92 Acharnon Street, by John Lucas

A clubbable professor who subtly captures the ancient heart of a modern nation
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The Independent Culture

John Lucas's attractive memoir of his period as "Lord Byron visiting professor of English" at the University of Athens in 1984-5 comes hard on the heels of Sofka Zinovieff's Eurydice Street, which showed more sympathy for Greek politicians of the left than for the exiled Greek monarchy in Surrey.

Lucas reports how his impecunious students handed him the fruits of a whip-round for striking miners back in Britain, where "something pretty horrible had begun to infect public life". Suddenly, the English narrative of modern Greek history seems no longer the preserve of conservative gentlemen of a particular social caste.

Lucas arrived in Greece for the first time, aged 47, that autumn. Thanks to the Greek bureaucracy, which he describes with dispassionate accuracy, he was not paid until Christmas. He has since fallen in love with the country and keeps a small flat on the island of Aegina in the Saronic Gulf.

Lucas is clearly a clubbable man with a gift for friendship, with the result that we feel he gets under the skin of the country. He is helped along by lashings of retsina and good cheer at the local taverna, Babi's, in noisy, noxious Acharnon Street. Lucas has no illusions about the shortcomings of Greek life: the frank acceptance of corruption in the university system, the maddening red tape, the insolence of public officials.

But he also acknowledges its strengths. The idea of individual loyalty, for example, results in political opponents paying surprising debts of honour.

He recreates many conversations, quietly revealing of Greek reality. This is not English travel writing in the baroque tradition of purple passages and virtuoso erudition. His Greece is the contemporary one of moonlighting lecturers, laundrymen, waiters, odd-job men, whose dignity he celebrates with sympathetic understanding. Modern Greek history, with its painful divisions and still-extant rancours, has left its mark.

Lucas writes sharply about the treatment of Greece by the Allies after the War, the horror of the civil war, and the nastiness of the US-backed junta of 1967-74.

But there are many enjoyable passages of conviviality. At the town beach of Aegina, a ring of chattering ladies surrounds the solitary English professor, not speaking but weaving a silent wreath of dutiful hospitality around the stranger.

Lucas is a man who notices such things, and this engaging memoir is full of incidents which shed a clear, unshowy light on the country he discovered in early middle-age.

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