Cocoa works and Guernica
By Parson Thru
Thursday, just before mid-day, which equates to mid-morning here. The smell and raw chocolate taste of my Napolitana (pain au chocolate) transport me to the great chocolate works of my youth. More accurate to say the cocoa works: Rowntree’s Elect Cocoa, once a household name but now all but forgotten.
Back at what I now appreciate was the thin-edge of the globalisation wedge, I was one in a small team whose job was to tear the mechanical heart out of the Elect Block and dump it into an endless supply of skips. Hot, hazardous work with the ever present chance of a dust explosion.
The final production shift hadn’t even bothered running the cocoa powder out. Hundreds of metres of sealed screw conveyors were compacted with the stuff. Mice suffocated where they’d been running once the cocoa stopped moving.
We used the building as an engineers’ workshop after that, until they did to the engineers what they’d done to the cocoa plant. The late Victorian building, with its painted emblem, was demolished years ago. The confectionery town in which it stood is largely gone. How much longer until they clear the entire site?
Never mind. I’m in the grip of nostalgia (neuralgia?) sitting in Calle de Santa Engracia, a thousand miles from all that. Who would have thought?
I’m recovering from a coughing fit. I’ve never had anything like it in my life. It hit me last night as I arrived at the apartment of friends to watch the Spain vs Iran game. Well played, Iran. Spain? It wasn’t Real Madrid, Barsa or Atlético – more like the England teams of old, without the aerial attack.
Anyway, even before they’d opened the door, I was wheezing and coughing on their landing. I put it down to the never-ending bouts of sickness here, or possibly aspiration of cheese, biscuits and wine consumed prior to a siestita. N (who knows about these things) tells me it wasn’t aspiration.
Whatever, for three hours I sat on my friends’ sofa coughing and sweating, unable to catch my breath and, I’m pretty sure, producing a sickly stench. I apologised and apologised and received nothing but humbling kindness and hospitality in return. Oh, and beers and pizza. They wouldn’t hear of me leaving early. Someone said to me today that the whole of the country is kind. Generalisations are generally problematic, but she has a point.
It was a pretty dull Spanish team that eventually found its way through the “autobús” the Iranians had parked in front of their goal. One nil. Not pretty, but it will do. How like supporting England.
Later, back outside on the landing, I coughed my thanks and goodbyes while I waited for the lift. Once at my second floor apartment, after a cooling shower, I began to feel better. Not a great sleep, but by morning my chest had cleared. A student told me he’s had something similar. Traffic pollution, he reckons. The boina (beret) that sits brown and poisonous over the city might be within reach of an eleventh floor flat. Maybe that was it.
The morning’s conversation class drifted onto the subject of “La Mova Madrileña”, a cultural phenomenon that flourished in Madrid during the 1980s. I’m vaguely aware of it, but only from reading a Lonely Planet guide when I first came here, and from snippets picked up here and there. It was a final rejection the oppression of the Franco regime and Catholic conservatism. In those early years of democracy, Spain endured a Nationalist coup attempt and the assassination of a group of human rights lawyers. Their monument stands in Calle de Atocha at Antón Martín, close to their office and what’s now the Museo de Reina Sofía – formerly a mental hospital.
We’d been speaking about a Spanish film director – Pedro Almodóvar – who was at the vanguard of what can still be felt today in Madrid’s urban exuberance. It’s all part of a complex patchwork of tradition and progression. San Isidro’s chulapos and chulapas*, bullfights, Catholic processions, the club and cabaret scene, Gay Pride in a week or so.
Somehow, Madrileños of all hues manage to rub along and the whole thing works. In the Reina Sofía, you can trace this back over a hundred years, via the tragedy of the Civil War. To my shame, I’d never heard of Almodóvar or his films. It reminds me that I need to move up a gear with learning Spanish, thereby accessing films, theatre, literature, culture. Language is the key.
A Romanian tissue seller comes to my cafe table bearing a smile and a handful of pañuelos (tissues). The sun’s shining. I’ve just finished breakfast. I dig out some change. “Two-fifty” he insists – “For a bocadillo.” I hesitate, then pull out my wallet. I’m lost in my reverie and have to mess about with the coins in his hand, taking back a euro. It’s all good natured. He goes off to find his bocadillo.
Later, on the broad pavement opposite Atocha station, I fnd the straw hats I’ve been looking out for. A couple of manteros (street vendors) are selling them. The local sombrería or hat shop is asking nearly a hundred euros. A hat is a hat in the end, especially if it goes the way of the last one. I walk past the first seller and linger a little longer at the next. He calls to me, gesturing towards the hats. He’s holding four strings, attached to the corners of the blanket (manta) ready to lift the whole shop and run at first sight of the police.
I’ve been thinking of buying a narrower-brim, Bluesman-style, hat. Less inclined to blow away in the wind. He has a few in different colours. I point to one and he hands it to me. A light grey one. Too big. He hands me one that’s almost black. Not a great choice in the heat. It’s too big anyway. I point to a straw one. It fits just right. I ask how much. “Eight.” he answers. Cheaper than I thought. “Ok.” I tell him. “I’ll take it.”
I ask where he’s from. Senegal. He’s been here a year. Senegalese music and images of the hazardous trip across the Mediterranean come to me. I fish a ten euro note out and hand it to him. He fiddles around in his pouch for change. Eight euros is a bargain. I’m not flush, but the two euros mean more to him. I pat him on the arm and grin. “Hombre… Cuidate.” “Take care, mate.”
It’s likely I’ve mentioned Eusebio Sempere before. Temporary exhibition, third floor of the Museo de Reina Sofia, where there also happens to be a very clean and usable toilet. Both are well worth a visit. I snap the label off from the back of the hat. That’s better. I try to control the straggly hair that needs to be cut in August. It escapes from the sides of the hat. No matter.
I don’t spend a lot of time on the second floor anymore. There, hang the giants of Spanish Modernism. I walk through to see if the Telefonica Cubism exhibition is still on. It’s displaced Robert Delaunay’s portrait of the poet Tristan Tzara, which I love. I chat to a guard/guide who tells me the Delaunay might be away for some time yet.
I take a walk through the Picasso – Guernica rooms at the back of the museum. There’s a bit of fatigue setting in with these, though I hover around the Miró paintings a while. I stop at the darkened room dead opposite “Guernica”. A black and white collage of documentary footage is running on a loop.
Aerial shots of German Luftwaffe and Spanish Nationalist planes releasing their bombs; almost cliched images of ordinary people in the streets looking up between buildings and running for any shelter they can find, clutching children; shots of burning structures, wrecked edifices and rubble; of raw grief; of dusty and battered corpses of men, women and children. Lots of shots of dead children.
A woman standing close by gathers-up her brood and ushers them out of the room, away from those all-too-real scenes. She takes them to stand in front of Picasso’s “Guernica”, which, apparently, doesn’t shock in the same way. That really gets me thinking.
Maybe it would be better to stay in the darkened room and explain how inflicting violent death on civilians in their towns and cities is appalling, is shocking, is distressing and that it is going on now and that we are doing it, or sponsoring and enabling it. Maybe tell them that. Strange thing is, the kids already know it’s appalling.
Enough nostalgia, already.
* Chulapos and chulapas = colourful and traditionally dressed couples. Known for their toughness and loyalty to Spain’s traditions.