92 Acharnon Street
92 Acharnon Street
Winner of The Authors’ Club Dolman Travel Book Award 2008
Greece has always had its admirers, though none seems to have cherished the Athenian tavernas, the murderous traffic and the jaded prostitutes, the petty bureaucratic tyrannies, the street noise and the heroic individualists with the irony and detachment of John Lucas. 92 Acharnon Street is a gritty portrait of a dirty city and a corrupt country. Yet Lucas’s love for the realities of Greece finally banishes the banality of a half-century of tourism. This is Greece as the Greeks would recognise it, seen through the eyes of a poet.
‘John Lucas writes about Greek culture and Greek people with a sympathetic understanding born of love.’ - Manos Georginis
‘Lucas is a dab hand at social observation ... his language cackles with colloquial art.’ - Peter Robinson, Guardian
92 Acharnon Street: A Year in Athens
With photographs by: Pamela Browne
Format: 224pp demi pb
John Lucas has recently retired as Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University. He is a poet and translator, a former poetry editor at the New Statesman and he has written many critical works including England and Englishness, Moderns and Contemporaries, and The Radical Twenties. He has been an editor and publisher with Reading University Press (1961-64), the Byron Press (1965-78), and currently runs Shoestring Press.
Extract from Chapter 1
GEORGE PHONED one evening in May. ‘John, I have found you a flat. It is near where I myself live, and I may say that it will do very well. It is…’ At this point his voice was submerged under a series of howls and clicks. When the line cleared George wanted to know what had happened.
‘We’re probably being bugged,’ I said.
George was indignant. ‘That is not possible. Greece is a free country.’
‘Lucky you,’ I said. The bugging, if that’s what it was, was in all probability at our end. It was early summer, 1984, both Pauline and I worked for CND and were helping to run a support group for the striking miners; and Thatcher had given public approval to police and MI5 tactics for keeping tabs on anybody ‘not one of us’.
I explained this – no harm in letting the listeners know you’re onto them – but George was by now talking over my words. The flat had two bedrooms, lounge, bathroom, ‘and a proper kitchen’.
‘Sounds ideal,’ I said.
George was suddenly cautious. ‘I hope you will not be disappointed.’
‘I’m sure I won’t be,’ I told him. We said our goodbyes, and feeling mightily relieved at the prospect of a roof over my head for when I got to Athens, I put the phone down.
Three months earlier I had received, quite unexpectedly, a letter from the University of Athens, inviting me to spend a year there as Visiting Professor. (Lord Byron Visiting Professor of English Literature was, I think, the full title, and as I was to discover, the glory was all in that title.) I was both flattered and excited. But would my own university give me a year’s leave of absence? Yes, they would.
So I wrote back to Athens saying that I’d be delighted to take up the invitation and asking for details of the appointment. No administration was involved, I was assured, and I would only be required to teach one course. Given that whatever reputation I enjoyed in academic circles had been acquired for a series of studies on nineteenth-century literature, especially Dickens, I assumed that the course would be on a subject related to my ‘specialism’.
Well, no. Professor R, head of English Studies, explained that he had a full complement of staff to teach the nineteenth century.
However, he and his advisors would appreciate my offering a course on Shakespeare’s major plays. Puzzled, but not greatly put out – who after all wouldn’t relish the chance to throw in his tuppence worth on Romeo and Juliet, Measure for Measure, Hamlet, Lear, and The Tempest? – I went along with the request.
Good. And would I please send details about my date of birth, education, including degrees, major publications, academic career?
Professor R would then at once complete the paperwork that would enable me to be put on the payroll as soon as I arrived in Athens. He closed by asking whether he could be of assistance in finding me suitable accommodation. ‘No,’ I told him, many thanks but I already had someone on the case.
A while earlier, by one of life’s great coincidences, a Mr George Dandoulakis had written to me from Athens, where he taught English at the Military Academy, asking whether I might be interested in supervising a doctoral thesis he proposed to write on the poetry of the Greek Liberation. Intrigued, but far from certain I was the right person to oversee such work, I suggested that he might like to come to Loughborough to discuss his proposal.
And so, on a hot day in June 1982, George and I met for the first time. I hope he won’t mind me saying that he looked far from comfortable in the heavy tweed suit he presumably thought appropriate to the occasion, wrapped tightly round his thickset body as it was, and his discomfort was increased by the lunchtime trout we were served at the University club, fish he’d never seen before, and which couldn’t be attacked in the Greek way. For one thing, it had more bones than he was used to, as an experimental mouthful made plain. And which pieces of cutlery were you supposed to use? It was seeing George hesitate at the bewildering choice of knives and forks placed before him that sharpened my sense of how cutlery is part of the world of conspicuous consumption, and how bloody daft we are to be cowed into thinking that a table isn’t properly laid until there are rows of silverware gleaming like surgical tools on each side of the place mat. Veblen was right. Who on earth needs fish knives and forks? Not George for sure. I think that meal must have been one of the few in his life from which he rose hungry.
No matter. I liked him, liked his ruddy-faced, round-eyed expression of watchful good cheer, the mobility of a look that could in an instant change from solemnity to laughter. Over coffee, we talked about his proposal, and I said that insofar as it involved English poets, pre-eminently Byron and Shelley, I’d feel confident that I could help him. The Greek poets, though, were a different kettle of fish. I knew nothing of importance about either Solomos or Kalvos, the two poets he would have to bring into his thesis.
What to suggest? As far as I recall, we left it that I would make enquiries about possible extra supervision on the Greek writers. In the meantime, he might like to write a chapter outlining the years leading up to the War of Independence, and including any relevant material on poetic works of the time. Then we could take stock, and if either felt uneasy with the other, we could agree to part company before getting too deeply involved. Agreed? Agreed.
Over the following months work began to arrive, written out in painstaking longhand, and each new piece made me the more certain that this was a man who meant business. Then came the letter from the University of Athens. Naturally I discussed it with George, who naturally thought it a good idea for me to take up the offer. After all, that way he’d have his supervisor at hand – for by then I had agreed to take him on – and he would undertake to find me accommodation.
And so, in steamy August 1984 I saw for the first time the flat on Acharnon Street. George was waiting at the airport and quickly ushered Pauline and me through the NOTHING TO DECLARE exit, himself carrying the audiovisual machine he’d asked me to buy for him in England – ‘here they are too expensive’ – and which I’d wrapped in newspaper and forced into a plaid shopping bag, the kind of bag I associated with bottles of stout and scrag-end of lamb. ‘If you are stopped, say it is a teaching aid for your own use,’ George had instructed me, but the bored customs officials showed no interest in any of our luggage. They didn’t even query George’s presence at my side.
Why should they? As soon as passengers had shown themselves within the arrivals hall, those waiting for them had simply pushed past the would-be restraining arms of the airport police and now whole families were assisting in the task of carrying off those many boxes, parcels, cases and bags without which, it seems, no Greek can travel. We climbed into the back of George’s scratched and badly dented Lada – ‘two or three crashes, nothing to worry about’ – and headed for the city.
Street after street of nondescript concrete-built apartment blocks stretched away into the surrounding hills, most of them with an unfinished or somehow provisional look about them: bare brick here, unglassed windows there, and everywhere steel rods sticking up from the flat rooftops. The road itself was littered with discarded newspapers, plastic bags, rusting coke tins; and floatings of cement dust drifted through what appeared to be rotting sunlight and was, so
I would find out, caused by the worst atmospheric pollution in the Western world. Then the car journey was over and a very few moments later Pauline, George and I were somehow crammed into a lift.
‘By the way,’ George said, as the lift groaned its way upward, ‘never use this if the electricians are going to strike. You may be trapped for hours.’
‘How will I know if they’re going to strike?’
He shrugged. ‘If I know, I will tell you.’ The lift stopped and we hauled my luggage out onto a bare landing before following him through a door whose lock had been recently and none too professionally fitted.
‘Well?’ he asked.
A three-piece suite of worn red plush took up most of the floor space of the tiny lounge. There was also, I noticed, a glass-topped coffee table and a set of straight-backed chairs with rush seats, lined up against a wall papered with a motif that looked very like elephants’ bums and facing a cheap wooden bookcase. But what really took my attention was the man who swayed uncertainly on top of a pair of stepladders that straddled the polished wood floor. ‘This is father,’
George said. ‘He is called Manolis. He is fixing your light.’
Manolis began a careful descent of the ladders.
He must have been all of eighteen stone, perhaps more, and his round face and near-bald head, to which wisps of grey hair clung damply, was pink and beaded with sweat. A pair of grey trousers had been let out at the sides to fit around his enormous belly and above them he wore a short-sleeved cotton vest.
We shook hands – his hand was wet – and when he smiled his mouth opened to reveal pink, bare gums. (I would later discover that he only ever put his teeth in for important family occasions.) But the smile was one of great sweetness and it reached up to his blue-grey eyes. ‘Welcome,’ he said, uttering the word with grave deliberation, and after a moment added, ‘Yannis.’ He pointed to me. ‘You Yannis,’ he said, ‘me Manolis.’
‘And this is Pauline,’ I said.
Manolis shook hands with her and then once again shook hands with me.
He went over to the light switch, snapped it on and stared up at the bulb. The bulb, unlit, dangled from bare flex which was suspended from an elaborately carved ceiling rose, barely held in place by the one screw allotted it. Manolis tried the switch again. The bulb remained unlit. ‘No good,’ he said to us all and shrugged, an expansive world weary heave of his shoulders. Then he gathered up his ladders and left.
The shrug intrigued me. ‘It looked as though your father was thinking the Greek for “dolce far niente”,’ I suggested. But George shook his head.
‘No,’ he said, ‘he was thinking the Greek for “oh fuck it”.’
I went to the balcony and looked out. And it was then I began to understand why George had been anxious about his choice of flat. In the first place it stank. Acrid fumes of cheap petrol and diesel, the hot smells of abraded rubber and brake shoes slammed against wheel rims, all drifted up from the traffic-clogged road on which my apartment block stood. As they rose they mingled with fumes from the oil-fired boiler in the basement. This was supposed to fuel the airconditioning system during the summer and, in winter, supply us with central heating. But the air conditioning never worked and as for the central heating, I would learn that on the few occasions it did operate it provided only two ‘shots’ a day, and by the time the water had struggled up to my fourth-floor flat it did little more than take the worst chill off the radiators. God knows how people on the seventh, top, floor managed. But if the warm water didn’t rise, the boiler fumes most certainly did.
So did the stench from the butcher’s shop next door. Each weekday morning, early, the butcher would start to boil bones.
Maggoty sweet smells crawled in through the flat’s open windows and clung to curtains, chairs, even my clothes. I thought of Mr Guppy and his friend and of their discovery of Krook’s death by spontaneous combustion, of the smouldering, suffocating vapour and thick, nauseating pool of grease into which Guppy inadvertently dipped his fingers. On bad mornings I could imagine pools like that forming on the floor of my flat. After some months the smells lessened and finally died away, although I could never believe the flat was entirely free of them. The butcher had shut up shop, I don’t know why. I do know that on that first afternoon of cloudy, oppressive heat, the smell from his shop seemed to be coming from some pit of final corruption.