Grey Gowrie
Author’s Note
‘The Andrians’ is an elegy, a lament for a friend: the Greek painter and shipowner, Leonidas Goulandris (1927-2009). It is dedicated to another friend, Leonidas’s twin brother, Alexander (Aleko). A third Greek art collector and shipowner, also a native of the island of Andros, George Embiricos, was older. He died since the poem was written, in his nineties. The poem is also an elegy for the Cold War, the nuclear standoff between Soviet Russia and the Western Powers, principally the USA.
The Goulandris brothers’ lives, and my own, were governed by the Cold War. They were also hugely affected by the preceding ‘hot’ war, which we were too young to have served in. The Western economies grew, vigorously. They needed oil, and the Goulandris and Embiricos ‘great seaslug tankers’ shipped it around the world. Shipping charges are linked to unloading, so cargo would often appreciate while in transit. I was in no way involved in this lucrative business, although the firms I worked for derived benefit from buying and selling works of art. Most of the great Greek shipowning families were keen art collectors. But I also depended on the stalemate peace and prosperity which the Cold War allowed. I am of the first generation in my paternal family not to have served, and usually fought, in the military. Our species lived dangerously (and from the point of view of the health of most other species perhaps criminally) between 1945 and 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall. But in the West even those not making fortunes were able to share in the prosperity (free higher education, for example) and pursue life and liberty as we saw fit. We were spoiled children in a way our own grandchildren will not be.
Poems register ambiguities. ‘The Andrians’ is an ambivalent lament for our time in the sun.

The Andrians
In our rooms, our heads,
Aleko and Leonidas,
childhood twins played
wild celestial rounders
in which the otherworld aliens of Andros
kicked, bowled, served, threw
quoits of interplanetary
debris, star fragments
hardened by Earth
for us to hit out of bounds
of this galaxy or the next.
Us: Ursus Major
and Minor and me.
In my room, my head
I share a childhood
ten years before time
with yours; another island,
country-sized, Ireland,
with one of the Cyclades.
I break, Leonidas,
long drawn out days
of mourning omertà,
miss our long lunches
at Montpeliano
now you and all
the dead are ‘beyond
succour and hospitality’
and risk twenty years’
devotion to trace
on a map of islands
a burned, elegiac
musical mantra
in hopeless hope
of arming the survivor.
Though anyone born,
as we three were,
mid-20s to mid-40s
of the twentieth century
of the cross is governed
less by actuality
than an idea of world war,
the shadow moves
into every room.
You had an edge: voices
irredeemably male
by the time Greece fell.
Mother was adamant.
One leaves one’s house
in town, in Athens,
neither for Turks nor,
certainly, for Germans.
Father fell in, as usual.
It was cold. There was not
enough to eat. The Germans
scarfed what there was.
Leonidas caught frostbite.
The worst was watching,
from our miserable security,
people, other children,
hauled dead from hunger,
indifference down streets
in commandeered carts
and wheelbarrows: some
of them ours no doubt.
The Acropolis stored
grain behind barbed wire.
Andros seemed far
as Formosa, travel was
verboten and in any case
the British stole our boats.
That, in the end,
is what saved us of course.
October ’44
Stalin winked at Churchill
and handed him Greece.
Sixty years, still counting,
great seaslug tankers
oil all the wheels
of our world by crawling
over the seven seas ―
Ras Tanura, Mobile, Milford Haven.
The world cannot get enough
or pay enough …
think of the paintings!
Picassos, Pollocks, Bacons,
world-shrinking Giacomettis,
a long lovely girl by Modigliani:
spoils of peace and freedom
whose worth, when you think of it,
is only what other people think
it might be. Inestimable
beacons of valueless value,
may they sustain you.
My war was spent
heroically in de Valera’s
Dublin or an empty hotel
in Co. Clare where the Shannon
slouches towards the Atlantic
to mingle with submarines.
Father, Rifle Brigade in Africa,
bored by changing for dinner
in the middle of a war,
joined the SAS. This did for him. Behind Rommel’s lines
he ran into Italians
who shot then spent a week
trying to save him.
It is our century’s paradigm
of care and cruelty:
tanks and ambulances,
bullets and saline drips.
(His father, the VC,
narrowly shaved: Gallipoli.)
I knew he was there, in heaven.
Oddly miniaturised, reptilian,
my heaven, Hieronymus’s hell,
fashioned at low tide
by an Irish estuary,
crawled with immortals.
I knew I would trap, stroke him
reborn as frog or water-beetle,
safe among the reeds at Killaloe.
Death died when his father-in-law,
Grandfather and I, in Wellingtons,
netted a stickleback.
On a map
where you two were,
in Athens, slightly torn,
hid by the back stairs,
Greece too looked torn.
Islands were bits of plaster
fallen off the walls of Asia
or thrown in mythic,
synthetic, unsympathetic
rage by a blind god
into a sea too shallow,
too small, Aleko, to sink them.
From a few miles out
the dovecotes of Andros
look like fortresses.
Those aliens, intergalactic
summer storm creatures,
drawn from Puck or Ariel
rather than Sci-Fi
or even The Odyssey,
clocked a few aces
back in the mid-1930s
versus Castor and Pollux.
Weapons forged for them
as nations mauled each other,
undreamt by the armourer
we met in a schoolroom,
slow-footed Hephaestos,
proved quite visionary
in the end: ultrasound,
laser beams, radar blips,
Attic Morse and worldwide
webs right out of this world.
*Are things so
utterly different now?
If you Google the island
as we prepare to leave it,
as Leonidas has left it,
forever, slipping away
politely into that other
dimension which, no surprise,
is fictional like this one,
there lies Andros. None other.
Allow – what? – fifty years
of peace, south of Macedonia
at least; allow for the awful
clothes of comfort culture
(worse in Crete or Corfu):
men in shorts and sandals,
women topless with
peeling, unappetising
red lobster bosoms
likely to catch a crab;
allow all that migration
of lemming northerners
and the rise of English,
a nasal touristic whine
not pebbly vocables
ancient as sea-dark wine;
allow for the fatuity
of pizza beside this sea
and still there are Andrians
to infiltrate, admire:
black-eyed, heartfelt men;
black-eyed, luminous women
zoomed in on by the mind
from satellite or star.
Our own children
live today in the thick
of what seems actuality
but their children know better.
The world is not what you make
of it but what you make up.
They gaze at screens, shades
programmed to interact
with them: TVs, VDUs
now you can wave at, talk to;
Ali Baba or Babi Yar,
history and poetry,
tragedy and comedy
no longer masks but on key,
on tap when you need them.
Dressing up as a sheep
to escape mortal hurt
from an unreasoning
monocular giant is just
another video game
at the other end of the cave
or other side of the grave.
is seldom heroic
but what leads up to it
may be. Your identity,
Leonidas, your beautiful
lost butterfly blown
thousands of miles to sea,
has quit Jouxtens, Gstaad,
Athens, Eaton Square
and the limewashed island
to resume a mineral life,
to chemists the birth of life.
You who lost the power
of speech before your
death are a voice: a voice to me
now and always will be.
do you fret over women
past, present, even
in dreamy future?
I do not, although I used to.
I feel like a prowler when
I approach a canvas
and guilty, which is insane,
as if to paint were a vice
fraught with old mischief.
Remember Titian called
his ducal pornography
The Andrians though I believe
drink was on his mind.
I wonder if Kandinsky
felt like me, or de Staël.
The latter topped himself
after all, in Antibes.
Later, when you are really
working you’re more like a cop –
whodunnit? who’s going to do it? –
or an archaeologist. You look for a sign
in the sand before the waves
gently obliterate …’
‘Don’t worry.
I will anchor your sign
or put to sea without you.’
‘That, in any case.’
Dying seldom heroic,
pain is the real thing
and loss. Pain calls upon
great chords of courage.
When Achilles’s spear
took Hector in the throat
it shaved the windpipe
thereby allowing them both
a terrific, all-stops-out proto-Verdi duet.
My wife’s father, unspeakably
murdered at Plötzenzee, spirits a letter home.
Even in retrospect
you pray for him to find fulfilment in his fight
for air and decency.
Mine wanted to send
a message before he died –
to my mother? to his mother?
to his sons? his CO?
There was no pen
and he spoke no Italian.
Giordano Bruno,
your hero, Leonidas,
strove like you to make signs from systems and vice-versa. Fire, earth, water, air
moved, as they do, and so were subject to geometry. This puzzled Protestants, enraged the Inquisition
who tied him to a stake
in Rome, at Campo dei Fiori, strewn with sticks not flowers, and set them alight.
It was the seventeenth
of February, 1600
and in that same year
on the second of August
John, Earl of Gowrie,
famous too for magic
(we call it science),
was stabbed with his brother
as a creditor of the King;
the bodies quartered, hanged;
posthumously, thank God.
Bruno’s unthinkable pain
and what they wanted to do
to John and to the Master
of Ruthven, the brother, rebuke our own exit.
We three were just spoiled
children of Cold War,
freed by nuclear standoff
between eagle and bear
(sixty years! it may end
in tears and proliferation)
to follow life and liberty
and happiness without
being put to the question.
Now an age may no longer
smooth over suffering,
ice melts and the seas
weep. The Wall came down;
with it our world. Aleko,
Leonidas, your world
and mine – for our kind
more ways of ending
than one. East will move west over again, south north.
But always there is the island and an encroaching sea.
If Giordano
was right, signs are significant themselves as well as faithful,
for a time at least,
to what they signify.
On a flight to Paris
Aleko crossed himself
as I did. He was up front,
open to that instrument
of hope and torture,
the truer witness.
We were visiting
Mrs O’Metty – was that David
Sylvester’s joke or Beckett’s?
She stared at us in real
space, identical
with scratchy oils and drawings
all over Aleko’s walls.
When I swim in Aleko’s pool
Bacon’s John Edwards
presides: identical,
again. The masters distort
in verisimilitude
of life itself, its quantum
flux and tremor.
We have come to know
Françoise and Marie-Thérèse
as well as our own girls.
Magic we do not believe
starts to come true
in diagrams. When you draw lines,
Leonidas, between the stars
from wherever you are standing
when you look up at night
in the Cyclades or the un-
light-polluted plateaus
of the high Sahara,
you capture the likeness of signs.
You get them. You did,
Leonidas, get them: often, usually,
but never enough for you.
So you return.
Your Neapolitan
found stars immeasurable
solar systems – with planets? with people? – lonely
seamarks of Renaissance
yet Christocentric thought,
like ‘Through the light
which shines in natural
beings one mounts upward
to the light which presides
over them.’ Remember Wallace Stevens’s President ordaining the bee to be immortal, all
our centuries on? Bless
such men.
I hope one does
mount upward, Leonidas. Not because that is tenable but because the harbingers are come, the forerunners, and you are one of them. One for your twin brother and for me. I think of you, dead, as a point of light; will you to illumine
us and heal us a little
as the shamans do.
Try to illumine your twin. Losing one is worse
than any death: a bio-atrocity; half your soul fled; a terror.
Your lucky thirties
fell in the 1950s:
the Ike-bound, chain-smoking post-war recovery years.
You and Aleko made
the world go round and gained its bounty. Remember Ten Forty Fifth Avenue, floating above
the centre of Central Park?
One could almost glide
on canvas down to the Met. Martinis, Taittinger at 6pm; Benny Goodman playing Avalon on the just-invented stereo.
How electric to build,
re-build a family fortune, multiply it like dreams:
the seaslugs crawling;
Ras Tanura, Mobile, all
conduits to Milford Haven; Clausewitz; plain arithmetic; keeping quiet; scuppering a bid. (Soon your successor
may be carrying water
in the twenty-first century famine wars.)
You were the masters
of that universe
when I was nineteen
and spent my Long Vac
on Sappho’s Lesbos, Mytilene. I lived like a lord
on a quid a day.
Ouzo cost sixpence, beer
four shillings but you got whitebait and fried eggs,
feta, lamb’s liver,
bread, olives, sustenance thrown in with each bottle.
I hired a donkey.
You died before
I could tell you about it, Leonidas.
I wish I’d had
time to tell you.
We say goodbye
to the body, that capsule of anxiety and desire, are left with a traveller in space, an alien,
a calm illusory ghost for conversation. Your friend and rival, the corsair genius George Embiricos, and fellow Andrian, suffers your passing. I imagine us now, another trio,
talking to you also. *
Old gods dance
in cyber space, astral pals. Apollo 13 caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean.
All that far-off undergraduate summer I did nothing
for days but watch a wind
off Troy ruffle waves
up and down and over
the pebbled shore,
watch the old men
squat on pebbles, beat
squid caught that morning against them, all day
slap, bash, for supper,
up and down, all day
beating over and over
squid on the grey stones
to make them tender.
The ‘s’ in Leonidas in this poem is almost silent, so that when read aloud it often sounds like Leoneeda, the faint sibilant after the last syllable being voluntary and employed when it sounds appropriate. Leonidas always called me by my formal first name, Alexander, and never made use of my usual nickname of Grey.
Leonidas’s work drew inspiration from the sixteenth-century hermetic philosopher, Giordano Bruno (1548 1600), who was born near Naples. I am indebted to the work of the late Frances A. Yates for the quotation ‘Through the light which shines …’ and indeed for all references to Giordano, especially Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition and Lull and Bruno (both Routledge and Keegan Paul).
There have been a number of studies of the so-called Gowrie Conspiracy. From the Ruthven family’s perspective the conspiratorial element was a smokescreen to obscure the murder of the Earl and his brother, the Master of Ruthven. Andrew Lang, of Red, Blue etc. Fairy Book fame and a co- translator of Homer, published the most extensive: James VI and the Gowrie Mystery (1902). William Roughead’s The Riddle of the Ruthvens (1919), which was dedicated to Joseph Conrad, is more sympathetic to the family’s view. Ruthven in this poem is pronounced Riven, and Killaloe in Co. Clare Killaloo. Plötzenzee is the prison near Berlin where many of the conspirators of the 20 July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life were executed.
The terms ‘harbingers’ and ‘forerunners’ are drawn from ‘The Forerunners’ by George Herbert (1593 1633), the great poet born in Montgomeryshire, where I live. The reference to Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) comes from his meditative poem, ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’. I am indebted for the idea, and the phrase, that the dead are ‘beyond succour and hospitality’ to a restaurant review in The Sunday Times by A. A. Gill.
– Grey Gowrie

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.