Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Life in Cantabria c.1880

Escenas Montañesas is a series of vignettes by José María de Pereda about life, particularly some of the dying customs, in Santander and the mountain villages, in his time. I imagine the speech is authentic, although it sounds like nothing I heard. It is probably dead now. And the characters are mostly meant to be real. Dramatised perhaps, but people he really met and situations he really lived. They are irregular, a couple are dull, but most are very good. You feel as though you were there, you take sides, you feel along with them their sufferings, happinesses and motivations, they are real people living real lives, and they are fun to read about.

Pereda was a Cantabrian who wrote in the second half of the 19thC. He belongs to the tradition of ‘costumbristas’, writing novels and stories about the people and places that were part of the life of the area they knew, linking realism and romanticism Many works of Emilia Pardo Bazán and Blasco Ibañez, and some periods of Pérez Galdós, are similarly inspired.

The longest story is not set in Santander, but between a farm in the mountain, and Madrid. It’s a version of the town mouse and the country mouse but with at least three other, equally important, narratives woven into it and an immense amount of humour and detail.

Another tale, of a very different feel, is told in several parts over the course of the book. It describes the world of the Cabildo, the Fishermen’s Guild, two of which operated in Santander until the end of the 19th C, constantly fighting, and the centre of life and the world for the people who lived from the sea. Pereda tells of the sudden end of these Guilds, through his own eyes, via a series of connected incidents in the lives of men and women who were clearly real, and known to the author, as they struggle with their daily problems, winning and losing, surviving, or sometimes not.

The stories end with the closure of the Guilds and the death of the most iconic character on the docks. Pereda claims to have been present, and he clearly felt very deeply the loss of this man.*

Despite all this, Pereda was not one of them, except as an observer. He lived a comfortable life in a four-storey stone house on the fashionable port front**, and watched all of this from his windows. He never had to put to sea in a tiny fishing boat, or worry about hoe to feed his children, or what to do when his boots finally fell to pieces, or how to defend his trade from the other Guild, and the town council. Nevertheless, he understood the lives of the people who did live that way, and had great affection for them.

*For a longer dramatized telling of life in the Cabildos, I recommend his novel ‘Sotileza’.

**His family still lives in that house. I was friendly with his great-great-nephew and visited it regularly at one time.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Notes from the Road- Santander

We left Noja one morning and started along the clifftops to Santander. The path I had found takes you through Ajo and over the hill paths to Galizano. The route took us into valleys and up mountains and past farms with sheep, goats, cows of different colours (mostly Asturian) some with small and medium calves, horses with foals, donkeys with baby donkeys, and we were followed by a group of kites that swooped and circled and generally had fun.

It rained much of the first few miles, on and off but we kept everything covered. Sometimes we could see the sea beside or behind us, and always the hills and the woods and the fields with things in them and the houses and the little collections of houses which may or may not be villages.

In Galizano we stopped and rested briefly, and we asked for the path through Langre and Loredo to Somo. We saw many farms and flowers and fruits and animals and curious houses, some attractive. There has traditionally been a lot of wood used in building here (there) and many modern houses in rural areas try to maintain something of the style. In Galizano there are many fine stone houses, including some modern ones.

Loredo is a little place on an eminence across the bay from Santander, mainly a holiday place. You need to go down to Somo to catch the boat to the city.

I took that boat sometimes when I lived there. It didn’t strike me then but almost certainly the best way to arrive in Santander is coming down the hill to Somo and crossing in the boat. You can see the city below you for miles as you go down, its position in the bay, the Palace of the Madelena on a headland and the Hotel Real standing out high above the other buildings on the ridge that forms a backbone to the city. As you reach the landing stage and wait for the ferry you can look at the nearby bridge to Pedreña and then turn to look more closely at Santander across the water.

The port area is divided between the international ferry port, the cargo port, the fishing port and the pleasure port, all along one stretch of the bay that was the historical focus of the city, and still is to some extent. The most popular place for strolling is the promenade by the marina, wide and airy, and with sufficient cafés to content the civilized man.

You can see the theatre, a curious structure with a green copper oxide roof and supposedly the largest stage in Europe. It is also highly unusual, if not unique, in that at the back of the stage is a picture window, so the audience can enjoy the view over the bay before the performance starts. The need for curtains and scenery and the fact that plays are usually performed at night means that rarely do you get the chance to see it but the idea was a good one and when it does work it must be quite spectacular.

As you approach the jetty you start to pick out buildings and streets and your favourite shops and cafés and you can identify the characters walking up and down by there demeanour and their clothing and their gait.

Moments later you arrive, and as I say, I think that is the only way to do it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Lower Lakes

The lakes below the village that gives them their name are less visited, less well known. Those upstream are fed directly by the water table, whereas those below depend on the water that flows down from those above. This doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but the fact is that two of them are boggy at the best of times, and this year are completely dry, and smelly.

Immediately below the village is a channel that leads, in a few hundred yards, to a waterfall. It’s a rather beautiful waterfall, appearing to spring from nowhere and splitting into a number of jets that jump and tumble 100 feet to the pool that receives them, spraying the rocks behind and beside them and allowing greenery to flourish when everything else is barren and dry.

There is an easily reachable spot from which to see it at its best. You have the water falling from above you to below you, only 30 yards away. You can see the rocks, the plants, the seething river as it flows away beneath you through a little rocky valley, and that is all you can see. The village and everything human is hidden at that spot, and you are left with nature, powerful and beautiful.

It will soon be dry, I think, until the cycle comes round again.

The river then flows on to the other lake, not muddy at all but large and still full. There are a few houses on it and it’s a good place to swim or fish or just muck about on a boat. But for some reason no one thinks of going there, except those with the foresight to buy dirt cheap land on the banks years ago. There are no bars, but surely that could be fixed. On the other hand, why attract more people there. It is not exactly my secret, but the crowds that fight for towel space on the upper lakes don’t realize what they are missing.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Who are the Games About?

I see the chairman of the International Olympic Committee has just arrived in England. It strikes me as odd that the people who matter in all this, the athletes, some of whom (probably a small minority, it’s true) make a genuine living by selling their skill and the spectacle they are able to make of it to people who are prepared to pay to watch them perform, which is why there is any interest in this event in the first place… er, lost the thread. Yes, sorry, the athletes/competitors, the people everyone goes to watch, have to make do with a shared room in a little apartment block in Stratford (no, not that one, but a less-than-inspiring place in East London) while the glorified office boys from the IOC get private jets, Zil lanes, police outriders (if the press is to be believed), and suites at the Hilton. I bet there was spontaneous rejoicing, too.

I imagine all this was agreed before London was offered the Games, as we can’t have the great quangocrats (and the IOC is one of the biggest quangos in the world) troubled by interaction with hoi polloi, the mere rabble who pay, and not willingly, for them to live like kings. Again, if the press is to be believed, the Pope, Kofi Annan or Barack Obama would be embarrassed to demand a reception like that (and I have no doubt he did demand it).

PT Barnum, Kerry Packer, Alan Stanford (is that the name), L’Equipe and many others have taken athletic performers and created a show through which they could all make far more money than they could have done within them, but the president of the IOC is not an entrepreneur, however much he likes to think so. If he were an entrepreneur he would make the Olympics a commercial success or go home. He can’t do that. He is a bureaucrat with delusions of grandeur, living high on the hog off the taxes of people who can ill afford to keep him.

The reason this happens, the reason that the office boy gets the star treatment and the stars are herded like cattle is that the office boys control the money. Other people’s money, of course. It’s just so much easy to spend when you don’t have to worry about where it’s coming from or what the consequences will be.

And wasn’t it finished off with unpaid child labour? Stalin would be proud.

Friday, July 27, 2012

On Laguna Blanca

The first of the lakes that make up the chain is known as Laguna Blanca, because it’s very shallow and the bed is bright white sand. By first I mean that as the river flows through the area this is the first one it fills. It’s different from the others, which are mostly karstic formations, widenings and deepenings in the river created by erosion of the limestone it flows over. Laguna Blanca is just a shallow basin in the countryside, surrounded by earth and reeds. It’s also a long way from the nearest village, and there are no trees to give a bit of shade nor a bar to provide some civilized relaxation. Even so, there are people who know about it and go there to escape the crowds.

The lakes are lower than they have been the last few years. They are filled not by the river itself but by the water table in the mountains to the northeast, and it’s been falling because of the lack of rain. Some drain more quickly than others, because some are little more than pools holding the runoff from the larger ones, and they dry up sooner.

The other day I passed by on the bike, and stopped to have a look. The water was very low, exposing what would be a serviceable beach if it weren’t for the lack of shade. As it is, there was just a bit of very shallow water in the middle with some puzzled fish swimming around in circles. If I’d had a net they would have been dinner. As it is, they’ll be eaten by eagles in a few days.

Such is the life cycle of these lakes. Last for the last three years Laguna Blanca has been a place teeming with life, dragonflies of many colours fluttering through the towering reeds and grasses while being chased by crazed Englishmen with cameras; large and varied waterfowl nesting and feeding on the succulent algae; birds of prey circling confidently; tiny flowers dotted all about, breaking the symmetry of the green and white; toads and frogs splashing in the shallows avoiding children with nets and jam jars. Now all this is gone, and it’s nearly a desert. It could be several years before it rises again.