THEO PANAYIDES meets teacher, manager, artist, poet and collector Martin Clark, a man determined to give the past a future
Martin Clark points to something in passing, as we stroll down a tiny cobbled street in Kato Lefkara: “This lady is a very good lacemaker”. The puckish middle-aged woman sitting by an open window, looking out on the street and working on a small square of lace, is Mrs Anna; she likes to embroider in the evenings, she tells us, between watching TV and minding her three-year-old grandson. A small dog named Mia capers restlessly behind her, unsure what to do about the visitors.
“This is a beautiful chapel,” exclaims Martin a few minutes later; “9th century.” It’s the chapel of Ayia Marina, unfortunately being ruined by water damage. Someone should alert the authorities. He points to something growing on the fringes of an open space – a kind of garden where Martin and his students are in the process of designing and building a traditional oven – and identifies it as pencil cactus, a type of euphorbia; as a former forester, he knows about such things. Earlier, we sit down and talk in Archangelos coffee shop by the main square, where a whiskered gentleman named Yiannis – a cousin of the late Stass Paraskos – places freshly-picked grapes on our table and makes him his usual double sketos. What’s his general opinion of Martin? “Mr Martin?” ponders Yiannis, chuckling invisibly behind his moustache. “He is one of the best men in the Middle East!”
Some people are best understood in context, and Martin is one of them – though his context isn’t just Kato Lefkara, nor even nearby Kato Drys where he runs a treasure trove called The Vintage Emporium, nor even Britain (actually Sheffield) where he was born, but the whole of Europe, where Grampus Heritage & Training operates around 15 project centres. Martin is the founder and director of Grampus, organising EU-funded placements for young people in four main fields (forestry, traditional arts and crafts, archaeology and environmental skills); Lefkara is one of the 15 centres – albeit “the most vibrant and fullest one, because I live here”. He owns a house in Pano Lefkara with a view of the gorge, though he also travels regularly – or did, pre-Covid – to countries in the Balkans and southern Europe (Romania, Greece, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Italy) where Grampus runs projects.
This is all very well, if perhaps a little worthy – but context, again, is everything; his personal context, his lifestyle. Watching him stride around Lefkara, greeting and being greeted, is part of it. Learning about his various facets is also part of it. Martin is one of those people who become more impressive as you get to know them, just because he seems to encompass so much – from straightforward dynamism to mild eccentricity – and does it so unshowily. “He enjoys every bit of his life,” offers Thucydides Michanikos, an exuberant theatre person (he’s the one preparing the cultural space where Martin and the kids will build the oven) who joins us at Archangelos. “He’s got his door open, and a few windows too.”
Yes, he’s the head of a not-for-profit company arranging placements as part of the EU’s Erasmus programme – but he also paints, and cooks, and writes poetry, and he’s also a compulsive collector. He collects coffee grinders and coffee cups, the latter hoard numbering over 700 cups (his favourite is a Café Paris cup from Reykjavik, which miraculously survived a small earthquake that destroyed many of its comrades a couple of years ago); they line the shelves in his house, above a narrow alcove where he and the students paint and make collages. He’s also “absolutely mad about Audrey Hepburn, and I collect Audrey Hepburn magazines, originals”. They too line the walls of his house, wistful Audrey gazing out from old Paris Match covers and the like. Another collection, of masks (though not Covid masks), became so unwieldy that he actually ended up building a mask museum in Slovakia (!), where the collection is now housed.
The shop in Kato Drys (where we’re joined by Panayiota, another local lacemaker, plus resident artist Peter Bird and the village mukhtar Nicos Vassiliou) works on similar principles. “I’ve collected vintage clothes, without even thinking of the word ‘vintage’, for 40 years, for use in projects,” explains Martin. “I realised I had so many – enough for five shops, actually – that I needed to sell some, though it’s not a profit-making thing. If we made a profit – and we don’t – it would be used in some training project”. I browse through the racks of clothes, noting brands I know only vaguely (Richard Roberts, Frank Usher), admiring the vivid colours of the floral-patterned 1950s dresses and ethnic gypsy fashions. It’s not really a collection you’d suspect him of owning if you only met him casually, or even if you sat down and talked for an hour about EU programmes and sustainability.
He’s 63, a heavyset man with a silver goatee and blue eyes in a square, solid face. His dad was a builder and Martin, too, could pass for a builder, speaking slowly and deliberately in a rather sharp, down-to-earth voice – but then there was also his mother, a teacher who spoke several languages (including Greek) and was “fascinated by the classics”. All through his mid-teens, Martin and his mum would holiday in Greece, especially Crete, just the two of them; “My father wasn’t interested, and my older brother wasn’t interested”. Mum was “a real European”, like him. (Don’t get him started on Brexit.) She was also dynamic, like him, an ambitious woman who “pushed my father to form his own business”. The family were upwardly mobile in another sense too, moving out of Sheffield when Martin was 11 so he grew up in the Peak District, surrounded by Nature – surely a factor in his decision to study forestry, first at Leicester then a Master’s at Oxford.
He spent two years as a forest worker prior to taking his degree, leaving him with skills that come in handy for another of his passions, collecting mushrooms (“My favourite thing to do in the winter, on a crystal-clear day”). More significantly, he met his future wife during those years – they were together for three decades, divorcing in 2009 – then took a job as a contracts manager in East Anglia after graduation. He was working 80-hour weeks as a private forester – but the arrival of children (he has two, a son and a daughter) prompted a sideways move to education for a better work-life balance, relocating to Cumbria and the National School of Forestry which he ended up heading. “But I lost patience with the education system. ‘Bums on seats’, I call it. As many students as possible, as little class contact as possible. All about money!” He himself doesn’t seem especially money-driven, I note. “Not anymore,” he agrees thoughtfully.
So what drives him, if it isn’t money? One clue may be found in the name of the company he formed in 1996: Grampus Heritage, ‘heritage’ being a function of historical legacy, the past in general. Martin’s relationship to the past – not his own past, but the whole idea of the past – is a complicated one. His collections, as already noted, have a strong retro element, and indeed the very urge to collect implies a nostalgic desire to preserve the past. Some might also note that he doesn’t have a smartphone (“I’d be too bombarded,” he protests, which is true but it hasn’t stopped other people) and trundles down the narrow hilly roads in a manual-drive pickup truck. But the past looms large in his work too. There were 50 silversmiths in Lefkara, he notes, now there are three. Traditional culture – even the famous lacemaking – is dying out. “There’s a disconnection now between grandparents and kids… The EU is very concerned about this.”
Then again, it’s not that simple. For one thing, the world is changing, leaving many traditions looking irrelevant. (Ironically the EU, in pushing a notion of pan-European values, may be as much to blame as anyone.) For another, heritage can’t be simply propped up, it has to survive organically; the keyword – as with everything else, including the many eco-projects Grampus initiates – is sustainability. “What we’re trying to do is make sure that the best of the past has a modern future,” notes Martin, acutely aware of the hazards of simply wallowing in past glories – which is also where his Brexit rant comes in. “Unfortunately, in the UK there are too many people who are still living the second world war. And they’re the ones who voted us out,” he says bitterly, calling it “an absolutely criminal thing, in my opinion… A disaster for Europe, and a disaster for the UK. All because of some stupid memory.” Nostalgia is the enemy of good management.
Many Brits (and not just Brits) in their 60s and 70s often retire to places like Lefkara, seeking to escape modern life by indulging some pastoral dream of a ‘simple’ village community. Martin Clark is nothing like that, both because he hasn’t retired – and hopefully never will; he is, he confirms, a workaholic – but also because he doesn’t want to preserve a dying way of life, he wants to “contemporise” it. His students go on their computers and design paintings based on the Lefkara lace pattern, which are then used to beautify public spaces and derelict buildings. Art-school types from Central Saint Martins in London come to Lefkara, sit with the few surviving silversmiths, then Tweet the designs. (Local art “fits into fashion,” says Martin approvingly.) He’s worked with lacemakers to create clothing for young people, trying to bring them on board “by making fashion instead of tablecloths”. The point, in short, isn’t to impose the past on a community, it’s to create a new community. “It’s about, not turning the clock back, but reconnecting the generations.”
One more thing may be noted here, tying it all together so to speak – for what, after all, is a community, but a collection of people? Martin’s mum also had the collector bug, as did his grandmother (it’s “about some need to accumulate things,” he says vaguely) – and it’s surely not excessive to suggest that he collects people as well as coffee cups and Audrey Hepburn magazine covers, if in a different way.
Mrs Anna at the window sill, Thucydides the theatre man, Yiannis at the coffee shop, Panayiota and the mukhtar at The Vintage Emporium – they’re all part of his own community, his context, his collection. Martin is good with people. “This is similar to the story you told before,” he tells Thucydides before relating an anecdote – and actually it isn’t but it’s still a nice gesture, making him part of the conversation. You can tell a lot about a person from the stories they tell – and Martin, for instance, tells a story of going to Athens with his mum in 1971, and finding themselves in a lift with two Greek businessmen who immediately switched to speaking in broken English, out of courtesy to the foreign guests. (So much for Athenians’ fabled rudeness.) He seems genuinely drawn to thoughtfulness and nobility of spirit, hence the love of community, hence the elegant Ms Hepburn (a Unicef ambassador as well as a movie star) – and hence also his occasional poetry, which turns out to be finely balanced and restrained (unlike most amateur poetry). Take, for instance, these lines from ‘Searching for Uncle Walther on the Eastern Front’, an account of a cemetery for fallen German soldiers in Slovakia:
“I walk hunch-shouldered along the soaking stony lines
“Each cross, eight boys who left proud-chinned from home.
“Above the winds sigh, is that another whispered sound?
“Grim rumbling of tanks, rattling guns, shouts and screams.”
Nobody’s perfect, of course. I ask if he ever gets angry, and he admits to becoming “more intolerant” as he grows older. There’s been the occasional falling-out in his private life – and of course his marriage didn’t last, which he blames at least partly on his own workaholism. One may even wonder if this is how he wants to spend his middle age, struggling to revive moribund traditions in a foreign country, living alone (though he does have a girlfriend abroad) in a much-depleted village inhabited largely by old people.
Hard to say. But, again, context is everything – and watching Martin Clark with his various friendly acquaintances (let alone his students, whom I never got to meet), or just driving along in his battered pickup from project to project, stopping by the house for an ice-cold concoction (homemade, of course) of lemonade, rose and almond, it’s hard not to feel that he’s found a niche for himself, and a satisfying home for his many talents. He sounds like a builder, a teacher, a manager – yet he’s also an artist, a poet, a collector. One of the best men in the Middle East? It’s a stretch, but he’s probably up there.