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Anthony Bryer

Steven Runciman - Proem: The problem of Oratory: being a brief thesis on the World, oral, written and remembered; in a word History.

From the New Griffon, A Gennadius Library Publication, American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Editor: Haris A. Kalligas, Director, Gennadius Library. Athens 2002.

III. Steven Runciman and Athens

I had always suspected that Steven's most useful contribution to Athens was as Director of the British Council in 1946-47: heady days when he and Major Leigh Fermor faced a queue of 3,500 waiting for enrolment outside the re-opened office. Steven had just escaped being appointed to MECAS, the British “spy school” in the Lebanon, which taught excellent Arabic. But in Athens he had friends - Seferis and Katsimbalis to start with. He also had a sense of duty. He did not talk of this period much, although I knew he had lectured to supposed backsliders on the island of Makronisos and did not like it, and that he thought that the people at the British Embassy then might have had more cultural or social sense. (Please do not misunderstand me. Steven never said this so bluntly, though he held strong views in private. Anyone who noticed Runciman give a discreet but malicious kick at the cat in his London Club, whom he had rumbled as a social climber, will understand.)

So, in pursuit of Steven in Athens in 1946-47, I went to the British Council library in Kolonaki this morning and asked to see their archives. They include a typescript by Anastasios Sagos, MBE, entitled "A Chronicle of the British Council Office in Athens". Steven's last appointment was of Sagos as office clerk in 1947. For Mr Sagos, Mr Runciman was the paradigm of an English scholar and gentleman. Unlike others he could not name, the Director greeted his staff by name every morning. In 1950 Anastasios felt two hands over his eyes in a Post Office queue in Athens and "Guess who?" It was his first employer, an event for the file. After forty years' service, Mr Sagos retired with the honorary Membership of the Order of the British Empire, but what he most treasured was a letter of congratulation on the award from Sir Steven. I thank the British Council at Athens for permission to cite this file, and Dr Ann Shukman of Elshieshields for permission to quote from the other side of these years, in Steven's letters to his brother.

On Easter Sunday 1946, Runciman wrote:

England seems to me such hell now, that I can't contemplate living in London: and though it would be very delightful to settle at Eigg for several months of the year, it would hardly be a stimulating life. It is shocking to become so dépaysé and it is doubtless very demoralizing to live in a country where it is so easy to be Somebody - but it is very agreeable. Indeed I find life in Athens very delicious. The climate is the best in the world, and the country the loveliest. The people, for all their obvious faults, are very sympathique. I have a most desirable flat, with a view that is unsurpassed - the Acropolis, the sea, the islands and the Peloponnese. So what more could one want?

On 8 June 1946 Steven noted that " The Greeks are incorrigibly social..." and on 21 July expressed a desire for "a quiet literary life". But on 15 December Runciman told his brother that "I... am more and more horrified by the British Council (which is coming all out for the Common Man). I shall leave its service without the slightest regret, though I shall be sorry to leave Greece.[...] I think I can hide from the Greeks till [May] how awful this organisation really is."

Anastasios Sagos thought otherwise. He thought that "Mr Runciman was exactly the right man in the right place in 1947 ". Mr Sagos was right.

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