Charles Fisher's writing - books, poetry
Read some poems from the Locust Years here
Charles' memoir, Adios Granada was completed just before his death. Here is an excerpt, recently published in HoBo magazine.
BY CHARLES FISHER
O ciudad de los gitanos
Quien te vio y no te recuerdas?
-- Garcia Lorca
(O city of the gypsies
Who that has seen you can forget you?)
The stories that follow reflect gypsy life in Granada in the sixties and have been set down (or conjured up) as faithfully as memory allows. Certain incidents may not have taken place precisely as they appear and some names have been invented, literal accuracy having little to do with the flamenco world I describe. But by and large the account is true and the names are the proper ones. I could never forget them, just as I could never forget the sweetness of those years in which 'real' events seemed very close to dreaming. Unhappily for everyone the fabric of gypsy life as I knew it has been undone and the city I loved has ceased to exist.
It is forty years since I said farewell to Granada. In the course of a single night a cloudburst biblical in its intensity destroyed the whole complex of caves in which I and my companions had lived. None of the old ways survived that catastrophe. So this is one man’s recollection of scenes and events that can never happen again. It is also the story of a Welsh boy who fell in love with the gypsies and found in their fellowship a freedom which most people can only dream of.
My mother said / I never should
Play with the gypsies / In the wood
-- English nursery rhyme
A typical piece of grown-up advice, and, as such, suspect. My mother approved it. They steal children, she used to say. Rubbish! As if they didn’t have enough children of their own, bright-eyed children less sullen than ours. I wish they had stolen me. In the chapel towns of South Wales, gypsy families passing through were looked on with suspicion, even with fear. “Never let them get a foot in the door” my aunt would say. On the other hand, painters and poets were never far from their camp fires. As for myself, the free stride of a Romany girl on her way to market – caminando – never failed to lift my spirits. And how rare a thing it is, that serene manner of walking, so proud and carefree, so near, as it must seem, to insolence. How some people must hate it! As a schoolboy in love with solitary walks through Herefordshire lanes I was drawn irresistibly to the painted caravans of the Rom, the groups of lean, dark men around them and, as if in a sketch by Tiepolo, the image of a young mother nursing her child. Much later, in Paris, in years when the painter Max Eden and I were students together, I met the Rom again as they moved from café to café in the Quartier St. Jacques selling bracelets and charms, usually in groups of three, usually around four o’clock (‘the hour of the gypsies’, as Max called it). Their poverty and their grace moved me to the edge of tears. In summer they wore no shoes, even in the rain. I suspect it was because they did not much like shoes. Shoes and gypsies have never got along well.
Barcelona in the fifties was a dirtier, more mysterious city than it is today. When I first stayed there, the barrio chino, and especially the cafes and taverns lining the dark street called the Conde d’Assalto (now gentrified beyond recognition) was a favourite haunt of gypsy guitarists and singers. It did not take me long to move there despite the fleas -- and worse -- with which the hotels abounded. But these contacts were ephemeral. It was not until later that I was fortunate enough to meet with the gypsies freely on their own ground, and it was later still before I found the courage and the opportunity to cut other ties and make my home among them in a cave high above Granada. And because gypsies have the good sense to live their lives instead of dreaming them away in books or frittering them away on things, I welcome this chance to tell stories of their adventures and say what it was like for a Welsh boy, a boy who had been warned away, to take a place among them and share their life. No doubt the record is imperfect. I offer, as excuse, the fact that I made no notes -- that I kept no trace apart from letters and a few blurred photographs. Had I done otherwise, this book could not have been written.
Antonio, tall and lean... a beanpole, Jacquetas called him in an unkindly moment. (Also 'a stick dancing' but that was on another day and utterly slanderous.) He was the only person on the hill who owned an overcoat, a trophy brought home from Germany, a garment too wide in the shoulders, too square for him altogether, the fashion of an earlier day; most gypsy clothes are decades behind the times or else, like lunares, outside them altogether. As a child he had built a canoe -- I can imagine it now, a thing patched together from ill-assorted bits of wood, doomed to sink immediately in the shallow pools of the rio Genil. For this initiative he was given the name Canoha which had stuck to him all his life. Only on his passport and other official documents would his real name appear: Antonio Heredia Santiago, to perform with other flamencos.
The purpose of his life was pleasure and he pursued it single-mindedly in the face of obstacles of every sort. Gypsy society understands dedication of this sort, even applauds it on occasion, so it was not surprising that Antonio became a popular figure, a man admired for his wit (salero) and his graceful manners – qualities also held in high regard here. It is no small accomplishment to be debonair when one has a wife, three children and no particular income but it came easily to El Canoha who performed this minor miracle daily. Viz: Antonio at 1 p.m. waving from the balcony of the Mairie; Antonio at 3:30 p.m. standing at the barero with a group of toreros; Antonio at 2 a.m. still with it, still not tired, chatting up the girls, rapping out dance beats on bar counters, explaining old customs, inventing new ones; sociable, sensitive, intelligent... I did well to have him for a friend and as a brother. Nowhere could I have found a better companion. Or one less acceptable to les gens de bien as is well illustrated by the following story. One afternoon I found him folding up a ten peseta note and stashing it carefully in his shoe. “This” he explained, “is reserved to buy milk for the children.” Parental forethought duly noted. Ten hours later we were ending the evening at La Venta. The tavern was crowded, the mood hilarious. Moulin Rouge plus a touch of Hollywood. And not a penny left to us with which to buy a drink. I turned out my trouser pockets. Nothing left! “No problem!” shouted Antonio cheerfully, taking off his shoe and removing the ten pesetas, “Now we shall drink the milk of the children” (Ya beberemos la leche de los ninos). “Flamenco, no?”
Gypsies are supposed, at least by romantics, to care little or nothing for material possessions. In fact they care a great deal, or seem to, as anyone incautious enough to display something new -- a wristwatch, or shoes or sunglasses -- will soon find out. Curiosity as to objects is intense and undisguised. No embarrassment whatsoever. An onlooker from a supposedly 'materialistic' society might blush. “Cuanto costa?” is the question shamelessly asked. “How much did you pay for this?” The next question -- framed already in a tone of reproach -- is: “Why don't you give it to me?” One evening at Maria's cave, thirty tourists were waiting for the Zambra to start. All was ready as I took my place near the door. And then the lute player Banduria, two seats away, spotted my new watch, a hideous digital affair. At once I was besieged. “How much is it worth?” “Let me try it on!” “Give it to me!” (This latter from the girls, who had now joined us). Paying guests were forgotten; the Capitana was dismayed, or seemed so. This was too much. Que verguenza! More than anything else, gypsies love whatever produces a dramatic effect. This was the moment for a grand gesture. Slowly I removed the wretched watch and to the great delight of everyone crushed it underfoot. Lively applause from all sides. “Olé, Carlos!” cried Banduria and the rest, “Eres muy flamenco!” Shows how little we care for such things!
But that was just theatre, an observer might say. In private the attitude toward material things might be different. Silly notion! Gypsies care nothing for watches or shoes or sunglasses or smart clothes or any of the thousand articles which the west cannot do without. If they really wanted those things they would have them by now. In spades. Coming out of their ears. They are quite clever enough to get them. What they cannot do, and what they do not wish to do, is keep them. Thus, though it rains a lot in Granada in winter, no one has a raincoat. No one has even a workable umbrella. A 'high bed' - cama alta - is considered a luxury and thought of with a certain contempt. They know very well that in their situation material things are only acquired at the cost of something they prize infinitely more, namely a certain freedom -- freedom to move about, freedom not to have a 'regular job' and freedom not to have a boss. The list goes on. As far as possessions go, well yes, a hundred gold sovereigns in a bag would be about right. For dreaming.
Canoha and I stand at the bar of La Venta talking about cosas de la vida. Gypsy life. The place is empty and our mood is despondent. The old customs are dying out. “Take earrings,” I say. “Used to be that gypsy men wore earrings. Not any more. Where do we ever see them now? On album covers.” A long pause while this is considered.
“When I was growing up lots of men wore earrings. My own father wore one. Just in one ear. Never in both.”
“Good for him. I can see myself wearing one. Nothing elaborate. A plain gold ring like a pirate.”
Antonio orders more anis dulce. It comes in small, thick glasses each containing a sugared almond. Ugh! Should have asked for rum. Beautiful Marie from the Albaicin pops in, ignores us both, runs back to a waiting taxi. We turn up our collars, pretend it's raining, feign broken hearts. Two girls from Seville sweep in like sailing ships and regard us with disdain. One is pretty, the other is plain -- not an unusual combination. “Quiero!” calls Antonio stamping out bits of a dance in which he imitates the movements of a matador. He is literally making passes at them (two naturales and a veronica -- one olé from me). The girls are not impressed. The plain one wants to tell my fortune. “First give me a douro” she says, very brisk and businesslike. This fails to strike the right note. “Ni este!” I tell her, using a common gesture which involves flicking one’s upper teeth with the thumb. “Not one centimo. But I'll tell your fortune for nothing.” She holds out her brown, square hand. Lines few but deep. Short life line, prospect of three kids. What can I say to her? “You will be rich.” I announce. “A lucky star! You will win the lottery!” “Now tell mine” clamours the pretty one. But it is not to be. “Time for action” exclaims Canoha. “We are electric men (somos hombres electricos). Get your umbrella, we're on our way.”
“Where are we going?”
“To the house of the little dogs. Carmela will see to everything free of charge before the storm has a chance to break.”
I pay the bill and follow him on to the carretera. The night is clear. I do not own an umbrella. Carmela's house is the only one on the street that looks like a proper house. True it's a very small house but it has two windows, a door in the middle and a roof. Its owner, a calm, reassuring lady with a bright smile, is playing cards with Gabriel by candle light. Miguel is watching. I notice they are using a tarot pack. We state our purpose and the game is suspended while discussion takes place as to which ear ought to be pierced. No one has a strong opinion on the matter least of all myself, so a boy is dispatched to consult various oracles including the redoubtable Pharaona who runs an imposing cueva just up the street. In the meantime Miguel has found several bottles of German beer in a cupboard and I have taken a hand at the game, a variation of piquet. After what seems a long time our messenger returns having apparently interrupted La Pharaona in mid-sambra to ask her opinion (Gabriel rolls his eyes heavenward to hear of such presumption). “She says it's the right ear,” the boy reports.
“Bueno, vamanos” says Carmela calmly, bringing out a jar from which she removes a long, thick needle, a length of thread and a piece of soap. I try to appear indifferent. It would, of course, be bad form to show any sign of pain, or even inconvenience, a gypsy male being, supposedly, indifferent to physical discomfort at least when ritual is involved. Thinking back on the operation, I recall not so much the passage of the needle as the roughness of the string that followed it and the time it took to pull it through. When she had done, Carmela tied the thread in place and moistened the hole in my ear with spit. “There!” she said. “How's that?” “You can just pay for the beer.” I thanked her, and left with Antonio to resume our session at La Venta. On the way there he seemed unusually quiet, musing, I conjectured, on the folly of our ways.
“You know something, Carlos,” he confided eventually. “I've been thinking.”
“About your earring. You know something? I'm almost certain my father wore his earring in the left ear.”