REDACTED: OUT-TAKES FROM The Colossus of Maroussi as it appeared in The London Review of Books (27 May 2010)
The small hotel in Rovertu Gkalli she had recommended was indeed convenient as a starting point for urban expeditions, and for debriefing sessions with gracious Athenians, prepared to indulge my pointed interrogations. The paper-thin walls, and that nostalgic bouquet of drains, were off-set by a panoramic view from the roof terrace, demonstrating the relationship between the Acropolis and the museum at its foot, both of them tactfully lit to stand out against the living boneyard of white and pinkish-white box buildings, the terracotta tiles and the narrow apartments from another era, caved in from the pressure of development and left alone as interesting tumbles of masonry.
Breakfast in this hotel was a necessary penance, the same self-service troughs you find everywhere, the spitting coffee-sludge dispenser, along with coachloads of young American college students brought here to keep the business going in pinched times. They averaged three circuits of the postmortem sausage and rubber egg selection, and they were very cheerful about it, refuelling against the threat of a summons back to the culture bus. ‘Sorry, sorry. It will be better tomorrow,’ the redundant waitress, the hovering figure in black, whispered.
Our first arrest came at the site of the old Athens airport, out on the coast, near Faliro Bay. The whole curve of shoreline, despoiled by the perverse aesthetics of grand project architecture, was a natural wonder. The new tramline dropped weekenders at their pine-sheltered seaside clubs. Nobody cycled or jogged on the official city paths, they were here: slow men playing football as a communal dance; a shuffle, a feint, a sway, and a long rest. There were swimmers in the clear water. Men with comfortable bellies in tight polo shirts paddled balls with force, but no venom, across high nets. Gentle exercise was a privilege of the city, enjoyed without nannying rhetoric and vainglorious expenditure.
It was suicidal to attempt a crossing of the new road, between coastal strip and former airport. A bridge, twisted like a badly repaired spine, led directly from one abandoned Olympic zone to the airfield with its blocks of buildings given over to obscure trade fairs and expositions. The bridge was padlocked. The walls and concrete ramps were dense with graffiti: HEZBOLLAH GAME THE FUTUER (sic). Reaching the far side, buffeted by traffic and feeling very much at home, I discovered that the airfield was open to inquisitive walkers, the fence was down and there were no obvious prohibitions. I followed traces of runways where we had once landed, en route to the islands, and I snapped tyre marks, avenues of lighting poles and over-designed shelters made for the 2004 Olympics. The derelict airfield was a retail park waiting for finance.
I was lining up a shot of a grid of cracked tiles, in front of some windowless block-buildings, glorified container sheds in pale blue, when the car screeched up. The driver didn’t speak much English, just two words: ‘Get in.’ As we bounced across the field, I remembered the fate of the British plane-spotters; perhaps it had not been such a great idea to make a photo survey of this public wilderness. Anna, I thought, was looking rather tight lipped. Images are always contentious. The idea of a long interrogation, and whatever followed, was not appealing. In the Lower Lea Valley, as I had heard from so many photographers, film was seized, digital material deleted: not here, not this time, photography was not an issue. The driver was bored, he had no idea what we were after, unlanguaged aliens doing crazy stuff in the middle of nowhere. He dumped us back on the main road.
We learnt to time our breakfast raids between coaches. It was our last morning and I wanted to get to the Museum of Cycladic Art. I was intrigued to see a businessman in a rather too well-cut pinstripe suit lurking in the doorway of the fast-food bunker. The clientele were otherwise slogan T-shirt American students or crinklies like ourselves, dressed down for the culture tramp and wearing trainers. Was this an economic indicator? Were there still deals to be done, power breakfasts to be made, even in such a do-it-yourself cafeteria? The man, tanned, trim of hair, swept impatiently through the tables, giving off an odour of controlled annoyance, that his contact had failed to arrive on time. Turning from the coffee dispenser, on the far side of the room, I was surprised to see the pinstripe man flicking open his jacket and choosing to sit, back to back with my wife, in an otherwise quiet corner of the restaurant. I saw him dip under the table, get up and move rapidly away.
‘Did you leave something on the floor?’
It was the new bag, of course, and the credit cards, euros, spectacles. I had witnessed the whole slick operation and failed to put it together in time to prevent the theft.
The man on the desk didn’t want to know. ‘It doesn’t happen. You left the bag in your room.’
They had a CCTV camera, yes, but such men are clever, the critical moment would be masked by his jacket. I saw it all, I could recognise the man again, I had been watching him. Not interested. ‘You don’t want to become involved in a court case? They would never prove anything.’
We could use the phone to cancel the credit cards and pay for the calls. He couldn’t be sure where the nearest police station was to be found and he wouldn’t recommend making a report: the time, the formalities. Insurance, we have to do it. Greeks don’t have insurance. Which is a reasonable policy. We pay a premium, fill in forms, make claims, are challenged to find receipts and offered the equivalent of the secondhand value of the items, if any. And we’re still waiting.
Out on the streets, the mood was threatening. The National Gardens were closed, entrances guarded by black-beret soldiers with Plexiglas shields. Union protestors, with placards, were gathering on the other side of the road. But there was no difficulty about wandering through the opposing lines, we were unchallenged. Because the park, through which we wanted to walk, was secured against intrusion by those whose jobs were threatened, we found ourselves opposite the Presidential Palace on Irodou Attikou as the black limo swept in. The Museum of Cycladic Art was selling itself on a special exhibition of erotic sculptures and images. There were posters for the big show in town: Gilbert and George.
A NOTE ON EDITING
I’m grateful to the London Review of Books for their patronage over the years, for allowing me space to develop complicated essays, with detours and diversions. Their editing procedures are sensible and relatively painless. There is a house style, a liking for lengthy paragraphs, and so on, and we make our adjustments. In the case of ‘The Colossus of Maroussi’ report from Athens, which was written around a trip in January, the political situation accelerated while the piece waited on publication. Proofs were emailed to me, to be viewed in an internet café peopled by dealers and drifters in Polk Street, San Francisco. I was stuck in the Icelandic dust-cloud limbo. Printing a hardcopy was impractical. And beyond the energies of the moment. The editor, for reasons of length or pace, or suspicion of domestic special pleading and crude comedy, took out the sections I have ‘rescued’ for the website. Without seeing how the cuts worked against my original typescript, I failed to appreciate what might be lost. In some ways, as you’ll see, nothing very important. But for the integrity of the structure as I conceived it, these episodes are required to underpin the more polemic and topographical passages. The first visit to the breakfast bunker isn’t just a tourist postcard, it sets up the theft. The behaviour of the one man in the city dressed in a pinstripe suit was a small metaphor for the whole business. And the way that, going back out into the streets, we encounter the first protest.