Wine dark sea

In my last year at school I discovered that there was a small bursary for anyone studying Greek to travel to Greece. It was one of those things you had to find out for yourself; they didn’t tell you about it. I was the sole applicant that year and was duly awarded £50.

I travelled out with a friend. The colonels had seized power three months earlier, but we were seventeen, full of adventure and oblivious to politics. We spent time in Athens, where my friend’s mother happened to know the manager of one of the big hotels, and on the nearby island of Aegina where we knew no one.

I fell in love with Greece at once. It was the hottest, most colourful, noisiest, most foreign place I had ever been. There was also something thrillingly familiar about it. I wasn’t a natural classicist but eight years of ancient Greek language, literature and history had made its mark.

From Aegina we went to the great amphitheatre at Epidaurus. I stood in the centre of the empty stage and recited a few lines from Euripides’ The Bacchae, which we had performed, in Greek, the previous term. Up at the back of the vast auditorium, my friend said he could hear, if not understand, every word.

I attempted to speak in local tavernas and was met with blank incomprehension. The pronunciation, and a good deal of the vocabulary, was more remote to them than Anglo Saxon would be to a modern English-speaker. But they smiled once they realised what I was trying to do, and fed us huge, delicious stuffed tomatoes.

Over the next few years I returned repeatedly. I sailed (steerage) in a passenger ship from Marseille to Piraeus, passing through the Corinth Canal. I drove out twice through Yugoslavia, and once onwards into Turkey (thence to Iran). I island-hopped on ferries crowded with black-clad women sniffing sprigs of rosemary, and slept on beaches.

Then adult life took over. Apart from a couple of package holidays to Corfu and Crete, I hadn’t been back until three weeks ago, when Sarah and I travelled to the island of Skyros, in theory to run a course, in practice, and in the absence of enough participants, to have a holiday.

We flew to Athens and the following morning left by bus for the start of the five-hour journey to the Sporades. It was early and I slept for an hour or so, waking up as we dropped down towards the small port where we would catch the first ferry, a short crossing from the mainland to the large island of Euboea.

Looking across the water, I suddenly found myself imagining that I was a villager, a couple of millennia earlier, anxiously watching as a small fleet of ships approached from the island and praying that they would change course and make for some other place than ours.

As I wondered about this, words swam into my head: revenge, betrayal, blood, sacrifice. I had a sense of something atavistic, perhaps the gods’ wrath, perhaps some primal human impulse, gathering like a great darkness behind the cloudless blue above us. It sounds melodramatic now, but in the moment it felt all too real.

Once off the ferry, the bus made its way across Euboea to the second port, on the far side of the island. Shortly we came out of hills and onto a wide cultivated plain. Again my imagination awoke and I saw two bodies of armed men rushing at each other across the level grassland. It was no more than a skirmish, between perhaps fifty men on each side. But I knew it would be reported as a great battle, both a tremendous victory and a terrible defeat.

The images stayed with me and that evening, over dinner in Skyros, I mentioned the experiences to Sarah. She confessed that she also had been visited by visions of battle as we crossed the Euboean plain.

I think about the power of those ancient stories that sit in our memories; and how our passage through the landscapes to which they belong can turn them up like flints from some earlier past. I think of the people who wove those tales, two thousand, even three thousand years ago; of what they knew of human nature and how it resonates down the centuries. Troubling as the stories are, I find these thoughts oddly comforting.


The Edinburgh International Book Festival opens this weekend. On Thursday 16th I will be chairing an event with Alexander McCall Smith at 6.45 pm. On Saturday 18th, Stuart Delves and I will be talking about the Dark Angels book Established at 2.30 pm.

The 26 Armistice project is now underway with a centena, a 100-word piece of writing, being published every day for 100 days from 5 August till 12 November, Armistice Day. This is a unique set of moving and fascinating daily insights into the lives of people who were alive during the First World War. Discover them here.

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