Book Review: ‘Blue Skies and Black Olives’

I recently read a book called ‘Blue Skies and Black Olives’ about a house in Greece a couple of guys built. A father and son. No less a figure than John Humphrys from TV, and his son!

The most interesting thing about the book for me was that it was mainly written by a person who is more-or-less a household name in Ireland, or was when I was growing up. John Humphrys read the news at night on BBC, when he wasn’t roughhousing (‘interviewing’) with politicians, or hosting Mastermind. When he wasn’t doing that, turns out he was building a house in the Peleponnese. This book, which chronicles that long – and at times quite hard – erection, is actually co-written with his son Chris, a musician, married to a Greek mob, and a lot more docile than the old man, who can always be relied on to be as colourfully exasperated with Greek people as he is with equivocating Tory backbenchers.

As a book it wasn’t bad at all. There was the usual cast of oddball locals, not all of whom were favourably treated in the book, giving the tale some drama. Greek stories never want for drama. There were some useful insights into the Greek mind from Chris, who at this stage is a more-or-less naturalised Greek citizen after living in the country for 15 years. While John himself remains a cantankerous outsider throughout, Chris is the acme of stoicism during the inevitable delays and stuff-ups and mellows to the task of building the house like a true local. John, in other words, never resets his watch to island time.

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Stunning view of blue skies over Delphi, 2003

As an aside, the first thing I didn’t like about the book was the lousy title. It doesn’t tell me anything about them, or their situation, or the way their story might be different to anyone else’s. It’s a placeholder name. It’s like one of those stock photos of a family with perfect teeth on the beach, their trouser legs rolled up with just the right amount of carelessness. I do acknowledge that good titles are hard though. My own current best candidate for our own book about Greece is “This is a book about Greece”, along the lines of XTC’s “This is a record cover” cover.

Another thing: the book that this most reminded me of, Peter Mayles’ A Year in Provence, also featured a cast of misfit local workers, which is a bit of an ol’ cliche at this stage: sure, you can find cowboys everywhere, especially if you don’t live in the country in which the house you’re trying to build does. Reading the book, you can see these tragi-comic situations coming from a mile away once they introduce a builder into the story. Who’d be a house builder in an expat’s ‘building-my-dream-house’ book? As the man says: avoid clichés like the plague!

Also, tasers are stunning; views aren’t. They’re just nice, or nice and relaxing. Or maybe, if you’re really lucky, they’re so nice that people will stop talking for a few minutes to look at them and you can get some thinking done. By the way, I feel bad raising all these objections to what was a mostly enjoyable book: I’m just on the qui-vive for the types of thing I wouldn’t want in our book on Greece. But in any case, isn’t there a writerly edict that says “show, don’t tell“? To me that means by all means describe the view from your house of the bay over the Aegean at sunset, go into great detail if you want; paint me a picture, but don’t tell me it’s a masterpiece.

I did however enjoy the tale of the genuinely scary episode the innocent Chris had to endure at the hands of the Greek legal system as a consequence of being hit by a stoned ne’erdowell in his car. I loved the astute observations of Greek people and life that he wrote, those about Athens in particular, some of which were, admittedly, again a little clichéd. But his experience of life in Athens and long association with Greece in general gave the book depth, something entirely lacking in A Year in Provence, for example.

Finally, the book – naturally enough, I suppose – had photographs, but the photographs were an afterthought. Flat and boring, they conveyed none of the magic that the words laboured to conjure, and in the end just worked against them. I don’t think it was a case of bad luck with the printers – none of them looked like they were interesting to start with. If it wasn’t for the top of peoples’ heads actually remaining in the frame, they would have reminded me of the pictures my Mum takes. Why do people bother? It’s simply counterproductive. The ‘stunning’ view was pedestrian, and had I not been to Greece myself plenty of times and so knew what it would be like to be standing there among the olive trees I’d be yawning. Less is more, with photos. And there was no map. Books about places need maps. That’s just common sense.