Summer Reminiscences

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

    To a Grecian Summer Once upon a time, when I was young, summers were unending. Athens is a city by the sea. Try to picture it. A beautiful neoclassical, jasmine-scented town of fewer than one million inhabitants, with wide boulevards and lots of green parks crisscrossing it, a 15-minute ride by car to Phaleron Bay, whose waters were the cleanest and bluest in the Med. Back then, just after the war, there were about 3000 cars in the whole of Greece. Things were so bad (good), in fact, when King George II returned in 1946, the government asked my father for his convertible, in order for the king to ride into town in style and visible to the peasants. During the war gas was as rare as cocaine is in the Vatican, but Daddy managed to get some from the black market. My very first memories are of driving down through an empty boulevard past the Acropolis and suddenly gazing into the inscrutable void that is Neptune's kingdom. In the horizon, the sea and the sky converged, assuring a four-year-old that the universe was finite and "right here," in beautiful old Athens by the sea.

    There was a grand hotel in Phaleron, the Carlton, requisitioned by the Germans by the time I got around to it. My very first memory is of two German officers fencing on the beach, and laughing when they saw me hide behind my German nanny. Back then children did not wear bathing costumes, and I was shy. Adults wore woolen blue suits with a white belt, and the kids used to scream with laughter as an oldie emerged from the sea because the wool leaked and made it look as if they were peeing.

    That summer of 1941 remains unforgettable. My nanny was a tall Prussian lady with white hair, dressed always in black, and extremely severe. The German officers who frequented the beach were friendly and curious as to why I spoke German and had a German nanny. Then something happened. My mother came down for a swim, stayed too long and got terrible sunstroke. She lived another 57 years but never went in the sun again. When she collapsed the officers immediately drove her to a military hospital nearby, and then came back to tell me not to worry. After that, however, beach time was limited to three visits per week, and only in the morning. The next summer none of the German officers I knew were there, and Nanny explained that they had left for Russia.

    Today "my" beach is a marina, and the Carlton is a ghastly apartment complex. The only green space left in Phaleron Bay is the British military cemetery, next to the hospital (also gone) to which they'd taken my mother. The water is dark and polluted, with hundreds of tankers anchored nearby in Salamis Bay. Yet every time I drive by I think of that first summer, the two blond heroic figures dueling in the sun, the whiteness of the sand and blueness of the sea.

    Exactly five years after that summer, my great-uncle became prime minister, and the battleship Missouri arrived in Phaleron Bay to make sure the commies did not play any dirty tricks during election time. My uncle, who was also my godfather, visited the ship and took me along. We were given the salute by the honor guard and whistled on board. I was nine by then and really into war. The admiral showed us the spot where Japan had signed the surrender and I was photographed in front of those famous three 16-inch guns.

    Like the Missouri, which was taken out of mothballs during the Vietnam War, Phaleron Bay will see service during the 2004 Olympics. There are plans for new marinas, new stadiums and new hotels galore, and for one moment some atheist Greek minister even suggested moving the British cemetery. He was struck down by a thunderbolt as soon as he said it. (Well, not quite...) The person heading the Olympic program is a friend of mine, a lady by the name of Yanna Angelopoulos, and I plan to ask her to name at least one project after the Carlton, and one of the marinas Captain Murgen, after one of the duelists. (And pigs might fly.)

    Nowadays the only living thing in Phaleron Bay is the occasional tart thrown overboard by an irate yachting Arab. As recently as 25 years ago I used to sail my beautiful Bushido, a 1937 J-boat, around the bay trying to pick up women swimming offshore. I never got lucky, but not for lack of trying. One time, three friends and yours truly spotted a gorgeous-looking girl sitting all by herself on "my" beach, a truly brave thing to do in view of the horrendous pollution in Phaleron Bay. My sailing boat had a 12-foot draft, so the nearest we could approach was about 400 yards. One of my buddies was a member of Parliament, another a diplomat and the third was a karate colleague. I ordered my kojai (junior) to jump into the sewer and try to pick her up. He failed miserably and almost drowned on the way back. The politician was next with the same results. He flagged down a passing taxi, unwilling to get back into the filthiest water this side of Beirut. The diplomat, a man known for his silver (but forked) tongue, had a plan. He would pretend to be shipwrecked and ask the Garbo-like beauty the name of the town. I watched him with my field glasses. He went up to her, knelt down and spoke his piece. She did not bother to answer but slapped him extremely hard. That was the last time I was in Phaleron Bay.


    George Szamuely The Bunker Long, Hillary Summer Already pre-Clinton America grows ever dimmer in memory. There are many alive today who will probably never again live in a Clinton-free America. With Hillary's elevation to the Senate now assured, this summer will be a time to get used to the idea that the Clintons will always be with us. The lies, the arrogant sense of entitlement, the self-indulgent drivel, the ruthless quest for power. And?worst of all?they will be with us here in New York. Hillary will be Senator; while Bill will be?well, wherever his spiritual journey takes him. Unlike the Giulianis, who seem genuinely uncomfortable about revealing the dismal details of their unhappy lives, the Clintons relish their little soap opera and demand that we all join them on their strange odyssey. Last summer it was Bill Clinton, victim of child abuse. In the middle of the August doldrums?as if we had not already had our fill of their sordid little marital doings?Hillary revealed that her husband had been "scarred by abuse" as a small boy. "There was terrible conflict between his mother and grandmother," she explained in Talk. "A psychologist once told me that for a boy being in the middle of a conflict between two women is the worst possible situation. There is always the desire to please each one." Hence little Billy grew up to become a skirt chaser. Hillary's logic was a little baffling. Since the two women were vying for the boy's affection, why would he be the one so eager to please?

    Hillary's psychobabble was met with widespread derision, and she had to beat a hasty retreat. "Everyone is responsible for his or her behavior?including the President and all the rest of us," she announced sniffily. She would never discuss the matter again, she declared.

    But reticence is as difficult for the Clintons as charm is for the Giulianis. Summer is here and this year it's time for Bill Clinton's midlife crisis. The most important man on Earth suddenly feels emasculated. In a few months he won't be able to lob bombs at anyone. Limousines, motorcades, Air Force One, the football that launches the nuclear missiles, Secret Service flunkies?all that will just be a distant memory. His wife will be more important than he is. He is depressed. He makes a video in which he vainly chases a limousine to deliver his wife's lunch. He calls friends in the middle of the night and keeps them on the phone for hours. One of these "friends" says: "When you hear that lonely voice you know it's time to sit up and turn on the light because you know this is going to take a while." No wonder Clinton's vaunted sexual allure is on the wane. His dog Buddy is the only one prepared to go to bed with him.

    "I'll miss a lot of things," he reflected sadly the other day. Wistfully he looks back on his days in the White House. They were good for his marriage. "I got to live above the store," he explains. So "we've probably had more time together in our time here than at any point in our marriage. And I've enjoyed that immensely. It's been wonderful for us." Monica Lewinsky? Who she? Perhaps Bill and Hillary might have a second child. "I envy him very much," Clinton said of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose wife, Cherie, is expecting their fourth child. "I think it's a great thing for them. It'll keep them young." So why not the Clintons? He does not have much to do all day, so he could spend "a lot of time with the baby."

    Hillary informs us that she intends to spend "the rest of [her] life" with Bill. Remember, nothing the Clintons say is to be believed. Hillary is as big a liar as her husband. The Clintons intend to return to the White House. Hillary could not care less about the Senate. She just needs something to do for the next four years before she can make a run for the presidency.

    Interestingly, that is also how Rudy Giuliani saw this race. Hillary and Rudy were always almost indistinguishable. By revealing himself now to be a touchy-feely sort of person, it will be truly difficult to tell whether Rudy is Hillary in drag, or Hillary is Rudy in drag. On the issues, the two agree on everything. Abortion, gay rights, gun control, immigration, welfare. They are both death penalty enthusiasts. They both want to lock people up and throw away the key. They both want to treat juveniles as adult criminals. They both supported the Juvenile Justice Bill. They both want more federal intrusions in policing. And of course they both hate free speech. Giuliani wants to cut off funding to BMA. Hillary champions the Communications Decency Act and the Child Online Protection Act. Hillary is also an enthusiast of Internet filtering in libraries. "Personally, if I were in a library I would employ filters because I think that there is a lot of stuff on the Web that is just not appropriate for children, or for adults for that matter," she explained with her usual elitist arrogance.

    So what should we do this summer? Go live out of state.


    Sam Schulman Feature Sorrow of Summer The obnoxiously unnamed summer destination: it was one of the first signs that I had arrived in a foreign country when I left Chicago to go to college in the east. My New Yorker classmates announced plans to spend the summer with their parents on The Cape, on The Island, at The Beach, on The Vineyard. "The Cape of Good Hope?" I asked.

    "Baffin Island?"

    "Bondi Beach?"

    "The Vineyard at Chateau Margaux?"

    It was an early sign that summer in New York was going to be a problem for me.

    The late Mr. Che Guevara was said to have told some middle-class revolutionaries of my 60s generation, "I envy you?you work to make revolution in the belly of the beast." Well, when it comes to spending summer weekends in the city, I live in the belly of the beast?the Upper East Side. If you are around on summer weekends, you court the worst kinds of despair. From having to spend all summer in the city, Kierkegaard could learn a thing or two from you about the sickness unto death.

    Doormen who see you not leaving for the weekend, if they don't sneer, openly pity you. Your neighbors look at you with raised eyebrows: "And you're leaving?when?" Your self-esteem falls precipitously, so that it actually calibrates with reality: you are a failure. You can't spare the dough or the time from making dough to get away. Having to spend all summer in town leaves you open to New York's insidious ways of telling you you are nobody?particularly if you are.

    It wouldn't be so bad if the city hadn't also even more insidious ways of giving nobodies the illusion that they are somebodies. Here are the secrets of surviving, even thriving. Some are practical, some are mental?all have a spiritual dimension. Because remaining in the city for the entire summer is an act of defiance, and like all great defiers, from Prometheus to myself, you will find that the world wants to cut you down to size to punish you.

    1. Remain in mental shape. Gravity pulls you to the beach. Immunize yourself against its pull. Steep yourself in one of the great summer-in-Manhattan movies to provide counterbalance. Sorry, Wrong Number is superb. Burt Lancaster in a straw hat, the windows of apartments open to the sound of the el, the lower-middle-class cop's house with its whirling fans and cold beers, the cop's wife's dreams of a day trip to Roton Point (a defunct middle-class spa in Rowayton, CT), the searing heat of the subway. There is glamour to be had here.

    2. The midday sun is your enemy?not of your skin, but of your spirits. The sun reminds you of beaches and tans and all that out-of-town stuff you can't afford. The city's summer pleasures come in the evenings and the early mornings. Sleep, watch tv, do e-commerce from 10 to 5, even on weekends. But don't let a summer evening go by without the realization that evenings here are nicer, more interesting, more soulful, than summer evenings in the country. Don't let the sun catch you crying?in fact, don't let the sun catch you doing anything.

    3. Dress nicely. In fact, dress a step at least more formally than you do at other times. If you work in bluejeans and a t-shirt, wear chinos and an oxford shirt. If you already do, wear a summer suit that looks like a summer suit, and a tie. If you already wear coat and tie every day, then I'm afraid it's spats for you. Women into dresses?and if already there, turn to hats. Whoever you are, whatever your sex, you look wonderful in proper summer clothing, and you don't feel like a fool wearing it as you do on The Island. Baffin Island.

    4. Brunch is the most depressing institution since the last orphanage closed down. Sitting outside with squinting young professionals eating terrible food at midday will make you wish you were dead. If the free mimosa with any egg or pancake dish were abolished by a new 17th Amendment, the sales of Prozac would drop by 30 percent. Don't eat out between early breakfast and latish dinners.

    5. Don't set foot in the park until after 5 p.m. 6. Avoid childish activities?they lead only to despair. Remember that bike-riding and rollerskating were meant to be activities for under-13-year-olds. This was right. You look ridiculous on a bike, fat on rollerblades. If you can't be happy, be dignified.

    7. Stay out late. After dark, the country's advantages over the city fade to nil. On the other hand, the after-dark city improves in the summer. The awful people have gone to the country. The parks are less crowded, the streets are more open and inviting. Businesses are glad to see you.

    8. Become widely disinvited. To paraphrase that pompous snob and obnoxious summerer Virginia Woolf, the invitation, not the visit, matters. Far easier than being invited, being disinvited means that you can tell people constantly about your upcoming plans and not sound like no one wants to see you. You'll soon acquire the status of a "safe invitation"?"Don't worry, they'll never come." And you won't! And a vague invitation, followed by a crisply delineated disinvitation, means that you have enjoyed the status of guest without having to bother about travel arrangements, house gifts, bread-and-butter letters, etc.

    9. Help your neighbors unload their cars on Sunday nights. Hold the leashes of their dogs, carry out the rolls of cheap paper towels, stand guard over the sleeping toddler in the car seat. But by all means stay close to them and observe: their weariness, their wretchedness, their dirty clothes, their littered cars, their misery of disorganization.

    Then go upstairs, look at yourself in the mirror and, as you adjust your tie, think how remarkably fit you look.


    Toby Young The London Desk Hollywood's Anglos Pity the poor British public. On Friday, May 12, we eagerly went along to the opening night of Gladiator hoping to see a good, old-fashioned British epic in the style of Lawrence of Arabia, only to discover yet another fusillade against the British Empire. Hasn't it struck anyone as odd on your side of the Atlantic that all the Romans are played by Brits, with the exception of the hero, and the evil Roman Emperor, played by Joaquin Phoenix, speaks with a British accent? These days, it seems, Hollywood is so passionately anti-British that even an American actor playing an Italian villain has to sound like an old Etonian. What makes Gladiator such a galling example of this trend is that it's directed by a Brit. To be fair, Hollywood does occasionally depict upper-class Brits in a favorable light. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, for instance, Sir Robin of Locksley is portrayed as a man of honor who fought for the downtrodden and the dispossessed. Of course, in this version of the tale he's played by Kevin Costner. As a general rule, in contemporary Hollywood films British heroes are played by American actors while British actors are confined to playing American villains. Recent examples include Michael Gambon as the face of Big Tobacco in The Insider, Ben Kingsley as a sinister politician in Rules of Engagement and Christian Bale as the yuppie serial killer in American Psycho. Incidentally, Ridley Scott's next film is Hannibal, the sequel to Silence of the Lambs, in which Sir Anthony Hopkins reprises his role as Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Sir Anthony may have renounced his British citizenship, but provided he hangs on to his British accent he'll always be guaranteed a career in America playing flesh-eating serial killers.

    Until now, we've been relatively good-humored about this phenomenon. We've taken the view that, so long as Hollywood continues to demonize all things British, at least our actors will continue to find work. However, in one particular area our patience is beginning to wear a little thin. Frankly, we're a little fed up that in Hollywood's latest spate of movies about the Second World War, the part that Britain played in defeating Nazi Germany has been completely expunged.

    For instance, until Gladiator was released 10 days ago, the highest-grossing film at the U.S. box office was U-571, a thrilling account of the heroic episode in 1941 when the Royal Navy captured an Enigma Machine from a German U-Boat. This was an historic event, a turning point in World War II, and U-571 recreates it in all its glory, apart from one minor detail: it transforms the Royal Navy into the U.S. Navy. Can you imagine the uproar if the Brits made a film about the Battle of Midway in which the Royal Navy was substituted for the U.S. Navy?

    Similarly, in Saving Private Ryan the audience is left with the impression that an enfeebled Europe was singlehandedly liberated from the Germans by the Americans without any help from the French, the Poles, the Canadians or the British. Still, it could have been worse. At least the Nazis in Saving Private Ryan weren't played by Brits, as they were in Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Temple of Doom, The Last Crusade and Schindler's List. Thanks for that, Steven. Cheers.

    Hollywood's latest outrage is a proposal by Miramax to make a film about Colditz, the high-security German prison camp, in which all the successful escapees are depicted as American. Now, it's a matter of historical record that very few Americans were ever imprisoned at Colditz and those who were never attempted to escape. On the other hand, of the 186 men who did attempt to escape, 109 were British and of the 19 who succeeded, 11 were Brits. Colditz has come to occupy a central place in Britain's self-image, thanks largely to an excellent BBC television series in the 70s called Escape From Colditz. It's become a symbol of our indomitable spirit, rather like the Alamo for you, except we were trying to get out rather than stop others from getting in. What Miramax is proposing to do is analogous to a British film production company proposing to make a movie about the Alamo in which Davy Crockett and his freedom-loving Texans are replaced by a group of stiff-upper-lipped British cavalry officers.

    I called up Colditz-veteran Michael Alexander, hoping to get a suitably angry quote, but he was remarkably sanguine about it. "It doesn't offend me because it's so obviously not the truth," he drawled. "In fact, it's really rather comic." It was particularly ironic, he said, because as far as he could remember two of the American officers who were interned at Colditz set up a Communist Party cell in the camp. "They'd been fighting with Tito's partisans and they were very sympathetic to the cause," he recalled. Call me an old cynic, but I predict that that particular historical detail will be left out of Miramax's version of events.

    What accounts for Hollywood's attempts to rewrite the history of World War II, expunging Britain's role? My theory is that it's a consequence of America's victory in the Cold War. For a time, films about World War II, in which Americans and Brits were shown fighting side by side, made great NATO propaganda. Now that the communist threat in Europe has been eliminated, you no longer feel the need to make any reference to the role of your European allies in defeating Germany. The story of the Second World War can be retold as a kind of Star Wars set in Europe, in which plucky American freedom-fighters take on the might of the evil Nazi empire.

    There's also the small matter of your colonial past. It came as no surprise to learn that the most eagerly awaited film of the year in America is The Patriot, a lavish historical drama starring Mel Gibson about the War of Independence. As far as I know, no previews of the film have yet been shown, but it's a safe bet that the director of Braveheart won't be playing a captain in His Majesty's 64th Regiment of Foot.