CRETE OBITUARY FOR GEORGE PSYCHOUNDAKIS


© Barrie Machin

barriemachin@elink.net.au
I first met George in 1967.
I had received a British Council scholarship from the Greek ministry of Education to study child-rearing in a Greek village.
Miltos Damanakis from the Social Science Research Centre in Athens suggested the district of Sphakia in western Crete.  No anthropologist had been there.  Miltos speculated that this might have been because of the Sphakiot reputation for violence and vendetta.  Such stories excited my curiosity.  The Cretan highlanders' independence appealed to me.  Miltos suggested Hora Sphakion or Asi Gonia, the village of his uncle, Manoli.  He told me there were a number of potentially excellent informants, including George Psychoundakis, who had written a book on the folklore of his village.   Before I left he provided me with a letter of introduction.
Janet Jessica and Ι arrived by ship at Suda Bay at dawn on 29th October 1967.
    We reached Hora Sphakion after a long exhausting drive via an extraordinarily sinuous, unmade road, which coiled through a parched sienna landscape.
Many deserted villages gave the impression of a sudden mysterious exodus.  Hora Sphakion itself was ghost village.
    Disappointed, the next morning we drove to Asi Gonia.  There, late in the afternoon on 30th October I drove our green Renault into the central square and hundreds of men, women and children– it seemed like the whole village – ran to greet us.  I stood for a long time, Janet and Jessica behind me, attempting to make myself understood. I heard some bits of German and English and at that stage my Greek was very limited.

    As dusk fell, George Psychountakis was pushed in front of the crowd. I handed him my letter of introduction.  Pointing to the letter, I asked for Manoli.  George gave a few orders and soon the old man appeared.  He glanced at the letter and gave some instructions.  Before I could prevent it someone backed my car into a narrow yard (the yard in front of Zambia Hadzidakis’ house) and, to my dismay, a long line of children emptied the car of its contents, carrying our luggage on their heads to Manoli's house.

After a few days with Manoli’s family with the help of George and Stelios Petrakis, his brother-in-law, we negotiated the rent of a house from Pavlos the barber in the upper district of Armi.
From the second day George became my friend, confidant and anthropological partner in studying and participating in village life.
He had a phenomenal memory and intelligence. He recalled everything in extraordinary detail.


He was already a social historian and skilled folklorist and he immediately grasped the new methods I revealed for understanding the institutions of society.
Ours was a reciprocal journey.
He knew and remembered so much and I taught him my methods of social anthropology.
We mapped the village together, drew up a vast kinship diagram, recorded all the village Rizitik songs and folk stories, and interviewed numerous villagers, about childrearing and other matters, we climbed the mountains, to join the shepherds, when not working we drank, played préfa, debated and joked in the cafénea. 

My family participated fully in village life. One of my fondest memories is of our family picking olives with George’s family and mother-in-law.  I still have a silent 8mm film of it.  My first film of the village.   On many occasions we visited surrounding villages and festivals.  Often with the police in tow, because of the Colonels I had to report to the Rethymnon police station every month and the police had instructions to watch me.  The Colonels, as you recall, were also nervous about Asi Gonia.

George and I were inseparable and always joking together.  All Asi Goniots loved to laugh and George was a master joker.  I remember on one occasion I wanted to see the village from above so we climbed the mountain directly behind the village.  It was extremely exhausting.
On our return I began to slide down on a rockfall.  I called to George and he laughed saying the last person who slid on rocks at that point was German.
‘What happened to him I shouted?’ I laughed too even though I was in some danger-still sliding.
‘He died of course.’ smiled George.
‘What do I do?’
‘Stand upright and you will stop sliding’.
Fortunately it worked as you can see and I did not join the German.

Each rock and alley, each tree, each gulley and ravine in Asi Gonia had a story.
George told me the stories or took me to someone like Blimostavros or Pavli who knew them.
Many nights we taped Rizitik songs in nightlong musical sessions with Christos Petrakis on Lute, Markos Daskalomarkakis on Lyra, Pavlos Giparis singing and explaining the meaning of the songs.  Jessica peering over the balcony of our one bedroom house.
We also recorded the singing of Andreas Petrakis.

Our families became close: me with George, Janet with Sofia and her mother, Jessica with Soulio and Kiki. I am sure Soulio, Kiki and Nikos taught Jessica her first Greek curses, which became her entrée in the children’s world.
My parents came to stay, two of my best friends Dennis and James came to stay, Janet sister’s came.  I wanted them to know and love Asi Gonia.

I am so pleased now that my father, who left us in January 2003 at 86, got to know George.

In 1967, despite his heroic contributions to his country George was penniless and lived a meagre subsistence.  I shared what we could, even my scholarship was generous compared to the village earnings.

When we met he had an ulcer but under our thriving friendship and closeness and mutual enjoyment of each other it disappeared.

In many ways I became an English partner like those he had enjoyed in the war. The English Cretan relation ship was a crucial part of the mutual love and respect not only between George and me but also between me and all Asi Goniots.  My own uncle had been parachuted into the area during the war.   The Second World War always loomed large in Asi Goniot conversation.

We left in August 1968. Janet was pregnant with a boy.  The villagers told us he was a boy because he was conceived in Asi Gonia. Daniel was born in November 1968.
George was so poor could not afford paper and so when we left I gave him a large number of cards and told him to write.   It was on those cards the Odyssey appeared.
George wrote it in Cretan dialect influenced by the Erotocritos. Like his father before him, George knew most of the Erotocritos by heart.
He had himself had an Odyssey, being away in the war and the civil war and imprisoned as a collaborator.  As we know he always made the best of things and in prison wrote the Cretan Runner.
I saw his stoicism many times.

I returned to Asi Gonia with the family in 1971 and again in 1973, in 1979 (to film the village) and in 1988.  In 1994 I returned with Rebecca my youngest daughter then.  In 1994 at Christos Petrakis’s house in Hania he regaled us with poetry and many stories of the past, often remembering detailed conversations, he recalled many incidents from our time in Asi Gonia.


On reflection 1967 -1968 in so many ways was the best year of my life and George a blessing from God.

There has never been a day in my life since when I did not think of him and his courage, strength and humour.

38 years on I have now traveled and studied many cultures.   All have designs for living and all have flaws.
But the very best is Asi Gonia and the best people, with all their human frailties, Asi Goniots.  With my father George was the very best of men.

It is tragedy of the modern world that the stories and memories of self, the very celebration of self is scattered around.  So I have to return to Asi Gonia to reinvigorate my life and remember and know myself.

So in the deepest sense possible my life has its greatest meaning in Asi Gonia and George gave shape to that memory and meaning.
I like you all have suffered a great loss.

George I hope I may join you later.