A short festival on Spain



This was written for an occasional series in The Sydney Morning Herald called ‘A short festival on…’ and I chose Spain. I’m posting it because we’re going to Spain in a couple of weeks, my first trip in some years. 

The Spanish would rather a fiesta than a festival any day, it’s a party and a lot more fun. We will hold ours on St Anthony’s Day, January 17th, a day on which a bonfire is lit (St Anthony’s fire?) in every village square, and neighbours gather to eat and drink.

What better to eat than a paella, ours prepared by Manuel Vásquez Montalbán, whose detective character, Pepe Carvalho, eats far more than he detects, and is pedantic about paella, asserting (in South Seas): “I made myself quite clear. Half a kilo of rice, half a chicken, a quarter-kilo of pork shoulder, a quarter kilo of peas, two peppers, two tomatoes, parsley, saffron, salt and – nothing else. Anything else is superfluous.” The wine, the legendary Vega Sicilia Unico, will flow like water.

Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises) is also a novel by last century’s most prominent Hispanophile, Ernest Hemingway, a tale which introduces the intertwining themes of our fiesta, the bullfight, the matador, and sex: eros and thanatos. In Fiesta, the matador, Pedro Romero, makes love to the bold and beautiful Lady Brett Ashley because the narrator, Jake Barnes, can’t: a war wound left him impotent. Hemingway does Lorca.

Because we can, we have invited Hemingway, and you can see him, glass of wine in one hand, cigar in the other, talking to his friend the matador Antonio Ordoñez, who will be demonstrating the art of killing bulls, showing classic passes, the pase natural, and his own derechazo de rodillas among them.

Our fiesta is being held in a bull ring, the roaring bonfire throwing glints and sparkles off Ordoñez’s suit of lights. Just the place to ponder the nature of a culture whose heroes are killers – matador from matar, to kill – and whose national sport, also an art, sacrifices animals and men in public. There is a darkness in the Spanish soul.

That darkness has a name: duende, the elusive spirit that poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca called “the hidden heart of disconsolate Spain.” It is to be found in Spanish art, literature and music. “All that has black sounds has duende” murmured Gypsy canto jonde (deep song) singer Manuel Torre upon hearing composer Manuel de Falla’s Nocturno del Generalife.

It certainly informs the paintings on show here. There are three in the art tent, the first and greatest, once defined as “the theology of painting”, in front of which the French romantic poet Théophile Gautier stood and cried “where is the picture?” It is Diego Velásquez’ profound, enigmatic and beautiful Las meninas, the maids of honour, a painting which transforms its every viewer into the King and Queen of Spain. All Spanish art stands on the shoulders of this man who, artist Anton Raphael Mengs said “paints the truth not as it is but as it appears to be.”


Our second painting is by one whose duende drips from his brushes, Francisco de Goya y Lucientes. We have chosen the baffling El perro semihundido, the half buried dog, from the series known as the black paintings. An abstract field of light with a curved horizon, bare but for the tiny head of a terrified spaniel. It has mystified viewers and critics for almost 200 years, moving many to tears. This is only detail from the larger painting which is way more mysterious – and  moving.


Finally, one work from the creator/destroyer, the protean Picasso, the painting that ushered in the 20th Century, of the most famous whores in history, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, equal parts eros and thanatos, with its cryptic reference to the promiscuous Picasso’s fear of syphilis.


But where are the killer heroes? Elsewhere in Goya and Picasso of course, on television all day during summer, and in the cinema regularly. In Carlos Saura’s 1983 adaptation of Carmen, his most successful collaboration with choreographer Antonio Gades. And most sardonically in Pedro Almodóvar’s 1986 Matador, in which the sumptuous Assumpta Serna murders her victims in coitus, and, ‘al momento de verdad’ (at the moment of truth), using a long hair pin in much the same way as her ultimate victim, ex-matador Nacho Martinez, despatched bulls with his sword.

The matador (or matadora) returns in Almodóvar’s 2002 film Talk to Her, a film already heralded as the first classic of the 21st Century, in which Rosario Flores plays a famed female bullfighter, gored, left in a coma, and cared for tenderly by her lover, Adrio Grandinetti.

We leave the films being projected onto a suspended muleta (bullfighter’s cape), and stroll to the fire for a plate of Montalban’s precise paella and to take a glass with Javier Marias, whose 1997 novel, Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, opens with a man whose first night with a lover is interrupted by her death, in his arms. We note with pleasure we have been given a small scraping of socorrat, the burnt crust of rice from the bottom of the pan. And then the arena falls silent, but for the crackling of the fire.

We look up. The gate has burst open. A magnificent fighting bull runs onto the arena and skids to a halt in the sand, black hide glistening. He looks wildly to right and left, snorting steam. We are frozen with fear, but for Ordoñez, who reaches for his sword. The bull lowers his huge head, and charges the bonfire, crashing into it, scattering embers, ashes and flaming branches. The burning bull stands in the centre of the conflagration, bellowing.





Five or six reasons why I love Spain








I’d describe the day I arrived in Spain for – what – the twentieth, thirtieth time since first I arrived in 1972 as un dia de sueño y angustia, a day of tiredness and anxiety. Not a typical  arrival, when I feel as if I have come home again, but feel it I eventually did, and the afiçion I have and always have had welled up, despite my bag being (I hoped) in London and me in Madrid. As always, I’d prefer even that to the other way around.

The one thing that did work well was being picked up by the driver who had been assigned to the job, Manolo, a small, dapper man, in a greeny brown Prince of Wales check sports coat, a mauve and white striped shirt and a mauve paisley tie. What with the missing maleta  and a late arrival, I didn’t emerge from the airport until over an hour later than the schedule, but there he was, the little piece of cardboard with JHON NEWTON on it, waiting patiently. They always mis-spell John

#1. Late has little meaning in Spain. This can be infuriating for the average hyperactive time starved non-Spaniard. Get over it. As quickly as you can. Because it works both ways.

My brain fried by 36 hours of travel and 4 non stop movies and my only just serviceable after some years Spanish had been reduced to gibberish. It was a a relief  to discover, on the desk at the splendid little hotel (Paseo del Arte) Joseph from Melbourne, who had fallen in love with a Spanish girl four years ago and had lived happily since then in Madrid.

Joseph helped me in the search for the missing maleta, but shrugged resignedly – not a lot of chance of it turning up.  I had an hour siesta and went looking for lunch  – early – it was only 2PM.

#2. Being late for everything, the Spaniards eat later than just about anyone else on the planet. Be thankful. It’s a custom  that has given rise to such wonderful institutions as the siesta, the afternoon quickie and tapas.

I walked up the hill towards the Barrio de las Letras, the writer’s quarter, to Plaza Santa Ana, one of Madrid’s most genial squares. I had decided there were three things I needed in the circumstances. A couple of new shirts, some underpants and something to eat. The shirts and knickers could wait as all shops remained firmly shut until 5 pm.

I remembered a little restaurant/bar next to the hotel I’d stayed in just behind Plaza Santa Ana the last time I’d been here in 2006, the very month that the Barrio de las Letras, the writer’s quarter, had been created, to honour all the writers who had lived or stayed there at one time or another: Cervantes, Galdos, Oscar Wilde among them. And that’s why you will now see wonderfully kitsch portraits of these writers on the windows of the local bars, and quotes from their work set into the footpath: En un pueblo de la mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero accordarme, vivió no hace mucho tiempo un hidalgo …, those famous first words from Don Quixote: In a village in La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived, not long ago, a gentleman…

Miguel de Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes,  by Juan de Jauregui.


#3. Standing in a queue at 7AM to get into the retrospective Velasquez exhibition at the Prado in 1990 talking to a farm labourer from Andalucia and a couple of gay men from Barcelona, all united in their admiration of and love for Velasquez. Culture lives on the street in Spain. Sure the Barrio de las Letras is a tourist honey pot – but it’s a heartfelt one.

Since I first stayed in this part of Madrid in 1981 it has become increasingly touristic and chic at the same time – backpackers pensions and temples to la nueva cocina living side by side. But it is still, to use that great Spanish word genial, meaning, according to my pocket Collins Gem dictionary, ‘brilliant and affable.’

I was looking for and found La Caserola, which, when compared to the  sleek and bustling bars and tascas of the barrio was shabby, dark and, like the food, predominantly brown. That was exactly what I wanted.

I walked in and it was full of Madrileños of all ages sizes and stations. The  young couple from out of town, the solitary local businessman, the couple – mid forties – colleagues I’d say rather than married and, in the back room, a large table of intellectuals, or at least knowledge workers, bearded noisy blokes, much laughter.

There’s a bar to the right with a glass covered display of the usual tapas and to the left, paper covered tables leading to a larger dining room at the back. Behind the bar, a tall bald man with wire glasses polishes glasses and pours the drinks shouted at him by the two waiters. There’s one large poker machine blinking away on the front wall, untouched, a cigarette machine next to it and a television set – unwatched unless there’s a futbol game –  high on the wall in a corner bracket.

The moment I walked in the front room, the waiter – small, thinning dark hair slicked back, white shirt and black trousers – barked at me: “A comer?” You going to eat? When I nodded “Si” he ushered me to a table and wiped it with a cloth. There were heavy knives and forks and a cruet set, oil and vinegar, and salt but no pepper. You always have to ask for pepper.

I was here for the menu del dia at €9 which offered two courses, bread, drink and sweet. These were the choices (translated):

First course

Mixed paella (seafood and meat)

Castilian lentils

Asparagus with three cheeses

Brussels sprouts with cooked ham

Salad of roasted capsicum

Second course

 ½ a roast chicken

Veal cutlets

Veal escalope with champignons

Salmon in a seafood cream sauce

Basque style hake.

My snappy waiter appeared as soon as I’d finished reading the menu.

Y a beber caballero?” And what would you like to drink sir?

#4. First, my drink order. He had his priorities right. And I love that word caballero which means literally, a man who rides a horse. Used here it signifies an non-aggressive  equality that is at the heart of Spanish relationships of this sort. Not ‘I’m as good as you are’ but ‘we’re all in this together’. Someone once said, many years ago, when it’s population was only 30 million that Spain is a land of 30 million kings.

I order the half litre of red, probably from Castile la Mancha, and definitely drinkable. It’s on the table in a flash with a basket of bread. I also order the brussels sprouts and the veal with mushrooms, and for postre, sweet, a flan  Catalan.

The brussels sprouts were overcooked and over salted. The veal was tender, the mushrooms many and the sauce flour thickened. I sipped the wine. The best course was the flan, agreeably burnt. It was not memorable food but edible. I loved it for other reasons than critical. Why? Why had I sought  out this place rather than, say, the touristy but reliable La Trucha or  the much written about and excellent La Broche, where handsome chef and ex rock star  Sergi Arola then cooked?  While eating and sipping I watched my fellow diners for clues.

Spanish waiters, waiting

Spanish waiters, waiting

Was it the noise of waiters barking order? Was it the supremely relaxed patrons, eating and drinking what they had always eaten and drunk, not probing and analysing, not caring who was there or who wasn’t. Just relaxing with their friends and colleagues. Nothing jumped out.

Indeed it was almost impossible to put my finger on why, as I sat there with the glow of a half litre of average wine on me, the satisfaction of a perfectly ordinary and edible meal in my belly, this feeling of warmth for the people and the placed welled up.

If anything it was that absolute ordinariness that I had craved. People treating each other with cordiality and respect. And maybe the surroundings. The brown lightly stuccoed walls, heavy wooden beams and pillars, brown tiled floor – the kind of ‘Spanish décor’ you see copied in every Spanish restaurant from Hamburg to Helsinki. It spoke of permanence and not so much resistance to change as not seeing why change is needed at all. These people would have understood completely the plaintive cry from the floor of the General Synod of the Church of England in the 1980s, “why cannot the status quo be the way forward?”

This is not to say that the Spanish resist change. Since the death of Franco in 1975, the country has been convulsed with it and has emerged as a resilient democracy with a rich cultural life, creating a body of modern cinema the envy of the world, throwing up chefs one of whom, Ferran Adriá was pronounced by  Joel Robuchon as ‘the best cook on the planet.’ And he’s only one. In music, art, design and architecture,  works of remarkable intensity and ingenuity abound.

But they manage to embrace the new without dumping on then old. Indeed, in many cases, they build on the old. For all his inventiveness, Adriá has said “… you cook where you find yourself, and I find myself in Spain.” Carles Abellan of modern as tomorrow tapas bar  Comarç 24 in Barcelona is quoted in Paul Richardson’s A Late Dinner, a remarkable tour of Spanish cuisines old and new, as saying “we’ve taken to creative cooking with tremendous speed. And now we’re missing a certain kind of food’ as his justification for putting an old fashioned dish like rice with cuttle fish ink and garlic on his menu. “Finding a rice like this,” he said, “is like putting our feet on the ground….. and anyway, if everything was modern, it would be boring. Don’t you think?”

Well yes, I do. And perhaps that’s it. As modern as Spanish food and film are, their roots are still deep in Spanish culture. “The glittering edifice of Spanish food” writes Richardson, “is built on the solid foundations of the old.” When I asked Atonio Campoviejos of El Corral del Indianu,  a chef whose creations are so out there sometimes they fall off the edge, why he cooked like he did he said  “my mother is such a good cook. I couldn’t possibly compete with her.”

In a review of a restaurant then good now not so good, I wrote “…. Spanish food at its best is not haute cuisine, nor even the flamboyant inventiveness of the Italians. It is the world’s best home cooking.” At its best, it still is. And even at it’s second and third best – like La Caserola,  it still takes you home.

At the beginning of Pedro Almodóvar’s film Volver (which does mean ‘to return’), the women are cleaning graves. Every Spaniard would understand that scene. On the eve of todos santos, All Saints day, you go to the cemetery and sweep and clean the graves of your ancestors and leave flowers for them. You are respecting the past.

images#5. That’s what I felt in La Caserola,  a feeling I get nowhere else, certainly not in my novelty-obsessed  home town of Sydney, where a new restaurant can open, fill up and be so five minutes ago in the space of a week.  And it is that which I love about being there. Yes, the Spaniard says, we will embrace the new. But why  should we turn our backs on the old?




Eating in Madrid

La Caserola: Calle Echegaray 3

La Trucha: Calle Núñez de Arce 3

Fast Good: Calle Goya 7

La Broche: Calle Miguel Angel 29-31


Actually, #7: the perennially beautiful and brilliant Angela Molina

#6: The perennially beautiful and brilliant Angela Molina








Tripping along the track to Lluc Alcari

69“Little islands are like large prisons: one cannot look at the sea without wishing for the wings of a swallow.”

Sir Richard Burton

One morning we set off, Bob and I, to work on a little house in the pine forest on the way to the coast. Before we left, we dropped a quarter tablet of lysergic acid each with our morning orange juice. Bob had been carrying  the half tablet  around in his back pocket for years, Sandra had given it to him years before that. “It’ll probably give us a pleasant little buzz” he said as we popped the tiny white fragments in our mouths, and washed them down with the juice from the orange trees on the terrace outside.

The house we were going to work on belonged to Fernando Maza, a regular visitor to the village who lived mostly in Paris. He is an Argentinean with a heavily moustachioed face which is always alert and watchful. He never wears socks. I would often seeing him sitting back from the general palaver, observing. In conversation, his eyes narrow and smile and his mouth opens wide. He streeetches the end of a sentence, whether for effect or because of his accent, I never knew. But it is an infectious and charming quality.

His thick black hair is brushed loosely back, and falls curving down either side of his forehead. His badly shaved sideboards are greying. He walks with a springy step except when drunk, which is often, when he shambles. When drunk, he would sometimes argue loudly with Alfred Durhssen,  but most often he would sit in a corner and play his flute, joining in with the Pamboli Band if they were around. He gets drunk, he says, to extinguish the lucidity which otherwise makes his life unbearable. Brandy douses it. It sputters only briefly again when he plays the flute.

Fernando is a painter, a successful painter. He paints – or did then – barren chequered landscapes, reminiscent of Dali, sparsely littered with architectural wreckage and stone letters and numerals. He had been painting these for some years, and they sold well.

His point, couched in the cunning language of a painter justifying – and selling  – his obsession,  is that numerals and letters have a visual and mystical significance beyond their representative quality. They are silent but eloquent symbols that go further than language, than mathematics and hold within themselves the secrets of civilisation. And when you’re on a good thing, stick to it. Fernando once told me that there is no point in happiness, only fools are happy. Susie countered by asking him whether he was happy in love. “I’m too old for love” he replied. I told him that I happened to hold the social function of the fool in the highest esteem. He laughed his sniggering, chest heaving laugh.

One night at Gita’s he said to Bob and me  “tomorrow I am going to Pariiiiis. I want you to go out to the house and  put some yeso on my pareeeedes. You can do eeeeet?” Sure we can do eeeeet.

I had learnt to plaster working with Georges Sheridan. It’s a pleasant but boring and repetitive job, and one which we could just as easily have enlivened with a couple of joints. But no, the acid was there. I had not taken acid for years. Used to drop a little when I was working as a bouncer at a wine bar in Double Bay. The barman and I would share half a tablet before the shift started. It worked well, making me a quieter and nicer person. I broke up fights before they started – there was a lot of hugging. Whatever it was that we took then was very mild. I was not prepared for what happened on the way to his house accompanied, at the outset, with our house cat, Ruth, who liked nothing more than a ramble in the pine forest along the shore.

There’s a fig tree named El Gato

On the road to Lluc Alcari.

The King of Lluc Alcari

On a ladder in the fig tree

Wields his shining hatchet sceptre

And in a voice both round and mellow,

A purple olive basso, as deep

As that last bottle, asks the shabby fellows

Bumbling through his forest:


Where are you going? The question seemed, to those two, heads befuddled with a rogue dose of an unknown chemical (it may have been acid, it may have been anything), as deeply significant, not merely, as it must have been, as it was, from a local landowner, trimming his ancient fig tree, a landmark on the coastal track, a simple question of geographic intent, one of the two time honoured questions asked of all travellers everywhere: where have you come from; and where are you going?

He, the axe-wielding king, was not to know that in our state, a state in which we had traversed the narrow paths along the cliffs of the coast with some difficulty, owing to the fact that rock faces which we had to lean against in order to stop from crashing to the sea below had, on that day, a tendency to pulsate, to writhe, to kaleidoscope alarmingly, pink and green and living rocks, filled at times with arms and legs, serpents and songbirds; the sea a crazy sparkling amorphous presence, swelling, racing towards a point between itself and the sky, the very path under our feet wobbling, more like rubber than the solid stuff it really was. It was necessary to poke at the ground with a walking stick, itself somewhat rubbery, to reassure oneself of the firmness of the land beneath one’s feet.

Each breath appeared to be in tune with time. Above me I could hear a regular throbbing and whirring, the soaring wings of ten thousand eagles soaring overhead. It was – I knew –  the universal pulse, the sound of the movement of the stars across the heavens, the budding of leaves, the opening and closing of daisies, a bear shrugging and blinking its way out of its hibernating cave, the welcoming whisper of the breeze through the weaving, wind shaped trees. Every single action, mine included, every whisper, sigh, chuckle, groan and scream was in time with the regular roar of the skies.

Later I read the phrase ‘the oceanic feeling of limitless extension and oneness with the universe’, a phrase used by Romain Rolland to describe the nature of religious experience to Sigmund Freud who, in the footnote written by Arthur Koestler ‘regretfully professed never to have felt anything of the sort.’ But then his drug was cocaine, a drug for the go-getter, not LSD, the drug of  universal consciousness and enlightenment.

Meanwhile, back at the cliff face, a Viking ship raced across that bejewelled horizon under full sail down the coast towards the port of Sóller, hard on its heels a Chinese dragon throwing up a foam bow wave at a similar and unlikely speed.

We had been unable to enter Fernando’s house because the large and ancient key to the gnarled door of olive wood had taken on a life of its own and would not fit in the key hole. No matter how carefully and slowly we both tried, the key would twist and turn its way away from the keyhole, which itself was pulsing and throbbing. That was when we realised that what we had taken had not been the mild little trip that we had hoped for as we slipped the quarter pills in our mouth with our morning orange juice.

And that is how we found ourselves, alternately calm and filled with terror, crashing blindly through trees, avoiding harmless bathers and not so harmless men in green with firesticks and funny hats  – the Guardia Civil – who had a habit borne of years of stealthily tracking smugglers of contraband cigarettes (contraband cigarettes, what an innocent time) along these cliff faces through the pine forest, of firing before asking questions, if their suspicions were raised. The villagers had no end of  smuggler stories, all ending in death – for the smugglers.

“Dondevan?” A not so simple question to answer for two who had been seeking spider’s doors in the moss. Dondevan indeed. We whispered together at the base of the fig tree, discussing the implications of this question as the man in the tree looked down upon us, as one would look upon aliens, as indeed we were.

This Mallorquin farmer, whose every waking moment was devoted to the practical management of his estate, the pruning of trees, the collection of olives, the milking of goats, the slaughter of pigs, the manufacture of sobrasada – how could he understand these two refugees from a city in great south land whose days were filled, mostly with doing nothing, scribbling, playing the guitar, reading, wandering from house to house in varying levels of intoxication from various licit and illicit chemicals, nights filled with carousing and fornication,  not even knowing the answer to a simple question: dondevan?

The most curious thing I remember about that first – and last – experience of a serious quantity of lysergic acid dietheylamide was that somewhere in my brain was an insistent voice which kept whispering “remember, all this is only the work of the drug, there are no Viking ships, there is no throbbing of the wings of ten thousand eagles overhead.” It was this voice that eventually persuaded me that the question was practical and innocent.

“Lluc Alcari” I answered.

“Lluc Alcari?” questioned the man in the tree, “Lluc Alcari no está  por aqui” he gestured the way we had been stumbling, “pero por allí”, he waved his tomahawk behind him, up the hill.

Reason departed as quickly as it had arrived, and we began to stumble towards him, in the wrong direction, the while he insistently waved and pointed with his tomahawk ” por allí, por allí!”,  we walked up to and past him, the only thought now in our heads to get  away from him, our interlocutor in the fig tree and his little tomahawk. And then, I remembered. Something was missing. I stopped and turned, weaving, searching beyond the trees.

“Pero – el gato, donde está el gato?”

He looked around, now thoroughly confused. A cat? On the Lluc Alcari track?

“Gato? Gato?” A benign smile wreathed his round face. “No hay un gato.” That smile said, aah, they are drunk, borrachos, now I understand. A cat. Indeed. Que cosa!

And there was no cat. Ruffian Ruth the faithful cat had, I now remembered, slunk away as our behaviour became more and more erratic, back to the comfort of the hearth.

That day, which seemed to stretch for a year, ended with Bob and I seated outside the house of a kind German  hippy (long dead) who had dragged a comfortable sofa for us, set up a stereo system – John McLaughlin – and provided us with a bowl of oranges on which we sucked while gazing down at the Med and gradually returning to earth. I remember marvelling at the time  – how many places on earth were there where you could stumble to a front door, tell the person inside you were having a rather bad trip, and receive such kindness and understanding?

That day, it’s conclusion, it’s visions, its insights, is with me to this day. And is an ineradicable part of my experience of the island. I can’t walk along that shore, my most favoured on the planet, the place that I go to when things go black, without remembering events of that long ago day. It cemented a still strong if curious friendship with my trip mate Bob. It taught me that in spite of any doubts I might have about my sanity at times, there’s a mental stability there. And it ensured that I never took acid again. There was no point, after that.

All this was brought back to me recently, listening to Radio National’s Mind at Large, a programme devoted to ‘people who are taking hallucinogenic substances to aid their spiritual growth.’ Now, that is certainly not why Bob and I dropped that little half tab each on the way to the pine forest on the edge of the Med. But that is, as it turned out, how it turned out. And, as discussed on that program, it is an experience that subtly changed my life and one that has stayed with me ever since.  You can read some of the commentaries mentioned on that programme here.