Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 10, 2016

Skios (2012), by Michael Frayn

SkiosWhat I like about the annual tidy-up of my TBR shelves is rediscovering books that I bought a while ago and have neglected.  Skios is one of those: I really like Michael Frayn’s sense of humour and I like the way he satirises the academic world. (Like David Lodge, another author whose campus novels are a delight).  I liked the Booker shortlisted Headlong and I liked Spies even more.  So I bought Skios when it came out in 2012, and should not have left it so long to read.  (It’s when I finally get to a book like this that I resent less successful ones that I’ve read in the interim, but no, I won’t name names.)

Skios is a farce – and it would obviously translate into a funny film.  But it offers more than a light-hearted chuckle because Frayn is satirising the cult of celebrity experts and also the way that the Mediterranean has been colonised by the wealthy to the exclusion of the locals.  Along the way he also takes aim at the casual way we travel, expecting always that others will take responsibility for our itinerary, our ease and our comfort…

Skios is a fictional Greek island where the Fred Toppler Foundation has appropriated a huge and congenial chunk of the landscape for its activities promoting ‘civilized values’.  Nikki Hook, ambitious to take over as Director, is busy organising its main event, the annual lecture.

Please God it wasn’t going to be too awful this year, prayed Nikki.  All lectures, however unique and special, were of course awful, but some were more awful than others.  There had to be a lecture.  Why?  Because there always had been one.  There had been a Fred Toppler lecture every year since the foundation had existed.  They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that.  They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.  As the director of the foundation had become more eccentric and reclusive, so had his choices of lecturer become more idiosyncratic.  The Post-syncretic Approach to whatever it was the previous year had caused even Mrs Toppler, who was prepared to thank almost anybody for anything, to choke on the task, which was perhaps the unconscious reason she had left the ‘not’ out of this being an occasion they would not forget in a hurry.  Nikki had seized the chance of the director’s absence on a retreat in Nepal to choose this year’s lecturer herself. (p. 5)

Her choice falls upon Dr Norman Wilfred, an ageing academic who brings his recycled lecture ‘Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics’ with him on the plane.  And just as well, because his suitcase is misappropriated at the carousel by Oliver Fox, a lithe, lazy but very handsome womaniser on his way to meet up with Georgie, a woman he picked up in a bar.  They’re meant to meet up at the villa of Annuka, another of his conquests, and it is because he has carelessly used her suitcase for this jaunt that he mistakes Wilfred’s case for his own.

By the time Wilfred abandons the quest to be reunited with his luggage the airport is deserted, but the taxi driver is still waiting for his fare:

At the sight of Dr Wilfred emerging from the baggage hall the solitary driver still waiting raised his little placard.


‘I’m sorry to keep you waiting,’ said Dr Wilfred, ‘Someone took my bag.’

‘No problem,’ said Skios Taxi. ‘Fox Oliver?’


‘Fox Oliver?’

Phoksoliva? Dr Wilfred was too tired to start struggling with a strange language at this time of night.  Surely they could have found someone to meet him who spoke English! (p. 47)

Well, you can see what happens: Wilfred eventually submits to the inevitable and Spiros takes him not to the luxury of the Fred Toppler Foundation compound and its armed security guards, but rather to the remote villa where Georgie is already waiting for Oliver because – having missed her original flight –  she managed to get there anyway.  But Oliver doesn’t know that Georgie is on Skios after all.  Fryan uses the vagaries of mobile phone coverage, flat batteries and missing chargers to great effect so that communication between the characters is fraught, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Oliver, gloomily anticipating a womanless 24 hours, emerges from the baggage hall to be attracted by a placard for Dr Norman Wilfred, held aloft by the very attractive Nikki.  He smiles, and she, wanting her Dr Wilfred to be young and sexy, smiles back.  And Oliver decides to have some fun and takes on Wilfred’s identity!

He gets away with it because everybody is charmed by him and because he has the knack of saying vague things which the invited guests interpret as being terribly erudite.  Like the characters in The Emperor’s New Clothes who fear exposure as fools, they pretend to understand his nonsense.   His celebrity status guarantees that he will be respected even though (almost) none of them actually knows what he looks like.

One of my favourite scenes satirises food fads when Nikki checks on her organisation at the kitchen:

Now what?’ shouted Yannis Voskopoulos, the chef de cuisine, over the clatter of stainless steel on stainless steel and the roar of the air-extractors, and the endlessly Levantine pop wailing of the woman on the radio.  ‘I don’t know what you gonna tell me but you told me already! Twice! And we done it.  Twice over!’

Some of the white-robed ghosts looked up from ovens and worktops and waved amiable ladles and cleavers at her. Some looked up and didn’t recognise her.

‘But these new guys, Yannis,’ she said, not in Greek but in American English, because Yannis had worked in America and liked to keep the language up.  ‘The agency guys.  You’ve got your eye on them?’

‘Got my eye on everyone, Nikki.  Everyone and everything. The same like you.’

‘Last year you forgot kosher.’

‘Nikki, you want to see kosher?  Look – kosher.  Halal.  Diabetic.  Vegetarian.  Gluten-free, nut-free, salt-free.  Vegetarian kosher.  Diabetic halal.  Gluten-free diabetic.  Salt-free nut-free vegetarian.  Get outta here, Nikki.’

‘And onion-free?

‘Onion free?’

‘Salt-free onion-free!  For the guest speaker, I told you!’

Yannis looked at the ceiling, then wiped his face on the oven-cloth he was carrying.  He sighed.
‘When I was a kid in Pireaeus,’ he said, ‘was only two sorts of food.  Was food, and was no food.’ (p.15)

Skios is good fun.  Frayn is in his eighties now, but perhaps there will be another book, and I won’t leave it so long to read next time!

Author: Michael Frayn
Title: Skios
Publisher: Faber, 2012
ISBN: 9780571281428
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books, $29.99

Fishpond: Skios (they had a second-hand copy for about $11 when I looked)


  1. This sounds like great fun and LOVE the cover of this book.


  2. I have this one on my shelf. With the cold weather I’ve been thinking about books set in the sun.


    • You will be pleased to hear that it never rains on Skios!


  3. You liked Skios somewhat better than I did.


  4. Totally agree, LIsa – Skios is great fun. I think I may have enjoyed Headlong the most of Frayn’s novels and I do hope there’s another one.


    • There’s an earlier one called Noises Off which might be worth finding…


  5. This sounds like a hoot, Lisa. David Lodge is a good comparison.


    • I can just see Hugh Grant in the role of Oliver…


  6. I’ve had this on my pile forever but still haven’t read it. It does sound like a hoot. He’s a very talented author and playwright. He wrote one of my favourite “newspaper novels” Towards The End of the Morning, which pokes fun at Fleet Street.


  7. I enjoyed parts of this (especially the way he takes a pop at academics who travel the world trotting out the same lecture) but overall I found it underwhelming. Not a patch on his other work


    • Which one do you think is his best?


      • Spies I think is excellent but Headlong is also a good one – both are vastly different to Skios though (more serious)


        • Yes, less obviously like a script for a film, more reflective, especially Spies. My heart ached for that boy.


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