From Metarmorphosi to Madagascar – at home with the BBC’s John Humphrys in Greece

BBC journalist and broadcaster John Humphrys talks to Mike Sweet about building a villa in Greece, the book co-written with son Chris that grew out of the experience, and the charity which benefits from guest bookings.

John Humphrys doesn’t recommend building a house in Greece, particularly if you happen to live more than two thousand kilometres away. I’d called John on his way to a studio at the BBC. After forty years in broadcasting, John aged 66, is still very much in demand. Hugely admired, often referred to as ‘a national treasure’ in the UK, John Humphrys is best known for presenting the BBC’s flagship Radio 4 news programme Today and BBC Television’s Mastermind.  Eldest son Christopher studied at London’s Royal College of Music and has lived in Athens since 1993. Now Assistant Principal Cello for Athens’ Megaron Orchestra, Chris speaks fluent Greek and is married to an Athenian lawyer.

It was on a family holiday while walking in the north-eastern Peloponnese, that father and son together first experienced a view of the Argo Saronic Gulf which made John decide on the spot, that there could be no better location to build a family home. The saga of the villa’s construction in the village of Metamorphosi would last four years, and be documented in the co-authored Blue Skies & Black Olives – a survivor’s tale of house building and peacock chasing in Greece. Published last year, the book relates the trials and tribulations faced as Chris and John deal with the minutiae of buying the site and building what was to become Artemis Villa. In following the process, it is a story that celebrates contemporary Greece in all its glories, and frustrations.

John’s motivation for writing Blues Skies was twofold. “The whole thing at times was almost surreal, and there were times when it felt like a bloody nightmare,” John confides, “but it seemed too good to waste. Writing a book with my son had a certain horrific fascination – whether the relationship would survive such a dangerous enterprise.”

The chapters written by Chris tell a story of his own transformation in becoming, to all intents and purposes, Greek. Some weeks before his wedding in Naxos, he needed to be baptized.  Understandably, he remembers the occasion vividly. “I’m standing in my swimming trunks in the biggest Greek church in the Balkans, surrounded by my wife’s close family. Full immersion in a huge tank in the middle of the church. It was more embarrassing than the scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” Chris’ full account of this event is one of the book’s many gems, revealing the culture and living traditions of his adopted homeland. What comes across most strongly in the book is the authors’ embrace of Greece; unbreakable and passionate.

Artemis Villa has just completed its first nine months of commercial renting, and proved more popular than expected, to such an extent that even John has found it difficult to find a free week this summer. All the proceeds from rentals go directly to the Kitchen Table Trust, the charity founded by Humphrys in 2006 to support aid projects in sub-Saharan Africa. “The family have always been involved in charities” says Chris, “partly from having lived in Africa when Dad was a foreign correspondent. It’s very easy to understand what poverty is when you live in South Africa.”

In 2009, despite a drop in donations due to the knock on effects of the global financial crisis, the Trust was able to finance 52 projects, bringing the total to more than 250 since it began. This year’s projects include; ensuring water sanitation for three poor communities in Sierra Leone; reconstructive facial surgery for forty young Ethiopians who were suffering birth deformities; a new children’s home providing shelter and education for abandoned and orphaned children living on a rubbish dump at Nakuru in Kenya. The list goes on.

At a time of downturn in donations, proceeds from the villa have helped. “The first bookings we had meant four or five thousand pounds went straight to the charity, and that just about builds a primary school in Madagascar, one of the poorest places on earth.” John adds that every project supported by the Trust has the direct involvement of the local community. “It’s a pre-condition for almost all our grants. If we provide the materials for instance, they provide the labour. The children, of course, can’t help themselves. But I believe passionately that if we can give them even the most basic education – teaching them the “three Rs” – they have a chance of a better life in the future. And their local communities will benefit as well.

Humphrys senior has firm opinions on the shortcomings of many charities. “Most charity has become industrialized. People often suspect that a lot of the money is spent on administration, and doesn’t go to the people who really need it. We don’t have paid staff or an office. The only costs for us are those that we have to pay – bank services and auditing, which is less than one percent of our income.” Given the appalling statistics of suffering in sub-Saharan Africa, John acknowledges it’s a drop in the ocean. “The need doesn’t go away. It’s hideous. You can give vast amounts government aid for big projects, but it seems to have relatively little effect on individual suffering at a local level … but what we do on an infinitely more modest scale, is to help at a very local level. We rarely give more than £10,000 to any one project, but it does make a discernible difference. Children can be taught to read and write; farmers can grow crops in areas where they couldn’t before.”

The Humphrys villa really is the perfect location for that autumn or winter break from Athens. Three double bedrooms, a children’s bedroom and a large self-contained apartment, means if needed, everyone has their own space. Our children just loved the house and setting; being able to safely explore through the hillside forest garden, meet the resident peacock, and find the almost exclusive beach below. It was December, but still warm enough for some hardier family members to swim in the pool and the sea.

Just fifteen minutes from the island of Poros, it’s not much further in the opposite direction to the village of Vathi, with its great fish tavernas. A ramble around the extinct volcanoes nearby sharpens the appetite for some of the best value fish suppers in Greece. For antiquities, Troizen is on your doorstep and ancient Epidavros only forty-five minutes to the north. Mind you, just taking in that enchanting view, in serene peace and quiet at Artemis Villa, takes some beating.


Acropolis now – The architecture of repossession

Acropolis now – The architecture of repossession

After thirty years of planning, the New Acropolis Museum in Athens is within months of opening. Built with a commitment to reunite the Parthenon Frieze, the museum may hold the key to Greece’s long held  aspiration for the return of what are commonly referred to as the Elgin Marbles.

The new museum at the southern base of the Acropolis is a remarkable building. With exhibition space of more than 14,000 square metres (ten times that of the original  Acropolis museum built in the 19th century), the museum, sits above the remains of an ancient Athenian metropolis unearthed during excavations on the site.

The ancient Athenian village that was revealed was always going to be an integral part of the design, and architect Bernard Tschumi’s simple, precise solution, which features the floating of the museum on one hundred concrete pilotis (protecting and consecrating the archaeological excavations below) is thought-provoking and totally successful.

Once inside, the inclined glass ramp of the Gallery of the Slopes beckons you like some futuristic walkway into a vast time-traveling machine. Exhibits from the slopes of the Acropolis mark the way to the Archaic Gallery on the first floor. It’s here that you fully appreciate the unique approach taken to the presentation of the museum’s collection of over 4000 pieces, principally ancient classical sculptures.

Created to be seen outdoors and illuminated by subtle variations of daylight, the museum’s design ensures that natural light provides the dominant lighting condition in every gallery, allowing the viewer to see the rich textural quality of the sculpted surfaces, The gallery’s minimalist style allows no distraction from the objects presented, and the experience is enriched by the positioning of the sculptures, allowing you to examine each through 360 degrees.

The mezzanine above, features a bar, restaurant and terrace looking out towards the Acropolis less than three hundred metres away. Midway in the distance is the neoclassical heritage listed building (part of which is the home of composer Vangelis, controversially scheduled for demolition in order to allow, what the Greek Culture Ministry describes as ‘an unimpeded view’ of the Acropolis from the museum. With over 100 court cases in relation to contested real estate issues, the new museum, like all major urban building projects, has had to fight for its place in this historic, polemical part of the contemporary city.

The top section of the building is its crowning achievement, holding the glass-enclosed Parthenon Gallery. Shifted 23 degrees from the rest of the building to orient it directly parallel to the Parthenon, the gallery is devoted to the The Parthenon Frieze and sculptures found within the Parthenon. Here the building’s concrete core, which penetrates upward through all levels, becomes the surface upon which the 160 metre long frieze, are mounted. Of course the original frieze in its entirety is not here, with some 40 per cent of it residing, as it has done since the early 1800s, in the British Museum.

The return of the missing sections, most of which are known as the Elgin Marbles, remains a tantalising and unresolved issue. As I walk around the frieze, and technicians are carefully positioning one of the original blocks, I ask myself a question,, the question, that every visitor is certain to ask themselves:  ‘Now that an extraordinary world-class museum exists where this extraordinary frieze, this icon of western civilization, is presented so superbly and celebrated, in a setting which offers an unprecedented context, what argument could possibly be sustained to prevent the marbles being returned to their homeland?

For now, each missing piece has been replaced with a copy that has an unmistakable lighter colour. They stand out like the proverbial sore thumb – the issue understated, but graphically illustrated. During the course of the museum’s construction, President of The Organisation for the Construction of the New Acropolis Museum, Professor Dimitrios Pandermalis has met with British Museum Director Neil MacGregor to discuss matters arising.

The professor describes the meetings as having been “fruitful”. “We found ways to communicate,” he says optimistically. Though making clear the return of the marbles is not his task, “I’m creating a space for this,” he notes.  Does he feel the British Museum will become more amenable when the museum opens? “Nobody knows. Let’s see.”

Visiting the New Acropolis Museum is a sublime experience. Bernard Tschumi set out to design a museum ‘with the mathematical and conceptual clarity of ancient Greece’. He has undoubtedly succeeded, and in doing so, has created one of the great new museums of the world.