April 23rd…white roses and free books

April 23rd…white roses and free books

Last Saturday I was sitting in the grounds of London’s Middle Temple. It was a sunny day and I’d arrived early to hear the formidable Madeleine Albright talk about global political changes since her time in office as the US’s first female Secretary of State. There was no one else around, except a lazy gardener pushing his broom to and fro, so I enjoyed the tepid sunshine. But then a group of tourists ambled down some steps to the pond, near my seat, all clutching long-stemmed white roses.

Ah, religious nutters, I assumed, about to lay down their roses and pray? I was about to move away. But the yellow-jacketed gardener moved towards them and suddenly addressed them with an intensity and directness that forced me to look up from my engrossing thriller and listen. Was he deranged too…someone given to clearing rubbish one minute, uttering beautiful poetry to strangers the next? He soon finished, they went on their way and I continued with my book in the sunshine wondering if I’d stumbled upon a meeting of reformed addicts. But addicts of what?

Fifteen minutes later the ‘gardener’ started picking out the litter from his black bag and, bizarrely, spreading it out on the ground, just as another group of rose clutching tourists wandered down the steps. They too got no further than the pond when they were accosted by the man, who swept for a minute or two before declaiming his love poem. They were mesmerised, as was I. When he cleared up the litter for a second time I could not resist asking him, what on earth was going on?

Ah, he said – big surprise this – he wasn’t really a gardener at all! He was an actor from the Globe Theatre taking part in a special project in honour of Shakespeare’s birthday on April 23rd and the tourists were on a ‘Sonnet Walk,’  the brainchild of director Mark Rylance.  After all, Middle Temple Hall was where,  at Candlemas 1602,  Shakespeare’s newly completed ‘Twelfth Night’ was performed for the first time. So, when the white roses were eventually laid at the gates of the Globe Theatre, perhaps it was a form of prayer, giving thanks for the survival of such literary treasures?

But actually today is important for another reason. It’s the day when half a million books are given away by 20,000 volunteers to people who would not otherwise read or have access to books  Chosen authors waive their royalties, publishers their production costs and Shakespeare, I am sure, would be proud to share his birthday with such an original idea.

Playing a role in an Original Greek Drama

Anne Sebba Meets the Mayor of Aghios Nikolaus

Anne Sebba Meets the Mayor of Aghios Nikolaus

I came closer to understanding what it means to be part of a Greek tragedy last week. I’m not talking about Aeschylus or Euripides of course but today’s everyday tragedy for many Greeks who feel that the rest of the world despises or is mocking them and has many of the elements of traditional Greek drama. There are the conflicting emotions of fear and pity and conflict between men as well as between nations, but so far no catharsis.

“What is happening in Europe today doesn’t represent the original European spirit, which is the spirit of cohesion and solidarity,” explained Dimitris Kounenakis, Mayor of Aghios Nikolaos, a region of Eastern Crete long beloved by tourists, especially Brits.

“At the moment there is a division between northern Europe and southern Europe and we would like just one Europe, for rich and poor alike, not one exploiting the other.”

It happened like this. A Greek friend who knew how much my husband and I loved Crete, so much so that we have built a home there, introduced us to someone whose job is to make sure the deprived and disadvantaged, women and children on the margins or in violent and abusive relationships, are aware of all the projects and initiatives that exist to help them. The idea is to make sure that local people know that the European Union is not all about road building – although there is plenty of that – but has some very tangible benefits to help those in need. She mentioned us to the Mayor and he wanted to thank us for our confidence in the region by inviting us to a moving little ceremony in his office overlooking the Marina. The original friends were there, luckily interpreting and translating as my beginner’s Greek stretched no further than a brief sentence thanking the Mr Kounenakis for bestowing on us such an honour.  I hope he understood what I was trying to say as the day before,  in the butcher’s, I had apparently asked for hen rather than chicken and on a mountain walk, asked a man with a donkey how old he was, meaning of course the donkey but used the wrong pronoun. I received the Greek equivalent of a very old fashioned look.

Reverting to English, I told the Mayor why I loved the island so much; for its history – the idea that paths I tread have been trodden by countless others for thousands of years – for its food, and for its people. I cannot imagine a better place for a writer to work that is both stimulating and peaceful.  The ancient myth may warn ‘beware Greeks bearing gifts’ but we welcome them! Greeks are the most generous people imaginable with homemade cheese or spinach pies appearing at all times of day and night. I dare not think how long it must take some kind person to prepare these delicacies.

Then it was the Mayor’s turn again and he explained to us all the activities he has undertaken to preserve and improve the environment in the region within his jurisdiction, pointing out that there are now 23 ‘Blue Flag’ beaches, denoting that they meet stringent criteria for biodiversity and sustainable development.   And then we were joined by a Greek chorus of journalists and a local TV film crew who wanted to record the moment when we were presented with a certificate and two bottles of Cretan olive oil, and I presented the Mayor with a copy of one of my books and we repeated once more why we think we have discovered a corner of paradise.

Greece may recently have been overtaken by Cyprus and even Portugal as Europe’s problem child but that does not mean the Greek crisis has gone away. Some people think we must be mad to have a house here but, in a land where antiquity surrounds you on all sides, it’s hard not to believe that the country can withstand one more drama-  if not drachma. Life on the ground is good, the sun shines most days and Crete is such a lush and fertile island that most of its inhabitants can grow much of what they need so won’t starve. But for many without jobs, especially in towns on the mainland, life is still painful. And most painful of all is being lectured to by Germany; history is short and memories are long and in Crete of all places, the Nazi Occupation from 1941 to 1944 was harsh and brutal.

Anne Sebba Meets the Mayor of Aghios Nikolaus

Anne and Mark Sebba Meet the Mayor of Aghios Nikolaus

Transformational Journeys

Since all life is a journey it’s hardly surprising that novels about transformational journeys are as old as the hills… well, older actually. Homer’s Odyssey, which sees Odysseus journeying around the wine dark Mediterranean is, in part, planned by the Gods up on Mount Olympus.  And, like all the best transformational journeys, by the time Odysseus returns not only is he a different person but so is his long suffering wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachos.

It’s a useful format for novelists from Conrad in Heart of Darkness to Hermann Hesse in Siddartha and more recently Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, where the hero journeys around the Pacific for 227 days and not to forget John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  It works for non-fiction too. Cherry Apsley Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World is one of the most powerful books I have ever read.

Last week I read about two other, quite different journeys: Rachel Joyce’s compulsively enjoyable  account of the Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s deeply humane account of his real journey walking from Frankfurt, the city where his grandfather had been Rabbi until 1939, to Finchley in north London, where he is now the Rabbi. The idea was that, as his community was constructing a new building, he would bring back from the one to the other the Eternal Light, or Ner Tamid, and so the book is called Walking with the Light. As Jonathan walked along the Rhine with his faithful dog Mizpah he talked to many Germans, young and not so young, Christian, Muslim and even Jewish about matters of political, social and cultural. He intersperses these encounters along the way with extracts from ancient texts, insights into the world today, musings about Literary Germany which his grandparents never ceased to love and a funny blog written by Mizpah the dog. I’ve been reading it slowly, not gulping it down, and marked many passages for further reflection. When he sees the rock of the Lorelei, immortalised by Heine the poet whom his parents especially revered, he weeps. Could it be, he wonders, because the fate of Heine’s Lorelei somehow epitomised that of his own family and history?

Jonathan Wittenberg recognises in a passage that brought me, too, close to tears that surely all is life is a journey, his destiny to spend all his life exploring, not just geographically but between generations. ‘The light I spire to carry,’ he writes, ‘will come to rest more than anywhere else in my children’s hearts. The depth of this responsibility disturbs me and I pray that nothing I ever do may cause them hurt and that I may be given the grace to transmit the flame as wisdom and love.’

I worried when I thought Harold Fry (or his creator, Rachel Joyce?) was veering towards the pseudo religious when his journey attracts a gaggle of hangers on who threaten to take over the journey. But the way Harold gracefully gives in to his uninvited followers turned out to be part of the book’s enormous charm. This was not a book about spirituality, almost the reverse. What Joyce was celebrating (it seemed to me) were old fashioned virtues like friendship, shared history, trust, loyalty and finally the possibility of renewal while religion per se was if anything eschewed. What both walkers have in common, apart from suffering blisters and enjoying the company of dogs, is that by doing something themselves they engage the human desire to encourage others. The number of onlookers who offer food both to Jonathan and Mizpah in reality and the fictional Harold is what I so often do in clicking the ‘justgiving’ button for someone else doing the marathon when I myself should be doing (okay, so not THAT) but something similar.

In very different ways these are both ‘feel good’ books. But where The Pilgrimage of Harold Fry occasionally veers towards sentimentality, in Walking with the Light the experience of reading about so much suffering, brutality and murder within living memory inevitably gives it a dark undertow. When Jonathan Wittenberg meets a priest who tells him how he misses the possibility of a deep spiritual dialogue with the Jewish community he is puzzled how to respond. The Germans either expelled the Jews or killed them and then they complain about a missed conversation, he reflects. But at every stage of the way he reminds himself of the importance of listening, of constantly engaging in dialogue. ‘This is not to betray the present through a punitive unwillingness to allow the past to be gone,’ he insists. Nor will he give in ‘to a heartless unpreparedness to listen to the echoes of the past and read the signs of the terrors which it wrought.’

It’s a tolerance, a refusal to be baited, that seems so sadly lacking as most of us journey through life, whizzing from one airport to another, never actually stopping to see what lies beyond, no time to engage with some of the world’s seven billion and rising who do not always tell us what we’d like to hear. Perhaps there is a very simple moral to be drawn from both these books: get out and walk more. At least that’s the last word from Rabbi Wittenberg, well, actually, it’s from Mizpah the dog.


Walking with the Light:  from Frankfurt to Finchley by Jonathan Wittenberg  Quartet £20.00

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce Random House £12.99