‘I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.’
This sparse, profound prose forms the epitaph of the celebrated Cretan writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, who Richard Clark
considers to have done ‘more to expound the Cretan spirit than any other writer’. The thought-provoking and poignant section on Kazantzakis encapsulates everything that is intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually nourishing about his wonderful book.
Unsurprisingly, travel literature constitutes the vast majority of my reading these days, and I devour as much online and off as I can. In examining other writers’ style and content, I have become accustomed to dipping in and out of work. The extent to which I have been unable to put Richard Clark’s book down is a tribute to its compulsive readability.
It ticks most of the boxes one would expect of really strong travel writing. It’s got a brisk pace without sacrificing depth of detail. It’s taken me into a world that I was not familiar with and made me realise how much more I want to learn. Hence, although I know several Greek islands very well, I don’t know Crete yet, and it is clear to me now that it has its own highly distinctive and beguiling character. The book allows you to see its author’s personality, and to like it, without it forming an intrusive voice in Clark
’s enthusiastic love letter to the island. It offers a wealth of culture and history that most tourists would not be aware of. It also covers, with an impartiality that is clear-sighted but not condescending, the sites even most first –time package travellers will be familiar with, from Heraklion Airport to Knossos.
Of course, occasionally, as with his description of Malia, Clark’s Notebook
spills over into a more overt misery at how the worst excesses of development and unthinking foreign hedonism can despoil a once Edenic landscape. I liked the detail that The Inbetweeners
movie was set in Malia but actually filmed on Mallorca, and Clark’s tongue-in cheek statement that he ‘cannot comment on why such a decision was made by the producers of the film!’ On the whole though, this book is a celebration, and may not exactly stem the tourist tide with its descriptions of marvellous cuisine, free raki from locals at breakfast, and stunning beaches and wildlife.
A style point that I particularly admired was Clark
’s ability to interweave some helpful, brisk explanations of complex political issues, such as the division of Cyprus, with, say, the stories of Homer. He’s strong on explicating ‘news’, and he is a trained journalist by background. More impressively to any travel writer who has tried to do this, he is excellent at noting the undeniable mythical aura of gods and legends that Greece still retains, without sounding superstitious or corny. Even better, he gets under the skin of how, in modern Greece, folkloric traditions such as rebetika can still create a real clash between antique, mystical survivals and the authorities.
Since this is an unabashedly personal account, even those who have lived as expats in Crete for decades will probably find many new anecdotes to enjoy. For those using the book as an introduction to Crete, there are all the island must-knows, from the turbulent, traumatic history of Moni Toplou to the pleasures of strolling round Rethymnon. As someone who adores Greece and wants to get back there as soon as I can, I also revelled in the back story to everything from Greek weddings to their love of olive oil. Despite the fact that I am running low on superlatives, this book runs the risk of being a hidden gem, so do read it if you get the opportunity.