Archive for March, 2011

Fall of the House of Franco

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 28, 2011 by cockroach1

Shafts of Friday evening sun spear us through the windscreen of my friend’s sportscar, stuck in the middle of the herd of metal beasts, crawling and jostling their way out of Madrid. She has invited me for the night to stay with her family in Galapagar, a little town in the mountains that circle the city. We stop on a motorway bridge, hemmed in by traffic, and as the engine thrums, I notice something.

‘Hey, isn’t that Franco’s old weekend house?’

It perches atop a hill to our right, a little crown on a perfectly round pate. I recognise it now, other friends had pointed it out to me a few weeks previously on the way to Torrelodones, to another family visit.

‘Is it?’ My friend strumms her fingers on the steering wheel and peers across me, squinting into the sun.

‘The one they tried to turn into a hotel, or sell, or something?’

‘- And they weren’t allowed to, because it’s Patrimonio Nacional.’ (A heritage site). ‘My mates told me they tried to go up there and visit it in their car a while back. Look at it, stuck right on top of the hill, you’d think it was easy enough to get to. But they said once you started driving up there it’s all overgrown with trees and stuff, all twisty and turny, lots of fake turnings and dead ends, like it’s designed to stop you getting to the house. Probably for privacy, or more like security. They never made it up there in the end, they said they gave up, going round and round in the woods. And they said it was really creepy. Then when they went back another time, it was all blocked off anyway and you couldn’t even drive anywhere near it.’

The car nudges forward no more than an inch, growling at the glittering bodies that surround us.

‘Then they stopped at a turning, this second time they were looking for it, and they asked some local for directions, yeah, I know, it sounds like the beginning to some really bad Horror story, and this local guy started talking to them about the house. Apparently, after Franco died there were squatters in there, in the eighties, and they built fires in the main hall, and ruined all the ceilings, smoke-damaged the lot. And there was an entire church organ, ‘stolen,’ and all the fittings from a church in Valencia, and brought up here and installed in his house. That was ripped out after he died and returned to the original church.’

The house broods on top of the hill, overseeing the wide open hills all around us.

‘It looks like the Adams Family house. Gives me the creeps. Nice scenery though…’

‘I prefer that scenery,’ observes my friend.

A young man strides past the car on the motorway bridge. He is dressed in tracksuit bottoms, a tight t-shirt, and his hair is messed up, as though he has been playing tennis, or swimming maybe. He cuts in front of the hilltop house, going who knows where, his arm curved powerfully to grip the sports bag slung over his shoulder. He is handsome, and slightly sweaty. This image stays in my mind for the rest of the drive to Galapagar. It sums up so perfectly what Modern Madrid can be: the hot yellow of the late sun, the glitter and choke of traffic, the ghost of the toppled dictator hovering in the background like some Hammer House joke, personified by this sinister-looking, isolated mansion reduced to a shell, its insides gutted, rotten and laid low by squatter-hippies, and here in the foreground- beautiful, bristling, masculine bravado in a tracksuit, a glimpse of fading machismo, passing quickly, just out of reach.


And I just can’t get it up

Posted in Uncategorized on March 17, 2011 by cockroach1

I found out a few interesting facts about dictators this week. It’s amazing what strange snippets of information, opinion and observation come up in English classes. There has been much discussion of the Japanese tragedy, of course, and the Libyan crisis, but my trivia-dar was activated when a student started to expound on his theory about the three types of dictator.

Apparently there is the ‘World Domination’ Dictator, like Hitler. Then there’s the ‘mad as a box of frogs’ dictator, like Ghadafi.

‘I mean, you just have to look at him,’ he said. ‘Mubarak didn’t look mad, just greedy. Like a thief.’


‘Shifty? That’s a good word, I like it, yes, shifty eyes. He looked dishonest, not crazy. But I mean, come on, all you have to do is look at Ghadafi’s face to see he’s a nutter.’

Then there’s the third type, the dictator who seizes and maintains power allegedly because he wants to help his country in some way, but probably has some pretty funny ideas about how to go about it. Like Franco.

This, as a theory, works for me; I can live with it. In fact it would be an interesting discussion to try and sort them all into their respective categories and personality types – Stalin Number 1? Idi Amin clearly a number 2, Mao- borderline number 2-3? And Castro for example? A parlour game that could provide hours of fun for all the family. This is not, however, the observation that really fired up my imagination: that came later in the week from another student. Being fascinated by this type of ridiculous little man, laughable yet lethal at the same time, I have always collected scraps of personal information and bizarre anecdotes about figures like Franco. For example, I know that when he was on his deathbed he ordered the mummified hand of St Theresa of Avila to be delivered to his bedside so that he could clutch it in moments of anguish. But now I discover there is a theory that he was impotent and hated sex. Oh yes, that explains a lot – like, for example, why he ordered those saucy 1950’s bikini ads to be blocked out bodily, as though the models were wearing laminated burkhas. Apparently he also found his wife physically repulsive (fair enough, she does look like a bit of a frosty old stick if you see photos of her) and they only had one daughter, and the theory extends to the supposition that she wasn’t even his.

How very interesting. It seems that there’s always something odd and dysfunctional about these dictatorial men who inflict their world-view on everyone else (normally a perverse and prohibitive world-view as well). Look at Ghadafi and his coterie of Amazonian virgin bodyguards. We could debate at length which category he falls into, but I’m not even going to start discussing Berlusconi’s bunga-bunga parties with underage girls. My old history lecturer once shared his theory that Nazism had a sexual root and was based around extreme sadism. This rings true when you look at the uniforms – the other interesting fact I discovered this week (while researching Russell Brand, coincidentally, listening to one of his radio clips) is that Hugo Boss designed the Nazi uniforms. Those shiny boots? Such extreme power and cruelty in impeccably creased tailoring with glittering buttons? I think he may have a point. However morally and politically hideous they were, the uniforms were slick. If Hitler was around today he could always, of course, have commissioned Galiano, him being such a fan and all.


Carnival of Blood and some Very Angry Nuns

Posted in Uncategorized on March 12, 2011 by cockroach1

‘So I was dancing away like a nutter, you know, in the middle of it all, and I feel this shove, this guy, he- pushes me, and I turn round and it’s some guy without his clothes on, all bloody, round the mouth, like someone had smacked him in the mouth or something,’ said the girl who looked like a broken fairy. ‘And then we’ve got these mates, right, and they sell stuff on a stall, they have their own stall in like, the Rastro there, and they sell clothes and stuff. Well, my mate, he put his hand into this bucket of second hand clothing and pulled it all out, all these second hand fancy dress things, and it was all covered in blood!’

‘Jesus.’ Muttered the Ponce, turning his dishevelled head to her. ‘I thought it was supposed to be all friendly and nice.’

‘Oh, yeah, absolutely, I mean, it’s the best in the world, you know.’ She shook her head vigorously, bangs falling across her angular face on one side, the other side exposed, half-shaven along the delicate incline of her scalp. She was pretty, she had triangular features, alert eyes, like a bird’s face, that in other times, under other circumstances, could have been that of a b-movie actress.

‘Well, that’s Canarias for you,’ she shrugged and brought the joint to her lips, talking through it like a seamstress with a mouthful of pins. ‘In Brazil they do nothing but make love all Carnival, it’s when the majority of Brazilians ore conceived, they’re at it like mad. Here we beat the shit out of each other. There was this other day, right? Must have been Tuesday…? Near the end anyway, we’d been out for about two days with these massive Polish guys, wow, they were like our bodyguards, they kept an eye on us, and we all had a right laugh, anyway, I was dancing like this, you should have seen me, it was tops, man, it was brilliant, I was like this-‘ She leapt from her seat, a flash of bright stripey tights and leg-warmers, her short ra-ra skirt fanning out in layers of cotton, nylon, and stiff denim, and she bobbed around with her arms flailing for a second, grinning like a puppet for our benefit. She had little, narrow-wristed arms like wooden pegs, and her t-shirt pulled tight across the curved belly of an almost-child. Then she plumped herself back down on the sofa beside the Ponce, his slumped body, which was showing little signs of life. Beside this blur of energy he was like a withered balloon.

‘Then we turned this corner, and I swear to God, we found these four guys, four guys, right? Half of their clothes missing, one of them was just in his pants, I think, and all of them covered in blood, round the head, all round here.’ She waved a hand around her jaw vaguely.

‘Yeah. It was horrible. I was off my head as well. You don’t want to see that, do you? When you’re off your head like that.’

‘Happy Carnival. So what happened, what was that all about?’

‘The police, I reckon, someone said it was the pigs. Tried to break up a fight or something, some bloke was trying to kick the crap out of some other bloke, at some afters, and it got a bit out of hand and the pigs all piled in and… it just sort of kicked off. Bit of a shame, really, we were having a really good time.’

‘Did you hear about those nuns, then, the other day?’ said the boy with the slightly crooked face and Roman nose, who always wore his trousers directly under his buttocks, so from the side they looked like a cloth-wrapped peach. He was handsome and beefy, gentle-natured. He had asked me for my Facebook profile the night of my birthday party, which had made me smile.

‘Er… nuns?’

‘Yeah, the ones that got robbed.’

‘What are you talking about? Where? Who robbed a load of nuns?’

‘A million and a half,’ he nodded sagely, his mouth curling in on itself. ‘Can you believe it? A million and a half sodding euros!’

‘Yeah, and that’s what gets me-‘ added his friend, the shorter kid with the eighties floppy hairdo.’ Where do a load of nuns get that sort of money?’

‘Yeah! And what are they doing keeping it in the convent?’

‘They got robbed in the convent?’


‘Who? Did they, like …. break in?’

He shrugged. Details were to be glossed over; they were not permitted to interfere with the telling of the story. Perhaps they were unknown to anyone but the Sisters.

‘Some robbers, I suppose. They got into the convent and they took a million and a half. The nuns reckon they earned that from doing paintings. Paintings!’ he shook his head, almost with admiration. ‘They paint virgins or something, the little old ladies can’t get enough of the stuff.’

‘Yeah. They must have been dealing drugs to get that kind of money. They had plastic bags full of the stuff!’

‘Oh, spare me. Going overtime with the cakes and pastries…. ’

‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.’

‘He does indeed, he does indeed.‘

From 08 de marzo de 2011


$2 Million stolen from Spanish convent

Zaragoza, Spain, Mar 8 (EFE).- Police are investigating the suspected robbery of 1.5 million euros ($2 million) from the Santa Lucia convent in northern Spain, officials sources told Efe Tuesday.

The Cistercian community kept the funds in cash at the convent, officials said, adding that the investigation began last week after nuns reported the missing money on Feb. 28, most of it in 500-euro notes.

Police and a district court in Zaragoza, which is leading the investigation, are not only delving into the supposed theft but also into the origin of the money, which, the nuns told the officers, they kept in plastic bags in a closet, the daily El Periodico de Aragon said Tuesday.

In this religious community, known for its dedication, among other occupations, to the restoration of old books and parchments, lives Isabel Guerra, “the painter nun,” whose works are in great demand and command high prices, the newspaper said.

El Sonido de la Fritanga

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on March 6, 2011 by cockroach1

‘El Sonido de la Fritanga’ which sounds like the title of a salsa song, actually means ‘The sound of shit frying’. This is the sound of the Incredible Ponce’s apartment block. Every flat in Madrid has its own sounds; in a city where we live piled on top of, underneath, next door to, and above each other, it’s impossible not to be surrounded by sound. The Ponce’s house sounds like this: ‘SSShhhhhhhhzzzzzz……..’ Every single time I go round for a coffee or to watch a late night film, or to have dinner, at some point not that far after arrival, whether that is at five in the afternoon or two in the morning, I hear someone lovingly lowering a chip pan into hot fat.

The flat I shared with the Huertas Pirate sounded of old ladies cackling outside our street-level bedroom windows, or calling to each other from balcony to balcony like macaques across the jungle. In the summer you could hear the blare of gameshows or gunfights from the television set dragged out onto the balcony by the opposite neighbour, who used to sit splayed in a deck chair with a cool beer watching it all night. The flat I shared with the Tourtoise sounded of children playing in the communal garden area between the buildings and the street.

My current home has few sounds, none of them particularly intrusive. There is the gushing of water through communal piping, my neighbours’ sewerage trickling down past me all day every time someone flushes, which I choose to hear as the energetic tinkling of a water feature. Then there are the Four Horse-dogs of the Apocalypse, Carmen’s gremlins, who she brings down for a walk three or four times a day.  As soon as the front door to their small flat is unlocked they are unleashed onto the upstairs balcony and narrow stairway, and there is furious woofing and yapping, the clicking of frantic little claws, as paws trip and scramble to get down the stairway faster than the others, a spiral of barking and leaping all the way to the corrala outside my front door where they burst into the open space yapping freely, then echoing through the entranceway and out into the street. This has become, far from an irritation, as I imagined it would when I first heard it after moving in, an exuberant and relentlessly optimistic sound for me.

The final sound to register on a regular basis is the little caged bird which Carmen recently bought to keep her and the dogs company. And the rest of the corrala, by association. I haven’t seen the poor little thing yet, but can hear it.

‘See?’ Carmen whispers, smiling, cocking her head to one side, as she poises with the broom in her hand in the patio. ‘She’s calling to me, listen-‘ and she whistles, pursing her tattooed lips together to make a clear note. The bird pauses, then replies with a long, low, drawn-out warbling.

‘Isn’t that a lovely sound?’ asks Carmen.

‘Yes, it is.’ I have always loved the sound of birds singing. But from the branches of trees, not from inside cages. I don’t like to tell her it is the sound of its distress, it is singing its heart out in distress because it wants its cage door to be opened, and to be let free.

In the same way I choose to hear the trickling of a fountain in an Andaluz patio instead of toilet effluent running down the pipes, the Ponce chooses to hear something else in the hiss and ssssshhhhhhhhh of the constant fat frying.

‘If you close your eyes,’ he assures me, handing me a joint, ‘and you really listen, you can hear the sound of the sea rushing over pebbles….. in….. and then out again, back to sea……. Isn’t that great? Listen……’