South African by birth, Greek in origin, now a subject of Her Majesty, Achilleas Mavrellis’ family comes originally from the beautiful but remote islands of Lesvos and Lemnos in the north-east Aegean. As on other Greek islands, Byzantine relics and artefacts are scattered all over. “The scent of a great empire fills the air,” he says. Or maybe it’s the slowly-roasting baby octopus on beach-side coal fires.
Inspired not only by the airs of the isle but also by the mysticism surrounding the baptism ritual of his daughter in Lesvos (and the earlier burial of his grandmother in the same church, just on the outskirts of Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos), he began researching Byzantine history.
Thanks to the British Library, and the huge number of Byzantine scholars and conferences in the UK, he was able to access a considerable amount of information – and indulge in fresh sushi at a moment’s notice.
Several years later he came out with his first novel, Queen of Lies (EFU Publishing, December 2012). Achilleas had realised that Byzantium was one of the missing links in world history between the Renaissance and the worlds of the ancient pagans and the early Christians. He felt he was on a personal mission: to bring the splendour of Byzantium back into public awareness. He wanted people in the 21st century to know that Byzantium was full of hardy people as well as magnificent stories with human themes as relevant today as then. The novel is set in ninth century Constantinople, where a new age of prosperity dawns amid war, invasion and religious upheaval, amidst pagan, Christian and Muslim conflict and collaboration.
According to the blurb, “a tale of humiliation, cunning, intrigue and love!” The Borgias meets A Royal Affair. Unfortunately, the food of Byzantium was less than inspiring –they used olives only for lamp oil and considered garum, a boiled fish stew whose recipe dated from Roman times, to be their main source of sustenance.
Having discovered the joys of publishing his novel, Achilleas decided to establish his own publishing company, EFU Publishing, based in London. It was a small operation that offered a wide range of innovative publishing and distribution options including ebooks, trade paper, cloth print-on-demand and print-ready academic papers such as thesis/dissertations for specialist authors. It was not difficult to start it but he has since decided to suspend operations for personal reasons.
Achilleas has an unusual background. He spent more than 20 years obtaining degrees in applied mathematics from the University of Cape Town and a PhD in physics from the University of Kansas and publishing extensively. He lived in the US from 1989 to 1998, moved to The Netherlands for five years to work as a climate scientist before finally settling in London in 2005 and working in the civil service.
Achilleas recalls that since setting foot in the UK for the first time, at the start of a series of short visits to take up a visiting research fellowship at University College London, he immediately felt at home.
“I appreciate very much the British way of life and thinking, and see a society which truly embraces intellectual endeavour, hard work, kindness and consideration for all kinds of people,” he says. “I can see why so many migrants aspire to establish a new and successful life in the UK.”
Did he experience prejudice? “People are brusque but not unkind. Life in the UK and particularly in London certainly has some kind of energy and buzz, though it is more relaxed than, say, New York or Johannesburg.”
People were receptive to him as a foreigner initially, he recalls, though for in recent years he has noticed anger and resentment: “One day, when walking past a pub in South London, I was amazed when a patron of the pub staggered out and announced for no apparent reason: ‘I’m tired of all you Eastern European scum.’ When I looked around, I realised that the comment was most likely addressed not at me but at two extremely attractive, blond and rather Slavic-looking young ladies, walking right behind me.
“This kind of thing is not only painful but counter-productive,” says 49-year-old Achilleas. “But it’s what I expect from anyone in any country with a parochial, narrow experience base.” He firmly believes that such people should see the advantage of the great contribution of migrants to the economy and diversity of this country.
Achilleas gives an excellent example of diversity: “My father had been suffering from what we all knew was essentially terminal cancer. The nurses at St George’s Hospital and St Raphael’s Hospice, many of whom came to work in the UK from across the world, are among the kindest and most professional carers I have ever seen. They were skilled and generous with their time and effort.”
In the last five years, apart from writing fiction furiously in his spare time, he has been working as a civil servant at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, where he works in finance, managing the Department’s capital investment portfolio. He also takes care of his mother and daughter.
Achilleas loves cooking. His specialties are moussaka, a classical Greek dish of sautéed aubergine (eggplant) with layers of minced lamb cooked with puréed tomatoes, onion, garlic, and spices topped with a Béchamel (white) sauce and baked in the oven, and tempura, especially of carrots and fried prawns.
Despite the cultural diversity and many opportunities of the UK, Achilleas believes that close friends in London don’t come easy. He is a firm believer that community is what gives each of us happiness –creating pleasure and satisfaction.
It can be virtual or old-fashioned. London offers marvellous options for finding community of all kinds, but one still has to deal with the anonymity of the big city as well as being spoilt for choice. It takes work to nurture acquaintances into friendships but there is nothing more worthy of one’s time and energy. You need to contribute to community as much as draw on its benefits to make community and friendship work. To draw on the piscine analogy one last time – to not be a fish out of water one must swim with the shoal.