Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review of Mirror at Frith Street Gallery

Portraiture in the 

Age of the Selfie: 

Mirror at Frith Street Gallery

Margaux Williamson, I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in.
Margaux Williamson, I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace), oil on canvas, 30 x 40 in.
Frith Street Gallery is a large, airy space: polished concrete floors, rough concrete pillars, white walls and lots of natural light. I walk around the summer show and wonder how to make sense of what I am seeing. It is a group show called Mirror. Ostensibly it is about portraiture and yet it is about so much more. It is portraiture in the age of the selfie: portraits of the vernacular, of the ordinary and of the extra-ordinary. It is not portraiture commissioned by wealthy patrons to big themselves up. These are portraits from the inside, from the point of view of the people who make them. The four artists in this show, Fiona Banner, Mohamed Bourouissa, Victor Man and Margaux Williamson, ricochet off each other. There is a dialogue of sorts – a very 21st century dialogue – of texts and ideas echoing and conflating with old-fashioned conversations.
The first piece you see upon entering is Fiona Banner’s eponymous work, Mirror(2007). This very short film plays on a monitor so small you need to get up close. You find yourself peering at the actress Samantha Morton who is reading what appears to be a poem:

Nails shell pink…
Thin papery arches exposed …
Arse moon white…
Dusty hair …
Magnolia hips …
Hand, darkest full stop …
Tulip face …
Eyes like jewels, a comma above each.

The words are Banner’s from a written life drawing of Morton. It is poetry as striptease. The language with its originality, playfulness and awareness of formal elements (notice the full stops and the commas) is a recurring language in Banner’s work. Morton hadn’t read the text before stepping onto the podium. Her delivery is simultaneously halting and moving. She is not only baring herself, she is baring herself as someone who has been seen, uncovered and remade into words. Like so much of Banner’s work, the layers can be peeled and unpeeled and still there is more to be revealed. The final twist in this tale is that Banner and Morton had agreed not to film the performance. However, an email appeared from someone who said they were setting up their camera to film something else and managed to capture some of Morton’s reading. This snippet feels illicit and fragile – it is a portrait we feel we should not be allowed to see but the voyeur in us is utterly seduced.
Just beyond this, are four small works on paper by the Romanian-born Victor Man. These are simple pencil drawings of women’s heads, two of which are double-sided. Taking one off the wall to look at its reverse, I am reminded of Victorian letters in which the correspondents wrote upside down between existing lines so as to save on postage. There is economy to these portraits in scale and in execution. The other piece by Man in the show is Pagan Space (2010) an oil painting of an exploded pagan idol. The falseness of idolatry is exposed as the artist removes all solidity, except that of the oil on canvas itself. The colours here, in line with the sombre palette of this show, are muted and earthy. Molecules or globules float upwards with echoes of talismans in the background. Victor Man’s work displays a deceptive elegance which is shot through every piece in this exhibition.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for a show about portraiture, paintings share equal space with photography and conceptual work. The other painter in the show is Margaux Williamson. Her fresh and almost naïve canvases belie a profound simplicity. In I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace), we are confronted with the actress’s sequined torso refigured as a monochrome night sky. An eerie incandescence emanates from within this painting. The idea of our world being overseen by a night sky populated by both celebrities and celestial bodies is both very profound and very much of the moment. Pop culture here becomes an homage to painting. It is a very beautiful object, which does not rely on irony or artifice to create its many levels of meaning. There is both depth and superficiality in Williamson’s work. She is an artist with the ability to uncannily defamiliarise the ordinary, making it extra-ordinary.
Williamson’s four other works in Mirror similarly employ titles that are like very short short stories. In They blamed the devil for everything, a hand awkwardly strains, caresses, touches a neck. What act of voodoo are we about to witness? Or perhaps it has already happened. Her titles function as a way into her subjects from another perspective to that of the visual. She is stalking her subject like prey and pinning it down from the inside with words and from the outside with paint.
The literary quality of Williamson’s work riffs nicely with Fiona Banner’s. In Banner’s installation Life Drawing Drawings we are taunted by a Perspex display case stuffed with jumbled up dummy books, each one with hand-drawn reproductions of the covers and spines (spines!) of life drawing manuals. This piece is all about desire. The desire to get at these books and touch them, the desire of artists to capture the human body, to reproduce our flesh and make it last forever. I see a connection here with Williamson’s I thought I saw the whole universe – in their exploration of time and desire and intimacy.
The only colour in this generally muted show comes from Banner’s The Vanity Press, a neon ISBN number, hand-modelled by the artist. The number – and therefore the piece itself – is registered as a publication, cleverly conflating and separating the idea of an actual object with the object itself. What else is a portrait other than an attempt at embodying something (a person’s face, a typeface) through its representation?
The fourth artist in Mirror is the Algerian-born Mohamed Bourouissa. His small photo series, Les Voleurs (The Thieves), 2014, has been pasted directly onto the wall like ellipses in a very sad fresco of disenfranchisement. The artist has documented the faces of people who have been caught shoplifting across Brooklyn. These are anti-portraits of those who have been frozen in a desperate, defining act. Their expressions are angry, resigned, sad, hungry, zoned-out and bleached out with flash. Most are photographed holding the objects they have been caught with red-handed: beer and soda are prevalent along with unidentified packaged goods. This is the other side of the consumer society. The one we try not to see. Yet here are the faces confronting us with their need. One is particular haunting: an elderly African American woman, hunched, looks up at us as if not understanding how she got where she is and how we are where we are.Why? she seems to ask us. And we have no answer for her.
This is what art needs to do. To ask questions even if answers elude us. This show is an elegant and witty take on our chaotic, digital world in an age where documenting it is often confused with living it. The curator, Ann Marie Peña, has created a small and intelligent microcosm which explores questions of longing, belonging and the act of making portraits in the age of the selfie. The echoes from these artists who have come at the subject from four very different angles converge to create a visionary ensemble. You can hear the echo in that large, airy room long after you leave. The conversation continues without you.
Mirror continues at the Frith Street Gallery until August 16. See the gallery website for more information.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Interview with Margaux Williamson

talking to all the smartest people in the world

A chat with Margaux Williamson at Frith Street Gallery, London, by Joanna Pocock.

One of the last things Margaux Williamson asks before we go our separate ways is whether she should wear heels tonight.
“Not super high heels,” she corrects herself. “Boots with a bit of a heel. Or should I wear my Keds?” she asks looking down at her orange-clad feet.
“Boots,” I reply.
“And a dress?”
“Yes, go for the dress. It’s a big night for you,” I say as if she is someone I have known for years.
I have come to Frith Street Gallery to interview Margaux Williamson about her work. She has a talent for throwing questions back at you and going round in verbal and mental circles that lead to unexpected places. This is less of an interview and more of a ping-pong match played with several balls at once. My notebook, in which I have been scribbling our exchange, is full of sentences that trail off only to lead to a completely different idea.
I start by asking her about how she crosses so many boundaries. The artist otherwise known as Margaux in Sheila Heti’s ‘novel from life’, “How Should A Person Be?” makes films, performs, writes film reviews and manifestos, but mostly nowadays she paints. This crossing of genres is integral to her trajectory as an artist: she spent a decade painting solidly, concentratedly. These paintings “became windows offering more space, a way out.” After these ten years of painting solidly, she felt she got somewhere “with her hands and in her mind”. This freed her up to experiment with other media and allowed her to make more sense and reposition herself. After her return to painting she “felt so much smarter”. She began answering an important question: How do you get the limitless depth of painting while allowing it to be a concrete object. Tying together these two opposing forces became for Williamson a “challenge and a pleasure”.
This distinction between her hands and her mind is one she makes frequently. I interpret her hands as a metonymy for her craft and her instinct. Williamson’s  are those of an artist who can take the most mundane object – a banana, a sofa, a door, a tree, a painting we have seen dozens of times – and defamiliarize it.

This deftness is apparent in one of the works on show here, I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace), in which the actress’s sequined torso is refigured in oil on canvas as the night sky. This piece is both Blake’s world in a grain of sand and Doctor Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. We stand in front of it together and gaze at the black and white, star-like surface, the thin arms, the incandescence that emanates from within the paint itself. Williamson tells me that making this one was like “finding an equation”. By tethering her ideas to the real world, she can go deeper, she says. The idea of our world being overseen by a night sky, populated by both celebrities and celestial bodies is somehow very perceptive and very much of the moment. And most importantly, it is a very beautiful object, which does not rely on irony or artifice to create its many levels of meaning. Williamson says of her paintings that they are “honest, straight up, so simple and direct.” I would add the qualifier, “deceptively”. Accessing simplicity is one of the most difficult things to pull off.

Williamson’s recent show at the Mulherin + Polard gallery in New York consisted of a suite of forty-six paintings shown under the title I Could See Everything, with an accompanying book. These pieces range from small intimate canvases less than a foot square to large, wall-sized pieces. Her palette tends towards earthy tones and ochres as if she is commanding the ingredients under our very feet. Five works from the New York show are in London for the Frith Street Gallery summer show. I ask her how she and the show’s curator Ann Marie Peña extricated them from such a seamless body of work. Williamson trusted Peña to choose the pieces. She approached this recontextualisation as a way of looking at her paintings afresh.
Williamson’s work is accessible. She is keen to be inclusive. “Art is about communication,” she tells me. “You don’t need to be in art, or academia or the commercial world to get it. It’s not about dumbing down; it’s about talking to all the smartest people in the world.” It’s funny she should use that analogy as I feel her work is a constant dialogue between herself, her audience and all the painters whose work she draws from.
“It’s like you are having a great conversation with Edouard Manet, Gerhardt Richter, Leon Golub, Philip Guston…. But unlike so many artists you are open about crediting them. I like this.”
“That’s such a nice thing to say,” she smiles.

One of her paintings, sadly not in the London show, We painted the women and children first (Gerhard Richter’s painting Dead) is a version of the well-known Richter work: a head, horizontal, a black slash across its white throat. Williamson’s however is less like a painted photograph and more like a painted painting. And with the addition of her title she repositions it – as a woman and feminist living in the world now. It is not a critique of the great German artist, but a riposte. He may have painted women, like so many other painters through the centuries, but what about saving them? There is a limit to art, Williamson seems to be saying. The use of the plural pronoun doesn’t let Williamson off the hook either. If there is culpability, she is the first to hold up her hand. There is an honesty at work here, which Williamson sums up by saying she doesn’t mind being “so open that she gets dirty.”
As a writer, I can’t help but comment on the titles of her paintings. They are like short stories, I tell her. It is as if the titles and the paintings function like twin spotlights illuminating the same subject only from different angles.
“You’ve given me goose bumps,” she laughs.
The titles from the works in this show only illustrate my point:
I made that same drawing too
They blamed the devil for everything
Study (living room)
 I could see everything
I thought I saw the whole universe (Scarlett Johansson in Versace)

Another piece that isn’t in this show has the intriguing title: We loved the world and the things in the world. It is a portrait of a young woman crying. The woman looks like Williamson but it might not be. I find it moving that the title is written in the past tense. The loss has already been felt. The world has gone. Is it about climate change, species disappearing or perhaps a woman simply getting older and losing parts of herself? Williamson says she wrote many of her titles in the past tense without being aware of it until well after the fact. “My intuition is smarter than other bits. But I’ve learned to combine them,” she says. “Art is equal parts intuition, craft and conceptual.”
I ask Williamson about how her paintings might function like sentences in a longer narrative.
“Not really a narrative,” she says. “I am more of a map-maker.”
Her paintings are dots on a map. They are not linear as in a conventional story, but exist simultaneously in space and time and yet are utterly distinct places, exactly like destinations on a map.
“My paintings are so helpful, they are like little arrows,” she says thoughtfully. And I know what she means. They point towards a life, a space, a place outside of themselves whilst simultaneously existing as immovable objects and documents of her hand and mind in the moment she made them.
She needs to get ready for the private view. We say goodbye and I walk around the gallery making notes. After a few minutes, Williamson reappears in her boots and a black dress.
“That dress is perfect,” I say.
Williamson smiles.
“It’s shiny like Scarlett’s,” I tell her. “You are wearing one of your paintings.”
She laughs and turns away to get ready for the night ahead. She is an artist who wears her work well.
Margaux Williamson is one of four artists, along with Fiona Banner, Mohamed Bourouissa and Victor Man, in Mirror, the Frith Street Gallery’s summer show in London.
Joanna Pocock is a Canadian writer living in London. She contributes film, literature and art reviews to various online magazines and writes fiction. This is her second piece for 3:AM. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

My Beloved Film Shop is gone...

The Experience Of Film: Death of the Film Shop

(A.K.A. selling off the proverbial bunnies)
film shop sign
The last sign, June 25, 2014 Photo courtesy of the Owner.
It’s hard to see the shelves with all of us in here drinking and reminiscing. But behind the bodies I can just make out the few remaining DVDs angling and slanting like teeth after the fist has been pulled out. The Film Shop on Broadway Market in East London has been punched in the face. It is dead. Those of us who worked here, along with a scattering of customers, are at the wake.
After a few drinks and a lot of encouragement, the Owner tells a story.
“You know that scene in Jean de Florette where Gerard Depardieu buys those bunnies in order to make his fortune?”
We nod. We know those bunnies.
“When I was setting up the shop and putting the DVDs on the shelves, I was thinking that they were my bunnies. I spent a year getting all these films together and I wanted them to go out into the world and multiply.” The Owner opens up his arms embracing the small shop floor.
“And now I am selling off my bunnies.”
We should have seen this coming. A DVD shop in 2014: It’s an oxymoron.
I am standing behind the counter where I have spent many hours of my life.  Sarah approaches to tell me how the shop saved her life. When her partner (who I remember well) died, The Film Shop was the one place she could come to rent a few hours of respite. And now that it’s gone, she is mourning once again. I tell her about the young woman who was missing her hometown of Buenos Aires. I had given her Gilda to watch and from then on, whenever her family or friends from Argentina came to visit, she would bring them in to meet me saying that I had got her through a London winter. Although it wasn’t me at all, it was the incandescence of Rita Hayworth that got her through the darkness. Sarah and I agree there is such a thing as film therapy. And the battered leather log in the middle of the shop is as good as Freud’s couch.
The Film Shop was not a shop, but an archive: the culmination of 25 years of the Owner’s love of film, his obsessive need to collect and his profound knowledge of cinema. He had films that you could not find anywhere else. Antonioni’sZabriskie Point for example was only legally available on DVD in the UK in 2009, but the Owner had a bootleg he would pass around. Same with Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and dozens of others. Some films took years to source. You just needed to mention an obscure film, and if he couldn’t find it, he would get the next best thing. For instance one customer was desperate to get Alain Tanner’sMessidor. The Owner searched high and low but it was not available anywhere. In its place he managed to get Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000. Requests would be answered with zero fanfare. Films would just magically appear.
When the shop first opened in 2004, my regular visits quickly morphed into getting a job. I was a film nerd, and here in the Shop, I could go public. I worked some of the day shifts, and the Owner and I did the Friday nights together. We would stick on Neil Young or Townes van Zandt or Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy depending on our moods. Drunks came in to get warm, cinephiles came in with requests like, “have you got any films with people falling off bridges?” (We gave them Vertigo.) Couples wanted ‘date films’ – the women making a beeline for the new Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Aniston releases while their boyfriends swallowed hard and said, “Um, yeah, I’m good with Armed and Fabulous”.
Most nights I would be asked, “What have you got that’s funny?” To which I would reply, “What was the last thing you watched that made you laugh?” I could usually work from there. Humour is not universal. People who were freshly dumped would go for the Judd Apatows and Vince Vaughn vehicles. I would steer them towards Hawks or Wilder or The Sweet Smell of Success or Double Indemnity. Something so completely brilliant that it would suck them in, releasing them temporarily from the pain in their heart. A bad film that tries to be funny cannot cheer anyone up. But a brilliant, sad film can.
Kids would sometimes run off with DVD cases not knowing they were empty. I remember one kid asking for anything violent. The Owner handed him a subtitled Japanese film. The boy didn’t like reading so why would he watch a film he needed to read, he challenged. The Owner sent him off with a subtitled Manga film and made a deal: if the kid liked it, he could pay for it. If he didn’t, he could bring it back free of charge. The kid came back, and paid. The Film Shop attracted people who lived on the periphery of society. People who were making films, composing music, writing novels, working on installations or simply drifting. You could rent three films for less than the price of a sandwich down the road.
film shop photo
The plastic lunch box that served as the Film Shop’s cash register. Over one million pounds passed through it in ten years. Photo courtesy of the Owner.

The attraction that the Film Shop held for people who had nowhere else to go was part of its fabric and its atmosphere. When acquaintances found out I worked there, I would often be told how they were too embarrassed to go in and hire the new Jane Austen adaptation for fear of not having high enough standards. One Friday night a couple came in wanting Brokeback Mountain for a relaxing night in. The Owner was reluctant to rent it to them because, in his view, it was too long, badly edited and relied too much on digital manipulation. It was not a film he approved of even though the completist in him had it on the shelves. He eventually capitulated. One woman I met in a park told me she felt intimidated because all the directors were alphabetical. That was somehow a step too far for her. Not to mention the ear-splitting electronica that would get cranked up to 11 when certain staff members didn’t like the look of a customer. Stepping into the Film Shop was a mix of spiky edginess and a warm embrace.
Despite the richness of the Film Shop as an experience, it ended up being collateral damage in the march of technology towards DVD obsolescence. The Owner held out against Netflix and the endless stream of content for ten years. But when you hear that on New Year’s Day 2004 the shop rented out close to 400 films, but on New Year’s Day 2014 rented out just over 40, you get a picture of what he was up against.
At the farewell party, there is a feeling of sadness and despair. The back catalogue has been sold off, given away, or kept by the Owner. The one positive note in this whole sorry tale is that the Film Shop in Stoke Newington took some of the stock and is still standing. When that goes, we’re truly stuffed. The loss of the Film Shop on Broadway Market however, feels symptomatic of something much greater: the neighbourhood is losing one of the last places holding out against the forces of luxury flats, estate agents and Bugaboos. No longer will anyone within walking distance be able to head out just before ten p.m. to pick up that obscure object of desire.  And don’t tell me it’s all fine because you can find Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore online, because you can’t.
The fact that the owner created a physical hub of intense dialogue around cinema meant that human interaction triumphed over a lazy acceptance of the corporate funnelling of content into our lives. This human element is being lost in favour of a private and individual consumption of material. Content has triumphed over context – the context here being one of brushing up against fellow human beings. Using the Film Shop didn’t involve a faceless algorithm: ‘if you liked that, then you might also like this.’ Knowledge, passion and humanity informed one’s choices.
The medium has absolutely become the message, and the message is that we all need our own personal cinema on our phones (because we’re all so busy and on the move, aren’t we). Why would we want to share our experience collectively anyway? Why go out and hire a film you’ve never heard of because the cute guy in the queue is talking about it, when you can download the latest HBO series without leaving your flat? Why experience the outside world and the mess, the challenge, the pleasure that comes with it when you can stream content chosen not by you or the cute guy in the queue, but by the marketing people at iTunes. Who needs to ever leave their house again? We have all become isolated islands consuming content for our individual pleasure. Great, isn’t it.
For anyone who hasn’t seen Jean de Florette: a drought kills off the bunnies and Jean, hit by a falling rock, dies.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Travel: Watch out for scorched tarmac

Joanna Pocock rode pillion through Europe's only semi-desert, the rugged terrain of the Mani in the Peloponnese

IT WAS 45C in the sun as we scrambled onto the bus heading into the centre of Athens and the driver, spotting the sweat on our faces, waved us on without waiting for us to excavate our fare. My boyfriend had just passed his motorbike test and, spotting a motorbike rental shop near Omonia square, we jumped off. We had decided to put his new passion into play by biking through the Mani, the only semi-desert in Europe. After several cautionary tales about kamikaze Greek truckers, crumbling roads, and lack of third party insurance, we remained undeterred and mounted our Yamaha 250cc Classic, leaving Athens in a cloud of smog.
Our first stop was Navplion, a fishing town 150km from Athens whose cobbled main street is described in the guide books as a "haven for Hellenophiles". What we saw were overpriced tavernas and shops selling keyrings. Going in the opposite direction towards the modern part of town, we discovered the "real" Navplion. Here we stumbled upon a simple taverna full of teenagers gearing up for the night, well-dressed couples and not a word of English anywhere. We tucked into our Greek salads dripping with olive oil, just one step away from olives on the tree, and some grilled lamb, and decided from now on to follow our noses instead of the guidebooks.
The next day we biked down the coast, towards Yithion, the gateway to the Mani. We had planned to stay just long enough to change some money, as there are no banks in the Inner Mani but unfortunately, our plans changed - on the road to Yithion we hit a piece of tarmac that had buckled in the heat, and we came off our motorbike. Although we were going slowly, we managed one sprained wrist and two scabby knees between us.
Luckily it all happened in front of the house of a woman who, seeing we were hurt, came to the rescue. After offering us coffee and fruit from her garden, she cleaned my knees and arranged for a mechanic to fix the bike. Once satisfied that we had eaten enough, and that the bike was in working order, she sent us on our way with hugs and kisses.
Arriving in Yithion that evening, bruised and bedraggled, we found a crumbling domatia with a turquoise balcony overlooking the port. We took advantage of our recuperation by getting to know Yithion and its backdrop of pastel buildings. We also got to know the ouzerias and tavernas along the port, decorated with octopus hanging to dry like white flags. It is impossible not to be enchanted by this town, which after all is where Paris consummated his love for Helen of Troy.
Once our injuries had healed we hopped on the bike and headed for the hills and the Mani beyond. We crossed the mountainous peninsula to Areopolis and then made our way down the western coast to Yerolimin. At last we were off the beaten track and into the land of unforgiving soil dotted with stone towers. These towers, many of which are now crumbling, were built as hide-outs from inter-family feuds, and stand as testimony to the independence of the Maniot people. When they were not fighting off foreign invaders, Maniot guns were pointed at each other in clan warfare passed from generation to generation. Proud of their descendancy from the Spartans, the Maniots have traditionally been considered fierce and inhospitable. Even Napoleon sought military advice from their chieftains. They also have a reputation for piracy, which is understandable as the land is almost totally barren. Before the building of roads they would have needed to supplement their diets and coffers with a bit of pillage. We never experienced any of this fierceness and were disarmed by the generosity of the people we met.
Once settled into our hotel, we wandered to a taverna run by a soft-spoken Greek who had lived for a time in Suffolk. After our meal he poured us more retsina to share with him while he told us his story. We couldn't quite make out why he had come to England but his wistful telling of it made me think it was something to do with lost love. Yerolimin's pebbled beach and rocky shores had given us a taste of the Deep Mani and although we could have stayed longer, our appetites had been whetted. We headed for what looked on the map like the end of the earth.
The village of Porto Kayio at the tip of the peninsula was our next destination. Leaving Yerolimin we got caught in a rainstorm and our motorbike, unhappy with the downpour, spluttered to a halt. We managed to jump-start it and in the pitch black, negotiated some of the wildest roads in the Mani. With only the narrowest strip of badly patched road between a drop into the sea on one side and the mountain face on the other we wound our way through the mountains to Porto Kayio. We arrived hungry and wet to be told that the only hotel was full up. We were at our wits end yet in retrospect it was a blessing as Porto Kayio's beach was littered with trailers which wasn't quite what we had in mind. We carried on, and just on the other side of Porto Kayio's bay was a village as close to heaven as we could have imagined This was to be our home for several days.
The sandy beach of Marmari forms a bay surrounded by mountains. A few steps uphill from the beach is a Maniot tower which has been turned into a hotel by the large, affable Yorgos. Days were spent here, swimming and going for walks in the hills. When hunger struck we would amble into Yorgos's kitchen to choose from clay dishes brimming with stuffed tomatoes and peppers, grilled fish, chicken stew and moussaka, all made with ingredients picked daily from the garden. Over our late-night meals we listened to the sea lapping below and watched the stars come out in huge clusters. We could barely tear ourselves away and in our flurry of emotional farewells, my boyfriend forgot his passport. A sure sign that we would return.
Heading up the eastern side of the peninsula the road still winds, offering the most breathtaking views. The Inner Mani felt like a dream and as we passed through it the rocky land was gradually replaced by cyprus trees and groves of flowers.
Between sea and mountains we found Kardhamili, in the Outer, more northerly part of the Mani, where lush scents waft down from the hills. Walking through the town one night we came across a square lit up with fairy lights. Here was a taverna serving food produced on the fertile land around us - okra, stewed spinach, green beans and butter beans, fried aubergines and courgettes, plus a variety of meat and fish. The only thing occupying our minds over dinner was how we could stay here forever.
Unfortunately, it was time for us to think about getting back to Athens. We decided Monemvasia would be our last stop. It was a bit of a detour - back down in the south-east - but well worth the effort. Monemvasia is a Byzantine town built on a rock jutting out of the sea and joined to the mainland by a narrow causeway, which we drove along at night. We left the bike at the town's entrance and stepped through the fortified wall and were dazzled by what lay before us. From the total darkness of the causeway, we emerged into a magical world of glistening cobblestones, cafes, bars and alleyways winding upwards, disappearing into the black sky. There is an otherworldliness to Monemvasia which feels as though it has stayed unchanged for centuries.
On one of many wanders through the town we came across a hidden swimming place. We climbed down the ladder leading from the rocks and jumped into the turquoise water. Floating on our backs we traced the walk we had done earlier in the day, up the gnarled streets to the church of Agia Sophia, at the top of the hill. Its roof is caving in and the frescoes are peeling from the walls but candles still burn and chairs are lined up, waiting for the women to make their way to mass. Around us in the water children were snorkelling, diving after octopus with three-pronged spears like little Poseidons. They shrieked with delight every time they caught one, and rushed back to the rocks where their mothers were sunning themselves. The sound of the children and the waves and the silence of the town and its ancient rock, as I floated in this octopus garden, felt a million years and miles from London. The call of the Mani is strong, and anyone who ventures through its rough terrain will find it hard to resist going back again and again.
Mani fact file
Bike hire
Manser SA Bike shop, 3rd Septemvrioy 126, Athens, 10434 (825 2640/881 1993) has a wide range of well-maintained bikes. We hired a Yamaha 250 for two weeks for Dr93,600. Ask for Paul who runs the place and speaks perfect English. He will go through the much needed ins and outs of biking in Greece. (For instance, he will tell you it is insane to bike on motorways, especially at night, and he is right. Also worth knowing: there is no third party insurance.)
The Capri Hotel, Psaromiligou, 6 Eleftherias Sq, Koumoundourou, Athens, 10553 (325 2091) is central, clean, no frills and cheap. It costs Dr7,000 per night, with en suite bathroom.
On the way to Yithion, in Plaka (near Leonidio) is the Hotel Dionysios which is beautiful and on the beach. Large en suite rooms cost Dr8,000 with a balcony overlooking the sea. It does not have a phone but ask in Leonidio and people will direct you.
There is plenty of accommodation in Yithion. On the main drag is a sign on a turquoise balcony saying Domatia-rooms for rent and the ramshackle house, where we stayed, is splendidly crumbling. Ask for the room with a balcony overlooking the port and you'll get a fine view of the sea and the Parnon mountains. Cost Dr6,000, no en suite bathrooms. Shared kitchen with refrigerator. Tel: Kontogiannis Grigoris (0733 22518).
"To Nisi" restaurant (1308 8830) serves wonderful fish. Meal cost Dr3,300.
The Yerolimin Hotel (733 54297), run by Theodorakis Georgios, is quite a large hotel, newly renovated but still characterful. Rooms with en suite bathroom and balcony, Dr6,000.
There is only one taverna that does grilled fish on the barbecue. Follow the smell. A meal for two with wine costs Dr3,000.
The Castle Hotel (0733 52101), Marmari bay, which is sited in a renovated Maniot tower, is heaven on earth. Dr9,000 for a room with en suite bathroom. The Taverna here is wonderful and overlooks the bay. Everything is fresh and the prices are very reasonable.
Alexandra Cook's hotel (0721 73679) has large, clean en suite rooms with refrigerator and balcony. It is off the main drag, up the mountain a bit and because of this, incredibly cheap. Dr5,000.
Epameinondas Georgio Linkourias (0721 73713) is one of the best places in Greece for vegetarian food. Price for two with wine, Dr3,200.
The Malvasia (0732 61323) has beautiful rooms with marble bathrooms and breathtaking views for Dr15,500, including a wonderful breakfast. The bar in this hotel is magical. There are no electric lights nearby so the stars and moon do the job.
For a cheaper hotel a short walk across the causeway, try the Hotel Aerogiali in Gefyra (0732 61360). Not much character but very clean room for two with en suite bathroom and tiny balcony Dr7,000.
I Matoula (0732 61660) is a magical place to eat,under lime and pomegranate trees lit with fairy lights. Fantastic, fresh food. Meal for two, Dr7,600.
All prices for meals are for two with starter, main course and copious amounts of wine. All room prices above are for doubles.

From the Independent on Sunday in 1998!

The place in the article where Jason left his passport is where we got married four years later. Who would have guessed.