A Greek way of life

12 February 2016

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“GUNS and the Church always go side by side.” This is not, as you might expect, a quotation from a particularly extreme Southern Baptist sect, but rather from Father Andreas, a Greek Orthodox priest on the island of Crete.

The new series Greece with Simon Reeve (BBC2, Sundays) produced many such comments and images, as far removed as possible from anodyne travelogue documentary. Reeve celebrates — as he should — the incomparable philosophical and artistic heritage of the cradle of European culture, but sets this firmly within the context of today’s politics and economics.

The sponge-fishers of the Dodecanese Islands are almost extinct; pollution has destroyed their crop in only 20 years. The way of life so idyllic to summer tourists is in collapse: the villages are now, in the winter, geriatric ghost-towns. Reeve was moved to tears by the boatloads of refugees arriving on the shores of Lesbos, unprofessionally giving up filming to offer them aid.

Father Andreas spoke for those who believe, chillingly, that Greece’s economic meltdown is all a German plot, and that Angela Merkel has found a strategy to complete the domination of Europe begun by Hitler. He considers it his priestly duty to fight it.

In Athens, Reeve strayed far off the tourist site to visit communities of native Greeks now sheltering in shipping containers; to get caught up in anarchist violence on the streets; and to marvel at the extravagant villas of the wealthy, most of whom still manage to evade paying tax. This was challenging, making us think about the nation as more than just a playground or source of intellectual stimulation.

Of course, we in Britain are somewhat removed from most of Europe’s problems because we have always been a proudly independent island. Oh no we haven’t! In Walking Through Time (Saturday, Channel 4), the palaeobiologist Tori Herridge set out the evidence not just for the land-bridge that used to link us to the mainland, but more dramatically of the single catastrophic event now believed to have effected the sundering.

After millennia of our sharing in the life, flora, and fauna of the great landmass, an extreme Ice Age caused an ice sheet to press down across the whole north-west, creating a meltwater lake twice the size of Wales to build up where the North Sea now is. About 440,000 years ago, the enormous pressure broke through the chalk ridge whose white cliffs now face each other across the Dover straits.

The evidence is in a huge subterranean channel gouged out of the bed of the English Channel. It probably took only a few weeks of the torrent — one million cubic feet of water an hour — to do the job.

The impending catastrophe that will wash away all of us was played out in novel fashion in World War Three: Inside the War Room (BBC2, Wednesday of last week). This dramatisation of the kind of war game that our strategists apparently play all the time was given greater authenticity by the fact that all those deciding how to respond to a hypothetical Russian incursion into the Baltic States were, until recently, doing exactly that — our top diplomats, politicians, service personnel.

It was impressive in the standard of debate, and terrifying in the life-or-death implications of their decision.

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