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COLENSO BOOKS: A selection of titles

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Saturday, 29 August 2009

Byron in Greece, Music in Zitsa

First visit to Greece, 1809

Where Byron stayed during his second visit to Greece

Celebrating Byron's First Visit to Greece in 1809

Conference to commemorate 200 years since British poet’s first journey to the country

From Vivienne Pittendrigh's Chamber Music Holidays August newsletter:

"The programme for Divertimenti in Corfu Festival this year is the most interesting we have ever had, with the brilliant Herold Quartet from Prague - six concerts with three wonderful venues - see This is proving very popular and only two places remain, so book soon. Recently I visited the famous Glinavos Winery in Zitsa on the Greek mainland. Lord Byron, the famous English poet, stayed at the Zitsa Monastery 200 years ago and we are having a special concert to celebrate this. We take the ferry from Corfu to Igoumenitsa on the mainland and are met by a bus which takes us to Dodoni, the oldest of the ancient Greek oracles, and the site of one of the most famous ancient Amphitheatres. Then to Ioannina, the charming city on the lake with much of historic interest, and on to Zitsa to visit the monastery, and then to the Glinavos winery. This is one of the most famous of the Greek Wineries winning many international medals. Here we have a tour and tastings before the concert. The wonderful programme, which includes Beethoven op 131, will be followed by a buffet dinner with wines before we return to Corfu that evening. The two days in Albania in the first week of the Corfu Chamber Music Holiday are packed with interest. Butrint, one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the Mediterranean, with the stunning excavations from prehistoric times through the many civilizations, will be a highlight.
UPDATE, 6 SEPTEMBER: The Byron Concert planned for Zitsa has had to be cancelled because of the Greek elections.

Friday, 28 August 2009


The Cat of Portovecchio, Corfu Tales

The Cat of Portovecchio is usually available at PLUS bookshop in Corfu Town, or on Amazon.

What they say about THE CAT OF PORTOVECCHIO

"The Cat of Portovecchio is a deeply sensual novel, you can almost smell the sea brine, the diced garlic, the fresh bread, and even the metallic blood scent wafting from the nearby slaughterhouse...the book has colour and passion to recommend it." Thuy On, The Age, Melbourne, January 19, 2008.

‘In The Cat of Portovecchio Maria Strani-Potts has produced a genuinely charming book...The charm consists in the book's wholeness of view...the writer's generosity in letting everything in; her allowing a place for all sorts of ordinary human follies and indiscretions, for bad humour as well as good, but with a sense that what all this makes up is a picture of the way we are… She takes us inside a whole world, lovingly created, that is like no other we have been invited into, but with an eye that can be savage as well as loving. Just when we think we know some of these characters, and feel comfortable with them—too comfortable in fact—she catches them for us in a new and altogether less easy light...She has the writer's eye for detail: for the small, unnoticed aspect of a thing that makes it immediately alive to us; the writer's sense of pace, that makes time, and room in the writing, so that everything finds its place; and the writer's unsparingness that makes truth more important to her than any desire to please.’ David Malouf, 13 November 2007, launching the book

‘This book enthralls with its depiction of life in Corfu in the 1950s…Maria-Strani Potts takes you back in time, so that you feel you have yourself experienced the Corfu of that era.

It’s like the best bits of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin rolled into one; and if a single book deserves to be read on all Corfu’s beaches this summer, The Cat of Portovecchio must be the one.” (The Corfiot, May 2008)

“Maria Strani-Potts, in a style reminiscent of Louis de Bernières (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) and Joanne Harris (Chocolat),weaves tales about the inhabitants of a Corfiot fishing village in the 50s and the cat which makes itself part of their lives, whether they like it or not. Right from page one Strani-Potts manages to captivate the reader as the individual stories unwind and intertwine, gradually revealing extraordinarily real characters…It is refreshing to read a fictional account of village life in Corfu, written from the point of view of the locals and not from that of the foreigner in their midst. The Cat of Portovecchio isn’t trying to present a glossy, tourist-ready Corfu- instead it charms us with the inner workings of its people and traditions.” (Book Review, ISLAND magazine, Summer/Autumn 2008).

"But now comes Maria Strani-Potts' captivating Corfu tales, The Cat of Portovecchio and I eat my words- not a bad image since, if your appetite for the writing flags (which it won't), the stories themselves are laced with scrumptious local recipes. It's about a Corfu fishing village...Read it, it'll change your life and the way you love (and live) the Corfu idyll. Grab it soon because it'll sell out fast and you don't want to be left out of the fashionable chit-chat. Also, get yourself copies for the spitaki, for the London townhouse- and, hey, one for your posh QueasyJet visitors to ease the tedium of rubbing shoulders with us proles." ISLAND (Corfu's Lifestyle Magazine), March/April 2008

“Maria Strani-Potts is incisive in her observations of her locale…Strani-Potts’ writing is characterized by a relentless and seductive intelligence which can be cruel, compassionate and ironically amusing- often all at the same time. She is never less than provocative. A pleasure to read and, even for Corfiots, an education”. Richard Pine, The Anglo-Hellenic Review, Spring 2009.

Lives ripple among mesmerising aromas

Many of us enjoy a recipe, and The Cat of Portovecchio is a work of fiction that moves with confident ease between the world of the cookbook and the tale.
It is a hybrid that announces itself early. Straight after the contents page of The Cat of Portovecchio is another, headed, Food in Portovecchio.It's an idiosyncratic sequence and also an important indicator of the source of the book's charm, which drifts from its pages in a heady and beguiling combination of aroma, texture and colour.
Avgolemono, frigathelia, bourdeto, yiaprakia, mayiritsa. Fish stew, just picked summer vegetables in tomato sauce, octopus and salami. Strani-Potts conjures a world that assaults the senses and her affectionate descriptions of recipes and food preparation of the kind authentic to Corfu are so vivid and mesmerising, so imbued with social custom and occasion they are a unifying thread running through the fractured, passionate and often difficult lives of her characters.
Together with the cat of the title, a black-and-white stray who moves "like a fashion model on a platform", the author's attention to food brings a dimension of sociability and geniality to tales of a world where celebration, incidents of violence and grim compromise work themselves out in a landscape notable for its abundant gardens, shady squares and the fizzing effervescence of sunshine on the port.
With the exception of Louisa, who loses her mother at the age of six, and who never ceases to struggle throughout the tales to hang on to vestiges of her memory and her affection, Strani-Potts's characters are presented as cameos, flares of energy and of conflict without resolution. Inevitably their lives intersect, for the community is small. A young couple falls in love; the local priest, Father Anthony, spends his time maliciously skewing reality to his personal advantage; the ample, middle-aged Blossom is married off to Louisa's father, Tony.
Poor Blossom: her wiry hair, bulging dark brown eyes, flat nose and thick lips had left her stranded in the family house. She has spent her life being told what to do and now marries during a thunderstorm "with a forced smile" to fulfil a financial arrangement and provide Tony with a housekeeper. Subsequently her married life is a gruelling mix of housework, cooking, needlework and a resignation of nearly heroic proportions.
Another character, Joy, married to a mostly absent seaman, instigates an explosive and accusatory confrontation with Father Anthony in the church vestry after a mass for the patron saint of Kerkyra (Corfu). Wearing her best stilettos and a fur coat from Vladivostock, Joy strikes at his pseudo self-possession with panache, confronting him with such a terrible and accurate account of his misdemeanours that it is hard to imagine how he could ever again lift his head in the village or officiate in his church. But he does…
The Cat of Portovecchio is not a novel that concerns itself much with the fine brushstrokes of the individual psyche, its choices and its fate.
This would matter more if the overall canvas and its characters did not spring to life with such vividness and sensuality, and one's eye were not always being drawn onwards and elsewhere. The tales are persistently eventful, and as they scroll across the feast days and holy days, the cycles of the seasons, births, marriages and deaths, any number of subplots appear and then disappear, traced so swiftly and impressionistically that they ripple across the page and sink without a trace…
The Cat of Portovecchio is notable for its freshness, warmth and spontaneity. Strani-Potts invites us to step into the lives and over the thresholds of this island community with charm and generosity. She leaves us with a seaside village and a landscape so vibrant that it stays in the mind long after the book is closed.’
Cathy Peake The Weekend Australian, February 09, 2008.

‘It has everything—it’s like eating a full thirty-course dinner. Maria Strani-Potts is like a river that has burst its banks. Everything is included in her work, and she’s not afraid to put it down—no matter whose toes she steps on. Brilliant!’ D.Toteras, Greek American critic, writer and philosopher

"Cats go where they like. Even if they are chased away, they still come back. In Portovecchio, the small fishing village in Corfu, with its slaughterhouse by the sea, its old stone church, vile priest, sexy women, wild weather, fascinating food and wondering children, the cat goes everywhere, sees everything. Gerald Durrell used to be my eyes on Corfu, my only information about one of the legendary places of the world. I think I see it better now. Australians who come from Greece will recognise their roots, their ancient life, in this Corfu of 50 years ago. Readers who know Greece from afar will see it close here. I thank the cat, who moves through these very Greek joys and dreams, for opening my eyes."

Tony Troughear, The Newcastle Herald, Weekender Books Section, February 2008.

‘When I read The Cat of Portovecchio, I was immediately drawn to the apparently laid-back way of life of the characters. But it is boiling under the surface in the little village! Every character has a story to tell, and very often their lives cross. You will find passion, lost love, a child missing her mother, grown-ups caught in their own sorrow, incapable of helping others, a priest with bad intentions and secrets ready to be unveiled…and a lot of strong women. It is a book full of warm and understanding people who take care of each other and who are doing the best they can with the life God has given them. There are many original recipes. Most of all, the cat Mamee gives an unusual and enjoyable angle to the story.

It has that little extra. I immediately visualized it as a film. This is a story that will attract many readers. I also think that the timing is right. We need well-written stories with a universal message.’

Gunilla Sandin, Head of the International Seminar Program, Gothenburg International Book Fair.‘Evocative and charming...her extensive knowledge of Greek culture informs these fictional tales featuring the widowed Tony, his daughter Louisa, the philandering island priest Father Anthony and the object of his longing, the beautiful Zoë. The cast of characters are thoughtfully created, but it is the author's understanding of the subtleties of village life—the rhythm of the sea, religious ceremonies and unspoken rules—that is most appealing.’ The Sun-Herald, 13 January 2008

‘Tales of sun-drenched life in Corfu are blended with authentic recipes in Maria Strani-Potts' novel, The Cat of Portovecchio...each of the 10 chapters has a recipe blended into the narrative. “I wanted to give people a sense of what it was like in the 1950s and 1960s...when everything was easy and beautiful,” she said. Wherever she is in the world, Corfu is always with Strani-Potts.’
The Wentworth Courier, 19 December 2007

‘Nourished by, and full to the marrow with delicious Corfiot spirit, but also with caustic humour and satire, in The Cat of Portovecchi: Corfu Tales Maria Strani-Potts reveals her intimate knowledge of the Corfiot mentality, customs, idiosyncrasies and ways of thinking. At first glance it's a tragic story enriched with comic elements, but Maria Strani-Potts also offers us a philosophical framework for the tragic social events which have an immediate impact on the inhabitants of the island.’
Sophia Ralli-Kathariou, Kosmos, 7 December 2007

‘“It’s a book about the landscape of the place, about its history, its food and the way of thinking of its people,” [Strani-Potts] said. “It describes how things were done then.” [She] said it was important because deep in the souls of Corfiots lay three primary concerns: the sea, olive trees and their very long and complicated history.’
The Manly Daily, 2 November 2007

‘Maria Strani-Potts takes readers directly into the lives of the inhabitants of a bustling Corfu fishing village. Every character has a story to tell. Easter and Christmas, saints’ days and name days, marriages and funerals, are celebrated with feasts and through these stalks the Cat of Portovecchio, imperious and opportunistic, both loved and reviled.’ Gleebooks Gleaner, November 2007.

A clever Corfu cat

Mamee is the black-and-white moggie that slinks through the pages of Maria Strani-Potts' The Cat of Portovecchio, set in Corfu in the mid-1950s. Abandoned by the owner of what was once the biggest house in a small, tight-knit community in the fishing village of Portovecchio, Mamee roams the neighbourhood at will. She knows who cooks what best (this is a place where everyone boasts a culinary speciality) and her appetite is seemingly inexhaustible. Slipping in through open doors and windows she helps herself to the most succulent dishes, usually before they have been served, creating havoc in the process. She raises smiles, she exasperates and she always - when necessary - escapes. Some love her, others don't. But Mamee turns out to be more than just a controversial community pet. She acts as a moral guardian for the human society she observes. Befriending the weak and oppressed, she exposes and punishes human wickedness.
1950s Portovecchio is quaint and attractive. Its gardens flourish with jasmine, honeysuckle, oranges and lemons; fish is plentiful and cheap; the climate is mostly forgiving. But it is made clear from the outset that the village does not represent an idyllic lost world. The local slaughterhouse turns the sea red three times a week, and the stench of its activities mixes with that of boiling tar from the shipyards to fill the air with a noxious odour. The scent of a popular kebab, the frigatheli, is far more alluring but it is not allowed to dominate.
And sin, of a sort, never lies far beneath life's surface. Fish is not Portovecchio's only business. The village is used as a conduit for smuggling cigarettes and, far more intriguingly, it supplies "an endless supply of good-looking mistresses" to Corfu town. Fat Foni, the only such mistress we meet, has managed to save travel expenses by finding herself a man in town. At the local church, actually. And it is telling that her man, handsome Father Anthony, is the only person in the village who really detests Mamee the cat, and behaves don't worry, Mamee is not so prudish that she exacts retribution for a bit of ordinary philandering, however hypocritical it is for the father to go directly from prayer to paramour. His crimes, we will discover, run much deeper than that.
Central to the world Strani-Potts has imagined is ten-year-old Louisa. She lost her mother when she was six, and arrives in Portovecchio four years later with her father Tony and her new stepmother, the far-from-blossomy Blossom. It is not a happy family. Nobody is participating in this union because they really want to be there. Tony has taken his new wife for her money, Blossom has been pushed into the match by a scheming sister-in-law and Louisa is caught helplessly in the middle. She misses her real mother, dislikes her stepmother and has no friends. It is a decidedly unpromising start. And that means there is plenty of room for improvement.
Sure enough, Louisa is soon making friends, not just with Mamee, but also with the other children in the neighbourhood. Blossom's enthusiasm for cooking provides something of an introduction to a community obsessed by the kitchen, and even snobbish Tony ends up doing a bit of socialising with people he considers beneath him. An omniscient narrative voice reassures us, from time to time, that there is a bright future in store for one or other character, but within these tales themselves only Mamee seems to achieve much lasting control over her life, and happiness ahead that might endure.
This is a quirky book. Strani-Potts was born in Corfu (in the same year as her character Louisa) and she is presumably drawing on childhood memories in her evocation of the island in those postwar years. She does this very well. Portovecchio itself is fictional, but the rhythm of life, the evocation of place and period details (the presence of the royal family in summer, the treatment of communists) give it an authentic feel. There are plenty of humorous ways in which cooking is so central to the life of the community, and hence the book. Over twenty recipes (including ones for religious ceremonies), that range from trahana soup to yiaprakia, a meat-and-rice concoction wrapped in cabbage leaves, are described fully enough for a reader to have a go himself.
It is right that a book with a cat at its centre, who tracks wrongdoing and metes out punishment, should have a touch of the fabulous to it.
And The Cat of Portovecchio does….Strani-Potts has created a vivid world in Portovecchio, full of interest and conflict and detail, and Mamee pulls off enough tricks to leave herself, and us, grinning like that fictional forebear of hers, the Cheshire-Cat.
* The Cat of Portovecchio: Corfu Tales by Maria Strani-Potts (276pp) is published by Brandl and Schlesinger via

Madonna Magazine (Jesuit Publication), May/June 2007:

Mamee, the abandoned cat, is an unspeaking observer of the lives of people in Portovecchio. We see her in people’s homes and in the streets. At one moment she leads a religious procession as if the most important character in town; at another she creeps through the shrubbery to comfort a woman who herself feels abandoned years after her husband’s execution.
Just as nothing happens without Mamee, nothing happens without food. The tastes and smells of sikomaida, bourdeto and loukoumades waft through the pages as ingredients are listed and methods explained. Not everyone is a good cook however as indicated by this title chapter: ‘The cat steals, eats and sleeps well, while Joy cooks an inedible pastitsada.’
But this is more than a bit of tourist-style nostalgia about life, cats and food in an old fishing village. Maria Strani-Potts, a native of Corfu, writes with an insider’s honesty and clear-sightedness.
When launching The Cat of Portovecchio in November 2007, David Malouf described it as a ‘genuinely charming book’ whose writer allows for ‘all sorts of ordinary human follies and indiscretions, for bad humour as well as good, but with a sense that what all this makes up is a picture of the way we are.’ All this also makes for a very satisfying read!

“A Novel Way of Looking at Corfu”, Angela Papageorgiou and Hilary Paipeti, The Corfiot, January 2009:

In 'The Cat of Portovecchio', an enthralling depiction of life in a seaside suburb of Corfu Town,
Maria Strani-Potts brings us her own experiences of the mores and customs of the early 1950s. With caustic wit, she spares no-one, from Camilla, an interfering English animal lover who wants to 'save the entire Hellenic animal kingdom', to glamourous Joy, who 'drew long, curvy lines above her dark brown eyes where her eyebrows had been before she plucked them out.' In each chapter, one of the characters cooks, and the recipe becomes part of the motivation or the plot; for example, Father Antony's Savouro is the reason why Mamee, the cat of the title, always follows him - which has repercussions in the very last paragraph of the book.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Pimping of Panorea (reviews); To Poulima tis Panoreas

For those who don't read Greek, an abridged version of "The Pimping of Panorea" (To Poulima tis Panoreas) was published in ISLAND magazine in 2008.

Go to

Click, on left, on Free Online Past Issues

Go to Issue 8, the Summer/Autumn 2008 issue, view pages 14-17.

About the book:


“An absolute must-read” (ISLAND).

“Πρόκειται πραγματικά για ένα λογοτέχνημα-ράπισμα και ταυτόχρονα μια αφοπλιστική περιγραφή του χώρου που ζούμε, ποιότητες που δίνουν στο βιβλίο τον χαρακτήρα μανιφέστου, το οποίο μπορεί να συνοψιστεί στο «τέρμα τα λόγια, ώρα για δράση” Dr.Kostas Kardamis.

“I didn’t just read it, I studied it closely. This book should be read by political candidates, and by all those who work in institutions and who hold any kind of power, or who hold the fate of the island in their hands.” Dimitris Konidaris, Enimerosi.

Update, from Simon Baddeley's Democracy Street Blog, 17 October 2012:

"I grumble about the commodification of philotimo contained in tourism, but at a certain point the craft of good business melds the private and the public; the domestic and the economic. A business can be managed so beautifully, that it comes almost to match the care that goes with the hospitality of neighbours, friends and family. Such achievement requires exactly the level of dedication missing from the exploitation of Greece by the behaviours and people who are excoriated in Maria Strani-Potts diatribe against the Pimping of Panorea – the pimping of everything beautiful on the island.

For anyone who aspires truly to succeed as a human being in the business of tourism, Maria’s short and powerful parable should be compulsory – it makes compelling reading, a passionate cry of outrage at the slow ruination of a culture by greedy and incompetent people lacking respect for those whose money they took for the goods and services they offered, trading on goodness and beauty they forgot or never understood".

There's also (page 13) a review of "The Cat of Portovecchio, Corfu Tales".
Dr Kostas Kardamis' review of To Poulima tis Panoreas follows, in Greek:
Μαρία Στράνη-Ποττς: "Το πούλημα της Πανωραίας"
Η Μαρία Στράνη-Ποττς, έχοντας ζήσει εξαιτίας των επαγγελματικών υποχρεώσεών της για αρκετό διάστημα εκτός Κερκύρας (και, ακόμα καλύτερα, εκτός Ελλάδος), είναι από τους ανθρώπους εκείνους που έχουν την ευτυχία να βλέπουν τον τόπο τους και με το μάτι του εξωτερικού παρατηρητή. Έτσι η ανησυχία της για την Κέρκυρα είναι εντονότερη και σαφώς διαφοροποιημένη από τα κατά καιρούς ευχολόγια διαφόρων όψιμα εμφανιζόμενων «ανησυχούντων». Το ίδιο αναμενόμενος είναι και ο τρόπος με τον οποίο η Μαρία Στράνη-Ποττς επέλεξε να επικοινωνήσει τις ανησυχίες της για αυτό που βιώνει καθημερινά: Το πούλημα της Πανωραίας είναι ένα λογοτέχνημα γεμάτο συμβολισμούς και αλληγορίες, του οποίου η ηρωίδα ταυτίζεται με την Κέρκυρα. Πάνω στην ταύτιση Κέρκυρας–Πανωραίας βασίζεται όλη η αφηγηματική πλοκή του βιβλίου στο οποίο παρελαύνουν στιγμές από την ιστορία του νησιού και, κυρίως, εκτίθεται η σύγχρονη κατάστασή του, η οποία καθόλου θετικά δεν προϊδεάζει για το μέλλον του.Η Πανωραία (βλέπε Κέρκυρα) είναι ένα ξεχωριστό και όμορφο πλάσμα με λίγους ουσιαστικούς φίλους, αλλά με πάρα πολύ περισσότερους γνωστούς. Οι τελευταίοι έχοντας τις «αγαθότερες των προθέσεων» προσπαθούν να εκμεταλλευτούν την Πανωραία προς όφελός τους, χωρίς όμως να κατανοούν ότι τραυματίζοντάν την καταστρέφουν, όχι μόνο την προαιώνια φυσική, πνευματική και πολιτισμική κληρονομιά της, αλλά και τους ίδιους.Οι παραλληλίες είναι προφανείς και βιωμένες από όλους καθημερινά Η Κέρκυρα της φυσικής ομορφιάς, του (αστικού και εξωαστικού) πολιτισμού, της μουσικής, των τεχνών, των πνευματικών ανθρώπων, της οικονομικής και κοινωνικής ανάπτυξης, της άμεσης σύνδεσης με ό,τι προοδευτικότερο στον πολιτισμένο κόσμο έχει τραυματιστεί, κατά πολλούς, ανεπανόρθωτα και έχει πλέον βρεθεί σε ένα τέλμα. Η στροφή στον γρήγορο πλουτισμό, στην μαλθακότητα του υλικού κόσμου, στις σειρήνες της πανδαιμονολογούμενης παγκοσμιοποίησης, η επιλεκτική γνώση του παρελθόντος, καθώς και η άρνηση της πολιτισμικής και κοινωνικής ιδιοπροσωπίας της ακόμα και από ανθρώπους της νεότερης γενιάς αποτελούν δεδομένα που αγγίζουν (αν όχι, ξεπερνούν) τα όρια της εγκληματικής πράξης. Υπαίτιοι οι πολιτικοί και οικονομικοί «φίλοι» της Πανωραίας, καθώς και οι ίδιοι η κάτοικοί της. Όλοι οι παραπάνω αποτελούν την πολλοστή απόδειξη της ρήσης, ότι ο δρόμος για την Κόλαση είναι στρωμένος με αγαθές προθέσεις.Έτσι, η Πανωραία παλεύει σήμερα μόνη της έχοντας στο πλευρό της ελάχιστους πραγματικούς συμπαραστάτες, όπως τον Καλοσυνάτο και τη Θάλασσα. Η Μαρία Στράνη-Ποττς γίνεται ο λογοτεχνικός κήρυκας ενός καλέσματος για να συναριθμηθούμε και άλλοι στους υποστηρικτές αυτούς της Πανωραίας, οι οποία έχει πλέον φτάσει στα όριά της πολιορκούμενη, όχι από Οθωμανούς, Ανδηγαυούς ή άλλους, αλλά από τον μεγαλύτερο κίνδυνο όλων, τα ίδια τα αλλοτριωμένα παιδιά της.

Negative Attitudes

Why is it so hard to get projects off the ground in Corfu, and even harder to keep them going? So many missed opportunities! So many wet blankets to smother new ideas.

There isn’t a very strong can-do, or go-for-it, spirit in the island. Is it because of party political rivalry, or the result of deeply conservative, reactionary attitudes?

I know dedicated volunteers who desperately want to make a contribution, ecological, environmental or cultural, whose ideas are met only with apathy and resistance.

What happened to the wonderful magazine, “Poetry Greece”? What will happen to “Island” and the Durrell School of Corfu? What chance of finding a rehearsal space for an English Speaking Theatre, or studio-space for artists or quilters?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were literary associations dedicated to Konstantinos Theotokis, to Laskaratos or Kalvos, for instance; groups actively dedicated to restoring their houses as well as maintaining their heritage?

Henry Holland once wrote (1815) that in Cephalonia, two priests were for some time very active in opposing schemes of improvement. Was it a curious instance of their tendency to resist innovation, he asked, that when Major Du Bosset [sic] wished to introduce the culture of the potato, many of the men laboured to convince the peasants that this was the very apple with which the serpent seduced Adam and Eve in paradise?

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Ionian Islands and Epirus, A Cultural History

My new book, "The Ionian Islands and Epirus, A Cultural History" (in the series Landscapes of the Imagination) is due to be published by Signal Books, Oxford, towards the end of 2009, and later by Oxford University Press, USA.

Pre-publication and advance ordering details, and the front-cover design, can be found on:

I've just been making the final adjustments to the text and photographic captions.

I'm pleased with the look of the cover design. I hope to see the book itself before too long.

Saturday, 22 August 2009


Leonard Cohen will be 75 on September 21, 2009.

It was forty years ago, in 1969, that Jonathan Cape first published “Leonard Cohen, Poems 1956-1968”.

It wasn’t a particularly even collection, but it did contain “Suzanne Takes You Down”, presented as a poem.

1969 also marked the year of release of Leonard Cohen’s second album, “Songs from a Room”, which contained “Bird on a Wire”, which he’d started writing on the island of Hydra, Greece, where he’d bought a 200 year-old house in 1960.

In a 1993 interview for the magazine Song Talk, Cohen explained the origins of the line ‘Like a drunk in a midnight choir’:

"That's also set on the island. Where drinkers, me included, would come up the stairs. There was great tolerance among the people for that because it could be in the middle of the night. You'd see three guys with their arms around each other, stumbling up the stairs and singing these impeccable thirds. So that image came from the island."

From my window, I can see swallows gathering on the telephone wires.

1969 was the year of publication of the collection “Songs of Leonard Cohen, Music, Words and Photographs”, a portfolio of songs mostly from the first two albums, containing many fascinating photographs of him, and of his Swedish girlfriend, Marianne, in Greece. The back cover photograph is of Cohen’s Greek-issued international driving licence.

Born September 21, 1934, in Montreal, Canada, he will be celebrating his 75th birthday in a month's time.

On 31 March, Leonard Cohen released 'Live In London', a 2-CD collection of 25 songs from his July, 2008 performance at London's O2 Arena.

I’m listening to it here in the mountains, watching the swallows. I recommend it.

Prince Charles likes him too!

Weekly Hubris interview

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Vassilis Tsitsanis, Memorial Concert at Tsepelovo

Last night we drove to Tsepelovo for an outdoor tribute concert marking the quarter century since the death (in London) of Vassilis Tsitsanis. He died on 18 January 1984, in Brompton Hospital.

Why Tsepelovo? His mother came from that Zagori village. “Echo mia agnosti patrida’, wrote Vassilis.

The eight piece group (the Tsitsanis Orchestra from Trikala) and three singers were outstanding, and the lead bouzouki player was a real virtuoso (there were three bouzouki players).

We didn’t stay until the end, because of the mountain road and bends at night. The concert reminded me what a great song-writer, poet and composer Tsitsanis was, and how fresh and exciting his songs remain today.

Organised by the Tsepelovo Cultural Committee, the spokesman introduced the evening (pity about the 45 minute delay in starting) by talking of the way that Tsitsanis managed to bring the Eastern and Western musical elements together.

This reminded me of a poem I wrote in 1983 (it's in “Corfu Blues”, Ars Interpres):

Memories of Asia Minor: Improvisations in a Minor Key
Don’t put down that old bouzouki,
Tsitsani virtuoso!
Explore all the roads,
Extend that taqsim,
Scatter the clouds
That darken each dream.

Take me back to the East
As I move further West.
Make the rhythm more heavy
To lighten my soul:
“We’re refugees all”
Your silver streams scream.

It also appeared in Ars Interpres

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Vitsa Panigyri, 14-16 August

It's been a marathon panigyri (one of the best in the whole of Greece) for those who stayed up all night for three nights in a row, for the musicians and singers, the organisers and dedicated members of the Cultural Association, the souvlaki and sausage grillers, the dancers and, last but not least, for those who had to clean up and wash up every day.

I had a taste of each of the three nights; the atmosphere got better every night. The panigyri was still going strong at 10am this morning, with Grigoris Kapsalis (portrait above), the 80 year old klarino player from Elafotopos, playing his heart out with a moving miroloi or lament.

The panigyri finished with a "Pied Piper" procession up the kalderimi from the platanos tree in the main square.

I admire the energy and stamina of the people, young and old, who danced all night.

Other highlights of the festivities included an updated version of Dario Fo's play "Can't Pay? Won't Pay!" and an exhibition of photographs. I was proud that my own were included.

It's extraordinary to be in Vitsa with such crowds and intense activity, with so much socialising. The village is usually almost deserted. Then people have the Vitsa Blues, although many people prefer it peaceful and quiet.

I'll never forget the tragic miroloi played by Grigoris Kapsalis, in memory of one of our neighbours who died not long ago.

After so much Dionysian dancing, abandon and drinking, people broke down in tears. Such is the power of music.

Vitsa, Directions

Saturday, 8 August 2009

John Fowles and the Aegean Blues

John Fowles often talked about "the Aegean Blues", a form of depression he blamed largely on endless sunshine and cheap wine.

"The Greece of the islands is Circe still; no place for the artist voyager to linger long, if he cares for his soul."

("Why I rewrote The Magus", 1978)

"A novelist has to enter deeper exile still. In most outward ways the experience was depressive, as many young would-be writers and painters who have ever gone to Greece have discovered. We used to have a nickname for the sense of inadequacy and accidie it produced – the ‘Aegean blues’. One has to be a very complete artist to create good work among the purest and most balanced landscapes on the planet…The Greece of the Islands is Circe still; no place for the artist-voyager to linger long, if he cares for his soul."

"This Circe-like quality of Greece" (The Magus, 1966)

The Aegean Sadness

Sun upon sun distils the land
Over the pulsing, cobalt sea;
Sun upon sun and endless sun,
Scent of wild resin, cicada-song.

Olives and wine and small fried fish,
Aeon-dark islanders lost in a shade;
Day after day we sit on the terrace,
Over the waves and unknown lives.

So strangely sad, this heat and sun.
Is this why they left to sail for Troy?
To make the same sadness seem complete-
To kill Astyanax and call it joy?

John Fowles, from Poems , The Ecco Press, 1973

The Corfu Blues are different: they're more profoundly existential, and frequently environmental.

Another missed opportunity: the opportunity to have a drink with John Fowles. We could have discussed the differences between the Aegean Blues and the Corfu Blues. Strange that we we were both drawn back to Dorset.

From The Journals, Volume 2, 2006, John Fowles on Crete, 25 March, 1986:

Kazantzakis on Corfu

Letter of October 21, 1926 (translated by Amy Mims; "Nikos Kazantzakis, A Biography" by Helen Kazantzakis, 1968)

"Corfu marvelous-but only for a short time. The mountains, the sea, the colours all exquisite, but pathetic, amolissants (devitalizing), soporific, fatal to any fighting soul".

I know what he meant about the island being devitalising and soporific- especially in the heat of August.

Kazantzakis had the Corfu blues.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The British Council in Corfu, 1946-1955

Did you know that the British Council once had a branch in Corfu?

I’ve just been looking at a small archive of files concerning its activities from 1946 to 1955, when it closed down because of the Cyprus situation.

The Institute was situated at 46 George Theotoki Street, and moved at a later date to 43 Leoforos Alexandros. Possibly the greatest loss to Corfu was the library. A few reference volumes can still be found on the shelves of the Municipal Library inside the Old Fortress.

The Council in Corfu published an excellent literary periodical, “Prospero”, edited by Marie Aspioti, the local director of the Corfu Institute.

Lecturers (there were 99 lectures given between 1946 and 1955) included Paddy Leigh Fermor, Irene Dendrinou, Francis King, Edwin Merlin and… Professor Anthony Blunt on “Royal Portraiture”. He’d only just been interrogated for the first time (according to Francis King in “Yesterday Came Suddenly”, 1993) about the defection of Burgess and Maclean. He was under considerable strain when in Greece.

There were some outstanding exhibitions (one was attended by King Paul and Queen Frederika) and in 1953 (for example) there were dramatised readings from the works of Shakespeare and Wilde.

Marie Aspioti resigned towards the end of 1955, and returned her MBE.

Lawrence Durrell had tried to get a British Council posting to Corfu in 1940, which was confirmed for the following year, according to Gordon Bowker's biography (pp 132-133), but he went to Kalamata instead, shortly before he was evacuated from Greece. In a letter to Henry Miller (Spring 1940), Durrell wrote, "I have finally got Corfu, where we shall retire in May to lose the world I hope and be lost to it".

The Council in Corfu received 62 photographic sets for exhibition between 1946-1955, some of the earlier sets being on topics like Windsor Castle, English Ballet, British Scenery and English Cathedrals.

There were Gramophone Record Recitals every week (October-April) from October 1949.

It doesn’t sound very exciting, but Corfiots remember the Council Institute with gratitude and affection (prior to the Cyprus struggles).

As Charles Climis writes in “The Illustrated History of Corfu” (1994): “The British Council hosted a major post-war effort to keep the intellectual standards to a level, if not raise them, considering always the dire circumstances. Marie Aspiotis, Michael Desyllas, Irene Dendrinos and other literati met there and gave lectures twice a month.”

You may wonder why this is of interest to me. I’m doing research for a chapter on a forthcoming book on “Britain and Greece since 1945”. My chapter will be on Cultural Relations. What a different world it was then. How many of you know Francis King's Corfu novel, "The Dark Glasses" (1954), which was dedicated to Marie Aspioti? It's an interesting read. He spent a sabbatical year in Corfu between postings. Cyprus also seems to have brought their close friendship to an end. Perhaps the novel didn't help.

Update 2017, There is an interesting letter from Patrick Leigh Fermor, plus a partial facsimile (on British Council Corfu Office letterhead) to Marie Aspioti, in The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor, Dashing for the Post, 2016 , written after his lecture tour, which included Corfu. He is fairly blunt about his British Council employers in Athens, after they 'let him go'.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Vido Island and Bourdetto

We’ve taken the short caique-trip to Vido Island a number of times in recent days. At two Euros for the return trip, it’s great value. The swimming is wonderful, the island unspoilt, the view of Corfu Town and the fortresses unparalleled.

The island is full of pheasants and rabbits, which are very tame.

The British may have upset the Corfiots by destroying the fortifications when they ceded the Ionian Islands to Greece. There is a memorial to the many Serbs who died there and who were buried at sea. Flora Sandes has told the story of the Long March. The scouts have a tented camp there, much more appealing than the old reform school/prison which used to make the island out of bounds for visitors (until the 1980s, I think).

There is a pleasant place to have a drink after a stroll round the island’s well-maintained tracks.

I was lucky on one occasion to order a dogfish bourdetto for lunch. It was delicious. Dogfish may not be the most attractive-looking fish (otherwise known as huss, flake or rock-salmon; ask for skylopsaro at the fishmongers’). If you like hot spicy fish stews with plenty of red pepper, try it!

I made a bourdetto myself yesterday, and followed the recipe, but didn’t put in nearly enough paprika or cayenne pepper. Next time I’ll pour in half a bottle of Tabasco sauce- or go back to Vido for the real thing. That should banish the Corfu blues.