opine that the Intelligent Designer has more evolution in mind for our tribe, agreeing with Monckton that whereas the ancient Greeks were the originators of Western culture, the modern Greeks are only “the pensioners of the culture which the rest of Europe has learnt by labour and the fruition of the ages; they have to think with other’s thoughts, almost to feel with other’s feelings,” which paradoxically enough, precisely describes my emotional response when exposed to the dissonant styling of Notis Sfakianakis.

Kyr Yiannis develops his idea further, referring to modern Greece, not as a country but as a statelet, slavishly emulating the functions of a western country, without any reference to its indigenous traditions of governance. I am reminded of E F Benson’s “The Princess Sophia” a novel in Ruritarian mould, set in a fictional Balkan principality called Rhodope, on the Adriatic coast, filled with picturesque peasants and an upper class in their first apings of Western civilisation, which is turned into a casino by a Monte-Carlo loving ruler. He describes Greece as: “an astonishing little kingdom the like of which, outside of pure fiction, will never exist in Europe.”

In 1833 British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli on the other hand, was quite reconciled to the existence of a small but aesthetically pleasing Greece when he wrote his seventh novel: "The Rise of Iskander," about the fifteenth century chieftain Skenderbeg, who he casts as a Greek. The novel opens in Athens where:

"a solitary being stands upon the towering crag of the Acropolis, amid the ruins of the temple of Minerva, and gazed upon the inspired scene...'Beautiful Greece,' he exclaimed, 'Thou art still my country. A mournful lot is mine, a strange and mournful lot, yet uncheered by hope... Themistocles saved Greece and became a satrap; I am bred one, let me reverse our lots and die a patriot." Kyr Yiannis has no innate love of Disraeli, who he considers to be anti-Greek owing to his support for the tottering Ottoman Empire and his opposition to Russia, a realm which Kyr Yiannis admires greatly, considering its satrap a misunderstood visionary who just wants to be our friend.

In his more cynical moments of despair, Kyr Yiannis laments that modern Greeks are Chihuahuas bred from Plato's archetypal ideal form of a wolf. I, on the other hand see us as wolf puppies: playful, yappy, nippy, scrappy and utterly irresponsible. One day, I am convinced, we grow up and eat our owners, or at least cause serious damage to their handbags and designer shoes.

Week after week, I take my leave of Kyr Yiannis, bemoaning the αδικία (injustice) of being born a modern Greek. Granted, we are possibly the only tribe that has deified Adikia as the goddess and personification of injustice and wrong-doing. In keeping with the condition hellenique that characterises our collective discourse, not even she could catch a break. In times ancient she was depicted as a hideous, barbaric woman covered in tattoos being dragged by her opposite, Dike, the goddess of justice with one hand, while in the other she held a staff which she beat her with. Being unjust is not all that it is cracked up to be. On the other hand, Adikia also translates as a state of non-litigiousness, a disposition that Kyr Yiannis finds intolerable considering that he has been at loggerheads in the courts with his neighbour, who also happens to be his brother-in-law, regarding a matter of misaligned boundaries back in the village, for the past fifteen years.

"A Greek has just arrived, who has begun to teach me with great pains, and I to listen to his precepts with incredible pleasure, because he is Greek, because he is an Athenian, and because he is Demetrius. It seems to me that in him is figured all the wisdom, the civility, and the elegance of those so famous and illustrious ancients. Merely seeing him you fancy you are looking on Plato; far more when you hear him speak."

Thus wrote one of the Italian pupils of the great Renaissance scholar Dimitrios Chalkokondyles, who died far from his homeland in 1511. Kyr Yiannis is quick to interject that neither of us are Athenian, nor are we called Demetrius. Yet it is fair to say that we are both Greek and both of us are destined to die far from our homeland, to whom our existence is as remote as it is incomprehensible. And in that, there is infinite consolation.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 24 June 2023

Saturday, June 17, 2023



“Live on then, and yet hang, condemned one, but, lest you are careless in future, this same condition is declared, in punishment, against your descendants, to the last generation!” Ovid, Metamorphoses.

The myth of Arachne, a skilled weaver who according to Ovid challenged the goddess Athena to a weaving contest, provides an opportunity to explore the complexities of gender dynamics and power imbalances in ancient mythology. While it can be seen as a story of female defiance and talent, a feminist critique reveals underlying patriarchal themes and class distinction and a punishment that perpetuates the suppression of women's voices and social injustice.

From the outset, it is noteworthy that Arachne exists on the fringes of the Greek world. She is a maiden from Hypaepa, a city in non-Greek Lydia, whose women were reputed to have received from the mythological Aphrodite, the gift of beauty of form and dancing, highlighting the irony of her ultimate fate. As such, despite her skill, she is an outsider, occupying the lowest social rung that could possibly be conceived: If Athena as the Great White Goddess represents the highest echelon of power, Arachne, as a woman and a foreigner, is the closest that we get for the period, to a woman of colour. Viewed from this perspective, the myth of Arachne is not so much a cautionary tale of hubris, this being the reading privileged by western postcolonial perspectives, but rather a discourse on the structural differences of gender, class, race, and aptitude among women. Given the subversion, or rather attempted subversion of the ordinary power narrative, when considering the myth, we need to constantly ask ourselves: who is weaving what story, why and to whose benefit?

Arachne's story begins with her exceptional weaving abilities, which she honed partly through her own talent and hard work and partly through her family background, her father being Idmon, a famed dyer in purple, whereas her son, introduced the use of spindle in the manufacture of wool.  When she dares to challenge Athena, a goddess associated with wisdom and craftsmanship, it initially appears as an act of rebellion and assertion of her own prowess. She is after all, according to myth, considered to be inventor of linen cloth and nets. This aspect of the myth may be seen as empowering, highlighting a woman's ability to excel in traditionally male-dominated domains or to aspire to enter domains customarily the preserve of the elite.

However, the narrative takes a troubling turn when Athena, rather than appreciating Arachne's talent and engaging in a fair competition, reacts with anger and jealousy. Instead, Athena resorts to a power play and uses her divine authority to assert dominance over the mortal weaver. This reflects a pattern seen throughout Greek mythology, where women who challenge male or divine authority are punished and silenced.

Athena’s first reaction is thus to transform herself into an old crone, warning Arachne against challenging the gods and enjoining her to repent. The transformation is a significant one. By assuming the guise of an old woman, Athena is mirroring the liminal space occupied by Arachne herself as an outsider. An old matriarchal-type figure can either command respect and authority because of her acquired wisdom and experience or can be an object of derision because she is a post-sexual being with declining physical powers, just as Arachne can either be considered a person that commands respect because of her dexterity and skill or a candidate for excoriation because occupying the low social position that does, she is an upstart for aspiring to a position that within the hierarchy, is closed to her.

The Athena/crone’s message to Arachne, is not one of humility. Rather, it is one of female submission, considering that Athena is the goddess who identifies with the law of her father and ensures that its primacy is never challenged. Her injunction thus sends a clear message that women should not aspire to surpass or challenge the achievements of male or divine figures. Arachne's act of challenging Athena is portrayed as an act of arrogance, implying that women should not strive for recognition or equality. It reinforces the notion that women should submit to male or divine authority, further perpetuating patriarchal power constructs.

The actual contest itself is rich in symbolism with the two competing tapestries conveying markedly opposed perspectives as to the immortals, as dominant class.  In Athena’s tapestry, power and might are the prevalent discourse. She portrays herself in all her resplendent armour defeating Poseidon in the contest over the possession of Athens with the offer of a fruiting olive tree to the city.  Her narrative is fashioned expressly in order to intimate Arachne and to cower her into submission. It is for this reason that she weaves into her work, the fates of four arrogant mortals who not knowing their place, were punitively metamorphosised: These are the stories of Rhodope and Haemus, who having the effrontery to compare themselves to Zeus and Hera, were transformed into the Balkan and Rhodope mountains, Cinyras, the king of Cyprus who was killed a a result of challenging Apollo to a signing contest, the Pygmy Queen Gerana who offended the goddess Hera with her boasts of superior beauty, and was transformed into a crane  and Antigone of Troy who claimed that her hair was more beautiful than that of the goddess Hera, causing Hera, who was angered by that claim, to turned Antigone's hair into snakes. Athena’s tapestry depicts the immortals with absolute power and justifies their actions by showing the mortals whom they punish as worthy of denigration and suppression. 

Conversely, Arachne’s tapestry display challenges the power and authority of the gods as ruling class, calling out misogynistic behaviour and hypocrisy. By depicting their misdeeds, Arachne defies the dominant narrative and exposes the flaws of the divine masculine. Accordingly, she depicts eighteen scenes of the gods transforming themselves to approach mortals for the sole purpose of taking sexual advantage of them, such as Zeus turning into a swan to rape the Spartan queen Leda, a bull to entice Europa, an eagle to abduct Aegina, as a shower of gold to seduce Danae and as a satyr to seduce Antiope. Arachne enters into disputation with Athena’s work and challenges its narrative. As a result, she must be silenced. To reassert the legitimacy of the Olympian gods, the revelation of their misdeeds must be punished.

The very act of Arachne's weaving is a bold act of self-expression, where she asserts her voice and serves as a vehicle for telling stories from a female perspective, showcasing women's experiences, struggles, and triumphs. It is for this reason that it is the first object of Athena’s wrath and a tangible testament to Arachne’s exercise of her creative agency and her ability to become empowered and liberated through her craft. As the medium for that process, the tapestry must be destroyed and Athena promptly tears it up, ensuring that its message is lost, an extreme form of censorship.

It is not enough however for the offending article to be consigned to oblivion. The propagator of its subversive narrative must also be silenced. Athena promptly sets about beating Arachne so savagely with the shuttle of her loom, that her only means of escape is to seek to hang herself. This too, on the part of Arachne is an act of rebellion: In ancient Greece suicide was considered a disgraceful act as life was considered a gift bestowed by the Gods, and life and death were subjected to the will of the gods. In trying to take her own life, Arachne is transgressing into the realm of the ruling class and abrogating for herself, privileges they have reserved only for themselves. This assertion too cannot go unpunished.

Athena's final punishment of Arachne is ironically the mirror image of that prefigured in Arachne’s now non-existent tapestry: rather than transforming herself so as to dominate the mortal, she will transform Arachne into a spider, a marginalized creature and maligned creature who must hang from a thread, continuously weaving her webs outside of human language and representation forever. Arachne may still be weaving a counternarrative to Athena’s theocratic order but now it will be unintelligible to all and thus rendered innocuous. The fate Athena has reserved for Arachne thus suggests that women who challenge the established order will ultimately be confined to a limited and marginalized role, perpetuating the narrative that women's ambitions and talents should be suppressed and controlled.

A final insult is reserved for Arachne. Not only is her ambition thwarted and her body transfigured, her sexual identity must also be denigrated. In one variant of the myth, Arachne was not from Lydia but from Attica and was taught by Athena the art of weaving, while her brother Phalanx was taught martial arts by the goddess. The two siblings supposedly engaged in incestuous intercourse, causing Athena, strangely disgusted considering that incest was par the course for Olympians, to change them both into spiders, animals doomed to be devoured by their own young. It is not enough to impugn the skilful woman’s talents. They must be neutralised by the intimation that those talents are not earned but rather gifted, making her ungrateful and presenting her as sexually depraved, a figure to be held forever contempt.

Spinning and weaving have served as symbols of women’s creativity and political agency since antiquity. The story of Arachne weaves counternarratives to patriarchal history and theology, celebrating and reversing women’s marginality, highlighting the differential positions and contexts of dominance and dispossession. Within the warp and weft of its unfolding, a microcosm of the human condition is revealed.


First published in NKEE on 17 June 2023

Saturday, June 10, 2023



A few days ago, while contemplating my next move upon the giant chessboard before the State Library of Victoria, I overheard a university-aged girl with large plastic rimmed glasses and a decidedly genteel accent with the refined overtones of Doncaster-Hellenic remark to her friend in close proximity:

“I don’t know anything about classical music but I don’t like it. It’s just all about entitled dead white dudes.”

Not being able to help myself and frustrated at not being able to find a clear pathway for my bishop, I interjected:

“Have you perchance heard of Tchaikovsky?”

“No, what’s that?” she answered disinterestedly.

“Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer. He struggled with poverty and his sexuality and committed suicide by deliberately contracting cholera so he wouldn’t be outed as gay.”

“As I said,” she shrugged her shoulders. “A dead privileged white dude.”

Now I take exception to anyone who besmirches the name of Tchaikovsky and in my indignation, could not help protesting vehemently: “How is Tchaikovsky any more or less entitled than Jay Z or Snoop Dog?”

“Who is Snoop Dog?” she asked.

It was then I realised that I am so old…

Like Snoop Dog and Jay Z, I was anxious to inform my new friend, whose forebears come from Sparta and some rural place of habitation in the hinterland of Kalamata the name of which she does not know, Tchaikovsky also visited Greece, specifically in 1886. He visited Athens and admired the Acropolis, as well as other historical sites. Tchaikovsky found inspiration in Greece's ancient ruins and composed his orchestral work "Capriccio Italien" shortly after his visit, which features lively and energetic themes reminiscent of Greek folk dances, repackaged as Italian, just like olive oil because Italian sells better. He also went on to visit Trapezounta in Pontus and spent two days there. He became enamoured of the city, which he wrote was "reminiscent of some oriental fairy tale." During his stay, he also made a pilgrimage to the monastery of Panagia Soumela and he composed a little of the third act of his opera: “The Enchantress,” the action of which bizarrely enough, takes place at the last quarter of the fifteenth century at a tavern and brothel near Nizhny Novgorod.

A number of other Western composers also sought inspiration from their travels in Greece, incorporating its sounds and sights within their melodic palette. German-Hungarian composer Franz Liszt is said to have visited Greece in 1837. Deeply moved by the country's history and mythology, he was inspired to compose works imbued Greek themes, including the symphonic poem "Prometheus" a dissonant meditation on the imprisonment, pain, hope, and the final triumph of the reconstituted bowel and the piano composition "Harmonies du soir,” whose technical innovations can be seen as a modern interpretation of the exploration of mathematical and geometric principles in music by the ancients Pythagoras and Archytas. Enthralled by his experiences, Liszt also composed the symphonic poem "Les Préludes," which contains references to Greek mythology and muses upon human destiny.

Composer Felix Mendelssohn travelled to Greece in 1831, where he spent time poking around the ancient ruins and avoiding modern ones, sketching his surrounds and taking detailed notes of his observation of Greek culture. Mendelssohn's visit to Greece had a profound impact on his musical and artistic development. One of the most notable works influenced by his visit to Greece is his "Symphony No. 2," also known as the "Hymn of Praise." This symphony incorporates elements of Greek choruses and celebrates the human spirit and the power of music in a manner unsurpassed until the advent of Christos Dantis.

Greece undoubtedly also had a significant influence on Richard Strauss, particularly in terms of its ancient history and mythology. His visit to Greece in 1907 deepened his appreciation for Greek culture and inspired and he found inspiration in the timeless stories and characters of Greek mythology.

One of the most notable works influenced by Greece is Strauss's opera "Elektra," composed in 1909. Based on the Sophoclean tragedy, the opera delves into the psychological complexities of its characters, exploring themes of vengeance, fate, and the power of the human will. Strauss's use of dissonance and chromaticism in the score reflects the intense emotions and turmoil found in Greek tragedy. Another composition influenced by his stay in Greece is the tone poem "Also sprach Zarathustra" inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophical work of the same name. The work includes a section known as the "Dance Song" that draws from the Greek tradition of ecstatic dance, exemplifying Strauss's interest in the Greek spirit and its impact on his music.

Claude Debussy, the renowned French composer, visited Greece in 1896. His exposure to Greek culture influenced his compositional style and the way he approached harmony and melody. The experience of Greek antiquity and the natural beauty of Greece resonated with Debussy and can be seen in some of his works, such as "La mer" and "Pelléas et Mélisande,” as well as the symphonic poem "L'après-midi d'un faune" (Afternoon of a Faun).

The Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s 1911 visit to Greece inspired him to incorporate Greek themes and musical elements into some of his works having this inform the way he saw his home country. One of his most famous compositions influenced by his trip is the orchestral suite "The Pines of Rome" (1924). The third movement of the suite, titled "The Pines of the Janiculum," evokes the atmosphere of ancient Rome, but it also includes references to ancient Greece with Respighi striving to capture the spirit and imagery of the Greek past through his music.

Carl Orff the German composer known for his famous work "Carmina Burana," and whose flirtation with fascism was highly problematic, visited Greece in the early 1930s. His experiences in Greece greatly influenced his compositional style and his later work, including the development of his unique approach to rhythm and percussion, evident in in his trilogy of Greek-inspired operas called the "Trionfi.”

Richard Wagner, on the other hand never made it to Greece, even though he was enamoured of its ancient past, declaring: “In any serious investigation of the essence of our art today, we cannot take one step forward without being brought face to face with its intimate connection with the art of ancient Greece. For, in point of fact, our modern art is but one link in the artistic development of the whole of Europe; and this development found its starting- point with the Greeks.” Instead, Greece for him constituted a fantasy place of refuge. In 1850, whilst in exile from Saxony and in conflict with his wife, Wagner met Jessie Laussot, the wife of a Bordeaux wine merchant. Wagner and his paramour planned to escape to Greece but before they could do so, the scheme was blocked by the intervention of Jessie's husband, an action which Wagner in his autobiography characterised as unreasonable and intolerable. There are of course many connections between classical Greek tragedies and Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, which is a tetralogy, as were the Attic tragedies, intended for performance at a festival over four days. Perhaps the greatest complement Wagner could pay Greece is for him to comment on the last day of his life that he harboured the greatest admiration for the Oresteia of Aeschylus, adding: “my admiration for him never ceases to grow.”

Similarly, the philhellenic French composer Hector Berlioz, who dreamed of a free Greece, was never able to make the journey. His outrage at the massacre of Chios compelled him to set Scène Héroïque: La Révolution Grècque, composed on the topic, to music, for two Bass soloists, Choir and Orchestra. His love of Greece influenced the composition of his opera "Les Troyens," which draws inspiration from Homer’s epic "The Iliad,” and in his book "Les Grotesques de la musique," he analysed the influence of Greek music on the development of Western music.

My new friend scrolls though her phone as I enthuse upon the composers of old and then presents me with a song whose introduction appears to be a plaintive Epirot lament, which quickly degenerates into a mass of American-accented expletives. This, she informs me, is rapper Rick Ross’ “Santorini Greece,” which contains such poignant lyrics as: “Half of my niggas headed to Attica/ Either trafficking or destined to be a janitor,” going on to declaim: “Better yet, take my old bitches and mould 'em right/ And if I want her back I come and take her back/ Santorini Greece, I put it on the map.” Immediately I am entranced by the manner in which contemporary Greece, with all its harshness and contradictions reaches across musical traditions to inspire composition, that is until I get to these verses: “So I copped some cribs in the ATL/ Martha Stewart decorated both/ Snoop Dogg donated the smoke.”

I gasp and she looks up at me and flashes a wicked Clytemnestra smile. She knew of the Dogg all along….


First published in NKEE on Saturday 10 June 2023

Saturday, June 03, 2023



can’t drive past our community day schools, Alphington Grammar, St John’s College and Oakleigh Grammar, without feeling an immense sense of pride and achievement. Visiting Oakleigh Grammar the other day in order to conduct a creative writing workshop for the children of the Greek School there, I remembered a conversation I had with the late lamented Father Nicholas Moutafis, founder of the school, just a few months before he died in 2001. When I asked him the rationale behind the creation of the school, his eyes opened wide and grasping my hand tightly, he declared:

“The kids could have gone to school anywhere. But our people have an unbroken tradition of education that goes back to ancient times. And during the centuries of Ottoman slavery we kept that tradition alive. Was it not Saint Kosmas who said pull down the churches and build schools? That is how central education is to our identity. Education is not just a means of preparing students for their future careers. For us it is a perspective on life itself. And we, as Greeks, with the collective experience not only of learning but of suffering for our right to learn have something to contribute. We want our children’s learning to be imbued with those values that we managed to retain even when we faced annihilation. And we want their children’s children to also partake of that education in an unbroken chain.”

Moved to tears, I began to write his words down. Enclosing his hand over mine, he arrested my pencil. Gazing at me intently, he encased my hand in his fingers:

“Never forget one thing,” he whispered urgently. “Everything we have done has been achieved by sweat and blood. It is the people, migrants who came to this country with nothing but a suitcase, who had no language, nor qualifications and who could in the beginning, do barely enough to keep a roof over their heads, those that could least afford it, who gave up what little they had to create our school. Every brick, every piece of mortar is a testament to their sacrifice and their faith. Never take it for granted. But most of all, when I am long gone, fight to preserve it.”

The late Archimandrite Ierotheos Kourtessis founded Saint John’s College in Preston with a similar vision. He wanted to create an institution that would provide the children of our community with an education that would permit them to take their place within the broader mainstream, but imbued with the values of Hellenism and Orthodoxy. As a student of St John’s Saturday Greek school, I remember his eagle eyes running over each and every one of us as we stood at assembly. He knew all of our names and no matter how disgruntled we may have felt at attending school on a Saturday, we knew, when we marched past him, that we were part of something much bigger, much greater and infinitely more venerable than anything we could ever come across in our daily lives; that we were all connected in an unbroken chain of teachers and learning that began with Socrates, continued with Christ, the Cappadocian fathers, the Pandidacterion of Constantinople and currently rested in the hands of our educators. We belonged together and indeed, only made sense as a people, in learning.

It is this sense of belonging that a friend, a teacher in a public school cited, when rationalising to me, his decision to send his son to Saint John’s instead of the public institution which he serves. “The fact is that there are cultural nuances and ethnic aspirations in the way we view education that are not understood adequately by the mainstream. By no means do we want our children to be educated or socialised within a ‘ghetto.’ But almost uniquely, education and learning are a core element to our ethnic identity and form part of our national discourse. We have something very special to add to the mainstream curriculum and I want my son to be part of that.”

Other parents of the Saint John’s school community echo such sentiments. Rarely do they reference academic excellence future career prospects, or extensive networks that can lead to job or business opportunities as the main reason for preferring this school over others. Instead, they use terms such as “values,” “history,” “identity” and “community” to signify that they understand education not just as preparation for tertiary studies and careers but as an exercise in identity building and as a way of life.

Alphington Grammar is a school whose foundation almost financially destroyed the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne during the recession in the nineties. It took almost superhuman efforts to save it. Visiting its grounds since the mid-nineties when my sister rehearsed there as part of the Community Choir, I have witnessed with my own eyes how this remarkable institution has evolved and grown to be a valuable presence within its locale, committed to providing its students with a holistic education. When I was afforded the honour of addressing its students a few years ago at their 1821 special assembly, I was astounded at the way in which Alphington Grammar has continued to assimilate the mainstream education requirements within the Hellenic discourse in its own unique way while also managing to share this with its pupils of non-Greek origin in novel and relevant ways.

One of my classmates, for example, of Lebanese origins, was an ex-Alphington student. He studied Greek with us because he had been introduced to the language at Alphington, fell in love with it and even after leaving that school, wished to continue with Greek. One of my clients, of Turkish extraction, chose to enrol his students at Alphington because as he said: “Of all the schools I have visited, Alphington is the one that accords more closely with the ethos of our own people.” Again, the emphasis here was on community, belonging and a certain view of life, not only academic achievement.

Whenever I hear a car backfiring, I remember the father of a close personal friend, a labourer who would drive his son to Alphington every morning in a barely roadworthy and much battered 1971 Kingswood. Teased by his relatives as to why he was spending on school fees he could barely afford, he replied proudly in words that are indelibly etched in my memory: “I prefer not to eat, rather than deny by son the chance of a Greek education.” It is principled people like this, making immense sacrifices of this nature, that made our three day-schools, the jewels in the crown of our community, possible.

This is also why the State Government’s recent possible inclusion of our schools within the category of those private education institutions it claims have had  “a sweetheart taxation deal” and according to it constitute: “elite schools” who should now be liable for payroll tax by virtue of the amount of fees charged, is highly problematic and hurtful to the communities of those schools, to all those who made enormous sacrifices to establish them and to the entire Greek community.

As can be seen above, our schools are not elitist. Nor are they businesses. They are the lifeblood of our community and one of the most important means via which we are able to perpetuate our values, traditions and unique insights into education. Our ability to share these values renders us invaluable contributors to multiculturalism, a concept that we have been led to believe is important to successive governments governing our state. It is hoped that our own commitment to enriching Victorians through our teaching and our trust in our government as partners in this process is not undermined or compromised as a result of the unfortunate mischaracterisation of our schools as elite.

Indeed, our schools, far from being elite, are vulnerable. While truly “elite” schools have enormously large waiting lists where the affluent hope their children may avail themselves of elite social networks, education and training for advancement, our schools are limited in the type of students they can attract. Granted, students of all creeds and ethnic backgrounds attend our schools and are enriched by the experience but the fact remains that our schools reflect the unique aspirations and culture of their founders and are run by community institutions to which mostly members of our own community naturally gravitate. While a truly elite school may expand its intake to absorb losses incurred as a result of payroll taxation, our schools do not have that capacity in any meaningful way. The losses they potentially face threaten their viability.

There exists currently great consternation and confusion within our student community as to the impact of the payroll tax changes on our schools. Some of the parents of Saint John’s meaningfully point out that the school exists in a marginal seat that was only just retained by the incumbent in the last state election. In the cafes of Eaton Mall in Oakleigh, people shake their heads in dismay when discussing the subject, with one old man exclaiming: “Do they honestly think they can fob us off with money for bread and circuses? Don’t they understand that education is our religion, our entire way of life? We have fought for it and we will fight for it again.”

It is perhaps too soon to gauge the damage to multiculturalism and Victorian ethnic communities caused by the announcement of the new payroll tax policy. The criteria for inclusion within the “elite” category is still not entirely clear, nor is the manner in which the Victorian treasurer may exercise his discretion to exclude certain institutions. Our community has sought clarification and awaits both answers and understanding. It is committed to working with the State Government in order to ensure an equitable outcome, one that recognises the unique history and culture of our schools and necessitates compromise.

Just yesterday, I drove past Saint John’s College. As I did so, I remembered, as I always do when in that neighbourhood, the tears in Archbishop Makarios’ eyes while describing to me how, upon his arrival in this country, he found emergency funds to keep the school from closing, at a time when the insistent advice from professional consultants was that it was not financially viable to keep it open in the face of crippling debt. “I couldn’t do it,” he wept. “I just couldn’t do it. What sort of Orthodox hierarch would I be, what sort of Greek, if I closed the school? Schools are holy. They are the heart of our people. We all resolved to make it work.”

So much for the elites…..


First published in NKEE on 3 June 2023