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Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Picasso on my mind

Picasso's Guernica is an enormous, emotional, detailed, disturbing masterpiece. But, its definitely NOT in the Prado in Madrid. The Prado is however, home to masterpieces by the Spanish masters, Velasquez, Benitez, Torres, Reina, Alonso. I realize my mistake just after handing over admission fee. Most people cruise serenly through museums and art galleries, contemplating each picture, deliberating over the technique, the meaning and the context of each work. Nickson's approach is less educated. I walk briskly past the 15 masterpieces by El Greco, Titian, Rubeuns and Bosch barely glancing at the 800 year old works of genius, scanning the wall for the massive signage that has to be there directing me towards Picasso and the Cubists. When no signs are obvious, I ask a Museum guide:

"Donde esta Picassa? Guernica? Esta importante que mi vio La Guernica. Ahora."

The assistant gives me a cool glance. "Reina Sofia"

"Nice to meet you" I reply "Donde esta la murales du Picasso et la Cubismizimo. Ists?"

"You are English?" the guide asks.

I am but, I am also stuck in my crap version of Spanish, and the search for Picasso is important.

"Oui. Anglais. Je would very like a vie Guernica. Esta aqui?"

"Guernica is not in this museum. It is in the Reina Sophia Museum, just 5 minutes walk away."

"Ah, yes, of course. Thank you. Gracias", I mumble, and walk away, studying the nearby Titian and trying to give the impression that I was a knowledgeable visitor, who knew all along where Guernica is displayed, but has suddenly been struck by some confluence of historical reference and tradition (while studying the old masters) to inquire into the wellbeing of a modern painting. As soon as my guide, whose name is not Reina Sofia, has disappeared behind an enormous Greco, I skewdaddle.

'Trying not to look gay' is another guise I've been forced to adopt in Madrid,(caused by the location of my hostal and the friendly, but unwanted advances recieved while staggering home last night) so I walk briskly, swinging my arms in as masculine fashion as it is possible to do while wearing a very tight tee-shirt, flipflops and a 'man-bag' stuffed with books about Fine Art. I quickly reach the real Reina Sofia.

Guise, and pretence, disappear when I finally view the work. One of my father's closest friends, Alf Froom, fought for the International Brigades in Spain against the Nazi-supported Fascists of General Franco. My dad knew Alf because of their involvement in the English Trades Union movement,specifically the AEUW (AMalgamated Union Of Engineering Workers). Committee Meetings of the AEUW were held in our house on a monthly basis and after official business was done, the 'kids' (ie me and my brothers and sister) were called upon to bring tea and biscuits to the committee members. Alf was a lifelong Communist, but more, he was a masterly storyteller. I would sit on Alf's knee while he told tales of hiding from Nazi Stukkas under donkey's corpses. Another of dad's friend's, Dave Wilkie, would play DJ, bringing his rare collection of Cuban Jazz and salsa. Dave knew Fidel, it was rumoured, and although he never talked about his time in Cuba, he would admit to having been there in 1953.

All the men had fought Sir (a title that was never taken away from him) Oswald Moseley's British Union of Fascists during the Thirties and recalled the single occasion that Moseley spoke in Liverpool with some relish. According to their legend, the Blackshirts had been chased down Liverpool's Edge Lane by a mixed crowd of Socialists, Communists, Anarchist and even the Irish (who had apparently just turned up for the fight). My father, who was only ten at the time, had followed his elder brother (another prominent Trade Unionist) to this 'demonstration' and had spent a happy afternoon throwing bricks at the Blackshirts. When my grand father found out where he'd been he gave him "the hiding of my life".

These men were my own childhood heroes. Their era had been defined by historical events that because of the communications systems of the day, made politics very clear cut. Alf Froom and Dave Wilkie were idealists, possibly in a less sophisticated age, and probably wrong about many of the views they held. They were though, to the limits of their ability and resources, educated, knowledgeable, informed, polite gentlemen. I compare the attitudes, (self) education, aspirations and pride of these tradesmen with their modern counterparts, and I'm left wondering, not for the first time, what has happened to the working class, who only a few generations ago stood up to the threat of Fascism in Europe, fought for universal public health care and education, and who organized for better wages and conditions. These days they want to see their kids win reality shows, buy into National Lotteries and just dream of being rich, it seems.

I'm talking to Dave about this later that night when we meet up. He reminds me of another strand, namely that the same committee that used to meet in our parlour, were instrumental in returning his father's body to England for burial after he had died at sea. Dave's dad had been a Marine Engineer and died, when Dave was twelve years old, in disputed waters, somewhere near the Suez Canal. Local and international politics resulted in the body being held 'hostage' for a time, and it was only returned to the UK for burial (Dave's mum is a fervent Catholic: some Catholics have religious objections to burial at sea) after pressure from the AEUW on the Prime Minister of the time, who subsequently intervened. Dave reminds me that event, over thirty years ago, was the start of our friendship.

Postcript: Sir Oswald Moseley's son, Max Moseley is the current President of FIA, the organisation that administers Formula One Racing Worldwide. He has never publically condemned his father's political views. Recently he has survived a scandal caused by his alleged involvement in a Nazi themed orgy ,and retains his post. Moseley's family connections include the Irish Brewers Guinness and he retains his connections with British (and European) aristocracy.

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