Monday, 30 July 2007

America is different

The Americans were getting all bent out of shape last week because a couple of the Space Shuttle crew were apparently drunk while on a mission. My reaction was the same as when I was told, along with the rest of the Toledo Blade staff, that the consumption of liquor at lunchtime was no longer permitted. “You mean they expect us to do this stuff sober?” I cried.
The others thought I was being funny. We know better on this side of the pond.

This has nothing to do with the story below, except it is also set in Toledo, Ohio.

My first evening in Toledo, Ohio, as a newly arrived Blade executive, was interesting. It was November 1989, dark, cold and wet.

The paper had found, at my asking, an apartment within walking distance of the office. As is often the case with newspapers in The States, it was in the heart of Downtown.

My flat was in a smart row of terraced houses, with electric security gates for the garages, and gentrified to the nines, but the surrounding area was well down on its luck.

Still, it was all new to me, and after unpacking, I set out to explore. On the corner of the next block, 50 yards from my door, was a bar. A small neon sign proclaimed The Dooville Lounge. I went in. I like bars.

In a dim light about twenty or so customers were scattered, some at the counter, others at tables. They were not yuppies. A jukebox played “Welcom (sic) to the Jungle, “ a popular dirge of the day, whose significance escaped me at that point. Nobody paid me any obvious heed.

The barmaid was sturdily built, not unlike a Steelers linebacker, and clearly not to be fucked with. I asked for a gin and tonic.
“You Briddish?” she said. Yes, no denying it.
“You know Lady Di?” she followed up. Well, not really, but I had met her once, I ventured modestly. “You met Lady Di! Where?” barked the barmaid, whom I later knew as Joyce. I could not tell a lie. “At a polo match, as a matter of fact,” I said, by now aware that the conversation was taking a surreal turn.

And it was true. While I worked for Hello! Magazine, my royalty-besotted Spanish bosses had sponsored such a contest at Windsor Great Park, and Charles had played. Selected employees were afterwards introduced to the pair, who appeared at that time to be on cordial, even loving terms.

“Holy cow! Lissen, “ Joyce shouted to the patrons. “This Briddish guy met Lady Di at a fuckin’ polo game!” Grinning muggers and hookers surged around, slapping my back, shaking my hand and re-filling my glass.

I now had instant chums in Toledo and bought no more drinks that night. Amid the tumult, an alcoholically challenged patron misheard Joyce, and for a few delirious seconds was under the impression that England’s presumptive Queen and I had met at a poker game.

So, thanks to the People’s Princess my standing in T-Town where Jeeps are built, Art Tatum was born, and the transvestite guy in Mash was so keen to get home to, was assured from the get-go..

Now all I had to do was put out a newspaper every day, Sundays included, for the next fifteen years. Piece of piss.

Sunday, 22 July 2007

To be a Pilg

One of the reasons we bought the house in Moratinos was because it is right on the Camino. At this time of year literally hundreds walk, or cycle, through the village only a hundred yards or so from our front door each day.

Reb, my wife, is considerably more interested in all this than I am, but occasionally the passing parade catches my attention.

A day or so ago while walking the dog, I heard two pilgs (our name for them) talking English as they approached. One turned out to be a nice man from London named Charlie. We walked and talked for half an hour to San Nicolas then had a coffee in the local bar. Like several other pilgs, Charlie seemed to be getting over domestic problems, in his case, a divorce, and had also fallen for a French pilg called Virginne, as I heard it. An ominous name.

I get the impression that walking to Santiago has overtaken the traditional cures for emotional disaster. At one time, guys like Charlie would have signed on a whaler for a couple of years, or joined The Foreign Legion to Forget It All.

Women often have the same motives. A German lady, Astrid, recently told me she was heading West as an indirect result of being left practically at the altar a year ago by some cad from Cologne. Then the pair of us met another German, Christian, who sat around holding his head in his hands and moaning softly after getting the elbow from a fraulein. It's the same the whole world over, I suppose.

But the motives of some of them can only be guessed at. When I see a pilg walking the 'wrong' way, that is West to East, I generally ask them if they have been to Santiago, and what they are up to now. Another German told me, yes, he had been to Santiago, and was now headed back to St Jean Pied de Port, the traditional starting place just over the French border.

"OK, " I said, "then what will you do?" "I will turn round and walk back to Santiago," he said, "I have already walked the route twice in succession so far and I'm now half way back on the third trip. Then I will do it again a fourth time." Remember, this is a total of about 2,000 miles.

"Then what will you do?" I asked."Go home, of course," he said, as if it was obvious.

Sometimes the Pilgs heading back say they are off to Lourdes, then Rome, and even Jerusalem. Some of the "right-way" pilgrims have already come thousands of kilometers: they started walking their camino at their front doors. Which are sometimes as far away as Poland, Holland, Norway, or Scotland.
Walking fools. Possibly holy, possibly nuts. Still, it keeps them off the streets.

Sunday, 15 July 2007


It being the last day of San Fermin in Pamplona yesterday, Reb and I decided to hop into the fergoneta and drive over to the Bar Deportivo in Sahagun to grab some genuine Spanish culture and colour by way of pay-per-view on the telly, like the locals do.

The day was hot, and we had already taken a trip there in the morning to shop for essentials such as bread and gin. I don't really know why we felt the need to wallow in blood and sand, but it's almost certainly a Freudian revenge compulsion directed from the depths of the id at builders from Leon.

Along with everything else, the corrida is not what it used to be. Yesterday was no exception. Bulls are eternally noble, men are eternally not. Botched kills every time, whistling and hooting from the hydra-headed mob, much posturing and shameless showboating from the toreros, accompanied by plenty of nervous skittering away from the bulls, meanwhile pretending to seamlessly engage them in the ageless ritual dance of man and beast as the shadows lengthen across the arena and the trumpet, like the bell, tolls its plaintive note for thee...Death in the Early Evening, sit down Anastasio, I can't see the bleeding screen
My god, what the hell am I drivelling and gibbering about - now I am getting a compulsion torunallthewordstogether.Ernestwouldn'tcareforthisonebit, Manoletewouldalsohavehatedit,thingshavegonetothebow-wowsinaBigWaysincetheirday.

Phew. That's better. So, no more bullfights until Seville. Not too much tonic in that, please.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Clucking and twitching

If I needed reminding that my life has taken an odd turn, my wife's parting words - as she took off for Sahagun - would have made it clear. "Please keep the chickens out of the bedroom," she shouted.

This is a hazard, these days. The builders, galvanised by my threats to disinherit them, are working almost reasonably, leaving all doors open for their wheelbarrows in the process. Since our bedroom currently consists of a windowless cell at ground level, the danger of a hen takeover is at red alert.

They are nice chickens, but lax and careless in their personal habits.

Today they escaped, all six in a posse, out into the street. They convened under a remolque (large tractor cart) and stood there clucking and shitting contentedly. We had to get a broom to shove them out, then grab them two at a time and cart them back into the hen hut.

Blodwyn of the floppy comb is the ringleader, always first into the patio area and ready to match Una the dog peck for nip in a battle for breakfast scraps. She generalled the great escape through the main door when nobody was looking. A fowl of great - and bad - character.

Until a few days back, the chicken girls were giving us a strange problem. Pulling together as a team, they present us with at least five or six eggs a day. Unless you are the current President of the United States, you can figure out that is at least 35 per week. For two people, this is excessive. (I nearly wrote "egg-sessive," but decency won out.) We can't give eggs to our near neighbors as they all have their own birds. Then someone suggested Don Santiago the priest might like some, and also Paca, our veteran friend in Sahagun. So each week they both get a dozen of the finest free range Moratinos has to offer. And we are left with a couple or so eggs a day for our own use.

Six hens and a scruffy dog. Right now, that's enough fauna for us in Calle Ontanon 2.

So when, on Monday, our neighbour Modesto offered me an impressive group of wire cages that he used to keep rabbits in, I had to turn him down. The only reason for rabbits is pie or stew. I love both, but I'm not ready for a life of bunnycide yet. Doubt if I ever will be. Those twitching noses..

The idea of caging and fattening up a few Neocons for special occasions, now that I could consider. But they are bound to taste as nasty as they look. Those twitching noses..

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Sacred and Profane

H.G.Wells once said that he was always a little edgy about driving through France, because if he saw a priest crossing the road in front of him, he didn't know if he would be able to resist running him over. I know what he meant, although, over the past few years, I have met some priests who are wonderful human beings. The latest is our local cura, Santiago, and he is well named, as he is a saint, I think. He handles about four or five parishes, dashing form one to the other Sundays and feast days, and has to work at a garden centre during the week to pay for his keep.

The other Sunday, he asked the communicants to pick the hosts out of the chalice themselves, because his hands were so ingrained with dirt, that he didn't want to handle the sacred objects.

Quite often, at the end of mass, he makes a joke. These are not the sort of savage wit that I appreciate, but you can't have everything. One I recall was a priest saying to the congregation, " I have good news and bad news. The good news is there is enough money to repair the church tower. The bad news is it's still in your pockets." Well, he's a priest, for crissake, not Max Miller.

Max Miller, I suppose I should explain, was one of the last of the music hall comedians in Britain, famed for his double-entendres and known as The Cheeky Chappie. I can only remember one of his jokes and it is so purile and juvenile I will not repeat it here. But I did see him, about 1955, I guess at a theatre in Wimbledon, whose name I forget. He was extremely good. The show also featured nude, motionless, ladies, which was my reason for going, being, then as now, a keen student of art.

It is necessary to explain such things as Max Miller's identity, so ephemeral is fame.

Last week I was walking with a 40 year old lady from Germany, a schoolteacher, and she had never heard of Mickey Rooney, or Judy Garland. Well, she is a German, for crissake.

Should have asked her about Marlene Detrich. She had heard of Hemingway, though, and had tried to read him but couldn't understand him. That struck me as odd. Whatever else he was, Hemingway was at least comprehensible.

Which is more than God is. Pilgrims normally believe in God and are a bit puzzled when someone attends mass religously every Sunday, and yet doesn't believe. Can't blame them really. When they ask why I don't believe, I give them Bertrand Russell's answer, " Not enough evidence."

Well, he was a philosopher, for crissake. (Russell, that is, not God.)

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Rambling towards Revolution

Apologies to the army of fans for the unconscionable delay between blogs, but I have been distracted by:

1. Arguing with builders

2. Walking the Camino.

The latter, though arduous, is infinitely preferable.
The former has increased my vocabulary a fair bit, though not enough. While it is handy to know, for example, that the big carts tractors pull around are ‘remolques’ I also feel the need of a few handy words such as ‘asshole,’ ‘dunderhead,’ and ‘pillock.’
Still and all, as we bloggers say, when we can’t think of anything else, progress is being made.

Reb, my wife, suggested I should ‘get the stink blown off me,’ like she did, by taking a hike from Jaca to Puente de la Reina. This is on the Ruta Aragones, and compared with the regular Camino, it is tough and very beautiful. The two go together, because if you want to walk through mountains, naturally, you have to deal with many tiring ups and downs, and a lot of dangerous, unstable, rocky ground.

I had forgotten most of this, as people do.

You look at a map of the day’s walk and think, well, it’s only 30k, that’s only 18 miles, and I have got all day, and forget all the horrors involved , like carrying about 18lb on your back, including a big bottle of water – because there’s none for 5 miles, and you don’t take into account that the temperature might well be 90 or so.
And the walk that you thought would take six hours, takes eight. And at the end, you are weary and sad. And the village where you stop has no bar, or worse, there is one, but it is shut for the summer vacation.

The strangest incident was in Ruesta, a deserted village about 70 miles south of Pamplona, which has been leased by the Communist Party, who want to restore it, for some reason. So far they have done up a hostel with some sort of bar and a kitchen. When we pilgrims arrived, the commies were eating lunch, about 5 of them. They greeted us with grunts and nods. I sat alongside them in the shade for about 5 minutes, and then asked if there was any chance of a drink. They held a short committee meeting, and agreed, that by a majority decision, yes, a drink was possible. Two of them then formed a sub-committee and agreed that one of them would fetch it. What would I like? Any chance of a gin and tonic, said I. The sub committee then re-convened with the majority group and seemed to be debating whether this was too hopelessly bourgeois to merit further consideration.
A beer would do nicely, I suggested. But on a show of nods, a unanimous decision was reached.
If the effete, middle-class ex-catspaw of the ruling class wants a bleeding Vera, the party is fully equal to the task, distasteful and even degrading though it may be to honest sons of toil.
A comrade disappeared into the bar. After five more minutes, he emerged with a glass of clear liquid that looked like a gin and tonic, but tasted like something else. But it had ice and alcohol and was really ok, not very unpleasant all.
But, it seemed to me that it did not bode well for the prospects of
the oncoming revolution.

This has nothing to do with the above, but I read today that Bush’s popularity level has sunk to an all time low, that seven out of every ten American voters have realized that he is no better than a Spanish builder. The appalling concomitant is that there are still three out of ten who have yet to figure it out, and probably never will.

For some reason this reminds me of something Flaubert wrote, "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness. Though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."