Sunday, 4 September 2011

We are moored in a secret bay off Mljet, a hiding place for pirates since Roman times. Since time immemorial, people have been hacking each other to pieces along these shores. It’s part of the charm of visiting new places that you can compare today with the olden days – though of course war and violence here on a grand scale was not all that long ago – the Serb/Croat/Bosnian atrocities of the 90s have barely faded into the past. Yet here we are, sunning ourselves, going ashore to visit a little Benedictine monastery sequestered away on an island in a secret salt lake just over the hill, having a coffee by the quay, as if nothing had happened.
The troubles are not all buried though. In Korcula yesterday, when I was buying my new pantaloonos and pretty little skirt, the doleful young shopkeeper kept me in conversation to practice his (very broken) English, and bewail his fate. He asked about life in England, and said tax in Croatia was very bad – 23! - and corruption even worse. Running a little tourist shop was not enough. His dad had run it for 35 years, but there were 3 sons, and then his dad had 2 car crashes and was now using crutches. He himself has two sons, and he’s worried about how to support them. I asked if he could use the internet and he said no, it was too expensive. I said, Hotmail is free, but he shook his head, and expressively pushed imaginary cash behind one hip with a cupped hand. Nothing free here, he said. Is very bad. He was inconsolable and I left, wondering if he was describing just his own life or something wider. I was reminded of our recent trip to Nairobi – the shocking contrast between the rich and poor. Here, on our smooth white yacht, we are like millionaires, sailing past with smiling faces. The lives of local people, supplying us with our bread and shopping, our tourist trips, our moorings, etc., are very different. To them, our passage is like a visit from Martians, something from the future perhaps. So our holiday is like a trip in time in quite complicated ways. We are visiting the past and living in the future.
We certainly have some wonderful gadgets on board. I bought that Kindle at the airport as we left, and have downloaded a few bits onto it while we’ve been on the boat. We have a free trial of The Times for our hostess, and I’m particularly pleased with PLFermor’s book about the Mani in Greece, which I have been meaning to read for years but now have the time to get to grips with. We are going to stay with our friends Frank and Margaret near Kalamata in a few weeks’ time, so this is in preparation. What a book! What a writer! If you have not read it, I urge you to do it straight away. How gutsy! How funny. I feel weightily encouraged in my travel writing by his examples. Of course Greece is not Croatia but they are not far distant and share a similar history of violence and management – Greek factions, Romans, Franks, Turks, Venetians, Austrians, French, Russians, Italians, etc etc. all piling in, looking for loot, slaves, land, power, etc. His account of the Nyklian towers – where rival clans sought to smash each other to bits by building ever-higher structures from which to hurl rocks down onto the houses of their enemies is genius and hilarious. He flips from past to present so smoothly, waking up imaginary hosts from the past to people the hillsides and then letting them fade away to dust in order to continue his journey. I am thrilled with it. He is awake to light and sound, and earlier this morning, while the stars were still dazzling above us, and listening to one demented cockerel crowing in the dark, I was reading about his concept that this sound could go right round the whole world, one bird wakening and energising the next, and the sound leaping across continents. I cannot do it justice in prĂ©cis, and you really must read it. It is marvellous.
We heard that cock crowing when we arrived yesterday morning, and then all through the day. It’s a thin solitary expression of defiance against the orchestral background of the cicadas, which are the loudest I have ever heard. You can’t see them, but they populate the higher parts of all the trees, and they are so loud you can only imagine the force with which they scrape their legs together to make such a terrific rasping sound. We wondered why on earth they do it. We agreed we have been told they are looking for mates, but this seems crazy… They might do better by just walking around and looking. There are millions of them. They might be telling jokes to each other, passing on the news. Who really knows. They only stop when it’s dark. Sound carries across water very clearly. Our menfolk have just gone off in the rubber dinghy to get bread and though they are about quarter of a mile away we can still hear them talking. If a neighbouring skipper is manoeuvring to get into or out of moorings, you have to be very careful how you comment, as every word can be heard. In a marina, if someone’s boat begins to swing towards your own, everyone is on the alert, as it can take just a few seconds for several tons of vessel to slide across in the wind and bash into you. Captain and crew are ready to push the intruder away, using fenders if possible. Hands and wrists can easily be damaged in such encounters. Bad mooring skills are bad news for other boats. When we anchor we have to make sure we cannot hit any other boat even if we turn in a full circle round our anchor chain, if the wind changes.
Some things do not change – the crowing of a cockerel, the management of a boat at anchor… some things have changed completely, just in the last few years. For instance, all this comms technology. To download a whole book in a second, to get texts and emails from one’s distant family on a momentary basis, this is just magic. We would have had no Odyssey with satnav. The very foundations of our society would have been completely different – literature, poetry, politics, war, nationhood – everything would have been different. Now we have these powerful new toys in our hands and the future is being created out of them, though we are still playing by the old rules. People who are left out can say so, more volubly…. We read about the disruption to the Israeli concert last week at the Proms. I thought the BBC should have left the concert + disruptions on the air because it is impossible to smother these protests, which are a kind of artform in their own right. The others aboard did not agree, but conceded that it might have been better if the programme had included work and performance by Palestinian artists. Being here, in one of the crucibles of our civilisation, it’s easy to slip into pondering about these things. But now, with the cicadas providing a deafening background, and the water warm and still, I shall go for my naked plunge and then wait for the boys to bring back breakfast.

Ha! Well I did swim, and fish in loose shoals came swimming about me, and I was in an elemental condition such as the first woman in the world was when she swam in warm water. Below me the fish spiralled and spun, and the water was blue and clear down to maybe ten or fifteen feet, though we were in a deeper place than that. The fish were of that kind we saw on the first day, with the large black spots by their tails, and they had needle fish with them, threading along near the surface.

Now we are off to go down to Ston, a town which was near-levelled in an earthquake a few years ago. Restaurants have been booked in advance for the next couple of nights. It's all so strange, this mixture of ancient experience and dead modern convenience. At home, the Hop Festival is under way with morrismen and beery music filling the streets. Lucie's hair has been wrecked by a grotesque masquerading as a hairdresser in Forest Hill, and we have seen a photo of her zebra stripes sent by phone. We know about it but cannot do anything. Sheila has set off to France with Chris in their 'new' Peugeot Partner. We have all this news. And we are just setting off, so I will get this posted up now.

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