Sunday 9 February 2014


Lord Byron in Greek costume - I suspect that the locals just assumed that was how all English milords dressed - otherwise they would have thought him a complete wally?

Yesterday I decided to stay in because of the truly awful weather. But I regretted it and felt a bit tetchy and claustrophobic when the darkness closed in and it was too late. I think you need to get out even into a storm (and even if briefly) so that you can recharge. So this morning with a superhuman effort I wrap up and get out early.

This lets me think about what I did do yesterday which was to read a book which Mrs Blog had bought for herself "to read next winter" (remarkable forward planning?).

The book is Greece On My Wheels by Edward Enfield. Edward is the father of comedian Harry Enfield and (you may recall) he had a second career on the back of his son's fame (so he says) as a contributor on telly triviality Watchdog about 10 years ago; he has also written for the Oldie magazine - mostly coy and knowing stuff which I didn't like.

The book describes a cycling trip around western Greece - the Peloponnese and northwards up to Albania - on the trail of Lord Byron and other heroes of the Greek War of Independence. I expected little of the book but actually it is good, partly because Enfield did the trip aged 69 but never bangs on about the physical challenge for somebody his age; also because he conveys his enthusiasm as a classicist and philhellene (like Byron and so many of his contemporaries) as he pokes around the ruins of taverns and monasteries which the poet dossed down in before finally dying from fever and becoming Greece's most famous and celebrated adopted son.

As a classicist and I suppose a bit of a philhellene (but I also have a contradictory soft spot for the Ottoman Empire) I nevertheless find Byron himself hard work.

Yes, the world is a more colourful place today because he lived. It is even arguable that Greece is free because of him: his military exploits were inconclusive and cut short but his influence on the (classically-educated) British political establishment was immense and these men eventually stepped in to force the Ottomans to concede to the Greeks in a war that had become a stalemate.

But Byron was a self-centred and self-regarding personality without any ability to stop and think - and this influenced his poetry, his personal relationships, and of course his mission to Greece, making all those things magnificent and exciting but ultimately chaotic and flawed.

And no Welsh connection for once, I hear you say?

Ah, but there is. One of Byron's closest friends - and the person who bankrolled his early exploits and set him on his course to fame - was Scrope Davies, son of a clergyman from Caio in Carmarthenshire. Scrope was a gambler of modest means who one night, having been left by his worried friends apparently losing badly at cards, emerged the next morning with £20,000 stuffed into a chamber pot. This event - the vast fortune yielded through Davies' nerve and the turn of a few cards - indirectly made Byron what he became.

Inevitably Davies' luck didn't hold and some years later he ran away to France to escape his debts. There is no portrait of him but his papers turned up in a bank in the 1970s. From these we learnt that he was not just a lucky dilettante but a professional gambler who kept careful records of card games and their effect on his finances. He didn't marry and had no children - Byron teased him about that telling him he should have had some little "Scrooples".

Byron dead at Missolonghi - a sanitised view of a squalid death although a brave one - he discussed the propaganda value of his death as he sank away. Note the allusions - lyre for a poet, sword for a warrior, statue to ἐλευθερία (liberty) for the idealist, and a laurel wreath for victory (premature but ultimately true)...