IN BLUE Skies and Black Olives: A Survivor’s Tale of Housebuilding and Peacock Chasing in Greece (2009), Britain’s legendary BBC journalist / “national treasure” John Humphrys writes a first person account along with his son Christopher about his frightful, and often hysterically funny adventure of setting up a holiday home in Greece. The father-son team write in turn, each giving the story their own individual colour and texture with their very different voices. As the true story evolves, the reader gains an insight into their individual characters and lives, the sometimes complex meanderings of their father-son rapport, as well as a fly on the wall perspective of their exciting but often intensely daunting task of getting John Humphry’s Greek home away from home standing upright.
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Christopher since the ’90s and have admired his talent as an acclaimed cellist with the Athens Camerata (Friends of Music Orchestra), the Athens Concert Hall’s multi-award winning ensemble of talented musicians.
He is witty, down to earth, and often far too modest about his many qualities and brightly colourful life experience – having grown up due to his father’s work as a correspondent in more countries than I can ever remember, because the number is so surreal I simply can’t register it.
It has emerged that one of Christopher’s many talents, despite years of trials and tribulations, was to successfully achieve helping his father build the house of his dreams (and I’m sure nightmares too, at times) under the most unwelcoming, unprecedented and often remarkable circumstances. This was accomplished not least by accompanying him in the process of facing the dreaded face of Greek bureaucracy, aptly described in their book by John Humphrys as: “trying to wade through a lake of treacle wearing a heavy overcoat and lead-lined boots with your eyes blindfolded, knowing that if you ever make it to the shore there will be another official waiting to push you back again. And then jump on your head and push you down.” Apart from having co-written Blue Skies and Black Olives, he has also, particularly since the financial crisis reared its ugly head in Greece, become a contributor to numerous publications in which he has reported the socio-political realities faced in his adoptive country.
Blue Skies and Black Olives is written by two British men (although I’m not certain, is Wales really part of the United Kingdom?) so it comes as no surprise that part of the fabric of this book is made up of British stereotypes on Greece. The authors are well aware, however, that they cannot help but see things the way they do, and that the fact that they take on such a stance (intentionally and not) is actually part of what often makes the book so amusing. British readers can relate to their attitudes, but so can readers of other nationalities, and alas, even Greeks who are able to laugh at themselves.
Joking aside (and for me there is no humour superior to Brish humour at most times), the book also reveals that both authors in their own way can educate the reader about Greece, Christopher from having lived there since 1991 and having made many local friends rather than insulating himself in an expat bubble, not to mention having married a Greek woman (and an edgy lawyer with a real know-how of Greek ways, as she is described, at that) and John Humphrys from his many visits over the years, which as he describes in his account culminated in a devout love for the country, his intellectual and in mrs recent years especially, professional study of the culture and no doubt his discovery of Greece’s natural beauty, its maddening social paradoxes and deep-seated cultural traditions through his son’s experiences. To a non Greek with an undetectable understanding of Greece and its people, or even to readers who have developed a more profound understanding via occasional Greek holidays, Blue Skies and Black Olives offers a breezy contemporary as well as historical education as well.
Soon after the book was published I invited Christopher to the live radio show I was at the time presenting at the municipal radio to talk to my listeners about the book, and give us a reading. He chose an excerpt that recently caused me to laugh heartily as I reread the book on public transportation, and I honestly didn’t care because I had just sniggered a moment before and knew there was more that would make me giggle just a little later on in the text, so what the heck. If a book can make you laugh like that (and not care because you are that transported by its atmosphere and story, then that is definitely a book worth reading.