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THE ELECTRONIC LIVEIBIZA

Weekly Edition 081: Saturday 14th September 2002

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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

 
Part Sixteen:
Mediterranean Moods by J. E. Crawford Flitch
 

Subtitles are sometimes oddly revealing; consider our quartet of early scribblers, for example: Vuillier, a French artist writing just as impressionism was taking the world by storm, decided on impressions of travel in the Balearic Isles, Corsica and Sardinia; Margaret d’Este didn’t bother with one at all as With a Camera in Majorca was really the subtitle (she simply failed to find anything better for the title); Mary Stuart Boyd, who stayed longer than any of the others, opted for life and travel in Majorca, Minorca and Iviza; and finally, the scholarly J. E. Crawford Flitch, M.A. opted for footnotes of travel in the islands of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Sardinia. This had a decidedly bookish ring, rather like its author, the first Briton ever to call Iviza ‘Ibiza’.

But who exactly was he? The meagre facts are as follows: his Christian names were John Ernest and he is known to posterity as the English translator of the great Basque writer, Miguel de Unamuno. When Crawford Flitch visited Ibiza his translation of Manet and the French Impressionists (1910) had just appeared and he was gathering material for Modern Dancing and Dancers (1912), two interests which constitute a further point of contact with Vuillier (author of La Danse (1898)). After Mediterranean Moods (1911), the Crawford Flitch œuvre continued with The National Gallery (1912), A Little Journey in Spain: notes of a Goya pilgrimage (1914) and an essay in C.R.W. Nevinson’s The Great War, Fourth Year (1918). The twenties was devoted to Unamuno and his literary career came to an end in 1932 with a translation of The Cherubic Wanderer (1674), the poems of an obscure Silesian mystic called Angelus.

Spanish philosophy, dancing, impressionism, Goya, military history and Silesian mysticism - our subject’s mind roamed far and wide. That he was a gifted linguist - a useful asset for any travel writer - lies beyond doubt. But he was also an aesthete, equally at home in painting, poetry, music and dance. The rest is almost total darkness. Other vague clues are that he lived in Godstow, a picture-book village on the Thames just north of Oxford now famous for its pubs; and that he was a member of the Athenaeum, the distinguished London club known for its serious scholars and bishops. Further pointers about Crawford Flitch’s character can be found in the ‘Introductory’ (no mere ‘Introduction’ or ‘Foreword’ for this literary rover):

Every traveller, consciously or unconsciously, is in search of certain exalted moments. By the traveller I understand one who is half an exile, kinsman to the Wandering Jew … When he has dulled the edge of novelty, admired all that is to be admired, worn out his guide-books; when, in a word, he feels the premonitions of ennui; then, if he is honest with himself, the traveller will confess that travel is a wilderness punctuated by oases. These oases are the precious moments which he seeks. Unluckily there is no certain route which conducts to them. There is no map on which they are charted. They are not starred in Baedeker. The tourist agencies know nothing of them. The directions of friends are invariably misleading … The frequency of these red-letter moments is the index of the success of the journey. But their times are as unforeseen as the arrival of the thief in the night. They surprise you in the last places in the world where you would have expected them. The foolish traveller plans his travel as if it were a campaign. He knows the names of the hotels which will receive him. Nothing is left to hazard. It is difficult even for a piece of his luggage to detach itself from the rest and follow up an itinerary of its own. Him the capricious arbiter and disposer of these incalculable moments passes over. Besides, he is surrounded by an atmosphere that is proof against penetration by alien moods. The arid entrance hall of his hotel is the citadel from which he makes incursions into the surrounding country … The wise traveller comes not to conquer a country, but to be conquered by it. He takes no thought for the train he shall catch on the morrow. If he misses it he is not disconcerted, for he never knows whether, if he had caught it, he might not have missed one of those rare moments of which he is always expectant. If the engine had not run off the rails on the branch line to Lanusei in Sardinia, I should never have seen the skin-clad shepherd fold his sheep by lantern-light in a lap of the solemn hills. If the falucha had not left Formentera before I got down to the harbour, should I ever have heard Juanito sing his gentle love-songs beneath the stars? Indeed, when I come to think of it, it was only when my plans were frustrated that my desires were fulfilled. It is chiefly when some mischance upsets the routine of travel that a country becomes most interesting and most intimate. Therefore the wise traveller knows the folly of compiling time-tables and itineraries. He lets himself be directed by any chance word, by the caprice of a hall-porter or the error of a booking-clerk. For who can tell whether these be not the agents of fate?

Mediterranean Moods, pp. 11-15

So we are basically dealing with an adventurous philosopher-mystic with strong humanistic leanings. His book is a vade-mecum to the Med’s really forgotten corners, witness to the determined search for adventure which underlies all good travel literature. Let us now take a closer look at those ‘moods’ in the two chapters devoted to Ibiza and Formentera. Headers provide a good idea of the thematic range: An Ibizan Oasis, A Smiling Church, The Uses of Mass, Dancing by the Sea, The Quarrel, The Unbeaten Track, The Forgotten Isle, Blind Ballad-Singers, The Ages of Women, Corpus Christi, The Copletista, Deceitful Beauty, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, Processional, Formentera, Becalmed, Juanito’s Love-Song. Further information lies in the chapter-headings: ‘The Amours of Santa Eulalia’ and ‘The Improvisers’ (set in San Antonio). Folklore in all its various guises, it would seem, is the book’s leitmotif, an attempt to get to grips with a seriously exotic culture.

With Ibiza Town taking third billing, our guide spirits us off to the outlying settlements. In Santa Eulalia he attends a rather unconventional morning mass, which seems to have more in common with the mating rituals of Amnesia or Privilege. ‘The church was so crowded that there was scarcely room for the dogs to lie down comfortably. The right half of the nave where the women sat was as gay as a garden in June.’ He goes on to describe costume and hairstyles in loving detail - not just the women’s but also the men’s. And the coming together of the twain:

Most of the youths wore a rose behind their ear. They entered the church with a brisk step, dropped for a few moments on the knee, made the three crosses over their brows, eyes, and mouth, kissed their thumbs, and then gave up their attention to the faces behind the fluttering fans on the other side of the nave. Then began a fusillade of glances, which was returned from the masked batteries of the fans. The fire was no more feu de joie, but a deadly encounter; not a smile that were merely flippant or trivial or coquettish, but regards that were grave, as all ardour is grave. Then I knew that Mass may have other uses than that of devotion. One breathed something more intoxicating than the smoke of incense. The air was also heavy with the smoke of passion. There was an exciting contrast between the tranquil negotiation at the altar and the secret electrical intelligence of youthful bodies.

p. 173

No central-European mysticism here. Mediterranean Moods continues with an attractive description of a town given over to the pleasurable side of life. ‘To be sure, there are two or three corn mills along the river-side, but the river is a willing slave, and toils on feast days and holy days while the miller is away dancing.’ After describing courting rituals (festeig) and local dancing, the author steals off to sleepy San Miguel via the San Juan road, not reached ‘until my nerves and the wheels of the donkey-cart were shattered to pieces.’ Then on to San Antonio, where he again seeks out the cultural hotspots, coming across two blind itinerant balladeers, surely among the last of their kind in Europe. The following evening he witnesses a famous copletista who had come in from the country, and needed a little coaxing to display his mastery: 

At length, having thoroughly felt the keenness of their desire, he rested his elbow upon the barrel and the barrel upon his knee; and pulling out a white handkerchief, which had not yet been used that day - for it was still folded up into a neat square - he pressed it over his eyes with his right hand. Taking the stick in the other hand, he began to tap upon the bottom of the barrel. The tapping lasted many minutes, being a kind of invocation of the muse. At last he burst into a long, harsh, monotonous cry. The song was different from any that I had heard before. It came more closely to the bare monotone than the music which Spain has borrowed from the Moors. It was less passionate and less melancholy. It had just a tremor of laughter in it, a laughter that was not altogether wholesome, something between a sob and a sneer. But the most remarkable feature of it was a meaningless refrain at the end of every couplet, the use of which, I suppose, was to give the singer pause to improvise the next lines. It is possible to write the syllables yug-yug-yug-yug- and they should be extended over half a dozen lines or so - but it is impossible to convey any idea of their strange hiccoughing intonation. Whether this incantation is also an inheritance from the Moors, or whether from one of the more ancient eastern peoples who have inhabited Ibiza, I am not learned enough in folk-music to say. Neither could I understand the burden of the song, for the words were in Ibicenco. They told me it was a song about love, but it must have been whetted with satire, for at times it shook the company with laughter.

pp. 189-19


Raoul Hausmann, Young Ibicenco woman singing, ca. 1934
(from Raoul Hausmann: architecte-architect, Ibiza 1933-1936
published by TEHP and Fondation pour l’architecture, 1990)

The improviser then passes the stick and tambour to a girl who after blinding her eyes in a similar fashion, answers him in the same burlesque vein. This is one of the earliest descriptions of the Ibicenco porfèdi or the home i dona, that dirge-like duel of words, whose roots reach far back into the island’s past. 

And so to Ibiza Town, which strikes our aesthetic traveller as rather squalid: “Fowls pick about hopefully in the gutters; lambs and goats are tethered to the doorposts, treading a few wisps of dusty herbage under their feet.” The overall impression is of vanished splendour:

Once Ibiza lay close to the heart of the world. In return for its salt, the ore of its mines, its rich purple dye, which rejoiced the daughters of Tyre, its terra-cotta figures, its earthenware vessels, with their miraculous property of healing those who suffered from the bite of serpents, the wealth of the Mediterranean flowed into it and exposed it to the covetousness of all the lawless rovers of the sea. Now it lies in a backwater, and its useless fortifications enclose nothing that any people covets … It has become shabby and neglected, like a woman who, having suffered a great misfortune, ceases to care for her beauty.

pp. 192-3

Luckily “neglect can never rob it of the beauty of its site”, and he waxes lyrical about the splendid effects at sunset, “when the skirts of sunset are trailing on the hills”. A vivid description of a chaotic Corpus Christi procession (usually in June) has sulking bandsmen struggling to read music pinned to their colleagues’ backs, curas smacking wayward children into line, soldiers failing to goose-step in the midst of the jostling crowd, canopies grazing overspreading trees and candles forever blowing out and having to be relit. A day’s outing to Formentera yields little of interest, but on the return the sailors improvise some Castilian songs thus creating a spellbinding moment for the musically-minded author. He should have stayed a little longer on the smaller Pityusan isle to winkle out a few more secrets. Perhaps he simply ran out of time, just as we have used up all our space for today.  Rest assured that in a fortnight’s time there’ll be plenty more surprises from the Bibliomaniac’s shelves.

 
Martin Davies
martindavies@liveibiza.com
 

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