Bombardier Spike Milligan in Where have all the Bullets Gone? recalls a wartime outing by military launch across the Bay of Naples to a private villa on Ischia where he and Len Prosser were directed down ‘a few rocky steps’ to a private beach below mount Epomeo.
The day is sunny, the sea is like champagne. We plunge into crystal clear waters that in forty years time will be floating with tourist crap and overpopulation…..even as I type this, I can see that splendid sunlight on that warm azure sea in a time capsule that will never come again.My stepfather wrote ‘So we will live out our days in the cracks between the concrete. And then they will pour cement on top of us.’ Rather as I can enjoy cycling through the intersection of stream, canal, railway, and footpath below the sturdy concrete columns supporting the congested roads of Spaghetti Junction, so, in 21st century Corfu, we get pleasure from bathing off a small pebble beach squeezed between a slipway at Ipsos and a rubble tip, sitting and lying on a discarded chair and lounger amid polystyrene remnants and electrical sheathing in front of a handsome but ruined caique, ravaged by teredo, unlikely to float without a new keel and bilge planks.
We cool ourselves in the sea, dry and read and swim again. A bear family with a chubby cub and an Alsatian drive up in a van advertising plumbing and tiling in outer London. They launch the jet skier they’ve towed to the shore and take turns whizzing back and forth in the beach’s radius, the father making the aquatic equivalent of handbrake turns to slash wash over his delighted daughter diving in the shallows. The dog paddles neck deep in the sea. Further out a motor boat alternates between towing a brightly coloured paraglider carrying someone in harness high over Ipsos Bay, an inflated sausage floating its riders, and a flotilla of dinghies from which we can hear happy squeals. Around five the caique Madalena goes by freighted with passengers returning to Gouvia from a BBQ day-trip up to San Stephano. Much further out a sail moves, slower than a minute hand, across the horizon below the mainland lost in haze. I’m torpid, drifting with languid strokes in the waveless water, reading Anne Zouroudi, a writer with an experienced feel for Milligan’s future imperfect.
We dined at a fish restaurant at Kommeno with Mark and Sally, who’d watched the three DVDs ‘An Exile in Paradise’. “We’ve been watching your videos” said Mark “Didn’t really like them.” “Oh” (dismay) “What didn’t you like?” “Joking. They were really great”. Sally said “I wonder how Edward Lear managed that journey.” We’d learned from Robert Horne’s retracing of Lear’s travels 160 years ago in Corfu and northern Greece - much still under Ottoman rule - and Albania, that there was another dimension to the life of the limerick and nonsence rhymer I’d known, with a billion others, since childhood. Epileptic, myopic, asthmatic and prone to fevers Lear sketched and painted a brilliant collection of mid-19th century landscapes in an area unvisited by artists and writers – much of his work bought for almost nothing by a Greek philanthropist who left them to the Benaki in Athens. I’d bought the DVDs in the UK and before passing them to our friends, had watched them with Lin, entranced as Robert Horne and his camera crew encountered people near places where Lear had sketched held up copies and asked people just where the artist had sat so we could look at the present day site – some changed immeasurably and some not. ‘An Exile in Paradise’ has echoes of Edmund Keeley’s book ‘Inventing Paradise’ except that where Keeley’s heroes invented the tourists’ dream of modern Greece – Athens, the Aegean and the Ionian seas – Lear’s focus is seldom seashore and places famous (or infamous) for tourism, but rather places still not well known and in some cases still viewed as hazardous for visitors. Jack in that same ode wrote of people who claim a right to walk where they please ‘…but we look where they trod before and shudder for what follows in their footsteps.’ Perhaps there has been learning. Things that remain beautiful are sometimes so because protected by a history of blood and poverty muted by selective memory – another way of describing the lazy sentiment of nostalgia.
Ipsos in 1950 by Maria Chroussachi