[Dr. Chris Oakley's home page] [The book]
It is impossible for the author to be completely confident of the account of events given in this book. Finding Dionysus himself was enough of a problem, and getting him to tell his story was laborious and – given the amount of alcohol I had to buy him in the process – expensive. Appendix II is a transcription of an interview I conducted with the classical scholar I collaborated with in the first book. This alerted me to the possibility of tracking down and interviewing the real Dionysus.
Dionysus would have loved the 1960s, I decided. The concepts of free love, the drug-taking and excessive drinking would have been right up his alley. Also, in those days, people apparently often took very high doses of drugs, and there are stories about colonies of sexagenarian hippies in northern California, who have somehow survived despite destroying their brains through drug abuse. Dionysus would be right at home here, I thought.
A search of the gutters in each town revealed no-one who was likely to be more than seventy years of age (Dionysus, I estimated, would be about 3,380). Discussions with local journalists were largely fruitless, until I was told of a man who claimed to be over 3,000 years old living in Berkeley. Walking down Telegraph Avenue, I encountered him by chance in a liquor store. He was clearly agitated.
‘What izh the point?’ he raved. ‘What izh the point in keeping vintage Bollinger and then refrigerating it to below five degrees? How could anyone tashte the difference between that and non-vintage, or even, for that matter, good quality shparkling wine, if it izh almost freezing! Shlightly chilled! That’sh all you need! Jusht have it shlightly chilled!’
The proprietor’s body language made it abundantly clear that he was not about to take lessons in keeping wine from some tramp off the street.
‘Thank-you, sir. There’s no need to raise your voice, sir. Now if you’d move along, please …’
‘– And whatsh your shelection of sho-called “boutique libations” all about, eh? We’re a mere hop, shkip and trip from that shun-kished valley and all you’re up to izh a mangy dishplay of bloody Beringer and shodding Shilver Oak! Do you really ecshpect thozhe in the know to take you sherioushly? Becauzhe I don’t think you should! Where the tosh are the Turley Zhins? The goddamn Diamond Creek? The shilky Shcreaming Eagle? You know: winezh of the dishcriminating palate!?’
By this time, Dionysus the connoisseur himself somewhat resembled a screaming, if somewhat worse-for-wear, eagle: and one whose face that had turned the deeply saturated crimson of a heady, alcoholic Zinfandel.
‘Well, sir,’ the proprietor replied, not a little hurt and momentarily distracted from his growing impatience. ‘Those are all extremely difficult to get hold of.’
‘That’s no ecshcushe!’ said Dionysus adamantly. ‘I’m not shome pish-shmelling, ashphalt-chewing hobo. Or shome washed-up, Thunderbird-shwilling shilicon valley reject! I am the god of wine!’
Dionysus was defiant, and stood there waiting for this revelation to sink in.
‘Sir, if you don’t calm down, I will be forced to call the police. Please control yourself!’
Dionysus must have realised that he was not making an impression. After a tense moment, he just picked up a half dozen bottles from the bargain bins and placed them unsteadily on the counter.
‘Will that be all, sir?’
‘Yesh. That’sh all.’
‘Excuse me, but you’re not Dionysus, are you?’ I asked.
‘Why can’t anyone pronounce my name properly? Why, why, why? It’s Dee-ON-isoss, not Die-oh-NYE-suss. It’s Greek, understand? But you’re probably jusht an ignorant American who doesn’t know any Greek – right?’
‘Ignorant Englishman, actually, but –’
‘You’re not the new psychiatrist from Shocial Shervices, are you? If you are, then the answer is no, I don’t want to talk. And while we’re at it, I don’t need therapy, I’m not gay and I don’t want to fuck my mother.’
‘Actually I’m from England. I want to write a book about you.’
‘Look, if thish is some shtupid rubbish about vagrancy or alcoholizhm in California, then I’m not going to co-operate. You don’t need to interview me, anyway. Jusht make it all up. That’sh what you researchers normally do, ishn’t it?’
‘No – I want to tell your story. Right from the beginnings in Greece. You know, from more than three thousand years ago.’
Dionysus looked at me, bleary-eyed.
‘Because people are interested. You’re still talked about.’
Dionysus laughed bitterly. ‘Right – but it’sh never good, is it? I’m always billed as the crazhy fucker who getsh women to eat their own kidzh, aren’t I?’
‘Well – consider it a chance to set the record straight, then.’
A queue was beginning to form behind the demi-god.
‘Excuse me sir, but would you mind paying for your purchases?’
Dionysus produced the filthiest wad of notes I had ever seen, and slapped something close to the required amount impatiently on the counter.
‘Wine izh an art!’ he said as his final act of defiance, waving an angry finger at the proprietor. ‘Not jusht a living, but an art!’
The man ignored him. Dionysus turned to me.
‘Alright, let’sh go shomewere where we can shit down.’
I followed Dionysus to a park bench near a huddle of alcoholic drop-outs where he immediately started to open one of his bottles with a Swiss army knife.
[Author’s note: in order to avoid extra work, and for greater clarity, I shall not continue to attempt to render Dionysus’s slurred speech into dialect.]
It appeared that Dionysus had seen Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film, “Troy”.
‘Achilles was gay! You know – a faggot. A queen. An arse bandit! I know! I lived at that time! They were always having to cover up for him! But why, after more than three thousand years, does Hollywood have to do the same? Why shouldn’t the greatest warrior who ever lived like it up the arse? Obviously that was what did it for him, so why pretend he was straight? And where were the gods? If there hadn’t been any gods, there wouldn’t have been a Trojan war! No drunken bet by Paris. No apple of Eris. No beauty competition. No promise by Aphrodite. It just wouldn’t have happened! And what’s with the dialogue? Why is it that when anyone makes a movie about the ancient world they have to have everyone speaking about Nobility, Eternity and Honour in BBC English accents? People said stupid, trivial bullshit in regional accents just as much then as they do now! Cheers!’
In a single gulp, Dionysus had downed half the bottle. I was amazed. Obviously, when it came to consuming wine, Dionysus was about as practised as one can get.
‘I am surprised that no-one has asked you before about your experiences.’
‘No-one? Are you kidding? I have been a magnet for every nut ball and crank going now for millenia! Not because they want to find out about my life, of course, but simply because they’ve got some dumb-assed, crackpot theory. So they’ll ignore everything I say that doesn’t support this, and massively distort that which does. And please, please, please, don’t ask me about Atlantis! I know no more than you do! Honestly! Cross my heart and hope to die – well not that, maybe, as I’m immortal, but you know what I mean.’
‘No – just tell it to me like it was.’
And so he did. I rearranged my flight home and spent the next few weeks interviewing. But for his drinking habits this would have been days rather than weeks, but it was well worth the effort. There was another source we had drawn on – the so-called Corfuan manuscripts, as described in The Legend of Perseus, but for getting the colour and flavour of life in the ancient world, Dionysus was unbeatable – at least when he was not too drunk. When he got very drunk he was occasionally insulting and abusive, but mostly he was harmless, often launching into none-too-tuneful renditions of some of the songs that had made him famous in his heyday. At the time, Dionysus was not sleeping rough, having a bed in a hostel. He had remarkably few possessions, though. These were mostly old, grubby things, but among them were a set of books on wine that, although obviously well-used, were otherwise in excellent condition. The hostel was, however, not a good place to talk as he would often get into arguments with the other occupants, or it would just get too noisy, so most of time we would talk on a bench in the park or in one of the (few) cafés that were prepared to admit him. After getting as much as I reasonably could out of him about the ancient world, I then asked him his view on “modern” Dionysus figures, such as Elvis Presley and Jim Morrison.
‘I was the Elvis of my day,’ said Dionysus proudly. ‘But to be honest, the real Elvis annoyed me. Such a goody two-shoes. If you’re going to have a riot then you should have a riot. Just don’t pretend that it’s wholesome, family entertainment when it’s not. But when people talk about Elvis as being a “legend” I just don’t see where they’re coming from. If a “legend” is going to die at all – and I’m not saying that he should – I mean, look at me – then it has to be in the right way. Dying of a drug overdose while still young and beautiful is fine. Jim Morrison or Marilyn Monroe, for example. Dying in a car crash when you’re still young and beautiful is also fine. James Dean, for example. But dying as a fat, middle-aged slob while seated on the throne just does not cut it. That is not a “legendary” death.’
‘And Jim Morrison?’
‘He was rude. He just never took me seriously. Maybe things might have been different if I’d known him before he got famous, but as it was, it got kind of silly. I mean, there he was, taking my name in vain in all his shitty poetry and using my name like some incantation during his gigs, and meanwhile the real Dionysus was watching the whole thing in the window of a TV shop, having not been admitted by his security guards! I tried to introduce myself to him in the street more than once, but each time he would just laugh. Oh, and he thought he was so wild, so outrageous. But he was just an amateur compared to us. When our band was going, we thought that our parties were the wildest ever. Well, he certainly never beat us on that one. No-one has.’