Adventures in cultural exchange

Adventures in cultural exchange

Anglo-Hellenism was a Liberal construct, with its roots in the 19th century, but it became recognizable as such only after the Balkan Wars. Many British Liberals were impressed by Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos at the London Conference in 1912-1913, and showed a strong desire to keep his government aligned with his British counterpart H.H. Asquith’s Liberal government. As a consequence, the pro-Greek principals of King’s College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science, Ronald Burrows and William Pember Reeves, founded the Anglo-Hellenic League in 1913. The League attracted strong support from the Greek community of London and started to raise funds for the resettlement of Greek refugees, creating a network of political and cultural links between Athens and London.

In some ways, the Second World War represents the high-water mark of Anglo-Hellenism. Britain, its empire and Greece stood alone. Afterwards, Britain emerged from the war politically and economically diminished. And truth be told, the Cyprus crisis of the 1950s ended intimate political closeness between Britain and the Hellenic world. But Anglo-Hellenism remained alive, thanks in large measure to cultural exchange and in part to the British Council.

The Council established its headquarters in Athens in 1939, but it was after the war that it became important in Greece. In 1944, the British ambassador, Rex Leeper, lobbied London to re-establish the British Council quickly in Greece, with high-quality personnel. He saw it as a means of projecting the British way of life and British institutions: a form of “soft power.”

The decade that followed is widely viewed as the British Council’s greatest era in Greece. The Council was skillfully led by the Byzantinist Steven Runciman. Poets of the quality of Louis MacNeice were brought here. Nikos Kazantzakis was sent on a tour of the UK. Nanos Valaoritis headed to London, under George Seferis’ encouragement. George Katsimbalis edited the Anglo-Greek Review. At the same time, many British soldiers who had served in Greece started to publish their memoirs: men such as Xan Fielding and Geoffrey Chandler. Travel-writing about Greece blossomed: Paddy Leigh Fermor and Dilys Powell are the most famous names. The trilingual Kay Cicellis started to publish her novels in English. Publishers, such as John Lehmann, found an enthusiastic market for books about Greece in Britain. Art too prospered; Nikos Hadjikyriakos-Ghikas exhibited in London, John Craxton in Athens.

Although the luster of the first post-war decade was not subsequently repeated, from the 1960s onwards intercultural understanding deepened. The lives and activities of two very different men prove the point: the poet and art-historian Nikos Stangos (1936-2004), and the theologian-philosopher and man of letters Philip Sherrard (1922-95). What we see alike in the careers of these two men is a new depth to Anglo-Hellenic cultural exchange. In London Stangos penetrated English visual and literary culture and in Athens Sherrard penetrated Greek literary and religious culture to a degree that was not true of previous generations.

Contacts made by earlier thinkers, new habits of thought, intellectual affinities, were successfully transmitted by individuals and by supportive institutions, nurturing new possibilities.

Today we have abiding reasons for optimism. In different areas of cultural activity dialogue and communication between Britain and Hellenism are flourishing. In the field of art, last year we had the exhibition “Takis” at Tate Modern in London; “Sight” by Antony Gormley on the island of Delos; and the anti-Brexit exhibition, curated by Nick Moore, “Don’t Leave Me This Way,” at the Stash Gallery in London. In music, Greek composers such as Dimitrios Skyllas are active in the UK. London’s popularity is a key factor in the film industry too (consider Lanthimos’ “The Favourite”) and in fashion (the notable careers of Mary Katrantzou and the late Sophia Kokosalaki).

In literature, several recent Greek novels reflect their authors’ experience of Britain: e.g. Dorina Papaliou’s “A Certain Quality of Light” and Giorgos Mitas’ “Stories from Hull.” Equally, British novelists have engaged deeply with Greek history and culture. The works of Sofka Zinovieff and Victoria Hislop have proved particularly successful. From London’s Cypriot community, the young poet Anthony Anaxagorou is projecting a radically new and provocative voice in the long cultural exchange between Britain and Hellenism.

The success of such stories rests largely on individuals, their talents and their visions. But much too rests on institutions, foundations, donors, sponsors, publishers, galleries, conservatoires. The universities are playing a particularly important role: through their internationalization, their links across Europe, their student exchanges.

None of us yet knows what sort of impact Brexit will have on all this. Much is to be decided in the year ahead. I hope our politicians will make the right decisions: decisions that foster friendship, mobility, cooperation and exchange between Brits and other Europeans, including of course Greeks and Cypriots.

But charities and foundations must redouble our efforts: to provide more scholarships for students, to reward excellence through international prizes (such as the Runciman Award), to exploit new technologies giving rise to new forms of mutual understanding.

Next year, Greeks will celebrate the bicentennial of the start of the War of Independence. This is a great opportunity for British-Greek cultural exchange. I am thinking not just about 2021. For British philhellenes 2024 (death of Byron), 2027 (Navarino), 2030 (Treaty of London) are all important parts of the celebrations. If we plan properly, we have a decade to promote Anglo-Hellenic cultural exchange, to raise funds, build legacies, create endowments and build a stronger platform for the future. Let us keep this intercultural dialogue alive.

Dr John Kittmer is chair of the Anglo-Hellenic League and former British ambassador to Greece.

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