Minding My Own Business
I was in my Museum in a Shed minding my own business, when Mrs Travers, our daily woman what does but not a lot, arrived with the tea tray and some Dundee Cake and in something of a panic.
“Mr Wylie the Memsahib, sorry, I mean Mrs Wylie sends greetings from her boudoir and a message in her own fair hand which reads Action stations, all personnel prepare to decamp.”
“Decamp to where exactly Mrs Travers?”
“That London, I believe your grace, and while I am here, to save me coming down the garden path again, would you like gammon and a pineapple ring or toad-in-the-hole for supper? Mrs Wylie favours the gammon and wants a glacé cherry in her ring.”
“In that case I favour the toad, can we have chipped potatoes?”
“Seemingly not, Mr Wylie, Her Majesty – I mean your dear lady wife says no chipped potatoes for you, while there is no R in the month or even when there is.”
“Really Mrs T this is most inconvenient, I am putting the finishing touches to my model of a Belgian town during the first Unpleasantness. This will complete my diorama for the 40th Anniversary of the Armistice.”
“I had wondered why you wanted all those empty cardboard cereal packets Mr W. What are using for glue?”
“Oh a mixture of flour and water for the papier-mâché and egg white for the corner tabs. You cannot beat the old methods Mrs T.”
“Well I think you can Mr W, but I long ago realised that in this household there is very little point in trying.”
Still Time for a Bit of Gluing
“Why exactly are we going Mrs T?”
“I am not entirely sure Mr Wylie, except I cannot help having noticed that Professor Sir Boozy Hawkes, from the very good varsity in Glasgow where he is an expert in the English Concertina, and the Handsome Stranger have been much in evidence and helping themselves to your single malt. Why sometimes they are here so often one would think they are one in the same person.
Reading between the lines I think it has something to do with the robbery and the missing crotched map of Japanese coastal waters. Do you want me to lay out your expensively crushed linen suit and other items suitable for a warmer that London?”
“Why not Mrs T if one is going south one may as well make the most of it. By the way have you finished with that Shredded Wheat box? It would make a nice row of souvenir Brussels’ lace shops to finish off my town square.”
To That London
Well I had to abandon my model, not to mention the ornamental trees made from old paint brush handles and lichen collected from the trees, for the Starlight Express. While in London we dashed round assembling clues and discovered how dangerous life in the Shadows can be. While sitting in the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, waiting for the curtain to go up on My Fair Lady, which is based on Shaw’s Pygmalion, by the well known Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw, we were sold a programme by none other than Hilda, the German vuman vat did zee heavy vork, before faking her death in a man trap.
There is a strong suspicion that she murdered Muriel’s dear friend Winnie, of the bicycle and the Wool Shop in Auchterarder and her bidey-in Mr Chan, a restaurateur in the Govan Road and crispy noodle specialist (only available from menus E and F). In the belief that she was leading us to bigger fish we let her go. Not only that, but we all wanted to hear I could have danced all night.
As I ultimately deduced, in a brilliant piece of detective work the clues all pointed to Spain and to the city of Seville which is also Spain. Mrs Travers was not exactly thrilled at the thought of going to Spain as she is rather frightened of the Generalissimo whose picture she has seen on a stamp and who apparently disapproves of ladies who go swimming in somewhat reveal swimsuits.
Mrs T, by her own admission, has a rather risqué swimsuit. This was knitted for her in a bouclé double-knit by the late Winnie with pantaloons and full skirt not to mention matching mob cap. She worries about being arrested and spending a night in a Spanish gaol with an uncouth and insatiable Latin gaoler who might take advantage of her. Lady Pentland-Firth, who is one of our party, said she could confirm the prejudiced stereotype and that she herself had herself plenty of experience of Spanish gaolers. “If you play your cards right they will often have a couple of onions and a few potatoes to hand and can make you something in the morning.” Mrs Travers doubted it was worth compromising one’s virtue for a frittata. To which Lady Pentland-Firth replied “Really Travers I don’t think you have quite grasped the opportunities provided by espionage, so typical of the prudish working classes.” Mrs T already irritated by Lady P-F, after the long train journey from Glasgow to London said, “Well clearly you have grasped anything that has come waving your way, typical of the immoral upper classes!”
This and the revelation that Lady Pentland-Firth had demonstrated her Fandango to General Franco during a period when he was somewhat lonely, had roused Mrs T’s interest and she decided would to come to Spain especially as she realised her tales would subsequently be the envy of the Bowling Club.
Reasons to Fly
Despite the Foreign Office’s current level of parsimony due to Mr Macmillan’s economic prudence, they were forced to send us by air from London to Spain.
Lady Pentland-Firth said she refused to go by sea as many of her late husband’s ancestors had poor experiences of maritime adventures with Spain. One Pentland-Firth had perished at Cadiz with Drake and another at Trafalgar with Nelson. Of course there was also the Spanish line – the Late Lord Pentland-Firth’s mother, who was a Minch, was descended from at least two Spanish naval officers who were washed on to Scottish beaches after the Armada was defeated in 1588. Don Diddly Om Dom was reputed to be the source of the family’s dark eyes and colouring and Don Estos was said to have provided the family with their sparkle.
A New Landscape, Stark but Dignified
We flew from London Airport by B.E.A, to Madrid arriving in the Spanish capital. It was a pleasant flight once again in the care of Chief Steward Jimmy Lee who looked after us so well and looked very smart in his summer uniform and then white jacket for the meal service. The descent revealed a stark dry landscape. I was reading My H.V. Morton Stranger in Spain who so aptly described it:
The trees had vanished centuries ago, much of the top soli had gone, and the bones of the land lay stark and bare in various shades of brown. There was a lonely dignity about it as there is about most wide, uncluttered landscapes, and blue and purple hills rose off the edge of the sky.
“A Gay and Impertinent Airport”
Mr Morton is right when he suggests that in comparison with the undulations of the plain, Madrid Airport is like a “gay and impertinent … pleasure steamer upon a sombre lake”. Mrs Travers was a bit alarmed when she saw the entrance to the Arrivals’ Lounge guarded by two armed men in sage green uniforms, wearing hats of black patent leather in a rather Napoleonic style. Fellow arrivals included passengers from South America, a reminder that Spain once had a mighty empire and that its influence is to be found all over the New World in language, architecture and dance.
We were stopped by Customs. This took some time as Muriel always travels with a great deal of luggage despite swearing that she always travels with the bare minimum. Muriel was at first rather angry as she generally feels that any bearer of Her Britannic Majesty’s passport should be allowed to pass immediately without hindrance, fear or favour. However, as the Customs Officers donned white gloves (to delve into the depths of duster coats and twin sets as well as “some new Horrocks’ dresses officer as worn by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth”) Muriel felt these were people she could understand. Lady Pentland-Firth had a round of ammunition confiscated and there was much hilarity as the officials tried to come to grips with the knitted swimsuit and a variety of reinforced foundation garments belonging to Mrs T.
It seems, and I am sure you will hear more of this, that white gloves are very important in Spain; they are a symbol of appropriateness. A glove in Spain, and this is confirmed by Morton, is an aristocratic symbol – the privilege of kings and bishops. Even here as he says “as the world becomes more democratic one sees fewer gloves, and the clenched fist, of course is always bare”.
We then queued with Mexicans, Peruvians and Argentineans at Passport Control. “Why have you come to Spain?” “Turista” each of us said in Spanish, as a large framed photograph of the man on the stamp stared at us from the wall. Our passports were stamped with a heavy hand. We took three ancient taxis to our hotel to accommodate the four of us and the luggage and after checking in we retired to our rooms as it was hot and siesta time. Morton points out that “lethargy is Spain’s first gift to the stranger”; and one has to embrace it as the heat was quite something.
So I lay on the bed under the ceiling fan and thought like H.V. Morton of the writing of Cervantes, the music of Manuel de Falla, the paintings of Velazquez and El Greco. We were four ‘Strangers in Spain’ and we would have to wait until 10 o’clock for our suppa – a time still considered somewhat early although by the Spanish, but way past my beddy-bongoes.
A Hot Night in Madrid
Exploring Madrid will have to wait for another time as we had train tickets booked for Seville via Cordoba. It seems that we had all had a restless night. Muriel and I because of the heat, Lady Pentland-Firth because of a waiter called Juan who had been summoned for room service and Mrs Travers who had drained the welcoming jug of Sangria intended for us all to share. Apparently she thought it was Irn-Bru!
Muriel and Lady Pentland-Firth steadied her along the platform where we boarded the train. The Spanish railway system is very odd. It was badly damaged during the Civil War and still has ancient locomotives and worn out track. However, Mrs T needed all the recovery time possible.
On a Train in Spain
Thus we found ourselves on a train, on the plain, in Spain.
Muriel read a magazine about Balenciaga, the Spanish born courtier who is apparently one of the few who can design, cut, assemble and sew. So much so he is often described as an architect in dress design. Lady Pentland-Firth had purchased a new black leather notebook on the first page of which I could see, reading upside down, she had written, “My Spanish Adventures by a Lady of Quality”. Underneath she had pencilled “Juan, the waiter from our first night, a nicely presented bocadillo, but lacking in content, 3 stars”. Mrs Travers who still looked a little shaky tried hard to focus on “Passionate Librarian – Tales from the Non Fiction Stacks of a County Official”.
As the food offerings on our journey were something of an unknown quantity the Madrid hotel had made up a picnic basket for us with all manner of bread and cheese, olives and strawberries not to mention a bottle or two of the old vino and some nougat. We were due to go all the way to Sevilla, but a ticket inspector with rather good English (and from our brief conversation, also a rather good understanding of Spanish classical guitar music) suggested we might find it useful to get off at Córdoba and find “an exile’s place where East meets West, where the sign of Catherine of Aragon was introduced, and where the origins of the Paisley shawl might be discerned”.
We passed the time to Córdoba nicely with the picnic basket and even Mrs T perked up with a couple of Askit pooders. The town itself sits by the Guadalquivir and has a magnificent Roman bridge. The narrow streets of Cordoba are like somewhere further East and indeed one feels something more of this on catching sight of the inside of the fantastical Mezquita, a mosque, containing a cathedral at its centre.
With its seemingly never ending series of striped arches, it is rather like being caught in a series of circus mirrors.
Muriel was very taken with the designs and thought it gave her some ideas for a commission in Kilmacolm which she feels is crying out for Moorish Influence. This building was begun by Abd al Rahman I, a tall, one-eyed man chased out of Damascus when his family were killed by rivals.
H.V. Morton suggests he must have missed Syria very much as he introduced into Spain both the pomegranate and the date palm. From his gardens at Córdoba, the seed of the pomegranate was distributed all over Spain, by a man who always felt himself to be an exile.
“This is it!” exclaimed a now sober Mrs T, “the Caliph was an exile from Damascus, the pomegranate was the sign of Catherine of Aragon and the unfurling fronds of the date palm are thought to be the origins of the Paisley pattern.” “As I said before” responded Lady Pentland-Firth “you pay that woman far too much, no good will come of it. I never could abide an intellectual char woman with pretensions to night school.”
Fortunately, and as if on cue helping to avoid an unseemly row in a place of prayer, we were aware of the approach of a hooded and bent figure tapping a white stick. He was like some standard fairy story character, whispering in a hoarse, but clearly educated, voice, “Alms, alms, alms, alms for the love of God, pretty laydees” looking at Lady Pentland-Firth, who patted her hair as if acknowledging her own beauty, and then gave him an icy stare. Muriel reached into her handbag and sprayed the old beggar with 4711 eau de cologne before handing over some pesetas, adding “Perhaps that will get you started in business Sir, nothing like a bit of self help as Samuel Smiles said.”
The beggar took the money and concealed it within the folds of his tattered drapery. “What you seek pretty laydees is not here, you must go now to the place of jacarandas and polka dots; find hooded youths and dripping candle grease, gardens of orange trees and a line of water and the resting place of the one who sailed on the Santé Maria and found new worlds.” “Oh don’t tell me” said Lady Pentland-Firth staring at Mrs Travers “you have the answers”.
“Well yes actually I do” replied Mrs T, “it’s the Cofradias in Holy Week who are hooded and drip candle wax, the gardens are in the Alcázar, and the resting place is the tomb of Christopher Columbus. All are in Seville where jacaranda blooms in spring and polka dots appear on the dresses of flamenco dancers. If you don’t believe me let us ask the blind beggar.” We turned and looked for confirmation, but he was nowhere to be found. “Not” said Mrs Travers “that we couldn’t see that coming! And anyway how many blind beggars do you know that wear handmade shoes?”
“You are becoming increasingly irritating, Travers. I have no idea why you are here and I just wish you would shut up.”
“Ladies please we are the British abroad we are supposed to set an example to foreigners, not argue in the streets!” exclaimed Muriel.
“I thought Mrs Wylie, we were the foreigners here” replied Mrs Travers.
“Don’t be ridiculous Mrs T. I am beginning to wonder if I am paying you too much.”
Hasta Pronto as we say over here!