It was reading your website that sparked my interest in writing about the posthumous saga of the PLF house. So I’m delighted to return the favour by contributing some personal reflections.
I spoke with Irini Geroulanou, the deputy director of the Benaki, a couple of times on the phone, and also sent her lists of queries. She always replied promptly and helpfully. Without her help, I wouldn’t have been able to get inside the house, and might have suffered the disappointments of Max Long. Irini is, by the way, a reader of your site.
My impression is that Irini and the Benaki are committed to honouring the terms of the bequest, but on their own terms. My impression is also that this may take many years, if it’s done according to the Benaki’s current plan for what Irini calls a ‘holistic’ solution; ie, that no work be started until all the funds are secure. When I asked if the Benaki, having failed to raise funds, would sell the house, she insisted that this would not happen.
As we know, the Benaki has had severe financial problems. The outgoing director, Angelos Devorakis, has spoken of severe salary and budget cuts. Irini told me that the financial problems are not solely due to the expansion in Athens: since the crash of 2008, the museum has been obliged to restructure its relationship with the Greek government. I’m not an economist, but this also suggests that not much will happen for a long while.
Another of the questions I raised with Irini was whether the Benaki would be amenable to working with a British-based charity, which could raise funds for the restoration. I had heard that something along these lines was proposed to the Benaki a couple of years ago, and that the museum turned it down. Irini said she hadn’t heard about this offer; perhaps Angelo Devorakis might know.
Irini, though, was against the idea anyway. She said the museum preferred to receive direct donations, and a request directing the money to the PLF house, as opposed to the Benaki’s numerous other projects. She was under the impression that donors could do this through the Benaki’s website. But, at the time of going to press, this was not the case, at least on the English website. To me, this shows how high the PLF house ranks on the Benaki’s to-do list.
I thought that a combination of money troubles and institutional inflexibility might be the source of the problem, and that both might reflect high professional ambitions. So I was astounded to find that the house has no resident caretaker, and that many of PLF and JLF’s personal possessions are still in place [as seen recently by Rick Stein]. Having read PLF’s books and Artemis Cooper’s biography, I was able to identify some of the items as biographically
important. Anyone could break in and walk off with them.
While Benaki has stored the most important books, the majority of PLF’s possessions, including almost all of his books, items of handmade furniture and clothing, and many original photographs, are not secure. It is this majority of items that preserve the ambience of the house. If the Benaki is allowed to rent out the house, then there is no reason for it not to install a local person or a couple of interns as permanent caretakers. I suggested these ideas to Irini, and she rejected them.
This is not a safe state of affairs, andnot one I had expected to encounter, given that the Benaki is a major museum.
Clearly, the Benaki cannot find the relatively small amount of money needed for restoration – or even to secure the place in the meantime. Therefore, it should either sell the property to a institution capable of fulfilling the terms of the bequest; or allow a foreign ‘Friends of Paddy’ group to raise funds – perhaps on the understanding that it wouldn’t have a say in how the Benaki spends its donations. But I have the strong impression that the Benaki would rather do nothing in the hope of dealing with other institutions: EU funding was mentioned. To me, this is the wrong kind of inflexibility: the kind of bureaucratic inertia that is creating a dangerous situation at Kalamitsi.
I am not unsympathetic to the Benaki’s financial troubles, not all of which are of its own making. But I left the house deeply concerned by the risks the Benaki is running in its handling of the bequest, and disheartened by the apparent absence of prospects for improvement. Three and a half years have passed since PLF’s death. Publicity from the publication of The Broken Road and Artemis Cooper’s biography has created a unique opportunity for fundraising. But the Benaki seems determined not to use it. Perhaps my article will stir things up a bit. If the Benaki changed tack, and invited a British group to raise funds, I would contribute immediately. I’m sure that many other PLF readers would too.
Finally, I was greatly impressed by Elpida Beloyannis and Christos the gardener. Both have both done their utmost to keep the house going. Shutters aside, the interior is clean and cared for. It was a privilege to visit the house, and see their devotion to it and the memories of JLF and PLF.
With thanks for your website,