Sunday, 14 December 2008

Big Jaws

It was the day of the Romeria, the annual pilgrimage of the festival of San Isidro, the patron saint of farmers, which begins in our local market town of La Carlota and ends some five kilometres away on the Monte: the plantation of holm oaks a short way beyond Las Pinedas, which has been a site of pilgrimage and picnics since anyone can remember. Even the addition of concrete barbecue sites recently erected by the local council the Monte still faintly retains the atmosphere of some primitive sacred grove. San Isidro himself travels to the Monte on a farm-cart towed by a tractor, hand upraised in benediction, preceded by the flashing lights of a police car and a bare half-dozen decorated floats populated by grinning children, followed by a long procession of local worthies in slow-moving cars, many towing trailers laden with chairs, tables and paella pans for the all-day picnic to come. As for San Isidro himself, he will spend the day on his cart, parked immediately outside the beer tent, looking a little more woozy from the fumes as the day goes on.
We had seen the procession snaking its way down the shallow valley which separates Las Pinedas from its upstart neighbour La Chica Carlota a kilometre away and the site of much recent new building, mostly on its Southern slopes and mercifully invisible to us - new Spanish domestic building is, alas, usually best left unseen. In course of time the procession arrived in Las Pinedas to make its leisurely way along the street re-named after the murdered poet Frederico Garcia Lorca when democracy returned to Spain after Franco's death. Hastening to see the procession pass in Calle Lorca, I left my own front door open in the paralle street re-named another great poet of Republican Spain, Antonio Machado (he sought refuge in France during the Civil War, but died - one suspects of a broken heart - soon after the war ended). As the police car with its flashing blue lights cleared the streets of possible anti-clerical demonstrators and other noxious vagabonds, I noticed a door open on the far side of the street to let out a dog. It was quite a small, sturdy-looking dog with disproportionately heavy jaws, as though a Yorkshire terrier and been mated with a Husky. It pushed purposefully between the legs of the small crowd gathered to watch the procession and disappeared behind us in the direction of Calle Antonio Machado.
The procession duly trundled by, and as the last slowly-moving cars were nursing their over-heated engines along Calle Lorca and out to the Monte, the dog in question re-appeared, trotting firmly along with the air of one who has successfully accomplished some important private mission. It poked its head between our legs, spotted a gap in the traffic, trotted across the road and disappeared into its owner's house.
A couple of days later, going into the still-room off our kitchen for a bottle of wine, I found to my amazement that the cardboard case in which the wine came had been torn open with great force by some unknown third party and then largely demolished, the ripped panels visibly bearing the tooth-marks of a large mouth used with considerable violence. For a moment it seemed as though the age of the super-rat had finally arrived in Las Pinedas. Yet the mouth which had done this work of destruction was self-evidently far from rat-like: more rounded (rather than coming to a point under a ratty nose) and furnished with the massive molars needed to dispatch a regular diet of butcher's meat. Surveying the damage - which thankfully was only to the cardboard, our intruder had left the bottles inside unharmed - my wife Fay and I were completely non-plussed as to what or who might have caused it.
It was some days later before I finally remembered the little brown dog with the massive jaws and the front door which I had casually left open on the morning of the 'Romeria de San Isidro'.
NT/May 2008.

Wifi & The Watertower

It's raining cats and blogs in Britain, our daughter Arabella tells us on the phone. It's lovely limpid late autumn sunshine here. Our ambitious young lady mayor, Rafi, has pledged that every village in her mayoralty will have broadband by the end of 2007.
A shiny new aerial + radio communications dish has already sprouted as though by magic on top of the rust-stained concrete water-tower which overlooks our end of Las Pinedas village. The pines of Las Pinedas having long gone to build a succession of hapless armadas for the never-to-be accomplished invasion of Britain, the water tower is the one surviving tall growth for miles around. Mains water is nowadays piped in under pressure to our houses so there is no longer any need for the tower to be filled to produce a head to drive water to our taps.. It is a matter for quiet relief that there are not now some 30,000 litres of water poised up there in the cone-and-shallow-cylinder tank like a liquid sword of Damocles, ready to be released over our heads by the first earth-tremor strong enough to snap one of the rusty reinforcing rods visibly exposed to the elements in the surface of the concrete. The tower speaks grimly of the distant days of General Franco's doomed autarky - his attempt after the Civil war to make Spain economically self-sufficient, independent from the outside world for goods and services - meagre design, poor materials, a fatalistic approach to security - even empty of waterr the gaunt structure the height of three houses is yearly getting weaker and will eventually have to come down or (since this is Spain) will maybe simply fall down, crushing the cars and dwelling at is feet.
Meanwhile, for all its ugly enormity, it has somehow weathered into the landscape. Every autumn flocks of departing house-martins spend a day flying obsessively around it and clutching themselves to its surfaces - claws locked into cracks in the vertical concrete - as though fixing it in the collective memory for the return migration next year. What will they make of the space-age construction now glinting in the sunlight up there when they arrive next spring? For that matter what are we to make of it? - Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Or is it WiFi? I unhook my computer from a landline and carry it out into the garden, turning on the wireless facility which I last used in my office in Bath. The screen stays blank. If it really is WiFi up there (they call it 'wiffy' in Spain) all I can think is that someone has not yet quite got round to switching it on. But then, even in modern hi-tech Spain, maƱana is always another day.

NT: 07/12/2007

Monday, 8 December 2008


Michele is a Spanish speaking Scot who lives in our local market town of La Carlota with her partner Rob, himself Spanish born and half Scottish with a degree in Spanish and Linguistics from Edinburgh University, who in his middle years has abandoned the bookish life of a successful interpreter and translator to sell second hand John Deere tractors from an inhospitable stretch of hard-standing just off the main Seville to Cordoba motorway. To provide income meanwhile, Michele gives Yoga classes and does Ayurvedic massage – the latter being particularly good for ricked backs, as I can testify, and even better as a non-specific cure for the generalised pressures of modern life.. Over a period of seven years she had built up a thriving business in Algeciras and she is now hoping to repeat the success in La Carlota.

As a promotional gesture Michele recently offered a free massage to a number of La Carlota’s leading ladies. They took the free offer, were duly appreciative, but failed to come back for further paid treatments. In course of time Michele discovered that they were all of them regular clients of the local white witch – the Bruja – who gives her healing services free. It turns out, she is Michele’s principal commercial competitor. Furthermore she operates from a small shop in the very next street, barely 25 metres away from Michele’s apartment.

There, hanging out over the pavement, is a discreet but unmistakeable shop-sign bearing the single word 'EMBRUJA' in colourful cursive script. For an appropriate sum of money the Bruja will bless a bottle of water for a cure, cast a spell to change the course of love, read a palm or turn over the cards or cast up a horoscope to foretell the future, and so forth. Her waiting room is the street outside her shop. Most evenings there is a small crowd at the door - young people mainly. By that time of day the leading ladies have taken their aches and pains home and are in the kitchen scolding their husbands and children and stirring the cazuela in the time-honoured way.

In short, the Bruja, offering pagan services shrewdly tailored to the needs of her mainly Christian clients, has established herself as a formidable competitor to a newcomer like Michele, operating in the related marketplace of holistic healing, based on the ancient wisdom of a distant Far East. There may however be light at the end of Michele’s tunnel. Her two latest paying clients were two of the sisters of the Bruja herself.



Our predecessors in our own house, just down the road from Casa Uno, were thoroughly rational people in all but one respect: her inordinate love of cats. This led her to feed two dozen stray cats every afternoon at from her front door, involving a not inconsiderable outlay of cat-food pellets per day, and creating multiple foraging opportunities later in the night for the rats which naturally roam a farming village. But she was an enchanting person, much respected and indeed much loved in the village, and her little eccentricity where cats were concerned – a deep eccentricity in Spanish eyes for whom cats are only valued as utilities in the keeping down of rodents – was tolerated cheerfully enough. When our predecessors finally left the house to us and returned to England, it was with a parting bequest of 25 Euros and a big bag of cat-pellets, to be handed to a neighbour two houses up the next street, to continue the good work. We in our turn took possession of the house and then returned to England to sort out the furniture to be brought here. When we came back to Las Pinedas a couple of weeks later, a curious absence of cats was detectable. Our immediate neighbour, a French-speaking Algerian and possessor of a shot-gun, shouldered an imaginary gun in explanation. As for the 25 Euros and the big bag of cat-pellets, in this parsimonious society one can be sure they were not wasted.


Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Light, Silence and Darkness

Towering over the mud-coloured reaches of the Guadalquivir river stands Cordoba’s Mezquita, the greatest mosque in Moorish Spain and today the only surviving mosque of the Moorish period – all the rest were long ago replaced by churches, usually on the same foundations. Majestically expanded in successive phases of construction between the 8th and 10th centuries, the Mezquita is approached across a vast pebbled courtyard of symmetrically-spaced orange trees, watered by stone channels, still containing fountains to refresh the air and the great circular basin of Al-Mansur where the Faithful performed their ablutions before entering the mosque. Inside, in a forest of stone columns surmounted by double red arches, 8000 Moorish warriors at a time could prostrate themselves before the Mihrab, the golden niche indicating the geographical direction of Mecca.

The Mezquita owes its existence today to the massive whimsy of the Catholic Church in the 16th century. The then Bishop of Cordoba, Don Alonso Manrique, possibly mindful of the extreme beauty of the architectural space, or perhaps recognizing its convenience as a mass gathering place for Christians in wet weather, decided not to destroy the mosque absolutely as had been Christian practice after the Reconquista everywhere else in Spain, but to build a Baroque cathedral in the middle of the mosque, open all around to the mosque itself. It is at one and the same time both a dreadful act of architectural vandalism a miracle of architectural integration. `You have destroyed something unique!’ protested Carlos V, monarch of the day. But the fact is, Bishop Alonso had also created something unique – a marriage of Christian and Muslim architecture unparalleled elsewhere in the world – a symbol also of a mutual religious tolerance already long dead in Spain of the Holy Inquisition, which had once been at the heart of Moorish culture in Cordoba itself.

All this comes to a point in the Mihrab at the Eastern end of the Mezquita. An octagonal niche of extreme simplicity within, lit from hidden windows above, surrounded by texts from the Koran in exquisitely inlaid mosaics, it had been a gift to the then Caliph of Cordoba from the then Emperor of Byzantium - titular head of the Christian Orthodox church in the old Roman Empire of the East – who supplied not only the lavish materials for the mosaics but the skilled craftsmen to execute them to Muslim designs. On a first view the Mihrab, in its extreme austerity and lack of monumental symbolism, pales beside the colourful exuberance and sculptural complexity of the Christian altarpiece some 8 rows of columns away in the Cathedral. On a second or third view the eye may begin to calibrate to what is actually there in the Mihrab, indeed to all that is there, given the utter simplicity of the interior space beyond the gilded mosaics. What is there, of course, is light – light captured in the tower above and made visible in the space below – a compellingly powerful metaphor for the wisdom which the Faithful have always sought in the Divine. By comparison the gilded altarpiece of the Christian cathedral, with its central figure of the risen Christ and attendant angels, its internal domes and supporting arches and columns, can seem like the lady in Hamlet, to protest too much.

* * *

High in the hills above Cordoba is Las Ermitas, a group of 13 hermitages inhabited for many centuries by a community of solitary monks who shared the chapel, vegetable gardens and burial ground as communal facilities. The community died out more than 50 years ago, but the chapel still survives, approached along a drive of dark cypresses, behind which self-seeded vegetables and flowers from the monastic days still run an unregulated riot amongst the woodland shrubs. Sombre messages of the memento mori variety dot the path, a skull here, a text there reminding mere mortals of their mere mortality as they draw nearer the chapel of La Magdalena

The chapel is T-shaped, with that curious Spanish feature of a second nave and choir, used by the monks as a chapter-house, at right angles to and behind the altar of the first, as though some habit of North/South solar orientation left over from pagan days was still being discreetly preserved behind the dawn-to-dusk East/West orientation of the more recent Christian church. (The Holy Week ceremonies in Cordoba and Seville, with their swaying floats, groaning and long lines of hooded penitents, convey a similar impression of paganism glossed over but still giving a darker-than-usual emotion to Christian ritual). In a glass case in a small vestry off the main chapel there are gold monstrances containing chips of dusty bone alongside other talismanic items of an ancient Christian faith – gifts from visiting pilgrims, at an extreme of variance from the poverty the monks themselves sought out in their tiny two-room cabins, a couple of which are still open to view: the one room with a fireplace and vessels for the preparation of food; the other, with bed, table and stool for sleeping, prayer, study and pious self-flagellation with vicious scourges still displayed.

The chapel too is brilliant with the gold leaf, richly-coloured wall-tiles and statuary twisted in ecstatic prayer from centuries of generous donations. All leap into the light for a few lovely minutes when a Euro coin is dropped into the magic box at the entrance to the nave, for tourists and their listless children to wander round, take their snaps and be off into the gardens again in, following the path down to the mirador, where an Episcopal chair in marble looks out over limitless views of the Guadalquivir valley, beneath a tall column surmounted by a statue of St Raphael patron saint of Cordoba, its base decorated with the emblematic fasces – bundles of lictors’ punishment canes – of the former Falange party.

The real meaning of the chapel of the Ermita is only revealed when the tourists have gone, the lights have clicked off and virtual darkness falls, barely penetrated by sunlight struggling through the few heavily decorated church windows. High on its hill-top, protected by its lofty elevation and by its hedge of cypresses from the hum and buzz of human life on the plains far below, what the Ermita then offers is the gift of silence – the silence through which the divine Signal, with or without teasing bursts of divine Noise , may trickle down through the ether to the ear of the attentive and well-scourged hermit, to be received and rejoiced in as the divine Word, manna in the wilderness for the mortal soul.

* * *

Divine light and divine silence – threatened metaphors in a world where natural light and natural silence are increasingly hard to attain – marginal light and marginal silence, still beckoning the occasional attentive eye or ear, biding their time, no doubt, for when the energy runs out or the human species runs down, and light and silence will come into their own again.

And meanwhile, in a tall side-chapel off the nave of Cordoba cathedral which encroaches darkly on the space of the Mosque itself, permanently locked but permanently open to view through elaborate iron gates, set before an opulently gilded altar there stands a huge black basalt tomb. The tomb bears an expensive spray of artificial lilies and the simple legend `Jose-Antonio’.

Jose-Antonio Primo de Rivera was the son of the first dictator of Spain under king Alfonso XIII. Founder of the Falange party – the `Phalanx’ – modelled on Italian Fascist lines, the dashing young Jose-Antonio planned to use it to impose an authoritarian socialist regime on Spain, with an all-powerful central government taking decisions for and on behalf of the common people – a replica of his own father’s unfulfilled plans. In 1936 already deemed a threat to the ephemeral political stability of the Republican government of the day, he was imprisoned, and after the invasion of Spain by the Nationalist forces of Generals Mola and Franco he was executed by firing squad in Alicante gaol at the age of 27. Franco then took charge of the Falange, an arm of civilian power which he played off with great skill against the rival powers of Church and Army, by developing a death-cult of the young Primo de Rivera himself and by allowing his strikingly beautiful widow to be nationally prominent in the performance of good works. The tomb of `Jose-Antonio’ remains the nowadays unspoken fons et origo of the cult.

Light, silence and pitchy darkness – the trinity of magical/occult powers which still subtly infiltrate the inner life of 21st century Cordoba, as the people and the traffic hum and buzz by outside.

NT: 04/09/2008