How many gay men does it take to change an island?

James Davidson

I am sitting in the front row of a café on the harbour drinking a beer and eating an octopus. It’s late in the afternoon and there’s an air of expectation. Three women in slacks, fifty or sixty years old, are clutching their cameras, sitting next to me. I wonder if these are the friends of the woman who cleans the apartment for us, the ones she said she’d send here. I can’t remember if we got here early to get good seats or if we left the beach to save our skins and happened to be here by accident. It’s quite possible we’ve been sitting here for hours, reading.

There’s a fanfare and a short speech from the town square, a few hundred yards away. People clap a bit and whoop. We can see a small group leave the square and turn left towards us, preceded by two photographers walking backwards, whirring and clicking. It’s not long before the procession comes into view. ‘He’s very handsome,’ says B. of the almost naked man on horseback. ‘Do you think he’s a model?’ Behind him six young men from the beach are carrying an image of Iris the Rainbow. It has letters stuck onto it which read ‘Twelve Gods Party’. ‘Must be.’ All the members of the entourage have been chosen for their physique and walk behind the horse in swimming-trunks. As even decent bodies do out of context, they look a bit ridiculous. The French guy called Vincent is one of the chosen. He catches us watching and rolls his eyes heavenwards. The women next to us take photographs.

The man on horseback is Apollo, despite his black hair and physical overdevelopment. ‘What happened to the rest of them?’ I can hear myself saying. ‘There were only seven and only one of them was a “god”,’ but B. thinks it was good fun. ‘Did you see that French guy we met? He looked embarrassed.’ We hang around a bit longer in case something else happens, then make our way back to the apartment.

The ancient Greeks had beauty competitions for men. The winners danced in the first line of choruses or led processions. Even old men might be selected or deselected, depending on their looks. It was another part of the splendour that proclaimed a city’s superiority, especially at the international festivals, like the one at Delos: expensive gifts, the best poetry, the best singers, the most gold, the finest costumes, perfect dancers and a wealth of handsome faces drawn from the city’s gene-pool. B. is reading his beloved Beryl Bainbridge on the patio. I interrupt him to impart this interesting information. He says: ‘You’re like an open book.’

Next day the woman who cleans wants to know what the procession was like. I say I was disappointed. It was a man on a horse from an agency and six boys from the beach with a flag. She’s also disappointed. She’s from Derbyshire and introduced herself as ‘strong in th’ arm, thick in th’ head’, which I had to explain to B. She’s lived here for ages, and has a son who’s half-Greek, somewhere at university. Our description of the procession provokes an observation. ‘The Greeks,’ she says, ‘don’t know how to have a good time. No really, they’re very boring.’ I think back to a few Greeks I have known and see sometimes what she means, but one of them had to be the most beautiful (no really) man I ever met, and kind, the sort of man who would have been first choice to lead the chorus. He hated the Oxford climate and always said Japan with a stress on the first syllable.

We wonder which beach we are going to go to today. There turn out to be only three choices. Superparadise is the most extraordinary, a bay slung between two promontories. The sea is green, like a swimming-pool, which is a compliment for a stretch of open water, equivalent to saying a landscape is ‘picturesque’, or, as B. says, confusingly, ‘pinteresque’. The most peculiar thing about the beach is the feeling it has of an enormous outside room. More remote and spacious is Elea. On the other side of the island is Ayios Sostes, which I translate, hopefully, as ‘San Salvador’. There are several other beaches, of course, but gay people don’t go there much and we have disdained them.

The route to Superparadise runs past the runway. A little off the end of it you come to a turning and have to choose between right and left. Left will take you to the straight side of the beach and right to the gay. It used to be all gay, apparently, but by now the straight people have taken over about four-fifths of it, although there is a big overlapping area where there is some integration. Some gay people who have been coming here for years are disconsolate about this development and fear for the future. The road alternates mere track with pot-holed tarmac. Eventually, you see the sea, then the bay, then the beach and realise you are on one edge of a shallowly pouring valley, a strange valley littered with giant boulders which look like polystyrene painted.

Ten minutes after we get there I see someone walking down the beach towards us. He’s an air steward B. met the first night we arrived, with his friend who works in the City. They were on the same flight as us from Gatwick. B. says he noticed them in the waiting lounge because one of them had stuffed a huge bag of Ecstasy tablets very obviously, like frogspawn, in his underpants. Since drugs are illegal I’d better not give them their names, although that unnecessarily criminalises them. The one coming towards us now will be Muppet, because of the way he opens his mouth and leaves it open. His friend who is nowhere to be seen will have to be Tuppet because he’s interested in just one thing and, by all accounts, very successful at getting it.

Muppet, at any rate, is coming in our direction, but laughing so much at what he is going to tell us that he has to keep stopping to recover his balance. A group of Dutchmen in front of us look at him as if he were a lunatic. By the time he is sitting on our towels he needs a minute or two to get his breath back, still bursting with laughter, anticipating ours.

He was fast asleep but was woken at three in the morning. Tuppet was shaking him frantically. They had to go out to the washing line and remove their towels. He was ordered to go and fetch their mopeds off the road and find somewhere to hide them round the back. He fixes me now, with a suddenly serious, wide-eyed expression – ‘Come on! Come on! You don’t understand! It’s very important! Hurry!’ – before laughing again uncontainably and eventually resuming the narrative he was able to piece together.

His friend from the City had fallen in with some Italians. There may or may not have been an orgy but some kind of drugs were involved which gave Tuppet paranoid delusions. He had discovered a terrible secret. The Italians were mafiosi. Their bags were full of drugs and guns and now they knew he knew they were determined to get rid of him. The only chance of survival was to remove all traces of where they were staying, the mopeds on the road above the house, their distinctive towels from the balcony. He was sure he hadn’t told them which apartments they were renting.

Just as the story tails off, Tuppet himself appears, walking along the shoreline slowly, shielding his eyes. He could see from our faces we had heard about his fit of madness, but just as he was sitting down, he noticed the Italians. They waved, the three of them, from the back of the beach, nice boys, close to their mothers. Tuppet waved back and smiled without enthusiasm. Muppet rolled about laughing all over again, while his friend rolled his eyes. ‘Did you see the parade at the harbour, in the end?’ he asks, changing the subject. ‘It was a bit disappointing,’ I say. ‘It was a model on horseback and six boys from the beach,’ but B. interrupts me.

The Persians came here to Mykonos on at least one occasion, as Herodotus records, in 490 BC. They put in here after the Athenians had defeated them at Marathon. It’s impossible to re-create their mood but we can at least make a guess at it. It had not been a massive expedition for the Persians; that would come ten years later and end up even more badly, but it’s quite likely the defeat had, nevertheless, astonished them. Mykonos might have been the first stop they made after leaving Attica. Datis, their general, managed, at any rate, to sleep a little, for the first time, perhaps, in ages, putting aside thoughts of what had gone wrong and what would happen to him when the Great King found out, or rather, perhaps exhausted by them. What he dreamt, says Herodotus, no one knows, but the next day it had consequences. At dawn he ordered a search of every ship in the navy. A stolen statue was found in one of them, predictably a tricky Phoenician’s. It was of Apollo, not from Delos itself but from a temple to Apollo of Delos in the territory of Thebes. Datis asked the Delians to return the statue, but it took them twenty years to comply. The sacrilege was not quite a full explanation for the disaster – a god’s pleasure and displeasure must share the same economy, and the statue was not gold, but gilded – but it was a good opening gambit.

‘Paradise’ is a Persian word, meaning a ‘park’ or a ‘garden’, but it’s unlikely the Persians would have found anywhere on this island to utter it. Greece is rarely verdant and probably never has been. Arcadia was always more imagined than real. The Greeks knew this and looked enviously at the lusher landscapes of Italy and Turkey and wondered why on earth the Persians who possessed so many green paradises would be interested in their desultory patch. On the other hand, it also explained why the Persians failed. Paradise corrupts. And superparadises corrupt superbly.

It is the desolation of Mykonos that brings people here today. All that clarity, of beaches and seas, is simply a sign of barrenness. Its seas are like swimming-pools because they are uncontaminated by the dirty life of river-silts and seaweeds, just dead sand, water and light passing between them unhindered. I saw an old sign pointing beachwards to a place called Plynteria, which in modern Greek means ‘washing-machines’, and I imagine that for years washing clothes was all these paradise beaches were good for. Plynteria was also the name of a festival where they washed Athena’s clothes, woven with scenes of gigantomachy, and took the goddess herself paddling in the sea, to get rid of all the dirt that had accumulated from fat-smoky lamps burning religiously throughout the year. During this festival secret rites were performed, all the temples were closed, and nobody did anything, for fear of disaster. It was one of the gloomiest days of the whole year and it was on this day in history that Alcibiades finally returned to Athens after years in exile, sailing into the harbour with all the ships he had captured, music, musicians and poetry. Unfortunately, on this day Athena’s head was always covered. She could neither see nor hear a thing.

Most of what Mykonos meant to the ancient world comes from its desolation. It was a tombstone keeping a heavy lid on all the odds and sods of Giants that Hercules swept under it. This myth gave rise to a saying which is Mykonos’s chief claim to fame in antiquity, a saying useful in disarming a careless taxonomist: ‘all under one Mykonos’. I imagine it as one of that élite group of sayings which carry such a weight of world-won wisdom and unexceptionable truth that the briefest incantation stops argument dead in its tracks: ‘It’s a wise child’; ‘It’s an ill wind’; ‘It’s all under one Mykonos.’ I imagine sitting in on one of the dialogues Plato imagined and stumping his Socrates with my critique: ‘What you say is perfectly true, dear friend, but aren’t you putting “all under one Mykonos”?’ The others are silenced by my uncontainable wisdom, end of debate, much nodding then sighing and looking at watches, much wondering suddenly what to do next.

Halfway through the afternoon the mood turns suddenly sleazy. A Dutchman is being lotioned by his puppy-like boyfriend, fifteen or twenty years younger, right in the middle of the integration zone. They are both nude. The man’s penis starts rising and he moves to roll over but the boyfriend stops him and buries his face in his lap. A topless Greek woman keeps turning around to stare, trying to be silently indignant, but because they don’t notice, apparently merely intrigued. The man takes his time to push the mouth away while people are saying: ‘My god, look at that!’ I feel as if I ought to disapprove and in another context I would, appealing to the dignified rather than the efficient branch of morals. But this is a seal colony and I don’t bat an eyelid. The black of sex seems to emerge invisibly from the white of putting lotion on. An ambitious sophist or politician might say it was merely gradations of grey. But an ancient Greek who wasn’t a sophist would certainly have thought it outrageous since they thought mouths were clean or ought to be and any kind of oral sex the most debasing act. A character called Demochares went in for this apparently and was described as ‘a courtesan with the upper parts (ano meresi) of his body’. He scandalised the historian Timaeus of Taormina, who said he wasn’t fit to blow on the sacred flame. In turn, Timaeus scandalised the historian Polybius of Megalopolis by mentioning such dirt, sullying history with gossip and filth. It’s hard to say if it was Timaeus or his critic who came up with the strange circumlocution for ‘mouth’ and I wonder what a Persian’s response would be, inasmuch as they seem to have thought the cleanest mouth so dirty it would have nothing to lose. Or was it rather that they thought flames were so clean?

We have an appointment at nine to meet some friends from London who’ve just arrived in Mykonos, for a drink. Nine because that will give T. time to take the protease inhibitors, which have managed miraculously, after seven or more years, to purify his blood of all traces of the disease. His life had seemed securely bottled up. Now, suddenly, he finds himself with a luxurious future stretching out in front of him, not obvious like an island in an ocean, but patent like a plain. Aids seems to be receding. It never felt like a plague, more like a pressgang, quietly enrolling people you knew and imposing a secret discipline. And mostly they would look exactly the same, but sometimes they would be wounded in some clandestine operation and sometimes you’d suddenly notice that you hadn’t seen them for ages.

Conversation turns to the Twelve Gods Party. It’s an American thing, apparently. It lasts about ten days. It’s a bit of a wheeze for tour operators in league with resorts to raise the spirits and extend the season when summer is clearly petering out, but it also raises money for Aids charities. They have events, a few discos, a party at the water-park and then a night-long festival with a pageant which ends at dawn. There was a rumour this would have taken place on Delos itself, but they would never have got permission.

After dinner B. wants to go out. ‘Un poco de alegría,’ he says. This prompts me to repeat my line about how the Spaniards are obsessed with being lively because they are terrified of death, which is why he leaves cupboard doors open and never finishes books. ‘At least at your funeral no one will be able to say you haven’t lived.’ ‘And your funeral,’ he says, ‘will be months overdue, because it will take that long for anyone to notice.’ He thinks life has to be husbanded with generosity and the worst thing is to be mean. Cutting out coupons is positively ghoulish, like some kind of curse. To him Socrates’ deathbed request to sacrifice a cock to Asclepius makes all the sense in the world.

We go to the square where the gay bars are. It fills up at about midnight with a representative from every part of the gay diaspora, but especially Milanese. They always dress for the evening, often in black, and wear gold chains and rings. They seem to know exactly which yacht belongs to which designer. The enormous blue one is Valentino’s apparently and Thierry Mugler is also in town. And, thanks to a new genius designer, Gucci is the thing to wear once more. They seem so soft, these Italians, not effeminate exactly, but not exactly Roman conquerors either.

There are plenty of Dutch and Germans, many of whom have moustaches and look like Dying Gauls, the ones whose strangely sympathetic images once decorated Pergamum’s citadel and whose copies decorate the Vatican Museums. There are some modern Greeks from Athens huddling together in a corner. One of them has long wavy hair and is called Pan. There is another who now works in Germany and seems much more ebullient. We meet someone who gets annoyed when I ask if he’s Algerian after he’s said he’s from France. He says he has been coming here for years, though he seems too young to be seriously nostalgic. And a Danish friend of B.’s French ex-boyfriend, who works in Paris and lives in London because he refuses to fund Socialismus. He’s always smiling and handsome and having a good time and if you find yourself in the same place as him, you can be reasonably sure you’re more or less where you’re supposed to be. A lugubrious Slovenian software designer talks in perfect English of cruising London’s gay bars on the Internet and of Ab Fab. He enacts his favourite scene at ever-increasing volume, the clouds of melancholia evaporating as he approaches the punchline, until every one around us is staring. ‘It was the mouse!’ he shouts laughing uncontainably, ‘the mouse! The mouse!’ and then he’s suddenly lugubrious again.

The Slovenian is also nostalgic for some kind of lost island, although the island doesn’t seem lost to me. I saw a girl on the beach carrying a stone to weight down a huge piece of Indian cotton cloth. ‘This is my stone,’ she said to her girlfriend. ‘It’s the stone I found here ten years ago and I’ve used it every year since.’ She looks out over the beach and imagines using her stone to pin down a bigger piece of cloth that would cover the whole beach, purify it of straight people and turn the clock back twenty years. But these nostalgics are clearly not trying to recapture something. They come back to make sure their memories are in no danger of being surpassed. I don’t understand this attachment, but I have to acknowledge what I am repeatedly told: that for many gay people this barren island has great symbolic value and Delos is merely a foggy destination they once had thoughts of going to, but never have. Some of them get quite aggressive when I suggest they should.

Mykonos is where a lot of people found themselves for the first time, although some of them had to come back more than once to make sure. One of my friends used to come here when he was supposed to be straight. He would wait until his straight friends had gone somewhere else, then make his way to the gay beach. He would wander off onto the rocks and wait for someone to follow him and then he would conspicuously do nothing at all, to prove something to himself.

There is something about gay people and islands, although Fire Island, an island off an island, is the only one you could call unequivocally gay. In Manhattan I saw a graffito which suggested putting all the faggots on an island. There was an obvious subscription which someone couldn’t resist: ‘They did, honey, you’re on it.’ The father of one friend wanted to put all people with Aids on an island. I think he suggested the Isle of Wight. What would happen to them there was left to the imagination. I doubt they would have been well looked after and it made his son hesitate for longer before coming out. When he did, his father was splendid. He became an instant ‘liberal’ in this particular region of attitudes. The lesson you might draw is that the most evil prejudices may be casually held, which I think is true, but you also wonder what would have happened if his son hadn’t said anything, whether, had someone started to put all the people with Aids on an island, he would have tried to find out what was happening to them and whether, having found out, he would have cared. Jehovah’s Witnesses, too, were rounded up in Nazi Germany and suffered as much as us. I don’t know any Jehovah’s Witnesses and I wonder, if it was just Jehovah’s Witnesses, how much fuss, exactly, I would have made.

We’re leaving tomorrow, thank goodness, after two long weeks. My achievements are getting brown without sunburn, completing seven novels, about half of which were gripping, one excellent and some others pretty good, and not getting knocked off my moped. Now we’re on a late bus to Mykonos’s Hard Rock Café, where there’s to be the climactic party. Tuppet is flirting with a sleazy Greek of about forty he couldn’t possibly be interested in, while Muppet is telling him to watch himself and asking where we’ve been. The tickets cost a fortune, but I’m feeling much more lively now after two weeks of mindlessness and have to interrupt B.’s attempts to persuade me. I am pleased to note that having gone out every night but one since we arrived here, he is completely exhausted, which is another achievement as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have great expectations about the pageant, but this time, I’ve been told, there will be a full complement of Olympians on display.

The Hard Rock Café has gingham tablecloths, a swimming pool and a flashy old American car. I imagine the hamburgers are quite good. It looks like the kind of company where executives talk about standards and branding, but it’s in the middle of nowhere and away from the spectacular beaches and outside the astonishing town, Mykonos doesn’t look like a place so much as a geological deposit. The music isn’t bad at all and I think dancing in the open air when it’s warm is a wonderful experience. We get separated immediately. Muppet says he’s had enough of pills and reaches into his pocket to pull out the far-travelled drug bag, a largish plastic sachet, as dusty as a cereal packet with one cornflake left in the bottom. He thrusts it in my direction and walks off in disgust. It falls on the floor and I wonder if I should pick it up again. Drugs can be dangerous – a single Ecstasy tablet, apparently, can kill you (and cannabis can lead to indolence) – but they can also be perfectly harmless, it seems. You might have the best time you’ve ever had in your entire life, or you might, just possibly, die. Absolute prohibitions are irresponsible as soon as they are no longer generally obeyed. They put people on an island without teaching them about winds and currents and how to swim, which is fine until they find their way to the beaches where other people are paddling and swimming and sailing and seem to be having fun. Then they have to discover the hard way the difference between paddling and being all at sea.

An extraordinary looking man beckons me over. He’s an Israeli from London. We fall into conversation and I ask him where he’s from. ‘Look at me,’ he says. ‘I’m smoking and drinking like second nature and enjoying myself tremendously. And I just broke up with my boyfriend because he drank and wouldn’t stop smoking. If he could see me now, he would kill me. But what can you do? It’s this island. Being on holiday it’s impossible to follow rules.’ I think back to Delos again, which had a synagogue, close to where the Samaritans had their association and honoured the holy mountain Garizim. The Samaritans didn’t like Jews but away on Delos discovered a certain neighbourliness. The Jewish god is known by his epithet Hypsistos, ‘the highest’. On Delos, Zeus who had bagged a much higher site on Mt Cynthus, disputed this claim and used the epithet himself. This is a god who has some kind of identity at least with the one Christians worship, but on Delos is just another god alongside all the others. He didn’t seem to mind.

Later, I meet a poisonous creature from New Jersey who is great fun and suggests I go and have my photograph taken for the commemorative beefcake calendar which is happening behind the flashy motor-car. ‘I’m not beefcake, unfortunately. Do you think I could keep my shirt on?’ ‘Oh God!’ he says. ‘Don’t they have gyms in Europe. B - S - E.’ He has the low-down on all the Americans who have made the trip and tells me the personal history of four or five of them, all the delusions they have about themselves and how they behave with their boyfriends. He sees one of them approaching the photographer and calls out, ‘No... No ... No ... No ... No!’ at ever-increasing volume, until the man hears something against the beat of the music and turns towards him and smiles. His favourite word is ‘class’ – that is, boys who have it and boys who don’t.

B. meanwhile has asked a famous prostitute from London for a light. Unusually, he is very handsome and has an image of a handsome beauty tattooed distractingly on his chest. He seems very nice and not to be lacking in dignity. Finally, there is a kind of synthesiser fanfare and the roof of the bar is lit up. Muppet has found us again and wants to know when we plan on leaving. I insist on staying until dawn. Tuppet is nowhere to be seen.

At the heart of the festival on Delos were certain secret rites. In particular there was a ‘Crane dance’ to commemorate Theseus’s rescue from the Minotaur and a tree-biting ceremony which sounds like Leto’s state of mind giving birth when she finally went into labour. And at a certain point mysterious presents arrived, conveyed, it was said, all the way from the land ‘beyond the North Wind’, from the Hyperboreans, a happy divine people whom Apollo loved to winter among, which must mean Scandinavia or Siberia or Derbyshire. These gifts were passed among the Scythian tribes, who lived in eastern Europe and then went west to the Adriatic. From there they came to Dodona in northern Greece and passed to the Aegean along the mainland’s eastern flank. Originally the relay avoided Athens altogether, but at some point the Athenians imposed themselves in this game of pass-the-parcel and from then on it went through Attica also. At Delos finally the music stopped and the far-travelled gifts were received with due reverence.

Originally, the Hyperboreans had sent girls to convey these presents, but they liked Delos so much they stayed and were buried there. After that the Hyperboreans didn’t want to lose any more of their people to sunnier climes and wrapped their gifts in wheat straw and handed them into oblivion over the border. God knows what the Delians discovered inside. Perhaps it was something extraordinary. More probably, knowing Mystery Religions, it was something unspeakably banal.

A woman stands up on the dancefloor and makes a speech. She talks about where the money is going and announces the gods one by one. As she reads out their names they are illuminated on the roof, models or actors in Grecian costumes, although Hera and Poseidon look like the committee’s friends. Apollo is saved until last. It might or might not be the same guy we saw in the harbour on a horse a week ago, but he is certainly splendid and they all look larger than lifesize. The roof is quite invisible now and lasers play over the divinities. You might be forgiven for thinking they were suspended in mid-air. The woman tells us about Apollo and how he loved Hyacinthus, but liked girls as well. The guy from New Jersey starts making discreet gagging noises, but I imagine when the show plays in Aids awareness nights in Athens where gay people are all bisexual, that’s quite an important point to make. There follows a rendition on synthesisers of an ancient hymn to Apollo reconstituted from a score discovered at Delphi. Then the lights go out and Janet Jackson starts playing again.

I wonder if Apollo would have enjoyed this night-festival. There were no sacrifices, but plenty of accidental libations, albeit of beer, and he would certainly have felt nostalgic about the music and the dancing and the life.

The wind is blowing here, too, but more mildly now and refreshingly. When it blows through the bar and across the dancefloor, cigarettes glow more brightly. I light one in a quiet place and let it burn without contaminating it by breathing on it, for the god the Persians found on Delos, a fire fanned by the clean-mouthed wind. It burns down like a cartoon stick of dynamite. I hold it to my ear. It gives off a little heat and it sounds like sand.

Dawn comes and is worth waiting for, the whole island lying open around us, six or seven of us still dancing. Muppet and Tuppet and B. are lined up with arms folded against a wall and waiting to take a taxi home. I feel as if I’ve achieved one thing more. The first plane of the morning swoops down and I know I’ll be leaving this very day.

On the plane I see large numbers of people I saw on the plane that brought us here, but haven’t seen since and I think of all those other bars that outnumbered the gay ones by something like ten to one and those other beaches we never visited, and wonder how many gay men it takes to change an island. It shouldn’t be too difficult to come up with a correct answer, plus or minus a margin of error. You could persuade holidaymakers to fill out a questionnaire before they turn in each night – Would you say you have had a gay day? Very, Not very, Quite, Hardly at all – or with more investment equip them with remote controls with panic buttons to press whenever they felt the island was coming over all queer. Meanwhile you could hold a gay cruise-ship in the harbour and release its passengers one by one, tabulating the results of each incursion. Alternatively you could have teams of homosexuals, walking around the resort and coming out of the closet, according to a precisely calibrated system, step by step. A slight mince or a cravat, an over-tight T-shirt, over-white jeans, an over-cropped hairstyle, a full moustache, a hyperbolic reaction to a display in a shop window, a discreet holding of hands, a T-shirt with slogans, a tiara, a full snog. The research could be subsidised by the Ministry for Tourism. I will anticipate their conclusions. Gay people, becoming gay, have a particular valency, with only a very loose relationship to numbers on the ground. I bet only ten or twelve brilliant homosexuals at a peak of conspicuity could make the reputation of a medium-sized town.

Most of the people who fill the gay bars on Mykonos will be back in the closet once they’re home, giving homosexuality a massively inflated value, whenever and wherever it appears. We must be at least as common as Germans. Maybe only Indians and Chinese are commoner, but thanks to a thousand little gestures of discretion we have a capacity to make a spectacle, statemented, temporary stars. There are millions and millions of us, but we still manage to stand out, amazingly, in a crowd. Stardom can be burdensome. ‘It would be nice if America was just another country,’ my Californian friend, Tomás, once said, ‘do you know what I mean?’ I didn’t at the time, but now sometimes I understand perfectly.