The wonderful thing about writing up an exhibition of well-known artworks is that not only do you not have to look at it (thus saving you from putting your drink down at the opening), you don’t even have to look at reproductions of it in the catalogue. It’s all been written down for you already! So you can just copy down some other critic’s description of the work in question, and thus tweak your opinions on it to best suit your audience. If it’s a particularly famous work you don’t even have to pretend to be original – you try saying something new about The Scream, smartarse!
The only time this method might come unstuck is if the description you pick turns out to be, in fact, completely wrong
. Now the exhibition is open, Adrian Searle
might want inspect Les Joyeux Farceurs
for himself and ask why a milk bottle has a tube down the middle, and why the milk is transparent and fizzing. Alternatively, he can quote other critics who have actually worked out
what the painting depcits.
You’d be amazed how much you learn from a painting by looking at it.
Greg Sandow’s blog often discusses the problems of promoting classical music to a wider audience, and every now and then produces a particularly bad (or, less frequently, good) example. Just now he cites the San Francisco Symphony’s publicity for a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13, a setting of Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’, a poem concerning the slaughter of millions of Jews during the Second World War, poverty and starvation, and the spectre of the resurgence of Stalinism. The SF Symphony’s marketing director plugged it as the musical equivalent of a date flick. In a previous post he says:
This is yet another way in which classical music is drained of all meaning. Who cares what Shostakovich really is? It’s classical music! It’s a celebration! It’s big, grand, and colorful! Can anyone imagine talking about any other serious art this way?
Coincidentally, I just happened to visit the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Classic FM radio website, and found that they still apparently do their own marketing:
See? Classical music doesn’t suck so hard if you don’t listen to it too closely! It can inspire you to accomplish menial chores! Note also the non-ironic use of the word ‘joyful’ outside of an Xmas context for the first time in 40 years. Shostakovich would be proud to know that his terrors and deprivations weren’t suffered in vain.
The final night of the Xenakis gigs, with the London Sinfonietta. The Rambler left some remarks about this night in a comment, either on his blog or mine – I forget. Let’s get through this quick.
Waarg: Way to dampen the crowd’s enthusiam, opening with this stodge – yes, one of those flaky pieces from the mid-1980s I mentioned previously. The Rambler thinks the ensemble may have been off-form, but I assumed their wonky playing was intentional, having heard a recording of Épéi, another of X’s queasy, wheezy ensemble works. Épéi, however, had a particular kind of pig-headed authority, whereas Waarg sounded much flabbier. In fact, I didn’t mind this piece as much when hearing it as I did in retrospect: it had a kind of lyrical, relaxed attitude that made a nice change of pace from the rest of the music heard over the weekend. Still, it was a heavy, thudding kind of lyricism. And it was still flabby.
A L’Île de Gorée: Wow, this was bad! The Rambler liked the harpsichord playing – which was technically admirable and almost thrilling, except it was at the service of a shoddy and inept composition. The idea of Xenakis writing something for harpsichord sounds like some music insider’s idea of a joke, but he wrote at least four substantial pieces featuring the instrument. Unfortunately they all sound pretty much as you might expect, with lots of frantic banging away on the keyboard vindicating Sir Thomas Beecham’s likening of the modern instrument’s sound to that of skeletons copulating on a tin roof.
There was lots of give-and-take between the soloist and the ensemble, as you’d expect when X’s typical dynamics ensure that the harpsichord would be drowned out. The whole thing was so stop-start and felt so poorly constructed that you just wanted it to end. The piece was dedicated “to the black Africans… the heroes and victims of apartheid in South Africa” (Thanks Iannis, just what we wanted!). The motivation behind Nuits substantiated its significance, this dedication sought to create significance. It was the sort of claim to relevance that gives European intellectualism a bad name. Written in the mid 1908s? Absolutely.
Jalons: This was another mid-1980s piece but much better, with a spiky severity that held your attention throughout in a way the preceding pieces did not. It was written for Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain and it’s easy to imagine Boulez hovering over X’s shoulder the whole time he was writing it muttering “act like a professional for once in your life, dammit” – in some respects this piece sounds as close to anything his contemporaries may have written as you could hope for. The program notes use the supremely baffling term “polar centre.”
ST 10-1,080262: Known as just plain ol’ ST/10 to its friends. Written in the late 50s and early 60s, this piece always gets kudos for being one of the first works written with the assistance of a computer. A computer program handled the calculation of dozens of probabilities concerning musical densities, curves, pointilistic textures and structures. The result is a hyperkinetic whirlwind of fragments from what sounds like a dozen or so wild compositions thrown into a blender. The combinations and successions of sounds have a perverse kind of objective logic to them, and yet they are combined in ways that would never have previously occurred to a composer. Not to be confused with ST 4-1,080262, a string quartet written at the same time, and either used the same program results as ST/10, or one is an arrangement of the other. Several passages were awfully similar, but the program notes didn’t elucidate.
Akanthos: It’s harder to write about pieces you don’t mind. A work from the late 1970s for soprano (wordless) and ensemble, I heard a recording of this and found it shrill and overbearing. I liked this performance, even thought it was because the singing wasn’t as strong as it could be ideally and so would get swallowed up by the other musicians from time to time (the soprano must sing without vibrato, which can make projecting the voice a tough ask.)
Eonta: Now this is how you finish a concert! Piano playing of impossible ferocity (again, a computer was used to help determine the torrents of thousands of notes) and a brass quintet playing into the piano’s open soundboard. Except at first they’re lined up along the back wall of the stage, playing first into the floor, then up into the air, then over to the piano, and then wandering (carefully!) around the stage, playing long, dense chords over the piano’s rampage. Finally, they get chair facing off opposite the piano for some diabolically intertwined sliding tones, before a final crossing of the floor and face-off with the resonant insides of the piano. This piece had everything to please the punters: keyboard pyrotechnics, theatre, wacky stunts, a real spatialisation of sound that Alax couldn’t provide, and a dramatic pause right near the end the caused some overexcited punters to start clapping too early. Haven’t heard that happen for ages! Wildly enthusiastic applause from just about everybody, including those who were sheepishly fleeing for the exits; not because they didn’t like it that much, but because years of exposure to British public transport turns you into a twat.
Theatrical highlights: Harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka’s red afro, sequinned vest and facial expression that suggested she was under strict medical instructions not to smile, presumably from a very expensive Swiss doctor at the Ponds Institute with a beard and white laboratory coat. And her habit of dumping each page of the score onto the floor when she was done with it.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: None whatsoever. For the whole weekend.
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: Someone shouted me so I didn’t get the price, but if you get it in a plastic cup the Royal Festival Hall lets you take it into the auditorium just like it’s the band room at the Corner Hotel, although I doubt this is to minimise harm if you get into a stoush with the band and/or your fellow audience members. Or is it?
Readers’ notes: The previous posts about the Xenakis gigs are here and here. A post that was meant to be about Xenakis but mistakenly ended up about Stockhausen is here: do not read this if you want news only about Xenakis. Also, the link I posted to Rolf Hind’s shirt doesn’t work: apparently James Bond fansites are picky about linking to their pictures and would prefer you to just steal them outright, so here’s a nice photie of Mischka, or Grischka.
Pretty much that but with better hair. Oh, and without the knife, unless the piano recital needs some Keith Emerson keyboard-stabbing action to liven things up.
Wednesday 26 October 2005
To die of the cigarettes, that is a misfortune, no? But to have one’s skin look not so young before one’s time, that is the real tragedy.
The French have their priorities straight. The real mystery here is that this photo was taken in Estavar, where a 5-minute drive into the next village will see you over the border into Spain, where a packet of Camels will set you back only €2.50.
Wednesday 26 October 2005
I’m afraid this is badly written, but I can’t fiddle about with it forever…
Did I mention that these gigs were almost all sold out? That you can fill a hall with people who want to hear nothing but Xenakis, except maybe for a bit of Feldman and Messiaen* to break things up a little? It’s not often you get to hear live performances of music by composers who wrote stuff which requires musicians to put an effort into getting it right. Most of the time, when a 20th-century composition does get programmed at a concert, it’s something dull that performers and audience alike can safely doze through pretending it’s either Brahms or Gershwin and not caring too much if they get it wrong. Then they fill up the rest of the program with 2nd-rate Brahms, under the assumption that the subscribers will like it (they won’t, but they won’t complain about it either). It seems I’m not the only one who’s been hanging out for a concert where I don’t have to leave early, or arrive late.
Rolf Hind knew how to keep the punters happy at his piano recital, starting and finishing with two of Xenakis’ blockbusters for the solo instrument: Mists and Evryali. Don’t mistake the title of Mists – this is not a soft-focus montage of dewy impressionism, but an implacable study of thousands of motes in a constant roil of Brownian motion. The sheer sonic fireworks of Xenakis’ piano music, coupled with the theatrics of a pianist playing music of such obvious, stupefying virtusoity, makes for superb entertainment. It’s very hard to pretend you’re appreciating the intricacies of Xenakis’ use of arborescences and number sieves in these works when the sound just blows you away.
Evryali is, if anything, even more dazzling – long barrages of rapidly hammered 10-note chords ranging far and wide over the entirety of the keyboard. Given a quick look at the score for the piece, you’d think it was written for four hands; after closer examination you’d still need convincing that one person can be capable of playing it. It’s a great way to finish a concert, especially for an audience who are thinking “This cost me less than half the ticket price of watching Stockhausen operate a tape deck.”
A good way to impress the crowd is to play Evryali immediately after Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari, a work as soft and still as Evryali is loud and frantic. I went to this recital as much to hear the Feldman as the Xenakis – he’s just about my favourite composer, yet I hadn’t heard this piece before. I was surprised at how overtly beautiful, even romantic, this piece was – at least as Hind performs it. It was written right near the end of Feldman’s life (he died in 1987), between compositions of deep, hermetic ambiguity and spareness of almost opressive austerity (but still beautiful, just not in such a showy way).
Of course, it would have been more impressive to bash out the Xenakis and then sustain the delicacy of touch needed to play Feldman right. Roger Woodward actually did this at the British premiere of Mists, using it as the opener for the premiere of Feldman’s 90-minute long Triadic Memories – although this may explain why his interpretation of Feldman is as mad as a two-bob watch. The biggest problem about this part of the concert was that the punters wre so pumped up by the preceding music that they got restless and fidgety – moreso than usual during a Feldman piece, in which the quiet atmosphere really amplifies those squeaky chairs.
Theatrical highlights: Rolf Hind’s shiny red shirt, like he was Mischka (or Grischka) from Octopussy.
(Tomorrow: last instalment, promise! Now I have to post a picture of a cigarette packet.)
* WARNING: Hideous 1996-style website design. Kids, learn how Gorak saw the web!
I came into work this morning to find a new sign in the lift warning us to be on the lookout for terrorists. I searched everywhere, but I’m quite sure I was the only passenger.
In Melbourne I was a regular customer (if you can call hanging around in and listening to stuff rather than actually buying it) at Synaesthesia Records. Apparently their biggest seller was (and possibly still is) a CD of electronic works by Iannis Xenakis: it seemed to be a disc in which the free-improv, Japanese noise, avant-garde, computer-glitch and outsider fans could all find some common ground.
Xenakis’ life and work has been condensed in the public mind into a neat little quasi-mythology even tighter than Stockhausen’s, and without the loony parts: ethnic Greek Romanian, socialist partisan fighter in the war, got half his face shot off, exile in Paris, assistant to Le Corbusier, Philips Pavilion, use of number theory and stochastic calculations, the contrast of theoretical sophistication with the raw visceral impact (make sure you use the word “brutal”) of his music. Throw in the word “polytope” and you can pretty much write your own program notes. The front cover of this concert series’ program uses the phrase “builder of dense and dazzling sonic masses” in large type on the front cover.
There is, however, one dirty little secret about Xenakis that is never directly acknowledged. While the ingenuity and power of his greatest works are indisputable, he also wrote a quite a lot of duds. I think the critical consensus acknowledges that his output from the mid 1980s onwards can get pretty flaky, but we’re only now getting to grips with just how many dead-ordinary pieces he turned out, and it looks like a much higher proportion than other composers of his (deserved) stature. What’s even more perplexing is how utterly superfluous these substandard works appear to be: their failures are not interesting failures, and their successes are better heard elsewhere.
Milling about in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall (non-Londoners, imagine something slightly more ambitious than the assembly hall of a large high school built in the 1960s – a concrete testament to the nation’s postwar self-doubt), it was slightly disappointing to be part of a crowd all of the same mind about Xenakis’ strengths and, apparently, his weaknesses. I missed the sad old man who sat behind me though a stonking take on the piano concerto Keqrops (Roger Woodward/MSO, if you’re interested) and then held me transfixed as he spent the entirety of the intermission bitterly complaining about it; his central thesis being the classic observation that it wasn’t music, it was just a collection of sounds.
I was disturbed – but no longer surprised – to find everyone in the room agreeing with me.
At the first gig (I went to five) I finally got to hear Nuits, a wordless piece for 12-voice choir from 1967. This is everything Xenakis is cracked up to be: gripping, dramatic, and totally uncompromising. Dedicated to “the thousands of unknown political prisoners”, it’s a lament that turns between terror, outrage and defiance. I typically find this kind of mid-20th century vocal exercises precious and faintly ridiculous, so anyone who can make me believe in it gets marked down as some kind of genius in my books.
They (the BBC singers) also performed Sea Nymphs, a setting of the “Full Fathom Five” lyric from The Tempest, the latest work (1994) played for the whole weekend. Cannily, they peformed this piece first, so that it was only retrospect you would realise how derivative it is from its illustrious predecessor.
The other highlight of the first night was Shaar, a work for 60-piece string orchestra that really should have been the crowd-pleaser to close the evening. It has every indulgence you could hope for: big, pulsing clusters of sound, wild sweeps back and forth across the orchestra, eight double-basses, everybody playing something different at the same time.
The other concerts in the series all made a point of finishing with a bang, however for this night the closer was an anticlimactic performance of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, a choice which can only be explained by a need to find something else for the BBC Singers to do, having already cruelled their Friday night. I don’t care much for Stravinsky’s music, so it’s become almost fascinating to be exposed to the lesser-known corners of his work and hear music that is surprising, eclectic, and inventive, that I would not care in the least if I never heard again.
Apart from that, some members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra played Alax, the first of Xenakis’ pieces to be heard over the weekend to feature lots of long, plodding unison passages of quasi-baroque honking which was starting to wear very thin with the regular concert-goers by Sunday night. There’s always something satisfyingly excessive about music written for multiple orchestras, even though Alax is written for three relatively small ensembles and only needed one conductor, which feels like cheating. However, the stage they played on was so small that all three groups had to sit right next to each other, which rendered the whole enterprise rather pointless. The best entertainment to be had was from watching the three harpists (a hapless role in any Xenakis composition) struggle to be heard over the three percussionists – drums and all – and nine french horns on stage.
For the sake of completeness, I’ll also mention the remaining piece played at the first concert: Varèse’s Intégrales. It’s very satisfying hearing avant-garde from the early 20th century getting played these days, being sufficiently old that orchestras can now usually do them without getting the notes wrong, playing them as if they actually like them, and knowing their way around them sufficiently well to give some thought to interpretation. And Varèse still has what it takes these days for a sufficiently nerdy high school kid to really piss off their parents.
Theatrical highlights: The singers periodically tapping tuning forks against the backs of their heads (coming in on the right note when singing 12-part atonal harmony is a right bastard).
Conductor Jac van Steen pausing to smooth down his hair during a quiet bit near the end of Alax.
(To be continued tomorrow…)
That said, I probably won’t go and see it. The last time I went to a cinema of my own volition was to watch Tank Girl and I don’t think I’ve sufficiently recovered to show my face again around a ticket booth just yet. Besides, it’s one of those novels-they-said-could-never-be-filmed; worse, it’s one of those films-about-making-a-film.
A lot of this smart-arsed japery can be sheeted home to Sterne* himself, who all but created the book-within-a-book genre and more stylistic tricks than the combined forces of the postmodernists have deconstructed. But what almost every would-be imitator neglects is that through all of its futile textual acrobatics, Sterne’s book paints the most compassionate, kind-hearted and life-affirming portrait of human imperfection.
It’s hard to imagine how the movie could add up to more than a sequence of unconnected skits, although framing it in a story of the vanity of attempting a film adaptation could help this problem. Alternatively, it could end up like Sally Potter’s film of Orlando, which was only any good in the bits which weren’t based on the book.
* Not, to my knowledge, on the cover of Sergeant Pepper
. He did, however, get namedropped by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. Who misspelled his name on the lyric sheet.
Most of the events described below happened a little while ago now, but it shouldn’t matter to you unless you use this site as a news source (hint: don’t
). I was trying to get this posting (and other long ones) to break from the main page onto a page of their own, without success. Hey, more photies uploaded, but!
One of the benefits of of taking advantage of a loophole in the UK visa system to escape my Australian creditors
would be, I told myself, having greater access to the more esoteric reaches of culture which float my boat. Yet tonight I’m contentedly sitting at home in the bunker when I could be out copping a gawk at Karlheinz Stockhausen
There are several reasons why I’m shunning a live! appearance by the man responsible for some of the most exciting music of the past 50-odd years (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper?). The main reason is because he’s charging £36 a ticket (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper? Hang on, I think I already said that). The other reasons are less materialistic, but all stem from that basic deal-breaker.
You’ll pay £36 to hear him play tapes. Furthermore, jaded Stockhausen fans report that whatever special Stocky-magic he may purport to imbue to a live mix of his electronic music is, at best, indistinguishable
from shelling out about as much for the CDs – yours to keep! Another danger sign: he’s playing one undisputed solid-gold classic (Kontakte
) paired with a new work no-one really knows (Oktophonie
). I still have a short stack of half-played Steve Reich albums
I keep around to remind of that particular lesson I learned the hard way.
Oktophonie may be a great work, but everything he’s done over the last 30 years has been obscured by his public persona of a megalomaniacal loony, inextricably intertwined with an impossibly huge project of a seven-opera cycle called Licht that has occupied his entire working life since (but now, amazingly, seems to have been completed).
To make matters worse, recordings of his music are not readily available. About fifteen years ago he reacquired the rights to most of them and has never licensed them to a record company. Oh sure, you can get pretty much everything he’s written on CD through his mail order company
, but throughout the 70s and 80s he was complaining that his record label was restricting access to his music. His solution has exacerbated the problem, which makes it seem that he is more interested in cultivating an uncritical cult of acolytes than reaching a wider audience. Incidentally, his CD prices match his gig prices.
This attitude, the white clothes, his claims to alien ancestry
, his ivory-tower pronouncements on the destruction of the World Trade Center
and its inhabitants, result in a crowd turning up to Billingsgate tonight (I’d bet my unchanged Euros from the Spanish holiday
) will be a motley of said cultists, baby boomers who remember back when Stockhausen seemed to be the one composer who mattered (Did you know he was on the cover of Sergeant Pepper
? – sorry), and people who just want to see a great artist make a pork chop
Anyway, what I was going to write about was the weekend I spent camped in the Royal Festival Hall listening to Xenakis
a week or so ago, but that can wait a little longer. Four concerts of live musicians for the price of Stockhausen maybe hitting the right button on a tape deck. I’ve heard enough of Stockhausen’s music to want to hear anything he’s written at least once. A composer I respect immensely has repeatedly praised a Stockhausen piece that I think is the most laughable load of cobblers I’ve ever sat through, outside of performances conceived by teenagers. Any Stockhausen recording you can find is worth paying for, unless it’s a CD of Grüppen
(because the performance will probably be sucky) or if it mentions Aus den Sieben Tage
(a real 60s you-had-to-be-there “project”).
is an excellent blog that has posted on the mutual interdependence of the highs and lows of Stockhausen’s art, particularly as part of his excellent Music Since 1960
I woke up early yesterday afternoon and finally saw some genuine London fog, viz:
However, this was still not enough to end my year-long summer: I can still comfortably sit around in the bunker without heating or a jacket. I am beginning to suspect that British weather is much better than the locals and the Australian Tourism Bureau would admit. Perhaps they exaggerate the bad weather here as part of the self-deprecating humour that defines the British identity, but I thought that it was supposed to have some grain of truth or element of defensive self-aggrandisemment (see also British food, the London Underground, Tim Henman).
From the way they talk about it you can tell they will go into the same collective hokey-pokey that Melburnians do the first day the weather looks the slightest bit wintry (“IT’S UNPRECEDENTEDLY COLD AND WET! THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!”), but I’m not sure if there’s a newspaper in London as gormless as The Age
which will deem the change of seasons newsworthy.
Photographed outside the bunker, where they’ve been overhauling the drains up and down the street for the last month. I only know the name of these things because of Tom Phillips
‘ project A Walk to the Studio
from the 1970s, in which he obsessively catalogued everything found on the half-mile walk from home to studio in his native Peckham
, which resulted in, amongst other things, the photocollage 64 Stopcock Boxlids
(see also Peckham Heads
The main problem Phillips encountered in his efforts to document the entirety of his daily walk across a small section of south London was that his observations became so comprehensive that by the time he finally reached his studio, it was time to return home. The project came to a natural end when he moved both residence and studio into his former childhood home, halfway between the two buildings; thus saving him the need to ever leave the house, let alone Peckham.
Firstly, I’m On Your Computer
is back on your computer. Hard-hitting journalism that hits you like it’s Anthony Mundine and you’re the type of schlub who gets picked to fight him, which you probably are unless you’re good with your hands and somewhat alert.
Secondly, I got a phone call from my bank
yesterday, saying that someone had returned a bank statement they’d mailed me so they thought they’d better check if I’d changed my address
. This makes me the first person to have had a company pay the slightest bit of attention to their returned mail since the era depicted on British Sunday-night TV serials, when the world was populated entirely by nice white people who all lived in little villages and knew each other by name and the postman would stop by your house for a cup of milky tea. This was back before immigration and the polio vaccine ruined everything forever, when people felt truly comfortable and relaxed – right up until they realised it was time to stock up on sex toys again.
So I was grateful, but I couldn’t help get the impression that they were reproaching me in some way for not caring about them quite as much as they appeared to care about me. This was probably just guilt on my part, having churlishly assumed at first that they were trying to sell me something. Worse still, it happened to be one of the rare occasions where, instead of simply hanging up
, I feigned suffering Tourette’s syndrome (“If you hang up I can sue you for discrimination CUNT!”).
On further reflection, it wasn’t so much guilt as resentment. It’s all very nice having them call up for useful stuff but I’d really rather them be a proper faceless consortium and leave me alone.
The gentleman in the photo above is a trainspotter, the first I’ve seen; at least the first I’ve noticed in flagrante. This was at Clapham Junction, “Britain’s busiest railway station”, so I guess if I couldn’t find one there I may as well have given up. Look closely and you can see his binoculars and notebook.
I’ll let you make the next joke, and when you’re done will counter that it makes you a trainspotterspotterspotter. Happy now?
What I couldn’t get a good photo of was the Flight Information Screens at Gatwick Airport, whose digital displays read PLEASE LOOK AT TELEVISION SCREENS FOR INFORMATION. Thanks for that. Nothing about raising boys and girls the same way
If you’re thinking of making a pilgrimage to Clapham Junction, don’t bother: it’s a shitheap.
Wednesday 12 October 2005
, hosts of much goodness on the redoubtable UbuWeb
, have an MP3 of the original version of the classic bad song “I’m Going to Spain
” by the enigmatic Steve Bent, for your downloading enjoyment. A song I’d heard about as a wee tot on the grievously-misnamed World’s Worst Records
compilation LP, but not actually heard until The Fall recorded their wistful cover version
: fine in itself, but nothing can match the queasy charm of the original.
All I can find out about Bent is that he was a contestant on New Faces in Britain in 1974. Assertions on some websites that he is one and the same as the British actor Stephen Bent appear to be fanciful.
My companion grunted unsympathetically and shifted the red Mégane we’d hired up into sixth. After two hours at the wheel, she’d gotten the hang of driving on the wrong side of the road and felt ready to overtake trucks and schoolbuses just as the dual carriageway ran out.
“You’re supposed to be describing the scenery to me,” she said, reaching over and fumbling around in the glovebox. She’d found that the Mégane felt most comfortable cruising at about 150 and was reluctant to let it drop to too low a speed because “it’s a diesel and they like being revved up.”
We were driving north from Barcelona up into the Pyrenees to be at the wedding of a couple of friends: she’s Australian but has lived in Barcelona and nearby mountains for years, he’s Catalan. Right now they’re living at his parents’ place up in the Cerdanya, a place I’d never heard of before.
I was expecting lots of hillclimbing and general cragginess, but once you’ve got up into the mountains you go through a really long tunnel (you folks at home think it’s a long haul from Southbank to Burnley
– ha!) and once you come out the other side find yourself in this pretty green valley with meadows and cows and little villages dotted around. Then someone stops your car and relieves you of 9 Euros for driving through their shiny new tunnel and when you wind down the window realise it’s suddenly 15 degrees cooler outside.
What you can’t see amongst all the picturesque countryside is the French border which runs diagonally across the Cerdanya, and has done for 400 years, just to be difficult. Then, to be even more difficult, once you’re over the border into France you’re suddenly back into Spain again, a tiny little island of it called Llìvia which has also been that way for about 400 years, before heading back into France again. And because we’re dealing with France here, they speak French on one side of the border, then revert to Spanish 100 metres down the road. The family we were staying with was Catalan but lived on the French side – I suspect most of the locals speak Catalan but you’d never get the Francophones to admit to tourists like me.
My companion had just finished a bout of Italian lessons in London and so was pronouncing what little Spanish she knew as thought it were Italian. I suspected I was lapsing into a ropey Catalan accent when attempting to pronounce anything non-Anglophone.
“How do we order coffee again?” she asked, finally finding what she wanted in the glovebox.
“Dos tallets, si us plau,” I said as she bit into the large xoriço we’d bought before heading off. We’d grabbed the sausage and a large, strong goat’s cheese from a market before picking up the car in Barcelona and had been taking chunks out of them from time to time along the way. By the time we returned the car it was going to be very stinky.
Not that we cared too much. We had actually reserved a small, cheap 3-door to get us out of town but we got traded up, which was a nice result after arriving at the car hire office to find a hot, grumpy queue spilling out onto the pavement. A tall Australian in front of us was talking into his mobile phone, “typical Spanish fuckup.”
This wasn’t quite fair: progress had been blocked for some time, and would continue for the next hour, by three idiots camped on the front counter. The first was a dense, leathery German girl loudly complaining that they had lost her reservation, despite paying in advance. Funnily enough, she didn’t have a receipt or booking number to show them, either, and the staff were too polite to call shenannigans and throw her out (hint for readers: try hiring a car and see if they’ll take your money up front).
The second was a hapless Frenchman who had managed to prang his VW while trying to get out of the car park. The third was an insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) in a denim jacket that had fallen into a Bedazzler
who spent a solid 45 minutes complaining about the car she’d ordered, the slightly better car she actually got, the nib of the biro with which she had to fill out the paperwork, the pot plants in the car hire office, her shrivelled-up husk of a husband slouched lifelessly next to her, homogenised milk, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over.
When my companion reached the counter (sorry! as a non-driver I had to leave all the dirty work up to her) the staff were so relieved to have a customer with real, tangible documentary evidence of a reservation and a valid driver’s license that they immediately traded her up to a better auto, then invited us to cross a nearby eight-lane highway to the car park…
…where the exact same process was repeated as we waited to collect the car. The Frenchman was gingerly backing out his newly-distressed VW – almost ramming a concrete pillar in the process – despite his girlfriend assisting him by dancing in circles around the car and flapping her arms.
Meanwhile, the insane menopausal 4’0″ Spanish woman (FORESHADOWING!) was pacing back and forth, sequins dimly flashing in the subdued light, haranguing the attendant about the colour of the car, the fuel tank lid being on the wrong side, wrong shape of steering wheel, and how the country in general had gone to hell in a handbasket since Franco died and the hippies took over, before finally shoving the dusty remains of what used to be the man she married into the driver’s seat while she settled into the back seat and warmed up to nag him all the way to Thessaloniki.
Just as we were figuring out how to start our shiny new car (hint: big round button labelled START) the dense, leathery German girl rocked up and unsuccessfully tried to push her way to the front of the queue. They people ahead of her were sympathetic but unable to oblige.
“I’ve been stuck back there for two and a half hours,” she whinged.
“Good,” they said.
Sorry about getting a bit distracted there. I had intended to describe my holiday as succinctly as possible
, but no matter. Here’s a photo of the Cerdanya.