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The Durrells: “What we all need is sunshine — a country where we can grow” (© Lee Durrell and The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, used with permission)

y Anglo-Greek marriage has often caused me to reflect on the relations of our two countries. Their similarities are less obvious than their differences — but a moment’s reflection will summon a few. Britain and Greece are former centres of maritime empires lying at opposite corners of Europe. They strongly identify with their past glories, towards which their tourist industries are decisively orientated. Their cultures are particularly rich in literature. Each looks to a great power with which it has historically good relations: the United States and Russia. Late among Western countries to join the European Union, now they are early among them to be thinking of leaving it — thus sharing the “exit” suffix that has come into common parlance. 

Yet even to mention these similarities is to summon the differences by which they must be qualified. These all point to the power differential which has pertained at least since Western Europe’s “early modern” period began, and which has over the last two centuries expressed itself in the actual domination of Greece by the United Kingdom. The latter period was symbolically opened in 1801 by the British ambassador to Istanbul, Thomas Bruce, who — it is claimed — grossly exceeded the remit of his firman (permit) from the Sultan to make drawings and casts of the Acropolis sculptures. Controversy over the seventh Earl of Elgin’s acquisition of a third of these sculptures started almost immediately. A British Museum select committee questioned him closely as to the legality of their removal when he tried to sell them to the museum in 1816. The Hellenophile Byron, Keats, Shelley, and Thomas Hardy, all supported their return to Greece well before my husband’s aunt, Melina Mercouri, upped the ante on becoming Greek minister of culture in 1981. Byron complained thus:

Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!


But whatever the contents of the (lost) firman, and the rights or wrongs of the case, Britain simply had — and has — the greater power.

The marbles are not all that it has taken. At the Congress of Vienna, Britain took the Ionian Islands from France, which had taken them from Venice. Lawrence Durrell described the traces of English culture still palpable in the Corfu of the 1930s (the islands had been returned to Greece in 1864) as follows:

The discreet picnics among the olive-groves, the memoranda, the protocols, the bustles, sidewhiskers, long top-boots, tea-cosies, mittens, rock-cakes, chutney, bolus, dignity, incompetence, book-keeping, virtue, church bazaars; you will find traces of all of them if you look deeply enough. The flash of red hunting coat through the olive-groves as the officers galloped over the island on their dangerous paper-chases; the declarations of love among the cypresses, the red-faced sportsmen setting out for Albania. Big Tom, Adams, Leech, and “Fusty” Andrews; Lockler, Jones, and Jervis White-Jervis. Dr Anstead fussily visiting these “embayed seas” to record the lamentable venality of the islanders. Edward Lear’s gloomy pictures of Perama and the Hyallic Gulf.

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