Friday, 9 June 2017

#24: Old tyre

Someone has made this old tyre and wire netting into a cactus shelter – I came across it on my daily walk a month or so ago and have been keeping an eye on it ever since. The cactus is growing to peep out over the edge of the tyre, though it’s not tall enough to push against the netting yet.

Who would do this? Start gardening in – not a wilderness, but a dusty track next to a parched riverbed, populated at the moment by oleanders, those friends of dry terrain (I particularly remember them down the central reservations of motorways in Sicily).

This improvised flowerpot could easily belong in a post-apocalyptic world, with humans trying to fashion artefacts out of leftover bits of rubbish. In my gloomier moments I do think a slow environmental apocalypse has happened to Andalusia, starting with the agricultural revolution 12,000 years ago and bringing us now to this denuded landscape with traces of old terraces like wrinkles on the mountainsides.

A step further in the imagination and we are in a world with no more humans. This is a recurrent fantasy of mine, imagining buildings on their way to crumbling and plants (no longer any ‘weeds’) covering remnants of civilisation so that the Chrysler Building, for example, becomes like those ancient overgrown Mayan temples ‘discovered’ in the Americas in the 19th century – though this time there will be no-one to do the discovering.

Which brings me to a poem I came across recently through The Reader Organisation which to me speaks of the world after humankind:

I sing of change

I sing
of the beauty of Athens
without its slaves

Of a world free
of kings and queens
and other remnants
of an arbitrary past

Of earth
with no
sharp north
or deep south
without blind curtains
or iron walls

Of the end
of warlords and armouries
and prisons of hate and fear

Of deserts treeing
and fruiting
after quickening rains

Of the sun
radiating ignorance
and stars informing
nights of unknowing

I sing of a world reshaped

© Niyi Osundare


Sunday, 30 April 2017

#23: Devil

This miserable creature howling on the end of the chain is, I assume, Satan, or at least a devil. His eyes are empty hollows and his face seems to have been damaged, peeled. He is utterly anonymous, stripped naked, with not even a hair. Contempt for him is shown in the cheap wood he is made of and in the thin, mocked-up wings. Whichever saint is standing on his back is, by contrast, fully clothed, coloured, rounded and larger, a person.

I found myself near this sculpture while listening to a concert in a local church and found myself looking at it repeatedly. While not exactly finding it distressing, I was disturbed by its cruelty, and the fact that such an image could be thought acceptable or even inspirational. Thank goodness most of us, both individually and as societies, have moved beyond such superstition-fuelled hatred. Actually, not thank goodness, thank – the development of rational thought since the Enlightenment, principally I suppose.

The sculpture made many different things spring into my mind – Blake’s famous comment that Paradise Lost shows Milton ‘was of the Devil’s party without knowing it’; Blake’s own puzzling poem To the Accuser Who Is God of This World which begins ‘truly my Satan thou art but a dunce’, and the witch in the musical Wicked – not wicked, but misunderstood.

I’ll finish with a poem by John Agard:

On First-Name Terms

Hey. None of this Beelzebub business.
Lighten up. No more Prince of Darkness
and all that Devil’s Advocate
kind of stuff. I’m your mate.
It’s all right to call me Dev
and I’ll call you Les or Mags or Trev.
Formality stinks. Don’t say evil. Say Ev.

© John Agard from The Devil’s Pulpit (Bloodaxe Books) via The Funny Side: 101 Humorous Poems ed. Wendy Cope (Faber & Faber).


Saturday, 25 March 2017

#22: Field border



A strange reversal, when the edges of a field are richer in plant life than the field itself. I noticed vetch, clover and greater periwinkle on top of the stone wall bordering this local field, plus a white flower I couldn’t identify. The field itself looked bare, presumably waiting for its crop to grow. It’s tempting to lament the monoculture and pesticides which have led to this situation, but it would be hypocritical, given that I had just returned from the weekly market with a rucksack full of giant, cheap fruit and vegetables – enormous shiny red peppers, large apples and leeks – local, but probably grown as pesticide-garnished monocultures under the plastic sheeting which covers large areas of ground around here, especially towards the coast.

When do borders become the richest things in human lives? I couldn’t help thinking of Thoreau’s statement in Walden, his chronicle of years spent living simply, ‘I love a broad margin to my life’. What might this broad margin be? Leisure, weekends? Time to think, create or play? Time which is undirected, not farmed to the last inch, so that it invites a higgledy-piggledy collection of tenants? Thoreau talks of his days which were not ‘minced into hours and fretted by the ticking of a clock’.

Coming back to the real field, I wondered if those borders could be allowed to encroach a bit more – do we not have the technology to intensively farm some bits of land and leave increasing parts to be rewilded, as George Monbiot recommends in his book Feral? Perhaps together with reduced consumption, so that less of the food we buy is thrown away – the charity WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimates that an astonishing quarter of the food bought in the UK each year is wasted, mostly by households and food manufacturers, although only 60% of this wastage is avoidable. I will eat those red peppers. 

P.S. A friend tells me that the white flower is Allium, or wild garlic, of which there are more than 40 species in this part of the country.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

#21: Bookshop

Loud orange and pink Penguin book spines line the walls in Granada’s Metro bookshop like jars of sweets. And I did feel like a child in a sweet shop when I was there a few weeks ago, with a strong hungry impulse to take away and gobble up the contents of some of those jars. This is partly because it is the best selection of English language books I have seen yet in a shop in Andalusia, but also partly because bookshops are such nice places. Why is this? What do they give us that Amazon does not?

I suppose there is a more personal impulse behind the selection – someone has chosen those books both for their contents and appearance. So Metro had at least two editions of Alice in Wonderland, (one a lavishly-illustrated hardback), a good range of classics and other very well-chosen books – some on Spain, e.g. Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain and Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada, and some not, e.g. James Bowen’s A Street Cat Named Bob (flicked through it – seemed down-to-earth and good, despite the sugary film posters). And of course a third of a tabletop covered with Bob Dylan’s works, complete with ‘winner of the Nobel Prize for literature’ stickers.

It’s also a more sensual experience, of course, than browsing online – I particularly liked the flowery bookmarks hidden in the Penguins, and the velvety, glinting covers of some of the hardbacks. But most of all I think bookshop offers a different space – a cared for, curated (overused word, I know) space which, if the assistants are not over-attentive, you can linger in for as long as you want. Museums are sometimes called ‘dream spaces’; I would say the same for bookshops.

So what did I come away with? Oliver Sacks’s Seeing Voices, about sign language, which I tried not to eat all at once. I found the book fascinating, particularly the initial chapters; I had never realised that sign language had its own grammar and vocabulary – I thought it was a sign ‘translation’ of spoken language. There were some things I disagreed with; for example Sacks talks up sign language at the expense of spoken language (why not value both equally?), saying that with sign language ‘narrative is no longer linear and prosaic’ – well, neither is spoken language always prosaic, and think of all the non-linear elements added with gestures, intonation and so on. Anyway, I’m digressing – the book cost €13.50, surprisingly about half as much as on Amazon for a new copy, but twice as much as a good quality second-hand copy. No contest financially (if you don’t want a brand-new copy) but for a refreshing, even memorable, experience the bookshop wins hands down.
Bookshelf photo © Metro bookshop, Granada


Friday, 9 December 2016

#20: Mujerhoy


Every Saturday, along with Ideal, Andalusia’s newspaper, comes the magazine Mujerhoy, (‘Woman Today’). 

This is a rather contradictory publication. On the one hand it offers stories of women overcoming barriers of gender, class, and sometimes race and income. In recent weeks we’ve heard about Clara Peeters, a 14th century painter who ‘swam against the current’ by creating her own works (an exhibition of these is currently at the Prado); Josephine Kulea, a Kenyan woman who founded an NGO to rescue girls at risk of genital mutilation; and Harvard professor Drew Gilpin Faust, whose mother apparently told her as a child that it was a man’s world. The narrative is usually of individual achievement in the face of family, gender, class and financial pressures. 

We also have recipes, horoscopes, lifestyle articles and short stories (two recently were about a woman who learned to accept her difficult mother and another who met a sexy dwarf in a forest). The magazine is of course full of adverts for cosmetics, clothes and cookie-cutter interviews with stars endorsing toiletries. Other articles focus on individual emotional growth and encourage looking inwards, not outwards.

This contradiction is nowhere more stark than in the July 2016 issue, which carried an article on prostitution. ‘Linking prostitution with free time is the same as justifying kidnapping and slavery,’ said the headline. It interviewed eight people, mainly from journalism and show business, (why not women who work or who have worked as prostitutes?) all talking about how to combat the trade. ‘On this topic there is much social hypocrisy,’ commented journalist Jesús Cintora.

But turn the page, and what do we see? A fashion shot (part reproduced below) of a sad pale woman, underdressed and overthin, (in designer clothes made to look cheap), standing next to a car on a cloudy day near blocks of flats. Hypocrisy indeed. 




However, there is no doubt that women’s magazines have to perform a difficult balancing act. At the end of the day they have to make a profit, mainly through adverts, which try to sell us an ideal life and encourage discontent with our own. At the same time they need to tell women they are forging ahead and achieving more than ever before. 


One could interpret all this in a more hopeful way and say that make-up and fashion companies are subsidising stories of women’s bravery and achievement. But I wonder whether these stories of achievement themselves are a type of myth of individuals overcoming the odds – it’s very rare to read a story about collaboration between women in the pages of Mujerhoy. I suspect the veteran feminist campaigner and founder of Ms magazine Gloria Steinem would not be happy (although she is featured in this week’s edition).


The women’s magazine market is extremely competitive, and content is finely finessed for particular market segments – and stories of achievement are better in any case than tips on how to keep the curtains clean or relate to your husband’s secretary. But this isn’t saying very much. I think of advertisers and editors using whichever narrative they can sell to most readers, in order to hold onto their jobs and sell products. Perhaps it is up to us to demand, or try to create, different narratives.


Spanish translation here - a collaboration between myself, Salvadora of Asociación de las Mujeres Órgiva and Bing Translate. 

Original images © Mujerhoy