GREEK BRITISH FRIENDSHIP – IN CORFU

Posted by economia 11/09/2018 0 Comment(s) Events,

As part of the Festival honouring the bicentenary of the Order of St Michael and St George and aiming to boost British-Hellenic relations, HE Ms Kate Smith CMG gave a talk entitled “British-Hellenic Friendship” at the Corfu Reading Society on 6 August 2018. 

 

"Let me begin with a heartfelt thank you for the invitation to come and speak at the Anagnostiki. As the first intellectual foundation/body in the Greek lands with over 170 years of history – this is a great privilege and honour.

 

Especially when one considers the brilliant figures of Greek intellectual life and letters who have passed through these portals – Solomos, Markoras, Theotokis, Mantazaros, Kalvos, Politis to name just a few. I will not, this evening, have the hubris to attempting to emulate their intellectual contribution or learning.

 

But I am delighted to be continuing the tradition of British Ambassadors speaking here. My predecessor John Kittmer – who not only as a diplomat but scholar of Greek literature and thus a much more comfortable fit in these surroundings – spoke here on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Enosis, or Union. More on that, in due course.

 

The occasion for my talk tonight, is another significant anniversary in the history of British-Ionian and Corfiot relations – for this year we celebrate the 200th Anniversary of the establishment of the British Order of Chivalry, the Order of St Michael and St George by the Prince Regent, later George IV, in 1818. Its original seat, as you all know well, is that magnificent building opposite, the eponymous Palace, now the very fine Museum of Asiatic Art in Corfu.

 

It was a very great honour for me to be appointed to the Order 10 years ago by the Sovereign of the Order herself, HM the Queen. And many of my fellows are indeed members, serving or retired, of the British Diplomatic Service. But more important is the fact that the Order still today recognises and honours individuals in foreign countries who have contributed much to Britain’s relations around the world. Happily there are worthy members among them in Greece and indeed Corfu, including of course the director of the Museum of Asiatic Art herself, Mrs Zernioti.

 

One of those Greek members a Knight of the Order, Sir Efthymios Mitropoulos, will speak to you on the history of the Order at the end of this month.

 

But before leaving that subject in his capable hands, let me say how delighted I am that both his, my and many other talks and events are taking place this summer as part of rich and varied programme organised by the Corfu Heritage Foundation to celebrate the anniversary. Count Spyros Flamburiaris and his collaborators are to be congratulated on their great effort and initiative in putting together this Festival.

 

Next year too, the members of the Order – distinguished former diplomats for the most part - will also be visiting Corfu: I am sure many of them, who have not already, will be beating a path to your door here.

 

So to turn to my theme for this evening. It was inspired by the Mayor’s very generous declaration, in recognition of this anniversary, of 2018 as the Year of Greek British Friendship in Corfu. I was struck that the Municipality chose the term “friendship” and it set me thinking: what does friendship mean? Has anyone managed to define such a broad concept?

 

As ever with such challenges, it is as well to consult the learned and lettered of the past – a habit I am sure members of the Society are familiar with.

 

I find in the history of English letters some widely diverging but all and interesting approaches to the concept. Oliver Goldsmith, the great 18th century British essayist, wrote in “The Good Natured Man”:

 

“Friendship is a disinterested commerce between equals; love, an abject intercourse between tyrants and slaves”.

 

Johnson, the great diarist, urges us to “keep friendship in constant repair”.

 

George Eliot sounds the most cynical, or at least hard-headed note: “Friendships begin with liking or gratitude – roots that can be pulled up.”

 

I think all those writers probably penned their thoughts on friendship with the friendship between individuals in mind. But let me turn to friendship between nations, and peoples. Lord Palmerston warns us off the idea that friendship is a relevant concept in international relations, famously saying

 

“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests”

 

How true is that, of Greece and Britain?

 

Well we are certainly allies, and pretty permanent ones.

 

Since Greece became an independent nation in 1832, our nations have always found ourselves on the same side of any significant conflict.

 

It started with British support to the struggle for independence against Ottoman rule – and we are proud of that role and the legacy it has created, whether it be the role of independent, buccaneering philhellene soldiers and sailors such as Hastings, Church and Cochrane working alongside Greece’s heroic military naval rebels leaders; Byron’s inspiring championing of the cause; or Britain’s role along with the other “Great Powers” acting as midwife and protector of the newly emerging state; or of the city of London in Financing its first governments.

 

From the bonds forged then grew the enduring alliance of succeeding eras – in the, 1st world war and its aftermath, World War II, and succeeding conflicts where British and Greeks have fought alongside each other around the world.

 

Of course this enduring alliance has not been without its tensions – be it at the time of the National Schism, the political conflict at the end of WW2 leading to the Greek Civil War, and of course, over Cyprus. But Greece and Britain have ultimately always found a commonality of interests and values. So perhaps Palmerston’s point is, well, beside the point. If ones’ interests are permanent, and align with another’s, then surely you have a basis for a permanent friendship.

 

And those interests align in the case of Britain and Greece because they are not just strategic, but also have intellectual, philosophical and moral roots.

 

The appreciation in the Britain of the Enlightenment for classical Greek civilisation of course lay behind much of the popular support for Greek independence in Britain the 1820s and 1830s alongside the hard headed strategic and geopolitical interests which informed British official policy at the time.

 

And to illustrate this, I was very struck on my last visit to this Society to see a volume on display which essentially was a catalogue of British subscribers or contributors to a voluntary fund to support the liberation struggle.

 

The legacy of ancient Greece – the prototype of a state based on liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law, intellectual freedom - is part of that mutual attraction that Greece and Britain have for each other, the liking – and here I agree with George Eliot – that must be a part of any genuine friendship.

 

And one of the most extraordinary examples of British philhellenism belongs to Corfu: Frederick North, Lord Guilford, rightly revered among the Corfiot literary class of the time for setting up the Ionian Academy, the first Greek university, and bequeathing it 10,000 volumes from his own personal fortune.

 

We can only imagine how delighted he would be to know that after the necessary merger with the Othonian University in Athens after union, it was refounded in 1984 with the central premises in its original building, and is now flourishing - and as I heard from the Rector just the other night - expanding.

 

And that attraction and admiration has, over the ensuing centuries, become mutual – and contemporary.

 

Today, I feel everywhere in my work the respect that exists among Greeks for British institutions, the British systems of justice and higher education, the business environment; for British pragmatism and organisation. Today and in during the recent years of crisis, this has all brought opportunity and new life chances to so many young Greeks, including from Corfu. And Britain has benefited from this inflow of talent enormously too.

 

And of course we British are not confined to admiration of Greece’s ancient past. In more recent history the indefinable Greek virtues of leventia and philotimo have impressed all those British who have come across them, in war or peace; as well as extraordinary Greek fortitude amid great suffering and hardship, across the centuries.

 

We also admire the Greek capacity for improvisation, for flexibility, for investing in personal relations, and prioritising the family, the village/chorio, the patrida. And we admire that extraordinary Greek spirit, the ability to live life to the full, to celebrate and find joy in all its pleasures and gifts with abandon and without inhibition.

 

Generations of British travellers have come to Greece and found here expression for emotions, values, behaviours that are suppressed or discouraged in the UK.

 

That attraction of opposites does I am sure contribute to the liking that is such a strong part of our relationship. But no friendship can exist simply on contrasts. Friendships are ultimately, I would argue, forged through and sustained by what we have in common.

 

To take one pre-eminent example: our common maritime tradition. We are both, par excellence, seafaring nations, sharing an outward facing spirit of adventure and enterprise. British and Greeks – at different times and in different ways, have achieved mastery of the sea – the British in the 19th Century when the Royal Navy ruled the waves – and Greeks since mid-last century until today, still dominating the ocean going merchant shipping fleet.

 

The links between London and the Greek shipping industry – whether based there or globally - remain strong and highly productive for both our countries.

 

But if friendship is also a function of liking as well as commonalities, it is not just about institutions and character, we must not forget the liking based on sensory experience.

 

Not, I would suggest, a pre-requisite for friendship between peoples and countries, but most certainly a factor in the British liking of Greece.

 

Indeed the extraordinary beauty of this country – from the mountains to the coast to the islands, and everything in-between – has inspired responses for which liking is far too mild a term. Especially in the case of British travellers to this corner of Greece, Corfu.

 

Take Edward Lear, who wrote to his sister on his first visit in 1848 that the island “really is a paradise”. Every place he describes in his diaries and letters provoke an extraordinary enthusiasm – finally commenting after a walk in Analypsi, “after such evenings in Corfu, what is left as to beauty of outer life?”.

 

And Laurence Durrell, whose book “Prospero’s Cell” is a richly lyrical paean of praise for the physical and spiritual world of Corfu he encountered in his 1930’s sojourn here.

 

His brother Gerald’s writing – in similar, if less poetic mood – now brought to millions of British views through the TV series of “My Family & Other Animals” has kindled in a whole new generation of my compatriots a very similar enthusiasm.

And the recent “Charmed Lives” exhibition at the British Museum brought to a different British audience the attractions of Corfu as seen through the eyes of Patrick Leigh Fermor and John Craxton, and their frequent visits to Barbara Rothschild and Nikos Hadjikyriakou-Ghikas on Corfu.

 

So much for “liking”. But if you recall, George Eliot also contented that “gratitude” was also a basis of friendship. Here we stray into more complex waters. Especially perhaps when we consider the history of Britain and Corfu.

 

I would not hazard to claim that the people of Corfu saw the transfer of the Eptanisa to British Protection in 1814 from French occupation under Napoleon with gratitude. I suspect at the time it might have been viewed with a philosophical resignation of yet another episode in the ebb and flow of great power competition here that had already seen Venice giving way to France, then Russia, then France again.

 

And the Protectorate itself was of course a source of great tensions and frustration for the Corfiot people - notably under the autocratic “King Tom” Maitland, the first Lord High Commissioner.

 

Certainly Capodistrias, arguably Corfu’s most illustrious son, felt far from grateful towards the British and Maitland due to the latter’s decision to cede Parga to Ali Pasha in 2014, when almost the entire population emigrated to Corfu rather than remain under the tyranny of the Ottoman yoke, and helped push him close to the Tsar and Russia. Nor did Capodistrias’ experience of the British improve a decade later in 1827.

 

Robert Holland writes in Blue Water Empire that “Visiting Windsor Castle to meet George IV to discuss British guarantees to the emerging independent Greek state, he was left alone in the library for some time. The King, when at last he entered, wandered around examining the pictures as if he has not noticed his guest. Almost bumping into him at last, the King remarked “Ah, here you are Count! I am pleased to see you.

He passed on without another word, continuing to examine the pictures, and left by the same door. Capodistrias was shown to his carriage, with the audience at an end.”

 

No wonder Capodistrias harboured a lasting suspicion of Britain: as we heard from Johnson, friendship requires constant repair, and we didn’t invest quite enough in his friendship, it appears.

 

But back in the Eptanisa, and in Corfu, growing familiarity with the positive aspects of what British administration was able to bring over the next decades I hope may have begun to embed some sense of appreciation.

 

Robert Holland again has a straightforward assessment of some of the dynamics:

 

“The British troops, concentrated in Corfu, spent more money than previous occupiers simply because they were wealthier.

Money helped to forge an Anglo-Corfiote report, which explains why one British administrator could believe that the leading classes were “essentially English” in disposition.”

 

But the benefit went much wider than this. Indeed, the legacy of British rule was considerable, and I believe, largely positive. Reform touched the system of justice, the civil code and penal system; opened up the public administration, and reducing the privileges of the aristocracy.

 

The British rulers granted two constitutions – even if far from fully democratic – with genuinely representative elements, and they were the first ever written in Greek.

 

To that, add improvements in public health and education, the freedom of the press – hugely important for the development of the intellectual life of Corfu; agricultural reforms, the founding of the Ionian Bank and the putting of public finances on a sound footing.

 

The latter in particular was the work of Maitland. And perhaps, even despite his personal unpopularity – Chris Woodhouse says “he may fairly be described as the worst colonial governor ever appointed” that may have contributed to the fact that on his death in Malta in 1824, he was genuinely mourned in Corfu.

 

Maitland’s successors as Lord High Commissioner were a mixed bunch, but over the ensuring decades British rule did finally become more enlightened and representative. Did that however, endear us to the Corfiotes? One of those High Commissioners commented that despite these efforts “the mass of Ionians cared little for reform and desired only Union”.

 

It is indeed somewhat ironic that Britain maintained for much of the period of the Protectorate, essentially autocratic system of government, while just across the Ionian Sea, she was active in support of self-determination and liberty for the rest of Greece.

 

But enosis/union was finally achieved. The voluntary and peaceful grant of the Eptanisa to the newly established independent Greece, on the occasion of the establishment of a constitutional monarchy under King George I of the Hellenes has been characterised as a unique development in the history of British colonialism. A forerunner, perhaps of the largely peaceful wave of decolonisation and emergency of independent states out of the British Empire from the 1940s to 1960s in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.

 

Something of that feeling comes through the Times editorial report of the final handover of the Eptanisa to Greece in 1864:

 

“The Islanders and the Protecting Power have parted on excellent terms. The British flag has been hauled down, not by a victorious enemy, not in ungracious concession to seditious and doleful subjects, but with an air of generosity on one side, and gratitude on the other, seldom found in international transactions”.

 

So there is George Eliot’s gratitude again, but I think in this case we must be a little sceptical at its relevance.

 

We know the necessary demolition of the garrison’s fortifications, which the Corfiots valued highly, was a particularly bitter blow, for which your forerunners felt far from grateful.

 

Indeed if friendship, as Goldsmith would have it, is a “disinterested commerce between equals, not an abject intercourse between tyrants and slaves” perhaps it iso only after 1864 that we should search for the real roots of Greek British Friendship in Corfu, when Corfiots could cease to chafe at the restrictions of British rule.

 

From then on, we could at last view each other as independent nations and peoples, with all the respect and dignity that status confers; and it was also the time when the personal and social contacts between British and Corfiots began to broaden and deepen: we got to know each other better, paradoxically.

 

Frank Giles writes in his excellent chapter in Corfu, the Garden Isle

“With a few exceptions such as Adam (who of course married into the Corfiot aristocracy, and was feted by Corfiot high society) and Guildford the British protectors did not mingle much with the protected, unlike the Venetians who assimilated with the subject peoples. The officials and officers and men of the garrison, and their families, led their own lives, looking upon local customs and ceremonies with a sort of amused condescension”.

 

But happily that began to change at the time of union. Lear writes “Even in 1863 I never before knew Corfu so agreeable and lively, No end of gigantic swells have been here this winter, Dukes, Earls, Barons and what nots” – so the island was even then becoming popular as winter watering hole for the rich and privileged of British society!

 

And of course, as you know well, Corfu is a favourite destination of members of the British Royal Family, who holiday here very regularly - including this year.

 

Indeed no survey of Greek British friendship in Corfu can omit the connections between the Royal houses of Britain and Greece, and the special role Corfu plays in that.

 

A moment during HRH the Prince of Wales’s visit to Greece in May illustrates this beautifully. HRH’s first official call was of course on the President of the Republic. They exchanged courtesies, with warm opening greetings about the strength of the ties between our two countries and peoples. Both expressed their pleasure that such a visit was taking place, and how significant this was for our bilateral relations. All correct and as you would expect.

 

Then in a departure from protocol (for gifts were to be exchanged later that evening at the official banquet) the president passed the Prince a beautifully bound folder, explaining that he wished to give him a very special gift. It contained copies of the original documents relating to the baptism in Corfu in 1921 of the Prince’s father, the Duke of Edinburgh which had been found in the government archives.

 

The President’s pride and pleasure at being able to share this, and His Royal Highness’s similar delight at receiving the documents were palpable – he had never seen them before and didn’t even know of their existence. I actually had the advantage of him, having been presented with the same documents last year by Mayor Nikolouzos here during my first visit!

 

In both cases, it as a lovely, personal moment, and a genuine symbol of friendship.

 

Happily, the ability to enjoy the pleasures of Corfu – climate, landscape and natural history; music and dance; food and wine, a rich and varied cultural history - is not confined to royalty, or the upper echelons of society.

 

Our contemporary friendship, which we are celebrating here this year, is surely based on the people to people links that are forged by, and are dependent on, mass tourism.

 

The numbers speak for themselves: in the year from Apr 17 to March 18, there were over 490,000 airport arrivals – and around 35% of all international arrivals are from the UK for the first six months of 2018, we have seen an 11% more Brits arriving than the same time last year. In the 2017-21018 season, a further 95,000 arrived by sea, mainly on cruise ships.

 

Every visit augments the familiarity between us and adds a little something to those bonds of contemporary friendship. Though I’m not sure it would quite fit Goldsmith’s definition of “disinterested commerce”. With 35% of all international arrivals, the contribution of British tourism visitors to this island’s economy is of course significant.

 

As is, of course that of the 8-10,000 British with homes here – out of permanent resident population of 40,000 when last counted – a very considerable proportion.

 

Perhaps that economic inflow brings a little bit of the gratitude that George Eliot spoke of as a contributing factor to friendship, especially during tough economic times. But as for the liking?

 

I know well that the influx of British every year does not come without its challenges as well as benefits. Not only the pressure on services, but the impact on local communities of holiday over-exuberance and recklessness is not always positive and we thank you for your forbearance.

 

You as Corfiots have come to know our British idiosyncrasies, weakness, vulnerabilities and failings very well from this mass exposure over the years – and that may be too, a true sign of friendship that you continue to extend such a warm welcome.

 

Our consular effort here – led by our vice consul Charlie Picoula and her team - focusses on prevention campaigns to minimise the caseload of accidents, injuries, crimes, other brushes with law. They work on crisis preparedness in case of major incidents.

 

And they to concentrate most effort on the most vulnerable who do experience difficulties. Every year, we get better at that – our caseload this year is dramatically reduced even as the numbers go up.

 

None of that would be possible without the help and support of the local authorities and community here in Corfu. A few examples:

the volunteer hospital visiting group, a joint Greek British effort initiative across the Eptanisa;

 

the Friends of Corfu charity, with British and Corfiot volunteers who help us regularly to assist distressed British nationals;

 

The incredibly professional staff at Corfu State Hospital, who for example recently ensured a vulnerable patient in the ICU was not transferred back onto a ward where she would have had no family/friends to assist her, until repatriation was secured.

The Psychiatric Unit and Social Workers there who take care not to discharge patients until a return flight can be arranged as they have nowhere to stay, and arranging transportation to airport.

 

The Registrar of Corfu who recently assisted in the Registration of Birth of a premature baby.

 

The police who always cooperate readily with access to our detained nationals with personal visits and telephone.

 

The owner of hotel near the airport who has gone beyond the call of duty and assisted us with vulnerable guests, escorting them to the airport and assisting with check-in etc.

 

And the Municipality, coastguard and port authorities, Fire brigade service and many other local services on whom we depend so much.

 

These instances of support and kindness of this kind seems to me to the essence of our contemporary friendship.

 

Ladies and gentlemen, I am not sure this survey of Greek British friendship here in Corfu has got any closer to defining it. Let me instead invoke one last British writer to try to sum it up: that most influential of British Philhellenes, Lord Byron to sum it up: “Friendship” he said “is love without his wings”.

 

Far be it from me to interpret his Lordship, but it sounds to me that by that he meant a relationship of shared affection, attraction, and common understanding and respect but without the fights of passion, unreason or jealousy that accompanies romantic love.

 

That to me feels just the kind of relationship our two people’s countries have, and should have. A friendship that is steady, affectionate, and tolerant is one that will endure. I hope for two centuries more at least – and why not?"

 

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