Books / Historic beakers full of the warm south: The Mediterranean: Tony Peake reflects on the continuing allure of a tideless, eternal sea

The Mediterranean has long functioned as one of the most potent myths in the Northern imagination. To those beleaguered by grey skies, cold winds and overlong winters, the Mediterranean offers a crucial mirror image: blue skies, balmy winds, and summers in which sun-drenched day after sun-drenched day denies the approach of autumn.

The meteorological then gives rise to the metaphorical. The winter of our discontent is made glorious summer on a whole variety of levels: meanness of spirit in things emotional and ideological finds its polarity in Mediterranean largesse. Not for nothing did Noel Coward have Mrs Wentworth-Brewster come to life in a bar on the Piccolo Marina. In common with all Mediterranean islands Capri is not simply a rocky outcrop in an azure sea. It is also home to the essence of life itself.

From the cheap (but nevertheless potent) music that is Coward to the more complicated harmonies of an E M Forster, the list of Anglo-Saxon writers who have used the Mediterranean as the stage upon which life can most completely unfold is as boundless as the sea is contained: Keats, Shelley, Byron, D H Lawrence, Lawrence Durrell, Graham Greene, Robert Graves, and that's just at O- level. Even the Americans, who have tropics of their own, have - from Henry James to Hemingway and beyond - turned to the Mediterranean for inspiration, for setting, for validation.

In Tender is the Night, Scott Fitzgerald describes dinner on the terrace of the Diver's house on the Riviera.

'There were fireflies riding on the dark air and a dog was baying on some low and faraway ledge of the cliff. The table seemed to have risen a little toward the sky like a mechanical dancing platform, giving the people around it a sense of being alone with each other in the dark universe, nourished by its only food, warmed by its only lights.' Here, in two simple but sensuous sentences, a master chef serves up the quintessential Mediterranean cocktail: a heady blend of food, wine, company and light, plus - as seasoning - the time and space in which to relish these ingredients.

Today, we are told, the Mediterranean is dying, and looked at coldly - with a suitably sceptic Northern eye - it certainly leaves a lot to be desired. Where, for instance, are the tides? And just what are those concrete monstrosities that make up its many Benidorms? But scorn it how you will, it remains the pond around which Northern civilisation sprang to life; and with that civilisation, the stories, myths and legends that underpin it. Ever since Homer, it has inspired archetypal stories so rooted in a particular and highly charged geography that the landscape has become synonymous with the odyssey we call life.

In the mid-Seventies - spurred, it has to be said, by nothing more remarkable than a need to find somewhere suitable to bring up two small children - I went to live on Ibiza, where I found not just the usual Mediterranean accoutrements of space, sun and light, but a whole colony of people in pursuit of an ideal. From the most dedicated of hippies to the most eccentric of painters, the island was rich with wanderers in search of that most inaccessible of places, their own true selves.

We lived very cheaply, and without the usual restrictions. We felt free to embark on whatever odyssey we felt was necessary.

On one level, this was purely because Ibiza is an island. That, and its manifest difference from the Kentish towns and Brooklyn Heights from which we all hailed. And put like that, what I am saying is a mere variation on that most banal of themes, that the grass is greener on the other side of the hill. Go to the highlands of Scotland, and in every pub, on every nature trail, you will find Italians, no doubt as liberated by the mist and the whisky as we, in Tuscany, are freed by sun and wine.

And yet it goes deeper than that. For the Mediterranean is also, as I say, about history; history and story-telling. Ibiza is not merely cheap housing, cheap brandy, cheap sun. It is Hannibal, whose family came from the island, it is the Roman conquests, it is even - some claim - site of the rock where the sirens sang the sailors to their doom. It is the cradle of our civilisation, the source of our oldest stories, and home to our imaginations. It is an Ithaka.

Ithaka is the birthplace of Ulysses, starting point of the stories given us by Homer; and therefore, in turn, springboard to the myriad tales that have come after: The Wings of the Dove, A Room with a View, As I Set Out One Midsummer Moming, The Sheltering Sky.

The poet Cavafy wrote of Ithaka:

Setting out on the voyage to Ithaka,

You must pray that the way be long,

Full of adventures and experiences.

He goes on to list the many things that will happen to you on your journey to Ithaka: the Phoenician trading stations you will visit, the Egyptian cities. Finally, he says, when you're very old, you will reach the island:

Poor though you find it, Ithaka has not cheated you.

Wise as you have become, with all your

experience,

You will have understood the meaning of an Ithaka.

What Ithaka gives you, Cavafy is saying, is the journey.

My Ithaka, the island of lbiza, gave me the happiness of watching my children grow up in the sun. It gave me new perspectives on life which, in turn, gave me the raw material and the setting for my first novel - and when that novel was politely declined, the determination to embark on a second, happily accepted; a novel which, as it happens, is also set on an island, albeit off the coast of England, but an island nevertheless which, like all islands, like all Ithakas, provides its characters with their journey.

The magic of the Mediterranean is not that it is somewhere other, not that it has sun, not that the wine always flows. It is another kind of magic altogether, the magic that lies at the very heart of human experience: that by exploration, by the simple fact of journeying, of living a story, there is, in all of us, waiting to be discovered, a place where we can come alive. A place to which writers from the world over (even from the New World, where perhaps they are most ardently in search of the old) are drawn, a place pregnant with the symbolism of a tideless, eternal sea that speaks of Africa, of the Levant, the Greeks and the Romans. A place which, as you lie reading about it on your beach, will not - unlike your tan - ever fade.

Or, to put it another way - and with apologies to one of the Mediterranean's more recent converts - there is a corner of English literature that is toujours Provence.

(Photograph omitted)

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