Monday, 7 November 2011

Don't forget Greece! Or: Who are the lotus eaters?

At school I didn't study the classics (or should that be Classics? You see how ignorant I am). One of the things I look forward to when I retire (I'm determined that I will retire one day! And on a liveable pension!) is getting a classical education at last.

But the classics are to me known unknowns so I can at least go and look them up on Wikipedia. This is how I am able to bring you this quotation from Homer's "Odyssey":

The passage, as you can read for yourself, concerns some mythical humans called the lotus-eaters.
"...on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them. They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly, I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars."
When I was young, not getting a classical education but attending a bog-standard state school, there was a television series on late at night (you know, about 9pm) called "The Lotus Eaters". It was set on Crete among ex-pat Brits. My mum watched it and enjoyed it. All my mum's friends (trainee teachers) watched it and enjoyed it, and some of them, in their long summer holidays, set off to Greece for themselves to see whether it was really as nice as it looked. It was. And a wilder shore than Torremolinos.

John Keats's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" makes me smile because one of my mum's friends had a mass-produced souvenir vase on her mantelpiece, brought back from one of her trips, which we all mused on during the cold winter months when we looked forward to being somewhere else.

In the late 1970s Greece was emerging from the right-wing military rule of the so-called "Colonels" (what is it about Colonels?). In 1981, the European Economic Community (EEC - forerunner of the EU) admitted Greece as a member in order to consolidate its new democracy. Spain and Portugal joined in 1986 for similar reasons. It probably also helped their accession chances that by the 1980s most north Europeans had had been to Spain, Portugal or Greece on holiday and realised how nice they are.

In 1986, "Shirley Valentine", a one-character play by Willy Russell, premiered at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (it was later made into a film). It was about a working-class woman who escapes her humdrum life, first on holiday and then going to live in Greece.

People tend not to think about it, but "Shirley Valentine" was a play based on something that was already happening, rather than a play that inspired people to emulate it. What I mean is that when Russell wrote his play, there were already tens of thousands of north European women making lives for themselves in Greece, usually working in the tourist industry. My mum was one of them! When I went to university in 1984 she went to Greece, and didn't come back, except on holiday and, towards the end, for winter work, for 16 years.

Of course, I have visited Greece several times and have my own dear memories of the place.

Many generations of Brits over many centuries have odysseyed to Greece; my own visits are only a package holiday, low-rent version but nonetheless cherished or colourful for that.

So, what about the mess that Greece is in now? Well, let's be clear, it is not all Greeks that are in a mess. At a talk I went to recently, the lecturer illustrated the size of the Greek debt - the one for which the economy is being ruined and that is bringing down governments - as one apple, while the amount of money that rich Greeks have on deposit in Swiss bank accounts he illustrated as five apples. If the EU were a real family, the sort of trouble that Greece has got itself into equates to a teenage son or daughter badly overspending on their pocket money, perhaps taking on a bad mobile phone contract. But the EU is not a family and there is this thing called the global economy to contend with. When the money markets panic over Greek debt, and there is a threat of contagion, of them panicking over Italian or Spanish or even, God forbid, French debt, familial solidarity and even good sense do not prevail.

Of course, there are many ways that Greece as a nation can be vilified as feckless, dishonest, tax-avoiding, etc, but few people who have ever met a Greek could say that they are lazy. They simply aren't. For various reasons, the tax take is low, but who is getting away, relatively speaking, with paying the least? Rich Greeks.

In any case, is the “national” offence all that great?

In European terms, Greece was a relatively poor country, with a small population, that was, remember, occupied by the Nazis during the Second World War and suffered a bitter civil war and various other travails afterward.

I find it hard to believe that when they let Greece into the euro EU allies did not know that they were taking a bit of a gamble (and Greece is not, after all, the only country to cook the books). But it seemed at the time a gamble worth taking. For a time the gamble paid off, as richer countries enjoyed the increased export market for their goods that membership of countries like Greece has allowed – isn’t that what the EU is about, after all? – and, let us remember, banks always take a risk when they invest in other countries.

Were individual Greeks – people like you and me – any more culpable than richer north Europeans when they took on personal debt and enjoyed the good life that European integration seemed to offer? I don’t think so. And would any of the dodgy accounting matter very much were it not for the sub-prime crisis in the US in 2008 with its knock-on effects that have exposed wrongdoing and recklessness throughout the whole global financial establishment? Greece’s crime, as far as I can see it, was to get caught.

It is ugly to see how readily the rest of Europe now turns on Greece/”the Greeks” (which ones? The ordinary people like you or I, losing their jobs?) and finds fault, without remembering our shared history, past and recent.

I’m writing this post partly out of loyalty to a Greek friend, who has escaped Greece to spend a winter in Brussels – I know how little he likes a north European winter! – to get away from home for a while because everyone there is so miserable. (It also helps that he has been offered work!) But also because I owe Greece, and I rather suspect many of us do, quite a lot. A lotus eater vision, where we forget work and enjoy holidays, the fantastic weather, scenery, the laid-back (yes, there is a lot to be said for laid-back) atmosphere, the simple, tasty food, the folk music (the best in the world, I think), etc.

Are we so quick to forget all that? Where is our solidarity now?

When it comes to Greece and its current travails, I don’t know who is a lotus eater. In the “Odyssey”, the actual location of the island where the lotus grew is not known but it is not in Greece at all. Wherever it is, we should refuse to go back to our ships!

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