It’s the Ionian equivalent of Trainspotting, but on the square blue veranda in the Taverna overlooking the tiny islet of Mouse Island (Pontikonisis), just off the poorer end of Corfu, in the jet stream backwash of the local airport, you could learn more about what ‘s really happening in the world in ten minutes, than trying to decipher a Greek newspaper. The place overlooks the island’s small runway and has become a haunt for plane spotters, wielding giant camera lenses, the occasional walkie talky to eavesdrop on Air Traffic Control and little notebooks, to record plane sizes, engines numbers and so on. I’ve no idea why you would ruin a holiday doing such a thing, let alone a life, but I needed a cold beer and a think.
To the enthusiasts the drama of a landing plane is more exciting than the limpid expanses of lapis blue sea, the deep greens of verdant Corfu’s Cyprus clustered slopes, or the intractable browns on the rough mainland opposite, you could almost touch with your big toe, if you had your feet up , curling around Corfu to neighbouring Albania. So they wait and chat, as the view of a perfect Greek sea, dotted with tilting fishing boats and smarter blue yachts, lazing anchor in the heat of a late August sun, is suddenly sliced with the roar of engine noise and then the shiny wing tails of landing planes, momentarily framed by the taverna ceiling, like brassy menus in the sky – EasyJest, Ryan Air, Aegean, Olympic Airways. I never got so close to Mr Stelio‘s assets, though one of his planes brought me here.
As the planes come winging down, every twenty minutes or so at this time of day, there’s a sudden flurry of activity, as mechanical eyes pert with penis envy swing into action and then the enthusiasts subside again to shoot the breeze. Brits lock casual horns over routes, their knowledge of craft, and the general economic turn in the weather too. One with a belly the size of a Boeing, we’ll call Bob, the sort from Sunbury-on-Thames, the other who looks like the chairman of a small Northern carpet manufacturer, with Axminster grey hair to match and very large hands, have squared off over a beer and a gigantic lime green cordial. Bob puffs and glows mournfully as he describes how the German contingent have fallen off steeply on Corfu, so now the large concrete hotel opposite, with its peculiar Stena-style chair lift down to the beach, is crammed throughout the year with Russian tourists. It confirms my experience of Corfu trotting and Slavic voices everywhere I go, like the Serbian couple on the beach who seemed to want to engage me in warm-hearted all-in wrestling.
The grey word is these Russians do not spread out generously across the isle to sow their roubley Euros everywhere though, but prefer the package deal and all-in-fun-in-the-sun, inside the confines of the hotel and in the water. Perhaps mass tourism is still Communism in action, for the lucky or determined few, or Russian business now owns it, because apparently Greece or Corfu is so starved for cash that buying property here brings you instant Residency too. As for the holiday service industry which is Greece, on Corfu it seems there are just too many outlets catering to too little traffic, meaning so many restaurants, and that local Greeks, seeing any kind of success, will immediately open a rival outfit right opposite, to cut each other’s throats. Bob’s phrase, not mine, and he’s been on the island for years. It seems true of the two little supermarkets at the crossroads where I’ve developed a schizophrenic guilt of who to buy bits from.
In fact times may be very hard in Greece but generous Corfu is somehow cushioned by its tourist success and something naturally fertile in the scenery and a gentler way of life. Thuggish Golden Dawn, the far right Independence party, noise of noisy Greek politics, or the food kitchens set up in Athens to cater to even the proud middle classes are more echoes across the deep Corfeate waves, and TV sets. Although everyone seems to agree corruption is endemic, all are cuts now, and ‘the government’ is surely to blame. I remember the argument with my landlord about the why, prompting my worthy liberal remark that the Germans were not to blame, but when I started to suggest everyone has problems, or mention why writers cannot protect their livelihoods, New York attorneys, and open perjury, insistent in my silly, English middle class way that there are always right ways of doing things, I suddenly thought better of it.
When you see two burly Greek men arguing over a backgammon board though, and even at dinner everyone seems to have to shout at each other, as if it makes something true, or experience the shrugs, excuses, and the slightly round-about ways of not quite doing things, you might be forgiven for thinking everyone is to blame. Until a plane roars in and you wonder how anyone does anything in the heat. I suggested perhaps Greece had not been ready to be part of a Euro zone, that as in rural Spain instantly hiked prices, and my host declared they should get out, but the bloody government never does anything to help people anyway. Whether he knows who or what the government really is, he’s probably right.
There is no real municipal money flowing, Bob confirms in relaying how even the airport could not afford to fix one of its landing lights, though Corfu manages pretty well. Meanwhile the big world turns and the airlines compete for routes and pickings. Someone like Olympic (but probably not) has bought out someone else, while Easyjet are opening three new ‘bases’ next year, on Crete, in Athens and, er, somewhere else, apparently. Another plane lands, more photos are snapped and numbers scribbled, as Bob announces the visit of a mate and trainee pilot back in Luton. I find it hard to imagine a family gathering sharing a photo album of wing tips and drowning in the romance.
This is not just the anorak or Bermuda shorts nuts-and-bolts of life and travel though, oh no, there are the vital echoes of international issues too. Syria is discussed gravely, like not going into space boldly, and the ‘arrest’ of a US Navy vessel too, by a suddenly surfacing Turkish submarine, somewhere, sometime, clearly a true economic power in the region. Bob almost touches poetry though when his knowledge of routes turns to winged imagination and reaches out from the taverna, across the winy sea, towards Macedonia and through the Balkans to Moscow. In fact Bob had been to Syria, just after the Gulf war, where a six hour train ride had cost the equivalent of 35p. He liked the place very much.
As the perfect sea and sun become more quietly insistent, hackles rise though when the fate of Brits on Prospero’s isle are discussed. The long English dominance of the place is falling away, a hangover from nineteenth century occupation, Bob insists, and many are going to buy cheaper property in Bulgaria. The way of life is good there. No, no, the Carpet haired CEO contests, setting his jaw square and raising his lens airily, British ownership of houses on Corfu rose from eight and a half thousand last year, to ten thousand this. As he affirms the future of richer island haunts like Kassiopi in the north, called Kensington-on-Corfu, he also questions the claimed decline in German traffic, though the menus no longer seem so Graeco-German as they did twenty-five years ago.
Bob parries indignantly with his life on the island, his real knowledge, and his experience of a falling Brit congregation at his local church. His face grows even more bain marie salmon pink, and uncertain too, while the carpet man tells him that not one but two of his girlfriends are actually selling up in Bulgaria. Then his own know-it-all-voice suddenly trails away , as he seems to have overstepped the bounds of credibility about the girls, and as Bob ventures something about Polish airways brightly, but seems defeated too, his rival drifts off to pay the bill. At the bar the CEO assures the sweating barman scooping out melting ice cream globes, for a newly arrived Plane spotting family, younger and lither, and with an even longer lens, that of course the bloke is very busy and he certainly understands.
Another plane scythes in overhead and Bob retreats to his well-thumbed plane spotting notebook, hugging it like some enchanted travel journal, or a love letter to no one, or anyone. The walkie talkie did not seem to do the trick in knocking back his opponent’s authority. I have a sudden pang for a world were Lawrence Durrell is still making love in the wine dark sea, and Gerald is trying to understand his family, let alone all the other animals. Bob seems indignant when I ask, on the way out, if it was true the Corfu airstrip was too short and a little dangerous too. Not at all, no accidents here, except problems with two undercarriages. Earlier he had suggested how they might fill in the lake at the runway’s end, if they had the money, to accommodate larger planes. Bob hugs his stomach, in almost resisting the stupid question. He had shared loudly with one of his own, if it was sharing, but he did not like me listening. Bob had done all my journalism for me, though, and now I could go for a swim in that gorgeous, mirage-making sea.
Up in my little house, things are suitably off the beaten track too and the lovely island of Corfu is still numinous and utterly ravishing. The skops owls hoot eerily and the stars glow with a piercing if eternally lonely clarity. The light here is unbeatable, not golden but gentle, cockeral crowing dawns and suddenly sharp sunsets, dissolving to red and blue-black mystery. It’s the tall, proud Cypruses everywhere that give the island such a firm line for a painters’ and not a photographer’s eye. But, as you feed the stray cats, surviving or beating each other up around the local dustbins, in life’s cruel food chain, all it really reminds is that the only thing that ever makes anyone happy in life is looking after someone else.
So I help my Cypriot neighbour carry some bad wine up the steps to her car, who assures me it’s impossible to get a job here, while she has been trying to encourage her son off his butt for five years, internationally, but somehow the island will just not let him go. I understand graciously, really, and suggest the newspapers are saying that at least tourism is up this year, to boost the Greek economy. They always say that, she insists, so people will be fooled about what’s really happening, and also fill the shops with goods that never get sold. No, no, I almost venture, this was in The Daily Telegraph, but somewhere a plane booms like the Malabar caves.
The photo is a Wikepedia image of Pontikonisis and Vlacharania monastery, just off the tip of the very safe Corfu runway