Don's Diary

December 15, 2000

Thursday, week one

High up Mount Musallah in Bulgaria, home of Orpheus and scene of his dismemberment by angry Thracian women - far, far from the port-encrusted cloisters with their relentless drizzle of brown envelopes.

I like to think that keeping a toehold outside academe keeps me from going under: but this is shaping up to be a trip into chaos. I don't really know what I'm doing yet, "not Michael Wood" is the only guideline. Tony (Harrison) the bard's inspiration seems to be blocked by my pedestrian antiquarianism; Peter the director - the true hero of this story - stays up all night worrying; and Alistair the camera calmly shoots anything he thinks might come in useful.

Possible title: Two Fat Men Go to the Balkans ?

Thursday, week two

Breakthrough. Tony will open and close the film. In the middle, I shall play the part of a mildly absurd professor, who looks and sounds like me, tracing the route of Orpheus's singing head and sounding lyre down the 300 miles of the River Hebros.

We slog up a hill to an Orpheus Cafe, only to find it locked. Tony's notebook is out: "Scholarship like yours/could open those locked Orphic doors."

New title: Quiet flows the don .

Thursday, week three

The moment we cross from the poverty of Bulgaria to the new cars and mobile phones of Greece, we have a military escort. We are forbidden to point the camera in the direction of Turkey.

The railway down this side of the valley was constructed by the Turks, taken over by the Bulgarians during the first world war, and has been Greek since 1923.

At the main mouth of the huge Hebros delta - a beautiful waterland, inaccessible without military permit - there are Turkish soldiers armed to the teeth on the other bank. Shall we film? Tony is keen to face death for the sake of art - like Orpheus. I pedantically opt for life.

Thursday, week four

Dolphins escort our ten-hour ferry voyage from Alexandroupolis, following the path of the singing head and lyre. On Lesbos, where they were washed up, we shoot mainly at Eressos, the birthplace of Sappho. Was it wise of Alistair to set off to film the nudist beach? (Title: Swimmin' with the Wimmin' ?) I fear another Orphic dismemberment.

I go scouring the shops for Sapphic knick-knacks to take back for Sappho expert Peggy Reynolds. The shopkeepers freeze: they do not want to acknowledge the poet who put their village on the map. I discover that the little square used to be named after Sappho until it was changed some years ago to Theophrastos. Theophrastos was an interesting guy, but the point is that he was male, not known to be homosexual, and a scientist.

Eressos generously offers us a cliff with the same profile as the face of Orpheus. The survival of poetry and music and their landscape in a world of flux - we have found our core. " Metamorpheus ?" murmurs the bard.


Oliver Taplin teaches ancient Greek poetry at Magdalen College, Oxford. Metamorpheus , a film of the journey made by Tony Harrison and Oliver Taplin, will be shown on BBC2 this Sunday.

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