Athens: Day Five

I’m writing this from my hotel room in Exarchia district of Athens, where very recently a number of anarchist strongholds have been raided by police, as well as cafes and bars. I witnessed one raid myself – in the next street. An enormous number of police on motorbikes stormed a house. There were several loud explosions – tear gas, stun grenades, firecrackers. Crowds of people from the area, some in the regulation all-black of the anarchist movement, rushed to the scene, or looked on anxiously.

This comes towards the end of a day of violent protests in Athens, in which three people (including, allegedly, a pregnant woman) have tragically lost their lives.

I joined the mayhem at around lunchtime, following one of several large demonstrations as it wound its way from Omonoia down the long avenues towards Syntagma Square. I was with the filmmaker Netalie Braun who, as an Israeli, has more experience of political demonstrations than me.

Whilst this march had an upbeat, almost Carnival atmosphere, with protestors drumming and chanting, the signs of violence were everywhere: in the smashed windows of shops, traffic lights torn open; the stone and marble frontages of buildings ripped up and chipped away for missiles. Fires raged in melting dustbins.

The steps of the National Bank of Greece were covered in red paint. The metaphor is clear enough.

Netalie and I took a short cut to meet our friend Yiannis, and found ourselves on a less busy road into the centre. Bizarrely, everyone seemed to be walking the wrong way – back towards us.

At one corner, a group was forming, many holding scarves of handkerchiefs to their faces from the tear gas and pepper spray. A line of geared-up riot police blocked a side road linking the two parallel avenues into Syntagma. A stand-off ensued. The crowd grew in number and noise, chanting and berating the police.

The police in turn threatened with tear gas. The crowd booed as a fleet of cops on motorbikes rushed in. An elderly man walked through the lines, calm as you like, distributing flyers and muttering to himself. Then, at the sound of a whistle, the police charged. Netalie and I ran in the opposite direction. At a safe distance, I called Yiannis. Breathlessly, he told me to leave immediately.

This was just one minor skirmish in a day in which protestors attempted to storm parliament to prevent the politicians voting through the austerity cuts.

Outside the national library, a group of young anarchists were breaking off chunks of marble from a ledge with a hammer or small pickaxe. When one of them saw Netalie filming and me taking photos on my phone, he gave us a very sinister look and shook his head threateningly.

One of the interesting things about the protests here is how contained they often are to certain places, and also how they seem to co-exist with the ordinary activities of the city. One minute, you’re being chased by riot police; the next, you’re strolling down a quiet side road where old men are playing backgammon in cafes, and mothers are pushing their babies in prams.

Sick from tear gas and the acrid smoke, we found a cheap local restaurant and had a lunch of superbly grilled chicken.

Back on the streets, Syntagma Square was now deserted – just a handful of stragglers, photographers, bemused tourists etc. picking through the remains of the main protest.

The wooden benches I’d sat on only two nights previously with Theo and Iliana had been ripped out and burnt.

Gas was once again on the wind, and on leaving Syntagma Square my eyes began to weep and then sting terribly, my nose to run, my throat to burn. You can understand why it’s such an effective tool in the police armoury. When you know it’s coming you want to get away immediately…

After finally getting back to the hotel – and some rest – we had dinner off Exarchia Square, which was unusually, eerily quiet.

I wonder what the next few days will bring…

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Athens: Day One

There’s a first time for everything. Today was the first time I’d experienced the effects, albeit mildly, of tear gas. A sudden burning in the eyes, throat and lungs. At least I think it was tear gas – it could just as easily have been the acrid smoke rising from the smouldering remains of upturned municipal dustbins.

I am in Athens for the international poetry festival Dasein. This is my first full day, and my first time in Greece since… well, before I can remember. We took a few family holidays here back in the 80s, that’s all. My hotel – which is in fact lovely and where I’m writing this from – seems to be bang in the middle of the ‘troubles’ you may be aware of due to the precarious economic and social situation here. I’d just returned from an afternoon walking around the city, and something’s clearly happened in the area.

The signs of disturbance are everywhere. Riot police in heavy, dark blue jumpsuits and shades ride in flottilas of motorbikes. Soldiers – younger, conscripts I guess, in khaki, stand in groups of three or four on street corners. Young Greeks in black t-shirts and back-packs displaying an air of latent discontent. Graffiti ever-present like a sinister voice in the back of your head. This morning I woke to the call of raised voices and loudhailers. Across the square my balcony overlooks, a political demonstration – red and black flags contrasting with the clear blue day.

I followed the demo as it moved slowly down one of the main streets towards Syntagma Square, the public centre of Athens. It was good-natured and noisy – a carnival atmosphere contrasting with the serious messages of the demonstrators. Amongst them, groups of Sri Lankan and African immigrants, protesting for greater rights.

People wear a lot of black here. I stood out with my Northern European face and crazy bright white plimsolls (you can take the boy out of Shoreditch, etc…), strolling parallel to the march and regularly stopping to take photos with my phone. I also made an audio recording of the demonstrators’ chants. I may use these recordings in a new piece I’m set to create for the Festival.

This afternoon I took the funicular railway up Lycabettus Hill, which looms over Athens, a rocky outcrop said to have been created when Athena dropped a large stone she was carrying by mistake. The views from the top are breathtaking, and there is a small and pretty chapel, Agia Georgios.

My lunch consisted of a slice of delicious Spinach pie and a frappa coffee thing. Last night I had veal in pasta at a great little canteen-style restaurant my host here, the writer Christos Chrissopoulos, had taken me to.

I’m off to meet another writer, Theodoros Chiotis, now. He writes for Hand + Star, so it’ll be good to finally put a face to the name.

I hope to avoid any more tear gas. It’s nasty stuff.

Various Poetastings

I’ve been out and about a fair bit this last week, handing out flyers for London Word Festival of course. A promoter’s job is never done.

Eavan Boland

Firstly, The Poetry Society’s annual lecture at The Bishopsgate Institute on 31st January. This is where I organised London Lip with Iain Sinclair et al. and I’ll be seeing quite a bit more of The Bishopsgate and its lovely staff over the Spring when I take up my official poetic residency there. The lecture was given by the US-based Irish poet and critic Eavan Boland (above). A striking speaker whose poise lent her words an air of urgency. But not as fierce as she looks in the photo! As she explained, the topic was ‘The Cartography of Poetry’ – ie. a state of the nation address – but she would limit herself to an evaluation of ‘the political poem’. An apt topic, I thought, and something more potentially controversial than, say, a reappraisal of the sonnet or the villanelle (as Boland herself pointed out). It’s also a topic that has been much in the mouths of writers and literary commentators. Since the millennium, we’ve had 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq II and 7/7. And all that political instability alongside a growing sense of the threat of climate change. All of this brings the private, the domestic and the personal into the open, and forces writers and artists to question the value and purpose of their work.

Boland began by citing the well-known literary bust-up between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, a dispute founded on their divergent views on ‘public poetry’. Specifically, Duncan resented Levertov’s involvement as a writer in the Vietnam protest movement and considered her political poems not only to lack, but to actively betray, the poetic imagination. Duncan’s own position is that ‘the poet’s role is not to oppose evil but to imagine it’. This example sets up a number of complex distinctions, both ethical and aesthetical, which I won’t even try to unpack here. Boland herself argued (and it’s a position I applaud) for ‘a disabling of the either/or’ approach to poetry. She also spoke of the need for ‘a rich, diverse and risky poetry’. This last adjective is most important and gives away her true position on the Duncan/Levertov argument – Boland calls for a political poetry that takes risks, that avoids easy conclusions.

‘The political poem is a way of writing myself to the position to ask questions.’ (Boland)

I’m with her on that. When ‘political poetry’ resembles the lazy doggerel Pinter and Harrison came up with in response to the Iraq war, it’s not worth reading – that kind of work is politically and artistically safe; it asks no questions; its constituency is self-assured to the point of being self-regarding. Preaching to the converted, in other words. Rather, Boland advocated ‘a disintegration of we’. I’m with her on that too. That’s partly why I like Chris McCabe’s work (see below…).

Lastly, Boland touched on the politics of the environment, prophesising future conflict over nature poetry between, on the one hand, eco-poets who are socially, environmentally and politically engaged, and, on the other, those who espouse a largely Romantic, Wordsworthian approach (the latter being the more popular and well-established). Or to put it her way – a battle between a natural world which provides moral/spiritual instruction for the poet, and a natural world scarred and violated by human activity. This made me think of David Caddy’s work – rooted in the natural world and a small rural community, but international in character and politically and socially engaged. Readers might also be interested to note that political poetry, and specifically writers’ responses to climate change, is the subject of Making Nothing Happen, one of my London Word Festival events at The Bishospgate. Friday 29th February with Mario Petrucci, Melanie Challenger, Caspar Henderson and Neil Astley.

If there’s anything I took issue with in Eavan Boland’s lecture, it’s that I don’t really believe in a clear distinction between the political poem and the non-political poem. In many ways, all poetry, all acts of representation, are inherently political. I guess I agree with Jamie Wilkes on this one. So the argument is not between political and non-political, but between different kinds of politics. Then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics…

The rest of the evening was spent in The Water Poet, Folgate Street with Simon Barraclough and Isobel Dixon (whose responses to this post I await!). We wedged ourselves in the only space not entirely overrun with loud city workers – the pool room. Conversation ranged from poetry (obviously) to soap operas. Coronation Street was a favourite of mine and Simon’s, whilst Isobel introduced us to the South African soap Egoli (meaning ‘Place of Gold’). I also argued hard for The Bill, which I was missing at the time.

The Troubadour

Then onto The Troubadour,West Brompton (above) on Monday night to witness the long-running Coffee House Poetry series coming head-to-head with Salt Publishing. A whopping ten Salt poets read (though I missed one or two, sneaking in during Tamar Yoseloff’s set) in the atmospheric basement venue. All the poets I saw were excellent and representative of the diversity of Salt’s growing stock of writers. Particular highlights for me were Isobel Dixon, Luke Kennard and Chris McCabe.

Isobel’s work is gently pervasive. She reads with a confidence and firmness that belies the lyrical lilt of her poetry. Every consonant of her finely-tuned lines is articulated, which I like. All too often poets rush through readings, aiming no doubt to capture the rhythms of speech, but ultimately mushing all the language into some comforting but unrecognisable pulp. I remember a particularly good line of Isobel’s about how her father’s beard hid a small face, or something like that. I paraphrase. Clive James is also a fan of Isobel’s book A Fold in the Map.

It’s always a pleasure (I initially wrote ‘joy’ then crossed it out) to hear Luke Kennard read. I’d heard a few of the poems he performed before – like ‘The Murderer’ for instance. His newer work was excellent too; in particular a piece about a couple meeting in an elephant’s graveyard. Luke’s a proper satirist, and also a very nice man with a fine selection of jackets. His poetry is popular even with people who don’t really like poetry, like the barmaid at The Troubadour, who asked him to post her a copy of The Harbour Beyond The Movie. This is always a good sign.

The real highlight of the evening was Chris McCabe, who I’ve known since I published a poem of his in Keystone (Issue 5, 2004). Chris works in The Poetry Library on the South Bank and has recently become a father for the first time. His work combines linguistic experimentation and plenty of tonal disharmony with a genuine accessibility and, importantly, wit. I’m never shy about giving my opinion, so here it is: Chris is the most exciting poet currently writing in London. There you go, I’ve said it… His first book The Hutton Inquiry is an impressive debut but too long and a bit patchy. His second book, also from Salt, is due out this year, and if I remember correctly from our conversation is entitled Zeppelin. I for one can’t wait. In fact I don’t have to, because David Caddy has accepted some of his work for the forthcoming Tears in the Fence. My recommendation? If you get the chance to see Chris read, take it up.