Books on Ibiza
Book review by Martin Davies, October 2017
Stephen Armstrong, The White Island: Two Thousand Years of Pleasure
Transworld Publishing, 2004; Corgi, 2005. 299 pp.
Penguin edition subtitle: The Colourful History of the Original Fantasy Island, Ibiza
Also presented (subtitle) in publicity: The Extraordinary History of the Mediterranean's Capital of Hedonism
A Brilliant Whitewash
The Author, Stephen Armstrong
Photograph Copyright © Britta Jaschinski
The ideal travelogue brings together erudition and entertainment in perfect balance, and few would deny that Stephen Armstrong achieves something very close to this in The White Island: packed with fascinating historical and biographical details, his amusing odyssey into the heart of the Balearic pleasure-dome stands somewhere between Bunyan and Bryson: didactic but witty, serious yet self-deprecating. If the author's scholarship is second-hand - no footnotes or bibliography - few readers care, or so it is assumed. We're dealing with Ibiza, after all. Armstrong appears to have bridged, more or less, the formidable gulf separating soulless clubbing from equally mindless scholasticism. For too long quick-witted foreigners have been cold-shouldered by Eivissa's encyclopaedists (the Hispanic-Catalan standoff hardly helps). At last we have some up-to-date information in a text that is accessible and easy to digest. So far, so good.
The speed with which Armstrong and his publisher brought their Pityusan project to fruition is impressive, but they have paid a high price for those of us who call Ibiza home, and also for anyone interested in the island's unique culture. Over the past twenty-five years hundreds of books on the island's history have been published by local investigators, but without exception they are all in Catalan, in accordance with the tyrannical reign of political correctness. This presents an insurmountable obstacle for linguistically challenged Anglos, who find themselves relying on non-Ibicenco sources of varying quality. Let us begin our review with the book's subtitle, 'Two thousand years of pleasure', repeated like a holy mantra throughout its pages. Historians are increasingly sensitive to the pitfalls of presentism (backdating fashionable notions to distant eras), and in this subtitle the author grandstands one of post-Modernism's most cherished sacred cows, hedonism (dragging in a dodgy Punic theology to back it up). Let us be specific: there is no evidence, not the slightest shred, that partying and promiscuity were ever on Ibiza's agenda until half a century ago. As recently as the 1950s islanders were deeply shocked by the perceived carnality of visitors, as Neville Braybrooke reports when an American woman in Santa Eulalia was stoned for wearing trousers in 1954. (There are similar stories about holidaymakers in shorts.) The deep piety and morality of Ibicencos in the past is never mentioned anywhere in The White Island. It would have undermined the principal theme, so it is swept under the carpet.
Making pleasure the key to understanding Carthaginian Iboshim and Roman Ebusus (or indeed any historical period) betrays a poor sense of the island's economic, social and religious continuum. Not one source in the ancient era points to a sensuous or voluptuous reputation (Diodorus Siculus mentions its cosmopolitanism in the first century BC, but that's it), and during the Dark Ages life on the forgotten backwater (absent from any known text) is likely to have been 'brutish and short', to cite Bunyan's contemporary, Hobbes. One school of archaeological thought even believes the island to have been completely uninhabited. Arabs settled long after their conquest of the Iberian mainland, and in 1235 Catalan warlords had difficulty persuading Aragonese farmers to relocate to the perilous frontier. Pitiless slavers from the Barbary Coast made life a gamble here for generations, while between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries Ibiza was itself an important clearing-house for captives from North Africa, Sardinia, Greece and further afield (above all the Black Sea). Those who stayed and put down roots might have wondered where the non-stop fiesta was taking place, as they felled forests, carved out terraces, dug wells, burnt charcoal, fired lime, planted endless orchards, and dredged a livelihood from the sea and land. From the nineteenth to early twentieth centuries emigration to Latin America and North Africa was the preferred choice for Ibiza's and Formentera's younger sons. In short, the wild, uncontrolled nightlife beloved of modern journalists and commentators was absent, historically speaking, until about five minutes ago.
This error is not altogether Armstrong's. Pleasure seeking, it is inferred, goes hand-in-hand with extraordinary religious tolerance, and his sole source for this in medieval and early modern Ibiza is the late Gloria Mound, who has misled many others. Jews on Ibiza never received special treatment - on the contrary, they were brutally persecuted in 1391, as on Majorca. The notion of vast hordes fleeing to a paradisiacal hideaway from the smouldering juderías of Castile and Aragon is nothing but a pseudo-historical fantasy, unsupported by a single archival, archaeological or onomastic survival. The tiny Jewish community of Ibiza Town (unlike that in Palma) amounted to a few dozen in its fourteenth-century heyday, and the so-called Dalt Vila 'synagogue' would have been no more than a private room in somebody's house. There was never a secret Jewish temple under the convent of the Augustine nuns in Dalt Vila, nor anywhere else in the Pityusan archipelago. The Catholic populace would not have countenanced it, any more than their counterparts on the Spanish mainland (northern Portugal and Palma de Mallorca are a different story). But cultural tolerance represents, or did in 2004, a modern shibboleth (alongside its dark twin, 'zero tolerance'), and linking it with Europe's clubbing capital was irresistible to Armstrong.
Mythmaking, mankind's stalwart companion wherever it sets up shop, is still the name of the game, and The White Island lends authority to the latest Ibizan legend, one with sinister repercussions for our formerly tranquil shores. Brimming over with facts, the author serves up a pseudo-historical validation for electronic dance music. He enters into a quasi-Pauline 'trance' as he grooves away at Space to show that he, too, is a signed-up member of the global music scene. House, techno and rave culture have far more to do with percussion than music, but that's become a 'technicality'. Since 2012 Ibiza has been hosting its very own International Music Summit for the industry elite, and no one bats an eyelid. Does anyone among its endless panels and 'keynote' speakers (lexical irony) play an instrument or even sing? As a hobby, perhaps?
The miraculously deaf Eivissencs, of course, soak up the noise quite happily - which is why the percussion merchants have been flocking south in droves for the past thirty years. The über-tolerant natives of Ibiza can absorb epic quantities of pounding night on night, month after month, year through year - and decade following decade. They adore those Italo, East End, Eurotrash DJs pulverising their eardrums, brains and neighbourhoods into oblivion throughout siesta hours with full-volume practice runs, doors and windows flung wide open. The summer night soundtrack for the picturesque campo, from Porroig to Portinatx, is enhanced by drugged-out ravers as they boom away in rented villas (how they love the word!). Nobody, apparently, cares in the slightest.
The myth of the indulgent Ibicenco is a coat of brilliant whitewash, concealing the destruction (environmental, spiritual) and prolonged anguish wrought by clubbing moguls, jetsetting DJs, and barbaric hordes lured to the island by cheap airfares, exotic chemicals and
the prospect of wild, unlimited sex. A diabolical crew bent on annihilating the timeless beauty of a special Mediterranean hideaway, formerly the haunt of nightingales, poets and painters. Payeses and bohemians alike look with both fondness and quiet desperation at the days prior to car-sized amplifiers, something you would never glean from glossy Sunday supplements or Armstrong's 'history'. The only figure to lambast the acoustic gangsters, ironically, is the founder of the Pacha empire himself, Ricardo Urgell, who in a 2011 interview described the clubbing scene thus: "it's monotonous sound and volume; it's bodies squeezed together, it's a little masochistic. The great defect of this music is that it has to be accompanied by drugs. I took Ecstasy just one time in my life and found that out for myself" His brother, Piti Urgell remarked even more pointedly in March 2013: "Electronic music hasn't evolved in 20 years and is for idiots" ('Trouble stalking night-life paradise,' The New York Times, 7 April 2013)
In Vida de Laurean Barrau (1960), Berta Vallier, widow of the leading Catalan painter who fell in love with Ibiza in 1912, had this to say about her husband's lifelong fascination with the island: "The mother-of-pearl island had completely bewitched him with its beauty, its silver light, the sacred peace of its environment, the multiple subjects for his paintings and the ease with which he could find his models." Where now, that sacred peace?
Stephen Armstrong devotes several paragraph to Barrau - as well as other artists such as Rigoberto Soler, Joaquín Sorolla, Elmyr de Hory and Narcís Puget (Ibiza's most famous native painter, an effect spoilt by spelling him 'Buget', even in the index. Don't miss Dalt Vila's wonderful Museu Puget, inaugurated three years after Armstrong's book). Misspellings apart, The White Island pretty much nails the artistic, bohemian and beat era blow-ins, leaving this reviewer scratching his head about such juicy information. Raoul Hausmann is a case in point - until I recalled a brilliant chapter by art historian Bartomeu Marí, 'Art Will Be Active', in Raoul Hausmann, architecte - architect, Ibiza 1933-1936 (1990). Marí was head of Barcelona's Museum of Contemporary Art until moving to South Korea to direct Seoul's National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. He was born and raised in Ibiza's very own San José (where Hausmann went to ground) and was thus in a perfect position to interview the rare eye-witnesses of Hausmann's stay. For four pages (157-161) Armstrong reproduces, practically word for word, his remarkable findings. How exactly does the Englishman credit this fine Ibicenco scholar - whose article was happily published in Armstrong's language? He doesn't. Does Marí know? Or his publisher, the eminent architect Philippe Rotthier?
One unwitting contributor to The White Island, the late Peter Kinsley (b. 1934), was so upset by Armstrong's plagiarism of his memoir, Bogged Down in County Lyric (2002), that he lodged an official complaint for copyright infringement with the Society of Authors in leafy South Kensington. The Society wrote on Kinsley's behalf to Armstrong's publisher, a sub-division of global giant Random House/Bertelsmann, who airily rejected the claim. The English novelist and memoirist was just a penniless hack, well into retirement and incapable of hiring the legal muscle to assault one of the world's largest media groups. Book pirates have always known that plagiarism is easy, and that it pays.
Armstrong's recycling of Kinsley's material is one of the highpoints of his book: six pages on Stephen Seley (220-226), a failed alcoholic writer who made Ibiza his home from 1956 until his death in 1982. Kinsley is mentioned on p. 221 where three sentences are quoted but Bogged Down is nowhere cited. Kinsley was desperate for publicity to move copies of his four-volume memoir, brought out at great personal expense. The tome on Ibiza is one of the finest sources for expat life on the island in the 1960s, and it wouldn't have hurt Armstrong to give a small plug to such a rich lode of original material (traced through an article by the present writer on ibizahistoryculture.com - again uncited)
This parsimonious attitude to sources is unnecessary. Why should Armstrong fail to mention liveibiza.com (now renamed ibizahistoryculture.com), the extraordinary online resource from which he lifted material by, among others, Ibizan historian Emily Kaufman? She published ninety-three first-rate articles on Ibizan history just as Armstrong was researching The White Island. He mined this treasure trove shamelessly, even reproducing accidental errors lifting huge chunks of prose. But he does not mention the website. Emily receives a citation in the Acknowledgements as the author of The History Buff's Guide to Ibiza (2000, 2nd ed. 2008), but that book ends with the Catalan conquest of 1235, whereas the Ibiza History Culture pieces cover Ibizan history afterwards, the articles copied/recycled in The White Island. My own contributions to ibizahistoryculture.com, twenty-one articles uploaded between March and November 2002, were also plundered. Armstrong failed to mention this vital source, only my photographic anthology, Eivissa-Ibiza: A Hundred Years of Light and Shade (2000).
What a shame. The White Island is an amusing, interesting book, once its sweeping assertions and assumptions are put aside, or taken with a mule-cart of salt. I learnt quite a bit once I'd braced myself to read it. But I also found myself wondering, time and again, where the facts came from, whether this or that juicy detail was as fanciful as his detailed coverage of the Jewish (non-) history. When an author relies heavily on other sources, some excellent, others execrable, citations are important. Most readers don't care, but an influential minority - pedants, scholars, bibliomaniacs, book reviewers - do. The best investigators for this subject live on Ibiza, not in London, Surbiton or Bognor Regis, and they are familiar with Spanish, Catalan, and Ibizan history. The principal of peer reviewing is at stake here. Armstrong has 'got away' with this sleight-of-hand because not a single Ibicenco, as far as I know, is even aware of his book!
A final word about spellings: history depends on facts, and names need to be ironed out, checked, double-checked. It's why copy-editors in large multinationals draw large salaries. The level of fact checking in this book is appalling. Even the President of the Consell Insular is misspelt Bere Palau (Pere, corrected for the paperback). Buget (Puget), Ibiza's greatest painter, has already been mentioned, but there are others: the main thoroughfare in Ibiza Town is spelt Avenida Espagna (instead of España; Spagna is an Italian spelling, and the ridiculous hybrid crops up three times), San Augustí, portmanteauing Augustine (English), San Agustín (Spanish) and Sant Agustí (Catalan), carbon (instead of charcoal), Adolf Schoulten (Schulten), Otto Skorenzy (Skorzeny), Berchtold (Bechtold), Cala D'Hort (d'Hort). Perhaps the most amusing error is Can Misses, the main hospital on Ibiza, which appears as Cannes Nisto. Has the patient (the singer Nico) been whisked off to Provence? Proper editing would have amended most of these linguistic and factual absurdities. But big-name publishers in the United Kingdom evidently employ nobody remotely conversant in Spanish, German, or Catalan. Even an elementary knowledge of one of these languages would have prevented such an appalling clanger as 'Avenida Espagna'. These might seem unimportant to an English reader, but on Ibiza they leap out of the page. It's as if England were spelt 'Ingaland', Liverpool 'Liverpoul' or Toni Blair 'Doni Blair'. Cala d'Hort is among Europe's most famous beaches, appearing on endless maps and road signs. Get it right, Stephen!
Dates are better, apart from a few minor slips: Errol Flynn was on Ibiza in 1956 and 1957, not 1953 and 1954 (an error carried over into Ibiza Bohemia), and Formentera was resettled in 1695, at the very far end of "the 1600". A simple glance at an online history page (Spanish Wikipedia?) would have settled this key date. The Elmyr de Hory section also needs revising, since the background of the Hungarian forger has now come to light thanks to remarkable sleuthing in Budapest. Little of what the slippery socialite told Clifford Irving about his glamorous family was true. The real story kept out of Fake!, is more poignant than the snobbish boasting which concealed Elmyr's humble Jewish roots.
Nit-picking is not my speciality, so let's leave it there. The White Island is flawed but brilliantly penned, and I take off my hat to its talented author. Perhaps a future edition will consider a few of the points outlined here - let us hope so. Armstrong is smart enough to know that 'tough' love is the only kind. And we are crazy about Ibiza, all of us - let there be no mistake about that.
Paperback Edition Published Black
Swan 26th July 2005
Published 31st January 2012