Opened this menu and the cosmos spilled out

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The Independent Culture
WEDNESDAY evening, a helianthine sun, eager to be off, dropping behind the island of Hydra's top-spot restaurant ("You Can See Everybody! Nobody Can See You!") and a fierce wind blowing in off the Peloponnese, rocking the holiday boats at their moorings. Disgruntled Scandinavians - a five-boat flotilla, put in that afternoon with a confusion of shouting, mis-dropped anchors and sun-raw skin - fumble with their cockpit awnings ("Dine al fresco in comfort aboard your luxury craft, enjoying the bustle of these colourful ancient ports") and fret that they left it too late, that they should have paid the extra and come while the sun was still guaranteed. Stavros and Georgiou, flush and pot-bellied with graft and percentages, smirk plutocratically from the mahogany poop of their giant twin-master, stroke the slick brown thighs of their not-exactly-paid-for companions, and ring for titbits and champagne. The racketty hydrofoil burbles in to hoover up the straggling day-trippers, inspiring little confidence, as though someone on the Piraeus dockside had seen a picture of one and decided he could do as well, given a few big oildrums, some scaffolding and a coat of yellow paint.

In the Cafeteria To Polloi, they're rolling back the awnings and the end of season is in the air The Greeks come out as though they are repossessing their island, like a family putting their feet up and the kettle on when irksome but necessary guests (rich Uncle Bulstrode, the bank manager, the boss and his poor drunken wife, we thought they'd never go) have finally, marvellously gone.

But they are wrong. They haven't gone. Look! Here is a pale bespectacled Englishman, nose red from the sun, hair sticking up like a madman's doodle due to recent brilliantine experiments, putting squid into his abstracted mouth. Reduced by self-indulgence and venery to a trembling aggregation of sub-cortical instincts, he is muttering about big boats and funny dogs. Soon he will ask for ice-cream. Squid, ice-cream, big boat, funny dog: this is what his world has contracted to. That, and the menu, which he refuses to give up to the waiter, but peers at intently, his lips moving; and every now and then, he bursts into tears.

This labile spectre, shivering in what he believes to be a genuine Greek Fisherman's Jacket (but can't possibly be because Greek Fishermen are too poor, mean or greedy to spend 20,000 drachmas - drachmoides? - on a jacket) is me. The reason my lips are moving is because I am trying to unravel the Greek alphabet. And the reason I burst into tears is because occasionally I succeed, and a word will emerge from the orthographic darkness, and bring with it such a myriad of associations, such a singing, planetary music of connections, like tendrils, like roots, like guy-wires, that bursting into tears seems the only thing to do.

I imagine it must be like this to be adopted and suddenly to find your natural parents; to be exiled and suddenly brought home; to be bisected and suddenly to find your completion. Here on the breafkast-menu is something which must be milk and the stem of it - gala - suddenly bursts into leaf: galactose, Galatea, galaxy: the milkiness of stars: the Milky Way. They must have seen it, two and a half millennia ago, drawn it up milkily in their minds and given it its name, and as the words appear from their unfamiliar script it is indeed like the stars coming out.

No use, of course. Pointless. In a fast-moving modern technological young society like ours, there's no use for knowing Greek, ancient or modern. There'll never come a day when we have an NVQ in sitting-on-the-dockside- weeping-over-a-minority-alphabet. Where's the money in it? Where's the commercial use? What's more, it's disruptive. Anyone who can sit in a cafeteria and work out, letter by letter, that it's called "To Polloi" and start thinking about that a bit is, in a little while, going to start thinking about the demos as well, and how that one was a system of exclusion and disenfranchisement: how if you were of no account, and certainly if you were the owner/operator of a uterus, the demos was not something you were part of ... and next thing you know, that person might start thinking about democracy - the rule of the demos - and the strange absurd Perry 6 and his young, modern "think-tank" Demos, and whether little Mister Blair was all he seemed and whether the tree we were barking up was indeed the right or only one ... and we expect that sort of unhelpful, unmodern thinking to be financed by taxpayers' hard-earned money?

No. It can't be. And when Winston Churchill, in the early Fifties, wrote that "The appetite of adults to be shown the foundations and processes of thought will never be denied by a British administration cherishing the continuity of our island life" he was clearly talking balls, unmodern balls, old man's balls.

And yet ... back in London, beneath the inevitable grey cloudbase, I sat in a cafe eating greasy glaucous eggs and listening to two sleek thugs shouting punitively at each other about money, and wondered what underpinned their lives, or whether they were just utterly adrift in the present. And I thought of a young man I know, 17years old, with a fine brain and an amiable disposition, whose life is dwindling into a barren waste of drugs and monosyllables; and I wondered whether it is not the very modern, young world so beloved of Mister Blair which is doing him in. Work, get your exams, get your modern job in a modern industry, pay your modern taxes, die.

Is that it? Is there any way in which taking this young man to the harbourside at Hydra and showing him the word for milk would help him? Would his world expand again if he suddenly saw that he carries, in his skull, the most astounding instrument and joy of all, or that if he looked to windward, beyond the Peloponnese, he would see the hill where men invented thinking, brought out of empty air the tongue he now speaks, and named the very thing we still seek to calibrate: the cosmos itself.

Well? What do you think?

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