(English version below)
Com a foraster, he intentat entendre l’Albera, la manera com es connecten els camins, i malgrat la qualitat decebedora dels mapes disponibles, he arribat a entendre la topografia del paisatge dels voltants de Rabós. He passat dies llargs i gloriosos fent senderisme per la zona, des del Puig Neulós fins al Coll de Banyuls, els diferents circuits de Sant Quirze i fins a Colera o Port Bou, pel cap de Creus i el cap Norfeu, i pels laberíntics camins que serpentegen per Requessens. Ara tinc un mapa mental de les diferents rutes pels turons dels voltants, i amb cada excursió la meva comprensió s’amplia una mica. A poc a poc començo a veure el territori com un tot, de la mateixa manera que entenc les muntanyes del meu propi país, les Muntanyes Negres de Gal·les – que no són negres sinó verdes, morades i ocres, depenent de l’época de l’any – i que envolten el poble on vaig néixer. Aquestes dues serralades, les Alberes i les Muntanyes Negres, formen d’alguna manera un rerefons del meu món interior, si puc dir-ho així, i totes dues ara se senten com a casa. Se sent com un privilegi conèixer i estimar aquestes dues parts d’Europa per igual.
Així que ens va preocupar molt quan vam conèixer el pla de plantar torres eòliques al llarg de l’Albera, i com molts veïns, vam anar a la manifestació de Capmany l’any passat per protestar contra establiment d’aquestes torres. No és que estiguem en contra de “l’energia sostenible”, per descomptat, caldria estar boig o tenir el cap en una galleda per no admetre que el món està en perill a causa del canvi climàtic, sinó simplement perquè no semblava la manera correcta anar fent coses en una zona d’una bellesa natural excepcional, amb tots els danys que es produirien a l’hàbitat, l’amenaça a les vies de vol dels ocells, la construcció de vies d’accés als molins de vent i els inevitables danys als animals i plantes, sense oblidar l’amenaça potencial per als nombrosos monuments neolítics o fins i tot la simple estètica d’aquest pla. Energia sostenible sí! però no així.
Una de les coses que ha canviat al llarg dels segles al meu paisatge natiu va ser la desaparició dels camins dels pastors i ramaders – d’ovelles i boví – que cobrien les muntanyes durant segles, permetent als pastors portar el seu bestiar al mercat a diferents pobles de Gal·les i a l’altra banda de la frontera d’Anglaterra. Quan es van construir els ferrocarrils al segle XIX, els animals es van començar a transportar amb tren, però amb el temps també van morir els ferrocarrils, i actualment el bestiar es desplaça en camió. Els ferrocarrils de les parts més allunyades del país ja han desaparegut, però els camins dels pastors romanen. I encara hi ha vies més antigues. De la mateixa manera que l’Albera està esquitxada de dòlmens, les Muntanyes Negres van ser un dels llocs preferits pels nostres avantpassats llunyans i contenen les restes de diversos campaments neolítics, que al seu torn van ser els camins fantasma que els posteriors invasors saxons i normands van agafar durant la seva colonització del país. Els normands van construir castells al llarg de la frontera per vigilar els nadius, per mantenir els gal·lesos fora d’Anglaterra.
En almenys una ciutat fronterera anglesa, Hereford, era legalment acceptable disparar a un gal·lès a la vista, tan problemàtics i sense llei es consideraven aquests veïns; però l’efecte a llarg termini va ser mantenir separades les poblacions dels dos països, de manera que els gal·lesos, tot i que van ser la primera de les colònies d’Anglaterra, van aconseguir conservar una bona part de la seva cultura i llengua intactes, molt després que l’Imperi Britànic s’hagués estès a l’estranger cobrint una quarta part de la superfície terrestre. Aquí hi ha correlacions òbvies amb Catalunya, en les seves lluites al llarg dels segles amb un estat militar dominant a Espanya, i l’aposta per l’autodeterminació. Però no ens deixem distreure amb la política: és la muntanya, de moment, la que ens interessa. Hi seran aquí quan tota la resta hagi avançat, sigui quin sigui el futur de la nostra civilització, tant si els nostres respectius països aconsegueixen un estat d’autogovern autònom com si no. Els turons del voltant de Rabós, com algú va dir una vegada, són com dracs adormits, tal com els turons encerclen el meu poble natal, a mil milles al nord. I així els veig jo, dracs adormits bressolant el poble i les terres de conreu que l’envolten, tal com Rabós s’agita inquiet a la Tramuntana i s’adorm en un estupor tranquil durant la canícula.
As a foreigner, I have tried to understand the Alberas, the way that the paths connect, and despite the disappointing quality of the available maps, I have come some way to understanding the topography of the landscape around Rabós. I have spent long and glorious days hiking around the Alberas, from Puig Neulós to the Coll de Banyuls, the various circuits of Sant Quirze and on to Colera or Port Bou, around the headland of Cap de Creus and Cap Norfeu, and along the labyrinthine paths that snake around Requessens. I now have a mental map of the different routes through the hills hereabouts, and with each excursion my understanding expands a little. Gradually I am beginning to see the territory as a whole, in the same way that I understand the mountains of my own country, the Black Mountains of Wales, which are not black but green and purple and ochre — which surround the village where I was born. These two mountain ranges, the Alberas and the Black Mountains, somehow form a background to my inner world, if I might put it that way, and both of them now feel like home. It feels like a privilege to know and love both these parts of Europe equally.
So it became a matter of great concern when we learned of the plan to plant wind towers across the length of the Alberas, and like many local people, we went along to the demonstration in Capmany last year to protest the establishment of these towers. Not that we are against ‘sustainable energy’, of course — you would have to be crazy or have your head in a bucket not to acknowledge that the world is in peril because of climate change — but this did not seem the right way to go about doing things in an area of outstanding natural beauty, what with all the damage that would be caused to the habitat, the threat to birds’ flight paths, the building of access roads to the windmills and the inevitable damage to animal and plant life, not to mention the potential threat to the numerous neolithic monuments or even the simple aesthetics of such a plan. Sustainable energy, yes – but not like this!
One of the things that has changed over the centuries in my own native landscape was the disappearance of drovers’ tracks, which covered the mountains for centuries, allowing drovers to take their livestock to market in different towns in Wales and across the border in England — sheep and cattle, for the most part.
When the railways were built in the nineteenth century, the animals started to be transported by train, but in time the railways died also, and nowadays the livestock travel by lorry. The railways in the remoter parts of the country are now gone, but the drovers’ paths remain. And there are older pathways still. Just as the Alberas are dotted with dolmens, the Black Mountains were favourite locations for our distant ancestors and contain the remains of several neolithic encampments, which in their turn were the ghost-trails the later Saxon and the Norman invaders took during their colonisation of the country. The Normans built castles along the frontier to monitor the natives, to keep the Welsh out of England. In at least one English border town, Hereford, it was legally acceptable to shoot a Welshman on sight, so troublesome and lawless were these neighbours perceived to be; but the longer-term effect was to keep the populations of the two countries separate, so that the Welsh, although the first of England’s colonies, managed to retain a good deal of its culture and language intact, long after the British Empire had spread overseas to cover one quarter of the earth’s land area. There are obvious correlations here with Catalunya, in its struggles over the centuries with a dominant military state in Spain, and the bid for self-determination. But let’s not get distracted by the political: it is the mountains, for the moment, that interest us. They will be here when everything else has moved on, whatever the future of our civilisation might be, whether our respective countries achieve a state of autonomous self-government or not. The hills around Rabós, as someone once said, are like sleeping dragons, just as the hills encircle my home village, a thousand miles two the north. And that is the way I see them, sleeping dragons cradling the village and the farmlands around it, just as Rabós stirs restlessly in the Tramuntana, and slumbers in a tranquil stupor during the dog days of summer.
As we walk the coastal path, east from Roses around the Cap de Creus, I notice that the sky is doing that thing again, the thing it does around these parts, as though clouds were instruments in a symphony sung by the sky, as though the sky were a vast canvas across which clouds might dance, converge, disperse, dissolve, regroup, in the infinite manner of being a cloud, in the obfuscation of a cloud (singular) becoming clouds, of the slowly mutating state of being one thing, then more than one thing, the distant wisp of a thought.
Sculpting the Sky
For several years, on and off, I have been trying to locate certain ‘stone sculptures’ or rock markings high in the Sierra of the Alberas, within a few kilometres of the village of Rabós. Puzzled by a signpost on a lonely track that reads ‘ESCULTURES 400m’ and finding nothing on a couple of previous excursions, I was finally led to the place by my neighbour Joan Castelló on an outing last weekend.
The rock markings are known locally as ‘les cassoletes’ – little cooking pots – as they resemble such articles in shape, and have been dug into a large flat rock just below a dolmen. The Alberas mountain range, spanning the border between France and Spain, provides a remarkable density of menhirs, dolmens and burial chambers, which suggests that the region was a busy place of passage for our neolithic ancestors, and was permanently settled from an early date. The belief is that these markings date from between around 5,000 and 3,000 years ago. There is also speculation that the carvings were done more recently, in either the medieval or modern period, but archaeologists have dismissed this idea, notably Josep Tarrùs i Gallter et al, 1998, in ‘Reflexions sobre els gravats rupestres prehistorícs de Catalunya: El cas de l’Alt Empordà’ (the article is in Catalan and can be found here). In their essay, the authors argue that the engravings are unlikely to have been made at any period other than the neolithic, since (i) there are common patterns of coherence in terms of locale and detail; the engravings are always found alongside megalithic formations (burial chambers, menhirs etc.); (ii) the techniques used in making the inscriptions are uniform across the area between Mount Canigou in France and the Cap de Creus Penisular, all featuring indents and grooves made by a hard object or chisel; (iii) the iconographic coherence: circles, cruciforms, angles, human figures and ‘cassoletes’ are found uniformly across the area.
But the scholarly study is resoundingly silent on what most interests me: what do the signs on the rock represent?
Whatever we do or do not know about our Neolithic and bronze age predecessors, I cannot help but speculate on the shapes presented on the rock before me. I do not think the sculptors of the Neolithic were any less serious in making their mark than were the cave painters of Lascaux: they represented the core matter with which their lives were concerned. Staring at the markings, I could only see them as reflections of what lay directly above: the constellations. And of one constellation in particular, which, like most people, I can usually make out even if I know very little else about astronomy, as it is one of the most clearly identifiable patterns in the night sky.
I could only see one thing when I looked at the rock, and that was a mirror image of The Plough, in the constellation of Ursa Major, The Great Bear.
Notes from a Catalan village: summer on its way
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.
Notes from a Catalan village: how to greet a stranger
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.
Notes from a Catalan village: Caterpillar processions and the blind men of Bram
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.
The Christmas and New Year break can be draining enough anywhere, but here in Spain the festive drudgery carries on until Epiphany on January 6th, and the celebration of the coming of the kings (Reyes, or Reis in Catalan), the Magi of the Orient who arrive to welcome the baby Jesus in his manger, surrounded by the traditional donkey, cow and a few sheep. This not only means that nothing functions for a full two weeks, but that everyone – especially those with small kids – are in a state of near exhaustion by the time they need to go back to work on 7th January. This puts everyone in a bad mood, even if the weather, and particularly the persistent icy wind, were not enough.
One aspect of the visitation of the kings, in almost every village across Spain, is that the custom of a white person ‘blacking up’ for the role of King Balthasar – supposedly an African king – continues despite mounting criticism of the practice. In fact, Madrid has abolished the custom altogether, choosing to use a ‘real’ black person in the role. Since in Madrid the spectacle is customarily enacted by three of the City Councillors, and – unsurprisingly – there are no black Councillors to be found, a professional actor was found. As the English language newspaper The Local reported:
The Spanish capital has decided to break with tradition – all in the name of diversity . . . King Balthazar will be played by a black actor from an African association based in Madrid, confirmed the director of Programs and Cultural Activities at Madrid City Hall, Jesús María Carrillo . . . “As well as being more professional it will be more representative: we are not just using any old actor from an audition . . . we want to connect with the cultural diversity of the city while also bringing a sense of professionalism to the parade because it is a huge event, in which it is a huge responsibility to step into the shoes of one of the three kings.”
The actors will be paid around €1,000 for the parade which will take place in central Madrid on the evening of January 5th. Madrid City Hall also confirmed that sweets will be handed out during the parade to children in the crowd but in a “more peaceful way”: during previous years’ parades several members of the crowd had their glasses broken by flying candies.
Well, so much for Madrid. Here in the Catalan hinterland, there were no such pretensions at political correctness, let alone ‘connecting with the cultural diversity’ of the region. Sweets were thrown most peacefully, and nobody’s glasses were broken. In a society where a good percentage of the agricultural workforce is composed of black Africans, it is a mystery why the ludicrous and offensive practice of ‘blacking up’ be allowed to continue, but there we are. No doubt if a thousand Euros were offered for the job, a volunteer would be found quickly enough.
Last weekend was the Festival of the Olive in Espolla, a neighbouring village. Espolla is only a walk away through the vineyards, but always seems to me a much more exalted and organized sort of place than our lowly village: they’ve got a shop that opens all day, a butcher’s, a couple of restaurants. There’s even a bar.
Our neighbours, Joan and Juliette, ran a stall (pictured above) to sell their excellent wines and honey. As well as locals, the festival is popular with French market stall holders and day trippers (France is only fifteen minutes drive away on the back road). On display, along with the local wines and glorious dark green, fragrant, earthy mineral-rich oils, there were great rounds of cheese, wonderful freshly baked breads, baskets, wooden chests, wood-burning stoves and candy floss. A great outing on a fine day, after nearly an entire gloomy week of the tramuntana mountain wind.
Notes from a Catalan Village: The Mushroom Season
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.
Notes from a Catalan Village: The Grape Harvest
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.
The Dictator’s Ghost
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.
How to write a novel
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.