Richard Clark, a wonderful writer who adores Greece
Today I have the honor to host here an interview of my friend Richard Clark. A wonderful writer, journalist and proofreader, is talking about himself and his books.
- What was the very first thing that you wrote?
I suppose the first thing I remember writing was an entry for a competition when I was a five year old, it was run by the county public libraries and surprisingly I won a prize. Since then I can never remember a time when I have not been writing in some shape or form. My father was a prolific author so it was a normal thing to have someone typing away in our household. I loved books from an early age, and went on to study for a degree in English Literature before moving into a career in journalism, so never a day goes by without me writing something. My first book was a children’s story, which I wrote as a present for the birth of my niece when I was living in Crete. Funnily enough I have just typed up the manuscript again in digital form and it will be published soon, some 30 years after I wrote it…
- So far you write travel literature. Have you ever thought about writing a novel?
I have certainly thought about it, and would love to do it. I have loads of ideas, but I feel I need a lot of time to bring them to fruition so I guess these projects will have to wait until I retire and can commit myself to writing books full time.
- Please describe the ideal conditions for you when you wish to write.
I suppose I have a picture in the mind’s eye of sitting in a beautiful room, looking out over the sea, possibly in Greece, and being able to work all morning, every day. But the reality is far removed from that. I find I write anywhere and everywhere, on trains, at home, during lunch breaks, on holiday. I use my iPad to write on mostly, and am quite disciplined, doing bits here and there. My journalistic background helps a lot as I am used to having to produce copy in a short space of time and to deadline. Probably the ideal then is not to have a prescribed place or time to write as having to make the time has proved a good incentive to deliver. Having the perfect conditions might just provide me with too many opportunities to procrastinate and I might end up doing nothing.
- Do you keep a journal?
Not in the formal sense, like a diary, but I do make notes and carry a notebook which I am always scribbling things in and which I use as an aide memoire.
- Please name your three most loved books and writers.
This is a really tough one as it changes all the time. I read a lot and my taste changes as I get older. I do love the classics I suppose Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake, Eliot, Austen etc but I also have recently taken to reading quite a bit of crime fiction and travel literature. I suppose if pushed I would go for Nikos Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco, Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities and a less known volume, which is now unfortunately out of print A Smile in the Mind’s Eye by Lawrence Durrell. Another book, if I’m allowed a fourth but which has been hugely influential in a different way is French Provincial Cookery by Elizabeth David.
- Your love about Greece is obvious. What is it that attracted you to this country?
In the first instance it was luck more than anything. The first time I visited was to work in Crete for a year, and I had no previous experience of the country, the people or the language, so I fell on my feet because I loved it from the start. It was 1982, and as a young graduate I felt I was getting into something of a rut at home in England, I was trying to get a job on one of the big national papers, but was getting nowhere so I decided to have an adventure and answered an advertisement in The Guardian newspaper for a teacher in Heraklion, did the interview and got the job. I knew nobody in Crete, had nowhere to live, did not speak a word of Greek and had never taught a class of children so I was as unprepared as I could have been. From my very first day I was made to feel very welcome and I just felt so at home in that environment that I have loved Greece ever since. And the decision to take a break from the UK worked as when I returned I managed to get a job almost straight away with the BBC!
- Please tell us how you decide to write about Crete, Rhodes, Corfu and the Greek Islands. Do you plan to write a book about the Greek mainland?
I had always known that I wanted to write books but like many would-be authors the time went by and I had never fully committed to writing. So when I did start work on my first book, The Greek Islands – A Notebook, it was an exercise in seeing whether I actually had the discipline to achieve just the writing of one book. ‘Always write about something you know about and love’ is the advice so often given to writers who are starting out, and that is why I chose Greece as a subject. I found I had more than enough material to write about, and when I had finished my second book about Crete, it became a natural progression to move on to other islands I know well and love to visit, specifically Rhodes and Corfu. I have been to Athens on numerous occasions but other than that my experience of mainland Greece is limited, although funnily enough I am visiting the Peloponnese for the first time next week, so of course I am open to the idea of writing about it, but would need to spend longer than that there to do enough research for a book.
- Are you working on a new project? Any new plans?
I am just putting the finishing touches to a new edition of Crete – A Notebook. It is not substantially different from the first edition although it has had another edit and some updating and a new cover. The first edition has done so well that I felt it had longevity and I want it to be the best it can possibly be. This should be out in the next few weeks. I am also putting the same book out in a Greek edition, and if that does well, who knows… My children’s book Jeremy’s Journey should also be out soon. After that I am thinking of doing some more localised books called Pocket Notebooks focussed on smaller areas in Greece, I will probably start with Agios Nikolaos, Elounda and Spinalonga and the Lassithi area of Crete. I am also working on something called My Greek Alphabet, which is an alpha to omega trip through the culture, history, food etc of Greece from a personal perspective.
- Please name your most favourite quote.
There are too many great quotes to choose just one, but I do like this a lot from Nikos Kazantzakis in Zorba the Greek. I hope I have got the gist of it OK in English?
‘I felt again just how simple a thing happiness is – a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else. And that all that is needed to feel that happiness right now is a simple, frugal heart.’
Here is an extract from his book "Corfu - A notebook"
Greece’s Gentle Isle
If you are approaching this mystical isle from a European perspective, either philosophically or geographically, Corfu could be described as the gateway to Greece. I stepped through this portal somewhat late in the day and my recent discovery of this beautiful island left me not only tingling with the anticipation that discovering a new place can engender, but tinged with regret that I had not happened upon its splendours sooner.
Under Venetian rule for much of its recent history, the island only shed the 400-year law of the Italians when that Republic itself was dissolved after succumbing to the French forces of Napoleon in 1797. For four centuries the island had been seen as a gateway to the Adriatic and a bulwark against the marauding forces of the Ottoman Empire.
It says much about the Venetians and their skill in engineering a fortress that Corfu, along with its Ionian neighbours of Zakynthos, Paxos and Kythira, is the only part of modern Greece never to be conquered by the Turks. That they landed and lay siege to the capital, Kerkyra, is not in doubt, but the mighty castle of the capital proved impregnable and on numerous occasions the invading forces were sent scuttling back to sea. Now the island has turned its face south, and can legitimately be described as the threshold to the Hellenic world.
As the Northern Cape of Agios Spyridonas approaches off the starboard bow of the Brindisi ferry, or far beneath the wings of your rapidly descending aircraft, something happens to the light; as if some celestial switch has been flipped, changing everything. You know you have left the rest of Europe behind and are now in Greece.
Corfu is one of Greece’s enchanted triangle of islands which stand sentinel to that country’s archipelago, the numbers of which can be measured in their thousands. It occupies that role on the north-west frontier, as Rhodes does to the east and Crete to the south. But the island is not large. It is not even the biggest in the Ionian chain, that distinction going to Kefalonia some 100 miles further south. But in stature it is a giant, punching way above its weight in terms of its attraction as a destination and its historical and cultural influence over modern Greece.
The creaking resonance of bass notes, the hawsers strain every sinew as the winches reel our ship landwards, lending an accompaniment as something new and vibrant opens up before us. Far astern lie the mannered ways and manicured vistas of Italy as we are drawn, inch-by-inch, ashore to the cheery confusion and careless landscapes that signal arrival at our port of entry into Greece.
It is of little surprise that the town of Kerkyra, like the island itself, is a gentle introduction to the Hellenic world, being the closest Greek landfall to a country that held sway here for so long. That the Venetians contributed their architecture, the French their cafés and the British their cricket and ginger beer is undoubtable, but if life on Corfu seems less chaotic than that on those islands further south and east, the dominant gene is still that of Greece.
As the sun rises on the sleepy capital, the light reaches a level of candescence that shines so keenly it divests everything of all but its essence. It is as if every day you open your eyes for the first time and the world is reborn.
As the shadows begin to stand erect and disappear under the full brilliance of the rising sun, flaking pastel-coloured houses dressed in washing strung out across narrow ways steeped in a promise discoveries to come, emerge. Looking down upon this scene is the striking dome of the church of St Spyridon, the final resting place of the island’s patron saint who has stood protector of his charges since he arrived there in 15th Century.
Almost one-third of the island’s 100,000 plus population live in the capital, which shares the same name as the island itself. Its name, Kerkyra, has its origins in ancient mythology and is derived from the name of a lover of the God of all the seas, Poseidon. So besotted was he with the beautiful nymph, Korkyra, that he abducted her, whisking her off to an island love nest, that he named it after her. And the name stuck.
Their union gave birth to an offspring whose name is also rooted in the classical canon. Through various linguistic to-ings and fro-ings between Greek and Latin, the child they named Phaiax lent his name to the whole population of the island in the form of Phaikes, which became Phaeacians. This transliteration allows Kerkyra to make a strong claim to be the mythical island of Phaeacia, the final place where Odysseus is washed up before arriving home in Ithaka following the shipwreck at the end of his protracted voyage in Homer’s The Odyssey.
The sole survivor of his epic journey back to his kingdom from the Trojan War, a naked Odysseus threw himself on the mercy of Kerkyra’s ruler, King Alkinoos, who, after hearing his story, commanded that he be delivered to Ithaka aboard one of the Phaeacians’ magical ships. Navigated by thought alone, this sleek-prowed vessel ran faster than the wind to deposit our hero back in his homeland to the south. There is a certain irony in that, also according to legend, Poseidon was Odysseus’ nemesis. On hearing of his escape, the sea god turned the ship that had carried Odysseus to Ithaka into stone.
Corfiots still argue with one another over which rock this ship might be. Some believe it lies just south of the capital, where the island of Pontikonisi, or Mouse Island, plays host to a tiny Byzantine chapel just offshore from the island’s airport. Others argue for a rock suspended off the heart-shaped lagoons of Paleokastritsa on the island’s north-west coast. Although the present monastery that inhabits this densely-wooded headland dates from the 18th Century, this heavenly place takes its name, which means the ‘Virgin of the Old Castle’, from much earlier; and before the advent of Christianity this is also mooted to have been the site of Alkinoos’ capital. Take your pick as to which of these represents your petrified preference you are unlikely to be proven wrong…
After reintroducing ourselves to the pleasures of Kerkyra Town, we meander north along the coast road. It effortlessly winds its way in and out of olive groves, punctuated by cypresses through which glimpses of the nearby Albanian coast is framed. The sun deserts us and the sea turns to mushroom soup, grey and grumbling as a wind-blown front, pregnant with rain, heaves in from the east.
We hunker down in Kaminaki, our isolated terrace opening straight onto a beach bookended by two tavernas, already closed for winter. As dark descends we sit under the protective veil of an arboured vine, heavy with grapes, the disturbed sea illuminated by forks of lightning over the Albanian mountains. The flickering citronella candles do little to discourage the mosquitoes seeking shelter from the storm. They target us as a tasty dish as we in turn tuck in to chicken cooked on the small patio barbecue under the shelter of the vine leaves.
A bank of pitching lights moving northwards signals the course of a ship braving the elements as it heads for Italy, like an island cast adrift on these raging waters. The occasional sound of music blown in on the gale gives reassurance that for this large vessel the conditions are nothing but routine as it shrugs aside the waves to head towards the more open waters of the Adriatic.
The storms here can be breathtaking. But the rain they bring is welcome. The climate here is more temperate than the extreme conditions found on other islands further to the south and east. These regular downpours contribute to a benign landscape. The measured nature of the seasons is manifest in the self-contained temperament of the locals whose flamboyance is weighed in ounces rather than the pounds that balance the scales as we travel closer to Africa.
We awake to silence; the storm has blown itself out. Flinging open the shutters reveals the promise of the coming day. A fisherman casts his nets from a small caique anchored in the bay across a sea gently undulating with only a half-forgotten memory of the overnight storm.