Marching bands and ballerinas
Parade the street, pulling public,
Producing impromptu dances
Around pushchairs and infants
Held aloft; cheering and chants
And stampings, stampeding
Children screaming gleefully
Gobbling up potato chips, fried
Calamari, scampi and such snacks
Washed with beer and wine,
Vermouth and gin and an ever-
Growing list of sin, resisted
Until the wee hours under stars,
Revelling unrelenting. Renewed
As sunlight reveals debris and
Blinkered vision revolves to
Another village, a different festival,
Of a reencountered countryside
Ready for recreation after a year
Of restraint and restriction. See
A need for sun burning, but
Another urge underneath fuels
This seeming endless summer:
A sense of a September looming
Despite peaceful scenes.
Heat will resist yet, bringing
Only waves of pain. Winter comes
Indeed, but carries no snow,
Nor silent ice-glazed stasis,
Only storms. The wars await,
Worse than after a former August
And this is our last cabaret,
Held under a hammer cocked,
A trigger primed, and all
Staggering at the tipping-point.
We were finishing up the festival of San Fermin Txikito, or little San Fermin, last weekend, which was kind of the last festival of the summer – one which had the youths going to as many festivals in as many villages round Pamplona as they could get to, after the two years they missed out on because of the Covid restrictions. And I just said to myself – good luck to them. They’ll have shit shovelled out in front of them soon enough. We have had a terrible summer in terms of exacerbated “natural” disasters, but as the weather gets cooler, we can only look forward to a winter, if not of discontent, then of a realisation of how bad things are going to get (in the privileged west where it hasn’t actually started yet unlike many other places) on our current global trajectory. We just have to turn down the thermostat here, and shorten the shower times, while in other places they’re kinda sorta fucked, as it were.
After I’d written this poem, someone on twitter, commenting on the current fiasco in the UK compared it to Weimar economics, and look how that ended up – suggesting we have a final cabaret.
So it’s not just me, of course…
I have few photos to illustrate this poem for obvious reasons…. who wants their photo on the internet with a pile of beer bottles etc. round them? I wouldn’t! But no judgement if you’re enjoying yourself – a drink before the war, as Sinéad sang…
While Spring officially started at the beginning of the month back home in Ireland, in Spain we are still in the middle of winter, with the next season only set to start in another month on the 21st of March.
It is, I admit, the height of skiing season, but even here, the daffodils are shooting up and will soon burst buds, the crocuses in the parks are spotting the grass, and I even saw a few daisy and dandelions the other day. The trees are mostly still bare, but showers of catkins have popped out on a few.
Mostly, though, you can just smell it. The air is different. Despite the snow that we had last week, there’s a feeling of spring that even humans living in a city still experience.
Spring is here, as far as I am concerned.
And summer isn’t far behind. For I saw the bats take their first flight of the year and it reminded me of a poem I wrote last year on the subject of signs of summer, more than spring. It’s perhaps a little premature to be thinking about butterflies and bees, but since I haven’t posted a poem in a while, here it is.
Signs of Summer
There are many signs of summer coming, here,
Starting perhaps with cuckoo calls and swallow sighting
And the return of the swifts, or
The first flight of the bats at twilight,
The scent of honeysuckle through open balconies and
The abundance of butterflies on the garden lavender,
Some are specific to Spain, like closing the blinds
Against sunlight to keep the house cool, and
Sleeping with the windows open all night
Pouring water to fill the swimming pool and others
Seen only in this city: setting up the tombola,
Putting the fences around the flowers in the park
In preparation for the festivals and digging up
The road to get it ready for the running of the bulls,
And lastly, putting up with the stench of piss
Upon opening up the street door every morning.
In Pamplona at the moment, we are celebrating the 90th anniversary of the publication of Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises (a.k.a. Fiesta).
There are several activities organised, and a large exhibition in the Plaza del Castillo of photos from when he visited Pamplona – of him, and taken by him and his friends.
Some of the places he stayed are still here, under different names to those used in the novel, some have changed.
It was interesting to see that Heminway, though he never ran with the bulls himself, did get gored by a baby cow, which they release in the plaza after the encierro.
I was struck by a quote they have printed on one of the posters, which he wrote to a friend: “Pamplona is the most enjoyable place you’ve ever seen.” It was true then and it’s true now.
And my good friend JD Martins would agree.
Have you had One Night in Pamplona?
Things are all set here in Pamplona for this year’s famed “running of the bulls” festival.
The barriers which will keep the bulls from the public on their way through the town are in place, the TV cameras are set up along the route, the stages are constructed in various plazas.
La Plaza del Castillo, with San Fermin figures over the band stand and the stage ready for concerts.
Bull Run Barriers along Santa Domingo and the Town Hall square, with some tourists taking in the scene.
Today is the day of the Peñas. This afternoon we were treated to a parade of giants, and this weekend many folk are getting a head start on the carousing. I’ll hear how hard the party is later tonight as the stragglers stagger home past my bedroom balcony.
Giants dancing along Calle Estafeta.
The corner of Mercaderes and Estafeta will have bulls rather than giants taking the corner come Thursday morning.
I’ve written about the fiesta before, but a few things are worth mentioning this year –
The new city council have taken the pains to put recycling dumpsters in place as the replace the vacuum refuse disposal system for the festival, which is a great thing for the environment, considering the enormous tonnage of trash produced during the festival.
They have also decided to spray hydrophobic pain on the walls of many streets to discourage the out of hand urination that takes place – believe me, I’ve seen some stuff, and it’s just ridiculous, so I hope it’s a help, so when we walk through the town with our kids in the morning, we’re not jumping streams of urine.
And as one of the characters says – if you want to run with the bulls, you have to stay more than one night. Study the route, figure out where you want to run, read about it, watch the videos of the previous runs, and get to bed early the night before. It’s no joke. You wouldn’t want your One Night in Pamplona to be your last night on the planet.
Sometimes it feels like a nuisance, as a writer, to be a poet too.
So many hours can go by just making some short poems as perfect as I can make them…
But you can’t escape the way the writing comes.
Here are a selection of this summer’s work…
The Weight of Centuries
From the hilltop, the plain extends into haze,
A mosaic of mixed farming and forests
Even against the noise of the swish of
Windmills, the insects persist, cicadas trill, drill
Butterflies flutter across this pre-alpine meadow
Which has persisted despite pine plantations
Roads cut into the red earth
I sit on a fallen stone wall on which so many days have stretched,
Spying small valleys into which vineyards have been etched
And I feel the weight of centuries.
I have returned from my homeland to my adopted home
And wonder now where to take my holidays.
I watch tourists of my same shade trail past
This terrace exploring the old town of Pamplona,
Its small cobbled streets, of which I live in the thick.
It’s a privilege to drink this beer here, in holiday clothes
With nothing to do but write and raise my child, and
While aware this is my own particular “first world problem,”
I wish still to somehow, for some days, “get away from it all.”
The ultimate experience of
A walk into the wilderness
For most – that stroll in swimsuit
Along the surf alone
While the family builds sandcastles,
Untethered to anyone – is now tainted
By the telephone taken along.
Last Bastions for All to Admire
The last bastions of utter luxury
And we can look upon them
What it must have been like
Who were able to enjoy them
Before the rest of us arrived
Upon the sand.
In an Old Farmyard
Sun warms a wall, formerly whitewashed,
Now sand blasted to expose the beauty of
Raw stone and soft mortar in irregular mosaic.
Similar pillars stand centuries, supporting
Painted red gates that seldom open upon
A lane left to the birds and other wildlife,
Now a road to nowhere in time, like byres
And empty stables into which swallows
Still swoop to suspended nests of soil through
Slit windows, simply monuments to former toil.
At the Waterfall
Waterfall echoes white noise,
Breeze whispers through oaks.
Observing butterfly lawn,
Lounging on picnic blanket
Under piebald white and blue sky,
But unable to block out banal
Banter and utter bollox of
The barbequing family
Who parked their car beside us.
I’ll Take the Moon
Over festivals all very stimulating,
With curves as wonderful as any in creation
During a night as long as stars can sustain,
A concert of the songs of our
Latest pandemic’s potentially greatest loss,
A spectacle of lights and dazzling objects,
I’ll take the moon,
Rising orange in third quadrant
Past the Pyrenees.
Pamplona is gearing up for the Fiesta, the annual festival of “the running of the bulls,” made internationally famous when Ernest Hemingway set his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises – also called Fiesta – there. The 8 day homage to San Fermin kicks off on the 6th, and the city is preparing for the influx of tourists from every other corner of Spain and the earth. The giant big wheel is in place, the funfair setting up, temporary bathrooms have been trucked in, the carpenters are fixing the barriers along the streets in preparation for the stampede, fences are being placed around decorative park gardens and potentially dangerous city walls, bars and shops are stocking up on booze and grub, as are citizens, and, most importantly, the access permit for my car to drive through the pedestrianised old town has arrived!
As a writer, writing in the English language, and living in Pamplona, – probably the only one (and if there are more, hit me up and lets start a group!), I suppose I am to a certain extent expected, if not actually obliged, to mention the festival that is about to kick off here, which Papa made so famous all those years ago.
As a fan of Hemingway, I am delighted to live here, and to be able to experience the festivals each year, and in perfect comfort, too – anyone who’s been here will have seen the extremes that some visitors go to, sleeping rough in the parks, if they sleep at all. While I don’t have views of the Encierro route, I have friends who do and usually get an invite once a year, and I live just a hundred yards from the Hotel Perla where he used to stay, and I’m sure he strolled past my door back in the day, when there were horses stabled downstairs from my apartment. I have written I’ve written poems and parts of my novels in the cafe Iruña, where he wrote himself, and I am actually writing this post sitting in the Hemingway corner of said café, though I usually write at home nowadays.
I was a fan of Hemingway even before ever visiting Pamplona, and it was exciting to follow in his footsteps. He did a lot of things that I like to do, too. I am not a good angler, I must confess, and war holds no attraction to me in any way shape or form, nor do I wish to have more than one wife, and of course I hope to be in control of my suicidal tendencies as a pensioner. But I like to fish, to hunt, to travel. I had read most of his novels and stories before moving to Madrid years ago, and Death in the Afternoon helped me understand the reason why I was fascinated by the bullfights. I also love to write, of course, though I have long since stopped trying to write a sentence like him. I have my style and it’s basically splurting words and hoping the editor doesn’t want to cut too many. One of these extra bits that will probably get cut, is a tangential short story I invented as part of a novel, Five Days on Ballyboy Beach, which will be published later this year. It concerns the hero, who had come to the festivals with a friend to run in front of the bulls, finding the experience both frightening and exciting – a ludicrous enterprise to be taking part in yet at the same time impossible to pass up, or leave once entered upon.
But of course, most people who go to Pamplona and even those who run the bulls don’t feel such sensations because they are too drunk to realise the danger they are in (and the drunks still get in among the throngs of runners despite the efforts of the police to prevent them – they might not be falling down, but they wouldn’t get into the driver’s seat of a car…) or just too ignorant to know that is going on. I could tell stories of the idiocy I’ve seen, but there will only be more this year.
There are two things that are clear to me living here year round, and having attended more fiestas than Hemingway ever got to. One is that if Hemingway never came here, he’d still have written the Sun also Rises. It would have had some other festival as the setting – but Pamplona is, at the end, fairly incidental to the story; he could have set it in any other festival in Spain or stayed in Paris just as easily, and it would have been just as good a novel.
And if Hemingway never came here I’d still be living here. I’d still be a great fan, still love the bullfights, but my wife would still be from here, and I’d still have fallen in love with her, and our life’s journey would still have pointed us back here to settle our family. I’d just enjoying more locally -focused festivals every July.
Don’t get me wrong: Pamplona is a lovely town, and San Fermin is the best party on the planet. I encourage everyone to come at least once. But if it wasn’t so famous the locals might be able to actually run with the bulls instead of battle with the throngs of tourists on a one-day trip to stand like sheep on the street dressed in a stupid t-shirt the tour company game them while the bulls go by… (Full disclosure: I only ran once and don’t intend to run again, and you can enjoy the festivals immensely without ever even smelling a bull never mind seeing one.)
And if you are coming to town this summer – whether for San Fermin or on your way along the Camino de Santiago – then let me know and look me up. I’m the guy who cycles round town (seemingly too fast, but it’s all under control, folks) with the WWF (don’t forget they get 10% of my royalties!) stickers on the back of the child seat! I won’t be cycling much during the fiesta (when you see the crowds you’ll see why), but there’s a black and white cover of Leaving the Pack on my building… If you have Leaving the Pack on your ipad or whatever, I’ll give you a signed cover (3×5″)postcard, and you can buy me a beer!