They say ‘ never go back’, but they also say ‘never say never!’ It’s hard to know what to do for the best sometimes and if you really want to grapple with the mixed messages in the genre that is our culture’s helpful sayings you can do no worse than Richard Hoggart ‘Uses of Literacy’ (1957) where the comedy of ‘too many cooks’ vs ‘many hands’ is explored in full.

Sue and I did go back – to the Sporades in the northern Aegean after 36 years, and in doing so felt that we were risking a fair bit as the previous trip had been huge for us – our first big holiday together and one which very much cemented our relationship. We both have very fond memories of the summer long adventure and of the islands – so would a return so many years later prove to be a huge disappointment and worse, would it contaminate our precious memories? 

Physically the islands seem much the same, inevitably there are more buildings and lots more roads but the hills, clad in pine, and the coves full of sparkling clear water are just as beautiful, combining that winning palette of blue and green set off by white cliffs in a spanking sunshine. With a shared sigh of relief we concluded that what we saw as the very special essence of the islands had remained intact and were careful to remind ourselves that the islanders needed things to progress in order to raise the general standard of living and ease what had seemed a very hard, labour intensive agrarian / fishing existence. We could not and should not wish peasant quaintness to be maintained for the benefit of first world tourists – we were lucky to have witnessed a very different way of life on our first visit. However, there was just one niggle …..

Scopolos town climbs up the hill at the end of a perfect crescent bay above a small harbour of fishing / excursion boats and yachts. Growing out into the sea, bang in the middle of this perfection of a curve, is a concrete car / coach / lorry park. Admittedly trees have been planted to soften the impact – but it still looks like a car park jutting out into the bay. Why, we asked each other, couldn’t this have been built on what had been waste land behind the bay where the street vendors used to be?

36 years ago a guy called Spiros (how could he have been named otherwise?) set up his barbeque here and loaded the grid with gleaming yellow corn on the cob. As the cobs began to cook people began to gather round, waiting to buy them. Spiros appeared oblivious to his audience as he diligently turned the cobs to ensure even cooking. The cobs began to darken and the smell of them cooking added to the expectation and size of the crowd. One or two tried to buy cobs but Spiros waved them away dismissively and as the cobs darkened further you could sense the beginnings of anxiety in his prospective customers. Muttered comments were made as the cobs positively blackened before horrified faces. More attempts to buy were met with the same indifference and a nervous laughter broke out followed by a man letting his frustration get the better of him and beginning to harangue – but Spiros would not bite and the man turned away in disgust – only to return a minute later. The truth was that despite minimal, and arguably disdainful, interaction coupled with what appeared to be wilful destruction of his product, Spiros was holding his audience and we were all now heavily invested in his product. No one left, but no-one felt OK, an Italian man, struggling to  cope with what was unfolding in front of him actually put his head in his hands and groaned! 

At last, when the cobs must have surely been incinerated to a black choking dust, Spiros relented and began to sell them, covered in salt in paper wraps. Amazingly his audience bought every last one of them, certain in the knowledge that they had been witnesses to an abomination.

The astonishment that then moved through the crowd was sudden, resulting in smiles and laughter. These were simply the best corn on the cob that any of us had tasted – and we all knew it!

Despite subsequently being involved in many barbeques over the years in which incineration would be the only way to describe the cooking ‘method’, I have never been able to reproduce corn on the cob like Spiros’ – they always seem to end up just charred. 

36 years later  we made our way back along the quayside and up the numerous flights of stone steps to our tiny balcony overlooking the whole bay and settled in with a couple of bottles of chilled Mythos for some serious harbour watching. We take this activity seriously – there is so much to observe and take in: the backdrop of 2 fundamental elements at play, earth and water; the attempt to manage their interface through human structures and endeavour; the movement of a variety of sizes of vessels and machines and; human interaction – of course!

Coincidently (maybe) it was whilst harbour watching at Patitiri on Alonissos 36 years ago that I witnessed one of the best rows ever. It involved the skipper and deck hand of a big cargo caique which was feeling its way into the harbour and manoeuvring to tie up against the central jetty. I became aware of a commotion as voices raised above the loud throb of the boat’s engines became increasingly urgent and angry. I could see the head of the skipper thrust aggressively out through a side window of the wheelhouse his face red with emotion shouting at the deck hand in the bow, whose attention had been entirely wrenched from the job in hand – viz to throw a warp to a waiting man on the quay in order to secure the bow of the boat alongside.  In fact, in a total rejection of his responsibilities, he flung the warp aside, which inadvertently fell into the water, and turned to face the torrent coming his way. It is fair to say that he did not pour the proverbial oil, indeed one felt that had a can of petrol been to hand he would have availed himself fully of it. He let rip with an angry retort accompanied by wild arm movements before walking to the other side of the boat and sitting down – in a dramatic sulk with his back to the wheelhouse.

The skipper didn’t take this well at all and with a bellow his head disappeared back into the wheelhouse only for his whole body to appear moments later from the door onto the deck en route towards the object of his ire. He got halfway to the bow when he was brought up short by shouts from the quay and the occupant of a small fishing boat that the caique was slowly drifting down on. A roar of uncontrolled rage accompanied his mad dash back to the wheelhouse to re-engage the engine and pull the caique back into the relative safety of the middle of the harbour.

Now he reappeared, apparently in a calmer mood, striding purposefully along the side of his boat to engage (let’s use a neutral word at this point) with the figure who still sat resolutely with his back to him. It felt possible that the whole affair was going to be sorted out, calm restored, friendliness re-established and that they would re-inhabit their roles within the crew structure competently and effectively. It was almost as though the boat was already lying snuggly alongside the quay, secured by warps fore and aft and the work to unload its cargo underway with some good natured banter and laughter between the two.

Whatever the skipper said broke across the back of the deck hand who sat resolutely still and unheeding. After a few more attempts the skipper reverted to plan A – shouting and gesticulating before pushing the back of the deck hand who instantly spun round and standing up turned and pushed back. Although no blows were struck (which I took to be a positive sign) the next few minutes were taken up with a lot of unseemly pushing and shoving, accompanied by the inevitable shouting. The furious couple pushed and insulted each other back and fore across the deck until gradually running out of steam. The pushing became less frequent and forceful, the insults delivered with an increasing weariness until they stood silently facing each other as more shouts came from the quayside. At the same moment they turned away from each other, one to the wheelhouse to con the caique back alongside, the other to recover the warp and throw it expertly to the waiting man. The skipper eased the stern in against the bow warp and the deck hand ran quickly to throw the stern warp to another waiting pair of hands. As the skipper cut the engine the deck hand stepped ashore and walked off into the town without a backwards glance.

I mentioned the incident a couple of days later to a fisherman we had befriended who smiled and pointed out that the caique still lay alongside the quay yet to be unloaded. ‘They are still not talking’ was all he would say.

36 years later, looking down on a large ferry entering Skopelos harbour, we remarked on the absence of traditional cargo caiques. Everything was now brought to the islands in large lorries on large roll on roll off ferries or large tankers. Everything was larger and of course the ships displaced more water and required more depth. We watched the ferry using its anchor to swing its stern towards ….. the much maligned car / lorry / coach park – except it wasn’t a car park – it was a quay built out into the harbour to enable larger ships to dock. It’s true that a car park had been created on part of it, but that was really quite a sensible thing to do given that cars lorries and coaches needed somewhere to wait for the ferries.

Mythosologically we felt that we had reached an accommodation with a small part of a necessary modernity and could now relax fully to enjoy a magnificent bay with a fascinating harbour – but there was still a niggle … the waste ground where the car park hadn’t been built was now covered in shops, garages, workshops – where was Spiros?