Posted in Personal life, Writing

Vasilios: A Tribute to the Man Behind the Name

Bill and me in our graduation photo
At our high school graduation ceremony in Germany – that’s Vasilios aka Bill seated in the front row, I’m top left, with John Harrison, a fellow Englishman, in front of me

In my next novel, Murder Your Darlings, due out in December, the action is set partly on the Greek island of Ithaca, in the Ionian Sea. From the outset, I thought it would be fun to hijack for one of my characters the rather beautiful name of my first ever Greek friend, Vasilios.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time in that region on holiday, as well as on a memorable writing retreat organised by Jessica Bell, I met Vasilios decades before in the unlikely setting of Frankfurt, Germany.

Between the ages of 14 and 18, I attended Frankfurt International School (FIS), run on American lines with dozens of different nationalities on its roll, aged 6-18. Vasilios Chakos joined us not from Greece, but from Chicago, where if I remember rightly his father, a Greek Orthodox priest, had been a bishop. (Apologies if any of these details are inaccurate -it was all a long time ago now!)

While in the US, his name had been truncated to the more American “Bill”, and a smooth American accent overlaid on his rich Greek voice. Unlike most teenage boys, Bill had beautiful old-fashioned manners and courtesy, and a kind and generous heart. He had a younger sister who was blind, and who went to a different school, but on the rare occasion i saw them together, I was touched to see how gentle he was with her.

A Class Act

He also had a keen sense of humour, was learned, witty and wise beyond his years, and appreciated the finer things in life, particularly music, language and literature. His singing voice sent shivers down my spine, and he had a great stage presence, showcased when he took key parts in our school musicals, Annie, Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls. I especially loved his robust rendition of “I’m A Bad, Bad Man”. His performances made him a bit of a celebrity to younger kids in the school, as well as to his peers and to parents and staff.

photo of school production of Guys and Dolls
Bill in the role of Sky Masterson, with Cindy Arenberg as Sarah Brown (right) and Aaren Purcell as a member of the mission. (I was the mission leader, and Aaren and I got a real kick out of wearing those Salvation Army style uniforms, donning them for our yearbook photo.)

Purely Platonic

Our relationship was very close, but always platonic, although I remember once when we were walking across the  campus together being accosted by an elementary school pupil who shouted “Hey, Bill, is she your girlfriend?” His riposte was classic Bill – to quote John Donne: “For God’s sake, hold your tongue and let me love!” That silenced his heckler, though puzzled him somewhat too.

Another fond memory is of our school trip to London in our senior year, when we happened to visit Windsor Castle on 14th November, Bill’s birthday. As we arrived, a military band in the courtyard began to play “Happy Birthday to you”. Turns out it’s also HRH Prince Charles’s birthday, but we liked to think it was really in Bill’s honour. 

Separate Ways

Bill liked to cultivate an air of mystery when he left school, shunning social media as far as I’m aware, and I saw him only a few times after graduation. Twice we met in London, where he was studying economics at LSE. On one occasion someone had just tried to take my purse from my handbag on the Tube and I arrived at his flat in a complete state, but Bill quickly restored my equilibrium with his usual calm and philosophical approach to life’s crises.

Our last meeting was in Athens in April 2003, where my husband and I spent a couple of days on our honeymoon before heading to Lefkas for a week’s sailing which included a stop on Ithaca. We had a very pleasant evening with Bill and his wife, a delightful Greek lady, and Bill and my husband really hit it off, discussing politics and national identity from the Battle of Thermopylae in 480BC onwards.

Catching Up

Fast forward 16 years and I was about to send my manuscript to my editor for polishing pre-publication. I was ready to unveil the details to Bill, if I could only pin him down. I hoped he’d be flattered and touched at my gesture – and it would be a good excuse to make contact. Why had we left it so long?

Despite Bill’s aversion to social media, he’d previously been relatively easy to find on professional websites. Formerly a Greek parliamentary correspondent, he had moved into a career in shipping insurance, in which he was very successful and highly regarded by his peers. I was not prepared for what I found: a sad announcement by his professional organisation, stating that he passed away in January 2018.

I am still reeling from the shock. Bill was always a larger-than-life character to me, and although we saw each other so rarely, he was an anchor. It felt like he was there if I needed him, like the book he gave me one Christmas at school, at arm’s reach on the shelf in my study. 

inscription inside the book
We co-founded and wrote for a school literary magazine – my contribution was angst-filled poetry, his was a lyrical piece about a boat returning to a Greek harbour at sunset, a harbinger of his later career in maritime insurance

Too Late & Too Soon

Bill’s loss is felt around the world, by his family, colleagues and friends. (Here’s a link to the tribute to him from his former colleagues on Facebook.) Although many of our teachers from FIS have gone before us, I know he was highly regarded by them, and they too would be saddened by his departure far too soon. 

And now I’m especially glad that I used his name in my book, although I never got the chance to tell him about it. However, the character I’ve given it to is nothing like Bill in personality, so to set the balance right, I may have to include in a future novel a charming gentleman named Bill with a singing voice like chocolate-brown velvet, and I may even make him a Bad, Bad Man.

Posted in Travel

A Summer of Extremes: From Ithaca to Inverness

This post about my summer holidays first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser’s September issue.

Photo of an Ithacan beach with clear blue sky
Soaking up the sun beside the Ithacan sea

I shall remember this summer break as the holiday of two extremes – scorching, dry sunshine and chill, torrential rain, as I flitted from Ithaca to Inverness.

Bust of Homer on a pillar on Ithaca
Statue of Homer on Ithaca at daybreak

Our trip to Ithaca was a busman’s holiday for me. I was helping to run the Homeric Writers’ Workshop and Retreat, so called because the island was the start and finishing point of perhaps the most famous journey of all, that of Odysseus, as chronicled by the ancient Greek master storyteller, Homer.

Our Scottish trip was occasioned by my husband’s own odyssey – to climb all 282 Munros, the Scottish mountains of 3,000 feet or more, named after the man who first mapped them.

On Ithaca, the weather was idyllic: constant sunshine, cornflower-blue skies, refreshing sea breezes, all day every day. The locals apologised that there were clouds in the sky – tiny Persil-white puffballs – apparently not usually seen between June and September.

A few days later, when we flew into Inverness to meet my husband (already there in our camper van, with 20 more Munros crossed off his list before we arrived), steady rain was falling from steely skies. As we headed west for Ullapool, the clouds became more leaden. Linen sundresses, so comfortable on Ithaca, were supplemented with leggings, t-shirts, cardigans, shawls – all at once.

Steely-skied Aberdeen beach with sign listing all the hazards there
Not quite so enticing – the beach at Aberdeen

On Ithaca there are constant reminders to conserve water, always in short supply on this tiny island. In Scotland, there is evidence everywhere of the abundance of local water: high and raging rivers, waterfalls and landslips beside the roads. New flood defences are under construction wherever we go, and not a moment too soon. If there’s ever a global shortage of water, Scotland’s a dead cert for world domination.

Yet as we retreated southwards, I realised that my two holiday destinations weren’t so different after all, and not just because they both prompted us to haemorrhage money on dubious souvenirs.

Both have a vast diaspora, thanks to economic migrants driven to North America, Australia, and South Africa by the Highland Clearances in Scotland and by the 1953 earthquake in Ithaca.

Both landscapes are scarred by the ruins of abandoned, simple stone houses, surprisingly similar in structure and appearance.

magnetBoth populations departed with a deep love of their homeland imprinted on their hearts. Whenever they can, they return. Australian, American and South African accents abound on Ithaca. In Scotland, 2014 has been declared Homecoming year, to mark the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, at which the Scots trounced the English. (By chance, my husband hails from Bannockburn.)

I feel privileged to have been able to holiday in places that so many people, all over the world, will always regard as home. Yet I’m also glad to return to the Cotswolds, which, as a small child on holiday there, I resolved I would one day make my home.

Because as Homer himself once said: “Nothing is sweeter than home”. At least, that’s what it says on my Ithacan souvenir fridge magnet.

 

Posted in Travel, Writing

Like Buses… A Second Post on the Writers’ & Artists’ Website

Cover of 2014 Writers' & Artists' YearbookJust a couple of weeks ago, I posted here an announcement that I’d started writing for the esteemed Writers’ & Artists’ website (the 21st century manifestation of the the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook).

And like buses, as soon as one post opportunity came along, a second swiftly followed.

All About Writers’ Retreats

My second post went live at the end of last week while I was off in the Forest of Dean with my daughter’s school residential trip, (oh, the magic of modern technology!) This one shared my take on writers’ retreats – that they shouldn’t be seen as self-indulgent holidays for writers who want to hide from the real world, but as valuable opportunities for ambitious authors to improve their art, focus their ideas and build their confidence. “Constructive escapism” is how I preferred to phrase it.

As I type this post, my guest article is currently featured on the Writers’ & Artists’ homepage, with an illustration of a Greek beach. Why the Greek beach? That’s because the post includes a reference to the Homeric Writers’ Retreat and Workshop that I’m helping to run on the island of Ithaca at the start of August. Not only does that setting offer blissful escape from the pressures of the modern world, making it easy for the authors taking part to focus on their art – it also includes the notional presence of perhaps Greek literature’s most famous author: Homer, whose Odyssey focuses on the mythical Ithacan isle.

Image of setting for Homeric Writers' Retreat

My post will be bumped off the Writers & Artists’ blog’s top spot after a few days as new articles are added to the site. (A few more are coming from me over the next few months.) After that, you’ll find my post in praise of writers’ retreats here: https://www.writersandartists.co.uk/writers/advice/688/a-writers-toolkit/developing-an-idea/

The Homeric Writers’ Retreat & Workshop

If you want to find out more about the Homeric Writers’ Retreat and Workshop, check out its website here – and lose yourself in the gallery of Erika Bach’s stunning photo gallery of Ithaca. And in case you missed it, here’s my previous post about writing for Writers’ & Artists’.