John Kittmer

John Kittmer

Former UK ambassador to the Hellenic Republic

Part of Greek Blogyssey

21st November 2016 Athens, Greece

Conflict, Poetry and Remembrance

Conflict within and between societies is, it seems, a regrettable, tragic constant in human existence. During the twentieth century, conflict reached a previously unimaginable scale. Through two worlds, and many other murderous animosities, the idea of human civilisation flickered and paled.

In the First World War, the total military war dead alone reached some nine million. Over a million lives were lost at the Battle of the Somme alone. In Greece, the numbers were lower but still substantial. Some 9,700 Britons, 30,500 French, 19,400 Serbs and 26,000 Greeks lost their lives at the Macedonian Front. But the theatre also included the island of Lemnos, which was used as a port and hospital station for the Gallipoli Campaign. The Commonwealth servicemen who lost their lives in the campaigns of the First World War lie in peace under the Mediterranean sky, mostly concentrated in cemeteries maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (some fifteen of them for the Great War).

The human mind, which thinks most easily in terms of particulars and discrete experiences, can hardly compute or credit such generalised slaughter. Perhaps the only response is a howl of grief or the empty silence that was heard on the fields of Flanders after ‘the monstrous anger of the guns’ had finally abated. But the First World War produced much exceptional poetry: poetry that shone sharply and icily, as it tried to communicate something essential, something real, something capable amid the charnel house of war.

In common with other British embassies in the former countries of battle, the British Embassy is working across the four years of the centenary to commemorate the men and women, servicemen and civilians, who fell in the First World War. We are trying to foster remembrance, to promote education and to engage a new generation.

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As part of our commemoration, we have run across Greece a poetry competition, inspired by the British War Poets and having three themes: sacrifice, reconciliation and peace. The competition opened in November 2015 and was open for entries until May of this year.
We were overwhelmed by the response, receiving 550 entries. Our four judges – Haris Vlavianos (chair), Miltos Frangopoulos, Alicia Stallings and David Ricks – worked hard over the summer to find winners in four categories.

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On the anniversary of Armistice Day, 11 November, we held an awards ceremony at the B&M Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts and Music. All the prize-winners attended. Haris Vlavianos and I gave opening addresses.  Our judges and sponsors (including the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation and the National Bank Cultural Foundation) spoke movingly about conflict and the function of poetry. The new Culture Minister, Lydia Koniordou, read the winning poems, which will be published shortly in the journal Poiitiki. The winning poems are all superb, and will, I hope, when published, be widely read. 

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 Poetry is not a panacea to the world’s conflicts and problems.  But it is my belief that it can help us. In Greece, poets have been meditating on conflict since Homer first sang the Iliad. I hope that bringing the voices of the British War Poets to Greece has stimulated and will continue to stimulate reflection among Greek and British people not only on what our forefathers jointly did here, but also on the sources and remedies of today’s conflicts.

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Winners of the competition:

 

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An original poem in English by a student

First Prize: Hulkar Egamberdieva

Runner-up: Maria Kritikou

An original poem in Greek by a student

First prize: Erofili Albani

Runner-up: Dimitra Laskari

An original poem in Greek by an adult

First prize: Sotiris Delis

Runner-up: Athanasios Stroggilis

Translation into Greek of a poem by one of the British War Poets

First prize: Matianna Naka

Runner-up: Aggeliki Riga


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4 comments on “Conflict, Poetry and Remembrance

  1. Listened to John Kittmer’s excellent and impressive interview (in modern Greek) on Skai TV today (Friday 9th Dec. 2016). Sad to see Mr Kittmer leave Athens as he has had a very positive influence on relations between Britain and Greece. Given the past history of extremely close relations between Britons and Hellenes, and the extreme sacrifices made by the citizens of both sides to a common cause, it is vital that Anglo-Hellenic relations are maintained in all spheres and at all levels. Britain needs Greece and Greece needs Britain. We look forward to welcoming the new UK envoy to Athens with a request — a barrage of cultural exchanges in both directions that will dispel beyond any doubt that Britain is not just a few drunks holidaying on a Greek island, and Greece cannot be symbolised by a corrupt, tax-dodging entrepreneur.

    1. I joined a tad (too) late, but nevertheless feel the need to uphold the request eloquently put above: “a barrage of cultural exchanges in both directions that will dispel beyond any doubt that Britain is not just a few drunks holidaying on a Greek island, and Greece cannot be symbolised by a corrupt, tax-dodging entrepreneur” (not to mention the Public sector …).
      In the wake of imminent Brexit, cultural exchanges become all the more critical, or contact may be lost; to paraphrase M Stokes above “Britain needs Greece (and maybe the EU) and Greece (& the EU) need Britain”.

  2. Hi John,

    we unexpectedly were thrown in to the arms of the Greek people when my wife suffered a brain hemorrhage whilst we were on holiday in Kos. Kos General hospital was unable to deal with this and she was airlifted to Athens, Evangelismos hospital.

    I lived opposite the Embassy for 6 weeks in an apartment, meaning I was only 2 minutes from the hospital. The people at the hospital, other relatives helped spur me on and although they have very little financially, what they do have is very big hearts. I made many friends during my stay and always felt welcomed in to their country. I had to learn the basics of the language just to get along and it is by no means an easy language to grasp. I managed and everyday picked up new words and phrases, which I practiced on my friends each day at the hospital.

    My wife’s life was saved by the work of the hospital staff and although it is old, tired and under-resourced they had a routine and things just got done. When we returned to the UK we realised just how different the NHS is. In the UK we want things to look clean and new but the staff are disorganised and too busy dealing with ‘red-tape’ to care for patients. We are thankful for the NHS but perhaps the priorities need to be on assisting patients rather than filling in forms and signing checklists.

    Our experience in Greece is not one I would like to repeat, but will leave a life-long imprint of how people can be so strong and smile through everything. It was a busy 6 weeks for Athens with ‘No-Day’, the Athens Marathon, Polytechnik marches, President Obama visit and the odd sight of seeing the shops all closed on Sunday.

  3. Dear Mr Kittmer,

    I am student of Kingston University London and I would like to spend some of your time.
    I really enjoy reading your articles and I would like to ask you some questions. If that is easy for you could you please provide me an email address in order to send you some of my questions?

Comments are closed.

About John Kittmer

John Kittmer was Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Hellenic Republic from 2013 to 2016.