Madrid, Modernism, And Travel Writing

Written by Jack Andrew Cribb

It’s one o’clock in the morning and I am sitting at a crowded table in a small bar attached to our hostel. The chairs are empty beer barrels, incredibly heavy and not exactly the most comfortable things. My lower back is sore, but the air is warm and soothing. The walls are spray-painted a deep blue like what  submersibles record in their trips underwater. In our hands are grasped huge plastic glasses of cheap sangria that tastes better with every gulp; this bar doesn’t do pints, drinks come in XL and XXL. Combine this with the happy hour every night, and myself and my english friends are deeply content. Inoffensive, subdued reggae plays from speakers hung from the ceiling while I talk to a girl from New York named Briana who tells me of her experiences as a Latino living in America. I find myself wondering how to write this place, this hostel on Calle Cañizares in Sol, a warm area of Madrid where the streets close in on each other like a game of Pac Man, all stretching towards Plaza Mayor, the centre of Madrid.

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As I drink I am reminded of the works of your classic and cliché modernist writers; Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Joyce et al. Of all the authors and auteurs who could write a drinking scene, whisky and pernod and amontillado, chateau margaux, wineskins, these were the best. In a glass case at the side of the reception desk of my hostel was a selection of wineskins, various sizes and colours, expensive. They reminded me of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the protagonists drinking from them, refilling them often, in Basque country. Take your issues with the Modernists if you will, but you cannot argue that they knew how to drink, and more than that, they knew how to write drinking.

A major feature of the work of the Modernists was their focus. It was a focus that paid direct and careful attention to matters spanning merely a few seconds. The Event, as it has been described; the moment, the scene, time held in stasis, small scraps of dust hanging in incandescent evening sunlight, this is what the Modernists use as their conveyor of artistic truth. Great tremulous cities, moonlit bodegas, villas enraptured in afternoon glow smelling of fresh fish and passata, events big and small contained within sentences that when written are captured, held in time, like insects encased in amber. The Modernists were fantastic travel writers.

Gracing my bookshelves back home are a selection of works which concern themselves with the affairs of other places. For example, I have People Of The Deer by Farley Mowat, Short Walks From Bogotá by Tom Feiling, Peter Robb’s Midnight In Sicily, The Almost Nearly Perfect People by Michael Booth, Alain De Botton’s The Art Of Travel, and also The Little Book Of Hygge by Meik Wiking, because I am a slave to trends (Although this isn’t technically travel writing I will count it as it concerns the customs of another place). Over these books hang buddhist prayer flags. I’m not a buddhist, but I place reverence on things that others place reverence on. These books allow me to see into places I have never been before, and possibly never will. They teach me to pay attention. Yet sometimes I feel they miss out on things, the little things.

One thing I find that links the two worlds of Modernism and travel writing is their attention to the event. Modernists write the event to effect the passages of time, politicise moments, ascribe transcendent truths into the most mundane of happenings. Travel writers, although it seems they may write to describe a place to possible travellers, holiday-makers, those looking to live in a new and different land, I think they do exactly the same thing as the Modernists. They look into brick walls, ancient forests, grains of sand. These fragments of different realities are written down in an effort to entice, but also to honour. When you travel, you create experiences that will never, no matter how hard you try, be able to recreate. An event is forever in the memory, but only seconds in your life. This is where Modernism and travel writing intersect, the craving to capture the moment like a photograph perfectly timed, sure up the foundations of memory so that sights, smells, sounds, tastes are recreated to the best of the writer’s ability, not simply for their own pleasure, but for the pleasure of everyone, so that everyone can be in this place at this time and live a little something that isn’t their own. I take another sip from the XXL sangria before me. It tastes sweeter than the first, richer, heavier.

The next day my head hangs a little to the left as I board one of Madrid’s underground services. Myself and a dear friend named Marcel travel from Anton Martin to Casa De Campo, the largest park in Madrid, most of which seems to be left to its own devices in terms of ecology. The ground is dry and dusty where paths cut between scraggly heat-twisted pines whose bark is rough and hardy. The place is semi-arid, the day is a hot one. We have come here to run, Marcel being an avid runner. Myself, not so. The sun lights the red soil and rosemary-green fauna, and everything while beautiful and peaceful, seems frightfully dry. It is nice to get away with my friend, just the two of us. Again I see comparisons with The Sun Also Rises, although where Hemingway’s protagonists would pit themselves against wild animals in their hunts and fishing trips so as to stave off the reach and influence of inevitable mortality, we both practice veganism, and so pitted ourselves against the only people we could, ourselves, on the run, which I would argue is a much more difficult task. What I learnt that day is that sangria and physical exercise don’t mix, Casa De Campo is an incredibly peaceful place to get lost in, filled with hills and charming trails, and a cold beer is sometimes the best recovery for an ailment. Hair of the dog, correct?

Modernist literature didn’t teach me to write, but it did show me the importance in capturing the details, in allowing myself to succumb to the city, to the village, the forest, the beach, the mountain, the sea. Whichever situation I find myself in, an afternoon meal in a macrobiotic vegan restaurant where the menu is constructed in a delicate balance of yin and yang and where the laughter flows as freely and easily as the wine and where the love for my friends grows exponentially, in the delightful evening sun of Parque de el Retiro drinking cold store-bought beer brought in our packs sat just north of the Monumento Alfonso XII, in a tattoo and piercing parlour forcing stainless steel needles through our ears simply because we think it will be funny.

For me, in my head, Modernist literature lives in a permanently golden-lit city, the light from the afternoon sun where it begins to go from yellow to gold to deep orange-pink. In my head Madrid is this city. We become present in cities like this, whose criss-cross streets and large beautiful parks and tapas bars in La Latina and horrid iberico ham legs hanging from kitchen walls, where children are rowed by their mothers and fathers in small boats on manmade lakes, and where artistic bleached bones swing from the ceilings of huge and fragile glass conservatories. In cities like these we forget ourselves, and recreate in place of what we have forgotten, always observing the details.

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