Many years ago, not long after Maureen and I had got together, we went up to Edinburgh to visit her friend Moira. At one point, Moira got out a bunch of photographs she had taken while on holiday in Greece some ten years before (in other words, let me be clear, some ten years before I even knew Moira existed). In one photograph, taken on the Acropolis, the central figure, perfectly framed and in sharp focus, striding directly towards the camera, was me.
Somehow, that weird coincidence encapsulates Greece for me. It is a locus made up of coincidences and connections, it is where all things come together.
I first encountered Greece (if that is the right way to put it) through Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, which remains one of the funniest books I know, and also one of the loveliest. This led me inevitably to the work of his brother, Larry, particularly those exquisite travel books, Reflections on a Marine Venus and Bitter Lemons. From Lawrence Durrell I moved on to his friend, Henry Miller, and The Colossus of Marousi, the only one of Miller’s books I’ve been able to read with unalloyed pleasure.
That is one set of connections. Another set sprang also from Durrell, in a way. I developed a taste for travel literature, which I kept up for quite a few years until I OD’d on the stuff while reviewing it for places like The Good Book Guide and British Book News. Along the way I happened upon a book called A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. When, as a result, I grabbed everything I could by Fermor, it was somehow no surprise that this led me back to Greece. (Although it seems only tangential to my literary discovery of Greece, I also devoured anything on TV relating to the country, such as the 1970s series like The Lotus Eaters and Who Pays the Ferryman?, and of course old films such as the Dirk Bogarde wartime adventure, Ill Met By Moonlight which seemed to be on TV endlessly when I was young. And Bogarde, of course, was playing Paddy Leigh Fermor, though it took me a little while to make that connection.)
In truth, the more I read about Leigh Fermor (and I’ve read biographies and letters and the like) the less I think I would have liked him in person. He was an incurable snob who spent much of his life freeloading on the rich and aristocratic types he fawned over. And yet I find him endlessly fascinating: he wrote like a dream, of course, and he had a genuine and admirable gift for friendship. He seemed to know everyone who was anyone in the postwar world of art and letters, and everyone loved Paddy.
Two of his lifelong friendships were with the Greek painter, Niko Ghika, and the English painter, John Craxton. (To give you a glimpse of what a peculiar world this was, Craxton first went to Greece immediately after the Second World War when he was encouraged to do so by the wife of an ambassador, who then gave him a lift in a bomber. “Of course she did,” Maureen commented, when I pointed this story out to her.) Now this triumvirate is the focus of an exhibition at the British Museum. I will probably write about this exhibition at greater length when I’ve had a chance to absorb the substantial catalogue that goes with it. For now, these are a few initial thoughts.
Although Leigh Fermor was clearly the glue binding this group together, he was strangely absent from this exhibition, or at least he was out of the limelight. He was there in photographs, in quotations from some of his books and articles dotted about the place, but the focus, rightly, was on the magnificent paintings by Ghika and particularly Craxton. Though it was amusing to see a handful of Leigh Fermor’s letters on display, all with “IN HASTE” scrawled across the top; that seemed to be the only way he ever wrote anything.
Ghika’s paintings could be, I think, somewhat disturbing. They were crowded with labyrinthine twists and turns in which the more you looked at them the more you seemed to be lost. But they were overgrown with a profusion of plants and leaves and flowers, a riot of colours, as if they were something out of a Jeff VanderMeer novel. And there, among Ghika’s friends, among the regular visitors to his home on Hydra, was George Katsimbalis, who was Henry Miller’s Colossus of Marousi, which brings us back round to tie in another set of connections.
But the work we both fell in love with was by John Craxton. Bold lines, often very few colours, and an incredible vigorous sense of life, especially in the numerous paintings of groups of men around cafe tables or performing Greek dances. I’d seen his work before, since he provided the cover illustrations for all of Leigh Fermor’s books from Mani onwards, but I hadn’t realised this until we got to the exhibition. There is something pivotal in his work, we kept catching echoes of Paul Nash in one direction, Picasso in another, and was there something Ruralist or even possibly Preraphaelite in some individual pictures? Certainly I need to see more of his work.