Sunday 13 July 2014

Madrid, a 23 Hour Party People Town (key words: flamenco, sangría, paella, neuroscience, fish, urine, Gil Scott-Heron)

Saturday, 12 July, Madrid 

Undoubtedly Room 412 at the hotel on Calle del Pozo, just off Puerta del Sol in Madrid, is an amplifying chamber, doubling the sound of all the nearby bars, and magnifying it far beyond the level audible on the street.  There are always people shouting, as in the UK, with the difference that the shouts in Madrid add to the general merriment, whereas the shouts in the UK tend to be made alone and go unanswered.

Eva lay awake last night, which is unusual, as the noise is all part of the colourful Madrid ambience for her. Certainly there was nothing on the scale of Wednesday night, when Argentina won the semi-final of the World Cup, and Latin supporters came out in force to celebrate, and passed below our window to converge at Sol, making a tremendous racket. Unfamiliar and exotic chants were punctuated with thunderous volleys from ad hoc drum choirs, and the car hoots were ubiquitous. (Earlier, we had seen our new neighbour check in - a glum, single, Australian matron, clutching her Lonely Planet Guide for protection. God knows what she made of it.) 

But last night I slept like a baby, pleasantly exhausted by a full day of Neuroscience at the 10th AIMS Conference on Dynamical Systems, Differential Equations and Applications, the reason for our visit. At one point we were given a tour of the labs. Two fish tanks, blacked out to prevent light reaching their piscine inhabitants, were connected to a computer which intercepted messages from one and relayed them to the other! All this, a Richard Hamilton exhibition at Reina Sofía (The White Album might be his finest hour, as it was the Beatles) and the joyful reunion of Eva and her dear friend Amparo. No wonder I slept soundly. 

My subconscious, innocent of political correctness, transferred the shouts from Puerta del Sol to a Harlem ghetto, and I dreamed I was interviewing Gil Scott-Heron. In fact, the most visible black people in Madrid are African immigrants touting pirated goods on the street and, in short order, fleeing from the police that pursue them in cars, with all their merchandise wrapped in a bundle on their backs. (I saw this happen a few times.) 

Anyway, in my dream Gil Scott-Heron announced that he was joining the Stylistics. This isn’t as unlikely as all that (reasoned my waking and rationalising self): soul singers, even anodyne pop soul singers, sprang from the same culture as the Black Panthers, and were often one and the same. All that ‘Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)’ was merely a cover for more subversive activity. On occasion, even slick orchestral soul acts like, say, The Main Ingredient made surprisingly trenchant social observations. I can quote chapter and verse when I get home.

On awakening I remembered that Gil Scott-Heron was dead. So that’s another no-show, I thought. 

Radical consciousness often appears in unexpected places. There’s no institution like Reina Sofía for celebrating the spirit of Republicanism and mourning the tragedy of the Spanish Civil War. It's the home of Picasso's 'Guernica', after all. Yet the gallery is named after the wife of Juan Carlos, the lately abdicated and disgraced king of Spain. 

Similar beacons are everywhere in Madrid, evinced in Republican flags hanging from balconies in Antón Martín and defiant, savvy graffiti like ‘La lucha es el único camino’ (‘fight is the only way’), and ‘¡que se vayan los borbones!’ 

On the other hand, our favourite Madrid bookshop, La Fugitiva, seems to exist as a teashop these days. It’s managed by Clea, who will recommend the best world literature alongside the best iced teas. She called upon me to back her up about George Eliot. “You’ve read Middlemarch, haven’t you, Mike?” “As it happens, I have, in my time. Yes, George Eliot cuts very deep.” All in vain, alas. The customer, from North America, remembered that he had a copy at home, and opted for cheesecake instead. Eva bought a copy of Contra la Ceguera by Julio Anguita. It was the first book Clea had sold all day. 

It’s easier to sell cake than raise consciousness, it seems. 

Beer and flesh find more ready takers. which is to say, there’s an awful lot of prostitutes on the streets, from the very young to the very old. And the middle-class are feeling the pinch too, though their response is more respectable. Busking opera singers and classical guitarists rub shoulders with living statues in the main thoroughfares of Madrid. More seriously, a cultured fellow was selling his book collection ranged, like the African immigrants' wares, on a blanket on the ground. This, near El Retiro, the great public park of Madrid. He was having about as much success as Clea. And the gentleman who approached me selling paper tissues had a look in his eyes I shall not forget soon: a combination of pride and shame, amounting to desperation.  

One of the cheerful figures who greet and pose for snaps with visitors to Puerta del Sol (in return for loose change, if they’re lucky), removed the woollen head of her Minnie Mouse costume to reveal a sweating, anxious, middle-aged Latin American lady. It was equally hot work for the living statues. I recognised the Alien from Alien, a bear (modelled on the statue of bear and tree that adorns Sol) and Jack Sparrow. Jesus Christ enjoyed a quiet pull on his cigarette before mounting his cross. 

All this tarnished the bliss of a very good trip. I didn’t want for flamenco, sangría and paella. Funnily enough, these were the three things chosen for special approbation by a bar owner in Lavapiés when Eva asked for a glass of sangría. Flamenco, sangría and paella, it seems, form the holy trinity of Spanish tourist cliches. No, one must ask for “tinto de verano”, never sangría, and paella, well, paella was taboo. Eva refrained from saying that she comes from Alicante, the home of paella, and we were just on our way to see Eva’s flamenco teacher, Amelia Vega, perform at a small club, Candela. (Did I say? Eva had taken the opportunity of the conference to enrol at a flamenco dance course at Amor de Dios, above the Antón Martín market.) In the event, I think even the grumpy bar-owner would have applauded a genuine manifestation of Deep Madrid. The concert was marvellous, and incidentally revealed why Madrid has no free jazz scene: flamenco is free jazz. 

(Incidentally, a Metro ride to Ciudad Lineal and a short hop across the road, will take you to La Arrocería de María, the best paella restaurant in Madrid.)

Sunday, 13 July, Madrid 
Our siesta was disrupted by a party of English football hooligans. If I said that the English shout alone and go unanswered, I was wrong: there was plenty of unison shouting and singing. Interestingly, their repertoire included ’Starman’ by David Bowie, ‘America’ by Simon and Garfunkel and ‘Dirty Old Town’ by Ewan MacColl, topped by a finale of “Zeig Heil”, the Nazi salute, performed with such gusto that they could only follow with a hasty exit before the police arrived. What would the radical troubadour MacColl have made of sharing such company? 

The carousing here goes on for 23 hours a day. I say 23 hours because there’s a break between 7am and 8am when the last drunks have staggered home, and the debris is swept away. The once familiar street cleaning machines have been out of action since the great Madrid Garbage Strike of 2013, when City Hall laid off 1,134 of 6,000 cleaners. Since then, Madrid's smart streets have been getting progressively more shabby, and the smell of urine is now all pervasive.

No, look, it's been a great holiday (even if last night was the equal of the Argentina win for rowdy noise - a bugle was flourished). So don't think me jaundiced when I say that Madrid is a city overwhelmed by decadence. Always a place of rampant hedonism, the extremes of wealth and poverty, pleasure and misery have been thrown into broad relief by the ongoing crisis of the recession, exacerbated by the most brazenly corrupt ruling class in Europe. There is dissent, and plenty of it, but those in favour of radical and social change are outnumbered by the party people. These days, revellers at pavement cafes are barely disturbed by riot police charging about in their midst, aiming their batons at peaceful protestors. Old-school feminists (we found a very good feminist bookshop, Mujeres Compañía Librería, in Calle la Unión) can only stand aghast at a rising generation who choose to demonstrate girl power by donning uniform pink taffeta and bunny ears and cruise around in a stretch limo yelling excitable things out of the window and otherwise behaving badly (another dubious import from the UK, I'm afraid). All the Indignados and communards who occupied Puerta del Sol on the 15th May, 2011, have so far failed to channel the revolutionary energy of the bellicose drunks of Calle del Pozo.  

Pics to follow, readers. I have a plane to catch.  

1 comment:

  1. I was aware of a whisker epidemic in the UK, but in Spain it’s even worse. There’s not a male under 30 who doesn't sport a full set. 

    I conjectured that it might be something to do with the popularity of Game of Thrones (which I've never seen), but was then reminded of another possible source of the outbreak. On July 2, Conchita, the bearded lady who won Eurovision 2014, attended a Gay Pride rally in Madrid. We passed the stage a couple of times in our perambulations about town, but somehow missed Conchita. We weren’t alerted by the stirring sound of 'Rise Like A Phoenix' because City Hall, in a petty, homophobe gesture, banned music from the Gay Pride Festival. And there was I thinking that the place had loosened up, based on the lurid gay flyers pasted about the place. 

    Missing Conchita was the closest we came to activism all the time we were in Madrid.


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