Hail Jukebox of Perama with attendant minstrel juvenile wholes on illuminated porches where kids leap to noise bouncing over black ocean-tide,
leaning into azure neon with sexy steps, delicious idiot smile and young teeth, flowers in ears, Negro voices scream back 1000 years striped pants pink shirts patent leather shoes on their lean dog feet exaggerated sneakers green pullovers, long hair, hips & eyes! They’re jumping & joying this minute over the bones of Persian sailors – Echoes of Harlem in Athens! Hail to your weeping eyes New York!
BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD
Allen Ginsberg made his way to Perama—a neglected, dilapidated suburb of the port of Piraeus—one night in early autumn 1961. He was to stay in Athens for two months, exploring the city, traveling to Delphi, Hydra, Olympia, and other places, before leaving for Israel, then Kenya, then India. He ended up in a taverna with his friend Amy Mims, writing the first draft of “Seabattle of Salamis Took Place of Perama” in one go, under the intoxicating influence of the loud rebetiko music, the cheap retsina wine, and “boys of 18 dancing in the middle of the floor / with hard-looking sailors smiling & truck drivers singing in low voice.”
Perama, at the time, was a shanty town of tin houses and mud huts extending from the seashore to the bare, rocky hills behind. Its first residents were Ottoman Greek refugees in the 1920s, primarily from Konya, who were later joined by other Minor Asia refugees and Greek islanders once the Piraeus shipyards were established there in 1928.
“It was a slum. The houses were built by several families overnight so that they had a roof over their heads. There was a law at the time that said that if a house had a built roof, it could not be destroyed. Imagine, they built the whole church in 6 nights!”
The person remembering these scenes from 1960s Perama is Barbara Polla, a Swiss politician-turned-art-curator, who arrived in Perama with her family in 1966. “My father was a passionate philhellene and he wanted us to come to Greece, travel around, and know everything about the country. He was a teacher, so of modest means, and during our first summer we would camp outside under the starts, or sleep in the car, or on friends’ couches. But when winter came, father wanted us to go to Athens, visit the museums every day. But Athens being too expensive, even for us, we descended to Piraeus, thinking the port would be less expensive—and it was, but still very expensive for us! And so we kept walking and walking and at some point, my mom said: ‘I want to stay here and paint this’. She was looking at the shipyards. And so we entered the slum of Perama.”
The later a family arrived in Perama, the higher up on the unforgiving mountain it had to build, by hand, its shack. Most families lacked basic conveniences: electricity, running water, drainage. The Greek state had done a terrible job housing its more than a million Greek and Armenian war refugees and its hundreds of thousands of internal migrants, shuffling to and around Athens. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the tin-roofed mud shacks were starting to be replaced by concrete buildings.
“The most precise memory I have of Perama is the feeling of walking down the hills and feeling the wind from the back and seeing the water up front, this mixture of air and water and stone. It’s rocky and harsher than on the Aegean islands: there’s no drinking water, no greenery. The only water that flowed down the hill back then was toilet waste. When we first arrived, we went to the police and they sent us to Papa-Giorgis, the priest. He was a tall, imposing man, with an incredible aura. He was running the soup kitchen, feeding the kids, reading to them, commanding admiration simply by being this incredible, kind person. Papa-Giorgis told my father we could live about the soup kitchen, the only four concrete rooms in Perama at the time, as long as my brother and I helped serve the other children in the soup kitchen. So every day, we served breakfast and lunch and then we took the train to the museums in downtown Athens, as my father had dreamed we would.”
“He had this sense of equality” she was recently told by a 70-year-old taxi driver who remembers the priest. “My parents were a bit better off than others, although anyone living in Perama at the time was living in actual squalor. But Papa-Giorgis had this sense of incisiveness, he would give toys and gifts to all children, the extremely poor ones and the simply poor ones.”
In 1967, a military coup plunged Greece into a 7-year-long dictatorship, known as ‘the Colonels Junta’. “My first political emotion was seeing Papa-Giorgis in jail,” explains Polla. “I couldn’t understand why the colonels put him there. I saw him after a week in prison and he was a destroyed man, it wasn’t him anymore. Jail destroys people. He was crying, he was dirty, there were 10 men crammed in four square meters of space. This was my first encounter with what humans can do to other humans.”
Eventually, Polla and her family went back to Switzerland, where she trained as a doctor, had four daughters, became an art curator and an elected politician for 12 years, campaigning for prison reform. “I think I became a medical doctor because of Papa-Giorgis. The years spent in Perama influenced my whole life, but I didn’t realise it until after my 50s. I’ve curated ten exhibitions on art and prison, but I never really thought why I was doing what I was doing. I now know Perama is the glue, the red thread that runs my entire life.”
She’s now come to Perama to bring something concrete back to it: Sharing Perama is an ongoing project which aims to expose and have the people of Perama contribute to public art, through Robert Montgomery’s monumental LED poems. Montgomery, a Scottish-born pacifist, creates billboard- and solar-powered light poems on the walls, buildings, and public spaces of cities, taking poetry outside the printed page and bringing to the people. From Istanbul to Berlin, and Kerala to Edinburgh, he’s worked with local craftsmen, using the past and present of each place in order to send messages of peace, respect, solidarity, and beauty. In Perama, he is to work with laid-off shipyard workers and ironmongers in order to create a series of light poems inspired by Perama’s migrant generations, the shipyards, and the life and values of Papa-Giorgis.
Montgomery grew up in little town called Chapelhall, in what was once the ‘central industrial belt’ outside Glasgow. One grandfather was a coal-miner, the other a metal worker. An inspiring English teacher forfeited the school curriculum and gave his pupils the work of Philip Larkin, Sylvia Plath, and Ted Hughes to read. “The language was so vivid, I felt much more alive after having read them” he recalls when I meet with him in his hotel in Athens, just before the official launch of Sharing Perama. “I was 12. I realised that poetry is much more accessible than we think. Then at university, I got fascinated by the French surrealists, who brought poetry and painting together. As I was growing up, there was a whole generation of text artists prominent in America, like Jenny Holzer and Lawrence Weiner. All I had to do was take their street texts and add poetry to it, as an experiment.”
But he really got into street poetry in 2004, in London, when he was greatly involved in the peace movement against the war in Iraq. “I remember this huge protest, with a million people on the streets/ We all thought this would stop the war, and when the war went ahead anyway, I got depressed because I’d believe in this huge positive peace movement and all I could do now was turn on the TV and see our bombers bombing towns in Iraq. It was then I started making street art.”
Montgomery would create posters the same size as the ad posters in bus stops. “It’s really easy to open the glass panels, you know. All you need is an Allen key.” The first poster he made read: WHEN WE ARE SLEEPING AERROPLANES CARRY MEMORIES OF THE HORRORS WE HAVE GIVEN OUR SILENT CONSENT TO INTO THE NIGHT SKY OF OUR CITIES AND LEAVE THEM THERE TO GATHER LIKE CLOUDS AND CONDENSE INTO OUR DREAMS BEFORE MORNING. He went ‘round posting it in his neighbourhood in London at night. The first people to react to his messages, the time being 3am, were drunk people. “But it wasn’t drunk academics who engaged with them; it was drunk employees, and drunk estate agents and drunk bakers. Sometimes just drunks” he laughs with a smile. “And I though, ok, so it works. And it works because they saw the message in places where they expected to be seeing someone telling them how fizzy Diet Coke is, 10 times a day. I have friends in advertising who think—based on research, mind you—that an ad must show only one image and a message be read in less than 4 second, otherwise people won’t get the message. It turns out, that’s simply treating people like idiots. People aren’t idiots; they are perfectly capable of reading a hundred words whilst waiting for the bus. My work is partly about not treating the public as idiots.”
Montgomery was once taken in the back of a police van, at the point of being arrested for a huge billboard poem on William Blake. “I was being taken to the police station and I had this book of poems in my bad, I was trying to explain to this police officer that what I was doing was not vandalism, it was poetry. In the end he understood I wasn’t doing something destructive and he actively diffused the situation and saved me from being arrested.” They didn’t think you were Banksy or something? I ask. “No, Banksy’s much shorter” he smiles. “Plus, he makes pictograms; I am more old-fashioned and romantic.” Also a lot less cryptic: despite being entirely poetic, his work is immediately grasped, which is a long shot for many contemporary visual artists.
“It’s far too late to be cryptic” he replies. “We’re facing a global ecological crisis There’s an urgency to share any sense of hope we have. I am interested in language that’s plain-speaking and yet can take you to a transcendent place, like American poet John Ashbury does: blending the simple with the inventive, for the benefit of all. For a time my life had taken a more academic turn: I was beginning to become an academic, work in the history of a particular art collection… And then I realised I was living in an ivory tower; I wasn’t feeling the connection with real like. So I gave up my job in Houston, moved back to London, started again, worked office jobs for 14 years. I worked in an office from 9 to 5, then I went home to my studio and worked on my art from 7 to midnight five days a week. You know, when Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach was premiering at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Glass was still working as a yellow cab driver. That’s why you must never be rude to waiters, I say; the person serving you coffee might be the next Pulitzer prize winner, or they might be the greatest painter of their generation.”
His 9 to 5 office job was running the legendary magazine DAZED & CONFUSED, which he started with some friends, from scratch. He managed to not get upset about having to persuade brands like Apple and Gucci to advertise in the publication by making art of his own, as an escape. Still, 9 to 5, then 7 to midnight: it takes self-discipline, strength, motivation, no? “My grandfather worked in a coal-mine in Scotland and he’d go to work at 6 or 7 am, come home at 4 or 5 pm, every day, no vacation, except on Xmas day. In Scotland in the wintertime, that means that he would go in the mine before the sun was up, and leave when the sun had set, so he never saw the sun. So I’ve never felt like I had a hard life.”
The ship-building cranes in Perama remind him of the place he grew up in, outside Glasgow. By the time he was growing up, they were towering above him like monument to a past industry, the museum of a once prosperous place. “My mother lives today at the very end of the river Clyde, where much of the ship-building of the time was going on, just as that point where the river meets the sea; then you have the island of Arran and then the ocean. I lived there from the age of 12. So there’s something about the sea that’s universally mystical to me. The Greek sea seems like a far kinder sea; it’s so full of islands. I remember coming to Corfu and Crete as a teenager, being out at night, and thinking, oh, this is actually the natural habitat of humans, these Greek islands—because I could sleep outdoors here, I could sleep under the olive trees and survive!”
I remind him of Barbara’s story from that long-ago summer of 1964, when she’d sleep under the stars, taking in the Greek night-sky. “You know, I get asked a lot to go visit cities and create art that somehow responds to that place’s identity, meaning, and history—and since I am not from that place, I can’t really define it, so I often say no. But this, Perama I mean, is different. Barbara’s story, the story of Papa-Giorgis, is so personal, you rarely get that. Barbara became a politician in Geneva and campaigned for prison reform as a result of the trauma of visiting Papa-Giorgis, a man who was persecuted for helping people. You have to celebrate ordinary heroes and heroes of kindness; they are not celebrated enough. The work in Perama will be work about kindness and sharing and hope.”
I ask him whether it’s difficult to find people still believe in these values today. “No” he says. “I think everyone does when they stop worrying about the rent and the likes. Look, somehow we have a massive amount of media that delivers a very pessimistic view of the world, wanting us to keep perceiving the world as in a constant state of confusing, unmanageable crisis. Whether the war in Yemen, the refugee crisis, or school shootings in America, we’re constantly bombarded by this that feel insurmountable on the individual psyche. Even more so, this news media is physically attached to our body: I essentially carry a tiny TV screen, a spectacle in my pocket, on my body, I live intimately with it, I sleep with it beside my pillow. That’s really strange, isn’t it? To have the media invade your space on this newly intimate level. I think we are deeply traumatised as a society by this.”
But if there weren’t any demand for sensationalist, fear-mongering new, there wouldn’t be any, no?
“The only way to break this vicious circle,” he replies, “is public beauty. And hope. And social freedom and the ability to live with your neighbours and accept that they live in a way that’s different from yours. Whatever they throw at you, you need to look at in a historical contact. You have to remind yourself, for example, that immigration is how great civilisations were built. Immigrants have added so much to my city of London! I am passionately in favour of the freedom of movement and I passionately hope that people from Europe come and live in Britain equally and freely.”
Unavoidably, the Brexit disaster comes up. “I think it’s wrong to want to blame immigration for Britain’s 30-year failure to create a manufacturing sector that would give people jobs . And the failure doesn’t rest with a specific party; it rests with short-sighted economics. Part of the reason British politics is the way it is now, is because we’re mired in this high-school debating tradition where you have to blame the other party for everything. We need a new politics in Britain. A more long-sighted view of economic development. We should be investing in clean energy, a less carbon-damaging economy, a more holistic economics in general, we should be thinking about a future that’s not defined by the profit margins of individual companies. The green economy is not just desperately necessary, it is pretty exciting too! It’s about evolution. It might be hard for us to understand it because we’re all products of the oil age; but what’s a hundred years compared to the Bronze age, say? We have to think of something else. now. We have to begin to educate ourselves to see wind turbines as beautiful, because they have a life-saving purpose to play.”
A translated billboard of Robert’s has already been mounted in Perama, awaiting tonight’s launch. It reads: NEW COUNTRIES WILL GROW UP ON GRACEFUL PROMONTORIES WHERE A FEW PEOPLE GATHER TOGETHER/ IN THEIR WORLD IT WILL BE ILLEGAL TO OWN THE LAND. // AND THEY WILL MAKE NEW LITERATURES IN WHICH THE OIL AGE WILL BE FORGOTTEN. “When I think of Perama,” says Barbara Polla, who chose it, “I think of it as a place of ‘bare life’. You know Perama has nothing charming, it doesn’t charm people. There was always poverty there; there still is. But there is no misery. It’s just the people and the life. It’s an essential place. There’s no decorum, there’s no stuff, there’s no bling, but there’s everything. There’s the people; the sea, the sea-men, the workers on the shipyards. Building a boat is something essential. I felt that at that time and I still feel it now. That’s what I mean by ‘bare life’: just the stone in the light of the sun.”
The rest of Robert’s poem goes:
AND OUR CITIES WILL BE FOLDED BLACK INTO THE SAND/
AND THEY WILL NOT EVEN REMEMBER HOW WE ONCE HELD THE WORLD IN OUR HANDS AND HOW WE CRUSHED IT LIKE A BIRD IN OUR HANDS.
And Ginsberg’s “Seabattle of Salamis” ends like this:
I’m Casting a Spell on You, Apocalypse Rock, End of History Rag!