[ilds] durrell's cicadas (redux)

Richard Pine richardpin at eircom.net
Mon Jul 30 11:43:01 PDT 2007

I'll be living for one week in September at the White House - the wonderful presentation by my colleagues and participants at the Durrell School when I stepped down as Academic Director - so maybe it will be the occasion  to do some 'travel writing' that I can present at the Travel Writing seminar my successor is organising for June 2008, with the partcipation of Jan Morris, her son Mark Morris, and Mark Ottaway. Who knows.
'Agni', mentioned in this article, is more complex than simply 'unspoilt' - it suggests modesty and chastity, innocence, whereas 'unspoilt' suggests a lurking danger? - Agni itself is in fact largely free from development, altho a Dutch developer offered me a choice of building sites nearby, at 750k and 1million, just for the land - and he's building over the path mentioned in the article. Oh well.
Does anyone know whether Bernard Stone is still in business? When I visited him at his bookshop way back in the 80s he dispensed vodka at 10.30 am and was nonchalantly taking a phone call from Christopher Logue, at that time still contributing scurrilous stuff to Private Eye.

  ----- Original Message ----- 
  From: slighcl 
  To: ilds at lists.uvic.ca 
  Sent: Monday, July 30, 2007 6:27 PM
  Subject: [ilds] durrell's cicadas (redux)

  How to explain these various returns upon The Tree of Idleness?  Like combing the beach and being surprised by the return of things thought long-sunken.  

  But then I suppose summer holidays are upon us. . . .


  [Brian Patten wrote the essay, which appeared in the Independent on Sunday, 29 July and in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday, 30 July.  The online editions mistakenly attribute the piece--"by Lawrence Durrell."]

  A visit to Corfu offers a fascinating window into the past life of writer Lawrence Durrell

  [Published: Monday 30, July 2007 - 15:22]


  In my early twenties one of my favourite places was a tiny bookshop in a narrow alleyway off Kensington High Street in London. Every Saturday for many years the bookseller Bernard Stone would uncork bottles of the cheapest decent wine available and the day would pass in a blur of visiting writers and vanishing wine, the rickety little drinks table at the back of his bookshop constantly being replenished by visitors.

  I remember buying a second-hand copy of a slim volume of poems by the author Lawrence Durrell. It was called The Tree of Idleness, and the title poem is in my head still. The poet talks about being in a house, listening through the window to where: "Perhaps a single pining mandolin/Throbs where cicadas have quarried/To the heart of all misgivings..."

  A few weeks later, Bernard introduced me to Durrell. It was no great coincidence, for whenever Durrell was visiting London from France, where he was living, he would use Bernard's shop as a kind of unofficial club or vibrant poste restante, a place to catch up with old friends and the latest literary gossip. The writers I admired then I often respected for other than their literary merit. It was how they lived their lives that fascinated and impressed me - and often still does, because the question we want answered in most literature is: "How do we best live our lives?"

  Though Durrell was from an earlier generation than my then-heroes, I was still much impressed by him. Far more so than by his younger brother, Gerald, who wrote My Family And Other Animals, and who at that point was still the lesser known of the two brothers.

  Lawrence Durrell belonged to a group of writers whose restlessness represented a spirit of freedom for many people who had suffered the deprivations of the war years and the austerity that followed. In particular, his book Prospero's Cell inspired a longing to escape from a dull English landscape to a more magical island - in this case, the island of Corfu, where he lived in the late 1930s. When he told me: "You must go to Corfu; it's still unspoilt", I was keen to follow his advice. As it turned out I ended up in an unspoilt corner of a different island - Majorca, where Robert and Beryl Graves had made their home in Deià, then still an inexpensive and easygoing village.

  Nearly 40 years after failing to take Durrell's advice, the chance came up to stay in his former home in Corfu - where he had written Prospero's Cell and which figures strongly in the book. Would I find anything remotely similar to the world he had known? Well, yes and no... The house where Durrell lived as a young man perches directly on the sea front at the southern end of the bay of Kalami, in north-east Corfu.

  He described it in Prospero's Cell: "We have taken an old fisherman's house in the extreme north of the island ... 10 sea miles from the town [Corfu] and some 30 kilometres by road, it offers all the charms of seclusion." It was the perfect setting for a writer: "A white house, set like a dice in a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water. The hill runs clear up into the sky behind it, so that the cypresses and olives overhang this room in which I sit and write."

  With his wife Nancy, he occupied the top storey of the house: "The rooms look lovely and gracious with their whitewashed walls, and the few bright paintings and books. The windows give directly on to the sea, so that its perpetual sighing is the rhythm of our work and our sleeping."

  As I opened the door to the White House, after collecting the key from Tassos Atheneos - grandson of the fisherman from whom the Durrells rented their home - that description rang in my ears. The door opens directly into an old-fashioned oblong room at the end of which sliding doors open in turn onto a small balcony that hovers over the Ionian Sea. >From the balcony you can see, maybe two miles or even less away, the mountains of Albania rising up through the early evening heat haze, a mixture of lilac and blood-red peaks. Turn back into the whitewashed room and among the photographs on the wall is one showing a line of people standing outside a ramshackle house. There are eight people in the photograph. Several are formally dressed Greek gentlemen in black suits, there are two European women, girls really, and next to them two slightly older Greek women in traditional dress. At the end of the row is a casually dressed young man in slacks and a white jumper. He appears slightly smaller than the other men and is grinning and at ease. In a corner of the photograph is a date: Corfu, 1938. The man is the 26-year-old Lawrence Durrell.

  There are other photos in the room. In one, a much older Durrell grins down from the wall, - the Durrell I remember from my youth - here on a return visit to see the Atheneos family. (Tassos is his godson.) But it is the group photograph that's the most telling. It captures Durrell in a time and a place when life was at its most optimistic. It is like looking at the past through a window.

  Thankfully, some things take more than a lifetime to destroy, and nearly 70 years after that photograph was taken, Durrell would still recognise the interior of the house and its surroundings. The house is still the most imposing building on the shoreline - and although there is now a popular taverna on the lower floor, the apartment above is much the same. It even still has his old pine writing table.

  Durrell would be saddened that the village of Kalami has grown, which of course it has. But, in truth, this corner of Corfu has so far escaped mass tourism, and Kalami has been developed far less than many other places. There are a few small supermarkets in the village selling everything you could possibly need for your stay. There's one public telephone, three or four tavernas and a couple of bars, and houses and apartments for rent, but at night it is mostly quiet, well away from the crowds.

  There is nowhere on Corfu more beautiful than the dozen or so sea miles between Nissaki and Kassiopi on the island's north-eastern coast, where Mount Pantokrator spills down to pine and cedar-coated cliffs before plunging into crystal clear and temperate waters.

  And Kalami is still at the heart of the region. You can explore in both directions, just as Durrell did - either on foot or (as he often did) by small boat. A half-hour walk to the north of Kalami is the tiny horseshoe bay of Kouloura, one of the loveliest and most unspoilt waterside settings in Greece, with its single taverna overlooking fishing boats and a small, undeveloped beach at the edge of a pine grove. It is reached by following the main road that snakes around the headland, then dipping down a track to sea level. Or to the south, you could follow the coastal path. Often this is more a scramble than a path, first across Yaliskari beach - totally undeveloped and great for snorkelling - and then through groves of olive and ilex to the idyllic enclave at Agni.

  Agni means "unspoilt" in Greek. The bay is renowned for its three tavernas, each with its own jetty, set along a sunny pebble beach. Pinned up on the walls inside the tavernas are black and white photographs of people both the Durrell brothers would have known - early holiday makers and locals, sun-bleached ghosts staring across the years. Agni has remained virtually unchanged, with the family-owned tavernas run by successive generations over the decades. That said, two summers ago the trio were joined by an unpopular new pretender selling burgers - but it has been resolutely ignored by visitors and locals alike, and so is hopefully not likely to remain a permanent fixture.

  >From the southern end of Agni bay you can follow a path that winds up through olive groves above the shore and then makes a long descent back down to a tiny chapel on the rocks just above the waterline. This squat grey chapel tucked into a fold in the rocks is the shrine of Saint Arsenius. It is perched above what was a favourite swimming spot for Durrell and his wife: "The Shrine is our private bathing-pool; four puffs of cypress, deep clean-cut diving ledges above two fathoms of blue water and a floor of clean pebbles."

  In Prospero's Cell he describes an idyllic morning dropping cherry stones into the water directly below the shrine. He describes the stones looming " like drops of blood" on the sandy floor, with his wife then "going in for them like an otter and bringing them up in her lips". Nowadays the shrine is best visited in early morning or late afternoon to avoid day trip boats from Corfu Town. At those moments, all can still feel totally unchanged. And of course much of Corfu is still unchanged: the deep turquoise sea, the mountains with their curtains of dark green cypresses, and Durrell's cicadas, still "quarrying to the heart of all misgivings..."

  Brian Patten's 'Collected Love Poems' is published by HarperPerennial (£8.99) 

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu


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