In the 1960’s I was studying stage design at Wimbledon School of Arts. There was a mature student on my course who was Greek and whom I will call ‘J’. It was the time of the fascist generals’ coup and being a ‘known’ personage (her father was the victim of a political murder many years earlier), J suspected her phone calls to her mother in Athens might be monitored.
Exporting drachmas was prohibited so J devised a system of code words, which would be changed every month. For example, if she said she really missed chocolate in June, mother would know she was short of cash and would send some over. One month the code word was ‘eggs’, but mother, who was getting on in years, forgot. Consequently, one morning a stinking parcel of rotten eggs turned up on J’s doorstep in Neasden, along with a rather grumpy postman. You couldn’t make it up!
J got me a holiday job in Athens, teaching conversational English to a football player in return for accommodation. The football player, whom I shall call ‘N’, was completely bonkers! Noisy, gregarious and the author of many a hair-brained scheme, he was in complete contrast to yours truly who was a painfully shy student who had never been abroad.
However, I tagged along behind his team of equally mad cohorts, slightly bemused but enjoying the ride, as it were.
Thus I got stranded overnight on a small rocky outcrop some way out to sea when their party launch broke down in a storm, nearly precipitating a police helicopter search.
Then there was the time N pushed to the front of the queue at the ancient Greek amphitheatre and simply by saying ‘Tickets please’ got us into a Vladimir Ashkenazy piano recital. The first movement of the Beethoven concerto was ruined for me as out of the corner of my eye I could see an unholy kerfuffle taking place at the door as the ushers attempted to eject the genuine ticket holders as gate crashers. My conscience is clear, however, as they were eventually allowed in and were given their regulation polystyrene ceiling tiles with which to insulate their posteriors on the cold marble seating.
On another occasion, N decided that I ought to take part in the opening ceremony of the European Games along with his traditional folk dancing troupe who would be performing behind the Greek flag in the parade of athletes. Of course, it was painfully obvious I couldn’t tell my kalamantianos from my sirtaki and at the rehearsal in the Olympic arena the choreographer started giving me the evil eye. I spent the rest of the session judiciously secreted behind a seating unit.
The generals decided the country needed a new flag and being a former recruit for the national football team, N was able to wangle a couple of tickets to the spectacular ceremony for myself and a college friend who was also on the trip. We had to go to the Deputy Prime Minister’s office to collect the tickets. The door was flanked by a pair of towering evzones, the ceremonial guards beloved of tourists. I had quite long hair by 1960’s Greek standards and one of the guards said sneeringly out of the corner of his mouth, in perfect English, that only girls have long hair. I retorted ‘Well, you can shout, you’re wearing a rah-rah skirt’. On noting that both these fellows had thighs that could crack walnuts, albeit clad in cissy white tights with knee pompoms, I immediately wished I could withdraw my comment. My friend and I melded into the milling crowds ASAP!
And my goodness, what crowds! People were crammed ten deep along the pavements, even crushing car roofs in order to get a look at the cavalcade of government limousines disgorging their grim-faced passengers. Never in Hellenic history had so much gold braid and so many glittering medals been on display in one place. It seems the more tin-pot a government, the more aiguillettes, lanyards and epaulettes come out of storage. And our evzones had been joined by a whole troop of rah-rah skirted and pompom sporting colleagues, all of whom looked eager to give me a short back and sides.
There seemed to be no way through the crush, until my pal had the idea of holding the ticket envelope with its prime ministerial crest in the air. It was if the seas had parted and within seconds we found ourselves walking along a seemingly endless red carpet. Down the middle of the road we went and on into the arena, flanked by a bevy of Orthodox bishops and archbishops. My friend even found himself waving to the crowds seated in serried ranks on each side.
We were ushered up several tiers of seating and onto a raised podium, where, to our horror we found we were seated directly behind a row of grim-faced, braid-covered , mirror-shades wearing generals. Not any old generals but yer actual general generals of fascist general coup fame. As we took our seats, one particularly heavily braided one, with a face like a wrinkled brown prune, turned and offering me a juice drink in the form of a plastic squeezy orange, said ‘ I’m told you are a famous designer with the BBC’. Heaven knows what N had told them in order to swing us the tickets!
The show itself was an endless cavalcade of militaristic bullshit with a cast of thousands. The army seemed to have raided the costume and scenery stores of the Greek equivalent of Metro Goldwyn Mayer and if they were to be believed, Greece had conquered the ancient Romans, the ancient Egyptians (we simply must use that half-sized pyramid!) and most of Africa (omg a whole hanger full of moveable palm trees!). What’s more, they’d won World War Two as well.
They probably claimed they had put a man on the moon too, but we didn’t stay to find out. After respectfully standing to honour the new flag, which was unfurled by a man with a firework gripped between his knees sliding down a zip wire from what seemed to be half a mile away across the city (our evzone having found a practical use for his thunder-thighs perhaps) we decided to make our excuses and leave. If there was a grenade throwing dissident counter revolutionary in the crowd, now would be the optimum moment and the exposed VIP podium the prime target. Time to go. I thanked General Pruneface profusely, and told him the show had been so much better than the Royal Tournament (as broadcast by my own dear BBC). He seemed chuffed.
I can’t say I taught N much English, but I must have made some sort of impression as a few months later there was an early morning ring on my doorbell in Wimbledon and standing on the step was N and three of his football team. Someone had said ‘What shall we do this weekend’ and some wag had answered ‘Let’s go and see Ralph!’ So they did, driving through Greece, Yugoslavia and half of Europe to do so. I showed them Carnaby Street, Chelsea football ground and Piccadilly. And then they drove home! I told you they were bonkers.