POINTS AND VIEWS

Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.

Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…

Fellow Worker at Yiftach - Israel
In 1978 I was a volunteer for the summer on Kibbutz Yiftach on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. This is the view from the north east corner of the kibbutz towards Mount Herman…

Simon at Slee Head - Kerry Coast - Ireland

This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…

On Gilboa - Israel

Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…

Friend above Ein-Kerem - Jerusalem
In 1980 I spent the summer with a friend in west Jerusalem. Every day for about a fortnight we walked into the forest above Ein Kerem to draw and paint. the scent of pine needles roasting on the ancient terraced slopes was intoxicating…
Les 2 Alps Bench
One my first trips abroad with my then-girlfriend Dido was a skiing trip to Les Deux Alpes. The skiing wasn’t up to all that much but the walk into the neighbouring valley was some compensation…
Dido by San Pedro River (Chile)
Walking back to San Pedro de Atacama after visiting the pre-Inca ruins of  Pukara de Quitor – the mighty Volcan Lincancabur stands proud in the distance…
Friend Marvelling at the Atacama in Bloom (Chile)
Later during the same 1991 trip we were privileged to witness the first serious rains over the the southern Atacama desert in 40 years. The subsequent desert blooming  was regarded by some Chileans as nature celebrating the beginning of the post-Pinochet era…
Dido and Friend on Road to Santiago (Chile).jpg
Santiago’s de Chile’s curse and glory are the walls of mountains which surround it; a pollution trap on the one hand and on the other – as can be seen from this picture taken on the road back from Valparaiso – beautiful on the eye…
Coursegoule - South of France
Coursegoules in southern France…
Dido at Point Sublime - Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
We started travelling to Australia regularly from 2007 thanks to Dido’s work. Here she is at the aptly named “Point Sublime” at the edge of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales…
Dido at Cardona (Catalonia)
And here’s Dido at the castle of Cardona (now a delightful parador) in the Catalan countryside…
Dido Approaching the Small Crator
And, from some 30 years after my stay on Kibbutz Yiftach, a set of images from Israel taken in the early 2010’s. Here’s Dido again approaching the edge of one of the Negev craters…
Dido at the Great Crater - Negev
And sitting at the edge of that crater…
Timna - Negev Desert
The Wilderness of Zin…
Golan - Above the Yabock Valley
And finally, from the “biblical south” to the “biblical north” – Hereford cattle notwithstanding – looking down from the Golan Heights (biblical Bashan) towards the valley of the River Jabock, of Jacob and Esau fame.
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WANDERINGS AND WONDERING OF YOUTH

Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.

But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.

All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.

Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;

Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;

A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;

Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.

About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;

Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);

In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;

And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.

However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.

The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).

Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…

DOG DAYS 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…

DOG DAYS 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!

“SPANISH DAYS II – A Story of Crop Rotation”

Here’s a cautionary tale set down in comic-strip form from our second year here at our finca in southern Spain. I actually made it as a birthday card to Dido the June following our first grape harvest, although I’m not sure how amused she was by the memory.  The message is pretty unsubtle and obvious – don’t gorge yourself on moscatel grapes, however delicious or bountiful!! Good for trees – humans, not so much…The same goes for figs by the way…

ALHAMBRA ARCHES

THESE DAYS, VIEWING THE ALHAMBRA PALACE IS MORE OF A CHORE THAN A JOY. THE PLACE IS SO POPULAR WITH TOURISTS THAT YOU HAVE TO PRE-BOOK DAYS AHEAD (WEEKS AHEAD IN SUMMER) FOR A “SLOT” FOR THE DUBIOUS “PLEASURE” OF SHARING ONES’S VIEWING EXPERIENCE WITH A THOUSAND FELLOW SARDINES. ON MY LAST VISIT, THE CROWDS WERE SO DENSE, ESPECIALLY AT THE PALACE ITSELF, IT FELT MORE LIKE LEAVING A FOOTBALL STADIUM THAN A GENTLE AMBLE AROUND ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS ON EARTH.

FORTUNATELY FOR ME, THIS WAS NOT ALWAYS THE CASE.  ONE BALMY NOVEMBER DAY, BACK IN THE MID 1980’S, BEFORE THE NEED FOR “SLOTS”, MY THEN PARTNER AND I VIRTUALLY HAD THE PLACE TO OURSELVES AND IT REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TREASURED “SIGHTSEEING” MEMORIES OF MY LIFE. NOT ONLY DID WE HAVE THE TIME AND SPACE TO TRULY APPRECIATE THE UNDERSTATED GLORY OF THE PALACE ITSELF, THE FRAGRANT GLADES AND PATHWAYS OF THE GENERALIFE GARDENS WERE AS TRANQUIL AND SOOTHING UPON THE SENSES AS THEY WERE DESIGNED TO BE.

THE EIGHT IMAGES HERE ARE FROM PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN DURING THAT VISIT, AND I THINK THEY CAPTURE SOMETHING OF THE SERENITY WE EXPERIENCED.

(camera used – Nikon FE)

Gardens of Spain 1 – The Garden of the Alcázar of Seville

THESE IMAGES ARE FROM PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN BACK IN THE MID TO LATE 80’S – TO THIS DAY IT REMAINS MY FAVOURITE AND MOST ROMANTIC GARDEN OF ALL THOSE I HAVE EVER VISITED – THE FACT THAT ON BOTH MY VISITS I WAS ACCOMPANIED BY A BEAUTIFUL GIRL MIGHT HAVE SOMETHING TO DO WITH THAT…

THE SONS OF KOHATH – EXCERPTS – Part 3

I PRESENT HERE THE THIRD IN  A SERIES OF SIX EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL

(Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)

THE SONS OF KOHATH

Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God

23

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 mostly 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.

 24

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 raciones 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.

25

In the event, it took them barely twenty minutes to polish off all their food. Alex and Elena, always voracious eaters, ate even faster than usual in their eagerness to hear Carlos’ story. As for Carlos, although not the trencherman that his late brother was he nevertheless ate with the gusto typical of a Malagueño.

Alex never ceased to marvel at the way eating bonded all Spanish of all backgrounds and of all cultures. ‘If you ever wanted to achieve successful peace talks between ETA and government officials’ he would occasionally say to Elena when reading the morning paper or watching the evening news, ‘just get them around a table in a good restaurant and ply them with food and wine.’ He guessed it was another mostly unacknowledged cultural reminder from their Moorish past, when food and hospitality were synonymous and often played a role in diplomacy. There was something about eating with total strangers which seemed to break down the barriers of traditional Spanish reserve. The act of sharing tapas in particular, whereby one took food from the same plate as one’s fellow diners seemed somehow intimate and socially levelling.

Tradition had it that the origins of tapas lay in the fact that people used to place little bits of bread on their wine glasses to prevent flies landing in their drink. Hence the word “tapas”, derived from “tapón”, meaning top or lid. Supposedly, over the years it gradually became the custom to adorn the bits of bread with morsels of food such as ham or cheese. Eventually the morsels became more and more elaborate until the humble fly stopper evolved into modern tapas. Alex though had never been convinced of this theory. Rather, he saw in tapas yet another link back to southern Spain’s long years under the Moors and to the tradition of the Arab mezze.

As an accomplished historian he knew the danger of basing historical theories on the apparent similarity of words and sounds. While no one could dispute the tremendous value of the disciplines of etymology and philology as tools for the study of history, used in non-contextual isolation they could lead to incredible conclusions. They were also in some ways the most intellectually accessible of the various historical study tools and were thus extremely popular with many enthusiastic amateur “scholars” or worse still, self-proclaimed so-called “interdisciplinary scholars” whose works populated the history bookshelves in ever growing quantities.

Alex knew though that it wasn’t merely these often dubiously intentioned “inter-disciplinarians” who were guilty of allowing their preconceptions and ideologies to cloud their historical judgement. More and more he was having to contend with a small but ever growing band of revisionist historians who at best misrepresented historical context and at worst ignored it altogether to make history “fit” their own modern prejudices. While this had always been the practice of historians writing under the patronage of the Church or totalitarian regimes the fact that groups of mostly young, mostly left-leaning historians were now emerging in pockets all over Western Europe—and especially in Italy and West Germany—engaged in a virtual campaign of wilful “historical vandalism”, was worrying to the likes of Alex and Elena.

Although the situation was not yet quite so bad in Spain, Elena knew that once Franco was gone the Spanish academic environment would prove a particularly fertile breeding ground for historical revisionism. She would always explain to her new students that ‘history is not a plaything to be bent and adjusted to suit one’s own whims. Approaching history with fixed preconceptions is a recipe for learning nothing. Rather, treat history like science. Presume nothing. Be surprised. Be disappointed. Make discoveries, or discover nothing. Always strive for the truth but if you can’t get to the truth, never be dishonest. Just accept it and move on. Never replace an undiscovered truth with a presupposition. Good historians, like good scientists are sparing with their certainties and generous with their ideas. Bad historians are generous with their certainties and their certainties taint all their ideas…’

Fortunately for Elena and Alex it seemed from what little Carlos had told them while they ate that he shared their scholastic doctrine. He explained how he had approached the subject of Samuel Halevi and the Transito in the same way he would a subject of scientific research, ‘…with a mixture of scepticism and an open mind’ he then added; ‘In fact I can tell you now that after ten years of spending practically every moment of my free time researching Samuel, the Ark and all the related material I am thousand per cent more confident about my genetic mapping code hypothesis than I am about how the Ark of the Covenant ended up in Toledo. I’m sorry to have to admit it but if you were coming here tonight thinking I was about to share with you a great revelation about the Ark, you will be sorely disappointed.’

‘I can tell you Carlos, that we had no such expectations’ said Alex. ‘We left home tonight expecting to hear wisdom from one of the great academics of our time, not a load of esoteric bullshit.’

‘Good, because what I am about to tell you, despite Loli’s hyperbole is merely an attempt at a reconstruction of the events that could plausibly explain how the Ark ended up here. In the end that’s the only absolute I had to work with—the fact that the Ark is herenow. It’s similar in a way to a scientific problem—like the discovery of DNA for example. If you think about it, DNA is like the Ark. We believed it was there for years, but had no proof. It was only when Rosalind Franklin obtained her amazing x-ray images that we were able to glimpse beneath the canopy so to speak for the first time. And what we are doing now, in all the years since is trying to explain the how and the why. And I have tried to come up with an answer to explain how and why the Ark, which we now know is an actual object, ended up in the hands of the one man in the 14th century world best placed to appreciate it and care for it.’

There was a sudden change in Carlos’ speaking style. An abrupt switch from relaxed conversational speech to a formal lecturing tone, as if his professorial self was separate from regular, social Carlos.

This was a phenomenon which Elena had first noticed in her late paternal uncle whose personality transformed the instant he put on his white dentist’s jacket. One moment he was an easy-going jovial boisterous larger-than-life character; the next he was a serious almost sombre medical professional and whose considerable bulk altered from merely fat, to imposing. She also observed (what she termed) the “shift” in Alex. The couple of times she had sat in on one of his lectures or brought him in coffee when he was with a student at home she barely recognised him.

The degree of “shift” in Carlos was exactly what she would have expected from one of the greatest living academics in Spain. The tone of his voice and the delivery of his speech altered markedly and he ceased totally from abbreviating his words. Even his normal gentle Malagueño pronunciation subtly modified into a refined Castellano and he seemed to physically grow larger in his seat. Elena guessed that his students must have held him in awe, and when she caught a glance of Alex’s raised eyebrow she knew that he was equally impressed.

‘Tonight I will restrict myself to as brief an outline as possible of my reconstruction of the Ark’s journey to Toledo. It would take me all night to give you the unabridged version which is anyway written down here in full for you to read at your leisure.’ Carlos patted his bag of notes on the chair next to him.

‘As I said, what you must constantly bear in mind is that this is just a theory. It might be completely wrong and there are other plausible possibilities. However, having started out on this investigation with a completely open mind and with a completely blank page I am as convinced as I dare permit myself to be that the story I am about to tell you describes more or less the way the Ark arrived in Toledo in the fourteenth century.’

Carlos took a long sip of fino from his glass before continuing.

‘What do you two know about the tradition of the Ark and Ethiopia?’

Elena and Alex looked at each other and shrugged. Alex said; ‘To be perfectly honest until last April most of what little I knew about the Ark was from Bible studies back at primary school.’

‘But you are an archaeologist’ stated Carlos almost as an accusation.

‘That’s true. But in the first place I’m a medievalist and secondly, even among biblical archaeologists the subject of the Ark verges on taboo—at least officially. Similar to the way the subject of the Holy Grail is treated in my own field. I’m certain that even biblical positivists like my friend Ron Smith in the States wouldn’t go near the subject of the Ark in a serious way—at least not openly—for fear of losing face with his peers.’

‘I can take it therefore that you have not told him about any of this?’ Carlos asked sounding mildly anxious.

‘Yes and no. I did consult with him and two other old friends of mine who are also Near Eastern specialists back in April.’

‘I see. And what did they have to say?’

‘Frankly, they were amazed. Like poor Vella, they too thought I’d stumbled on something more important than Tutankhamen’s tomb. They wanted to come here and see it for themselves.’

‘Oh. So what did you tell them?’ asked Carlos, his tone of concern rising slightly.

‘Well obviously I deterred them and explained how important it was for them to keep schtum.’

‘Did you tell them about the Ark?’ Carlos was now leaning across the table staring intently at Alex.

‘No not yet. But you must understand that these three guys are the world’s leading experts on this stuff and they realised as soon as they had analysed the samples and the field notes I sent them that the canopy had been constructed to house something of exceptional importance.’

‘But would they suspect that it was the Ark of the Covenant? Carlos demanded.

‘They wouldn’t state it overtly but they will be thinking it privately, I’m sure.’ Alex instinctively leaned back into his seat away from Carlos.

‘But you are confident they will be discreet for fear of making themselves look stupid among their peers.’

‘Yes!’ Alex said irritated by the interrogation; ‘That, and the much more important fact that they promised me their absolute discretion. Look Carlos, I trust these guys with my life!’ He slapped the table with his open hand to emphasise the point.

‘That’s exactly what you may be doing by having consulted with them about the structure. Don’t get annoyed with me Alex. I am only thinking of our safety.’ Carlos slowly leaned back into his own chair.

‘I know that, but you…we…have nothing to worry about from that quarter. Now, you were saying about Ethiopia…’

Carlos took a deep breath and poured himself another glass of wine, ‘Yes, Ethiopia…’

THE SONS OF KOHATH – EXCERPTS – Part 1

I PRESENT HERE THE FIRST IN SERIES OF TEN EXCERPTS FROM MY NEW NOVEL (Paperback available from Amazon and on Kindle and to order online from selected bookstores)

THE SONS OF KOHATH

Tragedy, Travesty, Tapas and the Ark of God

“ … Creator of all things above and below … Thou art the One, Creator of all that is, the One; the only One …”                    

 Egyptian hymn to Amun-Re   

“…Blessed be He, who extends the heavens and establishes the earth…He is our God; There is no other.” 

‘Alenu’, ancient Hebrew prayer

BEGINNING

‘Coño! This had better be good José―damn good!’

‘Don’t worry Alex! This is beyond good.’

‘Beyond good?’

‘Beyond my powers of description at any rate―but what the hell took you so long getting here?’

‘All flights out of Almeria were cancelled because of the storms―I had to get the bus up here―that’s what the hell took me so long! Anyway, I’m here now, so why don’t you just show me what all this fuss is about and  then I’ll let you know if  it was worth my while spending the last twelve hours aggravating my haemorrhoids on a wooden seat on a clapped out coach with no suspension on the worst damn roads in Europe!’

‘Just wait till you see it. You won’t believe your eyes.’

The tall, youthful, blond haired José Sanchez grabbed the slightly older, shorter, dark haired Alex Martinez by the arm and guided him energetically down an alley way into a small stone courtyard.

‘Here it is Alex’ José said pointing eagerly towards a large rectangular hole next to which was a neat mound of rubble and dirt. ‘Look at that and then tell me I was wrong to call you. The moment we uncovered it I knew this was work for you…’ José stopped talking for a moment when he saw Alex’s face, then said ‘I told you didn’t I?’

At first Alex could not speak. His mouth fixed open in amazement, his hands on his hips, his head shaking in sheer disbelief at what he was looking at. Then, after a minute or so he took off his spectacles and cleaned them with his shirt. Still shaking his head, squinting into the pit he said, almost lost for words, ‘Oh coño! A wonderful thing…a simply wonderful thing…’

1

It was late April 1974 when José had been commissioned by the department of antiquities to do the exploratory dig along the outside of the eastern wall of the 14th century Transito Synagogue in Toledo.

His original task had been to check the state of the foundations of the building but soon after his men began digging, the walls of what appeared to be a subterranean chamber were uncovered. By the following evening they had exposed the entire chamber.

It was in the form of a skewed rectangle, about eighteen feet long by twelve feet wide and ran lengthways roughly parallel with the rear of the synagogue. It was just over seven feet deep with a floor of exquisitely hand painted glazed turquoise-green tiles.

However, it was not the chamber itself that prompted José to approach The National Heritage Institute in Madrid and demand they summon Spain’s leading medievalist and archaeologist, Professor Alex Martinez as a matter of urgency. It was the additional discovery of a small structure standing within the sunken chamber.

It measured just over eight feet square at its base and stood a little more than five feet in height. It was in the form of a steep sided trapezoid; a flat roofed pyramid and constructed of large sand coloured limestone blocks.

With no floor of its own the structure sat on the tiles of the host chamber as a solid canopy. The narrow seam between the base of the structure and the tiled floor was sealed with mortar.

Now, as Alex Martinez peered into the chamber for the first time, and as José had correctly predicted, he found it hard to believe what was before him.

It was not merely the beauty of the structure sitting on the sumptuous tiled floor; it was the fact it existed at all, there, in that place, from that time.

To his certain knowledge, outside of cemeteries trapezoid constructions were unheard of anywhere on the Iberian Peninsula after the end of the Roman era. To discover one like this in near perfect condition, apparently dating to the Middle Ages was, in both archaeological and historical terms, a revelation. But in addition to its uniqueness, there were several intriguing features of the structure itself.

It had no doorway or normal access point of any kind.

Yet, at some time since its completion in the thirteen hundreds someone had gained access to its interior by removing the roof.

The now exposed interior space was just over five foot square at floor level.                              The surface of its inner walls was elaborately panelled in hardwood overlaid in an opulently thick layer of pure gold leaf.

The wall blocks were eighteen inch thick ashlar, apparently cut with stone flints rather than iron or steel chisels.

And most intriguing of all was a faint blue inscription on the right-hand cornerstone on the east facing outside wall.

Although Alex could not decipher it he remembered enough from his time as a student volunteer on digs in Israel to recognise the language of the writing. It was with a fair degree of astonishment he observed that the words were written in a script dating back to many centuries before Christ. The inscription on the cornerstone was in early Hebrew.

The instant he saw the inscription Alex knew that he required additional specialist expertise both to determine its date and meaning and also to help him unravel the other mysteries of the canopy’s construction.

To that end, the next day after he had first assembled his own team of archaeology students from the local university to begin the task of further investigating the site, he sent a photograph of the inscription together with samples of the stone and the timber and gold panelling up to the Department of Antiquities in Madrid for analysis.

However, there were two more aspects related to the state of the site itself and the condition of the canopy which were not merely intriguing to Alex but which he also found vaguely troubling.

Alex was familiar with the reports of all the restorations and excavations done at the synagogue since the time it had been used by Napoleon’s troops as a barracks during the Peninsula War and none of them mentioned the sunken chamber or the canopy. Yet, from the loose condition of the dirt fill and the fact it consisted mostly of aggregate typically used in modern road making Alex determined that the site had been covered over during the 1964 works, just ten years earlier.

As he observed and supervised the students going about their various tasks in and around the canopy he pondered why such a remarkable discovery was never publicised and why had it then been covered over again? ‘Could it be’ he wondered, ‘something to do with the other element of the puzzle? The fact that the removal of the roof also dated to the 1964 works…’

2

‘I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work that out’ Alex told a colleague over tapas later that evening in Madrid bar.

‘How can you be so sure?’ queried the colleague.

‘Because of this non-medieval artefact I found on the floor inside.’ From his briefcase Alex produced a twelve inch flat headed drill bit with a broken tip. ‘Whoever removed the roof used this’ he stated placing the bit on the bar. ‘So far as I know they didn’t have pneumatic drills in the fourteenth century.’

His colleague looked suitably intrigued.

‘And that’s not all’ added Alex. ‘We also found ropes and a crowbar.’

‘Quite a tool kit!’

‘All the tools required in fact for lifting off the loosened roof and preventing it from crashing down onto whatever was inside the canopy. Most of the roof is still intact on the floor of the host chamber.’

‘But wouldn’t it have been simpler to cut through the side walls?’

‘No. Whoever did this tested the thickness of the stones first. There are probe holes drilled into both the walls and the roof and the roof stones are only a quarter of the thickness of the wall blocks. It made perfect sense to go through the roof—far less work and much less risk to whatever was inside.’

‘Have you told the people at the department about this?’

‘I haven’t had time yet.  I’ll do it first thing tomorrow.’

But the next morning something happened that caused Alex to reconsider this line of action.

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 with regard to 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?’

‘I’m trained to know these things Miguel’ 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 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 Miguel! 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.