It was a shock but not a surprise (if that is possible) to learn this May of the death at 49 of Peter Kanellakopoulos, the owner of the school in Kalamata where I worked from 2002 to 2005. Peter’s Greek name was Panayótis, which is shortened in most parts of Greece to ‘Panos’, but sometimes abbreviated in Kalamata to ‘Potis’. Make a minor adjustment to the spelling and this also means ‘drinker’- a most apt hypocoristic in Peter's case. We had in common a lively appreciation of ‘Johnnie’, the beverage that the late Christopher Hitchens called ‘Mr Walker’s Amber Restorative’ and ‘the Breakfast of Champions’. If you offer a guest in Greece a drink and they ask ‘have you got a Johnnie?’ they are not jumping the gun, just stating a preference. (For non-Brits, I should explain that 'johnny' is British demotic for 'condom'.) A young man called Ilias kept a 'kava' or booze shop nearby, and Peter would call him to have bottles of Johnnie delivered whenever he ran dry, which was daily. Peter’s relationship with Johnnie was far more intense than mine, though, and very sadly the result of this infatuation is now obvious.
Peter was a very generous bloke who worked diligently in the background of a number of people’s lives to help them with their jobs, their education, their taxes, their accommodation, whatever. If he didn’t always get the appreciation due to him for this, it was probably because face-to-face he could be rather hard work. Most people who knew him would probably agree that he was not the easiest person to deal with in the early stages of acquaintanceship. A friend of mine who knew him much better than I did described him as monokómmatos, 'one piece', by which she meant unyielding, wooden, blunt. Few can tolerate silence in a social situation as long as he could. When I first had dealings with him around 1996, after a fifty second hiatus I would struggle to say something, anything, to keep the lines of communication open but when I managed to spit something out, he would frequently ignore it or change the subject. Thus in those early days he often made me feel like some prattling halfwit interrupting the cerebrations of a deeply serious scholar. It was a relief later to hear that he had the same effect on most people, and much later, comical to learn that he had thought I was the one who was hard work. Even after I understood him better, some of his thought processes remained baffling. One summer, we needed to advertise for new teachers. Peter wrote an ad for the local rag and asked me to cast an eye over it. I pointed out that although it provided a contact number, it didn’t give the name of the school.
‘We don’t want people to know we need more teachers,’ he said.
‘But we do need more teachers. Why else are we advertising?’
I never worked that one out.
Before I moved permanently to Kalamata I would visit the school perhaps three times a year to run seminars and study skills courses, and over time Peter and I established a modus vivendi maintained in large part by a common interest in ethanol. The study skills courses were for kids who were applying to British universities. While I taught them, Peter would be dealing with their parents, or on the phone to the universities, or sorting out their UCAS forms. The bizarre things that kids and parents said to us in the office became a staple of our conversations.
‘I want him to go to an easy university with a direct air-link to Kalamata, and no Pakistanis’ one father stipulated. His son Vangelis wanted to study chemical engineering but could barely compose a sentence in English, so the father was given to understand that the options would have to be narrowed down to one: a desperate university. Peter duly found one, and the other two requirements were waived. (The racism, incidentally, was just something you learned to live with. Few people of the father’s age in Kalamata had had dealings with other ethnicities at the time.) In due course, we received a wad of bumph to be completed and returned to Bumson-Seates University, and Vangelis was required to provide assorted documentation. He brought in a stack of forms and certificates for this and that, accidentally including a doctor’s note pronouncing him free of gonorrhoea. One form from the university asked if he wanted mixed or single-sex student accommodation. Vangelis didn’t understand this; the word ‘sex’ has been borrowed into Greek, but designates rumpy-pump, not gender.
‘What’s mean?’ Vangelis asked.
‘With women, or just with men?’ I said, erroneously assuming he knew we were talking about digs. ‘No, no! I like girls!’ he gasped, horrified. What sort of question was that, for God’s sake? I wonder if he went home and reported this impertinence to his father, who no doubt execrated poufters even more than he did Pakis: we were in a deeply conservative part of a very conservative country. Later in the course, I invited back a couple of graduates from the previous year to regale the rookies with their experiences of British universities. One of these was Peter’s nephew, Argyris, who had returned from Edinburgh with a faceful of studs and metal rings and a t-shirt held together with safety pins. Had he been present, I suspect Vangelis’s father would have put a stop to his son’s university career before it started, and got him a job as a waiter on the sea front. Argyris informed the kids about Freshers’ Week:
‘Yeah, in the first week, like, everybody’s absolutely off their face!’
I was confident that the idiom was unknown to the Kalamata kids, and did not ask Argyris to explain it in case they went home and relayed this snippet to their parents, who were already worried they were sending their tender young shoots to Sodom and Gomorrah. ‘I feel like a fucking social worker,’ Peter would say, sloshing ice and Johnnie into our glasses late in the evening, after he’d spent all day answering parents’ qualms and queries. Some of the qualms he was so impatient with were in fact the perfectly reasonable fears of parents for kids about to leave home for the first time – not everybody was exercised about the availability of feta in Salford. Now that Peter’s own son is of the same age as those kids were back in 1998, no doubt he would have understood better.
One September I had to get the teachers together to design syllabuses for each level of kids at the school. The teachers were not paid for the workshops, and I got a bit worried as to how they’d react. Peter sensibly suggested I quit trying to be The Knower and The Leader, and just chuck the problems at the teachers to thrash out in groups. The week I had been dreading was a success. I e-mailed a friend in England:
Well, the workshops are going very well - never seen this lot so together, so conscientious and so thoughtful about what they are teaching and why. It's 100 times better than my wildest dreams, as I thought I would never be able to sell it to them.
I was dead chuffed. I went into Peter’s office to get a book. He was clearly crapulous, as betrayed by the smell of the menthol lozenges he kept in a drawer to disguise morning Johnnie-breath, and the fact that he was wearing dark glasses in the office with the shutters half closed.
‘Somebody’s gonna have to tidy up that classroom, it’s fucking chaos in there’ he growled.
(Congratulations, Steve, it’s going really well. Jolly good show, μπράβο σου, etc.)
Peter later had to ask a colleague why I seemed so angry. In the end we had it out and he said all the right things about the syllabus design workshop, but adding that he didn't see why he needed to be diplomatic with me, didn't we know each other better than that, etc. I let it go before we began to sound like an elderly married couple.
Ten days or so before I left Kalamata for good, Peter's brother-in-law died suddenly and horrifyingly of anaphylactic shock, and I didn't see PK after that. I did not contact him again after leaving Greece in 2005, which is a pity, as he seems to have become somewhat isolated over the years. His funeral was well-attended, and grief was genuine, as he had helped a great many people in his unobtrusive, behind-the-scenes manner. I owe him an apology for not recognising this ages ago, and am sorry it’s such a belated one.
I live here.