Tag Archives: Dimitri Perivolaris

Special Feature (1): Video Interview with Joseph McGonagle, The Holy Name Church, Manchester, 11 September, 2009

Interview with Joseph McGonagle, The Holy Name Church, Oxford Road, Manchester, 11 September, 2009 from John Perivolaris on Vimeo.


Men of the Sea

Hi John

What beautiful images of your father’s travel documents and his own traces between France and Algeria. What a striking contrast this makes from my own experience of air travel between Paris and Algiers this summer. It’s a shame I didn’t manage to find an image of Bône from when your father’s passport, which you included in discussions with Parvati, was issued there in 1953 – just a year before the Algerian War began. Although I would have thought that the postcard I included that shows various supposed images of the city in large letters would certainly be contemporaneous – maybe late 1950s or early 1960s at a guess?

Perhaps the postcard of the gentleman by the lighthouse, postmarked as 1914, could hark back more to your paternal grandfather’s generation of seafarers. Did I tell you, by the way, that on my father’s birth certificate from 1950 his father’s occupation is listed as fisherman? Malin Head and the surrounding coast has historically been a significant fishing area, and it’s not for nothing of course that the region is still mentioned every day on the Radio 4 Shipping Forecast.

Both having men of the sea in the family is a link I hadn’t made before, but alas – save for this one word on that document – I have no traces of my own paternal family’s nautical travels.

All the best


P.S. My wife reminds me that my father-in-law was an engineer in the merchant navy for nine years as a young man: Manchester may be landlocked but water seems to surround me.

Postcard of Bône (now Annaba), Brought Back from Algeria by Joseph McGonagle, July 2009

Affaires Étrangères, From the Seaman’s License of Dimitri John Perivolaris, 26 October, 1948

Seaman’s License Issued to the Photographer’s Father, Dimitri John Perivolaris, in Chios, Greece, 4 September, 1946

Naadu, `Lost and Found’ (8), Parvati Nair, London, June 2008. (Dimitri & Adamantia Perivolaris, Montreal, October 1957).

The suitcase, I realize, has served as a sort of album. It has revealed memories that I can visualize. Few objects that we inherit are as eloquent as the family album. Inevitably, the album is nostalgic, though one never really knows what it is that this nostalgia stems from. As we look at images of grandparents, uncles and aunts or even our parents in their youth, on their wedding day, in a studio, at a picnic, all before our time, we never know really where to place them. These people, who are so familiar to us, seem strangers here. Their world seems removed from ours. Their clothes are different, their demeanour, even their gaze. Different and somehow unknowable. We feel a sense of loss for what we missed out on, a time before ours when we did not exist and they did. We realize too that we are barred by the irrevocability of time from accessing their pasts. Or from ever touching the core of their lives before our time. The album marks an impossibility of return.
Having lived mostly in Europe and North Africa, I remember the family albums that we had at home and took with us everywhere: my father’s ancestral village in northern Kerala, my mother aged 12 wearing a skirt and seated near the rose bush in her parents’ garden in Trivandrum. Some of my older cousin who had been raised by my grandmother. But none of her. For she refused to be photographed after losing a beloved son too soon, and after that always claimed she was metaphorically dead too. Unable to be photographed. And so my grandmother continued to live for many years more, but in our photographic memories she and my uncle remain the ages they were when he passed away. What these images from before my time tell me is so different from what I can read into the images that were taken in my time, when I was present enough to know the context and the people. I recall the black and white photographs of my father’s grand-aunts, taken perhaps in the late 1920s or early 1930s, great-grand-aunts of mine I never met, who lived all their lives on the Malabar coast … . They had very long earlobes, stretched beyond belief in accordance with traditional ideas of feminine beauty and wore only a white cloth draped over their shoulders and around their lower bodies. I would look at their images when I was a child with no sense of recognition as such. I just accepted that this was how my ancestors used to be. My mother told me that these ladies had perhaps only ever posed for one or two photographs taken in their entire lifetimes, no doubt under duress from the more modern members of the family, those who lived in cities and worked with the British and then came back for short breaks to the ancestral home. They had feared that the camera would steal away their spirit or bring bad luck. When I used to open the album and see their photographs, I would, at the age of four or five, find no way of relating to these ladies, of seeing them as relatives of mine. They were strangers … strangers who looked back unseeingly at me through the faded sepia of time.
Until, one day not so long ago, I suddenly realized that the family album is also a prime genealogical text. We trace our ‘roots’ through the images within and we imagine where we have come from. In a strange, unthinking way, we define ourselves through these others who are strangers but ancestors all the same. It’s probably all in the imagination, but we look at them in search of ourselves. It happened when I was at the library at SOAS, looking for a book by an Urdu novelist. I found myself suddenly before an old anthropological text – I wish now that I had taken the details down, but at the time I was too engrossed in what I found, too shaken almost, to remember to do so – on the Nairs of Travancore State. It had been written in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century by an Englishman, an anthropologist who had spent years measuring the cranial sizes of his subjects and labelling the different skin tones he encountered – wheaten, copper, bronzed copper, tarnished copper, burnt copper … . Black hair and eyes, rounded faces, strong upper torsos. He described the habits of the Nairs, their matrilineal homesteads, in paddy fields, linked to other homesteads by tortuous paths, backwaters and rivers routes, and unusual marriage and kinship practices. He did so with a kind of measured rationality that sent a chill through my spine. He described their food habits, their religious caste-based practices, their social structures and language. The Nairs are a warrior caste, he said, with matriarchs at the heads of their extended households. His prose was clinical, as exact and encasing as possible. What shocked me was not what he said, but rather the fact that his detached and scientific tone was directed at the very symbols that denoted Kerala for me. Naadu … a single word to encompass land, homeland, home, origin. There were some photographs there too, of ladies like my great grand-aunts, bare-breasted, with long earlobes stretched over a lifetime, dressed in a white mundu and neriyal, their long hair coiled on one side of their heads. The photographs leapt out of the book and inserted themselves into the album that I realized I was still carrying around in my mind, superimposing themselves on the photographs of my great grand-aunts. They became one and the same. There was an absurdity about my reading this text. Me, dressed in jeans, earlobes unstretched, trying to find out about my imagined yet alien homeland from this old anthropological text from which my aunts seemed to be gesturing to me!

© Parvati Nair, 2008

Captain John Perivolaris and Dimitri Perivolaris, Port of Hamburg, c. 1947

A snap of my grandfather with his thumb in a bandage standing next to my father.

Dinu writes, `Those suits look so good and your father looks great there? Any tailors in your family? I wonder what the Germans made of them back in those days?’

And I reply, `No, all sailors before I came along. My grandfather always had his suits made in Saville Row since being stranded in London for the duration of the War, during which he ran the gauntlet of U-Boats across the Atlantic as the captain of one of the cargo ships that ran supplies between the US and England. My dad used a tailor in Buenos Aires, which is why I had a leather jacket hand made for me in the same city when I was there in 2001, shortly after he died. In fact, I carried this photo with me on that trip. That was the first time I understood the meaning of ghosts, having, in my mourning, such a strong sense of following in his footsteps that I swear I saw him boarding a bus and looking back at me through the window as I ran behind feeling foolish. On the return journey I stopped a while in Cuba, washed up there by the same wave of mourning as I tramped the same streets he had half a century before; a merchant seaman ploughing the waters between Europe, Havana, and the Southern Cone.’

`By the way, on this trip to Hamburg, shortly after the War, my dad bought his first Leica on the black market. It was with this camera and a Weston handheld meter that at the age of nine I took what was my first photograph: a picture of my grandfather in his eighties some four years before he died’.