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Notes from a Catalan Village: The Mushroom Season

23 Nov


Autumn is the mushroom season, and at weekends, if you take a walk outside the village, you will encounter the mushroom hunter, a basket slung underarm, scanning the ground with an expert eye. King of the mushrooms is the rovelló, (Lactarius deliciosus) – pictured above, large and fleshy funghi that appear around the roots of pines, which grow abundantly along the tracks through the Alberas leading north and into France.

The picture includes one of the largest specimens I have ever encountered (or eaten). I’d recommend them cooked in olive oil or butter with some garlic and parsley, and spread over toast, or with spaghetti or linguine, if you have any.

Another – perhaps the other – defining feature of autumn is the Tramuntana – a wind that heads down off the Pyrenees and sweeps all before it. It makes its way to the coast of Menorca (200 miles due south from here), and who knows how far beyond . . . It is a wind invested with powerful psychological or emotional qualities.

This wind, the mountain wind, infiltrates every corner like a spinning incubus, growing inside each perception, every mundane act, taking them over utterly. Eventually you become aware only of the immediate and hallucinatory impact of whatever stands before you: the silent apparition of the dog waiting expectantly in the doorway; a dead sheep lying beside a roadside elm. The wind sucks out everything from you, leaving you exhausted and chastened. People have been known to commit murder on account of the mountain wind, or else go slowly insane over several seasons. (Colour of a Dog Running Away)

The wind needn’t affect everyone in quite this way; but the dogs, they notice, and flocks of starlings appear as you drive along the road to Garriguella and swerve and dive and bank away in a thick black cloud over the recently ploughed fields.

I have noticed, in myself and others, particularly after a full week of the wind – a tendency towards dreaminess or abstraction, a withdrawal into a state in which the structures of the phenomenal world have a tendency to dissolve. When this happens, conversations about the village take a strange turn, and the person with whom one thinks one has been speaking turns out to have been dead for a hundred years (the teenage girl who disappeared into the mountains with her illegitimate and stillborn child in 1912), and the postman mistakes you for Andreu the beetle-crusher, and the Butane delivery driver’s assistant refuses to let you take in the heavy gas cylinder that you use for cooking and hot water, mistaking you for the old man you must appear to him to be, and tells you to take care now, to wrap up warm, it’s cold.

Rabos January 2012


pre sunset



Notes from a Catalan Village: The Grape Harvest

28 Sep

Vendimia 1

Late September: the tourists have abandoned the beaches, and only a few resolute locals and French day-trippers can be found on a Sunday at Colera’s platja dels morts, where we spend a delightful couple of hours reading and swimming. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable mid-20s and there are occasional overcast days, even rain. The vendimia draws to a close, country roads still dotted with tractors pulling trailers overladen with purple grapes (mostly garnatxa, although more farmers are experimenting with different varieties now, including the ever-popular cabernet sauvignon and merlot).

Vendimia 3

vendimia 4

Mrs Blanco lends a hand.

vendimia 5

vendimia emptying cubo

In the midst of all this activity, we have elections, purportedly to declare an independent Catalan state.

The plastic hoarding that Bruno the dog is so fond of urinating against – Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a coalition of parties promoting a vote for independence at the elections held yesterday – was installed at the top of the village around a month ago. The result of yesterday’s election – with all the votes not yet counted – is that while the pro-independence parties have gained a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, they did not receive 50% of the actual vote. Which means that if this were to be treated as a de facto referendum – and the Independentistas claimed it was – then they have failed (even though they are, of course, claiming otherwise).

junts pel si

I have three main concerns about Catalan independence. The first is whether Catalunya will remain a member of, or be automatically admitted to, the EU. From the threats offered by both Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish president and – on a recent visit to Madrid – David Cameron, the same attitude is being taken by the larger states as was taken over Scottish independence: that there is no automatic entry and Catalunya will have to join the queue for EU membership.

Secondly it’s disappointing, although not surprising, that all of the faces of the candidates – 135 of them – are white. There are a lot of non-white people in Catalunya, especially in Barcelona, with its large Asian, Maghrebi and Latino population. In the country areas there are many sub-Saharan Africans, working almost exclusively in agriculture. Many of them do not have papers. They are politically invisible. And frankly there doesn’t seem to be much hope of the new Catalan state, if or when it exists, embracing pluralism to any significant degree. ‘Race’ is likely to take on major significance in the Iberian countries over the next 20 years. Which is all a bit worrying within the context of the independence movement: do we really need more nationalism at a crucial time like this, when European countries should be embracing a more internationalist and pluralistic identity? Does regional and linguistic identity really need to be framed as ‘nationalism’?

Thirdly and perhaps of greater concern to most Spaniards of all denominations: what would happen to Barça football club in an independent Catalan state? It would not be able to stay in the Spanish Liga, as it would not be in Spain. Would a new ‘Iberian league’ come into being, to include teams from Portugal, perhaps? Or would the great Barça be reduced to weekend features with the likes of Vilanant, Vilafant, and Vilajuïga?

Catalan castles

24 Aug

I have always been deeply and unaccountably moved while watching the Catalan castell being performed. My family and I witnessed a castell event last Sunday in the town of Roses, and I filmed two of them. The one I show here is a group from the town of  Castelló.

To summarise: the castell (castle) is a traditional Catalan festival performance. Many towns and villages have their own club de castellers, which meet and rehearse around the year. The groundwork is done by a large group of castellers, mostly men, who will from the base, the pinya, upon which the whole structure is erected. The pinya needs to be solid and dependable if construction is to continue. Sometimes the second layer of castellers take a while finding their feet on the shoulders of the base component. Once they are ready, a signal is given, and the band begins to pay the toc de castell music, brassy and rousing. The upper layers need to rise as quickly as possible so as not to put excessive strain on the lower members, who bear most of the weight of the construction. Once the smallest casteller – usually a child of around six years of age – has reached the top, he or she raises four fingers towards the sky (symbolising the stripes of blood in the Catalan flag) and descends the other side of the castle, followed by her companions. The dismantling of the castle must also take place rapidly, and it is at this point that an accident is most likely to happen, as a casteller loses his or her footing, causing a colleague to lose balance. If there is a fall, there is the safety net of the pinya to prevent injury: the community protects its own. Very occasionally these accidents can be serious. In 2006 a young casteller fell to his death in a castell in Mataró. Prior to that there had been no fatalities for 23 years. However Health and Safety now requires the children on the upper layers to wear helmets.

The whole performance is an exercise in trust, in balance, and in togetherness. It also requires courage, especially from the children who form the uppermost layers of the castell. It moves me, I suppose, because it reflects the ability of small communities to depend on one another in a symbolic way, and to act out this solidarity as a piece of living theatre. This seems to be something so-called ‘minority cultures’ do well, but these cultural artefacts are dying out, and will one day disappear, or else will become objectified or Disneyfied, and become yet another quaint cultural product to be marketed and profited from. For the moment though, the castell holds a special place as an emblem of resistance, of identity, and of community.

The Dictator’s Ghost

15 Aug

Yesterday, intending to do my civic duties and pay my annual dues (known as the Xaloc) at the ajuntament of Rabós, I plodded up the hill, Thursday being one of the two days on which the village hall opens its office to deal with citizens and their affairs. Once inside the ajuntament complex, I notice that on the door of the office itself, a scrap of paper is pinned to the woodwork, declaring that during the months of July and August, office hours will take place on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings instead of Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. Fair enough.

So today I take myself up the hill again (I do not wish to dramatise this; it is not an enormous hill, and I do live near the top end of the village, but nevertheless . . .) and the office is closed again. A friendly face at the village shop tells me that today is the assumption of the most Holy Virgin, the day on which the Virgin Mary was allegedly scooped up to heaven. For this reason the whole country must stop in its tracks. However, as a regular visitor to Spain and other Latin countries, I am used to this, and do not so much as flinch a northern European muscle.

Digression: Xaloc, the name of the tax, sounds like a Mexican god, but is in fact, I recall, the Catalan name of one of the sea winds (it comes from the Arabic word shaluq, meaning south-east). A Catalan fisherman’s saying goes: Vent de Xaloc, mar molta i peix poc / Xaloc wind: big sea and few fish. Is this how the term came to be adopted to refer to a form of taxation?

My adventure in trying to pay my civic dues could be represented as a flow chart, or else in bullet points, as follows:

i. Ajuntament office hours are on Mondays 10-12 and Thursdays 16-18.30,


ii. in July and August, when they will take place between 14.30-16.30 on Mondays and 10-12.30 on Fridays,


iii. on Fiesta days during those months, when they will be cancelled altogether.

These are the kinds of qualifications that would send Angela Merkel and any self-respecting northern European Eurocrat into palpitations. It is exactly this kind of thing, don’t you know, which causes these idle Mediterranean countries to crash their economies. No sense of civic duty, no sense of Hard Graft.

On my way down through the village, I see something on the wall that I have never before noticed (and I have been coming to this village, on and off, since 1988). Now, the changing of place names is a well known phenomenon in all countries with an historical tendency to regime change: we once spent an afternoon in La Línea de la Concepción trying to track down my mother-in-law’s birthplace, before realising that the street names had undergone at least two revisions since 1926. Here is what I saw:


The village square at Rabós d’Empordà, with the faded evidence of an earlier inscription: 'Plaza del Generalisimo Franco'.

The village square at Rabós d’Empordà, with the faded evidence of an earlier inscription: ‘Plaza del Generalisimo Franco’.


What would the Generalisimo have made of it all? Well, the answer is clear: it was with the dictatorship that my little tale begins. Franco was directly responsible for both maintaining a crippling adherence to Catholic dogma and a ludicrously top-heavy bureaucracy that Spain has been struggling to free itself from over the past 40 years. And the more feast days, clearly, the more devout your subjects.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.




How to write a novel

10 Jan

cala pelosa 7 jan 2013


What to do when you are writing a book and one of your characters won’t behave, won’t toe the line, won’t stay on the page?

You go for a little lie down in the afternoon sun. Sleep a while. It’s 25 degrees centigrade in January, for heaven’s sake. You can always write later. On waking you will hear the murmur of a sea so placid, so translucent, that you can just make out the octopi telling jokes. (They spend most of their time telling jokes and playing eight handed cribbage).

Octopi (or octopuses) are gravely misunderstood creatures, as any watcher of nature programmes can attest. Here is a short video of a BBC diver getting snogged by a very big octopus.







Casting Ashes

30 Aug


The three of them think they are carrying this fish somewhere and the fourth one, the blue man, he knows better. In my mind the blue man is the artist, Lluís Peñaranda, and this is one of my favourite paintings. Lluís died last December, having contracted liver cancer from a viral hepatitis infection contracted many years before.

Lluís was my first and closest friend in this part of the world. He picked me up when I was hitchhiking, soaked to the skin and two-thirds drunk, during a June thunderstorm on the Portbou-Llança road, sometime in the early 80s. It was a risk, on his part. But despite the strange circumstances of our meeting, we recognised something in each another, an affinity of sorts, maybe even an attraction of opposites. Sometimes it just happens like that.



Last Sunday his son Davíd, his partner Ramona, myself, Mrs Blanco, Joan Castelló and Juliette Murphy – his close family and friends – made an excursion into the Albera mountains to cast his ashes to the wind. We did so at Puig Neulós, the advantage of this peak being that it is visible from all over Alt Empordà, this magical zone which Lluís so magically reflected in his work.



The first painting Lluís ever gave me was this picture of a suprised-looking tiger flying above a mountain ridge (representing the Collsdecabra mountains, where I was doing very weird rehab in a small village in 1988). The rehab didn’t work, but the message implicit in the painting did, and I became a soaring, startled tiger. Well, okay, I made that bit up.



I once wrote: “Landscapes appear to rise out of water in Lluís’ work. The ubiquitous cypresses, and especially those moons, poised in the night sky, emanating a numinous light that illuminates the somnolent wanderings of the principal characters. The landscape of Empordà is the subliminal topic or perpetual subtext of Lluís’ work. It provides the mirror for an interior landscape which is essentially dreamlike, and, at times submarine, but the artist surfaces too, gasping, drawing in air in great thirsty gulps, and when he strides onto dry land he carries over his shoulder a bulging net of treasures found scattered on the sea-bed: old trumpets, olive oil cruets, rusting film spools, trowels, deckchairs and an old accordion, which, when beached and squeezed, releases a symphony of pilchards, starfish and seaweed. His is an elemental iconography: we are never far from sea, birds, beasts and the accumulated force of these creatures in the imaginative repertoire. Lluís is a collector of materials, and of symbols.”  Being in Water”: Lluís Peñaranda, Iwan Bala – Notes for an Exhibition bu Richard Gwyn (Cranc, 2001).


High above the castle of Requessens and the villages of Alt Empordà, straddling the border with France (actually marked by the broken fence) a young cow swishes away the flies.



We stand against the lowering sun and the shadows of the six of us are cast upon a giant rock. Only Lluís is absent. I write that, although in the shadows it is always hard to tell who exactly is whom.

Next to the halter of cow dung, secured by a rock, is the empty box that contained Lluís’s ashes. I have no idea how long it will stay there. Lluís insisted that his earthly ashes be kept in a biscuit tin until their dispersal, for reasons that will, like so much else, remain forever a mystery. Knowing Lluís, a shaman and artist of true originality and vision, it was perhaps his last joke, although I would not be surprised if some day I find others planted along my pathway.

It was a very strange day, that began weird and then found its own measure, there in the mountains. By the time we walked down, on the French side, everything felt right, and as it should be. Apart from him not being with us, that is.


Ricardo Blanco and Lluís Peñaranda, Cistella, June 1995





Fire damage near Rabós

20 Aug


The land is unholy. It starts to the south east of the village, a kilometre or so along the road where the earth smells of burning metal, an acrid carbon overlay not carried on any breeze but dense within the pigment of the air, the soil a black and ash-smeared crust. No birds. Then, intermittently, bewildered trees, their snowy leaves incongruous under the August sun, shades of grey and copper, magenta, and colours that do not have names except in an alchemist’s almanac, colours that exist only in the immediate aftermath of fire and which still cast out a dead heat. To walk out into this, to step on this unholy ground would be wrong: this wasteland needs to be uninhabited by creature forms. This is the burned-out anteroom to some terrible memory. A couple of years ago, not far from here, a bush fire like this claimed the lives of eight firefighters, cut off and encircled by flames that move faster than a charging bull, swifter than a running deer. When fire comes this close the balance of mortality tilts.

In the top picture the village is visible in a gap between the trees; the bell tower, a few red roofs.




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