Thursday, 9 January 2014

It's All Greek

by Caroline Lawrence

replica kylix or Greek drinking cup by Exekias
Opposite the British Museum, on the corner of Great Russell Street and Bury Place, is a fabulous shop called It’s All Greek where you can purchase replicas of objects from ancient Greece. Artefacts inspire my writing so I often go to press my nose against the window, admiring the treasures within: busts, statues, helmets, jewellery, figurines and crateloads of pottery. There is even a replica of a kylix – a kind of cup with a very shallow bowl – that featured in my book, The Pirates of Pompeii.

Last Friday I was showing some sixth-form fans around the Roman section of the British Museum when one of them asked if you could actually drink from a kylix. I took them to It’s All Greek to find out. An offer of free mulled wine – sadly not in a kylix – got us chatting to the owner, a Classicist and ex-teacher. Elinor Wynne Lloyd showed us something I had never seen on those occassions I had merely pressed my nose against the window: a room full of treasures downstairs. Whipping out my notebook, I commenced an impromptu interview, asking her questions I thought other History Girls might ask, including what it’s like to drink from a kylix and which historical novels are her favourites. 

downstairs treasure trove at It's All Greek near the British Museum

Me: You used to teach Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation at Queen's Gate School in London. After that you ran a teaching business called Locus Classicus. What was that?

Elinor: After sixteen years or so in mainstream teaching, I decided it would be fun to teach a greater variety of ages and needs, so I set up Locus Classicus in a dedicated room at home. I taught Latin, Greek and Classical Civilisation to individuals and small groups. One day it could be a twelve–year old who had moved school and needed to catch up with a year's Latin, the next it would be a revision class for a small group of A level Class Civ students…

Elinor Wynne Lloyd in her shop It's All Greek

I also went out and about, teaching in a small specialist London school for children with special needs. They loved Latin, and I used to take in the occasional Greek pot, bronze figurine, owl or oil lamp collected on trips to Greece over the years. Just having these things to handle, draw and talk about made a huge difference to lessons. It meant we could do a bit of work on mythology and Greek and Latin roots in our languages. 

Me: Do you miss anything about teaching?

Elinor: There are many things I miss but perhaps the most lasting memory is of taking trips to Greece. It was an amazing experience for me to see the girls' reactions to the places and works of art that they had studied at school. Gasping in disbelief after climbing the steps on the Acropolis to look up and see the Parthenon for the first time; traipsing up to the stadium in Delphi, eyes on the ground, then to turn round and see that incredible view over the site and the theatre and right down in the distance to the sea; awestruck silence at seeing a full size bronze statue…. Each time, I relived my own reactions on that formative first trip to Greece when I was 12 years old and of the passion that grew from those experiences.

Girls from Queen's Gate form a Q and G in the theatre of Epidauros in 1997

Me: In what ways do you feel you are still a teacher?

Elinor: It’s All Greek is more than just commerce. Next to each artefact nestles a little ‘information card’. If a customer wants to know more, we are thrilled to oblige! My triad of staff at the moment consists of a former pupil, a Classics graduate and a third-year Classics student!

Me: Handling replica artefacts can give insight into what it would have been like to use the original ones. Can you share anything that has particularly struck you?

large bronze tripod
Elinor: Some twenty years ago now, I wandered into a shop in Delphi, where I saw a glorious bronze tripod. At that stage I was teaching about Delphi, Apollo, the Pythia, the oracle, the tripod and the laurel. My modern Greek was rudimentary at best, but the shop owner and I struck up a conversation and together we carried the tripod outside into his little courtyard. The coals were lit, the bay leaves snipped and the ouzo was poured. I remembered then that in the Odyssey, royal storerooms were full of tripods which were exchanged as tokens of hospitality between guest and host. Here was I, in the centre of the world, watching the scented fumes rise towards Parnassus. Twenty years on, by design and coincidence, we stock that tripod at It's All Greek!

Me: Have you ever sipped wine from a kylix? What was it like?

Elinor: A potter I met in Olympia some years back was a maker of functional vases. On one occasion he handed me a shiny black replica kylix with a band of decoration around the rim and a small circle in the tondo, within which was a gorgoneion with protruding tongue. Within moments, the open bottle of Santorini Assyrtiko was being gently poured into the kylix (enough to obscure the gorgoneion) and proffered. I closed my eyes and took a sip: a little one. I knew there was an art to drinking from a kylix, a skill acquired by the Greek upper classes, so I concentrated intently on balancing the cup so as not to tip and dribble. I opened my eyes to a grin of delight from my observer. Dignity had been maintained but, what's more, during that split second, I had been there amidst the chatter and the hilarity and the imminent kottabos... [a dinner-party drinking game played by flicking the dregs of wine in the bottom of one's cup at various targets.]

Greeks playing kottabos, from a replica red-figure rhyton

Me: Do you read historical fiction? If so, can you share some of your favourite books?

Elinor: I remember my parents doing a bit of their own nurturing of my new-found passion for Greece when we returned from that first trip. They made sure that I had Mary Renault's The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea after going to Crete and Santorini for the first time.

Me: Snap! My parents gave me Mary Renault's book The Last of the Wine when I was eighteen! It sparked my interest in Classics and determined the whole course of my life. (I have blogged about it here). We've got to go now, but I have one last question: What is your current favourite piece in the shop?

Elinor: It's so hard to choose! When people ask where is my favourite place in Greece, I suffer from the same problem. If I'm in Delphi, it's Delphi, Olympia, Olympia and so forth. The silent Kerameikos with its rustling turtles is a favourite.

terracotta turtle and other artefacts
At the shop, there is similar fluctuation: the light one morning may strike a Cycladic figurine in such a way as to take my breath away. At dusk, the brooding shadows of a replica bronze helmet makes me stand to attention. A cheeky terracotta turtle – a replica of a child's toy – makes me smile. The cast of characters is alive, each with its own story to tell.

Me: Thanks, Elinor! History Girls and other readers of this blog might like to know they can browse and order your treasures online as well as at the shop: It's All Greek!

Caroline Lawrence writes history-mystery books for children set in Ancient Rome and the Wild West. Her motivation is the same as Elinor's: to bring history alive! 


Mary Hoffman said...

It was online that I first discovered "It's All Greek." I had typed in "replica squid pot" as I was looking for a special birthday present for my husband. Now we always drop in whenever we visit the BM - the last time less than three weeks ago. Now I am going to angle for a look at the downstairs room! Great post, Caroline.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Mary! She also does small events down there!

Ann Turnbull said...

Thank you for a lovely post, Caroline! I have looked in through the windows of It's All Greek many times but have never ventured inside. Must remedy this next time I'm in London. It's always inspiring to hear how childhood enthusiasms have shaped people's adult lives, and your interview with Elinor is fascinating. What lucky people her pupils are!

michelle lovric said...

yes, I've pressed my nose against that window too. I will go in and say hello next time. What a lovely woman, and a loss to teaching, obviously.

Dennis Baugh said...

Unbelievable. I've missed It's All Greek during my two visits to the British Museum this past year. I'll be sure to look for it on the next trip, hopefully, this spring or summer. We just moved from Berlin to Denver, CO, so popping over to London takes a bit more planning. Thanks for your post.

anitachowdry said...

Dear Caroline,
Thankyou for this lovely article. I too am a fan of Eleanor and 'Its All Greek' - I ventured in last summer and finally bought a gorgeous carrera marble/resin male torso - Eleanor said it was probably Apollo. She was so very gracious and so generous with her erudition, sometimes I pop in to the shop just for the pleasure of talking with her! Long live the independent trader!