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.

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