Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece

On the Twenty Third of April those of my friends in Greece called Georgos will be celebrating their name day, whilst in England the red and white cross will fly from churches and public buildings to honour the patron saint of that land. The reason for both these events is the ascribed martyrdom on 23rd April 303 AD of a Roman tribune, born to a Greek father. St George was executed in Nicomedia for failing to renounce his Christian faith.

One hundred years ago, on exactly the same date an English naval lieutenant died aboard a French warship and was buried, in great haste, in a secluded bay on the island of Skyros. He was Rupert Brooke, one of England’s finest war poets, who was on his way to take part in the invasion of Gallipoli. In 2015 a small celebration will be held on Skyros on 23rd April in memory of this Englishman buried on Greek soil. The Soldier, probably his best-known poem, is a sonnet peculiarly apposite to the occasion of his death. The opening lines are:

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;

Brooke had travelled extensively prior to the 1914-18 war but despite his final resting place it appears that he never set foot upon Greek soil until shortly before his death. Brooke was an idealist but did not profess a particular interest in Greece, and it is thus by strange fortune that his mortal remains should be interred upon an island in Greece whilst those of ardent philhellenes have been returned to their own country. Perhaps the most notable English example of this is that of Lord Byron who died at Messalonghi in 1824 and whose body was repatriated to England. Mind you there is an apocryphal story that his heart was never returned but was buried in the town. I like that. Byron’s heart surely never left his beloved Greece.

Writing of such things leads me to ponder upon this strange affection for Greece that lies within English hearts. Like most Western nations the English pay, or at least paid, educational homage to Classical Greece, and Englishmen, certainly of my generation, are well aware of its ancient history. We learned of the competing Nation States, we were carried away by the Spartan courage at Thermopylae, and enjoyed the wonderful tales of Greek mythology. This immersion in Classical Greece at least partly explains the philhellenism of the C.19th for it became an idealistic principle that a New Greece should be constructed on the hallowed soil of its Classical forebear.

In practice Modern Greece is far from a clone of that which existed over two millennia ago. This land which is now Modern Greece has been subjected to Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule whilst its population has evolved from a strong mix of peoples from other areas in the Balkans and from Asia Minor. Yet there are those of my countrymen who have fallen in love with this new Greece, Durrell and Leigh Fermor to name but two (I am claiming them although one was born in India and the other was Irish!), although neither of them either died or was buried in Greece.

Why this should be is something insubstantial, a will-o-the-wisp. I feel it within myself, this affinity with a country that is in many ways the antithesis of that where I was born and bred. There is a Germanic streak within the British. We like things to be ‘in order’. We stick rigidly to the ‘rule of law’. We have a strong sense of civic responsibility. We also have an expectation of a ‘life plan’ that involves: Birth, School, University, Job, Marriage, Children, Seniority, Retirement, Death. If at any stage before the last we wish to break out of this continuum then it seems appropriate to remove oneself to a country where life is lived in a rather more disorganized, and much more endearing manner.

However at a time when Greece desperately needs technologists and entrepreneurs we, the dreaming escapee idealists from Northern Europe, are hardly the most appropriate imports to give this country the structural stability that it so desperately needs. Our contributions, if any, will inevitably be to add just a smattering to the rich diversity of Greek culture through art and writing and music and other ‘left brain’ activities.

Rupert Brooke was fighting in what was at that stage an idealistic war. Prior to that he had travelled much of the world, and had nearly settled on a Pacific island. He, and indeed the philhellenes, were perhaps able to take themselves and their lives to a foreign land because they carried within them the ‘comfort blanket’ of an idealized homeland. Perhaps I too do just that. Brooke expressed it so well in his humerous if slightly maudlin poem The Old Vicarage, Granchester, the last few lines of which are:

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Within the Western world there is a clear admission that we owe so much to Greece for giving us the model for democracy, complete with architecture, philosophy, theatre and the other facets of civilized society. However there lies a further truth in that Modern Greece has something just as important to offer – but unless you feel it within your psyche, you can never know it.


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