The Essay: under mykonos

A barren rock in the Med, where Giants are buried and Apollo is still worshipped.
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I am sitting in the front row of a cafe on the harbour drinking a beer and eating an octopus. It's late in the afternoon and there's an air of expectation. Three ladies in slacks, about 60 or 50 years old, are clutching their cameras, sitting next to me. There's a fanfare and a short speech from the town square, a few hundred yards away. People clap a bit and whoop. It's not long before the procession hoves into view. "He's very handsome," says B of the almost naked man on horseback. "Do you think he's a model?" Behind him six young men from the beach are carrying an image of Iris the Rainbow. It has letters stuck on to it which read "Twelve Gods Party". All the members of the entourage have been chosen for their physique and walk behind the horse in swimming trunks. As even decent bodies do out of context, they look a bit ridiculous. The French guy called Vincent is one of the chosen. He catches us watching and rolls his eyes heavenwards. The ladies next to us take photographs.

The man on horseback is Apollo, despite his black hair and physical overdevelopment. "What happened to the rest of them?" I can hear myself saying. "There were only seven and only one of them was a `god'," but B thinks it was good fun. We hang around a bit longer then make our way back to the apartment.

The ancient Greeks had beauty contests for men. The winners danced in the first line of choruses or led processions. It was another part of the splendour that proclaimed a city's superiority to the other Greeks, especially at the international festivals like the one at Delos, the barren island suburb of Mykonos, 15 or 20 minutes away by boat, one of Greece's most important archaeological sites, where Apollo, the god of light, was born.

Next day, the woman who cleans wants to know what the procession was like. I say I was disappointed. It was a man on a horse from an agency and six boys from the beach with a flag. She's also disappointed. She's from Derbyshire and introduced herself as strong in th' arm, thick in th' head which I had to explain to B. She's lived here for ages, and has a son who's half Greek, somewhere at university. Our description of the procession provokes an observation. "The Greeks," she says, "don't know how to have a good time. No really, they are very boring."

We wonder which beach we are going to go to today. For the first few days we were constrained by bus timetables. But B wouldn't put up with that and said we had to get motorbikes. I managed to beat him down to a moped after a whole day pointing out people with broken arms, raising the terrifying prospect of anything happening to me.

Among beaches, there turn out to be only three choices. Super- paradise is the most extraordinary. A bay slung between two promontories, the sea is green like a swimming pool. The most peculiar thing about the beach is the feeling it has of an enormous outside room. More remote and spacious is Elea. On the other side of the island is Ayios Sostes, which I translate, hopefully, as "San Salvador". You can find yourself almost alone here if you come just a week after high season. Superparadise on the other hand is always packed full with people and from about four o'clock in the afternoon music beats out like a disco. You have to be in seal- colony mood to have the remotest chance of enjoying it, but it is, as I said, quite spectacular and sometimes being a seal on a beach with music is exactly what you feel like. Elea, on the other hand, is always a viable option, unless the wind is blowing. There are several other beaches, of course, but gay people don't go there much and we have disdained them.

The route to Superparadise runs past the airport runway which fits on the island as awkwardly as Delos's Hippodrome. A little off the end of it you come to a turning and have to choose between right and left. Left will take you to the straight side of the beach, and right to the gay. The road alternates mere track with pot-holed tarmac. Eventually you see the sea, then the bay then the beach and realise you are on one edge of a shallowly pouring valley, a strange valley littered with giant boulders which look like painted polystyrene. There must be some connection between these boulders and the story about the buried Giants - the Giants were cousins of the Olympians who rebelled and were defeated. When all the gods had slaked their thirst for particular vengeance there were still a few Giants left over, dead in all their various shapes and sizes. Hercules looked around a bit to see if anyone was looking, then brushed them all under one Mykonos. And you do wonder, if they weren't thrown, how on earth these boulders got here. Only the highest parts of Greece experienced the ice age, so glaciers are out of the question.

You know you've reached your destination when the road falls away, precipitously slipping down the valley's parabolic scoop. The road looks dangerously shiny and rubbed smooth despite the grooves scored into its surface. Some park up here where we are now hesitating, finding the inclination far too risky, but there are plenty of bikes and mopeds in the car park below to prove that many have made it. You switch off the engine, such as it is, and apply the brakes just enough to prevent reckless acceleration, but not so much that you begin to slide. You wonder if you should have hired something more powerful, knowing what you've got will never get you back up again.

If you did lose control, a cocktail bar is waiting at the bottom to catch you. Exactly like the ones you see in brochures of the Caribbean, round and thatched for shade, it looks out over the beach below. Some of the tables are arranged around the little salt-water swimming pool, which is constructed right on the edge of the high rock so only the blue of the bay is visible beyond it and the pool's perimeter looks like a thin stone line, an unnecessary breakwater. From the bar a series of stone steps lead down on to a couple more terraces and then to the beach. If you get here before about 10 it will be empty apart from a flight attendant or two quickly stripping off his uniform and fitting in a swim while the cleaners clean the aeroplane, or some old hippy doing exercises. From 12 onwards, however, the beach is crowded. You take advantage of the view from the last few steps to spot a vacant space with room for two towels and then a route through the colony to reach it. Sometimes you find a space that has just been vacated, gaping like the missing piece of a jigsaw and before you complete the puzzle again you notice the sand is already body-shaped with three hard mounds where nape, back and knees were, and where heels, bums and heads have been, three slight hollows, still damp sometimes with blots like Rorschach tests but not quite so inspiring. You wonder if your own bumps will fit comfortably or not or whether you will have to do your own landscaping.

Once you've bagged a place you can look around and see if there's anyone you know and then you can wave or duck, depending. More usually it'll be someone B met the night before. Not being Greek but Spanish, he knows how to have fun. He practises nightly, nevertheless, just in case he forgets, the danger of which I am a constant reminder. I interrogate him over breakfast or, if he wakes me, at four or five in the morning. If any of these characters are on the beach next day, as they usually are, I can see how good I've been at picturing. "You never said they were old" or "Samoan" or "transsexual" or "very handsome" or "had such long hair". "Do you think he's handsome?"

The Persians came to Mykonos on at least one occasion, as Herodotus records, in 490BCE. They put in here after the Athenians had defeated them at Marathon. It's impossible to recreate their mood but we can at least make a guess at it. It had not been a massive expedition for the Persians, that would come 10 years later and end up even more badly, but it's quite likely the defeat had, nevertheless, astonished them. Mykonos might have been the first stop they made after leaving Attica. Datis, their general, managed at any rate to sleep a little for the first time, perhaps, in ages, putting aside thoughts of what had gone wrong and what would happen to him when the Great King found out, or rather, perhaps, exhausted by them. What he dreamt, says Herodotus, no one knows, but next day it had consequences. At dawn he ordered a search of every ship in the navy. A stolen statue was found in one of them, predictably a tricky Phoenician's. It was of Apollo, not from Delos itself but from a temple to Apollo-of-Delos in the territory of Thebes. Datis seized the evidence and asked the Delians to return it, but it took them 20 years to comply.

Paradise is a Persian word, meaning a park or a garden, but it's unlikely the Persians would have found anywhere on this island worthy of the word. Greece is rarely verdant and probably never has been. Arcadia was always more imagined than real. Greeks knew this and looked enviously at the lusher landscapes of Italy and Turkey and wondered why on earth the Persians who possessed so many green paradises would be interested in their desultory patch. On the other hand, it also explained why the Persians failed. Paradise corrupts. And super paradises corrupt superbly.

Just as the desolation of Delos made that island offer itself as an empty stage for Apollo's birth and the throngs that came to commemorate it, so Mykonos's desolation brings people here today. All that clarity of beaches and sea is simply a sign of barrenness. Its seas are like swimming pools because they are uncontaminated by the dirty life of river silts and sea weeds, just dead sand, water and light passing between them unhindered. I saw an old sign pointing beachwards to a place called Plynteria which in modern Greek means "washing-machines" and imagine that for years washing clothes was all these paradise beaches were good for. Plynteria was also the name of a festival where they washed Athena's clothes, woven with scenes of gigantomachy, and took the goddess herself paddling in the sea, to get rid of all the dirt that had accumulated from fat-smoky lamps burning religiously throughout the year. During this festival secret rites were performed, all the temples were closed, and nobody did anything, for fear of disaster. It was one of the gloomiest days of the whole year and it was on this day in history that Alcibiades finally returned to Athens after years in exile abroad, sailing into the harbour with all the ships he had captured, music, musicians and poetry. Unfortunately on this day Athena's head was always covered. She could neither see or hear a thing.

In 1628 Mykonos was visited by Charles Robson: "a barren iland of small extent some fifteene miles in compasse, wholly inhabited by poore Greeks, having but one, I cannot tell whether to call it, village or town of the same name with the iland, subject to the dominion and spoil of the Turks ... the barrennesse of the ile is much helped with the industry of the people, forcing corne out of rocky mountaines, scarce passable for men: yet they continue so poore by reason of the Turkes pillages, that unlesse they were merry Greekes indeed, and would wonder what delight they could take in living ... " This is why Mykonos is so picturesque. A poor community without the resources for big houses in Venetian, Turkish or French style. The whole population budging up against one another in one remarkably sizeable town, the streets labyrinthine to protect the population from casual marauders. Low minimal buildings, humble Mykonos, ducking out of history or just ducking, a haven for British spies during the Napoleonic and First World Wars.

Most of what Mykonos meant to the ancient world comes from its desolation. It was a tombstone keeping a heavy lid on all those odds and sods of Giants that Hercules swept under it. This myth gave rise to a saying which is Mykonos's chief claim to fame in antiquity, a saying useful in disarming a careless taxonomist: mia Mykonos, "all under one Mykonos". I imagine it as one of that elite group of sayings which carry such a weight of world-won wisdom and unexceptionable truth that the briefest incantation stops argument dead in its tracks: "It's a wise child ... ", "It's an ill wind ... " "It's all under one Mykonos." I imagine sitting in on one of the dialogues Plato imagined and stumping his Socrates with my critique: "What you say is perfectly true, dear friend, but aren't you putting `all under one Mykonos' "? The others are silenced by my uncontainable wisdom, end of debate, much nodding then sighing and looking at watches, much wondering suddenly what to do next.

The saying implies that the Giants aren't quite extinct. They seem unhappy being lumped together and struggle against it. Only Mykonos keeps them in place. I note that children were sometimes buried in cities that dead adults were cleared out of. It's not that in times of high mortality children's deaths were brushed off lightly - another one bites the dust. It's quite certain there was much more bereavement, but no evidence parents ever got used to it. Rather, not having lived so much, children didn't carry so much lost life-force spilling over to haunt the living. And if dead adults had more residual power than dead children, how much more must dead Giants have had.

At around five or six-thirty the beach empties. I am by now quite bored to death, again, but I concede that I am being cured of something. This cooking has sweetened, if only a little bit, my sour and bitter juices, and, despite the distractions, I've probably read at least a third of a novel in this one endless sitting, a book I would never read at home. We hang around. B loves this mild warm time. He thinks it's what beach holidays are for. Ficino, the Florentine who rediscovered Plato for Western Europe and found much wisdom therein, thought that scholars and academics, who spend their lives squatting in dark libraries peering over texts lit by the feeble substitute of fat-smoky candles, were sunless grubs who lived under the sign of Saturn, which filled them with melancholia - although its English translation "black bile" brings out, I think, more nicely, the bitter edge of academic lugubriousness. He suggested we surround ourselves with solar forces as an antidote gold: butter, sunflowers, yellow things and blond boys. This was a purely biochemical reaction. These objects breathed good humour. They amplified the power of Light like lenses or relay-stations and would help alleviate the dark weight of academe as straightforwardly as chalk relieves indigestion. The blond men had to be young, he thought, because the light of older blonds was more feeble and less effectual. B is not blond by any stretch of the imagination. In fact he's as bald as Mykonos. Nevertheless I use him to save me, not from sadness or depression, but from resentful compromises and sarcastic inertia.

We have an appointment at nine to meet some friends from London, who've just arrived in Mykonos, for a drink. Nine, because that will give T time to take the protease inhibitors which have managed miraculously, after seven or more years, to purify his blood from all traces of the disease. His life had seemed securely bottled up. Now suddenly he finds himself with a luxurious future stretching out around him, not obvious like an island in an ocean, but patent like a plain.

Later we make our way to a ramshackle restaurant close enough to the sea to get splashed in the unnatural wake of a cruise ship passing far out enough to slip silently by. The food is fresh and fabulous, which is quite an achievement on this island, for food. My tip for eating here is see what you're getting and avoid what sounds like cuisine.

Conversation turns to the Twelve Gods Party. It's an American thing, apparently. It lasts about 10 days. It's a bit of a wheeze for tour operators in league with resorts to raise the spirits and extend the season when summer is clearly petering out, but it also raises money for Aids charities. They have events, a few discos, a party at the waterpark and then a night- long festival with a pageant which ends at dawn. There was a rumour this would have taken place on Delos itself, which would have been nostalgic, but they would never have got permission. After dinner B wants to go out. "Un poco de alegria," he says, which prompts me to repeat my line about how the Spaniards are obsessed with being lively because they are terrified of death, which is why he leaves cupboard doors open and never finishes books. "At least at your funeral no one will be able to say you haven't lived." "And your funeral," he says, "will be months overdue, because it will take that long for anyone to notice." He thinks life has to be husbanded by means of generosity and the worst thing is to be mean. To him Socrates' attempted libation makes all the sense in the world.

We go to the square where the gay bars are. It fills up at about midnight with a representative from every part of the gay diaspora, but especially Milanese. They always dress for the evening, often in black, and wear gold chains and rings. They seem to know exactly which yacht belongs to which designer. The enormous blue one is Valentino's, apparently, and Thierry Mugler is also in town. And, thanks to a new genius designer, Gucci is the thing to wear once more. They seem so soft these Italians, not effeminate exactly, but not exactly Roman conquerors either.

Italians first arrived in the area in the second century before Christ. Rome gave Delos back to Athens, ending a century and a half of independence and evicting the Delians from the island once again. It became a great emporium, a free port at Rome's instigation designed to punish the economy of an ungrateful Rhodes, a centre for trade in the slaves that were available in huge numbers from wars fought by Romans and the piratical chaos that followed in their wake. Delos, said later writers, could handle 10,000 -- in Greek, "myriad" - slaves a day and they remembered a saying which was already hard to believe: "Dock at Delos and your cargo will find buyers before you've had time to unload." In 134BCE the slaves in the marketplace revolted, but not for long.

Geneticists think it probable that the character of each European nation was more or less settled thousands of years ago, after the first coming of agriculture in the Neolithic "New" Stone Age, each nation, in fact, a pulse or a wave, ripples emanating from a centre. The invaders recorded in history books - the Germans, Celts, Italians, Lombards, Greeks, Slavs - made only a tiny impact on these deeply stratified genes. These Italians in this square on Mykonos are the spitting image, at most slightly blurred, of the ones who terrorized the entire Mediterranean once and left cities destroyed and dogs - famously, deliberately, terrifyingly - sliced in half. The greatest fear I have of them now is that they will look at what I'm wearing and sneer.

There is something about gay people and islands, although Fire Island, an island off an island, is the only one you could call unequivocally gay. In Manhattan I saw a graffito which suggested putting all the faggots on an island. There was an obvious subscription which someone couldn't resist: "They did, honey, you're on it." The father of one friend wanted to put all people with Aids on an island. I think he suggested the Isle of Wight. What would happen to them there was left to the imagination. I doubt they would have been well looked after and it made his son hesitate for longer before coming out. When he did, as it happens, his father was splendid. He became an instant "liberal" in this particular region of attitudes.

Next day we decide to go somewhere quiet and relaxing. Ayios Sostes on the other side of the island seems the best bet and we tell T and the others to meet us there. The beach is quiet and peaceful. The bay is deep and long. The wind is up, however, and blows enough occasionally to blow sand in our faces and flip over our towels. The locals say it always lasts an odd number of days, a minimal piece of prophecy which simply means if it's been blowing for an even number you can predict the weather a day in advance. Before going back to the apartment, after a day of this inconvenience, we decide to drop in on Superparadise. At the top of the steep road we can see the giant navy blue yacht pulling at its anchor and moving sickeningly slowly around. The wind has been a feature of the late summer in the Cyclades for millennia.

We're leaving tomorrow, thank goodness, after two long weeks. My achievements are getting brown without sunburn, completing seven novels about half of which were gripping, one excellent and some others pretty good and not getting knocked off my moped. Now we're on a late bus to Mykonos's Hard Rock Cafe where there is to be the climactic party. The tickets cost a fortune, but I am feeling much more lively now after two weeks of mindlessness. I am pleased to note that after going out every night but one since we arrived here, B is completely exhausted, which is another achievement as far as I'm concerned.

The Hard Rock Cafe has gingham tablecloths, a swimming pool and a flashy old American car. I imagine the hamburgers are quite good. It looks like the kind of company where executives talk about standards and branding, but it's in the middle of nowhere and, as you have probably gathered, away from the spectacular beaches and outside the astonishing town. Mykonos doesn't look like a place at all so much as a geological deposit. The music isn't bad and I think dancing in the open air when it's warm is a wonderful experience. We get separated immediately. Our friend Muppet says he's had enough of tablets and reaches into his pocket to pull out the far-travelled drug bag. He thrusts it in my direction and walks off in disgust. It falls on the floor and I wonder if I should pick it up again. Drugs can be dangerous undoubtedly - a single Ecstasy tablet, apparently, can kill you (and cannabis can lead to indolence) - but they can also be perfectly harmless, it seems. You might have the best time you've ever had in your entire life, or you might, just possibly, die.

A woman stands up on the dancefloor and makes a speech. She talks about where the money is going and announces the gods one by one. As she reads out their names they are illuminated on the roof, models or actors in Grecian costumes, although Hera and Poseidon look like the committee's friends. Apollo is saved until last. It might or might not be the same guy we saw in the harbour on a horse a week ago, but he is certainly splendid and they all look larger than lifesize. The roof is quite invisible now and lasers play over the divinities. You might be forgiven for thinking they were suspended in mid-air. The woman tells us about Apollo and how he loved Hyacinthus, but liked girls as well. Then the lights go out and Janet Jackson starts playing again. I wonder if Apollo would have enjoyed this festival. There were no sacrifices, but plenty of accidental libations, albeit of beer, and he would certainly have felt nostalgic about the music and the dancing and the life.

The wind is blowing here too but more mildly now. Dawn comes and is worth waiting for, the whole island lying open around us, six or seven of us still dancing, one of whom is me. I feel as if I've achieved one thing more. The first plane of the morning swoops down and I know I'll be leaving this very day.

The plane doesn't have much runway from which to get a lift, but thankfully its wings are working and, as it banks, an image of the whole Aegean zooming away from us appears. Little white waves evenly fleck the blue water, Poseidon's horses, and Mykonos and Delos and Rheneia can be seen standing out barren brown from barren blue and then all the other rather bigger islands very vaguely in a vortex around them.

The Greece that ancient writers describe sounds very much like this one, same climate, same sea level, same rainfall, except that they seem to be rather better acquainted than you would expect with snow. It does snow in modern Greece. My friend who really was beautiful brought me the front page of a Greek newspaper once in, I think, 1983, to show me Athens knee-deep in the stuff. But he had never seen anything like it in his life and pinned the picture on his wall. Snow is rarer now that Greece is collapsing towards the south and west, gradually dissolving.

It seems to be raining more heavily still. We managed to get drenched between the taxi and the door. There's masses of post which doesn't look interesting and lingering sand in our clothes. I long to sleep, but, as if to enhance the pleasure, I allow myself to be distracted by what's on my desk, something I was looking at before I left, the encyclopedia's entry on Mykonos. I notice something I hadn't noticed before, perhaps because it was in Greek letters, a short lemma preceding the one on Mykonos island.

It refers to a little mountain called Mykonos next to Etna, mentioned in all of ancient literature only once and also a Mykonos topos, which might be the same thing. It seems a much more convenient place to put the leftover Giants. I have no idea, but as I finally subside into sleep, like sugar on a cappuccino, B already snoring sand somehow, despite our best efforts, in the bed, the rain still torrential - sounding against the glass, I feel the ground shifting beneath me.

Hercules may well have crammed all the Earthborn Giants under One Mykonos, but there were at least Two Mykonoses to choose from and maybe another besides.

James Davidson, reproduced from `One Mykonos' by James Davidson, published by Profile Books (pounds 4.99) on 7 July. To order a copy postage-free, send cheques payable to Profile Direct, 250 Western Avenue, London W3 6EE, or phone 0181-324 5530.