PART 1

I am sitting in a ratty armchair in a cafe called KOH TAO, or at least that is what is written on the window. There are rustic and rudimentary bookshelves, rickety tables and a mish-mash of chairs seemingly rescued from skips. Too late I realise they offer BIG COFFEE. The cafe is filling up now. There is a brick-look wall with a “Banksy” style painting on it. Looks Palestinian. Ethnically challenged, anyway. I am still laughing inwardly at the Chief Rabbi or whatever on Radio 4 this morning saying that the current renewed conflict in Gaza is “something to do with Iran,” before being told by the presenters that he was still on air and suddenly snapping back into pious platitude mode. This place seems to attract the less physically repulsive members of society. There’s not much room, and crossing my legs results in a terrible testicular tangle. The chatter is drowning out my headphones, Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. I may have to resort to something more… plentiful. Actually I think I may have to bugger off elsewhere. My brain vibrates when buses go by. They look like they’re going to hurtle through the window when they come round the corner. I don’t know the name of this street, but that one there is Okendo, with the bus stops and the hotel, the Inland Revenue and a bookshop. My brother-in-law works at the hotel, which is a five-star, so he gets to do things like fix Lou Reed’s broadband connection. Lou Reed slapped his hand and screamed, “DON’T TOUCH MY COMPUTER!” which his interpreter translated as, “He says he prefers to be alone at the moment.” I explained about the electric shock therapy and that seemed to make it all OK, although he still thinks Lou Reed is an imbecile. He may have a point. A girl is now sitting cross-legged on her chair, so I pretend to myself to be outraged by this (because I know people who would be outraged) and make ready to leave. Actually I quite like it, falsehood notwithstanding, and certainly wouldn’t object if more girls sat cross-legged on rickety chairs in cafes.

PART 2

(I was halfway up the hill, at an old gun battery, looking out over the sea. A fishing boat came in. I took a picture of it.)

PART 3

I think the spiritual significance of this place is probably false. As far as I know, Franco stuck this big Jesus here looking over the city. I’ve been watching The Devils (1971) recently, so to me it is a cross between Orwellian and Ken Russellesque. The statue itself, creamy against the pure blue sky, has very clear lines, like precisely shaped marzipan. The right hand is held up in blessing, the left points demurely to one of those sacred heart things on his chest, like a junkie’s tattoo. The hand is massive, possibly to make it more easily distinguishable from the bottom of the hill. Looks a bit Wreck-It Ralph close up. The folds of his robe look like the pastry enveloping a sausage roll. The longer I sit here, the more I resent the statue’s presence. It seems nothing more than a fascist symbol. It is perched on top of an old fortification. There are many of them round about. They are something to do with Napoleon. I could go inside and find out what exactly, because there is a museum inside now, but I don’t feel like it, having been sent into a sulk by fascism. I will wait for said sulk to pass over before continuing.

PART 4

The question I had in mind was a very vague one, along the lines of, “how do I fit in here?” I haven’t really got much of an answer, and to be honest wandering around pondering such impenetrables is pretty much my default activity. It helps me think about the place, and its convoluted history and how that inevitably impacts on me. The effects of fascism are all around me, and the church’s role is, I think, fairly cancerous. At the moment I don’t see any belief in God there at all, but I am aware that is just the mood I’m in, which is impacted upon by the current cloud of child abuse hanging over us all. I tried to get down the hill as directly as possible, trying not to double back uphill to find an easier route. Towards the bottom one path was closed off for safety reasons, so my plan was slightly scuppered and I ended up at the furthest end of the harbour. Violence and blame were on my mind. I have been attending a season of films about the Civil War in the Basque Country. In one of these films – LAUAXETA – A LOS CUATRO VIENTOS (1987) – there was a hotel in Bilbao operating as normal, a luxurious restaurant and so forth, while the city was under siege. The patrons were (of course) in league with those besieging them. It was like a strange dream. It was a terrible film, truly awful, but I kept thinking how good it might be to re-edit the footage, some of it very beguiling recreations, into something less narrative-driven and more oblique, more affecting. But at the end the audience (mostly old enough to have lived through it) applauded.

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There are people in and around San Sebastián who can look at the sea and tell you what the weather’s going to be like. People who are as aware of the tides as they are of bus timetables. Nowadays you can get an app to tell you, which is perhaps even more remarkable, and adds a nice salty rime to your smartphone. It is no surprise that water is an important part of life wherever it is found, but it is striking how different its effects can be from place to place. Here in the Bay of Biscay the seafloor shelves off steeply quite close to the shore, and that makes it easy to imagine the people’s take on life to be fatalistic, always aware of the proximity of the edge of the underworld, having a kinship with prehistoric sea monsters. But really it just means there is (or there was) very good fishing to be had without going too far from land.

I was watching BATTLE OF BRITAIN (1969) last night, because parts of it were filmed round here. The role of the Normandy coast is played by Zarautz, so while the German military command was enjoying a slap-up meal by the beach, I could see a couple of very small rocky islands in the background, where a local delicacy, goose barnacles, grow. People risk their lives to collect these ugly stumps, and they just taste like a load of salty old seapuddle. Franco was still in power when the film was made, and it’s not the first time German soldiers have been welcome here, many of them having nipped along from France for a bit of R&R during the war. Still, it shocks a bit to see the main avenue festooned with swastikas.

And then, of course, Franco oversaw his own peacetime conflicts. I take a perverse pride, a pride of which I’m not proud, in the fact that I could take you to two separate places by the sea where ETA people were shot by the Civil Guard. In one case they, the Civil Guard, even dressed up as female hippies having a picnic in a little cove before whipping their machine guns out from under their kaftans and doing the business. No – this can’t be true. It seems too novelistic to be true, gaudy as a seventies thriller.

Sometimes little whirlwinds whip up out at sea and you wonder what it would take for them to get big enough to be anything more than a minor diversion. There are lots of rickety structures near the sea devoted to the consumption of snacks or beer. Some of them, if you’re really lucky, even have sardines cooked over a charcoal grill.

I once shared a flat with an unemployed trawlerman. He wasn’t very forthcoming on the subject, or indeed any other subject, but he didn’t seem too upset to be no longer working. He spent most of his time stoned out his box staring at the television. His one funny story (well, funny to me) was about when he was due to go off and do his military service and he bogged off on a boat to do his normal stint of fishing instead. The Civil Guard radioed the captain and made him turn back from Newfoundland or wherever. I didn’t like Nestor very much and even now that I am thinking about him I can’t be bothered to wonder where he is or what he’s doing.

I like the destructive power of the sea. Not just the thumping of the waves, but also the slow insidious dismantling of molecules wrought by the salty air. Balconies with peeling paint, railings rusting, sandstone being eaten away. Its effects are particularly poignant on the love locks that have appeared on the railings along a coastal path. You may have heard of this phenomenon – lovers put a padlock somewhere public to symbolise their union. Good news for trees (that don’t get names carved into them any more) and ironmongers (who sell more padlocks), but to me, the symbolism seems unfortunate at the best of times. Here they rust away so rapidly, leaving an air of dilapidation and distress that I relish perhaps more than I really ought to.

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We all know about peacocks – they are basically glam rock pigeons. They strut, they preen, they are rotten show-offs. They have expended all their evolutionary energy in growing a whopping great tail and developing the hydraulics necessary to stick it up in the air and shake it at the objects of their ardour. It’s difficult not to attribute to them a little haughtiness, a la Captain Peacock of Grace Bros notoriety, but in reality they have very tiny brains, far too small to summon up any kind of comparison with others at anything but the most instinctual level.

Meanwhile, the peahen has all the disadvantages of the lumbering peacock with none of the plumage. Except, that is, for a little dandelion clock crest on their heads. It looks from a distance as if you could blow it away, or snip it off, strand by strand, with nail scissors. She loves me, she loves me not…

Both males and females are keen to get their beaks on free food. Few people seem worried by their pneumatic drills on the front of their lizard-like faces, but a swift search on You Tube confirms that they can be dangerous, especially to little kids. This is in keeping with their generally Jurassic air. I don’t know whether they remind me of dinosaurs or just computer-animated dinosaurs, but the resemblance is strong. They are unnerving, like Monster Munch-gobbling velociraptors. Their young are the same. One almost expects them to extend a neck frill and start hissing. Their corner of the park is pretty prehistoric-looking too, consisting mainly of ferns, a significant percentage of which have died.

Once you’ve got over the tail thing, and maybe seen them in congress (a very quick upper hand bum wiggle and bingo) the most impressive thing about peacocks, peahens and peababies is their dusk routine. Despite their size and excessive featherosity, they have the ability to fly as far as the nearest tree. It looks messy, this flight. Once they’re up, they’re safe from whatever they think might be after them. I suspect that whatever it is, it is long-extinct, because their preference is for a dead tree offering no foliage cover. It’s a strange sight, them sitting there, like bags on a branch, part of some schoolboy prank.

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Back by the sea, bloody Barnacle Bill. This is a cafe at the far end of the bay. I have never been here because it is (relatively) new, and usually when I am out this way it is in the evening or late afternoon, when the sun is already behind the mountains. It is midday now, and sunny, so I am sitting outside. It’s a nice view, the island with the city in the background. I came to collect my bike, which I left at the office when it was raining. I am glad I am not in the office today.

I have a bun with some yellow jammy-type stuff on it and some dessicated coconut. So although I’ve never eaten one before, I’m not expecting anything too novel. I don’t think it’ll be anything special.

An elderly lady and her South American care worker are sitting at the next table and I have been eavesdropping. They seem new to each other, so now I know the old lady’s life story, with the emphasis on property acquisition.

My coffee is a bit cold, and the woman who served it wasn’t very pleased that I didn’t have anything smaller than a twenty to pay with.

Three people have come to sit at the remaining sunlit table (the rest are already in shadow). They look like smokers, so I was expecting a lungful, but so far they have contented themselves with nail biting, smartphone fiddling and telephonic conversation. They don’t seem likely to talk to each other, which suits me. But I have put my headphones on just in case. They’ve got whopping great sandwiches now. Puts my bun in the shade. I am eating the coconutty bits first. It doesn’t remind me of the coconut-coated products at Derby bus station in the 70s, which is what I was hoping for. I am obsessed with bus stations in the 70s, with their draughty shelters and fantastic fonts. The cafes had machines to dispense soft drinks. The liquid was sloshed around as if it were milk being churned. The yellow jammy bit turns out to be apricot. Its flavour has all the intensity of a gentle slope. I am reminded of the description of mass-produced sliced bread as, “nauseating gunk fit only for filling in the cracks in the wall.” Stodge rules.

Dionne Warwick sounds remarkably like Sandie Shaw at times, which brings us back to the gentle slope analogy.

A bearded man in an olden days fishing boat has just landed on the island. He got out of the boat and another bearded man got in. Maybe they are pointless smugglers.

A sparrow comes close to check out the crumb availability situation.

These Bacharach and David tunes, for all their delicacy, are pretty primordial: “let me grieve,” etc. “Your soul’s salvation will be fatally imperilled if you choose to exercise your right to reject my affection.” Heavy stuff.

The sparrows are ganging up now, like some kind of twee Hitchcock sequence.

‘I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself’ suddenly brings out the autumn chill in the air. This is sad. And like it or not, every word is the stone cold truth. I think of Dusty Springfield’s grave in Henley-on-Thames, me standing there at night wondering what to do, taking a break from a wedding reception around the corner, worried that someone might see me, alone in a churchyard, wearing a suit and holding a glass.

It’s time to go home.

(Thanks to Write Around Town and their Writing Maps and the unknown photographer)

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