The Wave At Mundaka

San Justo talks of waves, plural, but also of “the wave”, singular, and “our wave”, possessive. His hometown is renowned for a particular swell pattern that recurs right below us, where the Oka River flows out through the Urdaibai Estuary and into the Bay of Biscay. Current, tide, and prevailing winds converge upon a sand bar just beyond the harbour wall, often forming the kind of barrel wave more common to Indonesian coral islands than gusty North Atlantic shorelines. Surfers call it “the longest left in Europe”, and they can ride it for a good 90 seconds, perhaps 10 of those spent gliding through the “tube” itself.

Postcard From Madrid: First Of The Verbenas

IT is customary for many citizens of Madrid to get the hell out of town this time of year, to flee the demented heat of August for some breezier redoubt on the coast. But there is an opposing tradition among those who stay put: practically mandatory attendance at a trio of street parties, thrown for a trinity of patron saints, in three adjoining neighbourhoods just south of the city centre.

A Fish Market The Size Of Monaco

Last week, ahead of the market’s 40th anniversary in November, I was issued with a visitor pass, a high-vis vest, and a guide named Paloma de la Riva. We walked in well before dawn, the moon a thin yellow hook above the looming hangarlike roof. And behind the briny curtain was something akin to a teeming indoor harbour, its nocturnal community working hard along soaked and crowded streets of wood palettes and styrofoam crates.

Transhumanism, or, Sheep Against The Void

Driving his sheep and goats between Mediterranean pines in the backwoods of the park, Garzón said that he esteemed shepherds in general as stewards of the Earth. By his count, he said, “There are two billion of us. One quarter of the global population, conserving 100% of the territory that our animals graze across. Reindeer in Siberia, llamas and alpacas in the Andes, camels in the deserts. There would be no life without shepherds.”

Jamaica Is Not A Real Place

We sit with a village elder she calls King Toto, who is carving a bamboo drum with cracked fingers while smoking powerful ganja. He also brews “rum-rot”, an alcoholic herbal medicine that he claims has “made many babies”, including some of his own. And it seems his kingly perogative to give only the most gnomic answers to questions about his life and worldview. “I put everything in the fire,” he tells me. “I burn everything corrupt.”

Los Lobos Y Los Osos

THE first bear, or its ghostly heat signature, appears through the thermal binoculars about five minutes after we start looking. Without that expensive piece of kit – worth €6000, I’m told by field guide José García Gonzalez – we would never be able to see it in the dark before dawn, having just pulled up to the crash barrier at the edge of a high and lonely road above the Xunceras river valley. There it is, as rendered by the high-tech lenses: a brown bear showing white against the black of the opposite slope. A spirit animal moving across a near-vertical void.

The Other Ibiza

ALMOST 3000 years ago, Ibiza was believed to be blessed by the ancient god of good things. His name was Bes: enemy of evil spirits, defender of women and children, enthusiastic strangler of venomous serpents. And this island was first named after him – Ibosim – by his Phoenician worshippers, who found the place most hospitably free of snakes. “Bes loved wine, food, music, dancing, and sex!” my guide Martina Greef shouts to me across the choppy water as we kayak out of Port Brut. “And he had a body like yours!”

Various Hellfires: On Elias Canetti

ELIAS Canetti has been among the dead since 1994. If the underworld is anything like it was envisioned in ancient Greek or Chinese mythology – which Canetti found infinitely more “liberating” than contemporary religion – then it’s easy enough to imagine him standing somewhat apart down there, somewhere between the forgotten multitudes and the abiding titans that he venerated in life: Breughel, Pascal, Stendhal etc.

“Bless The Chaos”: La Movida Madrileña

GENERALISSIMO Francisco Franco had been dead for a while before those he repressed felt brave enough to celebrate in public. The old man’s four-decade dictatorship of Spain did not neatly expire with him in 1975, and the country was still effectively run by soldiers and priests when a ragged lineup of young punks staged a free concert at Madrid Polytechnic on February 9, 1980. Forty years on, that night is remembered as the inciting event of La Movida Madrileña, the countercultural eruption of this city during the fragile and volatile “transition” to democracy.

Displacement Activity

IN the year before the pandemic I got a new gig, a side hustle, guiding tourists around Ernest Hemingway’s old haunts in Madrid. Starting at an ancient tavern and ending at a basement speakeasy, I led a glorified pub crawl across my adopted home town in the wake of a raging alcoholic.

Eulogy For Anuka

BORN BUENOS AIRES, DATE UNKNOWN. DIED MADRID, FEB 23, 2021 Anuka was the name she was given by Terrie Orr, the Buenos Aires hairdresser who first fostered her – a skinny but greedy black street dog with beautiful amber eyes, snatched up from a park to be cleaned, fed, sterlilised, and homed by one of… Read more »

Watching The End Of The World

A COWARD may die a thousand times before his death, a morbid kid can be killed over and over in his own mind by phantom Soviet warheads. This was me in the mid-1980s, between the ages of 7 and 12. I spent, or lost, that much of my youth priming for nuclear holocaust, projecting scenarios onto the Republic of Ireland

Almodovar’s Madrid

THE city of Madrid is no less essential to the films of Pedro Almodóvar than kinky sex, crimes of passion, eye-popping primary colours or gasp-inducing plot twists. Though born out in Castilla-La Mancha – Don Quixote country – Almodóvar made his punkish early movies here in the capital, where the death of General Franco gave rise to a buckwild creative scene.

The General Out Of His Labyrinth

ON September 13, Spain’s Congress of Deputies voted to expel the bones of General Francisco Franco from his Catholic-pharaonic tomb at the Valley of the Fallen. Not much longer would the great dictator be allowed to repose inside a vast basilica with black marble floors, flanked by chapels dedicated to the patron saints of his army, navy and air force, beneath a simple plate that bears his name but not his rank.

What Would Doctorow Do?

E.L. Doctorow died on July 21, 2015, about a month after Donald J. Trump announced and commenced his run for President of the United States. These events were not related, but they have since become fused in my mind. Doctorow was my favorite living writer, and when Trump began his campaign by riding down the escalator to the gold-plated lobby of his tower, I thought the scene could almost have been composed by that great American mythologist.

The Black Paintings

A BOGGLE-EYED pagan god feasts on the headless carcass of his own son. A humanoid billygoat in a monkish cassock bleats a satanic sermon to a gasping congregation of witches. A desperately expressive little dog appears to plead for rescue, submerged up to its neck in a mud-coloured mire beneath a gloomy, void-like firmament of negative space.

The David Foster Wallace Reader

SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS is commonly declared the enemy of art. The mind catches itself in the lofty act of creation, finds the work-in-progress embarrassing, and complains that it cannot be expected to express itself under this kind of withering scrutiny. David Foster Wallace felt this acutely from an early age, telling a university roommate that he could only write well when he was barely aware of himself and his surroundings: “When I can’t feel my ass in the chair.”

The End Of Empire Never Ends: David Peace

PICTURE an iron castle in a ruined garden, where a lonely poet sits in a bare, round room, writing about another lonely poet in a bare, round room, who is writing about another lonely poet … and so on. David Peace draws on this image in Patient X: The Case-Book Of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, which he calls “a novel of tales” about the eponymous short story writer. Akutagawa was a major figure in the Japanese literature of the early 20th century, whose tormented personal pathology led to his suicide in 1927, at the age of 35.

Cocktails In The Killing Fields

FIRST, a tour of the bare-brick cells and torture chambers of S-21 prison, now known as the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. Straight after that, a buffet brunch at Raffles Hotel Le Royal, with oysters, lobster, wagyu beef tartar and espresso martinis. This is luxury travel in 21st-century Cambodia, where every visiting pleasure-seeker pays a kind of psychic tourist tax by looking at the country’s livid war wounds.

Ghosts Of The Tsunami

AFTER the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011, I worked with a post-disaster clean-up crew in a largely obliterated fishing port called Onagawa. We mostly shovelled mud and debris, and did myriad odd jobs for newly homeless locals packed into evacuation shelters. Everyone had lost someone, and the more talkative survivors told us brutally upsetting stories of wives drowned in waterfront factories, elderly parents dragged away by the wave, entire families killed in their cars while trying to outrun it.