I have driven a few kilometres to the inelegantly named Golf del Sur this morning, with the intention of walking to the adjacent village of Los Abrigos. There, the plan is to sit at a table outside my favourite café (I can’t tell you its name – I’m not even sure it has one) and write, while enjoying a coffee and croissant. Though I knew I wanted to write, it wasn’t until I got into the car that the subject descended on me: Dallas. Not the city, you understand, but the TV programme that started in the1970s.
I find a parking space behind the imposing, Hotel Vincci that stands at the very eastern corner of ‘the Golf,’ its rooms staring out proudly East, South and West over the sparking AtlanticOcean. Tenerife lies just 40 North of the Tropic of Cancer and 300km from the African Coast. Except at the height of its very hot summers, the climate is like perpetual spring.
I take the steps down from the hotel to the boardwalk that follows the shoreline for a kilometre or so, dipping down to the level of the sea then rising back up as you approach the fishing village of Los Abrigos. The boardwalk was only finished in 2020. Before that the intrepid would scramble over the rocks and up steep slopes in pursuit of a fish supper at one of the many restaurants that line the promenade down to the harbour. At the tables of the most desirable of them, you can sit and look directly out into the sunset while the chefs cook your choice from the chilled cabinet. It’s all today’s catch - the fishing boats bobbing up and down in front of you in the harbour are a perpetual reminder. And yes, we did it many times before I forsook meat in 2017- though we mostly drove to the village in preference to the somewhat hazardous scramble over the rocks.
The 350 episodes of Dallas were screened in the UK for thirteen years from 1978 onwards. To sit in front of it was an act of family worship orchestrated by my father. Speaking or even shuffling was sacrilege to rival talking in church. No disturbance was permitted as he released his inner JR Ewing, an ethereal Stetson always on the point of materialising just above his head. The rest of us found it a bit of a giggle, truth to tell. Only later did I come to realise what a role model JR had been for him. How much the power wielded by such a man appealed to those who found their powerlessness emasculating.
Thirty years before that, it was Paul Henreid who lit two cigarettes simultaneously in the movie Now Voyager, passing one to Betty Davis who hesitated but for a moment before acknowledging traditional female acquiescence in accepting it. Everyone tried to do it after that. All the men wanted to be as effortlessly self-assured around women as Paul was. Plenty came close to self-immolation in the fumbled pursuit of imaged power. Ten years after that, young men stood in front of mirrors, their black-dyed hair slicked back with industrial quantities of Brylcreem, desperately trying to achieve that elusive Elvis quiff, as they snarled at their images in doomed attempts to become more admirable.
Crossing a little wooden bridge at sea level, I happen upon an enterprising and somewhat elderly Spanish lady who is crocheting babies’ bootees in the sunshine. Ten pairs or so are lined up on the ground in front of her. I ask permission to take her picture and in doing so notice the crutches propped up on the back of her chair. Her body may be failing but her spirit is indomitable. She crochets to make her life better – from a little more cash and a considerable amount of self esteem that emanates from doing something useful. And she does it to create joy. Her slippers will light up the face of a passing child. An indulgent mum or dad will hand over €10 and smile as they makes their baby happy.
Round about the time my father was dreaming of an invitation to the Oil Barons’ ball, I was preoccupied with converting the undergraduate population of Oxford University to my preferred and very charismatic interpretation of Christianity. I was more than surprised when my close and similarly minded friend Chris disclosed a secret admiration for Kojak. This blunt-talking New York detective managed to rack up a mere 118 episodes from 1973 to 1978, beating up bad guys but never quite beating his smoking addiction with his trademark lollipop-sucking. Chris never went as far as shaving his head but the attraction to the dominant male role was undeniable even for one whose prime outcome was to emulate Jesus.
The boardwalk begins to rise up with the cliff about half way across. A shapely young lady dressed in the shortest of cut-off shorts glides past me on a silent electric scooter and disappears. When I round the bend at the top of the rise I happen upon a wider boarded area where a dozen or so equally shapely young people of both sexes are practicing yoga stretches under the watchful eye of a teacher holding a smartphone. I am not tempted to join them, knowing from my feeble attempts at chair yoga in the privacy of my own apartment just how inflexible my body has become. My mind, I hope, still flexes reasonably well. But I have to admit that over the years I have treated it with more care than I have my body.
My own preferred brand of role model in my twenties was Clint Eastwood. Which of his characters, you ask? Well, all of them really, since for most of his acting career he played only one – the silent, hard-to-provoke cowboy/cop/soldier of infrequent words who felt no need to display his power. Somehow he always managed to find himself in the midst of trouble, where he would be called upon to save the town, or the country, or the planet. Only in his later years did he seemingly learn to take himself a little less seriously and to graduate to the deeper roles of Unforgiven and Grand Torino. But he was my hero and I would accept no other. I, too, wanted that undeclared power that ran deep, appearing only when it was time to save weaker mortals.
Arriving at Los Abrigos, I find all the tables at my favoured café occupied – January is high season in Tenerife and by 10.30am the café culture is throbbing. I’ll have to arrive earlier next time. I wander down to the harbour in the hope of finding somewhere to sip a coffee and write. But all the restaurants open only from lunchtime to late evening and they make their money from bigger spenders than me. No one wants to serve coffee in these high-overhead establishments. At the bottom of the slope I watch entranced, as a solitary crab makes a bid for freedom from the holding tanks of Restaurante Los Abrigos. She scuttles to the edge of the quay then takes a leap down into the dark waters lapping a couple of meters below. I’m glad she has escaped. I’m glad she’s not going to get eaten today. But I can’t feel any ill will towards the fishermen who make their living catching her fellows nor the restaurant staff who make theirs from serving crabs in their shells to tourists as the sun drops down into the sea. It’s a difficult world for the gentle to reconcile.
Sometime in the present century, it seems, I appear to have become something of a role model myself, albeit in a rather modest way. Business people and spiritual people at different times spontaneously told me I was an inspiration. I was glad, though I hope not in an egotistical way. Finally, in about 2018, I found myself standing on a stage in front of five hundred or so university students. How can we be more like you? came the question, so overtly put that I could not avoid the issue. I groaned inwardly, knowing they were looking at an image, not seeing the reality of the man. Larry Hagman, Telly Savalas, Clint Eastwood - they all strip off the image when they walk off set. The all go home to live in the realities of family, ill-considered decisions, health issues - challenges of the same kind that you and I face. Believe me, I answered, you do not want to be more like me. But what I want for you is to become the very best version of yourself that you can.
I make my way back up the slope and check on my favoured café once more but all the tables are still occupied, both inside and out. So I head back over the boardwalk, thinking about how my role models, my image of what it is to be a worthy man, have changed over the years. The movie and TV actors of my twenties gave way to successful businessmen like Richard Branson in my thirties and in my forties were replaced by the spiritually aware such as Wayne Dyer. Now I learn from many, but seek to emulate no one. Somewhere along the boardwalk of life I realised that role models just play roles and do that only for a short time. I no longer want to be a role player or a role seeker. All I want is to walk in the light.