SEX AND DEATH ON
THE ISLAND THAT
TIME NEVER FORGOT
Crete, this magic is no myth. But in 1992, on nightly
TV, death is a spectator sport. And grudges
die hard on an island with a 5,000-year history
Outside it’s heat-blasting in the upper 90’s.
Here, the rippling shade of mauve bougainvillaea washes the TV colour into odd distortions. There’s some on-screen confusion blurred with a gibberish foreign commentary. Local men with spiky moustaches and George Michael eyes watch with heightening interest.
Outside, beat-up cars in the super-heated air orbit a traffic island. Beyond that, the beach.
Explosions of milling TV people throw stones. Some carry blue flags. Cops wield batons and perspex riot shields. There’s tear-gas, and there are shots. The locals begin stamping their feet and shouting at the screen. One of them yells to a friend in a passing cab. The taxi sags to a stop in half-orbit, the guy gets out. He’s built like Bluto from ‘Popeye’, but perhaps his Engelbert Humperdinck moustache is a mistake. He ambles leisurely across to the bar where he gets into the excited pointing, yelling, stamping and gesticulating.
Meanwhile, car horns blast as they veer in a Demolition Derby around the slewed and abandoned taxi, passing on the inside or the outside at whim.
The Greek Archbishop Chrysostomos, while making coded appeals for calm, praises the ‘Greek fighting spirit which leads’ the demonstrators, calling them the ‘descendants of heroes and martyrs’. Turkish Foreign Minister Tansu Ciller retaliates by adding ‘no-one lays a finger on the flag. If anybody has the nerve to do that, we will break their hands.’ Neither community admits the possibility of conciliation. The 22-year mutual intransigence is a fact of life. Earlier that year Greek and Turkish forces clash over the ownership of an uninhabited Aegean islet off the Turkish coast. This is cold war in a hot climate. Grudges die hard here. Its TV coverage is a spectator sport.
Crete is a time-sliding foray into multiple levels of pre and post history, from landing at Heraklion where runway flight-path lights are made up of blazing oil-drums direct from Fred Flintstone (‘YABBADABBADOO!’), to an apartment with regular power-cuts and irregular undrinkable water with the consistency of warm sand, where Greek narrow-gauge plumbing means don’t flush toilet paper – place it in the bin provided for collection later. And it’s still stunning. Beyond the balcony, goats, chickens and children scrat while semi-feral cats eat slim green lizards in the kind of picturesque squalor that the Aegean sun makes magical. Dry rusting Martian rocks hold the lean-to roofs in place, but they’re simultaneously drenched in vines and luminous pink oleanders.
When they first brought civilisation north from the Nile towards barbarian Europe, Crete was its most obvious first landfall. Here is where Europe began. Its Egyptian matrix still conspicuous in the exclusively sideways facing figures on the wall mosaics at the Palace of Knossos. This most ancient of strongholds is a Conan fantasy of immense wood and stone. These are the labyrinths, already ancient when Rome and Athens were tribal settlements, where the monstrous man-eating bull-headed Minotaur was butchered by the heroic Theseus. It probably became a swords-&-sandals epic for late-night TV starring Steve Reeves and Minotaur-SFX by Ray Harryhausen. This is a place so old it’s where history dissolves into myth. It’s a Stone Age palace, built into the slope of a hill because they hadn’t yet mastered the architectural subtlety of constructing a second storey above the first. The modest throne room has a modest wooden throne. Something like four thousand years ago the neighbouring volcanic island of Santorini, black sand and white houses, blew itself to pieces – some say giving rise to the legend of Atlantis. Its subsequent volcanic nuclear winter hastened the collapse of Crete’s antique Minoan culture. They’re digging out similar structures on the crescent of what’s left of Santorini.
But Cretan sexual politics are still in uneasy flux. There are unreconstructed hominoids lounging outside every corner eaterie, strutting macho poses of the most neolithic pre-Feminist kind. And the boringly predictable Mediterranean stereotypes hang out in every bar, working their inexorable knicker-dropping sexual magnetism on English, German and Irish tourists from paler, colder climes. While the Cretan girls exist on an entirely more advanced evolutionary plane, smartly efficient and upwardly mobile. They weave on scooters through the medieval shadows of the Old Town past the leather shops and the luminous jewellers where they negotiate sales of ‘Museum Copy’ Octopus broaches, ear-rings made of Cretan Double-Headed Axes, figurines of the bare-breasted Minoan Snake Goddess, vases decorated with the vaulting bull-dancers of Knossos and priaptic Satyrs.
Time only seems to fully up-gear from pre to post-history on the beach. Here there are liquid-dark girls in minimal clothes who make the ‘Baywatch Babes’ look well-overdressed, and enough bare breasts to emphatically prove that all women are not born equal. Just what is the fascination that these quivering protuberances of fleshy fat tissue exert on the vulnerable male psyche? Who knows? Just enjoy. They, the cheap wine, the Tzatziki Dip, the Xifias Swordfish, the veggie Kolokithea Tiganite , the Tsantalis Ouzo – and even the Demolition Derby traffic, all conspire to make new myths rich enough to drown in.
The Samaria Gorge is 300 metres deep, and – at 18km is Europe’s longest. The hallucinogenic air is pine-scented. The freezing stream down its centre is fed from the flower-filled NW valleys and the rugged White Mountains, including Mount Ida which often stays snow-capped into early spring.
Crete has five thousand years of history. Five millennia. But Greece and Turkey are now joint members of NATO, and may soon be partners in the European Union. Political faultlines and Cypriot Checkpoint Charlie’s may have to be resolved. The alternatives are already spectator sport on nightly prime-time TV.
Two days later, off the long-winded island-hopping ferry at Bodrum, the Turkish customs guy sees my Knossos T-shirt. ‘You like Greece?’ Then snorts a derisive laugh as I nod. ‘Turkey much better!’ Grudges die hard here.
‘LATERAL MOVES no.21’ (UK - June 1998)