Writing novels and cooking food provide one Nicosia resident with time to dream, time to think. THEO PANAYIDES meets a man in a state of low-key wellbeing with his own way of doing things
I admit it was the food that tipped the scales for me. Anyone can be a legal philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics (well, a lot of people can), but it takes a pretty singular sensibility to combine that with a pop-up cooking/catering business called The Lonely Olive. I say ‘business’, but it’s not clear that Manolis Melissaris makes – or intends to ever make – much money from the Olive. “I would never be drawn to doing something large-scale entrepreneurially,” he tells me. “I just don’t see the attraction in that. And I don’t see the attraction in, you know, having lots of money either.”
He’s not money-driven, or indeed especially career-driven; a post at the LSE carries a lot of kudos in academia – yet he gave that up three years ago, in his mid-40s, relocating from London to Cyprus to write novels and cook food. If he’s driven by anything, it might be quality of life – and perhaps some notion of individual freedom, which is odd because much of his work explores the limits of that freedom. But we’ll get to that later.
Quality of life is a vague concept – but note, for instance, that Manolis often used to walk to work in London (not every day, he adds; only when he had time), just because “it’s so much more pleasant than taking a train or a bus”. Admittedly he wasn’t on the outskirts, he was in Hackney – but it’s still a 10km walk to the LSE, and it took him an hour and a quarter; some might find that eccentric, or point out that he wasted time by doing it, but his riposte (I assume) would be that it wasn’t a waste if it gave him pleasure. He’s the kind of person who makes a point of shopping at the farmers’ market in old Nicosia on Wednesdays (“a great place to be”) – and the kind, revealingly, for whom “the most interesting thing” about his new life in Cyprus “is discovering pockets of difference in Cypriot society”. He gravitates to those with their own way of doing things.
His own life may be one such ‘pocket of difference’ – though let’s not get carried away. “I’m not a hermit,” he insists with a laugh; he and Lindy, his Australian-born partner of 20 years, have a lot of good friends. Then again he also quips, of the lockdown, that “I didn’t mind the isolation; I mean, I’ve been effectively in self-isolation for the past three years!”. A writer and a chef have that in common: they work alone, shutting out distractions, then share their creative feats with the world.
The household is comprised of Manolis, Lindy, and an amiable mutt named Darcie (they have no kids, “apart from the furry one”; that was always the plan). The house is old without being poky, on one of those central Nicosia streets where vacant lots and old houses are systematically being transformed into blocks of flats; “This heatwave burned up my artichokes!” Manolis’ 94-year-old neighbour shouts companionably over the fence when we go outside to take photos. (The artichokes are in the village of Galata, where this spry old gentleman apparently goes every few days to tend to his orchard; another pocket of difference.) Inside the house, BBC Radio 6 thrums in the background and old Marx Brothers DVDs sit on the shelves. Manolis himself sits across from me at the dining-room table (yay for the return of face-to-face profiles after two months of Covid!), a trim, silver-haired man with a dryly humorous manner and a keen, rather narrow face. His laugh – at least in interview mode – is unusual, in that the eyes don’t really soften, as you might expect, but instead seem to flash with a kind of fierce amusement. At one point he gets up suddenly, and goes to turn off a washing-machine beep that’s annoying him. He’s entirely friendly and approachable – but I also suspect, if I had to guess, that he likes things to be just so.
His wry, precise temperament isn’t really suited to corporate life. “I was never very good at being in a big institution,” he admits. “I never felt comfortable.” He started late in big institutional jobs, and dropped out (as we know) relatively early. Manolis spent most of his 20s as a student, a law degree in Athens – the city of his birth – followed by a Master’s and PhD in Edinburgh. The PhD was quite specialised (“a critique of a German legal philosopher”), the law degree done without any obvious intention of practising as a lawyer; law wasn’t even his main love, he recalls, he’d have preferred to study literature or philosophy. The life of the mind always seems to have suited him, sometimes with a nod to the classics. His parents are both (now-retired) teachers of language and literature, the Greek philologos. Manolis played bouzouki in a band during his Edinburgh years – and the band was called ‘Tinella’, an ancient Greek word used to signify approbation. He’s now writing novels, as already mentioned, and the one he’s finished in Greek (he also has two in English) is based on a detail from the life of Homer, when the ancient poet travelled from Phocaea to Chios to chastise Thestorides, a minor poet who’d plagiarised him.
Then again, the two books in English may be more representative – simply because they’re crime novels, the first (Morbid Symptoms) being noir-inflected while the second one (Peer Review), which he’s just completed, is a comic campus novel drawing on his years in academia (he describes it as Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim “with a body count”). You wouldn’t necessarily expect crime fiction to be Manolis Melissaris territory – but in fact crime was always a major focus of his research as an academic and legal philosopher, “notions of harm, of crime, of deserved punishment and so on”. Even now, a recent piece he’s written – published on his blog, https://manoliswrites.wordpress.com – is titled ‘Harm and Freedom in the Age of Pandemic’.
This is where it gets a little abstract – but, after all, what’s a legal thinker for if we can’t enlist them to comment on a once-in-a-generation crisis? “All these restrictions,” notes Manolis, speaking of the lockdown and so on, “don’t sit comfortably with the standard definitions of ‘harm’. In most liberal democracies – and in criminal law – harm has to be relatively direct… And it definitely has to do with some action of yours. Sometimes with omissions, but mainly with actions”.
With the coronavirus, on the other hand, harm can be entirely indirect: A can pass it on to B, who infects C and so forth – but only F, way down the line, might develop symptoms and fall sick. “So tracing the responsibility back to you is very difficult.” Also, whereas usually harm entails harmful actions like driving dangerously or hitting someone, the culpable action in this case may be nothing out of the ordinary – and indeed may be totally innocent, since you might be infected with the virus without even knowing it. All this, he says, is why “libertarian” governments like Trump’s or Boris Johnson’s have been reluctant to impose lockdowns – but in fact lockdowns are surprisingly popular; “Our intuitions” (meaning ordinary people’s) “say that we do have a responsibility to not go out and endanger others, even if that endangerment is vague and difficult to pin down”. What might explain this disconnect? Some might reckon it’s just people’s fear – and uncertainty over just how dangerous the virus is – causing them to accept the unacceptable, but Manolis has a different take. For him, it reflects something he’s been thinking about for years, especially towards the end of his academic research: the idea of solidarity as a new kind of socio-political foundation.
“I believe we have to re-examine the organising principles of our late-modern communities. So far, individualism is what has been driving our communities – because it goes hand-in-hand with capitalism. But we see that failing, time after time,” he explains. (Politically, of course, he’s always been on the Left.) With this in mind, “I’ve been exploring ideas of solidarity as an organising principle of our community” – the big question being, of course, what counts as solidarity. We all agree to stop at red lights, for instance, but that’s just a case of a social constraint being in everyone’s best interest. True solidarity starts when we go against our self-interest, refraining from an action (e.g. going out in a pandemic) purely because we know it’ll impact others. “It comes down,” says Manolis, “to the idea of interdependence”.
It’s odd, in a way, that his subject should be interdependence – out of all possible subjects – when his own life is so independent. Then again, is he really so unusual? Is Manolis to be viewed as some flaky eccentric or rugged individualist just because he cares about work/life balance and likes to be his own boss? The move to Cyprus wasn’t some bizarre mid-life tangent, it made perfect sense. First and foremost, Lindy is an archaeologist specialising in Cypriot prehistory (the couple had been coming to the island every summer for years, during the ‘digging season’) and got an excellent job offer here. Secondly – and almost as importantly – Manolis could feel his creative side starting to atrophy, having worked analytically for so many years as a doctoral student and university lecturer. Thirdly there was London, a wonderful place but a hectic metropolis: “We were ready for a change”. And fourthly there was Brexit, “the trigger” as he puts it – though, even here, his objections seem to have been rooted less in ideology (though he did oppose leaving the EU) than a kind of reflexive dislike of being bossed, the same freethinking streak that makes him uncomfortable in big institutions. “I felt that the terms of my being [in Britain] were being changed unilaterally,” he recalls plaintively. “I was not prepared to go through the charade of getting citizenship – and pledging allegiance to a monarch – just to stay there.”
So here we are, three years and three novels – and one rescued dog – later; and of course there’s the cooking. He’s always loved to cook, he explains, usually traditional Mediterranean dishes with a twist (his Greatest Hits include dolmades with little bits of preserved lemon in the mix, “so you get little bits of tangy delight as you eat them”, and aubergines stuffed with blue cheese instead of feta). More than that, he’s always loved the communal experience that comes from cooking – “the sort of relaxed sense of community that eating together gives people”, especially when they’re nibbling from lots of little plates, meze-style. Food, you might say, is the missing link, the aspect that ties it all together, linking his joy in often-solitary creative work with the social cohesion – the solidarity – he finds so inspiring.
The Lonely Olive is just starting up (check it out on Instagram, ‘the_lonely_olive’); the plan is to team up with Kafenio Platanos in Kaimakli – where he’s already done some food nights last February – and cook a few nights a week, meanwhile also setting up as a catering service “so I can go around people’s houses and cook for parties”. Manolis’ literary career is just starting up too, and in fact he’s currently seeking publishers for all three novels. With that small caveat – and the hope that his new endeavours will indeed be up and running soon – it may well be that he’s living his best life, as they say, blending crime novels, 94-year-old neighbours and ‘pockets of difference’ (plus a few opinion pieces on the fine points of coronavirus) into a state of low-key wellbeing. He wasn’t even all that stressed during lockdown, which surprised him “because I was a lot more susceptible to that sort of thing in the past. I was a hypochondriac as well. I got over it”. Guess he must be enjoying life, or something.
There’s a lot to enjoy, even in the guise of what he calls – with tongue rather ruefully in cheek – “a starving aspiring writer”. Time is important: time to dream, time to think. Darcie the dog snoozes under the table as Manolis talks about the SMS system during lockdown, the way it ritualised everyday movement and made going outside “an extraordinary event… I think it did strange things to people’s mindset”. He shakes his head, the crux of the matter still a bit elusive: “I’d like to think about that more”. The life of the mind, for sure.