High Life | 19 July 2008

Island Bliss

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The sea surface is smooth and mirror-like, and from the deck of Bushido I scan the coastline for the mother and baby porpoises who live inside a blue-green grotto off Assos, the tiny village which clings to a small isthmus between the island and a huge, forested pine hill crowned by a ruined 15th-century fort. It is a bad time of day to meet mother and baby, the sun is straight up and blistering, the air still except for the noise of an occasional motor pest disturbing both the porpoises as well as yours truly. I first made their acquaintance at sunset the day before. My friend Nicola Anouilh, son of the great playwright Jean Anouilh, and a Cephalonian by choice, knows every nook and grotto of this, the most dramatic of the Ionian islands. He took me on his rubber boat inside the grotto, turned off the motor, and we both slid silently into the clear, cool water. Then we saw mama porpoise emerge, blinking her yellow-green eyes, or so they looked to us. Then came baby, more animated then mama, curious to see what these strange creatures who were visiting them were up to. We silently climbed back up on the rubber dinghy and slowly reversed out of the cave leaving them be. The old boy, the male, had left them long ago and Nicola tells me he only comes back when he needs a you-know-what rather badly. It was the most tender of scenes, one I shall not soon forget.

The normal peasant response to nature in general and porpoises in particular is to kill or drive wildlife away. There are only about 300 porpoises left around these waters, or so Nicola tells me; the rest have been slaughtered by fishermen. To kill a porpoise, a dolphin, or a hummingbird, for that matter, really takes gigantic ignorance, but we Greeks are Solomons compared with what Africans are doing to their own wild animals. I think about mother and baby porpoise while scanning their grotto through my glasses and feel sad. But my mood improves the moment I sling down the first of the day, an icy glass of white northern Greek wine, to go along with my feta cheese, tomatoes and Greek peasant bread. I am lunching in the simplest, and best, taverna, five miles south of Assos, run by father, son and daughter-in-law. Father sits outside with the guests, the son and his wife work inside the hot kitchen, losing pounds by the minute like boxers trying to make the weight. They emerge only to serve, then back inside the sweat box they go. It is like that for four months a year, and then they rest, piling on the kilos until it’s time to go back into training. It’s a good life, at least it beats trying to screw your fellow man in Wall Street, the City, or whatever places these strange creatures known as hedgies inhabit.

Assos, which means Ace in Greek, is aptly named. It lies on the bottom of the rugged cliffs and mountains that surround it, its peasant houses painted bright blues and reds built just off the aquamarine waters that gently lap against the limestone base. The only minus is the crickets, which have been known to drive some men mad, others crazed enough to murder their neighbours. (As it turned out it wasn’t at all the crickets’ fault, but a dispute over land, what else?) I flew to Cephalonia from London and straight on to my boat. After three weeks of non-stop partying, seeing a long dazzling beach, with a few unknown people minding their own business, was like finding the proverbial oasis in the desert. There are no Abramoviches here, no pop tarts, no celebrities. At night I hear a sad, elegiac, romantic sound coming from a lanterna, painted maroon; it is played by turning a brass handle at the side which strikes a series of levers inside. The old man with a white moustache who is playing it has more dignity than all the billionaires of St Tropez and Monte Carlo put together, but then what else is new? As both Socrates and Plato said, a lanterna player is worth ten billionaires and change.

I’m on my way to Corfu to pick up the editor of Chronicles, Thomas Fleming, and his wife, as well as Peter Brimelow and his young bride, for a short cruise around that once wonderful island, now turned into a hell hole by tourism and the Greek propensity for ruining the old and beautiful and replacing it with Coney Island honky tonk. Tom Fleming is a polymath à la Paul Johnson, so I’m hoping something will rub off on me, but high winds are forecast, which means unless their sea legs are in good nick, we’ll be doing a mama porpoise and staying safely in a man-made grotto, the marina.

The last evening in Cephalonia, we dined at the Anouilh house, literally hanging over a gorge with a 300-metre drop to the beach below. It is safe to say that this is the most dramatic setting anywhere on earth. I got such vertigo that it was hard to swallow, but swallow I did, lots of fine wine, but never ventured from my seat in the outdoor dining room, and never once dared to look below. We then tried to telephone Michel Déon, the great French writer and Academician, who lives in Ireland, but there, too, it was no go. No signal, rather. The Anouilhs were laughing as I made my way out, clutching at furniture and concentrating on the door and freedom. My thoughts were with mama and baby porpoise, and how lucky they are to be in their beautiful grotto safely on sea level. On my way back I plan to visit them again and say hello.