All photos by Paul Geddis
Forget whatever William Hague and the ex-pats in Gibraltar are saying, if Britain can lay a feasible claim to any part of Spain, it’s Magaluf. Not only was Maga where the Eastenders’ writers sent Danniella Westbrook's character when her IRL gak habit started eating her face, it’s also where Mike Skinner set "Fit But You Know It", the greatest song ever written about Brits abroad. Even if we’ve never been there, we Brits think of Magaluf as a rowdy but lovable cousin, who lives just far enough away not to have to worry about, but who you know will always get the drinks in at Christmas.
Then, last month, the tide turned. Faster than you could shout "Neknominate", the tabloids got hold of the "Magaluf Girl" video and turned it from a WTF internet curiosity, into the spark with which to light the pyre they and everyone else seems to have been building beneath "lad culture" for about three years. According to hysterical reports, Magaluf was no longer a tacky but benign holiday destination full of harmless drunks, but a seething hellmouth populated by thuggish louts and cum-hungry slatterns. But, apart from that actually sounding kind of fun, surely it couldn’t be as bad as they were making out? I mean, I grew up in Peterborough, so I know that Magaluf definitely isn't the worst place in the world. So last Thursday I packed a bag with a voice recorder, a shitty camera and enough Gaviscon to settle the stomachs of the entire Dothraki horde, and set out for Mallorca.
Magaluf started its life as we know it now in the 1960s, as part of the Franco dictatorship’s plan to save Spain’s struggling economy by encouraging mass tourism to its coasts. Once the first brutalist apartment blocks and hotels started springing up, there was no turning back. In the 80s and 90s – thanks to the entrepreneurial skills of a few Spanish bar owners and English managers – Linekers Bar, The Red Lion, The White Horse and Arthur’s opened up in the concrete shopping promenades underneath the hotels, and started selling an ersatz version of home to the British tourists. It worked.
Tomo, the proud owner of Bollocks bar
“I first came out in '85 or '86, and I just loved it,” recalls Tomo Thompson, a 52-year-old from Middlesbrough. “It was the weather mainly, but I also like a drink.” The evidence that Tomo "likes a drink" is pretty compelling. Six years ago, he took over the lease on a place called the Green Parrot Bar, changed its name to "Bollocks", and a year later his son Brian came out to work the bar with him. As a tag team, they’re kind of like Magaluf's Legion of Doom, but instead of red and black spiked shoulderpads they each have "BOLLOCKS" spelt out across the parts of their bodies where their abs should be in 3-inch high letters.
Tomo has agreed to take me out around some of the bars on the strip, the names of which he also has tattooed on his body. “If I go to a place I like, I’ll get one done so I remember it,” he explains. Under a large arm shield of Middlesbrough FC (“That one’s for home, I’ve never really liked football to be honest”), are flags of England and Turkey. On his chest; The Red Lion, The White Horse, and above his heart, The Office. Before we hit the strip, we do what everyone in Maga does. We drink.
Inside Bollocks bar
“There are only two sizes out here," Brian tells me with a wink, “half or pint,” before filling a Carling glass two thirds full with Ruskinoff vodka and topping it off with a splash of coke. If the sun, sea, and 70s hotels are Magaluf’s body, then booze is what runs through its veins. Joan Feliu, the local councillor for commerce and hostelry, tells me that it’s “impossible to calculate how much alcohol is sold in Magaluf. You’d have to add up all the distributors, hotels, bars and supermarkets.” I don’t have the patience for that, but two things are obvious. One, is that the appetite for it is endless. And two, it’s fucking cheap out here. A pint in most bars will set you back €3, a shot €1, and a pint of vodka and coke, like the one that’s currently anaesthetising the back of my eyeballs, costs just €5.
“Part of the reason it’s so cheap,” explains Tomás Ibars, editor of local news source Mallorca Diario, “is that a lot of these bars and hotels have paid off their mortgages. So they can afford to make less margin on the drink." Ibars is well placed to discuss the current state of Magaluf; it was his website that first "broke" the "Magaluf girl" blowjob video. "That, the fact that people have got less money to spend, and the competition between the bars, are the three main reasons why Magaluf is how it is now.”
At some point during my second pint of vodka, I chat to the bar’s PR girl. Jess is from Castleford, and makes €20 a night enticing people in to get shit-faced. Workers in Magaluf get their drinks half price, which means most of her money goes on rent for a room she shares in an apartment with Josh, her best friend from back home. Josh is 22, and hadn’t been abroad before being sacked from his call centre job earlier this year. “Jess said it were fun, so I thought I’d try it. Nowt else to do,” he explains. “Before this we were in Napa,” says Jess, “but I prefer it out here. It’s better value and people have more fun.” This is her second year in Magaluf. “It were much busier last year,” she complains, noting the lack of customers. “Last year were quiet,” snaps Tomo. “You should have seen it five years ago.”
Seen from a distance, it’s hard to tease out "Magaluf Girl" from the idea of hungover people sat round washing endless full English breakfasts down with WKD blue under the sun, but while bars like Bollocks look and feel like the essence of Magaluf, the truth is that they’re a dying breed. “It’s the all-inclusive hotels that’s the problem,” Tomo tells me. “The kids come out, they get their meals paid for, their drink paid for, then they’ll go to 'the strip' or to a club. They won’t spend the day in a bar like they used to.
"Also,” he says, “it’s a different kind of drinker.”
At 1AM, Punta Balena, the Magaluf street that Tomo and everyone else here knows as "the strip", is basically Enter the Void featuring the cast of the Inbetweeners. Curving up into the slight hill behind the bay, the street is a neon maw of pubs and clubs; a reverse bungee’s supports pierce the night sky like the arched eyebrows on emoji, occasionally hurling a group with stronger stomachs than mine into the air. Groups of muscled lads in neon slips and shorts weave glassy eyed up and down, stopping to chat with the drinks girls or to rest on the pavements, their heads between their knees while their mates gather round in a protective huddle. If bars like Tomo’s are the past, then the strip is Magaluf’s present: The place where friendships are made, memories are lost, and a thousand Daily Mirror stories are born.
A conga line of sexy something or others (could be nurses, probably schoolgirls) make their way up the hill led by a bar crawl rep. One of them lags behind, chatting to a guy with a blonde wig and fake plastic tits. He asks her to feel them and she obliges before returning the favour, both of them cracking up after about a second. If you’re looking for examples of unchecked carnal licentiousness, this isn’t it. It's very Carry On. The whole thing has the sexual charge of holding someone’s shopping for them while they get their keys out of their pocket.
“Do people come out here for the shagging? No, they come out to get pissed. Not even half of them will cop off, I reckon,” Tomo tells me as we sit at a table outside The Office, a bar that advertises itself on the neon hoarding as five clubs in one, but inside, feels more like a student union. At this point, a lanky lad from the table beside us gets up, pushes past and throws up on the pavement. "As if on cue…" is an overused phrase, but in this case the timing’s so perfect that Tomo can’t help but crack a smile.
After bidding Tomo an emotional farewell at KFC, I make my way to Magaluf Rocks, a bar owned by the promoters behind Carnage Magaluf, and where one of their infamous pub crawls is just cranking into gear. As soon as I walk in, the smell hits me, and I’m almost beaten back before deciding not to be such a pussy. The floor is a swamp of booze and puke, at least half of which seems to have condensed into a muggy haze, making it impossible to discern anyone’s face until you’re literally stood right in front of them.
To give you an idea about where Magaluf is at culturally right now, on the raised dancefloor about 50 lads are doing that one-handed bro-dance to Azealia Banks’s "212 VIP". Given that I’ve counted about six girls here, I guess nobody’s cunt is getting eaten. Tom Houlgrave is 21, from Watford and out with 11 mates for a week. “Fucking Carnage, man,” he says with a smile. “It’s been great. Have you got a cup?” Earlier that evening, a police inspection had held the pub crawl up in the first bar. According to Tom, by way of an apology, the organisers had given everyone on it unlimited drinks for the entire night, which – you’ve got to hand it to them – is great marketing. He turns down a shot, and agrees that some of the games might be a bit much, but, he says, “People are either going to do it here or in England. And where else are they going to go, anyway?”
Back out on the street, I catch up with the police squadron who are indirectly to thank for Tom’s great night out. Jose Antonio Navarro, head of the local police, is in his late fifties, and has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. He’s also surprisingly frank with me about the police’s position on bar crawls like Carnage. “Our job here is to provide security. We do what we can to make people safe, and to prevent violent incidents.” Talking about the "Magaluf girl" video, he makes it clear that people embarrassing themselves while drunk is the least of his concerns. “They’re adults,” he says. “As long as the bars have got their licenses, what people do in there doesn’t concern us.”
Last year, Manuel Onieva – Mayor of the local municipality, Calvia – appeared on Stacey Dooley's BBC Three documentary about Magaluf. While subtlety isn't one of Dooley's strong points, Onieva didn’t do himself any favours, accepting that there was a problem while repeatedly asserting that "his hands were tied". However, earlier this month, following the "blowjob race" video, the council has made a great show out of cracking down on "errant companies that promote lewd behaviour".
After a bit of digging, I wonder if that’s anything more than lip service. Yes, Carnage and Playhouse – the club where the Magaluf girl video was allegedly shot – have been hit with a joint £43,500 fine, both have been ordered to shut down for 12 months and anyone wanting to hold a bar crawl in the area will have to apply for a license. But these reforms, trumpeted as "emergency measures", were approved well before "Magaluf Girl" was a thing. For his part, the council member I spoke to, Joan Feliu, told me that their approach is to regulate, not to ban. “We’ve never said we’re going to ban pub crawls. The model works.”
Both Carnage and Playhouse have around two weeks left to appeal their closure notices – it's certain that they will, and it seems probable that they'll win. But if Magaluf girl does still exist in an archetypal sense, chances are she’s not on a pub crawl or the strip anyway, but on one of the boat parties – billed as booze cruises – organised by most of the same promoters and held three times a week. With many of the boats fitting 150 people on board, and free bars serving unlimited beer and sangria for three hours, they’re the newest frontier in Maga’s quest for excess. Given that their promo videos alone are not only harder but much better quality than Magaluf girl, it’s surprising that more of a fuss hasn’t been made about them. Part of the reason for this, I’m told, is because legally, the sea is in the remit of the national police force, and not the local council. “We’ve filed a request for an investigation,” says the council spokesman, “It’s still pending.”
One afternoon, I hang around a bar as a sold-out cruise group gets ready to set off. Girls in ill-fitting lifeguard costumes nervously tug down the hems over their thighs, while on the other side of the room the boys talk among themselves. It could be the sunlight, it could be the sobriety, it could be the hangovers, but with their greasy, sweaty fringes, hooded eyes and palpable sexual anticipation, they don’t look anything like the swaggering young men I’d seen the night before at Carnage. The whole thing feels more like a school disco. Watching them make their way out behind the rep in a flurry of necked pints and leery smiles, I keep thinking about Pleasure Island, the place in the Pinocchio story where kids can do whatever they want. Maga, with its tattoo parlours, endless sugary shots, clubs and banter, is seen that way: a paradise of – if not endless youth, exactly – then endless immaturity.
At about 4AM, I head down to the seafront. The comatose bodies from the boat cruises are starting to pile up on the strip, so I figure if there’s any depravity to be had, this is where I’ll find it. It turns out even the drug dealers here are friendly. Angel, a local guy with a forehead so tight you could play the drums on it, lets me go with him as a translator for a bit as he approaches the groups huddled facing the waves. No one is buying, so he makes do with picking up the wallet from an unconscious guy, taking out the cash and throwing it back down onto the sand next to him. “Last year,” he tells me, “I made a fortune. This year, not so good.” And with that and a wave, he bounds off into the night.
As a rule, the kids I meet are largely pro-drink, anti-hard drugs and – perhaps most surprisingly – actively looking to avoid getting into bother. On a chained up pedalo, Jack from Oldham offers me his drink and tells me about how much he loves the friend he’s out with, as she strips off and heads into the sea. “You know when you bump into someone and say sorry?” Jack asks. “At home you get cunts who use that to kick off. That doesn’t happen here. Everyone’s just happy to be out on holiday.”
If Jack’s attitude represents a mellowing out of Maga, compared to some of the stories I’d heard from Tomo about glassings and bar-top mutilations, then all the signs point to that trend continuing. This year, the Melia hotel chain announced a €25 million investment in the area with a view to building high-class, all-inclusive hotels, appealing to those tourists for whom non-honeymoon jaunts to the Caribbean are just a step too far. Signs of this gentrification are already visible in off-strip resorts such as Nikki Beach and the Me hotels filling out a niche in the market. “I assume there’ll be some opposition from the older hotels,” Tomás from Mallorca Diario tells me, “but it’s clear that this is the direction the council wants to go in. At least, that’s what the money is saying.”
The move towards a higher class of tourist is generally being welcomed by locals, especially those who deal with the front line of the chaos. A 20-something taxi driver tells me that – even though she can’t understand why higher class tourists would want to come to Magaluf – “if I get a call to Nikki Beach I know I won't have any problems. Anywhere else, I ask them to show their money before they get in.” For all their nostalgic appeal, the bars offering karaoke and live football are going the way of crazy golf. On my last visit to Tomo, I notice a "for sale" sign hanging in the window of his bar, and he admits that unless things turn around, he’s likely to shut Bollocks down at the end of the season. And while for the moment Carnage are facing down the sanctions with an almost self-parodic sense of laddish bravado, it could be that the high volume, high consumption format they embody also has its days numbered.
What this will mean for the working-class Brits that I met and had a blast with while I was out there is anyone’s guess. Jess, the PR girl from Bollocks, put it best: “Maga’s cheap, it’s a laugh, and people without much get to have fun. Where else are we going to go, if not here?”
By 6AM, after talking to plumbers from Watford, PR girls from Manchester and personal trainers from Leeds, I’m thoroughly bantered out. As the sky gets lighter, and the street cleaners start out on what has to be the worst job in the world, the signs of what’s wrong with Maga are obvious. What’s been made less clear, at least in the press coverage we’ve seen this month, is what’s right with it. I’m sitting, sharing a six-pack of Budweiser with Olivia, James and Sarah from Reading. James goes on endlessly about wanting to go back to the hotel to "bun a zoot", and as annoying as that phrase is, it's a sentiment I can't help but approve of. As I listen to them chat about drugs, and TV, and the future, the sun starts rising up over an island directly in front of us.
“Hey,” exclaims Olivia, “look at that. It’s exactly like the picture on a bottle of Malibu.”