A Spain Diary – Day 2: Vignettes and Mercado

amber bougainvillea in bright sunlight against a white wall

The Mercado in Cádiz is a glorious place. Its central cool and covered courtyard the place for all the fishmongers, with specialists for shellfish, cuttlefish and squid, gilt-head bream (dorada, so often mistranslated), and of course the gold of Cádiz, red tuna, whose main season is May and June. Around the outside of that thronging central courtyard are the fruit and vegetable sellers, the butchers and bakers, the sellers of cured iberico ham and local cheeses.

a large head of tuna in the central market

In the evening the market opens up again, and units around the market open up selling sherries and wines, beers, vermouth and tapas of all sorts: perfectly fried fish, tortilla, burgers, paella, as well as speciality units for sushi, burritos, noodles. It is a place for meeting before going out dancing, or to a restaurant, or to stroll the town or tonight to the annual regatta. All ages are there, classes too, though like the city generally it skews informal, cheerful, still broadly working class. 

I get tortillitas de camarones, delicious herbed fritters of tiny shrimp that are one of the local specialities. They take your order and then as the fried fish of all sorts are completed yell out your name. If it happens you don’t respond, the young man with the exuberant mullet will hold the back of his hand where the thumb and forefinger meet under his chin and bellow the name again in loud tones. A tortilla of pepper and onion follows, followed by aroz negro, darkened by cuttlefish or squid ink, with aioli and all with glasses of local white wine.

a queue of people in a market colonnade awaiting fried fish

tortillitas de camarones

rice (aroz negro) with a white dollop of aioli

A slow stroll round the city, a lemon sorbet, and then deep, deep sleep.

A Spain Diary – Day 1: The Museo de Bellas Artes, Sevilla

On holiday in Cádiz. Flew out yesterday, and I’ll try to keep this blog updated throughout.

The trip was a little contended; a 3am wake-up call, a glitch in the taxi system, late arrival at a busy Gatwick, and on getting to Sevilla Santa-Justa station at 10:15am, the discovery that all trains to Cádiz were fully booked for the day.

There is a sort of failure of moral hazard at play here – Renfe reimburse all of the ticket fee if you cancel well before the planned trip (I think 3hrs?) and 70% if you cancel up to five minutes beforehand. 

What this means is that people will book in advance, even if they’re only thinking of going, and of course this is what I myself should have done. The other thing it means is that if you keep refreshing the site, tickets come up as people cancel. And indeed I managed to get one for four o’clock.

What this meant was that I had time to kill in Sevilla: it is by such trials that God tests his truest servants. 

I went to the Museo de Bella Artes, as it was a little too early to hit the bar, and I subscribe to the Kingsley Amis view that the purpose of cultural trips on holiday is to postpone and then enjoyable enable the point where you can have a drink and relax. 

The museum turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected, you pleb? did i hear you say.

I have a limited tolerance for museums and art galleries. That is to say spending time on two or three pictures, or three rooms in an exhibition is about my limit. 

BUT, well…It’s free on a Friday, and its tiled, cool courtyards are lovely.

a courtyard in seville, with moorish tiles, and green palms and orange trees, and a colonnade round the outside

These courtyards on the Moorish model always bring to mind the opening to Averroës’ Search by Borges:

He wrote with slow assurance, from right to left; the shaping of syllogisms and linking together of vast paragraphs did not keep him from feeling, like a sense of wonderful well-being, the cool, deep house around him. In the depths of the siesta, loving turtledoves purred throatily, one to another; from some invisible courtyard came the murmur of a fountain; something in the flesh of Averroës, whose ancestors had come from the deserts of Arabia, was grateful for the steadfast presence of the water. Below lay the gardens of flowers and of foodstuffs; below that ran the bustling Guadalquivir; beyond the river spread the beloved city of Córdoba, as bright as Baghdad or Cairo, like a complex and delicate instrument; and, encircling Córdoba (this, Averroës could feel too), extending to the very frontier, stretched the land of Spain, where there were not a great many things, yet where each thing seemed to exist materially and eternally.

And it turns out who’d have thought it that there were several very fine things in the gallery.

An Annunciation from Alejo Fernandez was the thing that caught my eye, with its combination of highly structured foreground, finely featured expressions of the protagonists, the devil-may-care presentation of a very literally realised symbolism (the typical lilies, the babe being spat out on golden beams by god), the typical cinquecento richness of the background (cliffs, water, bathers), as so often almost more fascinating to the imagination than the depiction of the central matter.

Two extraordinary paintings either side of a doorway: a Cranach Calvary and an El Greco portrait.

The Calvary is absolutely filthy. Look at it, the sheer exuberance of depiction and imagination, delight in the execution of it all. Obviously the thief on the right’s face stands out – certainly someone he’d seen about, in the local drinking establishment. I’m not sure i’ve seen the flow of a picture quite so influenced by a pot belly hanging over a crucified slouch on the right, and the starved, racked rib cage on the right, around the v of Christ’s crucified torso, wonderfully bound together by the rampant line of the loincloths. That’s not even touching the fashion choices of the rider and hte look in the horse’s eye. What a painting.

The El Greco is apparently a portrait of his son, but along with the vivid character of the eyes and face, the looseness of the brushstrokes feels entirely modern, and causes you to hold your breath at the execution. It can be hard to feel the immediacy of a painting in a gallery, after many others, but this is a painting that holds you in the moment, captivated, tense with wonder.

One the themes I want to explore while I’m here is the highly complex and paradoxical notion of the grotesque. There’s a very fine head of an old man by Velázquez, where the eyes seem almost sightless yet compelling nonetheless. But it was the magnificent portrait of don Cristóbal Suárez de Ribera that held me, so that I walked away and came back to it twice. What an honour it must have been to be painted by the greatest painter of the age who, like Proust, would fix you in a way that not another person in history might ever do, so that it must have been like being seen by one blessed by God – as you are, as it were. The privilege of being presented with superb execution yet without apparent flattery. This I think is achieved by the use of the grotesque, as almost a cognitive illusion of realism, because damaging to our view of ourselves, but I will need to write more later, after a visit to the Prado. 

I am reminded of the line – and I can’t remember where it’s from, is it Céline? – that should we see each other as we see ourselves in the mirror we should all be murderers. 

I have come to the general realisation that I do not and will never love the baroque, at least in its blousier expressions. I should say, I will never love the baroque other than its most decayed and outlandish forms (Magnasco for instance), but that of course is one definition of the baroque, and the decayed and outlandish are never far from the centre of it.

Here, I was rather breezily swinging by the larger paintings – Zubarán’s Christ is understandably famous and striking, yet it is also dull – before getting absolutely floored by a recently acquired Murillo – a portrayal of Santa Catalina, but clearly of an extraordinary contemporary woman

Her eyes perceive almost immediately innermost workings of your soul, unfathomable even to you. The ironic, knowing, but mainly enigmatic smile, tells you what she thinks of those workings. The cloth is rich and magnificent, the lace at the bodice disarming, the sword alludes to something swashbuckling, and that literate, articulate hand – who said hands are the hardest part of a portrait? my god. Anyway, she can and would destroy me. Extraordinary painting.

Then just round the corner another Murillo, a pietà, the most striking element of which are Mary’s eyes, red raw with grief, and the flow of her imploring gesture at the heavens down to Christ’s dead body. So good he repeated the image in a portrait of ‘Dolorosa’ upstairs.

Elsewhere Juan de Valdés Leal’s Feast at Cana and other paintings show how the decay of the baroque contained in it the orientalism that would be a major part of romanticism and its own decayed fin-de-siecle forms.

Gutierrez’s Sack of Troy is rather spectacular thanks in the main to the way the wooden horse looms so menacingly in the middle ground of the conflagration.

A set of seasons by Barrera contain all manner of fruit, fish and butchered animals, so rich they seem on the verge of bursting, with the final winter scene with its intestines, bloody meat and sausages forming a very good accompaniment to the book I’m reading, Rafael Chirbes’ On the Edge where the butchery and hunting of animals is regularly used to explore, highly equivocally, the low existential and moral status of people, and specifically their status in post-crash Spain.

It is interesting to compare to Solenoid, which I’ve paused reading until winter and will cover later maybe, but which sets up a metaphysical system out of flesh, bone, parasites, and the sloughing of skin. A recent chartbook by Adam Tooze (I’m trying to catch up with his production – it takes an entire holiday to do so), showcased the work of Renzo Vespignani, and this work in particular is reminiscent of the industrial hinterland of Bucharest in which the narrator teaches.

The final thing in the gallery I wanted to note was this extraordinary painting by Fernando Tirado Cardona, Emboscada Mora, which looks like it could have come out of Time magazine in the ‘70s, but is in fact from 1880.

IMG 3873

After this extremely rewarding visit, I popped over the road to Bar Barrabas, and had one of the best examples of the local speciality, salmorejo, i think i’ve had, and a couple of glasses of verdejo. Afterwards I felt extraordinarily restored (does he mean ‘slightly pissed’?) – as always, the best restaurant experiences provide that ‘restoration’ that is in the name, but is not solely about replenishing hunger but also the spirit.

a glass of white wine, and some sunglsses on a bar overlooking a sunlit plaza

a glass of creamy looking, cool tomato and garlic soup, with small hard boiled eggstwo large anchoves on two slices of bread

Later, after finally reaching Cádiz, I had a beautifully refreshing swim, some tortillitas de camarones and an early night with a deep sleep.

This morning, I woke to the tragic news of an earthquake near Marrakech, just across the straits.

Where was I?

Or, where was I…. when the dead woman smiled at me? It was last week, on Rotten Row, cycling to work.

Sometimes you start writing something, put your pen down because it’s not really playing out, or other things intervene, and then you never pick it up again

Where was I… when I put the pen down? istr it was about the time I went to the Wyndham Lewis ballet and was listening to a lot of improv jazz. 

Where was I? Well never mind. Where am I now? Here are some good things I read in the last week.

The Mystery of Bloomfield Bridge

Everyone has now read the piece on the apparently pointless footbridge across the interstate in Minneapolis, but it is good, so I’m bookmarking it here. why’s it good?

it’s good because it shows the productive value of asking questions about the detail of history, and doesn’t give up until its as satisfied as it can be that the detail and reasoning is correct; look at all the responses and memories the writer’s quixotic journey has produced! it’s also good because it shows how our built, social, emotional, intellectual environments are littered with items just like this – bridges connecting spaces for no apparent reason, oxbow lakes of irrationality that once were connected with the flow of meaning around them.

Finally it’s good because, connected with the first point really, it’s what I might call proper history. It does the spadework. It’s stubborn. It doesn’t take the easy reason when one is available. Where matters are undetermined, it keeps going, where they are overdetermined, it looks for the vital threads and sifts.

That connects it with this other good piece, by Anton Howes, on the reproducibility crisis in history:

Does History have a Replication Crisis?

Taken to an extreme, the implications of this piece might be considered too puritanical for any history to be conducted at all. After all it is an interpretative discipline, based on available evidence. And, as Burrow details well in his historiographic book, A History of Histories, that interpretation and presentation is like most things subject to explicit and implicit expressoins of ideology. Or as the classic GCSE marginal comment on primary evidence goes: It is bias

It had me nodding and agreeing with vim, though; not only do factoids litter the path of historical understanding and clog up the channels of its thought, they often come, as the article details, from inside the house. This is particularly the case with the more popular and journalistic efforts in the field, whose mode gives them every latitude for intellectual sloppiness.

Generally it’s fair to say I read extremely warily and on the alert. For what? For stuff that isn’t right, for stuff I think needs examining further by customs before being deposited in my brainpan. A search for contraband epistemic goods being snuck in amidst otherwise innocuous freight. 

It’s generally the tone that first sets you going. Your antennae start vibrating, you become wary. You start saying things like really? says who? Every invisibly asserted generalisation only makes things worse.

As I say, the journalistic mode seems particularly culpable: shortcuts, avoiding asking the hard questions, bypassing mental inquisition by using description, only going two layers down, whatever. 

So, to balance it out, two very good recent features (and good feature writing, as William E Blundell’s excellent The Art and Craft of Feature Writing shows, is a skill, and not just with the typrewriter, pen or laptop):

Jennifer Williams is disliked by some on the left for occasionally expressed Opinions but does good journalism (inability to separate the two, always vexed tbf, and made worse by some of its practitioners, does seem for many online to have come decisively down on the side of journalism being entirely tainted by the fact there’s a person behind it): recently the Teesside Freeport corruption scandal, and this excellent piece on a year at Newman Roman Catholic College secondary school in Oldham.

One year in a struggling British state school

And a Thing I Learned or relearned or something recently – and you may not have heard this – is that The New Yorker is really a very good magazine with consistently high quality features. I felt it strongly while and immediately after reading this feature on Country Music’s Culture Wars and the Remaking of Nashville.

The dead woman was Hilary Mason, recognised immediately as one of the two questionably malign psychics in Don’t Look Now, named later with a quick google. She was cycling towards me, and turned a very sunny smile on me and me alone as she passed. As if to say ‘you shall be with us soon’. Or perhaps, ‘With our special insight of the future from our vantage point of the dead, we can see unforeseeable fortune coming your way.’ Either way, I remained pre-occupied with the experience well into Holland Park.

Transference Valence

Four favourites from the week, four absolutely a-grade tracks too.

Horace Ferguson – Tranquilizer

Reissued on the excellent Death is Not the End label, a track off the 1987 album Sensi Addict. Produced by Prince Jazzbo, this cut has the sweet-voiced Horace Ferguson riding that compulsive Sleng Teng riddim.

Skeng – Elvis Presley

Track of the year so far, no question – that bass! And ok, I accept Skeng isn’t exactly the most wholesome role model for young people, but he’s got a way with the lyrics and delivery, and the burberry ofc. London was everywhere and was a track of the year last year, as I expect this one will be. Good video too. V thin. Do you think he gets enough to eat 😐

Som.1 – Ultimatum

Coming straight out of Montpellier, hefty, buzzsawing breakbeats, dark and lowering bass and a driving ’don’t stop, gooooo!’ catchline. Killing it.

Bree Bree – Eva Bless!

Clean, catchy and direct. Confidence in the skill and the song. Great riddim too, that little shuffle that Bree Bree rides to deliver the momentum.

YouTube playlist link:

Reading Janet Malcolm The Impossible Profession at the moment, hence the playlist title.

col tocco d’arrosto

May Day leftovers

I’ve written about pasta col tocco d’arrosto before. ‘With a touch of the roast’: pasta cooked and thrown in to the roasting pan with a little of its water, swirled around on the gas with some parmesan, until the ‘sauce’ is somewhat but not entirely reduced and sticking to the pasta, and the roasting pan is almost entirely clean.

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May Day Food Post

I’m pleased to say I’ve been doing more cooking again recently. Maybe it’s the bank holidays, maybe it’s the lengthening evenings.

First up, hake and salsa verde from Claudia Roden’s The Food of Spain. It’s supposed to be with asparagus, but it hadn’t quite made its appearance in my grocers by this point, so I did it with peas and the water the peas in which the peas had been cooked. By moving the hake slowly around in the pan, the hake releases gelatin, which further thickens and binds the salsa verde. Will be doing this with asparagus this week I think. It’s very simple and fresh tasting.

fish, in a green sauce with peas and new potatoes, on a white plate, on a walnet table, books and magazines in the background

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Like Any Horse Rider

Missed a couple of weeks. It’s like I always say, with blogging it doesn’t matter how frequent it is, you just gotta make sure it’s out consistently.

An incoherent set of four this week. That’s fine. I dreamt I dreamt that someone gave me a big presentation set of Cutty Ranks cd singles.

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Las Vegas #2

A post from years ago , from before When the Screaming Stops, so the derangement is better known now. Still fantastic ofc. His face was just everywhere in the hotel I was in. V odd.


I’d missed all this Matt Goss being a thing in Vegas. 

Here in the Nevada Desert, Goss has reinvented himself as a new Sinatra. A Peckham boy updating the moves Ol’ Blue Eyes invented. And rather than running him out of town for the cheek of it, the Americans have fallen for Goss in a way they never did before.

This feels like the sort of place Vegas is. Producing weird Gatsbys out of the desert.

For a while he had no money at all. ‘All our assets had been frozen. I was down to the wire, I’m talking only being able to buy one cheeseburger a day.’

Now he can afford many cheeseburgers a day. But he hasn’t forgotten his roots.

Not everybody is impressed. As Goss walks through the casino, flanked by bodyguards, on his way to the show, a lone voice from the card tables shouts out: ‘Douche bag!’ The singer spins on his heels, outruns his guards and goes close up, face to face with the offender. 

‘Just because I’m on the billboard doesn’t mean I won’t sort you out.’

And this 

Underneath that tux is a tattoo he calls The Mark: a circle pattern worn by a close group of friends, all sworn to loyalty, including his father and his stepbrother Adam.

It’s a strange picture of a man, who went through a fame-loss-fame cycle, and it’s shaped him in some weird ways. But, again, Vegas feels right for that sort of thing. He may not be ‘Britain’s Answer to Frank Sinatra’ as the billboard has it (it’s a quote from The Sun), but he maybe he is this version of America’s Frank Sinatra.

Five o’clock in the morning, and as the sun rises Goss is standing in the bay window of his suite, black tie hanging loose, with a tumbler of Johnnie Walker Black Label in his hand, looking down on Vegas.

‘Look at this. It’s not a fantasy. This is real.’


Unfinished Letter to a Friend: Las Vegas #1

It’s about this time of year that I leave the soft skies of this damp, north-western archipelago of the European continent, just as spring starts to unfurl, with its gusts and constant showers and wild extravagant clouds and head to Las Vegas, with its diamond hard desert skies, unforgiving landscape, and total artificiality.

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