I have long suffered from a very specific form of homesickness: that of only wanting to read books about England while abroad. In India I ploughed through Mary Wesley’s entire oeuvre; I can’t get enough of Evelyn Waugh in Italy and, though while in London I am happy to immerse myself in Balzac, Baudelaire and de Beauvoir, in France only Nancy Mitford can satisfy me. There is a wonderful disjointedness in flicking through pages filled with snobbery, bluebells and Sloane Avenue when under a Mediterranean sky; or reading about wintry mists and gorse-covered grouse moors while looking out at a Mughal palace.
After moving to Greece the first three books I read were Highland Fling, The Railway Children and The Children’s Book, all of them steeped in nostalgic Blighty sensibility. It was getting silly, though. After all, if I wanted to write about Greece, I should read about it too.
The best tack seemed to be gentle immersion. Patrick Leigh-Fermor, that most English of English gentlemen, had loved Greece and written about it extensively. Surely he’d provide a good introduction? Or there was Robert Byron, the romantic young philhellene who drove from Grimsby to Athens in the 1920s. But even these were too foreign, so I browsed through them half-heartedly before replacing them on the shelf.
It was while doing this that I came across an essay by my late grandfather, Cyril Connolly, in his 1963 collection Previous Convictions. Called “Revisiting Greece”, it is brief and amusing, the style his typical blend of wry humour and academic insight. The bulk of it is about the preparations for travel, “in a sense the only time we are abroad”.
The idea of travel is much more seductive than the real thing. In our minds we leap from rocks into clear water, sip cool peach juice, spend evenings reading aloud from Pausanius or Petrarch. The reality, as Connolly knew, is a holiday “spent lying gasping on one’s back, in planes, trains, cabins, beaches and hotel bedrooms, the guide-book held aloft like an awning”.
As the temperature in Greece soars and the political situation becomes increasingly unstable, I look back to the innocent days of suitcase packing and sunhat purchasing with nostalgia. My psyche is becoming muddled — when is this “holiday” ending? But living in a country like this offers more profound riches than merely visiting. I get to revisit Greece whenever I open my door. And I might even start reading about it too.