I came from a politically active family, and so did my two oldest school friends. One had a father with old fashioned communist sympathies, who took holidays in Eastern Europe, but it was through the other friend that I became aware of the struggle for democracy in Greece, to which her father was firmly committed. Her family’s level of engagement went far beyond my own childhood experiences of canvassing in general elections or refusing to buy Outspan oranges and it is partly thanks to the intellectual life that I glimpsed at her house in Fyfield Road that I went on to read Greats at Wadham. My parents had thousands of books, and I was desperate to learn to read Greek, because I wanted to be able to understand the Greek tags and quotations that I came across in the works of writers such as Compton Mackenzie. Our headmistress, possibly for financial reasons, refused to have Greek on the curriculum. Mixed up with this frustration as a teenager, was an acute awareness of a phenomenally exciting more broadly European intellectual world, which I gradually discovered as I grew up. This poem was part of that discovery. The first time I was conscious of its meaning was when I heard an LP recording of it set to music by Theodorakis, and my landlord (a Greekspeaking Hellenophile) described it as the most beautiful poem in the Greek language. It was some years later that I read it in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translation, under the title Denial.
The poem shows the importance of words in shifting situations. It describes how an unspecified word is written in the sand, and then blown away. Denial was a poem written at the end of a love affair, and yet in a political context that disappearing word became so dangerous that Theodorakis’ setting was banned and the poem became an instrument of resistance.
It is also a poem about loss. When my friend’s father died, this song was sung at his funeral. For me, it gathers together memories of my childhood, growing up, my time at Wadham, and people that are no longer with me. It also affirms my belief in the importance of the arts and humanities in society as forces for good and catalysts for change.