Monday, August 12, 2019

A detour of 1,500 miles to a small sun-soaked island...

Programme announcement: This post contains no Frome-related data so please go to social media for reports of the excellent events of the last couple of weeks - I shall have to, as I missed Independent Market at the seaside, Nunney Street Fayre bands at the castle, and The Hoodoos at the Cornerhouse - to name but three.
In replacement, here’s a brief bulletin about another creative community, on the Greek island of Skyros which hosts holidays with a difference, viz: an ethos of connection and contribution, and with personal development activities ranging from kayaking and abseiling to creative writing (my privilege to offer) and lashings of soul stuff like yoga and other bodywork, music and dancing. Within two-weeks, a community blossoms swiftly like one of those big Peruvian magnolias, nurtured by connections from co-listening one-to-ones, ┼ôkos group check-ins and a daily meeting of the full community. If this sounds an ambitious project for 100-or-so people, mostly strangers on arrival, all living in a hut camp, then remember the location is a pine-covered bay on the Aegean sea with sunshine from early morning till after 8pm when the clear cerulean sky began its nightly flooding of myriad pinks to mauve and gold  as the huge orb of sun drops like a blob of ketchup and the silver sea glimmers into darkness.
So this is a fabulous place to swim and walk, sing and talk, and to connect with others and yourself. About seventy of us, including twenty children of varying ages - running feral to varying degrees - were supported by a resilient team of ‘work scholars’ - mainly students on a break - and permanent staff. Add absence of internet and you have the complete concept: a re-imagining of society, no less. It is a fact, however, that even ardent supporters of this beautiful concept, like me, head daily to the Sunset Cafe on the cliff which has espresso coffee and (intermittent) wifi, and always a welcome from Marianna and her team. This is where my writing groups worked each morning, in what became a master-class. The 'sunset writing' session before supper was fabulous too, with work-scholars also 'dropping in' each evening, after the more strenuous sessions, to join the group in the terrace bar.

The mid-course weekend brings my highlight: a group walk to town, nine miles across the island from rural isolation into an alternative reality of surprising sophistication.  Skyros town, the chora of the island, though charmingly still called 'the village' by our organisers, is in fact a large & growing conurbation of city-style sophistication, visited extensively by Athenians and with every facility they would expect to enjoy. When I first arrived in the final decade of the last century, old men here still wore the traditional island garb of pantaloons and stockings, and front doors were proudly open to show displays of pottery and bronze plates - these are still features, though less obvious from the street.  The amazing hilltop Faltaits Museum has a complete cultural history of this feisty island, the only one in the Aegean Sea to confront the pirates on their ransacking routes, and neither defeat nor be defeated by them, but instead to barter for samples of their loot and then to copy these stolen crafts of weaving, woodwork, metalwork, and pottery - hence the rich tradition of Skyrian art today. Skyros town is surprisingly like Frome physically too, with its steep & cobbled ancient streets, and an amphitheatre getting ready for a band that night. There's one big difference: the long soft sandy shore, sunshine at near 30°C all week, and my stroll through town took me from an afternoon at funky Juicy beach-bar to an evening of sophisticated shopping opportunities, restaurants, and rooftop bars - we chose the one on top of the Bank of Greece, which seemed both ironic and appropriate.

Final footnote for this fortnight is an off-piste book recommendation: since deciding to conclude my happy career of deconstructing fiction, my reading in that genre has been virtually zilch but I picked from the shelf here Jonathan Coe’s novel Middle England, and honestly have never read so convincing an account of how our nation degenerated so swiftly from a jolly country with a proud tradition of cricket, beer and irony into a an ignorant, racist snarling brawl, inspiring bewilderment and derision the world over.  Here you'll meet the genteel, ageing, middle classes whose resentment of PC-ness rumbled into racism, fuelled by inept leaders, lazy journalists and outright corrupt bankrollers, all spawned from inbuilt systems of snobbery and complacency… this would be dystopian if it wasn’t, tragically, simply an accurate tracking of the last decade. Buy, borrow, or beg your Book Group to read this novel - it may be to late to save us from chaos but it’s not too late to understand.

I'll end with a return to the raison d'etre for my sunshine sojourn: working & talking about writing, with some fabulously creative writers - thanks Alice, for the snap.