A nightingale sang on Russell Square

Posted by on Oct 7, 2015 in Writing | No Comments

An excerpt from Elias’s book about the shipping business, “Bold Coasts” expected late 2016 early 2017.

Russell Hotel exterior http://www.hotelrusselllondon.co.uk

Russell Hotel exterior http://www.hotelrusselllondon.co.uk

Yesterday I flew from Athens to New York via Zurich. My daughter lives in New York, and I flew here to be around for her birthday later this week. As the plane flew out across the North Atlantic, a feeling of happiness came over me. I say came over me because the feeling did not seem to be coming from inside me, caused by anything I had thought or done. It seemed a kind of serene contentment that descended on me for no apparent reason as though I had suddenly swum into a warm patch in the sea. It made me think of the time I had a similar feeling many years ago.

Then I was in my middle forties. My career as a political activist had come to an end and I had asked to join my family’s shipping company. I enjoyed the business all right and felt I had some aptitude for it, but my relations with my family were not harmonious. My cousins had all gone into the business when they were in their twenties. They had fought hard to carve out their respective niches, and they did not feel inclined to roll out the red carpet for someone who had spent his first adult decades swanning about the world indulging his interests before finally deciding to give shipping a try.

Gradually I noticed that people stopped talking when I came into the room. Nevertheless, I felt I had some perspective on the business that my cousins didn’t have — I wanted to make money. (That was not a circumstance that my cousins knew anything about.) We all had been given trust funds, and unlike me, my cousins hadn’t spent all theirs supporting the resistance against the Greek colonels so that they had to live on the pittance of a salary the family members were paid as an “honorarium.”

You weren’t supposed to be working for money.

You were working for the glory of the company (among other things). Meanwhile, whereas I had wanted an allowance when I was a boy so I would know what I could expect but didn’t get one, now as a man I wanted a salary for the same reason and didn’t get that either but got an allowance (it was actually called that), which was far from enough to support a wife and start a family.

So after about five years of struggle between my ages of 40 and 45, I realized that if I was going to get anywhere in the shipping business I would have to do it on my own.

In 1981, PASOK, the party founded by Andreas Papandreou won the general election in Greece, and the minister of the National Economy became Gerassimos Arsenis, who had been one of my colleagues in putting out an anti-junta newspaper in New York in 1967. Arsenis had always claimed to be quite close to Andreas Papandreou and obviously that turned out to be true, as Papandreou appointed him finance minister. I wrote to congratulate Arsenis and prepared to travel from New York to Athens to visit him.

I hadn’t seen Makis since I had gone into shipping, and I planned to present myself to him as someone who could bid for a contract to provide a portion of Greece’s oil imports. I could arrange to buy the oil, charter the ships to transport it or if prices were favorable, buy the ships outright with the government contract as collateral. It was the text-book formula that Aristotle Onassis had first established in the nineteen forties when he secured charters from major oil companies, then built tankers on the back of them in ever increasing sizes. How did I know that? I read about it. And what made me think I could do it myself?

I didn’t ask that question. Rather I was inclined to ask why couldn’t I do that? That way of thinking led me to do many things in my life that I might not have done otherwise — for example, I translated a book by a Soviet writer and got it published after studying Russian for only one year, or got my father-in-law out of detention on the island of Amorgos, when the American Embassy and the Red Cross couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to help.

I had the same feeling about this project. If I could convince Arsenis that I could supply oil to the government, then I could do it. All I needed was the government contract. If I had that, I could arrange the financing, get the ships, the crews, and of course the oil. If Arsenis gave me the contract, I would be in. And he was the minister.

I wrote Arsenis outlining my proposal. I added that by granting me a contract, the government would be rewarding a loyal supporter who would in turn continue to be loyal.

“You wrote that in a letter?” said my cousin Tony who was not a member of my immediate family and who was not part of the not-having to work syndrome.

“What’s wrong with saying that?” I said, but Tony only smiled and replaced a pen in the back pocket of his pants. You could tell Tony was a worker not only by the way he rolled up his sleeves but also by the fact that he carried a battery of pens in the back pocket of his pants, and none of the pens was a Mont Blanc—they were all ball-points.

A few evenings later, Arsenis invited me to hear him make a speech in Parliament. He had arranged for me to sit in the visitors’ box with his mother, whom I had last seen when I visited her in Athens in 1967, when her daughter Kitty, Makis’ s sister, was arrested and tortured by the junta’s security police.

“Elias, you’re in!” Tony cried when he heard what was happening, and I admit I felt I was on a roll as I sat with Arsenis’s mother and listened to the Minister of the National Economy address the Greek parliament.

The next day, from the way people in the Ministry of the National Economy looked at me with a mixture of deference and fear, I thought I might be in with a chance of making something happen.

While I was waiting outside Arsenis’s office day after day, delegations from eastern European countries kept parading past me. If you wanted to do business with the left-wing Papandreou government the thing to be was a trade delegation from Eastern Europe. Then you would have an edge on the competition. But if you were a Greek as I was, with ties to America as in fact Prime Minister Papandreou had, then the government could leave you hanging.

For four months, Arsenis didn’t say yes and he didn’t say no. I had to be in the ministry every day, in case he was ready to make up his mind. I stayed at the Caravel Hotel, and it was a good thing the dollar was very strong against the drachma or my expenses would have been even greater than they were.

The general secretary of the ministry, though nominally under the minister, seemed to be keeping an eye on Arsenis, the way there was always a Communist Party commissar assigned to every Soviet general to be his watchdog.   The minister had the higher rank, but the general secretary had some other power. And the general secretary seemed to have it in for me, and he continually gave me hoops to jump through. Once on a Friday afternoon, he ordered me to get a quote on half a million tons of oil by Monday.

When he saw my amazement, he became sarcastic, “What’s the matter? You want to supply oil to the government, don’t you?”

So I had to go out into the market with that unbelievable order, although anyone who saw it would know that the government must be teasing a newcomer, for no government would go into the market for that much oil for fear of leaving itself at the mercy of the traders. I was learning by doing, which is the way I like to learn, but I got the distinct impression that the General Secretary was trying to make me give up and go home.

And that is largely what happened, although I didn’t go right away, and even then not willingly. One day, when Arsenis called me into his office, the General Secretary was sitting in the corner, waiting. Not a good sign. Arsenis was standing behind his desk, and with his arched fingers resting on the desk-top, he leaned forward and told me that in awarding the oil contracts, the “government wouldn’t play favorites.”

The government wouldn’t play favorites?

“I am shocked, shocked to find that there is gambling going on here,” says the police chief in the film “Casablanca,” using that as a pretext to close down Rick’s bar. (Any night of the week the police chief could be seen playing the roulette wheel in the back room.)

Certainly the government would play favorites. That was the one thing you could be dead sure of. You could bet your last penny on it. But who would be the favorite, that was the question. The way things were going, there didn’t seem to be much chance that the favorite would be me. From the Rotweiler look in the general secretary’s eye, crouching in the corner, I thought it would probably be someone the general secretary had in mind— whoever that may be. A power struggle had been going on for the last four months. The issue had been decided and the general secretary won just before I was called into the room.

Then they called me in to make Arsenis’s capitulation official.

I picked myself up off the floor and flew to London to meet Lucy for Christmas. And there she gave me another useful piece of advice. Although I hadn’t been in much contact with my father during the past weeks, she advised me to start checking in with the family firm again.

My father exacted a price, as he usually did, and rubbed salt in the wound.

“Got tired of politics, have you?” he said.

I didn’t get the government contract, but I got something I value a lot more, which is the point of the story.

Despite some flashes of brilliance in my early years, I hadn’t put together much of a resumé by the time I was forty, and understandably, Lucy could have had her doubts about my viability as a potential bread-winner. But seeing the way I had gone after what I wanted, for the last four months, going after what we needed, Lucy began to believe that I would have a career in something, even if it wasn’t shipping for obviously I had learned how to work.

Lucy and I stayed at the Russell Hotel on Russell Square over Christmas, and on one of the last nights of the holiday we heard a nightingale singing on the square below our windows, so that thereafter for us the lyric became, “A nightingale sang on Russell Square”.

After New Year’s, I got a flight for Athens via Vienna, and on the same day Lucy flew home to New York.   I sat by a window, forward of the wing, as the plane flew south over the Balkans, and I had that feeling which was similar to the feeling I had in the plane yesterday

Dearest Lucy,   (I wrote)

It is four in the afternoon…and I’m sitting by the window. I can see fields of clouds in different shapes and patterns like something we might have seen yesterday in London in the Tate Gallery. I can’t tell you how peaceful I feel. I am about to go back to work on something terribly difficult, and yet I feel that nothing can go wrong. I feel happier than I have ever felt in my life. I really begin to feel at home in this world. Since you have had so much to do with that, I wanted to express this feeling to you.

It was the first time in my life that I hadn’t felt continual anxiety. I wasn’t in danger of missing a deadline, I wouldn’t be late to meet my parents for dinner, I wasn’t improperly dressed, didn’t feel I would say the wrong thing, use the wrong verb ending, or call one of my father’s friends by the name of another of his friends who happened to have gone bankrupt. I didn’t feel unprepared for anything or feel I ran the risk of falling short in anyone’s expectations. I could be myself, and being myself would be enough. I thought, “I will stay in this world no matter what.”

I was forty-five years old, and it was the first time in my life that I’d had that feeling. It was like feeling you had a private cloud to support you, and I had the same feeling in the plane yesterday.

I mailed the letter from Athens, and some weeks later, Lucy phoned and told me she was pregnant. My letter was post-marked January 9, 1983, and our daughter was born on October 7 of the same year. When I had the peaceful feeling on the plane, Lucy had got her wish and our daughter Delia was on her way.