Mediterranean memoir

by Deborah Ross

Majorca, the summer of 1973, and here I am, aged 12, in the red and white dress I recall so vividly and thought so chic. I suspect even you are thinking: "So chic, for one so young. You can't say she didn't have it, even back then." My hair is very short. I'd had it cut just before the holiday, had never had it so short, and wasn't too sure. I thought I looked quite like a boy. My older brother (16) was reassuring, though. "I think it really suits you, Clive," he said. My older sister (14) then said, comfortingly: "It will grow back, Mike." My younger sister (9) knew to stay quiet because I would get her, or at least make her play "who can drink the most water before going to bed and not wet themselves". Anyway, I think, when this photograph was taken, we were on a boat trip and had stopped on an island. Here, someone took out a guitar and everyone danced. "Y Viva Espana" was released that summer and was all the rage, following us everywhere. Maybe everyone was dancing to that. You can accuse the Ross family of many things – like stealing rolls and salami from the breakfast buffet, to save on lunch – but not of missing out on the first wave of mass tourism to Spain. Obviously, my father – who was always in charge of the camera; it being a job for a man – has called for me to stop and look up at him. He probably said: "Oy, Cyril, over here."

Majorca, 1973. How exciting was that? Very, and I'm serious. This was our family's first package holiday. Previously, it had always been camping, possibly in France, which meant overnight car ferries, cabins that smelled of old soup, pitching tents in pouring rain, squabbling over whose go it was to do the washing up. Or we would camp by the seaside in Britain, which mostly, as I recall, involved shivering behind windcheaters, pointing at the sky and saying: "It will brighten up later." It never did brighten up later, but you had to think it might, otherwise you'd probably feel compelled to top yourself. But a package to Spain! Why, after all those years? I've just asked my father. "Dad, why, after all those years?" His reply is illuminating. "I haven't the faintest idea," he says. At least he doesn't say: "I haven't the faintest idea, Roger."

A package holiday. This meant an aeroplane! And a hotel! My siblings and I had never stayed in a hotel. The hotel was vast and as picturesque as a 50-floored concrete tower block but we didn't care. A hotel was a hotel was a hotel. A hotel meant beds and meals made for you. A hotel meant you didn't have to shower in a block with spiders in it. It was full of Brits and Germans, as I remember, although the staff were all Spanish. One dishy waiter fancied my older sister who, in turn, had an orange bikini and may have been quite hot. I think he asked her to the disco. I had a blue bikini and was not asked to any discos. I had that red and white chic dress and was still not asked to any discos. Honestly, what does a girl have to do to get asked to a disco, aside from not look like a boy?

Every single day of the fortnight went as follows: breakfast; beach; lunch (stolen rolls); nap; beach; waffle; shower; dinner; ping-pong. The beach was a 20-minute walk down a lane and was like a commuter run with everyone going one way in the morning and then the other in late afternoon. The beach was good and sandy but the Mediterranean was as the Mediterranean was at that time: filthy, polluted. Any attempt to emerge from the sea with some kind of Ursula Andress finesse was undermined by the fact you might well have used toilet paper wrapped around your thighs and a full-blown poo wedged in your bikini top. But did we even care about that? We did not. We spent hours breaststroking though the sewage, or on lilos, or with snorkels, or playing "walls of water" which meant all holding hands and jumping into high waves. It might have been the last time I properly enjoyed the sea. Jaws came out in 1975 and, ever since, I have only paddled. Nervously. While keeping an eye out.

What else do I remember? I remember the hotel food involved a lot of tinned tomatoes, that it was fantastically sunny every day, that my older sister got so sunburnt she had blisters on her shoulder, and that, in the strange absence of disco invites, I got remarkably good at table tennis (I still am). So that was Majorca, 1973, and it was great. I should probably add, though, that I've never had short hair since.

My secret diary

by Hermione Eyre, aged 9 3/4

Monday The car is in the garage so we cannot go to the beach. I suggested we walk to Camber Sands since it is only 12 miles. Ma didn't seem keen. Practised my front crawl on the lawn. With goggles on and your eyes closed you could almost be in the sea itself. Noticed a new green, boggy patch at the bottom of the garden. Could it be a freshwater spring?

Tuesday Car still in garage and may be there a week! Camber Sands too far "even by bicycle in this heat" or so it is said. Snorkelling in the bath is not as fun as you would expect. Found a bucket and spade which could be useful one day. News about the green boggy patch: it is definitely a freshwater spring. I know because I did some water-divining with a twig.

Wednesday Devised my own synchronised swimming routine on the lawn. It works quite well with just Ma and me, but about ten more people and some water would be ideal. The lawn is going yellow and crispy, apart from the boggy patch, where the puddles are quite deep now. Perhaps we could turn it into a swimming pool? There was a film on the news of Camber Sands which was full of people, lucky them.

Thursday Operation Swimming Pool is now underway. I knew the bucket and spade would come in useful. It will be a freshwater pool carved into the soil a bit like the one in Malory Towers but without a diving board I think. Today I filled approx. three buckets of soil. Who needs the beach, eh?

Friday Digging.

Saturday Ma and I find gloves really help with blisters from digging.

Sunday It is harder than you'd think to dig a swimming pool with just your mother and a spade, much harder than digging a sandcastle. It will be worth it, though, when we are doing dive bombs and playing water polo.

Monday Too tired from digging to write.

Tuesday A bit of a blow. The freshwater spring is coming out of a pipe, which Ma hit with her shovel. This means we don't actually have a natural spring, only a burst water main. Ma and I stared at the pipe in silence while the sun blazed down. Little Pip, our Yorkshire terrier, sneezed. Then Ma and I started laughing. Ma said we would have to get it fixed but could still build a pool. We carried on digging till it was dark.

Wednesday Great progress – the pool is really deep now: up to the knees. Little Pip jumped in and couldn't jump out again. We are brown as builders and muscly too. I said we should get up early to dig in the morning and Ma asked if this was a goulash or a summer holiday. A goulash is a labour camp.

Thursday We invited my friend Chrissy to join in the fun, I mean, digging. She said she was going to the beach. We offered to pay our gardener to help us but he was going to the beach as well. Oh well, heave ho!

Friday I'm sick of digging. But I think it is best to pretend not to be to keep up Ma's spirits.

Saturday We are nearly there. Just the last steps: the drainage tunnel, and the liner and then we have our very own pool. I am planning an official opening gala with races and music. I think I will wear my purple swimsuit with matching headband.

Sunday I am sitting inside with Little Pip on my lap and I have been crying for about five minutes. I am totally mortified. In the course of digging the drainage tunnel the wall of the pool was weakened, and while we were trying to fit the plastic liner the whole thing caved in, ripping the plastic completely. It is just a muddy pit, nothing like a swimming pool. Why did I think it could ever be one? Mummy is still out there trying to fix the liner into the mud with a staple gun. Fat chance. The good news is that our car comes back from the garage tomorrow, so tomorrow we will actually, actually be off to the beach. If it has stopped raining.

Postscript In the process of digging we came across several fragments of blackened fossil, smooth and warmer to the touch than stone. These were identified by the Natural History Museum as fern fronds, turtle skin and a crocodile tooth. We were on the beach all along, only several millennia too late.

Landfall on Mykonos

by John Walsh

The crush at the Piraeus ferry port took your breath away. Not just because of the 38-degree-Celsius heat, nor the toxic pong of Athenian lunch debris decanted straight from restaurant bin into harbour. No, what was shocking was the fact that everyone doing the pushing and jostling for position looked just like us: students in long hair and blue jeans, with pasty white cheeks and sand-coloured shorts, all carrying Greece on £5 a Day and copies of John Fowles's Hellenic phantasmagoria, The Magus. It was like boarding a ferry with 399 clones of yourself.

It was 1973, and my first holiday to Greece; also my first holiday (at 19) without my parents and sister: my first leap into freedom. I knew the Greek word for it: eleutheria. But all I knew of the islands was second-hand. The back cover of Leonard Cohen's Songs from a Room, with a grainy photo from the old groaner's Hydra love nest, with his beloved Marianne sitting in a towel before his typewriter. The mysterious island where Nicholas Urfe gets a sentimental education in The Magus. Dim memories of Zorba the Greek, with the Englishman Alan Bates becoming de-stiffed by Anthony Quinn's noisy island hedonist. And the speeded-up bouzouki dance we used to perform with the neighbours every New Year's Eve, at the end of which we collapsed in a heap. That was all I knew of Greece. It was enough.

Just look, I thought distastefully, at all the clones (the clowns) thronging the SS Aegean ferry – the weekend groovers, the suburban hippies with their bleached-blonde hair (both sexes) and naked white shoulders under dungarees. As the boat surged through the grey choppy water, leaving the baked wasteland of Athens behind, one of them swigged from a bottle of Teachers, and handed it round. His every gesture said: "Christ, I am so Bohemian". Another strummed a bashed-up Yamaha to some birdbrained London girls (he sang "Starman" – it was all David Bowie that summer).

I muttered to my girlfriend, Gail, how I couldn't stand being among these "terrestrials". "Don't be such a snob," she said. "They're probably thinking, 'What an Oxbridge prat in his bellbottoms and sandals'."

The journey took hours. Spiky rocks stuck out of the water like broken milestones, failing to tell us how far we'd come. The Scotch-swigger was violently sick over the side. The strummer switched to Cat Stevens' gloopy "Moonshadow". Gail and I ate the last of our sandwiches. Night came down, and she slept on my shoulder. It was too dark to read, so I dozed off as well and ...

Suddenly we were jolted awake. Lights were shining in my eyes, hurtfully bright, like Klieg lights at a film studio. "Mykonos!" shouted voices. "Mykonos tickets, you are here!" I don't remember how we got to the beach – some rowing boats must have come out to meet us – but it too seemed floodlit. All the studenty clones on the ferry seemed to have melted away. I was flooded with a sensory joy I've seldom encountered, like a returned exile, as if, like Ulysses, I were arriving home to Ithaca: the white breakers in the dark night, the frond-strewn path from the jetty, the way the whitewashed walls curved at the bottom to become pathways, as if made of the same material like white silk drapery, pulling you further into town, wide-eyed and dreamy like cattle in the dusk. In the distance was music, the cries of dancers. "It's a film set," breathed Gail. "It's completely unreal. All these whitewashed houses and streets." But it was real. A whiff of roadside souvlaki hit my nostrils. I was starving, just two minutes away from trying the first of a hundred of the world's most delicious savoury snack ...

It was a fab holiday. I could tell you about a thousand things: meeting university friends (everyone went to Mykonos that summer, before it became almost exclusively gay), acquiring a taste for Ouzo-and-Coke, marvelling at how my friend Rob could bisect wasps in mid-air with his breakfast knife, reading Tristram Shandy (the worst-ever beach read) on the rocks, finding new tavernas, learning to snorkel, spinning round, shockingly drunk, under the stars, travelling to Ios and other islands.

Sure, I could tell you about it all, as if I were showing you holiday snaps. But nothing bettered that first moment when I stepped on to the beach at Mykonos, miles from home, family, university, all the baggage of being 19, English, bourgeois and uptight; and discovering, beyond the beach, the kebab-scented paradise of the Cyclades, the music on the night air, a sense of infinite possibilities at the end of the white path. A whiff of true freedom. Nothing bettered it when I was 19. In a way, nothing ever has.