andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: April 2018

A Word On… Spanish Stuff

Here’s a couple of what I’d plan to be sidebars in my book on Spain. As ever, be delighted to have any feedback!

A Brief History of Spanish Time

If you ever need a reminder that the Mediterranean peoples, including the Spanish, are the cradle of Western civilisation as we know it, come with me of a summer’s evening to any one of Spain’s regional cities and sit at a table in a café watching the world go by.

It might be 9 or 10 at night; it might be a Monday. If it is, the only difference might be the cafes are slightly less jam packed. Everyone’s eating and drinking like it’s going out of fashion. There’s still a significant amount of them smoking. They all look fantastic on it.

A satisfied customer at a Madrid cafe

What’s more, nobody’s drunk. Nobody. You might see drunks in Madrid or Barcelona, but they’re probably foreigners. Instead, in this regional city – let’s say Léon, for the sake of giving a recent example – there are all ages out and about, from immaculately-dressed elderly couples, to middle aged folks with their teenage kids, to younger mums with babies; the teenagers out on their own, by the way, are sitting at the next table, drinking coke politely, checking out the opposite sex discreetly as they walk past, and not being any bother to anyone. If they are being a bother, they’re probably French.

And, although it’s ten at night, nobody looks like they’re in a hurry to go home. Indeed, some of them are still going in to eat their main meal of the day, inside the restaurant, in the air-conditioned salon comedor. For the rest of us, the atmosphere is relaxed, congenial, and unhurried. It is as if everyone has all the time in the world.

Now, if this seems to give an idealised portrait of the Spanish way of life, let me just say, ok. The health stats aside, the Spanish are as worried about their health and happiness as the rest of us: the telly adverts are as full of stuff about slimming, gym memberships and how to stop smoking as anywhere else; I saw an advert in Spain recently that claimed that the Spanish have the greatest amount of cosmetic surgery in Europe. But let me take you on that evening out (you’re buying, obviously) and you’d be forced to agree.

So what are they doing right? Can it really all be down to having a wee sleep in the middle of the day?

Well, the concept of siesta isn’t without its Spanish critics. My friend Rufino, for example, has a much more northern European approach to work, and wishes he could do without the midday break and be home at a reasonable time. As an abogado – a lawyer – he’s expected to be available for clients till around 8 at night, in the same way shops and other businesses stay open till that time. The Catalans, too, tend to dismiss siestas as a soft southern invention they don’t need to adhere to.

But, for the majority of Spanish people, time is still a much more fluid idea than for us northerners. They might rise early, particularly if they commute. However, going to breakfast in a café between 9 and 10, you’re quite likely still to see office workers and construction guys dawdling over a café con leche even then.

That may explain why, when British and American tummies are starting to rumble at one o’clock, the Spanish restaurants aren’t really filling up and you’ll have your choice of table. Almuerzo, the big middle of the day meal, often happens well past midday – at 2 or 3; it can be a family meal, or one with colleagues; but either way, many shops and businesses then close up for a couple of hours at least. Whether people have time to go home and get some kip may, again, depend on the size of the city, and its property prices. However, in general, most people seem to.

Things only really start to get going again around 6 or 7. By then, shops will open up again, the inevitable drilling of roads and buildings will recommence: and people will drift towards cafes and bars for a drink, unless they’re working. And stay there, meeting friends and family (most socialising happens outside the home in Spanish culture) until whenever it suits. And that could be the wee hours.

The good news is that the restaurant/café culture is a lot less rigid than it used to be. In most places, they’ll serve you a range of things from tapas, ranging up through racion-sized portions to the full bib-and-tucker three courses more or less at any time.

 

Tapas, Raciones, and all that sort of stuff

So most of you will know the story by now about tapas, right? That it originated in the deep south of Spain, where the waiter brought you your drink with a tapa (cover) on top, consisting of a bit of bread or something similar, to keep the flies off your drink.

Well, maybe. That story always seemed a bit hokey to me, particularly given the likelihood that, as soon as you took the bread off, the flies would dive right in if they were interested. Although, in my experience, insects are much more likely to settle on something solid like bread than they are to ever dive-bomb your glass of tinto de verano.

 

Madrileño tapas bar. Great street for tapas; for sleeping, not so much.

So, in the interests of research, I had a look at an article from the southern Spanish newspaper ABCdeSevilla, which offered a number of theories, alongside the insect repellent one:

  1. King Alfonso X ‘The Wise’ needed one or two glasses of wine a day for health reasons (nice one, royal doc!) and, to avoid the effects of alcohol, asked for a wee something food wise on the side;

 

  1. During the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, taverns noticed that, at putting out time, the patrons were, well, a bit drunk, and possibly somewhat hard to handle, so hit on the idea of giving them something to eat alongside their wine;

 

  1. It was a 19th century invention to keep the farm workers refreshed, by giving them a bit of nutrition as well as a drink while they worked (and with no need for them to stop working – take note, modern day office workers who moan about lunch at your desk);

 

  1. It was an early 20th century invention in Almería to keep the flavour of the sherry in, by covering the glass in a slice of ham.

 

Well, it doesn’t really matter. However, it is interesting that two at least of the theories centre around the idea that, by eating at the same time as drinking, you become less likely to end up falling down drunk after a few glasses of wine.

So what’s a tapa, and what’s a racion? In general, the second of these is a bigger portion, and you have to ask for it: tapas will, sometimes, come with your drink whether you ask for it or not, and if you haven’t asked for it, is included in the price of the drink.

Of course, generosity and complexity of free tapas in particular varies hugely. In Madrid or Barcelona, you’ll be lucky to get a bowl of crisps most times: in the smaller regional cities, however, you can sometimes just about eat for free.

The most generous tapas-you-didn’t-ask-for culture we’ve come across so far was in Léon, where a morning coffee produced a free slice of almond cake; and later drinks might be accompanied, unbidden, by a plateful of calamari, deep fried peppers, and other such delicacies, for no extra charge. And it’s not even as if the drinks cost as much as in Madrid!

Traditionally, many bars would specialise only in one or two tapas dishes, so that you would have a drink and their speciality, and then move on. Similarly, the glass size of the alcohol you were having was small, to reflect that you might be having a few drinks in different bar, and you weren’t actually setting out to get hammered.

Inevitably, commercialism has taken over a bit, so that each bar will serve you something for free, but also have a menu or carta de tapas so that you can stay in the same bar all night. If you’re not planning to get hammered and you’re drinking beer, ask for a caña, which is generally a small glassful of the house lager.

Plaza Mayor, Madrid. Traditionally the place for the first beer of the trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hitting the return key pushes the adverts down here. Petty, isn’t it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Me and Bob Dylan: Or, a case of mistaken identity

I wasn’t absolutely sure until he spoke.

‘Excuse me,’ came that voice like sand and glue, ‘Do you know if they stock fresh turmeric?’

I have to say, the chances of coming across the Greatest Living Songwriter in the fruit and vegetable aisle – or indeed, any other aisle, up to and including the meat counter – of our local branch of Morrison’s, might seem astronomical. Indeed, you might consider all of this a tall tale, and I could hardly blame you.

And yet there he was, as large as life, and looking for fresh turmeric.

‘They did stock it for a while, but I’ve not seen it recently. Not much demand for it in Glenrothes, I suspect,’ I said, trying to act as if encountering international recording artists – not to say long-term heroes – loitering near the parsnips in a Fife supermarket was part of my everyday experience. ‘Do you use it a lot?’

‘Yeah, for sure,’ Dylan said, suddenly looking animated. ‘Do you know the kind of health benefits they say that stuff has?’

By sheer chance, I had been reading recently of the putative merits of the roots of Curcuma longa, but, fearing my show of insouciance was about to crumble, I just shrugged and shook my head. Dylan smiled, like a man happy to find another convert to his latest beliefs.

‘Man, you gotta get some of it,’ he said. ‘It’s argued by many to be the most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease. Its many proven benefits,’ he chuntered on, with a use of syntax raising the suspicion of direct quotation from some website or other, ‘include the slowing and prevention of blood clots, reducing symptoms of depression, fighting inflammation, boosting the immune system, promoting skin health, and even reducing or preventing many common forms of cancer. I mean,’ he concluded, moving a little sideways to allow a fellow shopper to get access to the celeriac, ‘I’ve been on it for 6 months, and look at me!’

I looked at him. He looked like a scruffy seventy-something with questionable dress sense and the kind of three day stubble that only looks good on the likes of George Clooney. He also, unquestionably, looked the dead spit of Bob Dylan.

He clearly had much more to get off his chest on the topic of turmeric. ‘Another study suggests..’ he said, but I had heard enough. ‘Look, Bob,’ I said. ‘You are Bob Dylan, aren’t you?’

‘I go by many names…’ he started to say, but I cut across him. ‘I’ve just one question for you, as a long term fan. When are you going to stop doing all these Sinatra covers and get back to the good stuff?’

It was out before I could help myself. I looked at Dylan as he rocked back on his heels, surprised at the vehemence of my tone perhaps. Then his eyes narrowed. ‘Wait a minute. You don’t work for CBS, do you? Those bastards are always trying to get me to dial back on the American Standards. Well, you can tell them from me…’

‘No, no!’ By this time, we had, jostled by other shoppers in search of various types of root vegetables, ended up in a far corner of the store by the less popular end of the deli counter. Overcome with guilt at upsetting my hero, I outlined to him my early devotion to him, bordering on fanaticism in my student years, now tempered into a more mellow appreciation of his absolute mastery of the songwriting craft.

I may have gone on a bit. ‘Okay, enough already,’ he said, a twinkle in his eye. ‘Let’s see how true a fan you are. Favourite Blonde on Blonde song?’

‘Visions of Johanna,’ I countered easily.

‘Hmm, pretty good. Favourite live album?’

‘Well, I started out on Budokan, but I still think Hard Rain is greatly underrated,’ I said.

‘Hmm,’ he said again, stroking his chin and casting an appreciative eye over Morrison’s range of prepared pizzas in the chiller cabinet behind him. ‘You’re right. It is greatly underrated. Okay. You seem like a decent fellow that’s not going to share secret information with the world at large, so, just between us, I’ll tell you why I’m doing all this Sinatra nonsense.’ He glanced left and right, but it was just us and the pizzas. ‘It’s a contractual obligation to my real employer, the Devil.’

‘Say again?’

‘You’ve heard of Robert Johnson, right? Going down to the crossroads to trade his soul for musical ability?’ I nodded. ‘Well, I out Johnsoned Johnson, man. I been to those crossroads twice.’

‘What d’you mean, Bob?’

His eyes took on a faraway look. ‘Well, you know, all those years ago … 1961 was the first time. Came up to New York and realised I couldn’t play guitar half as well as Dave Van Ronk and all these other folksingers at the Gaslight. So I took myself down to those crossroads. All I wanted was the guitar chops: but Old Nick, he threw in some songwriting ability, too. There was just one condition.’

A passing shopper gave us a curious look as she reached for the barbecue chicken with cheese combo 12 inch, before heading off  back towards the soft fruit.

‘One condition?’

‘Yeah. He insisted I worked my way through all the genres. He was very clear about that. It’s why I had to keep changing styles throughout my career: folk, rock, blues, country… by the early Eighties I’d just about run out of genres, so I asked him about gospel. ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘go for it.’ Dangerous strategy on his part, of course. Before I knew it I’d got in a situation with one of my backing singers, who was religiously inclined, and she got me to renounce the Devil and all his works. Safe to say he wasn’t best pleased about it.’

Things were beginning to dawn on me. ‘So that explains your mid-Eighties career slump. You lost the ability to write a decent song.’

Dylan nodded grimly. ‘Yep. Totally blocked. Wasn’t till I went down to New Orleans to record that album with Lanois, Oh Mercy, that I could get back down to those crossroads and rework the deal. Even then, it took a while to get the songwriting back in the package.’

‘You’re telling me,’ I said. ‘Under the Red Sky, Good As I Been to You, World Gone Wrong…

He gave me the kind of look only a Greatest Living Songwriter can give you when you’ve overstepped the mark. ‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Maybe I didn’t have the best lawyer in the world, what with the Devil having the best of them.’

I nodded, guiltily. ‘Sure, Bob. Sorry…’

‘Well, things got back on track, with albums like Time Out of Mind. Then Old Nick, he started hassling me about doing American Standards. I mean, those Rat Pack guys – Frankie, Dino, Sammy and the rest – they were his people, man. So I’ve been stuck with doing them ever since.

‘That’s why I need to keep going on the turmeric, see. I’ve just about fulfilled my contractual obligations on these crooner favourites with him, so if I can keep myself healthy enough for long enough, I can go back to the good stuff before I go down into the flames. Plus I’ve just hired a new lawyer who thinks he’s found a get out clause.’

I could tell my time with the Greatest Living Songwriter was coming to an end: mainly by the way he was edging away from me in the direction of the speciality cheeses. I was racking my brains for something short and pithy that would encapsulate my undying admiration for his life’s work, only enhanced now by knowledge of his very real battles with his inner and outer demons. However, he had his own parting statement ready.

‘Uh, I really like that ballad you did about me, by the way. Very good. All that shifting perspective stuff. I approve.’

‘Eh?’

‘You know. ‘Twenty miles away, in a high-security hospital…’

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘You’re confusing me with my friend, the singer-songwriter Norman Lamont. It’s his song. I’m still waiting to write something that good. By the way, do you have an address for those crossroads?’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see down here. Not even a crossroads.

An Encounter in Mérida: Fellow Travellers

Another extract from what may turn into a book on Spain…

The fact the quiet American had reached such a relatively obscure place as Mérida gave him, using my admittedly somewhat arbitrary points system, a double bonus for effort. That, and the way he kept claiming to be Brazilian.

We’ve actually met very few English-speaking folk on our travels. Of course, in the bigger cities – Madrid, Seville increasingly, and especially Barcelona; but not so much in the more out of the way places. Which is part of the point, of course.

The Roman Bridge at Mérida

The Americans, though. The Americans abroad are  – in general – more extroverted than us, shattering that icy Scots reserve as they include you into their evening, asking you to translate for them, joshing with the slightly stunned looking bar staff in high volume Spanglish, and generally being, oh, what’s that word there’s no positive equivalent for in Scots? Oh yes: confident.

Anyway, Don didn’t quite fit that stereotype. He was keeping himself to himself, and the only reason we got talking was because I offered a translation of something on the menu for him. However, he did then get to talking, he joined us at our table, and the next night we both happened to be in the same bar again.

That second night, the conversation – and the good local wine – was flowing. Don was extremely entertaining company, and Daughter and Heiress was of an age that I wasn’t too discomfited when he extolled to her the benefits of lysergic acid. I mean, it wasn’t like he offered us all a tab right there and then.

It was just – in the morning, thinking back – none of us could tell very much about what your man actually did in Brazil, for example, or why he went there in the first place. We got that he was divorced, that he knew his Iberian food and wine – especially the Portuguese variety – and was a fan of mind-expanding substances of the less than legal variety. But beyond that? Nada.

But then, being a stranger in a strange land can do that for you. If you want to give the impression that you’re a CIA agent operating under deep cover in Extramadura, then you can.

Our regular fellow travellers in this book, however, are a slightly less mysterious bunch than Don – all except one, perhaps.

Ernest Hemingway, to start with the most famous, is really too famous to need much of an introduction. Novelist, bullfighting enthusiast, big game drinker and thinker, Papa H drove an ambulance for the Republicans in the Civil War. Much of his best work is set in Spain, and the way he renders the language in For Whom The Bell Tolls is a particular favourite for me.

He may pop up at various points, by way of Hemingway and Spain, by Edward F Stainton (University of Washington Press, 1989).

Giles Tremlett is the Guardian’s Madrid correspondent. Although his book, Ghosts of Spain, (Faber and Faber, 2006) bears the imprint of a series of articles woven into a theme they didn’t necessarily start out with, it’s still a brilliant introduction for anyone who, like me, wonders what it’s really like to live in Spain with the Spanish.

It’s particularly strong on the pacto del olvido, the collective act of forgetting that the Spanish entered into after Franco’s death, allowing the wounds of the Civil War forty years before to crust over without healing; and the political and other circumstances around the Atocha bombings in 2005.

Gertrude Bone is the change-up pitcher, though. A couple of years ago, my sister gave me a copy of a second hand book: Days in Old Spain. (MacMillan and Co, 1939). I’d never heard of Gertrude Bone, or her husband, Muirhead (later Sir Muirhead, don’tcha know) who provided the illustrations. But the introduction hooked me in, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, by the time the book was published, it was already a historical artefact. The result of travels throughout Spain in the late 1920s, it described a country on the cusp of change, if not yet in the shadow of war: ‘Disaffection to the Monarchy was everywhere audible, and an impatience of backwardness and old fashions manifest in all parts of the country.’

Second, unlike Laurie Lee, who covered Spain on foot in his classic As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, on the very eve of the Civil War, the Bones got about by train – much as we do.

One of the other reasons I came to like Gertrude so much was her modesty. The introduction stresses that the text was really only to supplement the hubby’s drawings – something rather belied by how good the writing is, as I’ll demonstrate presently. More than that, just how misleading it is to think of Gertrude as the wee wife jotting down some footnotes to the artist husband’s great work only becomes clear with a bit more research.

Gertrude Bone (1876 – 1962) was the daughter of a Wesleyan minister (who had previously been a blacksmith). Brought up in Glasgow (which may explain the modesty), she was the author of at least three other published books: Women of the Country, The Furrowed Earth, and Mr Paul.

And…

And then, at least so far as internet research goes, it all becomes a bit second-hand, as she gets a mention, not in her own right, but as wife of Sir Muirhead, and mother of Stephen Bone, who followed his Dad into the war artist business. The picture you’d get from the Internet, with father and son both meriting a Wikipedia entry but not her, would be that implied by Gertrude herself: the supportive wife and mother, playing second fiddle to the men of the house.

This is not the place for a feminist discourse on the innate bias towards DWEMs in cyberspace. But when you look at Gertrude’s published works, the reality is that she was the writer, and father and son illustrated her books.

More: in one of my internet searches, I turned up a page about a letter signed in 1913 by the ‘Manchester Suffragettes,’ amongst them that faithful wife and mother Gertrude, or ‘Mrs Muirhead Bone,’ as she’s quaintly termed.

To return to the subject of Spain, her book on it is very far from being a bit of hack work to accompany the illustrations. Mrs Bone has the eye of a true poet. Take, for example, this turn of phrase when writing about Andalucía: ‘Shadow is hoarded in the streets and in the churches, and where old men follow the shade for their rest as in England they follow the sunshine.’

Or this description of the Spanish character, allowing for it being the language of an Edwardian (are you even allowed to call Spanish people Spaniards now?): ‘The reserve of the Spaniard is never surly. He requires his own personal dignity, but he will invariably allow you yours. If he knows what will please you, and you are a well-behaved person, he will of his own accord open an entrance to the interests you seek in his country.’

That, to me, is a perfect way to describe the Spanish, and their kindness to strangers. English, Scottish or American: treat the locals with respect, give them their space, and they’ll go the extra mile for you every time.

Even if you want to claim you’re from Brazil.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding Sunshine Amongst the Snow Squalls: Edinburgh, April 1st

‘APRIL is the cruellest month,’ TS Eliot said, ‘breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain…’ this being his epic poem, The Waste Land, he chunters on for a fair amount longer, but we get the gist and, frankly, that’s about as much as anyone remembers (I’d forgotten the bit about the dull roots and all that, to be honest).

Anyway, I’d like to say I was meditating on modern classic poetry yesterday as we wandered round the Edinburgh Botanic Gardens yesterday, but I’d be stretching it: the day before we’d shuddered in and out of charity shops in Morningside, as sleet tried very hard to turn itself into snow: today, the snow is making a proper go of it in our corner of the Scottish Lowlands. What is this crazy weather?

Yesterday, by comparison, it was just dry and cold, wind whipping across the sandstone faces of the nearby tenements as we exited the agreeable coffee shop quarter of Stockbridge (like Morningside, a village within the city that, as economic downturns come and go, still maintains the fur coat part of Edinburgh’s ‘fur coat and nae knickers’ image).

To the Botanics, then, with its outstanding internal and external views.

 

One of the real pleasures of the Gardens at this time of year is the rhododendron collection beginning to brust into flower. The severe winter seemed to have taken its toll on some of the plants, with evidence of frost damage. Nevertheless, there was the start of some sort of colour to be had:

It used to be, of course, that you could go into the tropical and other glasshouses for a heat: but now they charge for that, so we stayed out! Fortunately, the little alpine glasshouses are free.

This alpine collection, sheltered from the recent storms, was really the highlight of the whole Gardens yesterday, and Edinburgh’s Botanics-visiting classes buzzed round them like puffa-jacketed bees.

We totally need to go back later in the Spring. The rhoddies will be really quite spectacular in a month or so. Still not sure what they’re doing to the great long herbaceous borders at the moment: they seem to be a work in progress; but the massive series of rockeries that climb towards the southern boundary are always worth a wander round. Oh, and the trees. Lots of trees of every description.

For now, though, the alpines were the ones putting on a show.

 

(Later, our excellent local, John Leslie on the South Side, provided a warming atmosphere. TS Eliot may have been right about April, but they serve Deuchar’s right through the month!)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…and the bit about Leslie’s is as close as you’ll get to an endorsement from me! Other people’s endorsements below here.