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. If there was something indecent about this, making light of it was part of the job. My personal ambivalence toward Hemingway found breezy forms of expression, encouraging the punters to raise their glasses in his honour while having fun at his expense. I could usually get a laugh out of them by narrating our passage in a crude mockery of the master’s prose voice. Just for example:

“We had a swell time at Cerveceria Alemana, where vanquished matadors used to stand at the bar because they could not sit after atrocious gorings to the buttocks. The waiter was a gloomy old whitejacket with a face as eroded as a fishless desert. It was very fine to be drinking cold beer with salted green peppers and not to be dead in the ground.”

Nothing brave or bold in that kind of caricature. Nothing original. Spoofing his style has been a sport among admirers and detractors since the man himself was in his prime. Always the thinnest-skinned of tough guys, he never really took it on the chin either. Responding to E.B. White’s definitive New Yorker pisstake Across The Street And Into The Grill, Hemingway said: “The parody is the last refuge of the frustrated writer.”

Well, he’s got me there, I often thought. If my nominal career had panned out, I would not be moonlighting in the heritage branch of the service industry. But it paid a lot better than the sporadic travel pieces, book reviews, and author interviews that I sold to faltering print publications at rates per word that would have made Hemingway rip open his shirt and push an editor’s face into a bucket of razor clams. Now there was a rare freelancer who could trade on his name, and exercise leverage. That son of a bitch got Esquire Magazine to front him the cash for his fabled fishing boat, The Pilar. Reporting from this city in the early days of the Spanish Civil War – a pioneer exemplar of what we now call “parachute journalism” – he invoiced The North American Newspaper Alliance $1000 per item for his longform battlefront dispatches.

That’s about $17,000 in today’s money, a sum that made me practically incontinent with resentment. I didn’t hide this from the clients, I made a joke of it. For their part, they seemed to like a little sass. Most were wealthy white Americans around retirement age, invariably friendly and curious, frequently jetlagged and quick to get tipsy, but also generally unfamiliar with Hemingway’s work, beyond dimly remembered high school readings of The Old Man And The Sea.

They knew him better, if only spectrally, by his prevailing reputation as a globe-trotting bon viveur, his favourite hangouts now lighted stations on a worldwide Hemingway Trail that connected Sloppy Joe’s in Key West to Harry’s Bar in Venice to Madrid’s own Museo Chicote. E.L. Doctorow, an author I would rather read any day of the week, once suggested that Hemingway’s “real achievement in the early great novels was that of a travel writer who taught a provincial American audience what dishes to order, what drinks to prefer, and how to deal with the European servant class.” I saw my customers as inheritors of this tradition, descendants of the transatlantic pilgrims who steamed over to the Old World a century ago, when the US dollar went a lot further in Paris. If I was now the servant in the equation, the cheeky Irish footman, there were generous compensations in terms of drinks and gratuities.

Job security too, or more than I was used to. Surely there would always be a steady flow of monied leisure travellers through Madrid, just as Hemingway, though long out of fashion, would never be out of print. The mere fact of his former patronage was still drawing business to so many legacy properties in this town that one cafe had attempted reverse psychology, hanging a sign that read: “Hemingway never ate here.”

For a while, it looked like he would be my long-term meal ticket, but that prospect was abruptly cancelled in spring 2020, when this city took an early turn as world capital of new coronavirus infections. The bars shut, the plazas emptied, the tourists fled. The Spanish government declared a state of alarm and imposed the strictest lockdown in Europe. The historic centre was now off-limits to those of us living just outside it, across the Segovia Bridge, where I was effectively confined to my Franco-era block of flats with my girlfriend, our toddler daughter, and our amber-eyed rescue dog, Anuka. Through the back window we saw the ambulances howling to and from the nearby Laguna hospital, and the hearses rolling in and out of San Justo Cemetery, three blocks down the street. They seemed to be the only moving vehicles out there.

This neighbourhood had seen house-to-house fighting during the Spanish Civil War. The line of circumvallation – the ring drawn around the city for the nationalist’s three-year siege of Republican Madrid – cut right across our side of the Manzanares River. I thought about this when I walked the dog at dawn every morning of the lockdown, which had its own siegelike parameters. Exercising pets was allowed within a radius of a few hundred metres, so Anuka conferred on me a sort of low-level security clearance. We rarely encountered anyone else, and regularly overstepped our bounds. Slipping under the police tape that sealed off the local park, we climbed the hill that faced across the river toward the dome of San Francisco Basilica, the flat-roofed royal palace, and the faraway blue glow of the clock on Telefónica headquarters.

I have loved that building for as long as I’ve lived here (going on six years). It was Europe’s first skyscraper when it went up in 1930, a cutting-edge comms centre fusing Spanish Baroque to Manhattanesque Art Deco. The Civil War made it both a priority bombing target and a busy air raid shelter. Crowds rushed into the basement even as Condor Legion warplanes homed in on the antenna tower, and Franco’s rebels fixed their guns on it from artillery positions more or less where I was standing. After a few weeks of municipal exile, looking across that skyline was like pressing your nose against a snowglobe, wanting to roam the tiny streets under the glass.

I used to lead my tours along the Gran Vía, past the former Hotel Florida where Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, and the other foreign correspondents were put up (now a department store), to the soaring frontage of the Telefónica, where they went to cable their reportage. From there we would proceed along that broad avenue to Chicote’s, the similarly New Yorky cocktail bar that opened in 1931 and stayed open through the war, even as rockets exploded out front. Hemingway wrote a handful of short stories set in that lounge, based on events he had witnessed, amid characters sitting out the mortar strikes as routinely as if they were rainstorms. I arranged the group around his favourite booth and ordered us the Papa Doble cocktails he supposedly invented after developing diabetes – a daiquiri variant cutting rum with grapefruit juice to minimise the sweetness. Then I read some extracts aloud, just to bring out the flavour.

From The Denunciation, written in 1938: “Most of Chicote’s old customers are on Franco’s side, but some of them are on the government side. Because it was a very cheerful place, and because really cheerful people are usually the bravest, and the bravest get killed quickest, a big part of Chicote’s old customers are now dead.”

I was never sure about Hemingway’s logic there. It sounded a bit silly to me. But now I was wondering if any latterday Chicote regulars, brave or otherwise, had recently died of the virus, while the bar itself sat abandoned and sealed up tight. And I had to ask what Hemingway would have made of all this. To which you might reasonably reply, “Who gives a shit?”, but I was by then deep in the habit of guessing at how he would get on in our miserable present.

It was the most common type of question on my tours: What would Hemingway think of hunting bans and fishing quotas? I chose to believe that he’d be broadly sympathetic, once it was impressed upon him that the lions of the savannah and marlins of the gulf stream were not to be endlessly replenished. Would Hemingway be a Trump supporter? Like hell he would. A shared propensity for interpreting the world in curt, pitiless sentences did not make them like-minded.

One client reminded me that Trump declared himself “the Hemingway of 140 characters”, and asked if the author would have taken to Twitter, attracted by the inbuilt prerequisite for brevity. Ha! But also, nah. More likely, he’d be cosmically opposed to the needy, blurting impulse behind almost every tweet. I was all too familiar with this, spending far too many of my waking hours on that demoniac platform, and especially during that first wave of Covid-19.

Sleepless and square-eyed in the dark, I clicked a link to a letter that had recently gone viral, purportedly written by F Scott Fitzgerald from quarantine in France circa 1920, at a late stage in the Spanish Flu pandemic that began two years earlier: “At this time, it seems very poignant to avoid all public spaces. Even the bars, as I told Hemingway, but to that he punched me in the stomach, to which I asked if he had washed his hands. He hadn’t. He is much the denier, that one. Why, he considers the virus to be just influenza. I’m curious of his sources.”

Believed by many to be genuine, it was actually a sweet pastiche, originally posted to the humour website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency by 21st-century novelist Nick Farriella, replicating poor old Scott at his most diffident. In reality, neither young writer had much to say about the global health crisis they witnessed 100 years ago, in private correspondence or published fiction. Their near-silence on the subject is usually attributed to the general slaughter of the Great War, where multitudes of flu casualties seemed almost incidental in the aftermath.

But Hemingway’s bullfighting treatise Death In The Afternoon (1932) came with a strange addendum he called A Natural History of The Dead, relating observations he had made of various corpses as an ambulance driver on the Italian front in 1918. Shredded by shrapnel that July, he was recovering in a Milan hospital ward when the flu moved through fellow patients, and caused the only “natural death” he’d ever seen – the patient “drowning in mucus, choking, filling the sheets”, in a way that seemed much worse to him than bleeding out.

Pathologically determined (or fated, if you like) never to die in bed, Hemingway did not care to imagine such an end for himself, nor for his characters, who were far more likely to be impaled on bulls’ horns or crushed under horses, shot by Cuban revolutionaries or Spanish fascists. The closest thing to a Covid-19 fatality I could think of in Hemingway’s fiction was that of the writer and big game hunter Harry, tetchy hero of his short story The Snows Of Kilimanjaro (1936).

Beyond saving after the merest scratch from a thorn in the wilds of Tanzania – infection turning to gangrene and blooming into fever and hallucination – he shivers on his cot and argues with his wife and finds his lifelong obsession with death giving way to an easy lack of curiosity. “Now he would never write the things he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well, he would never know, now.”

Rereading that story under quarantine, and contemplating death that much more than before, I tried to decide if these lines would come back to me in my own final moments, and make me feel better or worse about everything I had not written. I’d been bothered half my life by the memory of A Moveable Feast (1964), that timewarped memoir of Hemingway’s early, hungry days in Paris, culled from a trunk of unearthed notebooks and published after his suicide.

In a chapter added to later editions, he recalled being rudely accosted in a cafe by a fellow he vaguely knew. This “tall fat young man with spectacles” came across both bitter and solicitous, offering the standard take on Hemingway’s ultramodern style (“too stark, too stripped, too lean, too sinewy”), while also clearly desperate for his counsel.

“Suppose you wanted to be a writer,” said the interloper, “and you felt it in every part of your body and it just wouldn’t come.” Hemingway, profoundly indifferent, advised him to become a critic instead. This need not preclude creative writing too, he said, “except that you may set yourself impossibly high standards.” I recognised something of myself in that nameless young dude when I first read that book as a student, and even more so in retrospect, after 20-odd years in the art-adjacent business of cultural journalism.

Writing about writing had only heightened my respect for the greats and deepened my contempt for the hacks, though even the worst of these got their work done while I faffed around waiting for the courage or vision or discipline to begin. Having promised myself a future in literature, I had never yet written a lick of it. Becoming a guide was just another displacement activity, which also made me prone to a peculiar strain of nostalgia. I had thought it was a mild occupational hazard, but it only got worse while I was out of a job – this melancholy tendency to reflect on my own life and time in the distant light of Hemingway’s.

His always seemed such an acutely mortal age. Successive wars, deadly flu, global depression, shock after blow after bombshell. Of the readers who lived through it, some were less impressed than others by his signature fatalism, which could also come off as solipsism. What is one man’s death in an age of mass graves? To the Marxists and anarchists who lost to Franco in Spain, the fiction he made of their cause in For Whom The Bell Tolls (1940) read as apolitical, even bourgeois, in its focus on American dynamiter Robert Jordan, his doomed romance with the loyalist guerrilla Maria, and his lonely, stoic last stand in the woods outside Madrid.

In the decades since, that book has only become harder to take entirely seriously, its already archaic language sounding odder by the day. Hemingway transliterated Spanish into weird, chivalric English, rendering the vilest Castilian oaths as curiously prim propositions like: “I obscenity in the milk of thy unprintable mother.” Those self-censored insults have always amused me, and I used them as fodder on my tours, though I’ve also raided that text for a few hard truths to reuse as ammo in our current culture wars.

I received many retweets when I posted, on what would have been Hemingway’s 120th birthday, Robert Jordan’s reply to the question of whether there are fascists in America: “There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes.” It does now seem that time has come, but it’s marked by projection and deflection. “Fascist” is today less a concrete designation than a weaponised pejorative, tossed from left to right and back like a tear gas canister over a barricade. The civil war would have been so much more confusing if waged under our present slippery conditions, Francoists yelling across the barbed wire and sandbags to the International Brigades: “You bastards are the real Francoists!”

This is how we fight on social media – shouting matches, zingers, mutual accusations of hypocrisy, typing “shots fired” rhetorically, ironically. I do it every damn day, ferociously opposing equally righteous strangers over matters as large as extinction and as small as favourite fonts. If I were ever presented with an audit of my productive hours and creative energies wasted online, I would suffer a full analogue breakdown – cogs spinning loose in my heart, springs popping out of my ears. I could only nod and weep into my keyboard when I read that some novelist I don’t even like (was it Jonathan Franzen?) held the internet responsible for as much squandered potential among writers of the digital age as booze was for Hemingway’s “lost generation.”

Note also that the former seem to hate the latter, especially on Twitter. Whenever some attention-seeker opens the floor to literary “hot takes”, the majority of replies turn out to be as cold as headstones: Fitzgerald is weak sauce. Joyce is a joke. Or, “Hemingway is big trash,” as one such pile-on began a while back. In his case I find the iconoclasts as tiresome as the few remaining idolaters. I’m not inclined to defend him, and especially not from those who judge him less on his output than what he once called “the offence of my life” – the damage he did to wives, sons, and friends en route to self-destruction.

I also sense that many of these haters share my petulant, wrongheaded suspicion that for all the pain they felt and caused, Hemingway and his peers got a better deal from history than we ever will. That the violence of their moment gave them richer material, and the quickstep pace of their experience somehow gave them more energy to write. That they found a way to work against a racket of jazz and bombs and steamship horns and teletype machines, a din that Saul Bellow declared the enemy of art, “the noise of technology, the noise of money, the noise of the media … the terrible excitement and distraction generated by the crises of modern life.”

Bellow reckoned this tumult had started about 1914, and at the time of his writing in 1974 the volume was “intolerable”. Almost 50 years on, it has grown so much louder that he can maybe hear it right now in his grave. Meanwhile, we the living can hardly hope to concentrate, and it’s not as if there’s any peace or relief in the ominous hush of a city under quarantine.

As anxious, unfocused, and dispirited as anyone else who was not actively battling the virus, I came to badly miss my clients and the crowds we made our way through; the conversations we had enjoyed in packed-out tourist traps that also served as portals, still faintly fairy-dusted with a lost-world glamour we could just about perceive by mixing alcohol and anecdotes.

One cold, quiet night in late April I said balls to it and walked Anuka into town for a ghost tour of sorts. This was breaking the letter of prevailing lockdown rules, but not the spirit, as I saw it, in that we avoided all contact with the few other living souls we saw out there. (Besides some fellow dog-walkers we saw only roving cops, who were then issuing huge fines for this kind of heedless violation, so we stayed away from them like robbers.) We crossed the bridge, passed under the viaduct, and turned on to Calle de Cuchilleros, a wonky, witchy street once occupied by swordsmiths and knifemakers, when the men of this city wore cloaks and daggers.

There we came to Sobrino de Botin, the oldest restaurant in the world and formerly the starting point of my tour. Founded by a Frenchman in 1725, it had now been closed for the longest period in its history, a slablike panel rolled across the entryway like a boulder at the mouth of a cave. I stood outside for a few minutes, breathing into my facemask. With permission from the management, I used to lead my groups inside a few minutes before it opened for dinner. Through a wooden hatch I showed them the flame at the heart of the oven, and told them the house legend about how it had burned unsnuffed for almost 400 years.

Then I informed them that was bullshit, just to break the ice, though it was at least the same clay furnace that had roasted sucking pigs for Francisco Goya, Graham Greene, and Ronald Reagan. And Hemingway of course, who first ate here on an early trip to the bullfights. He set the last scene of his debut novel The Sun Also Rises (1926) on the premises – a desolate lunch for never-to-be lovers, with Jake Barnes horsing down huge quantities of roast pork and red wine, Brett Ashley mostly just smoking, neither really talking.

A decade later, well-established as a great author and war correspondent, Hemingway would drop in to see then-owner Emilio Gonzalez (grandfather of the three brothers who now run the place) while Botin served as a kind of mess hall under frequent bombardment, feeding the city’s Republican defenders. Later still, long after Franco’s victory, Hemingway was back in the restaurant on his last and grimmest visits to Spain.

Prematurely ancient and decaying in public view, paranoid about the FBI and IRS, he took nips from his silver vodka flask between gulps of rioja, watching other diners for giveaways that they were G-men or taxmen in disguise. Many were merely tourists, whom he also hated on principle, with the oblivious hypocrisy of the foreigner who believes himself an honourary native. They often recognised Hemingway, a celebrity on the scale of Sinatra by then, and their attempts to approach him were usually greeted with taunts and slurs.

“What would he say to us right now?” a client once asked me. We were gathered around Hemingway’s preferred table, in the rear corner of the second floor, beneath roof beams so low and so old that his raised voice might still be vibrating somewhere deep inside the cedar. “Let me alone,” I supposed he would have told us, in the tight-lipped tone of his own protagonists. Or, “stop feeding off my carcass,” in his Great White Hunter’s register. Or, addressing me in particular, “this is no job for someone who’s supposed to be a writer.” Which hit me where it hurt.

Anuka and I moved on now through the deserted Plaza Mayor, her claws clicking on the cobbles, the echo sounding through the colonnades. Cerveceria Alemana was our next stop, a Prussian-style beer hall that opened in 1904. The window table, tonight obscured behind a solid metal shutter, had been made a little shrine to Hemingway, with a tiny, tacky stars-and-stripes flag pinned beneath an unsmiling portrait.

He mentioned the place in The Dangerous Summer, another posthumous book, expanded from a long and sloppy LIFE magazine article about two rival matadors in the bullfighting season of 1959 – the last and worst thing he ever wrote. I liked to tell my groups how bad it was, how preening and boring, just to balance out my awe for the Golden Age Hemingway of the 1920s.

I’m a Gertrude Stein kind of guy, in that I only really love the art he made under her patronage, before he quite knew what he was doing. To me, The Sun Also Rises still moves more liquidly than the later stuff, after his style ossified. I would wish to live inside that passage where they go trout fishing on the Irati River, chilling bottles of wine in a cold stream, reading and napping against the trunk of two trees that grow together – a Cézanne landscape reproduced in prose like fresh wet paint. I would also wish to write with such facility.

Hemingway blazed through a first draft of that novel in eight weeks, starting on his 26th birthday. Some of it was written here in Madrid, in the heartless heat of August, when he stayed at the Aguilar guesthouse and worked through the afternoons at Fornos cafe, his pages lifted slightly off the countertops by the vortices from ceiling fans. We passed the former landmark (also currently shut but still extant as a hostel) and the corner where the latter once stood, en route to the Palace Hotel, where the author drank dry martinis and had his characters order the same.

“It’s funny what wonderful gentility you get in the bar of a big hotel,” said Jake to Brett on this spot, near the unhappy close of The Sun Also Rises. You could still get that gentility at the Palace until recently, or at least a late-capitalist equivalent, with a measure of bad faith added like a sales tax. A Grand Budapest-type institution, built in 1912 to welcome that era’s new continental cohort of luxury travellers, it was requisitioned as a field hospital during the civil war.
With power lines cut, surgeons would operate by day in the hotel’s rotunda lounge, extracting shrapnel and amputating limbs in colour-tinted sunlight shining through the vast glass cupola.

Now the hotel had gone full dark in its Covid-dormancy, a monumental tomb under the moon. But even at its liveliest, in the world that used to be, the place had something of the mausoleum about it. The bar was long since renamed after Hemingway and remodelled to resemble the place he knew, all burnished wood panels and deep green leather, with display cases for sepia photos and guest registers signed by Charlie Chaplin, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Mata Hari.

Hemingway was known to boast that he had bedded Hari, and found her “heavy in the thigh”, which could not possibly be true. He was still a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star, and had not yet even been to Europe, when the exotic dancer turned (alleged) spy was executed by a French firing squad in 1917. A reminder to my tour groups, as we clinked our own martini glasses, that we were drinking to an awful prick. But the pettiness of his lie and its fleshy little detail always struck me as poignant, both of their bodies having been so obliterated in the end.

A toast, then, to the bullet-riddled ribcage of Mata Hari, and to Hemingway’s shotgun-blasted cranial vault! I never said this out loud though. I was being paid to show these people a good time, and too much biographical viscera would surely taint the gin. Privately, I tried to keep in mind that “the dead are real”, as Hilary Mantel has put it. They are easy to envy when they lived as gigantically as Hemingway, but you’d be a fool to trade your smallness for his suffering.

There is also something very male, quaintly last-century, and cheesily Freudian about measuring yourself against his particular yardstick. Any friend, boyfriend, husband or father need only be constant and kind to be a better man than he was on certain vital metrics. Foolish also to romanticise the period in which he flourished, which is just as well summarised by that final shouted line from Pablo Neruda’s poem I’m Explaining A Few Things, a distress signal sent from Madrid as the fighting broke out in July ‘36: “Come and see the blood in the streets!”

And still I yearn for that corner of the past, like the preppy asshole from Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, in part because it proved to be survivable. Not for everyone, I know, but for civilisation in general, and whatever confidence I had in that whole edifice, I’ve been losing it these last five years or so. Worriers like me were primed to recognise Covid-19 as both validation and premonition – if not the end of the world then a shiver, a flash, of one possible future. No blood in the streets, no bodies either, just padlocked buildings and invisible pathogens.

That night I sat on the steps outside the Palace Hotel, letting the dog rest and listening to a major European capital fallen into a deep pocket of silence, ripped here and there by sirens. In the spaces between I tried to imagine that I was the last man alive, but I couldn’t maintain the sheer vanity of it. I had a wee girl at home for Christ’s sake. Would Hemingway, at my age, in my shoes, be given to apocalyptic reveries? Again, I’d have to say not likely. He’d probably be too busy driving one of those ambulances, or at least riding along with a reporter’s notebook, an N95 respirator stretched over his face and straining to contain the fullness of his moustache.

In Hemingway’s immortal youth, he opened The Sun Also Rises with a biblical epigraph, a verse from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever … ” I understand this idea as central to his project – that love and life are bound to end in ashes that will then be turned over in the soil; all of our ephemeral pleasures and sorrows fertilising some eternal, essential reality that is always true and beautiful.

Plague and war were ever part of this continuum I guess, but Hemingway’s own twilight coincided with the dawn of the atomic era. He didn’t really know what to say about the bomb. He made nervous jokes about it through the character of Colonel Richard Cantwell in another later, lesser novel Across The River And Into The Trees (1950). And he had this new weapon in mind while drafting The Old Man And The Sea (1952), as he wrote in a letter to Lillian Ross:

“By the time I get it all right and as good as I can do they will probably be dropping atomic bombs around like goat shit. But we can make a trip to some comparatively unbombed area and you can read it in manuscript if they have stopped publishing books.” When he finally got the Nobel Prize for that last great effort, his acceptance speech carried a note of resignation: “Our tragedy is a general and universal fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer questions of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up?”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been asking that since I was a kid, at the tail end of the Cold War. As an adult, that fear has expanded to encompass climate change and related calamities, now extending beyond my own lifetime into my daughter’s future. I have never shaken the feeling that the older, truer world Hemingway tried to write his way into was itself ruptured when they split the atom. That the earth, in short, will not abide forever. I’ve used this as an excuse too. Why write, if not for posterity, and why bother, if there will soon be no such thing?

Don Ernesto, as his Spanish friends called him, has been dust a long time now, 60 years this July. I used to tell my clients that there might yet be enough particles of him left to sample for cloning purposes at La Venencia, a smokestained sherry tavern where they hadn’t cleaned the bottles on the top shelves since Hemingway was last in. It was my favourite stop on the tour, my favourite bar in the city, and I walked Anuka past there as we headed for home.

That institution had existed unchanged from the civil war to the coronavirus, run on socialistic principles that posited decent, affordable sherry as a natural right of the people – its stalwart staff like weathered revenants of a long-lost class struggle as they scratched out your tab in chalk on the wooden bar, frowningly refused all tips, and shouted at tourists not to take photos.

To me, the place exerted an atavistic pull more common to mountains and forests than to urban watering holes, and to see its doors closed was resoundingly sad and weird, another portent of collapse. They would open again in the months to come, albeit with a slightly uncanny new atmosphere – no more standing at the bar, no more watching out for the ghost of a smile of solidarity from workers whose faces were now half-concealed. Not that anyone should complain over a glass of amontillado while masses were still dying on ventilators in ICUs, case numbers receding and surging again as Madrid’s right-wing city government loosened and tightened its restrictions in ways that came to seem capricious, not to mention largely ineffectual.

I went to La Venencia just once after that first, severest lockdown. I was passing on a hot and glaring summer afternoon and I saw it was mostly empty. So, I took a pale, chilled sherry to a carefully distanced table in the cool and dark of the interior, and sat watching the motes float within a solid shaft of sunlight where it struck the oldest-looking bottles.

“It was not the same and it might never be again but there was still an athiestic holiness about the place,” I thought, in my rusting Hemingwayese. I went back to Chicote’s once too, months later, a few days before Christmas. Community spread of the virus was well out of control again, a new English strain was sounding alarming, and strictish new measures were in place for the holidays, but the shops and bars were open along the Gran Vía.

It was eerily quiet on the avenue for that time of year, and I thought it safe enough to go in for a Papa Double around 9pm, between this city’s routine phase of “afterwork” drinks and the standard Spanish late-night cocktail hour. Inside, the vintage curvilinear booths were now separated by plexiglass panels, like the sneeze-guards over deli counters, and the bartenders wore smart black masks to match their bowties.

From Hemingway’s table in the corner I could watch the revolving door and get out quick if the place started to fill up. All around were monochrome photos of the man himself and other bygone patrons – Salvador Dali, John Wayne, Ava Gardner, Rita Hayworth – each standing so carelessly close to an entourage as to give the Covid-era drinker dystopian pangs.

There did seem cause to celebrate, however cautiously, the multiple vaccines now good to go, the Pfizer one already in play. I had just read an interview with the epidemiologist Dr Nicholas Christakis, an expert on the plagues of the past. His new book mapped their patterns over our present trajectory to envision an imminent post-Covid world of “crowded nightclubs and flourishing arts … sexual licentiousness, liberal spending, and a reverse of religiosity.”

It would be, he predicted, “a second Roaring Twenties”, an echo of the decade that followed the Great War and the Spanish Flu. Best not to dwell on the decade after that, I supposed. Let us dispel the phantom of fascism with the possibility of catching up on all the fun we missed by not being alive 100 years back. It also occurred to me that I would be too old and settled to really squeeze the juice out of another Jazz Age – I was older already than the Hemingway who wrote For Whom The Bell Tolls. But it was that incarnation of Don Ernesto who spoke to me now, while I sipped his bitter concoction of rum, grapefruit, and maraschino liqueur.

Puffed-up, middle-aged, beginning his slow fade but very far from finished, he sat in this bar and took notes on the fight that spread from Spain across the world, at a moment that must have felt no less precarious than ours. Martha Gellhorn, later his third wife, was his lover during the Spanish war and probably a better reporter of it. She said it was the only phase of Hemingway’s life “when he was not the most important thing”. And it inspired him to write his biggest-hearted book, his closest to sentimental in holding absolutely sacred our human capacity for grace under pressure. Even where disaster is looming and time is desperately short, we can still find our joys and get our work done. In other words he told me what I wanted to hear, sounding not exactly sympathetic nor entirely egocentric as I paid up and stepped out into the cold street.

The Telefónica building stood above and ahead on my way along the Gran Vía. I looked up at the clock on that gorgeous facade, as pristine as if it had never been bombed. There was such assurance in its glowing hands and numerals, its cool blue light a promise made a century ago and beamed into the future.

For amber-eyed Anuka, who died in February 2021


Beatrice Murch

Thank you for that most excellent trip down memory lane of a place I’ve never been. Stay safe and for God’s sake keep on writing.


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