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Purchasing a bit of paradise
Frederic Raphael Writer
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I finished that book on Ios and we were then going to go back to England to... we weren't quite sure what... buy a house actually because I had got a bit of money now because of this thing, and I had to go back to see the people about Nothing But the Best. So, we went back to England in 1940... 1962, and before going I really said I would like to buy some kind of a property on Ios. And we had an old man, well wasn't that old actually, but he seemed old to me, an old donkey guy who looked after us – rather a rogue, but he was our rogue, a guy called Georgos – who used to take the children off on the donkey up into the mountains and Christ knows where. It never occurred to us that he was any danger to two small children with a funny Greek guy, and I don't believe that there was any either. But we lived in a very innocent world in the 50s and 60s in terms of what people get up to, or what people we know get up to.

And every time I wanted to buy somewhere I would go with Georgos and look at it, and there would be a ruined house with a well and a fig tree and all the rest of it, and I'd say how much do you think this is? And he would say, 'Deka pente chiliades', a hundred pounds or something, or whatever it was. Oh, that doesn't sound too bad. Would you, sort of, fix that? So, of course, he would come back and say, 'Ti na kanoume?' what can we do about it? They want 30,000 drachs. And you could never, ever close a deal with anybody; over and over again I kept trying to do it. Now, we had a girl, a woman called Flora, who used to come down from the village with pastitsou, which is a sort of form of pasta which is done in the oven in the village, and various other things. She did the laundry for Beetle and she was a very sweet woman, and she had a couple of children and a drunken husband. The Greeks always do this. Mediterranean people don't like drunks. I mean, they don't like people who can't keep control of themselves, so... I don't mean they dislike the person, they just despise them, but quite keenly. That was the gesture.

We had one day before we were going to catch the boat to go back to Piraeus and back to England, and well, two days, and Flora said to me, after I came back again from seeing a house, which wasn't now going to be available because it was going to be 60,000 drachs... So she said, 'Do you really want to buy a house?' So I said, 'Well, I was hoping'. She said, 'Den pirazei', don't worry, 'Echo spitia'. Really? Got a house? So she led me over the high ridge where the village was posted high up above the harbour to avoid pirates, of course, and then down the other side to a beach, which was like... Well, it reminded me of Woolacombe Sands, which has been near where I was evacuated to during the war: a huge golden beach with nothing on it except a little place at one end and another little place at the other, a little hotel, a little kind of taverna. So I went down with her – I think Beetle stayed with the children first time I went – and she led me along the beach, and up through several terraces of olive trees and things, and cactus, and there was a little cottage, very low, like that, with a tree on the top as the roof, with a calami – that's bamboo – on top of that. Homer had depicted Odysseus in a house which had a tree on its roof to hold the bamboo. So I said to Flora, how much of this is for sale? So she said, well, this terrace and this terrace and this terrace, and the little house, which was kept... which was used for donkeys. It had been her grandmother's house, it wasn't really used anymore, but donkeys occasionally used to be stalled there. So I said, what do you want? So she said... I think she said... Yes, I think she said, 'Deka pente chiliades', she wanted to send her children to school at Santorini. Like the Jews, the Greeks believe in educating their children, and she needed the money because her husband...

So I said – that was about 150 quid – so I said okay, and I thought she would say I'll have to speak to my husband, and then it would… but actually her husband was not in the case; it was her house and she said fine, it's yours. So we went back down the terraces, and there was a big piece of land right on the beach, on the Aegean. Sikinos was on the far side – there was the beach. Large piece of land! I mean, football size, no, two football pitches. So she said, oh, this is mine too. So I said, oh yeah? She said, want that? So I said, well, how much is that? 'To idio', the same. Because of course the house didn't really mean anything to her; it's the land that the Greeks care about. Peasants care about land. They didn't mind you living, whether it's in France, Italy or anywhere else, as long as you stick to your house; if you start buying land they get very nervous, they don't like that.

So I said, okay, because she wanted the money. So we then went up to see the Eirenedikes, the justice of the peace, and he wrote out in longhand the purchase of the property and I gave her the money, and we left Ios two days later having bought a little cottage with eleven olive trees and a fig tree and some almond trees, and a big piece of land on the beach, on the Aegean. The comedy of this I can count rapidly to the conclusion: for 50 years we improved the house up above: we put the proper roof, we built new rooms, we did various things. But the piece of land on the beach... We just had a piece of land on the beach. Meanwhile, hotels and villas and all kinds of things sprung up all along this golden beach, unsurprisingly as the 60s went on and the 70s came in and all the rest of it, and we still had this big piece of land, and a few years ago we were told that if we didn't build on this piece of land within a certain amount of time we would never be able to build on it because, although it was as big as it was, it wasn't big enough according to the new regulations for building permission to be granted, so it was now or never. So we're now, after 50 years, my son Steven and his brother, you know, are building three houses on this piece of land, and they look absolutely wonderful, and what a fool one was not to have done it earlier, but we had sat as lords of the bay upon our shelf, and down there it was a lot noisier and all the rest of it, so it's all fine.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Ios, Aegean Sea

Duration: 7 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014