Andrew Marr's diary: Ruins on Crete and a spat with Alex Salmond

Plus: One reason for looking forward to Scottish independence

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

19 April 2014

9:00 AM

A week away in Crete: I’ve come for the archaeology and culture — little patches of Minos, ancient Greece, Byzantium and the Venetian Republic are scattered around this most southern sentinel of Europe. It hasn’t gone quite as I’d hoped; when it comes to monuments, the Greek rule seems to be ‘close early, close often’. But I’ve much enjoyed the food, a just-swimmable sea, and the benign, gracious hospitality of the locals. At first sight, like much of the eastern Mediterranean, Crete appears to be a matriarchy. Stern women in black still dominate village squares; they travel on tiny, exhausted donkeys as they always have done, whacking them with walking sticks; and they seem to run all the shops, tavernas and businesses. But look harder and you find the men. The elderly men, in particular, sit around at the back of tavernas or under the shade of awnings, apparently doing nothing at all except smiling. Sometimes they are embroiled in arguments, mostly about football. More often they sit silently, gazing into the middle distance. When the time comes, I think I want to be an old Greek man.

They reminded me of an Edwardian Punch cartoon, the magazine at its most patronising. A ‘kind lady’ is visiting the oldest inhabitant of the village, and asks him how he keeps himself busy. ‘Well, ma’am,’ he answers, ‘sometimes I sits and thinks… And then again, sometimes, I just sits.’ It struck me that this is, I suppose, more or less what the Dear Leader, DC, is hoping to achieve during his yoga break on Lanzarote. But do we want our leaders to be seeking ‘mindfulness’? Better than mindlessness, I suppose, but these retreats rarely seem to go down well with an irritable and practical-minded public. Do you remember something about Tony Blair, meditation and hot tubs in Mexico?

Anyway, despite the ruined towns and fortresses, modern Crete, like modern anywhere hot, is far more marked by mass tourism than by thousands of years of rising and falling empires. Reinforced concrete was brought to the island in around 1905 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, as he cheerfully rebuilt the Minoan palace of Knossos. But the locals have taken it to their hearts with great enthusiasm. So increasingly Greece looks like Spain — looks like Italy — looks like Turkey — looks like southern Russia…

Meanwhile, the arrival of wild weather is already upending our assumptions about where we travel to get to the sun. There is endless talk about climate change in regard to flooding, farming and so on — but what happens to mass tourism when hardly anywhere can reliably promise sunshine? I guess we’ll still keep coming, but the Mediterranean cultures had better get used to opening their sites and monuments a little more regularly.

As readers may know, the BBC is to remake Kenneth Clark’s epic Civilisation for a new audience. Much discussion has already begun. What is civilisation? Is it properly plural or singular? Doesn’t the term imply a hierarchy of values, which will necessarily offend some viewers in a multicultural world? (Answer: yes!) And while we’re at it, isn’t our civilisation, which seems able to combine extreme sentimentality with extreme pornography, in a radical decline? I’ve been reading a wonderful book by John Hale, the former prof of Italian studies, who suffered a horrible stroke just after completing the first draft of The Civilisation of Europe in the Renaissance. He quotes a colleague who, as he embarked on the project, asked him: ‘Are the rules of ice hockey part of civilisation?’ Very good question, and not a bad place to start.

I’m busy filming in Scotland at the moment, three documentaries about the Scots and the English in the Union, through the eyes and the stories of writers — Boswell, Johnson, Burns, Scott, Hugh MacDiarmid and so on. It’s tremendous fun although I’m slightly uneasy. After an on-air spat with Alex Salmond, I was warned: ‘Andrew Marr will find there are consequences.’ I had a brief mental image of the Marr family being bundled off to a political re-education camp on the Isle of Mull, but all that’s happened so far is a single disembodied voice shouting ‘BBC propaganda’ when my cameraman brought out his tripod.

One of my main enthusiasms in life has been alcohol, particularly whisky. But I am now under the care of a stroke specialist who feels that people like me should abjure the sauce. I’m being very well-behaved, but I don’t want to be fanatical, so I do drink a little, but only when I am abroad. Of course, this means that there would be for me a huge upside to a ‘yes’ vote: I could go home from London — and still break open the Talisker.

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  • rjbh

    Andrew…whatever you think, Alex Salmond may well think differently, and it is Alex Salmonds opinion which counts.

  • Cymrugel

    Come off it Mr Marr!
    I accept that on most issues you can play honest broker, but Scottish independence is not one of them. Bit to close to home for you or the BBC to affect lofty disinterest.
    Salmond caught you bang to rights. You had dropped the supposed “impartiality” and were speaking off your own bat to someone who’s political views you dislike and which threaten you.
    And please spare us the silly nonsense about being oppressed and harassed when you are called to account. This insistence on trying to portray chubby chops Salmond as some sort of would be dictator is ridiculous to anyone who lives in Scotland. You don’t have to agree with the man or even like him, but making him out a fascist is insulting rubbish.
    Basically the comfy Londoncentric view of Scotland you are comfortable with is being effectively challenged for the first time and if it breaks away you are fretting over how it will affect your career. A lot of English people are going to wonder why a Scot is appearing on high profile news programmes after secession aren’t they?
    The BBC is not at all “impartial” on this issue. The very assumptions that most of you work on are being challenged and you don’t like it a bit. The foundation assumptions of your lives have been shown to be built on sand and you are very angry indeed that the SNP are rocking the boat; hence the anger at Salmond.

    • Terry Field

      Honest broker!
      When has he ever been that???

  • Terry Field

    The arrogance of prima donnas like Marr, Snow , Dimbleby etc is exactly what is wrong with the TV media in the UK – they are so deranged, they think delivering the current affairs and news in detail without their damned opininons rammed down the throat of the audience is inadequate journalism.
    The BBC is loathed more each day by very large sections of the country on all political sides,because its news is a propaganda thought-management exercise.
    Marr is married to Miss Ashley as was; she writes extensively of his illness in support of a politicised health system, That is abuse of the media. Plain and simple.
    The ex economics editor was a ‘friend’ of Brown, as it was reported, and we are supposed to shut up and accept their lack of bias? Dream on.
    God when will the BBC be broken up and our money split between competing tv companies?
    Where is freedom of expression – not found much in England any more.
    I recall Snow interviewing a christian woman and sneering at her that she may be psychologically disturbed because she rejected homosexuality as acceptable. She was and is perfectly entitled to argue a point without the brute questioning her mental balance; he is a propagandist; always was. He said he ‘wants to change the world’. Sod off; read the news. Report without personal comment.
    I too would like to change the world and get rid of these arrogant interlopers from the TV media.
    The name Snow or Dimbleby seems to mean you ‘own’ and control the TV media – how the hell have these people been allowed to assume such authority.It is utterly grotesque.
    The vacuum that lets them do this MUST be filled. They need to get their marching orders; there are many great intellects in the country who never get airtime. A huge lost opportunity.
    Politics is twisted in England because England is twisted by the media.

    • Jambo25

      Spot on about the BBC. The present head of News and Current Affairs at BBC Scotland started off as a Labour student activist

      • Terry Field

        It is over as a respected impartial news organisation.
        The knives are out, and it has itself to blame.

    • A wonderfully lucid exposition, if I may say so, Terry.

  • terregles2

    The funniest threat was the threat by the BT campaign that Scotland might be unable to view the BBC if we vote for independence.
    I suspect that might have caused yet another rise in the YES vote.

  • john

    London elite versus Scottish yoboes! Come on Scots!