The Playwright’s Diary
Here Phil documents his journey as a playwright, including his influences and thoughts as he writes his plays, and before that, his novel Someone Else’s War.
27.9.20 Remembering the gravitas
After I completed the first draft of Athena Cries, I started the revision.
I was surprised. The first draft had a lot of warmth and humour. I found myself smiling at places, and even reading Jackie parts that I thought would give her a smile.
Then I received a notification from an academic website about a research thesis by John Sakkas that he had conducted about the Greek civil war, the period in which the novel was set.
Although my first draft paid had some due to the horrors of that civil war, the Sakkas thesis made me remember that this was a war that was, in some ways, worse than the experience under the Nazis. Sakkas focussed on a little village in central Greece called Agia Triada. His research consisted of interviews with villagers. They told of how the Nationalists (the pro-royal right wingers) went through the village in 1947 summarily torturing and killing people it suspected of having links with the communists. Many of them, of course, had nothing to do with communism, but may have fought alongside some Reds during the resistance against the Nazis. These nationalists abducted people. Some of the suspects were summarily killed along with their sons. Daughters were raped. Then, in the same year, the Reds came seeking retribution. But this retribution was only partially against the Nationalists. It was, in that small village, against other inhabitants. Again people taken away, tortured and killed. If one side didn’t get you, the other side might have. It was a horror not of an invading army, but of their own people.
This little village was a place that had survived so much. The Ottomans, who ruled Greece for hundreds of years, had left it alone. Even the Germans did not leave a big mark on it. It was a semi-autonomous area that just got on with farming and raising livestock in a fertile mountainous area. Its people had became over the centuries what all people hope to be: happy. Sakkas tells of a café owner who was a jolly man; of a beekeeper who supplied the wax for the local church; of farmers who raised a young family who had lived the dream by becoming university-taught professionals.
There families were destroyed by the civil war, if not by one side, then the other.
As I read these accounts, I realised that my play, in wanting to be warm and approachable, may have gone too much away from the horrors of the time. After all, fictionalised storytelling is not just about entertainment, but also telling the audience about realities.
I will look at the play, and I might use Sakkas work as a basis of some of the kinds of stories that will set context for the audience. It will be a strong addition. The stronger the context, the stronger the motivation for Olga and her co-workers.
24.9.20 Touching greatness
Quite accidentally I touched greatness today.
I was reaching for one of John Steinbeck novels in my bookcase when I saw an old novel I must’ve read ten years ago. It was called The Myth is Murder. It was a mystery set in Greece. The author was Shane Martin. After a while I remember that Shane Martin was a pseudonym for the Australian author George Johnston, the author of My Brother Jack. Johnston and his wife Charmian Clift have been in the news quite a bit recently with the publication of a book and articles about their years on the Greek island Hydra.
They and their children Shane, Martin (hence the pseudonym) and Jason had become something of a star circle on that island. A very young Leonard Cohen had stayed with them and other artists of all kinds also came to stay. Affairs were had, the Johnston marriage strained and there was sickness and quite some mental anguish. Eventually what started as an idyllic adventure became a nightmare of dashed hopes, so much so that Charmian punctured the Greek island fantasy with a book ironically titled Peel Me a Lotus. The Johnstons returned to Australia in the early 1960s, Johnston to a literary success with his Jack trilogy, and Charmian with her own novels and her very successful newspaper columns. It ended sadly with Charmian suiciding and George dying of a pulmonary disease shortly afterwards.
But this copy of Johnston’s novel says nothing of that. When it was published in 1959 George and Charmian were hopeful and young enough to believe they and their children had a future of promise and joy. You can sense it from the dedication in my copy of the book, a dedication that is playful and carefree:
The bad times were yet to come, but this inscription lives on with the joy Johnston must’ve put into it more than sixty years ago.
23.9.20 First draft done
I just finished the first draft of the Olga Stambolis sequel, Athena Cries.
Like with all such work, this first draft will probably end up looking completely different by time I have gone through the countless rewrites. In fact, my method involves looking up extra research and seeing whether what I have done fits into the historical fact of the times. The reason I do it this way is because I write organically. I let the story come to me. I have put into the story a number of invented events that may not have been historically possible. If they are not historically possible, then they need to be revised.
Yes, I know this is fiction, but as I have written earlier in this diary, I believe historical fiction can only have value if it fits within the truth of the times. For example, in the play I write of a fictionalised meeting meeting Princess Marina and Olga in Athens. I conceived this idea when I saw that the princess had gone to Athens in 1947, at the time the play was set. The true event inspired my fiction. If I was to write that Hitler survived the bunker in 1945 and turned up in Athens and had dinner with Olga, then I argue this would not be historical fiction; this would be fantasy. At the least it would not fit into what I would be trying to do: tell a small vignette of the Greek civil war, just the same as playwrights, novelists and filmmakers have invented other small stories in the context of other conflicts.
But, as with the Princess Marina episode, my vignettes must be at least possible.
So now I will research the ambassadors of the time. I have already used one true American diplomat in the story. I know he was there, but only research will tell me whether he was the kind of man that I had developed into the story I have written. If not, I will re-invent this character too. As my climax happens in the US embassy in Athens, I also need to see whether this climax was feasible. I do know that Olga was in that embassy, but little else.
I just wish I knew more of her activities. But again, that gives me a clean slate for invention. And I love inventing.
22.9.20 The Purpose of fiction
It had been sitting on the mantle in my study for six years. I don’t even remember buying it. The Narrow Road to the Deep North won Richard Flanagan the Man Booker Prize in 2014. The copy I had was a signed commemorative edition produced just after the win. I had interviewed Flanagan, who was a hell of a nice man, but that must’ve been for one of his earlier novels, because this novel was brought out three months after I left the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Its origins may have been a mystery, but its contents were very familiar. It told the life story of a fictional character, Dorrigo Evans, a WWII POW on the Thai-Burma railway. It was a story of horrors inflicted by the Japanese, a story told with understanding and an attempt to explore why these horrors were inflicted on defenceless, ailing and dying Australian men. Like all good fiction, it attempts to understand, not just tell.
At the back of this limited edition is a copy of Flanagan’s Booker prize acceptance speech. He briefly extols the virtue of fictionalised storytelling. While it is slightly at odds with what I have just said, it has more in common:
They are (novels) one of our greatest spiritual, aesthetic and intellectual inventions. As a species it is story that distinguishes us, and one of the supreme expessions of story is the novel. Novels are not content. Nor are they a mirror to life of an explanation of life or a guide to life. Novels ARE life or they are nothing.
I believe he is especially right in this last line. I felt those sentiments as I wrote Someone Else’s War (the novel on which my plays are based). But I also believe Flanagan could be talking about any form of creative storytelling.
I believe that the play is as much life as a novel is life, and as much a supreme expression of story; as much a reading and showing of life. Yes, Richard, there is a mirror in there. True, fiction may not give us the answers, but it might show us where we might start our own personal search for them.
19.9.20 The climax found
The organic method I described yesterday has been leading me towards my story climax. For moist of the writing process I just didn’t know what it would be. Would it be a long-suppressed revelation, as in the first play Lady of Arrows? Would it end with something being done to Olga? Would it be an alls-well-that-ends-well finale when she just comes to terms with her situation?
As I was writing yesterday, it came to me. It is a climax that blends with the tension I wrote about yesterday: the tension between her involvement with the Greek communists, and her relationship with the American anti-communists.
We know that 1947 was a pretty rabid time for both sides. President Truman was determined to stop the expansion of communism, especially after he and Churchill had been quite liberal towards Stalin in the European carve-up after the defeat of the Nazis. The cold war was at its very genesis with the news that the USSR was developing its own nuclear weapons. So in countries such as Greece, Truman’s America was beginning to do things by stealth. Across the world leftists governments were being undermined and rightist governments were being quietly supported. This raft of quiet destabilsations would become much more powerful under Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, but Greece’s civil war was at the very start, and America was dabbling in interference there, ditching the pre-war policy of neutrality probably forever.
That is the maelstrom in which I have painted Olga. The Americans are both popular and hated. The communist movement is ambitious and has strong backing from the leftist countries to the north. Most Greeks want a return to a normal life after three years of occupation and horror, but many are caught in a fight between the left and the right. Families are turning on families. Violence, arguably even ruder than during the Nazi years, is rife.
My idea for the climax puts Olga in the middle of this. She will have to make a decision, and that decision will come in the midst of an event that will be for her and the play watchers, a culmination of everything that has gone before.
I know what I’m going to do. Now I just have to put it together.
18.9.20 Organic writing
I take an organic approach to writing my plays. I do not subscribe to the method of planning out my story. I certainly do have an idea at the start of where the story begins and where it will end, but the journey develops along with my writing. What will happen to my protagonist is open to the developments that happen as I invent along the way. I do this for a few reasons.
One is because I think the story will be more cohesive if it flows from scene to scene. When one scene ends, the characters will be of a state of mind that will naturally lead to the next scene. Too many times we see in plays and film where a character has done something extraordinary, and in the next scene that character is pretty much the same as they were before they did this extraordinary thing. This often happens in the James Bond films after a Bond lover has been murdered: Bond appears affected by this for a moment only and is once again the swashbuckling spy who falls into the arms of yet another woman. For most people, even a hardened spy, seeing a lover killed would change us forever. Yet the Moore-era Bond is ready with another quip, martini and a bout at the casino. Effective characterisations must react and be changed. It’s called character development.
This organic method also allows me time. I can consider how to take the character forward as I write. Ideas come to a writer by the bucket. A character can change tack mid-conversation. Another character can do the unexpected. An accident might occur. A new type of personality or scenario might come into the story.
All these things can take the story in a new direction. Already Olga has gone to places I had not expected. As I head towards a story climax, she has already developed into a character that has revisited the monarchy and met again the Greek princess of her childhood acquaintance. She has also mixed with the Greek communist movement, while working with the other political side: the Americans. I have pushed her deeper into both sides, and organically I have created a tension in her characterisation. That tension comes in a few ways but most strongly in the question about which side she supports most strongly: the communists or the anti-communists. This is valuable, because with her being between the two sides, we are brought into the debate and the motivations of both those sides. The communists committed atrocities, assassinating innocent people who were perceived to be sympathetic to the non-communist side (an example of this was revealed in the book Eleni where Greek-American journalist Nicholas Gage told of his mother being shot by a local communist because her husband was in America). There is value in exploring why a Greek could do such a thing to another Greek. Greek communists were not just vicious self-satisfied killers. People from all walks, including now-adored writers, politicians and composers were among their ranks.
This exploration of both sides of the story is proving perhaps to be a real value in this play. This exploration is something which has developed over time. It developed because I used an organic method.
17.9.20 The Accidental Nietzsche
I intended to have a day off today. I had delivered a paper at an academic conference at the University of NSW yesterday (virtually of course in this time of COVID lockdown), so I was feeling I could take some time away from writing.
It only took a few hours though for me to feel at a loose end. I scanned through some Plato videos on YouTube which had been suggested by my philosophy teacher. After an hour of Leo McKern’s gruff Socrates, I started to nod off on the couch. The video ended, and there on the suggestion screen came a video about the German philosopher Nietzsche. It was titled something like, Ten Things Nietzsche Teaches Us.
Now, I had never really delved into Nietzsche. Maybe I had been put off by the thought that Hitler had taken on the “superman” attitude from Nietzsche (and yes I know, I had heard that Hitler misconstrued him). Yesterday however I pressed play and Nietzsche’s thoughts came on screen.
I don’t know what I expected, but it was nothing like my preconceptions of what this philosopher was about. It was a collection of tropes about independence, self-respect and the encouragement of original though and action. And the “superman” idea was not at all about Aryan superiority, but about how ordinary mortals could reach for their higher selves by creating.. be it by music, writing, performance or any other form or the arts. The video went on to suggest that Nietzsche wanted people to create something every day.
I was off the couch even before the video’s credits were finished, and resumed work on the play sequel. Amazingly, the scene flowed so well that when Jackie phoned me from her studio in the back garden (she had simultaneously been in there taking a virtual harp lesson) more than two hours had passed. I had written a draft of an entire scene which not only pulled the story along, but brought in an important element of motivation for the play: I had written Olga as a double agent working for both the Americans in Athens and the communists. The tension is the doubt about which side she was really on: the Left or the Right. In one session of writing I had found one of the most important elements of Athena Cries.
All due to a chance viewing of Nietzsche video. I don’t really believe in chance. I have been doing this writing gig for long enough to know that some things are just not serendipity. How, who and why, I don’t know. As George Harrison once wrote: The answer’s at the end.
14.9.20 Tension v entertainment v originality
I have just been writing a scene in the sequel play where Olga is in a police station in post-war Athens. She has been a witness to the killing of a communist.
As with so many other scenes, the words seem to come easily for this first draft. The police officer and Olga sit opposite each other, and I portray them as having a little game of mime. The officer says very little. He is almost ignoring her. She motions for one of his cigarettes and he passes his packet to her without looking up. She takes it and lights up, sitting back and relaxing. Not as word is said, but character is exposed a little.
We have all seen plenty of police interview scenes in movies and TV shows, and thus have seen many of the possible permutations of what happens next. As a playwright, I do not want to be cliché by just doing what the audience has seen before. I need to surprise, and by surprising the audience, engross them. It also needs to take the story further. Too many plays and screenplays have these kinds of scenes for no purpose. With a play of less than two hours duration, there just isn’t time to waste. And wasted space is a killing of the tension.
I think I’ve come to a resolution that satisfies all my criteria. By the end of the scene we have taken Olga one step further down her trip to the climax of the story.
I’ll have to see how it works when I re-read it after I’ve had some time to reflect.
13.9.20 In praise of strong women
Alfred Tennyson was a man tied to a strong woman, Queen Victoria. During her tenure he was England’s Poet Laureate, so his poems were widely read. When he produced The Princess in 1847 it caused a stir. It was a story about a princess who refused to marry the young prince to whom she had been betrothed since infancy. Instead of this royal marriage, the princess started her own female university, where women were taught to be independent of men. So serious was she about this that she decreed that any man who entered the university would be killed. Of course her fiancé, not willing to accept the rejection, broke into the university dressed as a woman. He is found out eventually, but not until the virtues of female emancipation were espoused.
To Victorian England, this brought about quite some controversy, so much so that Tennyson revised the original three years later, bemoaning that the critics did not understand what he had been trying to say.
As I say, this happened in the Victorian era, a period when the British empire (and it was an empire at that time) was ruled by a woman. She might not have been an all-powerful ruler like her Elizabethan forebear, but she still was the head of the western world. Tennyson’s writing may have been, to some extent, a nod to her position or, at the least, a contemplation on what it might have been like if men did not have all the power in the world (after all, Victoria was hostage to the decisions of her entirely male government, and it would be another century before women would be voted into government).
There are many themes about ancient Greece’s strong women throughout: Penelope, who outsmarted her suitors; the women Amazons who were the fiercest and most skilled of warriors; the Sirens who knew how to seduce and destroy.
Perhaps Tennyson was also inspired by that modern day Greek heroine Bouboulina who was one of the leaders who ended the Ottoman rule in Greece only a couple of decades before The Princess was written.
My character Olga came at a time after this, but not that long after. She was only one of many Greek women who fought the impossible war against a cashed up and well-drilled German adversary in WWII. She and her comrades niggled and interrupted the German occupation, stopping the invader’s supply lines to the Mediterranean. Women trained other andartes in the hills of Greece; they carried supplied over dangerous gorges; and people like Olga rescued soldiers and got them out of Greece.
Strong women have always been a part of the culture of Greece, and it was no wonder poets like Tennyson saw this as worthy of an epic piece of writing.
A man of the Classics, Tennyson knew his Homer.
10.9.20 When pride gets in the way
Researching my grandmother’s story was always fraught.
I relied on oral histories, which as any ancient Greek writer would tell you is a risky business. The oral histories might be tainted, or at worst, deliberately skewed by people trying to tell the history in a way that either reflects better on them, or badly on their enemies. My PhD thesis outlined the methods I used to battle these issues when collating Olga’s story.
You would think then that the easier part of the research came to Olga’s own documents. She left many official papers which also gave light to her activities. While some were unequivocal (her marriage certificate, her passport, her passes to travel), others were less definite. One example was her claim to the British government for reparation for the damage caused to her house by the Nazis while she was in jail in 1941. In the document she lists more than seventy types of items she claimed the Germans had taken or destroyed, including a car and 50,000 drachma. Some items were multiples (24 pairs of stockings).
I viewed this claim with some skepticism. It is so precise as to be dubious. There is no record that the British ever paid the requested amounts, so the British must have felt the same way.
Even in the documents that you might feel would be most reliable there were some problems. Here I refer to Olga’s age. Nobody, not even her daughters, knew when she was born. My mother thought she might have been born in 1904. This Greek travel document says otherwise:
On the left it says she was born in 1906.
This official document though was probably wrong. Her marriage certificate shows she was married in 1921. This would have made her an unlikely fifteen.
This marriage certificate also has her aged as 18, which wold mean she was born in either 1902 or 1903.
Her death certificate says she was 58 when she died in early 1960.
That might make Olga’s birth in either 1901 or 1902.
So even in this most minor of details I could not be sure. Because Olga was a foundling, I never found out exactly where she was born: Athens, Castellorizo or Egypt, so trying to find her birth record would be a huge effort, particularly as I could only rely on a best guess that she was born in 1902 (and it could have been up to four years later).
So this example shows when researching, even the seemingly simplest of tasks are often not what they appear, especially when a woman’s pride about her age gets in the way.
9.9.20 Princess Marina and the puppetry of playwriting
Last night I was doing some circular research. I was looking at images of Greece in the 1960s when a photo of Princess Marina came up. The princess was born in Athens in 1906, the daughter of the Greek king and his Russian wife, Olga. The whole family was exiled from Greece in 1918 when the anti-royalists came to power. Marina lived in England for the rest of her life. Her husband, the younger brother of King George, was killed in a wartime plane crash, but she carried on her duties, including trips to post-war Europe and the further members of the commonwealth. In fact I first heard of Princess Marina as a very young child when she opened Sydney’s Gladesville bridge in 1964. I remember when she died in 1967 my family was upset, and to a young child Princess Marina came to mind over the years as a sad tale of early death and the bridge.
As I read her story I realised that she was roughly my grandmother Olga’s age. In the novel and the play I write of how Olga used to play with the royal children in the pre-WWI years. Thus there was a very good chance that Olga played with an infant Marina.
The research also told me where the princess lived, which was Tatoi Palace, a short taxi ride from central Athens. I can’t be sure of course, but if Olga spent time with the royal children while her stepmother dressed the Queen, then it is likely that this fitting would have taken place at Tatoi, because the stepmother had no shop in Athens.
So in one piece of circular random research I may have not only found where Olga played as a child, but also her royal playmates. Certainly the timeline fitted, with the children being exiled when Olga was still a child.
My thoughts then ran to the possibility of incorporating Marina in the sequel. Even more so when I saw that Marina made a royal visit to Athens in 1947, the year the sequel is set. Perhaps I could have them meet, if only for a few moments. The prospect of the discussion is tantalising. It might touch on exile, something they had in common. Or it might allow for Olga reconciling with her past.
It would be making Princess Marina into something of a character puppet. Perhaps. But who is to say that it could not have happened? Two people who probably spent time together as children, and who both happen to be in the same city at the same time. It was a meeting that the confluence of events could have allowed.
That’s enough for me to start working on a scene, and imagine what conversation they might have had. As I said, tantalising.
7.9.20 Facing one hell of a reality
One of the storytelling methods I used in Lady of Arrows was a memory narrative. Olga tells her story fifteen years after the war when she has received her wartime diary through the post. It has been sent to her by the son of Stavros, her resistance comrade.
This diary forces her to remember the war and more. She must also remember the driving force behind her actions: the death of her baby.
In the play, Olga has refused to remember all this. For fifteen years she has survived, returned to Australia, reconciled with her children in Sydney. But the war and her baby, have been put away. Until the diary arrives.
Perhaps this refusal to confront the past is a good thing. When I was a teen, I worked at Sydney’s markets hiring tables and dress stands to stallholders. Many of these customers were Jewish. At the time I was amazed at how happy they were to be working at their stalls. I also remember being perplexed by how much they cared about how I was doing at university (so much so that when I decided to drop out of my pharmacy degree, I could not bear to tell them this. I lied and told them I had graduated, to their great joy).
Looking back I now realise that at least some of these people must have been in the holocaust. These people were among the survivors who found a new home and were still thrilled at being in a place where there was no real racist threat (at that time at least).
I would bet that many of these people put the Nazi horrors behind them and tried not to focus on what one small group of people inflicted on them, their families and their friends. You can never forget, but you can fill your life with other things.
My Uncle Jim was an Australian soldier who fought in the war. Yet it wasn’t until I was 32 that I learned he had been a soldier. He just didn’t talk about it. He suffered too, not of a murderous holocaust, but of the general horrors of war.
My Uncle Jim, my Jewish stallholders and the Olga of my plays all focussed on other things to help them survive what they had seen. Jim brought up his family with my Auntie Tina, my stallholders gave care to their little stalls and the studies of people they hardly knew, and Olga became a late grandmother.
No-one can dare criticise people wanting to forget the bad. Perhaps in my play, where I force Olga to remember, I do her a disservice. But then again, Olga is gone and it is just a play.
3.9.20 Richard III and me
My paper on Richard III has been accepted for a conference at the University of New South Wales later this month. I’ll be presenting about how Shakespeare, in his portrayal of the English king, concocted an image of Richard that was so greedy, nasty and murderous that to this day people believe that this is the true Richard III.
Now, I’m not saying Richard was not these things. He may have been. But Shakespeare was relying on one major source for his research (and it should be noted that Shakespeare was not an academic researcher. He read some accounts of his characters and wrote his play fables based on these). In the case of Richard III the source he used originated in the writing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Morton. Morton hated Richard because Richard opposed his money-making methods. It is suggested that Morton at one time (contrary to his position as the leader of his Church in England) conspired to murder Richard. To use, as the basis of your research, the account of an avowed and conspiratorial enemy of the your subject is a fraught business.
In England there is a Richard III society, which argues that Richard was not the bad man portrayed in Shakespeare. It argues he was actually a fairly good king in his two years as His Majesty. Of course, one must be wary of using this one source either. After all, the Chrysler Fan Club would hardly call the company’s cars lemons. But in the case of Richard III and his society, there at least seems to be an argument that Richard was not quite the evil guy we have been told.
So in my paper I will be using Richard’s story as an extension of my PhD: discussing how fictionalising a true story can, when things get extreme, skew a story so much that the public perception of a character or an event can be so altered as to give a widespread impression that might just be wrong.
31.8.20 A question of sex
We did a reading of the play last night, the first time it had been read since the workshop last year. It was also the first time that I had read parts of it, and this gave me a chance to live the lines the way they had existed originally in my head.
As a radio presenter I had became a voice actor. Writing my own daily radio program scripts for had improved my skill to be able to write the way I speak, and then speak the way I had intended the words to sound. So for me, last night’s reading was a combination of me listening for the intent of the words and me expressing those words. It was a fabulous exercise to be acting alongside three people who had all done a lot of work on stage and in film.
One of the actors, Tess, is a producer too. She and her partner Anton had produced a lot of childrens’ theatre (highly successful theatrical enterprise that was recently bought out by a large company). Tess has lately been involved in a local theatre company which has a focus on women’s stories. As the reading finished, Tess suggested the 2nd and 3rd actors could both be women.
At the moment I have Olga as the central character (obviously played by a woman) and two other characters: one male and one female. These two actors each play seventeen roles, roles that are both male and female. In some scenes they both play male roles (German soldiers, jail wardens, British officers) and female roles (my mother and her sister). So sex isn’t an issue as such.
Tess’s suggestion about making this an all-female cast is interesting. Perhaps it would make an underlying statement because of the fact that this is a play about strong women. There are men in it, of course, but the movers of the narrative are all women: Olga (my grandmother) through whose memory we are brought into the events; Lela, the true wartime hero who ran the rescue cell and who died after refusing to submit to torture; and Nikotsara, another true resistance fighter who was also caught and killed. Hence it is a play about strong women defining Greece’s defence against the invaders.
Given this focus on women, perhaps having all the actors women is apt. However I don’t know. I don’t see that the play would necessarily benefit by a rule that says male roles need to be played by women.
The thing about a play is that a director can make these choices. It’s not kosher to change the text without the playwright knowing, but the interpretation of that text and the design and casting is up to the production company. One day someone might make it all female. I’ll leave it until then.
27.8.20 Searching for a climax
The writing of the Olga sequel is going very smoothly. Scenes are coming easily. Dialogue is evolving, almost naturally.
It’s one thing to write an on-going story organically, but there’s the big picture here. One of the things that made both the novel and the adaptation Lady of Arrows work emotionally was the build-up to the climax. We had a question that dogged us throughout the play: why did Olga leave her children? There were hints throughout that it was to do with a deterioration in the marriage following a child’s death, but there was an ominous feeling that there was something much bigger in that story. The untold.
After peeling the onion, we came to the core in the climax: Olga’s guilt led her to consider harming her children.. and this guilt had its genesis in the way her baby had died. It was a double whammy that hit in the last few scenes. And then there was the balance of a payoff with Olga’s reconciliation with her oldest daughter Nellie.
In the sequel I don’t yet have the big secret, nor do I have the payoff. I have the action and the sequence of events for her actions, but I need to find THE event that will make this story of her life between 1943 and 1952 compelling.
I do have a few possibilities. I think it needs to tie in with the prequel in some way. Perhaps it can be a defining moment that finally encourages her to go back to Australia. Although the prequel has her returning to Australia, I do not say why, after 16 years, she makes this momentous decision. Of course, like so much of the two plays, I will need to invent here. I never knew Olga, and she never (to my knowledge) explained why she came back when she did. After all, her husband was still married to his second wife, and Nellie was still resentful of Olga’s decision to leave Sydney in 1936. Something must’ve happened. Then again, maybe she just decided it was time to see her children again.
It is a lead though. And I do need a climax and the build-up to that climax. And the pay-off.
Like people who may see the play, I am just as interested, in this stage of my writing, to see what comes next.
As I said, it’s organic.
25.8.20 Human frailty
Mark Antony had it all. He was a great tactician. He was brave. He spoke so well that he could make his enemies tear up. e was also apparently really good looking and had the ability to make the most unlikely women fall in love with him. Among his conquests were Caesar’s sister (who remained loyal to him even after he deserted her) and the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. He was also ridiculously close to becoming the ruler of the Roman empire.
This man who had everything, lost everything. Some say it was Cleopatra who did it. Certainly Plutarch writes that in their battle against Octavius Caesar, Cleopatra made Antony trust their combined sea forces more than their huge land forces. Their ships were impressive, but they just didn’t have the staff to control them. It got to the point where shepherds and boys were forced to work the ships, even though they had never done anything like this before. But it was Cleopatra’s wish. Then in the heat of battle, Cleopatra took off. Antony, seeing this, did what no respectable commander would do. He chased after her, leaving his sailors to battle on and lose without him. He had deserted them.
According to Plutarch, so enamoured of Cleopatra was Antony that earlier, when they were building their forces, they went to the island of Samos and held many festivities. Then they went to Athens and again held days and days of festivities. Nothing wrong with that, except Antony’s enemy, Caesar, was in some turmoil in Rome, and if Antony had attacked Rome right then, he probably would have become emperor of Rome and leader of the world. He chose to party on instead.
As Shakespeare tells us fairly accurately, it all ended badly for Antony and Cleopatra. He tried to kill himself, but his stab to his stomach didn’t go deep enough and he died in agony. Cleopatra, possibly realising that she was cause of this misfortune, killed herself too.
All so unnecessary. It has been said that humans have huge personal resources in times of trial. Certainly Antony and Cleopatra showed this inner strength: they conquered and controlled huge amounts of the Mediterranean at times. But it was their personal frailties that brought them undone.
This is why Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is so compelling. Audiences don’t care about battles and victories. They want the human story. Sophocles knew this when he wrote about Oedipus. The ancient Greeks loved the story about the man who killed his father and married his mother. The personal makes for drama. Personal strengths and personal weaknesses.
This is a notion I had to learn early in writing about my grandmother. She may have been a spy, but an audience or readership would come to care more about her for her personal strength and weaknesses. She had quite a few of both. As I knit the story of her time in Greece in the civil war I remember this is a story of a woman, a lover, a mother, a foundling and a confused human as much as it is a story of a brave woman fighting for her country people.
24.8.20 The Casino Royale effect
It happens with every novel, every play and every screenplay.
It’s the point where you lose sight of where you are in the midst of the writing. You may be executing what you think is quite a good bit of action, when you start to question when exactly you are in the story.
I was probably overstating when I said it happens in every play. I know some writers plan out their stories to perfection. They have an outline of their plot. They know where they’re going at every turn, and their chapters and characters are ready to be written into the formwork. It’s a method that some writing schools suggest to help their students in going from point to point.
I’m not that kind of writer. I come from the school that believes that the characters are on our shoulders, almost dictating what they want us to write. It can also mean that the story flows well. It’s especially good if we are telling a linear story, and the story is progressive.
But in the case of non-linear stories, when we jump backwards and forwards through time and location, this can get messy.
If you are watching a movie that doesn’t seem to gel, you’ll see the problem I’m talking about. Take the James Bond film Casino Royale. No, not the great suspenseful flick with Daniel Craig, but the outrageous 1967 Peter Sellers/David Niven/Woody Allen version. The continuity department for that film appeared to have gone water skiing for the duration because all the storylines (and there were quite a few of them) didn’t make sense in themselves, let alone joining them together. In the end they do meet and it seems the writers and directors (and yes there were quite a few of them too) threw their hands in the air and said let’s put it all together by having a western shootout in a western bar. No sense, no respect for the audience. Sadly, several subsequent James bond films have done likewise (did anyone understand Octopussy? Thought not).
No-one, not one writer in the world wants to produce a piece of work with the Casino Royale effect. They want to take their readers, viewers, listeners on a journey. One of the best examples of entwining a lot of strands and making it work is J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. Not only did she explain one of the most complicated of stories about horcruxes, evil lords, puberty, school, family, young love, murder, bureaucracy and magic, and kept her audiences along for the trip. The fact that her audiences were mostly children makes her work all the more remarkable.
I’m sure Joanne Rowling had many moments of being a little lost. I sure did today. I was writing Olga in Greece during the Greek civil war in 1947. She has just explained how she had been smuggled out of Greece in 1943, and spent a year in London, before returning to Greece just as the Germans are kicked out. My moment of surrender came when I brought the story back to Greece in 1947. I had forgotten exactly where Olga was when she started telling the story of her exile to France and Britain. I went back to when she started telling the exile story so I could pick it up chronologically, but that was not enough. I needed to know where her head was. How was she feeling as she told the story, and also why she told the story. I resolved it by just writing on. In reviewing the earlier parts of the play I will make changes, and yes there’ll be plenty of those.
I just have to keep telling myself that I have plenty of time. I must remember the words of my PhD supervisor Professor Chris Mackie: just write.
22.8.20 The mysterious photo
Among the things my grandmother left after her death was a photo of her standing in an Athens street holding a Greek flag. She is striding towards the camera with a smile on her face. Behin her is a crowd of Athenians, mostly women, celebrating. The photo was taken in October 1944 on the day the Germans left Athens after three years of occupation, murder and destruction. They were running out just as the British were entering.
The photo is a valuable artefact because it tells so much of Olga. It places her in a specific place on a specific date; it gives a sense of her condition both physical and financial (she looks healthy, if slim, and wears a coat, brooch and tidy shoes); and it shows how she lost her hair colour after her imprisonment.
Still, the photo has its mysteries. Who took the photo? It was unlikely to just be a random stranger, because she ended up with a copy of it. The back of the photo gave some clue:
This suggests that it was taken by a professional photographer: G. Rossonatos who had a studio on Stadiou St in Athens.
So was she a friend of the photographer? Or was it serendipity.. with the photographer catching her as an emblem of the happiest day in Athens for many a year?
We’ll never know. Rossonatos’ photograph studio no longer exists. The building was pulled down long ago, and I could not find Rossonatos listed as a photographer of note.
As I was working on the play this afternoon I was coming to the part where Olga, after being in self-exile for a year, returns to Greece just as the Germans are being forced out. I tried a few ways of approaching this, and waasn’t happy with any of them. Then the photo came to mind. At the risk of turning the photo into a maguffin (see yesterday’s diary entry for an explanation of ‘maguffin’), I decided to make the scene about how the photo came to be taken. I inject her fictional resistance ally Stavros into the scene. They bump into each other after so long apart. She has been watching the celebrations; he is taking photos, slipping back into the job he did before the war. They meet, remember and avoid getting too close after all they go through. They talk in an almost embarrassed way, each trying to find a point of convergence. They find it in the photo. Stavros talks her into posing and directs her movements for the shot. Through this they start to feel their old friendship.
I have spoken before of my doubts about injecting people into the story to make the story work, but in this case, it just seemed to work. Also, Stavros was not a real person, and all attempts at researching the photographer had failed. So I think it’s okay. It certainly makes for a human and emotional scene, one of the best I have written so far in this sequel to Lady of Arrows.
21.8.20 Plot devices v maguffins
It’s a great word that: maguffin.
It’s a word that came into screenplay writing pop culture through Alfred Hitchcock, and refers to a device that leads to action in the plot. For example in the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only the plot revolves around a decoder called an ATAC. It ATAC itself doesn’t mean much. It plays only a small role in the actual action, but it is central to the story because both the British and the Russians want it. It is essential to story because it brings the protagonists together. No ATAC, no story.
I suppose the best and most succinct quote about the maguffin comes from Hitchcock when he says:
“The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.”
I don’t believe in using maguffins in my stories. I want the reader or the audience to care about the motivation for the story. I don’t want to have elements in the story that are designed only to tell the audience what the protagonist cares about.
Hence if I have a device in my play… say an ATAC decoder.. then I would make the ATAC itself do something. Olga would use it to decode a message or else have its operation be central to the story.
In my play Lady of Arrows a plot device that was present throughout was Olga’s wartime diary. For part of the play it was a kind of maguffin. It sat on Olga’s desk as the motivation for her to remember her life in the Greek resistance. But to leave it as a desk-bound pile of papers, it would remain as… a pile of papers maguffin.
Instead of leaving it as such, I wanted the audience to wonder about it, and if they were going to wonder about it, then they needed to be satisfied at some point and told what was actually in it. When we get to that, it is in the climax of the story (set in 1960); it contains the information that Olga has forced herself to forget. We are told that information.
Now, as I write the sequel to the play, which is set in 1947after she has left the resistance (and many years before the diary’s contents are revealed in 1960), I am feeling that the diary needs to be included. We have been told what is in the diary in the first play (in 1960), I now have the opportunity to show how Olga was driven to write that passage in the first place.
Again it would be no maguffin, but a central plot device, a repository of the emotions that Olga feels at the death of her baby and the loss of her family in Sydney to another woman.
I just now have to work it into the seams of her story.
18.8.20 Plutarch, Father of Mistakes?
When writing my plays I have had to search for facts about my central character (my grandmother) where there simply are not any left.
It’s an issue that has dogged researchers and historians for thousands of years. And it’s so easy to be critical of these researchers.
Ancient writers had very little source material to use when putting together their histories. A lot of it was by word of mouth passed on through generations. In the case of Herodotus (called by Cicero “The father of history”), he had childhood recollections, some first-hand accounts and little else. Plutarch, who lived hundreds of years after Herodotus seems to have been so enraged by Herodotus’ invention that he changed Herodotus’ title to “The father of lies”. What upset Plutarch was not so much Herodotus’ errors (and there probably were quite a few given the dubious nature of some of his sources), but more Herodotus’ tendency towards invention. Herodotus did not just give facts and figures. He went inside the minds of the people he was depicting. He describes the dreams of his protagonists, he provided word-for-word conversations and he offered these characters’ personal motivations.
Now, you can understand why Plutarch was unhappy with Herodotus. Plutarch wrote about people in a manner of pre-journalism journalism with lots of who, what, when, where, why and how. He does this so assiduously that at times his biographies are heavily weighted with battles and routs, and the losers being ‘cut to pieces’. In fact in his Parallel Lives, parts of some of Plutarch’s stories sometimes seem to be copies of each other with changes moistly to just the names, places and battles. I’m not saying Plutarch does not try to give the personal stories (he does a powerful personal job on the Roman leader Cato, for example), but often it ends up being descriptive: his subjects are enraged, in tears, supplicating, avaricious. And for many of his stories that’s about the depth of it. I wonder whether, in his attempt to avoid being Herodotus, he has gone to the bland. He certainly provides lots of facts and figures (which has provided information for centuries’ worth of historians to start their researches, and even was a big source for Shakespeare). In doing so, Plutarch did the research world a big favour, like Herodotus and Homer before him.
There are some issues though for this man who was critical of Herodotus.
For a start, Plutarch refers to the power of dreams and oracles. In most of his stories where a protagonist has a dream, this dream is considered an omen. And that omen almost always seems to come true. Hardly scienfici, and not that far from the accusations he makes against Herodotus.
Second and most seriously, Plutarch makes his own share of mistakes. In reading the life of the Roman general Pompey, his English translators John and William Langhorne cite errors: twice Plutarch gets names wrong; four times he gets dates and times wrong including the order of events; he gets a location wrong at least once, and he makes mistakes about deeds, two of which were different to what Julius Caesar himself reported and were available to Plutarch.
So Plutarch was no perfection as a researcher. But he, as I say, did a lot of work and gave us a lot of history, so mistakes are to be expected.
But please Plutarch, before criticising your fellow historians like Herodotus, remember how hard history writing can be. Others may not have written history the way you would have, but no-one is immune to human errors. Even you.
15.8.20 Finding Mr Fraleigh
Writing the sequel to Lady of Arrows has led me back into researching my grandmother Olga. I have done this research journey twice so far: first for the novel, and then for the play. Now I need more information about her life in post-war Greece.
In my earlier research one name came up: William N. Fraleigh. His name was at the bottom of a document that was given to Olga in 1941. This document was from the Legation of the U.S. in Greece, and it explained the Olga was buying food for Fraleigh.
This single simple document revealed so much information for me. It told me that she worked with the Americans; it told me what she did (housekeeper) and where she did it (Kedron St, Athens) and when (May, 1941).
This date was even more interesting when I worked out that it was only ten days after the Germans entered Athens. Putting together date and the nature of the document, I worked out that the Germans were requiring citizens to have proof of what they were doing on the streets. It also showed that at that point the Americans were able to carry on their work, because the Pearl Harbor bombing was still six months away, so the Americans were still neutral.
Now there are still plenty of questions that the document doesn’t answer, such as whether Olga was doing any undercover work for Fraleigh. It was very possible because this was a time of great flux, and Olga was probably doing underground resistance work at this time because this was only shortly before she was arrested and jailed for six months.
I decided to check out this William Fraleigh to see what he did as Secretary of the Embassy, in case there were any clues. Was he an operative himself? Was he stationed in Greece for a specific purpose for intelligence gathering or recruiting?
Perhaps not. I found few references to Fraleigh. I did come across this biography which accompanied an analysis piece he wrote on the region eight years later:
It seems that in 1941 he was very young, and his training was strictly in accord with diplomatic affairs and economics. It could simply have been that he was a diplomat sent to hold the fort in a small Balkan country when there were so many other larger and (for America) dangerous theatres to be worried about. This becomes more probable when you consider that he was stationed in Athens before the war touched Greece. It was a neutral country until 1940 when Mussolini, in a rabid fit of ineptness, decided to show his ally Hitler that he was also a master soldier. He invaded Greece. Greece thrashed Mussolini’s Italian invaders and pushed them back halfway across Albania. This rout forced Hitler’s hand and led to the German attack from the north. Hitler had not planned to do this. He had been organising to invade Russia, but Mussolini’s ill-conceived show of strength forced Hitler to support his ally and put that Russian campaign off. Until winter. It has been said that Greece took a bullet for the world, because that winter Russia campaign was Hitler’s first major defeat.
For William N. Fraleigh, Mussolini’s act put him in the middle of the action, probably action neither he nor the U.S. considered he would ever have to deal with. This relatively junior diplomat was suddenly in the middle of the Axis-British fight for the Mediterranean (since the supply lines for the German fleet started coming through Greece).
Then again Fraleigh’s next posting was in Rome for a short while, and Rome was Mussolini’s centre of operations. It’s probably fair to assume that this posting was cut short by Japan’s Mussoliniesque attack on Pearl Harbor. Fraleigh then moved to safer ground in Turkey and finally London, where he saw out the war.
No, I still don’t know if Fraleigh was an intelligence operative, or just a reasonably junior diplomat caught in a whirlwind. That he crossed over with my grandmother and worked with her as she worked as a spy was fascinating though.
And it all came down to that one simple document that my grandmother kept with her for the next twenty years.
14.8.20 Olga on my shoulder
Writers write. It’s what we do. It’s what we need to do.
Over the last month I have been doing a lot of things: writing academic papers, putting together a conference submission and doing this diary. I have also been preparing for the reading of Lady of Arrows which is happening this weekend. Then there’s been the Plato course and my Greek lessons. All this has been fun of course. But it’s not the creative writing that I need to do.
A while ago I wrote in this diary that I had started on the sequel to Lady of Arrows which I have titled Athenas Cries. It is set in 1947, and when I left the writing some weeks ago, I had put Olga into a situation where she was in an Athens that was in turmoil yet again, with the communists fighting the royalists. The British had stationed snipers on the Acropolis to target the Reds (in an eerie presage of what the US forces did years later in the Middle East).
Yesterday I was at a loose end. The Greek lesson the night before had been particularly difficult, and the COVID lockdown and wet weather had restricted my exercise options. When I say ‘loose end’, I mean that I have this sense that I should be doing something of value. Even reading Plutarch, an educational enterprise in itself, was not enough. This loose end feeling can’t be ignored. Over the years I have realised that there is a voice in there somewhere, chastising me, urging me.
This voice has been around me since I first published a book way back in 1991. It was with me as I wrote the novel. I could have been anywhere in the world, and this loose end feeling would come upon me. It happened in New Zealand in 1997, when I supposed to be on holidays, supporting Jac when she was in the touring company of Phantom of the Opera. She had a principal role (Madame Giry), a stressful job. My holiday turned into a mixture of chauffeur, chef, shoulder and shopper. Still, the feeling came to me. I had to write. So one day when Jac had two shows, I took my little Macbook and headed to a cafe in Ponsonby Rd and started writing. That day I remember well, because I invented a story about my dad in Darwin as he prepared to marry my mum. The words flowed so easily, it was as if I was in a trance.
I have come to believe that at times like this Olga is on my shoulder, inspiring and exhorting. She even tells me if I have gone too far.
Yesterday was one of those days. I wrote a series of scenes that seemed to flow nicely and set up the story. As I went to bed the ideas kept coming, including a embryonic plan of where the first play and this sequel should entwine.
I can’t wait to see where Olga sends me today.
13.8.20 A Theatre for Dreamers
That is a great name for a novel, the smash hit novel for 2020.
The premise of the novel also offers plenty of depth for a writer. It is set in an artists’ colony that developed on the Greek island Hydra in 1960. This informal colony was based around two Australian writers, the husband and wife Charmian Clift (Peel Me a Lotus) and George Johnston (My Brother Jack) who had been living on the island for some time, trying to find some kind of nirvana. They were joined by European writers and artists, and also the then-unknown Leonard Cohen. Despite this meeting of artistic minds, all was not happy in the little group, with Charmian increasingly depressed, and reportedly reaching beyond her marriage to find solace. One account I read said that her flirting with with a young actor (who was on the island to shoot a film) so angered the young man’s director that the director warned her off by cruelly saying: “You should realise that you are no longer young and no longer beautiful”. Things were no happier for her husband George and although their three children appeared to be having a joyful time (a friend of mine once met them on an Hydra beach appearing to be relishing life), they did not grow into old age. Neither did their parents: Charmian suicided in Sydney only a few years later, and Johnston died soon after from a lung disease.
But in 1960 these artists mixed and gained succour from each other, as other artists did around the same time in Greenwich Village, Soho, Montmartre and Heidelberg in Melbourne.
Into this scenario author Polly Samson novelises Clift, Johnston and Cohen into a story involving a fictitious 18 year old girl, Erica, who comes to the island and interacts with the group. It is a fiction. The novelist has Clift and Johnston doing things they never did in aid of weaving a coming-of-age story that is also a social commentary about how the times were changing as younger people started to seek liberty from post-war austerities that were as much attitudinal as physical. Hydra presents a world where people were seeking freedom and joy after a joyless 1950s.
My question is (and this was a theme of my PhD), was this novelisation the right thing to do? Historical fiction generally places invented people into historical scenarios, as Tolstoy did in War and Peace. Others include real characters as side players, while some go invent the actions of major players (I would include here the TV series The Crown, which makes up the relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip including inventing dialogue, arguments, emotions and motivations).
But in A Theatre for Dreamers it could be argued that Polly Samson has gone even further, turning Clift, Johnston and Cohen into her own literary puppets.
As I argue in my thesis, so long as the author makes it clear that this is a fiction.. a novel.. then this is probably just a matter of judgment for the reader.
If Samson was writing about my mother and father then I might find it a little weird. Then again, I wrote a novel about my grandmother, who was a spy in Greece in WWII. I also had her doing things that she probably didn’t do. My family didn’t object to me painting her as a Nazi killing saboteur who dated a German officer to get information.
However, like Samson I made it clear that my book was a novel, but that didn’t stop people at writers’ festivals asking me what was true in the novel. When an elderly man told me he was in the same street as my grandmother on the day she was released from prison, I didn’t have the heart to tell him I had invented that scene. This man had believed the scene was true and put himself in it. That’s the risk of doing what I.. and Samson.. have done in our writing.
8.8.20 Something out of very little
A playwright’s inspiration can seem to come from thin air. In the playful movie , Steven Spielberg tells of one fantasy theory: that inspiration is actually the voice of long-dead people whispering into your ear. In Spielberg’s case, these are the voices of your spirit guide. Certainly there were times when I have felt my grandmother Olga whispering in my ear as I wrote the novel. To make this revelation even more Twilight Zone, I often could not remember writing these passages at all. I’d review the chapter, and not recollect having written a single line. Even the style did not feel like my own. I’ll leave that sitting there.
For the most part, inspiration just comes. I’ve never had writer’s block, as a playwright, a novelist, a journalist, or a presenter of a radio program. It always seem to come out of somewhere.
Sometimes this somewhere is something I see, watch. Or read. Today I was reading Plutarch’s life of Timoleon, a Corinthian soldier who made Sicily part of Greece. I certainly will not get into the merits or demerits of invading and conquering someone else’s island, but I will say that this invasion did bring forth a range of interesting characters, some of which were rulers of Sicilian Syracuse: Dionysius the elder, Dionysius the younger and Dion. Apart from this remarkable lack of name inventiveness, this group of Greeks were fascinating in their abilities to lose everything they had. They were either deposed or assassinated. The British author Mary Renault found them fascinating too. Renault was a novelist who prided herself on her research. She had studied the classics, and made it her life’s effort to tell the ancient Greek and Macedonian stories in a form accessible to the modern novel reader. Renault, citing Plutarch’s works, lifted the Syracuse tyrants and entwined then in her novel The Mask of Apollo which featured an actor who worked in Syracuse at the time (300+ years BC).
This actor, Niko, is the central character in Renault’s novel. I had always thought him to be a fiction, or at most a conglomerate of several people.
Today I found where Renault got her idea for him. It came in the last pages of Plutarch’s story of Timoleon, where Plutarch refers to a painter called Nicomachus:
“.. the paintings of Nicomachus and the verses of Homer, beside their other excellencies and graces, seem to have been struck off with readiness and ease”
That’s it. From 25 words, Renault took Nicomachus, the apparently quite good semi-anonymous painter, and turned him into Niko, a scenery-painting actor, making him the central focus of a major novel and giving him a voice.
As I said, inspiration can comes from anywhere, or the littlest of places. Or the oldest.
7.8.20 Alcibiades and the art of ungratefulness
Plutarch’s Lives is one of the few ancient sources that tells us about the lives of the greatest people of Greece and Rome. But in its thousands of pages, it does more than just tell the stories of these people. Plutarch juxtaposes the story of one Greek with that of one Roman, and after he has told the story of each, he gives us a short chapter which compares them.
Plutarch’s Lives is a ripping read indeed, but it is this commentary that brings us the depth of his writing. In the biographies he writes of the foibles and heights of the characters, but in that tiny chapter he gives us the all-important context. Of course this context is his own and, as he admits, much of this is supposition. The ancient Greeks and Romans lived hundreds of years before he ever started writing.
The supposition though is pretty good in some cases. Take for example his characterisation of the Greek general Alcibiades and the Roman Coriolanus. People who know their Shakespeare would know Coriolanus as the Roman warrior who saved Rome, but was then expelled after others conspired against him. He left Rome and joined the enemy (a traitorous but understandable reaction to the ungratefulness of his people), before returning to the side of Rome. It’s a tale that speaks plenty about how the most carefully structured society (Rome) can succumb the malice of a few individuals determined on bringing down a hero. No wonder Shakespeare saw this as a great basis for a great tragic historical drama. I remember my English teacher saying that the greatest of tragedies are about human faults. There were certainly lots of faults here.
Coriolanus’ sister story, that of Alcibiades, has so many parallels that it proves that people don’t learn from history. Alcibiades was a great warrior who won many battles for Athens, at a time when it was besieged on the west by the Spartans, and from the Persians on the east. Time and again Alcibiades would win against these formidable foes, not just by outfighting them, but by outsmarting them.. leading them into traps and surprising them.
You would think the Greeks would be ever grateful to Alcibiades. Well, they were. While the sun shone. But one time, off the coast of Persia, Alcibiades had to go on shore to find treasure so he could pay his soldiers. He left his second-in-command in charge, which strict orders not to engage the enemy. Plutarch suggests that by malice, this underling did start skirmishes, and was beaten.
Back in Athens, some malignant voices blamed Alcibiades for this rout, and spread false rumours to the Greek senate that he had gone ashore to have a good time. The other senators agreed, and Alcibiades was, in effect, turned instantly from hero to villain. Alcibiades did as Coriolanus had done fifty or more years earlier: he went to the enemy Iin this case the Persians) and was granted land and esteem.
There is of course more to this story. In the end Alcibiades gets back the esteem of the Greeks, after Athens falls in a heap without him. But this is story that tells us that it is easy to destroy a fine reputation by some disreputable words, even if the victim has proved themselves again and again by risking their life.
As a playwright, these human frailties make a story of sword and blood into something that crosses millenia, culture and country. It is an insight into how easy it is to destroy without having to lift a finger. It truly is the stuff worthy of Shakespeare, and a lesson in how every good personal play can only be the stronger for showing not only that the characters can do great things, but also that humans can be very flawed indeed.
3.8.20 It’s not Greece, but..
I was supposed to be in Greece a few months ago to meet with the National Theatre of Greece and to do a reading of the play at the Athens Centre.
Of course COVID killed that.
We did hope it would be only a short postponal, and that we could get there in September.
COVID killed that.
Now we’re aiming for next April… but the head of QANTAS has revealed that international travel probably won’t happen before July 2021.. so COVID’s probably killed that too.
It’s time to let my words and Olga breathe again.. in a way that COVID can have nothing to do with it.
I wrote last month that Jac and I have been doing some Zoom play readings with two actor friends of ours, Anton Berezin and Tessa Borg. We tackled Dylan Thomas’ fabulous and unmatched Under Milk Wood first, then yesterday we did the first act of the surreal play The Empire Builders. I have loved crossing into the acting side. There’s a great challenge to inventing and interpreting on the run.. working out when to pause, when to emphasise, when to let the other actors have the punchline.. all without the chance to pre-read.
Today in our COVID-lockdown-curfew-essential-activity-only bike ride, it dawned almost simultaneously on both Jackie and me that maybe we should offer my Lady of Arrows as the next reading.
It’s a pretty big ask for Anton, Tess and Jac. Jac, as Olga, is in every scene (because it is a memory play, and the memory is hers), but the two other actors are equally challenged. They both have 17 roles each. I really also would love to be reading some of my own words too, so I’ve suggested to Anton and Tess that I read the stage directions and take on a couple of the roles, such as when the female secondary actor is supposed to play a male character. This happens a few times, like when two British officers discuss Olga’s suitability as a spy, or when two German officers plan how they will interrogate her. In the workshop it worked remarkably well with Hannah Fredricksen playing one of the men. Great actors make you forget little things like gender.
Still, I would like to play at these people who came into my head, who I invented.
I wonder whether their words would come out of my mouth the way they sang in my mind.
Let’s hope they’re up for it.
31.7.20 Truth and Sensibility
Plutarch is a Roman era historian who wrote the very well regarded Plutarch‘s Lives. For nearly two millennia historians have used Plutarch as a source of fact for what happened in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Plutarch was pretty tough about the fact. He was the man who called the Greek historian Herodotus the Father of Lies. This was a witty take on Cicero earlier calling him the Father of History. As I wrote in my PhD exegesis, Plutarch’s problem with Herodotus was that he went further than just fact. Herodotus went inside the minds of his characters. He invented dialogue; he invented dreams; he invented motivations. he also, according to Plutarch, got some facts wrong. A bit unfair really, considering Herodotus was writing of places and events far away and far ago.
I was lucky enough to find a beautiful 1778 edition of Plutarch‘s Lives, and it really is a ripping read. He starts with the man credited as founding Athens: Theseus. He tells the story of how Theseus was the illegitimate son of the king of the Athens region, and tells of how almost mystically he becomes the king’s successor. I say mystically because it involves, in a very Arthurian way, moving an impossibly huge rock which has been placed over his family sword. The way the story is written is without embellishment so you can see where Plutarch gets his holier-than-thou strictly-the-facts attitude to history writing. Of course the gods get a mention a lot and how they begot humans. So much for historical fact, but he does try to tread the line between fact and fantasy at least.
Theseus is largely painted as a hero and this is the line that is taken by many later historians and fiction writers. However there is at least some lip service paid to the fact that he was had a pretty nasty side to him too. He is said to have committed rape on the girl that was to become Helen of Troy when she was nine years old. If this was true it might give you some understanding of how she ended up doing some of her sexual intrigues of later life including one which led to the Trojan war. But this raping by Theseus is played down. I suppose if Plutarch put it at the very beginning if then it would make for a very unappetising hero, but to give him his due Plutarch at least does mention this side of his character. Eventually.
Is it an historian’s role to avoid the nasties in aid of a good story? For a filmmaker or novels, perhaps. For a journalist, no.
For a historian, never. True historians are not there there to just praise Caesar.
28.7.20 Even Plato made stuff up
I’m doing a philosophy course. In this time of COVID it’s an online course, where we are set a passage of Plato to read, and then we discuss it on Zoom.
Being philosophy, it’s a little all over the place. Everybody’s comment is valid, and things do tend to easily go off track. I’m sure as we move along this will all come into clarity. I suspect the leader is just trying to get us to question everything. Which is what Socrates did.
Our understanding of Socrates largely comes from Plato, who wrote an account of Socrates’ last days, called Last Days of Socrates.
While I’m finding all this philosophical anarchy interesting (and I really am, by the way), it was the statement of the teacher in the first class that grabbed my attention. It seems that Plato’s book is not a verbatim account of Socrates in the days before his inevitable suicide. What Plato has done is essentially to turn Socrates last philosophical discussions in to a play. The book is written as dialogue, with Socrates holding forth on his arguments. These passages are broken up by Socrates’ acolytes speaking lines such as:
“Yes, you are quite right.”
“Yes, no doubt it does.”
“Yes, it is true.”
So what we have really is Socrates speaking to his devotees, who often go along with the great man’s logic.
Again, nothing wrong with that. Socrates WAS pretty clever. He knitted argument traps that Trump’s legal team would love to be able to do. But Plato putting this kind of detail in the writing brings me back to my thesis argument about the nature of what is fact and what is fiction. Clearly Plato is relying on his own memory of events some years before, and embellishing these memories so that it plays out in a way that helps readers to follow easily. He is, in essence, bring the reader into the discussion.
Which is cool. So long as two and half thousand years of Plato’s readers have not been deceived into thinking that these were the actual words spoken by Socrates in his last days. It is a fictional account, written as entertainment. And should be valued as such. It should also be valued as a philosophical statement.
Just maybe not as a history.
27.7.20 Haunted by a past life
No, it’s not as spooky as it sounds.
When getting involved in things like plays and PhDs, you do tend to forget the others things you have done in your life… like being the breakfast presenter on an international radio program. I did it for nine years, and for almost every minute of those nine years from 2005 to 2014, I lived and breathed the Asia-Pacific region, our audiences and who the hell I was going to interview tomorrow morning.
I really had forgotten about it until a couple of weeks ago when I got an email from a New Zealand-based academic who asked me to write a paper on radio audiences. After thinking about it for a bit, I decided to write about those nine years, and all the ways we tried to engage our audiences. Over the last two weeks I remembered a lot.. like when we broadcasted live from the Australian Formula One Grand Prix in 2007, 2008 and 2010. We also broadcasted from our partner’s studios in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore as a co-host, with one show in Kuala Lumpur going live from one of the world’s biggest ferris wheels. I also remembered our live outside broadcasts from Phnom Penh, Bali and Samoa, and going to China to present the ABC’s first English-language program from Guangzhou in China in 2007.
I also remembered the down times, like the day my program was cancelled along with a swathe of other shows. These cancellations were caused by government cutbacks to the ABC, which trickled down to my employer Radio Australia, who pared back to just two current affairs programs. Flow programs like mine were stopped and the full-time staff of these programs were made redundant.
I remembered earlier than that, back in 1988 when I worked for a Sydney radio station which was owned by the NSW Labor Council, which had a close affiliation to the Australian Labor Party. I remembered how in one election, the station’s managing director told me not to give airtime to the Liberal Party Opposition Leader. Many years later I would tell this to my students and ask them to tell me what they would do. Some told me they would refuse to comply, while others said they would agree to whatever their boss told them. What I did at the time I remember very clearly. I agreed not to have the conservative voice on the station, but secretly would not play grabs of the Labor Premier denigrating the conservative leader. As I wrote in the article this morning, I still am not sure I did the right thing.
Yes, there were strange times in my broadcasting career, but I only remember them fondly. Which is kind of weird, you have to admit.
24.7.20 Shakespeare revisits Homer
Pericles is a Shakespeare play.. kinda. Some historians believe he only contributed one or two acts to the play and other parts were written by his contemporaries.
Having read all of his plays now, I can see the argument. The first half of Pericles certainly doesn’t have the wit and depth of his other works. From Act III (the part Shakespeare was supposed to have written) things pick up somewhat. The characters come to life and the storyline lifts as a result. An example is Marina, Pericles’ daughter. She was believed dead in a land far from Pericles’ home country of Tyre. But in that Shakespearean manner, she is not dead. She was saved by pirates, who sell her onto a brothel, where she is prized as a virgin. The brothel owners tout her as a treasure, and many men, including nobles, want to be the first to break her chastity.
This is where Shakespeare revisits Homer’s Penelope. Penelope was Odysseus’ queen, a woman who waited twenty years for her husband’s return from the Trojan war. While she waits, a big group of suitors break into her palace and demand she choose a husband from among them, a husband that will inherit Odysseus’ crown. Penelope is too smart for these ambitious men. She tells them that she is making a tapestry, and when she finishes the tapestry she will make a decision on who will be the new king. But unknown to these suitors, each night she unstitches the work she has done during the day, making this an ever-unfinished tapestry. The suitors are outsmarted and have no choice but to wait.
Similarly in Pericles, Marina manages to retain her virginity by outsmarting the men who visit her in the brothel. Again and again she talks them out of having sex with her, exasperating the brothel owners. She is a Greek woman who mirrors the smarts of Penelope.
Now, I am not saying that Shakespeare had Penelope in mind when he wrote this part of Pericles, but the parallels are strong, and he may have unwittingly pinched the story idea, especially given that Shakespeare often referred to Homer’s characters, and wrote a play, Troilus & Cressida, that was set right in the middle of the Trojan War.
Then again, maybe it was just a coincidence.
19.7.20 King John, Richard III and truth
My PhD examined how the fictionalisation of history can lead to a misunderstanding of fact. I’ve mentioned already in this diary how I used the fictionalisations of Homer and Herodotus as touching points in my discussions. Homer invented characters (perhaps even Hector the Trojan hero may not have really existed) and he did this invention to help in the storytelling. I argue in the PhD that this is okay as long as readers understand that what they are reading is not pure history. Odysseus, for example, probably really didn’t battle a giant one-eyed man who had eaten his Odysseus’ crew.
William Shakespeare and his rendering of such colourful characters as Richard III and King John falls into the same category. Shakespeare painted Richard as a brutal, deformed character, and it is this version that has entered into popular culture, but historians have questioned the truth of this depiction. On the other side of the scale, Shakespeare’s King John is a thoughtful man prone to guilt, but later authors turn him into a villain who kills at whim, taxes his people unfairly, and is basically an evil scoundrel.
It’s strange how these sorts of characterisations keeping being laid before me. I pick up a book nowadays, and it seems another example of fictionalisation is there in the first page.
Now that my PhD has been finished and submitted, I need to find another outlet to examine this evolving discussion about fact and fiction. I’ve decided to write a paper on this element of Shakespeare. I’m offering it to an academic conference. Of course in the current environment it will be an online conference, which is not so satisfying because you don’t get to mingle and chat, but I’ll apply anyway.
I wonder what fictional true character I’ll come across today..
5.7.20 Troilus, Cressida and Homer
My thesis was submitted a few months ago. In it I talk about how writer’s invent and embellish pre-existing stories. In the thesis I use the examples of how Homer’s works have been retold over the last three millenia.
On my Shakespearean journey, I have just read Troilus & Cressida, a tragedy that is told right in the middle of the Trojan War. When I say in the middle, it is right in the middle, seven years into the ten year war. The battle has been going nowhere; the Greek’s super-hero Achilles is sitting in his tent refusing to help the Greek side; and the Trojans are remaining safe inside their six-gated city-fortress with the Prince Hector in command of their forces, with his younger brother Paris enjoying his long honeymoon with Helen (the woman that caused all the fuss in the first place by eloping with Paris away from her Greek King husband Menelaus).
It’s certainly a complicated story, particularly when you add in that Paris and Helen really had no choice: their love was the result of an enchantment.
Anyway, into this messy situation, Shakespeare has inserted another love story, that of Troilus (Hector and Paris’s younger brother and fellow Trojan prince) and Cressida, a daughter of a Trojan gentleman who decides to defect to the Greeks. Troilus and Cressida have an eternal, life-blood love, the kind where the lovers pledge troth, life and honour. Then her father defects, and organises for Cressida to be used as a ransom of sorts: the Greeks have a Trojan captive, who is given back in exchange for.. Cressida. She goes to the Greeks, and her eternal love for Troilus mysteriously evaporates and she falls for a Greek, Diomedes. That’s about it. In the meantime the Homerian story goes on, Achilles gets furious over Hector’s slaying of his close friend and possible lover Patroclus, and as a reult Achilles kills Hector and the tragedy on tragedy continues.
In this context the Triolus and Cressida story is probably no more than an aside in this greater epic. Shakespeare attempts to attribute motivation to this love story, but in the end the real story is about Achilles and Hector. And the Shakespeare story does leave a huge question: If the Trojans are willing to give up a Trojan woman, why not give up Helen and end the whole war? After all, both these women are lovers of Trojan princes. The surrender of Cressida will resolve nothing, and will place her in mortal danger (which may be why she gave into the greek Diomedes as she probably had no choice). But if Helen had been surrendered instead, she would have returned to Mycenae as Menelaus’ queen, a position of safety. And the war would’ve ended.
Shakespeare clearly thought this side story (which had been told before) was worthy of a play, but this version tells us that no matter how beautiful the writing, sometimes even the greatest of playwrights just doesn’t hit the nail on the head.
29.6.20 Shylock and Homer
The Merchant of Venice is a fabulous play to see on stage. The action moves quickly, and the story threads come together more smoothly than in some of Shakespeare’s other comedies.
But in this era of Black Lives Matter there are parts of this play that may be disconcerting for some. Shylock the money lender is cast throughout the play as a lesser human, and the playwright is not shy in saying that part of this is because Shylock is Jewish. In the court scene towards the end Shylock promises redemption by agreeing to convert to Christianity.
When reading works of a different era, one has to remember that the playwrights are working within the mores of their time. Criticism from 400 years in the future can be problemmatic. For example, if the human race was to become vegan in 400 years, would every meat seller, salami-maker and dairy owner of 2020 be seen as brutes by the people of those future times? Perhaps, but it may not be fair.
Homer, when writing of the sack of Troy told of the Greek soldiers who, after winning the battle, not only destroyed the city of the conquered Trojans, but killed almost every woman and child, and sold the survivors into slavery. And not before raping the women. The heroes Odysseus, Agamemnon and Menelaus do not look so good in this light. Indeed, the Greeks seem no different to any band who rapes and pillages, the difference being that in those times, this was normal practice. Alexander the Great did similar things to restive Thebes, annihilating the city before going to to take over Asia. This was after he killed his cousin and other potential throne claimants. Yet we look back at Alexander as being one of the greatest of leaders.
So as we look back it is probably best not to ask ‘how could they?‘, but better ‘why did they?‘
28.6.20 Writing the play: getting stuck in a scene
The first few days of writing the sequel to Lady of Arrows has been been pretty smooth. I start the play in the years after the war, when the civil war has brought street fighting between the royalists and the communists. It was a period of horror, arguably worse in some cases than what happened under the Nazis. There were betrayals from within families; innocents were summarily shot if suspected of being sympathetic for the other side; British snipers shot people from vantage points on the Acropolis.
Athena would have been ashamed.
I know Olga worked with the US ambassador during some of this period, although any operative work she may have done is a mystery. Indeed, she may have done none. But I chose this period for the play, and being a play set in these times, I needed to open it with context. The audience needs to understand the terror of the times.
I start it on an Athens street, with the people in that street fearful and hiding from snipers (I don’t say which snipers: royalist or communist). Olga is in that street and is pulled into a woman’s house where she is given shelter.
It’s a pretty strong opening, but it instantly presents a problem: Olga is stuck in a small room from which she can’t leave. This makes it a little hard to move the action across the stage. Perhaps I need to rethink the opening. Or maybe I can have Olga move out of the house and make this the impetus to further action. After all, Olga is niot the sort of person who would cower in a house.
That could work. I might try it.
26.6.20 Shakespeare and mechanics of rounding up plots
Two Gentlemen of Verona is a strange play. Before I read it today (it was play two of my Shakespearian odyssey) I knew little about it. I was surprised at how the storyline does not sit well with today’s sensibilities. A man tries to cheat a friend out of his lady and then attempts to rape her. Then in the last page all is forgiven, the would-be rapist is given another woman to be his wife, and all’s well that ends well.
Yeah. It’s done beautifully in that Shakespeare style, but it’s a pretty rushed ending for a story that is anything but simple. Shakespeare comedies seem to run faithfully to a set duration (after all he had the hoi polloi to satisfy, and it was a pretty tough hoi polloi circa-1600). he didn’t want them getting bored and burning down his Globe Theatre.
But Two Gentlemen of Verona shows to me that even a master has to bend to the needs and mechanics of theatre. Because the play was already close to time, the story needed to be wrapped in the next 2 pages after the attempted rape, and although this attack was the kind of behaviour that would have led to several scenes of repercussions in some of his other plays, in this one Shakespeare just had to wrap it up.
Or maybe I’m missing something. It is supposed to be a comedy. Perhaps this violence was only supposed to be less an attempted rape than a funny scene that captures a foolish man frustrated at every stage by a comedy of errors. Still, I wonder how many women in the 1600s laughed at seeing one of their kind so treated. I wonder even more about it for an audience of today.
It feels unfinished and a little unsatisfying. It proves (to me at least) that even the master playwrights are still captives of the mechanics of their craft.
I don’t remember where I got it. It’s a three volume collection of Shakespeare’s works, dating back to 1847 with the author spelled “Shakspere” as was often done in the early industrial period. It’s a lovely set, barely, if at all read with strong bindings with 19th century illustrations for each work, done in a style not dissimilar to Dickens’ friend Phiz.
I have used the books as reference work. When a quote came up, or if I wanted to research an incident, I would go to a certain play and find what I wanted. But for some years in the back of my mind I had been wanting to start reading the plays. From first to last.
This week I started this odyssey, beginning with Volume One, which puts together his comedies. It starts with The Tempest. I had seen The Tempest on stage, but it was a fairly dreary serious retelling of a play that was never meant to be so po-faced. That stage production was a failure and an audience member would have had every right to feel they were diddled by a director who thought they knew better than Shakespeare.
This play is very funny. Farcical at times, with a gender-swapping character that was to become an oft-used Shakespeare device. The idea for the play came from news of a shipwreck. From this small kernel Shakespeare embroidered a love story involving romance and the power of sibling love amidst a tragedy. And somehow he made it a comedy.
I think I’ll learn a lot by reading his plays. Reading (as opposed to watching a stage performance) will give me time to dissect what is going on. I’m looking forward to the trip. A long trip. There are 39 plays. And the volumes include his poetry.
Today proved that sometimes things just come together.
We were at Melbourne’s Gasworks farmers market. Built on the site of an old gasworks, the site is now a community centre which stages plays and puts on art exhibitions. It also puts on a farmer’s market on the third Saturday of every month. And on the third Saturday of every month we ride our bikes there and stock up on our vegan essentials.. the cabbages, olives, carrots apples etc.
Last night it rained, and the Gasworks ground, which is sensitive anyway with its industrial past, was soggy. So the stalls had to be crammed into two small areas. Thus crammed, we did our shopping. At one point I was waiting with the bikes while Jac got some blueberries. Despite being pushed close together because of the rain, there were officials from Gasworks who were trying to encourage people to keep their COVID distance. I got talking to one of them, a young guy, and he told me he was involved in the art productions put on by Gasworks. After a while a woman came up to tell him something. Her face was familiar. Her name was Tracey, and she used to curate an artist’s space near our home. I had done some stories on her exhibitions when I was arts editor at ABC NewsRadio 15 years or so ago.
So after all this time we got talking about anything and everything, as if the 15 years had not intervened. She talked about the COVID resistance of women and this led onto the natural strength of women. This in turn led me to talk about Olga, her spy work and my play.
Now, remember how I said that Gasworks staged theatre productions? Tracey was excited about the idea of the play and gave me the contact for the theatre manager there. COVID has put off Gasworks’ 2020 season of course, so there was a postponing of their plays until next year, but there might be a space for Lady of Arrows. I’ll get in contact and see.
So thank you rain, thank you Tracey and thank you blueberries.
15.6.20 From playwright to actor
Last night we had a post-COVID get-together at our home. Our guests were five actors who had also directed plays and musicals and had won acclaim in their field. Of course with this kind of gathering, discussion turn to the great examples of theatre and writing.
It is difficult with a creative group to agree on anything. And so it was last night. A suggestion was made that one of the greatest of modern performance poems was that of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood.
This poem, written in the 1950s, was about the fictional Welsh town of Llareggub (which is typical Dylanesh satire “bugger all” spelled backwards). Although the poem’s title might indicate that is some kind of medieval ode to fields of flowers and humming birds, it is nothing of the kind. Llareggub is a 20th century town and the racy, naughty poem tells of people to whom we can all relate: tidy wives; saucy girls who beget the town’s children and raise them alone; horny no-good boyos who desperately want to fornicate; bullying wives who make their husbands’ lives a misery; shopsellers who are secretly in love each other but are never brave enough to do anything about it; postmen who read the mail and gossip to the town; husbands to get drunk and in doing so only make their wives love them all the more; old couples who when abed resemble two old kippers in a box.
Yes, it is a world that is our world in that it tells of people who do the inexplicable, the wrong, the right, the unexpected and the normal.
The fact that the story is told in a hilarious way makes it the classic of mid-20th century writing.
For twenty years we have listened again and again to Richard Burton’s famous 1954 recording. The lines are so succinct and so memorable that we, in our little house of two, resurrect the lines in our everyday conversation.
So when it was suggested last night that our group of thespians do a reading of the poem, I wanted a role. They agreed. After all, presenting on radio for many years gives you an ability for read, to make words come alive, although this is never strictly considered acting as such.
So after the conversation moved onto other things, I found a copy of the Under Milk Wood script, and one of the guests, Anton Berezin (Miss Fisher‘s Murder Mysteries, Sunday in the Park with George etc) and I started reading the poem together out aloud, playing all the roles.
It was a glorious half hour. I knew thew characters, and had an inkling of the Welsh accent (having been married to a Welsh for quite a while). We laughed a lot, and the other others in the party, although ostensibly talking about other things, had half an ear on our recital, relishing the occasional Dylan Thomas gem.
So it is going to happen. In three weeks we are getting together to do a full read. Like in my play, everyone will have multiple roles, and Jac is going to direct it.
For me it is something special. As a playwright I will be on the other side of the creative barrier. I will do what I should have done years ago: play the role of the performer and interpreter. I have always admired actors.. their ability to remember, act with consistency, and to bring the words of others to life.
Now I will be among them.
13.6.20 The long reach of Homer
I have written in my thesis and my presentations about how Homer and his The Odyssey has affected so many later writers that they have used parts of the story as a template for their own works. From modernists such as James Joyce (Ulysses), to the filmmakers The Coen Brothers (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou), to the modern Greek great Nikos Kazantzakis (The Odyssey, A Modern Sequel), there have either been many treatments of the story, or taking what Aeschylus called “slices of Homer” in their own works.
For me, once I started going down this track, I did go a little Homer-batty. As I was completing my thesis it seemed that every book, play or movie I engaged with had Homeric elements to it. In fact when I was doing research for a presentation to the PopCaanz popular culture academic conference last year, I had so many examples of Homer slices in other works that I had to cut them down to fit them into a one hour presentation.
This week I have been reading the 19th century ripping read Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley. I won’t try to condense 520 pages, but I will tell you that a group of Elizabethan-era British protestants decide to get together to chase down Rose, who is the most beautiful woman imaginable. This Rose has gone off with a Spanish Catholic to be his wife in the far off West Indies. The Spanish senör has eloped with Rose (Paris-like), taking her away from men who adored her. They follow Rose and the Don over the ocean in the self-belief of their right and correct behaviour to break up the newlyweds.
Every page brought a new parallel wit The Iliad. How many impossibly beautiful woman are there in the world, women of such beauty that most of the men who see her fall in love with her? Not many, I would say, except the Helens of novels and epic poems. How many sailors would fight adversity to travel to unknown lands to bring her back? Again not many except maybe Odysseus in The Iliad or Amyas and his crew in Westward Ho! In both stories many men die in this retrieval exercise. This self-sacrificing part of the story didn’t make sense when Homer wrote 3000 years ago, and it still makes no sense.
But when discussing parallels, there are many more. The only thing missing (so far that is.. I am not at the end yet) is the Trojan Horse. But it wouldn’t surprise me.
It is a compelling read, just like the original poem, which only fortifies the value of Homer’s original story. I just hope Kingsley comes up with an original conclusion.
Today the media is reporting on a new survey which suggests that a majority of Australians have a bias against indigenous people. Published http://here in the Guardian it doesn’t go as far as to say these Australian admit to being racist.. just that they were shown to have negative connotations when shown photos, some of them very old, of black people.
One wonders where this attitude began. My dad, who came to Australia from the Greek island of Castellorizo as a baby, grew up in Darwin. He counted among his friends some of the local indigenous people. He worked with them, drank with them (when they were allowed) and played and kidded with them. But from my youngest days he told of how they were different to us. He said they would go off on ‘walkabout’, implying this was a laziness not a cultural need. He even said they smelled different to the rest of us. This he tempered by saying that to them we also smelled different.
My dad would be horrified if he thought people would call him a racist, but in at least some definitions of racism.. that’s what he was: he identified differences in races and asserted, to some degree, a superiority of his culture over theirs.
I think it’s worth looking at his own situation. He was A Greek in a white society. He had come to Australia as a refugee, snuck out of Castellorizo with his family during WWI by a joint UK-Australian rescue mission (a far cry from the small-mindedness of the 2001 Tampa saga). This rescue was amazing considering that Australian immigration was becoming whiter and whiter. The White Australia policy was aimed at keeping out non-Europeans and did that successfully up to the 1950s when the policy was loosened. But racism is racism, and that meant that non-WASP Europeans like Greeks and Italians were targeted, be it in the school playground, the government offices or in politics.
So it is probably no surprise that my dad and some of his brothers changed their name to “Kaff” (as I mentioned in last month’s post). He never changed it back, while all the time asserting that he was proud of his Greek heritage. It just seemed that he was prouder of his family’s time in Australia because he would talk endlessly about how his father and brothers built half of Darwin. His proudest moment came when a street in Palmerston was named “Kafcaloudes Crescent” in honour of his older brother George, who had stayed in Darwin and kept on the building business when his brothers and sisters had gone south looking for more interesting lives. Dad could speak Greek, but he never showed interest in going to Greek functions or Greek communions, leaving my mum to do this alone. He was pious on Greek Easters, and threw Greek words into his everyday speech, but probably not when he was at the club with his Aussie mates. I wanted to take him back to Greece to make some reconnection, but infirmity and a lack of will meant this was never to be. He died in 1994 as a 78 year old man who had never left Australia.
He was a man of his times, times when being anything other than a white European brought with it a feeling of inferiority in a land that had, in just over 100 years had gone from black to white.
It is no wonder he misunderstood his indigenous friends, and perhaps passed on some of his innate feelings of being in a hierarchy of which he would only ever be somewhere in the middle.
8.6.20 The anniversary
Today is our anniversary. Thirty-two years ago we were married on the Greek island of Santorini.
We had gone there in April 1988 expecting to just turn up and get married.
I still remember the bishop of the church on the island closing the doors on us. “Tourists!”, his eyes seemed to say.
This may have been a pretty tough punctuation to our romantic dream, but we didn’t give up. Through various interpreters, including the man who was to become our best man, Lefteris Roussos (a local hotel owner) we found out what documents we needed.
So we spent seven weeks swearing oaths, placing banns, getting papers, meeting priests and flying back and forth between the island and Athens.
Eventually (four days before we were due to return to Australia) we went back to the priest, slammed the pile of documents down in front of him. He didn’t even look at them. He just said “Endaxi” and gave his blessing. The whole thing had obviously been a kind of test for us. Foreigners just didn’t marry on Santorini.
We married in the little blue church that is on the poster in every travel agent in the world. The whole village had started rooting for us, and they came, filling the church. i think this gesture was one of the most powerful parts of the ceremony. We weren’t just two tourists alone in a church with a priest, but a part of a community celebrating the biggest day of our lives.
And afterwards we looked very happy.
It’s now been thirty-two years, and it seems only a minute ago.
We had to work for this marriage to happen in 1988, and every day we are glad for it.
23.5.20 On being Greek
I am Greek. Always have been, always will be. I may have been born in Sydney and grew up there; I may have fought against going to Greek school as a kid (I won the battle, breaking my mum’s heart); I may have used my dad’s shortening of his name to Kaff; I may have not mixed in all the circles of the Greek community as a kid; I may not have followed soccer; I may have been embarrassed using Greek words when my mum sent me up the shop for lentils.
But that’s all the usual behaviour of a child who just wanted to be like anyone else. Never mind that we were living in a post-war immigration area (Summer Hill in Sydney) where half the kids were Italian, Pole, Lebanese, Salvs, Arab, as children of parents fleeing the horrors of the most horrible of wars. Many of these kids were trying as hard as I was to be Aussie.
My mum was born in Sydney, but as I depict in the play, she spent some of her childhood in Greece with her mum. These formative years made her a Grecophile. She loved the language, the music, the food, and more than with any of her other children, she wanted me to be a little Greek boy. Maybe it was because I was the youngest and probably looked the Greekest (although I am still told I don’t look all that Greek). But as I say, I resisted her attempts.
When I turned 26 something happened to me. I became proud of what had passed before me. I started using the Kafcaloudes name, doing away forever with “Kaff”. My exploration of Greekness continued with my study of the story of my grandmother. And the six trips to Greece.
The Greek lessons are continuing, although they are stressful at times, with the teacher Alexandros conducting skype lessons with seven students every Wednesday night. He’s a pretty fast teacher who throws you into it, asking you to translate sentences without warning. But he’s kind and the other students all seem in the same boat.. except for two or three who speak fluently and have obviously used the language in their childhood home. It’s a challenge, but my Greek is getting better. Jac, although not an official student, is listening in on the other end of the table so we do the homework together, and that makes it much more fun.
And I don’t know how I would have survived this isolation without it.
19.5.20 Isolation and writing
In essence, there hasn’t been any.
During our time in the house I have painted, restored, fixed gutters and done all the things that our Victorian weatherboard house has been demanding for 20 years. We have occasionally stopped to think where we would have been on our Greek trip had COVID not shut it down. Italy, Greece, our presentation in Athens, the exploration of the Peloponnese, Ithaca. We hoped to be able to re-book to do it in the upcoming spring (now that Greece has opened itself) but that is out now according to the Australian government. After all, no-one wants to go to Greece just to sit in a hotel for two expensive weeks. Now we are hoping to go in April next year.
I did have a writing revelation a few weeks ago while I was painting the front of the house. I was thinking about the play, and I thought maybe I should start in writing a sequel. I could explore what happened to Olga in the years after the war… the years between the ending of her operative work in 1943 and her return to Australia in 1952. Neither the play nor the novel looked at this era.
All I know of this time was that she worked for the Americans, particularly the U.S. Ambassador John Peurifoy. I have already written about this man, a tough and hard troubleshooter who was being considered as a possible future presidential candidate for some later election, perhaps after Eisenhower had finished his terms in 1960. Peurifoy was Democrat, and if this prophesy was to happen, he could have been the candidate instead of John F. Kennedy. But Peurifoy was killed in a mysterious car accident in Thailand in the early 1950s, so his trajectory to the White House never happened.
The problem with writing this part of the story is that I have virtually no information on what Olga was actually doing in this time. Perhaps I could make her an observer of the extraordinary events of that time, not so much a participant. She certainly knew the players at the embassy during this of civil war and reigns of terror.
Yes, every writer knows there comes a time when you need to write. I’m at that place right now.
16.5.20 On being a playwright
Last night we had a post-isolation dinner with Robert Hewett, the playwright who brought us Gulls and The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead. All his plays have been successful and played in theatres all over Australia and subsequently all over the world.
Talking to Robert about his career, one thing has come through: it is a rare playwright who makes a living by the Australian stage. It is the international stage that presents an income stream that can make a writer’s life sustainable. In Robert’s case the staging of his plays in Berlin, Greece, Canada, Asia and the U.S. has not only brought his works to a wide audience, but it has presented an income stream.
Now, Australia is a small market so most artworks are unlikely to keep anyone in tofu and biscuits for long, but this is especially so in the case of playwrights, whose works run for a season, often with smaller theatre companies with even smaller audiences. Once a play has run its course there are no residuals unless the play is taught in schools or is borrowed in book form from a library (and even then the writer’s royalty is more likely to be no more than hundreds of dollars a year).
I wonder how many playwrights languish. Their works are adored for a shining moment in their premiere production and then become no more than a memory on a poster in the playwright’s study.
In a case like Robert, whose plays seem to be on somewhere at any one time, he would have an income of sorts. Which speaks a lot for Robert’s tenacity not only as a talented playwright, but as a person who knows how to get his work staged in cultures far different from his own. Not to mention how to write plays that are of interest to world audiences. You’ve got to admire that. I do.
4.5.20 Rabelais and heresay
I’m reading Rabelais out of curiosity. I have read so many references to the great Frenchman over the years. He’s been quoted, criticised, idolised and damned. I bought an old edition of his works just see why there was such a fuss.
It only took about five pages to see why. He is rude, bawdy and hilarious. For example, he tells of a lover scorned who gets his own back on the woman by sprinkling dog hormones in her holy water (yes, the scorned lover is a minister). The infused water brings all kinds of dogs into the church, each trying to mate with the scorner. The scene ends with a great dane urinating on the woman’s head.
Yes, he was the Mick Jagger of his day.
He also was scathing in his satire of the French leaders of the day. Even changing their names did not bring him any safety. In the end his final book, one of the most critical of all, was not able to be published until after his death.
So it was an enjoyable, although at times perplexing and unfathomable time, but it wasn’t until near the end of my Rabelaising that I came across a line that fitted right into my research about the value of oral histories in the telling of history. Rabelais seems to have little account for this form of passed knowledge, describing oral histories as ‘hearsay’. Now, today such a term might imply that Rebelais considered these word-of-mouth aas little more than gossip: you hear it; you say it.
I respectfully disagree. Oral histories can be a learned form of storytelling. If a person does something and tells someone about it, then it is an passing on of information, such as in an interview. But if the person being told the story then relates it to others, the story does not necessarily lose legitimacy, much in the way that the journalist, having done an interview, paraphrases the story and presents it to a newsreading audience. Yes, Rabelais, this is hearsay, but a form of hearsay that is relied upon by people all over the world every day when they watch, listen to or read the news.
Of course Rabelais was probably referring to stories being told and retold over centuries, with the inherent dangers of any Chinese whisper: amendment, mishearing, changing for self-aggrandisement, or just forgetfulness. And I had plenty of these issues arise in my research for the novel and the play. I say as long as we are aware of these shortcomings, and we do everything we can to avoid them, then oral histories.. or Rabelais’ hearsay.. can be perfectly legitimate as a research mode.
14.4.20 The thesis is in
Today is the day that anyone doing a PhD looks forward to. The day of submission.
La Trobe University’s Graduate Research School sent me the submission link today, and after three years and four months of toil, the exegesis and play were uploaded. All this means it is out of my hands. My two examiners (one in Sydney and one overseas) will now have the job of going through my 266 pages (including the play script), and deciding whether I have added to the total of the world’s knowledge.
It has been a great ride. I’ve loved working with my principal supervisor Professor Chris Mackie. In fact there have been a heaps of people who have helped me in my quest. To give you an idea, here is my Acknowledgments page from the thesis:
“I owe a huge debt to my primary supervisor Professor Chris Mackie for his great ability to know how to keep encouraging me. It is because of him that I enjoyed every moment of this PhD. His words at our first meeting stayed with me for the entire collaboration: “Just write. Get stuff down on paper.” Because of these wise words, at no point did I feel this PhD stagnated. Our regular meetings brought in new aspects, including reference to the works of Homer and Herodotus. My co-supervisor Dr Nasya Bahfen was a perfect fit, keeping my writing on the academic straight road while Chris and I delved into Greek dramatic history. Nasya was a latecomer to the process, replacing Dr Steinar Ellingsen, who had left La Trobe University. Steinar generously agreed to stay on as an external supervisor, offering his usual cheery support. Chris, Nasya and Steinar, thank you for proving that doing a PhD is not the drudge that so many claim it to be. Lawrie Zion kindly agreed to be the chair of my Research Progress Panel and was always supportive. The LTU Graduate Research School never failed to give me sound advice and were more than comfortable with me submitting this PhD ahead of schedule. Merran Hunt from the School of Humanities & Social Sciences was a great help with IRGS grants that allowed me to carry out research in Greece in 2017 and to pay for the January 2019 workshop. My employers at RMIT, Philip Dearman and Adrian Danks were quick to give me study leave for the Greece trip, which was above and beyond considering I was a new staff member who was doing the PhD with a rival university. Many thanks to David Beesley and Luke Raisbeck for making RMIT’s premier television studio available to stage the three-day workshop. Gary Young was a wonderful director of the workshop, his many years of theatre experience helping turn the play into something better. Your warmth, encouragement and tears were brilliant. A special thanks to the playwrights and screenwriters whose works offered inspiration for what Lady of Arrows finally became. I hope you didn’t object to have your fine works tested in this thesis. To Jac, who was always the inspiration for the character of Olga, thank you. I imagined you speaking my lines as I wrote them, and then in the readings and workshopping, you brought those words to life. And finally, my grandmother Olga, the real Lady of Arrows. Although I never knew you, you have been a lifelong inspiration. I just hope that my version of your story meets with your approval, and that you forgive my excesses.”
That’s a lot of people. I’ve also got to thank the people who were on the sidelines but were always coming up with ideas for the exegesis: Dr Helen Vatsikopoulos, Eleni Eleftheras, David Cunnington, Dr Josie Vine, Margie Gillett, Mark Civitella and so many more.
Folks, collectively we got there. Thank you.
16.3.20 There goes Greece
I can’t say we’re not surprised.
Greece is about to close its borders. The Mitsotakis government has decided to get ahead of the world by enforcing a 14 day quarantine on anyone entering the country. We had already heard that events like the one I was supposed to do in Athens were being stopped.
So our trip is off. Which is a bit of a relief. This epidemic is going to kill a lot of people before it’s done. With many families in mourning, this would not be the right time to be trying to sell my play. Also, being crammed on a plane for 17 hours is not the brightest idea at the moment.
So Jac and I will be in isolation in autumnal Melbourne for as long as our Chief Medical Officers deem it necessary. In fact I can’t see why our prime minister an the U.S. President are having such a hard time trying to decide what to do. They pay these medical specialists who know more about this disease than anyone else. These are the people who you just listen to (I could extend the argument to the Chief Scientists who are paid by the government to advise on climate change.. but are ignored or ridiculed. But that’s for another post).
So the house is going to get an overdue coat of paint.. and I have to say I’m glad I’m not teaching media this year. It would be a nightmare teaching TV when students are not allowed to go near a TV studio. As Lloyd Bridges might’ve said in the Flying High movie: “It seems like I chose a hell of year to give up academia..”
10.3.20 So much for Italy
Italy has just extended its lockdown to the entire country, which means our plans to travel to the ancient Greek theatre sites on Syracusa will have to be cancelled. The airline has been great about changing the flights. At this stage we will go directly to Athens and have a month in the Aegean before going to the Athens Centre for our presentation about the play. The Greek islands rather than the Amalfi Coast and Sicily. We aren’t crying too much..
Let’s just hope Greece doesn’t need to have a shutdown too.
8.3.20 Playwrights feeding in on themselves
Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but playwrights since antiquity have been taking the work of those before them and adding to and changing the original.
The case in point was what happened to Aeschylus’ tale about Clytemnestra. She was either a great mother who sought revenge for the killing of her daughter, or an ambitious nasty piece of work who wanted to steal control of her kingdom of Mycenae from her husband, Agamemnon. Agamemnon had just spent ten years battling at Troy trying to get Helen back for his brother Menelaus, who was her husband. Eventually, thanks to Odysseus’ unlikely but brilliant idea of a Trojan horse, the eternal city was overcome and sacked. Helen was given back to Menelaus, and Agamemnon came home, expecting a welcome fit for a successful warrior king. Instead, his wife stabbed him to death in his homecoming bath.
The reason for this killing was that, ten years before, Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia, to appease the gods so he could get good winds for his navy to sail to Troy to start the war. Agamemnon was reluctant to kill is daughter but gods need appeasing, and he had his brother Menelaus to consider. Family is family (although this wasn’t that much of a consideration when it comes to daughters, obviously).
So while Agamemnon fought across the Aegean, Clytemnestra built a resentment of the ages, got involved with a distant relative Aegisthus (who became her ruling consort in Mycenae) and plotted her husband’s demise. When he did return she put on a good show of a welcome then did the bloody deed.
If that was the end of the story then it would be a complete Greek tragedy, but the story continued with Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s children, Orestes and Electra. They loved their father, and plotted revenge against their mother. And in the best Greek tragic tradition, they killed her and her consort Aegisthus.
Aeschylus was the first playwright to tell this story for the stage (adapting it from Homer’s original poem) in the plays Agamemnon and The Libation Pourers. The first tells of Agamemnon’s return and death, and the second deals with Orestes killing his mother.
Sophocles told the same story in his Electra. He changed the story though. These changes included having Electra believe that Orestes has been murdered, when of course it is all a ruse to fool his mother into a sense of security. The mother is fooled and then gets killed. Then there was a further adaptation with additions by Euripides who also called his play Electra but he has Electra married off and put into virtual exile from which she fools her mother into coming to visit her. Once again Clytemnestra dies, but in Electra’s rural property and at the hands of both Electra and her brother.
As I was reading Aeschylus today I pondered on the right of playwrights to take acclaimed works by earlier artists and changing them. But then I considered that the time span from Aeschylus to Sophocles was thirty years and Euripides came a further fifteen years later. When you consider the number of modern adaptations of the Three Musketeers, Batman, or Superman in film over the last 50 years, it’s probably reasonable that dramatists add new value to old stories. This may have been especially true in the ancient times when Greek audiences were demanding fresh works every year. And it must be said that each adaptation took the story further. One such version has Clytemnestra having had three children with her consort, and then Orestes, after he killed his mother, marrying his half-sister. Very ancient Greek, and for an audience of that time, it must’ve been a thrilling new development on what was probably a very well known story.
5.3.20 The Greek island called Sicily
I’m sure there are plenty of connected Italian families who would disagree with the sentiment in the title of this entry. but Sicily, which has been the property of Italians for a couple of millenia, was founded by foreigners. First it was the Phoenicians, then the Greeks who named it τρινακρια (Trinacria). The Greeks developed the south eastern city of Syracuse which became a centre of the Greek theatrical world. Actors and playwrights used to come to Syracuse as part of a theatrical circuit which included Athens and many of the kingdoms around the Greek world. Plato, who is best known these days for his philosophies was also a playwright and his works were staged in Syracuse. But Plato could not keep out of politics and he became a confidant and advisor to Dion who became the ruler (known as ‘tyrant’) of the island state.
Although it was a theatrical centre, it was far from a peaceful place. The city fought at times against Athens and the Carthaginians from north Africa. This led to the famous siege, where the Greeks were forced onto Syracusa’s small island of Ortygia, which was just a couple of metres off the shore of the city. The Greeks held out for a long time despite the Carthaginians imposing a blockade on ships supplying them with food.
Eventually the Romans made their push, forced another siege, defeated the Greeks, and Syracuse became part of the new empire. It was then taken by the Franks, the Spanish and for some centuries, the muslims, before returning to the Italians. Despite all this fractious behaviour (which included bombing in WWII), the evidence of the Greek theatres have survived, and Greek plays are staged in these theatres to this day.
In our trip we’ll be staying in Ortygia, within the walls of the old fortress, or what remains of them (a surprising amount does survive). We won’t be there for the theatre season.. we miss that by a month.. but it will be wonderful to walk the boards where the ancient actors used innovations such as cranes for flying actors, and stages that used a water system to raise and drop. I was telling director Gary Young about these ancient ideas and he was amazed that these things, which audiences are thrilled by today were the invention of theatrical engineers in the infancy of the craft.
I would love to have my work staged in Syracuse. Maybe it’s just a romantic notion. But, if it could happen, it would be, like, wow.
3.3.20 The could-have-been president
John Peurifoy is not a name that will be remembered in many circles outside of the inner sanctuaries of the U.S. State Department.
Peurifoy was the U.S. ambassador to Greece in the immediate aftermath of the Greek civil war that followed the expulsion of the Nazis in 1944. Peurifoy brought with him Truman’s burgeoning desire to control communism or perceived communism from other countries. Peurifoy did his job so well that apparently even to this day there is still resentment among some Greeks about his intrusion. I actually don’t know they can single out Peurifoy, because before his time the British stationed snipers on the Acropolis to shoot down communists in the Plaka. That’s intrusion.
Peurifoy’s strong hand was so respected back in the U.S. that he was considered a possible Democratic contender for the 1960 presidential election. Peurifoy never made it to contention for 1960. He was killed along with one of his sons in a car crash in Thailand in 1955. The election was therefore left open to John Kennedy to grab the nomination. One wonders if, had Peurifoy survived in Thailand and contested and won the election, what sort of president he would have been. Certainly he would’ve been a tough leader, just as he was a tough ambassador in Greece, Thailand, and Guatemala, where he helped orchestrate the overthrow of the that nation’s government.
As well as being a diplomat, he was also my grandmother’s employer during his years in Greece. Olga was a nanny to his two children who, like their father, never lived to see the 1960s.
Going through Olga’s documents, I came across this letter..
..which was written to Olga from Mrs Betty Peurifoy. It’s a poignant letter in so many ways. She writes that she and her son Clint remember Olga well and speak of her often (this was seven years after Olga left them in Greece). In the letter Betty says that Clint, who had cerebral palsy was doing well and was looking forward to going to school. This was no more than optimism from a hopeful mother, because Clint died within months of the letter being sent.
The letter was also touching because Betty wishes Olga well for the birth of her eleventh grandchild.
That grandchild was me.
1.3.20 Coronavirus and the house of cards
Just as we thought the trip to Athens was sorted with accommodation, cars, venue and flights, along comes one of those events that could crash everything. Coronavirus has killed a lot of people and is dropping sharemarkets. Governments are banning whole cities from tourism. The media is even showing plenty of images of panicked buyers emptying supermarket shelves. Considering the number of deaths from the flu every year, this really is a strong reaction. But, as I said, people are dying.
So it works that in a way that almost mirrors an order from an ancient Greek god, the very country I am planning to visit first for research, Italy, is the European hotspot for CV. Cancelling the trip only four weeks before the travel will be a costly thing. So we’ll wait until we know more. The good news is that many of the people infected across the world are recovering, so there is light at the end of a pretty dismal tunnel.
26.2.20 Aeschylus and history
With so much of my PhD becoming about telling true stories in a fictional context, my supervisor Dr Chris Mackie keeps on taking me back to the Greek classics. Like the time when I converted the play from a one-woman piece into a three-hander. Chris told me I was following in the paths of the ancient playwrights who, over the passage of fifty-odd years, made the same conversion.
I have started reading Aeschylus again. He was the first in a line of great Greek tragedians, born 525 years before Christ. He wrote plays that told of the great struggles the Hellenes faced (against the Persians), and also the great struggles that individual man faced (for example, Oedipus and his offspring) when dealing with his fates.
Today I started on a lovely 1889 translation of his works. The first play was The Persians which told of the attack on Athens by Xerxes and his soldiers. Initially successful, the Persians soon lost their gains and were routed.
It is a play with a Greek chorus wailing and lamenting, with Xerxes’ mother, the Queen of Persia being told by a messenger of the terrible loss.
This was art telling history, and telling it in a way that, like in my play, filled the gaps of history. Aeschylus, who could not have been present when the messenger delivered his sorry tale, imagined Queen Atossa’s reaction and lament and put it into a poet’s meter. Invention and supposition. Worthy and educative, but still invention and supposition.
The more of these ancients I read, the more I understand of the events of those times. Historians such as Xenophon followed. In his case he was in some of these Persian battles, so his stories have, perhaps, more credibility as a history. But then again, he could not have seen everything that he wrote about.
Still, without Aeschylus, we would know little more of the Persian wars, and his plays have been used as sources by historians over the centuries. Despite his writing having a degree of invention, there is wisdom in his lines, and an understanding of the human nature of the combatants. It is glimpse into the humanity of the times. That may well be the greatest gift Aeschylus gave us: we can see into the mind and heart of Athenians and Persians. When we remember the great and entertaining plays he produced, we must also be thankful for these insights which have carried across two and a half millenia.
25.2.20 Meeting George in Athens
My grandmother Olga worked in a resistance cell in Greece in WWII. I know she rescued British, Australian and Kiwi flyers trapped behind the enemy lines as the germans moved from the north towards Athens. The operatives in this cell got the rescued airmen onto boats on the east coast and accompanied them to Cairo.
From my research, there was a cell that did just this. It operated from Athens (where Olga was working). at the same time that Olga was doing her operations. The leader of this cell was Lela Caryiannis, a descendent of a woman who was a leader of the resistance against the Ottomans in the 1820s.
Given these circumstances I thought it likely that this was the cell Olga worked with. I have contacted Lela’s grandson Dr George Pararas-Caryiannis to see if he had any documentation that might prove the link. It was the longest of long shots, but worth the asking. Documentation on resistance members is scant, although George does have a list of some of the cell’s operatives. Olga was not on this short list. The joy of this was that I was in contact with the grandson of the woman who Olga almost certainly knew, if not worked with closely.
Last night I received an email from George. He is coming to my talk at the Athens Centre in April. I had let him know about the talk, not really expecting him to be in Greece (I believe he lives in Hawaii now). So it was lovely to find out that he will be there in the audience when I am talking about Olga’s work. I may even play a scene from the workshop where his grandmother tries to recruit Olga to her cell. The scene is of course fictionalised. I had imagined that if Olga was to work with Lela, they might have met like this, in a neutral place (a cafe) following an introduction by a mutual friend.
Whatever happens, this will be an emotional time for both of us, I’m sure.
19.2.20 Learning the language of the forebears
In preparation for the Greece research trip, Jac and I have started learning Greek. The Greek Community Centre in Melbourne offers classes starting from absolute beginners (called 1.1) up to advanced lvel. I decided to go into 1.1 because Jac has done no Greek at all, and also I wanted to go back to basics as I had been largely self-taught (and self-taught badly).
Jac and I turned up with our pencils and notebooks.
In the first class were a surprising number of young people of Greek heritage. Also surprising is that many of them knew how to speak Greek. This gave Jac the jitters, because if there’s one thing she hates, it’s that feeling of being the dumbest one in the class. Five minutes into the class that feeling came roaring alive. Every time she confused her Greek gammas with her ipsilons you could almost see the puff of steam coming out of her head. I made the mistake of trying to help her once, and got an elbow in the ribs.
We spent a good part of the week before the second class drilling the alphabet. The second class was much safer for my ribs.
Today’s class was a gem. Jac’s reading was much smoother, and a few times she nailed sentences that a couple of the other students.. the Greek speakers.. struggled with.
The highlight came when I told the teacher, Akis, that Jac could count to twelve in Greek.
“She’s on fire” he exclaimed.
A lovely moment.
18.2.20 Re-enter my publisher
The Olga novel was published in Greek as Ο πολεμοσ τησ ‘Ολγασ (in English: Olga’s War) in 2012. The first printing sold well and it went into a second run after a couple of weeks.
Because all this happened during the time of the Greek austerity measures, any money leaving Greece was subject to a huge tax. So in lieu of royalties, I asked if the publisher could send me a box of the books. They arrived, and to this day I have never received a royalty cheque.
It was a surprise then when the publisher (Psichogios) said they’d like to come to the talk at the Athens Centre and sell my books. It will take me back to the time in 2012 when I went to the their offices in north Athens, a cathedral of books, and met Mr Psichogios. There was me, an Australian who couldn’t speak a lot of Greek, and Mr Psichogios who couldn’t speak a lot of English. It was a great moment when we looked at each other, gave up trying to speak each other’s language, and started using an interpreter. It was the start of a nine-year, if money-free relationship.
Maybe if they sell a few books I’ll get some royalties.
12.2.20 Bringing it all back home
It’s 6am and I have just returned from an hour on the ABC here in Melbourne. I was asked in to talk about journalism and the state of fact reporting in the age of Trump.
The talkback callers gave a bit of stick to reporters, saying things such as journalists don’t dig deep enough into stories, and that they are more concerned with scandal than important information.
As a journo of more than 30 years’ experience in all media, I could feel myself having that unpleasant sense that this was going to be a bash-fest. But then I listened to these people, and they all had a point. They were crying out for information on what was really going on in our society. They really wanted to know, and really believed they weren’t being told the truth. One caller even said we are not really being told about the Coronavirus which has just killed more than 1000 people. This caller wanted to know the threat to our society.
Yep. Good statement. As I scanned the news sites today I saw plenty of articles bashing Trump, plenty of stories about crime victims learning how to recover, stories about country pubs closing down, or yarns about failed restaurateurs. Easy stories that don’t require a lot of work.. just a bit of listening. Some sites had explainers about Corona. Most had more space devoted to an AFL star’s battle with an ankle injury. That poor millionaire ankle was deemed more worthy than an infection that could kill you or me. that said, I’m sure more people will read about that ankle than about the virus. That’s just what we are more interested in.
As a playwright and a journo, it’s my job to tell a story and to make it interesting enough that people will devote their precious time on that story. Make that story true and compelling and you’ll get them. That takes more than simply saying in a headline: “You really need to read this”. It’s a fine skill and not all journos are natural storytellers.
That’s an important part of their craft. I hope we all get better at it.
5.2.20 Nearly submission time
I just met with my PhD supervisor Professor Chris Mackie at La Trobe University. We have edged even closer to submitting the PhD (and the play) for examination.
For a PhD, you need to choose a few senior academics (one domestic and one overseas) to examine the PhD. I have given Chris a few names of people I have met at various writing, culture and journalism conferences. It’s now his job to contact some of them and ask them to be examiners.
My trip to Greece starts at the end of March, and Chris says the PhD will be sent off well before that. After three fabulous years the PhD is closing and the accompanying play is just coming to life. This whole process has been wonderful.
29.1.20 More Greek developments
Two days ago I wrote that I heard from the Athens Centre. This morning I got an email from the prestigious National Theatre of Greece. They want to meet me while I am in Athens.
This is like a political student going to Washington and being invited to have a chat with the President.
I also have confirmed with the Athens Centre that I will also be giving a talk about my play while I am there in late April. I did some quick thinking and asked Jac if she would be interested in reciting some lines from the play during my talk. It’s work for her to do this, but I’m sure it’ll be fun for both of us. Her ‘yes’ couldn’t come quick enough.
Even if the play does not get staged in Greece (and I’m sure it will at some stage), at least we ca say that the words were performed before an audience. This is Christmastime for a playwright.
Bring on April!
27.1.20 We’re going to Greece
Wow, that was quick. I’ve just heard from the Athens Centre in Greece. They would like to discuss the possibility of putting on my play, either later this year or next year.
This is the tipping point for our world trip later this year. We have decided we will go to Athens. During this time I will meet with the Athens Centre people about a production. I’m pretty sure they would want a prepared production that is already costed. That might knock out a chance of staging it this year, since there is no production yet. If we were a touring company going to the Edinburgh Festival and staging the play in several cities on the journey, then yes, it could work.
Nevertheless, we will meet and chat about the play and see the space. It’ll be an honour to be a playwright in the land of my forebears.
24.1.20 Having a bit of front
Now that the PhD is coming to a close, it’s time to think about how to get the play staged. I’ve already written about how the Greek Festival in Sydney is interested in running it in 2021. But I would love to see it on the boards in Greece.
Now, any writer will tell you that the difference between staging a play and not staging a play comes down to having the front to put it out there. You simply need to write to people and putting your work in front of them. I have found five Greek theatre companies, and yes, I have just written to them all.
My sell is a pretty good one: I have a play about an element of Greek history; it is a play that has elements that reach into the Greek diaspora; it is a play that has legitimacy because it is part of a university research project; it is a story of a strong woman working among strong women; it has been workshopped with an award-winning director and actors; the playwright (me) is Greek; and finally, the story itself is a ripper, being about a Greek-Australian spy working in WWII. It also doesn’t hurt that this story has never been told before.
I’ll let you know the results. Meantime, I’ll tap my Greek community contacts to see if they know theatre people in Greece. You never know.
20.1.20 Storytelling and memory
In the last post I told you how I was reading Mary Renault, a British author who wrote historical fiction about ancient Greece. Today I got to a powerful interlude in her The Praise Singer where the real-life protagonist Simonides got into an argument with his protege who was using a wax tablet to write down stories. At first I didn’t see the problem until I realised that Simonides and his ilk were strictly verbal storytellers. Part of their skill and art was their ability to remember the stories they told. Writing it down was a no-no.
This was a powerful moment for my process as an academic historian because much of what I have studied has to do with oral histories. This little interlude magnified the issue that not only were stories passed on by mouth to mouth, but they were required, as a point of honour, not to be written.
As we in modern storytelling, with our word processing, bytes and clouds, find difficulty with authenticity, fake news and embellishment, it is quite a contrast with the days of old when records were kept in the minds of the Praise Singers like Simonides, poets like Homer and embryonic historians such as Herodotus.
It is no surprise that there are so many versions of stories in Greek antiquity, evidenced by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all doing versions of stories such as Oedipus and coming up with different versions. There was no definitive version of these orally transmitted stories, and as such, we have no definitive version of the story today. No wonder.
17.1.20 Charles Lever and Mary Renault
Every time I travel to Tasmania I buy a book in a regional bookshop that changes my reading habit.
In 2016 which passing through Richmond (which we had only gone to to see the oldest bridge in Australia), I went into an antique shop bought a first edition book by 18th century novelist Charles Lever, who was a friend and contemporary of Charles Dickens. Lever wrote historical novels about his native Ireland. Like with my writing, many of his characters were true, but also like my writing, he invented protagonists and minor events. But it was always in the context of the larger events and social issues of the time.
Over the next three years I bought many Lever books..
They not only look great on the book shelf, they are ripping reads, and I found myself making reference to the Lever style in my PhD. He gave breadth to the stories he told, and while they were largely fiction, the life of the Irish is brought to you through his beautiful depictions of the people in his stories.
Then a few weeks ago I was again in Tasmania. I was hoping to make another great literary discovery, but the little book shops had nothing that grabbed me. Then we stopped at a place on the east coast called St Marys. The bookshops there appeared to have nothing either, so we walked the main street and went into a secondhand shop. They had a shelf of books, mostly pulp fiction, and each book was one dollar.
I saw a book that I had seen before. In fact it must have been in almost every bookshop I had ever been to. It was a copy of Mary Renault’s The King Must Die. I had always imagined this as a trash quickie, a bit of populist fiction. This time though I picked it out and read the inside cover, which told of how this was the story of Theseus, the king of Athens. With one dollar being no great loss, I took the book and that afternoon I started reading it.
It was revelatory. Not only was Renault telling a great story based on the heroic Greek myths she was a great writer. Now, only a month later, I am halfway through my third Renault, having lived with Theseus for two books, and now with the Praise Singer, Siminides. Like Lever, Renault has the capacity to take you to the places of which she writes, and like Simonides himself, she has the ability to entrance. She is writer who knew that great writing begins with great research. She knew her stuff and couched the material in a compelling way.
The proof of that is that I’ve just ordered two more Renault books.
13.1.20 Dotting the “I” and crossing the T
My PhD is still with my co-supervisor Nasya Bahfen who is correcting all my little typos and incomprehensibles. Once she has done that we can look at submitting it for examination.
I’m really in debt to Nasya for doing this. It’s a big effort to go through tens of thousands of words in a PhD. It’s not just a case of reading. You need to be meticulous.
As a journalist teacher I tell my students that the only effective way of finding the mistakes in your copy is to read it out aloud. A word that is duplicated at the end of a line and at the start of the next line is easily scanned over by your eye and missed. It’s only by vocally verbalising the script that these errors are found.
Nasya has corrected small sections of my PhD over the last couple of years, and she has found things that I would never have seen, like double spaces between words, or a full stop in the wrong place next to a bracket. She’s also been really cool about the formality of academic formatting (and that can be a real pain, especially as different publications often have different rules, which can confuse a writer).
Last week Nasya said she hoped to get it back to me by last Friday. It didn’t come, but it will be with me soon. We students always imagine it’s all about us; that the supervisor lives to do our thesis alone. No. Supervisors juggle many PhD students at once, as well as doing their own research and teaching.
Patience, Kafcaloudes. Patience.
10.1.20 It’s on. Next year.
I’ve just found out that the play has been accepted for the Sydney Greek Festival.
I met with the festival organising committee while I was in Sydney a month ago. They asked for a budget and a formal proposal. After some discussion with play director Gary Young, I put together a budget that would cover paying three actors, Gary and me, as well as two weeks of rehearsal in Melbourne, flights to Sydney, living allowances and the staging of the play for two performances, possibly as early as April this year (the festival runs until the end of April).
Now, this was always going to be a close thing. The festival is going to start soon, and you would expect that the final program would have been worked out way before now.. not to mention final budgets for expensive items such as a live performance featuring an interstate group.
In the end it was too close for this year. But they have told me they would love to have Lady of Arrows performed for the festival in 2020.
I hope to get this play staged elsewhere before that, including possibly in Greece, but again the same issues will arise. I have also been in contact with my friends at the Melbourne Antipodes Festival, and I would love to see the play staged in my home town, so maybe that is a chance, but Antipodes is also a festival that runs early in the year, so I might be in the same position. Plays like this need to a long lead time, so it could be that the Sydney Festival may still be staging the world premiere next year. We’ll see.
To stage it in Sydney would be great, because that is the city in which part of the play is set. Ultimo is where Olga’s family grew up, and Olga narrates the story from her little room in the back of her daughter’s house in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. Also, my family is in Sydney, hundreds of them, so the play would have a huge guaranteed audience wanting to see their own family history.
And that would be something.
8.1.20 A Pilgrim’s Progress
I collect books. This expensive hobby began when I first started interviewing guests on radio back in the 1990s. I have plenty of Peter Carey, Tom Keneally, DBC Pierre, Ben Elton, Isabel Allende, Jeffrey Archer, even Roger Moore books, all signed by their authors. I then started looking backwards, collecting 19th century early or first editions; my hinger driven after finding a 1st ed. of George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss in an old bookshop in Oxford. It only cost a couple of dollars. Since then I have found early printings of Dickens, Lever and other Eliots.
I read them all, no matter their condition. Invariably their condition is worse by time I have finished, but they were written to be read, and in those yellowing pages you can feel the life of the readers who have passed before. An occasional fossilised crumb of 18th century bread, or if you are lucky, a flattened, long-expired mite will surprise you.
I tell you this because I am reading a very early edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. It was written while he was in jail under persecution because of his religious beliefs. It tells the story of a pilgrim called Christian (no subtlety there) who finds his way through a whole set of trevails to heaven. In the second half of the book, his wife, called Christiana and her four kids follow in his path. This second half of the book is the more interesting, because by this time Bunyan’s preachiness has given way to a story full of characters and humanity. The children get married along the journey, and they are accompanied by a young woman called Mercy, who is intent on selfless deeds like making clothes for the poor.
As I was reading the book this morning, the parallels with the Odyssey came to mind. The book is a story of obstacles, and of cause and effect. Just as Odysseus was the cause of his own misery, so too were the characters in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Of course in the latter the effects could be seen early on. If a man amassed lots of money and let his tenants starve, then you knew it was not going to end well. In The Odyssey it was not always so clear why Odysseus found himself beset by sea snakes or giants with one eye. It was invariably because he had annoyed a god. These were not Bunyan’s god, but a slew of male and female gods that had, at various times, married their sisters or mothers, eaten their children or sought revenge for petty slights. Hardly the message of wholesomeness that permeates The Pilgrim’s Progress. The gods of Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides were way more fun. But the parallels of the long and winding journey are strong.
One has to expect that Bunyan, a man of reading, would have thought of Odysseus’ journey as he lay in that prison two thousand years later, preparing to write his own odyssey.
5.1.20 A New Start
Well I’ve done it. I have started the workless chapter in my life. It’s not actually workless, but it is a chapter where I will not be receiving a weekly wage for the first time since I was 22.
Leaving a reasonably well paid job as an academic is sure to be scary at times. I wonder if I’ll have dark nights of the soul, waking at 3am feeling as though I will never work again. I admit there have been moments, not in the night, but in the day time, when driving or walking or reading when I find myself thinking that I have missed an opportunity.
Then the Greek gods come in, saying that I have bigger fish to fry (a bad cliche for a vegan, I know). I have a play that needs to be seen. I have a PhD that needs submitting, and as Jac tells me, I have a house to paint.
I am also using these days to read some of the Greek classics. My PhD supervisor Chris Mackie kept pulling me back towards Homer and Herodotus, and I have loved the stories of my forebears. As I read Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides I see parallels with the best and worst of human behaviour, such as Euripides’ King who allowed his wife to die so that he would be granted a double length of his own life. This king sobbed like a child as his wife faded away, making protestations, but never once demanding that the life-lengthening deal be retracted. She dies, and through the work of Heracles she is brought back to life, but no thanks to her cowardly husband. In this era of weasel words and manufactured talkshow host anger, this fable has relevance. It’s just strange that after 2500 years, the lesson of the fable has not been learned.
I look forward to the other lessons my Greek reading will offer up.
6.12.19 Metaxas, Bainimarama and my grandfather
While I was planning meetings about staging the play, I also had to work on my presentation to the journalism academic conference (JERAA), which was held at Sydney University.
My presentation was a parallel study between the regime of Fiji’s Frank Bainimarama, the man who staged a coup in Fiji a decade ago, and the Greek dictator who bullied his way into power in Greece between the wars, John Metaxas.
I got a laugh from the audience when I quoted a line from Deep Purple song:
“The warriors of the flat earth can become the tyrants of the globe.”
That certainly was the experience with both Bainimarama and Metaxas. Both had been soldiers; both earlier staged failed coups; once in power both curbed the media; both jailed opponents; both promised that they were patriots who would save their country.
I also told the audience that Metaxas’ desire for media cleansing led to my grandfather, Christos Maniarizis being jailed, and eventually killed as one of the Haidari 200 on Hitler’s orders. My grandfather was no criminal. He was a leftist journalist who refused to sign a paper pledging allegiance to Metaxas’ government.
This warrior Metaxas had indeed become a tyrant.
When I finished my presentation, Dr Kayt Davies from Edith Cowan University pulled me aside and thanked me for opening up about my grandfather . She was obviously touched by the story. Kayt is a battler for journalism and journalism rights. This story about a man who stood up against a tyrant had touched her. Journalists are killed every day, but it’s the personal stories like that of Nikos that make the connection between mind and heart. It was a lovely moment after giving what will be my last presentation as an academic before I head off onto my sabbatical.
2.12.20 My first negotiation
I just spoke with the people from the Greek Festival in Sydney. It was a bit of a schlep to Lakemba, which used to be Sydney’s Greek central. Nowadays the inevitable social shifts means it is now more of a Muslim/Indian centre, but it is still a warm community place where the shopkeepers know their customers and treat them like old friends. In the cafe where I found some vegan middle-eastern food, groups of men still crammed around plastic tables, smoking endlessly and solving world problems. They could’ve been Indian, Lebanese or Syrian, but their emphatic passion was just the same as what I used to see among the old Greeks when I was a kid in Marrickville. Certainly the haze of tobacco was the same.
Then going into the Greek club I was introduced to a table of festival committee members who also had the same Greekness as greek committee members the world over. Direct questions, the same pride in Greece, the same criticism of politicians, and most importantly, the same appreciation and warmth towards a fellow Greek who they feel has done good. It was lovely.
I gave them a copy of the novel and told them Olga’s story. They said they might have a theatre that could stage the play. I said I could possibly find a grant to help stage the play, but this kind of financial help didn’t seem to be on their radar. The head of the committee asked me to put together a budgeted proposal, and we were done. Now I need to work out how much a monolith like a full interstate play company will cost., and we’ll take it from there.
Now I have decided to take a year off from teaching at university and its insane workload, I have had to consider what I will actually be doing.
This week I presented a paper at an academic writer’s conference at the University of technology in Sydney (UTS). These conferences are great because you meet other people who share your interests and have great things to say. It’s the closest thing to donning a white sheet and sandals and walking around like Socrates.
At this conference I met up with Helen Vatsikopoulos, the UTS academic who facilitated one of the launches of my novel in 2011. I told her about the play, and she said that the Greek Festival in Sydney is looking for plays to present during their festival season.
She, the wonderful person that she is, rang the head of the festival then and there, and within an hour I was talking to her myself. It was one of the serendipitous things that the festival board is meeting next Tuesday. Nia asked me to come along to discuss staging the play.
Just like that.
Of course staging as play is not like giving a presentation. It will involve three actors, a director, a theatre and an audience. But wow, what a great chance to give Lady of Arrows life.
I’ll let you know how I go.
30.10.19 The Final Steps.. or one of them
I just gave my pre-submission presentation for the PhD.
This involved getting up at a research conference at La Trobe Uni, reveal my research, talk about my findings, then when the STOP card is shown, sit down and watching other people go through the same process.
I love doing these things, partially because Olga’s story is so interesting, partially because I get off on telling stories to an audience, and partially because my supervisor Chris Mackie is constantly making me see the wider scope of my research. Where I started this as a ripping spy story, Chris had me bringing in parallels with Herodotus, Homer, Aeschylus and Euripides. This PhD had me tripping back 3000 years, realising that the play writer’s journey is not a solo one. By that I don’t mean the actors and director, I mean that mine was a journey that was taken by so many of my forebears. Effectively, Chris connected me to my ancient heritage.
Although I’ll get a doctorate and a play at the end of this process, the real value of the last three years has been that connection to those who came before.
16.10.19 Leaving university
Universities can drive you nuts with their nothing-is-ever-enough attitudes. You teach, but you’re got to do research too, and you need to publish research papers and deliver presentations at conferences. You also have to forge industry partnerships. Then you are expected to bring in money to the university as well. Too too much for most mortals who wish to keep their sanity, especially mortals who consider their students to be their number one priority.
It gets worse the higher you go up the promotion ladder, because there gets to be an expectation that you will publish a certain number of papers each year.. and you are also expected to supervise PhD students.
Not that I mind doing any of these things. I actually find them all fun. I do think that after a time it becomes too too much, especially if, like me, you want to do each of them well. Your students need your time. Your research is also a faceless mistress with a whip.
I think it’s just that this kind of pressure has a use-by date. I know of too many academics who are in counselling or have gone bonkers. The great department heads understand this and try not to make the burden even more burdensome. My former boss at La Trobe University, Steinar Ellingsen understood this. He gave space.
When I was trying to decide whether to stay at RMIT, I vacillated. But the fact is that each time I made up my mind to leave, I felt the weight off the world lift. I smiled. Then when someone would suggest a way of making it possible for me to stay, that old weight came back. In the end I had to grow a pair and make the announcement I was not going to accept RMIT’s offer of a permanent job.
The Dean of the school has been great. She keeps asking to reconsider. I really appreciate that. But I’m going at the end of the year.
And I’m still smiling.
11.9.19 A great honour
I just found out that I have been given the inaugural JERAA teaching award.
It was for my work putting together the national election program in May, a program that involved 20+ universities and more than 150 people. It was broadcast in three capital cities and on community radio stations across the country.
JERAA [the Journalism Education & Research Association] decided to starting giving a teaching award only this year. So I’m the first.
I know how awards generally work. The Australian author Tim Winton once intimated to me that they are less about worthiness than about a whole cocktail of extraneous factors, perhaps lobbying, favouritism, luck. Possibly, but I see it as a kindness from a group of people who wish to support and bestow a thank you.
So thanks right back to Peter English, Andrew Dodd, Kayt Davies and all at JERAA for your kindness.
4.7.19 The Siren Call of Ulysses
Pretty snappy title, huh?
That was the name of the paper I delivered to PopCaanz yesterday. The point of it was that Homer’s Odysseus [see the entry of 2.7.19 for the etymology of the name] has so fascinated writers that The Odyssey has been adapted into a lot of formats, and parts of the story have been taken for use by many others, beginning with Aeschylus, who took King Agamemnon and turned him into the hero of one ion his most famous works.
Let’s have a look at how the bones of Odysseus have been reanimated over the millennia:
Virgil took one of the characters from the Iliad, the Trojan Aeneas, and wrote a sequel around this fictional character in his epic poem Aeneid. This work was itself the inspiration for another sequel The Thirteenth Book of the Aeneid by 15thcentury Italian writer Decembrio, effectively making this a sequel upon a sequel of a fictional character. Francois Fenelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus (1740) invents the travels of Odysseus’ son Telemachus across north Africa, Crete and Rhodes. Fenelon’s work takes some of Homer’s philosophy and expands it further into a morality play on leadership and friendship. This sequel spawned a sequel itself: Charles Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses (1841), which focusses on Odysseus’ state of mind as he overcomes his adversities. Another sequel is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel(1956), which begins moments after Homer’s original finishes. It takes the premise that although Odysseus has returned safely to Ithaca, he remains unfulfilled and soon leaves once more to find the meaning of his life. As of getting his kingdom, wife and home back just wasn’t quite enough..
The proliferation of such writings raises the question: Why does Homer’s The Odyssey continue to influence authors, playwrights and filmmakers to this day?
I can take a guess:
It’s about fighting for survival
It’s about finding your home
It’s about the struggle to achieve
It’s about good vs bad
It’s about protecting your family
It‘s a ripping adventure
What’s not to like?
2.7.19 PopCaanz and Ulysses
Or is it Odysseus?
I grew up thinking the warrior who outsmarted the Cyclops was Kirk Douglas’ Ulysses (pronounced with an accent on the “y”). Then came James Joyce with his Ulysses with an accent on the “U”.
That’s what happens when Hollywood meshes with the classics. Ulysses should probably be spoken with Joyce’s accent. Or maybe not, because Ulysses is latin for Odysseus, so if we are going to be purist here, we’d stick with the Greek version: Odysseus.
The Odyssey.. Odysseus. Get the it? The Romans may have taken over from the Greeks as far as empires and senates go, but please Mr Douglas and Mr De Laurtentiis, Greek is Greek, and Odysseus is Odysseus.
Still, it says something that this 3000 year old story is still being copied and remodelled to this day. Tomorrow I’m delivering a paper to the academic Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand about the world’s fascination with The Odyssey.
The more I researched for it, the more I found about sequels and treatments of the original story. Even the spaceship super-computer HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey gets a look in.
HAL as the Cyclops? Who would’ve thought?
29.6.19 Thank God for Florence
After my talk the other night I wrote that some Greek stories will have to die because the keepers of these stories will die without passing them on.
Florence is trying to stop this. Florence is a Kastellorizan woman who told me on the night of the talk at the Greek Community Centre two days ago that she is trying to get Kazzie women to tell their stories. She’s setting up a website where people can feel safe to contribute their stories safe from criticism from pissant historians.
She’s asked me to wrote down my mother’s story (Olga wasn’t a Kazzie herself). Florence thought Nellie was a wonderful story.
I never thought of that: putting her story into print… well.. beyond her presence in my novel and the play.
On reflection, Florence is right. Mum deserves her own story. She travelled with Olga to Greece in the late 1920s and suffered the privations of the time. She had a front seat to the deterioration of her parents’ marriage. Then she married too young, bore a baby while still in her teems, and nearly starved to make sure my sister Sylvia had enough food. The definition of a Greek mother. She could also be a little selfish, manipulative, and had an amazing capacity to play dumb. But she was the most loving person I have ever known.
Florence wants me to put my mother’s story into 5000 words. That’s a lot of words, but the more I think it, nowhere near enough.
I’ll see what I can do.
27.6.19 A Return to the Greeks
Tonight I delivered a paper to the Greek Community academic forum in Lonsdale St here in Melbourne. It was a night of surprises on a few levels. My supervisor, Chris Mackie came (and met Jac for the first time). It was quite something to be talking about Homer and Herodotus when the foremost expert in the field of ancient writers is in your audience. He laughed in all the right places, so I suppose I couldn’t have messed it up too much.
The other surprises came from the audience of Greeks. Mostly older people, some even old enough to remember the war. I will never tire of people queuing to speak to me after a talk. They all have their own stories about their experiences, or the experiences of their parents and grandparents. Secret histories that only stay alive as long as these people are alive. As with Olga, who could’ve died when my mum’s memory failed, these people carry the oral history of a time and place. I wish I could write all their stories.
But that’s impossible. Some stories will just have to die.
7.3.19 The Allure of Odysseus
This is the time of the year when academics and post-grad students are being courted by conference organisers around the world to present papers on their latest research.
Last June I went to Auckland and gave a paper to the academic Popular Culture Association of Australia & New Zealand (PopCaanz) conference about my journey writing Olga’s story. In the paper I talked about the issue of writing a true story when you don’t have a lot of certified facts. This brought in the methods of the Greek storyteller Homer and the Greek historian Herodotus, who both used oral history and (to a degree) folklore as the bases of their stories.
I have put in for the same conference this year, which is being held here at RMIT. I thought if I could go all the way to Auckland to deliver a paper for them last June, then I should at least walk 5 metres to do the same thing this year.
The question was, what should I talk about? Because of my new love affair with Homer, I thought I’d talk about the allure of The Odyssey.
Think about it. Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad have led to a proliferation of works across the three millennia since they were written. There’s been a huge range of variants and sequels to Homer’s work. Virgil’s Aeneid was an early sequel, which itself was the inspiration for another sequel The Thirteenth Book of the Aeneid by 15th century Italian writer Decembrio. Later writers also produced sequels to Homer’s work, such as Francois Fenelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus (1740), and this led to Charles Lamb’s The Adventures of Ulysses (1841). A 20th century sequel is Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1956), which begins moments after Homer’s original finishes.
The presentation would go through these varied sequels, adaptations and reworkings and asks the question: Why does Homer’s work continue to influence authors, playwrights and filmmakers to this day. What is it about this story that is so seminal in modern creative thought?
I may not give all the answers, but I might come up with a few.
25.2.19 The Convergence
Next week the teaching begins. Two courses. Both double subjects. One of them a new one that needs a lot of invention.
The PhD is also coming to a conclusion. The play has been workshopped and recorded and I’ve written the chapters of the accompanying exegesis (which is a thesis that explains the writing and researching process).
Last week I met with my supervisors Chris Mackie and Nasya Bahfen. It was a fruitful meeting, our first for a few months, and the first since the workshop. Chris had a few comments about my conclusion. He said that because this was such a personal process, I didn’t need to be too formal in the conclusion. He asked me how I felt about the workshop; what did I get out of it. I told him that it showed me that the play was not a disaster of hubris. I told him about the moments when we would finish a scene and there was silence from everyone: the director, the actors. This was a silence that could’ve been awful. People go quiet because they have no words, and in my experience they have no words for one of two reasons: they hate what has just happened; or they are emotionally affected. In those ten seconds I sat waiting for the verdict, then looked at the director Gary Young’s eyes and saw redness. The same with the actors. They were touched. My words had touched them.
So I told Chris that this emotional bridge was my biggest take-out. There were scripting flaws that we uncovered; stage directions that were impossible; time changes that were not explained properly, or the racial reference that I talked about in yesterday’s diary. These were relatively small things.. the mistakes that are fixed in workshops and rehearsals. But the emotion. That’s what we aim for.
So on there weekend I put that into my exegesis conclusion. I’ve made it less of a formal recap, and more of a reflection. I meet Chris on Thursday. I hope he likes it.
So now we’re getting to the convergence. The teaching, the PhD pre-submission process, the federal election TV show that I’m producing; the start tomorrow of my third year students doing their Aussie Rules TV program (The Rushed Behind) on Melbourne’s Channel 31 (Thursdays at 6pm is case you’re around).
If I don’t go crazy, this will be a pretty fabulous four months.
24.2.19 Is it Racism?
There came a moment in the workshop that I had completely forgotten about until I saw a story about Senator David Leyonhjelm. He was the guy who made allusions about the sexual looseness of a Greens senator. He claims he was not being sexist.
The memory it brought back was a moment in the workshop where Jac (playing Olga) questioned a line I had put in. Olga was explaining why she agreed to marry my grandfather in 1921 and leave the thriving, cosmopolitan Alexandria in Egypt.
One of the reasons was that she could get away from the “orientals, Sikhs and Ottomans”.
Jac said she wanted to talk about that line. The director, Gary Young, said he also flinched at that line.
I would like to say I put that in as a reflection of the times, and it was to give breadth to the character. But this wouldn’t be true. I did it because I thought it rang true. Alexandria was a place where east met west met north met cultural clashes. Australia was a contrast: it was white and was refusing to become anything else. The Olga that I wrote wanted to be away from all that Egyptian maelstrom.
Gary never said the line was racism (which it clearly was), but he did say it would give pause. It might even have audience members react to Olga negatively. It could distract, and thus destroy the import of the passage.
I agreed to take it out not with any heavy heart. I didn’t wanted a throwaway line to disrupt the flow for the audience.
On reflection, I don’t know whether I was wrong to take it out. Certainly a throwaway line can cause damage and alienate (as Leyonhjelm has found). It also reminded me of the time I met the great Australian WWII resistance fighter Nancy Wake. She was a woman who fought with the French resistance and was awarded and feted for her work. In fact a play about her is being staged in Melbourne this year. But when I think of Wake, I don’t remember so much of her heroism but something she said to me back in 1985.
I had organised her to come into out radio studio to be interviewed by Ita Buttrose. I got her address for the cab and realised that she lived in Lane Cove, the same suburb as me.
I mentioned this and she said: “Yes, it’s a lovely place, but there are too many bloody Chinese living there now.”
This horrified me at the time, and the fact that this throwaway line has stayed with me for more than 30 years speaks to the power of a line. She was a hero, but she in that moment became a flawed hero to me.
So maybe there’s something in what Jac and Gary said.
20.2.19 Putting it into Perspective
It’s been a while since I have written in this diary. The workshop finished three weeks ago and I have been working with graphics editor Dan Mavric to assemble the five camera shoot into a single video of the play. Doing all this takes one away from the play itself. You get focussed on the detail of the recording and the choice of camera angle. You may even get to the point where you don’t want to hear the words you have written anymore. I got to that stage.
This morning I started preparing for my PhD meeting tomorrow with my supervisors at La Trobe Uni. I thought it might be a good time to review the central chapter of the thesis: the one that deals with the actual writing of the play. That chapter had plenty of discussions about the workshop, but it needed life.
I went through some of the videos and photos I took of the workshop on my iPhone, and there was plenty that would fit in with the thesis. There was plenty of illustrative stuff such as when Gary Young directed scenes or made suggestions about changes to the script that brought my characters from page to life.
For the last four hours I have been splicing these illuminating moments into the thesis, and it’s given me a chance to re-evaluate the play.
I like this play. I love the interpretation given to it by the actors and by Gary’s direction. Barely a scene leaves me with dry eyes. Sometimes I’d look over my shoulder and see Jac watching the scene with me. Sometimes her eyes are as wet as mine.
These are the great moments for a writer.
27.1.19 Two Acts or Not Two Acts
I’m coming to understand the many dilemmas of playwrights. One of them is that decisions are rarely final.
In the exegesis which explains the adaptation of my novel into a play, I give a long explanation of my decision to make this a two act piece. I investigate a range of plays and musicals, examining their lengths, number of intervals, even whether, like the new Harry Potter play, it could feasibly be staged over consecutive nights. I found the shortest play in the world which runs something like 24 seconds, and the longest which has a duration of 24 hours. That’s some variation.
In the end I decided just to write the play. The length would be secondary. Once I had a story, I would then decide whether to have an interval.
As it turned out I had a natural place for an interval and it came roughly half way through the script: it was when Olga is arrested by the Gestapo. She has just received a letter from her family telling her that her daughter Nellie has moved to Darwin. Olga laments that her husband has sent Nellie to place so close to the Japanese who are in Singapore and New Guinea. Olga tells the audience that being far away in Greece she never realised her girl would be so close to danger. Then she says she didn’t realise that she herself was so close to danger. At this moment a German officer calls out that Olga is under arrest. Then comes the interval, and after the break Olga is in her cell explaining what happened to her. The story has taken a right turn.
On the last day of the workshop we recorded the first act right through, and we came to this arrest moment. We were about to start blocking (staging) the second act when the director, Gary, gave one of his umms, and when Gary gives an umm, you know something of consequence will follow.
“Phil, I’m just wondering whether we need an interval here.”
I said I thought it was the perfect place for the interval, and explained the reasoning about the right turn and the tension moment.
“No. I mean I don’t know if we need an interval at all.”
Gary went on to say that tension had built nicely to this point, and he wondered whether it would be a mistake to let the audience off the hook.
The first act had timed to 47 minutes. Gary said in the playing of the piece it was bound to be faster, maybe around 44 minutes. He said he was worried that was too short. He said that if the whole play ran under 100 minutes, then it was feasible to do it as a single act.
We agreed to leave it in two acts as this stage, but I admit it has been on my mind. I was proud of the crafting of the interval. I’m leaving it in, but we’ll see what happens when it is next revisited, be it by Gary or another theatre company.
26.1.19 Olga Plays a Game of Cards
I write this at a school market on Australia Day 2019. It’s a pretty apt day for my morning’s writing.
On the last day of the workshop on Thursday we looked at the Cairo scene. This was where Olga is in a British military base, having just accompanied the latest group of British and Australian soldiers out of occupied Greece to safety.
In the way I had written the scene, Olga was simply talking with an Australian soldier. For her, the flush of excitement at the rescue has passed and she reveals that she feels worthless. She has lost sight of the value of her work, and can just see it as an avoidance of what she believes she should really be doing: being a mother to her children. The soldier tries to persuade her of the value of her work. He does this by calling out that this is Olga and other soldiers gather around her, reminding her of how she saved them. This leads to the “Girls of my dreams” line that I mentioned in yesterday’s diary entry.
We ran though this scene and Gary Young asked me what Olga and her soldier are doing as they speak. Well I admit I had not really thought about that. I just imagined they weren’t actually doing anything. I pictured them standing among other soldiers, talking.
Obviously this wasn’t possible. This is a three-hander play. There was only one actor left to form the crowd. Gary suggested Olga and the soldier do something as they talk. What would soldiers do in a military base as they wait to be transferred?
Cricket, I suggested.
Gary laughed. Yes of course. We have three actors. That didn’t leave a lot of actors to play bowler and batsman.
I don’t remember who suggested a game of cards. It could’ve been Jac or Hannah, but it was brilliant. It was simple to stage, needed no more than two people and it was a most Australian of pastimes (apart from maybe two-up, but that is usually played as a big group, so that was out).
Cards it was, and we talked about what game it should be. Someone suggested 500, but in my mind it was already going to be poker, a simple five card version played between Olga and her soldier, the game we played at school on Melbourne Cup day. It helped that I knew the game. I had already written in the stage direction for it.
Gary suggested it be more than just stage directions. He thought I could go even further and write in some dialogue of card playing, interspersed with the heart-to-heart conversation.
This was an intriguing idea. A dual conversation within a conversation. This morning I wrote this in. Here’s an example:
Oh, yes. It was all planned. That’s why I came here. She was supposed to follow me. The contact went to her house to get her. But she told them she didn’t want to leave. She said Greece was her home, and she was going to stay there until the Germans were thrown out. You going to bet or are you going to sit there admiring your cards all day?
(Throws a brown coin in the middle.)
Tuppence. She sounds like a hell of a woman.
You see why I need to be with her. Meet you and raise you another.
She is a woman who knows her home. And I raise you.
(Pauses. Looks at his cards.)
Why don’t you go home? Sydney, isn’t it?
Jac and I read it together and she could see how this would work. It leaves plenty of interpretation for the actors, with plenty of room for physical acting and for change of tone within the single passage. I wrote it as a naturalistic passage that mirrors how many conversations actually run.
I must admit it was great fun to write this dialogue. I won’t get to see how it lifts off the page until the next time I get the piece into a room with a group of actors, but I hope they’ll have as much fun with it as I had writing it.
25.1.19 The Workshop ends. A New Beginning.
Last night I said goodbye to two people who have shared my grandmother’s story intensely. Actors Hannah Fredericksen and Stephen Mahy brought my characters alive: everyone from the fictional resistance fighter Stavros to the real life underground leader Lela Caryiannis became more than words on a page. With Jackie Rees as my grandmother Olga, and director Gary Young we all gave these people a soul, motivating them, emoting them, physicalising them. The Australian soldier who is reunited with Olga in a Cairo military base screams out “Girl of my dreams!” and makes Olga flush at the memory of their innocent flirtation in Pireaus. It was probably innocent. I don’t know. I invented the character and the incident. I will leave that decision to the audience. Or more rightly to the individual audience member. As the audience yesterday, I believed that this soldier and Olga shared a war experience together and shared a closeness that only this kind trial can bring. It was beautiful to see in front of me.
As we come to the close of the workshop, it looked as though we were gaining to do the impossible: record on our five TV cameras a run of the entire play after only two and a half days of planning, staging and blocking. We got to 5.40pm, twenty minutes from the end, and we had only four pages to go, with most of these pages being simple with only one or two actors on stage.
Then Gary called a stop. He wanted to go back four pages. For a moment I wanted to cry out a ‘no!’ Of course I didn’t. Gary had been niggled by something. He wasn’t going to let that niggle go.
We were at a point where it was coming to the climax of the play. Olga had suppressed her memory of what destroyed her marriage, the same memory to forced her out of Australia and over to Greece. In the build up to this climax I had put in a lighter scene. It was only small, five or six lines, but Hannah and Jac played it for its full potential. All of us: Gary, Stephen and me were hysterical with laughter at how beautifully they did it.
Then Gary asked the question that had stopped our recording: Is this scene appropriate?
In that story we are about to learn of one of the great tragedies that could affect a woman. And we are having a laugh? I said that I had written it with buffers on each side, passages that take us back into the lead up to the tragedy. I was sure it was all right.
Gary pressed on. He wasn’t so sure. The build to a climax is a delicate thing. Tension is a powerful thing. Releasing tension in a play is often good, but only in the ebb and flow of a play. The build to the climax is something on its own. You don’t mess with it. You don’t give the audience a break.
It still wasn’t convinced. Then I remembered that the climax this memory play followed Olga starting to remember the awful truth, and this truth was in her wartime diary. She had suppressed it. I had her scrabbling through her diary to find that memory, and the build up was her telling the story as she found it in her diary.
Yes, Gary was right. This was not the time for a funny aside. This was a woman facing a mother’s torment. A mother would be telling us in the manner of a confession: the more she tells, the more power there must be in her story.
That aside, there were been plenty of other developments that have been really useful for the play, many of them written into the script as we went along.
One thing that this experienced director said half way through the day was that he felt this could work better as a single act play. Take out the interval and make it a 90 minute single-sitting story. He said the story built gently and increased tension. He it would be shame to waste that with an interval. I will look at this.
With all this development, the play is something stronger and something that can staged. Gary has made it so it can be staged, and the forty (or so) characters and their quick changes can be managed by three actors on a simple set.
For three days my grandmother Olga lived. I never knew her, but this week I came as close as I ever have to having her in the same room with me. What a privilege.
24.1.19 How an Actor can Save a Script
I had one of those dreadful moments in the workshop yesterday. I actually had my head in my hands.
The moment came about ten minutes into the staging of the script. We were at the place where the young Olga is acting in her first play. I had written her as an extremely shy, stuttery and nervous girl. She flubs her line again and again, and I had written this as a stutter where she just can’t get the words out. On the page it looked okay. On the floor it looked forced.
This is where the experience of the players and director kicked in. Gary asked Jac to do it again, this time having Hannah and Stephen acting as the play’s slave girl and guard. It was smoother. Jac asked if she could drop one of the stutters. Fine by me. Even smoother. They played it with the stutter becoming more of a forgotten line. Hannah had her slave girl acting as the prompter, then a frustrated prompter, slapping her forehead as Olga kept fluffing the line. This little vignette, which was only ever intended to show Olga as a nervous girl out of her depth, became a hysterically funny scene, ending with Olga running off stage and the actors playing the slave girl and the guard miming whispered complaints about this young failed would-be actress.
As I looked at my script later that night I realised Gary, Hannah, Jac and Stephen hadn’t changed a single word or added a single word. They had taken my script and interpreted it.
In my exegesis to the play I explain how the interpretative collaborative process was central to the play’s development. It wasn’t until yesterday that I saw just how much this meant.
23.1.19 The First Day’s Michelangelo Effect
Eight hours in a black room with three actors and a director. Doesn’t sound too enticing.
It was however the fastest eight hours of my life. We read the play, had a discussion, then the director Gary Young took us through the first act in detail.
There were gratifying moments, like just after the last words at the end of the play were spoken. The room was still. Not a word.
Gary, Hannah and Stephen were all looking down at their scripts. Was it a failure? Jac and I were in tears, touched by the final rapprochement of Nellie to her mother. But Jac and I knew Nellie, and have lived with this story. Whether there would be tears in the eyes of others was the question.
Yes indeed. It was a silence, but a good silence. The ending did it for them all.
Gary went on to say he thought the monologues (my biggest concern) worked. He also thought the writing of the other parts was effective.
He had a concern about whether the audience would follow the changing timelines though. I have Olga set in 1960, remembering the events of her life. In one scene she jumps back to 1915, then 1929, then to the war. Now to my mind this is logical. But will be audience understand this jump, particularly when her long-dead husband suddenly appears?
So we read again, always asking whether the time movement was comprehensible. I never want exposition, or the rough shoehorning of dates. For example when a character says: “We are in the middle of the Great Depression and you want to buy a new coat..”
Gary’s experience was invaluable here. He was able to make small suggestions that clarified timelines. Sometimes a line would be moved around. Sometimes the movement between dates was deleted, and a character from the past just turned up as a ghost figure on Olga’s shoulder, a memory in 1960.
There was just one passage, five lines, that was largely excised. It was when Olga’s sister talks to her. As I wrote it, it posed too many questions: what year is this? Why is she here? I was fond of this passage as it was written. But Gary was right. I kept the essential lines but put the pencil through most of it. And like Michelangelo chipping away at his block of stone to reveal the statue that he always knew was there, the words fell together as if they were always meant to fall that way.
The workshop is proving to be everything I had hoped.
22.1.19 The Workshop Begins
Today Lady of Arrows goes to workshop.
It’s the first real time to test out the script and see whether it holds together as a theatre piece. We have already had two readings, but it’s not the same as having three actors and a director in charge of the proceedings. I will be an observer for lot of this as director Gary Young sits with the four of us in RMIT TV Studio A.
We will sit around a table, and at times the actors will get up and play out the parts. Pencils and sharpeners will be in keen use, I think.
For young actors Hannah Fredericksen and Stephen Mahy it’s a big ask. They have to play seventeen roles each. The biggest role is Jac’s. She plays Olga. I have already written how she has been working on her characterisation. Just yesterday she borrowed two books about the Greek goddess Artemis from the Port Phillip library (Artemis, the Goddess of the Hunt, is the spiritual impetus for the character of Olga, and the inspiration or the play’s name).
A couple of days ago she came in from her studio in tears. Usually when she cries like this it’s because she’s trodden on a worm or something. This time she cried because of the play’s ending. As any playwright will tell you, these kinds of moments are the great ones.
The game begins.
18.1.19 The Nub of the Issue
Last night I was reading Kristin Williamson’s biography of her husband, the Australian playwright David Williamson. I got that biography in 2009 when I was working at the ABC. I interviewed Kristin, which I remember was a fairly frank discussion about her husband. It was frank because in the book she outlines the travails of their marriage including infidelities on both sides (which is a shame because, frankly, who cares whether David got his jollies one night in 1973 with a friend in a London hotel room). But apart from these trouserless escapades there was plenty to discuss, chief among them the man’s writing.
Kristin’s great achievement with this book is an appraisal of the playwright’s journey, and this appraisal she doesn’t do alone. David and Kristin have many thespian friends, and they were willing to discuss his work. This was great for me.
So I was in the bath doing my decade-delayed read and I came, pretty early in the book, to a quote that hit the nail about the difference between writing for reading and writing for performance.
Kristin quotes actor Max Gillies (the man who brought us so many piss-takes of Bob Hawke and Sir John Kerr), who tells of how David Williamson has a singular rhythm to the words in his scripts, and this can be difficult to follow when reading the words on the page:
“ A lot of his words don’t fall naturally. His sentences are ungrammatical and repetitive, his syntax is confusing, he can be long winded.. you spend a good deal of time struggling with it.”
Gillies goes on to say that when these words are acted on stage..
“.. it becomes so totally natural and convincing that it seems there’s no other way of saying something.”
Yes. There is no requirement for the script to be able to be read like a novel, quietly in bed late at night. A play is a performance work, and the test of the writing lies in whether it succeeds as storytelling when read out aloud, acted and presented on stage.
The workshop is next week. We shall see whether I have made this transition.
10.1.19 Artemis and the death wish
Okay. So Artemis is playing a bigger and bigger role in this play. Jac’s research into this Greek Goddess of the Hunt uncovered more and more about her (see entry for 9.1.19).
Last year I wrote in a reference to Artemis early in the play. The quote was from The Odyssey and seemed to fit right in with the moment for Olga when the past has just caught up with her with the arrival of her wartime diary. It is 1960. In my fiction, her comrade, Stavros has just died. His son found Olga’s diary in his father’s boatshed. While his mother wants all trace of Olga destroyed, the son secretes the diary out and sends it to Olga. This act clears the Greek family of Olga, but it brings the war back to her:
“Was it a long sickness, or did Artemis of the arrows come upon you with her painless shafts..” (The Odyssey VI, 172)
In this play Artemis is not just the hunter of the enemies of Greece. Here Artemis fires arrows that pierce a heart, enliven memories, force a reckoning of deeds long past.
Having played such a central role in the movement of this story, I decided that Artemis needed to return at the climax to finish what she started. This had to come at the climax of the story, when wartime Olga discovers that her family has been lost to her; that they believe her dead, that her husband has remarried and has had more children with someone else.
In a matter of moments, Olga’s hopes are no more. She crashes.
I just found a reference that fits this scenario perfectly:
“That was a strange thing, that soft sleep that shrouded me. How I wish chaste Artemis would give me a death so soft, and now.” (The Odyssey XIII, 201)
This quote will be read by one of the actors. My idea is to have it as a voice from offstage, but this will be a matter for the director. We’ll see what happens in the workshop.
As for Olga, she will go on serving the resistance, but at this point in my telling of her story her attitude has changed. She takes risks. She challenges German officers. Never stupidly of course. But she says things and acts in the way of a woman who knows no fear. It may be remarkable that she is not killed during this time. Perhaps having a death wish is what keeps her alive if she acts in a way contrary to the enemy’s expectations.
Perhaps. She made it out of the war when so many didn’t.
9.1.19 The Need to Know More
Ever since I called the play Lady of Arrows the links to Greek mythology have been almost falling into my lap.
This week Jac started reading the play in prep for the workshop which is only two weeks away. Early in the piece I have a quote from The Odyssey about Artemis, who I have mentioned was the inspiration behind the name of the play. Now, Jac is a back story kind of actor, She needs to know more. For example, when she played Madame Giry, the ballet mistress in Phantom of the Opera, she needed to know what kind of woman Giry was. She read the original book, and finding little in that, she invented her best guess as to what motivated this character. Every decision she made informed her portrayal. While many other actors had Giry as a taut, somewhat bitter woman, Jac played her just as severely, but with a sympathetic heart. This gave Jac space to give contrast to the character. It must’ve worked because she was called back to do three years of Asian tours and two Australian tours of the production.
So when Jac saw the quote from The Odyssey she thought perhaps the legend of Artemis might offer her an insight into Olga. Jac found research by Jean Bakula which went into the character of Artemis. It read:
“She had good archery skills and a great love of wildlife, so was continually surrounded by a group of hunting dogs and assorted animals. The Greeks felt that although Artemis hunted, she never did so with cruelty. She hunted for food to sustain life, especially the difficult one she chose to live in the wilderness. Artemis hunted down those who tried to kill pregnant animals, because that would interfere with Earth’s replenishment. Animals are also associated with Artemis as her symbols or familiars. Although she did much to protect them, the deer and the bear were very dear to her. Since the bear is known to be the fiercest mother, this animal seems a good symbol for a goddess who protected women so well.”
There were references in there to elements which crop up in the play.. cruelty, protection, revenge, living in the wilderness, motherhood, fighting.
I had chosen Artemis because she was the Goddess of the Hunt. But serendipity struck with Jac’s research, a serendipity which might just give us a deeper look into our characterisation of my grandmother.
Olga may be Jac’s Artemis. Almost without realising it, Artemis may always have been my Olga.
22.12.18 A month to the workshop
In one month Lady of Arrows will face its next test: a workshop in Melbourne’s RMIT TV studio with actors Jackie Rees (playing Olga), Hannah Fredricksen and Stephen Mahy.
While Jac will be in every scene, Stephen and Hannah will have some heavy lifting too. They’ll each be playing 17 parts, sometimes with very quick turnarounds. Seventeen sounds a hell of a lot, and it is a hell of a lot for an actor. Even though some characters will only have one or two lines, there’s the physicality to consider. They’ll both be shifting between sexes, perhaps from a German interrogator to a Greek woman; or from a British pilot to the woman who heads the Greek rescue service.
At this moment Hannah and Stephen have their scripts, and are probably pining for the days when a character was just that: one character.
Still, I’ve written this play with a lot of fun in it. I hope it turns out that way in the workshop. Three intense days culminating in a visual recording of a reading of the play, all helmed by director Gary Young.
This is a great time as a writer.
13.12.18 A new name.. thanks to Homer
“It’s funny how the least little thing amuses him.”
This was one of Roger Moore’s more successful lines as James Bond. In the film Live and Let Die, henchman Tee Tee has taken Moore’s gun and, using a hook-hand, has impossibly twisted the Walther PPK into a scrunched mess. Moore delivers the line with raised eyebrow as he delivers the mangled gun into a bin.
Today I take this line and twist it into: “Funny how the least little thing can cause apprehension.”
I’m talking about the name for the play. Unbroken was only ever going to be placeholder.. a working title. But coming up with a more permanent name was proving harder than any other element in the playwriting process.
After some weeks of thinking about a title, the only thing that seemed to resonate was: The Diary. It was a pleasant enough title, but to someone who didn’t know the Stambolis story, it would mean as much as calling it The Play.
So I did what I always do when flummoxed. I went for a walk. Sans headphones.
Somewhere between my street and Marwin’s cafe in Balaclava, a voice came to me saying, “Go to Homer.”
So I went to Homer. The Odyssey had provided so much inspiration over the years, and once again Homer came to help. Short phrases in the saga cropped up all over the place:
A Time for Sleeping (Odyssey Book XI, 379)
The Queens of the Past (Odyssey Book XI, 220)
Of Mortals and Gods (Odyssey Book I, 28)
Honey mixed with Milk (Odyssey Book X, 519)
Souls of the Perished (Odyssey Book X, 530)
The Brazen Spears (Odyssey Book XI, 40)
The Soul of my Companion (Odyssey Book XI, 50)
Beneath the Fog and the Darkness (Odyssey Book XI, 57)
The Edge of the Roof (Odyssey Book XI, 64)
The Sweet Homecoming (Odyssey Book XI, 100)
The Shaker’s Grudge (Odyssey Book XI, 102)
The Oar in the Ground (Odyssey Book XI, 129)
The Arrows of Artemis (Odyssey Book XI, 172)
The Lady of Arrows (Odyssey Book XI, 198)
All the Heroes Round (Odyssey Book XI, 288)
Bound by Hard Destiny (Odyssey Book XI, 292)
Some of these could be adapted to suit the story, such as A Time for Sleeping, which could become A Time for Waking, since the play is about Olga remembering her wartime activities after 15 years of memory slumber. I liked this title, but it still sound generic to me, and I was wary of being generic ever since I titled the original novel Someone Else’s War. I really should have been more inventive than that.
Souls of the Perished fitted so perfectly, since Olga was remembering so many people who had died. They were coming back to her in her memories, perhaps hauntings. But it’s a downer of a title. You’d hardly take your new best friend on a date to see something with a title like this.
I don’t like too do this much, but I asked Jac and the director Gary what they thought of the alternatives. Jac wasn’t a huge fan of A Time for Waking. She thought it would mean nothing to a prospective audience.
Gary liked it, but his favourite was The Lady of Arrows, which he suggested be simply Lady of Arrows. Thinking about it, this title has much to commend it. Olga was in her way an Artemis (Goddess of the Hunt). The arrows of the past have been fired at her through her wartime diary that has so suddenly turned up in the mail. Gary even brought up a Shakespearean allusion: “The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune..”
That’ll do me nicely, I think.
7.12.18 The Way to Live a Life
In the post the other day I got my first edition of Arthur Miller’s play A View from the Bridge. The edition was published in 1955 around the time the play was first produced in New York. The thing I love about Miller’s books is not just the fabulous playwriting, but the reflections he offers as a forward in the book . In the treatise for this play Miller writes:
“Especially for the Greek, a dramas created for public performance had to be ‘social’. A play to him was by definition a dramatic consideration of the way men ought to live.”
The way men ought to live.
This line spoke to me. While Someone Else’s War was a story about Olga the spy and the reasons why she got there, it was also the story of the times. It was immediate. When something happened, we were told, either in first person through Olga’s diaries, or in third person with the other characters who were out of Olga’s eyesight.
The play Unbroken is different. It is set fifteen years after the war. Olga is in Sydney, having been in denial of the war for a long time. She is forced to remember her wartime adventures by the arrival of her diary, sent to her from Athens by the son of a wartime comrade.
This remembering becomes a reflection on her life and how she lived it. With the space of so many years, and the vacuum of the elapsed years, she tells the audience more than just facts; she judges herself. The subtext of her thinking is: have I lived the life I ought to have lived?
In the first scene she says:
“But there is one question that I can’t answer. Won’t answer. The one they don’t really want to know the answer to: ‘Why did you leave us? Why did you go to Greece when we needed you the most?’ Everyone asks. Even if they don’t ask, they ask with their eyes. They even ask in the way they turn their eyes away.”
I am writing no Ancient Greek drama. I am certainly not writing a Milleresque play. But Miller’s words instruct. Plays that can consider the way people ought to live can offer resonance. In the case of Unbroken, it can do what Miller says the oldest dramas did: take the Olga character and give it context, give it assessment. It gives Olga her own chance to do that. Was her life lived well? As an author I can only surmise, but it is this surmising that gives a value to the adaptation. It is not just a retelling for stage. It is a critical self-analysis. The audience can leave knowing something of Olga’s long-distance view of herself. Then, from that perspective, they too can make their judgements.
1.12.18 The eNovel is back, with Julie
Yesterday I wrote that the publisher of the ebook version of Someone Else’s War had collapsed. Because of this, the book was taken off iTunes.
I spent the last little while reworking the manuscript into a second edition, correcting a few factual and typographical errors.
I also fixed something that has been niggling me since it was first put on iTunes seven years ago: the cover.
My good friend, graphic artist Julie Ramsden designed a beautiful cover for the novel back in 2011.
Unfortunately I got some advice from within the industry that the cover could be improved with some changes. At the time I took this advice and had an artist from a small firm play with it.
Stupid me. The power of the original cover was lost. The beautiful sepia tones of the Ramsden original were diminished. The strength of my grandmother’s face was lost.
Now that I have put the new edition of the eBook back on iTunes, I reverted to the original cover.
The book is now up on iTunes again. And Julie gets the credit that she deserves.
30.11.18 The loss of a great publisher
Some months ago my publisher, Dennis Jones went out of business.
Dennis is a lovely bloke with a lovely idea. His idea was to subvert a dying publishing industry by supporting emerging writers. He knew that there were many good books out there that were not getting contracts because publishers were finding it hard to make a profit. Authors were being driven to vanity publishers.. paying huge sums to have a small, sometimes disreputable company print and distribute the book. Dennis gave these authors a lifeline. He was much more open to distribute the work of less established authors. And it seemed to be working. He published the works of many authors who went on to do greater things, like the much-loved Jackie French.
He was with me right though the critical phase getting Someone Else’s War into the bookshops. It was only because of Dennis and his extensive distribution team that I could walk into a Crows nest bookshop and see my novel there on the front shelf. He also, though his Port Campbell Press, put out an ebook version of the novel on iTunes.
Unfortunately, the pressures of this tumultuous industry and his willingness to support books that didn’t sell finally claimed Dennis’ company.
I hope that Dennis can now get some breathing time. He’s given so much to the industry and to authors. I still remember his words as I told him my book was getting notice in commercial media and the mainstream press, driving it to a second printing:
“Keep on fighting the good fight.”
Words of a man focussed on others.
Thank you Dennis.
28.11.18 La Trobe grants some help
Putting on the workshop in January is going to be quite a task. Three days of readings, direction, learning for the three actors. Three days of planning and designing by the director Gary Young.
Too many times these days, actors and directors are expected to provide their services free of charge. The producer simply offers that if the production goes ahead commercially they will be strongly considered to offered the roles they took in the workshop.
The truth is that this is a promise that may not come true. Circumstances change. A new director may be appointed by the theatre company producing the play. This new director might have other ideas about who they want acting in the play. Or the play may never be produced.
All this means that the actors who have slaved (and it is slaving) to do a good workshop may be donating their time and never see a financial benefit. This is wrong.
For my workshop the actors and the director will be paid. It will only be equity minimum, but it will be paid. They deserve it, and they deserve more.
Today I found out that the university through which I am doing my PhD, La Trobe in Melbourne, has just agreed to a small grant to help pay the actors and director.
This fantastic news means that the financial burden is off my back, and now I can focus on producing the best possible workshop. It also means if there are other expenses, I will be in a much better position to pay them.
Thank you to Merran Hunt and the Internal Research Grant Scheme at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe for this gift. Lovely people.
18.11.18 The student gives back
Jac has been struggling with Olga.
Not with the character. Not with the writing.
It’s the voice. Jac’s playing Olga in the readings and the workshop, and being the kind of character actor that she is, she wants to make everything about Olga authentic. This means the little things that add up to big things. Posture. Gestures. Cadence of speech. The way her lines are spoken.
You see we all have verbal habits. It’s in the way we emphasise, and it’s in the way we throw away words. My mum used to throw away words like a maestro. She could even show disdain in the way in which she said ‘hello’ to someone she didn’t like. It was more than subtle. People would never know whether this was actually dismissiveness or not. The art was in the indefiniteness of the dismissal (my mum would never outwardly hurt someone).
Jac watched my mum for twenty-five years. She put a bit of what she saw in her Madame Giry in Phantom of the Opera, possibly without knowing it. And again in her Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. Strong characters that needed a definite manner. My mum’s manner, I thought.
In a way watching my mum was good for Jac as she prepared to play Olga, because it was mum who was the closest to Olga. Mum was her eldest daughter, and knew her longer than anyone else. Some mannerisms had to trickle down.
But there is more to being Olga than a turn of phrase or the way she stands erect, and this is Jac’s problem. Olga was born in Athens, and brought up in Alexandria in Egypt. As a child she played with the Greek royal princess. As a young mother she lived in Ultimo in Sydney, serving fish and chips to wharfies and the men from the sugar plant down the road.
So the question, with all these influences, what would her accent have been like?
In the first couple of readings of the play, Jac’s accent searched for an anchor, at times sounding a little like a Jewish dowager from Prussia; at times there was a return to Phantom’s French Madame Giry. Impressive, powerful accents, but probably hardly what Olga would have sounded like. My mum had no Greek accent. She could speak Greek, but being born in Sydney, her Australian voice sounded about as Greek as a girl descended from the First Fleet. So there was no help there.
Then we went to the opening night of the Greek Film Festival. Jac met one of my students, a Greek woman named Christina, who was there to interview me for community radio as one of her assignments (I was launching the opening night film).
Somehow Jac and Christina started talking about the character of Olga, and Jac saw something in Christina’s accent. It wasn’t an Aussie Greek accent. It was European, strong and definite, a mix of influences.
Christina has recorded her voice reading the opening monologues of the play. Jac is having a weeks’ break in Byron Bay, and has taken the recording with her to see what kind of accent she can make of it, perhaps mixing it in with mum’s wrangling of phrases.
What comes out of it may not be Olga’s accent, but we’re betting it is something that tells of a woman who has travelled; a woman who would brook nothing from anyone.
That’s got to be a great place to start.
12.11.18 Finding Olga’s voice
The first job of a playwright, once the story is plotted, is to find a voice.
For my play, I wanted the voice to be Olga’s. But which Olga? Olga the wartime spy? Olga the young mother? I chose to have Olga tell this story retrospectively, from the place of an older woman, remembering her life as her life comes towards its end.
Olga died suddenly in 1960. She was either 56 (her official age) or 54 (her ego age). I decided to set the play a few months before her death. Her voice therefore is one of an older woman, fifteen years removed from war, who has had fifteen years to contemplate the death, betrayal and loss of the war. She is a woman who has found her family again, and to a degree, her self-acceptance.
This is an Olga who I never knew, but from what I have been told of her, this was a woman who was in-your-face, funny, strong and striking. I wanted these elements to come through in every word. For example, below is a monologue taken from the first scene where she talks about how she has reversed roles with her daughter Freda, who has provided her with a home:
She’s always asking me questions though.. and always at the wrong time. ‘Is it true you blew a man’s head off with a shotgun’, ‘Did you really stab a German and he bled to death all over you?’ Where do you think she asks me? At the dinner table. We’re eating our meatballs. So what do I do? I tell them. Then everyone turns green. Little George even vomited into his soup once. Okay, maybe I go into too much detail. They asked. But there is one question that I can’t answer. Won’t answer. The one they don’t really want to know the answer to: ‘Why did you leave us? Why did you go to Greece when we needed you the most?’ Everyone asks. Even if they don’t ask, they ask with their eyes. They even ask in the way they turn their eyes away.
As the play moves through the scenes to the Act II climax, Olga will develop. She will face demons and be forced to remember the things she tried to forget. Her voice will also change as she remembers.
It’s a pretty fabulous going on this trip with her.
8.11.18 Odysseus, Homer and Kazantzakis
As I finalise my play for the next reading, I remember the words of my PhD supervisor Chris Mackie from way back in the early days. He told me that Olga’s story had so many parallels with those of Odysseus in The Odyssey.
Like Odysseus, Olga was away from home for a long time during and after the war, struggling to return, but never quite getting there. In Odysseus’ case, it was a matter of Cyclops and Sirens holding up his return to Ithaca. For Olga, it was the Nazis and the marriage of her husband to another woman back in Australia. In a way it was as if the gods had decreed that she would never get home. But that was where the many parallels end, because Odysseus did make it home, slay his wife’s many powerful suitors, and take back the throne. Olga too did get back to her family, but in one of the most poignant facets of the Olga story, she never was to get back to her husband. He died while she was on the boat home from Greece in 1952.
Odysseus may have rejoined his Penelope, but from my reading of the last books of the story, he was never quite content. Nearly three millennia after Homer, Nikos Kazantzakis went on to write a sequel to The Odyssey, where Odysseus resumes his travels, eventually dying in a foreign land an old, unfulfilled man. There was no happy ending.
Likewise Olga lived another few years, living in a little room at the back of her daughter Freda’s home in eastern Sydney. No-one seems too know if she was fulfilled in these last years. I am told she was confident and powerful, but did she have the end-of-life that she wanted?
It makes you realise that you may know facts about someone, but what lies in their heart is something else again. In the cases of the mighty warrior Odysseus and the clever actor spy Olga, we will see only they choose to let us see. We can only guess what lies within.
30.10.18 Thanks to the Beatles
Today I presented a paper on the progress of the PhD. My supervisors, some former colleagues and a senior researcher came to hear me talk about my PhD, which included a backgrounding of Olga’s story and the issue of telling true stories in a fictional context. This was one of the milestones in my PhD progress.
As I said, there were researchers present, but there was also a well known author. Garry Disher is the author of fifty books, both adult crime and books for young people. After I finished my spiel, there was time for questions. There were plenty of incisive queries about my process and the plan for the PhD. Then Garry asked me: in converting a story from a novel to a play, how do you decide what to keep and what to discard.
This question made me realise just what kind of journey I had been on with this adaptation. It was originally just going to be a conversion from book to stage, but it didn’t work out that way. Pretty early in the writing process I realised that the point-of-view needed to change from that of the novel. The audience needed to have someone on stage to lead them through the story; they needed a point of reference. This narrator, I decided, would be Olga herself. I also chose to tell the story in retrospect. It would open in 1960 (many years after the novel had concluded) and she would remember the events of her life and the war.
At times when you’re on a twisted journey as an adapting playwright, you forget about the day-to-day decisions you have made; about the little things that collectively re-route the direction and style of your work.
It took Garry’s simple question to make me realise that 6 months away from my final PhD submission, I have had a huge convoluted trip to get this far. No doubt with the further readings and workshops, my little bus is still on its Magical Mystery Tour.
19.10.18 Prepping for the workshop
The great news is that we might have a studio where we can run our three day workshop of the play. I have been investigating whether we can use one of the big TV studios at RMIT in Melbourne. Luke, who manages the studios, says it is possible that our state-of-the-art Studio A is free of bookings for January (which is not a great surprise considering that university staff and students are mostly in Acapulco or Disneyland during the year’s break).
Having the TV studio would be wonderful because it would mean we could be able to record the final day’s reading of the play, giving us a record of the play which I’d be able to submit with the exegesis for my PhD.
Now I’ve just got to sort funding for the actors. But overall, things are skipping along!
13.10.18 The First Director’s read
At last the play has had its first read with director Gary Young.
Jac played Olga and Gary read the stage directions, while both Gary and I read the two subsidiary roles.
Gary had comments and suggestions, but these were mainly about how each new character is introduced.
At this stage the play has a lot of movement. In the first act the time moves between 1960 in Sydney (the baseline for the play), then back to 1942, 1913 and 1936.
I went through a moment when I thought he was saying that I had not been clear about changes, or structure, but as it worked out, he was not. He just wanted stage notes in the script so the actors could understand more about the characters they were playing. Gary wanted them to know whether the characters are ghosts in the mind of the 1960 Olga (and thus bring with them the taint of unreality that a memory might bring), or whether they were actually depicting a true event.
So it was about stage notes. Surprisingly little of the script was changed.
And at the end of the read there was silence. From all three of us. Every time I reach the end of this script I cry. It depicts a gentle moment between my mother and her mother, a moment of rapprochement after an estranged sixteen years.
Jac was teary. I think I even saw a twinkle in Gary’s eye.
I hope I wasn’t imagining it.
15.8.18 You are not alone
Support is a wonderful thing.
A few weeks ago I gave the second draft of the play to director Gary Young. Gary is an award-winning writer and director. Here in Australia he won the inaugural Richard Pratt prize for a new Australian musical, and his treatment of the Jekyll & Hyde story won an Andrew Lloyd Webber competition in the U.K. for funding to stage the production some years back.
Gary has been a supporter of the Olga story from the earliest drafts of the novel, but for a playwright it is always a brave thing to pass one’s work onto someone for comment.
I saw Gary the other night, and his reaction was more than I could’ve hoped. He said he loved the work and said there was some beautiful writing in the script. I didn’t discuss specifics with him (it wasn’t the time or place), but as a writer, the joys of such moments stay with you, probably for the rest of your life.
21.5.18 Timing it out
It’s time for me to time the play. You can count words. You can look at the number of pages in a play. But until you actually have a reading of the thing, you really don’t know how long it will go. I have had nightmares where the play has run four hours. That would be a nightmare in itself. For the actors, director and the theatre.
So last night Jac and I did our first ‘out aloud’ reading. She read the character of Olga. I read all the other parts.
Along the way, a few little typos and errors came up, which I could mark or fix on the run. There were also a parts where it seemed to drag.. usually sections where Olga spoke to the audience. I found two places where the scenes would work better acted out. The first was when she was arrested and taken to jail. The second was when a flyer she rescued came to the Stambolis shop in Ultimo and told the family that Olga was alive. I have been working on converting these from speech to action, and already they are looking so much stronger.
Of course the main aim of the reading was to time it out. I was surprised. Pleasantly.
The first act came out at forty-two minutes, and the second was forty-seven. The play will be amended more, especially with the full readings and workshops, but at a starting point, these are good, workable durations.
11.5.18 To the play
The hard thing about doing an exegesis PhD is the fact that you are doing two disparate types of writing at the same time. One part is the thesis itself. It is an argument, an academic explanation of the process of the producing the artwork. This needs to be done in a style that a PhD marker will require. The second type of writing is different, especially in my case, because the style of a play is the opposite to that of an exegesis. In a play you need to tell a story through the voice of your characters. They can be informal. They can be loose. They need not justify what they say. They can, in fact, be unreasonable. There may not be words at all. You will see the story as much as hear it.
Yesterday my PhD supervisors Chris and Nasya told me they were happy with the exegesis part of the PhD. It was now time to focus on the play.
What a blessing. I admit it’s been hard to switch between the two. If I had been writing the exegesis argument, and then go to the play, suddenly Olga’s voice becomes more formal (because that’s where my writing style had been). If I do the reverse and go from play to exegesis, the exegesis takes on a chatty tone, which markers hate.
Now I can live Olga’s voice exclusively for a while. I’m looking forward to it.
30.4.18 Aristotle’s complexity
Here’s yet another parallel with the ancients. These just keep coming up.
My PhD supervisor Chris Mackie lent me his very worn and yellowed copy of Aristotle’s On the Art of Poetry. This is a ripping read, especially for someone engaging in the writing of a performance piece. Aristotle talks about the nature of theatre, drama and comedy. One quote I picked out of it was the following:
” ..the structure of tragedy at its best should be complex, not simple.”
Aristotle even goes as far as to say some critics of his day considered that a “double thread of plot” the best way of presenting a story.
My grandmother’s tale is, as Aristotle might have approved, a complex story. It is a story with several strands: the war story; the Australian home story; the story of Stambolis’ childhood.
My source novel, Someone Else’s War, told the story with multiple threads. It is a broad book that covers two continents (Europe and Australia) with a variety of settings in each. In Australia the scenes are in three cities: Sydney, Darwin, the country town of Moree. There are also several scenes in side locations, such as a little shop in Ultimo in Sydney The Greek Club, the Markets, Nellie’s rental house in Mosman, the Deaf Institute, the Greek debutante’s ball, and Pyrmont Bridge. In Europe the action moves between Athens, Thessaloniki, Florence, Alexandria and country Greece. There are certainly multiple threads. My question is how does a necessarily complex plot stay on the right side of being confusing for an audience, which will only hear and see the story once in a theatre.
I have, in the second draft, tried to make the play more linear than the novel. have I succeeded? I guess I won’t know until the first reading of the play, which is not that far away.
19.4.18 Really Going the Way of the Ancients
I’ve just had another freak out moment with my supervisor Chris Mackie.
After telling him that I have been converting the play from a one-hander into a three-hander, he said this was an extraordinary parallel with the ancients. He told me that originally, Greek drama had no lead actors. There was just a Greek chorus who told the story. Then one actor.. the original protagonist.. stepped out front to tell the story with the help of the chorus. So far, this mirrored my original vision for the play.
Then comes the Twilight Zone bit.
As Greek theatre developed, other members of the Greek chorus stepped out too. How many? Two more. Greek plays went from being one-handers to three-handers. Just the way I have developed the play.
It was a great moment, matching the one in our very first meeting, when Chris asked me why I wrote the Odyssey through my grandmother’s story. As I have written earlier in this diary, this was a certainly not an aim of the novel. It just happened. Like this three-hander transformation.
Maybe my forebears are up there somewhere, occasionally leaning on my shoulder.
Chris has set me some more ancient texts to study how this change developed in the pre-Jesus days.
Yes, it seems the title of my PhD thesis couldn’t have been more perfect, because knowingly or not, I really am Going the Way of the Ancients.
16.4.18 Loading it on the actors
Having just gone through the roles in Unbroken, I’ve just calculated that while the actor playing Olga will have one character to play, the other two actors, one female and one male, will have, on the current draft, 23 and 18 roles respectively. Some of these roles are quick. Several only have one line. One character actually has no lines (she’s a body on stage). In some cases the female actor will play men, and the male actor will play a woman (for example as a female inmate in Averoff women’s prison).
For a director, this means some quick changes, but for the actors, this means a lot of character work. As the play progresses, I will need to see if this is feasible for the actors. If they are stressed with ever changing lines and characters, perhaps the flow of the play and story-telling with be affected. I must keep an eye on this.
This all impacts the length of the piece too. With so many characters all needing to have this kind of space, the piece may slow, and the duration may blow out. As a playwright, you can make assessments about the durations, but until the actors have the roles in their hands, you can’t know. This is a play that demands space. Some will play it slow. Some scenes may be done with speed, depending on the action and the motivation.
Of course there’s every probability the script will be changed in these readings and workshops. It might need to be reduced, or whole scenes removed. But there’s an equal chance that new scenes will need to be added to fill holes in the story. We won’t know until the first readings.
15.4.18 How much to show
Olga was a fighter. She fought against the German occupation of Greece.
While so much of my novel Someone Else’s War was about her as a person, and about what in her background motivated her to take upon this fight, there was plenty about what she actually did in the war.. the training, the rescues, the spying, the killings.
Looking through the current draft of the play adaptation, I realised that I have not put in very much about what she actually did in the resistance. Like the novel, there’s plenty about her story and what made her the kind of woman who would fight. I was struck that the action is much less.
In several places I refer to what she did. In the first scene, her daughter brings up some of her killings. In the script I choose not to have this acted out. A director may choose to do so, however. There is another early scene where she is crawling through a field with an Allied soldier, chased by Germans. There is a later scene where she barters with a German officer, and another scene where she has to decide whether to kill a collaborator. But I find that I have left the actual heroism out of the book. Except maybe one scene, where she is in Cairo. Service personnel crowd around her, cheering her for saving them. They tell of what they did together. Olga doesn’t remember many of them, and they tell the audience the story for her.
Then again, the play is told through her memories, and a part of the storytelling here is about revelation, to both her and the audience. She has put the horrors of war out of her mind for fifteen years, and the memories come back across the course of the play. In this process of recollection, perhaps the emotional memories are strongest for her. Hence the reaction of the British and Australian soldiers in Cairo will be a marker in her mind. Killing a despised collaborator will probably not be.
So as I look through this draft I need to question whether I need to be more explicit. Do I need to show more of her killing, rescuing, sabotaging, spying? Or would this be overstatement? Ultimately, this is story of a woman. I need to keep in the mind that this is about her mind.
I will look through the draft again with an eye on the action. Perhaps I won’t know if I have the right balance of action until we have a reading, or even a workshop.
I find I am going back to the Odyssey more than more. And Kazantzakis. There’s no doubt that Kazantzakis’ Odyssey sequel does not read as easily as the original. That’s no slight open the great Nikos, but it does mean that you need to be in the story every second. Even his translator felt he had to write a preciś of the chapters, presumably in case you got lost. Maybe it was that the original had an easier flow of words; poetry that pulled you along. It demanded you stay with it, as all great writing does. Homer did this through a range of techniques, the most important of which is a respect for cadence. Lines, words and phrases roll at a tempo that makes your eyes trot with them, and with each step, the story moves too. Cyclists talk about the importance of the leg rotation cadence, keeping the legs moving at the same speed. Go up a hill and you gear down so your legs go up and down at the same speed as they did on the flat. Homer does that with his words.
In the my revision of a passage today, I realised that I was letting words, unnecessary words, get in the way of a good cadence. An actor would find that a tough sell. I am writing the play script on a page, but she would have to bring these words into her own choice of cadence, and therefore into the cadence she is projecting to the audience. Her reading of my words may offer a different interpretation, a different cadence to what I intended. She may pause between lines that I wanted to be a couplet.
But that’s okay. Right now if I can take out words that interfere with a smooth rhythm for the audience, then that’s a good day’s work.
9.4.18 Finding a Motivation
The thing about writing a novel is that motivation needs to be explicit. You don’t need to spell everything out, but the reader needs to understand where the protagonist is coming from. The reasons for their actions need to be understandable and comprehensible. If the character does something in chapter two, and that affects her actions in chapter ten, the reader needs to know this connection.
I am finding that in a play, the playing of the character can draw this link for you. If the character is a selfish bitch, then this can be played in every nuance. The audience can see it. A novel reader may not be able to see this. In a play, so much of the attitude of the character can be left to the actor and director. Of course you have to write the words, but the meaning of those words depend on the way they are played. This morning I was working on a scene where Olga changes her mind about staying in Greece, and decides to return to Australia. She is in Cairo and has met some soldiers she had rescued weeks before. She realises that he has done enough.
In the novel I might’ve had to spell out her change of heart. As I tried to write this for the play, I realised I was overwriting her. An actor could show this change, possibly without any words at all. The audience would understand what was happening to her. It’s another example of that old stage credo: “Don’t tell me, show me”. As I do more revisions of the play, I will look for over-explanation, and look for areas that can be left to the actor and director.
4.4.18 More Characters
Having made the decision to have two other actors on stage with the main protagonist (Olga), I am finding myself expanding the number of characters. Of course most of these are minor characters who appear in only one scene. This morning I was looking at the early draft of a scene which is set towards the end of the play, where Olga’s baby appears to have gone missing. In the first draft, she describes this to the audience directly, as a mother telling a friend something exclusive and personal. With the new liberty of having other actors on stage, I have started changing this scene. Olga starts telling the story, then the actor who plays her mother comes on and Olga plays out the scene with her.
This was developing into a powerful scene, but it seemed to require a new character to help bounce the tension of the moment. Sometimes two people can create the most intimate passage, and you would think that this would be that kind of scene. But yet it needed more. On the spot I invented a man, the mother’s son (and ipso facto Olga’s brother). He developed in a few lines from an observer into a conniving bully (like his mother) who forces the action to move on. Olga changes with this development. Where originally she is worried, guilty and fretting, she now explodes into an anger we have not seen of her. The pressures of everything that crashing around her manifest into her attacking her own brother. She shows herself to be a fighter for her children.
It’s a development that changes Olga and the tone of the play as it moves towards its denouement.
3.4.18 Homer and his Successor
A few weeks ago I decided to use some quotes from Homer’s Odyssey as markers in the play to highlight an emotional climax. I still haven’t decided how they will be used.. whether they will be read by a narrator, our projected onto a screen at the back. In the end it will be up to the director. Tonight I was once again reading the book that inspired me to include Homeric references, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and came across a passage that would work as a marker for the moment that Olga reads a letter telling her that her husband in Australia has had her declared dead, and remarried:
For a lightning moment she wanted to cry out
To scream and wake her husband, the archons, the guards, the slaves.
Her soul cried out for help, but her heart felt ashamed.
The words are powerful. In Kazantzakis’ book they refer to Helen, who is enamoured with Odysseus, and seduced by him. It is a life-changing moment for her, as is the letter for Olga.
1.4.18 Catharsis. A Greek Word?
Yesterday’s session was really something. But there was still an element missing. It’s a cheap writer’s trick to have a protagonist be convinced in a passage of dialogue to change her life’s position. I needed to make the cathartic change more.. cathartic. In life, people rarely have a road to Damascus moment through a discussion. Even Paul of Tarsis needed a heavenly vision.
For this dilemma, I decided to return to the original story source: my novel. In it I have a scene where Olga is in a cave beneath the Acropolis where rescued flyers are staying until they can be given passage through to Egypt. They recognise Olga and make a fuss of her. Olga doesn’t remember the individual faces. She has had to deal with too many people over the years. So in the play I transfer this fictional scene to Egypt, where Olga has just escorted some flyers to safety. As a British Officer tells Olga that she has done her bit and that she should return to her family in Australia, some flyers recognise her and fete her. Again she doesn’t remember individuals, but this helps her realise that she has saved so many people that she can’t remember them all.
This is Olga’s road to Damascus catharsis. She understands that she has done her bit. This, combines with the kind words and urging of the British officer, resolves her. She will complete this mission, then try to get back to Australia.
31.3.18: A Dramatic Twist
This morning I had a writing session. It was one of those sessions where you feel you are plodding. The dialogue seems trite, the movement slow. I was doing it in Marwin’s cafe Monk Bodhi Dharma in Balaclava. It was pretty quiet for a Saturday. Maybe because it was Easter Saturday. I was trying too fill a hole before the scene where Olga finds out that her husband has had her declared dead, remarried and had two children by his second wife. After an hour of plodding writing, an idea struck. Why not have Olga resolve to return back to Australia? She could be in Cairo after rescuing a group of Allied Servicemen. She gets talking to a British flyer who wants to go back to Athens, despite the danger. He tells Olga he wants to go back because he has a woman there who is refusing to leave her country.
After this conversation, Olga’s resolves to go home to Australia, to her children. She comes to feel that she has done her bit. In a way she believes she has redeemed herself.
That this scene is followed by the letter from her husband, telling her that there is no life in Sydney for her anymore, makes it a powerful switch in action and motivation. She, like Odysseus more than two millennia before her, finds that the actions of others have once again stopped her finding home.
It’s Good Friday and we have a few friends over for afternoon tea. At one point I was sitting at the end of the table next to our good friend Gary Young (author of Jekyll and Sideshow Alley, and director of the Australian production of Mamma Mia). We talked quietly about the role of director in a play like mine. Gary said one of the things that playwrights do that frustrate directors is to over-direct in the script.
He said the playwright must always leave space for the director to do their job. Don’t give stage directions. No “Enter Stage left”, no “gazed wistfully” (not that I would ever write such a bad line anyway..) Just write the story, he said, and the production team will lift it off the page.
As I looked back at my early scripts, I can see that I had done this a bit. It was part of the need, in my mind, to get my vision into the script. I also saw that I didn’t need to do this. The dialogue itself was enough. I will go through the script and simplify the directions. Thanks Gaz. It takes a load off.
25.3.18: A great quote
The other night I opened a book on Australians who fought in Greece and Crete in World War 2. One of the first things I came across was a quote by Lieutenant John Learmonth, 2/3rd Field Regiment. Australian Infantry Forces describing the islands as he came up the west coast of Greece:
A number of pretty little islands have been visible on our starboard quarter since daylight this morning. I have forgotten what little ancient history I have ever read; but I fancy Ulysses must have sailed these seas. I wonder did the sirens live on one of those little islands over there, now slumbering so peacefully in the warm laughing sea; and do those rocks hide the caves of Cyclops, the one eyed giant? What history has been made among these seas; what sagas of the human race have had their setting here. (Reid, 8)
I immediately thought how this could be incorporated into the play, perhaps by having the male actor read it out as Olga sailed into Greece with Nellie and Christopher. I thought it was a good fit, given that Olga was also travelling to Greece for the first time in many years and she would find herself bound, like Odysseus by her own Cyclops and Sirens and unable to come back to Australia for many years. But when I look at incorporating this into that scene, it seems difficult.
I’ll try again tomorrow. At the moment I have incorporated it into when she is taking trapped flyers by boat to Egypt.
24.3.18: Adding the extra characters
I started on the revision of the play this morning, transforming voices into physical characters. I found pretty quickly that in a few cases there is real value in keeping some of the voices as offstage presences. The phrase that came to me was “Voice of God”. This came as I was writing the section where the British officers are deciding about whether to trust Olga.. in effect deciding her future. The effect having two disembodied characters gives them a godlike effect. The interspersing of voice also makes for staging variation, breaking up the visual of several characters dialoguing. I have converted the scene where Olga is playing with the princess into a two hander. I am in two minds. It could have remained as a single-hander, because nothing is added to the story-telling by having the second actor on stage. In the original, the princess says nothing, but Olga reacts as if the words had been spoken. I thought this underplaying was strong, especially as this is a memory for Olga. This are the kinds of decisions I will need to make for every secondary character in this piece.
22.3.18: Expanding the number of actors
Just had a PhD meeting, the first with both Nasya and Chris together. They are going to look at the exegesis Chapter 4: From Novel to the Play. While they are doing this over the next three weeks, I’ll be getting the chance to work on the play. The first thing I’ll do is convert the off-stage voices into presences on stage. This will mean a lot of considerations, including decisions on basic stage directions, and the mechanics of staging this so that a character can move off the stage and the next one move on without it being clunky or too stressful for the actors, especially as only two subsidiary actors are playing all the non-Olga roles.
14.3.18: Dr George, grandson of Lela Caryiannis
I have just heard from Lela Caryannis’ grandson George Pararas-Carayannis who has promised to search through his documents about the Bouboulina network to search for references to Olga. This would be fantastic. He wrote to me about being a witness to mass executions in Greece as a child. He wrote:
EMAIL 1 13.3.18 FROM Dr George: Good to hear from you and to learn about the important role your grandmother Olga played in the Greek resistance. It is very possible that both your grandmother and mine knew each other or even were jailed at the same time at the Averoff prisons. My grandmother, my father Byron my uncle Nelson and my aunts Ioanna and Electra were jailed at Haidari and severely tortured, first at the Merlin street headquarters of Gestapo, then subsequently at the concentration camp. My uncle George was able to escape wounded from the Merlin Street headquarters and continued his resistance work in the mountains. My father Byron, Nelson and my two aunts were scheduled for execution in September 1944, but managed to escape. Grandmother Lela was executed along with 72 other patriots on 8 Septmeber 1944 – month before final departure of the Nazis from Greece. I was left at a park in Haidari while my mother looked for Lela’s tortured body at Xaidari and found it. She had been highly tortured and was only recognizable by the dress she was wearing at the time of her execution. I remember all these as a bad dream including the executions I witnessed as a young boy at an empty lot across my aunt’s house. Anyway, I will look through whatever records I have to see if I can find any reference to the names your grandmother used. The executions I witnessed through a crack of the window at my aunt’s house were at an empty lot across on Bouboulina Street, next to the National Museum. The Greeks were collected at random by the Germans from the streets, ordered to open a trench in the open lot and then they were lined up, machined-gunned and their bodies were covered up with soil. Days later, I witnessed relatives uncovering the trench and the bodies lined around the perimeter for recognition. In spite of the bad smell of ptomaine, I was playing soccer among the blackened bodies with a ball made of rugs. Strangely I thought that this was how life would be forever – as I knew of nothing else.
12.3.18: Good Muslim Boy
Last night I saw Good Muslim Boy at the Malthouse Theatre. It offered an insight into the possibilities of having other actors on stage with Olga. Seeing how the three actors operated provided a sense of communal storytelling on stage, not just leaving it up to one voice. Here’s what I put into the Conscious Response chapter this morning:
This is an autobiographical play for three actors which tells the story of Sami’s attempt to bring to Australia the body of his father. Sami and his father were Iraqis who had travelled to Iran, then came to Australia as refugees. They return to Iran for a trip, but Sami’s father dies. Much of the play is concerned with the bureaucracy involved in getting permits for his father’s body to be allowed on the return flight to Australia. In the stage production Sami plays himself, and the two other actors play all the other characters. It is a comedy which was adapted from Sami’s memoir. The memoir won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award.
Although there are many parallels between Sami’s story and Olga’s story (the Homeric prevention of a return home due to factors beyond the protagonist’s control (Iran bureaucracy, the necessity for bribes), the most interesting fscet for the staging of Unbroken comes from the use of the actors. The central character (Sami) is a constant. It is through him that we take our journey. There are two other actors on stage, one male and one female. These actors play all the other characters in the play, from Australians waiting for a tram, to Iranian officials, to beggars, to family members on the phone (during which they are always seen, although off stage in the semi-dark), to soldiers with semi-automatic weapons. These actors give Sami someone to work with and against. The audience on the night I saw the play were just as reactive to these secondary characters as they were to Sami. Also, the rapid changing of characters adds to both the tension and the comedy. Having seen this play, I have decided that the secondary characters in Unbroken should be seen on stage and not just heard. The secondary actors play characters of both sexes. This is an interesting device, as having a woman play a masculine soldier, for example, can break the barriers of the typical male-female divide. This may be a useful device in the production of Unbroken where there are depictions of resistance women working as operatives in the underground, giving orders to kill, and killing. In the war scenario of Unbroken the gender lines have been broken and men and women carry out the same tasks. Women have been celebrated for it, as outlined above in 5.2.3. (a). I have considered having the actors share these cross-sex roles, but ultimately this will be a decision for the director of the play.
5.3.18: Bringing Homer into it
I ran by Chris the possibility of having quotes from Homer on the wall between scenes. Chris agrees and has offered to find some quotes if I give him context for the scenes. I have found some quotes and sent them to him.
1.3.18: Some parallels that are no so ancient
I was reading Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel and was struck by the word play and similar feeling to the original work. I then remembered my supervisor Chris Mackie’s first words: Why did you decided to tell the Odyssey through your grandmother’s s story? Of course I hadn’t. But with Chris’s guidance I noted these parallels. Now, more than a year later, I suddenly see scope for the play to be linked with Homer’s piece.
16.12.17: The trip ends
As we move back to Athens, I can say that this research trip has given me so much more than I expected.
I have identified that the uniform my grandmother Olga was photographed in was not British, but Greek, and in fact Greek naval.
This could mean many things. It could be that she was at some stage on a Greek naval vessel. That would fit with the information I gained about Lele Caryiannis, who did similar work to Olga in the same place at the same time. Lela used to rescue allied flyers and soldiers caught behind German lines. Lela used to travel with the rescued soldiers by boat to Egypt. Perhaps this uniform demonstrates that Olga did the same.
I also saw where the Germans committed savage acts. These weren’t just acts of war, but war crimes, such as the 1944 massacre of hundreds of civilians at Distomo in central Greece:
I also saw where the resistance fought back, exasperating the Germans, such as the blowing of the Gorgopotomos bridge near Lamia:
I saw the frigid passes the resistance and the British Special Ops had to walk in the middle of winter:
Then there were the Greek women. The fighters, the helpers, the rescuers. They were revered within the resistance, and are revered to this day:
And Sofia Vembo, the woman who sang the Greeks into fighting back:
So as I end this journey, I remember all these people.
The next stage is the updated draft of Unbroken, my one woman play adaptation of my novel Someone Else’s War. It may have some Vembo music. It may incorporate Lela. It will certainly have an authenticity of place, time and events that it would not have had before this trip.
Thank you to my supervisors Chris Mackie and Steinar Ellingsen for supporting this journey, and to Lawrie Zion who suggested this blog. And thank you to all the people I have met and continue to meet on this trip. It’s been wonderful.
15.12.17: When a buck means a buck
As my research trip comes to a close over the next day or so, I have to get all the things I have discovered into perspective.
For example, today I saw stories about how the unemployment rate in Australia is 5.4%, which economists say is still above the acceptable level. In Greece unemployment is at 21% (a big improvement on 28% two years ago, but still, 21% is no economic oil painting).
Australian inflation is low and has been for some time. In Greece it is also low at 1.1%. This means prices are kept manageable, but growth is still not where the government would like it to be.
But let’s compare this to what happened to Greece in WW2. According the CNBC, German occupation pushed the value of the drachma through the floor. It did this by forcing Greece to loan Germany the equivalent of billions of U.S. dollars (which many argue was never paid back), and at the same time trade with other countries was disallowed by the Germans, so there was no way Greece could right its economy.
To give you an idea of how the currency sank, in 1940 this 1000 drachma note would buy one gold sovereign:
But immediately after the Nazis took over Greece, you needed one of these for that sovereign:
Yes, an invasion can make your currency go to a fifth of its value. Overnight.
But, for the Greeks things were to get much much worse. Inflation over the years got to ridiculous levels. In one month in 1944, price rose by 14,000%. Not 14%. 14,000%. In a month.
As you’d expect, you need to start printing more notes, or add a few zeroes.
This is the kind of note you’d need:
It looks a lot. A five million drachma note. One of these before the war, and you could’ve bought a house or two or ten.
But soon even these notes meant nothing. The government started issuing notes worth 100 trillion drachma.
The other day I stopped in an antique shop in Metsovo in central Greece and found this:
Piles and piles of 5 million drachma notes. Monopoly money. How many businesses, shops and traders lost it all, we can never know. We do know it was a long road back. A road that some might say Greece is still walking 70-plus years on.
Yes, it’s another tragedy of war that the delicate balance of an economy is the first thing to be destroyed when another country decides to make an empire of its neighbours.
14.12.17: A myth set in stone
Greece is full of myths: Zeus sat on Mt Olympus; Oedipus married his mum; Odysseus was seduced by a goddess.
They’re everywhere. But here’s a modern tale that is so extraordinary that some believe it had to be a fable. Many though, believe it is true.
It goes back to the times when the Ottomans (today’s Turks) ruled most of Greece (up until 1821 or so). The muslim Ottomans had little time for the teachings, philosophies and religious belief of the Greeks. Education in Greek history was banned.
Greek educators and priests became terrified that this edict would mean that their culture would die.
So the story goes that in the areas where the Ottomans did not have control, such as the hard-to-access Pelion Peninsula on the very east coast of Greece (think across the Aegean from Gallipoli), at least one priest set up a secret school to educate men in the ways of the Greek. Greeks reportedly came from all over Ottoman-controlled Greece to be educated in the ways of their forebears.
Of course the priest had to be careful, so he set the school in a almost unaccessible place in the side of the cliff in Tsangarada. Even today the path is almost impossible.
But myth or not, there is a cave set into the side of the cliff, which has plenty of signs of ancient habitation:
And if you look closely, you can see what might just be a classroom laid out in stones inside the cave.
Now I’m not saying this was the fabled secret school, but the locals in Tsangarada all seem to know the story, (and their families have lived for as long as the story has existed). They all have opinions on whether the cave school was real. Some are in two minds and will recite the arguments for and against whether it is nothing more than a fable.
This argument has been going to more than a century. In the 1880s, the painter Nikolaos Gyzis depicted the scene of a secret school, which looked a little more flash than our cave in a cliff.
What remains of this story, be it fable or not, is tale of resistance from oppression, a desperation to keep one’s culture alive, bravery and ingenuity.
I really hope this story is true; that there were these ancestors of the WW2 andartes, who resisted not with guns but with knowledge, and in doing so kept alive the tie between modern and Ancient Greek.
13.12.17: The voice that sang a nation
In writing the play of my grandmother’s story I had to consider a lot of things in making the transition from novel (Someone Else’s War) to stage (Unbroken).
Writing for the stage is as different from writing for the eye, as painting is from sculpture.
The stage play must create a mood, a sense of the times. It’s as much about showing the emotion of events as telling the facts of what’s happening. That’s because an audience will remember what they felt long after the facts are forgotten.
To give this sense of the times, I decided early that music must be an important part of the play. It won’t be a musical or anything like that, but it will have the central character (my grandmother Olga) making musical references, singing snatches, maybe playing some music on a wireless.
I just needed to incorporate a kind of music that would work for the play. Perhaps a singer who spoke of the times. Someone who was as sassy as Olga, and sang of the period in a way that would help Olga tell the story.
I initially thought of rembetika, northern cafe music.
That was indeed sassy, a kind of blues, but it didn’t speak to me of the times. Rembetika was more Salonica than Athens, and more 30s than 40s.
In driving to war hotspots around Greece, there was just one voice that represented all this, a woman who spoke to Greeks in 1940-5 and, as a bonus, was a motivator for Greeks under stress. Because her stirring songs spurred Greece onto defeating Italy in 1940, she became known as The Songstress of Victory This woman, a simple singer/songwriter was considered so dangerous by the occupying Germans, that she was banned from singing political songs, and had to flee to Cairo.
Her name was Sofia Vembo.
Her most famous song was “Children of Greece”, a motivating song for Greece after the Italians invaded Greece. Some historians credit that song with having a lot to do with the Greeks pushing Italy back across the Albanian borderland most of the way back to Italy too.
Such is the power of the right music for the right time.
She also used that most powerful of verbal weapons: satire. She speaks of the “Master Macaroni’ Mussolini, how he’s going to lose to the Greeks and lose Rome as well. She was certainly edgy, which is why there is a shrine to her in just about every war museum in the country.
Yes, sassy, taunting, rude and in-your-face. Just the kind of music for my Olga.
12.12.17: A 74 year old Memory
Litochoro is a village on the east coast of Greece. It is in the foot of a massive pass next to Mount Olympus, the most majestic mountain in Greece, an Everest in stature to Greeks and greater than it in mythology, for this was where Zeus sat as the god of gods. Its shards and many vertical snowy peaks certainly suggest this is not a place to be easily reckoned with.
But plenty of people do reckon with it. Mostly hikers or ambitious tourists trying out their new climbing shoes. But in the war, recreational climbing wasn’t really on the agenda. The country was occupied by the Germans, Bulgarians and Italians; starvation was everywhere and the Greek andantes were using mountains like these as places to launch raids on the invaders.
And the invaders fought back, as you’d expect.
I had been told about the old Monastery of St Dionysus. It lies 13 kilometres up towards the Mt Olympus peak, and has lay there since 1542. It’s been pillaged at times, but always survived. Until, I was told, the Germans thought it was being used as a base for resistance operatives.
They sent in the bombers in 1943.
Climbing through the mountain pass today, the first glimpse of St Dionysus’ was one of majesty befitting the monastery of Mt Olympus.
(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
But getting closer, you can see it resembles part of the decaying Roman Coliseum:
(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
Until finally you can see where attempts have been made to make new buildings behind the old:
(Photo: Near Litochoro, 2017. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
But the truth is that much of this graceful old monastery is the same as the day it was bombed. There is a new Monastery of St Dionysus a few kilometres down the road. Services can no longer be conducted here. There are danger signs everywhere. yet the walls stand as they have done for nearly 500 years.
The people who made the decision to bomb this sanctuary have long passed. It is probable the pilots and the men who pressed the button that dropped the bombs have too died.
The broken walls of St Dionysus prove who stands the longest and proudest.
They will stand for a long time yet, continuing to make sure we never forget.
11.12.17: The Cap. One riddle solved. Another opens
My grandmother didn’t have many photos of her time in Greece during the war. In fact there were only two. One was of her waving the Greek flag on the day of liberation from the Germans:
A couple of weeks ago I asked if anyone could identify the cap she was wearing in this photo:
I got a few guesses but no cigar yet.
Over the week I visited a couple of military museums in western and northern Greece, and spoke to some Greek army personnel, but no-one could identify it.
Then yesterday we were walking through the flea market area of Thessaloniki and we passed a shop that sold military stuff.. German helmets, dented WW2 water bottles, moth-holed old jackets with buttons missing. You know the kind.
Jac suggested asking the owner. There’s no-one like a military buff/nerd for this kind of trivia.
He knew straight away. He identified her cap as Greek from the badge in the centre, and the white top meant it was naval, probably from lower rank. Her shirt was also Greek and could have been summer dress come from several of the services.
He even pointed to a cap that has similar origins although with a badge of a different era:
So there you are. Or ‘oriste’ as they say in Greece when serving you your dolmades.
The question now is: why was she wearing that outfit?
We know she rescued British flyers and got them out of the country. So was she on a ship escorting them to Cairo? Or was that a uniform she was given when being trained?
Or was the photo just a bit of play. A bit of dress-up during one of the less intense times? Could it even have been taken after the war perhaps?
I suspect we’ll never know. On the back of the photo my mum wrote that this was Olga in British uniform. Obviously this was conjecture. Wrong conjecture.
Olga never told her, or probably anyone, about the nature of the photo.
I guess we’ll just have to take the photo for what it is, a display of sassiness from a woman who could wear an umbrella and make it look good.
10.12.17: A Possible Breakthrough
My grandmother Olga Stambolis worked in the resistance in Greece, rescuing trapped British, Australian and New Zealand flyers, and like all andartes (resistance fighters), killing when she needed to.
Information about her has been scant. She died when I was a couple of months old, so I could never talk to her. Finding anything in Greece that mentions her name (apart from pass applications and money documents) has been fruitless. You see, resistance groups hardly kept records. They’d be pretty poor underground operations to do that.
So for half my life I have been searching for anything that might pinpoint she she did and who she worked with.
Today I found the story of a Greek woman, whose parallels with the story of my grandmother was extraordinary. It was almost as if it was my grandmother’s story with the names and a few other details changed:
(Photo: Bust of Lela in the War Museum of Thessaloniki. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
Before the war Lela Carayannis (in Greek: Eleni Karayanni) was an Athens housewife. In the early occupation days she formed a resistance group (called Bouboulina). For a person untrained in organisational operations, she did a freakish job of putting it into sub-groups for rescue, sabotage, espionage and other operations.
The similarities between Lela and Olga were amazing. They both were involved in rescue of British, Australian and New Zealand flyers. They both were based in Athens at the same time. And like Olga, Lela was captured by the Germans, even staying in jail for the same amount of time: six months, in the same year (1941). Like Olga, when she was released, which in itself was a miracle, she returned to resistance work.
Here there story differs. While Olga’s children were safely out of there reach of the Nazis in Australia, Lela’s children were much closer. In fact six of them (three boys and three girls) worked as operatives with her. And where Olga was lucky enough to stay alive for the rest of the occupation, Lela, her children and her close associates were caught after a mistake by a person in her organisation. Lela was interrogated and tortured for three days by a notorious German inquisitor. Then she was executed. Her children, who were kept in a different part of the Haidari prison, were given help by an anti-Nazi German and were able to escape.
The more I read this story, the stronger the possibility became that my grandmother worked with Lela’s group.
Lela’s grandson found a list of the names of some of the people in Bouboulina. There were 100 people on this list. This morning I took it to an English speaking Greek I know here in Thessaloniki to see if Olga’s name, or any of her possible aliases were on it:
Olga wasn’t on it. The chances that Olga will be on it were always slim.
But this is the closest I have come to finding my grandmother’s group.
The search continues.
9.12.17 The Little Carpark of Horrors
This research was a never going to focus on the treatment for Jews in Greece in WW2, but the more one looks at life under the Nazis, the Jewish decimation comes up everywhere.
Nowhere more so than in Thessaloniki. This was the city that was so Jewish that it was known as The Mother of Israel. Half the population of Thessaloniki were Jewish. They had been here for 1000 years and were central to life in the city. As in the nearby city of Veria, Jew, Musilm and Christian lived peacefully. It was an example the world could look at today.
Like in Veria, like in Ioannina, Nazis called the men of the place into a square, and after being belittled, bullied and treated like slaves, were shipped out of the country. To a place called Auschwitz.
Let’s look at that square. On the day all male Jews aged between 18 and 45 were called there, it was called, ironically, Liberty Square.
Some men, the elders in the community, some business people, people of high esteem, were mocked, and forced to do pretend calisthenics. Not for their health. To belittle them:
(Photo: Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Thessaloniki)
Today Liberty Square is far different to that important square of the pre-war years. It has become a car park.
The only thing that speaks of its terrible history is a beautiful and celebrated sculpture in one corner that honours the Jews that died in that war:
I don’t know why a square, usually a place in Greek cities that honours victory over oppressors, has been allowed to become a place to leave the car while going shopping.
Maybe it is that the Greeks of Thessaloniki did not have the heart to keep this place and its memories alive. Maybe that day 9000 innocent men and their families lost everything is too much to remember.
Or maybe they just needed a car park.
8.12.17 A 2000 Year old Tale
In the northern Greece city of Veria, there was a vibrant Jewish community that had existed in there since BC became AD. It is mentioned in the bible. The apostle Paul even tried his hand at trying to convert Veria’s Jews to Christianity.
Writer Mike Arkus puts the result of these Paulian preachings this way:
“The Book of Acts says they were quite receptive to his preachings that Jesus was the Messiah until the larger Jewish community in Salonika, who had already kicked him out because they were ‘jealous,’ got wind of it and had him booted out of Veria too.”
So despite the efforts of Paul and his like, the Jewish faith remained intact here for 2000 years. Veria has the oldest synagogue in northern Greece. Not down the block or in the next street, but right there in the centre, on the doorstep of just about every house.
1500 years later more Jews were invited here by the Ottomans to help build the city. The Ottomans admired their fine skills in weapon-making and other arts.
Veria’s Jewish quarter has a lot of Ottoman (now Turkish) architecture. It is a beautiful little village where Jewish people were integrated in the wider Greek community.. the kind of integration that comes through centuries of co-existence and co-respect.
Then came WW2 and the Nazis.
Like in Ioannina (see blog of 1.12), these members of the community were rounded up on the 1st of May, 1943 and sent out of Greece, to places no-one should ever go.
Before the invasion there were 600 Jews here. 150 lived to return after the war.
Then, in 1948, and the establishment of Israel, many of these people went to their new homeland.
A few return to Veria for visits because their family homes are still there. Some places have been restored to things of beauty.
And some lie neglected because there is no-one to claim it, even after all these years.
I know they are only houses, but you can feel the hole left by the pogrom. These places where babies were conceived, feasts were eaten, stories told and children raised. All this to stop so cruelly, so swiftly.
The old synagogue rarely opens now. Many houses accommodate tourists or are used by the government departments. It really is a Jewish quarter in name only. The Nazis succeeded where evangelists could not.
Tomorrow I go to Thessaloniki, the Greek capital of the north. The Nazi treatment of the Jews and the Greek people generally is still a hot topic there. I look forward to seeing what I find.
7.12.17: The Battle for the Pass
When my grandmother was trained by the British in WW2, she would’ve learned many skills, including self-defence, how to kill, and perhaps how to sabotage.
Sabotage played a big role in the war in Greece.
I have already written about the Gorgopotomos Bridge in eastern Greece, which was destroyed to disrupt the German supply route to the south.
Not all sabotage was for such a direct reason. The British and Greeks blew up the Katara Pass, north of Metsovo in central Greece simply for a diversion. A red herring.
The Brits were trying to fool the Germans into thinking the Allies were going to invade Greece from the west coast. But there never was such a plan. Instead, the Allies were planning on invading Sicily, and wanted to distract the Axis into thinking Greece was the target.
To make this deception work, the Brits and the Greek resistance blew up the main road west to east over the mountains: The Katara Pass. The Germans would then think (and did think) that the Allies were trying to stop the Germans having any way to go west to meet these mythical forces invading Greece.
The Katara Pass was a difficult path even in 1940. It’s been closed for years, and visiting it in the snowy conditions today, I could see where the road has fallen away.
I found some of what was probably the original road that followed the telegraph lines, and it frankly looks like Siberia.
And pity the poor donkey that had to walk on this in 1943, especially with the ice making it impossible to walk without slipping.
So it was hard to cross in 1943. Blowing it up made it impossible.
British Brigadier Eddie Myers afterwards described how his team blew up bridges culverts and even blew out the cliff faces and mined embankments.
It succeeded… for a while.
Eventually, as different factions in the resistance started fighting each other, the Germans were able to get through to the west and they took over this very pretty village of Metsovo.
The West was lost.
6.12.17 SIDENOTE: The Self Preservation Society
This has been a pretty intense research trip: driving from Athens across the country to the central mountains, through tiny villages perched in folds of hills (inaccessible by car in WW2), then to the far west, and up cliffside dirt tracks.
Today we began the next stage, which is cross country towards the northern capital of Thessaloniki.
Are we’re doing it all in Mini Cooper:
I grew up in a Mini Cooper S. My brother Terry Kaff was a groovy 1960s dude. He was a singer in Sydney, a regular on TV and a member of Channel 9’s Bandstand team alongside Little Pattie and Col Joye. He was on stage with the Easybeats, and the Atlantics and the Delltones used to come around to our house all the time. It was enough to turn a little kid’s head. And it did.
It followed that this flash singer drove a flash little car. And there was no flashier car in 1970 than a Cooper S.
It was tiny. Terry would drive all over Sydney, me crammed in the back seat, trying my best not to throw up. I often failed. Many a time we would be on the side of the road, the little back bench seat pulled out to dry after my lunch was hosed off.
Go forward 47 years and Terry drives a Mercedes, Mini is made by BMW, my stomach is settled, and here I am driving around sheer mountains in a.. Mini.
And thank God. It may be bigger than the original, but when you’re meeting a bus on a three metre dirt road that has mountain on one side and 100 metre drop on the other side, you are glad your car is as thin as a piece of toast. It helps that it handles like it’s on rails.
Then there’s the risk of landslides. There’s no ‘if’ about it. It happens all the time. Guess who has to clear the road.
Back to the Mini. My favourite childhood movie was the original The Italian Job, where three Minis traversed stairs, buildings and sewers to get Italian bullion out of Milan after an audacious heist:
The movie ends with the Minis being repayed for their efforts by being thrown off the Italian alps.
As we climb these mountains everyday (I’m writing this in Mikro Papigo which is a town that is at the end of a McCartneyish long and winding road), I remember the scene as the Minis are flung into the abyss. We sing the song that accompanies that travesty: “We Are the Self Preservation Society” and just hope we are not going to be joining them.
We won’t be. Our Mini is looking after us just fine.
5.12.17 When one word says it all
There are war memorials everywhere in Greece. Almost every village has one. Quite often it’s a small marble obelisk.
Not at Kalpaki in western Greece, the place the Greeks made the frontier in the battle against the Italian invasion in 1940.
This one, on the hill over the town, is huge. It would rival the Colossus of Rhodes:
(Photo: Kalpaki, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
This statue commemorates the soldiers who stood on this hill and watched westwards for the Italian Air Force planes coming from Albania.
Just as I was leaving, I looked the hill opposite, the hill in the direction where the watchers would have been staring.
There was something tiny written on the hill. In rocks, I thought. Out came the telephoto and I saw what it was.
It read “OXI”
That’s the Greek “No”.
It commemorates the famous refusal by Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas to the demands of the Axis powers.
I depict this famous refusal in my novel, Someone Else’s War. It happened like this:
The Italian ambassador Count Grazzi knocked on the door of the Metaxas residence at 3am on the 28th of October 1940. He demanded that Italy be given full access to Greek lands. In effect an occupation.
Metaxas, a former military man who knew his country was not prepared for war, made one of the biggest gambles any politician had made in WW2.
He said no.
He reportedly said it in French. Then in Greek.
Grazzi then told Metaxas that in three hours, the Italians would invade across the Albanian border.
Greece was at war.
I wrote yesterday about how Greece fought hard with old equipment, and won that part of the war.
Up until then, Metaxas was not a loved man in Greece. He was a fascist who took power illegitimately, jailed his political opponents and shackled the press, jailing left-wing journalists.
But that one word, that “no” is celebrated to this day on the 28th of October every year.
Greece was to be ravaged by the Germans the following year, and then torn apart by a terrible civil war after that, but people remember the day that one small word was uttered.
It was the day that a small country stood up for itself.
4.12.17 Now this is the Thing About the War in Greece..
In the 1940’s there wasn’t one. There were three, each following on straight after the other:
The Italian War of 1940, when the Italians invaded through Albania.
Then, when the Greeks pushed the Italians two-thirds of the way back through Albania..
The German invasion. Then, after the Germans were routed in 1944..
The Greek Civil War which ran from 1945 through until 1949 and killed more Greeks than the Germans had done (and the occupying Nazis weren’t squeamish about blood).
But as I say, it started in 1940 with the Italian invasion. It came quickly, with only three hours notice (more on that tomorrow), but it was carried out by an army that, on paper, was formidable. Today a young Greek soldier in a war museum in Kalpaki told me just how superior were the Italian numbers.
Mussolini’s forces had 4000 planes. 400 of these were devoted to western Greece. Greece had 150. And most of those were not military. Many were crop dusters. Seriously.
Italy had battalions of tanks. Greece had none.
Italy even had smart technology. Its soldiers didn’t have to rely on horses and mules. They had bicycles that were light and built for all terrains. More importantly, they were foldable, so soldiers could sling them over their shoulder when the going got rough.
And when we talk about guns, the contrast was amazing.
The Greeks didn’t have a lot of machine guns. The ones they did have were from WW1 like this one:
They looked powerful, but the technology was from the very beginning of automatic weaponry. They could fire 20 rounds or so, then the barrel would be so hot that the gunners would have to wait 30 minutes for it to cool down before it could be used again. 30 minutes is several lifetimes in a battle. Gunners would shove snow in the barrel to speed up the process. That was how desperate they were.
In contrast the Italians had the latest in machine gunnery, such as this model made by Fiat (yes, the car maker) which had been ordered to convert its automotive ingenuity into weapons manufacture.
When the barrels of those machine guns got too hot, the Fiat engineers designed them so that they could be detached and replaced with a cooler one. Hence the Italians could keep firing, while the Greeks were cooling off.
The Italians got some pretty sophisticated automatic rifles too. Germany had supplied them with automatics. Just pull the trigger and dozens of bullets would fly:
(Photo by Phil Kafcaloudes. Courtesy of the Kalpaki War Museum, Greece.)
Meanwhile the Greeks made do with some rifles barely out of the Victorian era. Single shot. Well worn. Well used.
These weapons the Greeks supplemented with axes, scythes, pitchforks, and knives. Hardly encouraging.
But the Italians had a number of enemies in this war, only one of which was the Greek people. The biggest enemy was their own lack of desire. This was not a great war of expansion. It was a vanity project by Mussolini.. an attempt to show Hitler that he too was a great warrior. His soldier’s must have known this. Why else would Italy be invading its Ionian Sea cousin? They had no beef. Their hearts and souls had not been won. they were sent into atrocious conditions at the beginning of winter. More than a few might’ve questioned the tactics and the need.
Italy’s second enemy was Greek local know how. Bringing tanks into wet Greece in November was not horses for courses. One smart Greek general baited the Italians to cross a river near Kalpaki. The general, who was disobeying orders in carrying out this strategy, had banked on the November rains flooding the river. The Greek rain gods complied. It poured, and the Italian tanks were bogged. As the Greek soldier told me, the Greeks commandeered the tanks after the Italians abandoned them. But the Greeks had never seen a tank before, so they took some photos of themselves draped on the tanks, and then left them to go chasing the Italians on foot.
Which all goes to prove my mother’s old saying (which she may have got from her mother who would’ve known about these things), you might have all the weapons in the world, but its not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
3.12.17: How Comes Greece Looks Like New England?
I’m doing this Greek trip as part of an PhD. I’m writing a play about my grandmother the Greek spy in WW2, and the PhD is being done on the process of creating the play.
So I’m in Greece to see the places she might’ve been trained by the British, and the places she might’ve worked rescuing British, Australian and New Zealand flyers who were trapped behind lioness the Nazis moved south through to Athens in April 1941.
Part of what I am looking at is the terrain. What would she have encountered? What was the landscape like? I’m here as the weather is turning into wintery conditions (so it’s not your ideal holiday). Yesterday we had flash flooding, ironically on the same day we had flash floods home in Melbourne. This Greek flash flooding was a different beast to the antipodes though. When it rains here, it keeps raining. Little village lanes became rivers; roads became lakes; mountainside dripways become waterfalls. And it never seemed to end. This was only the start of winter. The snows will be here soon, and much of the andante work in WW2 was done in the snow. It is easier to escape when you know what lies beneath the white blanket.
What surprised me though was the foliage of western Greece. Here there are a lot of deciduous trees some of them very brown/golden of an oak variety:
Plane trees are also common, and have been for many years, like this one that has survived in this little flood and snow prone plateia (square) in Difolo for 400 years:
(Photo: Difolo, Greece. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
This interspersed with the many fir and olive trees in the hills gives a mottled landscape that is very dense. The mix of colours and foliage would provide camouflage.
And there is a contrast where the wooded hills stand against snowcapped Alps. A mix of terrain that must have made pursuit difficult. Notice how it’s hard to know where alp ends and cloud begins.
All this is that its highest in late autumn when the leaves are green and the mountains are getting their first snow. This could be the time when I set the central Greece action in the play.
The paths in central Greece in many cases are rough where rocks have fallen off the hillside. Many are hard and sharp, especially the shale or marble mixed in with the other rocks on the ground, and the tendency for the mountains to landslide. But often there is no other way around.
These paths can be difficult to negotiate, which is what the andartes wanted. Germans carrying heavy backpacks would’ve found this very hard especially as the paths are steep leading down from the mountains or up the next hill.
I’m not sure how I will incorporate these factors into the play, but they set a context for me. I have walked in the paths of the andartes (resistance fighters) and seen what they must’ve seen. My mind’s eye is closer now to my grandmother’s. And that is something important for a playwright.
2.12.17: The Smart Kid Who Kept His Head
In times of terror some good things can happen.
Take in 1940 in western Greece. Hitler’s ally, the somewhat limited Benito Mussolini decided to invade Greece. He didn’t do it for any particular reason. He just did it. Actually he did have a reason of sorts. As the Nazis were swathing through Europe, he wanted to impress Hitler that he too was a warrior.
He invaded through Albania only three hours after the Greek prime minister Ioannes Mexatas had refused Mussolini’s demand that Italy occupy Greece.
What Mussolini isn’t know was Greeks, especially the mountain Greeks of the west, don’t take kindly to someone trying to take them over. So, as I write in my novel, they fought against the Italian halftracks and machine guns with aged rifles, pick-axes and scythes, and forced the Italians back over the border.
It was an embarrassing defeat for the Italians and led to Hitler invading Greece.. ruining his plans for an autumn invasion of Russia. He had to push it back to winter.. leading to his first big defeat.
But in that initial Italian invasion, Mussolini sent over bombers to help his ground troops. As they attacked the western town of Perama, the locals raced to find shelter.
In the rush, an 11 year old boy discovered that air was rushing through a hole in the side of the rocky cliff that abuts the town’s main road:
(Photo: Perama. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
Some residents dug it out and found a massive internal cave full of the most beautiful stalactite and stalagmite formations.
The locals used this cave to hide during the bombings, and later, in 1944, when the occupying Germans started rounding up Jews for deportation to concentration camps, the Perama Cave once again became a place of refuge.
The Perama Cave is now a tourist attraction:
(Photo: Perama. Taken by Phil Kafcaloudes)
Travellers come from around the world to see the massive tite-mite formations, and the site inside where the remains of an ancient bear were discovered after the war. The speculation is that the bear must’ve been fallen in and been trapped all those thousands of years ago and sadly starved to death.
But for me, the fact that this place saved so many people makes it much more than your usual tourist attraction.
And all this is owed to a little boy who kept his head in a time of terror.
1.12.17: A Terrible Secret in Paradise
In Someone Else’s War I wrote a chapter where my grandmother goes to Thessaloniki on a reconnaissance mission to find out whether the stories of the mistreatment of Jews there were true. In the novel she gets there too late. She witnesses Jewish families being loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps in the countries to the north.
Although I have no indication that my grandmother was actually sent on a mission like this, I put this into the novel because the horror of the Jewish pogrom in Greece was such a big part of the occupation that no story of the war in Greece could be complete without it. I wanted, through the eyes of my characterisation of Olga, to bring this terrible event to readers. I also intend, with the play Unbroken to again refer to this.
In a week’s time I’ll be in Thessaloniki to see where that exile occurred. But the pogrom did not just just happen in Salonica. Today I was in the beautiful acropolis above Ioannina, which is the main city in western Greece, a magical city on a lake with a fortress wall that surrounds an old city known as the Kastro.
This acropolis contains Byzantine buildings which were added to by various Ottoman leaders. It is a quiet, gentle place, even on a rainy day when the clouds come across to this high-lying city. With its old buildings and the tomb of the brutal Ali Pasha (in the cage on the right), this is a place a photographer can spend whole days.
At the end of the acropolis is a Byzantine museum and across from that is a silver museum. Yes, this is a place for tourists and those interested in crafts, as well as the remnants of millennia past.
The place chilled me out. Then I saw the plaque on the wall of the Byzantine Museum which tells a story at odds with what is there today.
I share this story here: https://youtu.be/DUtqVV1iPMw
In short, the plaque says that in the spot where I stood, the Jews of Ioannina were forced to present themselves on the 25th of March, 1944. From there they were put onto trucks and sent across the north of Greece and taken to the same concentration camps as those unfortunate people of Salonica. The only Jews who survived were the ones who managed to escape the city when the edict came from them to come to acropolis. Others were hidden by Christian families, who risked their own safety to help them.
On this day, as I looked over the grass towards the museum, the poignancy of this place changed with that one plaque. It became so much more than the untended and patchy grass that greeted me. Lest we Forget.
30.11.17: SIDENOTE: Loving the Dogs of Greece
It was once said that you can tell a country’s humanity from the way they treat their dogs. Actually, I might just have made that up. But I think it’s true.
In Australia we fawn over our dogs, make sure they get the very best food at regular times, pick up their poo on their scheduled walks, and stand around in the dog park talking to other proud dog-parents watching our little ones play with the other furry little-ins.
It doesn’t quite work that way in Greece.
Some people have dogs. They are collared, controlled and named. But there are many many more that are not owned. They wander the streets of the small villages, walking from house to house little a mobile guard service. And they do their job well. Anyone unusual walking down the road causes a barking frenzy. Not an angry frenzy like you see from chained and yarded Australian dogs. Just a few barks to let everyone know that (1) A stranger is around, and (2) That this dog is doing its job.
Most of the time however, the dog will come to you, maybe a little wary (you may not be a dog person, and be a little too willing to show them your sole), but easily losing that wariness once you give them a warm hello (in either Greek or English. It doesn’t matter. They know.)
Take these characters for instance. Today in the archeological site of Dodona, just south of Ioannina. We had just got out of our car when two dogs joined us. Not for food. They just wanted to say hello.
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
That’s how it’s been this whole trip. When we arrived at Montenema in the Karditsa region a week ago, we were met at the front gates by a large wolfish dog who smiled at us, pushed against our legs and almost directed us to reception. They next day we started a hike to a 16th century church, St George’s, three kilometres up and down the forest. We were only 200 metres into the walk when a white sight came up the track behind us. It was the same dog. He stayed with us all the way up to the abandoned church. When we went inside, the dog walked around the grounds. We stayed for about an hour, taking pictures of the decaying frescos and icons inside. The dog waited for us. Then she stayed with us for the long return walk. Back at the hotel the manager told us that this is what “Bou Bou” did. She made sure every walker got there safely, and got home safely. She wasn’t trained to do it. She just did it, and always had.
Now I know we think we know what goes on in our dogs’ heads. Maybe we think they are after food; that they get jealous; that they are simply protectors of their territory.
Nah. Shakespeare wrote that there were more things in heaven and earth. Creatures like Bou Bou are proof that he wasn’t talking through is hat.
29.11.17: Vourgareli: A bombing remembered
We are in the western Greek town of Vourgareli which is a place that really is on the ceiling of the world.
I mentioned yesterday that Vourgareli that was bombed by the Germans in WW2. They were after the British Operatives like Brigadier Eddie Myers who were working from nearby Theodoriana.
That’s only 74 years ago, so you’d have to think that such a momentous event would stay in the DNA of this small town. As we walked through the place we saw many shells of buildings that no-one bothered to rebuild, even after all this time.
The church St Georges on the plateia (town square) shows two dud German bombs out the front, scrawled roughly with the date of the bombing raid, beneath a monument to those who perished.
Yes, it would be hard in Vougareli to forget that war and that bombing.
Costas and Irene have not forgotten. Irene runs a restaurant (not a taverna, she insists this is a restaurant) on the road into the village. It’s a sparse place with half a dozen tables, a blaring TV in the corner, an upright wood heater near the TV and surprisingly, a dusty jukebox. There’s also a wood fireplace burning on the opposite corner, but Irene and her husband Costas use the upright for their warmth, and when we walked in they encouraged us to share the upright with them because they insisted the fancy open wood fire wasn’t warm enough.
I say they ‘insisted’. They insisted by gesture because they couldn’t speak a word of English. It followed that they could not understand vegetarianism, let along veganism. When I explained it was no meat, horice tiri (“without cheese”) and horice avgo (“without egg”), Irene slapped her head in disbelief, as if to say ‘how could people live like this?’ She had lived with meat for her 69 years.
She then supplied us a feast of Greek chips, salad, pasta, thick bread, kokkino (red) wine and olives. We may have been weird vegans, but she made sure we were fed well.
Across the room, Costas ate and watched the Greek parliament on TV. It’s his routine now. At 82, it’s what he does.
Through my mottled Greek we learned that Irene was a grandmother of 3 girls and two boys, and that the children were becoming masters of the iPhone, do things she could not understand. When I needed to use google translate for a word, she thought the fact that the word came in the screen in Greek was hilarious. We laughed together a lot.
She brought us some gratis preserved fruit for dessert and she wrote down our translation that the fruit was called quince in English. Then she went off to tidy up, although I should say the little eatery was pretty clean as it was. No dust would survive under Irene’s watch.
Irene told us of this quiet town’s place in war history. It was the scene of a revolution against the Turks in 1821 where the priest was shot in the head. They demonstrate the bullet going in the forehead as if they had seen it themselves. I write down the date 1943 on a piece of paper for her and they animate. Yes, the Germans destroyed everything. Costas was 8 years old. Irene, who wasn’t even born when it happened, is annoyed that there have not been reparations. But she says, this year it might happen.
Irene and Costas have the war in their blood. Their parents lived through it. Although far from the German epicentre in Athens, the bombings brought the horror to this place here on the top of the world. And the horror of it goes on still.
28.11.17: Betrayal in Theodoriana
My grandmother was given up to the Germans in 1941.
She believed she was given up by the one person she thought she could trust.
I’ll explain via the story of Theodoriana. This was the mountain village that British Special Ops leader Brigadier Eddie Myers chose for his base in 1942 in planning operations against the Germans. He and his team walked and donkeyed it from the east, through snow and rain. He describes the village as beautiful, and waxed about the colour of the trees and the peaks that surrounded it.
Myers and his team had a joyful time in Theodoriana. He writes of waking to see the sun highlight the tops of the mountains, then the almond-coloured trees, then the white buildings of the little town. It was a village of hospitable people who were grateful that Britain supported the Greek people. The village was also special because its doctor was a man of vision who organised for the village to have electricity.. an amazing feat considering so much of Greece in those days had no electricity, and this village was so far from any large town, and was only accessible from small passes at each end of the village. The people lived in their own bit of paradise.
This peace wasn’t to last. Myers tells that the Germans found out their location. He suspects it was when a local trader brought three women into the village for the services of the British men. The Brits refused those services. Just as well. One of the women was a spy. The locals put her on trial, and had her shot. Right there in paradise. The other two were handed to the andartes and disappeared. Myers hoped they were jailed, but he couldn’t be sure.
Either way, the Germans knew the Brits were in Theodoriana, and conducted two air raids on the village, blowing up houses. The Germans than attacked the closest town, Vougareli, killing many people.
How did the people of Theodoriana react to these Brits who had brought so much misery?
With acceptance, support and continuous hospitality.
My grandmother met and worked with people who were just as brave and caring as the Theodorians. Then again, she had to battle the constant possibility that maybe some of those nearest to her were not on her side. It would only take one whisper for her to be undone.
It happened. She was given up to the Germans. She never knew for sure, but she believed she was betrayed by her own sister.
I met that sister when I was a child. Of course I knew nothing of the betrayal allegation. I just knew this pleasant little woman and her giant of a husband who had moved to Australia in the 1950s. They were quite exotic to the younger ones of us in the family because they lived in Melbourne (the rest of us were in Sydney).
When I first heard the allegation against this smiling woman, I couldn’t relate her to such an act of treachery.
But this was war. And this is the thing about war: it forces people into action. They act with the greatest of intention or with the greatest of fear. The Germans’ greatest tool was the constant threat. If your friend, cousin.. or even sister.. was in the resistance, then the tool of the occupiers was to make you just as liable. It is this kind of implied threat that forced people to betray those they love.
This may have happened to my grandmother. It may have happened to Eddie Myers.
The thing is though, that for every person that committed betrayal in WW2 Greece, there were many more who risked their lives to protect new friends.
War does that. As I wrote in the novel, it turns life upside down.
27.11.17: Olga’s cap
This trip is a magical mystery tour. Every day I’m finding new things about the war and the Greek people. Like a couple of days ago I learned how much women were essential to the resistance effort. They weren’t just members of teams, but they were in charge of units, trained other andartes, and had reputations as being really tough. Considering the horrors that were happening across Greece at the time, it’s no wonder they were this way.
I know that my grandmother Olga also killed people. In my novel I write a scene that was almost verbatim as it was told to me: she was standing with another resistance worker in a queue at a shop, when she saw a collaborator several places ahead in the line. At that moment the man looked back and saw Olga and the other woman together. He twigged that because they were together these two must’ve been working in the resistance. He left the shop. Without stopping to think or hesitate, Olga and the other woman broke out of the line and followed the collaborator. They needed to stop him before he could get to a police station or German headquarters. As he came to a lane, they grabbed him from behind, pulled him into the lane and stabbed him to death. They then walked on like two friends on a day out.
You did what you had to do. If they had been caught, the Germans would’ve extracted everything from them.. names, places, safe houses, hideaways, plans.. and then killed them.
As I say, they did what they had to do. And what they did was replicated hundreds of times in this war.
Being in the resistance meant there were no records kept. Very little was committed to paper, even by the British. It would’ve been dangerous to everyone, providing just the kind of evidence the Germans would need to reprisals against families and acquaintances.
So it was unusual that a photo survived of Olga in uniform. On the back of the photo it says she was in British uniform:
But I can’t be sure. Looking up some shots of other caps, the closest British one was a naval cap that bears some similarity. It’s worn here by someone whose face I know, but..
This is a Greek WW2 hat. Wrong colour but it matches in other ways:
And to make matters just a bit more confusing, women andartes wore a range of caps, but none seemed like the one Olga wore.
Alas, just another mystery in the long journey to find out more about my grandmother. I wonder what tomorrow will hold.
27.11.17: A Greek Family
I saw a lovely thing this morning. It wasn’t momentous. It was just a little window into a relationship and a jogging of the memory.
We were sitting breakfast in our little mountain taverna. At the next table was a young Greek family: mother, father and daughter who could not not have been more than 15.. the surly age. She sat away from her parents and scowled every suggestion they made. Nothing unusual in that for that age. Then another family came to share the table, so daughter had to sit next to her mother. The surliness continued. The girl didn’t look at her parents and barely acknowledged them.
Neither her mother nor father took any notice. They knew it was just the nature of a teenager and was probably nothing different to what they themselves had gone through.
The extraordinary moment was, in its way extraordinary in its ordinariness. It was when the mother leant over and dipped her bread into her daughter’s egg yolk and mopped it up as the girl was eating her eggs. The daughter didn’t react; she just kept eating. In many places this would’ve been the crossing of a line; an invasion into personal space, but even for this surly girl, this was fine. That was what her family did. It was okay. Then the father made a joke of something and the mother and daughter burst out laughing. That’s family life for Greeks. Hormones might affect you, but in the end you adore those in your gene pool, and they adore you. What happened at that table wasn’t momentous. It was just a nice moment and a memory of a childhood long past.
26.11.17: Montenema’s Hiker
One of the challenges in organising this trip was working out how to visit the villages where so much of the action happened in WW2. In those days many of the villages were inaccessible by car. That’s why the resistance and the British Special Ops organisers chose them. The Germans would find it too difficult to get troops to these places, and would only be able to do it by traversing paths that would leave them exposed to the andartes.
The man who led the British operations was Brigadier Eddie Myers. He used to walk from one part of central Greece to another. Occasionally he was lucky enough to have a grateful villager who would lend him a donkey for the trip. But mostly it was all on foot.
Today, may of these villages are easier to access. Some homeowners rent them out to tourists for the ski season, so there needs to be a relatively safe road.
I wanted to visit a couple of these villages in the Karditsa region, but being so isolated it presented problems for accommodation. Or so I thought.
Five years ago a hiker walked into the mountains and when he stepped into a clearing what opened up before him was a beautiful vista between two mountainsides. He decided there and then that this would make a great spot for an eco-village. So in a time of economic meltdown in Greece, he got funding, made plans and built what he called a “handmade village” complete with restaurant, cafe, animal farm, crops and accommodation, which consisted of individual homes.
Standing on the cafe balcony you can stand on there spot where he must’ve stood when coming out of the forest.
So Montenema has offered us a place of peace and sanctuary after hours of winding up and down roads. It is also a great spot to recoup before the movement further into the mountains.
We went for a walk this morning and what we saw was history. In the hills are the ruins of homes that are hundreds of years old. These are homes that go back to the days when the Turks ran this land, before the Greek revolution of 200 years ago. These homes were probably occupied when the andartes controlled these hills, and planned the assaults on the invaders. But now they are empty, not much more than piles of rock. There are still goat farmers in these hills. St Georges church survives in the folds of the mountains, its roof caving but its icons still watching and its candles still burning. There is celebration in Montenema because news has just come through that the national government is going too pay to have it restored.
But no such luck for the old homes. Economic times and tourism have done that war and oppression couldn’t: move out the old to make way for tourism and the visions of enterprising hikers.
25.11.17: Rendina and the Power of Women
I’ve had two inspirations for this research trip. One was my grandmother Olga Stambolis, who was a spy in Greece in WW2, and whose major role was rescuing British, Australian and New Zealand flyers who were caught behind enemy lines. She was trained in the arts of the resistance fighter by the British. I don’t know where and when, but it was likely it was in the mountains in central Greece, in the hills where the andartes (resistance fighters) felt safest.
My other inspiration was my godfather, Nick Manning, who was a teenager in the war. He was, like so many others, caught up in the action, and started to follow the communist leader Aris, a tough man who had little time for people who disagreed with his ideology. Nick the teen was told that his training would be in central Greece, so he did what so many other andantes did. He walked there. From Athens. That’s hundreds of kilometres, many of them through the mountains. Unfortunately for Nick, when he got to Rendina, the trainers had moved onto Karpenisi (see post of 2 days ago). So he walked to Karpenisi.
Today we drove this Rendina road. It seemed interminable with its twists and turns, and back in the day it would’ve been even more twisty. We pulled over and saw part of the old track, perhaps the very track Nick would’ve walked:
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
It’s pretty spectacular, and would’ve been in 1943, if you weren’t looking over your shoulder for Germans.
Once we reached Rendina, we found, like with so many other villages, that the war still hangs heavy. There are memorials. In this case, like Koryschades, the memories are of the atrocities of war, but also of the achievements and bravery of the locals. There was a war museum here too. We had to bother the local cafe owner to open it for us, but his semi-reluctance lifted when I showed him a photo of my grandmother in uniform.
It was then that I noticed that of the hundreds of photos of andartes in the museum, many featured women, some fierce looking, some looking seriously dangerous with rifles, and others were like this shot, where a woman andante was teaching men about dismantling and cleaning their weapon:
(Photo: Courtesy Rendina War Museum)
I still search for anything that might reveal news of where Olga worked, but I’m not hopeful. This was war in a country under occupation. The war was followed by a civil war that took many lives. There wasn’t much time for the keeping of lists of personnel, especially in a secretive underground movement. What I’m hoping for is anything of her. A photo like the above with Olga in the background somewhere. What a joy that would be.
24.11.17: Our Marriage in Greece
This research trip is my sixth trip to Greece. The first time was in 1988, and it was pretty frantic. We had wanted to get married, and thought it would just be a case of turning up to the church. Not to be. Just like the scene in Blues Brothers where the Mother Superior’s doors were slammed on Jake and Elwood, the priest in Santorini shut the church doors in our faces. After much translation and negotiation involving a local hotel owner, we were given a list of tasks to complete. Do these things, they said, and the priest might marry us. So we traipsed to Athens, made promises to the archbishop, posted banns in newspapers we couldn’t understand, paid monies to more people than we needed to, translated documents into English and back to Greek, and donated to churches. After seven weeks, just as our time to return to Australia loomed, we finished the to-do list and returned to Santorini. The priest took our package of evidence and didn’t even look at it. He knew what we had been through. Yes, he said, he’d marry us. Our hotel owner, Lefteris (of the Hotel Galini) agreed with tears to be our best man (it is a great honour in Greek culture), and we planned the wedding for the Wednesday, June the 8th. When the day came, the whole village of Firostefani turned out. They had been watching our fight to be married and over the weeks they had come to cheer for us. Lefteris and Lambrini lent us their home to get ready. Jac somehow came up a million dollars:
(Photo: Lambrini Roussos 1988)
Gorgos and Christina were fascinated by these aliens who took over their bedrooms. They are now two beautiful people probably with kids of their own. We seen them occasionally on Santorini. They are family you see. A best man becomes a brother, and if we had children Lefteris and Lambrini would have been their godparents. So we have a family on the other side of the world. A lovely culmination to an adventure, an adventure that continues..
23.11.17: The Koryschades Conference. So much Promise. So Much Unfulfilled.
This stop: Karpenisi. This is a central Greek town that I first heard about from my godfather Nick Manning. As a young wannabe resistance fighter in 1942-3, he walked from Athens to here to be trained. More on that in a couple of days. Karpenisi bore a lot of action in WW2. First it was controlled by the Italian invaders, then the Greek leftist ELAS group took over the town. The term ‘scorched earth’ really applies here because Karpenisi was flattened in all the fighting. The nearby village of Koryschades was saved, simply because it was surrounded by mountains and thus was inaccessible to German bombers. In 1944 Koryschades hosted a convention attended by the left and rightist resistance members and the British to try to work out a future post-war government structure (remember that before the war Greece was in a dictatorship).
This conference happened in this former schoolhouse:
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
Unfortunately, the detente didn’t hold. The leftists wiped out the rightist andarte group EDES when the Nazis were driven out, infuriating the British. Images exist of British snipers on the acropolis picking out communist fighters in downtown Athens. Everywhere there were reprisal killings. Family members were against family members. Nicholas Gage’s book Eleni tells how his mother was murdered by the leftists in a small village simply because her husband and son had fled to imperialist America. There were many of these kinds of cases in 4 years of civil war that killed more Greeks than the Germans had done in their brutal occupation.
All the hopes generated in this little building in the Greek countryside came to nothing.
22.11.17: Gorgopotomos. The Resistance Strikes Back.
Pilgrimages are odd. You go to see something you have only imagined maybe for your whole life, and when you reach the destination, it is often something so different to what you expected. Smaller maybe. Less grand. Today, the Gorgopotomos bridge in central Greece was not at all like that. I had been wanting to see this valley and the huge rail viaduct since I first read about in many years ago. The viaduct spans the valley and carries the major rail line that runs from north Greece to the south. In WW2 it was more than just a rail line. The Germans relied on it to supply their troops, carrying food, fuel and ammo down to their forces in the Mediterranean, including those in North Africa. No surprise then that Churchill wanted it destroyed. He dropped a group of Special Operations soldiers into the area, headed by Brigadier Eddie Myers. Their job was to blow the bridge and cut off supplies to German soldiers. But this mission was never going to be simple. Myers had to negotiate for help from the Greek resistance, which had by this time split into the communist ELAS and the more right wing EDES. These two groups were so opposed that ELAS spent as much energy trying to wipe out EDES as it did in attacking the Nazi invaders. Somehow Myers talked them into co-operating for this job and the bridge was blown in November 1942:
Of course it’s been rebuilt, and is a majestic wonder. It took me a while to find the bridge today, but there was the glorious moment when I walked through bramble to almost stumble onto the tracks at the top. Luckily when no trains were nearby:
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
But it was from down below that the power of this bridge, and the magnitude of the sabotage work was apparent.
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
Despite a bit of Greece being destroyed on that day in November 1942, the locals celebrated, and still celebrate the destruction to this day. In a local taverna there are pictures on the wall of Brigadier Myers that were taken when he revisited Greece 15 years later. I suppose any spit in a Nazi eye was worth a thousand bridges.
21.11.17: Delphi and the Nature of Truth
On this trip we are going to visit some of the places where the Greek resistance plagued the Germans during the war. They did it all over the country, even though in many cases the reprisals were terrible (see my entry for 20.11). It seems that almost every village we have passed through saw some horror at the hands of the invaders. Just today our guesthouse owner told us of a mass killing of 25 civilians by the Nazis at the nearby village of Kalami. Strangely though, the invaders did seem to have some respect for Greek antiquity. They posed on the acropolis like conquering heroes, and they visited the ancient site of Delphi, so close to the sites of their most brutal activities. Delphi has a history that goes back to the earliest days of written stories. Herodotus and Homer wrote of it hundreds of years before Christ. Herodotus in particular talked of the Kastalian Spring which is on the road near Delphi. It was a luxurious bathing house in the BC days. Now it is really a hole in the ground:
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
Yes, it would have been something special when Herodotus wrote of it. Herodotus features heavily in my PhD study because, like me, he wrote history but in a non-fiction way. This fictionalising was controversial in his day. While he was known as the Father of History for his Histories, he was also dubbed The Father of Lies by Plutarch for using a flourishing style. As I write the play of my grandmother’s story, I need to tread the same path as Herodotus (hence the name of my PhD: Going the Way of the Ancients). I need to constantly question how far I should go when turning fact into fiction. Does the narrative need of a stage performance justify changing a story? If I don’t have facts, do I have the artistic licence to add in parts? For my novel Someone Else’s War (which is the primary source for the play) I took this licence, making it clear on the cover that this was a novel, not a non-fiction piece. Even so, at writer’s festivals, launches and even book club events, the first question I was asked was about which parts of the novel are absolutely true. Few people asked about my grandmother’s spying, her killing, her sabotage or her rescuing of trapped allied fighters. I suppose that’s what led to part of this PhD including a discussion of the nature of truth in art. It’s an honour to think I am a tackling the same questions that dogged Herodotus, the man who could fairly be said to have founded the recording of history.
20.11.17: The Horror of Distomo
This trip is only three days old, and we’ve found an extraordinary story of the second world war, almost by accident. It was the kind of story that makes it easy to understand why my grandmother Olga Stambolis decided to risk her life to undermine the Nazi invaders. This photo was taken at the top of a little village called Distomo which is close to Lord Byron’s favourite place, Delphi in central Greece. On the 10th of June 1944, only four months before they were expelled by the Allied forces, the Germans went through the homes of the people from Distomo and killed 218 of them. The youngest was a one year old baby. The oldest was 84 years old. This artwork at the memorial captures the anguish of the village’s women:
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
And no wonder. The memorial has a wall of the names of the 200 killed. 32 of them have the same surname. If they were from the same family (and in a small village, it’s a good chance they were) then this family lost infants aged 2, 4 and 7, as well as the family matriarch, an 80 year old woman. The Germans must’ve known the end was near, and just like their Norwegian ‘scorched earth’ retreat, this was an act of of bitterness and spite. Many of the children they killed that day were girls. (See below: 3 year old Maria and 5 year old Katina). Reports were that a baby was shot in her mother’s arms; children were bayoneted in their cots, pregnant women were stabbed. All because the SS wrongly suspected the townspeople of abetting an attack on Germans troops. This kind of loss must stay in the village DNA.
When we reached the outskirts of the village, we were met by a committee led by the elderly priest. He was an old fashioned patriarch, with a long, wavy, white beard. Next to him the guerilla captain, fully armed. The priest spoke first and thanked us on behalf of everybody for the food supplies. Then he added: “We are all starving here, both us and the German prisoners. Now, though we are famished, we are at least in our land. The Germans have not just lost the war; they are also far from their country. Give them the food you have with you, they have a long way ahead.”
Forgiveness. With people like this Greek priest, Greece was able to find a way back.
My godfather’s father was a victim of a massacre. He was one of 200 prisoners executed on Hitler’s orders on the 1st of May 1944 in Kaisariani, Athens. It was in reprisal for the resistance killing a German general.. I doubt my godfather ever was so forgiving as this priest.
19.11.17: A scene from my Novel
(Photo: Phil Kafcaloudes 2017)
These two Athenian churches featured in my novel Someone Else’s War as the site where the resistance started building an tunnel to get supplies and people out of Athens under the noses of the German occupiers in WW2. In the novel the tunnel was sanctioned by the local priest. However, this action was a fiction. I wrote it into the novel to demonstrate the ways the Greeks were thumbing their noses at the Nazis, even when it was a great risk to do so. The clergy often secretly supported action against the occupiers. There were also collaborators who co-operated with the Germans, but there were so many who risked everything. For my grandmother Olga, she risked her life everyday as a spy for the resistance and the British, but the risk was hers only. If the local Greeks who worked with her were caught, not only they would die, but their families. The Nazis didn’t see families; they saw groups of human hostages. They didn’t see villages; but opportunities for reprisal shootings.
18.11.17: Coming to one of my homes
There’s something special that happens to me when we land in Athens. If my Greek roots go back thousands of years, then touching Athenian concrete probably has some kind of osmotic cosmic effect. After all, a lineage of 500+ forebears must leave some electricity in the ground. Three hours ago that electricity shot through me as our Airbus something-or-other banged on the tarmac. It was drizzly, the plane’s windows were foggy and it looked quite miserable outside. But it could’ve been Christmas for how I felt. Just 20 hours before that moment we were in St Kilda. Now I was in my second favourite place on earth. I’ll take the tube into Athens tomorrow morning. The last time I was in Athens the mood was as miserable as today’s weather. Let’s see. I’ll let you know this time tomorrow. Tonight it’s a taverna next to where we’re staying in Peania, just S-W of the city. There’s Retsina to be had and whatever kind of vegan they can manage. The adventure begins.
17.11.17: The start of the adventure
I’m sitting in a plane waiting to take off from Melbourne. I am beginning a month-long research trip for my exegesis PhD. It’s about the production of a performance piece based on the activities of my maternal grandmother, who was a spy in Greece during world war two. She was a resistance fighter, rescuing Australian, British and New Zealand airmen caught behind enemy lines in central, western and northern Greece. While I have conducted research from Athens and London on many trips over the years, this will be the first time I’m visiting the sites of the resistance work in central and northern Greece.
This will be a driving trip, starting with Athens, and following the routes of my grandmother’s rescue routes, visiting each town where she would have worked.
This trip also involves going to the sites of the resistance fighting during WW2, and includes the sites of other resistance centres such as Rendina and Karpenisi where the resistance cells were based (even though my grandmother did not work there). I will also visit the site of a turning point for the resistance (the blowing up of the Gorgopotomos Bridge). In Greek Macedonia I will go the sites of the Jewish deportations. These will provide essential background for the thesis, especially for the factual background for the writing of the performance piece, and also for the staging of the scenes, some of which will be set in the areas to be visited.
The drive will start to the east of Athens, move north across Thebes to Lamia (where the Gorgopotomos Bridge was blown in as British operation, then west to the resistance strongholds in the Pindhos Ranges towards Ioannina. Then north again to where the greek resistance factions (the left wing ELAS and the royalist EDES) fought for control. Then we go eastwards towards Salonika (Thessaloniki). We then move south through the Aliakmon Line, through the Pinios Gorge, following one of the routes of the April 1941 German advance.
Can’t wait. But I guess I’ll have to. This plane trip will be a long one. Not as long as my forebears who took months to get to and from Australia by boat back in the day. I suppose I can’t complain really..
6.11.17: From Teacher to Student
I returned to La Trobe Uni today for my Research Progress Panel. This is a meeting where we look at the progress of my PhD and to see if there any problems. It was odd. One of my supervisor is a former teaching comrade, Steinar Ellingsen, and the chair of the panel is my former boss, Lawrie Zion. There was a moment before we started when I felt about six years old. Would my work be good enough. Have I been too lazy? Have I been too scattered? Would I get the ruler? Nothing like that of course, but it was a great proverbial whack on the head, a reminder that the lot of a student is one of constant self-doubt, challenge and correction.
I have always loved my students, but I might come back to semester 1 next year even kinder now.
29.10.17: Teaching and PhDing
At last I have finished my marking for my students at RMIT in Melbourne. It’s one of the prestige journalism teaching institutions, and it’s got some fabulous facilities (just a few weeks ago I met Prince Andrew on the first operating day for our new TV studio).
But it’s the students that make this place special. No matter what we throw at them, they take it all (there are occasional tears, but hey, they’re 19 years old!) and produce some great stuff. I haven’t had the chance to work with them from first year, leading them through TV and radio, but they picked up so much in this semester. So to Lou, Josh, Meg, Elena, Hayley, Thea, Eliza and all the rest of my new friends, it’s been great being with you for this part of your journey. You’re going to be so fine.
Now that the teaching and the marking is over, I can focus on the PhD. For a little while at least.
24.10.17: Planning the big PhD trip
Next month we are off to central and northern Greece to see the places where the Greek andartes (resistance fighters) operated in the second world war.
Yes, the Greek mountains in winter. Madness. But being an academic doesn’t give you much room. The June break is too short, and I really need to do this trip for my PhD which I hope to have finished by next June anyway.
My godfather Nick Manning (originally Maniarizis) was one of the resistance fighters, and he wrote about walking from Athens to the training centre in Rendina. When he got there, the trainers had moved on to Karpenisi to the south. So he walked there too. No chance of a cab, not that he could afford it anyway in those days of Nazi-imposed austerity.
At the same time my maternal grandmother was spying under the British Special Ops (the SOE), possibly in the same area. They met, but nit until both were safely in Australia many years after the war.
Nick Manning died a few months ago. He was a lovely gentle man. I hope he’ll be with us as we explore his roads and his villages. With minus degree temps and possible snow, we’ll need every angel looking over us.
18.10.17: It’s not about royalties
I was contacted on LinkedIn by a most amazing woman the other day. Maribel Steel’s eyesight has been getting worse since she was 15. She now, 40-odd years later, has very little sight left, but she still works, publishing books, giving inspirational talks, and generally helping others who have far less to complain about than her.
Maribel has suggested that the book be made into a audiobook for the vision-impaired, which would give it a whole new audience, an audience that I would love to have read it. It’s not about royalties. I really couldn’t care whether 100 people read the book because they bought it full price from a book store, or whether they borrowed it from a library. I am lucky enough to have a full-time job which allows us to feed the dog, eat out every so often, and download the latest Rolling Stones record.
I know there are plenty of authors who rely on their royalties, but I am sure all of them would rather the library readers have their book than none at all. We write because we want to share our art. If we can make a living out of it like Tim Winton or Peter Carey, then wonderful. But for me, to have one Maribel say they were touched by the story would mean far more than the two dollars in royalties for that sale
Thanks Maribel. I hope you’ll be able to hear the book soon.
12.9.17: Anthony. And good old Kevin
The novel has done it again. I have written earlier in this blog about how the book has brought me back in contact with family members I had not seen in many years. Well in the past 12 months I have had two people contact me.
One is my cousin Anthony, grandson of my Auntie Freda. Anthony and I had probably never spoken. We were a generation an half a country apart. But Anthony has found a cache of photos and documents that belonged to Freda, and the joyful lad has been sending them to me. In them is plenty of information which shines even more of a light on Freda and her father (my grandfather Michael). When you’ve been writing a story like mine, you start to see your characters in your sleep. Anthony’s information and photos has given me a new perspective.
Also contacting me has been Kevin Plumb, a lad I had almost forgotten about from my teen years. In 1976 Kevin and I were in a student acting group that toured to the Adelaide Festival. We became good friends, and indeed I became more than good friends with a girlfriend of his. Kevin and I lost touch, as you do when school and geography intervenes. Recently Kevin got in contact through Facebook, thirty-something years on. I am just mailing hi ma copy of the novel.
I’m sure that back in those amateur acting days in 1976 I never would’ve dreamt that he would be reading a novel of mine. Life really has twists, and some of them are magical.
21.5.17: Surrounded by Greek Women
This novel is about women. My grandmother Olga, the war hero spy Nikotsara, my step-grandmother Jean, my mum Nellie and aunties Tina and Freda.
I could never have known that this book would lead me into a web of Greek women. In the past few months women have been the ones who have pushed me along on my journey. Greek societies in Sydney and Melbourne have organised launches for the Greek version of the book. A fabulous Greek bookshop in Sydney (The Greek Bilingual Bookshop) has hosted two events for me. It is a shop run at a bare profit by two wonderful women, Eleni and Christina. They are examples of people who do what they do because it will make the community stronger. There can be no greater motivation. While so many of us count our pennies, they are counting the number of books they can offer to the people. Their shop is in fact more of a library. This is a coffee shop where customers can flock through the books for sale.
When I was a kid I was surrounded by women, my aunts, my mum and Jean. It is now so many years later, and I again am surrounded by Greek women. It’s just wonderful.
Here’s a lovely photo of Eleni and Christina and I after the launch. Our faces say it all.
21.2.17: The Joy of being Greek
Every Friday I receive a slab of tweets on my twitter account @philkafcaloudes from a bunch of people in the USA. I have never met these people, and have only every personally communicated with one of them, Maria Karamitsos, who is a journalist with a huge love of books and authors. She reviewed Someone Else’s War some time ago.
By meeting Maria I was drawn into a wonderful web of Greek people who don’t expect anything from you. They are want to support you and to be a friend. Every Friday, their greetings and wishes for a good weekend are a lovely part of my end-of-week routine now. I don’t always get the time to reciprocate, but I think they probably know.
Thank you my friends.
21.12.12: The Book is now in Greek!
Some time ago I went to Athens to sign a contract for Someone Else’s War to be translated into Greek for the european market. At first they said the book would be coming out in April 2013, but then I got an email from the publishers (Psichogios Publications) telling me that the date had changed. I expected this bit of news. After all, Greece was in a time of terrible financial turmoil. In the back of my mind there was an expectation that the book would be out off until next August, then the following year, then infinity.
But no. They told me that the publication date was being brought forward to December 2012! In the world of publishing, this is a fast turnaround. It meant only 5 months from contract signing to publication. Granted, the book was already written, but they had to translate it, give it a new cover that would appeal to the Greek market, and go through the manuscript and check any slight factual errors that wold be picked up by Athenian residents (and yes, there were a couple).
So yes, the book is now available in Olga’s homeland, and across the world as an ebook on iTunes. The good people at Psichogios publications have changed the name of their Greek version to “Olga’s War” (it translates much more smoothly in Greek than “Someone Else’s War“). I love the cover too. It is a different species of artwork to Julie Ramsden’s original concept, but they are both terrific. I hope you like it.
10.9.12: To my Uncle Johnny
About a year ago I blogged about my Uncle Johnny. I wrote about how he waited in the queue to get his copy of Someone Else’s War signed.
I wrote about how I felt an odd wrongness at seeing him standing there, slightly hunched, with the book under his arm.
I wrote how I felt I should be the one waiting in a queue for him, since he was the last son of my grandfather Michael. He lived as part of the family of the book.
This morning I found out that Johnny died today.
So many things go through your mind when something like this happens. You think you should’ve spent more time with him, you think you should’ve talked to him more. You realise that there is not one person left in the family of that generation. That the genes of your grandfather exist now only in the diluted form of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Johnny and his brother Jimmy, who died some years ago, were born of my grandfather and his second wife, Jean. Michael had married Jean during the war, when he and Australian officials believed Olga had been killed in Greece. As we know, Olga was still alive, working with the resistance, and this marriage to Jean was, I suppose you could say, a polygamy. But it was an accident of the times, and a victim of the fact that the British were unable to pass the news of Olga’s survival to Australian authorities because she was working too deeply in the resistance, and it would have been a risk to her safety to pass on this information.
The beauty of this confusion was the marriage to Jean, which was a marriage of love and devotion, and the births of my half-uncles Jimmy and Johnny.
Johnny was a beautiful man, probably the only true Greek-looking man in our family. Think of an even more perfectly chiselled version of Victor Mature, but with more animation, a passion for life, quick to hug, easy to indulge, always wanting to play. I remember the family days at Bondi Beach when Johnny would creep up behind me and toss me into the surf. I think I once got angry about it, but a look at Johnny’s playful face, and the anger was replaced by a need for him to do it again.
I hadn’t seen Johnny for about fifteen years until the book launch last year, and then I saw him again at my mother’s funeral only two months later, when he posed with the rest of the family for photos. Typical of Johnny, he was at the front, sitting on a chair, making himself the centre of attention.
He was a man who loved the good times, who loved his family, and always kept some of the child with him.
He lives on through his beautiful children, John, Anthony and Michelle.
I will miss him.
30.8.12: Thank goodness for good friends
Being an author is an up and down thing.
There are the journalists you never hear from, not even acknowledging that book you sent them.
There are the book awards you enter, always hoping for a little candle of approbation, one that rarely comes.
There are the dark nights of the soul when you worry that no-one likes your book.
This might be enough for any observer to wonder why we do it.
The answer I might’ve given you two years ago is that we do it because writing is worth every doubt, every dark night, every rejection from every publisher, award panel, or forgetful reporter. In writing this novel I have come to the belief that writing, or any act of art is probably the closest we come to God, whatever your God is. Writing is a spiritual soaring.
Now, after a year of publication, a reprint, a translation, and two Writers Festivals, I have to add that there’s something else that makes it worthwhile/ I’m talking about the people who travel the publishing journey with you.
I came to realise this when I was doing some homework for a Reiki Master level course I was doing some months back. One assignment involved me choosing something important to my life, and then listing all the people who have been supporting me. I chose to be thankful for the people who gave support to me and my book. The exercise was supposed to take ten minutes. My list took me forty minutes. Friends, family, publishers who believed in my writing, the agent who stayed with me for most of the journey, the prominent people who launched it, the people who came to the launches, the people who bought it, the people who sought me out to tell me they loved it, the book clubs, the radio people who interviewed me, the Greek community who took ownership of the book. So many people. So much love.
Thank you all, and thank you to my story for bringing these people into my life.
1.6.12: I met the loveliest of men the other day
He is the founder of a Greek publishing house, who offered to translate the book into Greek for the European market. He also happens to be the publisher for the Greek versions of the Harry Potter books, Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie.
As I walked through the foyer of his office in northern Athens, the books of these great writers lined the walls. Clearly this is a publishing house proud of its authors, in love with its authors.
As I went upstairs and met Mr Psichogios, I was struck at how this man, at the forefront of the Greek book trade for thirty years could be so much like everyman’s Uncle Leo, a gentle and warm man who seemed as thrilled to be in my company as I was to be in his.
The Greek financial woes are pretty bad. Greece is currently got a yearly debt that is 130% times its yearly national production. In other words it will never be able to pay its current debt.
It’s people like Mr Psichogios who may be affected by all this. As things get more difficult, people will cut luxuries, and sadly when it is a choice between petroleum and books, books are the luxury.
I thought of this as I sat there in that office, signing the book contract, my name adjacent to that of Mr Psichogios, the man who refuses to let years of Greek government ineptitude close him down and stop him wanting to get Greek stories out to the world.
I now understand the artists who dedicate their work to their producer, director or editor. There is something in realising that there is someone in this with you, someone who has said they want to be with you for the journey.
My regret, my only regret, was that I forgot to get a photo of me with Mr Psichogios as we signed our names together.
Still, it wasn’t a day for regrets. It was a day of sunshine in Athens that afternoon when I was back on the footpath.
A good, sunny day.
16.4.12: My Auntie Freda died today
If you have read the novel, you would know Freda as my mum’s very lively and passionate sister, the one to whom attention needed to be paid; the tough-minded and acerbic one; the one who was quick to anger and quick to cry.
Freda played a big part in my childhood. My mum worked for Freda and her husband Leo Bayss in the Bayss’ restaurant in Chalmers Street near Sydney’s Central Station. Mum would take me, the too-curious three-year old to the shop with her. This was in the days when to take a toddler to work with you wasn’t a workplace faux pas. Freda and Leo loved having me there. Uncle Leo would make me a little hamburger for lunch, and Freda would then take me up to her bedroom so we could have an afternoon nap together.
It was a time of kisses and hugs, passionate squeezes. Freda was always so much more public than mum. Her pace was fast, her annoyances more obvious, her jokes and laugh so much louder.
I drew a lot on these memories for the Freda in Someone Else’s War, because I believe a character is a character. We may pull our head in a little as we learn the lessons of life, but we are who we are.
It was actually pretty easy to take the character of Freda back into childhood; she had so many of the traits of an unaffected child. If you stripped away a few years, and some of the disappointments that life must have brought, it was easy to see the young Freda in this woman and mother of my young life. After Olga, Feda was the most interesting character to draw.
Freda had not been herself for some years. A stroke took that away. Over the last five years, Freda moved between remembering our times together, and not knowing me at all. Such are the ways of age.
But Freda was a big part of my life, a character that was large in our family of large characters.
You will be missed and always remembered Freda.
4.4.12: The Ups and Downs of the Book Festival Circuit
It is mostly ups.
Getting to meet people who love books, and who want to grill you about your work. The questions are endless and intuitive. It takes you out of the mechanics and grind of the book-selling business. You are elevated to the spiritual level, the kind that you experienced when you were writing in the first place. The story is the thing, the inspiration, the character motivations.
And the what-ifs. What-if the character made a different decision; what-if an antagonist was slightly different. The audiences want to know what would have happened to the central character, Olga. What-if.
As the author who has completed the book, a what-if might seem irrelevant, but it surely is relevant. These sorts of questions prove that the reader has become subsumed; their mind has wondered. There is nothing more that you can hope for in an author-reader exchange.
Yes, I love writers festivals.
But it can be a roller coaster. Last week I received a note from the Ubud Writers festival in Bali, letting me know that they think my book is brilliant (which is a lovely thing to say), but that it would not be invited to be on the program this year.
I admit I felt slightly downcast. Call me spoiled. I probably am. I felt guilty at feeling I had a right to be invited to a writers’ festival.
Then, on the same day, came the invitation to appear at the Brisbane Writers Festival.
As Ian Gillan of Deep Purple once wrote in one of his lyrics, “Heaven wouldn’t be so high I know, if the times gone by hadn’t been so low.”
He’s right. The Ubud email made the Brisbane invitation all the sweeter. My publisher was thrilled. Certainly the prospect of book sales is greater in Brisbane, and the likelihood that the attendees will have read my book will be higher, and so the discussions are bound to be fabulous.
And as I said at the beginning, I just love that.
23.1.12: Going into Reprint!
Yes, after only five months on the shelves, my publisher tells me that we have sold out our first run of Someone Else’s War.
When this happens, you need to get more printed. It is not just a case of getting a few more run off. In the publishing industry, when the first run is sold out, you reprint.
This means you have chance to correct any factual errors (and there was one in the first edition: somehow the great Greek Gorgopotomos bridge went to print as the Gotopotomos bridge. Obviously that clanger had to be corrected (if you are looking for a first edition, that is a giveaway clue). There were also a few typographical errors that were found.
The result is that I have been working over the past week or so to get these corrections to the printer in time for the reprint to be set.
I also was unhappy with a couple of details on the cover. Only small things, like the comment from the Booker Prize winning author Tom Keneally (who won the prize for his masterpiece Schindler’s List). His comment was a lovely endorsement, but in the first printing, it could barely be read. It was dark and faded into the background. If you’re going to have a Booker Prize winner cheer on your work, you want people to be able to read it. We fixed that, and a few other small things you’d need a microscope to see.
The printer, as he sat with me at the proofing table, casually said that it was unusual for a novel outside of a New York Times selection, to need a reprint so soon.
As I wrote in an earlier blog, writing a novel can be full of surprises. Here was another one.
12.1.12: The Surprise of Dreams Unanticipated
When you write a novel, your head can’t help but be full of dreams.
You dream that people will buy it, that they will like it, that they will tell their friends.
You dream that the media will bother to read it, that they too will like it, and that they will tell their readers or listeners what a great read it is.
You might also dream that people involved in motion pictures will read some of these reviews and clamour to get you book’s rights for a film.
I must admit that some of these standards dreams popped into my head too, just as thy took the mind of generations of writers before me.
But the cliche ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ became true for me; with a slight amendment. It should have read ‘ truth is more wonderful than fiction, because what has happened to me is the following, all things I didn’t anticipate:
People have cried at my writing
Novelists I love have told me they love my writing.
A man who was in Greece in the war told me I got the times and feeling of the place perfect.
I have had my relatives, some of whom I hadn’t seen for nearly two decades, come to support me for the launches of the book.
I had a cousin cry because she recognised a family characteristic revealed in the book, and came to believe, after 60-odd years, that she really did share a commonality with the rest of us.
My mother, who no longer was capable of understanding photos, reacted to the book’s cover with a lucidity and recognition. This happened the last time I saw her conscious, just weeks before she died.
All these things were all surprises. They were undreamt-for. They just happened.
For these alone, the hours, days, weeks, and years of writing were worth it.
8.12.11: The Death of a Gentle woman
My mum died today.
If you have read the novel you would’ve picked up that Nellie was, like her mother, a pretty powerful woman. She almost single-handedly brought up her family, kept them together, and somehow stopped them from turning into police-botherers.
But there was another side to Nellie Stambolis-Kafcaloudes. She could also be a nervous woman, forever wringing her hands at family get-togethers, worried that everything was going to fall in a heap. She was a mother who, when you told her you were going on holidays, would immediately fret that you would be fired while you were away.
This kind of thinking obviously goes back in part to her own mother Olga, who disappeared one night from the little family shop in Ultimo in 1936. We know now that Olga was working as a spy in Greece and was doing good work for the Allies against the Nazis, but can you imagine what must have gone through the mind of the 13 year old Nellie? Basic psychology tells us that the fears of an adult are often built on the terrors of the child. The young Nellie could possibly have believed her mother dead or abducted. Just as any parent of a disappeared child will say it is the not-knowing that is the hardest part for them, the same thing must apply for the child who has lost a parent. Or worse, for children have the power of imagining things without the limits of reason that adults learn.
If there is anything good to be said about dementia, it is that with Nellie in her last years her dementia removed all these fears from her mind. She was incapacitated to a degree, but the brain damage did not affect her capacity to love. We have just spent a day farewelling the nursing home staff, who had been coming to us one by one, telling us how Nellie would raise her arms to them for a cuddle, and kiss them repeatedly on the sides of their faces. As a very aged woman, she had again become a child.
I feel honoured that I had the chance to see that part of mum before her journey on this planet was over. My brothers Terry and Michael, and sister Sylvia have all said the same thing.
You were gorgeous mum. Just gorgeous.
3.12.11: Tom Keneally and the Art of Surprises
Booker prize winner Tom Keneally played an important role in this book. He was an early supporter and encourager of me and my story, because years ago he told me to keep up with it, and not to get discouraged by the vagaries of the book trade. Art isn’t easy, he told me in on not so many words, even going as far as to say that if he had begun writing today, he would not have been published, such is the state of the publishing industry today.
These were words that helped me in the darker hours of the publishing process. So now, let’s go forward to this year. I dared to send a message to Tom to ask him if he’d be kind enough to read some of the novel and perhaps give me a quote that I could use on the cover. He fired back an email saying he would be honoured to write something for me. I remember the moment well. Jackie and I were sitting at Manira’s lovely veggie cafe in Prahran market in Melbourne, having just done a pilates session. The email from Tom came through, and I wept at the kindness of it, that this man who must have so many demands on his life, took the time to send such good thoughts across the ether, and to also promise to spend more time reading a work of a first time novelist. It was a moment in life was is glorious. I still remember the feeling. I doubt I ever felt such a humility before. Thanks to Tom I am one of those who can add it to my packet of emotional memories.
Tom was as good as his promise. It didn’t take him long to reply with a quote that sits proudly on the front of the book.
This week I spoke again with Tom, about his latest work, a non-fiction examination of the history of the Australian peoples from the Eureka Stockade to the end of the first world war.
As I greeted him outside the studio, Tom’s first words to me were, believe it or not, an apology. He said he was sorry that he had not written more for me, or done more to help me.
Just when I thought there was no more a human could do for another, Tom surprised me by doing even more. A lovely human being.
28.11.11: The Joy of Book Clubs
Book clubs are always an interesting experience for an author. The other night I gave a talk to a club run by a great friend of mine, Margie Gillett. She is the young-un in her book club, she’s only been with it for a few years. Some of them have been talking books together for decades, so it was surprising to learn that I was their first author, the first to appear in their book club. I turned up on time to find half a dozen women in a circle in Margie’s lounge-room, all with copies of my novel, leaning over canapes and wine, ready to fire questions that had undoubtedly been brewing for the last month.
The questions were very broad, from my Greekness and the impact of researching Olga on my attitude towards my heritage, to the difficulty in researching such a story. I have written elsewhere here about how hard it was to find details about Olga, given that she was fighting in an occupied country, one of many many people in a strung out and semi-autonomous resistance.
What surprised me, and probably should not have, was how one person in particular kept bringing up detail in the books, the things that Olga did and had happen to her, and wanting to know if that bit was true. At first I answered whether it was true or not, but after a while it was, I fear, getting into dangerous territory. After all, this is a novel. It is based on Olga’s story, and every true fact about Olga is in the book. If I ever had a choice between writing a truth or a slightly more exciting fiction, I stuck with the truth. But clearly it is set in fictional settings. At functions I say to my readers that I really don’t know what Olga was doing on September the 18th 1942. I had an idea of what she was doing around that time, but if I couldn’t be time specific and exact in her deeds, then I was never going to claim that everything in the book was absolutely true. Hence the sub-title “A Novel” on the cover.
To that night though. In the end, when yet another truth or fiction was asked by the woman with the dog-erared copy of my book, I had to laugh out loud and say: “It’s a novel! Let’s not destroy the mystique. Enjoy the ride.” And she was quick to say that she really did enjoy the ride, it as just that her curiosity was diving her mad.
I’m sure Tom Keneally got the same treatment about Schindler’s Ark, which told of Oskar Schindler in a novel form. Fictionalising is probably the most rewarding way for an author to tell a story. It brings the reader into the mind of the characters. I just read Frank Moorhouse’s fabulous new concluding novel in his Edith trilogy. In it he tells of 1950s Australia, the communist witch-hunts and the struggle of Australian women for recognition. His Edith is fake, a concocted character, but Moorhouse has done his work and the book oozes authenticity. Through it we learn a little of the society that preceded, and informed, ours. Like any good novel, it taught me something about where I am and perhaps a little about why I think the way I do.
That’s a pretty neat accomplishment. I love being a novelist.
15.11.11: The Surprising Listener
Sydney has been so very welcoming to me and the novel. There have been invitations to cocktail parties, requests to speak to book clubs, offered opportunities for signings.
One of the more memorable nights was at the War Memorial in Hyde Park. I had been asked to give a keynote speech to mark the eve of Oxi Day. The word ‘Oxi’ is an English approximation of the Greek word for ‘no’. It was on the 28th of October 1940 that the Greek dictator and strongman John Metaxas was given an ultimatum by the Italian ambassador Grazzi. The ultimatum demanded that Greece allow Italian forces occupy whatever parts of Greece they wanted. Metaxas took little time to say ‘no’, and thus put his country at war with its much more militant and military-capable neighbour.
Because all this happened when my grandmother was in Greece, I tell this story in the novel, central as it is to the demise of Greece in those years. Except this was no demise. The Italians did invade only hours after Metaxas’ famous ‘no’, and the Greeks fought them with a fire the Italians could not have expected. So powerful were the Greeks with their farm tools as weapons, that they pushed the Italians out of Greece and way back into Albania where they had come from.
At War Memorial on this night I told this story, which the audience must have already known and heard every Oxi Day since they were children, but they listened, intent.
There was one man though who listened more closely than most. He was a stooped man who once had been very handsome and still was to an extent, but even now in his eighties he had those Greek shining eyes that seemed both intent and far away. He clapped loudly at the end of my speech, and afterwards waited patiently as others came to speak to me of their own mothers, fathers and grandparents. When he did eventually get to me, he shook my hand and congratulated me.
I have blogged elsewhere that I often feel a little undeserving of congratulation. I simply tell stories. The reward is in the writing and telling, and I am rewarded well by this.
I thanked him for his good wishes and said I talk for a living, so this is not so hard.
No, he said. Congratulations on getting the book right.
You see, he was a child in Athens during the time of the invasion. He walked the streets during the famine. Every day he saw the Nazis and the Italians. He may well have been present at the executions.
I thanked him again and said that I try to get the facts as right.
No, he said again. Not just the facts. More important. You got the feeling right. You painted Greece as it felt back in those days. You took me back to my youth.
I was very touched, I cried a little, and maybe so did he.
It was a lovely gift, him telling me this, and I realised that those shiny eyes of his as I told the story that night were indeed faraway eyes. He was remembering a life long past, and who knows what things were back in his eye.
Sometimes being a writer is just glorious.
25.9.11: The First Time
A couple of minutes ago I went into a bookstore and for the first time I saw Someone Else’s War on a bookshelf. Now I have been published twice before, and I have had countless articles of mine, or about me, appear in magazines and newspapers, but that moment of seeing your work out there on the market is really something.
My God, I almost became a teenager again. It felt like I had seen a girl I had a crush on walking towards me alone on a street. It felt like Christmas, and it was also strangely frightening. Back then I didn’t know what to do: to speak or not to speak, to pour out my feelings or stay cool.
So many years on, in that bookstore just now, I had that same feeling. Would I look a fool if I told the shop assistant that this book was mine? Should I take a photo of the book on the shelf and risk looking a dork, or at worst a piracy operative?
In the end a moment of inspiration came. I would go to the shop assistant and tell them I was the author, and ask them whether they would they like me to sign the copies.
They weren’t aghast. Or suspicious. Yes, please, they answered. They’d put a little ‘signed by the author’ sticker on them. In fact they went out the back to find their entire stock for me to sign.
So if you’re passing by the Constant Reader bookshop in Crows Nest in Sydney, who knows, you might be able to pick up a little bit of that gem of a moment.
18.9.11: Of Premiers and Greeks
I’ve just come across the blog that former NSW premier Bob Carr wrote about the book. He launched it at Dymocks in Sydney a few weeks ago and, as I’ve written in an earlier entry, he was gracious and caring.
His blog shows just the same type of humanity. I might have already written that my brother and sister, who have never been known as Labor supporters, came away from the launch Carr fans.
Bob spoke of the terrible war in Greece, and of how so many Australians started life in that war before migrating to Australia. My own neighbours in Melbourne, Peter and Arreghti, lived through that war, as did the lady down the street. They came to this country, somehow managing to live with the nightmares of those times, building new families, helping build a new Australia, and showing a generosity of spirit that must’ve infected St Kilda East. For like so many areas where immigrants have settled, there is a feeling of hope in our town; the sort of feeling that can come from people who have seen the worst of life, and know that the petty woes of our times are often overblown. Compared to Greece in 1941 they certainly must seem so.
For Bob to pay tribute to Arreghti’s generation, the forgotten generation from a forgotten war, was just so right. He expands on this in his blog.
Bob’s blog is at: http://bit.ly/pXxi69
Check out the photo. The reason Bob is beaming is because I had just given a special thank you present: A signed copy of a book written by Senator Joe McCarthy (yes, the anti-communist guy). Bob was thrilled, but no more than me after his gracious speech.
15.9.11: Old Home Week
I’m in beautiful Byron Bay, trying to make a publicity tour into some kind of holiday. I’ve succeeded, to a degree.
Mornings I take Bella (our kelpie cross) for a long walk into town for a Chai then to the most fabulous doggie beach I have ever seen. It goes for miles with nothing but dunes to one side and the ocean to the other. This is the eastern-most point of Australia, so all we have to the north, south and east is ocean. It’s clean, remarkably cool and fresh early in the day. The only noise is the ocean, except when my publicist, Alan Davidson, sends me an SMS to say there’s another interview scheduled, so can I send the program/newspaper a high resolution photo of Olga as soon as possible.
Holiday evaporates with the ocean spray.
Yesterday I had a bunch of interviews in Brisbane. The first was what we in the business call a ‘tardis’. This is when we go into a studio in the station so we can speak, studio quality, with a radio show in another state. The studios are called ‘tardis’ because, like Dr Who’s police box, they appear small to anyone outside, but they are deceptively big inside, and can, at a pinch, accommodate whole bands of musicians. Just.
Yesterday my tardis interview was with The Guestroom, an hour-long program that comes out of radio 105.7 in Darwin. Yes, an hour. What a joy it was to be able to speak about Olga and my mum for all this time. The host, Kate O’Toole, was terrific. Unlike most interviewers, she had read most of the book, so she had plenty to ask. Since my dad’s side of the family started in Darwin, and my mum met dad in the town, there was an extra dimension to the talk.
The Brisbane visit also gave me a chance to catch-up with old comrades from ABC NewsRadio. When I worked at NewsRadio, it was a truly nationally-produced station. I was the Melbourne bureau; Sydney produced the mornings and afternoons, and the evenings came from Brisbane. Staff were encouraged to do their segments when interstate, so on one morning we had sport from Perth, international news from Adelaide, me in Melbourne, and the anchor in Sydney.
It’s not so national anymore, but it was great to speak again, after all these years to Terri Begley, and my old weekend co-host Graham Cairns. Love those guys.
Again a case of the book giving me a chance to break out of the rapid-fire life. That’s got to be a good thing.
2.9.11: Mixing it with the Best
Today I was on a panel at the Melbourne Writers Festival.
The other guest writer on the panel was Stephen Daisley, who wrote the highly acclaimed first novel, Traitor. It’s the fictional story of a kiwi soldier in World War One who forms a friendship with a Turkish prisoner, and eventually helps that prisoner to escape. It is a story of great heart that takes you into the mind of the young New Zealander.
The session we shared was called Handling the Truth, and we were put together because in our own way, we were covering some similar themes: love and loss; the need for friendship in war; the ease with which people turn good and bad; the regrets.
Stephen is just like his novel. Sensitive, quiet, measured, benign. In the first moment of meeting, I told him how much I loved his novel, and that it made me cry. Like the self-effacing man I expected he would be, he rushed in to tell me he loved MY novel.
Later, as we started our session, he told me he was anxious about doing these kinds of events. You wouldn’t think it to watch his performance before the crowd. He spoke eloquently about the way people think in wartime. He showed a deep understanding of people, probably a deeper understanding than most of the psychologists I have known.
The chair for the session, Rebecca Starford from Affirm Press was the perfect host. She had not only read both our books, but drawn the parallels between them. She was also an incisive questioner. If she ever wants a gig in radio, she’d be great.
The audience was lovely too. Every time I spoke I saw faces eager and smiling. Book lovers are people who don’t just want a diversion; they want to understand a little more about life. They come to these events to to find out more of what was going on in our heads as we wrote, to understand us and our works a little better.
It was a good day, a day when I too learned just a little bit more.
29.8.11: Friends to the Rescue
The value of friends cannot be priced.
At the Melbourne launch of the novel, my friend Jon Faine, who also happens to host the sometimes top-rating morning talk show in Melbourne, was due to do me the honour of being the master of ceremonies.
The best laid plans of rodents and humans do come unstuck, and so it was with Mr Faine. Early on the day of the launch we spoke, and he said that because of a family problem he might not be able to do the gig after all. Being a man of honour he said he would do his best to be there, but he wanted to warn me that he might be needed elsewhere. And of course, ten minutes before the doors opened for the perfectly-planned launch, I got the phone call from him to say that he couldn’t get there.
I needn’t have worried, because I have found that during this whole publishing process, friends come from everywhere to help. My mate Bob Sessions, the former head of Penguin books, was to be seen walking up the aisle of Readings bookstore towards us, expecting to have a drink and snack and give polite applause in exchange.
My wife Jackie, who has never been one to let a chance go by, grabbed him and asked if he would be willing to help out with the speechly duties.
He hesitated not a moment. Of course, he said. He has seen hundreds of authors launch novels, but he was enthusiastic, and bear in mind that I was not from his own stable of writers.
On stage, Bob was terrific, and as I looked over the faces gathered for the launch, faces from the writing world, from the ABC, from our circle of friends and professional associates, I saw nothing but love and encouragement. My producers Babs, Sabrina and Artan, my music programmer Kim, Julie who designer most of the cover, Dan who gave us the layout, Margie who has been pushing me to give book club talks, my publicist Alan Davidson taking photos, Jill Morgan and Claudia Escobar of Multicultural Arts Victoria, who were there just to support me, our closest friends Gary Young, John O’May, Robyn Arthur and many many more.
Yes there was love in that room, so much love that they queued for the best part of an hour as I signed their books. On a Friday night when bistros and bars awaited.
And of course Uncle Bob Sessions was standing by me, with the kind of support and mateship that will keep the book publishing industry alive.
Thank you all, and thank you Bob.
28.8.11: Mixed Emotions
It was Uncle John’s day, yet there was a sorrow.
As the writing of this novel got underway, it morphed from something that was a ripping yarn about my grandmother into something far bigger. It became a story about humanity, good, bad, spiritual, indecent, loving, hating, caring and indifferent. You see these contrasts every day on the train or bus, but they are never so obvious as in war time. In Greece in WW2, family members were at war with each other, often because of political differences, but tragically, it also happened because of ridiculous petty jealousies.
My grandmother knew of these things; she may have been a victim of it. But in that terrible war, for every bad deed done, the good ones were many and more powerful. Olga and her underground comrades knew how to love. They staked their lives on that love. Every time they went on a mission, up to a dozen people risked death to save one trapped and frightened airman caught in a barn somewhere. Day after day these rescuers took the same risks. It had to be for love tinged perhaps, as my grandmother says in the novel, with the opportunity to spit in the eye of the German invaders.
Yesterday the book was officially launched in Sydney by the former NSW premier Bob Carr. Seated in front of us were family members I hadn’t seen for up to two decades, all there with a shared love of our grandmother, but also they were there for me. My cousins Jodie, Jenny, Michelle and Tennielle, as well as my brother and sister and nephews and nieces. Uncle Johnny was there too. He doesn’t get out much these days, but he came to this launch.
Bob Carr strode to the rostrum in that confident manner that he showed when he was NSW premier and when I was a humble member of the media gallery, working for ABC TV news. What he said yesterday was wonderful. He spoke with warmth of the Greek diaspora, and of the Greeks in his former electorate. He read excerpts from the novel in a way that could not but bring tears to the eyes of the audience. And to me.
Later, as I spoke from the rostrum of the grandmother I never knew, I saw those tears were still there. This is what this novel is about, the humanity, the story of life that is being played out today in so many countries around the world. Today in Libya as the rebels are poised to evict a tyrant; in Syria where thousands continue to defy another, facing down their own mortal peril. These are stories of people, not numbers and death tolls.
The tears that I couldn’t break away from as I spoke were those of my Uncle Johnny. I was telling the story of his mother and father, his brothers and sisters. And later when he stood in the queue waiting with everyone else for me to sign his copy, I felt a strange shame.
No, Uncle Johnny should not have been standing in a queue for me. This was his story. This was his moment as the last of the generation. He should not have been standing in any queue.
Maybe this explains why the sorrow I felt at that moment. I really don’t know. That sorrow is with me today. Like I said at the beginning, the writing process didn’t start this way. I suppose these things just take on their own spirit, and you just have to live with it.
Thank you Uncle Johnny.
19.8.11: The Lovely Circus Begins
I have my first two interviews for the book tomorrow. One is for the Greek newspaper Neos Kosmos, and the other for my colleague Geraldine Coutts at Radio Australia. It’ll be funny being on the other side of the microphone. I am interviewed as a guest on ABC News Breakfast TV regularly, doing their newspaper wrap, so I suppose that qualifies as being interviewed. But tomorrow will be different. I will be asked about my family, my grandmother, my feelings, my writing. And despite what every journalist tells you, there is a little bit of acting involved in being a presenter. You keep your emotions to yourself, especially on a public broadcaster like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. You are always secondary to the story. This makes it easier when a guest attacks you, because you haven’t laid your personal self open to attack.
Being an author lays you open. You are susceptible to criticism, to the enquiring mind, and to that ballistic missile that finds the flaw in your reasoning.
I was interviewed for my last book, which was a collection of short stories. The book, The Chequered Lady (Federation Press), was a bit of fun, and was never going to be in line for the Booker Prize, but the questions were penetrating still.
I wonder what’s in store for me tomorrow. Be kind, comrades.
12.8.11: In My Hands
Last night when I got home there were some boxes on the front verandah. The books. Just days out from the Sydney and Melbourne launches, the books were printed and elsewhere across the country, other copies of Someone Else’s War were on their way to the bookstores. Was this how the book industry usually worked, I asked the ever-helpful Christine Gordon from Readings in Carlton (which is hosting the August 26 Melbourne launch). Yes, she said. Razor’s edge, she said. Closer than any other business deal you could image, she said. Books often arrive the day before a launch. Palpitations are apparently a normal and expected part of the book game. I don’t like palpitations. I host an international radio program on Radio Australia every week day. I often go to air still with our major interview yet confirmed. They almost always come through (I have some very good producers), but I never get palpitations in the radio biz. To get such heart murmurs over the publication of a book, which has so much longer a lead-in time, just doesn’t make sense. In radio we have two hours planning time every morning for our major interview (which is based on the news of the day). So it’s a case of two hours in radio versus six months for a book.
But the books are here. They will be at the bookstores for the launches, and my faithful publicist, Alan Davidson, and distributor Dennis Jones are ensuring that there will be plenty in stores as I tour Australia next month to do interviews.
First stop though are the launches. If you are around, feel free to drop in and say hello. The first is at Dymocks in George St in Sydney on Tuesday August 23 at 10am. Former NSW premier Bob Carr will be hosting. Three days later comes the Melbourne launch: Friday August 26 at 6pm at Readings bookstore in Lygon St, Carlton.
It’s been a long journey folks, for Olga, for me, and for my family. The launches will be more than a chance to tell the story of Olga. They will be celebrations.
26.7.11: Bringing Us Together
One of the joys of a project like this how it brings people together. Over the last few weeks I have been emailing with long-lost cousins. Actually they were never ‘lost’. Rather, we just fell out of contact. It happens with big families. As kids, I used to spend every Christmas, Boxing Day, Easter and New Year with the families of my aunties and uncle. Back then there were the usual jealousies and trouble-making (or as much trouble as seven-year olds can make). While our mothers sat around a table watching, talking and scolding, we would explore the yard, dragging out old pieces of wood or corrugated iron, making what we considered to be a shelter, chased every moment by whichever dog was around. Gorgeous times they were, but times that passed as we grew and started devoting time to our own friends and partners. Then the time came when our beloved mums and dads passed on. That seemed to be it. We who were so close as kids, would go from year to year without seeing each other. From decade to decade perhaps. So it has been a beauty of my life that through Someone Else’s War, cousins have again come together. Many are coming to the August launches, and an event in September hosted by the Greek community. I can’t wait to see them all again.
13.6.11: Revisiting the Kiwis
I am in negotiations to do an author tour in New Zealand in September. I have been the Australian correspondent for Radio New Zealand for almost half my life. At one point I was asked to host RNZ’s flagship Morning Report current affairs program, but I couldn’t bear to tear myself away from Australia on a permanent basis. Still the Kiwis were very welcoming and I did the program for a few weeks alongside long-term co-presenter Geoff Robinson. Over the years I have been invited across the Tasman to do the odd art gallery opening or comedy debate (including one for the Auckland Comedy Festival, with the inimitable Bill Bailey as referee, and with Aussie comics Greg Fleet and Denise Scott on my team). My wife has performed 2 extended seasons in Phantom of the Opera in Auckland, so it really is one of our homes. I’ll look forward to the media circuit.
22.5.11: Making the List!
I just found out I will be involved in two sessions at the Melbourne Writers festival in August-Sept. On the second weekend I will be part of a forum featuring Someone Else’s War, but also on the first weekend (August 27) I will be chairing a session to do with multicultural writing. Love that chairing stuff. Hope you can get along.
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