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Remembering revolution

  • 25 March 2021
In normal times this month would be one of great celebration in Greece and throughout the diaspora, for 25 March marks 200 years since the Greeks rose in revolt against the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled them for 400 years. Of course there had been many attempts at revolt before, but all had met with failure. And the Greece that became free in 1821 was not the Greece of today. Parts of northern Greece were still under Ottoman rule until 1883, while Crete and Thessaloniki did not become Greek until 1912.

It is fair to say, I think, that every society has a chain of memories clanking along behind it. But in the case of some that the chain is broken, or has a few links missing. I have a vague idea about villages in Northern Ireland and in Scotland, with firmer notions of Acle in Norfolk and Wendron in Cornwall, but they are still very sketchy.

My half-Greek children, however, grew up just down the mountain from their ancestral home, from which place seven men of their line joined the rebels in 1821. It is documented fact that their great-great-grandfather fought in the Battle of Tripoli. And what a bloody battle that was.

Even when we were still in Australia their father would hire national dress for the boys to wear on 25 March, and tell them about rebels in Kalamata leading the way on 23 March. (Kalamata was the first city to fall to the Greeks.) In Greece they took it in turns to wear the outfit that their great-grandfather had bought by dint of walking his donkey, loaded with oil, through the mountains to Tripoli, which is about 80km away.

This costume has now been worn by four generations. It consists of the pleated kilt, the fustanella, all nine metres of it (and a devil to iron), an embroidered waistcoat, and a very elaborate leather belt, tucked and folded: it was in one of the pockets that the old man’s will was found after his death in 1940. The boys recited poems, joined school marches, sang patriotic songs and danced traditional dances every year. And now my grandchildren do the same.

But not this year: student parades have been banned, while military ones will go ahead with strict safety measures in place. Politicians are, as so often, engaged in a tense juggling act, that of trying to keep the population safe while simultaneously