I’ve known Christopher English for close to a decade. Chris is a writer / journalist, and chef. I get the feeling he’s also a bit of a bon viveur – possibly like most of us older bods, now “semi-retired” – but definitely someone who appreciates the good things in life. He’s been based in Ibiza, I think, for almost exactly the same amount of time as I’ve been in Japan – for around 14 or 15 years. To be honest, I can`t quite recall how we first met, but Chris was involved in an anniversary screening of the seminal “balearic” documentary, A Short Film About Chilling – Chris wrote something for Vice, and I wrote something for Test Pressing – and we’ve stayed in regular contact ever since. When I started dreaming of putting a book together – more personal pieces like the ones collected here as “Love Songs”, Chris was kind enough to give constructive feedback. A former English teacher, he provided some top tips on how to avoid getting trapped in the passive tense. Something I`m eternally grateful for. So when the pandemic hit in 2020, and I was polling locked down folk for books and films, words and visions, Chris was one of the people that I reached out to for recommendations. I was also super interested to find out how The White Isle – somewhere totally dependent on tourism – was coping with the crisis. I was after something to run in parallel to, in contrast with, Dennis Kane`s brilliant bulletins from New York. As Omicron B rears its significantly mutated spiked head and the whole globe shudders, “Shit, not again”, here’s Chris` update from the world’s most famous party island.
Words and selections by Christopher English.
This was my message to my cousin and her subsequent reply as I prepared to leave Australia for Hong Kong, en route back to Europe, early in 2020. To give this advice a little perspective, aside from being Scottish, very lovely and very funny, my cousin is also very hardy and not prone to panic. I concluded that this advice was not to be taken lightly.
Fast forward a few enjoyably empty flights back home to Europe and in March I almost found myself stuck in Paris, the antithesis of Hong Kong in how alarmed they appeared about the situation – defiantly business as usual – distinctly laissez-faire. My flight back to Ibiza was cancelled but I managed to find a way back via a nights stay with an old friend in Palma. The first taste of Spanish lockdown. The fear for the future on the face of my taxi driver spoke of my own.
Sarah and I drunk wine and beer from the one shop open in the neighbourhood and stepped onto the balcony as the community applauded the health workers. For a few hours we were distracted by nostalgic COVID-free conversation – an increasing rarity in the weeks and months to come.
When I got back to Ibiza, I got a little sick – flu like. A doctor friend here on the island advised a period of isolation and so I locked down alone in my house on a hill outside of Santa Gertrudis. I alternated between Joe Wicks, meditation, planting vegetables and anaesthetising with rosé and mezcal – some days mixing it up (not the rosé and mezcal – that would be disgusting). It was humbling. I got used to it. I quite liked it at times. At others I felt desperately sad, lonely and scared.
Speaking to friends elsewhere it was impossible to convey what lockdown was like here, with some of the most stringent restrictions anywhere on the planet. Leaving the house only for essentials and frequently subject to police checks while cycling to the shops with my son, I was very grateful that I could walk outside my house and take a stroll in the campo without fear of a fine. I felt terribly for those who could not.
Life under the sphere of the virus continued. George Floyd was murdered. The racist and ignorant inevitably reared their heads.
On a popular island forum, a black woman and resident of Ibiza shared her experience of the racism she had suffered here. Some white men (there may have been a few women too, but they were all most definitely white) felt compelled to share their opposing view – that there is no racism on The White Isle. Some sought to dismiss the Black Live Matter movement as some kind of state-sponsored terror organisation. Others attempted to decry and dismiss the difficulties facing the minorities of the world as a problem of their own making. Several piped in to say that slavery ended a long time ago. And anyway, why would we be worried about something that has happened in another country?
The lack of empathy was shocking, though given the relative lack of progress made on these issues, perhaps not altogether surprising. Part of me felt pretty despondent at being privy to some of the poison, but now we knew who walks among us.
The island has an inequality problem. This country has an inequality problem. The world has an inequality problem. And for some it seems there is a problem acknowledging these problems. And acknowledging that they are part of them.
My son and I went to a well-attended BLM gathering in Ibiza Town and listened to an impassioned speech from an ex-student whose experiences would have silenced the doubters and dissenters had they shown up.
A semblance of a season arrived abruptly and was curtailed just as swiftly when the UK, Germany and Holland imposed sudden quarantine restrictions on those returning from Spain. Despite early chatter of an idyllic summer, a return to the party paradise of yore, a hefty toll landed on many of the island’s inhabitants, emphasising the fragility of an economy that relies so heavily on tourism and sadly evidenced by the substantial demand placed upon food banks.
This year was an improvement on the last of course, though many of the traditional package tourists appeared absent. San Antonio seemed to bear the brunt of this downturn and will likely continue to do so. The powers that be had already placed many of their eggs in the VIP basket, forgetting that the lure of Ibiza always laid in its egalitarian nature. In any case, even prior to the pandemic the existing tourism model was not sustainable. The island’s infrastructure and ecology simply can’t cope and an assessment of how best to continue in a viable manner is long overdue.
Only two clubs properly ‘opened’ this season, albeit with excessive minimal spends, outrageously expensive bottle service and no dancing. Though billboards advertising the megaclubs still greet you as you leave the airport, they have long seemed an irrelevance, and though personally I have little appetite for sharing a dancefloor with thousands of others while being fleeced 20 euros for a gin and tonic, I definitely miss the occasional Monday night excursions with Harvey and catching up with my amigo Ruf Dug at Pikes, one of only a few remaining pockets of goodness. He did manage to pass through for the inaugural Balearic Beat Hotel event, alongside some other very welcome guests. And we got to play some reggae sevens overlooking the sea at Soul Good, in Santa Eulalia del Rio – the island’s best bar by a stretch.
On a different note, snakes now inhabit the island, apparently imported on the mature olive trees that furnish the gardens of the wealthy. Their arrival poses a serious threat to the island’s native lizards and its biodiversity.
Below are a few things that offered some comfort through the lockdown and beyond…
Default criteria for watching was largely “lightweight and not too long” – though I delved into Dennis Kane’s dark, devastating and difficult to watch – or forget – recommendation, Too Old to Die Young, which distinguishes itself by fitting into neither of those categories. With the exception of the aforementioned, the common thread running through is one of subtle but poignant messages of positivity, both for this moment in our lives and for those to come.
This was recommended to me several years ago by someone whose taste in such matters I trust, but for some reason neglected to watch at the time. I’m glad that I did as these served me well during isolation.
The half hour vignettes focus on a weed dealer pedalling his wares to an eclectic array of Brooklyn based clientele, serving as the link connecting the lives of his customers. Though the series is scattered with frequent signifiers of hip, none are prevalent enough to irk and there is a rare diversity among the characters that brings joy. Sometimes big things happen and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you care about the characters and want to know more about them. Sometimes you don’t.
There is a sporadic thread of loneliness among some of those in the mix, which brought additional resonance while I was isolated alone in my house, but most significantly there exists a recurring reminder to seek beauty in the banal – in people, places and seemingly ordinary moments.
YouTube is awash with travel channels. Numerous young, attractive singles and couples (this seems to be the dominant demographic), some living their lives in pimped up camper vans, now seem able to fund their full-time travels through the platform, or at least did pre-COVID – Who knew that this could be a career choice?
My primary curiosity when anywhere has always been to seek out authentic local eating experiences and seeing where this might take me, an approach which led me many years ago to the discovery of Mark Wiens – initially through his blog and later through his early vlogs, both of which provided me with indispensable culinary guidance during multiple visits to Bangkok.
Several years ago I was sitting with some friends on a Bangkok backstreet and spotted Mark strolling along the street with his wife. In a move of rare boldness, I approached him and introduced myself as a fan – he was as warm and humble as he appears in his videos. Though the production values have progressed concurrently with his number of subscribers, Mark continues with characteristic enthusiasm and humility.
The episodes in Brazil, Kerala, Iran and Pakistan are exceptional but his entire back catalogue is well worth delving into if you are seeking a bit of armchair exploration and might also provide some inspiration in the kitchen. And for a dream collaboration made in YouTube mash-up heaven, one of the locations in the series is Jamaica and features those involved in my next recommendation.
I stumbled upon this channel while looking for a recipe for Ital soup near the start of the lockdown and promptly ploughed through most of it in the space of a week. It’s creator, an amiable Canadian called Matthew, seemed to have a similar idea. Apparently, he was seeking Ital cooking classes in Jamaica and visited a rasta named Mokko in Sunning Hill at the eastern end of Jamaica, and from there a bond evolved and the channel was born.
The majority of episodes are dreamy montages of Mokko languidly preparing food over his oil drum stove, interspersed with footage of the yard and the stunning natural surrounds. Spliff Chats is a kind of series within a series and features Mokko dispensing his gentle wisdom to camera while puffing the herb.
Don’t build up things in your head
Don’t build up strife
Anything that will cause problems, leave it alone
Let it go free
When your mind is free, things go free
There is a simplicity to the family’s yard life. A gentle insight into lives of people that you don’t know but grow to care about.
Nuh Fuckry as Mokko would say.
Bliss To Be Alive: The Collected Writings of Gavin Hills
I was given my first copy of The Face magazine by my mum’s boyfriend for Christmas in 1989. It has Ian Brown on the cover. I still have it. As a 15-year-old growing up in a drab Home Counties new town, its pages offered a vicarious lifeline into life beyond Bracknell and a glimmer into the glamour of other worlds. Between stories of clubs that I wouldn’t visit and pictures of clothes that I would never wear lay the writing of Gavin Hills.
As the former editor of the skateboard magazine R.A.D. (the first magazine of my youth) and a follower of my football team, he seemed like a gentleman with whom I would enjoy sharing a beer. That already remote possibility was curtailed completely as he tragically died in 1997 while fishing in Cornwall a few days after his 31st birthday and a day after my own.
From football to fashion to reportage from war torn locations such as Somalia and Sarajevo, all interspersed with candid and exceptionally touching takes on his struggle with depression, the book showcases the eclecticism of the subjects covered in his work and is matched by the quality of his writing, liberally peppered with pathos, honesty and humour.
I bought my copy of Bliss To Be Alive from Amazon. The inside cover has a stamp from Cumbia County Library. I apologise to those who frequent(ed?) that library and wished to read Gavin’s writing, but I assure you that I obtained it in good faith.
Tom Wolfe / Bonfire Of The Vanities
This was on the aforementioned magazine’s best of 1989 list, though I think I initially bought it on the superficial premise that I had read in another review that it contained multiple mentions of trainers. This turned out to be misleading (I think Wolfe favours shoes over sneakers) but ultimately did not detract from my enjoyment.
I didn’t read it at the time, but found it years later at my mum`s, dug it out and ploughed through it during lockdown. Wolfe’s background in journalism seeps into his writing and his work is meticulously researched and full of detail. Bonfire Of The Vanities contains themes of privilege, race, class, identity, justice – or lack of – all sadly retaining relevance in current times and the wide cast of characters gives it the feel of a novel of The Wire.
Bruce Pascoe / Dark Emu
This had long been on my to-read list and was kindly lent to me during lockdown. Dark Emu is the author`s attempt to redress the false representation of Australia’s past and to provide a “truer history”, as Pascoe himself puts it. Through examination of the colonial accounts of Aboriginal people and the journals of early explorers, Pascoe meticulously sets about correcting misconceptions about how Aboriginal people led their lives and challenging the widely held perception of them solely as nomadic hunter gatherers, showing them to be able agriculturalists with structured societal systems.
He further asserts that Aboriginal people had a concept of government in Australia over 100 000 years ago, though in stark contrast to what we now understand from that word, it was decided that everybody would have a house, everybody would have enough to eat and everybody would be included in the culture.
The book serves as a reminder of the terrible crimes inflicted upon humanity and the land and as an invaluable insight into how we can live our lives more attuned to nature – an important lesson in how we can organise our society in an alternative way, one that lessens the negative impact upon the planet and its people.
Though many mixes were enjoyed alongside deep dives into my own collection, I often craved a voice to accompany the music. These three worked wonders in keeping me company amidst the lonely.
Gilles Peterson – The 20 – Worldwide FM
A special mention also to Cedric Woo – Everything he touches resonates deeply.
Despite never having been here, or even having a desire to visit, I came to Ibiza more than 14 years ago after a long stint in Sydney to teach English and Media Studies at the international school. Now I mostly cook and concurrently do some word joining.
2 thoughts on “Christopher English / Dispatch From A Small Island”
So glad to see someone else share the love for Gavin Hills’ collected writing. He writes with a lot of energy and it’s easy to be swept along with it. Great stuff and a terrible tragedy.
Thanks for including here our endangered lizards. We’re still fighting…Gracias/love from Ibiza.