Archive for April, 2011

It’s nothing, it’s just the countryside…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 27, 2011 by cockroach1

When I lived in Ibiza there was an American gay man, in his fifties, who, when he used to come on holiday,  would visit the restaurant where I worked, usually on his first night after arrival. Every time he came in for a drink, on that first night, he would cry, weeping silently into his beer as he stood there at the bar in his tight shorts, the hair on his head cropped close, his t-shirt sprayed across his broad chest.

‘I’m ok,’ he would assure us, the tears running down his face, ‘I’m just so…. so happy to be here again. It’s nothing, it’s just the city, the stress of the city….’

Once he had cried away the stress of the city he was fine, and free to enjoy the rest of his holiday. On arrival in Soria last week on my long-awaited Easter holiday, I was concerned that I may start doing the same, bursting into babyish tears when faced with the desired and longed-for countryside. It has seemed like a personal insult to all of us workers that Easter, due to a pagan system of calculation, has come right at the end of April this year, condemning us to almost four months of hard work without a single bank holiday or saint’s day. I mean, why come and live in Spain in that case? Might as well get a job in the UK!

On my visits to the pueblo I am always struck initially by sensory overload: the smells of cut grass, clean air, flowers, woodsmoke, the brackish smell of the nearby river, the brown embrace of fresh manure on the allotments, the scent of mud and crushed leaves. Instead of the growl and honk of traffic, the underground scream of the metro and blaring radios, grating voices, yowling sirens, tinny mobile tones and pulsating Reggaeton, I hear hooting cuckoos, tweeting finches, the sharp cry of crows, and the tinkling of mountain water. Above our heads, in the place of the city’s circling helicopters there are revolving vultures, silent and watchful, and at evening the flitter of bats flying in and out of the local church belfry, as if fulfilling the cliché purely to make us happy.

After Angel has collected us from Soria station and driven us over the hills, past the churning white wind farms, the solitary plaster dinosaur on the hillside, and the striped snow-poles by the side of the road, we are taken to their new home in another village, and treated to a lengthy lunch. The house is the epitome of shabby chic- crooked beams, spiders’ webs festooning the eaves like christmas decorations, an ancient iron stove in the kitchen, rickety furniture, faded lace curtains at the windows, and dusty stone floors. Downstairs in the laundry room one of the dogs (Grace’s daughter) has given birth to puppies, who are gently pulled out of their wooden den to be held, shut-eyed and wriggling, whimpering, their tiny paws clenching and unclenching, while mother looks on with suspicion and sagging tits. The other dog, a puppy who had been brought into the bar last year supposedly to die, after having somehow ingested forty pebbles, and was nursed back to life by Pili, who fed it pureed vegetables, olive oil and porridge until it expelled the stones, has now grown into a forty-five kilo hound who leaps up playfully and grasps your forearm in her massive jaws, almost knocking you to the ground. Aside from the inventive and entirely delicious food, some of it vegetarian in honour of my mother, there is a mysterious pot bubbling on the stove that Pili stirs occasionally.

‘Wild boar tongue,’ she informs us, and the family laugh heartily at my Mum’s horrified exrpesssion. Apparently the hound has become an efficient hunter, and had killed this boar in the mountains a few days ago. Making himself a sandwich with some mottled luncheon meat, Angel Jnr informs us that he is tucking into ‘pressed wild boar head.’ Like Italians, we stuff ourselves implausibly full with antipasti, sweet roasted red peppers dripping with olive oil, crisply fried langoustines wrapped in threads of crunchy potato, anchovies smothered in fresh garlic, and smooth white goat’s cheese.

The bar is no more: after a year of hard work, long days when only one or two customers would come in, busy holiday seasons but little else, they proposed paying less on the lease and opening only at weekends, but like most new-fangled concepts in the village, this was turned down by the owner, so they decided to leave hostelry and concentrate on the important business of living well and working less. Consequently, the latest plan is to cultivate organic vegetables to sell to friends and acqaintances in Madrid, with the eventual aim of also buying some livestock, chickens and sheep, maybe even a cow, so they can sell eggs, milk, chickens, and make cheese.

‘Bloody Hell, it really is Tom and Barbara.’ I tell them, and resolve to search Amazon for ‘The Good Life,’ though I can’t imagine it dubbed into Spanish.

The afternoon is spent on a roundabout trip to show us the new allotment, involving several rambling detours, including helping a visiting friend move house. A sofa, fridge-freezer, boxes of tools, kitchen appliances and standard lamps are passed from the back of a van into the arms of willing teenagers, stray friends, busy-looking men and Pili. My mother and I are gently shifted to one side, and occasionally handed a random curtain pole to take inside while the boys struggle past, laden down with the mens’ work. It is flattering and somehow endearing to be treated with kid gloves like this, as visiting tourists or perhaps dainty British ladies. The one moving house is a tall and beautiful man with delicate wrists, floppy hair, and a handsome, neanderthall face made more attractive by a brutal scar cutting across his thick lips and chin. Unfortunately he has a wife is in Madrid just about to give birth.

After the move there is an encounter with the village alcoholic.

‘Martini time, look at that.’ Angel nudges me in the ribs as we pass an old man in a deck chair clutching a cubata. He sits at the terrace to the ‘albergue’, flanked by a pot-bellied Vietnamese pig, a donkey, a friendly black and white sheepdog, and a small bay pony. The man sees me stroking the pony and staggers to his feet, three sheets to the wind. He walks sideways to talk to me, mumbling, and I don’t understand a thing he says.

‘Restraining order out on him, his wife, he used to beat her up, poor cow. The order includes the instruction not to drink.’ Pili whispers as we pass. ‘He hasn’t had a drink for a year. The albergue is the only place in the village that will serve him any booze. She won’t be happy about that.’

The allotment is a bucolic slice of heaven on earth. Overlooking it on one side is the old castle, in front the ridged face of the mountains, on the other side the romanesque remains of the old church on the hilside. Angel Jnr starts to till with the rotivator, furrowing dusty, sand-coloured topsoil into a display of rich, clay-brown earth. Pili starts to dig an irrigation channel from the well at the top of the field, Angel carries beams over to the tumble-down shed at the far corner, which he is to repair and build a roof for. Juan Carlos trundles the wheelbarrow backwards and forwards with baby plants, strawberries, carrots, aubergines, and seed potatoes. The sides of the plot are stacked with chopped trees and bundles of firewood, plants and branches they have cleared already from the wild patch of land. The sun glares at their bent backs, and the vultures circle silently. It all seems so perfect. But within very little time the shell of the rotivator cracks and breaks. Stormclouds gather overhead; the forecast was for heavy rains and storms.

‘We have to finish this before it breaks.’ Pili tells us, sweating into her overalls. Before the sky cracks and weeps. It’s nothing, it’s fine, it’s just the countryside, the countryside….


Big, fat, gypsy anecdotes (1)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2011 by cockroach1

Under a sky the colour of dirty milk, and against the backdrop of the fascistic grey arch of Puerta de Toledo, the gypsy woman stood in the drizzle, delivering her sales pitch to anyone who would listen, while she described her wares eloquently with her hands.

‘These umbrellas are well-made…… they have a double lining…….. they come in four different colours…’

There was something about the slick enthusiasm that gave you the impression there would be a musical number coming any minute now: ‘Why, these umbrellas are automatic …….. they’re sistematic….. they’re hyyyyyyyyydromatic…….. why, they’re greased lightening!’

I paused to look at her, turning down with an apologetic shake of my head the offer of a greased lightening umbrella. I had already bought one from an asian man at the metro exit, a purchase which would probably disintegrate into a deformed metal spider wearing a macintosh within three days. How reality always falls short of the promise, I thought. There was nothing of the flashing-eyed Carmen about this woman. Poverty just isn’t picturesque; there was no pouting of lips and buxom swagger here, only a shark-like gaze, and hands like a bricklayer’s.

I had heard about the controversial UK show and seeing the woman jogged my memory: I’d been meaning to take a look for some time, urged by titillated and morbidly curious friends from back home. They were right. I found myself guiltily hooked. Those dresses! The dichotomy of the underage girls whose principal aspiration is to marry at sixteen, dressed like hookers, dancing like lap-dancers, while behaving like virgins. The Grabbings… Those dresses… The weird, chintzy caravans. Those dresses!…. I decided it was time to air the show in a business class of women, where the subject of gypsy culture had come up previously in conversation.

‘But they’re nothing like Spanish gitanos!’ they exclaimed as they watched, fascinated.

‘And these girls are so attractive…..’

‘Well, they are only 16, most of them.’

‘But here, gitano girls are really pretty as children, but only till they get to about 11 or 12. Then… Oh, look at the little kids running around, they’re so clean and healthy-looking. ‘

‘That’s never their house! Is that where they live? Really?’

‘And that’s their caravan? It’s immaculate.’

One of the quieter women tore her eyes away from the screen for a second to comment wrily,

‘Me? I’m just taking notes for my daughter’s wedding, for when she’s old enough….’

‘We had a documentary on tv here, about a big Spanish gypsy wedding, but that was out in the countryside somewhere, they were cooking food on open fires, all sitting on the floor, children running around all muddy and snotty-nosed. People weren’t dressed up like that, they didn’t spend anything like this amount of money, they didn’t have it to spend. It was like a shanty-town, really depressing.’

I taught for an academic year at a government-backed charity that tackles issues in the Roma population like healthcare, education, protection of gypsy culture and integration. I taught the staff, who were extremely motivated and charming: lefty social-worker types, mostly in their thirties. One member of the class was Roma himself: Candido, a thoughtful, bryl-creamed bear of a man with complex facial hair, traced as carefully as Nasca lines, who wore a heavy gold bracelet and signet ring. He was in charge of educational programmes and youth projects. A moment in class that made me smile was while discussing national and regional identity, and I was asking students, who, like most people in Madrid, originated from elsewhere, whether they identified first as Europeans, Spaniards, Madrilenos, or whether their loyalty and identity came from their pueblo. He stopped and thought about it carefully when it came to his turn.

‘My barrio,’ he proclaimed, flexing his jaw proudly, ‘My neighbourhood, yes.’ prompting snorts of laughter from his companions, then friendly digs, like,

‘Oh yeah, Candido’s from the ‘Hood, Man, you can take the boy out of the ‘Hood but you can’t take the ‘Hood out of the boy…’ He responded good-naturedly, with a grin and a shrug.

The other thing I remember about teaching there was that the students were always late in the morning: it was one of those faintly obscene 8 o’ clock starts so I couldn’t blame them. I was always the first to arrive, and would get the key to the classroom from the office, open up, turn on the heating, pull up the blinds etc, and hang around waiting for them. Next door there were training courses running at the same time for groups of young gypsy men dressed uniformly in the Spanish manual workers’ bright blue overalls. The tutor and I used to greet each other every morning with a complicit nod and a yawn, as we both arrived, bleary-eyed. His students were always waiting outside the front entrance smoking and chatting, in a dialect I couldn’t understand. Candido had explained to me it was difficult to get young Roma men into employment as they had a culture of working for themselves. But this scheme appeared to be working. The boys had a particular way of lounging indolently and easily at the entrance, smoking with their cigarettes cupped, inverse, in the palms of their hands between their thumb and forefinger, laughing and slapping each other on the back, that reminded me of arab males. They were the most handsome, sultry young men I had ever seen, and I’ve seen a few. Of course, there was no question of talking to them or interacting with them. They were always rowdy and lively in class: their guffaws and the frequent groans off shifted desks and chairs could be heard through the wall from the classroom next door. One day when I came to set up our classroom it was stacked with wooden boxes, the kind you may have seen flamenco musicians sitting astride and using with the flat of their palms as percussion. Apparently, not only were training courses available to help Roma people into work, but also literacy classes, healthcare education and cultural courses like flamenco music and singing.

There were some interesting poster campaigns that were displayed around the centre, some of them permanent, others temporary. In the entrance hall was a poster proclaiming ‘When you speak with prejudice you are only mouthing the opinions of others,’ accompanied by the face of a young boy, with a strip ‘torn’ across the poster where his mouth was, and another strip, another mouth superimposed over it. The ‘other’ mouth was from a much older man, with grey stubble, and hard, pinched lips. My favourite posters were a series advising you ‘not to judge many by the example of one.’ The illustrations were clever and visually striking. One showed an idyllic sandy beach with one pebble. ‘The beach is all stony’ moaned the tag-line. Another showed a perfect blue sky with one tiny cloud, and the complaint ‘But the sky is full of clouds!’ In the first classroom we used there were posters of grinning, barefoot children hugging each other on scruffy wasteground. Occasionally we were moved to other classrooms which were clearly normally used for childrens’ classes, and I scratched excruciatingly in chalk on a green ‘black’board, surrounded by hand-made posters in primary colours.

Don’t run for your life!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 17, 2011 by cockroach1

Over the past couple of weeks there have been runners on the streets of Madrid. On the way to the Very Big Bank early in the morning, walking through the centre of town, I saw a woman jogging through the traffic, in professional runners’ gear. There are people huffing and puffing through the Retiro, up and down Gran Via, and just about everywhere you look. A week or so ago there was the Half-Marathon, in its fourth year, an event which not only one of my students participated in, but also a colleague, along with approximately 16,000 other people. It was so over-attended that the starting post was jammed with people, and it took my student 4 minutes and forty seconds before he could even begin running. According to my colleague, who runs regularly in marathons, there was some disregard for race etiquette: for example, you are not supposed to run three or four abreast, but given the Spanish habit of blocking pavements this was no surprise (if there is a family of 6 out strolling, they will inevitably walk in an unbreakable  line along the entire width of the pavement while you scuttle behind, snapping at their heels like an impatient puppy, waiting for a gap in order to break through). Otherwise it was an upbeat and enjoyable event, hosted on a bright, sunny Spring day, the fastest time achieved by Ethiopia’s Reta Kabtamu with a time of 1:03:33. The female winner was Aseffa Aselefelch, also from Ethiopia with a time of 1:13:46. And this was only the start – there is the full marathon coming up on Sunday the 17th.

I won’t be here, I will be visiting the ‘pueblo’ in Soria for a few days with my mother. I am quite pleased not to be here, actually. When you live in a capital, the last thing you need is to come across a major sporting event when you least expect it. I remember one of my students last year, a rather glamorous goth, and Marilyn Manson fan, who was studying to be a make-up artist, telling me about ‘running into’ the event the year before. It is always held on a Sunday afternoon, but like most people, uninterested in these things, she had forgotten it was on, or perhaps not even registered that is was to take place. So, it was with some consternation that she returned to her house near Gran Via early one Sunday morning, from a big Saturday night out, still the worse for wear, and found her ‘walk of shame’ invaded by people all dressed in sports gear and earnestly running. It even caused her to have an on-the-spot ‘Oh God, what am I doing with my life?….’ crisis, until she realised they were marathon runners, rather than the other scenario- that the whole of Madrid had turned sporty, this is just what people do on a Sunday, and she was the last one to know about it.

So the runners in Madrid these past few weeks are in preparation for the main event. Even Madrid Metro television showed cheerful footage this week of runners training for the big day, and gave a few helpful tips on rehydration. However, in other bulletins, they showed apparently contradictory advice, when reporting on the levels of pollution in the city, an issue which is being hotly debated here. Advice that couldn’t be much less clear: ‘Don’t exercise outside when pollution levels are too high.’ Which would be all of the time, then. Madrid is one of the most polluted cities in Europe, with freguent CO2 and NO2 emission levels above the legal EU amount, regular, broken promises from Mayor Gallardon to block traffic from the city centre in order to reduce them (in 2006 he ‘promised’ to do it by 2008, then in 2008 it was put forward another two years, and now he speaks of dealing with this issue ‘in his next term’).  The EU is talking about sanctions for the continual flouting of the rules, and ecologists are furious. Meanwhile, the rest of us slowly choke to death. Two months ago there was a ‘boina’ (beret) of pollution hovering over the city, a blackish cloud squatting over our heads, which could be clearly seen and was photographed in all its revolting glory from high points in the city, or from the Sierra, prompting Sanidad (Health Ministry) to warn people in certain areas of the city not to spend too much time outside, and advising the elderly, very young, or those suffering from respiratory illnesses to stay inside if possible. Under these circumstances, is it really a good idea to run a full marathon through the city centre?

Far be it from me to rain on anyone’s parade, but maybe in this case we ought to learn from the original myth of Marathon. There are various different versions of the legend, but most of them agree that the original Greek runner ran several miles to Marathon to deliver the message about the battle victory, some versions claiming he ran further than others, some claiming he had fought all day and ran in full armour. But most legends of the story agree that upon arriving, he shortly dropped down dead of exhaustion. Perhaps there’s a lesson to be learnt that exercise, after all, can be dangerous?…..

A Grim Fairy Tale about a bear (part 2)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on April 12, 2011 by cockroach1

Very soon Knut the bear cub grew from a cute, fluffy, adorable little thing into a hefty creature with sharp fangs and claws, becoming too unwieldy and dangerous to continue his lucrative public play sessions with Thomas. Having given up a year of his life to tend to Knut, apparently his keeper was finding his new-found fame hard to handle anyway. He’d been receiving almost as much media attention as Knut, even resulting in marriage proposals. Consequently he ‘took a long holiday’ to wean Knut off his presence, or possibly the other way round. He claimed to be ‘burnt out’.

‘This doesn’t mean that I will never play with Knut again,’ he said. ‘I am always there for him. Knut is still a child. He needs me.’

However, a few months later there were rumours that Thomas had rowed with his bosses over concerns about his closeness with the animal, and that they banned him from any further contact. Friends claimed he then became severely depressed. Separation from his ‘stepfather’ was not easy for Knut either. Animal rights campaigners, when arguing that it had been wrong to rescue him, claimed he would ‘die a little’ with every moment he was separated from his keeper, and their prediction appeared to bear some truth. Although Thomas was not allowed to apporach Knut any more, the bear would howl when he caught the scent of the keeper. Shortly afterwards, at the age of 44, Thomas was found dead one day in his apartment. It was rumoured that he had been ill for some time, and a  post mortem revealed, fittingly, a heart attack. Thomas was mourned by many, but poignantly also by Knut, even his grief became public property: he was photographed alone in his enclosure in the rain, staring morosely at a nearby rock.

Meanwhile, Knut continued to grow. At two years old he weighed in at a strapping 200 kilos, an unpredictable adolescent with the need for more space and an emerging foul temper. There was talk of moving him to another zoo where he would have more room, but once again the public spoke, and the placard-bearing children took up position at the zoo gates. It was decided that he would stay where he was. Like most child stars, he started to display signs that he was addicted to public attention, playing up for the crowd, and crying when there were no visitors looking at him. His birthday party was broadcast live on television, attended by several hundred well-wishers from all over the world, and of course, by the international press. As people sang ‘Happy Birthday’, he devoured a birthday sack of vegetables, fruit, fish, and his favourite, croissants. Over time there were worries about his psychological health. One zoologist described him as a ‘psychopath’, and one animal rights activist claimed that animals born into captivity become so dependent on man that they become divorced from nature and turn into ‘hyperactive, disturbed freaks’.

‘Knut is a problem bear who has become addicted to human beings,’ he told the newspapers. This was clearly illustrated when one day the zoo was closed due to ice, and there were no visitors. Because there was no-one looking at him, Knut howled until the zoo staff had to parade past his enclosure until he calmed down.

In general the number of visitors dropped off sharply now he was no longer the cute little baby bear he had been. Flocke began to emerge as the next rising polar star. Indeed, there was a notorious photo of now not-so-cute Knut lunging at a toddler from behind the 6-inch reinforced glass which had been fitted around his enclosure as a health and safety measure, glass panes luckily strong enough to withstand a mortar attack. The expression on his face, especially in his eyes, is disturbing, though it could just be a polar bear’s normal expression. His gaping jaw is elongated, his eyes wild and rolling, and he seems to express a kind of crazed fury. The photo looks like an animal version of Munch’s ‘Scream’.

Knut’s psychological problems didn’t end here. Attempts were made to ‘socialise’ him, and he was placed in a shared compound with Giovanna, a three-year old female bear on loan from another zoo, while her compound was being remodelled. Rumours abounded that they were being groomed to mate. But Knut’s life was always mired with controversy. There were then cries that this must not be allowed, as they shared a biological grandfather, Olaf, and that it would be an incestuous liaison, as they were technically cousins. It was declared by animal rights groups that If they were allowed to breed, the offspring would be prone to genetic abnormalities and liable to illness.

“A long-term cohabitation between Giovanna and Knut is only feasible if Knut is castrated,” they said. On this occasion children did not appear outside the zoo bearing placards, protesting to save his crown jewels. However, he managed to retain them, although Giovanna was removed from his company and sent back to her own zoo.

On another occasion, for a few weeks, he was placed in a compound with three females, an interesting choice: Tosca, the mother who rejected him, and two other bears called Nancy and Katjuscha, in the hopes he might mate with one of them, (even though the possibility of him mating with his own mother seems a clearer case of incest than with his cousin.) But he didn’t seem to enjoy female company, instead cowering fearfully in a corner. Hopes of him forming an attachment or mating were soon dashed, as the female bears appeared to bully him, Katjuscha even hurling herself at his throat viciously in an attempt to maul him, and then tipping him into the water. His strange, unassertive behaviour was dismissed as teething problems by keepers, and the violent maulings were waved away as normal, instantly forgotten, ‘just two minutes in the life of a bear’. They had hoped to raise Knut as a ‘stud’ bear, which would have earnt the zoo even more money, but it appeared he was having none of it. But perhaps the most disturbing thing was Knut’s odd behaviour as he grew older. As many unhappy, caged animals do, he took to pacing repetitively back and forth in his compound, and even developed the pitiful habit of raising his paw to cover his face, imitating people lifting their cameras to take photos of him.

Unsurprisingly, Knut’s life did not have a happy end. At four years old, in the enclosure he shared with several females (supposedly in continuing attempts to get him to mate), and under the gaze of between 600 and 700 horrified spectators, his leg began to spasm, he walked round and round in a circle several times, and then collapsed into the pool, where he lay, inert for some time before the enclosure was screened off from the traumatised onlookers. Post mortem results showed he’d had a brain swelling due to an infection, possibly encephalitis, which caused him to collapse into the pool, and there he drowned. Had he not drowned, the brain swelling would have probably killed him soon anyway. Even his death had become a spectator sport, witnessed by the public. One of the shocked keepers said,

‘He was by himself in his compound, he was in the water, and then he was dead.’

There could be fewer more simple and fitting epitaphs, for it could be argued that Knut was always destined to be alone, and was always dead in the water. He never got to ‘marry’ Flocke, the other little bear who was rescued, though to add a flicker of hope to this sad tale, it’s reported that she was paired off with a bear called Rasputin, and that they got along famously, and are now sharing an enclosure in another zoo. For some reason, despite also becoming a media sensation, with her own range of Steiff bears, her own devoted fans, and despite also being reared by keepers, unlike Knut, she never fell prone to psychological problems, health problems or depression. After his death, there were plans to create a commemorative statue for Knut at the zoo, depicting him in cuter times, as the fluffy bear cub everyone fell in love with, rather than as the troubled, moody adult bear he became. His remains were due to be stuffed and put on display at the local museum, so that even in death, he could provide a regular income for the town. Some people questioned this exploitation even after he had died, but the zoo keeper was pragmatic about it. Profits are profits. RIP Knut, or, as one Spanish newspaper, at the height of his fame, in the best typo ever- a  perfect illustration of the shoddy approach here to spelling foreign names, called him ‘El Pequeño (The Little) Kunt’.

A Grim Fairy Take about a bear (part 1)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 8, 2011 by cockroach1

Once upon a time there were two captive polar bears called Vera and Vilma who lived at the same zoo. Both fell pregnant, and gave birth at round about the same time. Over the preceeding thirty years, births of polar bears in captivity had dropped from around 300 to 90, so the births at the zoo were closely monitored, not only by experts but also by the world’s media. Due to a non-interference policy by keepers, it was uncertain exactly how many cubs Vilma had given birth to, though it was believed to be two, while Vera appeared to have produced just one cub. After a few weeks Vilma’s cubs had not been seen for a while, and she began acting strangely: she seemed nervous, and was scratching at her feed box. There was only one horrible conclusion: that she had devoured them both. Despite the zoo owners’ announcement that the cubs had most likely been ill, and that, as in the wild, she had killed and eaten them, the zoo’s decision not to intervene was considered by many to have been unecessarily callous. Angry visitors to the zoo gathered outside Vilma’s enclosure, and could be heard muttering ‘Rabenmutter’ (Raven Mother/Evil Mother) whenever she came into sight.

The reaction of the media was not surprising: the news spread very quickly- after all, it had a compelling storyline: Maternal cannibalism, cute, photogenic bear cubs, and the tortuous decision to intervene or to let nature take its course. Meanwhile, Vera could be seen emerging from her den for the first time, with her cub, which appeared perfectly healthy. However, within a couple of days of the media furore, she started acting strangely as well: she could be seen carrying the cub around her enclosure and repeatedly dropping it onto the hard rock floor. Fearing the same fate for this cub, a keeper was sent into the enclosure to rescue it for its own safety. It was decreed that she would be raised by hand and fed with a bottle. There was a webpage set up, and a competition to name her, and eventually they settled on the name ‘Flocke’ which means ‘snowflake’. But this story isn’t about Flocke, it’s about her predecessor, another bear cub who had been born not so far away, and under similar circumstances. The media, always keen for a romance, hailed Flocke as the future ‘bride’ of this other polar bear cub, but their liaison was not to be. This is the story of the other bear, Flocke’s intended fiance.

A different zoo had lent a male polar bear, Lars, to another institution, and he mated with Tosca, an ex performing circus bear. The birth took place under the watchful eye of the world’s media. There were two cubs, but unfortunately, Tosca also rejected them, abandoning the two of them, no bigger than guinea-pigs, on a rock in her enclosure. The zoo management decided in this case to rescue them, and they were scooped up by keepers in a sort of fishing net. One of them caught an infection and died soon after, but the other survived.

And thus, the polar bear Knut was born, abandoned by his mother, his brother already dead, his father sent back to his original zoo. Animal Rights Campaigners protested that Mother Nature knows best and she should be allowed to take her course, that he should have been left where he was, whatever the consequences. But most people poo-pooed this idea as unecessarily heartless. After all, he was sooooooo cute and cuddly, how could anyone abandon him? Surely he deserved a chance? In response to calls for him to be left to die naturally, protesters gathered outside the zoo, children held placards proclaiming, ‘Knut must live! We love Knut!’ and who can resist protesting children?

Thomas, the keeper allocated to caring for him, was utterly dedicated to his task, and despite already being a father of three children, had to live, eat and sleep with the baby bear, which was the only way to raise him safely, as he needed constant care. He would clean him every morning, give him his bottle while nursed in his arms, wrestle with him when he was old enough to play, and cuddle him to sleep at night. Sometimes he lulled him to sleep by playing Elvis Presley lullabies on the guitar. When he was a little older, Thomas taught Knut to play football. Twice a day he would play with the tiny, fluffy, white bear cub in his enclosure, watched by throngs of adoring fans.

Knut instantly became a symbol of vulnerability and cuteness. Eevntually he was even adopted as the symbol of global conservation, an emblem of the fight to protect polar bears’ precarious existence on this planet. People not ‘fortunate’ enough to have been able to visit the zoo to see Knut tussling and tottering about, could watch videos of him and his ‘daddy’ on YouTube. In fact, if you watch these videos, you can’t help but be touched by them. The abandoned bear and his keeper/stepfather obviously had a very close bond. Knut, not surprisingly, soon became an international star. There was even talk of ‘Knutmania’. Within a couple of years he was on the cover of Vanity Fair with Leonardo DiCaprio, the photograph shot by none other than celebrity photographer Annie Liebovitz. There was an animated film made about him, several songs released about him, a range of gummy bears named after him, and cuddly toys, manufactured by Steiff, and sold exclusively at the zoo, sold like hot cakes: the first 2,400 vanishing off the shelves within four days. The volume of visits to the zoo where Knut lived increased by 30%; it was said he  made five million euros in revenue for his owners.  As a result, the zoo which had loaned his father, Lars, staked a claim to a percentage of the profits, even staking a claim to Knut himself, and legal battles ensued. Unaware of all the furore, Knut frolicked and gamboled around in his enclosure, watched by his devoted ‘father’ and fans. Sadly, the story didn’t end here, on a high note.

Disconcerting Nether Regions

Posted in Cockroach people of Lavapies with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 3, 2011 by cockroach1

When I was a small child, insatiably curious as ever, whenever I was handed a toy- whether a doll, a plastic elephant, a fluffy teddy bear, an Action Man or a mouse, I had a habit of turning it upside down to give it a quick check-up between the legs. Out of natural curiosity I wanted to ascertain if it was a girl, a boy, or as was usually the case, something other: a neutral creature, or a neutered creature like Barbie with her plastic smile, her streamlined rabbit’s nose ‘down there’, or Action Man with his disappointing featureless mound. At least you could work out which gender they were supposed to be, in their own, coy way. It made little sense to me that other toys had nothing at all, not even a bum. In that case, how did they poo when they needed to? I suppose my fascination with nether regions has continued into adult life.

So it’s no surprise really that I would notice and fixate on two related sights glimpsed in the barrio recently, one of them earlier this evening, the other a couple of weeks ago. Walking down to the plaza from my house one afternoon something propped against one of the trees lining the pavement caught my eye. It was the naked bottom half of a shop dummy. Otherwise intact, it appeared to have been severed at the waist: the  inanimate victim of some conjurer’s trick with saws and boxes gone horribly wrong. It was leaning against the tree, abandoned along with a formica table top and some crushed cardboard boxes. The legs were shapely and there was no moulded hilllock between them; it was a female mannequin, or what remained of her.

The observation might have ended there had I not spotted ‘the legs’ again on my way back up the street a few hours later., and found myself mildly disturbed by the sight. She had been abducted and brought down nearer to the Babylon of Plaza Lavapies, almost onto the corner of it. The displacement suggested a group of lads ‘having a laugh’, a bit of joking around in the street with a bizarre found object. But after whatever high-spirited jinks had taken place, ‘she’ had been thrown onto the floor, cast down in the gutter, and ‘she’ now had a large, round, jagged hole punched open between the legs. As I walked back up my house I tried to work out ‘who’ first of all- who would feel the need to do that to the torso-less bottom half of a mannequin, but more worryingly, why? What for? Why kick a hole in it, and why specifically, there? You may find it laughable that a random sex-crime against a moulded piece of plastic could trouble anybody, but symbolism isn’t symbolism for nothing.

And this evening, on my walk to Atocha, down Calle Argumosa, to get to my private evening class, I spied an eighties throwback- a thing I don’t think you would ever see in the UK, and I’d hoped not to see ever again after the first time, which was in the late eighties. It was while living in El Carmen neighbourhood, just past the bullring, which was a quietly residential area then, the classic backdrop to Almodovar’s ‘What have I done to deserve this?’: towerblocks, the motorway bridge over the M30, dusty parks, lively local bars and old ladies out walking. Now the same sight was following me down the street, surely this shouldn’t be allowed? A dog, crippled by age, or maybe its back limbs crushed or amputated in an accident, walking with its front legs, while its back legs were supported by a low, two-wheeler trolley. Its elderly neighbour dragged it along cheerily on its lead. The wooden spoked wheels looked like they had been cannibalised from a children’s go-kart or buggy. As this decrepit half-animal, half-trolley wheeled and limped past me I asked the same questions as when I had seen this the first time, thirty years ago. Is this an act of supreme devotion on the part of its owner, or of extreme, egotistical cruelty? After all, it’s just a crude kind of a wheelchair, isn’t it? But surely a vet would not suggest this as a solution to the dog’s loss of both hind limbs, would probably advise another, more final one. And not wanting to get down to the nitty-gritty, but obliged to nevertheless, how did this dog poo? How did it sleep? Was it unstrapped from its unwieldy trolley at night, or did it sleep collapsed forward onto its paws? Would the dog rather have died or was it happy to have been kept alive? It didn’t look very happy. It looked as though it was clapped-out and fed up, literally on its last legs, and there were only two of those.

Unfortunately I cannot answer any of these pressing questions: who kicked the fanny out of the shop dummy, or how does a trolley-dog take a dump? And could this be made into a zen puzzle: is it worth asking a question you know you will never get the answer to? All I can say is I have retained my child-like powers of observation and desire to question everything. Metaphorically I am still turning eveything upside-down to get a good look at its goulies.