‘I’m looking for one million men’
When the results of the latest census were announced this week, it emerged that a million young British men had ‘disappeared’. The man in charge of the count thinks they’re all at ‘raves’ in places like Ibiza. We sent Emma Brockes to the island to find them
Emma Brockes Friday October 4, 2002 The Guardian
A bald man wearing a Napoleon hat is offering me advice. Yes, he says, he has seen what I am looking for. “There,” he whispers and points to a boy ordering tequila at the bar. On the crowded dance floor, another boy, naked from the waist up, is flailing to the music. “And there,” says the man. He is 44 and from Holland. Glitter sparkles on his face. He glides discreetly away from me, into the throng.
I have come to Ibiza in search of one million British men. They are miscellaneous men, aged between 25 and 39, of no particular height, breadth or origin, but they have one thing in common: at the time of the 2001 census, they were mysteriously unaccounted for. It is the opinion of Len Cook, the registrar general, that Britain’s absent million have been sucked into a vortex of European “rave culture” and are missing, presumed brain dead. I imagine I will find them flopped regimentally out on the sand at San Antonio, like the remains of the confederate army after the burning of Atlanta.
This, it turns out, is an unrealistic expectation. In the summer months San Antonio is the clubbing capital of Europe but today, as the rain chucks down, the only joints that are open are the ones playing orchestral arrangements of Moon River and La Vie en Rose. The few visible tourists are the kind who visit Ibiza for its churches. Green and white striped awnings snap in the wind, the sea is an oily grey and the only club with its lights on is a scary-looking place with smoked glass windows called Ground Zero. It is apparent that finding anyone in this depleted resort – let alone Len Cook’s million ravers – will be an achievement.
The first bar we enter flies the Scottish flag and on its wall-mounted television plays video footage of someone having plastic surgery. There is a group of five men of roughly the right age at the bar but they are pink and round-shouldered, like soft-shell crabs, and it is hard to imagine them surrendering their pints for water bottles and devoting themselves to dance music. Derek, 36, says he remembers the census. He shifts uneasily. I assure him I have not been sent by the government. He says he’s pretty sure he filled in the form. In any case, he says, this is his first trip to Ibiza and he’s only here for a week. If he is missing, he’s almost certain he would know about it. Next door, in the photographic shop, the words “British” and “men” send the Spanish owner into nervous retreat. He backs away from the counter, muttering and throwing weird, slanted glances around until we feel forced to leave.
John Hall, music editor and Ibiza correspondent of Ministry magazine, says there is no way a million British men are secreted on the island. “There are probably 3-4,000 and just as many women as men. If they don’t show up on the census, it’s because they’re spending a couple of months here as part of their world tour. DJs and bar staff will move on from Ibiza to Thailand, Asia and Australia. They don’t go home at the end of the season.”
Outside, the wind whips up and the puddles are widening. On the rocks in the harbour, a couple of young men who can only be British are threading pieces of ham on to fishing rods in the hope of catching the meatless black fish that hide in the shallows. They are Rob, a butcher, whose 22nd birthday it is today, and Andy, a 32-year-old delivery driver. They are from Northampton. “I heard of it, I dunno, but yeah I think so,” says Rob. “I never filled nothing in though.”
With his effortless obliviousness to bureaucracy, Rob has the potential to become a successful member of the missing. But for now he is merely an admiring apprentice, on his regular fortnight’s holiday. “They sell CDs on the beach,” he says of the elusive million, wistfully.
And so, we strike out around the curve of the bay, up the main drag, towards the few bars remaining open. We pass Ian, 25, a design engineer from Staffordshire, who says he would kill to sell his house and blow the proceeds on a year in Ibiza, but hasn’t the courage. The M bar is home to Manumission, one of the biggest clubs on the island. A shirtless Argentinean juggles bottles behind the bar while two men bicker over where to buy music decks. They are Ricky and Mickey from Manchester. Ricky is hopping from one foot to the other. His hair is floppy and sun streaked. He wears a pendant round his neck and a cigarette droops from the side of his mouth. Mickey gazes vaguely out to sea. I think I have found my men.
“All right?” says Ricky. I explain what I am looking for. He grins ecstatically. “Here, Mickey,” he says. “Guess what? I’m one of the missing million!”
“Yeah,” says Mickey. “Except, no one’s missed you.”
The two men are DJs. Ricky is 31, Mickey 37. They have been in Ibiza for four months and were here last year at the time of the census. “I had to do a disappearing act, if you know what I mean,” says Ricky cheerfully. “Nothing too dodgy. But I don’t want my photo in the paper. Ha!” He returns to England today, but is thinking of spending the winter in Ibiza, doing construction work. “My flat in Manchester’s gone, ’cause I haven’t paid rent on it for four months. I told my mate to go round and clear out my stuff, but who knows if he’s done it. I’ve definitely got a gig in town on Friday night. But after that, no plans. I might do a tour of all the people I’ve met in Ibiza.”
He and Mickey think it’s a cheek that people back home see them as having taken the easy way out. On the contrary, they say, falling off the radar takes hard work and discipline. Plenty of folk come out from Britain with the intention of staying, but they can’t go the distance. “The young ones don’t last two weeks,” says Mickey.
“It’s like kids in a sweetshop, if you know what I mean by sweet shop. It’s quite funny to see them losing their minds.”
“They come here bright young things and they go home husks, don’t they,” says Ricky. “Some of them are so sick, they’re transparent. This one girl, Rachel, missed three flights in a row that her mum had booked for her to go home.”
The DJ at M is 37-year-old DJ Lucci from Kent. He has spent the past five summers in Ibiza and next year plans to move here full time. “Did you know you can draw the dole here?” he beams. “There are loads like me. It’s hard work and the money’s crap, but we’re here for the vibe. The American DJs think we’re all crazy. But the reason Brits party so hard is because they’re so stressed at work they have to get mashed at the weekend. A lot of the British guys out here, their first priority is drugs, then rent, then food.”
“It’s a collection of lost souls,” sighs Ricky, whose pendant is engraved with the pagan symbol of love. He hopes it will bring him luck in finding his soulmate.
“For fuck’s sake,” says Mickey.
A 20-minute drive from San Antonio is the beach resort of Playa d’en Bossa. Tonight is the closing party for Bora Bora, a seafront club, and in spite of the rain 100 or so regulars have gathered under the awning for one last fling. They are tanned and toned from a summer of dancing. There is glitter in their hair. The man in the Napoleon hat, who has been knocking around Ibiza for years and presumably contributes to the Dutch statistical shortfall, introduces me to John, a decorator from Leicester. John is experimenting with disappearance under the watchful eye of his friend, Yan. “Yan’s bloody mental,” he says admiringly. “He’s twisted. I was getting drunk on Sunday and he called me and said, ‘Let’s go to Ibiza – if we leave now we can be in Space by 3pm.’ So I got a Â£60 flight one way, and offered to be his record bitch. Yan’s a DJ. He’ll stay out here. But if I don’t go home soon, my brain will be mush.”
Yan has been living in Ibiza on and off for 11 years. He doesn’t believe the island has absorbed a million itinerant British men. “Twenty thousand at most,” he says. “People like me.”
“A fucked-up, drugged-up waste of space?” says John. Yan smiles. “It’s all about happiness,” he says. Yan is 39 and responds to inquiries about his income with a saucy raise of the eyebrows. I leave the two men engaged in a half-dance, half-hug arrangement, while girls around them scale the tables. It has not been a bad night. Of the missing million, I have tracked down four and while they don’t plan to return, they are happy for the guys at the census office to take down their details – just so long as they don’t make them available to the Inland Revenue.