Richard Clark’s love affair with Greece began back in the eighties. He’s the author of three books on the country, including his latest, RHODES, A Notebook. It’s our pleasure to speak with him.
GIB: When did you first fall in love with Greece?
RC: When I first visited Greece I knew so little about it. I had friends who were yacht skippers there and I even toyed with the idea of doing that myself as I am a keen sailor. But in the end I prefer to think of it as fate that brought me to Greece. I saw an advertisement in The Guardian newspaper advertising for an English teacher in Heraklion on Crete, and although I wasn’t a teacher, but a journalist, I learned that my degree in English was enough to apply for the job, so I took the plunge and replied to the ad. To my amazement I got the job and not long afterwards was headed to Crete via Athens without anywhere to live, not speaking the language or knowing anyone and embarking on a new career. This was back in 1982, and I fell in love with Greece almost straight away. I say almost as there was a heat wave when I arrived and the domestic airlines were on strike so I had to break my trip in Athens before catching a ferry to Crete, leaving me late for meeting with my new employer in Heraklion. Stressed at the delay but with nothing else to do I headed for Glyfada Marina on the outskirts of the city on the off chance of meeting up with a friend who had a boat there. I was in luck, and it was sitting in the cockpit of that yacht on that first day that I realized I was somewhere special. The next night I took the ferry from Piraeus to Crete and my new life. Any doubts about my decision were soon dispelled as I was straight away made to feel so welcome by everyone I encountered. Moving to Greece really was a life-changing experience for me.
GIB: How did you start writing?
RC: I suppose I have been writing for almost as long as I can remember. I won a prize for a story I wrote when I was 5-years-old in a competition run by our local public library. My father was a successful novelist and I have never known a time when I was not surrounded by books. I studied English Literature for my degree and ever since graduating have been lucky enough to make a living from writing as a journalist. I currently edit two mass-market magazines in the UK and always wanted to write a book, so using the old adage that you should always write about something that you know and are passionate about I decided to try and write about Greece. My first book was The Greek Islands – A Notebook, which has a larger scope than my two subsequent books. I think this was because, at first, I was unsure about how much of my experiences I would be able transform into publishable work. I was pleasantly surprised and, in fact, I found I was having to ration myself…
GIB: Have you written any other books?
RC: I have now written three books, all of them about Greece. The first as mentioned before about the Greek Islands. I followed that up with a book about the island I first fell in love with. Crete – A Notebook, is so far the most successful of my books having been a No 1 Amazon bestseller in its category on both sides of the Atlantic, and pays homage to the wonderful island which I still visit at least once a year. My latest book, out last month, is Rhodes – A Notebook and follows a similar format. I have just started work on a new volume about Corfu. Something of a series seems to be developing, but I love writing them and I have been stunned by their success both in critical and sales terms. Originally I wrote my first book just to see if I could, and for the self-satisfaction. Achieving this delivered all these things, but now I find it hard to imagine a life not writing and I hope to keep it up when I eventually retire from journalism.
GIB: How do you feel about Greece’s current plight? What do you think the outcome will be?
RC: Like most people who love this beautiful country, not least because of its wonderful people, I am saddened by what a combination of politicians and the world banks have brought them to. However I am optimistic, knowing the resilience of the people who have historically been through much worse. I do see signs that things are starting to improve but it will take time before the economy is back on any sort of sound footing. The country has had a bad press abroad and I get many emails asking if it is safe to travel there. I have been visiting several times a year throughout the crisis, and have never felt anything less than welcome, and visiting is the best way that any of us can support this marvelous country.
GIB: What’s the funniest experience you ever had in Greece?
RC: In retrospect I suppose this was funny, but at the time it made me feel somewhat uneasy. The first time I went to Rhodes was in 1984, and we changed to an internal flight in Athens. As we prepared for take off a garbled message came across the aeroplane’s P.A. system, too fast for me to gather what the message said I sensed something might be up when I realized we were the only two people still seated on the plane. Cabin doors were being opened before the aircraft steps had been attached meaning the cabin crew responsible for having opened them had to restrain passengers from ill-advisedly jumping down onto the tarmac. What was the matter, I enquired of a fellow passenger, only to be told there was a bomb aboard
We were herded back to the terminal where a regular flier ensured us we would be going nowhere that night and headed off to find a hotel. Meanwhile our luggage was unloaded from the hold and deposited on the runway, from where, under the gaze of a group of heavily armed soldiers we were told to reclaim our bags. One bag that remained unclaimed was surrounded in sandbags in preparation for a controlled explosion!
Some hours later, back on the plane we prepared for take off. This time we got as far as the end of the runway and the engines were throttled up ready for take off when they were powered down and the pilot who, looking somewhat concerned, made his way through the cabin from the flight deck. ‘What’s the matter now?’ I asked a stewardess. ‘Tipota’, (nothing) she replied, as though this was usual behaviour from a member of the flight crew. ‘The captain wants to use the toilet!’
GIB: What are the best and worst meals you’ve ever had there?
RC: There is no doubt that the food served up in Greek restaurants has improved immeasurably over the years but to me a rule of thumb is that the simpler the food the better. It is often when a taverna has pretensions to serve up what they consider to be sophisticated ‘French’-style cuisine that the meal ends up being distinctly average. Funnily enough one of the best meals I have experienced which met all the criteria of being simple with the freshest of ingredients could also for other reasons be described as the worst. When I lived on Crete I had strayed off the beaten track in the White Mountain region in the west of the island. At the time, outside of the towns, English was not as ubiquitous as it is now and I sat down in a taverna and ordered the dish of the day, which was the custom in such places at the time. A delicious stew came which I took to be lamb, on which I complemented the owner in my halting Greek. He told me it was not lamb but I could not understand what was in this tasty dish. Frustrated at his inability to explain, the owner led me to the back of his establishment where, pegged up on a line outside was the skin of a freshly slaughtered goat. I’m not squeamish and the meal had been delicious, but that was a bit close to home for my taste!
GIB: What’s your single most cherished memory of Greece?
RC: I proposed by phone to my now wife from Greece when she was in England who then flew out to join me and celebrate our engagement, so that was a magical time. I remember taking my children there for the first time and deeply cherish that, even now they are grown up, they love to return with us whenever they can.