Musicians on the Greek Island of Skyros
|In 1967, my wife and I were living in London and I received a letter from Brian Dunlop, inviting me to the Greek island of Skyros. Brian was staying there with Justin O'Brien. It was Justin who had discovered the island some time before, and he had been going there regularly to paint and to escape the city. He and his guests would rent cottages on the Molos (the peninsula) from the local fishermen.
I spent several delightful weeks there, but, as so often happens on islands, there was some trouble in paradise. Justin had earlier invited his old friend, Donald Friend, to stay. Donald had just experienced a very nasty end to an affair and was very depressed. Justin hoped that he would be able to cheer him up, but Donald's obnoxious behaviour was difficult to handle, even for Justin, someone who, in my opinion, was close to being a Saint. I say this because, in his diaries, Donald has written some obnoxious comments about Justin things which were utterly untrue. For example, he accused Justin of being dirty and ungenerous. Since Justin is no longer with us and cannot defend himself, I will set the record straight on his behalf.
Justin did all the cooking for us while we were there and Brian would set the table and do the clearing up after the meals. We were living in fishermen's cottages which had dirt floors and simple cooking and washing-up facilities, so kitchen hygiene was always problematic. Donald would just sit at the table, silently reading his slim volume of the poems of Cavafy, and would just move his book slightly to one side so that Brian could set his plate on the table. When the food was served, Donald would mark his page, set the book down, and begin to eat. He never had a complimentary thing to say about the food. Too much salt. Not enough pepper.
Before I arrived, Donald never did his share of the household chores. Furthermore, he would invite young Greek soldiers, who were doing their National Service on the island, for meals, fully expecting Justin to cook for everyone at short notice. It was embarrassing to watch Donald, who was fat and flabby by that stage, desperately trying to chat up the young men, who were not in the least bit interested in him. That made him even more depressed. He blamed Justin for his amorous failures, accusing him of driving the young men away through a lack of generosity on Justin's part.
Donald had been spoilt rotten on the island of Bali where he always had a small army of young men to cater to his every need. But on Skyros, poor Donald realised that it was SO difficult to get good servants on a Greek island.
Soon after I had arrived, Saint Justin had reached the end of his tolerance for Donald's behaviour. There was a huge row between the two of them, as Justin loudly explained the facts of modern life to Rajah Friend. Brian and I made it very clear that we took Justin's side on the matter, and Donald never forgave us for that.
As with all bullies, once he was confronted, Donald immediately became contrite and tried very hard to be gentle and good-natured. He launched a charm offensive, but that was so obviously insincere, and so sickly sweet, that we began to wonder if we had been better off with the old, obnoxious, arrogant, Rajah Friend. At least, THAT version of Donald could be sarcastically amusing at times. His diaries reveal his true feelings towards us.
In retrospect, the problem was that none of us were equipped to handle Donald's mental illness. Justin thought that he had done the right thing by inviting him to stay on Skyros, but Donald prabably needed active medical intervention to help him overcome his severe depression.
Apart from those dramas, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay on that beautiful island, spending most of my days sketching and painting the landscape and the warm-hearted people of Skyros. The musicians in question often played the songs of Mikos Theodorakis, which was a brave thing to do at that time, as the Greek Colonels were then in power and had banned the works of that composer. That prohibition did nothing to stop the musos from giving voice to his haunting melodies.