House of the Rising Sun. September 2011.

Dear Rowley,

A sybaritic life sunning oneself like a salamander on the beaches of Corfu is amusing up to a point but I do miss putting pen to paper and sending you regular dispatches. Isn’t it perplexing that the simplest task in England such as posing a letter takes on near epic proportions of Herculean labour abroad? I spent the best part of the morning channeling my inner Una Stubbs and miming the lick, press and post of a stamped letter to the crone in the local supermarket. First she handed me an iced lolly then – with a knowing leer that would have put Moll Flanders to shame – handed me a card of the ilk you find in select London telephone boxes.

The Corfiots who populate the North East coast of the island are ostensibly a populace born into fishing, olive growing and the rearing of donkeys and chickens. Simple? They’d make Leona Helmsley look like Anne of Green Gables.  When our house guests Susan F and Mr Bowering blew in, we hopped to Agios Stefanos for a simple beachside meal of white fish and retsina.  Our patron tried to tempt us with a gargantuan, glistening beast with the look of John Prescott around the gills that, when put on the scales, weighed in at 250 Euros.

Now had said fish had diamonds for eyes, I would still have thought twice. Better half and I have often watched the Corfiot fishermen at work. They simply have to waft bait over the sea and great big whoppers leap into their boats like lemmings. Nice work if you can get it. I suggested to our patron that he hoisted the Jolly Roger above his tavern because his prices were little less than piracy and an awful lot more than Scott’s, Sheekey’s and Wilton’s in Mayfair and St James’s for similar fare.

Corfu does, however, retain its charm. The landscape alone is enough to make a nun kick a hole through a stained glass window and the sea is as warm as a bath drawn by a stateroom fire in Downton Abbey. I do love having house guests on hols. There is a vague giddiness and willingness to find fun that is occasionally absent when travelling a deux. Mr Bowering keeps me entertained with his daily watercolour cartoons and we now have quite the gallery on the mantel of our villa the House of the Rising Sun.

My favourite of Mr Bs sketches is from his ‘uses for surplus fried calamari rings’ series entitled ‘Quoits’ that involves two naked boys, a sun lounger and some rather deft wrist action for which you’ll have to use your imagination. His Grecian Urn series is equally amusing with many a deceptively innocent depiction of Greek youth playing leap frog or tag or so forth. I also think a holiday lives or dies by your choice of reading material. I’ve had two successes with The Flight of the Romanovs and David Niven’s memoir Bring on the Empty Horses. Less amusing was Dawn French’s ‘No I Best Seller’ debut novel that makes other chick lit read like Dostoyevsky. Still, one always packs Mapp & Lucia in case of emergency.

We had until yesterday avoided the annual holiday excursion that better half likes to take to ‘expand the horizons and broaden the mind’. These I have come to dread like the plague knowing full well they involve odysseys that even Homer would find too complex, painful and tragic to chronicle. One particularly execrable excursion involved a trek to the summit of Mount Etna. Our guide clearly thought he was driving the get-away car for Bonnie & Clyde without the benefit of shock absorbers and only two gears to hand: first and third. By the time we got to the top of Etna, I feared that the only thing that would have made the journey worthwhile was if she blew.

But short of flinging myself into the crater to the tune of Ravel’s Bolero, no entertainment value was to be had from that unfortunate escapade. So one should have thought twice when asked if our merry band would like to drive to the highest point on Corfu to visit a monastery. Against my better judgement, Mr B, Susan and I persuaded ourselves that a jaunt with better half in the driving seat would be ‘such fun’. The first hour driving inland and upward was bearable: only inducing nausea, white knuckles and an imminent sense of doom. The map then told us the road ahead would look something like a cardiac arrest victim’s heart monitor when the end was nigh. Those cartographers weren’t just whistling Dixie.

We arrived in the barren foothills beneath the mountain and began our ascent up a narrow pot-hole pitted tarmac series of hairpin bends with a plunge to certain death clearly visible from the passenger seat at every turn. By the time we reached the summit, the road had narrowed to a sliver whereby one had to risk mortal peril with a U-turn if one wanted to get back down again. It was that or taking holy orders and let me tell you the latter seemed like an attractive option.

The monastery itself was roughly the size of a semi-detached bungalow in Croydon. Like the aforementioned, it had been stone clad in the 20th century and thus had all the majesty and grandeur of a Little Chef. To add insult to injury, the squat little structure was dwarfed by a 60 foot telegraph tower that straddled it like the Eiffel Tower over a rabbit hutch. In the immortal words of Bette Davis, ‘what a dump!’ When our intrepid band finally made it back to terra firma desperately in need of oxygen, gravity and retsina, Mr B declared ‘dash it, I’ve left my camera up there’. Missing the joke for a second, my face assumed the rictus horror of The Scream. But as Mr B said later that evening, ‘onward and upward’…