BB Archive Gael Elton Mayo, Spain Around Us, 1954

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Gael Elton Mayo (1921-92) journalist, writer and artist, first wrote a column while living in Spain in the 1950s for The Spanish-American Courier. This piece came out in April 1954.

Madrid is a small town, yet it is not provincial; a clever achievement, “There goes so-and-so in his Jaguar, or X on his Vespa,” contributes to a really Main Street atmosphere – yet there are no provincial qualities of narrow mindedness or hypocrisy. On the contrary, we have rarely been anywhere more open in its general views about eccentricities of the human character. The small family is warm – the freedom is still great.

And at night this capital sounds like the country. From our apartment (which is in the middle, of the city) we hear donkeys braying, turkeys and cocks crowing . . . these last live in a cadaquez gael mayo photo bookblast diarybarnyard next door to the British Embassy but are apparently not for English breakfast eggs, they just belong to a neighbour with space.

The edge of the town is a real edge. There are none of our dreary suburbs tailing off indefinitely and submerging your entrance or exit to the city in gloom. Abruptly the city stops. You feel the edge distinctly as you actually stand on it (on a parapet about the Palacio, or on the road to the university) and look out from its finality onto the land beyond. The city, the country. No half measure.

The last arm of the Orient

It is curious that new buildings built in an old place seem different to those in a young country. There is a settlement near the Madrid bull ring which is a mixture of unfinished buildings and open land. It makes a successfully modern mass of washed colours and cubist shapes, yet the whole has lines as if it always belonged there and the shape is natural. New buildings seem to fit onto old earth, but with new earth they look stuck on.

But the real local mystery is the light. Nearly every clear evening at about seven (at this time of year) there is a sudden luminous quality as if the city were lit up from underneath and had no substance; it floats in clean, lucid light, the colours are watered and shining. It is like a mirage. Where does it come from? There may be a geological and atmospheric explanation about this part of the land, the exact geographical centre of Iberia. But we think it cannot be explained, it is probably a secret mystery of old Spain coming through the modern city Madrid.

You feel “old Spain” constantly. In the “chirrido”, the squeal of the mule carts for instant, one recalls Feutwanger, “the wild rattling of wheels seldom greased so that their clatter would announce ones coming from afar and scare wild animals.” Relatively recently there were may hazards on the open country road. Goya was attacked by brigands, but with typical and unique Spanish courtesy, when the mule driver explained who his passenger was, they only took half his money, blessed him by the Virgin, and went on their way with sweeping bows. (It is remarkable that these brigands should even have known to what extent Goya had painted them and their people with understanding.)

virgin of guadelupe gael elton mayo photoSometimes Spain is called “the last arm of the Orient.” It is not really Europe, but it’s not really Oriental either. The enigmatic Oriental can only be completely understood by another Oriental. Here, where Ortega y Gasset compares Andalusians to the Chinese, and where there may be many outward Oriental traits, the people are still understandable by Europe. We may not be the same but there is a meeting point. If they are in love, their love shows, they do not hide it. This would seem opposed to the secretive and elusive Oriental. Yet the onion towers of Zaragosa and its elaborately gilded and bejewelled Virgin are reminiscent of icons and the East.

It is clear why Mexicans sing “Madrid, Madrid, Madrid.” Its special charms are surely insidious and habit-forming; you may not realise it at the time but wait until you go away and start to remember . . .  People are not envious. It is not necessary, as it is in Mexico City, to bullfight spain 1950s gael mayo photo bookblasthave armed guards and bloodhounds in your garden if you are very rich and own priceless paintings.

And here’s an answer for those out-of-turn touristic remarks one hears, about cruelty for instance. In the last bullfight we went to it was a Spanish woman who left in the middle, and an American girl of the college variety who said indignantly when the crowd was clamouring for a bad and dangerous bull to be removed from the first fight of a young novillero, “Well, he came to fight the bull, he must do it.” We hope she was gratified when he was later carried off, gored.

Hemingway’s Madrid

Seen in the Palace bar recently: Brinton Sherwood. He is here on business for his American firm, Knolls. They designed the furniture and fabrics for the United Nations building in New York, also the new Alcoz building. Their furniture is very modern, very special. Sherwood hopes it will be appreciated by Spain and that Knolls might open a showroom and factory here; he does not know yet whether its avant-garde type is premature. One would think that with a heritage like the land in Castile – which in its geometrical eternity of line is more modern than the most abstract painter – there will be a natural comprehension.

Talking of business, if there is anyone at a loose end who wants to start something, we have some facts about the following: there is great need for a place that is neither bar, restaurant formentor and puerto pollensa gael mayo photo bookblastnor nightclub but a little of each; a place that is small shadowy and softly lit (not by exuberant neon or harsh operating-room glare), where there is a background of either guitarists or piano, not too loud; and where one can either have a drink or a light dinner; talk to a friend, discuss business, or dance . . .

There is nothing like this in Madrid. Everyone wants it. It can’t lose. Gentlemen: place your bets or your investments.

BUY The Mad Mosaic

Copyright text & photos © The Gael Elton Mayo Estate. December 1953. The copyright to all the content of this site is held by the individual authors and creators. All rights reserved. Enquiries: please use the contact form

About Georgia de Chamberet 372 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.