The Atenao Bookshop, Buenos Aires
2015 October: Wednesday
At 11am I boarded the ‘Buquebus’ jetfoil ferry that regularly sailed between Montevideo and Buenos Aires. The estuary of the River Plate was over 100 miles wide at this point and the voyage took two hours. I knew that Argentina provided the first real link between Wilde and my current location. This link was arguably the greatest Argentinian writer of the twentieth century, the magic-realist Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). It was Borges who coined the immortal description of the Falklands War as being ‘a fight between two bald men over a comb’.
He seemed to have had a lifelong obsession with Oscar Wilde. Aged nine, he had translated Oscar’s story ‘The Happy Prince’ into Spanish. Then in his later years he had made a habit of staying at the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris where Wilde had died – at 13, Rue des Beaux-Arts. Today there is a plaque at the hotel recording his frequent visits between 1977 and 1984. His most famous statement about Wilde was: ‘the trouble with Oscar is that he is always right.’
The ferry terminal at Puerto Madero dock was situated right in the heart of Buenos Aires – in Londoners’ terms, the equivalent of sailing up the Thames and disembarking at Trafalgar Square. Immediately one felt the difference. Montevideo was a city but a laid back unhurried one; BA had the vibrant fast-forward zip of a major metropolis.
My new contact was waiting for me in the arrivals hall. He was called Hugo and was the director of my BA venue, the Suburban Theatre. Given all the Uruguayan reservations about ‘ostentatious and arrogant’ Argentinians, I was pleased to find that Hugo certainly did not fit the stereotype. In his late forties, he had a calm humorous face and a pleasantly inventive wit. I was not surprised when he told me that he had recently directed a production of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ – his own use of irony reminded me very much of the English. He said that he had adapted Wilde’s characters into upper class Argentinians, while the butler Lane was portrayed as a sassy Paraguayan maid. I felt immediately at ease with Hugo.
After I had been installed in a comfortable service flat in the heart of the city, Hugo led the way on a tour of some of BA’s sights. He explained that Argentina had always prided itself on being the most Europeanised of all South American countries. Once the city had been a splendid example of European Art Nouveau and Deco architecture but in recent years much of it had been destroyed and replaced with modern and sometimes hideous new development. A survivor though was situated just around the corner on Florida St, a pedestrianised, stylish thoroughfare that was home to some of BA’s fanciest shops. One of these shops was entirely unexpected – a vast emporium that covered almost an entire city block but now was empty and deserted. It was just possible to make out the rusting insignia over its closed and bolted doors: ‘HARRODS’.
Hugo explained that this had been the only other branch in the world of the iconic London store. It had opened in 1914 and had matched the original in luxurious splendour, boasting marble staircases and even its own jazz orchestra to beguile its customers. When the Egyptian businessman Mohammed Al-Fayed had bought the London shop, the BA owners had refused to sell their Argentinian license to him. The ensuing court battles led eventually to the closure of the store in 1989. One of the very few occasions on which the building had been open in the subsequent quarter of a century had been to play host to a tango festival.
Florida St was also the location of the Kavanagh Building, an Art Deco skyscraper that overlooked the Plaza San Martin. When built in 1935 it had been the tallest building in South America but like Harrods it had become the focal point for battle. Its construction had been funded by a wealthy Irish heiress called Corina Kavanagh. She had fallen in love with the son of an aristocratic family who lived on the opposite side of the Plaza. Her wealth had not made up for her lack of breeding and she was ignominiously rejected. In revenge she ordered that the Kavanagh Building should be constructed in front of the church that the aristocrats had built on the Plaza. Thus they would be prevented forever from enjoying the view of their hallowed edifice from their own home.
The centre of the city was dominated by an immensely wide boulevard known as the 9 de Julio Avenue. A large number of the streets in both BA and Montevideo were named after dates – presumably highly meaningful ones at some point but now rendered redundant by time. Thus a traffic direction might be: “Take a left along the Thirteenth of October, then right along the Twenty Sixth of August, and then another right along the Ninth of November’. Or alternatively: “I tried to drive along the Twenty Ninth of February but it’s blocked by road works for the next four years.”
The most spectacular sight on 9 de Julio was the Teatro Colon, the opera house that had been built in 1908. We joined a tour around its interior – one of its upper foyers had been decked out to resemble the Versailles Hall of Mirrors. The main theatre had more seating than Covent Garden and no less a critic than Luciano Pavarotti had proclaimed it as being one of the top five auditoriums in the world. I suppose that it was not surprising given the waves of Italian immigration that Buenos Aires should have a glorious opera house.
In the evening we were joined by a foursome from Montevideo, including Jonathan and Beatrice, who had arrived to make sure that I was baptised in the glories of the Argentine tango. Hugo led the way through the cobbled lamp-lit streets of old Buenos Aires to the Bendita Milonga, reputedly one of the best clubs in the country. Once inside, we acquired a table situated strategically between the dance floor and the bar, and the drinks began to flow.
To begin with, things were quite slow. A group of about twenty Swedish tourists were being taught the rudiments of tango by an elegant but ill-tempered lady who barked at us for silence if we spoke above a whisper. Each time this happened, her flock would stop to stare at us reproachfully. The atmosphere began to improve with the arrival of the live orchestra – three violins, two double basses, three squeezeboxes, a pianist, and a singer. They were called El Afronte and Hugo said they were among the most popular bands in BA. Their first number was the signal for the more experienced locals to rise from their floor-side tables and begin to dance.
To my untutored eye the standard was excellent. The tango is an amazing activity – basically it is walking with your partner in time to the music. This is done while breast to breast and often cheek to cheek (at least it is in the Argentine). But beneath this fixed stance the feet are getting up to some very complex activity – slick back kicks, and slow glides, amongst others. There seemed to be a total lack of ageism – white-bearded grandfathers embraced twenty somethings without embarrassment. Neither did it seem especially sexist either. At one point two young women began to tango together – it had a subtler quality to the male/female partnerships – the girls moved in a more sinuous fashion, coiling around each other like snakes.
Surprisingly not once in the whole evening I did see any collisions between couples. Although this was probably because I had declined the opportunity to join them on the dance floor.
The final tango was performed alone by a professional couple and was mesmerising. The evening had been like stepping back into the 1940s – that Rita Hayworth cracked mirror glamour, the music that ached with loss, and the sense that time was nudging your elbow.
The comparison with the musical ‘Cabaret’ was inevitable; in fact, they played the number ‘Welkommen’ several times over the speakers. Hugo said that for a time the club had tried to introduce table telephones a la Cabaret so that clients could phone each other across the room to request dances. They were forced to cancel the experiment as the phones rarely worked or kept connecting the wrong people.
2015 October: Thursday
My guide for the day arrived at 11am. Ana Justo was a large woman in her seventies who had a wonderfully expressive face that brimmed with life. While her promised tour of the city was literally washed out by a relentless rainstorm, Ana herself proved to be so interesting that she was a more than adequate compensation for BA. After a mutual decision to abandon the tour, we squelched into a restaurant called the Florida Garden. Ana said that this had been a favourite place when she had been a child. The waiter who arrived to serve us was himself about 70 years old and the two fell into reminiscences of the grandeur that had once been old Buenos Aires.
But, as I discovered, Ana was not simply a relic of the old days. She had been a very fine singer in her day and had been an adviser to the director Alan Parker when he came to Argentina to make the 1996 film ‘Evita’. He had not been well received as the subject of his film was still toxic in the country. On one hand, Eva Peron’s supporters were suspicious that Parker might attempt to trash their heroine, while her detractors suspected he might idolise her. The atmosphere grew so tense that Parker decided to use Budapest as a substitute location. But one scene had to be set in BA – the renowned one where Evita sings ‘Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’ from the balcony of the Casa Rosada. Shot during the night with 4000 extras in the street below, Ana said it was an unforgettable occasion – recreating history at the exact spot where the real Evita had stood just forty odd years earlier.
Ana also had met the star of the film Madonna and on another occasion had sung for Princess Diana. As we chatted on, I found out that Ana had a son who owned a restaurant in Camden Town, London – roughly a ten minute bus ride from my home.
It was towards the end of our meeting that she revealed her most surprising link. She was the grand-daughter of the 23rd President of Argentina, Agustin Justo, who came to power following a military coup in 1932 and remained President till 1938. He had preceded the Perons by only eight years. Although a controversial figure – his administration was part of what became known as ‘The Infamous Decade’ – he had, being at heart a liberal, at least resisted the drive towards out-and-out fascism. Ana had fallen out with the current administration, as they had changed the name of a BA road that previously had been called ‘Justo’ after her grandfather. It was now something dreary like ‘The Seventeenth of May’ or any of the other 365 days on offer.
2015 October: Friday
Hugo arrived at the flat at 6pm to take me to tonight’s venue. The Suburban Theatre was well named as it was a good train journey away from BA city centre. Travelling north-west parallel to the river, we passed through one station called Belgrano (stirring an awkward memory for a Brit in Argentina). On arrival in the pleasant suburb of San Isidro, we walked a short distance to the theatre.
As with the Montevideo Players, the frontage was entirely anonymous – and again the interior was a delight. The walls of the foyer bar were covered in playbills representing the fifty years of the theatre’s productions. Then, through a set of curtains, lay the auditorium. The stage was exceptionally wide and faced by four tiers of chairs that seated about seventy.
By 9 30pm the audience began to arrive and I greeted them individually in the foyer. They were almost entirely British ex-pats – an elderly and very friendly crowd – and as with the Anglo Theatre the show was a sell-out. Everything looked fine until I walked on stage.
And then somehow I lost it.
I simply don’t know what happened to my performance. The audience were excellent, easily picking up the subtlest of jokes and palpably receptive to the nuances of the script. But something in my brain did not function. I could find excuses – it was hot, I was tired, and crucially there was absolutely no echo in the auditorium whatsoever. It had a dead oppressive sound that I had not noticed before and it threw me. In the end however, it was my fault. I kept losing concentration and fluffing lines I had never fluffed before. My gods were just not with me tonight.
I revived a bit during the Q and A session and in response to the last question said that Oscar had been a flawed human being. “But maybe we all are. And that’s why we like him.”
2015 October: Saturday
On our final walk down to the terminal to catch the ferry back to Uruguay, we happened to pass the memorial to the Argentine victims of the Falklands War. It was set in parkland and consisted of a long wall inscribed with the names of the thousand or so mostly young conscripts who died there. Hugo seemed embarrassed by the sight: “I’m sorry. I did not bring you here deliberately.”
Every nation picks up a cartoon image in the eyes of other nations. When it comes to the Argentinian stereotype of the UK, it seems that the Brits are regarded as pirates. Looking at the historical perspective, one can see their point. From the days of raiding the treasure ships of the Spanish Main to the intermittent assaults on the cities of the River Plate, the British do not have a good record. Ana Justo had told me that when the BA press had attacked Alan Parker they referred to him as ‘El Pirato’.
This stirred a memory of a story told to me by my Royal Navy brother who was stationed in the South Atlantic around the time of the Falklands. A very young officer, a sub-lieutenant aged nineteen, was given the task of sailing to a remote bay on the islands to investigate reports that its garrison of Argentine soldiers might be on the verge of surrender. He was given a captured fishing boat and a crew of twelve to carry out the mission.
Being a prankster at heart and knowing full well of Britain’s buccaneering reputation, the sub-lieutenant dressed his crew as pantomime pirates, sporting bandanas, eye patches, and cutlasses, while breaking out the flag of the skull and crossbones at the masthead. The Argentine garrison was so flabbergasted at the sight of this bizarre apparition that they surrendered without question. The sub-lieutenant was hauled up in front of his admiral after the incident but the matter was allowed to drop amidst guffaws from the wardroom.
Leaving the Harbour, Buenos Aires
Next week on Tuesday 30 October – back to Uruguay and a rural encounter with a boar named Rodney.