Flamenco Sketches: Day 1

22 Jun

If it’s June, it must be the Spanish Open once more. Let me qualify that. The annual trip to Mijas, Andalusia for the South London Artisans Golf Society, taxi drivers all. This year we consist of three brothers of Spanish parents, one Anglo-Greek and three mongrels reflecting and representing cosmopolitan London.


We immediately settle into this Iberian corner that is forever England. Mine guest Carlos (or Rigsby as my roomy Tony Two Dinners calls him) is as gracious as ever—bed turned back, towels out and a fine food selection always bought in. Two Dinners and I will be driven everywhere by him at increasingly greater speeds as his repressed machismo emerges further with every passing hour. And, thanks to his fluent inspiration, my basic Spanish For Idiots pays me a brief, annual and frustrating return.

Taking in the landscape as we head south on the coast road, my beloved Spain rises  in silent pride above the excesses of Lakerisation. I remind myself that between this southbound coastal racetrack and the sea closely below once lived Pablo Picasso and Andres Segovia. The former’s most abstract work would in parts today reflect the concrete chaos in the worst places and the latter’s soothing music would surely defy any hedonist to stop, reflect and, well, just be.


My first experience of the cultural clash comes quickly. Alighting from our hire car in Mijas Riviera, I’m greeted by a white van with “English Painters” displayed on the side. Not a gallery selling the works of Turner or Constable alas, but another Brit earning a crust down here in the southern tip of Europe. But over the roof of El Del’s van rise the majestic white Moorish towers, domes and imitation minarets that atop the roofs here and I once more embrace Andalusia.

Looking out to sea beyond these I may only think I can see North Africa on the horizon but I can certainly feel the constant warm southerly Levante breeze coming from there and sense an awareness of coastal communities who must stare out to their opposing neighbours across the Mediterranean, separated by water but united by similar cuisines and common invaders.


Did someone say food? We later ascend to Fellini’s restaurant, sit at the best al fresco table, admiring the sky as the angry sun sinks in the west and cosy lights start to glow out from the surrounding whitewashed houses. Our waitress tells us she’s from Bilbao in the Basque country whence the three brothers’ mother came to England. I look into their faces and I can see that proud, beautiful “I’m home” look and I’m emotional and happy for them.

The cold white wine and water arrives, followed by the customary fresh bread and olives. We raise a toast to absent friends—one tragically and recently deceased and the rest otherwise detained—then look at us all healthy, well dressed, content and concur with our deceased friend’s constant belief that we live like kings. We’re all a year older this trip and sensibility sets in, a relatively early night.


Flamenco Sketches: Day 4

22 Jun

It may have come rather too soon, but 9am I greet like Christmas Day aged seven. I know I’m going to love La Mezquita as I did the Alhambra in Granada but I’m still nervous like on a first date. I know how it looks but not how it will speak to me nor if we’ll look good together. After a quick churros breakfast, we hurry to the Mezquita.

Like a football match, I’m waiting for the crowd’s roar from around the corner but we enter through a small portal to instead find tranquility immediately. It feels like a city on its own. There’s a colonnade around all four sides and in the centre orange trees irrigated by sunken channels that bring water from the mountains, and on the far side stands the Mezquita itself. We buy our tickets and enter.

856 columns survive in the prayer hall of the Mosque

Inside, the mosque is still prominent around the exterior walls with its 856 of the original 1,270 columns supporting the roof. Centrally stands the opulent cathedral nave with its gilt work, very Spanish iconography and magnificent wood carving. But beside the main altar sits a reminder of a more recent and violant past, a plaque remembering the local religious who lost their lives in the Civil War, or the Persecution as the inscriber chooses to call it. That war was tragic and it is only in recent years, long after its end in 1939 and even Franco’s death in 1975, that one can say modern Spain declares the Republicans as the victors but at a tragic cost. Meanwhile, an elderly lady in a fully elevated mantilla proceeds along a red carpet to a wedding in a side chapel and any sense of the present day merges with the past temporarily.

I sense that Paul the Greek and Chris the DJ are restless to leave and we exit back to eat in the shade outside our hotel. We find a table and sit down far away from the wall-mounted TV spitting out bad House music but right next to five guys jamming with Spanish guitars. Has this all been staged for me? No, this is just what can happen when one ventures inland toward the real Spain.

We pay for the delicious lunch and are escorted by the hostal concierge back to their car park. Facing us inside is a 1950s Austin A40 completely covered in fine sand and dust. Did it belong to a Brit who also fell in love with Spain and never went back? If so, good man yerself.

Within minutes, we’re on the motorway back to the coast and I resolve to return to Cordoba to see the rest. Not too many orange groves flash past before the Dub Organiser and I draw our iPods out and begin a musical ping pong. El Greco’s hands tapping on the steering wheel vary in intensity according  to our musical choices and I’m resigned to defeat when my Duke Ellington’s Take The A Train live version is trumped by Chris and Phyllis Dillon’s reggae version of Perfidia.

Paella at Papa O’s. We had only just begun.

We hit the coast and the back of the beach in readiness for a fish feast at Papa O’s. Our party is once again reunited and, again, we celebrate the human spirit. My eyes have had too much to feast upon in this past day and now the table creaks with piscatorial delights. Tomorrow I fly back to London, the world’s greatest city, lighter in weight despite the many great meals, for I’ve left a part of me in Cordoba that has no mass, only missed heartbeats and a longing for our next date.

Flamenco sketches: Day 3

22 Jun


“The less we remember, the less we are. The past is being erased from modern conscience, if we don’t know where we are coming from, it’s hard to know where we’re going”   Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I’ve planned this day for over a year and, now it’s arrived, I’m as excited as a kid going to the fun fair for the first time. After a mighty breakfast, Paul the Greek, the Dub Organiser and I head off inland in one of our cars to Cordoba, the capital of Al Andalus when the Moors occupied Spain. We’d been to the Alhambra in Granada three years back and now we’re looking forward to learning more.

We quickly pass Malaga below us and head inland  I’m again taken aback by the modernisation of Spain since accession into the EU. The motorway looks and feels brand new. The road surface is as smooth as glass and we swallow the miles as we climb up through the Sierra Nevadas, eventually reaching 2,000 ft before we’ve hit Cordoba. Every bend reveals yet more acres of newly planted groves of olive, lemon and orange trees as far as one can see anywhere and the once barren land seems to want to no longer bear witness to the tragic Civil War which it reluctantly hosted.

In what feels like half the actual time, we pass a crest of yet another mountain and my Civil War sentimentality evaporates passing over the final ridge as we all see Cordoba before us hugging the meandering Guadalquivir river, compact with its medieval walls defined against the surrounding countryside. The Satnav is as good as a chocolate fireguard as we attempt to get close to our hotel. Buzz Aldrin had less trouble. After two circuits of the town, our collective hippocampus enlarged by the Knowledge of London deduces that we needed to pass through that security barrier over there which we passed only the once. Not bad, that.

No sooner are we through the barrier than we’re at our Hostal Triunfo, bang across the narrow street from La Mezquita, the mosque built by the Moors and later converted to a cathedral during the Reconquest of Spain. This is my reason to come here and I’m not disappointed. Its exterior wall stretches as far as one can see in both directions and must be two London buses high. We alight from the car and I briefly lose my breath as the dry 40C air hits me all over. No chance of a quick Levantian gust here to restore us, this is looking like a one-day survival course. We quickly check in, shower and creep downstairs back to the mouth of the main door, nervously looking out to see if it’s any cooler–the way they do in Western films when the duel is over on Main Street .

It’s no less scorching and now getting humid as we meander through the old streets from shadow to shadow, one old street to another. Dotted along the streets are former palaces now boutique hotels boasting beautiful interior courtyards with central fountains which now form their inviting eceptions. As tempting as they look for a cold drink, we push on in search of more Moorish treasure. We drop down to the river and admire the eight arched bridge left by the Romans when they settled here around 152BC.

On the north side stands a triumphal arch worthy of Rome itself which perhaps wasn’t out of place when Cordoba was Western Europe’s largest city by around 929AD. As we rise back up into the city, we’re met by a huge crucifix in the middle of the road, placed after the Reconquista in 1236 and letting us know who’s boss now. Another corner turned and we face the Posada del Potro, immortalised by Cervantes in Don Quixote.

Through the arch we find the 1500s courtyard reminiscent of the coaching inns that run off Borough High St in London SE1. It’s now the National Flamenco Institute and with sensitive refurbishment just completed, its future is happily assured. The fairy lights in the trees aligning the streets come to gentle life as the sun loses its fire and we’re spoilt for choice of where to eat with tapas all over the place at only €2 per dish. But we choose to dine al fresco with one eye on an adjacent tv to track the Euro progress of Ingerland.

My cod balls in tomato sauce are worth the long wait—Torres would’ve scored first—and slip down beautifully with the smooth Verdicchio at a ridiculously cheap €7.80 per bottle. Our eyes and stomachs now both overfed, it’s time to nourish the soul if we can find the jazz club that my musical soul brother Chris has found on the net.

Getting lost is no problem because we circle La Mezquita and wonder at its golden glow shining out against the dark blue evening sky. I look up at its Arabic inscriptions and Christian iconography and, call me an old hippy, ask why can’t we cut the crap and all live together? I’m excited like a kid on Christmas Eve staring at the tree’s lights, wondering what the gofts’ wrapping paper contains and can’t wait to visit it tomorrow.

We find the Jazz Cafe and enter. I’m nervous, is it going to be square or hep? I’m quickly reassured to the latter as I see Miles Davis and Charlie Parker album covers. In fact someone’s gone to a lot of trouble, as you can’t see the wall for photos and I’m sure that’s Tubby Hayes coming out of the speakers. At €2 for a caña pequeña, my happy feet are tapping like mad. With people still coming into the place at 4am, we decide to split the scene and get some sleep for the busy tourist day ahead.

We venture out into the still populated streets and i feel like we’re three dudes at the Ok Corral but we’re probably walking like the old music hall dancers, Wilson, Kepple and Betty. We find our room back at the hostal and I don’t remember my head hitting the pillow or snoring most of the night but, apparently, El Greco does.

Flamenco Sketches: Day 2

22 Jun

Deserted by the golfers, Chris the Dub Organiser and I chill with Roberto by the pool, eating fresh fruit from his cool box. The sun begins to scorch and we drive to Cabopino beach. The warm breeze from North Africa soothes me under my parasol, but hunger arrives, so it’s a fish feast at the beach bar, sardinas a la plancha para tres, beautifully fresh mixed salad, bread, wine and agua con gas. We quickly concur in the headiness of the breeze, tastes and aromas that we truly have more than we need in life  and declare a fatwah on Life’s moaners.

Soon the golfers return, order what we just ate, join us back under the parasol and the banter bounces bed to bed. The Sloane Square rank and the Chelsea Kitchen are a million miles away.

Did someone say food? In the evening smelling like the Harrods perfumery, we arrive at the elegant La Plaza restaurant for dinner out on the terrace. Everybody chooses whatever they want and our table overflows. The enjoyment is only interrupted three times by news of Ireland conceding another goal to Spain in the Euros 2012. We need no TV in a corner found in other, lesser establishments, for the locals are sufficiently hospitable to inform us of this fact with a surrounding salvo of fireworks launched with every goal from surrounding balconies and flat rooftops. I’d heard Spain went crazy when they won the 2010 World Cup. I can definitely believe it now.

We stay locally after dinner, popping round the corner into JJ’s, an outpost for British ex-pats. By the look of them and their conversation subjects, they all arrived in the last millenium. Soon one of our party bridges six degrees of separation and finds he’d worked with one of them in the Post Office in Islington. I buy a book from a shelf and donate two Euros to charity as requested. It’s a compilation of Londoners’ oral history who recall going Hop Picking in Kent back in the day. I wish it were more fittingly poetry by Lorca perhaps, but this will do nicely on the Sloane Square rank next kipper season. Ooh, fish. Never mind.

We bid farewell to the cast of Minder and return to the apartment. Tomorrow is not going to be just another day.

Our Meters Are Ticking

3 Jun

I had a text from my fellow London taxi driver friend Carlos the other night. We’d all been expecting it but, nevertheless, it chilled me. Another driver, Big Del had finally passed to the other side after a brave two-year fight against cancer. When I say brave, that’s an understatement. I’ll be honest, I’d only known him for eight years and we certainly didn’t see eye to eye over anything in life apart from those values that the majority subscribes to, but in Voltaire fashion, I’d have defended to the death his right to differ from me.

Born in Southwark right behind London Bridge station with all the consequences that upbringing places upon proper Londoners, Bid Del fell into one of the traditional London trades still spared of the tyranny of modernisation and compromise, the London taxi driver. Common to most of us still, he was a character, an auteur who used the freedom of our job to pursue interests reserved for the few. Some of us are boring sub-aqua divers, DJs and even commercial pilots when spare time permits. Big Del was a Hell’s Angel. Oh yeah, and born of Afro-Caribbean parents. It’s not difficult to spot the contradictions and hurdles he must have cleared to pursue his goals. Especially having also been in the Parachute Regiment and served in Ireland during the war over there.

Being as tall as me and twice as muscular with a large earing and goatee beard, his entrance into the restaurant on a sporadic Friday evening never lacked drama, impact or expectation. Down he’d sit, declining the offer of a lemon tea being put on anybody else’s bill, and we’d await his cut on the world, never short on opinion or the possibility to be challenged.

Yet nobody rose to the challenge, I think because there was a universal recognition that we were in the presence of a character, that increasingly rare variety of our species in a modern world hell-bent on homogenisation and flattening out of the human spirit.

Contrary to the wrongly perceived stereotype of the London taxi driver as a hang ’em, flog ’em, road-owning cannon fodder reactionary, we are as diverse as the human race itself. But looking out of the television screen that is my windscreen at the outside world in general and the taxi trade in particular, I fear that the character’s minute hand  is up at five to midnight on the Doomsday clock.

There aren’t enough gigs of memory in the net and on our Pads and smart phones to record the characters that the London taxi trade, let alone London itself, has been braced with. In thirty-seven years in this game, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Harry The Red, Immaculate Stan, Aggressive Tony, Thin Arms, Thick Arms, Paul The Poof, The Gargoyle, The Haddock, all candidates for inclusion if Damon Runyan had ever relocated to this fabulous town.

There was a time when one stopped at traffic lights, looked across to the neighbouring taxi and be greeted by White Gloves who’d always throw you a sweet through your window, listen to the geezer with the ginger beard who practised on his clarinet or be updated on the forward  march of the proletariat by Cuban Tony in his taxi liveried to advertise that lonely island in a sea of, well, the dollar-dominated archipelago that is the Caribbean from which Big Del’s family migrated.

I look out at other drivers at the lights these days, and my friendly nod is met with an indifferant look usually reserved for mad people. I fear our diversity is being beaten out on the anvil of globalisation, it’s all about making money, paying off the cab and having enough readies for the weekly family outing to Asda in our Eurocar and back in time for Britain’s Still Got No Talent Thanks To Midgets Who Own the Media. Try saying that with a mouthful of reward cards.

And so I give thanks that Big Del sat next to me at the table, challenged my every belief, brightened my week and left memories long after we recall his beautiful frame withered by the poison that is cancer. It’s up to us others who occasionally mutter under our breaths je refuse to stand up out of Del’s shadow and strike out against the suffocation smothering us all in the name of globalisation, social networks and mid-Atlantic culture. Memo to Mamon: you’ll never beat the true Londoner.

Sleep well, Big Del.

It Was 45 Years Ago Today

2 Jun

Or was it 20? Oh no, that’s when Sergant Pepper told the band to play. There are certain albums released through time that change the whole scene. Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue, Carole King’s Tapestry, The Stone Roses’ eponymous first album all come to mind. But slam dunking in the middle of that triumvirate has to be The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, released June 1st, 1967. I’d only been buying mostly Mod, black American music and ska till then and so Sergant’s purchase was a departure and I don’t think anybody saw me coming out of the shop with it in any case. I needn’t have worried about such reputations, as I was instantly grabbed by its mix of realism and surrealism, ground breaking production techniques and certain there was little of note to possibly precede it.

I’m no music journo, so I won’t eulogise in that style, all I remember is its impact on a working-class kid in Pimlico, London, a paid-up Mod rather than a hippy or dandy, the kind of which we only saw either down the nearby King’s Road, Chelsea or in San Francisco via TV. This was the Summer of Love, agreed, but there were two kinds of Sixties going on at the same time. It’s said that this famous decade in London was about a handful of people–the boys, Jagger, Marianne Faithful etc, that if you remember the 60s, you weren’t there, the inference being you were off your head on the gear. I only ever took one solitary but mind-bending pill and yet six pints of draught Double Diamond in The Locarno, Streatham had no less effect on my sense of what was happening all around than had herbal substances and psychedelic images projected on to blank walls at Chelsea parties we used to bunk in to on Saturday nights. Bands like The Smallfaces were our standard bearers, of the working class and living around the corner from us in Pimlico in post-war Regency shabbiness as shown below.

Free Love? Maybe in the grand Georgian houses or bedsits of surrounding areas, but in our estates the stigma of having to get married if pregnant with your girl/boyfriend was the greatest contraceptive going. In any case, you didn’t buy condoms in barbers because you’d be too embarrassed to ask for them. Certain surgical shops advertised them in their windows alongside trusses and other physique-defying garments, but you needed a nylon mack to go into them.

In Space terms, we were only up to Apollo 3, two years away from Apollo 11 landing on the moon in a sitting room near you or even a bar in Manhattan where all crime briefly stopped. Yet later that year, I was briefly and naively convinced that humankind had reached its limits when the world was joined together as 400 million people watched the BBC’s One World broadcast of The Beatles’ live recording All You Need Is Love in the Abbey Road studios, carpeted by a worshipful of Who’s Who of the In Crowd. My sister and her husband had come to our flat from their nearby bedsit (Old Man Steptoe was their neighbour) to sit on our floor hippy-style to watch this epic-making broadcast.

And forty-five years on, there is little evidence of the world changing for us then, other than perhaps the ever-renewing graffitied devotions to the boys on the white walls outside the Abbey Road studios and columns of tourists walking across the famous zebra crossing.” Oy mate, you’re supposed to take your shoes off”, I heard a taxi driver shout to one of them once. Carnaby Street is no more than a theme park, only us of a certain age remember where the great shops and the dodgy clubs were. But who cares anyway? Perhaps I’ll start carrying the Sgt Pepper album under my arm again.