Ricardo Blanco's Blog

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.

Pine_processionary_moth_

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.

Pine Caterpillar chain

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.

Pine chain longer

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.

bram_blind

 

 

 

 

Information overload on the beach

Grifeu 1

There was a time when a beach was simply a beach. You took your clothes off, and if you were so inclined donned a bathing costume (or swimming suit) and splashed around in the sea. Upon exiting the waters, you might want to dry off – always bearing in mind the well-advertised health hazards – by basking in the sun. Even fifteen years ago that was all there was to it. Not now. Over the past few years, going to our nearest beach has turned into an educational and communicative experience in which we are alerted to:

  • a map of all the beaches in the Llança municipality, and how to find them;

Grifeu 1a

Grifeu 2

  • a map of Grifeu beach, with accompanying symbology of all the activities encouraged, facilitated or prohibited thereon;

Grifeu 3

  • the history of the beach, and fishing methods carried out historically in the zone;

Grifeu 4

  • the etymology of its name: this is disappointing. Grifeu, we learn, is an old Catalan surname, but doesn’t tell us what the surname means. I want it to mean ‘Griffin’ but have found no evidence that it might.

Grifeu 4a

  • swimming routes encouraged by the municipal authorities, including an evening group swim at 7 pm each day following the buoys along the coast to Llança harbour, the so-called vies braves, or ‘brave routes’, not for the faint-hearted;

Grifeu 5

Grifeu 5a

  • a description of the tamariu (tamarix) tree that lies in the middle of the beach and under which cool shade may be sought; also informing us that the tamarix (or tamarisk) was the favourite tree of the Greek god Apollo;

Grifeu 6

Grifeu 6a

  • a monument to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008), and a sample of his verse concerning the beach itself, in recognition of the fact that the poet used to come here. (I once read alongside Palau i Fabre, already in his 90th year, at a local poetry festival, and was struck by his noble visage and penetrating gaze).

Grifeu 7

Grifeu 7a

But does one need all of this on a visit to the beach? Information overload afflicts us everywhere we go, and quite frankly I don’t need it at the seaside. All this labelling, signalling, categorisation and the all-embracing bureaucratisation of everything, even so-called ‘leisure time’. Even poetry. Fortunately, however, one can just turn one’s back on it all and swim out to those buoys. At least out at sea there are fewer distractions.

Exhibit B in Santiago de Chile

A Place in the Sun, from Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.

From Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.

 

Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”

‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.

Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”

Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.

The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.

My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.

By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.

At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.

 

 

 

Cartagena, the Inquisition and slavery, all in a day

Cartagena square

 

On my second evening in Cartagena I take a stroll around the old walled city, which despite its colonial style and nostalgic elegance is sadly heading in the same direction as every other tourist destination in the developing world. The old triangular square that contained the slave market for over 200 years is now used by the descendants of those slaves working in the sex trade (female, as far as I could determine but, I have been informed, you can never be sure until the moment of truth). They congregate in little groups and totter around on heels, checking mobile phones sheathed in brightly coloured holders.

But even watching the rituals of the night unfold can be exhausting in this heat, so I head back to my small hotel in Getsemaní, just outside the old walls.

I arrived the day before yesterday and had been in Cartagena for three hours and been through as many changes of shirt. The air was like hot soup, and, once settled in my room, with the air-conditioning finally working, I foolishly left my haven to wade through the soup on a shopping mission. I went to one of the many stalls selling phones and electrical accessories in Getsemaní market to buy batteries. The girl serving me broke into a smile, told me to wait, and went to the back of the shop, returning with half a dozen tissues, gesticulating towards my face. I thanked her nervously. I remember that I was once referred to as a ‘sweaty Welshman’, but that was a scurrilous euphemism and I do not think I perspire more freely than most. But this heat is something else.

And air-conditioning, for all its ecological hazards, is a blessing. Last night I stayed up writing and at 2.30 a.m. stepped out onto the veranda running past my room to be wrapped at once in sweetly florid heat. The flowers and creeping plants had taken over the air, and the streets outside were silent apart from the barking of an insomniac dog.

This is the Caribbean, and there is a more laid-back and open attitude among the locals than one generally finds among the rather dour highlanders in Bogotá. People are immediately welcoming, and this is done in such an entirely guileless way that early suspicions are soon erased. A young man wants to show me where to get a charger for my camera: he leads me down an alley, across a park, into a shopping mall, introduces me to the shopkeeper and then leaves, shaking my hand and wishing me well.

 

cartagena window

 

On my first evening, strolling in the old town, I had noticed a strange little window in the side of an old palace. An inscription plate informed me it was at this spot that informers could report the misdeeds of their neighbours to the inquisitors, for this was the Palace of the Inquisition. So, any grudge against the person next door, I imagine – or if one’s cow stops giving milk, for instance – might be twisted into an accusation of witchcraft. The next day I visit the museum that now occupies the Palace. It is a chamber of horrors, peculiarly filtered through rhetoric which claims that the Inquisitors were nicer to people here than they were elsewhere, and that although their methods were not always pleasant, their ultimate intention was a good one: to help heretics make peace with god before meeting with him in person. My guide book tells me that over 800 were executed by the Inquisition between 1776 and 1821. The museum information mitigates this by saying that ‘only five’ heretics were burnt to death and the ‘the Inquisition did not oppress the Indigenous population.’

The commonest accusations were concerned with heresy and specifically, witchcraft. A list of the 33 questions routinely asked in the interrogation of suspect witches hangs on the wall of the museum. Examples include: ‘What animals have you killed or put under a curse and why have you done it? ‘On which children have you cast the spell of the evil eye, and why have you done it?’ ‘Why does the devil strike you blows at night?’ ‘How do you fly through the air at night?’ I am not a lawyer, but I believe that these might be termed leading questions.

Some of the instruments of torture used to extract confessions are also on display. They include the two devices shown below. The first, called in Spanish the Fork of Heresy, prohibited all movement of the head but offered the victim the chance to murmur his or her confession; the second, an invention horribly called the ‘Breast Piercer’, was used on women ‘who had committed heresy, blasphemy, adultery, or other libidinous acts such as provoking abortions, practising erotic magic and other crimes.’

 

La Horquilla del Hereje

La Horquilla del Hereje

 

El desgarrador de Senos

El desgarrador de Senos

 

As though to cleanse myself of these horrors, I wander down to the Convent of the good priest San Pedro Claver. For almost forty years, this Jesuit from the Catalan village of Verdú, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes, worked in Cartagena, apparently defending, protecting and nursing newly arrived African slaves in the city. His munificence was legendary, at a time when black people were regarded as little more than beasts of burden by their dealers and owners. Here he is, the great white guardian, a placebo against all the terrors and ignominies of slavery:

 

San Pedro Claver, Catalan Saint

San Pedro Claver, Catalan Saint, and friend.

 

The museum that honours him in the old convent reconstructs his modest cell, his living quarters, and houses an exhibition of the most terrible paintings imaginable – so terrible they are fascinating – celebrating his good deeds among the slave population – who are here depicted as almost imbecilic caricatures:

 

Cartagena Pedro 1

 

Cartagena Pedro 2

Cartagena Pedro 3

Cartagena Pedro 4

 

But at least there is a way out. On a wall, apparently unrelated to anything around it, I find the sign ‘Portal de las Animas’: Portal of Souls. Now, where’s the damn switch . . .

 

 

Cartagena portal 2

 

 

 

 

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,

except:

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

except:

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.

The Zapatistas’ breakfast

Zapatistas

Last night, in the city of Puebla – the setting for the first battle of the the 1910 Revolution – I stopped off at a street corner kiosk and recognised, among the picture postcards, a famous image that had caught my attention on a visit to the same restaurant in which the photograph was taken, in Mexico City.

The gentlemen are Mexican revolutionary soldiers, snapped having breakfast in the exclusive Sanborns coffee house, Mexico City, apparently on the 12th of May, 1914, when Zapata brought his army to town for a meeting with Pancho Villa, who had been leading the revolution in the north of the country. A google search identifies them as the Generals Feliciano Polanco Araujo y Teodoro Rodriguez, and they are enjoying hot chocolate. I had not imagined for one second that they might be officers of such elevated rank, but appearances can indeed be deceptive. Their inscrutable expressions hypnotize the onlooker, at a distance of one hundred years, but how must they have appeared to the waitresses serving them, accustomed as they were to a rather more sophisticated, urban clientele? The waitress in the foreground seems to be keeping her distance, and wears a stony expression, perhaps evincing curiosity as well as understandable fear. The rabble of soldiers around and behind the generals in the top picture seem to be enjoying themselves just a little: perhaps the ceremony of the photograph amuses them.

 

Zapatistas and waitresses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The people of Teotihuacán

 

Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacán

Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacán

It is not known who built and occupied Teotihuacán (pronounced tay-oh-tee-wah-kahn): the Totonac, Otomi or Nahua peoples have all been put forward. The site was established before 100 B.C and building of the vast pyramids continued until around 250 A.D. The city reached its zenith over the next three centuries, with a population in excess of 125,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time. It was sacked and burned in the middle of the 6th century and was abandoned by 700 A.D. The fortunes and whereabouts of the people who built and occupied this city vanish alongside numerous Mesoamerican cultures with the rise of the Azteca-Mexica people, but we know that evidence of Teotihuacano influence can be seen at sites in the Veracruz area. And it was here, in 1519, that Hernán Cortés made his first inroads towards the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexcio City), a city which he effectively destroyed two years later.

Temple of the Moon

Temple of the Moon

 

Temple of the Moon, as seen from Avenue of the Dead

Temple of the Moon, as seen from Avenue of the Dead

The site at Teotihuacán covers a huge area, of which only about a quarter has been excavated. The principle monuments, the Temples of the Sun and Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, are joined by the Avenue of the Dead. The configuration of these building has been subject to intense speculation, ranging from the more scientific to New Age Bonkers (while I was at the top of the Temple of the Sun a European-looking woman, dressed in flowing gowns, opened her arms to the sun and started chanting some gobbledygook which she obviously believed was connecting her to something or other). In the 1970s heyday of New Age enthusiasts, a survey was carried out by Hugh Harleston Junior, who found that the main structures lined up along the Avenue of the Dead formed a precise scale model of the solar system, including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (not discovered until 1787, 1846 and 1930 respectively). There is plenty more of this kind of stuff around, and every Spring Equinox morning thousands of people climb the Temple of the Sun with arms outstretched facing the sun on the eastern horizon. According to the Wikipedia article on this phenomenon:

Some New Age sources claim that at the point of the equinox, man is at a unique place in the cosmos, when portals of energy open. Climbing the 360 stairs to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun is claimed to allow participants to be closer to this “energy”.

Although recent research suggests that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic state, we do know that the Totonac people, who may have lived there, later bore a mighty grudge against their conquerors, the Aztecs, who regularly took tribute from them of slaves, many if not all of whom would be sacrificed. But the people who lived in Teotihuacán certainly practised human sacrifice also. I don’t know how far the New Agers go along with that kind of thing, but who knows, perhaps they secretly want to be sacrificed.

As part of my background reading into Mexican history I am currently immersed in the 19th century Hispanist William F. Prescott’s fascinating account The Conquest of Mexico (published in 1843). I know there are more up-to-date and scientific studies of the period, but none are as entertaining (and Prescott’s study can be downloaded onto a Kindle for only 99 pence). It is written in a style that wavers between the deferential and the ornate, which was no doubt intended to convey the maximum sense of verisimilitude, but which to a modern reader– and possibly, who knows, to the Victorians also – seems almost to verge into parody. Here is Prescott on Cortés’ arbitrary method of convincing the Totonacs that their religious and dietary preferences (i.e. worshipping wooden idols and eating people) were wrong, and they would be much better off serving the True Cross):

‘Fifty soldiers, at a signal from [Cortés], sprang up the great stairway of the temple [at Cempoala], entered the building on the summit, the walls of which were black with human gore, tore down the huge wooden symbols from their foundations, and dragged then to the edge of the terrace. Their fantastic forms and features, conveying a symbolic meaning, which was lost on the Spaniards, seemed in their eyes only the hideous lineaments of Satan. With great alacrity they rolled the colossal monsters down the steps of the pyramid, amidst the triumphant shouts of their own companions, and the groans and lamentations of the natives. They then consummated the whole by burning them in the presence of the assembled multitude.

The Totonacs, finding their deities incapable of preventing or even punishing this profanation of their shrines, conceived a mean opinion of their power, compared with that of the mysterious and formidable strangers. The floor and walls of the teocalli were then cleansed, by command of Cortés, from their foul impurities; a fresh coating of stucco was laid on them by Indian masons; and an altar was raised, surmounted by a lofty cross, and hung with garlands of roses. A procession was next formed, in which some of the principal Totonac priests, exchanging their dark mantles for robes of white, carried lighted candles in their hands; while an image of the Virgin, half smothered under the weight of flowers, was borne aloft, and, as the procession climbed the steps of the temple, was deposited above the altar. Mass was performed by Father Olmedo, and the impressive character of the ceremony and the passionate eloquence of the good priest touched the feelings of the motley audience, until Indians as well as Spaniards, if we may trust the chronicler, were melted into tears and audible sobs.’

This sprightly conversion was guided, in part at least, by the Totonac cacique’s knowledge that only with the support of the Spaniards could he gain revenge on his real enemy, the Aztec.

Back in Teotihuacán, I complete my ascent of both the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun (exhausting and at times perilous) and make my way along the Avenue of the Dead, to the visit the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (ket-sal-kwaht-uhl) – the plumed serpent deity – which is far smaller, but equally impressive in its way. Its façade is adorned with huge sculptures of a plumed serpent and of the rain god Tlaloc. A series of tunnels were found beneath the structure in 2010. They are thought to house the remains of the ruling elite.

Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the plumed serpent)

Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the plumed serpent)

Nearby is the site of several mass graves, discovered in the 1980s. The remains of around 200 people who had been sacrificed were found, the victims’ hands tied behind their back (perhaps dispelling the notion that some Mesoamerican sacrifice victims were volunteers). Whichever version is true (and we know that sacrificial victims were most commonly captured enemies), we return again to the cult of death, which I have remarked upon in previous posts during this trip, and to which I will return.

Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent deity

Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent deity

 

Stone jaguar on wall of Temple of Quetzalcóatl

Stone jaguar on wall of Temple of Quetzalcóatl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Pigs

Dame Carcas

Pursuing the porcine theme, I recall a couple of weeks spent slumming it in the city of Carcassonne, and being much amused by the legend of Dame Carcas, which goes something like this: In 760, Pepin the Short (love those medieval sobriquets), King of the Franks, re-conquered most of southern France from the Saracen invader. But Carcassonne held out. There was a long siege. The enterprising Dame Carcas, widow of the Lord of the castle, devised a strategy to save the city. She fed the last remaining pig with the last remaining sack of grain and had the unfortunate beast tossed from the ramparts, to indicate to the besieging army that food was plentiful within the city walls. According to the Carcassone city council’s tourist office pamphlet: “the astonished assailants concluded that the inhabitants still had enough food in stock to stave off famine and weren’t about to surrender any time soon. And so they gave up and quickly lifted the siege. Dame Carcas rang all the bells of the city all day long to celebrate the victory. Legend has it that Dame “Carcas sonne” (Dame “Carcas rings”) is where the name of the city came from.”

The only other incident I know relating to an airborne pig takes place in Graham Greene’s short story ‘A shocking accident’, in which an English schoolboy, Jerome, is summonsed to the study of his housemaster, Mr Wordsworth, to be told that his father has had a terrible accident. Assuming, wrongly, that his father has been shot – Jerome worships his father and has fantasised a life for him in the British Secret Services – he is disappointed to discover that he met with a rather more exotic end:

‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’

‘I beg your pardon. What did you say, Jerome?’

‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’

‘Nobody shot him, Jerome. A pig fell on him.’ An inexplicable convulsion took place in the nerves of Mr Wordsworth’s face; it really looked for a moment as though he were going to laugh. He closed his eyes, composed his features and said rapidly as though it were necessary to expel the story as rapidly as possible. ‘Your father was walking along a street in Naples when a pig fell on him. A shocking accident. Apparently in the poorer quarters of Naples they keep pigs on their balconies. This one was on the fifth floor. It had grown too fat. The balcony broke. The pig fell on your father.’

Mr Wordsworth left his desk rapidly and went to the window, turning his back on Jerome. He shook a little with emotion.

Jerome said, ‘What happened to the pig?’

I am sure there must be third airborne pig, somewhere in history or legend or literature, but cannot bring it to mind. If anyone knows what it is, please do post.

 

 

 

 

Forgetting Chatwin

Day five of the Wales Writers Chain tour of Argentina and Chile. We began in Buenos Aires on Monday, at the Spanish Cultural Centre, where Mererid Hopwood and I gave lectures on, respectively, the Welsh and English literary traditions of Wales. On the Tuesday, Tiffany Atkinson and myself launched new collections in Spanish, published by the innovative and excellent imprint Gog y Magog – at what might well be my favourite bookshop in the world, Eterna Cadencia. We flew south on Wednesday, to Puerto Madryn, where the first Welsh settlers arrived on the Mimosa in July 1865, and were ourselves received by a small delegation of the Argentine Welsh community, where we were served soft white bread sandwiches, Malbec wine, teisen and tarts in a little hall used for Welsh and cookery classes. Incredibly hospitable and welcoming people.

Puerto Madryn reception

Puerto Madryn reception

            The tour was organised by the Argentine poet, critic and translator, Jorge Fondebrider along with Sioned Puw Rowlands, and sponsored by various city councils in Patagonia, the ministry of culture of the city of Buenos Aires, Wales Arts International and Wales Literature Exchange. Jorge has christened the tour ‘Forgetting Chatwin’ in refutation of the English author’s semi-fictitious account of Patagonia.

            In spite of a heavy schedule of readings, lectures, translation workshops, informal talks, school visits etc, we were able yesterday to have an excursion. Puerto Madryn happens to be very close to the natural reserve of the Valdes Peninsula, so yesterday we travelled along the isthmus to Puerto Pirámide – a charming and dilapidated frontier settlement on the beach – and took a boat trip to see the whales (all of them are the Southern Right Whale, called ‘right’ because of the ease of hunting them in the days of harpoon whaling). The trip to the peninsula allowed us to take a look at the blasted landscape of the interior, the endless bare scrub falling away into the distance under an enormous sky. We passed llama and guanaco – a smaller version of the llama – one of whose characteristic features is the particularly touching way in which the males decide who is to become the paterfamilias. According to our guide, Cesar, the males run at each other and bite their competitor’s testicles, thereby rendering him incapable of reproduction (as well, one imagines, of immediately converting him from tenor to soprano). How terrifying is nature in its simplicity.

Guanaco family

Guanaco family

            And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

Mimosa crew

The crew of the Mimosa, from left: Nia Davies, Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen, Tiffany Atkinson, Jorge Fondebrider and Mererid Hopwood.

Today, more lectures and poetry readings in Trelew, where Mererid Hopwood and Karen Owen will visit a Welsh school, followed by a reading at the University of Patagonia with myself, Tiffany, Karen, Mererid, alongside Jorge Fondebrider, Marina Kohon, Jorge Aulicino (Argentina) and Veronica Zondek (Chile).

A Patagonian dog, chilling out.

A Patagonian dog, chilling out in Puerto Pirámide.

Noblesse oblige, my arse

Benedict Cumberbatch

In the old days the notion of noblesse oblige demanded that the privileged and powerful act responsibly toward their underlings. In theory, at least. In practice things were not quite so sweet. Watching Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, I am reminded of these finer sentiments by the character of Christopher Tietjens, played with a superbly quivering lower lip by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. A landowner or other employer, says Tietjens (more or less), must treat his staff fairly, and if he doesn’t – if he abuses them or cheats them – he should be sent to prison. It strikes me as a wonderfully anachronistic point of view, and in the story – which at this point is just prior to World War One – Tietjens admits as such. He knows he is an anachronism, but that doesn’t stop him believing what he believes.

How we have moved on. The triumph of capital in the face of worldwide wage slavery, of base greed over pride in one’s work, of mass-produced baubles over craftsmanship, the love of filthy lucre over all other considerations, finally exploded in an orgy of fervor in the Thatcher-Reagan years, and has never looked back, even after the so-called financial crisis of 2008. Well, it took a short break, but many of its worst practitioners simply saw the crisis as an opportunity, and nothing of any significance has changed. The poor have got poorer and the same politicians and gangsters are in place, the same pigs spoiling for the best spot at the trough.

However flawed the society mourned by Christopher Tietjens in Madox Ford’s great novel, and the recent TV series, it sustained the quaint notion that power comes with a responsibility towards others. The grab-it-all, get-rich-quick free-for-all that got properly underway in that awful decade, the 1980s, shows no sign of abating. You do well, therefore everyone else can go to hell. Watching  TV’s Made in Chelsea the other night alerts me to the likelihood that none of these  young millionaires seems to have any concerns other than his or her own self-promotion or self-interest. None display any concern about the plight of people less privileged or less lucky than themselves, or even to mix with such types, unless they are servants. I guess they have been brought up that way. Or perhaps it just makes better television if they are displayed, almost unvaryingly, to be selfish, preening fuckwits. Who knows. Who, indeed, cares.

All of which I am thinking, abstractly, while reading in bed, when I come across a passage in an essay (on another theme entirely) by Phillip Lopate: “The least we can do . . . is to register the expectation that people in a stronger position be kind and not cruel to those in a weaker one, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.” I guess that is the least, the very least, we can do.

 

 

 

 

What reality, where?

Moments after seeing nothing at all, failing to see what was beyond their conceptual grasp, the native people began to see figures recognizable, perhaps, as men.

 

For as long as I can remember I have wondered at the stupid commonplace representation of what an alien might look like. You know the kind of thing; the eggheaded bug-eyed ET figure, the slimy green tentacled version, or the ectoplasmic ooze version. Why would an alien ‘look like’ anything, at least like anything that is familiar to our way of seeing, or that can be grasped by our cognitive filters and interpreted as a recognizable visual image.

So it was interesting to read the following in Eduardo Halfon’s fabulous collection of interlinked stories, The Polish Boxer:

And I suddenly remembered a legend Lía had told me, studious and devoted to quantum physics as she was. The legend says that as Columbus’s fleet was approaching the shores of America, the native Indians didn’t see it because they couldn’t see it, they literally couldn’t see it, since the concept of galleons in full sail was so alien to them, so unimaginable, that it didn’t enter their version of reality, and as such, their minds simply decided not to register it. There’s nothing there, I remember Lía saying to me, with her hand on my forehead, as though she was watching the horizon. I construct my reality solely on the basis of what I know, she said. Or something like that.

And on the subject of aliens, I couldn’t resist posting this delightful rendition of William Shatner and the crew of Star Trek doing a cover of Pulp’s ‘Common People’. Look out for the alien playing the lyre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Random fragments

Italo Calvino

 

In El País, Javier Cercas writes on the qualities of silence. He tells a story about a meeting between Borges and the famously reserved Italian novelist Italo Calvino in Seville in 1984, at a conference they were attending. Calvino’s wife, Chichita was an Argentinian, and an old friend of Borges, who was, by this time, completely blind. The two of them, like true porteños, dived straight into conversation, and it was a while before Chichita mentioned to Borges that her husband, Italo, was also present.  Yes, replied Borges, I know. But how, said Chichita, when he hasn’t said a single word? I recognized him by his silence, said Borges.

I read this last month, while spending a few days in Spain, where I visited the beach near Llança quite late most afternoons. At this time of year, mid-June, most of the beachgoers are locals, and I was alarmed to notice the numbers of obese Spanish children and teenagers. Whereas, living in Britain, we have become accustomed to this, and have lived with it continuously since the nineties at least (if not from the days of Billy Bunter) in Spain it has been a radical and a rapid transformation. When I first visited Spain in 1959 (where I spent my third birthday at the house of the Langdon-Davies’s in Palamós) it was still in the cycle of post civil-war poverty, before the influx of mass tourism. Then there was the transition, after 1975, and the hedonistic explosion of social life in the cities; then the property boom, and the rocketing of house prices. When I returned to Spain in the mid 1990s every other car was a BMW or a 4 x 4, and everyone was up the gunnels with debt (as they still are) and now, inevitably, the country has reached the final and definitive stage in the establishment of a global economy: the children are fat.

So, as I read the newspaper, I cannot avoid the sight of a group of pudgy 11 year olds, munching Pringles and gobbling Magnum ice creams, all washed down with cans of Red Bull. How depressing this sight is. Ten years ago, when we lived here and my children went to the local school, these same kids would have been content with a ham or cheese sandwich, an orange and a bottle of water. I acknowledge there is a massive tendency for people to overrate the benefits of the past, but this is no exaggeration. The change towards childhood obesity is visible and has been incredibly swift. I cannot see the Spanish footballers of the future emulating Xavi, Iniesta et al, if they follow a diet of this kind.

Yesterday was the last day my younger daughter Rhiannon spent as a teenager. She and I went shopping at the supermarket together and she chose a few items, which she kept separately, in her own basket. As she went to pay I saw that in it were two cartons of Pringles, half a bottle of Gordon’s gin (a birthday present for her best mate) and two packets of Jelly Tots. Could the paradoxical state of being a teenager ever be more eloquently expressed, caught between the comforts of childhood and the terrors of adulthood?

Jelly Tots candy packaging

Jelly Tots candy packaging (Photo credit: Wikipedia)