Gael Elton Mayo Letter from Madrid 1953 BB Archive

gael elton mayo the moroccan courier december 1953

Gael Elton Mayo (1921-92) journalist, writer, artist, and contributor to Harpers & Queen, Apollo, Interiors, Observer, first wrote a column while living in Spain in the 1950s for The Spanish-American Courier. This article came out in December 1953.

Arriving in Madrid by car the other night there seemed to be no transition; the earth, a road cut into its open face, and then a notice: Madrid. After that some lights and suddenly we were in the capital of Spain, only a few minutes from the open land to the civilized Castellana with its trees and gardens. In this city that is both provincial and international, new and old, no middle way seems necessary: it is a place of extremes, geometrical lines, radical emotions. Why bother with such inessentials as bourgeois villas and suburbs — this is simpler, strong as coarse Logrono wine and more aesthetic.

Francoist Spain and America

moroccan courier dec 1953 logo bookblast diary

Since the American agreement there is a new atmosphere of potentiality; the American tourist on his way through now stays longer, there are not only just embassy people or the press. (We noticed also yesterday in the Palace bar some rather familiar sharks and a few 5 per cent operators, last seen in Egypt and Tokyo, perching on high stools waiting and watching . . . the sort that show up when something is going to happen.) Suddenly Madrid contains suspense, against its old and well-known atmosphere of no-hurry. The people waiting around in bars are only the ripples on the edge of the pool, the real pawns are for instance American generals in civilian clothes, business men . . . the atmosphere of construction is especially appealing to the American pioneer spirit, for here there is ( in some ways) everything to be done.

The other night a Spaniard, walking down the street ahead of us with an American, said in perfect English, « . . . there are contracts to be had all over the country with small factories . . . ammunition . . .» and the American answered, «Oh I’m pretty busy, the boss man wants me to pilot him around Spain . . . » They turned a corner and disappeared, the snatch of disturbing and exciting conversation evaporated into the night with the footsteps of the American pilot and the beautifully-dressed Spaniard.

By degrees the face of this main city already changes; American movies are making Spanish films (Merle Oberon currently in Anything Can Happen in Granada); into the old city of Velasquez with its modern buildings has suddenly been dropped a new strong moral and material base for the fight of this century: the unforgettable, unforgotten fear, and the defence against it . . . «ammunition» the man said . . . types of ammunition are varied.

The beginning is like a Bérard sketch . . . a slight pencil stroke before the colour is filled in . . . the friendly face of Patrick McAward eating lunch in the Jockey Club with the Duke of Luna . . . (tourism bureau, that’s all, but . . . ) people mixing . . . two Americans on holiday from Detroit, McNamarra and Mills, who would probably not have chosen to come here if their trip through Europe had been last year: there was London and Paris and Rome, but Madrid was a special equation and needed longer to understand. It still does, but it is melting into an approachable thing, and people try . . . they are attracted here by a sort of stir, whether they understand it or not.

The other night there was a Marine Corps dinner; sixteen American enlisted men contributing their own money to give dance, floor show, buffet . . . it was the hundred and eighty-seventh anniversary of the Marines. The Spaniards made  cake in the shape of a big boat, and the Commandant of the Spanish Marine Corps made a speech in rather charming, quaint English that he has just started learning . . . One discovers an American admiral out shooting partridge and boar with Spaniards . . . this is a very special thing as these hunts or «monterias» are intact rom feudal days, by special engraved invitation, on a huge scale (300 beaters, 14 guns) and the other day at the ranch Molinillo there were only two Americans among the group of Spanish cabinet ministers, one of whom was Admiral McDonnell. Franco was invited, as he usually is, but he rarely appears.

But these are isolated items in a vast space; there is in many ways a sort of emptiness. For instance theatre is sadly lacking, all the sadder as there are excellent Spanish playwrights. It is heavily censored, among other things, by a Catholic organisation called Association of Fathers of Families. A year ago a young Spaniard, Faustin Gonzales Aller, won the premio Lope de Vega (prize) for his play La Noche No Se Acaba. But it ran two-and-a-half days only: two ministers wives considered it improper, put the heat on their husbands who then held a cabinet meeting after which the play was taken off by governmental order.  Now, more than a year later, this play will be put on stage December 15th in Cassel, Germany, and later in Vienna — but not in Aller’s own country.  Most of the plays of Adolfo Torrado Estrada, one of the most popular contemporaries, are produced in Mexico. Yet they say this is gradually diminishing . . . possibly the foreigner’s demand for theatre might help.

ibiza gael mayo photo bookblastBasically the Spaniards did not want or need foreigners; it would be nice to think that apart from economic aid one might do something else too, and not just be the tourists who put the prices up . . .  even if the beginning is only in more minor details than the theatre, for instance the lighting system. The streets outside are beautifully lit by old lamp posts, but without exception all bars and restaurants indoors are violently illumined with blinding neon (the sort used in America in kitchens) unlike Mexico or New York where soft lighting is appreciated at night. Perhaps it is because light is so precious they feel a need to show it off; electric current in Madrid depends on the rains, so, this being a dry season, the elevators do not work for several hours a day, four days a week restrictions. (The tempo of one’s life has a tendency to depend also on, «Will it rain? We won’t go out otherwise, it will mean walking up when we get back.»)

These are gracious people, they have the sort of natural manners that disappeared in the rest of Europe in the eighteenth century. It is to be hoped that in the act of «helping» we will not also ruin certain things . . . there are already accompanying drawbacks such as apartments getting hard to find and price of living going up.

Here are people of kindness, cruelty and strength; it is a virile country; probably it will take longer to corrupt than most others. Emotions are still as feudal as life in the country: the marquess who lives in San Geronimo, near Cordova, lands his aeroplane on the main road when he returns from his travels; the road is cleared of traffic when he is expected, no one finds this surprising. Mothers writing letters to their Anglo-Saxon daughters living here have a tendency to say «Don’t marry a Spaniard . . .» a tempting idea, since the men are very attractive, but then the daughter might discover her anglo-saxon freedom evaporating, when trying to cross a frontier home for a visit — a Spanish wife cannot leave Spain without special permission!

Basically the people are happy because not envious (hotels that Spaniards cannot afford are full of Americans, in France this would not pass without comment); because they live in great aesthetic perfection, there is almost nothing ugly . . . yet it does not mean that they are not also miserable, the paradox is stark like the land. There is water for fountains in Madrid but not always for drainage in neighbouring villages . . . the poor are dreadfully poor, and when they are sick there is only a limited form of free medical care . . . but to them with a certain Moorish fatalism, this is life itself — so — why be surprised or expect to change it ? «Es igual. » In the Spanish language the verb for «wait» and «hope» is the same and there is no word for the blues.

BUY The Mad Mosaic 

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About Georgia de Chamberet 377 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.