The weather has been cloudy, windy and wet for much of May – validating the Catalan proverb, Al maig, cada dia un raig (in May, a shower every day) – with just the occasional day of glorious sunshine, when we take off for a walk, just to reassure ourselves that summer is really coming. On one of these occasions, wandering round the lanes near the village, we came upon this goat, standing in proprietorial fashion in the doorway of a caravan. She stared at us as we passed, not remotely deterred by the dog, who wisely stayed away.
Spring started a long time ago now, announced by the cherry blossom in February. It always seems to me that the summer is on its way when the first shoots appear on the vines, in early April. The poppies shoot up at the same time, bestowing on the olive groves a scattering of scarlet.
The first tourists start to appear then too, almost exclusively French at this time of year, driving in the middle of the road on country lanes, and getting lost in the medieval labyrinth of the village.
One of the walks we took a couple of weeks back was to the Santuari de la Mare de Deu, near Terrades. A half hour’s climb to a tiny chapel rewards with views of Canigou and beyond.
Another of my favourite places, all year round, which still provides unspoiled beaches out of season, is Cap Norfeu – named after Orpheus – on the Cap de Creus peninsula, where, if you listen carefully, you can hear strains of song from below the cliffs. But don’t venture too close. Or go stepping on any snakes. You might end up in the underworld.
Yesterday morning, returning from a walk with Bruno in bright spring sunshine, I enter the small car park adjacent to the village cemetery. An old and weathered-looking fellow, somewhat twisted in appearance, is limping towards his car, parked at the entrance. I greet him, unthinkingly, in Spanish, with a cheerful ‘Buenos días’. He surveys me briefly, before responding, in Catalan: ‘Bon dia’, then adding, in Spanish: ‘Es solo un día.’ – ‘It’s only one day’. This takes some unpacking to anyone unfamiliar with (a) Catalan nationalism, and (b) variations in Spanish around the world. But it poses interesting questions, both sociolinguistic and ontological.
The literal meaning of my Spanish greeting is ‘Good days’, plural. It is standard Castilian, and used throughout Spain. My interlocutor chose to correct me either because (a) I addressed him in Spanish, and not Catalan, in an overwhelmingly Catalan (and catalanista, independista etc) rural area, or else (b) he was making an ontological point about the phrase itself, but even so, one with sociolinguistic intimations. This is a point picked up – in a somewhat different context – in Andrés Neuman’s chronicle Cómo viajar sin ver (How to travel without seeing), soon to appear in English translation from Restless Books in the USA), about the difference between the Spanish and Argentine forms of the greeting – in Argentina they also use the singular form: Buen día. Here goes:
‘I land at Ezieiza airport and automatically, like someone switching radio stations, hear myself speaking Porteño. I repossess, as an outsider, my original dialect. I shift from the assertive Spanish “Buenos días” to the sliding Argentinian “Buen dííía”. Why should the day be various in Spain and exclusive in Argentina? A multinational country greets in the plural, and a centralist country greets in the singular?’
But the gentleman in the car park, I would wager, was making a nationalistic assertion also: he was saying, I believe: ‘You’re in Catalunya: we do things our way’. My mistake was in taking him, at a glance, for the type of elderly Catalan who will nearly always greet a foreigner in Spanish rather than Catalan, partly out of courtesy, partly because for much of their lives it was the only official language of the state. But to emphasise the distinction between Catalan and Castilian in this way is to make a political point.
So, our brief interaction was complex, to say the least. Whereas the comparison Neuman makes is quite generous towards Spain, asserting that its very plurality promotes a broader conceptualisation of greeting, whereas in a centralised state like Argentina, there is only one way to greet and one day in which to make the greeting, my interlocutor makes Spain the invader, its assumed multiplexity a mask for invasion and linguistic colonization. In a small country, whose language was for a long time perceived as a threatened species, the inflexion of a greeting always reveals just a tad more than elsewhere.
A couple of months ago, walking the dog on a hill track beyond the cemetery, I nearly walked into a quite hideous nest-like construction, hanging from a pine tree at head level, looking like something from a science fiction film, where a very dark secret is about to be unleashed. Or, less dramatically, like dirty white candy floss. I had no idea what it was.
Last week, on exactly the same stretch of path I nearly trod on a procession of caterpillars, which seemed to follow one another along, the head of one – as far as it is able to discriminate with caterpillars – touching the rear of the the other, in a long chain. Since the caterpillar line was directly beneath where the nest had been, I googled ‘caterpillar chain’ and discovered that I had been witness to an appearance by the pine processionary moth, or Thaumetopoea pityocampa.
Apparently the moth lays its eggs in summer, high in a pine tree; the young caterpillars make their nest for the winter – which I witnessed when it had grown to a considerable size in January. As the weather gets warmer they descend to ground level and form processional chains in order to find a place in the soil to pupate.
I looked out for the caterpillars on my way back along the path half an hour later, but they had gone to ground.
The image of these creatures following one another, as if being led blindly by a single caterpillar who seemed to know the way put me in mind of the story of the blind men of Bram.
Bram is a small commune in the Rousillon, not far from Carcassonne. At the time of the Catholic French crusades against the Cathar heretics, Bram was a Cathar stronghold. It fell to the crusade of Simon de Montfort in 1210. The crusaders saved 100 men from the general slaughter, cropped their noses, cut off their lips, and gouged out their eyes. They left one man with one eye intact, to guide the others. The procession of the blind men of Bram roamed the countryside as far as the fortress at Lastours, apparently as a demonstration of the Crusading army’s Christian clemency.
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.
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).
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).
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?
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.
Yesterday, intending to do my civic duties and pay my annual dues (known as the Xaloc) at the village ajuntament, 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, and once again the office is closed. 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:
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.
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.
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.
Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.
One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.
He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.
Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.
“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”
“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”
“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”
“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”
And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:
“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”
That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.
As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”
But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus? But I digress.
It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.
I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.