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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'.