In Plenary, Production on April 4, 2014 at 9:30 am
Until the Arabs came, this was the end of the world. Everything to the west was monsters and mystery; everything to the south was sultry, secretive and uncivilised. To the Syrians and their Berber hordes it became a new frontier, and a potential route to the domination of Europe, but until that moment, for the people they were about to conquer, it was the edge of the known. For some it still is of course – Europeans are in plentiful supply who would willingly go no further.
Sitting on a bus and looking at the back of someone’s head can be a bracing business; we never see the back of our own heads and it’s probably just as well – this evening’s guy has hair cropped short with salt and pepper flecks and a line of imperfections along the rim of his ear (spots or old wounds of some sort) that he continually rubs and picks at. He has a way of sneezing that makes me wince even though he’s doing it in the opposite direction: a series of near silent convulsions after which he checks his hands, his jacket and the window for mucous. My hand’s been resting on the miserly ledge at the bottom of my window and just behind his seat; I pull it back a little and breath as shallowly as I can, impatient to get off and suddenly conscious that a blemish at the back of my own ear may be disgusting someone at this very moment, grey hairs involuntarily counted, greasy collar disapproved of. More
In Plenary, Practice on January 27, 2014 at 10:02 am
The sky has cleared after more than a week of rain and relative darkness: a wet cold that drenches the bones and dampens the socks in their drawers, a lack of light that dulls the wit, relieving everything of the fine lines and sharp edges that the play of brightness and shadow make to define and clarify the world – the contrasts that make comparison possible, the perception of difference, of change, or whatever you want to call it. The variations. The variegations. The building blocks of thought and speech, of language itself.
With Morocco’s black coast cloaked in mizzle and the cloud-capped hills hidden from view, the mind’s eye – bored and restless – turns toward that other landscape, the interior, only to be disappointed. The grey soup has seeped through the skull – it’s as murky, sodden and slow in there as it is everywhere else. There’s a kind of sensory deprivation, a shutting down broken only by fitful fragments – undirected flashes of memory that slither and trouble.
Two nights ago, though, on the coast road, the details of the dark night gleamed. The windows and streetlamps of Ceuta were crisp on the horizon, the pinpoints of Tangier port twinkling close and crystal clear. The red lights of the turbines that turn on African soil were a winking reflection of their counterparts on this side of the Strait, blades reinvigorated and rotating wildly.
There was a brightness to the high visibility More
In Plenary, Production on January 17, 2014 at 12:25 pm
The lady who runs the little shop across the street where I go in the early morning for coffee and bread – a nice lady who always asks after our two cats, referring to them as ‘los niños’ – has refused to look at me for weeks. Everybody else is doing double takes: the bus driver, the French waiter in the bar where I write each day, even people in the street.
K was horrified at first. Then she let a couple of complimentary remarks slip out – pretty lips, apparently – and now she tells me she will not be offering further comment for fear that, as a consequence of my rather twisted psychology, any feedback at all from her, whether positive or negative, would only encourage me. She’s right – it would. The problem for her is that her silence does too.
So, I persevere. It’s day twenty-something now and I’ve stopped counting. More time than usual has been spent in front of mirrors as I watch my face, myself, become untidier. Even untidier, K would say. Overgrown, like a garden gone to seed. It isn’t happening quickly – I’m like one of those mid-table European economies at the moment in that there is growth, but it is slow. Development is patchy. Results inconclusive.
That’s if it is development. Maybe it’s deterioration. Entropy. I have, after all, reached an age where change may well be a positive thing, but then again maybe not. Whatever it is, it took a journey to get it started More
In Plenary, Presentation on January 2, 2014 at 12:01 pm
The pianist appears to be deaf, and I don’t mean in a Beethoven kind of way. We chose to sit next to the piano, I suppose, but that was before he arrived and cranked up the appalling backing track over which he tinkles lazily, one-handed, with occasional bouts of desultory crooning.
We’re in one of the grander hotels in Marrakech and the piano bar is dim. Everything that isn’t black or dark wood is red. We are reminded by the couple at a nearby table that some bars still have smoke in them. Dressed-up waiters bow from the hip. There’s a terrible distortion to the recording that adds to the comedy, and an awful tension in the room as the few of us present struggle to maintain our composure. He’s doing “The Great Pretender” now, and not in a Freddie Mercury kind of way.
Like most large buildings in this part of the world, the hotel centres round an inner courtyard. The pool out there is very still in the night, surrounded by alcoves and lounging areas, and there’s a great open fire at the back with armchairs to either side. We decide we’ll move out there for our second beer, and start to drink the first a little more quickly.
When Vincent Rose died in 1944 he was hardly a household name, but he had had a string of popular hits – “Linger A While”, “Avalon” and “Whispering “ amongst them – and had worked with the likes of Al Jolson and Count Basie: an unlikely destiny for a boy from Palermo, Sicily. More
In Plenary, Presentation on December 25, 2013 at 2:08 pm
The spartan waiting room, lined with glass along one side, is incandescent with the winter sun that glares from above the outline of Jebel Musa on the African coast, slicing through the interior space on a low diagonal. We’re the first in, having merely strolled down from the house, five minutes away, as we sit and sip coffee from styrofoam cups, watching the short line of vehicles outside that have come from further afield. It’s quiet – just a camper van or two with loaded roofs and a few four by fours as well as a couple of trucks.
Five minutes and a thirty-five minute crossing; we live forty minutes away from another world. From Africa. The thirty-five minute claim, emblazoned across billboards from here to Malaga and Seville, is a lie of course – it usually takes over fifty – and they make quite a fuss of boarding and disembarking, but still. The catamaran bobs a little as it pulls out of port below the old sunlit castle, past the the lighthouse on its wind-blasted island, relatively still today.
As the ferry revolves to orientate itself toward Tangier, sunbeams patrol the passenger area and the ceiling shimmers like the walls around a swimming pool. I watch the Spanish coast recede and see anew the beauty of the place where we live: the old town of Tarifa and the mountains that surround it. The wind turbines that cluster along the ridges of high ground, the rocky outcrops and the sand dunes. More
In Plenary, Presentation on November 14, 2013 at 11:25 am
Cádiz at night is the 18th century through a film noir looking glass. At every intersection in the old town the antique street lamps line up in all four directions, their light rising to illuminate the upper floors of the terraced town houses. Oddly uniform facades of cluttered little ornamental balconies – most glassed in to form protruding, paned windows – recede symmetrically into the distance on all sides. It’s a vertical world – the tall houses, the litter-strewn triangle of the retreating street, the mirror image funnel of sky revealed at roof level – in the form of a slender ‘x’. You might reasonably expect Mozart to walk around the next corner. In a trilby. Hands deep in the pockets of his overcoat, a gitanes dangling from his lips.
At street level the light of the lamps falls on cobbles, on ground floor walls whose colours daylight will reveal: the characteristic shades of the city – wine, champagne and salmon pink, pale blues and the ubiquitous brown of wet sand. All of them a little washed-out, as if the residents of this sea-locked city have grown so used to seeing their handiwork bleached by the sun and salt that they now paint it that way to begin with.
Some of the street level facades are left unpainted, exposing the mottled grey and sandy colours of the stonework and giving rise to the impression that this whole city grew organically from the waters that surround it; a close look at the big blocks reveals a surprising texture – they are comprised of shells and must be made of material gleaned from the sea bed. Neptune’s own bricks – a spellbinding detail. More
In Plenary, Production on November 8, 2013 at 10:21 am
“No puedo vestirme bien,” I complain to L, who employs me.
In Tarifa the year has made its mind up: it’s autumn now, the mornings fresh and dim despite the clock change, the evenings dark and every few days or so what I now, after a few years of Andalusian acclimatising, call cold.
In Algeciras it’s a different story – the unseasonably late summer lingers on without consistency; yesterday it was fresh enough but today it’s just plain hot. Because I live in Tarifa I’ve come to work in a warm top that I regret the minute I step off the bus. Nineteen kilometres separate the two towns but there’s the small matter of a mountain in between and the temperature differential ranges between noticeable and shocking. Catches me out every time.
It’s particularly maddening at this time of year. I know I will have issues in my little classroom today. Gender issues. I will flick on the aircon to get the room comfortable and when the kids arrive, the debate will begin. Girls vs boys and me.
“Que frio!” M will exclaim, crossing her hands to rub her upper arms theatrically.
“Maestro!” P will chime in, her face a picture of suffering.
Never mind that both of them are basically wearing beachwear to school. The boys and I will look at each other as we always do, like sulking puppies. More
In Plenary on October 31, 2013 at 11:43 am
Suddenly it’s dark when I finish work and as I walk through El Cobre, the neighborhood reveals a little of its nocturnal self. The change in the time, abrupt and artificial, appears to have a very real effect – there are people around now as I go on my way that I’ve never seen before, stepping out of alleyways and hanging around in doorways. Of course, they were there all along; it’s my routine that’s been shifted forward, into the darkness – mine and anyone else who works, or who has any reason to be in a particular place at a particular time. Most of the new faces are lined; the older generation around here, having no such obligations, live the way their grandparents would have – by the sun.
The change of hours provides a glimpse of our own artifice – the gridwork of language and number that we graft onto the world. Twice a year, a little slip between clock time and real time, a tiny tremor along the fault line that runs between the two and we have an hour stolen from us, or we get this extra one that jars at first before settling in.
The gable wall of a crumbling old house glows green, bathed in the light of the pharmacy cross; I think it is green, and wonder why I’ve never noticed in the daytime, till it flickers. Further up toward the main road more flashes of light against a wall, this time emanating in horror movie fits and starts from a welder’s workshop, frankenstein sparks flying and filling the night outside with the visual rhythms of an electrical storm. More
In Plenary, Presentation on October 23, 2013 at 7:58 am
On the roof at number eight again, a pale sun trying to burn through the thin layer of cloud overhead. I could be in the country here, in some crooked little pueblo, for all the city noise I can hear – which is to say, none. Red tiles and whitewashed walls, palms, ferns and potted plants – my visual field is a crowd of Andalusian tropes – but this place is different, has always managed to be different. Something in its proportions, in the shape of the slender carmens and villas that rise from the ramshackle roofscape, the better to build the miradors and terraces from which people have looked across at the opposite hill for centuries.
The horseshoe arches and heavy wooden doorways and window frames: there is something more distinctly Berber here than anywhere else on the peninsula. Something Arab. Something African. K has walked down to the frenetic city below where we were last night, almost intimidated by its busyness, its overflowing bars and bodegas, to shop. I’ll follow her down there soon; it’s only a five minute walk through the stepped and cobbled, car-free streets of the old town.
It isn’t completely silent; as I down the first coffee of the day and look up at the Alcazaba, I recognise a few notes of “New York, New York” as it wafts over from a house upslope behind me. It’s soft and welcome and entirely typical of the place. I can’t remember being here, in fact, and not being able to hear music, if only in the distance. It always seems to be good music too: when it isn’t flamenco it’s jazz, or swing, or an old Billie Holliday number More
In Plenary, Presentation on October 17, 2013 at 6:44 am
The neighbourhood between the academia, where I’ve just finished work, and the bus stop where I wait each day for a ride back to Tarifa, is anything but picturesque. It has precisely nothing of the rustic charm that draws visitors to Andalucia, except perhaps an authentic dash of the chaotic, permission-free approach to town planning that created the medinas and pueblos blancos in the middle ages and continues to bash out the odd barrio today.
The pavements are in the kind of condition that could keep a thousand solicitors in work were this an anglo-saxon country, and that’s where there are pavements. There’s a chemist, a stationer, a few bars and a small family-run supermarket and butcher. I take a street that leads uphill toward the main road and the bus stop and pass a kindergarten and a kitchen showroom, opposite a hostal that advertises beds and showers. You’d have to wonder who would find their way to a hostal in a neighbourhood like this. The kind of person who requires assurance that it contains showers, I suppose.
It’s a quiet time of day – just a few people here and there sitting on the kerb or on their doorsteps – but there is the repetitive clanging of someone at work. As I walk toward a white van parked up on the left the noise gets louder – I can’t see the source because the back doors are open and blocking my view but I do notice a large pile of dung behind it. I’m pretty sure it’s horse dung; it has that grassy texture to it and also, standing above it and tended by a tiny but cocky looking young boy, is a horse. More