Thursday, June 07, 2007

North of Columbus

I was looking for something else when I came across this, an article ignored for publication by The Spectator. It's quite long, fictionalised in parts - who remembers drunken conversations with any degree of accuracy? - and, in fact, rather overwritten. But it's not bad enough to delete altogether, and it fits the travelogue theme (Every Day Is A Holiday At Borrowed Philosophy!) rather well. More on Boston to follow.

The apartment overlooks a small square close to the Museum. Locals call this part of the city el Xino; its squalor recalling other Chinatowns familiar to sailors, sex tourists and professional travellers back in the 1920’s. There is some evidence of post-Olympic gentrification even here. Beneath the cloistered edges of the square a café and a skate shop seem to thrive, and in the north-east corner a basic, sandy playground has been laid out. Reassuringly, the rest of the plaza is given over to dogshit and vagrancy.

The winos hold the junkies in suitably low regard, I’ve noticed, and from time to time exhibit their contempt with their fists. The drunks wear dark clothing - to disguise their incontinence, presumably, and contributing somewhat to their random, baggy menace - the drug-addled tend to be more brightly turned out, although one sometimes gets the impression that they are wearing each other’s clothes. A waiter assured me, early in my stay, that none of these undesirable souls were Catalan. “They come from elsewhere in Spain, from Africa, from Yugoslavia, just to stink up the streets.”

Yugoslavia? Of course no-one comes from there anymore. But by early afternoon, once they have drunk off the previous evening’s sleep and begun their daily carousing in earnest, you might suppose that the reeking crows gathered around the square’s benches might be singing about Tito, or Franz Ferdinand, or Philip of Macedon. Their vocal facility declines each day with the sun and their noise turns into something feral, a desperate fling at self-expression.

Today, as I shave, the voices from the afternoon window seem a shade more coherent, momentarily, passing as a faint signal on a short wave radio. I can almost grasp the melody - for a second it’s there, like the gist of a half-remembered nursery rhyme - but then it’s gone. I finish shaving and rescue some clean clothes from the suitcase already half-packed in the hall (I will be flying home for good on Wednesday). In the two months I’ve been here my skin has darkened and my mode of dress has shifted somehow, until the distracted figure looking back at me from the wardrobe mirror could be a local boulevardier, albeit one in need of a haircut and a woman substantially younger than himself with whom to window-shop on the smarter streets of the Eixample. As a result confused day-trippers from Zaragoza will ask me the way to the aquarium or the Imax, and become increasingly confused as I offer tortured instructions, or apologies “Desafortunadamente…” and sometimes tortured apologies for my instructions all rendered in unaccented schoolboy Castilian.

My route to Bar Julia is the same most days. Past the museum, where idling skateboarders try to sell me marijuana, shuffling through the lime groves of Santa Creu. Students sunbathe on the east side of the courtyards, between lectures, it is beautiful amongst the lime trees, and unexpectedly quiet. From here I emerge onto the Carrer de Hospital and head east towards the market, a hot sandwich and, occasionally a beer. But not today. I have promised a copy of “Highway 61 Revisited” to a Swedish waitress I met on Sunday evening. She works at a restaurant which offers vast salads served by waiters and waitresses who dress informally and come from all over the world. The restaurant is a little out of the way. She’s not there but I leave the CD anyway. Heading east again I realise that although I’m not lost I am on unfamiliar streets. There are areas here, west of the Ramblas, which have escaped Mayor Maragall’s reinvention entirely. Bedsheets hang drying like grubby flags from windows above boarded-up shops. I keep walking, and happen, quite suddenly, upon a obstacle course of magnificent black prostitutes. I don’t realise that they are prostitutes at first, of course. They are not any more provocatively dressed than the girls in the supermarket aisle or the cinema queue, but they are young and fleshy and African, talking amongst themselves until I’m almost amongst them. “Oi guapo!” one girl shouts to me. It’s impossible not to smile when a handsome young woman chooses not to ignore you, regardless of her agenda. This involuntarily reaction encourages the others who begin to catcall, offering themselves. There must be twenty-five or thirty women shouting at me. Beneath my suntan I can feel my face burning. The source of my shame is obscure. I have merely walked down the wrong street. It is daylight, my intentions are unambiguous, but it occurs to me that if I were at home, trying to catch a cab from Kings Cross, and these girls were skinny and white rather than hearty and black my reaction would be one of disgust, not shame. This thought puzzles me sufficiently that I walk past the half-dozen pimps - lurking at the end of their avenue of employees, engaged in some kind of small-stakes, playground gambling game - without fear. I call my wife from the Placa Reial, where a stamp fair is taking place. Leaning on a fountain, with the scent of flaking gum and the sound of aggressive haggling around me I describe my recent encounter, seeking absolution perhaps. She laughs at me instead. “See you very soon,” she says, “and no more whoring.”

* * *

“In 1937,” my companion explains, “with the greater part of the country already under the control of the Nationalists, and in spite of the subversive efforts of both Franco and Stalin the first true anarchist state in the history of mankind was created here, in Aragon-Catalonia. Industrial and agrarian concerns fell under popular control. Productivity in the collectivised factories and farms actually increased, as people began to work not for themselves but for each other. People believed, all at once in a complementary idea of selfhood. It must have been an extraordinary thing to be part of. Eventually, the loss of men to the war, and sabotage by Fascist and Communist fifth columnists took their toll, and the idyll, whose preservation had always had to be fought for, dissolved. There are men here,” he gestures towards a table of gnarled philatelists, “who remember that time, and to the whole region it is still real. For libertarians and revolutionaries everywhere else in the world the commonwealth is a vindication of anarcho-syndicalist thought.” He hasn’t touched upon the subject of my initial enquiry yet, but I have the feeling he’s just getting started. I’m happy enough to listen though, he speaks English beautifully, clearly, but with the low, slightly cynical intonation that you hear from bus drivers, barmen and museum curators throughout the city. My wife calls this ‘The Catalan Grumble’. He unfolds his sentences carefully and without hesitation. His is the kind of voice that is used to being listened to.

“The people of Catalonia are like the countrymen of Sleeping Beauty; unconscious through years of oppression, then awaking with the same revolutionary zeal but finding that there are fewer things to protest about. This, to answer your question, is the source of Catalan militancy. The lesson of the commonwealth, for most Catalans, certainly for those who remember it, is that political action can produce concrete, positive change.”

We are sitting at a small square table. The walls are covered with giant black and white images of late jazz pioneers. I recognise Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk. The music playing slightly too loudly in the bar is not Bebop however, but something less cerebral and more percussion-heavy, Township music, I think. It’s a little urgent and primal for late afternoon, though even the aged stamp fanciers are tapping their feet. My new acquaintance has the wild-eyed look of a shaman as he talks about the revolution. “Ben”, short for Buenaventura, is named for Buenaventura Durruti, hero and martyr of the anarchist movement. Smoking furiously, as if he has just rediscovered nicotine, he tells me a little about himself. He studied at Bologna, I learn, then at the LSE. Now he now teaches here at the Universitat de Barcelona. He looks like David Baddiel will, ten years from now, but has a very different kind of charisma.

“What does the commonwealth mean to you?” I ask him. He sips his Estrella ruminatively before answering.

“For me this history is just that, a story, a fairy tale like Sleeping Beauty or the Gospels. You can interpret it as outsiders do, as a justification for revolution, a blueprint for violence against the powers that be. Or it can spur you on, as it does our local activists, to further protest and vigilance against encroachment by big business and the state. Me, I’m a dreamer. I believe that the story of the commonwealth is a story about the perfectibility of humanity. About the idea that if we come together, educated but without prejudice, we can achieve an earthly paradise. I recognise that this is an unrealistic ideal, a cliché, in fact, but if we do not aspire to achieve great things we will never achieve anything at all. Experience has instructed me towards a less naïve view of life, but perhaps naivety is something worth holding on to.”

“I love my family,” I tell him. “I’m not sure that I could not put them first.”
“The idea is that you invest a little faith in the collective, that it can provide for you and yours more effectively than a plutocracy, or whatever your current government passes off as a democracy.”
“It’s just an idea, though, isn’t it. If people are comfortable with their lives then they’ll never make that leap of faith, will they? Which is why revolutions only occur when people are desperate.” It’s early in the evening, and a little late in our lives to be having this conversation, it occurs to me. Ben withdraws, sensing my self-consciousness, perhaps. He nods to me and gets up to go to the bar. As he replaces his chair he says, gently “People can be desperate for an idea, you know.”

* * *

The clientele of the bar becomes increasingly youthful and cosmopolitan as afternoon turns into evening. The stamp sellers break up their stalls and leave the square to tourists and street performers. I have nowhere particular to be, and I’ve taken an early supper of almonds and stuffed olives, so for the time being I occupy a quiet corner, with a crossword and a collection of Harold Brodkey’s stories. A group of locals, youngish people, between twenty-five and forty years old, have congregated at one end of the long L-shaped bar. They are drinking quickly, heavily, I notice. And they are scruffy, artfully so in some cases, which is unusual for this city, where men and women seem to resign themselves to a kind of smart conformity of dress much sooner in life than in London, say, or Berlin. My favourite waiter is working tonight and while he conscientiously ignores me as he has done for the past eight weeks I have an opportunity to observe the group more closely. Something is very wrong. They can barely speak to each other. As if to confirm this observation the youngest of them, a tall, slim woman with unkempt red-brown hair halfway down her back stands, suddenly tearful, and strides outside to the square, pressing a number hard into her mobile phone as if trying to push a drawing pin into a concrete wall. I feel the draught from her overcoat as she passes. Away from her friends she begins to sob harder, in between hoarse stage-whispers to whoever is on the other end of the line. More people arrive and join the group, among them Ben, to whom I had been speaking earlier. He has changed his clothes so must live close by, I conclude, with a note of self-congratulation. He acknowledges me with a wave and a brief smile, but the manic look has gone, he now just looks like a pale, middle-aged man with an ill-judged afro.

My waiter decides that I have waited long enough with an empty glass and makes his way over. He winces at my Spanish as I order, and leaves without a word. I think that I may be falling in love with him - he’s certainly playing hard to get. My drink sits warming upon his tray while he chats to an American couple at the bar. The mood amongst Ben and his friends has darkened, meanwhile. One of the men, a tall sandy-haired head boy type is addressing the rest of the group. His voice is raised but he is speaking in rapid Catalan and I can’t make out a word of what he’s saying. It must be powerful stuff though. Two more of the women begin to weep, now the shoulders of one of the men begin to heave. The head boy raises his glass, finally, and the friends drink together. It’s a wake, I realise. Pretty soon everyone is in tears. There is an honesty in the grief, it is uncomplicated, proportionate, unexaggerated. The friends hug each other or stare at nothing. An older guy is holding on in the clinch a beat too long, like a shattered heavyweight. The girls push him away, indulgently. I meet Ben again at the urinal.

“Sorry for your loss,” I tell him.
“You’re kind,” he replies. “He looked like you, actually.”

This spooks me a little, as perhaps it was meant to. I leave him behind and return downstairs to collect my book and paper. An Australian woman is complaining to my waiter that there are men and women cuddling in the Ladies. The waiter looks the other way. I can see a shrug forming, from his fingertips upwards - What can you do? The square is at its busiest now, but I feel queasy and decide to return to my apartment. London is now just under 72 hours distant. Strangely, Glasgow is closer still. From the Irish pubs on the Carrer de Ferran I can hear Celtic fans, in town for a Champions League match with FC Barcelona on Wednesday. They are singing a hymn, a favourite of my childhood, Give Me Joy In My Heart, but with the chorus revised to reflect their worship of their erstwhile striker, Henrik Larsson, who now plays for Barca.

Hehn-rik Larrsun!
Hehn-rik Larrsun!

Hehn-rik Larssun is the King of Kings!

From my bedroom window I see the drunks slumped together in the square below like an unlit bonfire, and realise that their rendition of this same hymn was the tune I half-recognised earlier today, as I washed shaving foam from my face.

I can’t sleep. I have been away too long. I tell myself, out loud, and with drunken conviction, that anyone who puts their faith in anything other than home is a fool. There is no Utopia, that’s the point of it. Anarchy can’t save you, neither can brotherhood or Bebop, Bob Dylan or Henrik Larsson. Just find a place that fits and stay there. By now of course I’m crying; for the life I miss, for the dead motorcyclist who looked like me, even for the prostitutes who made me smile. I get up and finish packing.

It’s time to go.

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