Patricia Cleveland-Peck reviews this fascinating book
Michael Carroll begins by saying that the best way to approach Greece is from the west, by sea. This is so true. For the sake of speed I have taken several flights to Greece in the intervening years but nothing has quite compared with my first long, slow journey to this beloved country. I was a student and took trains to Brindisi ( two night in different trains) before boarding the legendary ferry Miaoulis to Corfu (which I described in my diary as a ‘deserted wonderland’ – well, it was half a lifetime ago…) and then onward down the west of Greece to Piraeus. I can still almost taste the thick, dark coffee served on the ferry and feel the increasing excitement as we drew near to our destination.
Carroll makes the point that Greece is the source of so many elements of western culture in science, philosophy, literature et al, that we almost feel it to be part of our inheritance. Further, in the recent past ‘a classical education’ was considered the ideal preparation for the life of a cultivated man (or woman). So Greece not only produced its own inimitable literature but acted as a magnet for travellers throughout the ages – who in turn, produced their writings about it.
If this gives the impression that the book contains only dull listings of obscure and elitist citations, let me assure this is not the case. It is a literary guide and must per se include quotations, but Carroll is aware that Greece, the earliest democracy, now welcomes many tourists who have not had the benefit (or otherwise –Thackeray had the same memory of the Greek of his schooldays ‘as of castor oil’) of that full blown classical education. Carroll wisely begins with one of the most accessible of modern stories – that of the Durrell family. The writings of Gerald and Lawrence and the more recent somewhat fictionalised TV series (filmed in Corfu) have achieved mass popularity and boosted that double edged sword – tourism.
The structure of the book is based on different areas; The Ionian Islands & Epirus, Northern Greece, Athens, Central Greece, The Peloponnese, Crete and the Aegean Islands and discussing both their local writers and how each has inspired visiting writers. This works well because it offers more variety than a straightforward chronological account. Carroll write very engagingly and has also selected his characters, episodes and anecdotes skilfully so that boredom is completely avoided..
Who could fail to be fascinated by Lugless Willie, William Lithgow from Lanark who having has his ears cut off as a punishment, explored Europe and beyond on foot, over many years, publishing an account of his travels in 1632? Lithgow was new to me (another entry on my ‘books to order’ list) but many characters were old friends about whom I enjoyed learning new and quirky details. That Edward Lear, for example, slept inside a large muslin bag to avoid vermin; that Mark Twain made a forbidden sortie on foot to see the Parthenon by moonlight when his ship was quarantined in Piraeus, only to learn that he could have taken a carriage and gone in comfort. Then there is that well known, moving incident in WW2 when Patrick Leigh Fermor, having captured a German General in a daring raid, sits down with him and begins to recite a Horace ode which the general then takes up and finishes – a perfect example of the classical education in action. Similarly we learn more about both Byrons, Lord and Robert; Thackeray, Socrates, Rupert Brooke, Sappho and many more.
I had a vague idea of the historical events of the classical world but I didn’t realise, for example quite how early the classical dramatists were writing. Nor could I have said exactly when the Parthenon was built, nor when the first Olympic Games took place, nor whether the Battle of Lepanto came before or after the battle of Navarino. Further my notion as to the whereabouts of Missolonghi and Sappho’s birthplace Lesbos, were quite wrong. Now, thanks to the map and the chronology at the back of the book I can put such things correctly in context. I was also reminded how seriously warfare was taken, something the beauty of the classical buildings and the glorious landscape tend to blot out of one’s mind.
At no time did my interest in this book flag. The blend of facts and anecdotes together with Michael Carroll’s extremely pleasant unfussy style made it a pleasure which I feel sure many other lovers of Greece will enjoy sharing.
Published by I.B Tauris @£16.99