Returning to the Scene of our Times 1


(The clearest map I could find is, not surprisingly, in German. They’re taking over)

The question is, can you go back? If you’ve had a sublime experience somewhere, what happens when you return? This is how it was for us.

In 1989, my wife of three years, our daughter of eighteen months and I migrated to the island of Mallorca. Migrated. That’s how we saw it. We weren’t running away, we were deliberately turning our backs on what we saw as a dull and bland country.

There were other reasons, but I won’t go into them here. Enough to say that we were over the country of our birth, and I persuaded De (my wife) that a fresh start in the country with which I’d conducted a long term love affair (and many short term love affairs) was our best bet for a future. She didn’t need much persuading. She too had fallen in love with Spain, the island of Mallorca and the house I’d bought there long before we were married when I took her there for our honeymoon.

The island of Mallorca is much maligned. In England it is a joke. Somewhere to go to take a holiday from the bad English weather, to lie on the beach and drink too much every night. To arrive home sunburnt and not quite knowing where you’ve been. I’m pretty sure that many English tourists don’t even know that it’s a part of Spain.

But to damn the entire island for that would be like damning Queensland because of the Gold Coast. There is much more. Take our little corner, the northwest, the largest town there, Soller (pronounced Sol-yeah).


‘We’ll go to Soller — Papa always says it is the finest place on earth,’ said a child character in Loup Durand’s novel Daddy. Those who know it well wouldn’t argue.

The little city of Soller could have been used to illustrate the assertion by historian Fernand Braudel that ‘the Mediterranean is a …sea ringed by mountains.’ Those mountains certainly shaped Soller and the Soller Valley by guaranteeing insulation from the rest of the world. Soller and its port, before the advent of buses and trucks, before the tunnel, offered the easiest access to the markets of southern France for the produce of the Soller Valley, mainly oranges, olives and olive oil. Little ships would cross from the port to Marseilles, and with them generations of Sollerenses (as the natives are called) with two results. One, there were and are many families from the valley in Southern France, many in the produce trade, and two, French is the second language — after Mallorquin — of many Sollerenses.


And above Soller, the village where once we owned a house, Fornalutx, a village of some 400 inhabitants which swells to at least twice that in the summer. A cosy blanket of a village with its mix of nationalities, still predominantly Mallorquin, but with an increasing number of Germans and a small handful, when we lived there, of Australians, English, Swedes and Spaniards from the mainland: a very different lot from the locals.

The honey–coloured stone cottages of Fornalutx – some of them, like the one I bought, 700 years old – tumble down the hillside which leads eventually to the Tramuntana, the mountain range that forms the north western spine of the Island whose peaks are covered in snow in Winter. So hilly is it that there is still work for a man with a donkey to lug building materials up the steep paths no mechanical workhorse can handle.


Two crops still dominate the valley, oranges and olives. The orange groves lower down on the valley floor, the olives growing up and down the hillsides, planted on dry stone terraces, a feat of man-made engineering (they encircle the island) often compared to the pyramids. Their construction points to them having been built by Arab and Berber settlers in the tenth century.

So there we were, fresh from the cutthroat world of advertising (literally in my case, cutthroat I mean) and the ‘open all hours everything on tap’ life of a big city plonked, after considerable difficulty with customs, in my funny old house in a tiny village on a mountainside, with a wife who didn’t speak the language and an infant daughter who had been ripped from her home. What could possibly go wrong? Well, over time, everything. ‘ I Pity the poor immigrant’, wrote Dylan, ‘Who wishes he would’ve stayed home’ he added. Eventually, we didn’t.

It took six months to adjust. Six months during which there were tears, fights, and a real danger of the marriage breaking down. I don’t know about the experiences of other migrants, but I would assume not much different. And we had it a lot easier. We weren’t entirely stranded. I had friends I had made over the years. There were other English speakers, and I had some Spanish. Gradually, we settled into what we (De and I) agree were the best three and a half years of our lives. Curiously, our daughter Laura who was four and a half when we left, and who was fluent in Spanish and Mallorquin by then, remembers virtually nothing of that time.

Even my own memories are vague and selective. I remember people, I remember incidents, but as I read through my old diaries, I am surprised by how much of what were obviously important events and people with whom I was close I have completely forgotten. Entries like ‘Gerald to dinner. Religious waffle.’ Who was Gerald? What religious waffle?

But also, reading through those diaries, I’m reminded of the intensity, richness and variety of our lives. There, as here, the life of a writer is essentially sitting all day in front of a machine, and squeezing words and sentences and chapters and stories from the brain. But there, surrounding the hours spent at the machine we fostered deep and abiding friendships with people we could never have met in Australia (the poet Paul Roche, the illustrator Paul Hogarth, the painter George Sheridan among many), were intertwined with our community in ways in which I certainly never had been in Sydney. When it was all over I realised that we had spent a good twenty per cent of our time working for that community in various ways.

But in spite of that, and tending to our almond trees and planting a flourishing garden, I finished (and sold) my first novel and began and almost finished a second (also later sold). We left, not because we wanted to but because we had to. With heavy hearts.


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