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








Art lessons

“What did you do with your day man?”
Georges Sheridan, Boston 1923 – Mallorca 2008

I want you to imagine it is a winter’s morning in Deiá, on the island of Mallorca in the early 1970s. It is cold. The sun has not risen above the mountain called the Teix which looms over the village. There is no heating in the house. Georges Sheridan, like many wealthy men, does not like to spend money unnecessarily. I marvelled at the fact that he and his wife Cecilie slept on a mattress on the floor, with two white painted wooden boxes for bedside tables, drove a fifteen year old Mini Minor, and ate frugally.

Georges Sheridan had come to Deiá in the fifties. He had studied art in Paris with Bill Waldren, another permanent expatriate American and Norman Yanukin (see The Man Who told Picasso). It was here that George became Georges. Three more different men you could not imagine. Bill and Georges, especially Georges, had made a material success of their lives.

He had been married, before Cecilie, to a French woman, of an aristocratic but on the way to being impoverished family. They had property, but little vigour. Georges, a Bostonian of great intellect, drive and talent, was just the American rootstock that needed to be grafted on to their attenuated bloodline.

He took time off from his art to restore the family fortunes. He re-invigorated their vineyards in the South of France, bought and sold properties for them, made shrewd investments.

“They (the Maquerelles, his wife’s family) had property, and it was all being torn apart and run down and the vineyards were going to pot, the villa was falling apart. And I put it all together again.

“I bought a couple of farmhouses nearby and enlarged the property, and did the same to the vineyards, took them from 16/17 hectares up to 40. Genevieve’s father had died in the forties, he was a brilliant man. I learnt how to run the vineyard and repair the machinery by reading his books. He bought the vineyard that I ended up running, which was a kind of a joke because Genevieve’s family had been in vineyards since the 16th Century. But the mother was ill, and Genevieve was a child so we put that right.

“I used to go up to Paris to look at the shows, and went off to London, went around all the galleries. That’s where I met all the Australian painters, I met Brett (Whiteley) when he was 18 or 19, and through him Michael Johnson and Tony McGillick.”

During this time he had two children with Genevieve, and during this time also he discovered Deiá, and its attendant temptations. Cecilie, now his wife, was one of those temptations, but one who proved more than a passing fancy. Cecilie is English, was an art teacher, is still an artist, a quiet and charming woman who fell hard for Georges. And he for her.

He sought a divorce from his French wife, and was divorced under French law. The case was heard by three judges, who examined the stories on each side. Their decision was that as M Sheridan had been instrumental in restoring the family fortune, had added to the family patrimony, he was entitled to some reward for his efforts. He married Genevieve in 1954, and bought the Deià house in 1960. But Genevieve didn’t like Deià. “She didn’t swim, she didn’t like the musical scene here. Some French don’t travel well – there’s better food in France, better everything. It’s possibly true.”

In the settlement he was given the house in Deiá, and the vineyards. Georges and Cecilie married in 1975 (three years after I met them), and then settled into what was now their house, C’an Marti, and produced two daughters, Tara in 1974 and Amy in 1977.

I first met Georges when he employed me, casually (and of course illegally), by the hour, to help him paint the walls of C’an Marti.
He had, I discovered, worked with Russian painter decorators restoring the family properties in Paris, and had learnt to prepare surfaces and walls meticulously. This was a somewhat unusual practice on Mallorca, especially in these ‘casas rusticas’, whose walls tended to undulate organically under the application of hundreds of years of whitewash – yeso – which gave to interiors a somewhat cave-like appearance. Later, when I learnt more about these houses, had lived in more of them and had bought my own, I developed a preference for the system of applying a coat of yeso every four/five years, rather than stripping the yeso back and painting the wall with plastic paint, which is more durable but which does not give the wonderful quality of luminescence, as if lit from within by soft candlelight, that a wall gives off when covered with a palimpsest of yeso.

But I learnt more than Russian émigré painter decorator techniques from Georges Sheridan. It was from him that I received my education in twentieth century art. I was as ignorant of art as I was of much else at that time. I knew nothing, not even what I liked, other than a nascent interest in Japanese prints, and a vaguely remembered tumescent response to Gauguin’s large breasted Tahitian girls, mainly because of a print of two luscious girls carrying a tray of breadfruit (remember Phillip Larkin’s mournful question ‘what is breadfruit?’ this was an erotic icon for more than one generation) daringly hanging in my parent’s flat.3_006

Georges Sheridan was the kind of artist, like the late Picasso , whose subject was art. One example will explain. He would often visit the Prado in Madrid, perhaps the greatest art museum in the world. Like many artists and writers (Picasso again, and Carlos Fuente) he had become obsessed by Velasquez’ masterpiece, Las Meninas. While there, while thinking about this work, he had been in the gallery coffee shop having a coffee and on the wrapping around the cube of sugar that he put into his coffee was a reproduction of – Las Meninas. This revelation caused him to buy a copy of Picasso’s own series of meditations in canvas on Las Meninas (many of which I saw myself later in the Picasso museum in Barcelona) and to over paint the Picasso book with his own works, which were his meditations on the place of great works of art in the popular imagination, on Picasso and on Sheridan.

On this cold morning I am up a ladder, sanding the first coat on a large wall. Georges is behind me, dressed in layers of colourful, comfortable and paint splattered clothing, half hippy, half tramp. As he lays filler onto the wall with a flat trowel in long expert sweeps, he talks, to me , but not facing me. Occasionally, he will stop and emphasise a point with his trowel. I will stop sanding and look down at him. It is one strange art school. He speaks in a nasal, east coast accent, but with a rich timbre to his voice and an expressive theatrical sweep. But what makes his talk riveting is not so much the sound of his voice but the extent and the depth of his knowledge of the lives and work of the artists. I am captivated and flattered to be treated to this MA in Modern Art.

“Here is this painting, right, a conundrum. But it’s a trick, a psychological and artistic trick. Is Velasquez saying that we, the viewers, are the King and Queen of Spain? Are the Infanta and all the attendants looking in a mirror? For three centuries, man, this painting has had people asking these questions – Jesus, what is it, what is the trick? And there I am, sitting in the café and it’s reproduced on a goddamn sugar cube! And I’m staring at it. And I’m reminded that when Pablo finds the picture, he spends a year painting it – a year of his life, the life of Picasso! Painting the Infanta, the dog, the doorman – whose name is also Velasquez, no relation – who is leaving the room, you know the euphemism for dying, leaving the room, he’s in shadow, he’s leaving the room and in one sense, Velasquez is looking right at him! And I get the book, and I see what Pablo’s done to it and I have to do my own thing man, so I get another copy of the book. Let’s go and get it.”

We climb the stairs to the studio, a huge room at the top of the house, once the drying room, where were stored the hams, the almonds, the branches of tomatoes in winter, now inauthentically (but essentially) glazed, windows looking out over the almond trees in the garden, bare for the winter, with flat bench spaces over drawers full of boxes stuffed with graded cardboard sheets, paper clips, collections of all sorts of stuff – Virgin Mary postcards, baby photographs, coloured cellophane – a treasure trove. There are wonky easels lolling about holding half finished paintings, hundreds of stretched (and unsold!) canvasses leaning against walls, higgledy piggledy piles of art books, tumbling tubes of paint, forests of brushes bristling out of tin cans.

I don’t know it then, but this is to become an important room for me. Later, when Susie and I move into this house, when we are kicked out of Son Rullan by the judge’s wife, this is where I will sit down, with a scrounged portable typewriter, to begin writing – not journalism, not advertising copy, but fiction, sketches, developing the ideas scribbled into my black cardboard covered Chinese notebooks. This room, its white walls, its huge windows staring bleakly out onto a grey winter’s day, will live with me for ever, will always be an ideal work room. I’ve never again had one so good. Although our bedroom, in Fornalutx, with the plomming of doves from Maria’s dovecote, will later prove more fruitful.

But now, Georges opens the book, smoothing down the pages, and yes, he has over-painted Picasso’s Las Meninas. And he takes me through it. It will be several years before I see the Velasquez original in the Prado for myself, and before that, I’ll see Picasso’s Las Meninas paintings in a show in Barcelona. But when I do see it finally, I am armed. I know how to look at it. I don’t solve the problem any more than Cees Noteboom does (in Roads to Santiago) but I have some small ownership of this magnificent painting, thanks to Georges Sheridan.

“Picasso was a Scorpio, man, all that sexual energy!” Georges’ invocation of the zodiac and his accent makes him sound – especially on the page – like something of a hippy. But this was far from the case. He is an erudite, complex man, what I call an artoonist, one whose art about art owes much to the artists his art is about. He is a painter who has, I suspect, recognised his limitations, and has created a world in which he can work at his painting without the need to support himself by selling it.

I returned to the island once after having spent some time in the galleries of Paris, and was annoyed that Sheridan was burying himself in an artistic backwater, a colony, surrounded by inferiors and not offering himself and his works in a milieu like Paris, most of whose artists, as far as I could see from that visit, were inferior to his. But no. I came to the conclusion that the daily slog of selling in Paris, of putting up with rejection, of the politics of galleries, was hardly worth the candle, and that M Sheridan had created for himself an ideal life, where he could paint, play chess, collect Tibetan bronzes and tankas (he is a world authority on these), swim to the headland in the summer, travel and live, really live, without being subject to critical opinion. Which would, in all probability, come down against him.

Who better, then, to take little Johnny Newton in hand and teach him about painters and painting? It is from Sheridan that I learnt what I needed to know to embark on a journey that would end with the novel The Man Who Painted Women.

Was Georges Sheridan a great artist? Will his art live on? maybe proximity made me less able to judge his work. Well, now that’s he’s gone and thanks to the miracles of the net, you can check out his work here and see for yourself.

All I know is that I own three Sheridans, one from the Las Meninas series, one from the Deiá suite and a little gouache celebrating the birth of his daughter Tara. They give me great pleasure daily. How many people you know, many years after their death, can you say that about?

Te recuerdo con amor y Amistad Georges. Salud.