Travel loosens the mind. Whoever would preserve the strength of his opinions, whether about people or places, is advised to stay at home. Take what has just happened to me as the living proof of this. After 10 days in Athens and Crete – my first visit to either – I am returned in a sort of convictional turmoil, with few of my certitudes intact.
God know what would have happened to me had I stayed a year. Well, I know what would have happened to me: I’d have learnt the language (something I try never to do), grown round and happy on lamb cooked in yoghurt, and ended up dancing the sirtaki on a beach in the arms of Anthony Quinn – the actor, not the sometime Independent film critic. Though after a year in Greece I’d probably have been willing to dance with that Anthony Quinn as well.
It was Zorba who initially put me off Greece. I mean that in the gentlest way. There was no prejudice involved, just a sceptical reluctance to buy into all that male vitality stuff. Like Alan Bates, I too wore a white suit in the 1960s and was suffering writer’s block – that’s if you can call not knowing how to start a block – but I was damned if I was going to let some prolix, santori-playing peasant tell me I was bourgeois and uptight.
I was a Manchester boy and Manchester had a musical vitalism of its own. Never discount the Hollies or Freddie and the Dreamers. Don’t forget Herman’s Hermits and the Dakotas. Why, my own brother rehearsed with Graham Gouldman, not to mention Godley and Creme, in our living room. Manchester might not have been the Aegean but we had a Ship Canal.
Friends who holidayed on the remotest of Greek Islands – those you could only get to by boat and ferry, and even then the last half mile you had to swim, holding your backpack above the water with one hand – did so, it seemed to me, only because they lacked my earthy advantages, because they truly were bourgeois and uptight, and because having to get the key to the cottage from Stavros, who of course was never to be found, proved their literary bona fides. Until last week I was the only English writer who had never been to Greece.
I repeat that this was not a prejudice against the people. Greek influence was partly what made Sydney such a lively city when I first went there in the 1960s. To a culture that was already robust, the Greeks brought a radiance of candour and challenge. Some of my brightest students were Greek. Men or women, they could disconcert you with the intensity of their curiosity and distract you with the softness of their gaze.
Years later, when I was teaching at a language school in Oxford, a group of young Greek men – fleeing war, as I recall – turned up with their mothers who not only accompanied them to the discotheque where they pointed out suitable girlfriends for them, but on occasions even barged on to the dancefloor to extricate the young women in question from the arms of other men. These could be Jewish mothers, I thought. And in their deference and shyness, their sons could have been Jewish boys.
But I still resisted Greece itself, and when the subject of the Elgin Marbles came up in conversation I was adamantine in my conviction that they belonged to us now, that pillage cuts all ways, and that there would be no such thing as museums if there were no such thing as plunder. But a funny thing happens, reader, when you wander round the marvellous Acropolis Museum in Athens and note a signal absence, and an even funnier thing happens when you find yourself dining with Greeks on a rooftop restaurant beneath the Parthenon itself.
Suddenly, you know the Marbles don’t belong to you. A mad impulse grips me. I will get them back for you, I want to say. I look into the gentle brownness of their eyes, as Byron will have looked before me, in an ecstasy of comradeship. Not only will I get them back to you, I am desperate to tell them, I will throw in St Paul’s Cathedral.
I am putty in the hands of travel, you see. I have left the house, exposed my principles to the corrosion that is somewhere else, and am now, as other men, a person who goes on holiday, finds the local people charming and hospitable, and posts photographs of himself having good times in their company. It’s partly to avoid the shame of this that I have all my life argued against the very idea of holidays. “Life is holiday,” I insisted for half a century. A belief that wasn’t always shared by whoever happened to be living with me at the time.
So I have been wrong again. And now, having returned the Elgin Marbles to their rightful owners, I am on my way to a Greek island, not one of those you have to swim to – a quick flight is the most I am prepared to risk – but still an island. Crete, to be exact. The town of Chania, to be even more exact, which everyone tells me I will enjoy. Good restaurants, charming people, a restored synagogue – funny how many more synagogues I visit when I am abroad than when I am at home – and sun.
Some habits, however, I don’t change. As, for example, choosing where to stay by consulting the Rough Guide and whatever it finds too fancy, making a beeline for. This is how I come to be at Casa Delfino, a gloriously hidden hotel which from the outside doesn’t look big enough to accommodate a mouse but opens palatially when you step inside, enveloping you in quiet elegance and Elysian consideration.
Remember that radiance of candour and challenge I encountered in the Greeks I met in Sydney? Here, behind the reception desk, it is again – four Greek women for the sound of whose intimate, throaty laughter Odysseus would have stayed away from home for ever. Travel, reader. It loosens the mind.