Life and times

From its beauty to its prob­lems, the English au­thor on the epic con­trasts of her adopted coun­try

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents - Au­thor Sofka Zi­novi­eff

ONE OF THE JOYS of liv­ing in Athens dur­ing the bit­ter years of the eco­nomic cri­sis is wit­ness­ing the un­stop­pable flow­er­ing of the arts. From street paint­ing and per­for­mances by un­paid mu­si­cians and ac­tors to the glam­orous new Na­tional Opera house, the creative urge is thriv­ing un­der pres­sure.

Among my re­cent high­lights are ex­hi­bi­tions by two fe­male pho­tog­ra­phers. Joan Leigh Fer­mor’s cache of pho­tos was dis­cov­ered af­ter her death in 2003. The re­sult­ing show es­tab­lishes her as a phe­nom­e­nal artist and phil­hel­lene – ac­co­lades that un­til now were re­served for her more fa­mous writer hus­band Paddy. Her dra­matic, black and white im­ages re­veal a post-war, pre-tourism Greece from 1945 to 1960: hawk-eyed vil­lagers wear tra­di­tional cos­tumes and chil­dren run barefoot on stone streets. Spe­cial treats in­clude Paddy, ruggedly hand­some and shirt­less, and a bikinied goddess that turns out to be Margot Fonteyn on hol­i­day, prac­tis­ing her arabesques.

Eirini Vour­loumis is a young Athe­nian pho­tog­ra­pher of Greek-in­done­sian her­itage, whose work cap­tures the bizarre side of gov­ern­ment build­ings and ev­ery­day pub­lic spa­ces. Her stun­ning pho­tographs doc­u­ment the degra­da­tions of the cri­sis, while mag­i­cally ex­pos­ing the droll hu­mour and beauty in fa­mil­iarly seedy en­vi­ron­ments, like min­istry wait­ing rooms or di­lap­i­dated cor­ri­dors.

LEAV­ING THE CITY be­hind via the night boat to the Dode­canese, my hus­band Vas­silis and I are now en­sconced on the is­land where we’ve stayed ev­ery year for the past two decades. Life is stripped back to the el­e­ments: swims from re­mote, stony beaches buf­feted by the mel­temi winds; a sound­scape of goat bells and cock­erels; and de­li­cious food that is all about fresh­ness and sim­plic­ity.

When I read Homer’s Odyssey in this set­ting, I felt I was in­hab­it­ing the same ter­rain, with­out the mon­sters. I do my most pro­duc­tive writ­ing here and also my best read­ing, ar­riv­ing with piles of books and a Kin­dle for emergencie­s. We al­ways mean to ex­plore the nearby is­lands, but rapidly be­come lit­er­ally in­su­lar, stick­ing to proven and joyful rou­tines. If we’re lucky, one of our daugh­ters will ar­rive to shake things up a bit, of­ten stay­ing out all night with friends they’ve seen ev­ery year since they were lit­tle, and re­turn­ing home at dawn.

THE MOST PRO­LIFIC Greek news sto­ries are of po­lice pros­e­cut­ing cases of child sex abuse. Greece lagged be­hind the trend in north­ern Europe, but the me­dia is now mak­ing up for it. The most re­cent scan­dal de­scribed a lawyer play­ing loud ec­cle­si­as­tic mu­sic while mo­lest­ing his young grand­chil­dren. It’s easy to for­get how re­cently we saw the trans­for­ma­tion of at­ti­tudes to­wards abuse in the UK. In the 1970s, a man could flirt with or even touch up a teenage girl with­out much com­ment, and peo­ple reg­u­larly turned a blind eye to far more se­ri­ous cases. ‘Jail­bait’ and ‘groupies’ took the rap for male crimes. It re­quired hor­ri­fy­ing celebrity scan­dals like Jimmy Sav­ile be­fore in­sti­tu­tions got wor­ried. I’m fas­ci­nated by these changes, and also by the awk­ward de­tails. What hap­pens when a young teenager falls in love with an older man? Can love ever mit­i­gate the crime when it comes to hav­ing sex with an un­der­age per­son? I’ve grap­pled with these themes in my novel Put­ney –set partly in the per­mis­sive, bo­hemian London of the 1970s, and partly in the cur­rent cli­mate that sup­ports sur­vivors of his­tor­i­cal child sex abuse. The clash makes for ex­plo­sive, dif­fi­cult ques­tions. Put­ney, by Sofka Zi­novi­eff (Blooms­bury, £14.99), is out now

Life is stripped back to the el­e­ments: swims from re­mote, stony beaches and de­li­cious food

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