Today, 2 December 2016, GreekiLeaks™ publishes a partial transcript of a phone call between President-elect of the United States Donald Trump [PEOTUS] and the Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras [AT], obtained through a confidential source. On 23 November, Tsipras spoke with Trump to congratulate him on his victory in the U.S. presidential elections. Trump is speaking from his private headquarters in Trump Tower. Only one end of the conversation was recorded. Its authenticity has been verified by comparison to official records of recent communications with world leaders.
PEOTUS: Thank you, Alexis, I am truly honoured. You are a terrific guy. You have a beautiful country and very very talented people. The Greeks are one of the most intelligent people. First thing I said to my campaign team, look at these guys! Look how they said a proud “NO” to the elites in Europe, drained the swamp, and made their country great again. They have a world-leading truther industry. And this guy, this guy took on the lying, corrupt media and won, right?
PEOTUS: We will have a beautiful relationship. You know why? Because we both keep our word.
PEOTUS: Forget that guy. What was he doing walking around that building site in his casuals? Guy has no class. Before I go there, it’s gotta be finished. We need to add a few beautiful statues and some hot hostesses and at least one fountain. And don’t hold back on the gold leaf. It’s gonna be amazing. It’s gonna be the best temple to democracy on the planet. Then we need to clear a few acres around it and create an amazing golf course. It’s gonna be the biggest, most amazing golf course you have ever seen.
PEOTUS: I’m not interested in infrastructure. I’m only into beautiful things. Hotels, resorts, casinos, beauty pageants. The Chinese can keep the ugly stuff as long as they don’t think they’re running the show.
PEOTUS: Some very good friends of mine got killed buying your banks. I mean, they’re incredibly successful guys, they didn’t get killed, but they don’t like losing money. But I trust you Alexis, you have a great reputation, and I’m sure we can negotiate one hell of a deal to make them happy.
PEOTUS: Forget her, great leader but I’d give her a 2, maximum. She makes Hillary look like a 6. And the French one? Legs are a 10 but no one likes a ballbreaker. Such nasty women. The worst.
PEOTUS: Don’t talk to me about debt. Debt is for losers. Listen, Alexis. I am a businessman, a very successful one, and you need to learn to talk like a businessman too. We call it leverage. And don’t worry about paying it back, believe me. That’s what Chapter 11 is for. I’ve done it four times, and look at me. Don’t I look like a successful businessman?
PEOTUS: Yeah, just make sure you write “Alexi’s Greece” in big gold letters on everything. And keep the penthouse for yourself. Invite Hello magazine to do a spread with your beautiful wife and your beautiful, amazing, talented kids. Trust me, you’ll come out ahead. I’ll give you the name of my tax guy, you won’t pay a dime, cent, whatever, in taxes, the rest of your life. Doesn’t make you a loser – it makes you smart.
PEOTUS: Alexis, I guarantee you I will negotiate a deal on Cyprus and those other islands like you won’t believe. Tayyip is a great guy, great leader. Big in property. We speak the same language, we both have terrific taste. We’re gonna negotiate an amazing deal, I guarantee you. It would be an honour and I will personally do it.
PEOTUS: Just kidding, you’re not hired. Unless you want to be our man in Havana. Terrific development potential, just need someone who speaks Commie.
Thales, so the story goes, because of his poverty was taunted with the uselessness of philosophy; but from his knowledge of astronomy he had observed while it was still winter that there was going to be a large crop of olives, so he raised a small sum of money and paid round deposits for the whole of the olive-presses in Miletus and Chios, which he hired at a low rent as nobody was running him up; and when the season arrived, there was a sudden demand for a number of presses at the same time, and by letting them out on what terms he liked he realized a large sum of money, so proving that it is easy for philosophers to be rich if they choose, but this is not what they care about.
In other words, Thales made a small downpayment to secure the use of the presses when demand was low, and cashed in during peak season. He capitalised on his unique insight on the weather to corner the market in olive presses. Aristotle’s telling has the quality of an archetypal moral fable – “it is easy for philosophers to be rich if the choose, but this is not what they care about” – that readers can easily recognise in modern popular narratives of the financial crisis, like Michael Lewis’s The BigShort, the story of the oddball traders who saw the credit crunch coming.
The economy of Aristotle’s description does not allow us to determine whether Thales invented the future or the option, a technical distinction which would have made the difference between him losing his shirt or just his deposit, had he been proven wrong in his prediction. But that distinction is not essential to the story as it is told. Thales, the philosopher speculator, the first hedge fund manager, driven by the intellectual challenge rather than by the profit motive, may have invented the fruit of good or evil: an instrument for managing the risk of unpredictable harvests, or a tool for the enrichment of the ‘enlightened’ few at the expense of the many. A tale as old as the olive groves.
Despite being a sprawling city of over three million inhabitants with more than its fair share of congestion and pollution, Athens has a strong sense of season. Its hills are capped with green spaces, and fruit trees are planted at intervals along its pavements and median strips. Roughly 2,200 kilometres of pavement are lined with around 80,000 trees, the majority of which are fruit-bearing, including Seville oranges, mulberries, and, yes, olives.
The olive is, of course, the sacred tree of Athens according to the city’s ancient foundation myth. When the goddess Athena and her uncle Poseidon were vying to become the city’s patron deity, her gift of an olive tree won hands-down over his less practical offering of a salt water spring. When Athens first became the capital of the modern Greek state in the mid-19th century it was largely pasture, and the planting of fruit trees was part of a planned project to transform it into a European urban centre in the course of the 20th century. The varieties were chosen mainly for their minimal watering needs.
The tradition continues. In the last couple of years, the construction arm of the Greek railway company ERGOSE S.A. expropriated and cleared a number of olive groves in the countryside as part of expansion works on its network. Thousands of trees were auctioned off, but a few of the more ancient specimens were saved for replanting in Athens. Trees with an estimated age of 1,500 years were donated to local authorities and planted in key locations, including the historic buildings of Athens University in the city centre, the glass sheet statue of the runner marking the final stretch of the Athens Marathon route, and the grounds of the Ministry of Defence.
The latest addition to the city’s gardens, the park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos cultural centre in Faliron, also centres around native drought-resistant species and includes olives surrounded by herb gardens. Among the photographs documenting the project is a stunning image of a mature olive tree being lowered into the ground by a crane. The photo is taken from ground level looking up at the descending root ball, which eclipses the sun with a surreal Magritte-like quality (the image can be seen in this video presentation around the 1:06 mark).
Athenians have a close relationship with the fruit trees in their city. On dark winter evenings, it is not uncommon to see lone figures using self-fashioned reaching sticks to pick the oranges, which are known in Greek as nerátzia. The bitter variety was chosen by the city authorities specifically to deter picking and eating, but boiled down with sugar it is well-known that their peel makes excellent marmalade and preserves (or “spoon sweets” to use the somewhat inelegant English translation). In November, when the olives ripen, some engage in more open foraging. They come equipped with olive netting, which they lay on the pavement, and sticks, with which they beat the branches to bring the fruit down.
You will hear a variety of reactions to these urban foraging activities. Some disapprove of them, objecting that the trees are the property of local authorities who pay to prune and maintain them, and that the foragers are in effect free-riding at their fellow taxpayers’ expense. Others thank the pickers for clearing what would otherwise fall and create a skidding hazard and a nuisance on the pavement, muttering that this should also be done by the local authority. Others still, express a degree of pity for those they assume are forced to scavenge for what is considered, in the case of olives, a dietary staple. Finally, many are concerned about the level of pollution in fruit grown at close proximity to traffic; however tests have shown that the soil does not absorb as many toxic pollutants as is often assumed, and that a thorough washing will rid the fruit of any airborne pollution.
Most urban Greeks have very recent roots in the countryside and can look forward to receiving a few tins of oil “from the village”, or even harvesting and pressing their own as part of an autumnal expedition back to their roots (or their holiday home). This link with the countryside and its produce has become even more vital to city dwelling families during the financial crisis. When the average Greek consumes over 12 litres of olive oil each year, access to “free” oil not only saves money but in most cases improves the quality of food on the table. For this reason, the urban olives probably haven’t been exploited as much as they perhaps could be, and it still takes a degree of audacity to shake down the neighbourhood trees.
The reality of urban foraging is probably more varied. The author has certainly partaken in a spot of recreational olive picking and curing in the local park (despite finding the actual taste of olives revolting, I am assured that the result was far superior to what you can buy in most northern European delis). Most urban olive-pickers are lone operators, picking from a single tree, but we have on occasion seen groups of men with pickup trucks gathering sacks of olives from trees in the university campus, presumably to put to more commercial use, perhaps at an out-of-town olive press.
In recent years, the pressure created by the financial crisis and the rise of interest in volunteering activities has inspired a couple of local authorities to get creative and put the neglected resources in their ownership to good use. The municipality of Glyfada in the southern suburbs has been harvesting the olives from its trees for the past three years. In 2015 it produced 800 litres of good quality olive oil in conjunction with an educational initiative in local schools. Aghia Parakevi in the north of Athens called on local volunteers to participate in its harvest, and the oil produced was used in the municipal soup kitchen.
Athena’s gift to the city keeps on giving.
IMAGES: urban olive tree in fruit, photo by Koutofrangos; 1,500 year old olive tree transplanted to central Athens by ERGOSE S.A., photo via kathimerini.gr; urban olive-picking, photo by Koutofrangos; our modest olive harvest, in preparation for curing in brine, photo by Koutofrangos.
Today, 14 November 2016, GreekiLeaks™ publishes a partial transcript of a briefing call between the outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama [OPOTUS] and a staff member at the U.S. Embassy in Athens [Athens] in advance of the presidential visit scheduled for 15-16 November, obtained through a confidential source. Only the Athens side of the conversation was recorded.
Athens: Mr President, unfortunately we have had to cancel the Pnyx engagement for your “birthplace of democracy” speech. We’re putting out rumours about alternative venues, but the plan is to use a green screen in the Embassy basement with a backdrop of the Acropolis. No one will know the difference.
Athens: That’s right, sir, the Pnyx was nixed. Very good.
Athens: [laughs] No sir, I don’t think they got employer-sponsored healthcare. Didn’t need it, they have socialised medicine here.
Athens: I don’t know what they wanted, Mr President. Seems to me they had it better than most Americans, sir, but they had a beef with us anyway.
Athens: Anyway, there are these new kids on the block calling for mayhem. And the teachers’ unions. And someone lobbed a hand grenade at the French Embassy. Could have been one of President Hollande’s exes, but best to err on the side of caution. Which brings us to Kaisariani… Unfortunately, Mr President, we won’t be able to visit.
Athens: Sir, the local council have declared it an “Obama-free-zone”. I appreciate that you are deeply disappointed.
Athens: I know Rush Limbaugh calls you a Socialist, Mr President, but this is way more granular. Some kind of local turf war. The local elections went Florida-style, the Communists contested and won a re-vote. Syriza not the right shade of red, apparently, even though the New York Times calls them “leftists”, yada yada. Long story short, the Prime Minister himself can only visit in the company of the riot police. Marxist-Leninists and Leninist-Marxists aren’t welcome either, if that makes you feel any better.
Athens: I’m not sure we would want to take the Trump line on this, Mr President. But you’re right, it is… ironic.
Athens: Well, there is the local festival. This year they are extending it by a couple of days in your honour.
Athens: The high point is the annual “friendship parade” that comes right by the Embassy, Mr President. It’s very colorful. I suggest we watch the fireworks from the roof. I can organise some cocktails and canapés, maybe some gyro sliders?
Athens: No, the Prime Minister won’t be able to attend, he normally lays the ceremonial wreath in the parade, it’s kind of his “thing”.
Athens: “Foniádes ton laón, Amerikánoi”. Yes, sir, it translates roughly as “Liberators of people, our American brothers.”* I believe it refers to the Marshall Plan.
Athens: Yes, sir, you are correct. The government is expecting to hear that you will press for debt relief for Greece.
Athens: Yes, sir, I am aware that “don’t mean diddly squat now that the Short-Fingered Vulgarian is getting the decorators in to gold-plate the White House taps”. But we don’t need to make any promises. Goodwill, sir, your legacy, that is what this visit is about. Use the word “meaningful” if you wish – what that actually means is open to interpretation, that’s the beauty of it.
Athens: So, in that spirit, we talk about reforms, blah blah blah, bold efforts of the Greek government, sacrifices of the Greek people etc., no specifics here, don’t have’em. On the one hand “hope”, on the other hand “reforms”, quid pro quo, carrot and stick. Keeps everyone happy. Well, keeps Athens happy, keeps creditors meh. Refugees, too. Safe topic. Again, no specifics. The humanitarian effort, the generosity of the noble Greek people etc. Steer clear of asylum processing, hot spots and riots. Security, counterterrorism: super-important, thank you for your military spending, keep those orders coming, our friends at Lockheed will be happy to take your calls.
Athens: Good point. Probably best not to antagonise the neighbour with too much of the “d” word, but do remind us that he’s there, hence military spending. Tricky customer, but that’s one for you successor to deal with, I suspect he finds him more sympatico.
Athens: Yes, definitely mention Antetokounmpo, Mr President. That’s a slam-dunk!
Athens: Sure, we can arrange for you to shoot some hoops in the Embassy gym. You will have to go easy though – the Prime Minister is more of a volleyball man.
Switchboard: Mr President, Berlin is on the line.
* Editor’s note: It means “Killers of people, Americans” and is a perennial favourite at anti-American rallies.
IMAGES: President Obama looking demob-happy (White House); Flag burning outside U.S. Embassy in Athens, November 2014, via patrasevents.gr; Tsipras with former Greek basketball captain Nikos Gallis via lay-out.gr.
This is not so much a story about the olive tree and its fruits, as it is a story about the stories we tell ourselves, about where we came from and how we got where we are today, in which the olive happens to be a central character.
In the archaeology of Greece, the time when olive trees began to be systematically exploited by humans is seen as a pivotal moment in the region’s development, at least as important a transition as the beginning of agriculture which took place several millennia earlier. The first to credit the olive with a “civilising” influence was a British archaeologist, Colin Renfrew, who wrote a hugely influential study called The Emergence in Civilisation in 1972. In it, he made the first attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for the emergence of the Minoan and Myceneaean societies in the Bronze Age. It was an ambitious project, taking the reader from the scattered agricultural hamlets of the Neolithic period to the first “palaces” of the Bronze Age, with their sophisticated visual culture, monumental architecture and complex economy – for the most part without the aid of historical records, as are we essentially talking about prehistory.
For Renfrew, the olive was part of what he called “the Mediterranean triad”, along with the vine and wheat, the essential components of civilised life in the region, continuing though the Classical period to the present day. Influenced by the “new” or “scientific” archaeology which grew out of the anthropological tradition in the United States, Renfrew was one of the first to study the “mundane” aspects of past life such as agriculture and social relations, as opposed to the classically-inspired focus on kings and battles that had prevailed until then. On the olive front, he had very little archaeological evidence to go on – a few stray pips and branches here and there, preserved almost accidentally in an era when botanical remains were neither systematically sought nor retained for study. He did observe, however that the parts of Greece where Late Bronze Age “palaces” appeared coincided with the best conditions for olive cultivation.
Renfrew’s essential thesis was this: the olive and the vine were both a step up from the existing cereal-based cultivation because they enabled their cultivators to produce high-value storable products, oil and wine. He noted that a key feature of the Late Bronze Age “palaces” was the presence of large liquid storage facilities. These were administered using a form of proto-writing, an early accounting system, which recorded inflows and outflows of goods including oil and wine on behalf of a ruler and a number of deities. Working backwards, he reasoned that the rulers of the “palaces”, the first of their kind, derived their power from this “redistributing” activity. He called the first rulers “chiefs”, following the models of social evolution influential at the time, which envisioned a universal development path from “tribal” societies to “chiefdoms” and “states”. They became “chiefs”, according to his account, because the new crops, and the high-value surplus production they generated, required a higher level of organisation to administer.
“The redistribution of goods, which is organized and controlled by the chief himself, . . . is, of course, exactly the function fulfilled by the palaces of Minoan-Mycenaean civilization, taking in and storing the produce from the very different fields, orchards, and pastures which are found, even in a small area, in south Greece.”
This was a benevolent managerial elite, taking on the task of redistributing the newfound bounty of the earth to the surrounding communities. They rewarded themselves with the accoutrements of “wealth”, defined as the “the ownership of desirable transferrable goods”, which they took to their graves in the form of marble statuettes and weapons and ornaments made of metal. It is impossible to overstate how influential this model of social evolution was, for the archaeology of Greece and of Europe more generally. For the first time it provided a narrative that wasn’t a “just so story” about the inexorable march of progress or an illustrated foundation myth for a modern nation-state. Yet within a decade it was lampooned by one of its critics in a published debate as a vision of “a benevolent squirearchy bent on agricultural improvement, a little modest trade, and the advancement of the deserving poor”.
A much darker vision was offered in a 1981 article by Antonio Gilman, an American archaeologist researching Spanish prehistory. Gilman also believed that arboriculture, including exploitation of the olive and the vine, was a key technological development in the emergence of complex societies in the region (“civilisation” already being regarded with suspicion as too value-laden a term). However, he saw its importance in very different terms from the enabling role envisioned by Renfrew. The key difference it brought was “capital intensification”, the need for upfront investment:
“Tree crops […] present radically new technical requirements. Vine cuttings do not yield fruit until three years after they have been planted but produce for generations thereafter. Olives do not yield fruit for ten to fifteen years after planting, come into full production some twenty years later, and continue to give fruit for centuries. In the meantime, the trees must be pruned, the ground around them plowed. In other words, the farmer must invest a lot of work before he (or his heir) receives a return. Mediterranean polyculture constitutes a capital-intensification of subsistence.”
This produced a power shift in those early egalitarian societies, from those who lived hand-to-mouth, to those who were able offer protection against the destruction of their livelihoods:
“The investments of labor to insure future production would have to be defended. But the value of these same assets would dampen the potential for social fission, so that it would be difficult to check the aspirations of those to whom the defense had been entrusted. In the face of a protector whose exactions seem excessive, the household’s choices are limited: it may abandon the asset for which it sought protection; it may find another protector (who may prove no less self-aggrandizing than his predecessor); or it may submit to the excessive exactions. Over the long term, these options consistently favor the protectors. In the end there would have arisen a permanent ruling class.”
Rather than being benevolent managers, Gilman’s first “chiefs” are “protectors”, and the olive rather than being a blessing is a form of bondage. This is in effect a Mafia society.
Indeed, in more recent years, historians studying documents from nineteenth century Italy have proposed a very similar model for the emergence of the modern Cosa Nostra, as a protection racket preying on the citrus groves of Sicily. One group of documents that has been extensively studied is the account of a Dr Galati of Palermo, whose story takes place in the 1870s, and offers a vivid illustration of how an orchard-based protection network might work:
“In 1872 Galati came to inherit a pristine four-hectare lemon grove only a ten-minute walk from Palermo. However, all was not well inside its walls. Its previous owner, the doctor’s brother-in-law, had died of a heart attack following a series of threatening letters. Some time before he died, he learned that the sender of these letters was a warden on his own grove, Benedetto Carollo, who had dictated them to someone who was literate. He said that he swaggered around the grove making wild threats against Galati and it was well known that he creamed at least twenty per cent off the sale price. He even stole coal for the steam engine. Eventually lemons started to go missing from the grove. Orders couldn’t be met and the grove got a bad reputation. Carollo was trying to ruin the grove so as to buy it himself. Galati sacked him and hired a replacement.
Some ‘good friends’ of Carollo’s came around and advised that Galati should take him back, but Galati refused.
At approximately 10pm on 2 July, 1874, Carollo’s replacement was shot several times. The hitmen had built a platform behind a stone wall so as to shoot him in a winding back lane. This method became a staple of early Mafia hits. The police were called and they tactfully ignored Galati’s convictions that it was Carollo, arresting instead two men who had no connection with the victim and then promptly releasing them. He received a series of threatening letters, seven in all, which said it was a disgrace for a ‘man of honour’, such as Carollo, to be fired. Eventually he was forced to flee the country after a series of attempts on his life…
Even at this early point the Mafia has corrupted the local government. When Galati asked for his seven threatening letters back, he only got six. The seventh and most explicit had been strangely mislaid.”
The idea that our “civilisation” might come at a price, that perhaps the elegant prehistoric artefacts that we admire in museum cases, the Cycladic marble figurines and the golden drinking sets of Troy, may have been financed by the blood and toil of an emerging serf class at the hands of a proto-Mafia, is a radically different view of prehistory. It may be one that more people would identify with at this present time of increasing wealth inequality, but it is not the one that prevails.
Can we determine with certainty which version is right? Both of these contrasting visions of the past were based on near-identical data sets (though Gilman’s was more geographically extensive, including evidence from the western Mediterranean), and neither of them did the data violence to fit their story. In the years following their advancement, academic priorities have been directed towards testing hypotheses through further gathering of evidence, following the scientific method. In the course of this inquiry, the discipline first questioned and then apparently affirmed the evidence for olive exploitation in the critical periods of the Early and Middle Bronze age. But the narratives put forward to account for the evidence have changed only at the margins. That is probably because such big questions, touching on intangibles such as human intentionality, hover on the very margins of empirical proof or refutation.
What accounts for the different views? It might help the reader to know, by way of context, that Colin Renfrew was awarded a life peerage in 1991 and now sits in Conservative benches of the House of Lords as Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, while Antonio Gilman wrote the entry on “Marxist archaeology” in the 2001 International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. It shouldn’t come as a shock that their perspectives on what drives human history differ. Archaeologists are in a constant debate amongst themselves about how to interpret the past, and their views can be quite heavily informed by their beliefs and their present circumstances – much more than the general public would know from the media reporting of their findings. While this inner turmoil is largely hidden from public view, the dawning realisation has led to a “loss of nerve” in the discipline, almost an existential anxiety, which makes the majority of its practitioners shy away from the Big Questions because they feel they can’t provide proper, definitive, incontrovertible answers (or because they fear that their research will only be funded on that promise). This is a shame. Acknowledging that present-day politics can shape our view of the past is not a negative as long as it leads to productive inquiry by framing hypotheses that can be tested. Humans are storytelling animals, stories are how we make sense of the world, and perhaps it isn’t so bad to admit that the evidence allows for more than one definitive version of the story. I am not for a moment suggesting that people should be encouraged to select their preferred version of the past from an infinite relativist superstore (Ideas’R’Us?), or that we always have to chose between such stark opposites. Rather, just being aware that alternatives exist and that some questions remain open would enrich our understanding of the past and our appreciation of the present.
That, at any rate, is something to consider the next time you pop an olive in your mouth with your aperitif, or drizzle some extra virgin on your salad.
Consumer organisations are warning buyers against an influx of counterfeit goods from the Far East. Customs police, acting on a tip-off from Interpol, recently cracked down on a massive fake goods operation, which specialised in trafficking ornamental sculptures into Europe and marketing them as ‘Greek’.
The life-size terracotta statues were originally described by their Chinese promoters as “[potentially] inspired by Greek sculptures and art”, however ruthless European middlemen have taken it one step further, claiming to “imagine that a Greek sculptor may have been at the site to train the locals.” Experts warn consumers to beware of false advertising, and to be sceptical of the hype in the popular media. “These products claiming to be ‘Greek’ are not only smaller and of lesser artistic merit, they are also made of inferior materials,” cautions Pheidias, who owns a garden centre specialising in architectural ornaments on the Marathon road. “For example, a genuine caryatid is 100% solid Pentelic marble, guaranteed to hold up a temple pediment for centuries. These copies are terracotta, they will crumble instantly and injure someone. They would never pass European safety tests.”
The counterfeiters appear to be exploiting on the sky-rocketing demand for so-called caryatids in Greece, where state-sponsored British looting has resulted in a scarcity of the monumental female statues. “They think that if they slap the word ‘Greek’ on them we’ll be fooled,” said Mrs Toula, a bargain-hunter rifling through a stall of ‘Superbry’ and ‘Abidas’ sportswear at the local outdoor market. Recently, a campaign by German supermarket chain Lidl to promote Greek products backfired, when nationalists complained about the alleged desecration of the Greek flag on the marketing logo.
The terracotta statues are believed to have been mass-produced in a giant manufacturing plant in China’s Shaanxi province, while traffickers working for the operation are recently thought to have been identified from their skeletal remains as far afield as London.
Others, however, argue that the Chinese statues should be appreciated on their own merits, regardless of whether the Greeks had a hand in making them.”I have a deep respect for the cultures of the East, mused Isodoros, a 25-year-old DJ/mixologist, as he polished the battery-operated ‘lucky cat’ on the reclaimed zinc bar of his Monastiraki speakeasy. “I think it is because I have always been a spiritual person. At the end of the day, we are all one big cosmic civilisation.”
Asked to comment on the controversy, Professor Killjoy, holder of the Nitpicker chair of Archaeology at the University of Pedantry told us: “It is the job of professional archaeologists to determine whether this is a case of cultural diffusion or independent invention. More study is required to shed light on this question, which will necessitate extensive international travel, many media appearances and a small army of postdocs to cover one’s teaching duties. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a research grant to apply for.”
It was a beautiful autumn evening as I walked to Athens’s Tae Kwon Do arena where the 2nd Syriza party conference is being held this week. The air was warm but the shadows long, and the light had the golden hazy quality that is peculiarly Attic. I had only decided to check out the conference the day before, when I saw the posters announcing it, plastered – illegally – along the median strip of most major roads in town.
To get to the Tae Kwon Do, one of the least unsuccessful pieces of Athens’s Olympic legacy now functioning as an expo centre and occasional refugee shelter, I had to pick my way along the seafront strip aspirationally rebranded as the “Athens Riviera”, along the gulf of Faliro. This involved traversing a maze of underpasses, flyovers and empty stranded car parks reminiscent J.G. Ballard’s dystopian Concrete Island, walking the narrow pavement along the coastal highway past the last holdouts of the nightclubs that once lined that stretch of road, and finally crossing the freshly planted park surrounding the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre which resembles a Mediterranean zen garden, and over a pedestrian bridge towards the setting sun.
The conference piqued my interest in part because I have never attended a Greek political gathering of any sort, and I happened to be in the neighbourhood. I have attended political conferences in the UK for different parties as a non-member in a professional capacity and found them to be fascinating experiences, but I am simply not a party animal in any sense (except perhaps ironically when Tony Hadley from Spandau Ballet belted out “Gold” at one of the otherwise stolid Tory events). Anyway, I digress. I probably wouldn’t cross the road to attend a routine political event by most other political parties, as I haven’t done in all my years in Greece. The closest I came was the run-up to the July 2015 referendum, which was adrenaline-inducing, both in the exciting and the downright scary sense. I thought it would be interesting to see how Syriza measured up, after inspiring such passion in both the positive and the negative sense, at its second ever conference after a year and a half in power, having climbed a rapid learning curve, and with the honeymoon period decidedly behind them.
I also figured that being a relatively new political formation and making a big deal of inclusiveness it would be easy to blag my way in. In the UK, party conference attendees have to register weeks in advance, get a conference pass in the post and queue to get through tight security barriers.
As I approached the venue I was struck by the calm. I had expected something along the lines of the KNE (Communist Party Youth) festivals that used to take place down the road from us when I was growing up, and where Syriza leader Alexis Tsipras cut his teeth in the not too distant past: tannoys blaring Theodorakis songs and slogans, leafletting, honking horns and music late into the night. Here, only a few flags fluttering in the autumn breeze gave away a party event rather than an Ideal Home expo. Thin crowds milled outside, little groups of friends greeting one another, craning their necks to find more people they recognised, smoking. There were a few recognisable faces, including senior cabinet minsters, mingling outside. Three times I thought I spotted the rotund mustachioed Parliamentary speaker Nikos Voutsis, only to realise that the paunch and braces were something of a common look among male attendees of a certain age.
I only had to walk through an airport-style scanner and put my bag through an x-ray machine. No photo ID badges, and only a couple of discreet police buses for security. Inside the hall, I had an hour to kill before the programme was due to start. The PA system played an eclectic mix, “Bella Ciao” alternating with “Rock the Casbah” and Greek dad-rock. Looking around me, I estimated the average age of the gathering audience to be mid to late 50s, perhaps a bit older. Some had brought children who were already fidgeting. One small section towards the back of the arena was taken up by the Syriza youth, who were the only ones showing a sense of occasion. As I leant over the bannister the gentleman next to me smoked a candyfloss-scented electronic cigarette. Around 10 minutes before the scheduled starting time, a disembodied male voice came on the PA system: “Comrades, comrades, please take your seats so that the conference can begin”. There was a slight show of purpose in the crowd. At the third attempt, the announcer started to betray some impatience, adopting the deliberate phrasing of a kindergarten teacher: “Comrades, please. We are taking our seats and settling down so that the conference can begin”.
There was a rustle and random sections of the audience stood up and applauded. “Who is it?” whispered the group of women next to me. “It’s Alexis, it’s him!” (this is the first genuine excitement of the evening). On the big screens we could see Tsipras and a group of senior party figures making their way from the back of the hall through the crowd to the stage. The hall was still not full. There was the odd empty seat in the stands, and the floor was only crowded near the front. To the sound of some kind of instrumental folk-rock which I didn’t recognise, Tsipras shook hands along the front rows, while the rest of the audience chatted.
Once the meet and greet had concluded, the voice proceeded to introduce the honorary conference committee as they rose to take their places on the stage. I only recognised a few names of the presiding team. After them came a colourful, diverse group, which I would have trouble picturing onstage with a more established party: a Muslim MP from Thrace, a Paralympian, the president of the Philippino domestic workers’ association, and eventually a long list of resistance fighters, dissidents and Communist party members with histories of imprisonment and exile. After the applause subsided, the Syriza youth section erupted into a chant of “On barren islands and in prisons, the Communists never bowed”. This was greeted by stony silence from audience.
The party secretary stood up to give the welcome address. He was not an inspiring speaker, and I have to admit that I have a short attention span when it comes to political speeches in general. My mind starts to wander within the first couple of sentences and I revert to people-watching. What I did notice was that I was not alone. At a UK party conference of the governing party, even as a registered attendee I would not even be in the main hall, I would probably be watching a screen in an overflow room, but there would still be a palpable atmosphere that carried you along. I recently watched in amazement a snippet of the fractious Republic convention in the US, where the floor delegates dutifully applauded Ted Cruz on cue for several minutes before it slowly dawned on them that he was not in fact going to endorse Donald Trump as expected. Based on these precedents, I was concerned that I would stand out if I failed to applaud. There was in fact very little applause on cue, and when it came, several people around me didn’t join in. Only the Syriza youth chanted occasionally.
The tone was particularly flat when the speaker tried to whip the audience up by stating repeatedly that this was the first conference of its kind in Greece, “held by a leftist party while in government”. I had read more experienced and knowledgeable commentators note that this conference would be very different from the first, partly because the centre of gravity of the senior Syriza team had shifted from the more radical personalities of their opposition days and their first term toward the more conservative figures drawn from the ranks of the Socialist PASOK party, which had governed Greece on and off since the early 80s. This was clearly borne out in the audience by the frosty reception that greeted the “first time left” claims.
I can’t remember much more of his speech. As my eye wandered I fixed on two incongruous figures seated in the youth section: two twenty-something guys in sharp suits and carefully trimmed beards, smoking cigars like the wannabe Gordon Gekkos used to do while the ordered sushi around the old Athens Stock Exchange. Had they stumbled in from a Nea Demokratia event, or were they perhaps a Cuban youth delegation? One of them ostentatiously brushed down his jacket sleeve after one of his more casually-attired comrades in the stand bumped into him.
Eventually, the secretary ceded his place to Alexis Tsipras. This also struck me as odd compared to the Anglo-American experience, where the party leader’s speech typically forms the crescendo of the conference programme, after all the aspirants and the grandees have had a chance to warm up the audience and iron out the message. Maybe this is how it’s done in Greece, but I found it interesting that Syriza wouldn’t have challenged such a tradition, given their emphasis on bottom-up process and consultative deliberation, to have the leader set the tone up front in such an obvious way. But, oddly, I was looking forward to this. I had never found Tsipras to be an engaging speaker when I had watched him on TV. He declaims in a loud nasal monotone that some people compare to the late Andreas Papandreou, who was generally counted as an inspirational orator, but I find soporific. He peppers (or should I say crams) his sentences with political clichés of the type described in Greece as “wooden language”, which hark back to the cold war days of the 1970s. In the comfort of my own home I tend to drift off to make a coffee or get a drink and read about it later, but having heard Tsipras described as a “firebrand” and “charismatic” I expected that the live experience would be more engaging. The principle had worked when I was dragged to Neil Young and Springsteen concerts only to be dragged away a reluctant convert.
On this occasion I was wrong. I stayed engaged long enough to sense the audience freeze again when the “first time left” message was repeated. They did the same when Tsipras claimed the July 2015 referendum will remain etched on our memories as the greatest moment in modern history. There was stony silence when he said that leaving the Euro was never part of the Syriza plan – earlier in the day, a leaked book excerpt quoted French President Hollande to the effect that Tsipras had approached Russian President Putin to print drachmas in Russia in the event of a Grexit. Talk of changing Europe from within barely caused a ripple in the audience; ditto the mention of the pantomime villains, the media and the old political parties.
The floor was still only two thirds full. A busty blonde woman in a tight black dress strode up and down the back of the audience wiggling her hips and blowing kisses to her friends (?) in the stands. You will have to resort to more expert commentary for what followed. Rumours have it that the party conference is the prelude to a ruthless cabinet reshuffle, but I didn’t stay to pick up any hints of this. My curiosity satisfied I left, probably a third of the way through Tsipras’s speech. Maybe it was different in the “old days”, a mere couple of years ago. Maybe this is just what happens when a party grows up, or maybe it has burned out already.