Wednesday 28 October 2015

Baja California Dreaming

Hey Mike, How was Mexico? – Matt Tortoise. ¿Ay Mexico? – Mick. Now that the hurricane has safely passed,  the story can be told. So here, by popular demand, is my Mexican adventure... 


 Baja California

Ensenada has mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, with palm trees in-between and the sun overhead. 

We flew into San Diego and David, our driver, picked us up and drove us to our hotel. Not only is it necessary to have a car to cover the sprawling distances in the New World, it's necessary to have a car to get around the campus of the Universidad Autonóma de Baja California and the research centre CICESE, as I subsequently discovered. 

It's in California – or Baja California on the Mexican side. Our imaginations have been nurtured all our lives by that landscape without our realising. I thought of Vertigo - there are lots of mission towers just like the one where Madeleine plunged to her death - and Chinatown: near the hotel was a dried creek-bed within metres of the ocean. A job for Jake Gittes? 

By coincidence, the Arts Centre opposite the hotel screened Vertigo the second night we were there, but if the chap who introduced it noticed the resemblance, I don't know, because naturally he spoke in Spanish. 

Zapata and Mike on La Primera

Within walking distance of the hotel – apart from the Arts Centre – was the main street, La Primera, which is clubland and the US tourist zone, with lots of viagra pharmacies and shops selling Cuban cigars (well, I spotted one). Oh, and the brothels seemed rather slick and soulless in comparison to the ones I remember from Sam Peckinpah, although I only walked past. All the above – viagra, Cuban cigars, and brothels – are banned in the USA, which explains their popularity in Mexico. Things haven't changed that much since The Last Picture Show.   

No hint of drugs (apart from viagra). The drug barons were nowhere to be seen, and everyone was gracious. Even the music pounding out of the clubs on La Primera was preferable to the UK equivalent, being Mexican. 

Dancing at Parque Revolución

Better yet was Saturday afternoon at Parque Revolución where old-timers whipped the crowd into a frenzy with a selection of rancheras to taped accompaniment. Eva translated one of them for me and it made my flesh creep. I thought of Al Parry, my good friend, by coincidence at that very moment in New Orleans enjoying the Ponderosa Stomp, and, not to be too competitive, I thought that my old-timers must be out-doing his, at least in quantity. 

Cervecería Aguamala, with an ocean view

After a Monday mooching around on my own, I caught up with Eva's conference. Lovely people. A mixed bunch of professors, scientists and students took me to a micro-brewery with an ocean-view. The beer was at least the equal of the Marble Brewery, my favourite micro in Manchester, and they were gracious enough, half the time, to speak in English for my benefit. The other half I was keeping up as best I could, and skipping over the ocean like a stone. 

This tells you something about Mexican graciousness: perturbed by the fact that the nearest second-hand record shop appeared to be in San Francisco, I asked where do you buy vinyl discos in this town? And Miguel, a professor I'd been introduced to moments before, rescheduled his Thursday morning to take me to something he called "hard-core Ensenada", which turned out to be a flea market, and as cheap and cheerful as all flea markets but with parrots and a deal of Mexican exotica. I came away with LPs featuring Chavela Vargas and Songs of the Revolution.  

   Eva-mania I 

  Eva-mania II

And Eva's contributions to the conference were triumphant. A party of Mexican schoolchildren queued for her autograph and to have their pictures taken with her. No other speaker received this treatment. The like had not been seen since Beatle-mania: except this was Eva-mania. 

The 2 hour wait to get back across the border was memorable too, but here the similarity to Hollywood ends. People were waving churros at me, not guns. 

Well you did ask. 

Vineyards in the Valle de Guadalupe 

Thursday 15 October 2015

All Merit for Freedom and Literature! An open letter to Manchester City Council...

I volunteered to write a letter in support of Russell, up in court this week, but when I went to give it to him he wasn’t on his usual pitch (outside Stopford Building on Oxford Road), which is worrying in itself. So here it is, in the open of a blog, and I hope it does him some good. I shall get the handwritten original to him some way. 

To whom it may concern, 

This letter is in support of Russell (sorry, I don’t know his last name), who works as a street trader in books in Chorlton and elsewhere. Possibly he’s illegal, and operates without a license. but I think the bigger picture should be considered. 

Russell circulates books as efficiently as any public-funded library, and books are undervalued objects these days, and worth next to nothing in monetary terms – nevertheless, they spread happiness, information, entertainment, subversiveness etc. etc. A good browse is a universal pleasure. Russell’s little stall adds to Manchester’s gaiety (more so than any high street name). ‘Little’ is the operative word here: it’s clearly a shoestring affair, ran by someone with a passion for the curious and special (because Russell’s book selection is always out-of-the-way and interesting) and with an interest in people (a street bookstall is a great way to mix if you’re at all socially minded, and Russell is not shy of striking up conversation). He has passion, knowledge and conviviality then, but not much in the way of finance. In any civilised society Russell would be encouraged rather than persecuted. 

On a personal note, I hate what Manchester has become. Remember Blake’s poem, ‘London’: “I wander thro’ each charter’d street…” ‘Chartered’ is an accurate description of Manchester today, where every acre of public space is licensed to vendors. Albert Square, ostensibly a public space, is invariably monopolised by commercial interests: usually something called Manchester Markets, which is a slick, professional operation, utterly lacking in charm or character. Manchester Markets don’t sell books by William Blake, but Russell does. 

With Manchester Council is closing libraries (like my local in Hulme), further attacks on literacy – and variety – are to be deprecated. And if the Council’s controlling tendencies must be appeased, why not devote some small area in the city centre to the sale of second-hand books, like the Left Bank in Paris or Libreros in Madrid (popular tourist attractions, by the way) or the old Farringdon Road Market in London? 

That’s if free spirits like Russell would ever permit themselves to be regulated. All merit for freedom and literature! 

Yours sincerely, 

Mike Butler

The pictures – by Eva Navarro – show Russell in his short-lived shop, The Mix, in Chorlton, Manchester

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