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Upon arrival at the Aegean island of Ikaria a fortnight ago - where sunlight dances on the straits, sailed by Odysseus and Herodotus, between the easternmost islands of the Greek archipelago and Asia Minor - one of the first things I read was my colleague Andrew Anthony's article on the front page of the Guardian website regarding the 'secret of long life' on the island.
It becomes quickly apparent that one of the things introducing the very rare condition of stress to this hitherto reclusive island is the fusillade of such reports: this one on the slipstream of that in the Daily Mail, in turn a re-hash of that in Business Traveller, which in turn cut-and-pasted that in the New York Times, etc. etc. – to cite just a few articles in English alone, never mind the Germans, French, Italians and the rest.
Ironically, many Ikarians who fiercely guard the reasons for their longevity now feel this attention to be a threat to it, that the attention will be … er, the death of them. “We fear it”, says a lady called Popi, who grows all she eats – a crucial theme Anthony and all the others write about with enthusiasm. “We have too many journalists, and we want them to go away”. One young Ikarian said that "every time one of our old people gives an interview, they seem to die soon afterwards. So we'll stop now, I think, showing them to the world".
Many Ikarians wish they could stop “showing” their island altogether. But of course: in our obsession with 'lifetsyle' and what is known in our commercial bedlam as 'anti-ageing', we marvel at the fact that so many Ikarians can reach the age of 90 – even 100 – actively, and ask: how can they? Especially if they enjoy cigarettes and alcohol as much as they do.
In some ways, the answers are as provided (though not in much detail) by Andrew Anthony et al., and concern diet.
And indeed, one sits, in a little village above the port of Evlidos, eating horta – translated as 'mountain greens' – home-grown by a lady called Popi, and her other wild plants such as kritamo and andrakla (no idea how or whether these translate) doused in home-pressed olive oil, sipping organic home-trodden wine, after which one infuses home-churned yoghurt with dollops of honey from hives on the hillside – then a drop of home-distilled grappa. No wonder Popi and her husband have a little afternoon waltz together when a favourite tune comes on the radio; I have no intention at all of panting, pen-in-hand: 'How old are you?'
There is no need, nor is the 'secret' of longevity on the island so hard to unlock. Ikaria remains a place of sublime peace, rugged beauty, rivers, streams and pine forests, eccentricity and defiance. All the things that Andrew Anthony writes – and a special National Geographic survey of these so called 'Blue Zones' concluded – are broadly-speaking true. But they are only a slither of the story.
It is very weird for all these people to arrive in Greece of all places, from the temples of capitalism, and countries currently bludgeoning Greece to 'reform' its economy to our liking, aghast at the health and happiness of the people of Ikaria. For Ikaria is everything that our society, our obsessive consumerism, our corporate madness, our worship of technology, the International Monetary Fund, the Eurosceptics, the European Union, Angela Merkel and the rest despise.
People work, but not unnecessarily; the fishermen of Evdilos enjoy a long morning of backgammon on the quayside before launching their craft. Ikarians live mostly in the open-air, they do not sit in offices. Unlike places obsessed by 'health and safety' in which people die younger, no one in Ikaria wears seat-belts to drive; childen ride motobikes in their parents' laps – helmets? What are they? You are not on CCTV “for your security”; no one wears a fluorescent vest with a silly slogan on the back; there is no corporate motto: 'Keeping Ikaria Alive'.
Fruit is wrapped in solid brown bags with pictures of peaches printed on them and mini-supermarkets sell local yoghurt and honey, unpastEUrised milk and cheese, and home-distilled Ouzo. No one fiddles with digital gadgets and hotels were only recently bullied into installing wi-fi by whingers on Tripadvisor – the internet is something you find a cafe when and if you need it. Many people watch black-and-white TV, partly because they cannot afford a colour set, but partly because they see no need for one. My rental car is paid for in cash, and has not been taxed since 2009. If people live longer it is because, “we live free”, says Dmitiris, owner of a bar on the dockside, in a way that those of us confined to turbo-capitalism do not.
There are worries, of course – even apart from the appalling prospect of 'longevity tourism'. Worries about tourism generally wrecking the island, as it has so many others. Worries about blackmail whereby – in return for bailouts by the EU and IMF, the island would be forced by the Greek government to sell off tranches of high land for wind turbines supplying energy to Germany. “The Germans are back!” people are wont to say, with a hollow laugh – even the island's famous and constantly refreshing easterly wind, the Meltimi, must, it seems, be harvested for someone else's profit.
And there is the worry of every Greek, squeezed by the EU and IMF, about cuts, unemployment and that northern word, “austerity”. Of course, none of this features in the series of articles about longevity, but none of this is the main omission, which lies in recent, but still raw history.
Ikaria was a peasant society, and all peasant societies are adept at eating from the land. But there are specific, relevant and tangible historical reasons for Ikaria's skill at living off what it grows, and hereby lies a rub. What you do not read in Andrew Anthony's article, or any of the endless others, is that Ikaria is a community of irrascible political radicalism known as 'The Red Island', title of the penultimate chapter in the only history of Ikaria in English, by Anthony J. Papalas – an essential primer for any visitor to the island, let alone a journalist writing about it.
Messrs. Anthony and the others may not have bothered to read Dr Papalas’ fine book – entitled Rebels and Radicals - as part of their research, and if they did, they appear to have didactically ignored it. Certainly, there is little mention of the autonomous republic Ikaria defiantly declared itself to be in 1912 – the flag of which flies ubiquitously, such is the yearning for its re-establishment now.
Flag of the free state of Ikaria, 1912. Wikimedia Commons/Public domain.
So: what baffles one about this barrage of attention to which poor Ikaria is subjected is the unwillingness of these intrepid herbal tea-sipping reporters to consider the recent history of the island, and the crucial part it plays in the 'secret' of longevity.
Andrew Anthony wrote, on the pages of The Guardian newspaper some years ago, an erudite and articulate account of his conversion to born-again conservatism, from Nicaragua, where he had once helped pick coffee for the Sandinistas. Anthony had been a radical leftist – as was I, only unlike him, I have found little in the trajectory of global cartel capitalism since those days to encourage me to believe in it.
Perhaps that is why Anthony makes no mention of the huge painted hammer-and-sickle that greets you upon arrival on the wall opposite to exit from Ikaria's tiny airport, and the fact that the Greek Communist party, KKE, has adorned almost every concrete barrier built along the winding mountain roads. The Communists took every seat on the island in the 1964 elections after the party was legalised, and now polls around 40 per cent. The Syriza alliance of groups to the left of the communists polls a further 35 per cent. While Greece voted by 60 per cent for the return of the monarchy, Ikaria voted by a larger majority against it. When Europe's most durable leftwing urban guerilla group, November 17 – named after the date when the Junta stormed the occupied Athens Polytechnic in 1973 – was finally disbanded in 2002, it emerged that four of its members came from Ikaria.
There is a reason for this, and it is connected to longevity because it in part concerns food, or rather starvation, and the ravages inflicted by the British, the Germans and the Greek right in Ikaria. This you will not read in the twee 'lifestyle' blanket coverage of Ikaria's longevity.
While Greece was occupied by the Italians and the Germans from May 1941, “all provisions, even fruit on the trees, were considered possessions of the Third Reich”, writes Papalas. Moreover, the eastern Aegean was blockaded by the British, so as to starve out the occupying forces. As a result of both blockade and the levy of food by occupying forces, shortage became the main reason for the suffering of Ikaria, and starvation the most common cause of death. At the beginning of the war, the island's population was 12,000; by September 1943, it had been reduced, to 8,000 – 3,000 having left, and a thousand starved to death. Those who survived did so through ingenuity in eating whatever grew; in order to live, the Ikarians became expert in the kind of self-sufficiency that now makes them live longer – not the only cause, but an important one.
Another historian of the Greek Civil war, Andre Gerolymatos, adds that the British blockade was also propelled by the diabolic calculation that starvation would encourage resistance to the occupying fascists and Nazis, out of desperation. Gerolymatos further finds that the British, having promised the Greek government-in-exile that an allowance of grain would be allowed to the islands, reneged on the pledge, forcing the islanders to be especially innovative with food on the land.
This British policy fell within the context of a wider one, to support the force most likely to fight Nazism and fascism – which was certainly not the pre-war dictatorship of Metaxas, not even the government-in-exile and monarchy to which Britain felt such a bond, but the communist-led EAM and its military wing, ELAS.
These were anyway the only forces of any significance on the already 'red island' of Ikaria, where the KKE had been organised since the 1920s. Yet as the war progressed, and 'rebels and radicals' of EAM became the force ready to take over liberated Greece, Britain – as the country's de facto protector – infamously switched its all-important patronage to support those who had collaborated with the Nazis, specifically the murderous 'Security Battalions'. In the complicated history of wartime Ikaria, the British – to the amazement of Ikarians, who helped and hid British soldiers – were forever seeking to forge alliances with the occupying Italians, even before it became British policy to dispatch Nazi collaborators against the communists after the war.
As is well known, the British installed the anti-communist regime led by the Crown and columns of Nazi collaborators, and won the Greek Civil Wars on its behalf. The regime then began its persecution of anyone accused of communism, radicalism or liberalism.
And during these persecutions of the 1950s, Ikaria became a main depository for those internally exiled by the regime – not as bad as the concentration camp on Makronisos, but bad enough to cause further hardships for the Ikarians and pressure on food supplies. Again, Ikarians had to be innovative with regard to what they ate, eating anything that grew and was comestible. In all, 30,000 were put under domestic arrest on Ikaria, 5,000 at any one time; they included the great composer, Mikis Theodorakis.
This history cuts deep in modern Greece, and into the country's relations with Europe. Greeks are as aware of it as most tourists - and even visiting reporters, apparently – are ignorant of it; this history propels recent insurgencies to no small degree - “it is still with us”, says the young Canadian-Ikarian. During the war on Ikaria, communists and other radicals had pitched what was called aphilokerdo, a co-operative, non-exploitative way of life, against poniria, a word for guile in its meanest sense. By and large, they prevailed: the left has dominated the island ever since, and the spirit of aphilokerdo remains its guiding ethos.
In stark contrast to the ethos of those countries responsible for the present crisis, whence the reporters arrive fascinated by longevity on the island. And, quite apart from wilful dismissal (or ignorance) of history in this 'unlocking the secret', there remains a question at the wider level: why is this a discussion about Ikaria, and not about us?
The answer to this is deep, and profoundly political. We want to look at Ikaria's blessings, but not the mote in our own eye. When we behold the miracle of Ikaria, we need to commodify it all, to convince ourselves that we can somehow incorporate this way of life into our turbo-capitalist madness, by “selling Spring in the marketplace”, as Albert Camus put it in another context, before the advent of Neal's Yard and the now obsessive packaging of 'anti-ageing' products and health as yet another 'opportunity' for poniria capitalism. One can see them now: Ikaria Long Life Recipe books, The Ikaria Diet, Ikaria cosmetic lines.
Of course one feels one could live forever, eating Popi's horta and home grown herbs, as compared to the slow, painful and earlier death to which our unquestioned daily habits of hyper-consumerism, mass-medication, Tesco and shopping malls, green-belt 'development', rush-hour transport and toxic hospitals condemn us. It doesn't take a National Geographic 'blue zone' research team, or platoons of reporters, to tell us that.
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