Thursday 29 September 2011

Travelling with Samuel Johnson and Harry Potter

Johnson and Potter are unusual travelling companions perhaps, but literally acceptable.
Very occasionally we rent out our house in Spain. Recently We had a one week booking which left us homeless, so we took a trip in the camper van. My wife suggested that we travelled around our own area (the Mataranya) but I felt the need for pastures new so we ventured to the Ebro River and  the Monsant area of Catalunia.
It was a nice trip with no set agenda except a beginning and an end, yet we quickly dropped into a daily pattern. I went running most mornings, then had breakfast inside or outside the camper van whilst reading a little. Usually we managed to find beautiful setting for our overnight stay, though not always. After a shower we explored the village that we were visiting or I went for a longer walk. Later we moved on, stopping at some pleasant location for a picnic lunch in transit.
Then came the hard part. It was intensely hot that week though we were in the latter part of September. Our camper does get very stuffy so we had to find somewhere, usually in a village, that had a little shade from the sun. Now such spots are in great demand even though the villages are thinly populated (one had only 40 or so souls within it according to the priest). If we were lucky then we parked in a shady spot during the hottest part of the day and either slept or read or wrote - the villages were spookily quiet at this time in the afternoon as they too slept, or read or wrote.
At five or so we toured our current village in search of bars and restaurants. We then spent the rest of the evening drinking cold beer, often followed by tapas and cold red wine. Then home (the campervan) for a carjillo (coffee with anis), a bit more reading, and so to bed.
I read Harry Potter for educational purposes. I read a little each day. I read in Spanish in the hope that it will improve my poor understanding of the language, and I read professionally since Potter and his friends, like it or not, are of great interest to many of my Oxford tour groups. I am currently reading the sixth book but during the trip could find little in it which related to Monsant.
I was also reading  Samuel Johnson’s report of his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, mostly because I visited his birthplace in Lichfield recently and was moved to buy the book of his, and Boswell’s, describing their travels, as a memento of my visit. I included it in my bundle of books for Spain (we both have a real fear of finding ourselves without reading matter and are hoping for Kindles this Christmas) and, though I have not completed it, I found his notes an excellent companion to my own travels.
Johnson describes his journeying without becoming embedded in a diary-like itinerary. He hitches everything to experiences within the Hebrides, but regularly launches off into fascinating philosophical trails discussing anything from human migration to the price of cows. He has an inquiring mind and an apparently encyclopaedia- like recall.
Monsant shares with the Hebrides a low population and a lack of industry, but it is clear that the people of this mountainous area were richer or perhaps more industrious than the Scots. The houses of the lovely Monsant mountain villages are old yet they are clearly better built and certainly much taller than the stone huts described by Johnson. Water is a problem in both locations, though for diametrically opposed reasons. Monsant is very dry and relies on collected water and irrigation, The Isle of Sky, in Johnson’s time was, so boggy that there were no roads and only the locals could safely traverse the island.
I am home now, but still reading Johnson and Potter. One of the most enjoyable accounts by Samuel Johnson, the compiler of of course of our first comprehensive English dictionary, is the Highlanders’ willingness to answer any question: quickly and with immense authority. However, follow up questions quickly dissipated that confidence, diluted the answer and sometimes actually resulted in a completely different tale. This is so like the Cotswolds that my reading of it aloud even made Margaret (the implacable supporter of Stow-on-the Wold superiority) chuckle.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Lorna Done and the Spanish

We bought our house in Aragon at the end of 1999 and celebrated the millennium there. We knew little about the area, its history, flora, fauna and culture beyond what our daughter (and personal search agent) had shown us. However, we did sense that this was an area that had been somehow insulated from the modern world for much of the century and yet was on the cusp of change.
Not completely insulated of course: our village had electricity and all that comes with it. There were motor cars and tractors and refrigerators and so forth. Yet there will still people climbing the extreme slopes to their homes laden with huge bundles of firewood, donkeys occasionally tramped the streets bearing even huger bundles, and shepherds often blocked the roads as they led their vast flocks of sheep and goats to pastures new. Not for nothing did the Spanish speak of Teruel, our province, as the place that no one goes to and no one come from despite the fact that some locals displayed defiant signs saying “Teruel existe”  in the back windows of their cars.
I have just read Lorna Done for the first time. We read it as the inaugural book of our newly formed, and now defunct, family book club: I was the only one to have finished the tome in time for our discussion meeting! I enjoyed the novel and had the delight of becoming obsessed with it. I can recall thinking as we sat in the plaza of our village at two in the morning and just part the way through a long fiesta night, “I wish I was at home reading Lorna”.
For those who have read the classic you may recall that “John Ridd” should have been the title. John is the narrator and the book is mostly about his life as a farmer. Of course the Doones and his Lorna have a key role in the plot, but John’s life and times is the soil upon which the story grows. (As an aside I doubt very much that R D Blackmore would ever have achieved fame had he chosen my alternative title: there is something beseechingly attractive about the name Lorna Doone.)
John’s life, when he is not yearning for Lorna, is almost exclusively focussed on food: planting, tending, harvesting, collecting, breeding, butchering, eating, sharing – these were the verbs that define much of John’s life, and much of the lives of the people in whose time the book portrays.
And so too with the people of my village of La Fresneda where the conversation used to be redolent with much the same verbs, though in the local tongue. However, these were the old brigade. In the last ten years or so they have mostly retired (at least formally, people who have worked the land never entirely retire) and the village has become different. Incomers have arrived (ourselves included), the road system has been improved, many of the houses have been renovated, and agriculture, though still important, is no longer number one. The incomers are local youngsters who set their sights on the big cities for their future; other incomers are retirees or evacuees following some dream and bringing their own culture; there are also foreign workers who specialise in building houses and building their own version of the country that they have left.
Naturally food is important to the incomers, even though it is not their focus. They produce little or nothing, obtaining their food from the supermarket and having little knowledge, or interest, in its origin. Farms and huertos (smallholdings) are increasingly disused and those that remain are often managed by one man and his machines.
Traditions still abound and will take a long time to die or adapt, but already I can see this happening. A friend in Oxford recently told me that the Spanish did not dance. I was amazed to hear such a thing about this, the country of flamenco and fiestas. Yet on the last night of our own fiesta the people did not dance! Local groups were playing pop music and the crowd simply stood around and listened. There was the occasional, uncontrolled outburst of dancing by individuals, but this was soon suppressed by peer (not beer) pressure. I was nonplussed and had to return to the scene a number of times during the night simply to check my earlier observation. This is so sad. The Spanish without their dancing would be like the English without their pubs.
Fortunately all is not yet lost. The previous five nights of the fiesta were accompanied by dancing and a fiery bull. And a week or so after the main fiesta we had another one: this time based on food, wine, rum, figs, and lots and lots of dancing.