Me, the melody and my mandolin

The writer Louis de Berniÿres is an aficionado of 20th-century Greek poetry and music. Now he wants to share his passion with everyone
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The Independent Culture

I did not go to Greece at all until I was 28 years old, but I do seem to have made up for it since. Wherever I go, I buy cookbooks and music, and it was on my second visit that I bought three cassettes "on spec".

I did not go to Greece at all until I was 28 years old, but I do seem to have made up for it since. Wherever I go, I buy cookbooks and music, and it was on my second visit that I bought three cassettes "on spec".

There was one each of Hadjidakis, Theodorakis, and Xarhakos, and a waiter spotted them on my table in the taverna where I used to eat in the evenings. This man, Nikos, was really a farmer who only worked there in the tourist season, but he also happened to be a musical connoisseur. He offered to play my cassettes on the taverna's sound system, and then, with evident pleasure, sang along to them as he worked. Subsequently I had many conversations with him, since I was travelling alone, and he took it upon himself to educate me a little. He told me, for example, that English girls were by far the world's worst lovers, except when they were drunk, in which case they were by far the best. He also explained to me with great pride and enthusiasm that in Greece for quite some time the best serious composers had been creating immortal popular songs out of the lyrics of the best poets.

He was right, of course, and as time went by I found myself increasingly seduced by Greek music. I eagerly bought it up, and found many gems among the numerous bad buys. I discovered bands of massed mandolines, rembetika, pentozali from Crete, cantades from the Ionian Islands that are both charming and beautiful, and the distinct folk musics from every region. One learns the conventions quickly enough and the melodies are often lovely enough to play solo on the flute. None the less, like many Greeks, as I was to discover, it was Hadjidakis that I came to love the best.

Greek poetry, too, was a late love. Like many others I read Cavafy first, and I still think that he is the best Greek poet to read for meaning, which is why he translates so well. He can be knotty, acerbic, and cynical, but above all he is wise. "Ithaca" is one of the great poems of the 20th century. Naturally, one enthusiasm leads to another, and I bought my first anthology of Greek poetry in a small bookshop in Cephallonia, my second in the equivalent shop in Ithaca, and subsequent volumes in Athens, in Thessaloniki, and in the marvellous Zeno's of Denmark Street, London.

Polly Hope, the artist, introduced me to the poetry of Odysseus Elytis, and others pointed me towards different translations of particular poems, praising or damning them in turn. But the point is really that, unlike the rest of us, Greek poets and musicians were writing out of love. They were not trying to be cool or clever, and they were not trying to impress each other. They were simply giving wing to the profound, beautiful, deeply felt aesthetic urges that were rising up within them as a result of being who they were, in the places and times that they inhabited. Greek culture is complicated, in many ways ambiguous, and I do not think that I or even the Greeks really understand it. They have fourfold roots; in Ancient Greece, in Byzantium, in the long age of Ottoman occupation, and in modern Europe with its divisive, absolutist ideologies, and so they are pulled in many directions at once. Such tensions are hard to reconcile, but I do not doubt that they generate incalculable wealth for the artistic imagination to plunder. I have been struck, for example, by how much of what I have chosen for this evening refers back to Homer.

Tuesday's performance will be nothing more or less than a celebration of modern Greece's contribution to poetry and music. From my point of view it is a pure piece of self-indulgence, since it gives me an opportunity to read some of my favourite things to a captive audience. My own knowledge is, I have to admit, about 10 years out of date, since my tastes are always cautious and conservative unless I am persuaded otherwise. Craig Ogden, however, has not only had the great pleasure of becoming acquainted with much that will already be familiar to many people in the audience, but has also taken the bold step of introducing some contemporary Greek music of very high quality.

It is frustrating to me that we cannot unload upon you all the great music and poetry that has come out of 20th-century Greece. Without exaggeration, we would have to lock all of you in the hall for about two months.

I feel the secret guilt, but also the secret pleasure, of the miser who who shows you one or two of his best nuggets, knowing all the while that he has chest upon chest of them in his cellar.


Voices from Greece, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 7.45pm 30 Nov. (Box office: 0171-960 4242) Louis de Berniÿres and Dimitris Lignadis will read poetry, the soprano Alexandra Gravas and guitarist Craig Ogden will perform Greek songs. A CD, 'Music from the Novels of Louis de Berniÿres', by Craig Ogden and Alison Stephens, has just been released by Chandos (Chan 9780)