I nearly titled this as a third straight “yearning” post, in the sense that after three months lock-down here in Oxford we are desperate to get back to our finca in southern Spain. But seeing as we are actually returning there tomorrow I decided on a catchier and hopefully more optimistic heading.
In fairness, when we’ve been in Spain for as long as we’ve now been in England there’s plenty I miss about our other lives in London and Oxford, but the longing is rarely as intense as what we are experiencing right now for our Andalusian home.
And perhaps there’s the clue; the fact that our little farm in the foothills of the Sierra Tajeda is the nearest thing Dido and I have ever had to a settled home. We’ve certainly owned it for more than three times as long as any of our previous homes (separately or together), and then there’s all the sweat and blood we’ve dripped into the building of our house and the rocky soil upon which it stands.
But perhaps, more than all of that, it’s simply the way the setting of our finca has ingrained itself into the fabric of our being through the sheer power of its ridiculous beauty.
So, although we missed wonders like the almond blossom display this year, thanks to about thirty years of memories, and images like the ones on show here, we can never truly miss them – they live inside of us, rendering us unusually fortunate.
With the festive season well underway (Hanukkah is already over) and the year wrapping up, we now find ourselves dashing madly between Jönköping, London, Oxford and finally Malaga. All of which means that once again I have only a little time for writing these posts.
Normal service will be resumed in the new year, but for now and the following post, my pictures will have to do most of the talking for themselves. In this case, here is a collection of amazing skies I have been fortunate to find myself beneath from time to time, both at home and on our travels…
We’re often asked by people we meet, and who are familiar with our life story, if we watch the TV show, Grand Designs (on the UK’s Channel 4). For the uninitiated, in 1993 Dido and I together with a small team of local builders and on a limited budget built a house on a rugged hilltop in the south of Spain. Grand Designs is a program which follows people – often young to middle aged couples (as we then were in 93) – as they undertake unusual and ambitious house-building projects similar to our own, with much of the drama emanating from all the trials and tribulations of the process. Invariably dreams turn into nightmares and then finally – though not always – the original dreams are more or less attained. And perhaps because there was so much pain, mental and physical, during our building experience my answer to the question is that I rarely watch the program. The few times I have it usually culminates in me experiencing a mild form of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially when the subject suckers – I mean subject couples – go through their own darker moments and mini-disasters.
Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding clichéd, for us, as with most of the Grand Design people, it all worked out in the end and we now have an extraordinary house and home. The question of whether or not it was worth it, and if, given the choice we would do it all again is something of a moot point. Certainly, we wouldn’t do it the same way again. We wouldn’t restore an existing ruin and tie it into a new additional structure – a process that doubled both the time and cost of the project, and necessitated Dido and I becoming labourers on our own build to speed things up and to save costs. No, if we did it again, we’d do what the locals here do – bulldoze the site into a flat platform and build a completely new structure.
This is something of a second instalment to an earlier post called Walking over Almonds and some of the background, including what the original semi-ruined cottage looked like can be found there. Suffice to say here that with one or two expedient modifications from the original plans the build took around six months, beginning in the summer of 1993, and used up every penny we had (although at least we didn’t go into debt). Our architect was the gifted – Bartlett trained – Seattle-based Mark Travers (who we paid with one of my huge oil canvases of the Atacama). Between the three of us (with some help from a structural engineer friend of Mark’s) we came up with a well-built house exactly suited to our needs and passions, and, for a contemporary Andalusian dwelling, unusually sympathetic to its immediate environment.
This is an unavoidably larger post than usual and the photos of the build, being from (crudely ) digitally converted old film, are not up to my usual standards. Regardless, I hope there is much of interest here, for those who know us as well as for those who do not, and perhaps even one or two useful pointers for those thinking of embarking upon a similar project…
Having had such a positive response to my earlier post “The Morning After…” I’m now following that up with another series of images which have done well for me in the past, having given them a similar treatment to the nudes.
These originate from studies I did of my wife Dido and a girlfriend of hers – another ex-Royal ballerina – as they kindly posed and pranced around for me one evening here on our terrace in southern Spain many exotic moons ago.
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 b’Jesus 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…
I’m sitting on my south terrace of my house in the Sierra Tajeda foothills as I compose this piece. To the right hand side of my laptop is a Jim Beam marked glass filled to the brim with Moscow Vodka and tonic, with a thick chunk of our home grown sweet lime floating on the top.
Emanating from the open library window to my right are the divine strains of late great Victoria de los Angeles singing Chants d’Auvergne in her deliciously rounded mezzo soprano, so suited to those gently moody ancient lullabies.
Behind me, inside the main room of the house is a freshly caught sea bass patiently waiting in the fridge to form the substantial part of my imminent supper.
Before me, between the oleanders and cypresses, in the near-but-heat-hazy distance is the Mediterranean Sea, in which my bass was still swimming only this morning.
As the shadows begin to lengthen, and defined colours replace blinding monochrome, at last the excoriating heat of the day is giving way to the sensual caressing cool of the south-Spanish evening.
But for the fact I am missing my wife Dido, who is driving in heavy traffic from Oxford to London as I sit here typing these words, I really think I could almost be in heaven.
The picture above dates back to when we first moved here – with our Maremma sheepdog Aura – and the only available shade was under our old carob tree (in fact, the only mature tree we had). That was also heaven, albeit minus the laptops, stereos and Russian Vodka, which all goes to show, that even heaven, like just about everything else, is merely a relative concept…