Mistaken identity

One of the daughters of my former PhD supervisor was about to get married. As a friend of his family, I was asked to be one of the four ushers at the service, which was to be held at St Giles and St Andrews, better known as ‘Stoke Poges Church’, whose graveyard has been immortalised by the poet Gray in his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”. The church stands on land that was once owned by William Penn (1644-1718) after whom the American state of Pennsylvania is named.

Stoke Poges Church

As an usher, I was required to wear formal ‘black tie’. So, not possessing such clothes, I had to hire the necessary formal attire. I went to a branch of Moss Brothers, who hire clothing, and was fitted out with all the trimmings, morning suit, trousers, waistcoat, shirt, bow tie, and a top hat, but no cummerbund. Getting a top hat that fitted properly presented great difficulty to the assistant at the clothes hire shop.  He looked at my head knowledgeably with an air that suggested to me that he was an experienced clothing fitter. After a moment’s contemplation, he decided that I needed a certain size. The hat he chose by eye was far too small. It wobbled uneasily on the crown of my head. He selected another size. At this stage, I was still impressed that he appeared to be able to judge head size by eye. The next hat was far too large. It slipped right over my ears. I became less impressed with the fellow. Eventually, he found one that almost fitted my head; its rim rested on the tops of my ear lobes. That was the best he could do. I hired this and all the rest of the required ‘gear’.

Just before the wedding, I got dressed in my formal wear at the bride’s parents’ home. I had endless difficulties trying to get dressed in the two-piece waistcoat, which seemed to separate into two separate items whatever I did. One of my fellow ushers managed to get this on to me correctly as well as to fasten my bow tie (another skill I have yet to master). Sadly, I do not possess any pictures of me in this ‘get up’. Then, we set off for the church.

Of the four ushers, two were Christian and two were Jewish. The two Christians were on duty outside the church. The two ushers inside the church were Jewish by birth. I was one of them and the other was Victor, a friend of the bride. Victor, whom I had not seen for several decades, was one of my classmates at primary school in Golders Green back in the 1950s.  My duty as usher was to help people find a seat in the church and to hand out leaflets, which I referred to as ‘programmes’ until one lady with a plummy voice told me sternly:

“They’re not programmes, dear; they’re Orders of Service, don’t you know.”

Well, you learn something every day.

About 25 years later, I communicated with Victor, whom I had not seen since the wedding, via the LinkedIn website. We agreed to meet for lunch at an Italian restaurant near London’s Charing Cross Station as Victor was coming up to London from his home on the south coast. I arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before Victor. When he came through the door, I recognised him. He had aged but was still recognisably Victor, even though his hair which had been red when we were children was no longer that colour. Red hair, or ‘orange’ as I used to call it as a child, fascinated me in my young days. I greeted him, and he shook my hand, saying:

“Hmmm … you are not the person I was expecting to meet.”

I was not sure whether to feel pleased or upset that he had mixed me up with someone else from his past.

Meeting the Colonel

My parents were against supporting dictatorial regimes. For example, during the 1960s and ‘70s, they would only buy pickled gherkins that had been made in Western Europe, in places like West Germany or Holland. They would not have bought Hungarian or Polish, or even Bulgarian gherkins because by doing so they believed that some of the money they spent might well end up being used build weapons that could be used against the ‘free’ West. They were against visiting countries behind the “Iron Curtain” or General Franco’s Spain.

PATT 1

My father had several Greek colleagues. At a dinner held by one of them, they met a Greek millionaire, one of Greece’s wealthiest men. My mother noticed that he was fiddling with worry beads and did not know what they were. She asked him, and he threw the beads across the table to her. They were coral beads on a gold chain. She looked at them, and then began to hand them back, when he said:

“Keep them.”

“Don’t be silly, I can’t keep these,” my mother replied, realising their worth.

“No, please let me give them to you.”

My mother and the millionaire struck up an amicable relationship, and near the end of the evening, he said:

“You must bring your family to Greece as my guests.”

My mother thought he was joking, but after that occasion my parents kept getting invitations from him.

PATT 2

The symbol of the Junta is circled in this picture taken in rural Greece during the late 1960s

This dinner party happened soon after the 21st of April 1967, when a group of colonels, the Junta, took control of the Government of Greece replacing a democracy with a dictatorship. How could they possibly accept their new friend’s kind invitation to a country with a dictatorship? Much as they would have liked to accept, going to Greece was even worse than buying gherkins from a Communist country.

The invitation kept being repeated. After about two years, I came up with a suggestion. I said to my parents that if we were to become guests of the millionaire, we would contribute little or nothing to the economy of the Greek Junta. Miraculously, my parents saw my point and decided to accept the invitation.

 

On arrival in Greece, we found it very difficult to spend any of our own money. We were looked after by one of the millionaire’s former employees. If he saw us so much as looking at something, he would try to buy it for us. We learned to look at things discretely!

We saw little of our host, a busy man. One evening, we were invited to a party at his large estate on the edge of Athens. It was a lovely place with numerous outhouses including an open-air eating area with its own large kitchen building. Our host met and introduced us to various guests. After a while he introduced us to a gentleman, saying:

“Please meet Colonel Pattakos.”

PATT 3

Colonel Stylianos Pattakos. [Source; Wikipedia]

My parents were polite, but doubtless horrified after shaking hands with Pattakos. Stylianos Pattakos (1912-2016), a Greek military officer, was one of the principal leaders of the Greek military dictatorship. Pattakos is best known outside Greece for his decision to strip the singer Melina Mercouri of her Greek citizenship. She is reported to have said of Pattakos, who was the Minister of the Interior:

“I was born a Greek and I will die a Greek. Mr Pattakos was born a fascist and he will die a fascist.”

Unloved by most Greeks, Pattakos is said to have told a reporter that when, he returned to his native Crete, a few months after seizing power, his mother had demanded to know who had put him up to “this evil” (see: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/obituaries/2016/10/09/stylianos-pattakos-last-survivor-of-the-1967-greek-military-junt/).

I feel sure that if they had been able to do so, they would have washed their hands thoroughly after contact with Pattakos.