Monday, 25 February 2013

Milongas of Buenos Aires: Club Gricel

This is going to be the last blog about Buenos Aires milongas (at least for now). It's time we got back to the whole 'historical novels' thing.
We went to Club Gricel last time we were in Buenos Aires and it was very quiet. I vaguely remember going there before, many years ago, and wondering then what the fuss was about. This time we found out.

An important thing to remember about milongas in Buenos Aires is that the same place can be very different on different nights. Fashions change too: a place that is wildly popular one year can be deserted the next. Well in 2012, it seems that Thursday nights are the time to turn up at Club Gricel.

We get there about 10.30, which we thought would be on the early side, but the place was already heaving. It's a great barn with a bar at one end and tables packed around a floor probably rather less than half the size of the main London clubs.

We'd been at an incredibly crowded place in the afternoon and admired the way that the dancers moved like a shoal of fish, each one pursuing their own agenda but merging harmoniously, so that the crowd swirled like a single organism. Not so at Club Gricel. If the dancers were better than in London, any technical advantage was offset by the density of the crowd. Leaders here are out to have a good time and impress the women with their exciting pivots and turns. Never mind that there's barely room for a small forward step, macho blokes in naff suits carve a space with their elbows. In fairness, all the pushing and shoving is done with the upper body. There's no insane boleros or wild sacadas. I am not kicked or trodden on once and people are good tempered, even apologising if their enthusiastic lane changes cut you up too blatantly. But anyone who really believes that the famous Buenos Aires tango venues are packed with elegant tangueros leading their partners smoothly through the steps of a classic dance need only spend an hour at Gricel to discover that this is far from always the case.

So why do people go? It's crowded, the architecture lacks any distinction at all, the music is much the same as anywhere else and the dancing is no better than you'd expect in the crush. The answer is that I have absolutely no idea yet, tired as we were, we were still there at 1.00am, fighting for our half a square metre on the dance floor and (god help us) even attempting a milonga (a fiendishly quick dance that most people like a bit of space for). We said 'hello' to two people we knew and recognised others we don't know yet. We drank our coffee and strutted our stuff and staggered out to walk half an hour home and collapse into bed (we had been dancing all afternoon) tired but happy. And still not quite sure why.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Well, what do you know? A cat on the Internet!

'Traveling Cats' [sic] is a blog with pictures of cats from all over the world. There's a picture of a cat sat on a coffin in a broken open tomb. It's a bit unusual. I took it in Buenos Aires (where else?). It's HERE if you want to see it.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Back to the 19th century

I thought that today I should bring myself back to writing about the 19th century. I've just finished Paul Thomas Murphy's book, Shooting Victoria, which looks at Victoria's reign through the prism of the seven (yes, seven!) attempts on her life. This is the review I've posted on Amazon.

Paul Thomas Murphy has set out to tell the story of the Victorian Age through the accounts of the seven attempts made on her life over her reign. Strictly speaking, some may not have been real attempts. It is not clear if all of those who shot at the Queen (six of the attempts involved firearms) had taken the trouble to load their weapons first, but all were dramatic events. Each was followed by widespread rejoicing that the Queen had survived.
The story of each of these seven occasions and their consequences for the would-be assassins would make interesting reading in itself, but Murphy uses these incidents as pegs on which to hang a much larger narrative. His central argument is that the Queen (who was not initially a popular monarch) achieved her popularity at least in part because of the sympathy she gained from the public after each unsuccessful attempt on her life. Nowadays the response of the Palace to Prince Charles's car being mobbed by rioters is to consider purchasing one of the most secure armoured vehicles in the world. Victoria's response to the earlier shootings was to ensure that she was, as soon as possible, seen driving out amongst the people in an open carriage. A naturally shy woman, Victoria forced herself to expose herself in this way with, according to Murphy, an almost instinctive understanding that only by being seen to be open to her subjects could she make monarchy an institution that would survive. Survive it did, and gloriously so. At a time when monarchies across Europe were falling, sometimes in circumstances of extreme violence, the British monarchy went from strength to strength. Victoria came to define an age and, although Murphy recounts ups and downs in her relationship with her subjects, by the time of her death she was so loved that the idea of any sane person trying to kill her was, to the Victorian mind, quite impossible.
Murphy's central argument is well presented. Around the story of the attempts on her life, Murphy weaves details of the political background to her reign, her relationship with Albert, the influence of new technologies such as photography, and the social background which framed the way her subjects saw her. It is a convincing argument, presented with lots of colourful detail which makes it an easy read for a non-specialist audience.
Murphy does not stop there, though. He looks at what happened to the men (they were all men) who threatened her and from their experiences he goes on to write about the development of the police force, 19th-century lunatic asylums, and the penal system. He describes hangings at Newgate, the horrors of Australian penal colonies, and the early development of forensic psychiatry. Much of this is fascinating, but it rambles away from the central theme of the book, which is often in danger of becoming simply a succession of fascinating but unconnected anecdotes about life in 19th-century London.
The last attempt on Victoria's life was made in 1882. She lived until 1901, which leaves Murphy with no attempts on her life to write about for a significant 19 years of her reign. Instead, he turns to plots that came to nothing, most notably a plan by Irish Republicans to bomb the Jubilee Thanksgiving service at Westminster Abbey in 1887. Murphy details the story of an orchestrated plan, devised in the USA, to bring dynamite into Britain and blow up the crowned heads of Europe. Interesting as this is, it has little in common with the seven would-be assassins described in the previous chapters. It's as if we are now in a completely different book and, given that the plot fizzled out without dynamite being planted, let alone exploded, it's quite a dull book, too.
Overall, this is a pleasant read and an easy introduction to the world of Victorian England. However, its rambling style and somewhat loose construction makes it a book that is easy to put down and maybe never pick up again. It would benefit from a tighter structure and a more disciplined approach. One feels that either Murphy simply wanted to write about a period he clearly knows a lot about and chose to focus on "shooting Victoria" to make a commercial book, or that he wanted to write about the seven assassination attempts and then padded it out with other material because he felt that otherwise it would be too short. Despite this, it's a pleasant read and will inform and entertain those who persevere with it.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Milongas of Buenos Aires: Milonga 10

Some people have taken the trouble to write and say they're enjoying these blogs about Buenos Aires tango, so I'm doing a few more. This one is about my visit to Milonga 10. Enjoy!

In the show 'Midnight Tango' the action is set in a Buenos Aires tango bar. It's a regular bar but the tables have been pushed back to allow space to dance. The doors swing open and the cast walk in in ones and twos, form couples on the floor and starts dancing wonderful tangos for the delight of the audience.

It's the myth of the Tango Bar. You read about it in books and see it in plays and films. But in five visits to Buenos Aires, I've never seen one. You need space for a milonga, so they're held in dance halls or ballrooms or, like the famous Sunderland, basket ball courts. I would have sworn that the Tango Bar doesn't exist. And then I went to one.

Milonga 10 is held at Club Fulgar. We'd read that you should arrive early, so we were there soon after it opened. We walked into a bar with a small floor surrounded by tables. Two couples were dancing while a few people sat around drinking. We thought we had made a mistake and then we realised what we were seeing. These people weren't your regular tango dancers. They were about as good as we had ever seen. The leading lights of 'Midnight Tango' had started their performance.

The stars of this show were never going to make it onto the West End stage. She was neither young nor lissome and he, frankly, could have lost a couple of stone without noticing the difference. But they danced like angels.

Their support acts were a couple who moved so perfectly together that you could never spot a lead, just a harmony of locomotion that really did make them one dancer with four legs. And then came the girl with librarian's glasses and impossibly long legs who placed every step with sensuous perfection.

One couple would be joined by another, people dancing or sitting out as these stars dominated the room and the rest of us just watched. Then the street doors swung open and gradually the rest of the cast appeared.

By 11.30 the place was filling up and the audience began to storm the stage, the tiny floor packing out with serious dancers. This was no place for passing liaisons. These guys knew their partners and they knew their dance.

We left around 1.00., no longer wanting to fight for our place in the crowd. But we had been there, dancing in that tango bar, supporting parts in our very own 'Midnight Tango'.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Milongas of Buenos Aires: Porteno y Bailarin

If you're mega, mega cool, you can arrive here late and sit at your reserved table, but for the merely mega cool, this is one where you need to arrive early. Arrive late and you are directed to a second floor, hidden away in a back room. We were careful to arrive early and passed through to the main floor.

Premier floor or not, the space is tiny. We looked at it, and the parade of people lining the edges, and wondered why on earth they could get away with a whopping 35 pesos entrance charge. (That was about $7 at the time and on the high side for Buenos Aires.) Then we joined in and found out.

This is the strictest line of dance I have ever seen. There simply is no room to do anything but follow closely the couple in front and try not to foul the couple behind. Every so often, someone will break into the tiny, tiny space in the centre, at which they will be trapped there. Quite rightly, no one is going to let you back in line. Your boorish behaviour got you into that situation and now it's your job to get out of it without interrupting the smooth progress of everyone else.

It sounds as if it would be horrible to dance in, but in fact it's surprisingly liberating when it works. You're not going anywhere, so you can just focus on your partner and making tiny, tiny steps really perfectly. They have to be perfect, though, because you will be watched. One of the BsAs movers and shakers gave me the tiniest acknowledgement as we passed his table and it was all I could do not to fall over. Tangueros have no secrets in this town. Someone once told me that if you disgrace yourself at a milonga here, everyone will know in every other place you visit for the rest of your stay. I have a horrible feeling that that is quite literally true. It does mean that a place like Portenas y Bailarin is not especially relaxing. Occasionally, people do get too close or make a minuscule error in a turn and the traffic backs up. Suddenly your partner is not the most important thing - not being the guy to crash is. You were in this perfect place and now you're tense and unhappy. I watched it happen to others. You just have to concentrate on bringing everything back together and getting to that perfect place again. It's a Buenos Aires perfect place and I don't think we'll ever find it in London, which is very, very sad. It comes from a tango culture, and a whole room full of people happy to restrict their figures to the half a square metre available. Did you know you can link three figures quite nicely without the leader moving his feet more than six inches? Neither did I until I went to Porteno y Bailarin.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Something completely different

I try to keep this blog pretty focussed on my writing, but during the Christmas period I put up a lot of posts about my work and why you should buy it, so I thought I'd post a bit about something completely different.

I have said that I was in Argentina last October. I was there in part to research another book, but mainly, if truth be told, I was there to dance tango.

I wrote notes on some of the amazing venues where you can dance in Buenos Aires and some people suggested that they were interesting enough to show to a wider audience. So, over the next few days, I'll be posting a series of blogs about milongas of Buenos Aires. They're based on my own experience, often of just one night in one month in 2012. Every night is different and everyone wants different things and views the milongas differently. So this is by no means a definitive guide. Look on them as traveller's tales.

This is the first one.

Milongas of Buenos Aires: the Confiteria Ideal

A lot of people sneer at the Ideal. It's a tourist's idea of what an Argentine dance hall should be. It's featured in so many films about Buenos Aires that it seems familiar as soon as you get in and it's avoided by many of the smart young set who have made tango trendy again. In fact, many of the dancers are so old that you wonder if they'll make it to the end of the session.

Despite all this, the Ideal is one of my favourite places to dance. Its tourist trap reputation means that people expect to see foreigners there and they are indulged more than they might be in some other places. It's easier to get dances with strangers there than in most venues and you can relax on the dance floor in a way that you might not feel able to in some of the cooler clubs.

The Ideal hides its faded grandeur behind a grubby fa├žade beyond which a grand but gloomy staircase rises to the ballroom on the first floor. The stairs climb around a splendid old lift, latticed in iron, which I have never once seen working. As you climb, the music grows louder until you emerge into a columned room where the sight of the dancers draws your attention away from the shabbiness of the decor. Until smoking was banned a few years ago, the air in Buenos Aires dance halls was heavy with smoke and a room this high is impossible to clean.

Locals dance here in the afternoons, rather than the evenings, which are given over more to tourists. Fridays and Sundays are the days to go, when it is packed and waiters desperately bring extra chairs to the tables where I sit with the men sipping tiny cups of black coffee. Our attention is divided between the dancers on the floor and the women sitting out across the room. The tangos stop and the dancers leave the floor while some other music plays. (A few years ago, the Star Wars theme was a popular choice.) This cortina music is like a sorbet, allowing us to rest between courses of tango, served up four dances at a time as a tanda of music in a similar style. As the cortina ends and the new tanda begins, men catch women's eyes and almost imperceptible nods or smiles signal acceptance of the offer of a dance. The men walk to their partners' tables and the women rise to be led onto the floor. There will be a few pleasantries before they start to dance, but then they move in silence, the women often with their eyes closed, as both give themselves over to the music and the intricate interweaving of their steps.

As a foreigner, new to Buenos Aires, I find myself dancing with some of the older women: people who would be dismissed in London as far past their dancing days. And I discover the secret of the Ideal. Here are people who have danced in the place, not for years, but for decades. As they glide across the floor, their limbs remember the days when they were first here and they dance in your embrace with elegance and charm.

The building is, like its patrons, visibly crumbling after years of neglect, yet still somehow one of the great dance venues of the world. One afternoon I turned up and the place seemed even busier than usual. "Didn't you know?" I was asked. "It's the Ideal's birthday. It opened 100 years ago today." Downstairs, in the cafe that is the confiteria of the Confiteria Ideal, a band is entertaining a gaggle of tourists who are there for the anniversary. Upstairs, though, there is a remarkable absence of ceremony. The cortina ends, a new tanda begins and a room full of tangueros and tangueras rise to their feet and start to dance the Ideal into its eleventh decade.