The first night - it was May - we shivered beneath the bamboo-covered outdoor eating area, drank copious amounts of red wine, told raucous non-PC jokes and smoked endless cigarettes. What's more, Sue Townsend - after an arduous journey from Athens that had included two ferry rides and three coach journeys - turned up clutching a brown paper bag containing a bottle of ouzo. The 'holiday' had begun.
The lucky ones (me) were dispatched to shared rooms with solid foundations if no mains electricity, the unlucky ones went off to bamboo huts. Of course, they were much more elementally connected to nature: tinkling goats' bells, maniac raver cockerels and bawling donkeys.
The next morning Bob, the distinctly un-airy-fairy windsurfer, took us on a tour of Atsitsa - a tiny village on the north-west coast of Skyros. He introduced us to the vital bar terrace, the 100-year-old stone house that used to be the village school, the 'open' and 'closed' signs on the bar, sea urchins, the pine circle, the new vegetable patch, the huts, the toilets (which were outside and 'have just had doors put on them but no roofs, of course, so you can do your business under the stars').
After a delicious lunch of bean soup, feta, olives, dolmades, salad and strawberries, we met our leaders, sorry facilitators, in the magic circle, a low stone-walled enclosure overlooking gorgeous Atsitsa Bay.
Ken 'Massage' Eyerman, nordic looks, Californian New Age veteran and complete space cadet, was our director for the next two weeks. In his own way, he tried to explain about this 'special community' and the courses - from stress management to drama - on offer. Then there was a meaningful game: we had to think up a colour and an object for ourselves. Purple passion fruit Fiona became inseparable from her self-description for the fortnight. I was a multicoloured beach ball.
Monday saw our first demos - the daily community meeting. Announcements were made and there was an assortment of opportunities to massage or hug your neighbour. We had our first 'work' and 'oekos' groups (the latter 'so that people don't get lost socially'). I ended up on the pre-breakfast shift (8-8.30am) laying out cutlery, then later discussed mutual suspicions and the weather. It was not very sunny.
Atsitsa was set up 10 years ago by Dina Glouberman, a psychotherapist, and her Greek journalist partner, Yannis Andricopoulos. The idea is that participants (between 50 and 100) become an extended family in a holiday setting. In our writers' group I was cast as the scab that will heal (in other words, the journalist from Fleet Street). Sue Townsend gave me a poem to write that had to include Bosnia and Tatler. I looked enviously at Annie, another journalist, who got Graham and Harrogate.
Sue Townsend, it transpired, was dead enthusiastic about everything. After all she had been a secret writer for 20 years, so she obviously found it hard to pull apart our literary efforts. However, her black, often self-parodying, anecdotal tales made up for the lack of constructive criticism. Have you, for instance, heard the one about Sue, the diabetic who was stranded in Coventry at the height of Adrian Mole wealth and fame, without money, credit cards or sugar snack? She was considering begging when her husband, holding a Mars bar aloft, turned up as hero. It turned into the novel Rebuilding Coventry.
By Tuesday, the combination of late-night partying with Sue Townsend's 'delinquent coterie' and then getting up at 7am for yoga with the clean-living brigade was exhausting me. I retired to bed for the afternoon, but reappeared for our screenplay readings. Over the two weeks we wrote poems, introductions for screenplays, novels and radio plays. The idea was to find our ideal form.
Dave, a middle-aged medallion man with a penchant for large amounts of alcohol, concocted a hilarious Day at the Grand Hotel featuring Bo Spanner and his low-slung, 11- inch tool. Meanwhile, Eiry, my gamine-faced, ebullient TV producer room-mate, came up with Goosing the Sex Machine, the tale of ex-porn queen Mimosa, a goose, a man and a parcel. Russell, who became the prolific writer of the group - he missed a ferry back because he was writing - concentrated on images of hands contrasted against beer and the church. Sue was in seventh heaven.
Crazy Richard, who took the stress management course, was the agent provocateur of the community. Brash, opinionated and funny, he deliberately took on an anti-New Age, non-caring stance. 'I'm simply here to do a job,' he was wont to repeat while playing the wicked raconteur.
Friday (the start of the Atsitsa weekend) saw an unrelenting downpour. Rain, rain, rain. Patience was disappearing - where was that sunny Greek island in the brochure? We ate breakfast outside. There was no alternative - soggy bread, swimming pools under the tables and damp clothes. Poor Sue Townsend found a large swollen mosquito bite under her eye. 'It's like Lord of the Flies,' she declared. 'We're disintegrating.' Ever an optimist, she had, nevertheless, doused herself in Femme perfume in an effort to dispel the misery.
The braver ones (not me) had trudged nine wet miles into Skyros village. We got a taxi and met up with them. 'All the Skyriens think we're deranged,' laughed Joyce, the ethereal Dreamwork teacher and, looking at our motley crew, you could understand why. A beautiful village on a hill, there were no cars, lots of laburnum blossom, whitewashed cottages, mules and a naked statue of the English poet Rupert Brooke. Skyros village became somewhere to escape to and even find some real Greeks.
Atsitsa was falling apart. It was still raining. The mains electricity was still not on. There was no rainproofed area where we could sit and eat. There were no hot showers because they were solar-powered and there had been no sun. We had a community meeting in the only large room with a log fire. Anger was brewing. Ivor, an ex-naval man, was firing on all pistons. 'I paid. I want hot water. It's a real piss-off,' he said, outraged. Ken, who should have been taking some responsibility for the situation, simply threw up his hands and exclaimed: 'Hey, but what can I do? It's all part of experience.'
For days, Skyrien workmen had scampered around with various implements, looking active. I had just spent 12 days using a pitch-black bathroom when suddenly, unexpectedly, a man appeared up an adjoining electricity pole and there was light. At last, cause for a celebration.
As it was still raining, we adjourned the workshops to the neighbouring taverna for warmth. We were discussing writing about sex in Sue's workshop. 'I can't write it,' she proclaimed, 'it's my British reserve.'
Eiry, meanwhile, had written the first few pages of a blockbuster bodice-ripper, while Pete, an intense, boyish-looking quality control manager from Manchester, had composed an erotic screenplay that involved lots of bra straps, ear-rings and kissing through T-shirts. It was one way to get through the weather.
Finally, at the end of our stay, the sun shone. Ken immediately moved his massage workshop to BAB - bare-arsed beach, where we could sunbathe naked - and led his group, frantically shaking their limbs, out into the still-cold Aegean Sea. Other courses were abandoned in the heady flight to expose flesh and a new sense of beatitude settled over Atsitsa.
The cabaret on the last night summed up the week. There was a radio play, The Archers Go To Atsitsa by Pauline; a reading by Sue Townsend from her new Adrian Mole aged 24 (where do you think he'll go on holiday?); a send-up of Ken changing a light bulb by Bob; and me and my room-mates belly-dancing with Ken in a black yashmak.
Naturally, not many wanted to go home. The barriers were down, the daily massages and hugs were de rigueur. At last we were a little community. Perversely, the rain had driven us together. If this was New Age Butlins, then I wanted more.
We were supposed to leave at 6am to catch the bus to the ferry - but we missed it. Eventually, taxis, neighbours' cars and trucks were rallied. I will never forget the sight of the last truck careering towards the boat at breakneck speed just as it was about to leave. They made it and there was Sue Townsend, shattered from an excess of hedonism, deciding whether to hug or strangle the driver. It was a quintessential Atsitsa experience. . . . Surely there's a novel in that?
Getting there: Dayrise Travel (071- 485 6444) organises flights (from pounds 145 return) to Athens plus coach and ferry journey ( pounds 75). There are no flights from Athens to Skyros.
Centres on Skyros: There are two centres. One is the Skyros Institute situated in Skyros village which is dedicated to personal development. The other is at Atsitsa, nine miles away. Rose Rouse's two-week course cost pounds 395 for travel, accommodation, food and tuition (not insurance). This centre has a more fun approach and offers wind-surfing and personal development courses, etc.
Further information: Skyros, 92 Prince of Wales Road, London NW5 3NE (071-267 4424).
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