Header overlay

Bricks and Mortars

Share this

In the early 1960s, Austen Kark was travelling in Greece in the Greek Prime Minister’s second-best car, driven by the second-best chauffeur. The visit was part of his duties as Head of the BBC World Service, but he was also, as edgily as a boy taking a school friend home for a visit, hoping to show his wife, the novelist Nina Bawden, what it was about Greece and the Greeks that so enthralled him.

It wasn’t going well. It was December and cold. Fog veiled the mountains, and they could afford only the cheapest food, since they were paying for their own subsistence. In Lamia there was no room in any hotel, and the chauffeur billeted them in a private house of dark, mysterious rooms and daunting lavatory arrangements. But in the morning the lady of the house sailed into their room bearing a tray with the elements of ritual Greek hospitality: brandy, jam, grapes in honey, glasses of water. She sat down with her guests and began the usual Greek inquisition: Where were they from? How many children? Where were they going? Nina, who as portrayed here was given to intuitive flashes which surprised her husband, said: ‘I like these people. I could live here .’ Pleased beyond measure, Austen replied: ‘When I retire.’

It was more than twenty-five years before the plan could be effected, and by then they had lots of reservations, many of them taking the form of dark remarks by Nina. Practical considerations led them to Nauplion where, it turned out, there were no houses for sale. Selling one’s house is not a Greek habit, and Greek laws of inheritance meant that every property usually had dozens of owners. The house they eventually found was a ruin, but they undertook to buy the top floor once it had been restored. Everyone advised them against it.

The project involved the active and voluble interventions of Athina, an Athenian lawyer, Pericles, an Athenian architect, two Naupliot brothers who were restoring the house with the aid of their experience a

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

In the early 1960s, Austen Kark was travelling in Greece in the Greek Prime Minister’s second-best car, driven by the second-best chauffeur. The visit was part of his duties as Head of the BBC World Service, but he was also, as edgily as a boy taking a school friend home for a visit, hoping to show his wife, the novelist Nina Bawden, what it was about Greece and the Greeks that so enthralled him.

It wasn’t going well. It was December and cold. Fog veiled the mountains, and they could afford only the cheapest food, since they were paying for their own subsistence. In Lamia there was no room in any hotel, and the chauffeur billeted them in a private house of dark, mysterious rooms and daunting lavatory arrangements. But in the morning the lady of the house sailed into their room bearing a tray with the elements of ritual Greek hospitality: brandy, jam, grapes in honey, glasses of water. She sat down with her guests and began the usual Greek inquisition: Where were they from? How many children? Where were they going? Nina, who as portrayed here was given to intuitive flashes which surprised her husband, said: ‘I like these people. I could live here .’ Pleased beyond measure, Austen replied: ‘When I retire.’ It was more than twenty-five years before the plan could be effected, and by then they had lots of reservations, many of them taking the form of dark remarks by Nina. Practical considerations led them to Nauplion where, it turned out, there were no houses for sale. Selling one’s house is not a Greek habit, and Greek laws of inheritance meant that every property usually had dozens of owners. The house they eventually found was a ruin, but they undertook to buy the top floor once it had been restored. Everyone advised them against it. The project involved the active and voluble interventions of Athina, an Athenian lawyer, Pericles, an Athenian architect, two Naupliot brothers who were restoring the house with the aid of their experience as sailors, a neighbour given to calling on one and all to save her from ‘the bombs’, and half the population of the little town, one way or another. No sooner had the Karks committed themselves to the purchase than the house fell down completely. Their London friends all thought they were mad. Much of this cannot have been fun to live through, but it is delicious to read about. The details of fixing up a house are perennially fascinating, and doing it abroad is pleasurably exotic stuff. It could not have been done without the support and friendship of the ‘po po po’ - crying Athina, the clever Pericles, the doggedly persistent Nikos and Andreas, dreamers both of them, but then Austen was dreaming too. Brick by brick, tap by tap, marble by marble, the upper storeys were fitted out to be what a pad in Greece ought to be – intensely local and of its place. Sometimes even Austen tired of choosing things, and Nina took the lead, her leitmotiv a request for a broom cupboard. Reading this book one at first supposes it to be a pleasant memoir, another jolly account of acquiring a second home abroad, complete with picturesque locals. Gradually one understands more. Without the difficulties of the project, the Karks would have been tourists; but each difficulty surmounted marked a deeper engagement with local culture, deeper friendships made. With charm, cunning and patience they we re becoming almost as Greek as the Greeks. Something unique was going on: surely Athenian lawyers don’t usually concern themselves with the choice of taps and doors and floors? Surely they don’t pursue the possibility of dormer windows with such dogged passion? Austen had bewitched them all: lawyer, architect, builders, planners, his improbably beautiful wife, everyone wanted him to have what he wanted. His implied self-portrait as the story of the house unfolds makes it clear why. We are reading a love story. And Austen loved the right things. He shared the cultured Englishman’s Byronic liking for antiquities, the easy appreciation of shining beaches, glassy seas and vertiginous mountain landscapes. But what he loved most was Greek society, that of a modern people living in deeply traditional ways. He learned sufficient Greek to have dangerous political discussions in the local bar. He knew enough modern Greek history to understand and negotiate the cross-currents and antagonisms which still shape Greek attitudes to foreigners and to each other. There is usually a taint of self-indulgence in memoirs. But not here. The most vivid element in Attic in Greece is actually not Austen, nor even his love of Greece, but his love for his wife. She runs through the text like a chorus in Euripides, full of wry back-chat, warning of what is at stake. ‘Your grand design’, she calls the project. She mutters that they will be ruined, that she will not be able to write so far from Islington, that there will be no broom cupboard . . . and all the while she is furthering the plans in every way she can, and proving heroic when one of the consequences involves Austen lying in a Greek hospital full of other patients’ relatives, and with very little nursing. The two of them match each other in dry wit, and in mutual affection. And in the end the project turned out beautifully. The Karks had not just a house in Greece, but in the true sense a second home there. Austen’s book has become a cult. People knock on the door of the house in Nauplion, eager to see it for themselves and convinced they are friends of the author because they have read his book. By the way, there really were unexploded Second World War munitions in the attic of the crazy neighbour, and there really isn’t a broom cupboard: the mops, Gert and Daisy, have to dry out on the balcony, like flags waiting for their owners’ return. Austen is dead now. But this book is a luminous reminder to the world of what was lovable about him, and of what he loved.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Jill Paton Walsh 2004


About the contributor

Jill Paton Walsh has spent her energies on enjoying her friends, and on trying to write good fiction for the past thirty years. She is an Oxford graduate living in Cambridge – Through the Looking Glass is a favourite book.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.