(This piece is a couple of months out of date: I’d forgotten to post it in early July).
It seems that every time you step out of the front door in Madrid at the moment, somebody is protesting loudly about something. Mayor Gallardon knows this only too well: on the 13th June he found a small group of very vocal and noisy protesters at the door of his house near Alonso Martinez, having a ‘cacerolada’ (frying-pan bashing protest). Let’s not get into the rights or wrongs of accosting a politican (not a war criminal, remember, or a serial killer) at his private residence while he’s out walking his dog of an evening. What were they protesting about so furiously?
Since then the issue has been discussed, negotiated and dealt with, in a highly innovative and possibly slightly mental fashion. It is the imminent Orgullo (Gay Pride) festival, due to start this coming week, and the proposed banning of the open air concert on Plaza de Chueca, the iconic square in the centre of the neighbourhood, which is causing so much controversy and anger. Residents’ Associations have lodged complaints with the council due to the ear-splitting noise levels, while campaigners have hit back with suggestions that it is homophobic to tamper with or restrict the ‘biggest and most important Pride party’ in Europe, – other local fiestas cause just as much noise, filth and disruption for the locals – San Fermin, Las Fallas in Valencia, the Tomatina etc, the local councils fund these events and promote them, and some of them have been included as ‘protected’ heritage events. The same should apply to Madrid Gay Pride despite the disruption to residents in Chueca. If you don’t like it, don’t live in Chueca, they suggest. There is a legal issue: noise levels cannot exceed a certain limit if there is, for example, an old peoples’ home within 150 metres of the proposed concert. Which there is: in Chueca there is one on Calle Gravina, and another on Plaza Vasquez de Mella. Last year residents of the neighbourhood were subjected to over 80 decibels (the legal amount of noise) throughout 4 days of the fiesta.
Firstly, the idea of there being 2 old peoples’ homes tucked away in the heart of Chueca is a little surreal. A student of mine, a manager at the Very Big Bank, told me he saw a news report where elderly residents were interviewed, and most of them, in a spirit of true Spanish tolerance, shrugged and said something along the lines of –well, it’s only for a few days a year, we don’t mind anyway, we don’t really know what all the fuss is about. Let people enjoy themselves, we reckon. He added, with a grin, that most of them were probably deaf anyway, so it’s hardly likely to disturb them.
Secondly, I can see both sides here. A few years ago Federico/Rapunzel, who was living in a palatial residence just off, and in fact, overlooking Plaza de Chueca, invited us for dinner on the Thurs night, just as Pride was kicking off with its first open air concert. The idea was to dine on the terrace, with a great view of the square and the band. The plaza was packed solid, spotlights scanning the sky, noise bouncing off the walls. We hollered across the small dinner table at each other, exhilerated and unsettled. The noise level was deafening- the overall impression was that of dragging your dinner table into the middle of a dancefloor and trying to have dinner there; all of us present were ageing clubbers, all of us had spent many great nights out on dancefloors, so our perception of the noise had nothing to do with not liking loud music. Rapunzel spent the rest of Pride weekend holed up in his high tower, unable to face fighting his way through seething crowds to go and fetch groceries, unable to sleep until well past 3 am, when the music finally stopped rattling the window panes and making the fillings in his teeth jig.
I was unlucky enough to be present at a recent cacerolada in Plaza de Chueca a few days ago, when having a lazy drink before dinner, with friends visiting from the UK. It was a hot Summer evening, the beer was ice cold, the usual catwalk of eccentrics and cosmopolitans were entertaining us, and the conversation was laid back. Until about twenty people turned up by our table, just next to the metro exit, and began hammering frying pans together, blowing football horns and disco whistles.
‘What’s going on?’ bellowed my friends.
‘I’ll tell you in a minute…’ I yelled back. We paid up, left half our beers and made ourselves scarce. I explained the reason for the protest.
‘But that’s daft.’ they argued back, logically, ‘they’re just hurting local businesses, surely that’s not going to achieve anything.’ Go figure.
So what is the somewhat mental solution to the problem of noise levels during Pride? Silent concerts. That’s right –the proposed idea was to enclose the band in a kind of perspex fish-tank, then transmit the sound via a particular radio frequency that you could tune into with your mobile, and listen to on headphones. Apparently it’s been tried and tested at Glastonbury, Goa, and at big techno parties in Holland. Unfortunately I wasn’t there to see it. I couldn’t face the crowds, the heat, the pickpockets or the pumped up queens. But the idea I have in my head is something like Night of the Living Dead- after all, if one person tunelessly singing along to his or her mp3 player sounds hideous, what would thousands of them sound like, all shuffling around and humming, zombie-like, to themselves? It’s my idea of 21st century Hell: all of us sealed up inside our own hermetic little heads, listening to silent music, humming wordlessly, the band a few feet away but sealed in an airtight compartment, thrashing mute instruments, all genuine interaction and warmth stillborn, conversation in whispers, grunting into headphones lifted away from the ear for a second, then replaced, strangled by technology, stifled by legislation, in the middle of a crowd engaged in faux-delirium, but gut-wrenchingly alone.