John Bird: Despite their woes, it’s the world that’s in debt to Greece

"We should pay a word tax for every word that sprang from Greece. Then they would pay their debts off in no time"

I went to a small exhibition at the British Museum last week and realised that it has turned even more into a tourist destination. The world’s artefacts arranged in splendid rooms for the world’s visitors. They come to the museum to look at what perhaps their own ancestors hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago made and invented.

All human endeavour is there. Opened in the late 18th century, it soon became the leading museum of the world and spawned imitations elsewhere, especially in the US where they had even more money to buy and ship. But I was there for a jewel-like exhibition that had that wonderful thing that rarely happens if you’ve looked at all the art I have looked at: surprise, wonder and enchantment.

Study for a poster Ghika
Study-for-a-poster-Ghika
Ghika's Study for a poster, 1948

My life was turned around in the British Museum in the Japanese room when – aged 18 – I had to step over an art student. Sprawled out on the floor immodestly drawing and painting. We became friends and it was she who, looking at my proletarian sketchbook, insisted that I go to Chelsea School of Art drawing classes, where I was drawn into being chosen for the diploma course.

Later when I became a Marxist Engelist Leninist Trotskyist I marvelled at the big round library, then in an outdoor square in the middle of the museum, now indoors, in which Marx wrote the book that rocked the world solidly; Das Kapital.

But when I joined the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tourists and visitors last week I was heading for an exhibition about three artists: one, the writer Paddy Leigh Fermor, and two painters Ghika and Craxton.

Life’s short so there is no mention of Greece’s great contribution to our world history, philosophy, theatre, poetry, pottery, architecture! Our modern world is made in its eternal and timeless image

I was asked after the exhibition by a Greek student doing some survey what I thought of the exhibition and I was speechless. Ghika is a great Greek painter who inspired the younger English man John Craxton to produce in Greece phenomenal paintings. And both united by their devotion and love of the writer Paddy Leigh Fermor who, having had a “good war” in Greece devoted, with his wife Joan, his lifetime to the Peloponnese village and peninsula he built a house on.

Ghika and Craxton are such great painters and Paddy such a brilliant writer, with his writing interspersed throughout the exhibition that you can see the art and the creative friendship grow before your eyes. It made me want to abandon my neglect of this brilliant historical and beautiful country. I had been there once, to Athens a few years back for a social enterprise conference. I wanted to go there immediately and ignore the heat, not good in that, and just drink in its great beauty.

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Paddy’s ‘Good War’ involved being a supporter of the Partisans in Crete and capturing a German general, the subject of a very popular post-war British film. Paddy, aged 18, had set off to walk from Rotterdam to Constantinople – Istanbul – and wrote copiously in a number of books of that adventure. And also other adventures and experiences in Greece. I’m reading the books at the moment, spurred on and inspired by this beautiful exhibition.

Of course, it’s not easy today to talk about Greece without being saddened by their European debacle, where they became the scapegoat for an ill-functioning common market. And were and are punished because they didn’t get it right. When I went to Greece that one time it was right in the middle of the period of greatest agitation. And it was terrible to see so many people driven to express their suffering at what the northern countries had decided.

Life’s short so there is no mention of Greece’s great contribution to our world history, philosophy, theatre, poetry, pottery, architecture! Our modern world is made in its eternal and timeless image.

Ill Met By Moonlight, which saw Paddy hiding in the hills and capturing one of the German occupier’s top men, was a great film. But maybe a greater film might be about that complex country and its complex people, their pluses and their minuses, and their enormous contribution to our civil and cultural society.

I did suggest at the time I had just come back from Greece that we had a word tax. And that every word we used that sprang from Greece we paid a word tax. They would be able to pay off all of their debts in no time.

Of course, the British Museum is the home of some of the greatest of Greek sculptures, the Elgin Marbles, bought by the aristocrat of that name who did so from the occupiers, the Ottomans of Greece, and shipped these wonders to London to become part of the cultural backbone of the British Empire’s own museum.

The very wonderful Greek actress called Melina Mercouri, a dead spit for my mother, campaigned for the whole of her life to have the Marbles returned to their rightful place on the Parthenon overlooking Athens, but she died before it was realised. It still remains a dream of many Greeks to have their artefacts back.

Aside from those Greek artefacts, the Egyptian, and my favourite the Mesopotamian, go see the small, perfectly formed Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor exhibition. It is unique and beautiful and astonishing. Almost as one whole piece of art and culture itself.

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