As part of the editing process for my 21st book, Tickling Sharks, I have been forced to cut great tracts of the narrative – including such of the story of our rad trip to and from Greece in the summer of 1970. So here it is:
Next, six of us—Elaine and I, Martin Lindsay and his wife Jan, Rex Gowar, and Ian Lovell—took my family’s Land Rover and headed off through Europe to Greece for a couple of months. Our adventures along the way were many and various, including being shot at in the old Yugoslavia. Mercifully, the bullet had been fired at long range, so it was slowing, and hit a crossbeam at the back of our vehicle.
Three people we met along the way who live on in memory were the musician Shawn Phillips, a female café owner in Skiathos, and the artist Giorgios Varlamos.
We met Shawn, hippy-to-hippy, as we drove into Positano, Italy, somewhere I hadn’t been since 1959, but loved both times. He was striking to look at, even for the day: American, gauntly handsome, bearded and with long blond hair reaching down to his waist.[i] This Texas-born musician was later described by rock music impresario Bill Graham as ‘the best kept secret in the music business.’[ii] He invited us to visit his home, high on the slopes overlooking the town. Exhausted, Elaine, Martin and Jan chose to catch up on sleep in the small hotel we had booked into, while Ian, Rex and I took the bait.
Thank heavens. What an extraordinary evening that proved to be, in a large space with a gothic window looking down over the moonlit Mediterranean. Shawn played us the tapes of the music he had just recorded with some of the best-known musicians of the day. His music melded many styles, including folk, rock, jazz, funk, progressive, pop, electro, and classical. Then, part way through the evening, as an energetic bass line thrummed through huge speakers, Shawn’s black cat got to its feet and started to dance.
The second memorable person was a Greek woman who looked like Eli Wallach, the striking male actor who featured in films like The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. We illegally pitched our tents on her beach for a month, eating at her café. Each morning, she would string out freshly caught octopi to dry on a washing line.
Along the same beach we met an American calligrapher, Gail, who lived on her rowboat. She and I got on rather well, to the point where, when we were leaving by boat, she surprised us on the jetty with a vast lump of halva, which she knew I loved. By then, however, we shared a criminal record, of sorts. Late one night, we had taken Gail’s boat to visit a nearby fish farm owned by a big Greek shipping family, who were not immensely popular at the time.
The Milky Way stretched above our heads, so bright against the darkness that you felt you could put your hands over it—and swing on it. Golden puddles of phosphorescence spooled out either side of our gleaming wake, and, as the sea water ran back down the oars, it illuminated our hands and wrists.
I shall pull a delicate veil over the nature of the operation, which resulted in a small haul of lobster and sinagrida, the most prized fish in Greece, the ‘fish of kings.’ All of this had been quite some distance from our beach, and, for perhaps obvious reasons, we said nothing about it to anyone. But when we walked into the café for breakfast the next morning, ‘Eli’ quipped that she had heard we had done ‘a good job’ the previous night.
Island grapevines are quite something.
As for Giorgios Varlamos, we met him at his gallery in Athens, where Elaine and I bought our first piece of art together.[iii] A highlight of the visit was Giorgios taking us through his photograph albums, almost exclusively black-and-white images, among other things from his student days in Paris. These proved to be an inspiration for my own efforts, largely created in huge albums produced by Tessa Fantoni.
We talked to Giorgios about how he had developed the large image we had bought, of hunters and their dogs in a forest clearing. It was printed from a woodcut, for which he had used crunched up newspapers as a visual reference, so the cross-hatchings echo newsprint—with a strong suggestion of deeply encoded meaning.
Wherever we went in Greece, mostly off the beaten track, we enjoyed remarkable hospitality. In northern Greece, for example, we woke up one morning, having slept in the open air, each of us with a watermelon by our head—with the farmer’s oxcart trundling off into the distance, unheard and unthanked. That happened twice, in different places.
Then there was the time, outside Nafplio, when we put up our tents in what we thought was an open field. It turned out to be an open prison.* Elaine woke up from a nightmare in which someone was chopping off her feet. Standing alongside the tailgate of the Land Rover, from which our legs extruded, was a man with an ax. When we spoke, mainly in French, it transpired that he was a murderer, having killed his wife and her lover. We had stopped for the night in his prison. He was perfectly pleasant and hospitable, but we moved on quickly.
When we got to Yugoslavia, close to the Albanian border, we were robbed. Our fault: it was illegal to camp outside campsites, so by settling ourselves down by a stream in a magical little valley, we had set ourselves up. Elaine and I were sleeping in the back of the Land Rover again, on rugs bought in Greece. She and I had disagreed energetically the night before as to whether we should be sleeping on them. Happily, I had prevailed. Everyone else had their belongings stacked on the front seat of the vehicle. In the night, one or more locals quietly opened the Land Rover door and made off with all the rugs that weren’t being slept on.
More kindness came the next day when my Anglo-Argentine friend Rex and I climbed into the mountains to see if we could find any trace of the robbers. Early on, we came across a logger’s camp, where they fed us wonderful sourdough bread, just out of their wood-fired oven, with thick yoghurt. Higher up the mountain, we found a shepherd’s log cabin, sunk deep into the earth. A formidable, drooling dog, a mastiff, was chained to his kennel outside—but came bounding at us, dragging chain and kennel behind.
Mercifully, he was called off by the shepherd’s wife, who offered us glasses of what I think may have been salty mare’s milk—strangely delicious. Then, as we sat by the fire, she sat alongside me, neither of us with a word of each other’s language, as she was counting off the stitching in the pattern of my thick Norwegian jumper. A form of cultural diffusion.
* When we visited Nafplio in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the open prison was pointed out to us. ‘Yes,’ we said. ‘We slept there in 1970. And were woken up by an ax murderer—holding an ax.’