TAPAS BEFORE TEMPLARS…

EXERPT 4 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” 

La Gamba was situated in the aptly named Via Frontera, on the border of the theatre and financial districts. It was a lively informal bar with an authentic Andalucian feel, inside and out.  

Black wrought iron window grills festooned with obscenely healthy geraniums screamed scarlet against glossy viridian window frames and whitewashed walls. Just beneath the foliage on the narrow pavement along the front wall, a row of small tile-topped tables were perched precariously on the edge of the high curb. Regulars at La Gamba knew to keep their hands and elbows well tucked in when sitting at these tables to avoid constant jostling from pedestrians on one side or more serious knocks from passing motor traffic on the other. They also needed to be impervious to the acrid exhaust fumes belching out from the frequent 50cc Puch motorcycles and Vespas—the vehicles of choice for most working class “Madrineros”.

Inside, La Gamba’s walls were swathed in cheaply framed bullfighting and flamenco show posters. Ornamental pinewood beams stained dark with thick treacly varnish posed as unconvincing supports for the nicotine stained ceiling. The linoleum floor was littered with used “tapas tissues”, cigarette butts, mussel shells and prawn skins. The long bar was harshly illuminated by a double row of eerily yellow fluorescent strip lights bolted precariously to the fake beams. 

In addition to the assault on the visual senses, it was the smoke you noticed most when you entered; a sweet pungent grey-blue mist bearing strong hints of alcohol, coffee and garlic frying in olive oil. And all the time this murky soup churned around and upwards and regurgitated into spirals by a dozen sluggish ceiling fans.

But then, in defiance of this lurid environment, emerging from the monochrome mist like a glorious Technicolor oil painting there was the tapas itself:  

Tapas on an epic scale reflecting the collective culinary glory of Seville, of Granada, of Cordoba, of Cadiz, of Malaga, of Huelva and even humble Almeria. Tapas of such high quality it compelled people to brave the kitsch, the fug and the noise in vast numbers from all over the city and beyond.  

The bar was all of forty foot long, starting at the entrance and continuing two thirds of the way down the narrow room. 

Along the bar’s entire length were glass and steel chilling and warming cabinets. Within the cabinets were scores of hot and cold raw and cooked meats: Pork, rabbit, tripe, chicken, game and veal; stewed, baked, fried and grilled ‘a la plancha’ and then the fish and the sea food; starting at one end with the braised salt cod and culminating at the other end with piles of alive, gently pulsing clams and mussels, and in between; all the edible booty of the sea from gilt-head bream and baby whiting to spider crab, squid, razor clams, octopus and prawn and shrimp in heaps  and then; a row of earthenware platters resting above the cabinets, laden with steamed wild snails, deep fried baby green peppers, black pudding stewed with chick peas, tripe with potatoes in saffron sauce, four inch thick egg tortillas, mini wooden skewers of cubed pork loin marinated in paprika saffron and cumin, cured ham fried with broad beans and on and on. 

Directly above, hanging from a straining iron rod were dozens of precious Jabugo black hams. And behind the bar, on the back counter; more plates and carving boards, piled high with “Iberico” sausage, cured meats, chorizo and black puddings of all shapes and sizes. 

And finally, above the sausage, a phalanx of dark oak barrels stacked up to the ceiling: Full sized 256 litre (give or take) casks of dark sweet viscous Malagas, dry clean yellow Montillas and yeasty nutty Sherries and Manzanillas. 

And manning this visual-cum-olfactory sensory battering ram; a cohort of waiters and barmen (all men), attired in black trousers, tieless white shirts and green fronted waist coats and armed only with sticks of white chalk jammed behind their ears. No note pads here, just chalk marks scratched onto tables and bar alike. 

It was central Madrid on a Thursday night and La Gamba was heaving with a mixture of pre-theatre crowd and office workers lingering far too long on their way home from work. It occurred to Alex that perhaps it was not the ideal spot after all for what he anticipated would be a long and discreet conversation. Fortunately though Carlos Garcia had been good to his word and secured a booth at the rear beyond the bar and well away from the main crowd which tended to gravitate around the ranks of tapas like moths to a flame.

The booths were surprisingly insulated from the noisy crush beyond, but on the down-side there was a mild odour of urine and cheap soap emanating from the toilets over in the far corner. This was partially compensated for however by the fact that above, on the far wall was a row of open narrow windows which drew the worst of the smoke.

At the first instant, when Carlos saw that Alex had not come alone a look of barely disguised annoyance started to cross his high deeply furrowed brow. But then, within an instant, he took in Elena as she glided toward him ahead of Alex, smiling, eyes gleaming, hair gently swaying and a crisply tailored charcoal two piece work skirt and jacket adding to the effect, his lower lip fell. 

As she approached radiating confidence and self-assurance, right arm outstretched Carlos suddenly realised that he should stand up.  While he clumsily clambered to his feet Elena announced herself; ‘Doctor Elena Ortiz Martinez.’ 

Carlos took her hand, barely holding it, unsure whether to shake it or kiss it. He felt foolish. He had never been approached in this way by a Spanish woman and the fact that she was so attractive totally unnerved him. Fortunately though, Elena took the initiative for him, firmly grasping his limp fingers and giving a vigorous couple of shakes. ‘It’s a great thrill to meet you Professor Garcia. I simply had to come along once I realised it was you Alex was meeting. I’m a fan of yours. I even read your book. The one you wrote for human beings. That was the way you termed it if I remember correctly? Blood and History wasn’t it called?’

The History of Blood, Doctor Martinez’ Carlos gently corrected her as they all sat down.

Elena, please just call me Elena Professor. But I do remember the main theme of the book. Your incredible idea—how one day soon we will be able to map all of humanity through our genetic codes and how it will be possible to determine exactly where we came from. Our own personal genetic histories going back thousands of years.’

‘Well, that’s oversimplifying it somewhat but yes, you got the gist. And it’s just Carlos if you please…Elena. And may I ask? What is your doctorate in?’ 

‘I’m a lecturer in modern history at the university.  I guess we’re colleagues come to think of it.’

‘Only half colleagues now regretfully. I semi-retired last year and am emeritus these days. In truth I really miss the stimulation of being a full time researcher.’ Carlos felt emboldened by Elena’s spirit of forwardness and added; ‘I also miss rubbing shoulders with some of the fabulous young female lecturers emerging these days.’ 

Alex smiled. He was impressed with Carlos’ speedy powers of recovery, not to mention his obvious talents as a schmoozer.

‘I can’t claim to be either fabulous or all that young these days’ she replied, ‘although I do my best to flow with the years in most other respects.’ 

Carlos smiled back, his eyes twinkling, ‘You’re far too modest if I may be so bold Elena, and flowing certainly becomes you.’

‘Ahem!’ uttered Alex, beginning to find the exchange tedious.

Carlos turned towards Alex and said; ‘My apologies Alex, but my goodness, you really are a most fortunate man.’

‘I suppose I must be, as I’m told so often’ Alex said a touch sardonically. 

‘You are quite right. Please forgive the pathetic stirrings of an old man’ Carlos responded apologetically having noticed Alex’s tone.

Elena leaned across the table and gently squeezed Carlos’ hand. ‘Don’t apologise Carlos. He’ll get over it. It’s just that all this Transito business has made him grouchy lately.’ 

He smiled at Elena, patted her hand before returning it across the table. ‘No, but Alex is right. I have much to tell you and we don’t want to be here all night do we?’ Carlos’ face immediately took on the same serious, almost business like expression Alex remembered from their encounter at the hospital. ‘And to save us some time I took the liberty of ordering a selection of tapas before you arrived.’

‘Good idea’ said Alex relieved by the change in subject. ‘Miguel and I normally propped up the bar when we met here. The couple of times we took a table outside the service was slow.’

‘Miguel was always raving to me about this place’ Carlos continued, ‘but somehow we never met here. He was funny about doing anything with me in public. It was a shame, because I always liked his company and we got on well.’

‘Maybe he had a bit of an inferiority complex when it came to you?’ Alex suggested a little disingenuously, recalling what Loli had told him earlier that day.

‘Yes, but it was so irrational. After all, he had no problem being seen in your company, and you’re a professor too.’

‘But Carlos, you’re his brother’ Elena said. ‘That’s different from a mere work associate like Alex. I never met Miguel unfortunately but from what Alex tells me I think he enjoyed rubbing shoulders with people like Alex for the same reason that he didn’t want to be seen out with you. Whereas your eminence perhaps would have highlighted to the outside world Miguel’s self-perception of his own underachievement being seen out with Alex actually built up his self-esteem. Made him feel a sort of eminence by association, if that makes any sense?’

At that point a waiter arrived with a large steel tray expertly balanced on his shoulder laden with plates of food. 

As he deftly began placing the dishes on the table Carlos told them; ‘I actually ordered half portions, not tapas. I can’t stand a table covered in dozens of little plates, half of which one never gets to taste. In any case, I hope you find I covered all the bases food wise?’

Elena and Alex eagerly nodded their assent. Despite the fact it was not as adventurous a selection as Alex and Elena would have ordered, it was all so well prepared and they were so hungry they did not care. In fact, Carlos had chosen a virtual beginners introduction to Andalucian dishes. There were the ubiquitous large boiled prawns in their shells with sea salt, lightly battered deep fried baby squid, pickled sprat fillets in olive oil garnished with parsley and garlic, grilled goujon of garlicky rosada, a plate of thinly sliced ham and a ceramic platter of piping hot meat balls in a bread-thickened almond and saffron sauce. 

The waiter also brought a half bottle of ice cold Manzanilla and three chilled tulip shaped glasses. As he poured the palest of pale wines Carlos said; ‘I also took the liberty of ordering drink. I hope fino is to your liking?’

‘We both love it’ answered Alex, ‘but I think I’ll get a beer to start with if that’s okay. I’m dying of thirst. Anyone else fancy one?’

Elena and Carlos both shook their heads.

‘A large glass of Victoria for me and bring another half of Manzanilla with an ice bucket’ Alex said to the waiter. Then, as the waiter disappeared back into the melee beyond he continued to Elena and Carlos; ‘Might as well get set up for the evening.’ ‘Not a Malaga drinker Carlos?’ Elena asked.

‘No, I’m ashamed to say. Every year when we were boys in late August we were taken up into the Axarquia mountains near Canillas de Aceituno. Our uncle— our father’s older brother—had a finca and grew prize Moscatel grapes. He sold most of them to Scholtz Hermanos in Malaga but he also made a bit of wine for himself—and raisins too. We got roped in with all the associated chores.  And goodness were they chores, picking the grape and making the wine. I don’t know what was more mind-numbing—de-stemming the grape by hand for pressing or later on snipping the raisins. At any rate, by the end of the month we’d been up there just the smell of the Moscatel, either in liquid or dried form, made me feel so nauseated that till this day I can’t go near the stuff.’

‘It’s funny’ Elena remarked, ‘how townies like us tend to think of winemaking as such a romantic thing to do, especially the harvesting and the treading. Did you tread by foot?’ 

‘Yes. Everybody makes the wine the same way, even now. The de-stemmed berries get chucked into a kind of large outdoor trough. Then the treading is done by the men mostly, wearing flat soled rubber shoes nowadays—esparto back then—a bit like flip-flops. The must flows out of a sluice in the trough and gets collected in buckets and then chucked straight into clean empty casks.  The residual grape mush from the trough then gets pressed in a hand ratcheted basket press. The pressing can take days and our uncle would leave the filled press to weep overnight. All the tears— as the locals referred to the liquid—were then added to the cask. The Moscatel are so rich in sugar that they start fermenting well before the treading. The smell was incredible. Most people love it but I found it sickly. And even worse than the smell, were the wasps— nests of wasps in the vineyards which we always inadvertently disturbed.  And then swarms of the bastards around the treading and the pressing attracted by the sugary moisture. One year poor Miguel was stung in the eye.’

‘Ouch!’ Elena said wincing.

‘Yes, it was appalling. He couldn’t have been more than six and his distress was awful. He had to be held down writhing and screaming while our uncle’s wife pressed a poultice of earth and water onto his eye.’

‘I don’t suppose they had any antihistamines back then?’ asked Alex.

‘No! But it wouldn’t be much different now. The peasants down there are still suspicious of modern medicine. With Miguel, they physically bound him to a chair so that he wouldn’t touch his eye. It took nearly two days before he could see again from that eye and more than a week for the swelling to go down and he had sensitivity in it for the rest of his life. So no Elena—wine making in the Axarquia at least, is a dirty, sweaty and smelly—not to mention hazardous business and not the slightest bit romantic. And that’s why I never go near my native drink. Our once-famous ‘Mountain Sac’ might have been the favourite tipple of Queen Elizabeth I of England and even the magnificent Falstaff but neither of them ever had to make the accursed stuff!’

Alex continued the theme; ‘Did you know it’s probable that vines were first brought to the Axarquia by Phoenician colonists? Perhaps more than 3000 years ago? And certainly the Carthaginians and the Romans practised viticulture in that area.’

‘And what about the Moors?’ asked Elena; ‘I’ve always meant to ask you about that. They didn’t drink did they?’

‘Not officially at least’ answered Alex, ‘but they loved their raisins.’

‘Yes’ Carlos interjected, ‘and supposedly, the Moslem landlords employed primarily Jewish vine keepers.’ 

‘The Jews have always had a knack with wine, going all the way back to First Temple period when they produced most of the fine wines drunk across the ancient Middle East’ continued Alex.

‘And now two of Bordeaux’s five premier cru clarets are made by Jewish growers’ Elena chipped in, showing off her wine knowledge. ‘Not that I’ve ever had the good fortune to taste either of them.’

‘Anyway’ said Alex towards Carlos, ‘talking of things Jewish?’

‘Ah yes!’ Carlos responded to Alex’s change of topic. ‘Things Jewish, and much else besides, and which reminds me, don’t let me forget to give you this before we part tonight’ he said picking up a large heavy looking carrier bag from the empty chair to his right. ‘This is copies of all my notes from the last ten years or so about El Transito, The Sons of Kohath and everything.

My research, my theories‒‒what my sister-in-law Loli calls my Grand Hypothesis.’

The waiter then reappeared with Alex’s beer and the sherry in an ice bucket which after a reconfiguration of the plates of food he was able to deposit on the table. 

‘Perhaps we should eat before all this lovely food spoils and then I’ll tell you a story’ Carlos suggested.

‘Good food and wine followed by a ripping yarn— my idea of the perfect evening.’ Elena said.

ALEX’S HOLY-OF-HOLIES DESPAIR…

EXERPT 3 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK” *

Once in his study the first thing Alex did was head for the sideboard and pour a generous glass of Dimple. He took two deep slugs then sat down at his large French walnut desk.

He stared at the parcel for a few moments and smiled wryly. Its considerable thickness brought to mind the single-page scrawl Ruiz had sent him that morning back in April.

Alex’s hands trembled slightly as he tore open the package like they had years before when he opened the letter from St Catherine’s College Cambridge bearing the news of his being accepted onto their master’s program. He had a strong sense that whatever was enclosed in Malcolm’s parcel would have at least as equal an impact upon the immediate course of his life.

At the top of a stack of files was an envelope containing a four page hand-written letter from the curator of the world’s greatest general collection of Near Eastern artefacts.

He took another swallow of whiskey and began to read:

Dear Alex

Firstly, my profound apologies for the delay in getting back to you but unfortunately I was away in Melbourne when your package arrived. I was overseeing the “Origins Tour” and the damn thing took up the best part of three months of my time so I was unable to open your parcel until the middle of July. Anyway, better late than never and all that…

I am writing to you with the full backing and cooperation of Ron and Omri. They too send their apologies and you will not be surprised to learn that they were both in the field in April on their latest projects (Ron on the eastern delta and Omri at Tel Aphek) and only returned to their respective offices in August.

In the event we thought it would save further time and avoid needless repetition if just one of us sent you a letter which combines our joint findings. The fact that we three concur on just about every aspect regarding the remarkable samples you sent us (an amazing fact in itself) makes this approach especially logical and practical.

Your instincts regarding the trapezoidal structure (your “canopy”) and the reason you thought that here was material for our particular fields of expertise belies your position as a mere medievalist! Perhaps you should think of changing tack and move up to the higher echelons of pre-Christian Near Eastern Archaeology…’

Alex chuckled as he read these words. His friend often teased him over opting for what Malcolm referred to as the ‘safe option’ of ‘modern archaeology’ where there was ‘nothing left to discover’ and where ‘one ended up as a mere cataloguer of what was already known; a kind of archaeological librarian.’ 

The letter continued with a summary of the main technical reports and test results:

‘All three of us had the timber independently radio carbon tested and dated. Omri at the lab at Bar Ilan, Ron at Nevada of course and I took mine across to Imperial. All three results placed the timber in the late 13th/early14th century. This, as you well know is consistent with the age of the Transito Synagogue but rather interestingly the timber turned out to be cedar; Cedar of Lebanon to be precise and not any old Cedar of Lebanon. The samples actually come from a tree or trees grown and felled in the Levant and most probably Lebanon itself. You will have a better appreciation than any of us of the difficulty not to mention the expense of acquiring such an exotic timber during the 14th century. It seems an astonishing length to have gone to.

However, this is far less astonishing than the lengths gone to for acquiring the masonry!

As I presume you also know the stone is limestone but what you may not have discerned is that in common with the timber it is also of Middle Eastern origin. According to our geological reports it is a highly specific form of yellow limestone known to archaeologists as “meleke”; more commonly referred to as “Jerusalem Stone”.

Omri is the world’s leading expert on meleke and had no doubt the minute he set eyes on the sample you sent him. To be absolutely certain though and to determine the age of the dressing marks and to identify from where the stone originated we all had geological analyses done. Omri had his sample tested at the Hebrew University, Ron sent his to Caltech and I had mine examined at the geology department of the Natural History Museum here in London. Again, all three test results formed a consensus. Give or take fifty years either way, from the nature and wear of the cut markings the stones must have been dressed sometime during the late 10th/early 9th centuries BC. Moreover, the stones were almost certainly quarried in the mountains of southern Judea.

Finally, we were all able to have the gold leaf samples assessed in situ respectively.

While it was impossible to determine the geographical origins of the metal, from its level of purity and consistent colour we suggest it probably originated from somewhere in equatorial Africa. However, to judge from the thickness of the leaf and having done some calculations with regard to the internal surface area of the canopy I estimate that around 600lbs of gold were used; more than twice the amount in Tutankhamen’s innermost coffin! Given this, it would not be going too far to say that pro rata your little canopy has the most expensive wall paper in the world. One can only imagine what such opulence was intended to contain???

Bearing in mind all of the above, the final piece of information I have for you should now come as no surprise at all despite the fact it appears to represent the earliest and potentially most significant inscription from the “Land of the Bible” from the time of the first Hebrew kings.

In short your inscription says something simply amazing. It’s the sort of thing that Omri and Ron have only dared to dream of ever discovering. It is no exaggeration to state that this little scrawl might be the “Rosetta Stone” of biblical archaeology.

With one or two educated guesses vis-à-vis conjunctions etc. Ron and Omri render it thus:

‘‘[By the] grace of [the] hidden one Am[u]n [this] cornerstone [for] Yahweh’s House and [his] holy Asherah [in] the king’s name [in] the name [of] the House [of] David.’’

Alex gasped audibly when he read the translation. His head span. He did not know whether to laugh or cry.

The letter went on:

“The biggest surprise of all was the dedication to the chief Egyptian God Amun rather than the typical “Amen” affirmation (which may or may not be derivative in any event); confirmed by the fact that whoever carved the inscription used the ancient Egyptian designation “hidden one” when describing him. This throws the whole “Hebrew God” debate wide open and I can tell you now there is a small minority group of “out of Egypt” scholars who are going to crack open the bubbly when they learn of this (our own Ron classes himself as a “sympathiser”). I can almost hear the “we told you so’s” already!  In that one little dedication there’s more information regarding the nature of the official Israelite state religion at the time of the early Hebrew Kings than in all the museums and in all the texts throughout the world.

 My dear fortunate Alex, for some weird and wonderful reason you now find yourself sitting on what could be, from a Judeo-Christian perspective the single most important archaeological discovery this century. What you have there in Toledo is an incredible gem of a find. A structure built and decorated exclusively from the same materials alleged to have been used in the First Temple and some of them perhaps actually retrieved from that same building. Your little trapezoid might very well be the key for corroborating the existence of David and Solomon while at the same time confirming that the early Israelites were anything but monotheists. The importance of this find for biblical archaeology and for increasing our knowledge and understanding of Israelite history and the origins of western religion is inestimable.

Finally, I presume you are by now fully cognisant of the implications of your canopy being a trapezoidal structure. That fact taken in conjunction with all our findings is to quote Ron, simply awesome!

You’ll find all the data and all the analyses in our three reports attached to this letter.

Please get back to us as soon as possible. We are desperate to come over and pay a visit to your remarkable canopy. We presume the reason you have not yet published a report on the find has to do with the “intrigue” you referred to in your letter?

In the meantime our continued discretion is assured but we are only human and we are beside ourselves with excitement over your discovery.

Gratefully (and my love and a kiss to your beautiful Elena),

Malcolm

There was a ‘PS’:

‘Omri just this minute phoned to remind me that the debir (the inner sanctum / holy of holies) in the Yahweh temple which you and he worked on in the sixties at Arad was 5ft²; identical dimensions to the internal space of your structure in Toledo. Not to get melodramatic about this old chap, but my goodness me…’

Alex placed the letter down on his desk and sat back in his chair.

All he could visualise at that moment was the JCB and its claw smashing the canopy into a pile of rubble.

He thought of the exquisite gold leaf and the Lebanese cedar wood and the three thousand year old ashlar blocks and finally he remembered the inscription.

Then as his entire body began to convulse he leant forward and put his head in his hands and sobbed. He sobbed dry painful tears like retching on an empty stomach.

‘What have they done?’ he cried out loud. ‘What have those moronic bastards done?’

* Header picture shows the holy of holies of the Israelite/Judahite temple (circa 700 BCE) at Tel Arad (southern Judea/northern Negev).

“THE CAUDILLO IS RAISING HELL…!”

EXERPT 2 FROM MY NOVEL “ARK”

When he arrived in his office at the institute, there on his desk barely a day after he had submitted the samples for examination, was a thin dog-eared envelope with the words “analysis results” scrawled across the front in biro. 

The slim envelope instantly set alarm bells off in Alex’s head. He knew that meaningful reports took weeks and more often months to complete and would be presented in the form of a weighty file. But when he then read the note contained within the envelope his alarm turned to dismay:

Dear Professor Martinez,

Following careful examination, we find nothing remarkable to report regarding the nature of the stone, the timber or the graffito at the Transito site. In the light of these unexceptional findings, it has been decided to resume the engineering works to the synagogue’s eastern wall in the interests of securing the building with immediate effect.

The Department thanks you and your team for all your efforts in this matter.

Sincerely,

Diego Ruiz – Chief Secretary, Department of Antiquities

Alex immediately telephoned his main contact at the department, the medieval projects manager Miguel Garcia. 

Garcia claimed tersely that he knew nothing about it and refused to put him through to Ruiz saying that the director was busy. He then offered Alex a piece of ‘friendly advice’ to ‘drop the whole thing.’ 

Alex reminded Garcia that he had ‘uncovered a site of potentially great importance to the cultural heritage of Spain and that ‘both as an archaeologist and a patriot he was bound to publish a full site report.’

‘Nevertheless’ Garcia told him, ‘do not under any circumstances publish a report.’

To which Alex replied; ‘You mean like the people who discovered the structure in 1964?’

For several seconds there was silence at the other end of the phone. Then Garcia asked; ‘How the hell do you know that it was discovered in 1964? How can you know that?’

‘Hombre! I’m trained to know these things’ he replied surprised at the effectiveness of his gambit. ‘It’s what the government pays me for. Now would you be so kind as to tell me what is this all about? What’s with all the fucking secrecy?’

Alex’s swearing had an incendiary effect on Garcia. ‘There’s no fucking secrecy!’ he yelled. ‘No fucking anything! Just a fucking boring, fucking meaningless little fucking structure…’

Meaningless!’ Alex cried back. ‘A structure unique in Iberian medieval architecture decorated with enough solid gold to shame the tomb of the average Pharaoh! A structure moreover in perfect condition—except for the fact ten years ago someone removed its roof and then covered it over again as if nothing had happened? If that’s meaningless then I’m a Dutchman!’

‘Alex, I’m telling you again as a friend’ Miguel said quietly, almost pleading, ‘just forget all about this. It’s all a mistake, a bloody great cock-up!’

‘A mistake? What do you mean a mistake?’

‘The excavation Alex—the excavation was a mistake. It should never have been sanctioned. Whoever ticked off on the excavation didn’t know. He didn’t know about the original works in 64. But now they’ve found the old records and it should never have been sanctioned. The Caudillo himself is raising hell here Alex. Please, please just let it go.’ 

Both the desperation in Garcia’s voice and the mention of Franco were disturbing. Alex had always enjoyed a cordial and constructive working relationship with Miguel Garcia. He’d found him to be an affable chap always willing to go that extra mile for a colleague. This exchange was totally out of character. 

‘Listen Miguel, I don’t want to make problems for you. I just want…I just need to know one thing and then I’ll leave you alone. I promise.’

‘What is it?’

‘Whoever took the roof off the canopy found something inside it, and whatever it was, they removed it in a big hurry…’

‘How do you know all this?’

‘Why else would they have deserted nearly half a ton of gold panelling? They must have found something so…so hot…’

Hot?’

‘I don’t know hombre! Hot, incredible, astonishing―something so precious in some way that they ignored the gold and covered up their tracks in a rush.’  Garcia did not respond. Alex could hear him breathing heavily down the phone.

‘I won’t write anything Miguel. No report. But please just tell me what was inside the structure?’

After another few seconds Garcia eventually said in a low weary voice; ‘Nothing Alex…they found absolutely nothing.’

‘You swear to me that’s the truth Miguel? You’re telling me that the Caudillo is getting all worked up over nothing because you’re acting like they found the fucking Holy Grail or something?’  Again, silence at the other end of the phone.

Calmly now, he repeated the question; ‘Miguel. Do you swear to me that what you just told me is the truth?’ 

Garcia hung up without answering.

ELENA’S TEL AVIV REVERIE…

A moody EXCERpt from my novel, “ark”…

Elena slid open the double glazed French doors of their suite at the Dan Hotel and walked out onto the balcony terrace overlooking the Tel Aviv sea front.

      It was like breaking a hermetic seal.

      Instantly the noise of traffic and hooting of cars below on Hayarkon Street merged with the sound of the waves crashing against the breakwaters beyond the broad sand beach. A smell of seaweed tinged with traces of petrol and diesel exhaust carried on the gusting westerly wind filled her nostrils.

   She leaned against the steel railing squinting slightly against the salt particles and sand peppering her face. Through her narrowed eyes she gazed at the deep cobalt blue sea streaked with crisp flecks of silver white foam. A brooding early evening sky with tumbling clouds was diffused by sporadic beams of platinum sunlight. Far off, above the jagged black horizon she could make out charcoal coloured shafts of rain like dirty net curtains suspended from the clouds.

The oceanic quality of the Tel Aviv shoreline appealed to Elena. In stark contrast to its typically sedentary mood around the eastern and southern coasts of Spain, here the Mediterranean roared and rumbled like it meant business, like the Atlantic waters of her native Galicia. As she watched fizzing tongues of spray lash against the breakwaters the image of the Tower of Hercules, the great Alexandrine inspired lighthouse of A Coruña atop its breast shaped promontory jutting out into the waters of Cape Finisterre filled her mind’s eye. 

For the first time in years she felt a pang of nostalgia for her home town. She saw herself and Rita as small girls running on the grassy slopes beneath the lighthouse. They were screaming gleefully and giggling and there was their father on his knees, holding out his arms for them to run into. He was laughing too, and smiling a long forgotten broad smile and calling to them, ‘Rita! Elena! …’ And then, as if woken from a dream she heard Omri calling her name.

Startled, she turned round to see him at the French door beckoning, shouting above the traffic and the roar of the surf. ‘Elena!’ He called to her, ‘I’m so sorry but I have a few things to get through with you before the PM gets here.’

She looked at him uncomprehending at first and then astonished as she digested his words. ‘The PM did you say?’

‘Yes, the prime minister.’

‘Goodness!’ She said as she passed him back into the room.

‘You okay Elena?’ he asked her as he slid the door closed behind her. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘Do I?’ she replied, before stopping to look back out to the now muffled again sea.

She wiped her eyes moist with tears from the fresh wind and from her reminiscences. Then with an almost perplexed expression on her face she looked at him and said; ‘Memories are ghosts in a way I suppose.’ She chuckled wryly and gently gripped Omri’s arm then added; ‘There’s something about this odd little country of yours Omri. It’s some kind of powerful medicine. It gets me every time.’

She took a final look at the sea and noticed the distinctive silhouette of a 747 airliner emerging from the ominous looking sky on its seemingly slow motion approach to Ben Gurion Airport.

Ideal Beach Resort – LIME CHICKEN CURRY – recooked…

One morning, several years ago, I was pouring through my collection of Indian cookery books looking for something different to do with a chicken breast languishing in my fridge. As often happens on these occasions, after ten minutes or so of not finding quite what I was looking for,  I was about to revert to my trusty old Madhur Jaffrey butter chicken when a piece of paper being used as a bookmark caught my attention.  Frayed and food-stained, it turned out to contain a barely legible biro-scrawled recipe for a chicken curry. After further examination, I noted that it contained some unusual culinary bedfellows for an Indian chicken dish – things like  olive oil, ground caraway seed, lime juice, and most particularly, both bay and curry leaves. Then suddenly I remembered a swelteringly hot and sticky afternoon spent in a hotel kitchen in southern India in the autumn of 2003.

We were guests at the aptly named Ideal Beach Resort, in Mahabalipuram, on India’s Tamil coast, resting up for a few days before travelling inland to Coimbatore (where my wife Dido was to help in the establishment of a clinical education centre for children with autism).

I think it was on our first evening there, during supper, we got chatting with a very affable American couple at the next table who turned out to share our enthusiasm for the delicious local cuisine. At some point during the meal the four of us were invited by the maître d to visit the kitchen the following lunchtime to watch our food being prepared. Cathy – the lady of the American couple and a veteran of the Ideal Beach Hotel – chose the menu, including the lime chicken curry which turned out to be as delicious as it was unusual.

Cathy, Richard, Dido and yours truly enjoying our curry lunch

The rare blend of ingredients and spices was explained by the fact that our young head chef, although a Tamil, had been trained in Bengal and enjoyed fusing the two distinct culinary traditions.

Fortunately Dido had the presence of mind to record the preparation of the curry and – albeit thirteen years late – I was able to decipher the recipe and apply it to the chicken breast in my fridge.  And, it was absolutely delicious! The caraway, lime, bay and curry leaf are a group marriage made in heaven – a complex and unctuous harmony of savoury, fragrant bitter sweetness that transforms humble white chicken meat into a thing of olfactory delight.

There are two ways to sample this fabulous curry – either follow the recipe below, or better still, go and visit the Ideal Beach Hotel. I can recommend both.

(Chapatis and a hot lime pickle are excellent with this curry also, if using fresh curry leaves, add at the same time as the lime juice.)

RECIPE(serves 2):

INGREDIENTS
¼ cup:			olive or coconut oil
200gm / 8oz:		diced chicken breast

SPICE MASALA I 
5cm / 2” stick:		cinnamon 
2 – 3:			cloves
2 - 3:			cardamom pods
1:			bay leaf
1:			small brown onion – finely grated
5cm / 2” piece:		ginger – peeled and coarsely chopped
6 cloves:		garlic – peeled and coarsely chopped
2 tbsp:			water
1:			large, ripe tomato chopped

SPICE MASALA II
½ tsp:			turmeric
1 tsp:			chili powder
1½ tsp:			ground coriander seed
1 tsp:			garam masala
1 tsp:			ground caraway seed
1 tsp:			whole fennel seed
1 tsp:			salt
3:			curry leaves
½ ltr / 1 pint:		water
To taste:		salt
To taste:		lime juice



METHOD:

1.	Blend the ginger, garlic and water into a paste
2.	Heat the oil in a kadai or a heavy skillet on a medium high heat
3.	Brown the diced  chicken thoroughly, then remove from kadai and                           put aside (retaining the juices)
4.	Add masala I to the kadai and sweat for 5 minutes, stirring        constantly until well browned
5.	Add onion to kadai and stir-fry until browned
6.	Add the tomato to the kadai and fry for 2 minutes until oil separates from the masala, onion and tomato paste
7.	Add the ginger and garlic puree to the kadai and stir for 1 minute
8.	Return the chicken and its juices to the kadai and stir well
9.	Add masala II and the curry leaves to the kadai and stir well, making certain the chicken is well coated
10.	Add the water, making sure to deglaze (scrape) the bottom of the kadai 
11.	Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for half hour
12.	Remove cover, add more salt (if necessary) and lime juice to taste, stir well and remove from heat
13.	Remove cinnamon, cloves and cardamom pods before serving
Our chef (right) and an assistant

DOG DAYS – revisited…

Sometime around the mid 90’s of the last century, for some reason I can’t remember now I decided to make a series of 6-box comic strips describing amusing experiences that had had happened to us – “us” being my wife Dido, our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, and yours truly – on our travels. Thus, while all of them are based upon actual events, some are more close to actuality than others.

1: Aura’s Big Sniff

I’m starting this series off with one of the less exaggerated episodes. In fact this is true in every detail, except that it happened in London, in The Alexander Fleming Pub in Paddington and not in the famous old wine bar in Malaga (La Antigua Casa de Guardia) in which the drawings are set. In addition, the barman at the pub was so amused by what happened that he gave Aura a Cumberland sausage as a thank you for making his day!

Again, do please click on the images to follow the comics in all their glory…

2: Phoning From Bar Angel

As with the previous episode, this too actually happened as described, but at the location depicted. Bar Angel was one of a handful of bars and restaurants located in our local mountain peublo blanco (white village), and in the days before mobile phones had taken on here in Andalusia, provided one of the few pay-phones in the area…

3: A Dog in the Room

This is the first in the series where I stretched the truth somewhat, insomuch as the last box is a slight exaggeration – in reality, Dido merely manhandled the hotel manager out of the room. This happened on our drive down through Spain on the journey when we actually moved here – in the early summer of 1993. The most amazing element of the episode was how passive Aura remained throughout the contretemps – which was fortunate for all concerned!

4: Michelin Maremma

This episode also occurred during our 1993 move trip down to Spain in a 2 Michelin Star establishment in the French Pyrenees. There are just two “slight” exaggerations in this strip: Firstly; we didn’t really exchange places with Aura – as much as we wanted to, and secondly; all the chef actually gave to Aura was merely a plate of duck carpaccio followed by sautéed calves liver in butter. There’s also one priceless thing which I failed to get across in this strip, and that was the horrified expressions of the mostly-American patrons at the neighbouring tables!

And a PS: Aura really did often eat reclining, true to her ancient Roman heritage…

5: Short-Back-and-Boobs!

This is almost totally true except for the fact that the lady cutting my hair had two girlfriends in the salon with her, and for much of the time my head was compressed by three sets of boobs rather than just merely one as they passed the time of day over my poor noggin!

The “salon” was situated in our local pueblo blanco, where, back in the 90’s “men were men” and never entered – let alone got their hair cut in such a “feminine” establishment. Thus, the hairdresser’s surprise and thrill at getting her hands on a head like mine was extreme.

Fortunately, Dido took pity on me and immediately raced me down to our local town on the coast for a remedial styling…

6: Swatting the Fly…

This one speaks for itself…needless to say, we avoided further visits to this couple.

7: Dido’s Strong Swim

The parable contained here is obvious; that a love of long distance, wild-water swimming and extreme myopia are a dangerous combination.

Those of you who know my wife Dido will be aware that this combination exists strongly within her person and the strip below tells the tale of what once nearly happened because of it. Just a couple of things to point out; firstly, the actual swim happened at La Serena on the Pacific coast of Chile, and not on a cold winter’s day in the UK – my point at the time (I made these comics in 1994) was to highlight Dido’s love of freezing conditions. She was one of those strange people who used to break the ice of the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park on New Year’s Day, and once, she even managed to shock a load of hardy Swedes by going for an inter-Island swim near Stockholm, in mid-winter. And secondly (and also obviously), she didn’t actually crash into the oil tanker (let alone sink it), but merely swam far too close to it, causing a crew-member to warn her away using a megaphone.

Aura and I spent many a terrifying hour, just as depicted in the strip, staring out to sea, waiting for Dido to return, which thank goodness, she always did, eventually, though often landing up a mile or so up the coast because of currents and her appalling eyesight.

These days, with the mellowing of age, and out of compassion for me, she only swims “laterally” so that I can keep an eye on her at all times…

8: The Last Almond

I’ve saved the most prosaic of my 1994 “Dog Days” comic strips for last. Prosaic in the sense that this is an experience, that to one degree or another almost everyone viewing this site will have gone through themselves – that infuriating feeling of the last, biggest, juiciest fruit being just out of reach. Perhaps, the only difference with almond trees though, from say apple, cherry or even blackberry picking, is that one does not customarily shake and whack the bejesus out of the host plant to acquire every last fruit. Professional farmers even have specially designed, automated tree-shaking machines for doing the job.

However, down here at least in the Axarquia region of Andalusia, almond trees are not irrigated during the drought season, and while this ensures the almonds have a richer more intense flavour, it also makes the trees highly resinous, thus causing many of the nuts to cling stubbornly to the branches.

Basically, the work is hot, sticky, scratchy, itchy, back-breaking and in the past, financially unrewarding. So, about six years after I made this comic we replaced our main almond orchard with a vineyard, the planting of which was also back-breaking, but with the promise of greater fulfillment – through the act of wine-making – and a hugely greater income. But, as our luck would have it, the market for traditional Malaga wines collapsed about the time I planted our last vine, with the almond price (due to the fruit’s recent elevation to “super-food” status) rising exponentially in the last ten years.

Still, at least we have enough Malaga wine for six lifetimes…

LOVERS & ROMANCES FROM MYTHOLOGIES OF THE WORLD (Revisited – first published August, 2015)

As an illustrator my most lucrative commissions, pro-rata, were for advertising agencies. I rarely earned less than the equivalent of £500 per day and often considerably more than that, and this was back in the 1980’s. But there was a catch; a burdensome and irritating trade-off, which was having to deal with the agencies themselves and especially the members of the “creative-teams”. These “creatives”, often genuinely brilliant and yes, creative young people were, more often than not, hampered by their competing egos, their manufactured passion for the job at hand and their-oh-so-cool agency “patois” made them highly ineffective givers of briefs.

Briefs were generally muddled and unclear, and always – but always – the artwork was required yesterday at the latest. I can honestly say that in the dozen or so jobs I did for agencies I can’t recall ever being entirely sure of what I was supposed to be doing, and nearly always having to do it through the night to have it ready for the courier the next day.

By contrast, although book covers could also pay very handsomely, for most book illustration work one earned relatively little. Yet despite this, I nearly always enjoyed the work. Most publishing house art directors were – or had been – illustrators and artists themselves and had had an instinctive knowledge of how to give clear and lucid briefs. Similarly, time was never a major issue, being determined more by the scale of the illustration job itself rather than purely commercial considerations.

One such job in the summer of 1998, which turned out to be my final excursion into illustration, was something of an epic. I was commissioned, again by Cassell Illustrated to make a series of 16 gouache colour plates to front each chapter of a book called “Mythical Lovers”. The author, Sarah Bartlett, was/is a well-known astrologer who had compiled and written a coffee-table history based around 16 ancient and iconic love myths from around the world.

After the job was completed and I had been paid, I left illustration for good, and rarely gave Mythical Lovers another thought. And because I no longer required a portfolio  it was the only job for which I never received or asked for finished copy.

Then the other day, I was going through the drawers of my old plan-chest here in Spain and I came across my original gouache plates – all sixteen of them, and in a state of perfect preservation, and thought what a curious subject they would make for my next “gallery” post. For me, it’s a reminder of just how versatile one had to be as a commercial illustrator – the “Carol Kaye-type session artists” of the visual art world.

And yes…as one or two of you who know us have noticed, Dido and I (plus a girlfriend of Dido’s) were the models for most of the characters portrayed. Much hilarity was had by all during the photography and as for the photos themselves – well, they’re indescribable! But that’s another story…

(Click on a picture to view the gallery with titles)

CHILE – OUR REAL CARTOON ADVENTURE (revisited and refined)*

In November of 1991 my wife Dido won a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool for children with learning problems. Because it was going to be a long trip – about three months in all – and we had been married less than a year we decided that I would go along too. As it happened, Dido required her work to be visually recorded and so she appointed me her video cameraman.

When we arrived, Chile had been a democracy about the same length of time that we had been married, so this was a dramatic voyage of discovery in more ways than one. In fact, looking back on that trip now, over 30 years later, Dido and I agree that it remains one of our two or three most remarkable joint experiences.

We decided to keep a written journal of the trip even before we left England, but within a few days of our arrival so many weird and wonderful – not to mention hysterical – things had happened to us that I decided to record the most amusing and surreal in a series of cartoons. Presented here are a selection of those pictures – made literally on the hoof; on trains, on buses and even on planes as we traveled the length (there is relatively little breadth) of one the world’s most spectacular, most beautiful and most crazy countries. These pictures are a humorous and affectionate record of all aspects of the-then new democratic Chile, through the eyes of two wide-eyed newly-weds.

In the words of Inti Illimani – “VIVA CHILE”!!

When we arrived at Santiago Airport we were virtually kidnapped by a trolley porter who then took us through the red channel. When we were then searched by fearsome looking Carabineros and I couldn’t find the paperwork for the large video camera in my possession. My explanation that the camera was not new and the property of the Ealing Educational Authority failed to impress the policemen who then separated me from Dido and escorted me – with the camera – to a small room by the side of the customs hall. Once in the room they told me to sit down on a low wooden chair in the corner and to keep the camera on my lap. There was a glass window in the middle of the opposite wall through which I could see a very worried Dido still standing among all our ransacked baggage and suitcases. For about twenty minutes I was left alone with one Carabinero, who stood leaning against the door just staring at me expressionlessly. Then two more policemen entered the room and – ignoring me completely – turned on a TV fixed to a bracket suspended from the low ceiling. There was a football match on and soon all three men were totally engrossed, occasionally shouting at the screen. At first I’d been too frightened by my predicament to take much notice of the game, but as the minutes passed I realised it was an international game and one of the teams was Chile. And then, as fear turned to boredom I began to watch the match too, until I finally recognised one of the Chilean players. Without thinking, at the moment I recalled his name I blurted it out, “Ivan Zamorano!” The three jackbooted Carabineros all instantly turned to look at me with looks of amazement on their faces. Then, one of them who spoke English asked me, “Zamorano! You know him?” “Of course! He plays in Italy for Internazionale” I replied, then added, lying through my teeth, “He’s one of my favourite players. I’m a big fan!” And with that it was as if I had turned on a switch. Next thing I knew, the three men were all smiles and charm personified and I was being escorted back to Dido, with our camera and sent on our way. Who says football is just a game…
Dido’s first port of call was the small Atacama Desert town of San Pedro – just over 1000 miles north of Santiago. We decided to use the same mode of transport that most Chileans used then for such long journeys – the famous Tramaca coach. Being only the start of the trip we were as-yet uncertain of how our funds would hold out, so rather than travel in the relative luxury of the cama bus with their lauded 1st class aircraft seats and cocktails, and airline-style meals served by attentive stewards, we opted for the regular-seated bus. We would be traveling to San Pedro in three stages, stopping first for a day at the port of Antofagasta – a journey of twenty-five hours. Initially, apart from the stunningly beautiful landscapes we motored through, there was nothing remarkable about the coach journey itself. But then we stopped for a  driver’s rest break and it was like no driver’s rest break on any coach journey we had ever encountered before. As the doors of the coach opened a virtual caravan of peddlers and food sellers streamed onto the vehicle, offering assorted newspapers and magazines, all sorts of drinks, from fresh juices to beer and tasty things to eat. Most delicious of all were the empanadas, fried and baked – reminiscent of Cornish pasties – filled with either cheese, tuna or meat. And there were also huge, green, sweet ripe palta – known to just about everyone else in the world beyond the borders of Chile and Peru as avocado…
One of the most exciting aspects for me in particular regarding our adventure was that it was my first time across the Atlantic Ocean – in fact, it was my first journey into a significantly different time-zone. So, when by our second evening in Chile I still hadn’t suffered any apparent symptoms of jet-lag it made me sceptical about the whole concept. That evening, following our long bus journey from Santiago, we were spending the night in the coastal city of Antofagasta before catching our next ride to Calama the following afternoon. Dido was still quasi vegetarian in those days (she ate some fish) and often got a craving for pasta, and as luck would have it, our Lonely Planet guide recommended an Italian restaurant as being the best place in town. After almost a day on a coach eating nothing but snacks, we were both ravenous and ordered extra large portions of pasta and we must have been about half-way through our respective plates of spaghetti when I was struck by an acute attack of something known as “delayed jet-lag”. The last thing I remember was feeling as if I’d been given a sudden heavy dose of anesthetic gas. Then, the next thing I knew, I was staggering into the street with my arm over Dido’s shoulder with Bolognese sauce all over my face. According to my mortified wife, I had fainted head-first into my pasta, and the maitre d, assuming I was drunk demanded that we leave – immediately…
The breakfast at the Hotel Splendid in Calama turned out to be as “charming” as the sleeping arrangements. As we took our table in the dingy breakfast room we were confronted with a pot of hot water, a jar of instant coffee and two slices of dry toast. When I asked the lady of the establishment – a stocky little woman with unkempt greasy grey hair, a cigarette stub apparently glued to her lower lip, and wearing a food-stained pinny –  if there was any butter, she grunted in the affirmative. Then, to my amazement and horror, she went over to the neighbouring table where an elderly man in a dressing-gown was eating his breakfast and took the piece of toast from his hand, picked up his knife and scraped all the butter she could from it. She then came back to us and spread his butter scrapings onto my toast…

Back in the early 90’s the place to stay in San Pedro de Atacama, at least if one considered oneself a real traveller, was “Bobby’s Place”. From what I can recall Bobby herself (Bobby was a she not a he) was an Australian lady in late middle-age. She was the epitome – almost to the point of being a walking-talking cliché – of the intrepid travelling adventuress, finally settling down in the  evening of her years. Long silver hair tied back in a ponytail; sun-stained leathery skin; bright eyes glistening with weary knowledge and intelligence, she could have been Karen Blixen’s antipodean younger sister. And her eponymous establishment was as laid-back, affable and welcoming-yet-world-weary as she was herself. We loved almost everything about our stay at Bobby’s – the faded Hemingway-esque hunting-lodge atmosphere, chilly evenings, sat around the vast open fireplace sipping her delicious pisco sours and the clean, comfortable quiet rooms. The only feature of Bobby’s place which failed to please was the shower. Not so much a shower actually as a gravity defying twin trickle/dribble of water which miraculously descended in a form of arc, so that if one stood beneath the shower-head it missed one altogether. Getting clean meant opting for one of the two dribbles  and having the patience of a saint…
Bobby had a large dog of mixed parentage and as with his owner, the dog was hugely affable towards all the guests staying at his mistress’s establishment. But on occasion, with guests who reciprocated his friendliness, he would take a special liking and become virtually inseparable. During our stay the dog took just such a liking to another couple. His affection towards them was understandable as they were particularly charming and charismatic. A little older than us, she was German and ran a travel business in Santiago, while he was a  junior English diplomat on secondment at the British Embassy. They’d come to San Pedro for a romantic long-weekend and their favourite pastime (when not in their bedroom) was going for ambles alongside the local river. On the third afternoon of our stay we were sitting on the stoop outside our room when we were confronted with the scene portrayed in the drawing above. But it was only later that night that we found out the story behind the picture: Our couple had gone off on their usual riverside walk accompanied by the dog, which was fine, until they passed by a woman grazing her two sheep. Without warning the dog jumped one of the sheep and killed it. The woman, naturally distraught and angry began screaming and shouting at our couple for failing to control their dog – at which point, as if on cue, the local mounted policeman appeared. After listening to the woman he told our couple that they would have to compensate the woman for her dead sheep. When they then explained the situation and their relationship to the dog, the dubious policeman told them to take him to the actual owner of the dog, which they did, with him – bearing the woolly carcass on his mount – the bloodied dog, the woman and her remaining sheep in tow. Of course Bobby sorted out the situation, and even cooked the sheep a couple of days later for her guests. It was the best mutton stew I ever tasted!
During our stay in Iquique we took a day trip to see one of Chile’s ancient man-made wonders, The Giant of the Atacama. We anticipated that getting to see the “largest anthropomorphic geoglyph in the world” with our own eyes would be a highlight of our visit to Chile, and so it would have been, if we hadn’t vastly overestimated the number of fellow travelers to the same site. We presumed The Giant would be a mecca for a whole host of visitors, including everyone from the millions of credulous believers in Von Daniken to the thousands of people with an interest in pre-Columbian civilization – and all those in between. Obviously, aware of the remoteness of the site we didn’t expect everyone to be there at the same moment, but we took it for granted that there would be dozens of people there at any one time. Thus, it never entered our minds that we would have any trouble getting to and from The Giant without our own car. Even worse, we had misread the distance on our – by now very worn – map, from the Highway 5 bus stop to The Giant as being only 2 kilometers (easily walkable, even under the desert sun) when it was in fact 12! Nevertheless, when a car stopped and we were given a ride to The Giant almost before we had even begun to raise our thumbs, our original presumption seemed to have been correct. However, we had been at the site barely ten minutes when our kindly lift-givers got bored and decided to leave. So, when they offered to take us back to the highway bus stop (which we now realised was 12 k’s and not 2) we had a decision to make. Ignore the significant fact that we and our ride buddies were the only people there, and stay on a while longer at this amazing site, or do the sensible – “been there / seen it” – thing and accept the lift. Like the classic “Darwin Award” idiots we all read about everyday in the newspapers (who go fell walking in sneakers, or swimming in pools known to be infested with salt-water crocodiles, or who light up a cigarette while standing over a cesspit) we decided to stay on “a while longer”… Needless to say, an hour passed and nobody came. So, we decided to walk the actual 2 kilometers back to the dirt track (marked as “minor-road 15) and see if we could at least get a lift from there. Problem was, by this time we were already down to the last few sips of water in our single 1/2 liter bottle and beginning to roast as the sun reached its highest point in the vast desert sky. By the time we made it onto the track we knew that we might be in serious trouble. There was no shelter of any kind, our water was gone, and our exposed arms were beginning to burn. At this point we didn’t know whether we should stay put or attempt the 10 k walk to the main road. After a ten minute rest we began to walk – or rather, stagger along the track, and then almost immediately we heard a vehicle approaching from behind, going in our direction. But our elation was only momentary, as the car sped past without even slowing down, it’s exhaust and dust adding mocking insult to injury. But then, after about another hour, a second vehicle – a small truck – emerged from the east, heading west and its driver , this time, took pity on us and dropped us at the bus stop. Now whenever we think of The Giant, or just about any other South American geoglyph our first reflex is to reach for a water bottle…
No stay in Chile’s northernmost city of Arica is complete without an excursion to the Lauca National Park – with its fabled lakes and volcanoes. Only problem was, the park sat at 4500 meters above sea-level, and altitude sickness was likely to be a serious issue. One of the ways of militating against the worst effects of this however was to make sure one traveled up to the park in the hands of expert guides with state-of-the-art oxygen and resuscitation equipment. But sadly, our limited budget made us forget the lessons of our near-disastrous trip the previous week to Atacama Giant and we opted for the cheapest guided tour we could find. We sensed the worst when we boarded the clapped-out minibus with hard wooden benches for seats and two broken windows. However, there was a big oxygen canister on a shelf above the driver, and it was only a day-trip for goodness sake, we reassured ourselves – what could go wrong on such a short trip? There were about ten of us on the bus, and by the time our vehicle had crawled up past 3.500 meters the more elderly passengers were already beginning to feel the effects of the thinning air. Dido and I at least, felt fine during the entire drive up and it was only when we disembarked at Lake Chungara that the “puna” (the colloquial term for altitude sickness) hit us both – like a brick. The only way I can explain the sensation was that when I tried to walk it felt like one of those bad dreams, when one is trying to flee from some horror or other and one’s legs won’t move. And it wasn’t just the sluggishness; it was actually quite hard to think straight. To this day, I have barely any recollection of how I managed to fill an entire roll of film with some the most spectacular shots of the entire trip – of the lake itself, the surrounding volcanoes, the herds of grazing guanaco and the incredible candlestick cacti. Even Dido, who was super fit in those days, had to lie down after a few minutes of walking around, while I found the only way I could be comfortable at all was to adopt a kind of Muslim prayer position on the ground. Meanwhile, I recall seeing people chucking-up all over the place and one other poor old American guy pass out altogether. It was then that the guide told us that the oxygen canister was empty, resulting in another member of our party – a retired GP as it turned out – having to resuscitate the American gentleman in the manner illustrated in the picture above. Eventually, we all managed to clamber back onto the bus where the guide had brewed up a kettle of coca tea. Whether or not the tea had any effect, somehow we were all still alive by the time we got back to Arica…
About halfway through our stay in Chile we decided to take a few days off and visit the lake district. We booked the train for the overnight journey from Santiago to Puerto Varas, believing we had reserved a compartment. However, we were disappointed to discover on boarding that we were in a couchette with half-dozen other people. A short time out of Santiago Dido went looking for the loo. She returned in an animated state saying that the next carriage comprised only compartments, and that they were all empty. When the porter then came to clip our tickets I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to a compartment to which he shrugged, smiled and muttered under his breath ‘perhaps’… Without thinking I reached into my pocket, and pulled out about $40.00 worth of Chilean Pesos from my wallet . Then, checking his expression and seeing that he was receptive I discreetly slipped the money into his hand. ‘Twenty minutes’ he said gesturing with his head back towards the next carriage; ‘I will prepare the first compartment for you’. And good to his word, the compartment was prepared. It was beautiful: Old British rolling stock from the age of steam, like a scene from From Russia with Love or Murder on Orient Express; only slightly faded, deep green velvet drapes and furniture and shimmering mahogany paneling. The porter had immaculately turned down the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets on the two broad bunk beds, in addition to his final touch – two expertly prepared pisco sours in old-style crystal cocktail glasses placed on the little pull-out table. We were in romantic heaven, and needless to say we enjoyed one of the best nights of our trip…

The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides.  While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!

Before we began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids in Santiago, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree it was like walking into a dazzling palace of kitsch. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every façade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the landlady: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: with her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…
We met several wonderful people during our stay in Chile, and made some enduring friendships. Perhaps the most exotic and exciting person we met was Georgina Gubbins, an English-born woman with a truly international upbringing, who had ended up with Chile as her’s and her family’s primary home. Craftswoman, artist, author and beautiful mother of three equally beautiful daughters Georgina was one of those energetic people whose bristling enthusiasm is so infectious she had the knack of getting her friends to do things they wouldn’t normally consider in a month of Sundays.
I can’t quite recall what prompted Georgina to suggest we try going up in a glider over Santiago – bizarrely it might have had something to do with me telling her about the acute flying phobia I was suffering from at the time – but I can honestly say it was an activity which neither of us had ever before contemplated. Anyhow, one afternoon towards the end our trip, before we knew what was going on, she had driven us to a Santiago gliding club and convinced us both to “have a go” in a powerless aircraft.
I should point out at this point, before readers get too alarmed that these were two-seater gliders, and that we were in the hands of experienced pilots. Nevertheless, as we were towed thousands of feet up into the sky by a single-engine biplane I’ve rarely felt a greater thrill.
Like most people who had only ever viewed them from terra firma I had always had two firm conceptions about gliders and gliding, both of which were dispelled the moment we were released from the towrope. Gliding is neither silent nor smooth; quite the opposite in fact! The air whistles and howls around the cockpit canopy, and the wind buffets and jolts the wings and fuselage with each and every movement of the aircraft for the entirety of the flight . So much so, that my pilot was forced to yelling at me when he wanted to point out all the gob-smacking sights and vistas beneath and around us.
Most of the flight was over Santiago’s sprawling eastern suburbs, but we also skimmed past the western edge of the neighboring Andean wall of snow-capped mountains, the tallest of which in the far Argentinian distance was the mighty Aconcagua. Towards the end of the mini-voyage we flew over a large compound that comprised the dwelling of the retired dictator, Augosto Pinochet, and shortly after that the pilot gave me control of the glider. The picture above describes what happened next – or at least how it seemed to me at the time, when in my over-excited state I put the glider into a virtual role. Thankfully, my pilot was unfazed by my surprise maneuver  and instantly regained control to land us safely back at the gliding club.
My amateur aerobatics notwithstanding, the brief glide over the outskirts of Santiago remains a vivid and treasured memory from a trip already rich in awe-inspiring memories. Thank you Georgina!
As a fitting finale to our trip, on our very last day in Chile, Dido had somehow arranged for a meeting with Chile’s top academic in the field of South American folk music and dance. Among other things she was keen to learn more from him about the native dances of Chile, especially the history of the national dance of Chile, the famous Cueca.
The good professor – who shall remain nameless – manifested as a human whirlwind. A cross between the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil and a classical ballet dancer, from the instant he welcomed us into his small office at the University of Santiago until the time it came for us to leave he was in perpetual motion. We never sat down during the hour or so we were with him and neither did he – in fact I don’t recall seeing a single chair in the room. Thinking about it now, I don’t think that the professor was physically capable of sitting down, any more than a goldfish can stop swimming. Occasionally, as he considered one of Dido’s many queries, he would momentarily hover on one leg balancing himself by making elegant conductor-like movements with his outstretched arms. Then, as an answer came to him he would pirouette back into spinning mode, all the time grabbing papers and pamphlets from the top of shelves and filing cabinets – before seemingly in one motion, depositing them in an ever-growing pile in Dido’s grateful arms.
Like his beloved Chile, the professor was quirky and rewarding in equal measure, and we will never forget him or his equally weird and wonderful country.

PHOTO-CURIOS (revisited)

I’ve been making greetings card designs and images for decades now – initially doing freelance work for greetings card companies and poster publishers and more recently producing images for my own Moody By Nature label. Over the years I’ve done everything from cartoon smut (professionally referred to as “erotic humour”) to soppy Christmas and birthday penguins and polar bears (yes, you can probably blame me for the proliferation of penguin cards from the 90’s onward). Lately though, I’ve been busy with more photographic based themes and images.

Here is a small selection from a series I somewhat blandly titled curiosities, for obvious reasons…

“Bolt Masala” is from a photo I took in a metal engineering factory reception office in Coimbatore in southern India – hence the “masala” connotation.

I spotted the old boots suspended by their laces for “Good Use” in the delightful artists village of Ein Hod on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. It’s proven popular both as a retirement and as an anniversary card…

…as has “Growing Old Together Gracefully” (as an anniversary card that is!) which displays two venerable phone boxes in Hampstead.
“Pond Life” was snapped in the exquisite Alcazar gardens in Seville.
I was struck by the image of “The Blue Cup” in the unlikely setting of Sherwood Forrest – more famous for hosting the “merry men” in Lincoln Green.
Finally, I saw the yellow balloon languishing in a puddle on the Regent’s Canal  towpath (north London) on “New Years Day” 2011 – having lost my dear mother barely three months before it seemed like a poignant metaphor for the past year…

THE DUKE, THE DUCHESS, THE LOO AND THE BATHROOM (and me) (part II)

THE AMUSING TALE OF HOW I ACQUIRED MY MOST ILLUSTRIUS PATRON, CONCLUDED (part I here)…

I arrived at the imposing front door of the Duke of Devonshire’s red brick Mayfair house in Chesterfield Street a few minutes early. Because I was carrying two 3×2 foot canvases my mother had kindly offered to drive me into town from our home in Edgware (north London), rather than have me negotiate the tube or a bus with my awkward burden. With just a polythene sheet to protect them, I was terrified of presenting two dented paintings.

Mum offered to try and find a parking space and wait for me, but I told her not to bother. For one thing, I had no clue how long I would be with the Duke, and for another, I’d either be returning with one or two “rejected” pictures, or hopefully, emptyhanded. In any case, I would be happy to risk some form of London transport.

Tel Hai – oil on canvas – 1983 – The painting which was kept at Chesterfield Street

Within moments of me ringing the door bell, for the first and (thus far) last time in my life, I was greeted by a butler, who with a mixture of firmness and politeness guided me up a flight of stairs to the “drawing room”. After I carefully set down the paintings against an armchair, the butler, who could have been the role model for Jeeves himself, informed me that “His Grace” would be down “presently”, then, gesturing toward a well stocked eponymously-named tray, asked me if I would like a drink while I waited. Thinking a stiff scotch might be just the thing to calm my slightly frazzled nerves I answered in the affirmative. Then, after having served me a large, heavy, cut glass highball, filled to the brim with Dimple Haig and ice, the butler left me alone to contemplate my extraordinary surroundings.

The fine regency and early Victorian furnishings were typical of such an environment, but what was less expected was the array of modern artwork hanging on all the walls. It comprised a comprehensive collection of pictures by nearly all the major painters of the 20th Century – from Picasso to Rothko, and from Matisse to Miro. While I knew the Duke was a keen collector of contemporary art, nothing could have prepared me for such a superlative display.

The Hula Valley (from Tel Hai) – oil on canvas – 1983 – The painting destined for Chatsworth.

As I shifted my gaze from an unexpectedly vivid and jolly early portrait by Munch to my own two modest canvases, I found myself taking an extra large slug of the Dimple. Then, fortunately, before I had time to terrorise myself further, the door opened and the Duke entered, walked toward me, a welcoming smile on his face, and arm outstretched. He was taller and leaner than I expected, and similarly to his butler, drawn straight from the pages of a Wodehouse novel, almost as if I was being approached by Lord Emsworth. “What a great pleasure to meet you Mr Green!” he said, with disarming warmth and charm, gently but firmly shaking my hand. “How kind of you to come!” Then, noticing the state of my glass, and no-doubt sensing my agitated state he suggested I go and top myself up, which I gratefully did.

“If you would be so kind, I think we had better take a look at what you’ve brought, don’t you?” he said, then added, “Why don’t you unwrap them and put them up on the couch.” I did as he requested, and then stood back, by the Duke’s side while, chin in hand, he contemplated my two humble landscapes. “From the north of the country, if I’m not mistaken?”

Impressed with his knowledge of Israeli geography, I confirmed he was correct and then explained a little about the paintings. “I think they are both terrific Mr Green! Sadly, one doesn’t see many competent landscapes like this of Israel – at least not done by Israeli artists. They capture the essence of the place so precisely! I would love to add them to my collection!”

With that, he went over to a sideboard, opened a drawer, withdrew a large chequebook and a pen, handed me both and asked me to write a cheque for the value of the two pictures. Having done as requested, the Duke then signed the cheque, tore it out of the book and handed it to me. “Now” he said, “let’s go and see where we can hang the one staying here…”

Chatsworth House – arguably, the greatest stately home and palace in Britain, with an art collection to rival that of the Queen herself.

He then led me on a remarkable tour of the Chesterfield Street house, from the cellar to the upper bedrooms, stopping from time to time, to give me some fascinating anecdote about this or that amazing picture, the artist who made it and how he came to purchase it. About ten minutes into the tour, we were half way down a staircase, when he pointed out a space between two small oil paintings. “I think we could put your Tel Hai painting here? What do you think Mr Green?” he asked. The painting on the right of the space was a very early Lowry painting of a street scene, dating from before he developed his stick-figure style – and all the better for it – while the painting on the right was a colourful still-life by Mathew Smith. I was speechless for a moment or two, then mumbled my approval. “In case you were wondering, I thought we’d take the other one of the Hula Valley back to Chatsworth. I think it would be lovely to have a picture of Israel in our bedroom. I hope that’s okay?”

A few minutes later, with me still in a kind of euphoric daze, we walked into a bathroom, and there, leaning over the sink, putting on her lipstick, dressed only in a black silk and lace negligee, was the most beautiful sexagenarian lady I had ever seen. “Excuse us Debs darling” said the Duke, “this is that brilliant young artist I told you about, Adam Green, and I just wanted to show him that little Henry Moore by the bath”. “Don’t mind me you two” replied the Duchess (and the youngest and last surviving of the famous and infamous Mitford sisters). “A pleasure to meet you” she added, glancing at me in the mirror, still applying the finishing touches of lipstick, “but do hurry Andrew dear, we can’t be late for the reception”.

The Moore was a miniature, or possibly a sketch piece for a far larger work I thought I recognised, but my main impression from that fleeting visit to the Ducal bathroom was the blemish-less, glowing skin, and youthful form of the Dowager Duchess of Chatsworth, not to mention her lack of inhibition.

If the Duke reminded me of a more together version of Lord Emsworth, the Duchess, even in her underwear, oozed that peculiar type of serene confidence that is the birthright of the British upper class.

The tour lasted about 45 minutes in all, and I was shown to the door by the Duke himself. As we shook hands for the second time, he said in parting, “Do be sure to keep me informed about your progress Mr Green, and do let me know if I can ever be of service…” As I sat on the top of the 113 bus back to Edgware, I felt as if I was waking slowly from a dream.

It wasn’t a dream however, and several years later, the Duke, true to his word, generously opened my one and only West End one-man-show with a typically kind and charming address.

Looking back at it all now, my abiding memory isn’t of walls laden with modern masterpieces, nor of my own pictures being among them, nor even of the sweet and kindly old Duke; but of the beautiful Debs, in her negligee, and her stick of crimson lippy…