A week away in Crete: I’ve come for the archaeology and culture — little patches of Minos, ancient Greece, Byzantium and the Venetian Republic are scattered around this most southern sentinel of Europe. It hasn’t gone quite as I’d hoped; when it comes to monuments, the Greek rule seems to be ‘close early, close often’. But I’ve much enjoyed the food, a just-swimmable sea, and the benign, gracious hospitality of the locals. At first sight, like much of the eastern Mediterranean, Crete appears to be a matriarchy. Stern women in black still dominate village squares; they travel on tiny, exhausted donkeys as they always have done, whacking them with walking sticks; and they seem to run all the shops, tavernas and businesses. But look harder and you find the men. The elderly men, in particular, sit around at the back of tavernas or under the shade of awnings, apparently doing nothing at all except smiling. Sometimes they are embroiled in arguments, mostly about football. More often they sit silently, gazing into the middle distance. When the time comes, I think I want to be an old Greek man.
They reminded me of an Edwardian Punch cartoon, the magazine at its most patronising. A ‘kind lady’ is visiting the oldest inhabitant of the village, and asks him how he keeps himself busy. ‘Well, ma’am,’ he answers, ‘sometimes I sits and thinks… And then again, sometimes, I just sits.’ It struck me that this is, I suppose, more or less what the Dear Leader, DC, is hoping to achieve during his yoga break on Lanzarote. But do we want our leaders to be seeking ‘mindfulness’? Better than mindlessness, I suppose, but these retreats rarely seem to go down well with an irritable and practical-minded public. Do you remember something about Tony Blair, meditation and hot tubs in Mexico?
Anyway, despite the ruined towns and fortresses, modern Crete, like modern anywhere hot, is far more marked by mass tourism than by thousands of years of rising and falling empires. Reinforced concrete was brought to the island in around 1905 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, as he cheerfully rebuilt the Minoan palace of Knossos. But the locals have taken it to their hearts with great enthusiasm. So increasingly Greece looks like Spain — looks like Italy — looks like Turkey — looks like southern Russia…
Meanwhile, the arrival of wild weather is already upending our assumptions about where we travel to get to the sun. There is endless talk about climate change in regard to flooding, farming and so on — but what happens to mass tourism when hardly anywhere can reliably promise sunshine? I guess we’ll still keep coming, but the Mediterranean cultures had better get used to opening their sites and monuments a little more regularly.
As readers may know, the BBC is to remake Kenneth Clark’s epic Civilisation for a new audience. Much discussion has already begun. What is civilisation? Is it properly plural or singular? Doesn’t the term imply a hierarchy of values, which will necessarily offend some viewers in a multicultural world? (Answer: yes!) And while we’re at it, isn’t our civilisation, which seems able to combine extreme sentimentality with extreme pornography, in a radical decline? I’ve been reading a wonderful book by John Hale, the former prof of Italian studies, who suffered a horrible stroke just after completing the first draft of The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance. He quotes a colleague who, as he embarked on the project, asked him: ‘Are the rules of ice hockey part of civilisation?’ Very good question, and not a bad place to start.
I’m busy filming in Scotland at the moment, three documentaries about the Scots and the English in the Union, through the eyes and the stories of writers — Boswell, Johnson, Burns, Scott, Hugh MacDiarmid and so on. It’s tremendous fun although I’m slightly uneasy. After an on-air spat with Alex Salmond, I was warned: ‘Andrew Marr will find there are consequences.’ I had a brief mental image of the Marr family being bundled off to a political re-education camp on the Isle of Mull, but all that’s happened so far is a single disembodied voice shouting ‘BBC propaganda’ when my cameraman brought out his tripod.
One of my main enthusiasms in life has been alcohol, particularly whisky. But I am now under the care of a stroke specialist who feels that people like me should abjure the sauce. I’m being very well-behaved, but I don’t want to be fanatical, so I do drink a little, but only when I am abroad. Of course, this means that there would be for me a huge upside to a ‘yes’ vote: I could go home from London — and still break open the Talisker.
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