I did not think Marianne Ihlen would be so young. Her bobbed white blonde hair glimmers in the sunshine and the masculine white shirt she wears billows in the breeze, rolled up below her elbows. She looks ready to fetch the water from the wells with a bucket in hand before she turns in her cropped trousers she takes a cursory look at the crowd and peels her dark sunglasses down to the bridge of her nose to reveal gold patches under her eyes. They look a bit like those stick on eye patches that beauty-influencers use to ward off ageing as if it were a curse. Even then I blink back doubt watching this child-faced, small and swift Marianne move towards a group of fishermen with beards and flat caps who nod at her before going back to untangling their nets. A boy rolls a barrel which seems weightless as it bounces off the cobbles. Who am I to know what’s going on, after all I’m half witted in this withdrawal from petrol fumes. I can smell the mule poo and my own sweat now I’m on a car-free island. The braying horses and hooves have replaced the whirr of mopeds – my ears are only just recovering from the shock of Hydra, never mind my lungs, which have not inhaled such clean air for years.
They say there is something about the air and the light here in Hydra – clear and golden, perfect for painting or conjuring words. That kind of expectation is long evident in inspiring all those marvellous creative folks to make pilgrimages here. I don’t trust myself. I’m no artist – I crave realism and all I am being offered this morning is abstraction.
This light has been playing tricks on me from the moment I arrived yesterday, Yorgos met me from the boat and escorted me up the steep incline to the apartment, weaving through the mules and tourists. I spotted the old ‘Katsikas’ sign on a green-painted store we passed. Bah, I thought that’s been closed for decades. Once an infamous Kafenion- bar – post office that served as gathering spot for the island’s international scene; the place writers Charmian Clift and George Johnson ran up a debt so high over the 5 or more years they lived here it wasn’t paid off until he finally sold the novel, My Brother Jack. And anyway wasn’t Katsikas further down the harbour towards the clocktower, I thought.
I ventured out at my first chance exploring the meandering stone streets, stopping to admire the Kala Pigadia, Good Wells which was referenced so often in Rope of Vines by Brenda Chamberlain. Once the gathering place for village women, a place to trade gossip and news. Despite its beauty and solace of the old crumbling mansions surrounding the square, the wells are sadly all locked up after being contaminated. I wandered back to the harbour, following a siren call. And there Katsikas old store was right on the harbour mocking my doubts. Doors closed, a layer of dust on the windows but as I peeked in cupping my hands over the glass it was like a window to another era. There was the long lean bar stacked with the green glass bottles, the baskets piled up and kewpies jugs waiting to be filled with water or wine. Traditional taverna tables to the side, some scattered with squat wine glasses and old beer bottles. A pile of red and white chequered tablecloths neatly folded; aluminium buckets strung from the ceiling. It was as if someone locked up Katsikas in 1969 when Leonard Cohen left and threw away the key. Baffled – wondering how such a thing of beauty was closed, I walked away, telling myself I’d ask Yorgos later. He’d know.
Then this morning I was up early, wandering and Marianne surprised me. Only minutes before I’d seen Leonard looking dishevelled wearing baggy trousers held up with an ill fitting belt, extra holes clumsily punched into the leather, pulling up a chair outside Katsikas. His frizzy mop of adolescent dark curls bouncing as he spoke. Others had sat down to join him, sharing the same wild eyes of wanderers in search of something yet unnamable. The men with Leonard turned as a pair of Greek girls in headscarves walked by carrying large old-fashioned suitcases and baskets as their knee length cotton dresses bounced around their knees. An old widow in black prodded at the cabbages stacked up in boxes.
It was only when the woman in the tracksuit marched past having a heated conversation on her mobile phone that the frenzy began.
The director shouted and the extras moved and laughed – warm smiles replacing their stiff faces. Film cameras swivelled – a rabble of women and men in combat shorts with headsets appeared, shouting instructions in English and Greek. The horse harnessed to the water tank was relieved of its duty and led into the shade.
Of course I should have known this was the biggest trick of all. I asked the handsome chap dressed as a fisherman and he beamed, ‘Yeah it’s for the Cohen series, it’ll be on Netflix.’
I stifle a laugh, a cringe – a little too self-referencial smile for the meta-ness of this moment unfurling on this island’s myriad trajectory of literary and musical history.
I swear I can hear Brenda Chamberlain whispering about horror of the other foreigners who treated the port like a playground and in that throaty Welsh rasp telling the crowd, here, ‘It is possible to live a lie until it is a kind of truth, until beauty comes out of even so timid a pretence’.
I watch the scene replay again; Leonard standing up and walking to the bar, the old lady poking at the cabbage, the horse parading past in its island finery, I can imagine Charmian Clift at the table listening in and writing in her note pad while a child clings to her dress. In Peel Me A Lotus, Clift describes her feelings about Hydra’s change when Hollywood came to the island to film Boy on Dolphin in 1956 with Sofia Loren. She captures a conversation overheard on the film set:
“Oh, it makes me sick, Al!’ cries the ferocious young woman.
‘Ruin, ruin, ruin! God when I see a sweet little place like this, and think what will happen to it after we’ve gone!’
And later as the summer crowds depart, Clift foretells them leaving the island.
“I have a feeling this might be the last winter for idylls. You wait and see what next summer brings!” It will bring’..says George, ‘all the futility boys like homing bloody swallows. It will bring an enhanced tourist trade, in three dimensions, in full radient colour, and on the wide screen.”
How right they were. Even 60+ years later those words ring true and each year, more and more ‘futilty boys’ come to worship at the alter of Cohen. So too come the day-trippers, the fleets of yachts, the five-star pleasure seekers festooned on their private beaches. All looking for their slice of the Hydra light and air.
Tonight I’m contemplating heading to Loulou’s or Douskos for dinner – both old-time places tucked away. Places that those infamous 60s set used to hang out, my only worry is that on this island I might be walking right into a film set.