Archive for October, 2010

Lieder without Lager

October 25th, 2010 No comments

As a lover of small but perfectly formed festivals, I’m drawn to the current Oxford Lieder Festival and some concerts at the Holywell Music Room.  There is a numinous performance of Schumann songs by the young and very talented Stuart Jackson who is built like a prop forward and sings with the delicacy and adroitness of a winger;  he also endearingly has his shirt hanging out from his suit at the back. The songs of love, loss and Lorelei are terrific, with Jackson’s tenor accompanied by the equally talented and young Welsh pianist Jocelyn Freeman.

 But there’s one problem.  Songs such as these should be enjoyed, as at a true Oktoberfest, in the autumn sun with a large cold stein of lager to hand.  Not in a hushed auditorium.  It’s like listening to salsa and not being allowed to dance……

The Chilean miners and that wonderful Spanish word ‘hábil’

October 13th, 2010 1 comment


The unconfined joy rightly generated by the rescue of the Chilean miners focuses attention on one of the less heralded aspects of Latin America.  Europeans sometimes make tedious jokes about a ‘mañana culture’,  usually when they have forgotten quite how inefficient European services can be.  In fact for me the people of that continent are often distinguished by what can best be described by that wonderful Spanish word ‘hábil’, a word that means ‘clever, skilful, adroit, expert, handy, deft, accomplished’ and the ability to make the best of slender resources.  

From Cuba to Chile I have always been impressed by the ability of mechanics, muleteers, stall-holders and just about anyone you meet to make things work if they possibly can.  Nowhere is this more evident than Chile [see my earlier post when I went there just after the earthquake] ,  and the patience with which they have managed to get the miners to the surface  – and with which the miners have endured unbearable conditions – puts most other countries to shame.  Which is not to say that the collapse in the mine was not due to casual safety standards in the first place, as Mario Sepulveda, one of their leaders and a union activist, had pointed out before the disaster occurred.  As the struggle for the earth’s resources intensifies, mines and oil rigs will have to dig deeper, with all the attendant risks and necessary vigilance that brings. 

But in a crisis situation, when what is needed is both pragmatic ‘habilidad’ and faith, then give me the South Americans every time.  Not least because they also manage to keep a sense both of humour and the surreal:  one of the miners, Edison Pena, apparently ‘kept up the spirits of the other miners by singing Elvis songs underground’.  He has now received an invitation to  Graceland.  You couldn’t make it up, boyo.

The Sentimental Education of Latin American Writers

October 8th, 2010 2 comments

So Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. To be honest, I’d half assumed he’d already won it years ago, so  major a figure has he been for so long. 

I’m sorry not to have been in Peru for this as sure that while he remains a controversial figure there – more for his exile in Europe than for his political views – they would be celebrating. 

I remember being in a small town in Ecuador in 1982 when Gabriel García Márquez won his Nobel (he has apparently just twittered Llosa to say that they are ‘now even’).  Although it was only eleven in the morning, the bar filled up with excited revellers ordering brandies; he might have been Colombian, but the town was treating Márquez as if he were a local boy.  

He was writing of their world, with its perpetual llovizna, that wonderful word for a soft drizzle of rain playing over the dampness of the platanales, the banana-plantations, while the oceano nítido, the bright ocean, stood off in the distance. The predominant mood in his books was one of nostalgia, ‘tratando de recomponer con tantas astillas dispersas el espejo roto de la memoria, trying to reconstitute so many scattered shards of the broken mirror of the memory,’ a nostalgia weighed down with decay. 

Llosa plays a different game.  His books are often at the sharp end – the brutality of life in Death in the Andes, or under the dictator Trujillo (in one of his finest late books, The Feast of the Goat) – laced with surreal or erotic moments.  With Márquez and other South American contemporaries, he shares a fascination with the brothel as a sentimental education.  In his memoirs, A Fish in the Water,  he writes that ‘my generation lived the swansong of the brothel’, a place where one could live ‘a life apart’, and  laments ‘the banalisation of sex’ that accompanied its disappearance as changing social mores allowed for sex outside marriage.  He wrote about the one he frequented near Castilla in a novel that like much of his early work was autobiographical, The Green House

Márquez too has written a great deal about brothels – Love in the Time of Cholera is full of them, for instance – but it was his last novella that really upset critics, Memories of My Melancholy Whores, in which a man in his nineties sleeps with an underage girl, an uncomfortable and problematic book that showed that whatever else he was doing, Márquez was not ageing gracefully.  One wonders if the situations had been reversed, and it was Llosa who won it 30 years ago and Márquez in contention now, how comfortable the Swedish judges would have been with that. 

See my appreciation of Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera

Postscript:  in a later interview, Vargas Llosa described how he had been rung with news of the Nobel at 5 in the morning when he usually rises (one reason perhaps for his prodigious output);  he had been reading Carpentier’s El Reino de Este Mundo, which he commended as ‘mystical, fantastical but also profoundly realistic’;  they seem to me to be  the qualities which distinguish his own work.

Mr Nice and Mr Nasty

October 4th, 2010 No comments

Reading Howard Marks’s extraordinary Nr Nice about his life and high times as a drug dealer I  slowly begin to realise that it is among many other things a travel book, albeit a very unorthodox one.

howard_marksMarks loves to travel.  He also needs to.  And given that he is usually carrying something that could get him into trouble, whether dope, cash or a false passport, his arrival at each airport carries an edge of excitement – what he describes as ‘an asexual orgasm of crossing a border illicitly’.  Then he wanders, often stoned, through the foreign bright lights of a city, taking it all in, befriending taxi-drivers and ending up in a luxury penthouse suite – or meeting some Pushtan suppliers in their fortress on the North West Frontier.

A lot of his business takes him to Thailand and Hong Kong, so there’s a fair amount of nostalgia about the 70s and 80s pleasures of first class Asian airlines and their beautiful hostesses, an age of opulent air travel that may have passed forever, the glamour of which was celebrated in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can film.

Certainly travelling Ryanair, as I did last week just after buying Marks’s book at the airport, is enough to make you feel that these days every passenger might as well be suspected of being a drug-dealer.  The level of cross-checking  and intimidation is intense.  The slightest deviation of hand baggage allowance will be punished with the full weight of the Michael O’Leary Law (will his autobiography be titled Mr Nasty?).  Need to change a date or a name on a ticket?  Or add a bag?  More often than not it will cost you as much as the original ticket.

The yellow plastic fittings and lack of an adjustable seat make you feel you’re on a banana boat ride at a fairground attraction. Fine for a few minutes but not for a few hours.  And for some strange reason they seem to have a policy of keeping the ‘safety belt sign’ on for as long as possible during the flight, causing some distress to the pregnant lady next to me who needed to use the facilities.

So on arrival in Morocco, far from causing me the excitement felt by Marks, I felt a bit drained – as if I had managed to get through a tedious bureaucratic experience like an American visa.  They wear you down, do Ryanair.  And they really don’t need to.  Given a choice between Marks and O’Leary as to who I’d rather have sitting beside me on a flight, I know who I’d go for.

Note – anyone doubting Howard’s abilities as a travel writer should check out his account of Colombia