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 Practice, Production on February 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm
In February, with a messy sky diffusing the dawn light, the horizontals of the beach are toothpaste stripes; the water’s blue is deep and cool and the powder that whips across the surface of the sand makes it flutter brightly. As the liners head out onto the ocean and the whitewater flashes its thousand teeth, the day looks like it tastes of mint.
I turn left, not right as I usually do, so instead of making my way through the long grasses of the bird sanctuary, I walk south along this very last bit of Spain’s Atlantic coast, towards the island. The morning is bright and blustery. The winds were strong overnight and the little square where the promenade widens out is an apocalyptic scene; see-saws and rowing machines poke out of the sand like relics of a former time.
The beachside bar that overcharges us for wine whenever we’re absent-minded enough to end up there won’t be overcharging anyone tonight – the makeshift roof of corrugated iron that covers its terrace has collapsed. A new chiringuito, not yet built but present in the form of the steel girders that have been driven deep into the sand to support it, sits next to the causeway. Its customers will enjoy enviable views – of the island itself, and the lighthouse and the Tangier coastline – and I imagine they’ll pay for them in pricey wine, but for anyone who chooses not to be one of its customers, it will be a carbuncle. 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 Production on November 22, 2013 at 7:50 am
Up in the scrub of the bird sanctuary, the little wooden bridge has been listing for a couple of years and now wobbles, worryingly, over a whorl of fish in the river below it – a great tumult of watery life, the odd flash of silver belly glints in the writhing green murk.
Out over the Atlantic it’s getting brighter and the clouds have dipped beneath the full moon, cupping it as they fan outwards and upwards in either direction like a jewelled insignia. On the opposite horizon the sun hangs low like a hunter, its light predatory on the long, back lit grass as night flees.
Straight down the slatted walkway, its tip not quite clear of the black Rif mountains, the lighthouse on the island blinks. I’m sweating under my hat and warm jacket and I pick up the pace, on my way back to the first coffee of the day.
Later, up where the bus pulls out of town, opposite Lidl and arranged around the roundabout, a clutter of tattered hoardings hawk property for sale or rent. One of them has been there since I arrived three years ago and features an artist’s impression of a development that has never been built. The ground around them is strewn with rubble and litter and behind them the concrete training tower for the fire service seems to list a little itself. All in all it’s the ugliest little corner of town but you can still see the Strait and Morocco from here and a young man in a baseball cap and a leather jacket has chosen this spot to find Mecca; he’s up on the verge, prostrate in prayer. 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
In Presentation on September 27, 2013 at 8:05 am
The bus that I take from Tarifa to just outside Algeciras where I teach in an English academy is regular but infrequent – I’m left with over an hour to kill before I start work and I kill it in a roadside venta with a café con leche and a slow, bad-tempered netbook. Since my previous job was in the same area I’ve been a regular there now for three years and the coffee is often plonked in front of me before I’ve opened my mouth. I take it to the terrace and sit in the deafening noise of the port traffic – juggernauts and container trucks – trying to concentrate on whatever it is that day.
The neighbourhood is called Los Pastores and the one behind it, where I work, El Cobre. Neither of these places will ever feature heavily in Ideal Home or Town & Country and the latter in particular raises eyebrows when I tell people I work there; they often seem mildly surprised that I’ve lived to tell the tale. I’ve never experienced anything on my way to or from work but a few curious looks and a laid-back family feel to what is undeniably a down-at-heel barrio. I would concede though that a number of the inhabitants appear to be interesting.
I’ve written about the venta before and the tortuously slow process through which I eventually came to feel accepted and comfortable there. Nowadays it’s a fait accompli; I’m more or less treated like royalty. I’ve seen staff come and go and whenever a newbie arrives he or she is taught quick sharp that mine’s a coffee. I’ve had knowing conversations with the dueña about how the ideal olive is a cracked one with the stone in, More
In Plenary, Uncategorized on September 20, 2013 at 8:11 am
Filthy smoke obscures the coastline as I pass through Pelayo, Spain’s wettest village they say and the last stop before I get off the bus for work. It’s a mountain village above Algeciras, surrounded by beautiful Parque Natural – pines and cork oaks and rocky arroyos that spill down towards the sea. From Pelayo you can see both pillars of Hercules, one on either side of the Strait, or you can when the humid little pueblo isn’t shrouded in mist, which is most of the time.
Today though the fog has been replaced by the skyward plumes of dirty smoke on an otherwise clear day. Another long, dry summer is coming to an end and the crackling, brittle ground is burning. The brown cloud is drifting toward Getares, a suburb of the port, rising from a line of fire on the hills closest to the coast, maybe a kilometre from the road. Southern Spain is accustomed to wildfire and the authorities do not fuck around – the sky is loud and busy with helicopters that to and fro from a flooded quarry closer to town, huge and heavy water bags swinging from their bellies.
It’s quite something to see how much water those things hold – they release it slowly rather than all at once, making wet contrails for some distance before the bag is spent and the helicopter returns to the quarry. On the one hand, the quick and thorough response of the emergency services is testament to human ingenuity; how clever and conscientious we are, with our airborne water-carriers and our fire engines, our busy heroes working hard to save the day! More
In Plenary, Production on July 13, 2013 at 8:49 am
We go to dinner at L’s apartment in one of the soviet-style blocks down by the water and as usual there are another few people for us to meet. As we climb the stairs to his second floor flat we find ourselves doing so with his son and his son’s girlfriend and once inside we are introduced to A, a woman of Argentine origin who now lives in El Puerto de Santa Maria – about an hour away – and who struggles, as we do, to make small talk as the others huddle in the kitchen preparing the food.
In his text message, L boasted that the dish on offer tonight had a five hundred year pedigree, billing the dinner as “una cena andalusi”. In fact there are two “platos” and I never clarify which one he was referring to – some tabouleh with herbs, apples and raisins and an andaluz salad I have read about and attempted myself but never tasted in anyone else’s home, a plate of orange slices, olives and bacalao, along with more raisins and potato wedges.
The latter is carried in by P – who is always here – on two plates while B, a Swiss woman who lives in Tarifa with her Spanish partner and who speaks tarifeño Spanish like a sailor, brings in the tabouleh and the meal is underway. We always like coming and tonight I’m glad to be here even though there are good days and bad days as far as my Spanish is concerned and I find myself slipping in and out of comprehension and a little frustrated with myself at times. I do pick up that A is some kind of music therapist and when the conversation turns to the food More
In Practice, Production on June 24, 2013 at 1:02 pm
Some fuss at the front of an apartment building as the bus sets out for La Linea through Algeciras city centre. One of those unassuming if not quite unattractive pale redbrick efforts – six or eight storeys, double recessed balconies on the street side and the obligatory green and striped awnings hanging low over the railings which because of the recess protrude just two or three feet from the façade. A block of a building – we lived in one just like it in Madrid – I will have passed it by many times and never given it a moment’s thought.
Today the front entrance is cordoned off with police tape and a few policia local are in attendance. Some stand with hands on hips or arms folded and others talk on their radios, surrounded by a small crowd – just twenty or so – of neighbours. Several people are deploying the video-making function of their smartphones or making calls themselves, their necks craned upwards. A bus-full of necks, mine included, also crane to follow their line of sight.
For four stories above them the awnings have been damaged, knocked from their hinges to dangle dangerously overhead. I instinctively look to the ground to see what might have done the damage and sure enough, a significant amount of rubble lies at the little crowd’s feet. Looking up again establishes that the rubble used to be the protruding few feet of both adjoining balconies on the fifth floor. Where they should be is an open scar – a few pot plants teeter More
In Practice, Production on June 13, 2013 at 10:27 am
I should be running down by the water this morning, or at least walking faster, but I just have to slow down to look around. Everything is exceptional today – a great mixed sky like an oil painting, the cloud cover overhead breaking up in the east where the sun rises and graduating westward to a dull gloom which hangs low over the water, the whole sweep of it culminating in a funnel about a kilometre out where rainfall engulfs a short line of fishing vessels and their orange-buoyed nets.
Up past the sports field the spring flowers have gone to seed and their vibrant yellows and purples are beginning to recede into the dustier, dry grass hues of high summer. It’s very early and very quiet – quiet enough to hear the fish break surface in the river and for a few rabbits to linger in the open. A long-legged spider crosses the wooden walkway, pausing as I pass.
I go as far as the old military bunker and then cut across onto the sand. About two kilometres up the coast, the rock promontory of San Bartolome is lit up in a pin point shaft of sunlight that cantilevers its way in over an adjacent hilltop and illuminates the cliffs with precision. The sea is almost as calm as the river today, lazy waves yawning and sighing their way in and out over the sand. A few footprints, a few paw prints, the island like a surfaced submarine, the mountains of Morocco behind it; it’s a clear day and I can see deep into them.
This is a place that makes you feel More