— Thomas Rees
A friend bought me that copy of Previous Convictions when I was 17. Since then it’s been half way around the world with me. It’s battered and bruised, full of folded-down-corners and scribbled notes. It was in the rucksack I lugged across Latin America with a string of pearlescent green Mardi Gras beads and a leaky bottle of deet – hence the smudge on the cover. It’s pretty much the reason I got into travel writing. Gill’s prose has everything, and there have been times when it’s all I’ve wanted to read.
Even so, I didn’t think his death from “an embarrassment of cancer, the full English,” would hit me quite so hard. I didn’t think I’d cry, sat alone at my desk, leafing through the obituaries. A few dry sobs, and all for a vicious, “baboon murdering bastard” (his words not mine) who once told Mary Beard she was too ugly for television. Read On…
Florence is not a beautiful city, not by Italian standards at least. It doesn’t make you love sick or sweep you off your feet. It’s too brusque and businesslike, too solidly built for that.
It rained when I was there. The painted plaster-work of the buildings along the river Arno, all yellows and ochres, looked smudgy and dull in the half light. The cobblestones had an oily black sheen. But even when the sun shines, there’s something forbidding about the streets. They’re hemmed in by high walls, meters thick, that amplify the sound of voices, the whine of scooters and the rattle of bicycles. Many of them are studded with barred windows and iron rings that give the Tuscan capital a slightly sadistic feel. They’re the trappings of somewhere hard-edged and just a little twisted, of a city with a thing about power. Read On…
The path narrowed as it wound through the undergrowth, skirting tangled roots and tracing the course of slender jungle streams. The heat and the humidity were energy-sapping, but I pressed on, snatching lungfuls of heavy, wet air and wiping the emulsion of sweat and suncream from my brow. Above was an unbroken canopy of cedar, mahogany, and young ceiba trees, their trunks studded with thorns as thick as my thumb. Strange birds with haunting calls moved in the branches and all around, cicadas screamed, winding themselves up like alarm clocks and hammering out urgent messages in shrill morse code. The path turned sharply. Webs of pearlescent spider’s silk hung across it in drifts, slung from the bushes and the emerald fronds of ferns. No-one else had been this way for some time.
There are thousands of Mayan ruins in Central America, but few have the charm of Palenque, a jungle-swathed city and UNESCO World Heritage site in southern Mexico, close to the border with Guatemala. This was once the seat of a great Mayan kingdom, a city state which flourished for a thousand years, from ca. 226 BC to ca. AD 799, before its rulers overstretched themselves, its farmers exhausted the soil and its great temples and pyramids were abandoned to the encroaching forest.
It was rediscovered by Spanish explorers in the 18th century and since then more has been written about its history and archaeology than almost any other Mayan site. Walking across the central plaza in the glare of the early morning sun – past the perfectly-proportioned pyramids with their elaborate roof combs and the palace with its many-tiered tower, from which Mayan priests would have observed the heavens – you’re struck by the flamboyance of it all. Nowhere better illustrates the architectural genius and flair of this great civilisation. It’s staggering to think that they did it all with nothing but stone chisels and bent backs.
I sat and ate a mango from my rucksack beneath the shade of a sapodilla tree and tried to imagine what it must have been like at the height of the city’s power: when the temples still had their coverings of stucco plaster, painted a brilliant red; when the aqueduct still carried water from the nearby River Otulum to feed the saunas and bathhouses of the palace; and when the ball court still drew crowds of spectators.
By all accounts the Juego de Pelota was a brutal game, played by two teams using a 4kg rubber ball which they struck with their hips. According to the Spanish chronicler Diego Durán, players could be killed if they were hit in the stomach or the head and often received bruises so severe they had to be lanced open. Losing captains were also routinely sacrificed to the gods, which must have added a further frisson of excitement. Perhaps that’s why modern-day Latinos take their football so seriously. They’re used to playing with a lot at stake.
It’s not just Palenque’s architecture that sets it apart though. The city has also given us a wealth of carvings and inscriptions, which make the breathless climb to the top of every temple emphatically worth the effort. This is the kind of site that brings out the completist in you. I wanted to see everything and I sweated my way up flight after flight of limestone steps to watch the faces of long-dead kings emerge from the aging plasterwork. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust, but then the details begin to reveal themselves, like pages from some ancient Magic Eye – all Mayan world trees, jaguar pelts and quetzal feather headdresses.
It’s because of carvings like these that we know so much about Palenque. They’ve enabled trowel-clutching, Birkenstock-clad archaeologists to piece together a complete ruling dynasty for the city, which began with the reign of the wonderfully-named Quetzal Jaguar (K’uk’ Bahlam) around 431 AD. We know about the sticky, jungle war that simmered between Palenque and the neighbouring states of Calakmul and Toniná, and about Pakal the Great (603 – 683 AD), whose lavish tomb was discovered buried deep in the Temple of the Inscriptions. It was Pakal who oversaw the construction of many of Palenque’s most magnificent buildings and who lifted it to the height of its prosperity. He was found lying in a vast stone sarcophagus, dressed in a funerary mask and a suit made of jade mosaic and gold wire. Hundreds of images were carved onto the sarcophagus’ surface, including one of the King himself, in the guise of the young maize god, escaping the jaws of the underworld to emerge reborn.
The chirping of the cicadas had reached fever pitch and somewhere in the surrounding forest a troop of howler monkeys began calling from their treetop perch, roaring like asthmatic lions. They’re a reminder of the most staggering fact of all about Palenque: only 10% of the site has been excavated. Cross the manicured lawns of the plaza and the river beyond and you’re in the city’s ancient suburbs, among crumbling stone residences, their walls thick with ferns and succulent jungle mosses. Beyond that, who knows. Palenque is no longer a lost city, but isn’t quite found either. It’s thought that there at least 1,000 structures still out there, hidden beneath the trees.
It was then that I saw the path snaking away into the undergrowth and I couldn’t help but follow it, breaking the skeins of spider’s silk and catching my shirt on the thorns of the ceiba to emerge in a boulder-strewn clearing. In front of me was a great mound of earth. Saplings and thick plaits of vine obscured its outline, but there was no mistaking what it was. Steps punched through the leaf litter like stone knuckles. A temple.
I scrambled to the top. An ochre-skinned lizard wriggled through a gap in the crumbling mortar. In the distance the howlers had started up again, sucking in croaky gulps of air and wheezing like punctured bagpipes. A blunt-edged pick axe was propped up beside a tree. Two stone slabs had been rolled away and beside them was a rectangle of black just a few feet across. The earth smelt of dark chocolate and toasted maize. Is this what Alberto Ruz Lhuillier felt like when he discovered the tomb of Pakal? I slid onto my stomach, pulled a torch from my rucksack and peered inside.
— Thomas Rees
— Image Credit: Flikr/Carlos Adampol Galindo
This article was originally published on flightcentre.co.uk
Forty quetzales for an audience with a saint: it’s an offer you can’t refuse.
I practise looking pious and respectful as Francisco leads the way, past the mango sellers in their shawls of handwoven cloth, over the cobblestones of Santiago Atitilán’s central square and into the network of alleyways beyond. Ill-kept dogs with the weary look of strays patrol a courtyard that smells faintly of incense and rotting fruit. My newly appointed guide grins and motions to the doorway ahead of us.
I don’t know what I was expecting, a church perhaps, but not this low room with its breeze block walls or the trestle tables with their detritus of soft-drinks bottles and dried flowers. In the far corner, an elderly man with a stoop is conversing with the plastic statues of apostles, while another lies dozing on a bench, his chin on his chest and the brim of his hat pulled down low over his eyes. Most surprising of all are the Christmas jingles that play through crackly, consumptive old speakers. This is no ordinary shrine. But then Maximon, the wooden figure who stands before me in studded leather boots and robes of coloured silk, is no ordinary Saint.
His cult has its origins in the 16th century, or so they say, a fusion of the militarised Catholicism of the Conquistadors and the religious practices of the Maya which continue to thrive here, on the shores of Lake Atitlán. The Saint’s power is legendary. He can cure disease, bring rain and make the waters teem with fish and, despite the best efforts of the modern-day Catholic Church, he is still both respected and feared by many within Guatemala’s indigenous Mayan population. “There are people here who say that Maximon is the Devil,” Francisco tells me, “but as soon as they become ill, they run to him and beg for his forgiveness.”
As if on cue, a thickset man with a neatly clipped moustache enters the shrine and kneels before the Saint. I watch as he lays out his gifts – a dog-eared packet of cigarettes, a bottle of rum, a twenty quetzal note – placing them on the floor at Maximon‘s feet.
His prayer sounds odd in the cold acoustic of the room, a strident monotone devoid of emotion. “He’s asking Maximon to protect him from a woman,” Francisco whispers, “a temptress.”
For a moment, I feel as if I’m intruding, but then the worshipper breaks off to offer Maximon a cigarette. Francisco seems to have lost interest and is talking loudly on his mobile phone, topping-up his credit. The sleeping attendant is yet to stir.
I glance over my shoulder as I slip out into the sunshine, savouring my last image of this curious backstreet saint. Maximon remains inscrutable behind his mask of dun-coloured wood, the butt of a cigarette dangling from his lips.
– Thomas Rees
– Photo credit: A shrine to Maximon | Wikicommons
You’ll find Maximon in the backstreets of Santiago, on the southern shore of Lake Atitlán. The shrine moves on a regular basis. Ask around at the jetty for a guide and be prepared to haggle.
People look at me strangely when I tell them I like AA Gill. My housemate brought me to account when she found a copy of Previous Convictions lying on the table and I instantly regretted bringing him up over a pint of mild with my uncle in a tired old pub in County Conwy. “AA Gill! No, he doesn’t have anything to say about the Welsh does he?” Actually he called them ‘loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’. Oh right, you were being sarcastic.
It’s not a rose tinted hero worship. I freely admit that he’s an obnoxious self-publicist. I know about the Press Complaints Commission investigations and the accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia, but I can’t help myself. His prose is just too good.
I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. He’s reported to be the most highly paid columnist in the UK and the dust jackets of his books like to claim he’s one of the most widely read in Britain. But if you’re a fan, do yourself a favour: don’t meet him. I did, and part of me wishes I hadn’t.
It was at a talk at the Idler Academy in West London, a bookshop full of luvvy luvvy types with dishevelled hair and ill-fitting moleskin trousers. We drank Hendrick’s gin and tonics out of patterned teacups and then moved down the road to St Stephen’s Church to hear Gill in conversation with John Mitchinson, inventor of QI.
Gill offered various contradictory opinions about the nature and purpose of criticism, sidestepped a question about the moral implications of writing for Murdoch’s Sunday Times, and forgot things – an impressive number of things for someone who once claimed, in an article about Glastonbury, that he doesn’t make notes and that his memory has never let him down.
But as I joined the queue for the book signing, that wasn’t what was bothering me. It wasn’t his appearance (he’s as formidably well-dressed as everyone says he is) or the fact that he’s shorter and more vulnerable-looking than you’d expect. It’s not that he’s an ogre. Quite the opposite. When I asked him if he had any tips for young writers he looked at me with fatherly concern and he thanked me profusely when I recommended places for him to visit on a trip to Bogotá. It’s his manner and his voice that’s the problem. They just don’t fit.
On paper Gill is a voice of authority. He’s irreverent and dryly humorous, a master of the put down and the send up, of crude but ingenious innuendo and biting satire. He’s erudite and fiercely intelligent with his observations, yet he still sounds like a man of the people, as well versed in popular culture as he is in ancient history and contemporary art. He can be tender (read his pieces on fatherhood), but it’s rare for him to be excessively sentimental. More often than not he sounds worldly and at times a little jaded. His travel pieces read like the work of a man who’s seen it all and, every so often, like the internal monologue of a hatchet-wielding cynic.
But Gill in person is none of those things. He’s a chirpy, hyperactive caricature, full of “darling”s and theatrical bluster; a man fundamentally lacking in gravitas. He talks too much for someone whose job it is to watch and to listen and he does so in a reedy tenor that’s hammy and affectedly posh. It’s not the voice I had in my head as I read his withering attacks on the idiocy of golf or the trashy, eye-watering glitz and bariatric excess of Las Vegas. It’s a drastic mismatch.
None of this would matter if his writing still sounded the same, but it doesn’t. Now that I’ve met him there’s a new voice in my head, not the voice of a sharp tongued observer, a dealer in universal truths and shrewd insights, but that of a pantomime villain. It’s Gill’s real voice and it makes his prose sound kitsch and over the top. His judgements seem less weighty and the smutty innuendo reads less like a man dragging lofty, joyless subjects down into the mud and more like the work of a sniggering school boy. He’s still head and shoulders above most other journalists, but I think it might be time to find a new literary hero. To find one and to avoid meeting them at all costs.
– Thomas Rees
Postscript: Suffice to say I’ve changed my mind somewhat since writing this. Here’s my tribute to Gill, following his death in 2016.
If you want to know what Madrid was like in the 1930s, there’s a bar on Calle Echegaray that you should visit. It isn’t somewhere you’re likely to stumble upon. It doesn’t have a prime location or a flash new website, and there’s nothing informing you that Hemingway once drank there, though he did. On the contrary, its owners shun publicity preferring to rely on the patronage of their regulars, word of mouth and the simple green and white sign that hangs above the lintel. But that’s all as it should be.
Step inside La Venencia and you’ll see that it’s more than just this marketing strategy that has remained unchanged over the years. The bar’s interior is much the same as it was in the days of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) when republican soldiers and supporters of the anti-fascist cause met to exchange stories of battlefield heroism and to lament the advance of General Franco’s forces, passing snippets of information to sympathetic foreign journalists like ‘Don Ernesto’, as Hemingway came to be known.
A wooden bar runs the length of the room and at the far end, by an ancient till with a handle like a one armed bandit, is a stack of barrels stained the color of molasses. Motionless wooden fans hang from the ceiling and covering the walls are shelves of dust-smeared bottles and faded posters for sherry festivals that have long ceased to exist.
On the raised level at the back, reached by a short flight of steps and separated by a white silk screen, is an assortment of antique tables and chairs, a wooden luggage rail, a glass fronted cabinet filled with tattered books and a heavy mirror, curiously angled towards the floor. But, of all the antiques in La Venencia, the bar’s namesake – an elegant silver serving device used for extracting sherry from the barrel – is the most fitting. Don’t come here in search of a beer, because carefully sourced Spanish sherry (jerez) is the only thing that La Venencia serves.
On a faded sheet of paper near the barrels there’s a poem and it goes something like this: ‘Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado, Palo cortado’. Five Spanish sherries all for €1.70/€2 a glass or €11/ €12 the bottle, ranging from crisp and refreshing (the Manzanilla) to something more rounded (the Fino), with nut brown Oloroso the darkest and richest of the five and Amontillado and Palo cortado somewhere in between. There’s nothing else to drink. Just sherry (jerez) and tap water, but with wines as good as these, from selected bodegas in Andalucia, that isn’t the slightest bit of a problem.
Then comes the tapas; crisp, emerald green olives in herb scented oil that arrive with your first drink; slices of pale manchego cheese; preserved meats and chorizo sausage marbled with ivory coloured fat; and leathery mojama – cured tuna the colour of red wine. Sufficiently saline to make you drink like a fish, all of it is delicious, not to mention cheap.
You can watch the barmen write up your order in chalk on the surface of the bar, but don’t expect much in the way of conversation. Just as in many of the best places in Madrid, the staff at La Venencia are as brief and uncompromising as the menu, elderly Castilians who pride themselves on their surliness and work, as far as possible, in silence.
When they do say something it’s usually to cut you down to size. On this, my second visit, in the company of Gonzalo (a friend and La Venencia regular) we come to the aid of a group of American tourists looking for the sweetest sherry on the menu. “We don’t have sweet sherries,” comes the barman’s curt reply. Gonzalo smiles weakly and recommends the Oloroso. “Technically they wouldn’t consider any of them sweet,” he says.
The staff will speak up to enforce the rules of the house too, rules that have their origins in La Venencia’s Civil War days. There’s an outright ban on tipping, in line with the socialist principles of the Spanish republicans, and taking photographs is frowned upon because La Venencia’s clientele once had to be wary of fascist spies. Thankfully, the final rule, ‘no spitting on the floor’, now seems like common sense. Some things are best left in the Thirties.
If anything has changed over the years, aside from attitudes to hygiene, it’s the people who drink here. On a typical night, you’ll find elderly couples clutching slender glasses of Fino and groups of Spanish students gossiping over plates of salsichon. Socialites and flamboyant thespians prop up the bar and well-informed tourists snap furtive photos of the black cat, which stalks between the chair legs.
The quality of the air has improved a little too. “You used to be able to smoke in here,” says Gonzalo, motioning to the leathery, nicotine-stained walls. “It was like entering another world.” Though the fug of tobacco smoke and the republican soldiers may be gone, it still is.
– Thomas Rees
– Photos by Thomas Rees and Krista/Flickr
La Venencia, Calle de Echegaray 7, Madrid, Spain, +34 914 29 73 13 Open daily between 12.30 and 3.30pm and from 7.30pm until around midnight
There’s a passage in For Whom the Bell Tolls about prophecy and the smell of death. It’s a smell that consists of three parts, writes Ernest Hemingway (putting words in the mouth of Pilar, a Spanish civil war fighter and gypsy mystic) and recreating it is a messy business. First, you must head out to sea. ‘Put your nose against the brass handle of the screwed-tight porthole on a rolling ship that is swaying under you so that you are faint and hollow in the stomach and you have part of that smell,’ he writes. You’ll find another, ‘the odor of wet earth, the dead flowers, and the doings of the night,’ at the botanic gardens in Madrid where prostitutes once plied their trade against the railings. And the remaining part? For that you must go down to the city’s matadero early in the morning. ‘Wait for one of the old women who go before daylight to drink the blood of the beasts that are slaughtered. When such an old woman comes out…hold her to you and kiss her on the mouth,’ then you will have it.
At the time Hemingway was writing, the elegant naves that line the north bank of the Manzanares river housed Madrid’s largest livestock market and slaughterhouse. But, just as the botanic gardens have long been prostitute-free and the blood of freshly slaughtered cattle has, despite its supposed health benefits, ceased to appeal to the city’s elderly residents, a lot has changed. Visit the site today, and you’ll still find rooms divided by heavy plastic curtains and interior walls of crumbling concrete and sheet metal. You can still see the cavernous refrigeration unit with its ribbed floor tiles and fire blackened ceiling and look out across a plaza filled with strangely beautiful warehouses built from sandstone, red brick and patches of coloured mosaic. The grim machinery and the taint of death, however, are long gone.
In the late 1980s, town council bureaucrats moved into the site’s administrative buildings. Just a few years later, the Spanish National Ballet and National Dance Company were leaping about the former cattle stalls, converted into their new headquarters by architect Antonio Fernández Alba. And, in the last decade, the majority of the remaining warehouses, covering an area of 55,000m2 in total, have been transformed into Matadero Madrid, one of Europe’s most innovative centres for culture and the arts.
Hailed as the ‘cultural future’ of the city by the Spanish press and the ‘place that all contemporary Spanish artists want to see their work exhibited’, the centre aims to promote dialogue between disciplines, provide funding and support for new artistic projects, and to help strengthen Madrid’s identity as a modern cultural metropolis.
To that end, its activities extend to all areas of the arts. Three of the central warehouses have been taken over by the distinguished theatre company Teatro Español, and have staged regular productions since opening in 2007, among them La cortesía de España by Lope de Vega and the Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Closeby you’ll find the Cineteca, a cutting edge arthouse cinema complex that specialises in documentaries and independent releases both from Spain and overseas, which holds the Documenta film festival in the first two weeks of May each year.
The vast spaces between the warehouses have also been put to good use and provide the setting for several of Madrid’s foremost music festivals. The Dia del la Musica, which takes place in June, packs thousands of party goers into Plaza Matadero, the complex’s main square, for sets from pop acts, rock bands and DJs. Local groups are always there in force, but previous festivals have seen appearances from Two Door Cinema Club and James Blake.
In May you can catch world class funk and soul bands at annual festival Black is Back. This year’s incarnation featured up-and-coming Spanish group Freedonia alongside US legends Swamp Dogg, and Martha Reeves, the voice behind Motown smash hit ‘Dancing in the Street’.
Casa del Lector (‘the house of the reader’) is the latest addition to the complex. Under the umbrella of the Germán Sánchez Ruipérez Foundation, a fund for the promotion of literature established by one of Spain’s most important 20th century publishers, it holds regular exhibitions, along with film screenings, lectures and book presentations given by leading authors and literary specialists. Recent events have included a digital installation displaying treasures from the National Library of Israel and an award-winning exhibition on the Villa of the Papyri, an ancient library discovered beneath the volcanic ash that buried the Roman city of Herculaneum.
Then there are Matadero’s contemporary art exhibitions. Scattered about the complex, they’ve ranged from miniature landscapes constructed from cryogenically frozen plants, to collaborative warehouse takeovers by groups of international artists, slumbering crop sprayers adorned with striped canopies and hanging baskets, and video installations tackling themes like propaganda and capitalism.
On top of all that, there’s a centre for contemporary design and another coordinating city wide outreach projects. The slaughterhouse’s old water tower has been converted into a species deposit for plants and there are plans to create a garden in an empty patch of land near the site’s eastern entrance. In fact, so lively and ambitious is Matadero’s programming, if it falls under the umbrella of the arts or so much as touches on creativity, you’re likely to find it here. Just don’t come looking for blood-thirsty old women or the smell of death.
Matadero Madrid, Paseo de la Chopera 14, Madrid, Spain, +34 915 17 73 09 | mataderomadrid.org | Open Tuesday to Friday 16.00 – 21.00, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 11.00 – 21.00. Closed on Mondays | Entrance to the site and to many of the exhibitions is free.
A recent article for The Culture Trip on Botín, the world’s oldest restaurant, known for its spectacular Castilian cuisine and famous admirers – including Hemingway and Graham Greene:
The madrileño breakfast par excellence, you’ll find pan con tomate (tomato bread) at cafes and bars all over the Spanish capital. Pick a good one and you’ll be presented with crisp slices of toasted baguette that glisten with olive oil and fragrant, fresh tomato.
It’s just as popular elsewhere in Spain and different regions have different ideas about how it should be done. At the risk of upsetting my host city, where common practice is to blend the tomatoes before spreading the resulting salsa onto the bread, I more often make the Catalan version at home and rub a cut tomato directly onto the toast. While this method saves on washing up it isn’t without its downsides. You need exceptionally flavourful tomatoes to make it work as the toast softens before it has had a chance to pick up more than a thin layer of the flesh.
At the risk of upsetting everyone, I sometimes add a few slices of avocado, while slivers of ruby-red jamón serrano are a common addition, especially at brunch. Then of course there’s the garlic, which at breakfast-time many restaurants choose to omit. Personally, I’d rather take my chances. It’s the garlicky punch that lifts a piece of pan con tomate from the ordinary to the sublime.
However you go about it, it’s hard to think of a simpler way to feel both immensely satisfied and disgustingly virtuous before nine o’clock in the morning. ¡Buen aprovecho!
– Thomas Rees