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