A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

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This book made a lot of promising starts, but, frustratingly, jumped away from every scenario just as things were getting interesting!   It wasn’t just starts: sometimes it jumped into a plotline in the middle, leaving you wishing you’d got the background in more detail.  And I think the author must have read Jane Eyre just before reading it, because one of the storylines was distinctly Mrs Rochester-esque.  It wasn’t a bad read, although the Mrs R.-ish “madness” storyline really had no place in a book written in the 21st century, but Maria Duenas could have made several really good novels out of the material, rather than a single bitty and, by the end, slightly bonkers, one.

Our hero, Mario, has emigrated from Spain – with a complicated background involving the Basque country, Mallorca and illegitimacy – to Mexico, and, arriving as a young man with nothing, made a fortune from silver mining. It would have been fascinating to have heard how he did this, but we don’t.  We only meet him as a middle-aged man who’s borrowed a load of money to buy machinery from the United States, unluckily just as the Civil War/War Between The States was breaking out.  The guy he’d been dealing with has been killed at Bull Run/Manassas, and the machinery’s been requisitioned by the US government, leaving our man in deep doo-doo.

Mexico, 1861, then. Surely the scene is set (if we ignore the title!) for a novel about the French and Austrian intervention.  Bring on Archduke Maximilian!   Er, no.  We’re out of Mexico before the French have even invaded, never mind the Habsburgs getting stuck in.  And we’re off to Cuba – the glamorous Paris of the Antilles, where it’s all happening.  And where the slave trade is still legal: it wasn’t abolished there until 1867, and slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1886.  Mario then gets embroiled (in a business sense only) with his son’s fiancée’s auntie.  Again, there’s a back story, this time about how she “had” to marry someone unsuitable, but it’s never really gone into.  There are some wonderful descriptions of life in Havana, about its relationship with Spain and how that’s viewed by different groups – Cuba was to rebel against Spanish rule in 1868 – and about the effects of slavery, and it really gets interesting when the dodgy auntie tries to con Mario into getting involved with the slave trade, and he refuses.

But, just as the reader’s really getting into it, we’re off again!   Mario and the auntie’s husband play a high-stake game of billiards, and Mario wins the vineyard in Andalusia (well, the title was a bit of a giveaway there) which the auntie’s husband has recently inherited from a cousin.  Goodbye Havana, next stop Jerez!

And so we now get on to the fascinating tale of the importance of sherry to the Spanish economy in the 19th century – making up around 20% of total exports, most of them to Britain.  I was saying only recently, after a visit to Marsala and reading up on how the Marsala wine trade was developed by a Scouser and a Yorkshireman, a year after I went to Porto and read up on how the port wine trade was developed by a man from Ashton-underl-Lyne, that someone really needs to write a book about the effect on European history of British boozing!  Seriously, it has had a huge impact on the history of Portugal, the history of Sicily and, to some extent, the history of Andalusia.

And, yet again, a fascinating back story that we don’t hear enough about. The auntie’s husband came from a rather complicated background involving various cousins and friends who all expected to marry each other but didn’t.  One of them has ended up as the Mother Abbess as a convent.  One of them has married an Englishman and is trying to con her dangerous stepson, who keeps kidnapping people – cue a dramatic rescue by our hero and his Indian (“Indian” is the acceptable term when talking about the indigenous peoples of Latin America) servant.  The auntie’s husband thinks he killed one of his cousins by mistake, except that it turns out that it was someone else who killed him by mistake.  Our hero agrees, in order to con the cousin’s stepson, to pose as the cousin who’s recently died and left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped, and a doctor who was going to marry the one who ended up in the convent gets involved.  Er, yes.  I said it was rather complicated, didn’t I?!

Oh, and he can’t flog the vineyard until a full year’s passed since the death of the cousin who left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband. And the one who’s married to the Englishman has got the needle because she thought she’d inherit it.  And the sister in the convent’s fallen out with them all because she wanted to marry the Englishman.  Well, she wanted to marry the doctor as well.  Presumably either or, not both.  It would have made a great story if we’d followed them all from when they were children and these complicated relationships were being formed, but, as it is, it’s all rather confusing.  Then the son’s fiancée’s auntie turns up, along with her slavewoman.  The slavewoman gets involved with the Indian servant, and they eventually live happily ever after.  And the son decides to dump the fiancée, which is irrelevant because neither of them are really involved in any of it – and it’s all complicated enough as it is, and really rather bonkers by this point.

It then transpires that the English husband is mad, and that he comes from a family of mad people. I really, really hate it when people put storylines like this in modern books.  It’s quite understandable that someone like Charlotte Bronte should have written a storyline about someone being “mad.  Gothic-type novels are full of “mad” people.  And that whole idea about “the taint of hereditary madness” – it was a huge thing, and a huge tragedy because it meant that people with mental health issues were shoved away out of sight for fear that the family name be tainted.  But for someone to write a storyline like this in the 21st century – no, no, no.  I appreciate that attitudes vary between countries and cultures, but I wouldn’t really expect to be finding a storyline like this in any book written within the last thirty years or so.  Can we please, please get past this?  Can we not talk about people being “mad”?  Can we please get past this idea about the taint of madness within families? Can we please stop stigmatising people like this?

I think that, in this case, what the husband actually had was early onset dementia. OK, that term would not have been used in the 1860s, but there are still far better ways of putting it than Maria Duenas did.  But I said it was Mrs Rochester-esque, didn’t I?  I don’t actually know how well-known Jane Eyre is in Spain, but I think it’s one of those books that’s well-known worldwide.  The part set in Cuba was really good, and the background story about the complicated family past in Jerez could have been really good had it been gone into properly.  But it all got very strange at the end.  No Grace Poole, but the “mad” husband gets packed off to stay at the convent where his sister-in-law, the one who’d once hoped to marry him (when she wasn’t hoping to marry their doctor pal) was Mother Abbess … whereupon he sets the place on fire, and kills himself, conveniently leaving the way clear for his wife to marry our hero Mario.  They then live happily ever after on the vineyard.

I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve made this all sound rather silly. It wasn’t really.  Some parts of it were very … well, promising rather than good, because they weren’t developed properly.  If the book had been longer, and if the focus had been on either Mario or the vineyard family (both Andalusian and Cuban branches) and the background stories had been developed properly, it could have been very good.  As it was, it was rather frustrating.  By the end, it read like something that an over-enthusiastic teenager with an over-active imagination, desperate to pack in as much drama as possible, might have written.  Promising … but the promises were never really fulfilled.

 

 

Reginald D Hunter’s Songs of the Border – BBC 2

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Donald Trump’s bizarre obsession with building walls has given Reginald D Hunter an excuse for a road trip along the US-Mexican border and me an excuse to write about a) the Mexican War and b) how lovely San Antonio is.  This programme, far more political than musical, also reminded me about being made to learn The Streets of Laredo in primary school singing lessons.  How weird is that?  Why get a load of little kids in a North of England primary school to learn a song about dying cowboys?!   Anyway, back to the point, which was that, whatever may go on with Mr Trump and his bonkers ideas, music knows no borders, certainly not between northern Mexico and the south western United States.

I’m afraid that most of the musical references in this went over my head.  I’m not sure what I was expecting.  Fernando and Ride Like The Wind?  Just kidding – not really!  I was OK when he was talking about Ricky Martin (who’s actually from Puerto Rico) and Lou Bega (who’s actually German).  And obviously I recognised the song they played at the end, sung by one of the most famous Mexican-Americans of all time – La Bamba, by Ritchie Valens (even if I do associate it with the diner in Grease).  I think I do vaguely remember hearing about Selena, the Mexican-American singer tragically murdered in the 1990s.  But there were a lot of terms I’d never heard before.  Maybe I’m just really ignorant 😦 !  Well, I never claimed to be an expert on world music, did I?!

I now know that narcocorrido songs are ballads about drug dealers.  Nobody tell Donald Trump that, please: he’d be making all sorts of horrendous stereotypes out of it, whereas the style of music actually originates from folk music, and evolved via the norteno-corrido style of ballad that was more about the Mexican Revolution of 1910 – Pancho Villa et al.  I also know that cumbia is not a misspelling of a region of Northern England but is a form of Columbian music.  And that mariachi is a form of Western Mexican music.  According to Wikipedia, being able to play mariachi gave you a good chance of getting a job at a hacienda.  No, not the Hacienda, but an estate in colonial Mexico.

And conjunto, which sounds like something to do with either Juan Peron or the Napoleonic Wars, is a form of music played by small groups – and this is particularly interesting, because it originates in a unique form of Tex-Mex cultural crossover, involving German button accordions.  A lot of Germans settled in Fredericksburg, Texas (not to be confused with Fredericksburg in Virginia, site of the famous battle in 1862), and it still has a strongly German feel to it.  I went there in October (2014), and they were having an Oktoberfest.  The Oktoberfest idea is Bavarian, and the Fredericksburg settlers were mainly from Prussia, but you get the idea.  Loads of German bakeries, as well.  Germans also settled in Mexico (it’s OK, I’m not going to write an essay on the Austrian involvement there in the 1860s), and a lot of those settlers then moved into South Texas at the time of the Mexican Revolution.  There’s always been a lot of that to-ing and fro-ing across the border, and that was the point that Reginald D Hunter was making.

I’m not very keen on Reginald D Hunter, TBH.  I find him quite aggressive and polemical, and it sometimes seems as if he’s deliberately setting out to rile people.  For example, in the middle of this programme, he randomly started ranting about Tennessee being full of “redneck racists”. But he did make some very good points about the culture of the border area, and how the border is fluid as far as that culture goes.

He visited El Paso (Texas), where he talked to local musicians about some of the older-style border songs which present Mexicans as baddies and or involve a lot of sentimentality about doomed romances between Anglo-American men and Mexican women, and also visited Ciudad Juarez (Mexico), where there was a lot of talk about drug cartels.  In both places, people talked about frequently crossing the border to visit relatives who, legally or illegally, live on the other side.  I haven’t been to either of those places, but he said that he felt that San Antonio, although it’s not actually on the border, was the cultural capital of the border area; and that was certainly the impression that I got.

I loved San Antonio.  I’d love to go again.  What an absolutely gorgeous place.   As I said, I was in Texas in an October – and so all the preparations for the Day of the Dead were taking place.  I’d never come across that before, and I was fascinated by it.  And it’s a Mexican thing.  As Hunter said, when you’re in San Antonio, you’re not always entirely sure whether you’re in the United States or whether you’re in Mexico!  Nearly all the signs are in both English and Spanish.  I even spoke to people in Spanish a few times, whilst I was there.

San Antonio was one of the two main reasons that I wanted to go to Texas.  I wanted to see the Alamo.  We got to the hotel late afternoon, and I stopped for about five minutes to have a glass of water and dump my bags, then opened the map and bounded off to the Alamo.  It was next door to a Haagen Dazs café, which was a bit odd, but never mind.  We did go there on a proper guided tour later on, but I had to see it as soon as I’d arrived.  I’m a historian, OK!  And 19th century America is one of my specialist topics.  I was excited!

Just as a slight aside, the other main reason I wanted to go to Texas wasn’t the space centre in Houston (it was interesting enough, but I’m not a sciency person) – it was Southfork.  To quote Abba, “there’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that I didn’t see”.  I actually preferred Dynasty, but I loved Dallas as well.  Now, when the 2012 Dallas reboot (which sadly didn’t last long) was made, the main female character, who had affairs with both John Ross Ewing and Christopher Ewing (who also both had affairs with another woman, who turned out to be the secret daughter of Cliff Barnes) was someone who’d been born in Mexico and had emigrated from there to Texas as a child.  Even in a TV series, you can’t show Texas without showing the Mexican connection.

So.  Texas.  The “Six Flags” state – Spain, France (briefly), Mexico, the Texas Republic, the Union and the Confederacy.  When you visit the Alamo, you have to dress and behave as if you were visiting a place of worship.  It’s regarded as a sacred place.  To cut a long story short, a lot of  “Anglos” from America had settled in Mexican Texas, and, with discontent rising over the rule of President Santa Anna, Texas rebelled.  The siege of the Alamo, in 1836, although it wasn’t the decisive battle of the revolution, is the best-known.  Bowie knives, Davy Crockett hats, songs, films, etc.  An independent republic of Texas was set up – and, in 1845, serious moves began to annex it to the United States.  Most people in Texas do seem to have wanted this – the opposition came more from America, where people were concerned about what adding another big slave state to the Union was going to do to the fragile balance between slave states and free states – and, in 1846, it went ahead.

Mexico, which had never recognised Texan independence, wasn’t very pleased, and the Mexican-American War, generally known as the Mexican War, broke out.  I’ve been reading up on the Mexican War since I was 11, because it features heavily in North and South, the first book of the wonderful trilogy by John Jakes.  One of the main characters, played in the TV adaptation by the late, great, Patrick Swayze, loses an arm in the war, and has to give up his plans for a career in the Army.  OK, this has got nothing to do with music, but neither did most of what Hunter was saying: he was far more concerned with slagging off Donald Trump, and having a go at Barack Obama and Bill Clinton whilst he was at it, than in actually talking about songs of the border, or songs of anywhere else for that matter!

Despite the sad loss of Orry Main’s arm (I love those books), America won the war, and helped herself to not only Texas but also what’s now Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, part of New Mexico, a bit of Wyoming, and the vast state of California (where gold was soon discovered – war ended in 1848, Gold Rush in 1849, admitted to the Union, as a free state, in 1850.  My Darling Clementine, not being a border song, did not get mentioned.). The rest of New Mexico and Arizona was bought in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853.  At least that bit was paid for.

So that whole area was Mexican long before it was American.  And, no, I’m not forgetting the Native Americans, but Native American culture didn’t really come into this programme.  There was a lot of movement across the border … well, even before Mexico was independent of Spain.  You weren’t supposed to settle in Texas in those days unless you were Catholic – like you weren’t supposed to settle in Savannah, Georgia, in the days when neighbouring Florida was under Spanish rule, unless you were Protestant or Jewish and definitely not Catholic – but people got round that!   And there’s been a lot of movement across the border ever since.  It’s an ongoing story – it’s about history going back many years – as with, say, the Cajun culture of Louisiana – and it’s about today, and it’s about everything in between.

Mexican immigration into the United States was actively encouraged during and immediately after the war years.  It isn’t now, but it’s still going on – and, as we all know, there’s no effective regulation of it.  This has both positive aspects and negative aspects.  There are a lot of issues with undocumented immigration, including the fact that unregistered immigrants are at risk of being taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, and may struggle to get access to essential services.  There are undoubtedly some problems with cross-border drug smuggling.  There’s the issue of the importance of Mexican workers in the labour market in the border states.

And, as the programme kept pointing out, it’s not just a case of Mexicans going to Txas or other parts of the US and staying there.  It’s people going backwards and forwards across the border on a regular basis.  The programme was meant to be about the border being fluid in terms of music, and it did make that point, but it was also about the border being fluid in terms of the movement of people.   And it is.  Plenty of the people interviewed made that clear.  Some of that’s legal visiting.  Some of that’s illegal working.  It’s a complex situation.

There are two issues here.  One is Mexican-American culture.  Hyphenated American cultures are great.  That shouldn’t be a problem.  It’s only a problem in that there are some negative images about it.  Donald Trump’s unpleasant remarks about Mexicans tie in with those, and don’t help anyone – and it’s highly inappropriate for someone in high office to be coming out with things like that.  The other issue is immigration in general and the regulation of it.  That’s another story, and a controversial one.  But, come what may, there is this cross-border culture, much of it tied up in music.  And that makes the wall idea sound even stupider than it does anyway.

There’s so much history in music, and there’s a fair bit of music in history.  I don’t think Reginald D Hunter really wanted to talk about music.  He just wanted to have a go at American immigration policy, and this was a way of doing it.  But there was some interesting information about music in this, and interesting information about the cross-border culture in general.  And, hey, it’s given me an excuse to write a bit about the Mexican War.

I still don’t know why we had to sing The Streets of Laredo at primary school, though …

Spirits of the Ordinary by Kathleen Alcala

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Word PressHmm.  I didn’t really “get” this book.  That’s probably me rather than it: I’m better with a straight historical novel, rather than something which is a combination of historical fiction and imaginings/fantasy.   It sounded interesting – set in Mexico, just south of the US border, in the 1870s, with a cast of characters including indigenous groups, crypto-Jews, and recent Irish immigrants.  However, it was all rather disjointed – people were (literally) wandering about, and there were too many characters for a relatively short book and their stories didn’t really link together very well.  Also, the crypto-Jews (i.e. crypto Sephardi Jews) were using bits of Yiddish!

Interesting setting, and an interesting idea to write about characters representing different aspects of Mexico’s cultural heritage, but it just didn’t really work for me.  It’s probably me: this idea of including mystical/fantastical elements in historical novels is particularly popular in Hispanic writings, but, as I said, I’m better with a straight historical novel!

 

Texas Rising – History

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The history of Texas is fascinating – Six Flags! – but it’s a very challenging subject for a drama series to tackle, partly because so many different groups of people are involved and partly because it’s all been so mythologised.   I’ve got no personal connections to Texas at all, but, when I arrived in San Antonio, in the afternoon of what had already been a busy day, I just dumped my stuff in my hotel room and rushed straight out and practically bounced along the road to the Alamo, and then stood there doing the whole “OMG, I’m at the Alamo!!” thing and taking dozens and dozens of photos!

So, hey, I can hardly blame the producers of this series for starting off with the Alamo. However, really, they should have started with some background information, rather than just a few very gung-ho and one-sided sentences about how everyone in Texas was battling for freedom against an oppressive regime and had no choice but to fight or die. All right, Santa Anna was indeed an evil military dictator. His massacres of prisoners at both Goliad and the Alamo were appalling, and his attempts to repeal the Mexican Constitution and centralise power in himself alienated people across Tejas and across the rest of Mexico as well. And we did, to be fair, get to see Santa Anna – played by Olivier Martinez (that bloke who used to go out with Kylie Minogue and was then married to Halle Berry) – and hear his views. We even got to hear them in Spanish!

But I think that some background information about Mexico gaining its independence from Spain, the influx of Anglo settlers into Tejas and a more balanced presentation of Santa Anna’s reforms was called for. As it was, it all seemed a bit 1950s. Then, we got the women who’d survived the Alamo being kidnapped by Comanches, who were then chased and killed by the heroic Texas Rangers. Excuse me?!! The Comanches never came into it! They come into an awful lot of Texan history, but not that bit. This is 2016 – are we not a bit past the days of showing bloodthirsty Comanches running off with screaming women and children and being chased down by heroic white militiamen, on occasions where they didn’t even do anything?! Furthermore, one of the women was named as Emily West. Ah, I know that name … oh, yes, the Yellow Rose of Texas. Er, isn’t the whole idea about her that she was with Santa Anna at San Jacinto? She was never anywhere near the Alamo!

Oh dear. Sorry, this all sounds very negative, doesn’t it? And I gather that some people have moaned that the landscape’s wrong. It is wrong, but I suppose you’ve got to film where you can. They could hardly have filmed it in modern-day San Antonio: there’s a branch of Haagen Dazs next door to the Alamo!   On to the positive stuff. It was genuinely very entertaining and I rather enjoyed it. And it’s not as if they’ve made up the actual main events, or got the dates of them wrong.   Most importantly, they made the point that Tejanos as well as Texians were involved in the Texan War of Independence: it’s easy to get to thinking of it as Anglos versus Hispanics, when it was nothing of the sort. They also showed that there were black people present at the Alamo – although there were no mentions of slavery, and certainly no mentions of the fact that Mexico abolished slavery and that that was one of the reasons why many Anglo Texians wanted independence – and also showed a Comanche war conference, so it really wasn’t one of these old-fashioned things which only show events from a white Anglo viewpoint and make everyone else into baddies.

So plenty of gold stars for that. I’m not saying that everyone has to be obsessively “politically correct”, but there were a lot of different groups involved in the events in Texas/Tejas in the 1830s, and, in order to understand what was going on, it’s important to take all the different viewpoints into account. But I think they have let the mythology take control of things. However, it’s meant to be a drama series, not a documentary series, so maybe I’m being over-critical. And, at the end of the day, a drama series is meant to entertain, and this certainly entertained!

Ooh, and I do love those Southern accents!  Bill Paxton did a sterling job of playing Sam Houston. Makes you want to fly off to the Deep South right now, and enjoy being addressed as “ma’am” …