For “The Gardens of Corfu” by Rachel Weaving and Marianne Majerus, go to the “BOOK NEWS” page
For the 1967 BBC travelogue “Garden of the Gods” by Gerald Durrell, visit the VIDEO GALLERY page to view the whole programme.
On this page
On this page we include any item of interest relating to the Durrells in Corfu [see also ADAPTATIONS for discussion of screen adaptations of Gerald Durrell’s works] and of significance to Corfu then or now. Many aspects of Corfu today remain relevant to issues of importance to the Durrells, including its ecology.
“Letter from Greece”
Richard Pine writes a monthly “Letter from Greece” for The Irish Times. Below is a selection of these Letters which specifically mention, and discuss, CORFU:
In June 2008, shortly after the referendum in which Irish voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty, I went into the Post Office in Corfu to send a parcel to Ireland. As I handed it across the counter, I said to the clerk ‘EU rate, please’. She asked me ‘Where is it going?’ ‘Ireland’ I said. She shook her head. ‘Ireland is no longer in the EU’. That was the perception of a Greek post office clerk: that Ireland had turned its back on Europe. Today, talk in Greece is tending to focus on whether Greece should or should not remain in the EU, and, more essentially, whether or not it should leave the eurozone and restore the drachma. The argument is: yes, this would be economic suicide, but could it be any worse than the situation that Greece is already in?
Greeks are puzzled by the way that not only the financial scene in Ireland, but the fabric of politics itself, has been unravelling over the past few months. Not only have the two countries the bailout in common (if for different reasons), but the sense of political instability is shared. The idea that a political party like Fianna Fáil, traditionally at the centre of the modern state, and indeed almost synonymous with that state, could so rapidly lose its way, strikes many chords with Greeks, who are bewildered by the fact that PASOK, the government party and the architect of Greece’s prosperity since the 1970s, is becoming the victim of its own success.
Apart from the current wave of strikes, which are mostly a reaction against the deregulation of protected professions, most of the unrest lies within PASOK itself. Old-timers in the party are resistant to the determination of PM George Papandreou to change the system of protectionism, clientelism and cronyism on which his father, prime minister before him, built up popular support for PASOK as a socialist party. So much so, that there are rumblings about a snap election: not to test the waters nationally, but to silence those internal dissidents. It is often said in Ireland that the real danger is not the other party, but your constituency running mate. Papandreou has a similar problem.
But he also has a potential solution: due to a quirk of the Greek constitution, when a general election is called within eighteen months of the last one, the parties use a ‘list system’ of nominees: in essence, voters choose a party, rather than individual candidates, and the MPs are nominated from the party’s lists. Papandreou has until 3 April to hold an election on this basis. If he did so, he could then eliminate his dissidents from the parliamentary party. An internal purge would enable Papandreou to implement what many in his party see as measures that are un-Greek.
I said in a previous column that Papandreou lacks the killer instinct that would enable him to cut off his opponents’ legs at the shoulders. Today, he seems to be acquiring that kind of ruthlessness. He has said very openly that he is so determined to succeed with his reforms that he is prepared to forfeit not only his personal standing and political future but also that of PASOK itself. If he were to call an election, he need have no fear of defeat: the continual fragmentation of political parties means that the main opposition, New Democracy, is in no position to mount a credible challenge, either ideologically or numerically.
Whether there would be a significant turnout is debatable. Apathy stems from the fact that most voters have little faith in either main party to solve the country’s woes, and, especially among those who are proud and anxious to be Greek, are resentful of the surrender of sovereignty which accompanied the bailout. The apparent collapse of the case for prosecuting politicians involved in the Siemens bribery scandal has called in question whether Greece has a rule of law, and especially whether politicians are immune to it.
In the run-up to the regional elections last November, voters were vociferous because they sensed a coming reduction in local people-power. A general election at this stage, especially if it was recognised as a manipulation by Papandreou of his own MPs, would cut little ice, because citizens see power as something very distant from where they sit.
There is widespread, if grudging, recognition of the fact that, with the possibility of stretching the pay-back period of the bailout, Papandreou, and his finance minister George Papaconstantinou, have got the measure of a Europe which otherwise would be shaking the Hellenic hound by the scruff of its neck much more viciously. Papandreou’s ability to come to terms with an otherwise anti-Greek Angela Merkel puts down a marker as to whether or not Greece sees its future in Europe – at least on the terms dictated by the centrist states.
But there’s the rub: Papandreou wants to create a modern Greece that will be western-looking and European. The dissidents he would like to be rid of are of the old school which insists that there is a Greek, rather than a European, solution to a Greek problem. To pursue his own political vision, Papandreou has little choice but to be brutal, if his reforms, which amount to a reconfiguration of Greek society, are to be successfully implemented. But election or no election in Greece this spring, Greek eyes will be concentrating on the change of power in Ireland, not least in regard to the issues of transparency and clientelism.
Some months ago the German newspaper Das Bild suggested that, in return for the EU bailout, Greece should sell off the Acropolis and some islands, including Corfu (where I live). At the time, this was regarded as so much tabloid guff, but more recently the EU/IMF/ECB troika has been pushing the sale of Greek assets so far that it has become less of a joke and more of a serious bargaining point.
Privatisation of state companies and sale of assets, including land, are inevitable if Greece is to raise the €50bn which the troika insists is necessary to reduce national debt by 2015. On April 15, the government was due to publish its schedule of sales, but has deferred any detailed announcement until after Easter.
There are two reasons for this: the first is what one might call ‘Greece vs. the troika’, in which the government continues to resist the harsher measures demanded by the inspectors, who have taken on all the appearance of the three horsemen of the apocalypse. The second is much more serious: ‘Pasok vs. Pasok’, in which PM George Papandreou is facing entrenched opposition to some of the intended measures, not only within his own party but within the cabinet itself.
Internal Pasok resistance is ostensibly due to anxiety that assets might be sold off at a time when they are undervalued. But this in fact masks a deeper resentment: that the state companies and other assets which might be on the market represent decades of state-building which are now to become international property, with further loss of the sovereignty and self-respect which were re-established in the wake of the military junta.
Despite widespread expectations that Greece will seek to restructure its debt, Papandreou has insisted that his government is ‘restructuring the country’. The obfuscation over the sale of assets has allowed the PM a rhetorical opportunity to reiterate his personal mission.
But delaying the announcement is the first major sign of weakness Papandreou has shown since becoming PM eighteen months ago. His determination to effect a root-and-branch transformation of public administration and business methods in Greece has so far been demonstrated by a disregard for public opinion and political criticism that one could hardly call ruthless but which has been remarkably adroit. But now by so obviously playing for time he is demonstrating a weakness that could jeopardise his position.
The April 15 announcement was expected to list the assets for sale. The delay has given Papandreou a breathing space in which to cajole his internal dissidents, without whose vote the government will be defeated in May, precipitating a general election. Speculation has identified several state companies ripe for sale: the loss-making rail network, the postal service, the state-owned casinos and Opap, the highly profitable betting agency.
While at the macro-level the fate of Greece is being internationally debated, in people’s real lives the facts of day-to-day survival are becoming increasingly evident. As the tourist season (on which Greece depends so heavily for revenue) gets under way, it’s difficult to know whether to be heartened by the preparations of shopkeepers and taverna-owners as premises are refurbished after the winter closure, or depressed by the sight of so many that will not be re-opening this year. As one restaurateur said to me, ‘I lose less money by staying shut’. With unemployment at 15% the second highest in the EU (after Spain), the minister for competitiveness has said that the jobless rate ‘may become a bomb in the foundations of society’. While optimism demands that economic ills can be overcome, the long-term social effects of the recession become ‘continually more toxic’, the minister said.
If Papandreou is forced to call an election, it’s likely that Pasok would be returned to power, since the increasing fragmentation of political parties on both the left and right reduces the chances of any strong or united opposition. A new leftist party, Dimar (Democratic Renewal), formed in April, has actually been greeted by Papandreou and Dora Bakoyannis, the leader of yet another splinter group and herself at one time a potential contender for the premiership. Why? Because it stands as much chance of survival as a Ratner’s ear-ring.
Meanwhile, it is not only the economic and social situation that gives cause for concern: Turkey has recently reaffirmed its intention of building a nuclear plant near Mersin, close to its border with Syria and 100km directly north of Cyprus. This in spite of the Japanese disaster. And why should that be a problem? Because Mersin, like much of the eastern Mediterranean, is in one of the world’s most fragile environments, seismically speaking. It lies 25km from the Ecemis seismic fault line and 125km from the east Anatolian fault line. In 1998 a 6.2 magnitude quake with an epicentre 70km from Turkey’s proposed nuclear site left 145 people dead.
Today, we know much more about tsunamis and, after Fukushima, about radiation and meltdown. Despite remonstrations by the Greek President, Turkey seems determined to proceed. The Turkish PM Recep Erdogan says ‘There is no investment without risk. Otherwise you shouldn’t use a gas cylinder in your house’. Which sounds very much like ‘You don’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’. It could be a very strange summer.
Brian Friel’s 1969 play The Mundy Scheme begins with a question to the audience: ‘What happens to an emerging country after it has emerged?’ The crucial issue is: how it copes with its new-found freedom. In many cases, as in both Ireland and Finland immediately after independence, and in so many African states in more recent times, it leads to civil war, as rival factions express differing viewpoints on questions of national identity and self-determination.
In Greece, it took much longer, but the divisiveness in civil society persists, especially as the country, which shook off Turkish rule in the 1820s, and adopted a German as its king, seems today to be once again threatened by both German-led economic impositions and Turkish demands for a reduction in the Greek continental shelf. German demands threaten the Greek economy; Turkish demands threaten Greece’s (and Cyprus’s) potential exploitation of gas and oil deposits.
Due to its fears of Turkish militancy, Greece has a massive army and airforce, costing the country far more than it can possibly afford but, it is argued, essential for Greece’s security. According to one source, Greece is ranked ninth in the world in terms of militarization, ahead of far richer countries like Saudi Arabia, which has a similar problem with neighbouring Iran.
In a sense, Greece has always been ungovernable. As Irish readers will readily appreciate, when your country is occupied by a dominant neighbour, you resort to evasion, secrecy, and bribery – this way of life permeates the DNA. Under its own domestic regime, Greece, from the 1830s up to today, was able to live comfortably with this DNA, haphazardly but according to its own rhythms. Divisive issues such as whether the country should be a monarchy or a republic (only finally resolved by referendum in 1975) or irredentism over its lost territory in the Balkans (still a difficult issue in relation to FYROM and Turkey) have always meant instability. But Greece under external diktats which effectively control the economy, foreign relations and most of civil society, is a different country. It’s one thing to live with your own defects at your own pace, and quite another to have those defects exposed by external auditors who demand their eradication. The divided society that has always been Greece is today divided by those external forces, and the age-old capacity in the DNA for resistance becomes resurgent and more explicit than ever before.
One example is the problem of tax evasion, which runs throughout Greek society, and has become a public debate with the resignation of Diomidis Spinellis, whose task, as Secretary-General of a special task-force inside the Ministry of Finance, was to identify tax evaders. Spinellis has asserted not only that ‘there is a deficit of management’ in the identification of evasion, but also that tax collectors regularly pocket 40% of the fines they collect, while the tax-payer receives a 40% discount on the fine imposed. Very few of the prominent people who have been named as tax dodgers have been penalised. Angela Gerekou, one of Corfu’s three MPs, was forced to resign as junior minister for tourism and culture, when it was disclosed that her husband, singer Tolis Voskopoulos, owed over €500k in taxes. He received a three-year suspended sentence and was given the option of paying at the rate of five euros per day. At that rate, it will take him almost 300 years to pay what he owes. It helps to explain why so many protesters in Syntagma Square revile the ‘kleptocracy’ (or ‘rule by theft’) which protects tax dodgers from paying their debt to society.
Meanwhile, the unexpected news that the Greek exchequer has achieved a primary surplus has led to international commentators renewing their opinion that a default and a return to the drachma are economically feasible: if citizens don’t pay their taxes, why should Greece pay its debts?
Another indicator of unease was the admission by Michalis Chrysochoidis, Development Minister in the interim government, and a candidate for the leadership of Pasok, that he had not read the Memorandum of Understanding that ushered in Greece’s bailout era. He said he was too busy with his then job, as Minister for Citizens’ Protection, to study the MoU. Irish readers will recall that, back in 2009, Charlie McCreevy, as Ireland’s EU Commissioner, admitted likewise that he hadn’t read the text of the Lisbon Treaty – in which he was joined by the UK’s Europe Minister, Caroline Flint. Many in Greece today ask why Chrysochoidis should be penalised for his admission: wasn’t the MoU a done deal, the first tranche of Greece’s descent into insolvency and humiliation? And therefore why did he need to read it? No wonder that a graffito in Corfu town reads ‘Troïka = Pasok’. It’s generally considered today that Pasok, which continues to dominate the interim coalition, has all along been complaisant and compliant towards EU impositions.
The IMF/ECB/EU troïka demands (forgive the pun) perestroïka – the Russian word for the complete restructuring of society introduced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, along with glasnost (transparency). George Papandreou, the former PM and leader of Pasok, promised perestroïka in Greece, but it is the opaqueness, rather than transparency, of the Greek system that bedevils any demonstrable advance. And in the eyes of many, especially following Angela Merkel’s statement that defaulting countries should be denied control over their own budgets, this puts Greece back where it was before 1821, when it began its fight for independence.
I am frequently criticised by Greeks, both at home and in the diaspora (especially the diaspora) for writing harshly about the Greek political and economic systems. And I am also applauded by non-Greeks, especially those who have difficulty operating a business in Greece, for saying the same things. Both criticism and applause are misplaced.
The Irish historian Roy Foster wrote to me: ‘Greece is a country I both love and mourn’.
What is there to love about Greece? Quite apart from its spectacular scenery, its climate, its extant antiquities, and the fact that it was – perhaps still is – the cradle of civilisation, there is something much more fundamental: the intimate relationship between landscape and character, which makes Greece and its people so attractive and so challenging.
This relationship has created a grittiness which inheres in all Greeks, whether townies or villagers. It enabled the Greek army to repulse the Italians on the Albanian border in 1941 – the first victory by the Allied countries in World War 2. During that war, it enabled the Greeks to form an effective resistance movement against occupying German forces, despite appalling famine in Athens and other cities. It fuelled the debate about the future identity of the country during the ensuing civil war. And it provided the animus which preserved it from the military junta of 1967-74, especially the students (many of whom were killed) who eventually defeated that regime.
What is there to mourn about Greece? First, the perennial irredentism which makes Greeks long for restitution of its antique glory, including the idea of recapturing Constantinople (Istanbul) which led to the Anatolian catastrophe of 1922 and which, it can be argued, was a major factor in the political and economic upheavals from the 1920s onwards. Next, the era following the exit of the colonels in 1974, when successive governments, first under New Democracy and then Pasok, created a ‘welfare state’ based on clientelism and cronyism, encouraging a dependence on a ‘Jim’ll fix it’ mentality which, along with other factors, has contributed to the present crisis.
Other aspects of Greek society which must be bewailed are the inferior educational system at all levels, which sees billions of euros being spent privately by parents to try and ensure a better life for their children. The lack of industrial development, which Ireland has overcome by attracting multinational manufacturing and financial services, has been a major absence in the Greek economy: there was an ambition, a part of the irredentism in the heart of every Greek, that Athens could become the financial hub of the burgeoning Balkan economic world, but that was never realised.
The lack of planning in the development of tourism, which is not only Greece’s major export industry but also coterminous with its attraction as a social and cultural magnet, leaves Greece competing badly with neighbouring countries in the provision of, for example, marinas and golf courses (there are only twelve courses in the entire country).
Perhaps most serious of all is the transition from a rural to an urban society which leaves many villages depopulated, without creating any technological or wealth-creating nodes on which to build.
And since accession to the EU Greece, like Ireland, used the ‘begging bowl’ to attract adhesion funds which have now led to today’s loss of sovereignty.
Loving or mourning. Which?
The love and the plusses outweigh the bewailing and the minuses. But the gap is closing.
One could never despair of a country and a people which exhibits, in the face of adversity, such joie de vivre that pushes their bewilderment and misery into a corner. In the village where I live, on the island of Corfu, local expressions of opinion on the current situation are heated to the point of violence, but subside at the kafeneion, as evening continues, into equally heated games of cards and backgammon (perhaps the national pastime).
I for one could never forsake the country where I have made my home, but the gap is closing. Even if a ‘Grexit’ from the euro results in the collapse not only of the Greek economy but also possibly the euro itself, and, as many are now arguing across Europe, of the EU as a credible entity, I would not blame the Greeks. I never loved the EU and I would not mourn it.
Even if we had a military regime – and that is not impossible – I would join the Greeks in resisting it, as they did in 1967-74, and living in its shadow.
Greece may not be a modern, forward-looking society, keeping pace with the northern march towards unification and ‘progress’. Not least because of that idea of ‘terroir’, as the French call it – the rootedness of people in their locale, that intimate relationship between land and people which makes them more concerned about their vines and their olives (the grape harvest comes in the third week of September, followed by the long cropping of the olives) than about a factory in a nearby town. Only the sea – thalassa – has been a challenge to the land, and even then, despite Greece’s continuing domination of the shipping industries, benefiting only a few millionaires.
Greece’s potential is in so many areas untapped, even though the areas highlighted by economists and technocrats may not be those I am thinking of: the areas to be exploited are those that create the reasons for loving Greece; the areas where Greece is mourned are possibly those where mourning is inappropriate. But the gap is closing.
A recent study “Understanding the Crisis in Greece”, by two Greek economists, Michael Mitsopoulos and Theodore Pelagidis (both of whom have been advisors to the Greek government) tells us that the Greek economy is dysfunctional. We do not need an academic treatise to tell us that. Greece’s relations with the EU have made that clear over the past three years at least. The 114 bar-charts, pie-charts and graphs in the book are unnecessary: we can observe all of them by looking around us.
Anton Chekhov used to say that he got the ideas for his searing dramas by looking out of the window and seeing all human life going by. Brian Friel showed us much the same in his essay on his mother’s home town, “A Fine Day at Glenties”. I sit on the esplanade of Corfu Town, absorbing the last of the autumn sunshine, and I look across the straits at an Albania already going into winter: a country consisting almost entirely of unhelpful snow-clad mountains. We live in a world of micro-climates, each of which disobeys the laws of economics, meteorology and citizenship.
What I see in town (which should really be regarded as a small city rather than a large town) or in the village where I live, is living proof of this book’s thesis: that “everyone participates, more or less willingly, in the shadow economy”, and “the undemocratic nature of the political parties”. I see poverty, tax evasion, ostentatious wealth, despair and joy. Hope and helplessness. I see widows collecting wild greens (horta) on which they live almost exclusively because they cannot afford meat (although they buy chicken carcases to make stock). But I am also told that one of the poorest-looking widows owns five houses and has thousands of euros stashed away. A micro-climate indeed.
One of the strongest indicators of Greece as a divided society is the contrast between town and village: the mutual suspicion of the people; the townies look down on the peasants and the peasants (not too strong a word for subsistence farmers) regard the townies as crooks – and have done so since at least the eighteenth century. A new dimension to political life has been the rise of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, which in Corfu polled much higher than its national average in the last elections, and which is suspected of having organised an arson attack of Corfu’s remaining synagogue.
It’s a country where women use the genitive of their husband’s or father’s name (the singer Vicki Leandros is known as Vicki Leandrou here) and still adopt an all-black wardrobe immediately they become widows.
It’s also a country of immense beauty: Corfu Town has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site because its arcaded streets, built mostly during the 400-year Venetian occupation, and the evident signs of building during the British administration (1815-64), make it a city of appealing uniqueness. Sitting on the esplanade, I look at the miracle of the two arcaded blocks which form a replica of Paris’s rue de Rivoli – they were built by the father of the man who later constructed the Suez Canal. “Miracle” because when the French were routed from Corfu, the incoming British finished the job. It’s the social centre of “le tout Corfou”.
But the simplicity of village life and architecture complements and adds to that beauty – even though the inhabitants of village and town are as different as chalk and cheese. How can I reconcile the beauty of the environment – and the value-added that inheres in the so-important tourist industry – when Mitsopoulos and Pelagidis document so thoroughly that Greece is almost spastically resistant to the sort of reforms demanded by the EU? I see the kaleidoscope from the different end of the spectrum, simply because the economists cannot look at the everyday lives of ordinary people. It’s possible that they may never have seen villagers dunking their local bread into their own olive oil – or seen the sacks of olives going to the oilery where the growers pay eighty cents per litre for production, or spit-roasted lambs at the local panegiri (saint’s day).
It is the celebration of life at the most basic level, even if it does involve bribery and corruption, that the economists can’t see: they may hold the view that Greek people are inured to the grey economy and to dealing with the problem of balancing responsibility to the state with the demands of family, but in a country which last year lost 1000 jobs per day, and where young people are looking to emigration as their only hope of survival, the claims of the individual are bound to transcend those of the state.
And if as is rumoured, the local taverna decides to open for only three days each week, due to declining spending power, we will all have to learn more than just dunking bread in oil.
“Where did you go on your hols?” “Corfu”. “Where’s that?” “I don’t know – we went by air”. Yes, travel narrows the mind, but there’s an essential Greece that’s easily found and is mind-expanding.
Greece thrives on tourism, involving 20% of its workforce, creating 20% of GDP. But in the season, the numbers increase hugely, with every son, daughter and granny drafted in to run the local taverna.
In the season you can fly direct Dublin-Corfu and Dublin-Athens by Aer Lingus, and Dublin-Chania (in Crete) by Ryanair. The Aer Lingus service is convenient, affordable and friendly (and they didn’t pay me to say that).
So a few words about Corfu, where I live, might be helpful: despite development, especially resortification, it’s still a very beautiful island. Many of its characteristics can be found elsewhere in Greece of course, particularly on islands such as Rhodes or Crete, but Corfu exudes an atmosphere that comes from centuries of beauty piled one on the other. Corfu was a cosmopolitan city when Athens was still a village.
Unlike most of Greece, which was ruled for 400 years by the Turks, Corfu (on Greece’s west coast, in case you go by air) was under the Venetians (and for 50 years under Britain), with an Italian culture visible today in its public buildings, its streetscapes and its two massive fortresses, between which the medieval town huddles for protection.
Yes, we have Marks and Spencer, Benetton, Anaïs, the Body Shop, and of course McDonalds, but why would you come to Corfu to buy a pullover or an unguent or a McWhopper, when you can visit the century-old Patouni olive soap factory, eat local specialities or seek out wineries, imaginative modern jewellery (for which Corfu has a centuries-old reputation), and a range of olive wood products.
And that’s only Corfu Town. Out in the countryside, it’s still possible to find vistas of olive groves and traditional villages as they were a hundred and more years ago. If in search of outstanding, historic watering-holes, try to get to Elizabeth’s in Doukades (hasn’t changed since the 1930s, and the best goat’s cheese I’ve ever tasted), Thomas’s in the deserted mountain village of Old Perithia, Mario’s at Almyros (all organic food, the best wild spinach), the White House at Kalami (Lawrence Durrell’s home in the 1930s) and, for fish lovers, heaven on a plate at Klimateria in Benitses. (And none of them knows I’m writing this!)
If you’re flying Aer Lingus you’re unlikely to be taking a package holiday, and in less danger of having your mind narrowed by the experience. Accommodation is reasonable, from a modest B&B for €25 per night to the €40k per week (yes!) paid last year by an African head of state for a villa.
You don’t need to be terribly discerning to enjoy Corfu, or Rhodes, or Crete: just adventurous and enquiring. There’s a well-signposted Walking Trail (and invaluable guide book) which takes you into the interior – probably the best way to see the island. But if walking its 60 kilometres doesn’t appeal, then car rental is inexpensive and local buses are plentiful, so there’s every possible way to explore the mountain villages.
Avoid Kavos. The name rings like a scary bell to anyone who’s been there, and if you saw the 4-part Channel4 pukumentary, you’ll know they do things one cannot mention in a family newspaper. Scatological, to put it mildly. Every island has one – a destination for lagerlouts and loose women.
Must see: in Corfu Town, the exhibition of Asian art (the only one in Greece), the fortresses, the sculpted Medusa in the Archaeological Museum, and the enticing Venetian-style arcaded streets. Must eat: modest grillrooms such as Chrysomallis and Nino’s (both decades old), Rouva’s, with a discerning clientele from the nearby market (and, like Thomas’s in Perithia, recommended by Rick Stein) and, very upmarket, Rex, or Aegli with a shaded table overlooking the cricket pitch (yes, cricket is a still-alive British legacy).
Food: everywhere in Greece you’ll find moussaka, souvlaki, hummus (aphrodisiac – makes you hummusexual – only joking!), but go for the local specialities: octopus, bourdetto (eel in a red pepper sauce), psarosoupa (a version of bouillabaisse), barbouni (red mullet), spit-roasted lamb, sofrito (meat in wine sauce smothered in parsley), and my favourite, pastitsada (cockerel with tomatoes and pasta). Follow your nose – literally. The charcoal grill ároma (in Greek, the accent is on the first syllable) comes first, the taste next. Don’t be put off if it looks like a spit-and-sawdust joint – all the better for that. And if you want nouvelle cuisine, I once ate roasted kid (the four-legged kind) in an egg and spinach sauce that would do a Dublin restaurateur proud. Even in my local village taverna, there’s frequently a new dish; I’m their chief guineapig: pork escallops in a wine sauce with wild mushrooms is a triumph.
Find and enjoy! Kalo taxidi! Kalos oreksi!
On my terrace, the breeze lifts the olive leaves from green to silver; at night, the garden lit up with teeming fireflies, I hear the mating call of the skops owl. It’s difficult to think that upcoming local and European elections are causing heated debates just 200 metres up the lane at the village bar.
Greeks are naturally disputatious. The raised voice, the clenched fist, the in-your-face refutation, are merely ways of saying, vehemently, “Sorry, I don’t agree with you” or “What kind of eejit are you?” Only in extremely divisive situations,
Actually, Greece hardly cares about the European side of it,
With a greatly diminished voice in local affairs (when reforms left Corfu, where I live, with one authority replacing the previous thirteen, and a Mayor in town who just doesn’t even know where our village is) they care deeply about how they are governed. As with most other countries polling this month, the result will be a barometer of the likely outcome of a general election (due in Greece no later than 2015).
At national level, their disillusion with all political shades has been reflected in the disillusion of parliamentarians themselves at their own impotence, leading to a fragmentation of the existing parties, only a few of which have any hope of attracting the 3% necessary to secure parliamentary seats. Some new parties, such as ‘Potami’ (River), are genuinely committed to change. Others are merely splinters designed to show off the sour grapes of their founders: it’s like losing the party whip, and most of these splinters are quietly grafted back onto the old branch from which they fell.
To date, the traditional two-party alternation of New Democracy (ND) and Pasok has been so much affected by the almost complete wipe-out of Pasok at the last election, bringing the two rivals into an unholy coalition, which has seen its majority whittled down to a 148-152 due to defections.
The first-past-the-post in a general election is crucial, as under the constitution the winner gets 60 extra seats added to its elected members. At present ND and the chief opposition, left-wing Syriza, are neck-and-neck in opinion polls at 21% apiece. If this held up, the winner would have 63 seats, plus the 60-seat bonus, leaving it far short of a 151 majority, with the danger that the third largest party, the fascist Golden Dawn (currently at 7-8%) might hold the balance of power. Pasok, as part of a new ‘Olive Tree’ coalition, has slumped even further, to less than 5%, in sixth place, a full point below the communists.
Steered by the troika, the present coalition, just about hanging together, has pushed through a multi-purpose law providing for deregulation of protected professions and increased administrative efficiency. Its popularity, if one can call it that, has sunk to a 20% ‘satisfaction’ rating.
In the past four years, at least seven new parties have been declared, of which only Independent Greeks (on 4.2%), Democratic Left (which quit the existing coalition and is now on 3.1%) and the fledgling Potami remain in the frame.
Potami has 6-7% (18-21 seats at a general election); it stands for less bureaucracy and judicial reform, positive reaction to migrants (a major sore point) and a boost for tourism. The fact that its founder, broadcaster-journalist Stavros Theodorakis, sports a household name (even though he seems to be no relation to the composer) cannot be a bad thing. Its platform looks eminently sensible, which suggests that it won’t do well.
As reported in this paper by Damian Mac Con Uladh, there is considerable unrest at the disclosure of fascist infiltration into the police, the army, the church and the judiciary, and a stunning video of the PM’s right-hand man in more than friendly discussions with leaders of Golden Dawn.
Personally, I’d vote for the Firefly party: they make no promises they can’t keep, they only come out at night, and they are short-lived.
Nail-biting time for school-leavers is as intense in Greece as it is in Ireland. Will they or won’t they get the points they need for their chosen college courses? If they do, there’s a strong likelihood that their degree will mean living away from home for most of their working lives. In a small village, that creates its own dilemmas.
The anxieties recently voiced in this paper by Diarmuid Ó Gráda (11 July) concerning rural decline are every bit as prevalent in Greece, where the villages are becoming depopulated by emigration to the cities and out of the country altogether.
Increased mobility through car ownership means that the shopping centre is replacing the village shop: financial concentration makes local trade non-viable. Increasing administrative centralisation is another factor: a village diminishes as its vital organs atrophy – the post office, the school, the pub.
Rural Greece lost most of its schools over the past thirty years. Villages are even losing their focal point: the local bar (kafeneion). I can think of three in Corfu that have recently closed due to the deaths of their elderly owners. The village is not yet dead, but very silent.
Does the shrinking village suffer from its failure to adapt? Does it deserve to die? Would the introduction of small industries, especially hi-tech ones, reverse what is fast becoming a string of skeletal settlements, validated only by the passing tourist trade during the summer months, and invisible and dormant the rest of the year?
An even greater factor in this leavetaking is university (or technical college) education, which provides an exit to a ‘better’ life – a professional career and wider horizons than the village can offer.
One schoolboy in the village where I live made a bazooka that fired a missile 300 yards. He’s now studying robotics and weapon design. Luckily he hasn’t heard of the Daleks (‘ex-ter-min-ate!’) or he would have a one-stop destination for his twin talents. But he isn’t coming back. His best friend isn’t so bright, and stayed at home as an apprentice electrician. Win one, lose one.
It’s glib to say ‘the soul goes out of the village’ but, haemorrhage or brain-drain, it’s true nonetheless. In the past two years, three of the five school-leavers have gone to university, with little prospect of their returning except on family visits. Not much call for robotics round here.
One of this year’s leavers, Barbara, wants to study cosmetics with a view to working in the film industry – bye-bye Barbara. Another one gone.
That leaves two young men – and no girls – in a village which once boasted two schools (none now) and over ten kafeneions (two remain).
I saw the same problem in Connemara, where I lived for a few years in the early 2000s. In one village, two of the pubs and both the shops closed, because the children did not want to take over their parents’ business. One girl studied aeronautical engineering and now works for British Aerospace. Alcock and Brown’s historic landing in Clifden in 1919 didn’t encourage a local aeroplane industry. Nor did the long-defunct Marconi transatlantic signalling station stimulate any local initiative in communication technology.
Family pride and village pride lose out to the attractions of better-paid cosmopolitan life. There is no jobs market at home, and few marriage options. There are no bank loans for start-up enterprise, and family savings have long been exhausted by the imperatives of austerity. ‘Cottage industry’ doesn’t exist.
Can you argue with ‘progress’? These young people are entitled to a first-generation university education and the opportunities it offers to take them away from the traditional, inward-looking, familiar world towards something new, challenging and exciting.
No one has yet devised a programme that can reconcile this legitimate demand for self-improvement with the equally legitimate need of rural society to cohere and, to use Brian Friel’s wonderful word, ‘resile’.
The points system in Greece is very similar to that in Ireland. Out of a maximum of 20,000 points, you need 10,000 to be eligible for university, and at least 13,000 for the college and course of your choice. As in Ireland, the points requirement mounts in the more specialised subjects and according to availability of places in the individual colleges.
A basic BA in computing or economics may confer little job potential (I know of one civil engineer working on a supermarket check-out).This may therefore point the graduate back home to take over the family business. We have two shops and two tavernas in the village which will depend for their medium-term survival on the returning graduates.
At the end of August we will know whether this year’s two school-leavers will get places, and on what courses. And this in turn will tell us whether or not they will be coming back. It’s nail-biting time for everyone.
2014 marks the 150th anniversary of the merger of the Ionian islands with the 33-year-old state of Greece. Under Venetian rule for 400 years, and a British protectorate 1815-64, the islands had been known as the ‘Heptanese Republic’ or ‘United States of the Ionian Islands’. Under many layers of history – Greek, Italian, French, British, Albanian – Corfu in particular had become a cosmopolitan society, having little in common with the previously Turkish-dominated Greek mainland.
Because of their history, the Ionian Islands could not be described as purely Greek, and to this day Corfiots regard themselves ‘differently’ – Corfiots first and Greeks second.
But the momentum towards enosis (union) with the new Greek state was sufficient to persuade the Ionian Parliament to vote itself out of existence – not unlike the Act of Union between Britain and Ireland sixty-four years earlier, and a pre-echo of the failed attempt by Cyprus to achieve enosis in the 1950s.
Different factions promoted or opposed enosis, depending on what was to be lost or gained from submission to the Athens parliament. It will be no surprise that the feudal landlords, merchants and local tax-gatherers were in the ‘no’ camp, with the nationalists and liberals urging a ‘yes’ vote. The farewell to independence (and, with it, a hugely superior cultural life) was swayed by the emotive argument in favour of joining a state free of explicit external influence. In fact, the Great Powers determined that, then as now, the new state would remain a pawn in the geopolitical chess game of the eastern Mediterranean.
The British administration was largely beneficent (as long as it was in Britain’s interest to maintain Ionian independence) – roads, water supply, sanitation were all provided – but it was patronising: believe it or not, the natives were referred to as ‘the Irish of the Mediterranean’. And it was strict: a nationalist rising in Cephalonia in 1848 was brutally suppressed.
When Gladstone spent three months in the islands in 1858-9, weighing the pros and cons of enosis versus British control, he was divided between head and heart: as a British politician he had to support Britain’s continued role; as a passionate Philhellene, he could see an unanswerable case for union with Greece. His eventual report was typically ambiguous and ambivalent, and was rejected by both sides. Perhaps his experience moved him towards the concept of Home Rule for Ireland twenty years later.
Greece’s war of independence was considerably longer than Ireland’s (10 years). Because of the instability of the state today, and the ill-concealed rival ambitions of Russia and China to grab Greek assets, some – especially the terrorists – would say that the war of independence continues to this day.
I had hoped and expected that the newly established British-Greek Research Centre at the Ionian University (to which I am an advisor) would sponsor a conference to discuss this episode in Greek history and the general theory and practice of political union, which might have included Ireland’s Act of Union. But apparently it was decided that it would be inappropriate to do so, on what grounds I do not know.
Instead, the university is proposing a somewhat different conference in 2015 to mark the bicentenary of British administration: a focus on the experience of colonial suppression rather than a celebration of post-colonial nationalism.
Perhaps I have read the situation wrongly. But the inference I draw is that there is greater academic merit to be derived from the memory of being dominated than from the exploration of why the islands opted to escape that domination by union with Greece.
Moreover, academic accounts of the British administration are plentiful; a conference would hardly break new ground. By contrast, a conference on the neglected theme of enosis would have opened up a topic for discussion: motivations, ideologies, economic and social consequences.
There are many aspects of Greek experience which are almost no-go areas, for example, the role of the British in the civil war and its aftermath. Perhaps because it brings us too close to the realities of the present day.
It’s the contrast between remembering and forgetting. To remember subjection is less inconvenient than to remember the dangers and difficulties of freedom. In a year when Ireland is commemorating 1914 – however contentiously – it’s instructive to note how different states choose to commemorate their origins and key milestones.
Ironically, it was the British who marked the anniversary of enosis in May, when the ambassador described the hand-over in 1864 as taking place ‘in a spirit of dialogue and negotiation without civil or military strife’ – perhaps a side-reference towards other, more strife-ridden, situations elsewhere today.
The background to post-independence Corfu can be read in the novel Slaves in Their Chains by a Corfiot aristocrat, Constantin Theotoki (1872-1923) which also predicted the catastrophe of Greece’s irredentism in the ill-conceived Anatolian campaign of 1920-22. (Translated by JMQ Davies, published by Angel Books, 2014)
A homebound Irish couple accosted me recently at Corfu airport. “We came here because of what you wrote in The Irish Times”… I waited in trepidation. “We loved it!” They are seasoned travellers. They found Corfu beautiful and affordable. Some relief, to know that one can extol the beauties of a place and still tell the truth. Mission accomplished.
But, as I have been travelling recently, I can now say that, whatever the charms of Corfu, those of the town of Nafplion, in the southern Peloponnese, are their equal.
When I first visited Nafplion, fifty years ago, it was merely a small town living on its reputation as the site of the first parliament of independent Greece up to 1834, when government moved to Athens.
It’s dominated by a Venetian castle, reached by 999 very steep steps, up which, at the vigorous age of fifteen I ran, in pursuit of a girl who, I’m sorry to say, could run faster than I. This time, pleading old age and lack of inducement, I stayed on the level.
Today, the town has expanded into “Nafplion New Town”, a series of suburbs, and this is a welcome feature of many Greek towns of historical importance, such as Mycenae, Tiryns, Epidauros and Argos: the tourists are serviced on the prehistoric site while you live and shop in the new town – it brings a whole new meaning to “I got it in Argos”.
For tourist purposes, separating the old cities from the new towns is a cleverly managed strategy. Suburbs are generally unexciting but affordable, and, unless exceptionally well designed, unattractive. a social necessity. Athens is the prime Greek example, with miles of low-rise suburbs lining the arterial exit roads, some of them very squalid, stretching in every direction from the ancient centre. It’s quite a shock, if you know your Greek mythology, to see a motorway exit sign for ‘Eleusis’: one might wonder what 21st-century mysteries it can offer, until you learn that it is home to Greece’s largest oil refinery.
Corfu has its quality shops, especially the jewellery for which it’s famous, but in Nafplion’s stylish streetscape the shops aimed at tourists display none of the tawdry, made-in-China tat that clogs up the narrow laneways of Corfu. With so many hotels, tavernas and cafes winding down at the end of the season, it’s possible to walk the streets usually clogged with camera-toting visitors, to appreciate fully the range of local produce, proudly offered in craft shops and delicatessens.
Everything is tastefully displayed, perhaps so much so that it runs the danger of becoming twee. In the old town, not a supermarket in sight. But in the “new town” on its outskirts, Cash & Carry rules ok!
Nafplion was (and still is) also the centre of the manufacture of komboloi, the traditional Greek “worry beads” which resemble a rosary but are, in fact, an antidote to anxiety. Preferably (and expensively) made of amber, they are also made here from coral, ivory, mother-of-pearl or (the cheapest) synthetic beads. Even if you don’t think you need them, the warmth of the amber in the palm of the hand is somehow reassuring.
Nafplion is perhaps fortunate in that it can’t accommodate cruise ships (like Corfu). The inmates of these ships spend next to nothing in their points of arrival, where they linger, almost without purpose, until departure time six or eight hours later. They are, in fact, of almost zero economic value to their host towns, but they help to spread the word: many travellers will return to savour at a more leisurely pace the beauties they have seen so briefly.
Greece, like any other country trying to expand its tourist potential, is torn between the needs of the average tourist and the needs of the local population. But, like any country with a rapidly expanding urban lifestyle, it is also torn between modernisation and the preservation of the traditional and authentic.
In the past weeks we’ve seen ministerial announcements about this year’s record-breaking tourist influx (18 million, up ten per cent on 2013) and about intentions to develop niche markets, especially cultural tourism. We hear this every year, but with the need to put Athens itself back on the tourist map, after the disturbances of the past four years, it’s believable.
Nafplion could give the National Tourism Organization some valuable pointers: it has a very fine local history museum – one of the best I’ve ever seen – established by the Peloponnese Folklore Foundation. Local pride exudes from this and similar institutions (including an annexe of the National Gallery), not least because the Peloponnese was the principal site of the war of independence, which was nasty, brutish and long (1821-30). As a result, it has a significance for the rest of Greece which Nafplion tastefully exploits. Returning there after so long, was a pleasant revelation.
Nearly four years ago, the German tabloid Das Bild suggested that, in return for the EU bailout, Greece should sell off the Acropolis and some islands, including Corfu. Everyone laughed. And yet now it is happening. The IMF-led troika has insisted that Greece should sell state assets through TAIPED (Hellenic Asset Development Fund) – an agency not unlike Ireland’s NAMA.
TAIPED is selling a wide range of assets, from a disused mental hospital, a ski slope and a marina to all Greece’s regional airports, the national rail network, the water supply of Thessaloniki, and millions of acres of real estate, including gold mines worth an estimated €10 billion.
Deutsche Telekom acquired the Greek network some years ago and last year Azerbaijan bought the national gas company. The port of Piraeus, a controlling interest in Athens airport and the huge site of the former airport, are all up for grabs, with China doing most of the grabbing.
Islands? Last year, the Emir of Qatar purchased a small island within a Natura 2000 zone on which to construct a palace. The island of Elafonisos (on the southern edge of the Peloponnese) with stunning back-to-back beaches similar to Connnemara’s Gurteen and Dog’s Bay, and also within a Natura 2000 zone, is listed by the Guardian as one of the top ten beaches in the world. It’s up for sale.
Which brings me back to Corfu. In the island’s north-east corner, the pristine headland of Eremitis lies between the tiny fishing village of San Stefanos and Avlaki beach. David Shimwell, one of the world’s top botanists, knows the area intimately, and has identified Eremitis as possessing a collection of Arbutus (strawberry) trees and other vegetation of Mediterranean significance.
TAIPED acquired the land (120 acres) from an individual in lieu of inheritance tax, and has now sold it to the US-based NCH Capital Inc. for €23 million. NCH intends to spend €75 million on the development.
The regional authority of the Ionian Islands (the peripherarch), backed up by local residents, appealed the sale to the Supreme Court, which however found in favour of TAIPED. 39 members of the main opposition in the Athens parliament also protested that the sale was “illegal, unconstitutional and in breach of international law”. This, too, was set aside.
Natura 2000 is the EU biodiversity network aiming at protecting threatened species and habitats such as Eremitis. But it is powerless. No environmental impact study of the site has been made, and in fact recent legislation has allowed developers to circumvent such a procedure.
Inexplicably, this wetland ecosystem was held by the court not to be within the Natura 2000 zones in Corfu. There was a legal tussle as to whether the land had become “public property” or the “private property” of the Greek state. Despite the fact that all Greece’s coastline is irrevocably public property, the court said this was private and legitimately owned by TAIPED.
With “biodiversity” such a global buzzword, it’s astonishing that such an untouched site should be subjected to development which cannot fail to damage the environment irreparably. With a proposed development of hotels (5000 beds), a shopping mall and a marina totalling 36,000 square metres, site-sensitive development is out of the question. By developing the site, the very amenity which attracts tourists will be effaced.
It’s a sad example of Greece’s dilemma: a desperate need to capitalise assets while safeguarding tourist amenities that earn 20% of GDP.
Local businesses are divided on the issue. When you have to make a living from tourism in times of austerity, a new source of revenue is welcome. But the damage to an amenity which is a basic part of the tourism attraction also gives them mixed feelings. It’s the “price of progress”.
Gerald Durrell observed that, as a boy in the 1930s, he had fallen in love with Corfu. He likened the island to “a ravishing creature who was mature and beautiful”. Revisiting it after fifty years “was like paying a visit to the most beautiful woman in the world suffering from a terminal case of leprosy, commonly called tourism.” He accused the Corfiots of “vandalism beyond belief”. That was thirty years ago. This development would add vitriol to the leprosy.
A cynic would say “Corfu has already done so much irresponsible damage to itself so who cares about a bit more of the same?” But this is out of Corfu’s hands.
What function a shopping mall might perform in a remote part of a small island already replete with retail outlets is beyond the imagination. Marinas in Greece are mostly very small and very badly managed. Why would this be any different? Corfu already has several disused hotels, including the huge Club Med which closed several years ago. It doesn’t need 5000 extra beds.
What it is lacking is exactly what Eremitis offers: unspoilt beauty of international significance.
I’m on a crowded bus, homeward-bound in Corfu. Seventy-five people on a 52-seater, mainly tourists. Dutch, German, British and a lot of Russians. One could be forgiven for thinking the Greek tourist industry is thriving. But most of them are on day-release from their pre-paid resort hotels, which discourage their inmates from any local expenditure.
An elderly Greek is talking (in English of course) with a fourteen-years-old Norwegian – yes, Ryanair flies Corfu-Oslo. Their conversation ranges from ecology to economy, from geopolitics to Norwegian social policy. The boy’s knowledge, and fluency in English, is remarkable. The bus reaches the resortotel, and he and his family descend.
Maybe we shouldn’t look down on the resortotel. Many holidaymakers want a trouble-free break where everything is provided, decisions can be delayed until return to the “real world” and one might as well be in Spain or Italy. Mindless bednights.
Those who show initiative and make a break for the perimeter fence are definitely in the minority. My Yorkshire neighbour on the bus says this day in town was his one and only day outside the compound. It was his wife’s decision, to “see the sights”. He himself would have been happy to spend all fourteen days snugly on the beach and the pitch-and-putt course, showing no interest whatever in local customs, foodstuffs or scenery.
The Russians are pre-packaged in Moscow, the British start and finish in Luton. Where the Germans come from, no-one seems to care. Everything between the start (Moscow/Luton) and the finish is just “foreign”, “over there”. There is no need to encounter nasty, unfamiliar foods or beverages. The package is sanitised and, I have to admit, the meals which I have tried are substantial, well-cooked and marginally oriented towards Greek cuisine. But when a resortotel manager says, with considerable satisfaction, that he serves 750 processed meals at each sitting, one has to wonder at the minds that can sign up unquestioningly for a fortnight’s inclusiveness. The process is a conveyor-belt which inserts relaxation into the clientele – a factory-ship ashore.
Cruise ships are another growing phenomenon which boosts the tourism statistics but brings very little cash into the local economy. Early in the morning they unload their cargo which is herded back aboard at teatime. In the interim, so-called guides shepherd them around town, imparting almost zero information and depositing them at pre-arranged gift shops where they get commission on souvenirs made mostly in Taiwan. Almost nothing is spent in the local tavernas.
It isn’t only the resortotels and cruise ships that breed mindlessness. (Remember the film “If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium”?) Each morning as I go to buy bread, a flotilla of low-flying quad bikes or jeeps passes by (as many as 16 of them in high season), emblazoned with the word “Safari”, on their way up the mountain to a deserted village which has become a cult venue. They have a soft drink and a snack before returning to base. No interest is shown in the village itself, whose way of life is still visible in the architecture, the layout of the houses and the churches (eleven of them!). It’s just a day out to god-knows-where.
In the afternoon, sitting on the terrace of the kafeneion, I see the next batch of jeeps. At least it gives us something to count. “Ten this morning”. “Fifteen at lunchtime”. In the winter, nothing.
Many tourists this year will have been lured by the current promotion of Greece’s “Gods, Myths and Heroes”. This is singularly ironic, given that the gods seem to have abandoned Greece, there is a severe dearth of heroes, and we are up to our oxters in the wrong kind of myth.
No credence is given to contemporary creativity or the Greece that lives beyond the shadow of its classical past.
There are, of course, reliable tour operators who provide knowledgeable guides and interesting itineraries, but they are very few, because few tourists want to move around from place to place, or to encounter the unfamiliar.
This country seriously needs intelligent tourists – people with enquiring and adventurous minds, who want a DIY holiday rather than something gift-wrapped and prescribed.
When I was in business here, our slogan was “Corfu is beautiful, affordable and safe”. It is still beautiful, despite the growth of unsightly resortotels along the coast; it is still affordable because the pound and the dollar are strong against the euro, and anyway, prices here are favourable. A meal for four, including drinks, costs 60-80 euros. And it’s still safe because, unlike Athens, terrorism isn’t an issue in Corfu.
But the Corfu – and Greece generally – that is presented to the tourists is bland and short on the sort of beauty they could discover for themselves if they struck out into the villages where they will meet real heroes – everyday folk who are heroically sustaining life against the odds of austerity.
JULY 2016 [Lazareto islet, Corfu]
For decades it has been agreed by politicians and educationalists that the Greek school and university system needs to be reformed. But, as with so many other aspects of public policy, no one can agree on how to do it.
One of the controversial areas is the writing – and revision – of the history books. There are so many lesions on the Greek mind caused by history, which complicate the lessons to be learned: the Anatolian Catastrophe of 1922 when Greece lost forever its irredentist dream of regaining Constantinople; the Nazi occupation in World War 2 and the loss of the Jewish community; the ensuing civil war; the military junta of 1967-74; and the continuing Cyprus dispute with the old enemy, Turkey.
Of these, the civil war remains the most divisive, so much so that there are people who, like the Holocaust-deniers, try to erase it from the national memory.
In the bay of Corfu, where I live, there’s a small island called Lazareto which, for centuries, was a quarantine facility for arrivals. During the civil war (officially, 1946-49) it was a place of execution. Approximately 300 graves, each marked by a marble cross, are the evidence of these executions. Plus a wall pockmarked with bullet holes. In its own way, its silence is as eloquent as that of Auschwitz.
Yet when I first came here I was told “There was no civil war on Corfu”. An EU-funded project, inaugurated in 2000 with a budget of €314k (a thousand euros for each grave, you might say) was pledged to build an interpretive centre, but was abandoned around 2006 and lies in near dereliction. Visiting the island is a near impossibility as it has no landing-place.
According to the official notice on Lazareto, the interpretive centre was to have three functions: to provide a history of the island as a quarantine centre; to commemorate the resistance to wartime occupation; and to honour those who died there during the civil war.
The interpretive centre is a new-build three-storey construction with a lecture-room and museum space. A rusting generator stands nearby. But where there might be a regular throng of visitors – especially schoolchildren and tourists – there is only the silence of the graves.
It’s as if the authorities wanted to cancel the idea of commemoration, to value the power of forgetting over that of memory.
One of the few writers to mention the civil war in Corfu, and its aftermath, is Maria Strani-Potts, in her stories The Cat of Portovecchio. When she writes “Two sides of the same coin can never face one another, yet they are as close as can be” she identifies the twin issues of commemoration and denial which beset any attempt to honour the dead of Lazareto – most of them young communists.
Communism in Greece – at least in Corfu – is not entirely a matter of ideology. One of my neighbours is an unrepentant capitalist, yet he is “communist” in politics because his father (a “real” communist) was tortured by the junta. Many others of the Left, like the poet Yannis Ritsos or the composer Mikis Theodorakis, were sent to prison islands from which they were lucky to return alive. Their experience fuelled the characteristic Greek sense of resistance to forces such as today’s Golden Dawn, the avowed admirers of Hitler and the third largest party in the state.
The role of the Greek Left, during all these crises, is a continual rebuke to the image of Greece as a conservative, sedate polity, yet it is difficult to celebrate, because while it has always been at the centre of history, it has been on the margin of politics.
It is ironic that the culture of resistance is exemplified in Lazareto, and yet it is virtually ignored by all except the local communist party who organize an annual pilgrimage to the island.
This irony is reflected in today’s politics. There have been more U-turns on policy issues by Alexis Tsipras and the Syriza government than you’ll find on the Monaco Grand Prix. But a continual change of direction is almost de rigueur in Greece, where adherence to the past can be fatal.
In the face of such U-turns, the trenchant Athens journalist Alexis Papachelas has written frequently of Greece’s need for ‘a new narrative’ – a storyboard that will make the future not only possible but also credible. But that would mean another revision of history. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire said that ‘one cannot carry forever the cadaver of one’s father’. Clearly he hadn’t been to Greece. The dead boys on Lazareto were mostly too young to be fathers, yet their memory weighs constantly and heavily on the shoulders of all.
In 2012 Michael Noonan said that Irish people knew little of Greece except for the feta cheese on supermarket shelves. Condescending though the remark may have been, it unfortunately held a lot of truth. Greece hardly touches the surface of what it might be earning from quality agriculture. At a time when every cent counts in balancing the national budget, and reducing the huge balance of payments, there is no effective agency to introduce these products into the international marketplace, nor incentives to stimulate creative production.
Boosting agricultural exports alone could significantly narrow the €20 billion trade gap, of which agriculture accounts for €1.4bn. That’s without adding the rapidly expanding sector of services such as biotechnology, medical technology and robotics.
In this column I’ve often bewailed the fact that the creativity and industriousness of Greek people is neither recognised nor rewarded by the public administration. Greece could be – and in some cases already is – a world leader in honey, cheeses, wines, and olive oil. There are, of course, exporters, but without encouragement and incentives they are struggling in a vicious marketplace.
A major setback to Greek export promotion was the decision in 2013 to close the Greek Foreign Trade Board and establish in its place Enterprise Greece. Its functions are similar to those of Enterprise Ireland but there the similarity ends. An Irishman in Athens said to me “if they even exist, they do shag all”.
Yet in 2014 the then PM, Antonis Samaras, was urging small businesses to discover their export potential. How? Even the Panhellenic Exporters Association, claiming to represent all exporters, is small potatoes as far as clout in the international marketplace is concerned.
It’s absurd that Greece should be a net importer of fruit and vegetables. Greece imports over 15,000 tons of tomatoes each year, at a cost of €11m., when it should be a net exporter of agricultural produce. A Greek tomato actually tastes like a tomato, not a synthetic GM lookalike, with more airmiles than Pope Francis.
Greece won an international court case recently to protect the names of feta cheese and Greek yogurt as distinctly Greek products – you can’t market them unless they are Greek-made. “Greek-style” yogurt made in Ireland is good, but not as good as the real thing: thicker, creamier, and bursting with flavour.
One of the most lucrative markets is in olive oil, in which Spain is the world leader, closely followed by Italy and Greece. But in Irish supermarkets, the Greek oil is hugely outmanoeuvred by the Spanish. Why?
One reason for the lack of an export drive is the self-sufficiency of growers: families harvest as much as they need for their own consumption and receive EU subsidies for the rest. In Corfu, thousands of olive trees, mainly owned by “absentee landlords”, lie fallow, increasingly infertile and in need of severe pollarding.
Greece harvests approximately two million tons of olives annually, enough to produce 500 million litres of oil. Corfu alone has over three million trees which could yield, on a conservative estimate, fifteen million litres of oil annually which, if sold at a modest 50c per litre, would earn €7.5m from one island alone.
The wines are certainly on the shelves, but not in significant quantities. They immediately impress with their spectacular quality. There are far more bottles where those came from, but that requires a policy and a co-ordination strategy that isn’t there. Figures from the UK show that Greek imports account for less than 1% of the £15bn UK wine market.
Specialists ‘64’ in Glasthule tell me that there’s a steady sale for Thassalitis, a unique dry white from Santorini and it is in the specialist shops such as Oddbins (which stocks eight different Greek wines) rather than the supermarkets that the wines are to be found.
Once you encounter reputable wines such as the ‘Naoussa’ range from Boutari (with 130 years experience) or Gaia (mainly in Santorini), the sweet dessert wine from Samos or even budget labels such as Tsantalis, you’ll recognise superior quality at an affordable price.
As far as cheese is concerned, yes, there is the ubiquitous feta cheese. But there is a huge range of Greek cheeses – hard, salty, pungent, creamy or blue – that match the farmhouses varieties of many other countries.
Honey is distinguished by the unique flora of Greece, giving flavours such as thyme, rosemary and sage. I’m chuffed that 65% of all Greek honey comes from pine. Greece produces 1.2 million kilos, but sales in the EU are threatened by a 2014 directive allowing cheap imports of inferior quality from China, to the advantage principally of German distributors.
The lavender-flavoured honey and creamy feta from the village where I live, and the local Nyssos extra-virgin oil, are always in my Dublin-bound baggage. Would that I were doing it in tons rather than mere kilos.
Ironically, Corfu is now exporting – but only so far as the Athens parliament – a new crop: its first ever neo-Nazi MP, elected last month.
It wasn’t a merry Christmas in Greece and it won’t be a happy new year. Not for the 26 per cent unemployed, many of whom will be long-term, in a system where the dole stops after one year. Not for the 50 per cent of unemployed and unemployable school-leavers and university graduates. Not for the 25 per cent of small businesses which are more than likely to go bust. Not for the thousands of migrants herded in near-animal conditions on islands which are unable to sustain them alive or bury them dead.
Yet despite the misery caused by the major players – the International Monetary Fund and the EU – Greeks continue to support a government which is unable to deliver on its election promises, which cannot reverse the downward spiral of recession or rescue those 30% living below the poverty line.
The Left has always been on the margin of Greek public life. That’s why the rise of Syriza, from its formation in 2004 with just over 3% of the national vote, to victory with 36% in 2015, has been so phenomenal. It’s as unthinkable as an all-Labour government in Ireland, yet it happened for three reasons. Firstly, voters were utterly disenchanted with the two major parties, New Democracy and Pasok. Secondly Syriza offered a radical answer to austerity: rescind the bailout. Thirdly, PM Alexis Tsipras is a charismatic figure – young, handsome, casual, and, like all successful politicians, looks as if he almost cares.
Tsipras thought one year ago that he was in a win-win situation. He could not only give Greece a voice but he could transform European politics by the power of argument. He may still hold the moral high ground, but his compromises on reform and capitulation to austerity show how naïve he was when it came to playing politics.
Over the past year we have learned that good intentions, especially if politically incorrect, carry as much weight as a puff of wind in the real world.
The Syriza election slogan a year ago was “Hope is on the way”. That’s all the Greeks are left with – hope. But what use is hope if there is nothing to hope for? Even so, Greeks have not abandoned the spirit of resistance, the capacity for argument and the determination to survive in conditions that all but the most destitute in Ireland would find unlivable.
Greek politics since independence have been remarkably like Ireland’s. The redistribution of land, the opening up of the professional classes and the opportunities for commercial exploitation bred a bourgeois mentality anxious to achieve social and economic respectability and to educate the young in orthodox conformity. Syriza came on the scene to change all that.
But clientelism and plutocracy are so embedded in the system that to change it would require heart and brain transplants – not for the man in the street or the olive grove but in the corridors of power. Greek people are the servants of the one per cent owning 90% of the wealth, controlling most of the media and occupying seats in Tsipras’ cabinet.
Greeks are rapidly discovering that not all conspiracy theories are wishful thinking. They now know that German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble set out to crush Tsipras, Syriza and Greece itself if necessary. They know that refusal to contemplate a “Grexit” was an elaborately choreographed charade. They know that the IMF admits it was wrong in setting up the austerity programme.
It’s a cruel fact that small countries have little choice in international affairs. Greeks are now openly saying what had been unacceptable before: that Germany is responsible for many of Greece’s difficulties. In 1833 foreign powers imposed a German king. The last queen in Greece (deposed in 1974) was German and a Nazi sympathiser. Greece is still pursuing war reparations from Germany, but even more serious is the fact that old people today still carry memories of their pregnant mothers bayoneted by German soldiers.
German companies – including Siemens – bribed Greek officials in some of the biggest corruption scandals of recent years. One government minister was jailed, but the Siemens trial, due to start in 2014, has yet to get under way because at least fourteen of the sixty-four defendants are being sheltered in Germany, which has refused to extradite the former CEO of Siemens Hellas.
German banks benefit from the Greek debt crisis, and German companies are the biggest earners from Greek imports. Is it any wonder that Greeks get angry when a German tabloid tells them they should sell off the Acropolis and some of the islands? Is it any wonder that street posters show Angela Merkel wearing a swastika and an Iron Cross? Is it any wonder that Greeks are incensed because the Greek fascist party openly venerates Hitler, burns synagogues and mosques, and beats up immigrants while all of its seventeen MPs are on trial for murder or associated crimes?
100 years ago, while the Easter Rising was being planned in Dublin, the humiliated Serbian army of 150,000 men women and children and their government-in-exile, arrived in Corfu, where the Greek government gave them asylum after their defeat by Germany. They were a broken people. The mausoleum of those who died here is a chilling place. But they carried the same hope in their hearts that Greeks continue to cherish. And the Serbs regrouped and went back to fight the Germans who had precipitated the world crisis.
In 1916 the Serbs brought with them love of country and a deep faith in its survival. This gelled at the time with the Greek spirit and could offer some hope to modern day Greece, where yet another general election is almost inevitable within the next three months.
Late last month the EU warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis” in relation to Middle East refugees entering Europe through the Greek islands. Looming? What planet are they on? The crisis is not only here already, in our back yards, but it has been happening for a very long time. It “looms” over the European conscience, but it is a resident, volatile canker in the hearts of the exiles.
The tragedy of Europe is that it is not intellectually or morally equipped to deal with this crisis. The shame of Europe is that it refuses to acknowledge this.
Last year almost one million refugees entered the EU, most through Greece. Four thousand were dead on arrival. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, 600,000 of these arrived on just one Greek island – Lesvos. Why? Because it is less than four miles from the Turkish coast. In the past two months, another 70,000 – more than eight times the same figure for January-February 2015 – ventured into Greek waters. Over 300 of them died.
The answer to those who have knocked on Europe’s door is, “No thanks – not today. Not in my back yard (NIMBY)”. We can accept a dead child on our television screens, because it isn’t real. But we couldn’t face the responsibility of one on our local beach.
A state of exile is not merely physical displacement – it is an exile in the mind, in the heart, in the viscera. As Salman Rushdie wrote in his novel “Shame”: “It is the fate of migrants to stand naked amidst the scorn of strangers upon whom they see the rich clothing, the brocades of continuity and the eyebrows of belonging”.
These people, made of real flesh, blood and intellect, stand naked before the Kennys, Camerons, Merkels and Hollandes who are so anxious about their own continuity that they turn their backs, only to display their moral hypocrisy and fear of the Other.
And that is the core of the problem: that we think of what is happening as another country, hopefully a far country, when it is within us, this Other. These naked people are our otherness.
Bourgeois Europe cannot see the nakedness or the emotional poverty. Bourgeois Europe’s anxiety is not so much “Where are they going to live?” but “Where are they going to die?” NIMBY!
A refugee is an exile from everything except memory. Religious intolerance, gender discrimination, political chicanery, moral bigotry and financial manipulation lead to intolerable fear, civil strife and destruction. On the way out, the exile can carry only a small suitcase with precious mementos like family photographs and children’s tiny keepsakes, maybe a book of poetry inscribed by a loved one.
But he or she also carries an image, imprinted on their DNA, of who and what they were, constantly running like an old film of their identity, language and culture. These memories are both the treasure-house of meaning and the curse of displacement.
These are the kosmaki, as the Greeks call the little man – the insignificant nobodies whom God, or Allah, or Jehovah, forgot, or didn’t care about. Condemned to exile by the strife in their homelands – in other words, to permanent homelessness, estrangement from the only reality they know.
I look across the water to Albania, less than two miles away from my home in Corfu, on Greece’s west coast. Until 1990 it was a walled garden of Maoism, and many who tried the escape route ended up dead on Corfu’s shores. But we are cosy – the “looming” crisis of today’s refugees is on the other side of the country, so that’s alright then. NIMBY. We can turn our backs on the misery, the squalor, the inhumanity, and especially the death of children.
But less than a hundred years ago the Aegean islands on Greece’s east, towards which today’s refugees are swimming, were the goal of a similar exodus – Greeks drowning as they fled the Turkish slaughter and destruction of their city of Smyrna (today Izmir) in Anatolia in 1922.
In that same Izmir today, the Turks are manufacturing and selling fake lifejackets that are proven to have no buoyancy. A death-sentence round every neck that entrusts itself to unseaworthy boats. It is a miracle that so many survive.
On a video we see the elderly islanders of Lesvos, who have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for their response to this crisis. Why do 85-year-old women care for strangers from another culture, another time? Because it was also the fate of their mothers who survived the crossing in 1922. They have taken the initiative to succour the survivors and to mourn their dead. The most heart-rending statement they make is “We don’t fear them”. History here isn’t the past: it’s a reminder of the future.
We assuage our guilt by sending money to the Red Cross, Médécins Sans Frontières and the aptly named Concern, but that isn’t the solution to the migrancy, merely a placebo for misery.
The complete incapacity of aid agencies to absorb this influx of misery constitutes not merely a humanitarian crisis. It is a symptom of the breakdown of European ethics in favour of bourgeois security. Someone has replaced “responsibility” with “respectability” in the lexicon of care.
I’m not disputing the need for aid. I’m saying that it is only the tip of a gesture that can never solve the crisis because it can never address its roots. Nor can it effect a change in the hearts and minds of bourgeois Europe.
These refugees embarrass a Greece already struggling with its own identity. But they are also the orphans of history. They are the tragedy of their homelands and the shame of Europe.
Living and working in a country which is bankrupt, politically chaotic, in hock to international moneylenders, and at the centre of the worst refugee crisis since the implosion of the Roman Empire, may not sound like a barrel of laughs.
But Greece is so much more than the sum of its tragedies. I came here with no misgivings, on a one-way ticket, having cashed in my severance chips from RTÉ.
Crossing borders is always dangerous. Between past and future, between the ‘you’ who was, and the ‘you’ who will be. People who go to islands are either running away from something or rushing to embrace something. I was doing both – leaving a country which had become too difficult for comfort, and going towards something I intensely wanted to do: to establish an international seminar on the arts, in the name of the brothers Gerald and Lawrence Durrell, who had lived in Corfu in the 1930s.
Corfu had then, and still has, a way and quality of life, a people and a culture, both peasant and cosmopolitan, which you can still see if you get away from the resortification all along the coastline.
Psychologically it was important to move away from Ireland, even though it meant leaving loved ones and quite a few roots. Ireland had become inhospitable in an indefinable way. Greece was welcoming, in an equally indefinable way. It would be a challenge, culturally, linguistically, environmentally. I took it on as a full-time job.
When you get over the culture shock, which starts with the unfamiliar alphabet and the completely different mindset, parallels between Greece and Ireland become immediately apparent: the village where I live has all the vibrancy that one finds in a village in Connemara. Athens is as boring and dirty as Dublin, and when you’ve seen one Acropolis you’ve seen them all. But Athens does have a metro that goes all the way to the airport.
Life here could never be described as self-indulgent. The financial collapse and the current refugee crisis make sure that we can never be self-satisfied. The border-crossing to Europe is far more traumatic for the refugees than mine ever was.
And of course there are the same evils as in Ireland: bribery and corruption, the bureaucratic nightmare, cronyism. But we also have terrorism, the legacy of the fact that, since independence, Greeks have never decided what kind of country they want. And that is something worth reporting to Ireland.
The villagers among whom I live know that I’m a writer, but until my book “Greece Through Irish Eyes” came out last year they had no idea what I did with my time. That book was a labour of love and, like the monthly “Letter from Greece” that I contribute to this paper, due to an urgent need to explain this country to Irish readers.
One of the misconceptions is that we sit lounging all day in permanent sunshine. The reality is quite different. Yes, I can sit on my terrace for eight months of the year, but the other four bring torrential rain and amazing thunder and lightning storms which knock off the electricity and water just as an Atlantic storm does in Connemara.
Here, my basic weekly shopping costs 75 euros; in Ireland, it would barely put the butter on the bread. I buy peaches and sweet red peppers for €1.50 per kilo. Plus tomatoes that taste like tomatoes before airmiles were invented, chicken that your neighbour raises for the pot.
Like most country folk, I have lemons, figs and oranges in abundance on my own trees, plus grapes from several elderly vines, complementing thyme-scented honey from my friend Tomas, taverna-keeper extraordinaire and local secretary of Syriza.
Village life is intensely miniature. The national troubles are never as significant as anxiety about the year’s wine crop or olive harvest. I love to see woodsmoke rising from every chimney; I love to find myself in the morning queue at the boulangerie. I love it when my neighbour chides me for sitting up till 4am – “you writers!” These small things make life livable.
There are drawbacks: you can’t drink the tap water, so you buy it in bottles – nine litres for €1.60. That works out considerably more than the mains water, for which everyone pays unhesitatingly – a mere €90 per year. I don’t know why the Irish complain.
I bought a bog-standard bungalow with no view. I can in fact see nothing but olive groves, unless I go to the end of the village street, and there is Albania. As Denis Staunton remarked, I live on the periphery of the periphery. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Athens? No thanks!
The terrace is my place of work, bounded by fruit and olive trees and roofed by vines. At night, the mating-call of the skops owl, and the scent of jasmine. Underfoot, wild oregano and mint yield their fragrance. In the hottest months (July and August, when it can go uncomfortably over 40 degrees) one can sit out till 2 or 3 in the morning. Sounds good doesn’t it? But I still have to earn a living.
Being alone allows me to work a 16-18 hour day. The “Letter from Greece” and programme notes for the National Symphony sustain a connection with Ireland. Then there are books written, being written and to be written and, thanks to having a portable skill, freelance editing. Plus guest lectures (pro bono) at the Ionian University which has very fine departments of music and translation studies.
There is constant traffic between Ireland and Corfu. There’s a small but lively Irish community, and when I ran the Durrell Seminars we brought Irish poets, novelists and academics who more than complemented their Greek counterparts as well as international superstars Ashis Nandy, Gayatry Spivak, David Bellamy and Jan Morris.
I get all the latest Irish novels. I avidly grab every Irish film. “RTÉ Player” brings me images from Ireland. But they are from a far-off country, where I no longer belong as I once did. It’s like a visit by an old flame, when one has fallen in love with a new one. Embarrassing and a bit awkward? Yes. Vaut le détour? Yes. Worth going back to? No.
In any case it would be impossible to live in Ireland on my RTÉ pension. Would I commute? Impractical. A life lived in two places is not a life. Of course I return for short visits. I’ll inspect my new-born grandson in May, and I’ll be giving a lecture in memory of Brian Friel in August.
What do I miss? Reading the print edition of The Irish Times in Neary’s of Chatham Street or O’Dowd’s in Roundstone; the Royal Irish Academy of Music; Books Upstairs; and Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway. And, although I no longer drink it, Guinness.
What don’t I miss? Starbucks, the Luas and Michael Noonan.
And what’s my wish-list? A greater awareness of Greek food and wine in Irish shops and restaurants; more Greek writers getting translated into English; to set up a workshop here for chamber orchestras; a state visit by Michael D. Not much to ask, really.
The ultimate border-crossing is, of course, death. They say that “home is where you want to be buried”, so that gives me my definitive answer: here.
There are a few twenty-year-olds left in the village where I live – those who haven’t yet emigrated. They will be 60, maybe 70, before their country is free of its current debt. They are indentured to the mistakes of politicians and the depredations of financiers who cannot be called to account.
The downward spiral of the Greek economy continues. The EU’s insistence that essential economic growth can be achieved at the same time as increased austerity flies in the face of the fact that Greece cannot repay its existing debts. Lending money to Greece so it can service its interest payments merely drives the debt further into the pockets, hearts and minds of ordinary people.
The latest agreement has been seen as a breakthrough, firstly because Greece seems to have satisfied its creditors on its ability to continue the reform programme, and secondly because the principle of debt relief has at last been accepted.
But to secure the latest tranche of the bailout (€7,5 billion) Greece has been forced to implement a hike in VAT from 23% to 24%, plus tax increases on public transport, heating oil, petrol (up 3-5 cent per litre), coffee (up €2-€4 per kilo), phone and internet services (an extra 5-10%).
Yet the EU remains suspicious of Greek intentions, so a further €2.8 billion is being withheld, on the grounds that the enabling legislation passed on 21 May needed immediate amendment, to close loopholes adroitly created by Athens.
Of the €7.5 billion, €2.8 billion is immediately repayable in debt interest. The government owes over €6 billion in unpaid bills from the private sector. Either these service industries will be paid, leaving nothing to stimulate growth, or they will join the international creditors, but without their clout. Budget surpluses, on which economic recovery depends, are almost inconceivable, thus accelerating the downward spiral and making the bailout unworkable. It is the EU’s intransigent insistence that tax hikes and surpluses can co-exist which puzzles economists worldwide. But economists do not rule the world.
The idea of debt relief was dismissed for many years as unthinkable. Now, everyone admits that it is vital, but there is no concrete agreement. The rift between the IMF and the EU on the issue continues to grow, because it is, essentially, a turf war. The decision on the details of debt relief has been effectively postponed till after the German elections in 2018, since Angela Merkel would be unable to sell it to her voters.
There is a disturbing sense of ‘I-told-you-so’ about last month’s agreement to disagree. While we watch vacillation between Brussels and Washington, Greece goes deeper into debt in order to be rescued from debt. Mortgages in Greece, if they exist, are short-term: you make massive repayments over a very limited period. No Greek would contemplate remortgaging his house, which is what consecutive bailouts mean on the national level.
At the beginning of this year, voters expected a new election before the summer, yet not only has PM Alexis Tsipras stayed in power, without seeking a new mandate, but has allowed the situation to become even worse. His failure of nerve last July and the revolt of his hard-line backbenchers precipitated the September election which confirmed him in power. Now, one might expect Tsipras to tread more wisely and carefully through the EU’s minefield. But he has once again blithely risked further catastrophic defections of his MPs and, apparently, got away with it.
Despite the growing attraction of New Democracy with the charismatic Kyriakos Mitsotakis at its head, Greeks still hope that Tsipras can protect them. They don’t believe, but they hope. And although that hope is waning fast, they prefer the devil they know. Mitsotakis bears one of the three most prestigious names in Greek politics (the others being Karamanlis and Papandreou). But Tsipras and Syriza came to power precisely because they had no connection with these tainted families.
Desmond Lachman, a former IMF director of policy, warned last month that “Greece is once again being cynically sacrificed for the political convenience of its European taskmasters”. Cynics would say “So what’s new then?” The people I live among know different. A colder winter and less food on the table. Nevertheless, tourism in Corfu will increase next year, partly due to the UK television series “The Durrells” and partly because, on the west coast, we are a refugee-free zone. The only refugees here are the internal exiles from hope.
When I remarked recently to a non-Greek café owner in Corfu that the Greek economy was banjaxed, he replied “Why should I care?” This, from someone largely dependent on tourism. One can, perhaps, understand the viewpoint “The Greeks have only themselves to blame”, but the resuscitation of the economy is everyone’s concern, and tourism is its greatest growth area.
Tourism accounts for 20% of Greek GDP and employs 20% of the workforce. In hotspots like Corfu, Rhodes, Crete and Mykonos, the percentages are much higher. Some of the refugee-hit eastern Aegean islands such as Lesvos, Kos or Chios, depend almost exclusively on tourism for their economic survival.
Beyond these facts, however, is the much larger question of how this sector of the national cake is to be expanded. As the economy shrinks, with continuing collapse in the retail sector, tourism assumes an ever-greater role.
As Athens journalist Nick Malkoutzis observes, “Greece’s economy seems like a one-trick pony that repeatedly relies on a thriving tourist sector to get it out of trouble”. But, as he also points out, this kind of enterprise is not matched by other export industries. Greece’s trade deficit rose by over 20% in the past year. Apart from the capital controls still in place, plus liquidity problems in every sector, the under-developed industries (mainly agricultural) desperately need a one-stop shop to facilitate exports.
Moreover for every temporary tourist there is a potential long-term emigrant. Over the past eight years, an annual average of 50,000 young, highly educated people have gone to seek work abroad. The loss to Greece’s GDP has been estimated at €13billion, about the same value as the exchequer’s direct income from tourism.
While overall visitor numbers are increasing, there’s an issue with how the statistics are interpreted and projected. The fact that holidaymakers in resortotels or day-trippers on cruise ships spend almost nothing in the hinterland is irrelevant to the statisticians in the Ministry of Tourism.
Greece is a country full of ruins, including its economy and its political system. Its unique selling proposition is sun, sea, scenery and sight-seeing. There are, however, niche markets that are not exploited: Greece could build golf courses to compete with Spain and Portugal, and marinas to vie with Croatia (at present the Mediterranean marine leader).
It has drama, film, music and literary festivals whose foreign audiences could be hugely expanded, yet despite year-on-year promises from the ministry, these markets remain untapped.
Quite apart from numbers and revenue, Greece needs to upgrade its quality image, using cultural tourism to play down the inevitable lager-louts at one end of the spectrum and the luxury spenders at the other.
Soon the Travel Channel will screen advertisements for next season, featuring gastronomy, lifestyle, city tourism, and of course sun-and-sea. Meanwhile Yahoo will carry a three-month campaign aimed at the USA, United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.
Chinese tourists are being wooed, as part of China’s ongoing investment in Greece – a Chinese company already owns Piraeus, the busiest port in the Mediterranean. Chinese tourists increased to 150,000 last year, with 500,000 as the next target. Chinese investment is in competition with Russia, as the geopolitical marketplace expands, and Russian tourist numbers doubled in the past year, many of them staying in Russian-owned hotels.
One of the issues vexing the industry is the necessary development of infrastructure and the potential damage to historic sites by growing tourist numbers. One can imagine the impact on Newgrange or Dun Aengus if they had to accommodate five million tourists each year, and rising.
Exploiting tourist potential means more hotels, more roads, more on-site facilities and consequent impairment of the physical environment. Philippi, a grossly under-visited archaeological treasure (and, as students of Shakespeare will know, the location of the battle between Mark Anthony and Brutus) has just been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, providing its custodians with that kind of headache.
The imperative to attract tourists has to be weighed against the cost to the monuments and the coastline. I wrote here in 2014 about the pristine promontory of Eremitis in Corfu, which is due for a total development of hotel, villas, shopping centre and marina. Where there is today a unique nature reserve, there will be tourists who cannot enjoy the beauties because their hotel is sitting where they once were.
Brexit may affect Greece, since the UK is second only to Germany in tourist numbers, but the number of UK bookings to Corfu after ITV’s series “The Durrells” is almost frightening, because the infrastructure isn’t there to support them. So… more hotels, more coaches on the narrow roads, more diminution of the natural environment. And more revenue.
The following is an article by Richard Pine published in The Ecologist 34/2 (2002) as a signpost for the first seminar of the Durrell School of Corfu in 2002.
Corfu in many respects has changed enormously since the years (1935-39) when the young Gerald Durrell and his elder brother Lawrence lived there. That is obvious. Everything changes, as Heraclitus observed, especially after a major war (and in the case of Greece, a civil war) followed by economic transformation.
Ironically, the brothers Durrell were largely responsible for the exponential growth in the tourism industry, and consequently felt a serious level of guilt. Larry’s classic portrait of the island, Prospero’s Cell, appeared in 1945 and made Corfu immensely appealing to war-weary Britons. Gerry’s accounts of growing up there – most notably My Family and Other Animals (1956) which became a BBC drama series in the 1980s – were instant hits, the profits from which went to subvent his zoo in Jersey. Holidaymakers wanted to see this island that both brothers had called ‘paradise’.
The chief evidence of this transformation is in the almost endless chain of hotels along the eastern side of the island – the huge concave sickle which faces the Greek and Albanian mainland. The airport covers about half of the lagoon where Gerry paddled about as a youngster, learning the basic of wetland biotopes, and there’s a possibility that the remainder will be filled to saitisfy demand for runway expansion. At Kalami, at the narrowest, north-eastern point between Corfu and Albania, the White House where Lawrence Durrell lived and wrote, and which is now a thriving taverna, no longer faces a silent, fish-filled bay but a building development that can only be described as bijou townhouses on a Greek mountainside. The waters have been largely fished out (a high proportion of the mussels, the traditional red mullet or barbouni, and the squid or calamari, comes from the far east) – the Mediterranean is dying.
The question of the olive crop – after tourism, the mainstay of the Corfiot economy – highlights a potential ecological disaster. The traditional method of spraying the island’s four million olive trees to protect them from the dacus fly, has been replaced by aerial bombardment with fenthion, an organophosphate insecticide (trade name Lebaycid, manufactured by Bayer) which is harmful to wildlife and the environment. Helicopter spraying is not precise – quite the opposite. Tourist villas, hotels and swimming pools, as well as many inland villages, have been hit by indiscriminate fenthion showers even though spraying is not permitted within 140 metres of habitation. Spraying may not take place at air temperatures above 25oC, but spraying continues throughout July and August, when air temperatures are usually in the high 30s.
Fenthion acts as a cholinesterase inhibitor, with a high dermal absorption rate. It is registered in the USA for mosquito control in Florida. In Germany it is used against the Cherry Fruit Fly, with strict controls. According to the World Health Organisation, fenthion is a prohibited substance. Studies indicate that fenthion persists in soil and surface water. In one study, 50% of applied fenthion remained in river water two weeks later, while 10% remained after four weeks. Fenthion residues may also persist for up to six weeks in soil. Fenthion binds to and is stored in the fat tissues of animals, which may ingest it through direct exposure during spraying, during the period it persists in the environment, or through eating affected prey. Biologically unchanged fenthion has been recovered from fat samples of cattle, fish and amphibians after exposure.
Fenthion is extremely toxic to bees, with an ongoing effect on those plants which rely on bee pollination for reproduction; to aquatic invertebrates, particularly crustaceans and freshwater mussels, also to amphibians such as frogs; to birds, which it kills by absorption through the skin and also by eating poisoned prey. One study showed that 70-90% of a test group of European starlings died after contact with fenthion-impregnated perches for only 3-5 seconds on three consecutive days. Thousands of birds have been killed in real incidents of spraying, most notoriously in 1969 at Grand Forks, North Dakota where, after aerial spraying, up to 25,000 birds were found dead.
The Island’s Prefect has the responsibility of issuing spraying notifications for publication in daily newspapers and for announcement on the radio. The notifications ‘categorically forbid villagers and their animals to circulate in the olive groves’, both during spraying and for 48 hours afterwards. But the office issues these announcements only the day before spraying takes place. A fax sent at 11.51 on 24-08-2000 which announces the spraying programme for the next day appeared in the newpaper editions distributed on the morning of 25-08-2000. Anyone who knows village habits will be aware that the local folk head out to their land early in the morning, well before that day’s papers reach the local kiosk, which is no earlier than midday. Even if they read the local papers – and many don’t – they would not receive this vital information in time.
Alternative methods of fighting the pest exist, including ecologically sound ‘dacus traps’ which are used with some success in Paxos (a major olive oil producing island), just south of Corfu and in other olive producing areas such as Kalamata in southern Greece.
The Durrells loved Corfu and Greece. Larry was always reluctant to revisit old haunts, but Gerry went back to his childhood paradise many times, always regretting the onset of ‘progress’. When Gerry made a BBC documentary – ‘The Garden of the Gods’ – in 1967, as an affectionate tribute to his island paradise, he once more contributed to the prosperity of the tourism industry and thus to the despoliation of much of the coastline.
Both brothers formed their basic ideas here, and conceived of their life’s work. Both developed a basic love of simple, unaffected lifestyle, with good and, if possible, rich foods and wines. They would happily settle for a long village table at which a community would gather, enjoying the fruits of home produce – olives, lamb, fish and, of course, wine.
Zoologists and ecologists will be familiar with Gerry’s vigorously expressed concerns about the abuse of human responsibility for the planet we share with other more intelligent forms of life. In Two in the Bush he wrote: ‘We have inherited an incredibly beautiful and complex garden, but the trouble is that we have been appallingly bad gardeners. We have not bothered to acquaint ourselves with the simplest principles of gardening. By neglecting the garden, we are storing up for ourselves, in the not very distant future, a world catastrophe as bad as any atomic war… We now stand so aloof from nature that we think we are God. This has always been a dangerous supposition’.
Not so obvious was Larry’s concern for the human condition, the arrogance which made man think that he was ‘OC Universe’. In books like Tunc and Nunquam he explored the near madness which he had experienced when writing them. In his case, it was science that had been harnessed to man’s irresponsibility: the Faustian concept which had bartered soul for knowledge. All of this anxiety was born in Corfu as the second world war became inevitable and he was to be cast into a footloose journey before coming to rest like a French peasant, in Provence.
I think both Durrells would be pleased to know that in many, fundamental respects, Corfu hasn’t changed at all. Of course, where Larry had to travel by water, a road now connects Kalami to Corfu Town, and what is wrong with that? Indoor flush toilets, running water, street lighting – it can’t be all bad. But the most enlivening fact is that the advent of mass media and the cosmopolitan delights of the twenty-first century, including the island’s first MacDonald’s, has done little to change the interior landscape of the island or, even more importantly, the character and mindscape of its people.
In Corfu town, the kids bow to fashion in entertainment, dress and comportment, but when it comes to the many important dates in the Greek calendar they assemble in the traditional uniforms of their school or village band for the parades and concerts that demonstrate the extraordinary musical vitality of the island which boasts four schools of music and seventeen bands. Every day, Corfu Town resonates with the sound of young people preparing for band practice. Among older folk, especially in the mountain villages, life goes on much as it did fifty years ago. Dress is traditional, and so is the basic way of life. The villages of Corfu, for practical safety reasons, are largely in the mountains as a protection from the hordes of pirates in the Adriatic before Venetian rule brought a relative calm to the region. And today, a hilltop village like Pelekas, with narrow winding whitewashed streets impassable to motor traffic, it is possible to see life being lived as it always has been.
In Corfu Town itself, a knot of mediaeval streets gives way to the arcaded elegance of Venetian shops and mansions, culminating in the French elegance of the ‘Liston’ and the largest Esplanade in the Balkans. This is border territory, belonging not to mainland Greece so much as a mélange of history and traditions which includes the distinctive hellenism of the Ionian islands, Venice, and the extraordinary political, social and cultural experience of the southern Balkans.
In the Durrell School, we will be concentrating on Land and Creativity, revisiting the folk customs and practices which the Durrells described in their books and which exist in a flourishing way today. We’ll be having performances of the Karaghiozi shadow puppet theatre which is a living tradition, with a seminar for teachers to explain its continuing significance to a generation that is in danger of losing it to the charms of multichannel TV. We’ll be looking at the gastronomy of the region. We’ll be following in the Durrells’ footsteps with a one-day excursion to the Butrint lagoon and archaeological site in Albania. And we’ll visit a farm where Gerry’s lifework, the breeding of endangered species in captivity, is demonstrated through the rescue of wild horses which are in danger of extinction in their native island, Skyros. Descended, like the Exmoor pony, from Pleistocene Equus muniensis, there are thought to be only twenty purebred remaining in their natural habitat.
Because Greek society generally has changed so much – from rural to urban – over the past 50 years, we’ll be bringing together writers, translators and critics to discuss the way this is reflected in literature. And as a response to 11 September, the School will open with an international symposium ‘Understanding Misunderstanding’ in which a cross-section of scientific, political and arts communities can discuss how we allow misunderstandings and polarisation to occur with such disastrous consequences.
The White House at Kalami
by JOANNA HINES, Mail on Sunday 1 October 2001
Joanna Hynes is the daughter of Nancy Myers Durrell by her second marriage, to Edward Hodgkin. She is the author of Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage – Nancy and Lawrence Durrell (2012)
You don’t often get the chance to test out a legend.
When I was growing up my mother, Nancy, used to tell me about Corfu.
She had lived there before the Second World War with her first husband, the writer Lawrence Durrell. She described a lost paradise, an island of unspoilt beauty, empty beaches and a way of life that was primitive and often harsh, a world that was gone for ever.
She left when war broke out and she and Durrell parted company two years later, after nearly eight years together. At the end of the war she married my father and never returned to Corfu.
She always implied that mass tourism and development had destroyed the place she had loved; somehow, I never expected to go there. Then, about six years ago, my half-sister, who was the only child of that youthful marriage, discovered that the White House, where our mother had lived, was for rent. Why didn’t we go?
I could think of many reasons but, in the end, curiosity overcame them all. We went – and it was a revelation. The island magic still existed.
Corfu is spectacularly beautiful. The mountain spine that runs down the centre means its core is still rugged and wild. The lower slopes are clad with olive groves and cypresses leaning towards the sea. There are white beaches and clear blue water.
Lawrence Durrell called his book about the island Prospero’s Cell because of his idea that Shakespeare might have had Corfu in mind for his enchanted isle in The Tempest – and once you’ve been there it’s easy to see why.
We were lucky because the White House is in Kalami and, although there are now modern villas among the cottages my mother and Durrell would have seen, this is the least spoiled, most beautiful stretch of coast between Nissaki and Agios Stephanos.
A little way south of Kalami, on a rocky outcrop over the sea, is the shrine of St Arsenius, surely one of the most beautiful spots on the island.
This was one of our mother’s favourite places for bathing – their bohemian passion for wearing few clothes, or none at all, was shocking for the local Corfiots, though they tried to swim where they’d not be overlooked.
The little stretch of water near the shrine of St Arsenius still has a secret charm. She told us the peasants wore thick woollen underwear, winter and summer, and were convinced pneumonia would result the moment this was removed.
Many local people also still wore peasant dress, colourful combinations of floral prints in the south, more dour black and dark blue in the north. Now these costumes are worn only for folk dancing and I’m sure the woollen undergarments have been long discarded.
One of the things my mother most loved was walking. Once or twice, with friends, they walked across to the other side of the island. With scant regard for local mores, she and her female friend wore cotton shorts and halter neck tops, which startled the inhabitants of the interior.
The coast of Albania is a strange and brooding presence: such a short distance across the sea, yet a world away in terms of culture, prosperity and experience.
In the Thirties, the gulf was probably less but, even so, it seemed a wild and exciting country. On rare nights when the sea was smooth as glass they would row across to Albania for a moonlit picnic, returning to Corfu and safety before dawn.
As they approached Corfu, they would have heard cicadas. This sound is the pulse of the island and it is referred to time and again by Lawrence’s brother Gerald in his wonderfully evocative My Family And Other Animals. Gerald’s phobic aversion to formal education and his incredible patience as a naturalist even when he was only about 11 were things my mother always remembered.
She never understood why people were so rude about Greek food.
The island staples were bread and olive oil but fish was plentiful and she learned to make a delicious fish stew, full of the earthy taste of potato and onion and fish that had been caught only hours before.
Nowadays there is no shortage of restaurants where Greek cooking at its best can be found. Just a mile or so south of Kalami is the tiny bay at Agni, home to three of the best restaurants on the island.
Pericles, the tireless patron of Nicholas Taverna with its Durrell minimuseum at the rear, told us that our mother and Lawrence Durrell first visited his father’s home and nearly settled at Agni but thought that the large family of children who also shared the house might not be conducive to a writer’s need for peace and quiet.
After that first visit, it was inevitable we’d go back. Somehow, the island magic found its way into my recent book Improvising Carla; the heroine of this psychological thriller shares my mother’s passion for swimming. I can see the moonlit skinnydipping in the book owes a good deal to my mother’s descriptions of the sensuous bliss of the warm night sea.
Last summer the Durrell Society of America visited the White House for a Durrell-inspired meal of fresh eel cooked in tomatoes and to unveil a plaque to commemorate the few years Durrell spent there with our mother.
A band played bravely in spite of the heat – extreme, even by local standards – and folk dancers performed in the road, hopefully without the added handicap of woollen underwear.
It was a strange and moving conclusion to what had been a few years in the lives of two young and idealistic people; though they are both now dead, their legacy remains as strong as ever.
We wondered what they would have made of it all, their dream which did not survive but which has been inherited by all those who visit in their footsteps and discover something unique and precious, as we also have done.
Joanna HInes is the author of seven novels. Improvising Carla is published by Simon & Schuster. Price: £10. Prospero’s Cell by Lawrence Durrell is published by Faber and Faber; £6.99.
LEE DURRELL in CORFU
Lee Durrell (Honorary Director of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) visited Corfu regularly as a guest of the Durrell School of Corfu and continues as a guest lecturer at the Gerald Durrell Week each year in Corfu
The following is an edited text of two lectures given by Lee Durrell in Corfu. It is addressed to the schoolchildren of Corfu, and was originally intended as the text of an illustrated brochure for schools – lack of finance prevented its publication.
ANIMALS, PEOPLE, PLACES:
GERALD DURRELL, CORFU and JERSEY
by LEE DURRELL
You live in the enchanted island of Corfu. I hope you will become good citizens, and protect the environment so that your children can continue to live in what Gerald Durrell called ‘the garden of the gods’.
Gerald Durrell (1925-1995) was the founder of the Jersey Zoological Park (1959) and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (1963) now known as the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. He became one of the world’s leading experts and activists in the breeding of animals in danger of extinction in their natural habitat as an aid to the survival of their species. A humorous and persuasive writer and broadcaster, he popularised his work with books such as A Zoo in my Luggage (1960). His own accounts of growing up in Corfu include The Garden of the Gods (1978) and the world-famous best-seller My Family and Other Animals (1956) which was filmed twice by the BBC, in 1989 and 2005.
This is a short introduction to the work of my late husband Gerald Durrell (1925-1995), whose vision of conservation began when he lived in Corfu as a young boy, 1935-1939, and continues today in the work of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey. Gerry was a prolific writer and media personality, as well as one of the “icons” of nature conservation in the 20th century. His message is that there is infinite value in “biodiversity”, that is, the great variety of animals and plants and their habitats and ecosystems on this planet today. He urges us all to do our utmost to maintain this incredible treasure trove of natural riches.
Gerry wrote 37 books which have been translated into 26 languages. He scripted and presented 83 television programmes and many radio shows. My Family and Other Animals has sold over 5 million copies worldwide.
What made Gerry’s books and television series so popular?
There are three basic ingredients. One is fundamental. It is Gerry’s complete delight in discovering the natural world and the animals that populate it, which he shared with his Corfiot teacher Theodore Stephanides. He had an unmatched ability to express this and communicate it to others. His accounts of animals have sometimes been criticised for being anthropomorphic, but note that Gerry does not confuse animals with human beings – his writings are hugely engaging, but never sentimental.
The second ingredient is Gerry’s view of people and their behaviour. You could say his accounts are “zoomorphic”, because he often describes people in animal terms – the title of his best-known book says it all – My Family and Other Animals. He takes just as much pleasure in describing the foibles of human beings as those of animals, often with a wicked humour.
The third ingredient is his sense of place, his ability to conjure up a deep feeling for the country or the landscape he finds himself in. He called this “the travel ingredient” and it appeals to people’s curiosities or to their longing to know more about a wider world. He acquired this appreciation of place during his childhood in Corfu, which he once called ‘the garden of the gods’.
As we know, Gerry’s approach to the natural world was also nurtured in Corfu, when the Durrell family lived here in the ‘thirties. The family made many friends here and Gerry spent much time in the company of his faithful dog Roger, exploring the natural history of the island. In his books, Gerry gets his readers and listeners to “re-connect” with animals, to re-discover the link that binds us together as living beings.
So animals, people and places explain Gerry’s popularity. But there is another element – his ability to make everyone, from paupers to princesses, laugh, be happy and feel good, whilst simultaneously making us feel responsible for the protection of our planet.
Gerry’s early writings were mostly descriptive and evocative, and he worked on restoring the people-animal link without overt preaching. These works laid the foundations for, and sensitised people to, the issues of endangered species, which became a household term only later. But occasionally he sent out a direct and hard-hitting message. For example, in Catch Me a Colobus, the book about his trip to Sierra Leone in the early ’60s, he wrote something often repeated today: “The world is as delicate and as complicated as a spider’s web. Touch one strand and it sends shudders through all the other strands. We are not just touching the web, we are tearing great holes in it.”
Gerry’s personal response to the crisis was both visionary and pioneering. His vision was that zoos would be vital to the survival of species. This was back in the days when zoos were thought of as just menageries, and the notion that they could be important to species conservation was scoffed at. Gerry’s pioneering work was to set up his own zoo to pursue the vision and prove it right. That was in 1959 in a place called Jersey, which was becoming a significant tourist destination, referred to in the brochures as “Britain’s South Sea Island”.
In spite of the obstacles, Gerry and his team developed hands-on, practical techniques for breeding animals. He applied the techniques to so-called “lost causes” and to “little brown jobs”, the small, drab and obscure species, which most zoos of the day neglected in favour of big, showy animals which attracted the paying public. To this day we call such species the ‘LBJs’ .
Again in contrast to zoos at the time, Gerry insisted on documenting the studies we did to develop the techniques by setting up a formal research department at the Jersey Zoo and on disseminating the knowledge by publishing the results.
The years passed and Gerry’s vision evolved and adapted. In 1963 he set up a charitable trust, the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (today the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) and handed over his precious zoo. The Trust branched out from Jersey to a number of overseas sites, setting up breeding centres in the animals’ countries of origin. We undertook more research on wild animals than ever before and began developing techniques to improve the status of these wild populations, including the release of animals we’d bred in Jersey or at in-country breeding stations. We became more involved with the human communities that lived near the species that concerned us, recognising that only with their serious commitment would species survival become reality.
Even from the early days, all these techniques to save endangered species began to be referred to collectively as our conservation “toolbox”. Whilst putting together the toolbox, Gerry was also thinking about the people who would use the tools. So he created a conservation training centre, turning the site in Jersey into what he liked to call a “mini-university”. People come to us to learn both the theory and practise of conservation, which they then apply in their own countries. To date we’ve trained more than 1500 people from 120 different countries, and they range from zoo staff to foresters, vets to scientists, educators to politicians.
Gerry died in 1995. As he predicted, the natural world is changing faster than ever, biodiversity is being lost even more rapidly and there is no sign of a letup. Given this changing world, does Gerry’s vision still offer solutions to the biodiversity crisis? Did he in fact leave us a valuable legacy, one that would not just survive, but flourish after the passing of its charismatic benefactor?
Just after he died, we undertook a systematic review of our operations to answer just that question. We emerged from the review with a clear strategy for the future of the Trust that is true to Gerry’s vision and values. The way forward is focused on what we do, with whom and where.
What we do is to deploy – and refine – all the hands-on techniques, the tools in the toolbox I mentioned, so that we can work at the coalface, the cutting edge of conservation. Breeding, research and training, in Jersey and elsewhere. Managing wild populations of threatened species and working with local people to enable them to continue the conservation actions themselves.
Who is using the toolbox? Our own staff, both in Jersey and abroad, and the graduates of our training programme – sometimes called “Durrell’s Army” – who form a close-knit network around the world. To maximise our training impact, we have developed an outreach programme, in which our graduates and staff will train people from a particular region, on-site in that region and in the appropriate language. To date, we have held such courses in St Lucia, the Seychelles, Madagascar and the Galapagos.
Where do we work? After some sophisticated analyses, we have concluded that the world’s most taxonomically unique and endangered animal species are found on islands and in highlands, and it is these we will methodically target. We are already working in some of the places – Mauritius, for example, and we are gearing up for a major push in the Caribbean by adding more islands to the programme and hiring managers who will be based out there. We’re setting our sights not on single species, as we used to, but on clusters of species in these target areas.
One of the species clusters we’ve identified is in Madagascar, where we’ve already been working for a long time – obviously Gerry was more prophetic than anyone knew when he decided to concentrate on Madagascar 30 years ago. It’s in the region called Menabe in the west, in that beautiful forest baobab forest Gerry visited in 1990 on the last expedition he ever made. We were looking for the giant jumping rat, the narrow-striped mongoose and the flat-tailed tortoise, as well as the madagascar teal and the side-necked turtle in the wetlands in the region.
Concentrating on islands allows us to focus on parts of the world where endemism is particularly strong and vulnerability to extinction particularly high. Endemism simply means “found nowhere else in the world”, and islands are a prime example of this. You’ll recognise this creature – the dodo – the archetypal endemic, found only on the island of Mauritius and driven extinct within a hundred years of its discovery.
But although islands are crucibles of evolution and generators of biodiversity, their ecosystems are fragile. This applies to Mauritius and the other islands where we work, of course, but it equally applies to Jersey and to Corfu.
Because they are small and clearly demarcated elative to ecosystems on mainlands, islands are not buffered, but are more sensitive to environmental disturbances. Because the population sizes of island species are relatively smaller than their mainland counterparts and because island species are often naïve when it comes to defending themselves against predators and competitors, including humans, the threats to species become very serious very quickly. These include over-hunting, habitat degradation and pollution, especially along coastlines, by large numbers of human settlers and visitors, i.e., tourists. The effects of non-human invaders, like rats, rabbits, pigs, goats, cats and dogs, can decimate populations of native animals by maiming, killing, eating or out-competing them for resources. And, in the future, global climate change, marked by temperature fluctuations and violent weather, will wreak havoc on small economies, and rises in sea level will obliterate entire islands.
Of the all the extinctions documented over the last 400 years, 75% have been of island species.
Returning to our conservation toolbox, as well as breeding and studying animals in captivity, we look at wild populations – their distribution, ecology and behaviour. The information gained from such research helps us make recommendations and plan our actions for protecting the species in the wild. Some notable examples include our work with the gentle lemur of Madagascar, the Livingstone’s fruit bat of the Comoros islands, the pink pigeon of Mauritius and the Antiguan racer of the Caribbean.
Another tool we use is the management of wild animals and their habitats. We may intervene directly to increase numbers, as with the whiptail lizard, whose last refuge, like the racer, was one tiny island in the Caribbean. We have translocated some of these to other islands, in order to increase their chances of survival.
The tool of last resort is the release of captive-bred animals back to the wild. Indeed, this may never happen, if using the other tools has led to recovery. But release to the wild can be an intended part of the recovery strategy for certain species from the outset. One of our best known examples is the Mauritius kestrel, which had reached the very brink of extinction in the mid ‘seventies. There were only four birds known to exist. Today, thanks to a long-term programme of breeding, research, wild management and release activities, there are now about 800 kestrels flying free in Mauritius. A national park has been created for them and the other native birds, managed by one of our first training centre graduates.
Finally, one of the most important tools in the conservation toolbox directly involves human beings. The best example of the human dimension is our programme for the ploughshare tortoise of Madagascar. This is an animal for which the major threat is habitat destruction by a rural, uneducated population living at subsistence level.
We set up an in-country breeding programme in 1985 and began research on the wild tortoises, which resulted in our team becoming well known and trusted by the local people. We undertook socio-economic research, finding out how the people used their natural resources and how protecting the tortoise might affect that usage. Then we started to work with the children in the villages, using the tortoise as the subject in educational activities. Then we catalysed discussions among the adults, using the tortoise as a symbol of a healthy environment. Community interest blossomed, and the people now work together to manage their natural resources – their forests, waters and soils – to better their everyday lives, which, in turn has benefited the species we had initially targeted and the rest of the plants and animals living in that habitat. The ploughshare tortoise is now protected in a national park, and the local people have taken it upon themselves to guarantee the success of the re-introduction of the tortoises, which started in December 2005 with animals we’d bred 20 years earlier.
Closer to home, and I mean back in Jersey, another aspect of the human dimension of what we do is to secure the commitment of “ordinary people” to the biodiversity cause, and we are exploring ways to sharpen this tool and use it more creatively.
We are enhancing our Jersey site to ensure that our animals, in their beautiful setting, provide a meaningful experience for Island visitors and residents alike. We want a delightful, entertaining, yet thought-provoking place where we show people our work in order to re-connect them with wildlife, inform them about conservation and persuade them to support the cause to save species from extinction.
Take our gorillas, for example. They have become ambassadors for their species. Majestic and awe-inspiring. Who could fail to take notice of a baby gorilla? Provide people with the experience of watching a family of gorillas in a naturalistic setting, as here in Jersey, and then tell them the facts about the bushmeat trade in Africa. On the one hand this involves the killing of gorillas and many other wild animals, and on the other the tragic situation of human poverty and protein deprivation in that part of the world. Our gorillas themselves become a powerful tool to influence public opinion which can, in turn, apply pressure on governments to curtail the gruesome trade and address the urgent human issues.
And I am delighted that in Corfu there is a living example of the work of Gerald Durrell in protecting endangered species from extinction in their natural habitat: this is the ‘Silva’ project to breed the ponies of Skyros in captivity, because so many of them are in danger in their island home in the Aegean (www.thesilvaproject.org).
I would like to leave you with one final thought, which was both espoused and demonstrated by Gerald Durrell. It is a sad fact that most governments still pay lip service to conservation. Many zoos practice conservation in a half-hearted fashion, and effective conservation organisations are few and far between. There are a goodly number of people around the world who are passionately devoted to saving wild animals and plants, but they have become discouraged by the enormity of the task. But, as Gerry did, we should think of the words of one of the first conservation biologists: “THERE ARE NO HOPELESS CASES, ONLY PEOPLE WITHOUT HOPE.”
Returning to Corfu
Both Lawrence and Gerald returned to Corfu (separately) on several occasions after world war 2. Both had reservations about the way the island had been developed in the interests of the tourism industry.
In 1966-67 Gerald, at the instigation of the Corfu tourism promotion organisation, made a BBC travelogue “The Garden of the Gods”, featuring himself, Theodore Stephanides and a young boy Andreas Damaskinos (today, one of Corfu’s leading doctors). The success of this film, in attracting tourists to Corfu, had a depressing effect on Gerald. In 1987 he wrote in the Sunday Times:
“Going back to Kerkyra was like paying a visit to the most beautiful woman in the world suffering from an acute and probably terminal case of leprosy – commonly called tourism. The people of Corfu were blessed with a magnificent, magical inheritance, an island of staggering beauty, probably one of the most beautiful islands in the whole of the Mediterranean. What they have done with it is vandalism beyond belief.”
Many would disagree with Gerald’s harsh judgement, but one must appreciate the difference in Corfu fifty years after he had first lived here.
Lawrence also wrote about a return visit (in the essay “Oil for the Saint”, 1962, which he included in Spirit of Place) and, on a later occasion, he penned this caustic expression in a notebook, relating principally to the type of English resident:
“Beguilingly like Cheltenham-sur-Mer, full of pitilessly philistine pleasure-bent colonial civil servants in retirement, chasing boredom by the yawning gulf of sub-cultural cocktail parties – governors’ widows to be ridden side-saddle.”