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The exile of place and time

  • 16 June 2022
Writers are not only preoccupied, among other things, with the concept of place, but also with the matter of time and its passing. Novelist L.P. Hartley famously wrote that the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. Cretan Nikos Kazantzakis considered that ‘the face of Greece is a palimpsest bearing twelve successive inscriptions,’ and he went on to list them, from the 1930s, when he wrote these words, to the Stone Age.

Some of those inscriptions are evident in the old part of Kalamata, the capital of Messenia, near where I live. The focal point of March 23 Square is the church of the Holy Apostles, a little sandstone structure, parts of which date back to the 10th century. If those walls could only speak! It’s a wonder they are still standing, as it happens, after all they have been through: I have seen them crumbled, with the church’s dome on the ground, as a result of a severe earthquake. Slowly but surely the whole was restored: the town would not be the same without the Holy Apostles.

Nearby is a small memorial, once a well that people used often and regularly. It was here that in March, 1821, a sharp-eyed Turk noticed a little trail of gunpowder escaping a sack borne by a loaded donkey. He set off to warn the Pasha at Ottoman HQ, but never got there, and the revolutionaries, who had been biding their time, decided to act quickly, with the result that in Kalamata the War of Independence started two days ahead of schedule on March 23, 1821. Kalamata was the first town in Greece to be liberated, and for many years now the day has been commemorated with a re-enactment of the decisive meeting of revolutionary leaders.

Fast forward 150 years or more to the occasions when my mother-in-law, widow of an Orthodox priest, and thus always dressed in the mandatory top-to-toe black, decided that her head scarves needed some renovating. She would go to a little shop on a corner opposite the church, and ask for black dye. The shopkeeper would put a little square of newspaper on the scales and then scoop a heap of powder on to it, after which he would fold paper and powder into a neat parcel. I was fascinated by the folding process, and still am, although it is becoming rare and seems only to be practised