Katsehamos and the Great Idea - Book Reviews

 

Review in ODYSSEY Magazine, March/April 2007.

Peter Prineas, a Greek Australian of Kytherian descent, is the author of 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea', which tells the story of his ancestors migrations to the United States and subsequently to Australia in the early 1900's.

Written with affection and insight, and meticulously researched, the narrative skillfully integrates the personal history of Prineas's family with the broader history of Kythera and Greece, and in particular, with that of the Megali Idea - the 'Great Idea', or Greek ambition to retake Constantinople from the Turks in the early part of the twentieth century and to re-establish the city as the capital of a greater Greece.

Having more than fulfilled his military obligations in a number of wars, Prineas's grandfather, the 'Katsehamos' of the title, ends up in a small town in the Australian outback in the late 1920s. The book traces the rise and fall in the fortunes of these pioneers, who leaving real wars behind them in Greece, ended up becoming embroiled in a local cinema war. Prineas captures the dreams and aspirations of these tenacious first migrants, torn as they were between their real love of Greece and the need to escape crushing poverty through migration. The characters in 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' come alive through the author's lyrical style and effective use of imagery, as well as the skillful juxtaposition of biographical detail with historical fact.

A poignant celebration of early Greek migrants. 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' pays tribute to their lasting contribution to the cultural legacy of Australia.

 

Review by Kiriaki Orfanos, Kythera-Family.Net, 5 April, 2006, 'KATSEHAMOS AND THE GREAT IDEA' by Peter Prineas

I have just read a book that fits neatly into that nexus where man meets history. Peter Prineas’s 'KATSEHAMOS AND THE GREAT IDEA' tells a tale of struggle, courage, stoicism, doggedness and pride that is profoundly recognizable to the children of the Greek diaspora, echoing in the secret part of our soul, to remind us of who we are; where we come from. It presents us with the spectacle, often poignant, always moving, about the young people who were forced out of Greece by historical imperatives beyond their control, into a stubborn and hostile world where they were expected to make their way minus language, minus marketable skills, minus opportunity.

But to think of this only as an account about Greeks for Greeks would be to miss the point. It is more than that; it taps into the experience of everybody who has had to up stakes and move somewhere else in order to make a life. It vibrates with the great migrations that arose out of the two World Wars, the chaos of South-East Asia, the redistribution and redefinition of power in Africa, endemic poverty and the ideological conflicts that continue to bedevil us today. Those who have been forced to migrate to a place not necessarily of their choosing or those who have had to move aside to accommodate them would find elements of this book hauntingly familiar.

History is most interesting when it affects the people you know; the people Prineas is talking about were particularly vulnerable to the effects of world events making it impossible for them to stay in Greece. In order to show their journey as they made their way to Australia via the United States and a war or two, he effortlessly evokes the smoky atmosphere of a kafenion in America full of men missing home and family, showing us his grandfather, Peter as a 16 year old, holding a cigarette in a work-hardened hand with the cocky assurance of a boy-man. Yet he remained a proud Greek and it is eminently believable that he was one of many who chose to go home to fight a battle that was long overdue. A confrontation imbued with the Great Idea.

Prineas begins with a person, a town, an island, three countries, a world at war, an emergent, fractious peace, another town on another continent in another hemisphere and the inevitable repercussions of decisions arrived at with no thought of the people who had to live by them and the choices they were forced to make. He tells an all too human story and at every stage, he touches base with the people who lived it, and whose actions, noble or ignoble, drove it forward.

In describing how his grandfather, Peter Feros, with partners Emanuel Aroney and George Psaltis, built the Roxy cinema in Bingara, Prineas tells the bigger story of emigration. Yet it remains a deeply personal family narrative with an emotional authenticity based on the fact that it is about real people; people he knew. This is a celebration of both his grandfather and all the men and women who took part in the early days of Greek migration. Here are the shades of the Aroney brothers and Barba Yiannis, all of whom had served in the Balkan Wars and of Mr. Hlentsos who couldn’t; of Spiro who carried his half-dead friend back from the Front; of Katina and Stamatina, who found themselves in foreign towns under a different sun; of Ioannis who became John in the space of a journey.

He exposes the exciting hidden histories of the countless owners of the countless cafes in the countless towns whose ordinariness belie the extraordinariness of their lives. Those of us whose family secrets resonate with these stories are ambushed by the sense of deja vu. And yet it remains quintessentially the story of the Feros family; their struggle, their tragedy, their triumph.

It is about the kind of vision that was prepared to take a punt on a promise, and build an edifice for a small town in not-quite-outback New South Wales that would have graced London, or Paris, or even New York and was repeated throughout Australia, bringing a little flamboyance, a bit of splendour and even some Americana to town.

However, there is another element in this book; Prineas introduces us to the Megali Idea, The Great Idea, the thought, hope, even ambition that a nascent Greece, newly released from centuries of oppression could reclaim that which it had lost; the great City itself, Constantinople. He shows that this was not as quixotic as it sounds and that its failure owed more to political expediency than to a sense of historical rightness.

He reveals the power of the Great Idea over the Greeks who believed in it, fought for it, and invested it in the destinies they were constructing in their own new world. These lovely, courtly, daring, clever, dreamers, of whom his grandfather was one, laid the foundation of a movement which has added interest and texture to our society.

Another motif in this story is the twin themes of racism and betrayal and you see how the prevailing attitudes permitted the development of a bitter sense of entitlement on the one hand and justification for bad faith on the other. There is very little to choose between the behaviour of local bureaucrats in the matter of planning permission for the cinema or the Great Powers when it came to deciding the fate of Greece. And yet you are heartened by the natural fairness that was displayed time and again on a personal level. Prineas tells his tale lucidly and objectively, endeavouring at every turn to give both sides of the argument. Although there is treachery and duplicity, there are no real villains here, just flawed individuals trying to do the best they can.

When I was reading it, it brought to mind a photo I have of a balding, tubby little man, sweeping the floor of his milk bar. A customer, Sue, from the exchange, a woman looking a bit like the popular notion of the appearance of an ancient Greek, you know, tall, blonde, blue-eyed, faces the camera. Tiny Norma, who worked there for… oh … ever, is just visible on the other side of the counter. I love this photo because it tells a story as all good photos do, but it’s incomplete. There is no hint in it, for example, of a ship-board romance; no hiss of bullets in the dark and a chance, quickly seized, to escape through enemy lines; no mention of the gallantry of a sailor who couldn’t swim; no trace of a commitment to a Great Idea. It doesn’t show the adventure. No, you need a book for that, a book which will take the facts and the people who lived them and spin a tale that contains all the elements of a good yarn; conflict, excitement, romance, hope, tragedy, suspense, and a satisfactory ending.

This book is suffused by the Australian sunshine and pervaded by the eucalypt timelessness of the bush, but it reaches beyond that. We are all stakeholders here. Anyone who has had to overcome the feeling of alienation to fashion their own authentic role in a new story or to find a way to live their dream even if it means adapting it to different conditions, or who grew up in a country town, had a milkshake in a café, remembers rolling Jaffas down the aisle at the Roxy, has a place in it. Although it tells a specific story, it is in fact a story about us all, told sensitively, perceptively and scrupulously, and in letting us into the heart of a family, it also lets us into our own.

 

Book 'taps into my own passions' Professor tells Roxy audience.

An address given at the launch of the book in Bingara, April 1, 2006 by Associate Professor Janis Wilton, School of Classics, History and Religion, University of New England.

' 'KATSEHAMOS AND THE GREAT IDEA' is an engaging book that taps into topics and experiences which are close to my own passions. It pulls together family history, immigration history and local history. It provides strong portraits of individuals, their personalities, desires, frailties, failures and achievements. It locates Australian experiences in a broader world context, especially a context which links to Greece and to events in Europe. It offers strong descriptions of different places. It utilises oral histories, government records, newspaper articles, family photographs and other memorabilia. And, above all else, it is easy to read and engaging.

The focus is the Roxy Theatre in Bingara, north-western NSW, but, rather than dominating the book, the Roxy provides an anchor for exploring topics like the lives and experiences of the three men responsible for building the theatre, the nature and networks of Kytherian immigrants both in and beyond Australia, and the place of cafes and cinemas in the political, social and economic life of Bingara.

Let me give you a taste of the range, depth and style of the book and of the ways in which Peter has woven his account of uncovering the various stories with the stories themselves.

The book begins in Kythera with Peter describing his first encounter with his ancestral island and the family village of Mitata in the 1970s. The landscape, the feel of the place, the colours and contours come through.

'Mitata, my family's village, is high up in the centre of the island. It sits on the edge of a plateau above a verdant ravine filled with orchards and gardens and watered by an unfailing spring. From the village square or plateia you can look down on lemon trees and funereal cypresses, and follow the line of the dry watercourse as it passes beneath the hill of Palaiokastro to the olive groves at Palaiopolis and the sea.

Mitata was a village of closely-set stone houses with tiled roofs, the narrow streets converging on the plateia and the great domed church of Aghia Triatha. Around the plateia or not far from it were a couple of kafenia, while the school and the municipal building stood a little distance away. There were many empty houses, some of them falling into ruin, but many were lived in and cared for, their rubble walls sealed with cement and whitewash, the wooden doors and shutters painted an innocent blue.'

This is a style repeated throughout the book - different places in the story get evocative descriptions of their natural and built environments.

'At Manilla, and north through Barraba and Bingara, the country is like a great ramp descending from the high tableland of New England to the western plains of New South Wales. It is hill country, warmer and drier than New England, with good grazing land marked out by box trees and red gum, while the barren ridges and stony hills carry ironbarks and white cypress. The Namoi flows beneath tall river oaks, river red gums and twisted angophoras, and as it makes its way west the river passes the volcanic spires of the Nandewar Range. Tall trees grow on the high ridges there, forests of silvertop ash and manna and mountain gum, and ghostly snow gums haunt the peak of Kaputar.'

These are the perceptions and words of a person well versed in viewing and treasuring our environment. They reflect very much on Peter's life and work in nature conservation. His earlier books include Wild Places and Colo Wilderness.

Chapter two is set in America. Peter went there in search of the records and experiences of his grandfather and other family members who migrated to the United States early in the twentieth century and before eventually migrating to Australia. In this chapter - as elsewhere in the book - there are reflections on the challenges facing family historians as they disentangle family myths, contradictory evidence, and silences. For example, is the Panayiotis Firos who appears in the American immigration records, Peter's grandfather or someone else with a similar name? Why do family members give different accounts and dates of their migration experiences at different times? is this to do with illegal immigration, faulty memory, changing stories to fit changing circumstances? Peter speculates and offers answers.

Peter also mines his sources to create a sense of the personalities of individuals central to his story. For example, he provides the following description of his great uncle Philippos Feros drawing partly on 1910 shipping records held in the United States:

'A few years older than his brother Panagiotes, Philippos was a strong man with the build of a wrestler. He had been a sailor with the British Merchant Service. He had served in the Greek Army. He knew his way around. The carefully formed script of the passenger manifest is disturbed in several places by what may be Philippos' insistent hand. He would not have his name spelt 'Fyros'; it is struck out and 'Firos' written in its place. Later, following his brother Peter's example, he would change the spelling to 'Feros'. He would not be described as a 'workman'; this was struck through and 'sailor' written in its place. Nor would he allow anyone to demean his financial standing; where '$25.00' had been written as the amount of cash in his possession, this was crossed out and '$38.00' written instead.'

Another important feature of the book is the amount of detail given on the impact of wars in Europe, the military service of family members, and the importance of ongoing connections to Kythera. Migration to Australia did not mean cutting off ties with home: wives and children often stayed behind in Kythera, visits home were desired and expected. Indeed, it was while Panagiotes Firos (Peter Feros) was on a visit to his family in Kythera that his two partners in Peters & Co here in Bingara, decided to expand and get the building of the Roxy complex underway.

Peter's excursion into what he labels at one stage 'the cinema wars' is particularly revealing. He provides background on the open air cinema created in Bingara in 1912 by William Finkernagel and John Veness, the demise of that cinema through Victor Peacocke's creation of the Regent Theatre in the Soldiers' Memorial Hall, and then the campaign by Peacocke to sideline the Roxy Theatre development. Into the mix go anti-Greek sentiments, lobbying of government agencies, and a newspaper advertising campaign.

There are also fond and evocative memories of the entertainment offered through the Roxy, the food served at the local cafes, and the interiors and staff of those cafes. There is a detailed account and description of the building of the Roxy, its features, its programs, its failure as a business enterprise for its three founders and its subsequent history. There are also details about what happened to the Roxy's founders after the failure of their business enterprise.

These are but small tastes of what the book has to offer.

It is a book that provides insights into local, family and community history. It evokes the loneliness and challenges of migration. It portrays life in Bingara in the 1930s. And it reveals the passion and commitment of its author in his journey of discovery into his own history and heritage, and his willingness and ability to share the fruits of that discovery with a wider audience.

It is my honour and pleasure to launch 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea' written by Peter Prineas as part of the celebrations to mark the seventieth anniversary of the Roxy Cinema and as an acknowledgement of the important contribution made not just by Peter Feros (Katsehamos), George Psaltis (Katsavias) and Emmanuel Theodoropoulos (Aronis), the founders of the Roxy, but by all Greek immigrants who, particularly during the first part of the twentieth century, contributed significantly to the services and lifestyles available in towns throughout regional Australia.'

 

Review by John Adey, 'Kino Cinema Quarterly' Winter 2006, No. 96

'There are two in-depth chapters, "Cinema Wars" and "The Finest Show in Bingara", dealing with the building of the Roxy Theatre at Bingara in 1936. This was also a turbulent time there for the Greeks, which resulted in a cinema war with their opposition, the Regent Theatre and its owner (Victor Peacocke), who was also an Alderman on the local council (get the picture?). He was hell-bent on stopping the Greeks from moving in on his territory. It's a fascinating read and one that will delight any cinema afficionado and historian.'




For a review of 'KATSEHAMOS' in Greek see Neos Kosmos Melbourne, 13 April, 2006.

 

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‘KATSEHAMOS AND THE GREAT IDEA’ was launched at the Roxy Theatre in Bingara by Associate-Professor Janis Wilton of the University of New England in April 2006. The book launch was followed by the unveiling of a plaque and photographs commemorating the three Greeks from Kythera, – Peter Feros, George Psaltis and Emanuel Aroney – who opened the Roxy in 1936. The Roxy Theatre has been restored and reopened by Gwydir Shire Council and is now a regional centre for cinema and the performing arts. A large crowd of Greek Australians and their friends came to Bingara for the book launch and dedication and participated in the Roxy Theatre’s 70th anniversary celebrations.

General release of the ‘KATSEHAMOS’ book commenced with the Sydney launch by former NSW Premier Bob Carr on Wednesday April 12, at 'Alexander's on the Park' in Liverpool Street, Sydney, a cafe operated by Sophia Alexander and her husband Harry. Sophia is a grandaughter of Peter Feros, one of the Bingara Roxy founders.

 

 

Learn more about these books by Peter Prineas

Katsehamos and the Great Idea

 

Britain's Greek Islands

 

Wild Places