16 August 1977. Elvis Presley, obese, drug-addicted, a bloated caricature of his younger self, is slumped on the khazi in his kitsch Memphis palace, Graceland. The King of Rock'n'Roll is dead at 42. I, on the other hand, am 16; a slip of a lad, limber, bronzed and about to disembark from a rusty ferry at Piraeus. True, I am speeding out of my box - but then this is 1977. When my mate Dave and I boarded the ferry in Santorini, Elvis was alive, and if not exactly kicking, then at least giving the occasional pelvic thrust, but when we jogged down the gangway 12 hours later we entered a new era.
At least that's how it seemed at the time, sitting out that ouzo evening in a pavement café in Athens, feverishly discussing the awesome news with the usual harem-panted, hair-braided goulash of pan-European holidaying youth. With the benefit of hindsight the King's premature demise seems an irrelevance. After all, he'd reached the zenith of the firmament and had he lived would have probably only tarnished his stellar celebrity. Death was a good career move, and such is the queer parallax of time that the lean sexual dynamo of the late 1950s now struts alongside the gusset-mopping, Las Vegas groaner. Sadly the same cannot be said for me.
Where can I find him, that amphetamine Ariel, my younger self? I want to shuck off the whole-body flesh suit of middle age and go skipping with him through the olive groves of the Cyclades ... you ain't never killed a rabbit an' you ain't no friend of mine ... I want to tumble in the warm surf of the Aegean and cosy up to the sweaty sleeping bags of a hundred other youths kipping down at 50 drachmas a pop on the roof of an Athens flophouse down at the end of lonely street ... I want to experience again that peculiar rock'n'roll intensity that belongs only and forever to your first trip abroad, free from the embarrassing yoke of parents ... that's all right mama, that's all right with me ... fat chance.
Dave and I had Magic Bused it from Gloucester Road all the way across Europe. I remember the humming eternity of the channel ferry, the susurration of the nighttime péage, the groaning ascent of the Alps, and then at dawn, emerging from the San Bernardino road tunnel to sup a fiery liqueur at a road stop. After a scant couple of hours caroming through Italy, the increasingly faecal-smelling bus set off across Yugoslavia. An interminable plain of cabbage between Zagreb and Belgrade. Peasants in headscarves jiggling atop rubber-tyred carts. I'm not saying that in those pre-low-cost-airline days travel was necessarily any more romantic, but you certainly knew you'd traversed a continent when you were sat on your arse for nearly four days and emerged shaking with ague to see the Parthenon floating on a smog bank.
In Greece we went feral for a month: tooling mopeds around Paros and Naxos; camping out on the roofs of quake-devastated Thira; fossicking in remote classical ruins; gyrating on concrete dance floors; swilling resinous gut-rot; and one memorable night waiting behind when the wardens shut the site at Delphi. Our intention had been to sport among the sacred groves and run a few laps on the three-millennia-old track, but there were security guards with flashlights wandering around and we were too scared to come down from the hillside. We were stuck on a precipitous ledge the whole night. When dawn came I'd been bitten so severely by mosquitoes that my eyes had swollen shut.
Would I let my own teenage son embark on such a jagged adventure? Of course I bloody would. Everyone should experience such a total disjunction from the familiar - and preferably at around that age. I can't recall phoning home - did they even have phones in those days? We returned to utility-furniture Blighty if not any wiser at least tempered by the experience - and still slimmer. An exclusive diet of raki, retsina, ouzo, tomatoes, feta, onion and bread had seen to that. Freddie Laker was launching the Skytrain, a no-frills, walk-on, walk-off airline service to New York. It was the beginning of the end.
Now I slump on the toilet here at Graceland staring with frank disbelief and the massive belly bulging from my rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuit. Don't be cruel ... a voice whispers in my inner ear ... to a heart that's true. If I travel at all nowadays it's only across the continent in a padded private jet, on the tail fin of which is the disingenuous motto "Taking Care of Business". I cannot even take five paces without being accompanied by my personal "physician" bearing a bag full of uppers, downers, twisters and screamers. Everything wearies me, and the only grease in my life is plastered on my ludicrous hair.
By Will Self
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