Sunday Times Lifestyle
TELFORD VICE, Cape Town
MARCH 28, 1939 is lodged like a bullet in the brain at No. 7 Calle de Echegaray, deep in Madrid’s el Barrio de Las Letras – the literary district.
If you’re from around there, you call this collection of cobbled capillaries Huertas. It is a place of tapas bars next to tapas bars next to yet more tapas bars, a tangle of tango tableaux, and more tourists than you could cook in a paella pan the size of a bullring.
Many of them will roam the lanes like Cervantes and Hemingway did 300 years apart, and ramble down the hill to visit Velazquez, Goya, Titian, Rembrandt, Caravaggio in the Prado.
Above these storied streets, in apartamentos that wear their balconies like moustaches, Madrilenos sing and swear and live lives that seem to have escaped literature to glow in the amber light of Spain’s never-ending summer evenings.
None of that matters at No. 7 Calle de Echegaray, where a painted sign above the door reads: La Venencia.
A venencia is a long-stemmed ladle fitted with a cylindrical cup that is plunged through the bunghole of a barrel to fetch a draught of what Jerez, some 460km southwest of Madrid, is famous for: sherry as dry in the mouth as the sand on which bulls’ blood is spilled for sport.
A venenciador lifts the implement above the head using one hand and, in a single motion as fluid as the unspilled cargo, fills a glass held in the other hand. Performed by an experienced practitioner, the wine leaps into the glass with languid certainty. Attempted by an amateur, it ends up everywhere except in the glass.
Again, at No. 7 Calle de Echegaray, none of that matters. What does matter is the Republic and Franco and March 28, 1939: the cursed day Madrid fell to the fascists.
Prosaically, La Venencia is a bar. But, in the hearts and minds of those who frequent the place, the Spanish Civil War – and the horror and hardship of the dictatorship that followed and endured for 36 years – rages still.
During Franco’s siege of the city, which lasted for all three years of the war, Madrilenos whose blood ran Republican red gathered here to drink and discuss and transport themselves into a better frame of mind. Hemingway himself was a frequent visitor – getting drunk with the locals was a less arduous and dangerous, and more convivial, way of finding out what was going on at the front than actually going to the front.
Not a lot has changed at La Venencia since those difficult days. Taking photographs is not allowed (that’s the easiest way to expose yourself to the Fascists, comrade!), tips are not accepted (all the better to prevent comrades from being exploited by the bosses!), glasses are held exclusively by their stems (only uncivilised Fascists cup their hand under the bowl!), and only sherry (besides water) is served.
It comes in five varieties – Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado and Palo Cortado – each in its unlabelled bottle nestling in a small bath of ice and water having been decanted from nearby casks.
La Venencia’s walls and ceiling have been stained the colour of tobacco by decades of exactly that burning into the night from between the lips of the furtive and the fearful, and the wooden bar counter is dark with secrets and ancient with cracks. The floor is the same trampled timber it’s always been.
Stand at the bar and order a drink and the barman or woman will chalk it up – yes, using a stub of chalk – opposite you on the counter. With your drink comes a tapa, often a small plate of bright green Madrid olives.
Music? Don’t be silly. And don’t expect the staff to be friendly. There’s a war on, don’t you know.
But this time capsule is not all about denial. Like Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Pablo Iglesias in Spain has proved that the politics of the Left – the real left, not the corporatised crap spouted and implemented by people like Tony Blair – is not dead. By December 20, as leader of Podemos, Iglesias could well be elected Spain’s Prime Minister.
Many of those propping up the bar at La Venencia would be happy with that. Others, betrayed too many times by the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party – which is difficult to distinguish from the ruling rightist Peoples’ Party in bureaucratic bumbling and corrupt capering – will struggle to put faith in the idea that the pony-tailed, hipster-bearded, slight-shouldered, smiling-eyed Iglesias will be different.
For them, too much has changed in a world that once rallied to faraway causes because that was the right thing to do; not because they had played enough video games in their middle class misery to see sexiness in beheading unfortunates in orange overalls on a beach somewhere.
Historians list 13 South Africans among the legions who travelled to Spain to fight Franco. Among them was Cape Town-born, Indian-raised, English-educated Reginald Saxton, a young doctor who pioneered new blood transfusion methods on the battlefield. The Fascist forces included a misguided Catholic named Ignatius Royston Dunnachie Campbell; better known as Roy Campbell, one of South Africa’s most revered poets.
At La Venencia they will raise a glass to Saxton and perhaps to Iglesias. But Campbell can go to hell, even if it doesn’t exist.