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The Dictator’s Ghost

15 Aug

Yesterday, intending to do my civic duties and pay my annual dues (known as the Xaloc) at the ajuntament of Rabós, I plodded up the hill, Thursday being one of the two days on which the village hall opens its office to deal with citizens and their affairs. Once inside the ajuntament complex, I notice that on the door of the office itself, a scrap of paper is pinned to the woodwork, declaring that during the months of July and August, office hours will take place on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings instead of Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. Fair enough.

So today I take myself up the hill again (I do not wish to dramatise this; it is not an enormous hill, and I do live near the top end of the village, but nevertheless . . .) and the office is closed again. A friendly face at the village shop tells me that today is the assumption of the most Holy Virgin, the day on which the Virgin Mary was allegedly scooped up to heaven. For this reason the whole country must stop in its tracks. However, as a regular visitor to Spain and other Latin countries, I am used to this, and do not so much as flinch a northern European muscle.

Digression: Xaloc, the name of the tax, sounds like a Mexican god, but is in fact, I recall, the Catalan name of one of the sea winds (it comes from the Arabic word shaluq, meaning south-east). A Catalan fisherman’s saying goes: Vent de Xaloc, mar molta i peix poc / Xaloc wind: big sea and few fish. Is this how the term came to be adopted to refer to a form of taxation?

My adventure in trying to pay my civic dues could be represented as a flow chart, or else in bullet points, as follows:

i. Ajuntament office hours are on Mondays 10-12 and Thursdays 16-18.30,

except:

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

except:

iii. on Fiesta days during those months, when they will be cancelled altogether.

These are the kinds of qualifications that would send Angela Merkel and any self-respecting northern European Eurocrat into palpitations. It is exactly this kind of thing, don’t you know, which causes these idle Mediterranean countries to crash their economies. No sense of civic duty, no sense of Hard Graft.

On my way down through the village, I see something on the wall that I have never before noticed (and I have been coming to this village, on and off, since 1988). Now, the changing of place names is a well known phenomenon in all countries with an historical tendency to regime change: we once spent an afternoon in La Línea de la Concepción trying to track down my mother-in-law’s birthplace, before realising that the street names had undergone at least two revisions since 1926. Here is what I saw:

 

The village square at Rabós d’Empordà, with the faded evidence of an earlier inscription: 'Plaza del Generalisimo Franco'.

The village square at Rabós d’Empordà, with the faded evidence of an earlier inscription: ‘Plaza del Generalisimo Franco’.

 

What would the Generalisimo have made of it all? Well, the answer is clear: it was with the dictatorship that my little tale begins. Franco was directly responsible for both maintaining a crippling adherence to Catholic dogma and a ludicrously top-heavy bureaucracy that Spain has been struggling to free itself from over the past 40 years. And the more feast days, clearly, the more devout your subjects.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

 

 

 

The Zapatistas’ breakfast

6 May

Zapatistas

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

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

 

Zapatistas and waitresses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The people of Teotihuacán

29 Apr

 

Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacán

Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacán

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

Temple of the Moon

Temple of the Moon

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the plumed serpent)

Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the plumed serpent)

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

Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent deity

Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent deity

 

Stone jaguar on wall of Temple of Quetzalcóatl

Stone jaguar on wall of Temple of Quetzalcóatl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flying Pigs

12 Jan

Dame Carcas

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

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

‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’

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

‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’

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

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

Jerome said, ‘What happened to the pig?’

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

 

 

 

 

Forgetting Chatwin

30 Aug

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

Puerto Madryn reception

Puerto Madryn reception

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

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

Guanaco family

Guanaco family

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

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

Mimosa crew

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

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

A Patagonian dog, chilling out.

A Patagonian dog, chilling out in Puerto Pirámide.

Noblesse oblige, my arse

29 Dec

Benedict Cumberbatch

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

What reality, where?

27 Nov

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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