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High life

Playing it safe

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

30 July 2005

12:00 AM

30 July 2005

12:00 AM

On board S/Y Bushido

The island evenings are always subtle and slow. White-painted houses rise up steeply from the wine-dark sea, the sunset drifting over the hills above the port, the streetlamps faintly lighting the quays along the waterfront. In Symi, one of the most picturesque of the islands bordering Turkey, the hawkers emerge as the light fades away and advertise their business. ‘Fresh fish, fresh kalamari, best oysters in the whole of Greece and Turkey…’ The neo-classical houses of Symi, their pediments and courtyards paved with pebbles —- all creations of the 19th century — are a pleasure to the eye. They are ochre and white, with the odd red one thrown in for variety’s sake. Symi nights cannot be compared to, say, the enchanted glamour of Riviera evenings in Tender Is the Night, or the ecstatic partying in Gatsby’s house ‘where men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne…’ No, Symi is quiet, almost sad, but very, very beautiful.

Symians even took part in the Trojan War, according to Homer, sending three ships under its king, Nereus. The Knights of Rhodes gave many privileges to the island, as did the wily Turks, who took it in 1522. I’ve sailed to Symi from Athens in order to join the British Armada, made up of the Bismarck, Northcut, Duchess of York and Hoare boats, assembled in Fethiye Bay, Turkey, and within striking distance of the Sultan’s summer palaces back in the days when Turkey had sultans. The armada has tied three boats together and there is a feast going on, comprised of 32 children, about 12 adults, and more Turkish sailors than you could imagine.

The great Tim Hoare arrives in his magnificent charter, the Anatolia, a clipper-bowed remake of the beauties they used to build before the Russian crooks and Microsoft philistines began to order the horrors known as superyachts. I’ve got Nicola and Marina Anouilh on board, Nicola being the son of Jean Anouilh, of Antigone fame. We visit the armada and make plans to join up further down the Turkish coast the next day. But it is not to be. One of my French sailors has a stamp missing in his passport, and the Turkish authorities demand 4,000–6,000 euros in exchange for their own stamp of approval. ‘Otherwise he stays here with us until you return,’ leers a Turkish official. Having read T.E. Lawrence, and seen Midnight Express, I decide to play it safe.

I head for Rhodes, a civilised island throughout its glorious history until the oiks and brutes of modern Britain arrived in Faliraki a few years back. Goodbye to the British Armada, to the Bismarcks, to Tim Hoare and to Richard Northcut, the hero of the hour. Two weeks back, Richard, who fought like a Spartan against cancer and licked it, dressed himself in a latex mini-skirt for Gunilla Bismarck’s Hollywood fantasy ball in Marbella. He was the hit of the incredible ball until the King of Sweden decided to cut in on him, thinking that some tart was dancing with the rather pretty young thing Richard was tripping the light fantastic with. Richard, playing the tart’s role to the hilt, refused. ‘But he’s the King of Sweden,’ said the sweet young thing. ‘And I’m the Queen,’ answered Richard, pulling the SYT away and disappearing into the bushes.

But back to Turkey. The funny thing is I love the Turkish people. They are tough, poor, proud and long-suffering. Just outside Fethiye, in the most beautiful bay imaginable, a small boat approaches. The grandfather is rowing, the father shows his goods, and the grandson is taking it all in. The boy is eight or nine, with large blue eyes far apart on his broad face, reminiscent of the Albanian features of Kemal Ataturk. The grandfather looks Japanese, like a weather-beaten samurai. When I inquire, his son laughs: ‘Tartar, Tartar,’ he tells us. History is right before us, selling us carpets and nuts, hundreds and hundreds of years of conquest and migration written in the faces of three poor souls struggling for a living.

In the morning we sail into Rhodes harbour, minus the Colossus, which a boring act of nature removed some time ago. Rhodos also sent nine ships to Troy, under the leadership of Tlepolemus. The island flourished under the Dorians in the 11th century BC, and although it was forced to fight on the side of the Persians, in 478 BC, it saw the light and joined the Athenian League. During the Peloponnesian War the Rhodesians wavered, playing it like Italians, and constantly changing sides. The island had a better time under the Knights of St John, who came to the defence of the Holy Land against the Muslims and to the assistance of pilgrims. After Suleyman the Magnificent overran the place in 1522, the few knights who survived moved to Malta. Like going from Belgravia to a semi in Brixton, as far as I’m concerned. Rhodes was grabbed by the Italians in 1912 — and greatly benefited architecturally from them, Mussolini’s grand fascist architecture distinguishing the island from all its neighbours — and we Greeks finally got it back in 1948.

Oh, yes, I almost forgot. Something happened in Rhodes in 1952, when I first visited with my father, but Screw magazine would be a better outlet for that particular story. I’m off to the sacred island of Patmos via Kos and Leros, most likely missing The Spectator party for the first time in 28 years. Could this be an omen? On my way past Delphi, I’ll make sure to drop in on Pythia. She’s the one with all the answers.

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