Monday, 31 July 2017

Santorini (Thera)

Santorini caldera

The volcanic eruption that destroyed the Minoan civilisation of Crete took place sometime between 1500BC and 1650BC on the island of Thera, now commonly called Santorini. The Italianate name was conferred upon it when it formed part of the Venetian Empire.

The most southerly of the Cyclades, this circular group was once a single island, out of which the eruption blew the entire centre to a width of 12 kilometres and a depth of 400 metres, too deep for our ship to anchor, so that we were obliged to drift or steer in circles. The central lagoon is in fact the caldera of the volcano, and seismic activity is not extinct in the area. The central plug is only about 300 years old if I remember rightly.

The eruption was one of the largest in the history of the Earth and its climatic impact can be dated from tree rings. It is the probable source of Plato’s ideas about Atlantis. Without it Mycenaean culture might not have developed to replace the Minoan.

Probably unwisely, we decided to pass on the excursion to Akrotiri, which has been called the Greek Pompeii. Given the heat, the last thing one really needed was a bus trip, but the excavations there remain on the bucket list.

The town of Fira (or Thira) is poised atop cliffs almost 1000 feet high that overlook the caldera. You can reach the lower town from the harbour by cable car or ‘donkey’ (actually mule). If you make the effort to climb up from there to the upper town you are rewarded with an unparalleled view.

The pottery on sale in the souvenir shops also makes you wish you could find some way of getting it home.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Views from the crow's nest

Ahoy me hearties! Philip's been climbing the rigging again. Once you let him loose on a sailing ship the crow's nest represents a challenge that has to be reached because it's there

It turns out the ratlines of a barquentine are half the width of a full-rigged ship. He was apparently breathing hard by the time he got up there. Fortunately, the view rewarded the effort, because with this rig only the foremast has square sails and you can see past the staysails on the other masts, as you can see in the top left picture.

Anyone who wonders how sharp a lookout's eyes need to be should note how faint the island on the horizon appears in this last photograph, even in good weather like this.

Mykonos and the Cyclades, Greece

It would be hard to imagine a bigger contrast with the historical fascinations of Athens where every corner teems with evidence of the past. Mykonos is a place to go if you like enjoying yourself today.

Provided your enjoyment has something to do with blue water, boats, rugged landscape and haphazardly-arranged little whitewashed buildings. Oh, and sun and beaches and rocks.

The windmills are preserved as a picturesque curiosity. Their canvas sails have been removed and they seem to have been converted into accommodation units.

Apart from this, my impression was of a good place to drink beer and do nothing.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Leaving Piraeus

There is something magical about leaving port at night. Darkness suppresses much ugly functionalism, leaving only an array of lights and illuminated objects. Even a bustling modern dockyard can be a thing of beauty.

Of course for the photographer it helps if the sea is calm and everything moves with studied slow solemnity. I'm not sure if it's compulsory to play Vangelis' Conquest of Paradise on every sailing of every ship and riverboat, but if all the scenery can be persuaded to keep time with those deep, sonorous tones, I'm in favour of it.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Greek Statuary

It should be astonishing to think that depiction of the human form in marble or bronze was perfected two and a half thousand years ago. For some strange reason it isn't. We just accept that the Ancient Greeks were really good at this and then move on. This is to extent a measure of how much the foundations of our civilisation are taken for granted today.

This more than life-size statue of Athena (left) is a 3rd century BC, one twelfth scale copy of the original, sculpted for the Parthenon by Phidias in 438 BC. The naked parts of the original statue were of ivory and the rest filigreed with gold. Sadly of course the original is now lost and this Pentelic marble in the Greek National Archaeological Museum is the best preserved copy.

I've selected it as an example because, although the Greek notion of bodily perfection is associated with representations of the nude, the skill in portraying drapery is not far behind and this is able to give us a very clear idea of how well-to-do people dressed.

The Museum exhibition traces the development of human statuary from the  stylised figures of the early Bronze age through to the idealised forms of the Classical period. For male figures, the athlete came to be seen as the nearest to perfection of development and figures of Apollo, Mars and so on would often be depicted in the same way. Athletes trained and competed in the nude and warriors are often depicted as fighting in the nude, wearing little more armour than a helmet, with perhaps a himation wrapped around the free arm if they weren't carrying a shield.

The athlete on the right is probably preparing to throw a discus, though we might think his arm muscles less finely-developed than his torso and legs. This could be to achieve a better balance of form.

As the goddess of love, nudity or semi-nudity was also the unofficial uniform of Aphrodite, whilst the Amazons, whose invasion looms large in the early history of Athens, also fought in the nude.

It is worth noting that the Greek idealisation of the female figure did not, as modern airbrushed images are all too wont to do, represent an impossible or unhealthy shape. No goddesses are depicted as stick-waisted or possessed of boyish hips.

For me, the remarkable fluidity of movement as well as form is what distinguishes classical sculpture and nowhere is this better illustrated than in a composition involving several figures.

Sadly the temple marbles showing the battle between the Athenians and the Amazons, though full of activity, are also badly damaged.

The group on the right however, showing Aphrodite, Eros and a satyr, is a perfectly preserved small masterpiece.

It will be obvious that I could go on and on about the Greek National Archaological Museum. My three short pieces have only scratched the surface of the wonders to be found within it.

Most people seeking a taste of historical Greece will look outdoors, but it may be worth mentioning I took three times as many photographs inside the museum as I did around and about in Athens on the previous day.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Ancient Greek Pottery and Glass

Pithos jar with rope decor
17th century BC

Although the gold of Mycenae was probably the most stunning of the exhibits in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece, it was the pottery and domestic items that brought home most forcefully the astonishingly high level of civilisation of the ancient world.

bronze age amphorae

I remember looking at one vase and thinking it was almost identical to earthenware produced in Staffordshire around 1750 -1800. Of course I’ve always known Greece was the source of Josiah Wedgwood’s inspiration, but I hadn’t realised quite how closely he followed three or four thousand year old patterns.

 bronze age amphora
 glass vessel, Thessaly, 2nd century BC
Glass Bowl 1st century BC 

It’s humbling to think that the same sort of pottery was in use during both the Trojan and Napoleonic Wars.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Mycenaean Gold

When Heinrich Schleiman excavated the ruins of Mycenae he telegraphed the emotional report: "I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon."

Death Mask of Agamemnon

Well now, thanks to the glorious National Archaeological Museum of Athens, so have I.

If there was one relic of classical civilisation that I always longed to see, this was it. And when I saw it, I couldn't help saying to myself, "I know you. I've seen people just like you."

In this wonderful place, the Trojan War happened yesterday.

Having read The Iliad, I've tended to regard the warlike Mycenaeans as essentially destructive. Here, preserved in the National Archaeological Museum of Greece are a few of the many examples of their remarkable craftsmanship that helped change my mind:
Gold cups and jewellery

Swords, two with golden hilts


Gold decorative items

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Around and About in Athens

The Parthenon is presently a giant building site

Although Athens boasts a fine new airport road, it seemed it was necessary for our taxi to leave it and plunge through tangled suburban streets which showed considerable evidence of the city’s current financial hardships. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so much graffiti; hardly an inch of any ground floor wall seemed without. To the first-time tourist this is disconcerting; what exactly have I let myself in for here? Fortunately that was where the bad impression both started and stopped.

Monastiriki  Square
With just one and a half days to take in the sights, we began as we often do on the top deck of a circular tour bus. Whoever invented the hop-on/hop-off open-top bus performed a great service to tourism. In Athens that meant our first call was at Monastiriki Square (left) at the foot of The Acropolis where we browsed around the Flea Market and immediately encountered the vexing problem of attractive pottery and glass that had little or no realistic prospect of homeward transportation by air.

Excavations of the old Agora

It was surprising to find excavation of the old agora district (right) going on. For some reason I’d supposed central areas must have been explored long ago, but of course the level at which the archaeologists are working is well below the current city and our own country is always finding ancient sites when digging foundations for new developments too.

A tip for EU citizens visiting The Acropolis: take your passport or pictorial ID; you’ll get in for half price. It’s no good saying you left it in your hotel safe and anyway one can always tell an Englishman by the way he talks.

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

On your way up you first encounter the Odeon of Herodes Atticus (left), a superb ancient theatre still in use for modern performances.

The Propylaea, the monumental gateway to the temple area, is a remarkable building in its own right, as is the Erechtheion (below), the older temple at the summit, though of course all the crowds are flocking round The Parthenon (top). How sad that such a magnificent structure should have survived from antiquity only to be blown up in a relatively modern war, sadly an all too familiar spectacle to this day.


Surrounded by crowds one can only marvel at the colossal remains. I found it impossible to feel the spirit of Ancient Greece while being broiled in the sun on top of an exposed rock. In fact it was hard to feel anything but the urgent need for shade.

Neverthless, from the summit you can see great distances. Amongst the landmarks I picked out Lofos Likavitou, the site of one of my (sadly as yet unpublished) stories, along with the Theatre of Dionysus, the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Temple of Hephaestus, all of which we had little choice but to pass by in the energy-sapping heat.

By this time we were ready for a rest in our air-conditioned hotel room and a very pleasant dinner in a penthouse restaurant overlooking the Acropolis.

Monday, 3 July 2017

The vexed issue of University Tuition Fees

A long time ago, when I attended university, barely 10% of young people did so. By contrast the Higher Education Initial Participation Rate (HEIPR) which estimates the likelihood of a young person participating in Higher Education reached 48% in 2014/15.

When the government decided that half of young people should go to university, it quickly became apparent that this target could not be practically combined with a continuation of the free university university education of my era. This would impose too great a burden on the taxpayer, particularly the half of each generation that would not receive direct benefit from the scheme.

The idea of so-called ‘top-up’ fees were floated. Ministers justified these on the grounds that graduates earned, over the course of their working lives, a substantial premium compared with non-graduates and therefore should themselves take more responsibility for funding their own courses.

Back then The Times (UK) was obliging enough to publish a letter from me criticising the economics that apparently underlay this thinking. Essentially, my argument was that graduate salaries were then high because graduates were rare and demand exceeded supply. Once the supply of graduates was substantially increased, the maginal wage of graduates would be forced down until the expected wage premium was reduced to zero or even beyond. These surplus graduates would then not be able to afford the repayment of their student loans. What I predicted has now come to pass.

Meanwhile well-trained craftsmen, artisans and technical operatives have not only seen no such government backing for an increase in their numbers, but have in fact seen numerous potential recruits to their ranks diverted into universities. Accordingly the marginal craftsman now earns more than the marginal graduate.

Apprenticeships are usually financed by employers, so there are no fees, though apprentices receive lower than normal wages to take account of the fact that in the early stages of their training their value-added is negative, (because experienced workers are diverted from production into training).

Whereas a graduate now enters adult life saddled with a debt of tens of thousands, a time-served craftsman has no such burden and hence is better placed to take on a mortgage and acquire his own home. He is also better placed to contribute to the necessary re-balancing of the UK economy.

I suggest that the commitment to excessive university education was unwise. Rather than attempt once again the failed past experiment of financing its cost from general taxation, we would do better to reduce HEIPR to a level the economy actually requires.