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Sensitive, creative, heart on sleeve

THEO PANAYIDES meets an art lecturer, historian and writer known for his work with the Cyprus Academy of Art, established by his father


Looking back over your life, I ask Michael Paraskos, at what age would you say you started to sort yourself out, to feel comfortable in your own skin, to feel like you’d finally come to a good place? He thinks about it, sitting at a table in the Centre for Visual Arts and Research in Nicosia. “That was last year,” he replies, and laughs uproariously.

His roars of laughter are a frequent punctuation mark in our conversation, sometimes accompanying a joke or funny story but more often following a self-deprecating remark (“I can’t imagine anything I’ve said will be of use to you!” he offers by way of farewell) or signalling some inner confusion. You might call it nervous laughter – and I wonder for a while if the nervousness may be due to the imminent launch of the Othello’s Island Conference, an annual symposium on mediaeval and Renaissance art and history which he plays a central role in co-ordinating, but I don’t think so. For one thing, the conference is a notable success story (there were around 80 speakers this year, many from top American universities) and nothing to be nervous about, having become quite established on what he calls “the circuit” of academic gatherings. “There are a group of, a group of conferences – I was going to say ‘scholarships’, for some reason,” he starts to explain, and bursts out laughing again.

The other reason why Michael’s nervousness (if that’s what it is) seems unrelated to the conference, however, is simply because it appears to be his style. I suspect he’s been nervous all his life, where ‘nervous’ equals sensitive, creative, heart-on-sleeve, a bit uncertain, quietly nursing bruises and traumatic experiences. “I have a sort of guilt complex,” he admits at one point, adding wryly: “As you might have noticed”.

Sensitive, creative, heart on sleeveMuch of it relates to the Cyprus College of Art, founded in 1969 – the year of Michael’s birth – by his late father Stass Paraskos, one of the best-known Cypriot artists of his generation. Stass came back from England in 1989 to run the college, in the village of Lempa; there was also a site in Larnaca which Michael himself administered for about 10 years, till his father’s passing two years ago. Since then, he’s gone back to living in England permanently and back to academia (he once used to teach at the University of Hull), lecturing on Art History at Imperial College London and organising a research programme called ‘Art of the Crusades: A Re-Evaluation’ at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies. He’s also written a book, In Search of Sixpence, a fact-and-fiction hybrid which he reluctantly admits was “kind of cathartic” in working through his feelings about Stass’ death.

Michael is soft-spoken, with a rounded, dough-like face. His expression is languid, careless without being carefree, his hair abundant on top and short at the sides. His ringtone is the music from the BBC World Service, presumably used ironically. There’s something boyish about him – or more specifically Lost Boy-ish, the boy who never grew up. One gets a sense that he’s still the boy adrift in Canterbury (where Stass taught at the Institute of Art & Design) as the youngest of five, in a family that was never poor but not exactly rich either – much of the salary went to subsidise the college in Cyprus – and the fearful boy sent to Sturry Secondary Modern, a school he hated. Was he bullied? “Oh yeah, that’s part of going to a secondary modern school”. True, but he might’ve been on the other side of the fence. “No, I wasn’t a bully,” he replies, and bursts out laughing at the mere thought. “Take my word for it!” he adds, and laughs again.

Secondary moderns (later replaced by comprehensives) were part of the deeply divided British educational system at the time, with the quote-unquote smarter kids sent to grammar schools and the rest dispatched to these so-called “sink schools”, where their second-class status was drummed into them from the start: “You knew you were a failure from Day 1. Because they told you! So they weren’t pleasant places to be if you were into art, or books, or anything like that”. At one point, young Michael told a teacher that he wanted to be a journalist when he grew up, “and I was told not to be so stupid, and go think of something else to do… I was absolutely lost. I knew I wanted to be a writer, even at school, but it wasn’t the environment [where] you could actually explore that”.

That’s the other reason why In Search of Sixpence was therapeutic for him – not just in channelling the turmoil he felt at the time, but in validating the urge to write which he’d felt all his life. “It’s made me think of myself as a writer, for the first time. To the point where I can actually say to people ‘That’s what I do’.” Before that, he’d always defined himself as a teacher, a lecturer, sometimes an art historian; he did write, mostly art criticism, but “I didn’t like to say that’s what I did, because I didn’t quite feel I deserved it, [I was] kind of pretending to be this thing. So I’m knocking on the door of 50 now, and I finally feel I can say ‘I’m a writer’ after all these years”.

This, presumably, is why it was only last year that he started feeling truly comfortable in his own skin. (He’s like a young man in his 20s, only just starting to find himself, I point out, and he laughs very hard: “A little bit backward!”.) Leaving Cyprus also helped, a fact he admits openly if not very happily. Going back to England full-time “took away a lot of the stresses of working in Cyprus. I found Cyprus a very difficult environment to work in. And I’ve made no secret of that.”

In what way?

“Just trying to get anything done here, trying to get help, trying to get assistance from people whose job it is to assist you, is so difficult”. He shakes his head at the memory: “After doing that for 10 years directly myself, and seeing Stass do it for 30 years before that – it just grinds you down, you just give up, you cannot cope with that… I just don’t know how people cope with Cyprus,” he goes on, laughing his nervous laugh, “I find it very difficult. I find money is too dominant, I think people are far too venal. There are a lot of very good, talented people here who are not given a chance to show their full expression of creativity”. It’s not just artists, either: “If you’re an entrepreneur here, just the bureaucracy drags you down. Why would you bother setting up a business in Cyprus, when you can go to London and – well, it’s just a damn sight easier?”.

Michael speaks so softly I’m almost having to crane forward now, as if sharing a shameful secret that demands to be shared. “I do feel that I – this is getting heavy now! – I do feel that I’ve tried to love Cyprus for 45 years, and it’s never loved me back. And I don’t mean in terms of accolades or anything like that. I just mean in terms of day-to-day life.”

In his youth he tended to idealise the dysfunctional motherland, a mistake never made by his father: “Stass had no illusions about Cyprus,” he says firmly. Why did Stass come back, then? “He thought he could make the college so successful that it made a difference to society here. He was very much an idealist, and a believer in Art’s capacity to change society.”

Well, I point out, the college is well-known in artistic circles.

Michael shrugs, as if to say that dreams have a bad habit of outpacing reality. “I spoke to him a lot at the end,” he recalls, “and he sounded very disillusioned to me. He wasn’t positive. He didn’t think the place would survive – and maybe it won’t, who knows?”. A little later, we return to the subject: “My – disconnection from Cyprus is a consequence of Stass dying,” admits Michael quietly. “If Stass hadn’t died, I would still be doing what I was doing. But the awful truth of that is I’m more comfortable with what I’m doing now – and therefore happier – than I have ever been. I mean, I would change History in an instant if I could, to have Stass back and do all that I gave up doing, but the truth is I am more comfortable. That leaves you feeling very guilty.”

Was his death very sudden?

“Death is sudden for everybody. Even if you’re prepared by the doctor, it’s still a shock – because you don’t believe it. Some part of you thinks ‘No, it’ll be all right’. And it doesn’t matter if somebody’s in their 30s, their 60s, their 90s, you still feel it, it still feels too soon, you still feel shock. So it felt sudden. The end was quite sudden, but it was also very – it was a very messy end. He didn’t pass peacefully in his sleep. And seeing that was horrible. Profoundly horrible…”

It occurs to me that I’ve caught Michael Paraskos at a strange time in his life: the wounds of his recent experience still fresh, the full import of his new transformation as a writer still unresolved. Yet I also get a feeling – perhaps mistakenly – that something has been constant for most of his four-and-something decades, a sense of never quite being at ease, always slightly out of place: the youngest in a big family, a misfit at school, a foreigner in Cyprus yet not entirely British either, all subtle hurts to his sensitive nature. Art has been many things to him, but part of it has surely been a kind of escape – so it’s fitting that escape is part of what he treasures in Art, not in the mindless way of a Hollywood blockbuster but something more sublime altogether.

“In all artforms,” he declares, “there has to be – and this is very important, I think, now, because we live in an age when people have destroyed this concept – there has to be a place for Beauty”. Something transcendent, he explains, something transformative; something “that takes us out of this world… There is a part of the human psyche, the human spirit, that needs that – almost that vision of Paradise. So maybe that’s what excites me in Art, a vision of Paradise”. That’s what’s lacking now, he asserts, not just in the venal society of Cyprus but also the post-modern, post-everything society of Britain: a place for Beauty, a glimpse of something to strive towards – even if it’s incompatible with our current way of doing things, even if indeed it’s unattainable. “I hesitate to define myself as an anarchist,” adds Michael, reminding me that his Wikipedia page has a whole section devoted to his work on that subject, “but that’s my definition of anarchism”.

An aesthetic anarchist looking for transcendence. A cultural event manager on Othello’s island. A late-blooming writer who found his vocation at 47. A dutiful son who followed – and finally buried – his father in a land that never loved him back. Michael fits all these descriptions, to some extent – though his actual life is modest enough, living in South London and generally keeping a low profile.

What does he do for fun? Long pause. “I’m very boring. I talk a lot about anarchism, but I’m actually very conservative! I like to go and see old plays. I like my Shakespeare, I like my Ibsen and Chekhov and things like that. And I have an allotment” – he gives another of his massive laughs – “I grow vegetables!”. He’s not a clubber or a party animal, never has been. Does he go out to restaurants? “Well, I just don’t have the money,” he replies. “I’m not a rich man in any way”. He does have one, endearingly eccentric vice: he collects vintage bow-ties, the kind you might see in The Great Gatsby – a somehow perfect image for an artist-by-nature who loves elegance and beauty for their own sake, irrespective of social utility. “I don’t get to wear them very often,” he admits of his natty collection. “It doesn’t go down well in South London, somehow!”. And roars with laughter again.

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