Travel: That Summer: Fresh to the university of life: In the first of a series recalling memorable summer experiences, Tim Salmon looks back on his bohemian days on Crete in 1963

Tim Salmon
Friday 22 July 1994 23:02

Summer 1963. Did it change my life? It certainly set me on a path I've been following ever since.

I was 21. I'd just left Oxford, where I had successfully avoided ever entering the Union, having tea or even boarding a punt. I had secured a place to train as a Classics teacher, mainly to deflect my father's attempts to get me to embark on a sensible career. But I wrote a polite letter saying I wouldn't be coming, withdrew my 40 quid savings from the post office and set off for Greece. Modern Greece, a friend used to say with gentle irony, for it is true that no one but classicists went to Greece in those days.

I had a suitcase, a guitar, a typewriter, a head full of notions about writing and a vague plan to get my French girlfriend to join me. It was a move I had been planning since 1960 when several months hitchhiking in Italy and Greece had given me a taste for the university of life, reinforced by heavy doses of Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller and Hemingway.

I went by train. If there were any flights in those day, I never heard of anyone taking them. As we turned south into the Balkans it got hotter and progress slower. Through Yugoslavia the train stopped and started inexplicably. Hens scavenged on the line. In Salonica it stopped altogether. There was a strike and I had to continue to Athens by bus.

I went to the Hotel Byron in Odos Aiolou, with a view straight up to the Erychtheium, and booked a room on the roof for 17 drachmas. It was baking hot. Most of the guests were very indolent women who were not particularly youthful and never seemed to get dressed. The corridors were full of the odours of defective plumbing.

In the morning I went down to Odos Athinas, to one of those old-fashioned milk shops (extinct now) with marble- topped tables and straw-bottomed chairs, where I drank a bottle of milk and spooned a sickly sweet paste of honey and white, greasy butter on to chunks of fresh bread. The streets were crowded with men in sombre-coloured clothes. The boys, skulls shaven against lice, wore baggy shorts and hand-me-downs, the girls looked prim in dark pinafores and white socks.

I had the address of two Englishmen living on the edge of Plaka. I looked them up. They were out. 'In a cafe on the square,' someone told me.

I found them playing chess: Gerry and Thomas. Gerry lives scarcely a mile from me now. Thomas, poor lad, the Independent's man in Athens, died last year after 30 years of passionate involvement with Greece.

I moved in with them, sleeping in the wash house on the roof. They were giving English lessons to make ends meet. But they could not afford underpants and their timetables were complicated by the need to meet between lessons to exchange the jacket they shared before appearing at some bourgeois apartment in Kolonaki.

At night we went into Plaka and drank and talked books. There was no tourist razzmatazz then; it was just a crumbling working-class district. There was a girl too, dark-haired Miranda, whom I picked up with drunken boldness one evening as she dined with her mother. She drank, too, and we climbed over the Acropolis railings to canoodle under the stars.

My money ran out and I had to look for a job. With the luck of youth I found one in a couple of days: teaching in a language school in Hania, Crete. We had a party on the eve of my departure. I left with a hangover and an aching heart. Miranda accompanied me to the airport, very pale and silent.

The first morning was frightening. It was a Sunday, I think, and in the quiet the blinding light and scarce-moving shadows seemed only to deepen my sense of solitude. But fear quickly gave way to pleasure. You are not allowed to be alone in Greece and very soon I was taken in hand by some young men of my own age. Who was I? What was I doing? Foreigners were almost unknown in Greece then, except as classicists and soldiers in foreign armies. And Hania was beautiful: quiet and provincial but full of vestiges of former elegance and grandeur (Venetian bastions and rusticated stonework, marble Turkish fountains, hammams and minarets) mouldering gently under the sun without affectation or pomposity, just part of the fabric of life.

I rented a room in an old house belonging to the aunt of one of my new friends. Bare boards, iron bedstead, a tin bowl to wash in, and heavy, wooden shutters stripped of paint by sun and sea air. I moved after a few days, and lost a friend: I had offended his filotimo - that touchy sense of amour propre that made Cretans so quick to feud.

I had met John Craxton one night in a barrel-lined taverna. He was talking Greek and it was only when I heard him say Charlie Mingus - not a name you expected to hear on the lips of Haniotes - that I guessed he might be English. He'd been there for years already, a real live painter, with canvases in the Tate; a friend of Paddy Leigh Fermor, legendary hero of the Cretan Resistance, for whose books he still designs the jackets. He found me a room in a far finer house close to the harbour. And through him I met other members of the small foreign community: mostly aspiring writers and painters. One of them, an American, had just published his first novel: my first real writer.

Another was murdered not long after, in gruesome circumstances. They were all older than me and many were gay, not that the word meant that then. They lived what, I suppose, was a pretty bohemian existence by the standards of the day. For me it was the big time.

I owe much to John. He was fascinated by all things Cretan: history, music, customs, architecture, artefacts, landscape. And he passed that on to me. Through him I went to the mountains, to Sfakia, cradle of rebels and warriors against the Turks. Through him I was invited to a big mountain wedding where we fetched the bride from her home, firing rifles into the air, and drank and danced all day and night to the frenetic twanging of the Cretan lyre, and the guests sang traditional mantinadhes back and forth antiphonally between bride's guests and groom's guests. Through him, too, I acquired four ancient Cretan chairs, one of which I am sitting on now, sprouting grass in the courtyard of a mountain cafe. At night we sat in the harbour drinking ouzos at two drachmas a shot, and each one accompanied by plates of fish, sea urchins, olives and cheese, without any extra charge. At weekends the sailors came into town from the naval base at Souda and drank and danced on the backs of the chairs and lifted fully laid tables in their teeth, without spilling a drop of the wine.

Work played little part in my life. I taught just three or four hours in the evening. On my first day I was taken aside by the doorman.

'Young man,' he said, 'you be careful with the girls or you'll have their brothers to contend with.' And he drew his thumb graphically across his throat. They were demure and shyly flirtatious but quite inaccessible.

One evening I met a black American airman on leave from the US base at Heraklion and we became friends. We were both much taller than the average Cretan and little knots of girls would form, and giggle and look at us in the streets. He would take me to the red-light district where he seemed to be well known, though he never did anything while I was around and I was much too timid. We would call on one or two rather sexy young women he knew. One came to the top of the stairs to speak to us in nothing but her knickers. Not a sight I had been accustomed to in the English countryside or boarding schools. On Saturdays we went to the bouzouki joint and rock 'n' rolled lecherously with girls of dubious reputation.

Summer stretched into autumn. I moved into a house overlooking the harbour. King Paul processed beneath my balcony in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Crete's union with Greece. I dreamt of writing a thriller about shooting him. Elections were held, which were won by George Papandreou, father of Greece's current PM, breaking the hold of the right for the first time since the civil war of 1946-49. I have a photograph of him in front of my house in the company of Constantine Mitsotakis, Greece's last PM, whose desertion from his party led eventually to the colonels' coup in 1967. Earlier in the year Grigoris Lambrakis, a left-wing MP and CND activist, had been murdered by right-wing thugs as he left a rally in Salonica, the subject of Costas Gavros's film Z.

Dark-haired Miranda wrote to say she wanted to come and stay. So did my French girlfriend, and I plumped for her. Fred Perles arrived to join our community. He had lived with Henry Miller in Paris in the Twenties and had known all manner of exotic figures, like Anais Nin and Lawrence Durrell. He would read Miller's letters to us, in which, disappointingly, the grand old man spoke chiefly of his incontinence.

Michael Cacoyannis arrived to make Zorba The Greek, with Anthony Quinn and Irene Papas. Hania thought it had become the centre of the universe.

One day I was asked to stand in for Anthony Quinn. I thought my time had come, until I discovered that the man was indisposed and they needed someone roughly the same height so as to adjust the lighting. In pique, I declined the invitation.

These great ones used to dine in our neighbourhood taverna. One night I went in to find them seated, as usual, at a long table with Quinn at one end and, at the other, a little barefooted boy called Orestes, who sold peanuts. He sat, full of self-possession, with his feet on a bar of his chair, a plate of food in front of him, and his nose in a Greek newspaper, which he was perusing, very seriously, upside down.

My girlfriend arrived, much to the delight of Fred. He was half-French and had an eye for the girls; one of his outrageous sallies is quoted under 'Breasts' in The Joy of Sex. One day I met him in the hotel where we used to go for occasional baths, as none of us had hot water, let alone a bath, at home. I told him we were going to get married. He looked me in the eye. 'Tim,' he said, 'if you want a glass of milk, you don't buy a cow]' and continued up the stairs.

That summer stretched, in fact, into a year and, indeed, into a lifelong involvement with Greece. For although I left Crete in 1964 to train as a teacher of English and ended up first in Libya, then in London, I went back to Greece in the Seventies and stayed for 14 years, marrying a Greek in the process. My Oxford tutor, hearing of my doings from a friend, commented: 'That fellow, Salmon . . . rolling stone.' If it's true, I certainly seem to have gathered a lot of moss.

(Photograph omitted)

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