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Young, gifted and Greek

In Athens, Alex Preston meets a new generation desperate for change.

In Athens, Alex Preston meets a new generation desperate for change.

In early December, I went with the author James Miller and the Financial Times's arts writer Peter Aspden on a British Council-sponsored speaking tour to Athens. My first novel, This Bleeding City, had just been translated into Greek and my local publishers were keen for me to come out and drum up some publicity. The centrepiece of the trip was a multilingual discussion of "The novel and the urban landscape" with a group of Greek authors at the magnificent Athens Concert Hall.

During the debate we wore headphones through which were piped simultaneous translations of our comments. I felt like Ban Ki-moon. Each writer in turn spoke of the novel's need to respond to the extraordinary times in which we live, to represent the rage of the rioters who have taken to the streets of our cities, to map the 21st-century metropolis in all its violent multiplicity. The Greek authors, perhaps predictably, seemed rather downhearted. The modern Greek novel, they said, was hiding behind aestheticism, more interested in a well-turned sentence than political engagement.

I spoke about the "state of the nation" novel, about Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now and John Lanchester's Capital, about Merdle in Little Dorritt and Joey Berglund in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom.

But, despite the crowds and the glamour, the evening debate was not the highlight of my visit to Greece; that came the next morning. In late 2008, a 15-year-old boy, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, was gunned down by Greek police at one of the first protests against austerity measures in Athens. The British Council had arranged for me to speak at his old school, Moraitis. Many of those I was talking to had been in classes with him. It was three years to the day since his death.

I was taken by taxi through the winding streets of an Athens suburb to a large, dun-coloured building with yellow buses parked outside. In a packed hall, I spoke to the students about my novel, about the crisis of capitalism and the way a generation of bright, educated young people working in finance had jettisoned their morality for the quick fix of material gain. When I finished, hands shot in the air across the room.

These young people call themselves the €700 generation, as this is the monthly wage they expect to earn on completing their studies. Whereas once many would have gone abroad to university, few of these students will have that opportunity. But rather than the pessimism I felt from the Greek authors in the concert hall, the students radiated a bright, intransitive rage and, behind it, hope.

Elsewhere the bankers have (quite rightly) born the brunt of popular ire for the financial crash; in Greece this isn't the case. They refer to bankers - only half in jest - as "golden boys". The politicians are lambasted but no more so than in Britain.

The students I spoke to seemed unclear as to exactly what changes they wanted implemented. Only one thing was certain: the gilded future that had been promised them had been snatched away and now they were the laughing stock of the world.

One subject in particular was raised repeatedly in my discussions with the students that morning. I had not seen the Channel 4 documentary Go Greek for a Week, but it was the hot topic in the corridors of Moraitis. Some had watched it on YouTube, others when it was screened on a Greek television station. While I got the impression that the show passed largely under the radar in the UK, in Greece the students were up in arms.

I watched it on my return to Britain and could see why. This is a corrosively unpleasant piece of television. Full of Daily Mail sensationalism and cheap xenophobia, the programme painted the entire Greek population as corrupt and parasitic in comparison with the nobly industrious British.

The young people I met understood the moral implications of paying taxes; they wanted to work and they wanted to help rebuild their shattered nation. They were appalled to see how they have been portrayed in the British media.

On the plane home from Athens, I read The Interrogation, a dark DeLillo-esque novel by the host of our discussion in the Concert Hall, Elias Maglinis. The book picks over the violent history of Greece in the 20th century, showing a nation torn between brutal military juntas and dithering liberals. The current crisis is just the latest in a catalogue of indignities foisted upon the Greek people by their inept politicians. The students of Moraitis school should give hope for the future: Greece needs more intelligent, energetic young people like this, and far less snotty condescension.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain