I receive an email from Médecins Sans Frontières saying that the Libyan National Army Security Service in Misrata are sending them people to treat who have been tortured, simply to patch them up into a state where they can be tortured some more. This is shocking, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The fact that people who have endured violent oppression are likely to inflict exactly the same kind of treatment on their oppressors – now they have become their captives – seems sad but horribly predictable.
According to The Guardian:
The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières has added its voice to the chorus of concern by announcing that it had halted work in the coastal city of Misrata because staff were being asked to patch up detainees during torture sessions. “Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for more interrogation,” said MSF’s Christopher Stokes. “This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.”
I rarely use this blog for notices of this kind, but because I support MSF this captured my attention, and I thought I would share it. Not that there’s a lot anyone can do.
So as the year comes to an end we move inexorably towards a future that sees Great Britain isolated from Europe, estranged from the USA (who quite frankly never gave a damn anyway), reneging on promises to be the ‘greenest government ever’ as George Osborne, that most grotesque of Tory self-parodies – if he didn’t exist someone would have invented him – as the liberties of common people are eroded palpably and cynically by a government that is now setting out plans to shoot demonstrators, should the need arise, a plea already put forward by Jeremy Clarkson in respect of strikers. And as a sad afternote, rather than reprimanding their star boy racer (apparently Clarkson’s boyish frolics in motor cars are so remunerative that the BBC considers him an asset of greater importance to them than their own integrity) he was let off the hook completely, as he was, after all, ‘joking’ about shooting people in front of their families. Actually Clarkson and Osborne represent for me two examples of manhood that will do very nicely for today’s blog, two facets of the hideous tragedy of our culture at the start of the second decade of the new millennium.
But fear not. “Potentially the use of firearms” will be justified at demos, but only “as a last resort”. The use of firearms with live ammunition could be justified against arsonists when life is being endangered given the “immediacy of the risk and the gravity of the consequences” as the legal annexe to the police riots report phrases it.
All of this connects in my mind with the talk that Helena Kennedy delivered at Cardiff University last month, in which she spoke articulately and without sensationalism about the gradual erosion of democracy in our society and the shadowy forces that continue to underpin politics in the UK.
But none of this should come as any surprise. Needless to say the British government has extensive practice at shooting its own citizens. We executed 306 ‘cowards’ in World War One, shot 13 in Derry on Bloody Sunday, and if I had time and was not about to visit Grandpa I’m sure I could furnish a much fuller list, so the odd ‘demonstrator’ (or striker) isn’t going to count for much. Though it does raise the question of how precisely police are going to identify and isolate a single dangerous individual in a crowd of demonstrators and ‘neutralise’ him when, on current form they cannot identify and isolate a single ‘terrorist suspect’ correctly, as evidenced by the unlawful killing (shamefully recorded as an ‘open verdict’) in 2005 of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.
Again, Clarkson provides rather a good spokesperson for the Big Society espoused by the Old Etonians in charge of us now. A man-child, who, along with his two sidekicks, like to strike a quasi-macho front as they engage in feats of motorised derring-do (how close we came to death on that escapade, chaps) while remaining a reactionary in the traditional mould, one of whose defining characteristics is the notion (shared by the worst aspect of the ruling classes, along with venture capitalists and psychopaths) that a chap should be allowed to do what he wants, and anyone who decides to stop him is a sissy. How Big is that?
Clarkson is an obnoxious boor, but the butt of my greatest loathing remains, and will remain, George Osborne. Having been forced to attend an English Public School in my early teens, I know this kind of fuckwit very well. I carry an indelible memory of the type around with me, which reminds me of everything I most despise about Britain; its odious class system, its hideous hierarchies, its smarmy and pervasive xenophobia and, clambering onto its upper crusts, phalanxes of snooty locker-room bully-boys with daddies in the city. Osborne’s disdainful behaviour – surely indicative of the kind of government he stands for, and indeed the kind of social attitudes which the electorate sanctioned, more or less, in last year’s elections – is perhaps best encapsulated by this story, written by Candida Jones and published in The Guardian newspaper – not, incidentally my favourite read – which describes Osborne’s behaviour on holiday in Corfu in the summer of 2008, when the Tories were still in opposition:
How George Osborne ruined my day at the beach in Corfu
It was mid-afternoon on August 14 and we were on Kalamaki beach – a glorious bay on the north-east coast of Corfu where the intensely blue sea was so still it resembled oil rather than water. Barely a wave lapped the shore as I relaxed with my husband, brother and children. There were families throwing balls, people chatting in warm, shallow water and children with snorkels dragging small fishing nets. The scene was idyllic. The focus for most of those playing in the sea was a long, rickety, wooden pier. Children were jumping from it, dangling their feet in the water and playing tag. My three-year-old daughter was learning how to dive off the end when a motor boat appeared.
I was alarmed by the speed at which it approached. Parents stopped and watched, and I began to collect our little ones around me as I could sense danger. The boat kept coming and I began to worry. Surely no one would drive a boat through crowded water and, anyway, where was it going? Couldn’t those on board see that there was nowhere to moor as the pier was packed with children playing? Several parents, in several languages, complained loudly that this was an inappropriate place to bring a motorboat. It carried on without any apology from those on board and the bathers made way – the diving games stopped and children were hurriedly helped down from the pier and sent to the beach to play.
A very smartly dressed family disembarked and marched towards the shore. Leading the way was a man in blue shorts and white polo shirt, wearing deck shoes, which he clearly didn’t intend to get wet, followed by a couple of children, also dressed smartly and not for the beach, a woman, whom we assumed was their mother and was carrying a picnic basket, and a nanny, who brought up the rear and was carrying the bulk of the bags. I could tell immediately these people were English, by the way they were dressed and their seemingly superior manner. I felt embarrassed that a typically informal, relaxed and inclusive Greek afternoon was being so rudely interrupted by one small, well-turned-out, organised, English family.
I recognised George Osborne as he led the way. Shouts continued from the parents, which made the Osborne family hurry, but none of them looked back or exuded the air of bashful apology one would expect. Osborne, hearing the protests, simply said, addressing everyone, “It’s a pier, that’s what it’s for.” He said it loudly, angrily, without looking at any of those whose afternoon he had spoiled.
Of course he was right. It was a pier, and that is what they are for, but that day it was full of families having fun and the boat brought the fun to an end. But what galled people most – lots of us discussed it afterwards – was the way it had happened. No backwards glance, no apology, no hint of embarrassment. It wasn’t very Greek at all; indeed it was extremely English in that old imperial way. The Osbornes had to be somewhere, quickly. Perhaps Oleg Deripaska was waiting to talk about money?
As readers of The Vagabond’s Breakfast might recall, just over thirty years ago I stood trial at a crown court in London, charged with theft and fraud. I had been working as a milkman, and in the freezing winter of 1978-9 I drove my little milk float from the depot in Dalston, along the icy roads of north London to Highbury and up the Holloway Road, delivering milk and butter and eggs and bread to the good people of Finsbury Park. Alas, from time to time my customers would be short of a few quid to pay their bill; alas, from time to time the odd few pints of milk and a half-dozen eggs went walkies from the back of the float. The outcome was, after several frozen weeks, what with my bad hand and one thing and another, I chucked the job in. A few days later I was picked up by plainclothes cops while returning from breakfast at my local cafe in Shoreditch, and hey presto, I’m in the nick being charged with this that and the other. A ‘milkman of ill repute’, quipped my arresting officer, introducing me to a colleague in the charge office of Dalston police station, before threatening me with a good kicking and telling me he was going to send me down. That I did not go down was due principally to the good offices of my barrister, a young Glaswegian with a cheeky face and a bit of an attitude by the name of Helena Kennedy. The details of the events in court are still etched in my memory, especially the way she turned one of the prosecution witnesses, effectively, into one of ours, in a moment of staggeringly inspired guesswork.
Last evening I met up with Helena again, for the first time since our appearance in court and my unconditional discharge in January 1981. I did not think for a moment that she would remember me, but – quite unaware that we would meet – she greeted me like an old friend, kissed me on both cheeks, and recited one or two details of my trial that only someone with a phenomenal memory could possibly have retained. Then she told me that mine was the only case of fraud she had ever taken on, which made me feel rather special.
Helena was in Cardiff as a guest of the University, where she delivered the Haydn Ellis memorial lecture. She purportedly spoke on Globalisation and the Individual, but in fact covered just about everything: the Human Rights Act, the erosion of democracy in our national institutions, the dismantling of legal aid, the diluting of the founding principles of the national health service, the role of workers in helping decide the salaries of corporate directors, the increasing social divide, the obscenity of the banks, and her support for the Occupy movement. It was an inspirational lecture, and for once I felt proud to be associated with the institution at which I work, for having invited her. Helena is a national treasure. If only there were more like her.
This morning I emerge from a waking dream in which President Sarkozy is being eaten by a black bear. Quite a fitting end, I would think, for this preening bantam cock of a man, to be gobbled up in a couple of mouthfuls by Murder Bear. I can imagine George Papandreou looking on with pleasure, perhaps passing the bear the tzatziki.
Bears have had a role in literature for hundreds of years. Their appearance in folk tales of eastern European origin has filtered into a wider, and more infantilised role, since the appearance of Winnie the Pooh in the 1920s, when bears underwent a perceptual shift, from being a wild threat from the woods to becoming cuddly companions. The Goldilocks story held a particular fascination for Blanco as a child. Is it helpful to inform my reading public of such things, I wonder?
In the film The Edge (1997) one of the characters gets eaten by a bear, quite graphically, and I remember being shocked at the time, not so much by the violence, but by the impact on the imagination of watching someone being eaten alive by another creature. It was one of the most disturbing things I can remember seeing. So I will have to share it with you.
You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying overhead and crapping on your head, but you can stop them from nesting in your hair.
In my post of 14 September, Villa Miseria, I wrote, among other things, of the state of the Riachuelo, allegedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere, as it passes through the slum of Barracas 21/24 to the south of Buenos Aires.
At the invitation of FILBA, the Buenos Aires International Festival of Literature, of which I was a guest last month, I was invited to write a short piece on my visit to Barracas, to be read on the final evening of the festival, along with other pieces composed during the course of the festival by fellow writers, which can be found at the FILBA Blog.
What I wrote was a poem about the river, in what is an unusually hectoring voice, as I was affected by a strong sense of outrage – quite apart from the social conditions of the people living in the slum – at how a river, which is traditionally such a potent symbol of live-giving purity, can become so vile and corrupt a thing as to breed ‘monsters of the mind’. I wondered what it would be like for a child to grow up by the side of such a river. I wrote this draft of the poem – which is clearly still unfinished – at short notice, specifically for performance at the event, and have not revised it, so it has a raw and unpolished feel to it. It is written in a mixture of English and Spanish because I liked the idea of a poem that played the two languages off against each other.
A ‘medialuna’ is a cartwheel as well as the small sweet croissants eaten for breakfast in Argentina (though certainly not by the inhabitants of Barracas 21/24). The lines ‘Do you like this garden which is yours? / Make sure your children don’t destroy it // ¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?/ ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!’ are from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and his character, Geoffrey Firmin, becomes obsessed by the broader connotations of the phrase. The other Spanish phrases are either variations on this line or else echo the English.
River song/Canto del río
The reflected sky
viscous and putrid effluvia
journey lethargically towards
any possible destination
and no one cares
no one cares
whether the detritus
on this sickly tide
reaches anywhere at all
battery acid sulphuric acid mercury
whatever it takes
anything at all
¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?
a sickly progression
from one place to another
a gelatinous insult
inverted by forgetting
dreary with forgetting
and we deal with forgetting
by forgetting more
¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?
¡Evite que sus padres lo destruyan!
A man emerges from the river
covered in a pall of flies
he pulls a pistol from his belt
¿Les gustan estas moscas?
I’ll teach those bastard flies
and blasts off his own arm
his wrist and hand explode
leaving a bloody stump
I’ll teach the little bastards
he tells no one
he tells the world
he tells his children
aunque nadie lo escucha
and all the people stare
and all the people stare
though no one listens
and the man does a cartwheel
on his single arm
y el hombre hace la medialuna
y el hombre hace la medialuna
stands up straight
and shoots himself in the face
the words sliding
from the remains of his mouth
I’ll teach the little bastards
Voy a enseñar a los pequeños bastardos
this is what the river spawns
Eso es lo que produce el rio
this is the ineluctable truth
of a Wednesday in September
this is how we deal with
remembering the things
we left behind
just as we deal with forgetting
by forgetting more
This is the river song
the river song
the river song
and from the river rises
an inestimable sadness
into the void of poverty
into the sullen entrails
in the place where
no birds sing.
¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?
¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!
Do you like this garden which is yours?
Make sure your children don’t destroy it.
But you cannot blame your children
for the things that you forget to do
forgetting the future
just as you forgot the past
¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?
Evite que . . .
In immaculate contrast to yesterday’s trip to the rarefied air of Villa Ocampo, today I visited a slum (or a Villa Miseria) to the south of the city in the barrio of Barracas 21/24. It is an area without running water or electricity, and with only the most basic provision of what we in the UK would consider to be essential social amenities. I went as a guest of Pablo Braun, a co-founder with Paz Ochoteco of Fundación Temas.
This organization, with Paz at the helm, attempts to provide at least some encouragement to the children and young adults of the barrio, help in the provision of schooling, a kitchen with free meals, and a boxing club. The idea for the boxing club was inspired by the work of the sociologist Loïc Wacquant who wrote about a similar club in Chicago (and no doubt influenced the makers of the HBO series The Wire). As Pablo explained to me on the drive back into town, Wacqaunt argued that the discipline of boxing, within a defined context where the rules were clear, channeled a good deal of the natural aggression of deprived and ghettoized kids, and provided a focus away from the easy distractions of drugs and crime.
There is very little infant schooling for the children here because the facilities do not exist. Forty per cent of the children in this barrio receive no pre-junior education, and a half of them never reach secondary school.
I didn’t want to take pictures inside the boxing club but the images from the nearby streets give some idea of the kind of place it is. The Riachuelo that flows – no, flow is not the word for the sluggish progress of this viscous and putrid effluvia towards the River Plate and the sea – is supposedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere. Upstream, a leather factory producing luxury goods spews out contaminant chemicals. A railway line runs between the shacks.
Diego Maradona grew up in a place like this, so you can appreciate why the people love him. He is one of theirs.
And in the tiny office of Fundación Temas beside the gym where the boys and girls were boxing – up to a half of the members of the club are girls – was a poster of Che Guevara: the only time I have seen this poster in a place where it makes any sense.
When they asked the kids in this barrio where they would like to go one day, or what they would be interested to find out about, they replied ‘Buenos Aires’. They do not consider themselves a part of the city to which they allegedly belong: it is a foreign world to them and most of the kids have never been there, even though it is only a few miles away.
I have promised to write something for the festival about my impressions of Barracas 21/24 but will find it very hard. Apart from the fact that such places exist – itself a crime against humanity – I have difficulty comprehending the extent of the poverty and deprivation in a place like this, and the effect it must have on a young person as he or she grows up and sees no way out other than through crime or drugs. Western Europe and North America have a problem of obesity among the children of the socially disadvantaged. Here they are lucky to get enough to eat. But strangely the two things – hunger and the excessive consumption of fats and sugars – are not so far removed from one another. Paz tells me that problems of obesity are already on the rise among the poor. Unhappily, capitalism knows this, and the multinational food corporations and outlets such as McDonalds only profit from it.
Having just read Ken Clarke’s facile, vacuous and pompous account of the recent riots in English cities, Blanco feels moved to chip in.
Clarke makes three points in his article in Monday’s Guardian. The first is that the full force of the law should come crashing down on the ‘feral underclass’ who were responsible for the disturbances and the looting and who now are facing the ‘cold, hard accountability of the dock’. The second is that just about the right degree of ‘robust punishment’ has been exacted on the said feral underclass by the judiciary; and the third is that such individuals – in his opinion ‘the criminal classes . . . who haven’t been changed by their past punishments’ – continue to receive robust punishment in prisons where they learn the ethics of ‘productive hard work’ and where the ‘scandal of drugs being readily available’ is wiped out by paying prison staff by the ‘results’ they achieve rather than by fulfilling ‘processes and box-ticking’.
So far, by my reckoning, he has made more or less the same point, three times.
Finally ‘we need to continue to put rocket boosters on our plans to fix not just criminal justice but education, welfare and family policy’. Wow. How easily that little triptych – education, welfare and family policy – is trotted out. I am bedazzled.
Clarke talks of ‘addressing the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted’ but says nothing of the appalling social inequality that ensure the UK remains the most class-ridden and – ironically – the most apolitical nation in Europe.
Another take on the riots comes from Slavoj Žižek in this week’s London Review of Books. Žižek, like a true idealist, bewails the fact that the rioters had no agenda for change, only acting as slaves to a consumer culture that is forever dangled before their eyes but of which they cannot partake: “You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly” (presumably ‘doing it properly’ would be engaging in what Mr Clarke calls ‘hard graft’ – but alas there are no jobs, or if there are they are total shit and therefore taken by immigrants and would certainly not provide enough remuneration to purchase the goods more easily acquired by lobbing a brick through a shop window and nicking them).
This aspect of things was explored most succinctly in an article in the Argentinian newspaper Clarín, in a report from María Laura Avignolo: “Social inequality divides the poor from the rich, while a ridiculous culture of media celebrity provides a lifestyle model to aspire towards, and ‘reality shows’ a means of salvation and social respectability in a society stratified by a very Victorian vision of class.” Looters, she continues, not only tried on the most fashionable designer clothes for size and fit and chose the best plasma TVs in the store, but destroyed what they could not carry with them “in an attack on the consumer society to which they aspire and cannot belong. The images did not show a social rebellion, but a chilling consumer revenge.”
Such detail is depressing for an idealist such as Žižek, even such an articulate one. One wishes there were something to celebrate about the riots, but sadly there is not. Just a sense of depression, of loss, and of disgust: “And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.”
The most interesting point for me in Žižek’s argument – and at least there were points of interest, unlike the garbage coming from Clarke – was the reference he made to Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher of the 1960s whom I remember reading avidly as a sixteen year old, high on dreams of revolution. Marcuse argued that human drives could be desublimated (the term he used was ‘repressive desublimation’) but still remain subject to capitalist control. “On British streets during the unrest” writes Žižek, “what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology.”
How far we have come since the days of Che.
Don’t go in there, kiddo. To climb in there would just be wrong. There’s a whole world out here waiting to be explored without having to resort to Deep Throat here. Its ravening scarlet depths offer no safe haven, and while vagina dentata is almost certainly a paranoid delusion of the male psyche I know that for once I am right – both as a role model and as a caring individual – when I say that going back in there is simply not an option.
If this were simply a dare – the kind of challenge we set ourselves as children: “would you rather have your face eaten off by ants or your bum chewed up by a crocodile” – I might, if I were in your shoes, even be tempted to climb inside the Great Maw, especially after considering the alternative, squarely enclosed beneath the paraphernalia of the State and the chilling motto TODO POR LA PATRIA: EVERYTHING FOR THE FATHERLAND.
I am caught in a dread panic: the all-consuming maternal maw or the brutalising paternal state? Help me please, Western Psychotherapy, help me Father Freud and Professor Lacan, for caught between the twin realities of the Civil Guard and the Great Shark-Mother, I have lost all inclination to make choices, and for this have (a) lost the will to carry on, (b) become an addict and fallen into hopeless ways, (c) joined a paramilitary outfit, or something official-sounding that promises travel and a good pension,
These, my lad, are the choices we have to take before beginning the definitive journey. So think a little, before climbing into that thing. And remember to wear a hat in the sun.
When driving around the country roads of the Ampurdan, one is likely to pass two species of cyclist. The first type travels in groups, is brightly clad in Lycra shorts and shirts emblazoned with the logo of their sports club. They wear aerodynamically designed helmets that make them look vaguely extraterrestrial. They are generally, though not exclusively, white, male and sufficiently well off to own a lot of fancy gear.
The second type of cyclist is solitary, drably garbed in the cast-off clothing of the rural poor, though sometimes he sports hard-earned or fake Adidas or Nike shoes and hoody. He will generally be on his way to, or returning from, a day of menial labour in the fields. At other times he may be sighted rummaging through the municipal garbage and recycling dumps outside local villages. He will be looking for scrap metal, discarded cookers and fridges, even the aluminium from a broken deckchair. This cyclist is invariably African, male
and very poor. He will almost certainly be an illegal immigrant.
The relative speeds at which these distinct cyclists progress along the country roads appears to be in direct proportion to their socio-economic status. The ones who do it as a leisure activity or hobby travel very fast up the winding mountain roads. They are dosed up on multivits and pep pills and nutritive hydrating beverages. On their slick and shiny machines, they push themselves to the limits of sweaty exhaustion. They do this out of choice. They are not going anywhere in particular but are always in a hurry. In other words, their destination doesn’t matter, so long as they get there fast.
The second type of cyclist has a defined and specific destination, but rarely seems in a hurry to get there on his old, recycled machine. He selects a speed best suited to sustain minimum energy loss. The destination matters, and he will get there in as much time as it takes.
We inhabit a fictional country. The photograph lies. EMBAJADA DE GALES means ‘Embassy of Wales’ in Spanish. It was on a banner displaying the sponsors of a poetry festival in Central America. Reference to such an entity proves beyond all reasonable doubt that we come from an imaginary country, something like Ruritania.
But what, I ask you, gentle reader, distinguishes a real country from an imaginary one? When I was last at Buenos Aires airport in 2005 there was a huge display in the arrivals lounge announcing ‘Argentina – un país de verdad’ (Argentina – a real country). This was not long after the collapse of the Argentine economy and the massive devaluation of their national currency. Who, other than those in a state of serious self-doubt, needs to proclaim to the world the status of their own reality?
Argentina needn’t have worried. But we in Wales are used to such a predicament. We are never sure whether or not people in the rest of the world believe in us or not, so we are permanently checking our self-made reality gauges. It is well-documented by academics that the Welsh are sociolinguistically more Welsh the further they travel from Yr Hen Wlad. There is even a Welsh proverb to that effect. But does that mean we become less fictional when we travel, or more?
In most of the world, if they have heard of us at all, we are ‘a part of England.’ I have also heard that Wales is ‘in Scotland’, and on ‘the other side of Ireland’ and once ‘in Finland’. These assertions, while showing a frail grasp of geography, do in fact have a whiff of the truth, placing Wales somewhere on the periphery of something else.
Frequently of course, there is a situation where an individual Welsh celebrity has raised international awareness of our existence. A footballer – Mark Hughes in the 80s, followed by Rush, Giggs and now Gareth Bale – will assist bar-room conversation. In rugby-playing nations a Welsh identity usually provokes commiseration, and pitying remarks of how a once-proud team can now only compete in the second tier. Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Catherine Zeta Jones and Charlotte Church have done their bit. Among literary types (other than specialists) only Dylan Thomas ever seems to pop up.
While no one has yet suggested to me (as apparently George W Bush did) that Wales was one of the states of the USA, our provenance and exact status remains a mystery to the great mass of the world’s population, but our invisibility has one overriding benefit: no one has had the time to form a negative impression of a place they have never heard of.
To come from a land with nominal but invisible embassies, with a government but without a constitution or a state, with a fictional creature on its flag and a population whose sense of national identity grows in direct proportion to distance from the homeland, now that is what I call a wondrous paradox. We are the ghouls of historical destiny, forever seeking ourselves in the space left between a phantom nationhood and other people’s perceptions of us. All compounded by the concept of everlastingness – Cymru am byth – so that when all the planets have been sucked back into the sun, when the dust of what was once our solar system is distributed at random across the vast wastes of the universe, the idea of Wales will live on.
El ojo que ves no es
ojo porqué tú le veas
es ojo porqué te ve.
The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it
but because it sees you.
This morning, reading some poems by Antonio Machado, I am reminded of a trip we took to the province of Soria one July a few years back. Machado was for many years a schoolmaster in Soria, and wrote many fine poems about the place. I saw the trip as a kind of homage, but a purely literary excursion was out of the question, so we combined it with a visit to Navarra, and made a round trip.
We had driven down from the fiesta at Pamplona, and as we entered Soria after a two hour drive the temperature was registering forty-three degrees. Too hot to stagger around the town, we set out to Vinuesa, the nearest village to Machado’s Laguna Negra (Black Lake). This is walking country, between 1500 and 2000 metres in altitude: woods of dense beech and cedar, streams, waterfalls and lakes, in stunning contrast to the interminable dust-blown expanses of the meseta.
Machado´s narrative of the Laguna Negra concerns a local farmer who was murdered by his greedy sons in anticipation of their inheritance, and subsequently thrown into the lake, with weights attached to his body. The parricides themselves suffer an ignominous retribution, losing their way in the mist one night, falling and drowning in the very lake in which their murdered father was dumped. Wolves are said to surround the lake at night, symbollically howling out the bad sons’ shame. Machado’s poetry conjures this desolate and otherworldly landscape to grim perfection.
It was already dusk by the time we reached the lake, and we wandered among the huge boulders that mark its circumference. There were more beech woods and glades that centred on a pair of massive rocks. I thought of native Austrailian beliefs that a person can become incorporated into the landscape on their deaths, and began to consider the parricidical sons in a new way. Scrambling around this silent expanse of black water as the light fails, one could sense the presence of the legend like a virus on the air. Gazing up at the high rim of the volcanic crater the occasional tree juts out at an impossible angle. The stench of murder, the pervasive notion of return to the same deathly reserve of water, unmoving now except for a shimmering of ripples when a long black snake zig-zags between two small promontories. I like the place, but something tells me we should leave. Tripping over exposed tree-roots in the darkness we find the path again and descend to the car.
Machado has a more local significance, here in the borderlands of the Alt Empordá. In 1939, as the Civil War came to a bloody close, Machado, who had been active in support of the Republican cause, made his way to the frontier, very ill, and accompanied by his elderly mother. He tried to cross into France, but was held up because his papers were not in order. His attempted escape to France was echoed, in reverse, a year later by Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis. I tried to capture this near-synchronous flight in a prose poem once, see below. In actual fact Machado died in Collioure, a few kilometres north from Cerbére, while Benjamin made the seven kilometres south across the mountains to Port Bou (see post for 7 August).
Here’s what happened. Antonio Machado, celebrated Spanish poet, was fleeing Spain and the advancing Francoist army. After a desperate journey through a defeated Catalunya, he arrived at the French border village of Cerbère. It was raining heavily. The authorities would not let him into France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Drenched by the rain and sick, Machado took refuge in a small hotel. He left the building once only, to watch the fishing boats in the small harbour. Shortly afterwards, he died. It was Ash Wednesday, 1939.
The following year, Walter Benjamin, the noted German polymath and essayist, arrived in the same village, coming from the opposite direction. He was fleeing the Nazis, trying to get to Spain. From Spain he hoped to catch a boat to America. The authorities would not let him leave France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Despairing at the state of the Europe he could not leave, while eluding the holocaust of which he would no doubt have been a victim, Benjamin chose to take his own life, using poison.
Antonio Machado was born on the same day – July 26th 1875 – as Carl Jung, the originator of the theory of synchronicity. Walter Benjamin had a low opinion of Jung, considering him to be a supporter of the Aryan myth, and accusing him of doing ‘the devil’s work’.
From ‘Walking on Bones‘ by Richard Gwyn (Parthian, 2000)