Travel writer Harry Bucknall is an experienced wanderer with a background in both the military and in theatre production – an interesting mix of talents which has enabled him to write a distinctive travel book in which he describes his travels through the major (and many of the lesser) Greek Islands. The book has received acclaim from masters of travel writing Jan Morris and Patrick Leigh Fermor (the latter now sadly deceased).
Of course, in choosing Greece as his subject, the question facing any potential reader is, Will the author be able to get behind the swathes of tourist gloss to find the authentic Greece? I am pleased to say that while Harry does not try to make out that his travels were wholly in isolated villages or mountain paths, on the whole, he does manage to present a picture of a land where the old ways still run in parallel with the coastal strips and tourist destinations.
Harry’s aim was simple – “a dream of a journey through the scattered islands of the Ionian and the Aegean spanning centuries of exotic history and all the time travelling on a hotchpotch assortment of ships trailing the azure seas”. He states at the start of his book that no-one knows how may islands go to make up the Greek Archipelago – perhaps 1000 to 6000 (it all depends on the size of rock to be counted as an “island”!). In the end Harry classified the islands into seven groups – The Ionian, The Dodecanse, The Cyclades, The Argo-Saronic, The Sporades, The North Eastern Aegean Islands, and Crete.
Perhaps more than most Mediterranean nations, Greece presents an incredibly layered history, with the ancient cults of Zeus, Apollo, Poseidon etc overlain with centuries of Orthodox Christianity – a powerful force even to this day with many monasteries and devotional centres scattered throughout the islands, most notably of course on Mount Athos. Harry is informative enough about the ancient Greek religions without baffling his readers with their mind-numbing intricacies.
He is at his best when describing the Christian history of the island, perhaps because of the living faith exhibited by worshippers as they bow before icons and kneel in dingy but atmospheric churches. He managed to get an audience with an Abbot, a peculiarly stressed individual with a desk drowning in papers and visibly struggling with his daily “audience in the round”. On Mount Athos his guest room was a bare cell, with only flea-ridden blankets available to help him through the bitter cold. But the spirituality of the Greek monks is vast and of course the privations of the life are all part of the calling.
In contrast to the aesthetic life of the monks, Harry encountered the usual demented crowds of drunken English revelers at the dreaded resort of Faliraki – in true travel-writing fashion, forcing himself to enter the Forty-Eight Hour Bar to talk with the nineteen year olds who seemed to be suitably out of their heads. The Greeks however know where their income comes from and tolerate the excesses of the young Brits, knowing that when they return to England, the euros they have spent in Greece will tide many families over the winter.
Harry can be quite intrepid at times and doesn’t shirk the more difficult terrain, having one nasty cliff fall which left him recovering for a couple of days. The most striking expedition to me was his accompanied swim around a headland on Antikythira and deep into a cave system –
We swam under a granite arch that would be the envy of any Roman architect – we became inconsequential beings in its shadow, our every word echoing off the sides of the natural nave as Paddy indicated a small darkened triangle at the rear of the gaping entrance, intermittently obscured by the rist and fall of the sea . . . feeling our way with our hands along the polished ceiling, we dived in under the water until mercifully, up we came into an inner chamber, icy cold and black like oil, the sea beating the walls with thick syrupy thwacks.
In other islands Harry is keen to discover literary roots – not least Lawrence Durrell in Rhodes, where Harry discovers the villa in which he wrote Reflections on a Marine Venus, now sadly empty with an overgrown garden. I confess to some disappointment that when visiting Cephallonia, Harry does not mention Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – surely one of the most evocative Greek-based novels of our time.
The book is beautifully produced with a beautifully designed cover, very useful maps throughout and some lovely quotations beneath the chapter headings. I can’t help but wonder how different the book would be if Harry did the same journey in 2011 with its street protests, the climate of austerity and the decline in tourist euros?
What is the purpose of travel-writing? I think its to do with carrying the reader along to obscure places or on means of transport which he or she wouldn’t normally use, in order to give a mind-picture of the places visited. Travel-writing can inspire you to visit places or even sometimes put you off. At its best, it can be a sort of substitute for making the journey yourself. I think Harry’s book fulfils all the goals of good travel writing, leaving me with images of a warm, colourful country with masses of history and culture. I recommend it for its content, its production values and mostly for the quality of the writing.