London calling

Mike Sweet visits The Hellenic Centre in the UK capital

Once the home of the Swedish Academy for gymnastics, the elegant building that has been home to London’s Hellenic Centre since the early nineties, sits proudly on a quiet Marylebone street, just around the corner from Baker Street Underground station.

The students are all ages and from all walks of life, education in all its forms is at the heart of the Centre’s work. Its mission is to make known and analyse aspects of the Hellenic tradition, not as folklore, but as a vibrant contemporary culture.

The director of this unique, privately-run institution which recently celebrated its 15th anniversary, is Cyprus born Agatha Kalisperas.

With a background in architecture and psychology, Kalisperas has been running the centre since 1997, directing the its ambitious dual function; to act as a vibrant reference point for London’s Greek and Cypriot community and to promote Greek cultural activity in the British capital.

Without any financial support from the governments of Greece and Cyprus, the centre is an independent charitable foundation, privately funded through its over one thousand corporate and individual members. To help balance the books, it also operates as a conference centre.

As Kalisperas leads me through the labyrinth that makes up the four-storied building built in 1900, the enthusiasm she shows for her mission is infectious.

“We have over 400 students at anyone time, learning and improving their Greek here” Agatha points out, as we sneak a glimpse of a class underway through an old oak-paneled glass door.

The students are all ages and from all walks of life.

Education in all its forms is at the heart of the centre’s work. Its mission is to make known and analyse aspects of the Hellenic tradition, not as folklore, but as a vibrant contemporary culture.

In the kitchens, a lunch is being prepared. I’ve arrived on an auspicious day. It is Kathara Deftera, Clean Monday, the first day of Lent.

The menu includes Laganes – the special bread for the day, Moujendra (brown lentils and rice) a Cypriot dish, Mavromatica (black eye beans) and calamari.

Lunch will be served in the large space (once the gymnasium) that, in keeping with its tradition of agility, transforms itself on a regular basis, from a performance space (that can seat an audience of nearly 200), to gallery, to dining hall.

On the ground floor is The Friends Room, which is offered to artists with a connection to Greece, or whose work explores Hellenic identity. Given the West London location and that it is provided for free, The Friends’ Room has become a popular exhibition space for young artists.

It’s available for a month per show. Each exhibition is promoted through the centre’s publicity and the artist is able to hold a reception for the opening.

The process for an artist interested in mounting an exhibition in this prestigious W1 address, is to submit examples of work. Unsurprisingly, The Friends’ Room is booked until mid 2011.

Creating projects with large institutions such as Athens’ Benaki Museum and collaborations with such organisations is an important part of the work and illustrates the high-level connections the centre has made. Plans are underway for a major exhibition project to coincide with the London Olympics in 2012.

On future possibilities for collaboration, as far afield as Australia, Kalisperas is keen to point out that the centre is “always open to suggestions and new ideas” and that, “the door is always open. It’s much more than a building”.

It is a dynamic, changing organisation, with its own life and rhythms that continue all day long, sometimes into the small hours. In this microcosm of the Hellenic world, activity never stops.”

As I stepped out of the warm convivial surroundings of this unique outpost of Hellenism, into a cold grey London morning in February, I reflected on what is a remarkable institution.

A quotation from Cavafy’s poem Poseidonians used on the opening page of the brochure for the Hellenic Centre’s fifteenth anniversary, says it all.

The Poseidonians forgot the Greek language
after so many centuries of mingling
with Tyrrhenians, Latins, and other foreigners.
The only thing surviving from their ancestors
was a Greek festival, with beautiful rites,
with lyres and flutes, contests and wreaths.
And it was their habit toward the festival’s end
to tell each other about their ancient customs
and once again to speak Greek names
that only few of them still recognized.
And so their festival always had a melancholy ending
because they remebered that they too were Greeks,
they too once upon a time were citizens of Magna Graecia;
and how low they’d fallen now, what they’d become,
living and speaking like barbarians,
cut off so disastrously from the Greek way of life.

C.P. Cavafy 1906 – Translation Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

The Hellenic Centre 16-18 Paddington Street, Marylebone. London W1U 5AS

Mike Sweet is an Australian journalist living in Athens who regularly contributes to Neos Kosmos.