The following profile, written around 2014, was commissioned but wound up not being published.
Late February, Agrotourism Morna, Sant Carles, Ibiza. The succulent smell of roast pork and chicken wafts across the terrace. White plates nestle against the whiter cloth covering a long wooden table shaded by gnarled almond branches. Guests chat over glasses of red wine while their children attack colouring books and bowls of tomato-clad pasta. Dogs romp. Halfway through the starter, proprietor and chef Simon Johnson pops out of the kitchen and realises he needs five more place settings.
A volunteer goes in search of chairs. Someone else conjures a fistful of cutlery. Folks squeeze closer. By the time platters of carved meat and heaping bowls of succulent veg arrive at the table there is space for everyone. More bottles appear. Glasses are raised. Here’s to long lunches with friends, overlooking verdant fields and inhaling the faint honey of almond blossoms.
This idyllic afternoon in the campo belies the winding road that brought Simon to Morna, and his pressured quest to turn a time-worn agrotourismo (the local name for a rustic bed-and-breakfast) into a homey country retreat.
In November the Agro, as it is affectionately known, resembled a cyclone landfall. The pool was half-full of brackish black water. The terraces were strewn with broken furniture, old mattresses, rubbish, and piles of broken concrete. Inside, mildew crept up the white walls and cobwebs laced together the corners of the high ceilings. The garden was mud, weeds and a welter of dead grape vines. Beneath grey winter skies it had a chill air of decay.
Admittedly, all Ibiza tourist accommodation is worse for wear off-season. Two things made Agrotourismo Morna different: 1) its new manager Simon had never run a hotel before and 2) he had no money. Not in the way some perfectly solvent folk claim to have no money, but literally. Simon was broke, impoverished; in the Cockney rhyming slang of his youth, brassic. Nobody, including him, knew exactly how or where he was going to magic up the money and people-power to renovate Morna. Putative business partners flailed and bailed, neighbours eyeballed the scene and wished him luck, the owner of the land chewed his cigar and muttered.
Yet Simon was eerily calm. Cigarette in hand, West Ham matches burbling in the background, he pieced things together. He hosted a curry dinner to raise rent money, haggled for curios at Sant Jordi market, and sourced furniture from Facebook. He bartered home-made Scotch eggs for advertising space. He hired a gardener then sweet-talked him into emptying the pool, one bucket of sludge at a time.
Making do is a talent Simon has cultivated since boyhood. “I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just got on with it.” Getting on with it may as well be the family motto. “We’re all self-employed,” he muses. “Quite an entrepreneurial bunch.” His grandparents ran pie and mash shops in London’s East End and a greengrocers (“that’s where I got my love of food”). Dyslexia hampered him in academics but he was savvy and good at making friends.
Bonhomie became his ticket to the world. After brief stints working in the stock market and as a chef, in London, Simon took off and spent years in Asia. He made a living selling “a bit of land, anything really” while absorbing the cultures and cuisines. Eventually he settled in Barcelona, still working in sales. He got married and divorced. Made some money. And drank. “I was always a heavy drinker, always doing things I didn’t want to do.” He pauses, foot bouncing, looking for the right words. “You can get to a point drinking or taking drugs, that you don’t actually want to be doing it, but you continue. You don’t understand why, you just have to. It happened a few times and I managed to pull it back, but three years ago I crossed a line.”
During his sodden slide towards that demarcation Simon decided to move to Ibiza. If you can call it a decision. “Ibiza was a whim. I was drinking a lot and at a loose end. I didn’t really have a reason to do anything.” He arrived and started doing barbecues for a friend’s villa rental business. This blossomed into his own catering company, Cook Ibiza, and let him to slip into a routine of “drinking, earning money and continuing drinking.”
Ibiza didn’t drive him to drink, he is quick to add, but didn’t stop him either. “Wherever I was in the world at that time, I would have been drinking. But it gave me an excuse to shut a door and drink all day. You can disappear here.”
Parties were, paradoxically, an occasion for restraint, something to grin and bear until he could slip away to drink alone. “Don Simon was my poison,” he says, naming the cheap cardboard-carton plonk beloved of teenage holiday-makers. “At my worst I was drinking six or seven litres a day.” Simon struggled to maintain a social façade but that level of intake damages a man’s impulse control. He was arrested on a drunk driving warrant while trying to check into Es Vive and marched out of the self-styled party hotel in handcuffs. He went on a ten-day binge. “People were scared of what I was doing. I was scared. I had to admit I was really in the shit. I’m an alcoholic.”
Agro Morna’s first overnight guests are due in forty hours. The gardener and handyman pump last week’s rainwater out of the pool, bragging like schoolboys about Amsterdam red light district exploits as they work. A painter wanders out of the house, brush in hand, to bum a smoke. An interior designer who has taken on Morna as a labour of love, scurries past with an armload of sodden sheets and jumpers. Her kids shriek over a DVD. A trio of dogs get noisily underfoot. Simon and his cousin appear laden with the spoils of a last-minute shopping expedition. Unspoken questions crackle in the air: Will everything be ready? Can he pull it off? Is this really happening?
Five days later Simon and I perch on a white outdoor sofa marked with only a few paw prints. Simon’s puppy, Potter, lies alert but sedate at our feet. Sun peeks through a smothering sea fog. The pool gleams David Hockney blue. Guests loll on the terrace, savouring a home-cooked lunch. It is as abrupt and unlikely a transformation as the denoument of a fairytale.
Fourteen months earlier, Simon was in a Bedfordshire rehab clinic, doped on Valium, not sure he intended to stay sober. “I was with a lot of people who didn’t want to be there. All they did was plot how they were going to go drinking when they got out.” A counsellor took him aside and asked if he was going to join that gang, or take his life seriously. He’d already lost half a kidney due to drinking. Alcohol would kill him, probably sooner than later.
Simon wanted to get on with things, but how? In rehab counsellors advised him to take a year off work and concentrate on sobriety. But faced with the option of living in a hostel in London or returning to Ibiza, Simon took a chance on the island: “I thought, it’s time to get on with life.” A catering job at Pikes Hotel was a chance test the waters. It went well. He wasn’t tempted to drink. So he took the plunge and moved. “I didn’t have any expectations. I was happy to be back but it was very day-to-day, work-wise, and going to as many AA meetings as I possibly could.”
Alcoholics Anonymous is the world’s most recognisable anti-addiction brand but sticking with the programme in Ibiza has its challenges. Simon faced practical ones, like getting to meetings despite being banned from driving, and psychological ones, like maintaining a semblance of anonymity on a gossipy little island, but he is adamant about its value. “AA is an amazing fellowship. Anyone who’s in any doubt should get into a room. It’s a lifesaver for me.”
Motivated by sobriety and the family ethos of getting on with it, Simon busied himself with Cook Ibiza. Then a friend invited him to see a house near the northern village of Sant Carles. He went along and surprised himself by signing a 10-year lease to renovate and manage Morna. “I wasn’t looking for it,” he says with a shake of the head. “And couldn’t afford it, but there was something welcoming about the place. It was peaceful.”
Simon is voicing a consensus. Everyone who visits, even those who saw the Agro at its scruffiest, falls in love. It has – along with quantifiable Ibiza charms like olive and almond trees, sublime sunsets, and rustic architecture – an intangible allure. People feel at home. Kids and pets thrive. Its first guests paid it the compliment of immediately booking another visit.
Things are, touch wood, going well but Simon approaches each day knowing the future depends on his resolution. “Sobriety hasn’t been easy. I have to focus on staying sober and knowing that if I do good things will happen.”
This means changing old habits and holding himself to a high standard. “The biggest difference in my life now is trying to do the right thing every day, trying to be as honest and clear as possible. I probably get it about fifty percent right at the moment. There’re some bills I haven’t paid. I’ve been late on things, forgotten things. But it doesn’t sit right with me any more if I’m creating enemies or problems. Whereas before, that’s what I’d do.”
What advice would he give himself if he could go back in time a year?
Simon thinks for a long moment: “I wouldn’t know what to change. Every single thing, every mishap has been part of the jigsaw coming into this. I’m very, very lucky.”