Letter from Arthur Powell

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 133 POW/1/63
  • Dates of Creation
      6 January 1919 (dated in error as 1918)
  • Physical Description
      10 sheets

Scope and Content

This letter written from the 'Hotel Central' in Athens is long and detailed, being written over several days, starting on a Monday and ending on a Sunday. It is sub-titled in days. Arthur writes for the first time in his new commission as Corporal, from a hotel in Athens. He apologises to his parents, for what might appear as a 'swanky' commission because of his address. Arthur is, however, as 'financially embarrassed as ever'. He has been selected for duty to be put in charge of supplies which are to be distributed between the British and American Legations, as well as an Anglo-Greek firm. Arthur is currently on leave until Friday, after being locked in a railway wagon with his supplies, he expects soon, to return to Salonika. Arthur was surprised to be given leave, it is a privilege only granted to Officers in exceptional circumstances, he writes. Unfortunately the job comes with no allowances and Arthur is finding it difficult to pay his way; to compound the problem the only lodgings Arthur can find are hotels which are expensive. However Arthur has a 'jolly fine room' after asking to be moved from his first which was lice ridden. He jocularly remarks that he has a, 'certain prestige to maintain' as he is the only Englishman in the hotel. Arthur was shocked while looking for a chamber pot to find a, 'great big rat trap' he consequently decided to eat in the cafes. Arthur is finding the food expensive, he is unable to drink the strong coffee which is served he says, in 'egg cups'. He has managed to find an 'English Tea Room' which he visits two or three times a day. He complains bitterly about the lack of meat and the fact that everything is cooked in 'olive oil', and when the dinner eventually arrives it is, 'about sufficient to bait a mouse'. Arthur wistfully sighs for 'one of Mother's makeshift dinners' and regrets the expense when he 'think[s] how many days that money would keep the family in peace times'. Arthur misses writes that he is missing home, but is cheered by the beauty of the place remarking that it is 'the fifth most historical city in the world'. As he writes the letter it is the Greeks 'Christmas Eve', the whole city is on holiday. Arthur explains to his parents that the Greek Calendar is twelve days behind the British Calendar, but four hours in front of Greenwich meantime. There is a Brass Band playing outside his window as he writes; 'Christmas Carolling I presume, the shops are packed, but much more rowdier', Arthur says. Arthur finds the Greeks a, 'funny race of people [who have] several peculiarities'. They appear to have 'heated arguments' and walk around carrying their rosaries, but he finds them handsome, but 'very dark'. Arthur describes the 'fair maid of Athens as in Shakespeare's plays [as] really beautiful', however he notices the women don't walk very well due to 'abnormal' high heels that they wear. Arthur notices however that everyone dresses in the 'European' style, though the poorer classes, 'in the provinces still cling to their native dress'. Arthur muses over the idea of being married to a local girl, he likes the idea of their marriage contract; 'her Father gives you a gratuity of quite a respectable sum and furthermore the girl provides the house'. Arthur remarks though it must feel like, 'being given away with a parcel of tea'. Arthur is revelling in the fact there are no Officers or Military Police about so he, 'can do and dress exactly as I like'. He loves the attention of the Hotel Manager and staff when he leaves the hotel, they all 'stand to attention and salute me, so that I feel like a little tin god'. Arthur struggles with the language and he trusts the waiter to bring him what he thinks Arthur might like (he tips him) Arthur can however manage one or two words. He has discovered the electric tram which runs to Pirus the harbour in Athens. Arthur has made friends with two military naval men from the 'R.N.A.S' (Royal Naval Air Service) they are attached to the aerodrome just outside town, they now all dine out together. Interestingly Arthur mentions in his letter that most products he sees in Greece, particularly in Athens and Salonika have been manufactured in England or France. The Greek army and navy are clothed in British and American manufactured uniforms. Arthur continues to lament over the impecunious state of his finances, he would 'dearly like to buy you all some souvenirs [...] but really believe me I cannot do it'. He says though that he will buy some picture postcard booklets and as the post does not leave until a week on Tuesday, he will add to the 'letter day by day'. Arthur thinks there is a possibility of him being sent to Constantinople before he returns to England. Arthur in his frank observational style draws his parent's attention to the Greeks' persona, and the Greeks' general attitude to life and work; 'I often wonder how this Country manages to pay its way, no mineral wealth and no manufactures. It does however supply the world with dried fruits (currants etc) and olives, but I cannot see how she flourishes on these products. Furthermore they never seem to work, they appear to sit and sup in cafes all day long, playing cards etc.' The Greeks, Arthur writes, revere their Prime Minster, Eletherios Venizelos; 'he is quite a tin god, they sing their National Anthem to him' as well as photographs which are displayed prominently of Lloyd George, Kitchener, Foch Wilson, and Clemenceau. Greece's 'ex-king Constantine's palace' faces the tearoom where Arthur takes his afternoon tea, but 'I do not by any means think it a grand affair, from the front it very much resembles the A.P.A in Oxford Road.' He does though like the orange trees in front of it. Arthur hopes to visit the Acropolis, but thinks he will not have the time, he encloses a pencil sketch of the journey between Salonique and Athens. Arthur has eaten well today 'turkey and chips' as well as eggs and bacon, which he says he has paid a king's ransom for; 'I should have imagined that the eggs were golden ones and that by some mischance the turkey had laid them'. NB: the letter is now over three more days, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. Friday - Unfortunately Arthur had hoped to be away by today, he has had paid his hotel bill and settled other debts, but now finds himself out of pocket again. Much to his chagrin has had to borrow a few pounds from his Military Attaché which, 'will be my first consideration to return it as soon as poss.' Arthur explains that rather than post the collection of postcard photographs (as well those of France and Italy) he will bring them with him when he returns home. Arthur sorely misses news from home and hopes that there will letters waiting for him on his return to his base in Salonika. Saturday - Arthur has travelled to Phaleron, 'a beautiful place by the sea with plenty of facilities for bathing'. It is a lovely tram trip along the shore front, the fare there very reasonable, 'a rate equivalent to that of the Manchester cars'. The weather is pleasant 'just like a mid-summers day in Blighty' even though it is mid-winter there in Athens. Arthur wishes he had taken clothes for tennis and a towel for swimming. Arthur has made friends with a discharged officer from the Greek Army. The gentleman had lived in Manchester for years and has invited Arthur to dinner at his home. Sunday - Arthur has been out to dinner at his Greek friend's house. They shared a good meal, but Arthur is surprised by the humbleness of his home even though his new friend is employed in a respectable and well paid job. Arthur remarks about the lack of furnishings in Greek homes, nothing to the extent which English families do. Greeks, Arthur observes, very rarely dine at home; 'instead they go and lounge about in cafes the best part of the day'. The Greeks he says, only eat two main meals a day, taking only coffee for breakfast in the mornings. Arthur believes he is indefinitely stranded in Athens, but interestingly has bumped into a distant relative of his father's, he is a young man of 26 years (of similar age to Arthur) and comes from Cyprus, he speaks English well, but unfortunately Arthur gives no name or other information. It is New Year's Day and everyone is dressed up. Arthur has watched the King's procession, the spectacle was 'very imposing' but thinks he has watched better Lord Mayor's Day Parades, all the officers are wearing their 'glad rags' Arthur writes.

Dated at: Athens, Greece.