A year in reading

There are infinite ways to measure how a year has been; it is personal and political, happy and sad, reflective, impatient and meandering, but always full of change. When December rolls around it becomes the time of year we tally up the weight and value of our lives; of what matters, how we live and how the tiny passing molecules of our very being barrel into the world like wild thoughts at 4am in a sleepless half-light. Ideas as brief and fleeting as our lives, only to quietly disappear again into dust. 

What can I say today as we wake to the result of the UK Election? Hope is buried under a stark polemic fought through social media memes and half-truths spun round an axis of soundbites seeming to offer little change. So I say nothing. But even as the 2010’s are ending I find myself thinking it is too early, too raw to grasp what will define this decade and what hope the next brings us. 2024 is a long time. 

So instead I want to reflect on reading this year. What I have enjoyed, devoured, struggled with and unlearned. See if any of my book recommendations resonate so you too can dive into words to not only escape, but to find what holds the fabric of our very human and messy lives together, the universality held in those pages. 

I cannot recommend highly enough the collection of mastery that is Common People: An Anthology of Working-Class Writers; edited by Kit de Waal and features a big contrasting cross section of writers who identify as working class. From the familiar Malorie Blackman, Stuart Maconie, Lisa McInerney and Louise Doughty to new (to me) work from Lisa Blower and Tony Walsh. The great thing is that this anthology offered a few writers their first published pieces so includes new names that you may not have heard of yet but really need to; weep as you read Loretta Ramkissoon’s ‘Which Floor?’ and Riley Rockford’s ‘Domus Operandi’ – amazing unique voices gathered to shatter the middle-class mainstream of publishing. 

Kerry Hudson’s memoir Lowborn: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns – is a must read for understanding the heartbreaking immediacy of poverty in the UK. Kerry narrates a vivid childhood spent moving around B&B’s and council housing, from Scotland to the North East and Coastal Towns. It is a succinctly crafted narrative that uncovers the deadening effects of austerity policies that have and continue to inflict misery on families. Not an easy tread but an absolutely vital one. If you haven’t read any of Kerry’s writing before also make sure you dive in to her other work, Tony Hogan and Thirst. She is also crafts an excellent Twitter feed as well as masterminding this years’ Breakthrough Festival for all marginalised aspiring writers. 

How to be Champion by Sarah Millican – because sometimes you need a funny woman to tell you it’s all going to be okay and it’s never too late to learn new tricks, like stand up comedy! 

I had a little Sarah Winman phase reading Tin Man which has a beautiful poetry and sense of place to it, it is a short novel about  loss and grief on the changing streets of Oxford. I followed it up with her earlier work from 2011, When God Was A Rabbit. More magical realism than I usually enjoy but still very well crafted and a real decade spanning family saga, with a beautiful narrative following siblings through childhood and adulthood events. Very immersive and well plotted with superb characters. 

Torch by Cheryl Strayed, just because Wild was so good and this is her fiction/memoir-ish novel of her mother’s death. Moving and raw with that spirit lifting prose she does so very well. 

Pat Barker is like a gift of an accomplished writer that keeps on giving. I started with her first novel, Union Street from 1982. Composed of a collection of interrelated narratives of Geordie women living on the same street. It holds nothing back with the brutal opening section detailing the abuse of Kelly, which binds and divides the characters it takes you into the heart of female working class lives, centering on how they cope and keep families together. Yet, contrast this with Barker’s latest offering The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of  Homer’s epic poem focuses on the cost of war to women through the story of Briseis, Achilles’ concubine. Brilliant narrative which lifts the tale into something modern and pressing; how women create their own spaces in times of struggle. Also on a similar theme of Greek mythology is the wonderfully poetic Circe: by Madeline Miller

Other highly things I have loved this year and recommended: An American Marriage by Tayari Jones – slick, epistolary narrative capturing a relationship broken by a injustice in a race and class divided contemporary USA. Very now.
Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott– intriguing tale of the downfall of Truman Capote, told by the enigmatic women he betrayed. Pretty dazzling and slanderous!
Ordinary People by Sally Rooney; I wanted to love it. And it some ways I loved her way of capturing her generation. But I found it frustrating in parts – still worth a read.

I have read so many brilliant (and some not so,) short stories this year. One highlight for me has been The Hotel by Anne Enright; https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/06/the-hotel

Deborah Myer’s living memoirs parts one, Things I don’t Want to Know and two, The Cost of Living have brought me endless joy and I anticipate reading the third with a thrill- her candidness is to be admired.

Of course there is a Greek theme here too. Discovering Brenda Chamberlain’s writing has been an absolute gem. Her relatively unknown artistic  life and writing deserves much more attention – Rope of Vines has made me realise that there is a real place for women writing about the 60s dream on Hydra. Her version should be read before you think too long about Leonard Cohen and the masculine free-love narratives of artistic freedom. Her voice is of its time and provides a valuable counterpoint  – one of isolation and self-reliance, and holds a spirit of adventure of such rarity in sparse prose making her worthy of much more praise. I have just picked up the first full-length biography of Brenda Chamberlain by Jill Peircy to uncover more about her.

Compliment that with Mabel Bent’s Chronicles; rough sketch diary entries of her travels across teh Greek Islands in the 1890s. Mabel accompanied her husband Theodore on several explorations to then unknown islands. As some of the first travellers to experiencing Greek hospitality, festivals and freezing cold temperatures. The entries cover her perspective of bartering with locals and arranging boat rides, meeting women and ‘introductions’ to many well connected families along the way. It is another world of Empire and her journals are often bizarre and scathing commentary on the food and places they stay; administering medicines, adhering to customs, trading clothes and ideas. An interesting read, especially as it wasn’t written by Mabel with the intention of ever publishing it.   

After my visit to Sifnos I cought up on Sharon Blomfield’s Sifnos Chronicles, in two parts – which are lively, atmospheric pieces capturing her experience of being a Canadian visitor to the island, frequently returning again and again to capture a place she has fallen in love with and wants to call home. A heart-warming meandering immersion in Greek life when you need an escape . 

I have also fallen deeply in awe of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing. It was a book I had on my radar for a while, and for whatever reason had carried it around for longer than I’d wanted (when you are a nomad like me, that takes some doing as I shed possessions like a pigeon does its feathers). It  blew me away. An original narration, unique voice and heartbreaking not-quite-coming-of-age fiction that takes you into her bleak world and spits you out again – changed. 

An unexpected joy was Can You Hear Me? by Elena Varvello, translated from Italian by Alex Valente. A moody and atmospheric tale of a missing girl and a murdered boy, hinged on a domestic drama with psychological implications. Elia lives in the rural Italy of abandoned industry and despair, his father is suffering mental illness and the tale entwines crime-noir and a coming-of-age tale. One to read quickly and devour its twists and turns. 

My list starts building for 2020 reading – still having Ducks, Newbury Port by Lucy Ellman and Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments to devour over Christmas. I hold good intentions for keeping my head down in books so send me your top tips to breeze into the new decade!

I was just listening to author Louise Doughty on Radio 4  – she was talking about where she researched the settings of Platform Seven, her latest thriller. She talked about how she inadvertently found inspiration revisiting her past. Stumbling into Peterborough Station at night and finding these crossing places of transport hubs as waiting rooms where we all become anonymous. I thought about how much of my life has been spent in train stations and airports joining passengers staring at information screens silently waiting; all on the way to different places in their lives belonging neither to the place they came from, or the place they are going to. In limbo for a while, I realise now I have for too long been a lone figure waiting for something to happen.

So now I realise I want the next decade to be less waiting and more movement, less indecision and more action. Only now I see that all rests with me. Here is to a beautifully imagined 2020!

To become obsolete

The blinking adverts lining the escalator in London baffle me. They offer things to my door, at a time I choose with a click. Something shiny and decadent. And worthy. A signal wrapped into a monthly package of clothes ‘hand-picked’ and ‘curated’ in my size. A balanced selection of recipe ingredients grant organic wellness wrapped in the shape of breezy convenience. Hand-picked hotels -whose hand picked them anything that bland can be human choice, but assume they must already know. Cookies and algorithms have given my preferences away like drifting thoughts.

Access to cars by the hour, vans by the day, offices by the week. Unrivaled ease of medical tests, private doctors appointments, slick credit cards and contract free flat lettings shout ‘move-in now!’ ‘NO DEPOSIT’. The litany of pedal bikes lying abandoned on streets as if their riders have evaporated into flat white mists and ramen noodle fogs. E-Bikes and E-scooters have joined the racks of Baffoon-Bikes; the former Mayor proudly launched onto the streets during his reign. Oh how we laughed then. Now he reigns over something bigger making the world feel smaller. Claustrophobic – all the phobics racked into this never ending election coverage will drown us. Impale us against the edge.

This isn’t a country I know. It’s a place I am a tourist gawping at the rush and standing still. It smells of packaged food deliveries from a thousand restaurants in the city – the bike-boys swerve as we pool in pulsing crowds around doorways in the rain. The choice is dizzying yet grotesque. In a hypertrophy intersection where tech and money and work are curated to be as womb-like as a home, the signs offer tastes of beer and food to keep the clever children working. An Uber driver speeds up mounting a curve with a pop crack as the tyre bursts making my heart leap like there is a war on. I think there is a war on. A war with noise in a city filled with fumes.

Climate crisis is used over and over like a phrase that is standing in for a sad ‘sorry’. Sorry is the thing I know I shouldn’t say when I have taken up too much in the world. I breathe in and apologise for my space, my time, my words.

I have stopped listening to music on the tube, instead discovered the joy of the smooth hush space packed with bodies but entirely devoid of noise. There is no greater thrill than a silent tube carriage absorbed into a hunger of uncertainty. Do I even want any of these things that are on offer? Who are we if we need to be guided? Told, offered, coaxed out of ourselves and into what?

Kierkegaard was right – Anxiety is the dizzying sensation of freedom. Now slap bang in the centre of opportunity, options worn thick here like fur coats and contoured make up. A mask for living.

Here and there.
Two worlds to choose.

I closed each little window of distraction down and thought about that trip to Ikaria. Even now I’m letting it all sink in although I’m far away in another land of high rise and low skies. 

Ikaria is an island with wide vistas and mythic hills, waterfalls and other worldliness, a mythic place of the Blue Zone study – where populations are long-lived in regards to lifestyle and aging. Whether true or not, much has been written about the unique longevity of island residents. Some disproved, some improved and then marketed like all good commodities. But when we visited Ikaria in August, seemingly in good company with Athenian 18-25 year olds descending there for free-camping, folksy, alternative vibes and festivals. Luckily Ikaria is a big island, two large towns on either side of the mountain range that splits across the centre. We headed for Agios Kyriakos, walking by day and hiding out at night on the hills watching the stars dance around the milky way. It was bliss.

One day we walked to Therma, a sleepy kind of half-town, framed by a narrow bay, a sliver of white gritty beach and tumbling houses. It’s named after the thermal baths that attracted early 20th Century tourists with promises of health and perhaps also that eternal life. What remains is a rather well organised spa pool in the cave and a bath house. Old people wander from houses to the beach to bathe, wearing dressing gowns as if auditioning as extras in a remake of 1980s OAP film Cocoon. I have spent some time going through summer photos recently and what struck me was the sheer contrast. In Ikaria, like many Greek Islands your eyes are drawn to the stunning natural scenes, bluest seas, wild hills with snaking paths and sheer edges of sharp rocks. As if its a warning a reminder of how small we as humans are in the world – don’t ruin it, we are watching the ancient Gods try to warn. Then we keep getting caught by the dichotomy of respect for the natural world against our human desire to control and build, making statues of ourselves over and over as if we have again forgotten we are mortal. We have forgotten that life is short and creating anything takes time as we try trick our own egos by pretense alone. The world is ancient and we are easily obsolete. Often when I see the decaying bones of a house that is when the fragility of this presents itself. No tricks, no secrets to a long lasting shelf of life on this earth – everything we build falls apart eventually. 

Ikaria has plenty of these reminders scattering the hills and towns. Therma has an old tumbling ruin of a hotel flags one side of the seafront, I wandered around its shuttered windows and flaking paint, blocky 60s style architecture. Warning signs hang on intricate ironwork rusting on neat balconies and lights swinging from their last coil of wire.  The beach goers seemed to ignore its dominance of the seemingly pretty place and instead faced their gaze outwards to sea. The crumbling concrete had series of pipes jutting up from underground which could have been where the spa water was pumped from the natural springs, redirected to pools and swimming places next to the bathing platform. Not even a sign remains to indicate what it was called, I couldn’t find any clues.  I was fascinated

I wander in Greece being a different kind of lost – absorbed into streets that curve into whitewashed villages and high skied places that maps are at a loss to explain. Where trees have grown over the ridge land leaving the stones alone to mark out boundaries of such things that long ceased to matter, long since existed. Obsolete as if that were a freedom.

What it smells / sounds like

What does it smell like? I say as we bump into each other in Athens. Swishing across the street one way or another. It’s all chemical and noise.

Smells and sounds travel. They echo back what happened. The last night on the island had jasmine drifting in to bless us through the kitchen window. Such island noises are varied; sheep bleeting, the sweeping of stairs, the ruins of time, the hum burr of the petulant motorbike. But the city is monotone – even in smell. I long for carpet, fabric to muffle and peel down the timbre. The slams and creaks above and below a voice talking in an accent that isn’t mine through the walls like a vapour.

Others like us and others not gather and gaggle, gawping eyes and opening doors designer clothes scent sunglasses mirrored to reflect the gravity keeping the rest of us away. Squawking Monastiraki gleams and stinks at night, first rains of autumn, this new season shines, loosening a slick of filth into the blocked drains. Too late I say. For us. To leave. 

Isn’t that what we share with the sounds and smells? Not belonging. The wrong time, wrong country – wrong skin full of bones that don’t fit and clunk as we run. Heavy weight of bags trapping shoulders making welts. Cohen on repeat. Lost.  

Winter not even in the shadows but people out before it reaches them in the last cold water flats and empty furnaces. Platia Iroon fills with Greeks wearing seasonal clothes; boots shining new and long trousers hemmed, light sweaters. Everyone else is flip flopping in the dirty puddles shorts and sheen sweat faces. Holiday. Snap. 

This city is full of fools don’t let anyone tell you about the crisis while sipping fine 5euro coffee. They rebuild. Abandoned is an idea being swept out with lost people making room for stainless steel shower heads and slender chairs of honeyed wood. Air. Pay to breathe it. B&B. This is for the rich.

Smoke car fumes in my eyes looking like I’ve been crying. City snot. So far from home the kid shouts bedding down in doorways with the funk unwashed stink of lost. Countries or fixed ideas. What good did they do for anyone?  Half here half there we don’t draw lines or marks in sand to say much of anything. Better to drift than pledge allegiance to something solid, cruel, broken. Sit in your tower and holler.

Yet I’m watching us pile into the plane seats, scent of adventure and neon plastic, caught in the idea of how many leave never to return. Land in Luton like me but not; with new lives and jobs to go. Using up freedoms holding hands packing big suitcases with everything they won’t ever need. Just in time to open and let the last smell of home reach them.

Warm. Like fried food and old clothes.

Time

‘Where does the time go?’ she says.

“How have we just finished lunch and snoozed on the beach and it’s now time for the sun to set?”

“Welcome to my world” I am laughing as if there was some explanation to offer of why M’s vacation here on this Island has flown by.

I cannot explain why time seems to pass differently here, why it is a world that is punctuated by meals where we share everything and our arms touch as they reach across plates and tables, and wine glasses are always full, and sleep is sound and deep, adventures offer themselves up and the blue sea of swimming is broken by wandering and wondering. And talking…oh how we talked, and talked. Thank you M. for visiting. That is exactly what a vacation should be – a letting go of time and how it dominates our lives.

Then I think oh, I’m not on vacation all the time and feel that pang of guilt and regret. Time works it’s magic on me as I chide myself for incomplete projects and self-imposed deadlines. Time has ran away from me… When Autumn winks in the distance with it comes that back to school feeling in the air and a slower reflective pace arrives to the island as it quietens. ‘What have you done?’ even the trees seem to whisper. 

Island days ebb and flow as they steal hours, squashing in blank spaces of time spent doing and not doing, measured out by sunsets hurtling the orange light into the darkening sea before us. Days ripening the grapes, mouldering the figs, pears softening too soon as autumn yellows at the edges of summer. Maybe that explains why Ancient Greeks had different Gods and different words for time. Chronos is sequential clock time measured out against a dial and Kiaros is the moment of time, not a measure but a way of seeing the right opportunity of time. Then Aion represented the everlasting eternity of the Greek Cosmos. In some ways these concepts explained humanity’s place in a temporal world but they can’t explain where a week or day dissapears!

Humans are obsessed with time. How long does time feel when waiting? How fast does time seem to fly when in the midst of things? Why are we counting time and yet mourn its passing? Is it not easier to just live as opportunity in Kiaros, breathe it in and let it pass when things are panicked and packed with activities, or lingering in moments being ‘present’ with our ‘best-selves’ (whatever that means). 

Despite this, it has been a happy few weeks of time out, friends and family visitors  – all lovely as I have journeyed around and taken lots of ferry rides, been a tourist and eaten in a lot of tavernas. I appreciate the way that showing people around gives me a new perspective as well. Inspired again by the why; why we stay, why we are drawn back, why there are still mysteries and so much to learn.

Often I have found myself comfortably walking on a wild hill thinking I belong to nothing, to no-one. When people suddenly arrive and remind me where I do belong and they call me back into the roles I inhabit, those I feel comfort in, standing next to them, holding hands, talking endlessly without apology or worry. It reminds me that home is not about places, it is about people. Despite the wishful Kiaros, time is not about what you show for the hours, but becomes about what you take from it. Perhaps that’s enough to keep me going when there is nothing else to offer up.

 As the summer slips slowly from your grasp may it keep you warm through the coldest of winters.

Island Muse – Samos

I haven’t posted anything for a while. I have no excuses to add to that sentence. I have lived instead. Not lived in that righteous way one would proclaim loudly from the top of a mountain, in a yoga pose and hashtag in a way that grants meaning only in this time period (and on that note I’m positive historians will have a lot to say about now). I just mean lived as in existed in a regular line of unformed days and routines. In shadow and in light. Hesitant, steady and factual. 

Yesterday something magical happened. Ordinary non-magic things happened too. I returned to work peeling through the unread emails in my inbox, lying unchecked for over a week. I hear you work-harder‘s try-harder’s gasp at the shock of switching off. Yes, my out of office note meant what it said this time. I know I am better for it. For 9 days I was alone with no jibber jabber office chatter to distract. We had taken off on a North Aegean adventure – out to Samos, stopping onto Ikaria and then to Fournoi. Each island very different in both personality and place.

But before I get to all of that,  yesterday I met an octopus. Here in Kini, after all that travelling around and swimming, and sipping ouzo. Here it was just bobbing in the deep end of the bay. I swam my usual lap next to the buoy line and was just half way back when through my goggles I saw something move on the bottom of the sea. It was the colour of sand blobbing across the milky silt of the ocean floor, a master of disguise and trickery. The octopus pondered and hesitantly curled its tentacles around the rope which holds the buoys in order bobbing like a military parade. Its movements were swift, probably panicked thinking of his Kalamari friend’s fate after he noticed my huge human shadow. I think we shared a moment even though I had to keep bobbing up for lungfuls of new air. Eventually he (or she – how do you tell?) was bored of showing me his twirling tentacles and in mere seconds he went from a blobbing mass to become streamlined as a rocket as he shot off into the depths. 

I felt awestruck and amazed having never seen one before just wildly swimming around. All I could think about was can you hold an octopus? Would he be soft and slippery or calm and weighted? Could you have an octopus like a pet? Are octopus our loved ones reincarnated? 

Phythagorio, Samos

So the holiday. First stop Karlovassi, the old port town of Samos, we slinked off the boat smugly with our small backpacks – which did actually get bigger over the week. We disappeared into the port crowds to board a bus to Samos Town that waits for the often late arrival of the Nissos Mykonos. The bus sidles its engine and crawls next to a beach strewn with sun-loungers and bathing bodies lying on the pebble town beach. Old Karlovassi appears before us like time-bending feat of both renewal and abandon. Concrete skeletons of dreams jostle for space alongside glorious venetian mansions, resplendent reminders of the town’s fortunes once made in the tobacco and tanning trade, time may have passed but a different version of the trade still remain in operation – suntan and cigarettes. A few package hotels sit on front as we pass holidaymakers carrying plastic inflatables. Further up the coast things get more interesting as terracotta roofed warehouses crumble empty at the shoreline, we pass fields of vegetables and tiny wooden houses. The odd caravan parked under a pine tree.  Once off the coastal road, for sale signs jostle with resort signs and jewellery shops, then underneath the waving banner of the TUI smile the busses cause an impasse on the road forcing the KTEL driver to wait while the ‘island tour’ finishes its pick up.

Samos Castle Church

The road looks as if it cuts straight through the pine forest slicing the branches out to the deep blue sea as the bus takes the hairpin bends snaking across the coast.  It is impossible to mention Samos without mentioning refugees – it is a fact that 3,000 remain on the island in an overcrowded camp outside Vathy. The refugees are not forgotten, they are hidden. Islands like Samos and Lesvos sit at the front line and are woefully far from the hearts and minds of the rest of Europe. I understand only a little of the complexities and more needs to be done. You cannot pretend their lives are worth less than others. Parts of Samos they want you to notice; the view azure seas stretching out to Turkey, the white sand beaches and awe inspiring lush valleys. But shyly look away at the broken down cars rusting at the side of the road, the piles of rubbish uncollected, the widow dressed in black bending in the field collecting melons in a sack, the staring eyes of the man on the porch as we, the bus full of gawpers, go on our way. Eyeline to washing lines as the bus dawdles in Kokkari.

Changing buses in Vathy is a doddle, the driver tells us to wait for the next one and we mill around the pavement cafe that passes for a bus station. The capital of the island leans out across one long sweeping harbour, a tumble and jumble of buildings is various states of distress and rebirth. Fashion stores, kafenions and slick coffee places line up. It is eerily quiet in the mid afternoon slumber hours when stores are closed; a town in wait yet to wake. If ever.

When the bus turns up we are joined by teenagers pointing at a poster for a music festival in a town beyond Pythagorion where we are headed; the ticket man walks down the aisle while the teenagers ask him questions in different accented versions of English. Some are scrolling through their phones trying to show him the address of the hotel complex they need to find. He is patient with us all, even the irate women who seems upset at having to get the bus at all. She who threw her hands up exasperated when the bus showed up 3 minutes past the hour it was due. Not quite understanding this was on time for Greece. The bus whisks us along another new surfaced road and then we reach Pythagorion – I quickly name it, the land time forgot, or time the land forgot. But don’t see that as me casting a criticism, I celebrate it. Perfection in a long street leading to the harbour jumbled with shops selling every touristic item you may ever desire – bakeries, ice cream parlours, artisan wineries. At the harbour yachts and day trip boats are lined up bobbing in the blue hour after sunset when the lilac light sweeps across the sky. The chatter of waiters and bar staff waiting to greet you, see what you like, take a look at the menu they wink and preen. Pretty teenagers employed to entice you in.  An excursion boat has a pet kid-goat on the hull which makes me feel sad more than anything – but I see a fisherman slicing open fish and tossing pieces to the cats around him which seems to redeem the scene. We stay for 3 nights in a tiny hotel up at the back of town opposite the Archeological Museum, which is worth a visit. 

Pythagorion Harbour

Away from the harbour at night, we pick out tavernas and gorged on feasts like kings. All the classics, we say, tucking to lamb kleftiko, moussakas, souvlaki. Local Samos wine from the barrel.  The chatter of tourists and transactional comfort you find in touristy places is fun. The voices are mostly Dutch, German, Italian, a few English but not many Greek visitors at all. I must say, compared to Syros when you often find non-Greeks in the minority of visitors, it kind of makes a nice change.

Samos reminded me of the long resigned to history ‘Holidays in Greece’.  I half expected Judith Chalmers to pop out. The place that still has a perpetually mid-90s vibe, timeless tavernas with mama’s cooking and shops selling friendship bracelets where everyone has a smile and a welcome for you. The island was an early adopter of the tourism boom with its long sandy, pine forests and azure seas it had all the natural assets. And thankfully still does have them. We stayed in a busy area but seems to handle its influx of visitors well so never feels crowded,  beaches have free sunloungers even in the peak of mid-afternoon. Unlike Syros, with its smaller beaches and relative land size, can feel crowded in peak summer. After all isn’t that why I’m here again and again, bitten by some bug that there is no cure. It is deeper than the superficiality of a holiday. It’s something in the wilderness of the land itself, no matter what dreams have been built upon it since, there remains an essence something wilder, maybe the ghosts of mythic legends like Hera and Aesop.  

We swim in strangeley chilly water with soft white sand under our toes and walk up into the hills. Visiting the Eupalinos Tunnels we find ourselves awestruck at how they managed such an intrepid engineering feat in the 6th Century BC of Polycrates reign to build a complex aqueduct. Over walkways perched over 50ft gaps in tunnels that scale 2kms into the hills, it’s not for the nervous or feint hearted. It’s worth visiting on a guided tour, which they offer several every day. On the way we visit the cave that houses the Spillia Pangia. Here our breath steams visible in the cold cave air. Walking outside again was like stepping off an aeroplane in a new country when the heat and humidity hits you and your glasses steam up squinting in the sunlight.  

Panagia Spilliani (the church of virgin mary in the cave)

When night fell towns in the distance appeared and twinkled as heat rose from the trees. Oh the trees! Giving off that distinct sugary burnt scent of pine as the wind blew its sticky way towards us. The headlights in the distance swooped and swung around bends spinning into dark green ravines where lights were shielded until another bend revealed them once more – each dip a dark place on the road we didn’t know. But under each twinkling, I could learn the difference between the lights on the land – fixed on streets and things made by man, waving outside houses creating ghosts and shadows, and the moving lights of cars, mopeds, taxis and busses. It made me think about how islands can be a muse inspiring little creative moments. 

There’s a long history of literature and music being inspired by Greece. Songs like So Long Marianne – written on Hydra for the gilded muse waiting in the wings holding a plateful of barbiturates for Leonard Cohen. There is a new Nick Broomfield documentary out now, Marianne and Leonard. I haven’t seen it yet but want to, as it examines the relationship between them on Hydra where the counter-culture literati gathered in the 1960s. A time that transformed him from a little-known  fiction writer into a world famous songwriter and how Marianne plays (by choice or otherwise) the role of muse to Cohen’s creativity. Although Hydra has changed since Cohen’s time, softened by the layers of change and progress, it cannot be preserved in aspic.

But maybe some of the magic Cohen famously wrote about in these lines still remains; 

Greece is a good place

to look at the moon, isn’t it?

You can read by moonlight

You can read on the terrace

You can see a face

As you saw it when you were young 

Greek Islands are fascinating because of their quiet contradictions, and not in spite of them. Political, industrial and agricultural changes, discarded life-vests on the shore and the financial need for a tourist filled summer, a village of crumbling stone houses, a pristine infinity pool and an instagram pose on painted blue chairs against a whitewashed wall, wild valleys and deep ravines. Churches and wilderness. Crisis and hedonism. 

These near-uninhabitable jutting rocks of islands can never an absolute place. They end up being a place that exists in different versions, more so for the people that live there than the people that pass through as visitors. Yet they still come to bask in the light, the beauty, the kind words of people, the food, the wilderness, the lifeline it provides. The whisper of ghosts along the way.