Back in June, I returned to the Greek island of Symi to take part in ITV1’s cheekily-named documentary about women who’ve made major changes in their lives following holiday romances. I fit that bill very nicely, of course, having married George after meeting him on a two-week summer holiday in Symi, way back in the late 1980s. Like many other women, I was a Shirley Valentine – and even though my marriage, sadly, didn’t work out, I’ve no regrets at all over what turned out to be a life-changing experience.
It’s not quite true that I married the waiter – George was a fisherman in winter and ran a taxi-boat service in summer. But what is true is that I swapped business suits and a BMW for a very different life with few mod cons in a place that’s still only accessible by sea. I learned to speak Greek, and I learned to fish. And I learned to cook the fabulous fresh food so readily available in Greece – from markets, hawked from the backs of trucks, or in our case from our own garden. I’ve always been a keen cook, and this autumn I’m running a cookery class – Cooking the Books – to teach others to make some of the dishes my mother-in-law taught me, using those unique spices and seasonings which make Greek island food so deliciously memorable.
When I left Greece several years later, it was with huge regret. I had a small child in tow and the daunting prospect of life as a single parent. It was a watershed for me, an unwanted fresh start, so having always had ambitions to write, it seemed as good a time as any – in between working part-time jobs to keep my son and I fed and clothed – to knuckle down and try and produce something publishable. Inspired by my Greek island life, I wrote The Messenger of Athens, a dark mystery with a sprinkling of myth and magic which has a fictionalised Symi as its setting. The Messenger of the title was the enigmatic Hermes Diaktoros, a mysterious and shadowy figure who arrives in Symi – renamed Thiminos – to investigate the death of a young housewife.
Hermes and I got our lucky break when the book was picked up by Bloomsbury, and I got even luckier when it was nominated for two national prizes, the Desmond Elliott Prize for Sparkling New Fiction and ITV3’s Crime Thriller Awards. Readers loved Hermes’s quirkiness, his white tennis shoes and his gourmet tastes, and Bloomsbury bought a further six novels, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins, all featuring Hermes in the starring role.
I’ve been back to Symi many times since I decided a full-time life there wasn’t for me. I have many good friends there – my one-time next-door-neighbour, Jean, features in the documentary, and George and I still have great affection for one another. Look out in the documentary for places featured in The Messenger of Athens – the boatyard where Irini goes walking, maybe a shot of the police station where Hermes first encounters the Chief of Police. And enjoy the scenery – Symi is a very beautiful island, and I know seeing it on the screen will make me want to jump straight on a plane.
When I set off on my Shirley Valentine adventure, I had no idea what the future held, but those years changed my life very much for the better. Sometimes, it really pays to take a risk, and I’d do it all again tomorrow, given the chance.
Author of the Mysteries of the Greek Detective, books with a touch of mythology set in almost-contemporary Greece, and featuring lots of fabulous Greek food.
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