Mad Dogs and Englishmen: Part I

We should have been in Spain in June – visiting old friends in pretty Sitges and a few days in gorgeous Girona. The pandemic put paid to that, of course. And, since foreign travel is probably off the agenda this year, I thought I’d raid the archives to find something about a holiday many, many years ago in a land far, far away.


For John Garner (1967-2003)

I was a Turkey virgin. It was 1997, my first time. John and I had booked a holiday with an old mucker and his latest squeeze. We were thirty-something boys-about-town desperate for a little respite from fast living and the daily grind. The glossy brochure promised tranquil simplicity and that’s what we got. Our digs were a modest whitewashed villa nestled on a craggy headland on the north side of the Datça Peninsula. The lushness of our rural idyll was totally unexpected – so much richer than the dry bush of Andalucia and the Greek islands I’d been used to. And the silent sunsets were life-affirming – spiritual, almost.

We were a week in. The hairdryer heat of a blistering August had us limp and reclining. Lazy days were spent lounging round the trickling pool – G&T in one hand, chick-lit in the other, swallows ducking and diving overhead and the deafening chorus of randy cicadas. Sultry nights brought lively conversation to a score of Holst and Madonna, and tumblers of chilled plonk on the empty beach, counting shooting stars as the lights of Bodrum flickered on the horizon. It was sublime.

But John wanted more.

‘Let’s go for a walk,’ he said, peering over the top of a Jackie Collins.

‘What?’ I said. ‘In this heat?’

‘You can’t lie on your back with your legs up all the time,’ he said. ‘Mehmet’s getting the wrong idea.’

Mehmet, resident bottle-washer and dogsbody – and a dead ringer for Danny Kaye – showed a persistent interest, clipping bushes around us and throwing that all-too-familiar knowing look as he lit the candles each time the power was cut – a regular event most evenings. The lightless nights switched on the stars.

‘I think Mehmet’s got our number, don’t you?’ I said.

‘Look, the boys need a little privacy, you know, to get better acquainted,’ said John. ‘Nudge nudge, wink wink.’

I laughed. ‘They don’t need any encouragement. They’ve been at it like rabbits since we landed.’ I nodded at the two of them canoodling like horny otters in the pool. ‘Thank God I packed the earplugs.’

‘Oh, come on,’ said John. ‘Let’s go explore.’

Leaving behind our holiday companions to their splashing foreplay, we strolled through the ramshackle hamlet of Taşbükü and down to the sand and shingle beach. I was moist. I lifted my tee-shirt to dab my forehead and dry my specs. In the distance I could see Cleopatra Island, a verdant rock in the Gulf of Gökova. It shimmered, mirage-like.

‘Did you know,’ I said, pointing over with my glasses, ‘legend has it that Cleo snogged Mark Antony on the beach of Cleopatra Island?’

‘Oh,’ said John. ‘How very Deborah Kerr in From Here to Eternity. Wonder where he put his helmet?’

‘Where we all do, I imagine. So, where are we going?’

‘Over there, let’s go over there.’ John gestured to a long line of buildings at the far end of the bay.

‘Why?’ I said, unimpressed.

‘Because it’s there, stupid.’

Like intrepid explorers of old, we set about our quest with vigour, flip-flops in hand, splashing through the wash, joking and laughing along the way. It took about an hour to reach our destination – an assortment of identikit cubes toppling down the hill to the beach. We climbed the crazy paving steps through a rusting iron gate.

‘Oh, it’s just another holiday resort,’ John said, all drop-lipped.

‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Let’s have a gander anyway. Could do with a drink. Spot of lunch, maybe?’

John agreed. ‘Yeah. A cheesy pide and a glass of Efes.’

We wandered along the winding leaf-littered paths, past locked-up houses with empty terraces dripping in twisted bougainvillea. It was desolate, all waterless pools and shuttered cafés.

‘Where is everybody?’ I said.

Where indeed. It was a ghost town – soul-less apart from a street dog nodding off in the shade and a few mangy cats bickering about the bins. There were no over-wrought toddlers splashing about, no tanked-up dads propping up the bar, no mums leathering-up under the sun, no courting couples getting hot under the collar in the sweltering heat. It was eerie and unsettling. Like walking through the abandoned set of Eldorado.

‘We’re being watched,’ John whispered.

‘What do you mean we’re being watched?’

‘Over there. There’s some bloke hiding behind that bush.’

I grinned. ‘Trust you to notice a man hanging round a bush.’ But John was right. A dusky face with a handlebar moustache was poking out between the branches of a pink oleander, mumbling into a walkie-talkie. We could just hear the screechy static.

‘Now what do we do?’ I said.

‘Keep walking?’

Our pace quickened. Moustache man didn’t follow.

But all of a sudden, a hook-nosed apparition in black appeared from the shadows – more screechy static.

‘Okay, that’s it,’ I said. ‘Best get out of here – sharpish. Let’s head back.’

‘We can’t go back,’ said John, starting to panic. ‘The black shirts are waiting for us.’

‘To do what, exactly?’ I said.

‘Haven’t you seen Midnight Express?’

‘Get a grip, John.’

We fast flop-stepped up the hill to the entrance of the development. Hook Nose stalked us all the way, keeping a wary distance. As we neared a boom gate at the top, a pretty boy with messy hair and a grin wider than his waist emerged from a sentry box and waved us through to the open road with his walkie-talkie.

Crisis over, we stood by the side of a dusty track gathering our thoughts.

‘Bloody hell,’ said John. ‘That was close. Thought we were gonna get strip-searched.’

‘Hmm,’ I said, winking. ‘Now there’s a thought.’

‘So, what now?’ said John.

‘Start walking?’

‘Walking?’ he said. ‘Walking where? We’re lost!’


Part II – Next Week!

Dead as a Dodo

It was just a few short weeks ago when we were in London for my old girl’s 91st birthday. Everything then was normal. The Tube was packed and the streets thronged with kids, shoppers and tourists. As we’d got into town early, we took a stroll around the magnificent Natural History Museum in South Kensington to gawp at the long-extinct, alongside the mass ranks of over-excited scouts. Little did I know we might be going the way of the dodo ourselves.

Two Up, Two Down

Our little house is one of a small row of four workers’ cottages standing proud next to the 12th-century parish church of All Saints. Built in 1852, each dwelling once consisted of just four rooms – the original meaning of a ‘two up, two down’ – with water supplied by a well at the end of the row and, in all likelihood, a single outside latrine shared by all and sundry. There must have been quite a queue when cholera struck. The well’s still in full working order but, these days, only used for watering the roses.

One of our neighbours, a sucker for genealogy, obtained the entries for the 1911 national census. It provided a tantalising glimpse into the lives of the residents of our little terrace at that time. 

While Liam was lapping up a concert by a local ladies choir at our spitting-distance church, I took a look through the documents. I really hope Mr Jackson the wherryman*, widow-woman Maria, James the omnibus driver, Mr Kerry the jobbing gardener and all their assorted families had happy and fulfilling lives. I guess we’ll never know, but the chances are their day-to-days were hand-to-mouth, horribly insecure and plagued by illness or the fear of it. Life expectancy at the time was about 56 for women and 52 for men, though this average was skewed by high child mortality rates which meant if you did manage to survive to adulthood, you had a better chance of growing grey.

Still, this was a big improvement on the situation when the houses were first chucked up. Back in the 1850s, life expectancy was only 42 for women and just 40 for men. As life was short and often grim, it’s little wonder people took to religion for solace. Thank God for the doorstep chapel.

*a wherry is a shallow-draught barge with a large single sail once used to transport cargo on the rivers and broads hereabouts.

Tut Mania

Tut Mania

I was eleven when, in 1972, Tutankhamun last came to town. I queued for hours at the British Museum to get just a fleeting glimpse of that death mask as I filed past with all the other kids bussed in from the four corners of the realm. 47 years later, King Tut’s on tour again – probably his last – and Liam and I caught the London gig at the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. Sadly, this time Tut left his extraordinary mask at home but there were plenty of other astonishing riches to gasp at. Let the bling speak for itself.

The exhibition – Tutankhamun, Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh – was very, very busy with lots of polite jostling, reflecting, perhaps, an eternal fascination with the antiquarian boy king and his burial booty. Apparently, ancient Egyptians believed we all die twice – first with our final breath, and then the last time our name is mentioned. At this rate, young Tut really will live for ever.

Beware of Mad Cows

Beware of Mad Cows

As we’re the only gays in the village, Liam, in his infinite wisdom, thought it would be fun to get better acquainted with our new parish. I thought pub crawl. He thought picnic and a gentle stroll along the river Chet. Now, anyone who knows me, even ever so slightly, knows I don’t hike, roam, ramble, trek or yomp. Still, I thought, what’s the worst that could happen?

Having hunted and gathered our provisions – a meal deal at the Co-op – we ambled across the pretty graveyard of Loddon’s fifteenth century Holy Trinity Church in search of the leafy gate to one of the many Broads walks which make up the Wherryman’s Way. As we passed the rows of lopsided headstones, we were serenaded by squawking rooks. It was an ominous sign.

The trail guided us through a tunnel of wild foliage, across babbling brooks and along country lanes to a riverside clearing called Pye’s Mill. The mill’s long gone but it’s a pleasant spot with picnic tables, a barbecue grill and a place to shelter from the rain. We munched on our lunch watching the holiday boats slowly chug along the still waters of the river.

Fully replenished, we embarked on stage two of our great expedition – across a marshy field populated by bugs and a small herd of black cows grazing on the lush grass, tails flapping about to shoo away the flies. We’re both city boys and the only cows we normally see are sliced up at the Tesco’s meat counter so we kept well clear as we tip-toed around the puddles and shit.

Suddenly, a white-faced beast with pendulous udders and a mad cow look in her eyes emerged from the brush heading towards us, mooing in earnest. We stopped. She stopped. We stared her out. She stared us out. Guess who blinked first? Knowing the game was up, we turned round and started slowly retracing our steps. She followed. We quickened our pace. She quickened hers. Then she charged, picking up quite a speed, udders sloshing from side to side. We ran. Yes, we ran. It wasn’t our finest hour and thank the Lord there was no one around to video the pathetic sight of two old poofs fleeing from one ton of angry beef hell-bent on making mincemeat of us. It could have gone viral. Liam even considered chucking himself in the Chet to escape. Having seen us off, she trundled back into the bush.

Returning to Pye’s Mill, we glanced back at our nemesis. She was being closely followed by a cute little brown calf. That was why the old cow was so pissed off. She was protecting the veal. Pity they didn’t mention that in the guidebook. I knew we should have gone to the pub.