Observer picture archive: Ibiza, 9 September 1984

Photographer John Reardon and reporter Robert Low travelled to the Balearic island to witness the problem of young Brits on holiday

The article, An Englishman Abroad by Robert Low, was published in the Observer’s Weekend section on 9 September 1984

“We are praying for the end of October,” said Barbara Harrison, an English woman now a naturalised Spaniard and 21 years a resident of San Antonio Abad on the northern coast of Ibiza.

The reason summer cannot end too quickly for her and a lot of other people in San Antonio has nothing to do with too much sun and everything to do with the activities of some of her former compatriots. “They are beasts,” said a senior policeman ruminatively. The species in question probably wears shorts, singlet, training shoes and beer bottle. Many – tall, blond, muscular and menacing, hair fashionably short – could pass for the Hitler Youth on holiday, sunshine stormtroopers, but for their tattoos and earrings. Others are just nasty, British and short.

Their stamping ground is a cluster of narrow streets just off the main square known as the West End. Full of bars, restaurants and discotheques it teems at night with young people of many nationalities. But this year the British have been in the majority and all too many have been fighting drunk.

Helping hands for a holidaymaker.
Helping hands for a holidaymaker. Photograph: John Reardon/The Observer

It is the cult of the football terraces in summer retreat. The catalogue of crimes of British tourists is extensive. They have broken up hotel rooms, hurled furniture from their balconies into the street and swimming pools, hurled themselves from fifth-floor balconies into pools, fought one another, local people and local police, urinated in streets and pools and littered the place with broken bottles and frequently their own prone figures. They have copulated in public – two youths engaged in a homosexual act in a public garden egged on by a cheering crowd.

Before you reach the wild West End you can hear the familiar, unlovely chants that have made their way from British soccer grounds to the shores of the Mediterranean. The streets, bars and discos are packed to bursting point with sweating bodies, jammed so tight that the lads can barely do more than raise their non-bottle-clutching fist in time to the music.

West End girls.
West End girls. Photograph: John Reardon/The Observer

From random conversation with them you get a general picture. They get up around mid-day, stagger off to the beach for the afternoon with a crate of beer, fortify themselves with steak and chips, then head for the West End for some serious drinking. Around 2 a.m. They make for the Star disco, a cavernous joint holding 3,500 people. The boys and girls – equally numerous – tend to stay apart with odd forays from the sidelines. Most of it is raucous good fun, but there is frequently an underlying sense of threat. On a couple of nights sampling the joys of the West End last week I saw some horseplay in a fountain which ended with a few arrests and a fight between a British youth ostentatiously and ineffectively trying a spot of kung-fu, and the smallest bouncer I’ve ever seen who ended up chasing him down the street. A few blocks away from the West End all is peace and quiet.

“We get 40,000,000 foreign tourists coming to Spain every year,” said the senior policeman. “If they all behaved like them we wouldn’t have a country left. They are like savages, uncontrollable hordes.”

More than 40 foreigners have been arrested in Ibiza this summer for serious crimes such as theft. But the sort of hooliganism practised by the young British is classed as a misdemeanour, punishable merely by a night in the police cells and a 5,000 peseta fine (about £25).

Holiday ribaldry.
Holiday ribaldry. Photograph: John Reardon/The Observer

In San Antonio alone there were 196 such offences committed by foreigners last month. About 70 per cent involved the British. “That’s not too bad,” said the policeman. “What is serious is the spectacle they provide, the dreadful image of their country which they give and the abuse of Spanish hospitality,” The overworked British vice-consulate in Ibiza estimates that 90 per cent of it’s time is now spent dealing with the San Antonio troubles.

What baffles the Spanish is the contrast between this new breed of holidaymaker and the image they have hitherto had of the British. It is pretty stunning too for the many British people who came out to Ibiza in the 60s and 70s to retire, open a little bar or go into sales and property development like Barbara Harrison. “I just don’t know where the hell they all come from,” she said in her little office in the heart of San Antonio. “Where do they get the money from? This year I haven’t come down to the town once for the evening. I daren’t. They shoulder you off the pavement and if you try to stop them you are on the ground.”

Boombox boys.
Boombox boys. Photograph: John Reardon/The Observer

The bovver boys’ blitzkrieg is the main subject for the discussion in the English language Ibiza News. Elaine Spires, an English woman who has lived on the island for 12 years, writes in the latest issue: “I am ashamed and disgusted to see these gangs of hooligans roaming the streets of San Antonio, wearing four tattoos on each arm, carrying cassette players the size of a suitcase and drinking beer straight from the bottle which, once empty, will most probably end up smashed on the street.”

Nito Verdera, a local journalist, has his own theory. “The young British have been much more aggressive since the Falklands war. Last year we had quite a lot of trouble with the Swedes. They got very drunk but if you told them to stop misbehaving they would say sorry and stop. If you remonstrate with a Briton he’ll say ‘f... off you Spanish bastard’.”

The British hooligan is not unfamiliar to other Spanish resorts like Benidorm and Torremolinos but San Antonio is now their favourite battering ground. It has become a young people’s resort, stimulated by the patronage of specialist firms catering for them, particularly Club 18-30 holidays. It has 1,500 clients a week in San Antonio all summer and several hundred more elsewhere, Next year they are planning to bring more than 2,000 to San Antonio. There are plenty of people in the town ready to blame them for the hooligans. Steve Cutbush, their Ibiza manager, is well aware of the charge but denies it firmly. “Because we are the company with the young person’s image then obviously we are the first ones to be tainted with the problems that occur. But the biggest problem in San Antonio is unsupervised young people.”

Women take photos of themselves in Ibiza.
Photo op in Ibiza. All photographs © John Reardon for the Observer Photograph: John Reardon/The Observer

Ten days ago as public protests mounted the authorities at last took action. After a meeting of various bodies, the mayor ordered the municipal police to stop music being played in the streets after 1.30 a.m. and to confiscate glasses and bottles from people drinking outside. Fights broke out when the drinkers, unaware of the new regulations, resisted. There were complaints of police heavy-handedness but an editorial in the daily newspaper Diario de Ibiza had no doubts. “Either a corrective is applied or we are heading for chaos.”

Locals are not just worried about law and order but about the effect the bad publicity could have on the tourism on which Ibiza depends. The quality of holidaymaker coming to the island has been steadily declining. “We’ve just about reached the bottom of the barrel,” said one disco manager. The concern now is that the new hordes could drive out the higher income, more respectable tourists as surely as the ferocious grey squirrel drove the gentler red one out of the trees of Britain. It may be happening already. “This year has been a disaster,” said Barbara Harrison, “I generally sell a lot of properties here but this year I can’t move anything.”

Tougher policing is likely next year but as the senior officer pointed out: “Holidaymakers don’t want a policeman on every corner.” Elaine Spires yearns for a “stern line” even if it drives the tourists away for a while. “Wouldn’t it be worth-while if it brought back the decent British visitors who used to come?” The reply of most Ibizians who depend on tourism for their livelihood is “probably not.” But you can see her point. It would be a pity if an island which absorbed the Carthaginians and the Romans was eventually brought to its knees by the latest virulent strain of the British disease.

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