Archive for December, 2010

Culcha Vulcha

December 8, 2010


I’m a bit slow off the mark here, but a friend has just pointed out to me a meeting of world-shattering importance that took place in Nairobi, on 19th November. So world-shattering was it that not that many people know about it, and when I tell you what it was you’ll understand why even less care.

UNESCO’S Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage met to discuss their Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Note the plural, please, because there are two of them. The longer version, the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, which, according to their long-winded publicity, is a list of cultural ‘practices and expressions [that] help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.’ They also have a shorter one, the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding, in other words, all the weird and wonderful that we better set about saving pretty sharpish.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’ll all for saving a bit of ‘culcha’, but I’m always a bit unsure about how it’s chosen and who should choose it. For example, I can go along with Chinese calligraphy, but I’m hovering on the fence about Croatian gingerbread. As delightful as it surely is with a good cup of tea, I’m not sure it would be high on my list of ‘must see’s’ on a Croatian hol. As far as Armenian cross-stones art, the symbolism and craftsmanship of the Khachkars, or the Places of Memory and Living Traditions of the Otomí-Chichimecas people of Tolimán, well, there you’ve got me.

Despite the Spanish tourist authorities and every two-bit local council banging on for years about how important their local fiesta is, Spain hasn’t fared too well since the list began in 2003 (only then it went under the moniker of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity…sort of roles off the tongue, doesn’t it). Those Mandarins of Cultural Selectivity only included four Spanish things worth bothering about, as compared to nine from Croatia and a hefty twenty-seven from China. But this year the country doubled its foothold in the ‘culchral heritage’ stakes to eight, although to be fair, they had to share one of them with Italy, Greece and Morocco, and it’s taken them four years to get it accepted.

To quote from the application to make the Mediterranean Diet part of the Represtenative List etc. etc.

the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita,or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming.

And you thought it was all about a nice crispy salad and good olive oil, didn’t you.

I can go along with the so-called ‘Mediterranean Diet’ being pretty good for you, but it’s a bit too intangible for me to consider it culture. But there again, I’d never have voted for the gingerbread, either, so what do I know?

When the comedian Paul Merton visited Spain as part of a television series about the weird and wonderful around Europe, he took part in a ‘castell’. This is a little bit of Spanish ‘culture’, fortunately kept almost exclusively to the north of the country, where crowds of people climb on each others shoulders up to eight levels high so that some tiny tot in a crash helmet can scamper up the lot of them, throw his arms up in the air – probably more in terror than in exultation – and scamper back down again. What has this nonsense got to do with culture? A crowd of blokes and a few girls swarming all over each other in bright blouses and tight pants just to make what’s basically a very big upright pile of human bodies. No benefit to society as far as I can see. It was probably invented a couple of hundred years ago when a few pals stood on each others shoulders to see what was going on in the neighbours garden and, not having much else to do in their one-horse village, did it again the next year and so created a ‘tradition’. Merton couldn’t see a lot in it and, frankly, I’m on his side.

But the biggy as far as I’m concerned, is flamenco. Somehow, after having failed in 2005, the southern-Spanish caterwauling has finally been accepted. Why? It’s not even of Spanish origin, and it’s certainly not an original part of gypsy culture, although both the Spanish and the gypsies would like you to think so. It originates from India, but sensibly they’ve kept quiet about it.

Personally, I’ve never understood the appeal of a lot of heel-bashing, arm-thrashing and semi-harmonic screeching, just as I’ve never got the hang of chaps in cod pieces and tights prancing around on their toes – ballet dancing, I think it’s called.

My ambivalence to the ‘intangible cultural art form of flamenco’ turned into outright dislike when I lived in Jerez de la Frontera for a few months. The town is said to be the cradle of flamenco, and as far as I’m concerned, the baby that was rocked in it could have been strangled at birth.

It was bad enough to hear the racket-posing-as -music coming out of the window of every other passing car, but I lived above the main pedestrian street, which was lined with cafes and tapas bars. At all hours of the day, itinerant cantantes, ie. drunks who thought they’d belt out a few bars of a bolero to try and get enough for the next glass of fino, would woo the crowds sitting at the tables below my window. It was pretty rough for those taking a quiet coffee, who probably only wanted a bit of a sit down, and most of them kept their hands in their pockets, hoping the crooner would move on swiftly. But they didn’t tarry over their coffees that long either, and the drunk would simply do his round and turn up again at the caff sooner or later, knowing that his audience had changed and this time he might just strike lucky. Fine and dandy for that lot, but I kept getting the same scratched and drunken record played time after time. And it wasn’t a lot of fun.

Each morning at 6.45 I’d take my breakfast of café con leche and tostada in the same café. If Juan, the owner, was working all was peace and quiet. I’ve never seen him without a smile on his face or a welcome for everyone (although I had to train him to know that English toast is brown, and not just the warm white bread the Spanish seem to think it is), but if his son Miguel had got the early shift, as soon as I opened the door I could hear the scriking and scrawking of some old battleaxe pouring out her heart’s pains at full volume to the rhythm of miss-timed hand slaps. (It occurred to me once, that, like country music, flamenco is always obsessed with sadness and melancholy. There’s not a lot of laughs in the lyrics.) The moment I heard the racket I’d do an about turn and wander off elsewhere. It was definitely not the way I wanted to start my day.

I’m sure there’s plenty of things that could be considered as culture that go beyond blokes climbing on each others shoulders, or chaps in high-heeled boots and tight black pants throwing their head around, spinning sweat off in every direction (how come the women never seem to do that), but maybe I’m just a common oik and haven’t fully accepted it yet. Frankly, I’d rather go for the Croatian gingerbread.

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web sites, , and Spain Uncovered.


Picasso, baby – you light my fire.

December 3, 2010


I was chatting with my friend Aurelia a couple of days ago about the electrician who has recently come forward with a collection of over 200 paintings by Pablo Picasso, valued at around $80million, which he said the painter gave him while he was installing security systems in various houses in the three years before Picasso died 1973. It comes as no surprise that there are threats of theft and fraud being bandied about, and it will probably be years before it all gets sorted out.

Picasso was known to give some of his images away – the museum of Eugenio Arias, Picasso’s barber, in Buitrago del Lozoya is a case in point. But Aurelia told me a story that tickled me pink.

The artist was known for his keen interest in bulls and the bullfight, and one of his friends during the 1950s was Luis Miguel Dominguin, arguably to top torero in Spain at the time. Dominguin’s farm, La Paz, near Saelices in Cuenca Province, was home-away-from-home for some of the most famous aficionados of the bullfight at the time, such as Hemingway and Orson Wells, and he was known for his flings with cinematic beauties, Lauren Bacall, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner amongst others.

During his stays at the farm Picasso would wander the small villages and workshops, making rough sketches of agricultural workers, local artisans and the like, sometimes using the images in his finished works.

About fifteen years ago Aurelia, who was born in the small village of Saelices and still has family living there, was chatting with her grandmother, Cesaría, when the image of Picasso suddenly appeared on the TV screen. ‘That’s Don Pablo,’ she said excitedly. “I haven’t thought of him for years.” A bit taken aback that her grandma should even think of Picasso in the first place, Aurelia asked how she knew his name.

During the 50s the family had a small factory making the curved roof tiles that are commonplace on Spanish houses, and Cesaría’s father used to do the rounds of the local towns pulling a cart and selling his wares. Picasso was interested in ceramics and how the local artisans used the mud, and quite often would turn up at the factory – and when we say factory, it was more like a shed in the back yard – and watch what was going on. He was an inveterate sketcher and was always drawing on something, whether it was a drawing block or the side of a bit of newspaper. Often he’d get so carried away he’d simply tear the sketch off, chuck it aside, and begin another study. Cesaría would pick them up when he left and put them in a wooden box.

It was enough to know that her gran had been on chatting terms with Picasso, but to know that somewhere there might just be a collection of undiscovered sketches tucked away nearby had Aurelia’s pulse racing.

“And what did you do with the box?” she asked nervously.

“It’s probably still lying around somewhere,” said gran.

“And the drawings?”

“Oh, that was great. It was really good paper, and that was difficult to get hold of then, so we used to use a couple of drawings each day to light the kiln. It burned really well.”

I’ve never known Aurelia stuck for words, but you can bet your bottom dollar she was then!

If you would like to know more about Spain, visit my web sites, , and Spain Uncovered.