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Literature

Sir Compton Mackenzie: The Eminent Scot’s Love Affair with Greece

November 8, 2020
By Basil Zafiriou

Compton Mackenzie ranks among the top Scottish writers of the last century. In a writing career that spanned six decades, he published more than one hundred books, both fiction and nonfiction. Among the latter are several books on Greek themes, and Greece provides the background to a good number of his novels as well, testifying to the centrality of Greece in Sir Compton’s life. His biographer Andro Linklater describes him as “a supernumerary Greek.”  

Mackenzie became a devotee of things Greek at a very young age through his immersion in the language and literature of ancient Greece. He fell in love with modern Greece when he served there during the First World War, as lieutenant with the Royal Marines in the Eastern Aegean and as head of British intelligence in Athens. His Greek assignment lasted a relatively short time – little more than two years, from May 1915 to September 1917. But as he wrote later in the book Greece in My Life, he gave his heart to modern Greece soon upon his arrival there. 

In the interwar period, Mackenzie published four volumes of memoirs about his experiences in Greece. During this time, he also wrote Marathon and Salamis: The Battles that Defined the Western World (1934), and Pericles (1937), a sympathetic study of the 5th century BC Athenian statesman.  

The Greeks’ heroic stance during WWII made Mackenzie even more passionate about Greece. He was living on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides when the war broke out. That’s where he heard the announcement of Metaxas’s defiant ‘OXI’ to Italy’s territorial demands on 28 October 1940. He was elated. And when he heard the strains of the Greek National Anthem which followed the announcement, he says he could not keep back his tears, “for the sea around the Hebrides on that October morning was blue as the Aegean, and in spirit I was back in Hellas.”  

Three years later he published Wind of Freedom: The History of the Invasion of Greece by the Axis Powers, 1940-1941. The book is a moving tribute to the resistance of the Greeks against the Axis and the decisive contribution that resistance made to the ultimate victory of the Allies. “Let there be no mistake,” he wrote. “The Hellenic defiance was for humanity a second Marathon, and when the clamour of this huge and hideous war shall have died away that is how that defiance will be regarded in the serene air of history.” Had Greece accepted the Italian ultimatum, “the whole course of events would have been changed, because Russia would have been crushed during the autumn of 1941. It was Greece which saved the soul of man; it was once again that small sea-girt mountainous country where liberty was originally conceived.”  

“As he wrote he became more Greek,” according to Linklater, to the point where he told his wife Faith “I think I shall abandon British nationality after the war and take out Greek papers.” In his epic novel The North Wind of Love, which he completed in 1945, the main character John Ogilvie, Mackenzie’s alter ego, returns to Greece to marry Ephrosyne Ladas, whom he had met while stationed there during the previous war and seemed to him the spirit of Hellas. This return, Linklater writes, “may be taken as the fictional representation of his own emotions.”  

After the war, Mackenzie actively championed Greek causes even when they were unpopular in his own country, such as the independence of Cyprus from British rule and the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. In 1957 he persuaded the BBC to produce three television films, under the title The Glory That Was Greece, which he narrated. “I believed I could do more for the cause of Greece [by those films] than by letters or articles in newspapers,” he explains in Greece in My Life. 

The reception Mackenzie found in Greece while filming there showed that his love for Greece was fully reciprocated. And this deeply moved him. Quoting him again from Greece in My Life: “It was a pang to leave Greece, for in old age it is pleasant to be continuously made aware by everybody of every class that you are regarded with affection and respect as somebody who has never failed to speak out for Greece, especially when you yourself are well aware that the gratitude is owed by you to Greece not by Greece to you.”

Basil Zafiriou is an economist based in Ottawa. Retired from the federal public service of Canada, he now concentrates his work mainly on Greek affairs and the Greek Diaspora. 

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