Author’s Note


Having left Madrid quite suddenly in the summer (leaving, naturally, a trail of broken hearts, flabbergasted accountants, half a tub of Marmite and some perfectly serviceable Yorkshire Tea bags) this blog shuddered to a jarring halt. Apologies, and thank you for reading. I’ll notify you of new projects in due course.

In the mean time, please follow these blogging friends: Beyond Madrid, Como Solo, My Spanish Adventure, Girl Uninterrupted,


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Royal Ascot

Nowhere highlights the English at their best and worst quite like Royal Ascot. Whilst the Queen and Prince Philip parade in an open carriage with dignity and pageantry, drunken louts beat each other with bottles and chair legs. The Daily Mail will smugly report on the latter whilst mostly ignoring the former. I guess that since Pippa Middleton’s shapely fundament features nowhere in the Royal procession it’s of little interest to your average Mail reader.

For ease of class snobbery, Royal Ascot is neatly sectioned into viewing and refreshment areas for the three classes of English society.

Upper, middle, lower

Anyone remember the old Marty Feldman sketch from the Frost Report featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett? Sadly it’s no longer available to watch online.

The Royal Enclosure
A members-only area for the haut monde. Gentlemen must wear a top hat and morning suit, ladies must adhere to strict guidelines on skirt length and dress style, and aim not to wear a hat – or ‘substantial fascinator’ – that has more character than they do. Following a three course luncheon and traditional afternoon tea in the Royal Enclosure Garden at The Norfolk restaurant, one can elbow one’s way through the ranks of braying Ruperts and Pandoras in the Birdcage to surrender a maharajah’s ransom for bottle of fizz and make disparaging remarks about other ladies hats.

Grandstand Admission
A public grandstand and field in which a handful of decent (i.e. hatted) folk vie for space with brawling, shaven-headed ruffians in their court-appearance suits, roaming Daily Mail paparazzi and tattooed, mahoganyed, termagants in lurid rags. Finger-food is widely available.

The Silver Ring
A circus ring for beasts presumably presided over by a man with a chair and a whip. Inmates are thrown Pizza Express pizza slices and are reminded that, ‘bare chests are not permitted at any time.’*

As with my last visit to Ascot, I attended as a guest of a Royal Enclosure member. This suits me very well as I’m always partial to dressing up and have pretentions way above my station. Anyone wanting clues as to which station I rightly belong need only have looked to the catering kiosks where, foregoing the airs and graces of the Norfolk, I could be seen furtively scoffing a roast-pork bap.

So what of the actual racing? Well, of that I’ve seen precious little. From our usually tardy arrival there’s drinking and hobnobbing to be done and we really don’t venture trackside unless we’ve bet a paltry sum on Dettori riding Under the Influence in the Royal Hunt Cup – a name you want to go careful with when under the influence yourself. Whenever I approach the betting stand I inevitably overhear some earnest warning that puts me off my plan to place my entire tax set-aside on Donkey Ho-Tay at 1-66, and I generally only make feeble tentative bets.

Royal Ascot is more a party than a race meet. It’s a cracking day out, but I still don’t feel as though I’ve “been racing”. I shall endeavour to get to a less prestigious race meet to put all this snobbery in perspective. Stay tuned.

*I might be exaggerating a little. My friend Louise was in the Silver Circle and came to no harm, and there’s every chance it’s a haven of good manners and tranquility.

If you’d like to avail yourself of a vintage silk top hat, and why wouldn’t you, visit The Top Hat Shop. Helpfully they’ve written a brief history of the top hat and of Royal Ascot, along with some marvellous old photos!

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Los Olivados

I’ve returned to the subject of bullfighting recently, reading Edward Lewine’s Death in the Sun (as opposed to Hemmingway’s undoubtedly unreadable Death in the Afternoon) about his season spent with top-class matador Francisco Riveira Ordoñez. I recommend it for an unbiased but detailed look into the subject. Upon mention of this, my friend Sophie sent me the following transcript which always springs to mind whenever I think of bullfighting. I, like Sophie, was fortunate enough to grow up listening to my father’s Flanders and Swann cassette tapes. If you’re English you have a duty to familiarise yourself with their marvelous comic songs and stories. You can find out more about them, and browse their lyrics, here. Madeira M’Dear is a personal favourite.

If you’re quick, you might be able to get tickets to Tim FitzHigham and Duncan Walsh Atkins’ At the Drop of a Hippopotamus tour at the Southbank Centre on 4th June. I wish I could!

Los Olivados – Flanders and Swann

‘Well, we promised you another hat, and here it is. I bought this last year when I was on the Franco-Spanish border, in the tiny principality of Andorra. It’s worn like this – with the peak, the brim at the back, you see. And it is in fact the distinguishing mark, the proud distinguishing mark, of the Andorran olivador, or olive-stuffer.

How many of you, I wonder, as you toy with a dry martini at the bar, have thought of the romance that lies behind the simple stuffed olive, or have witnessed, as I have, the almost unbearable drama of a corrida d’olivas, or festival of olive stuffing.

In Andorra, every boy hopes that he, too, will grow up to be one of the truly great oliveros. And each year, in fiesta time, people come to watch this traditional sport from as far afield as Cadeeth, Madreeth, or by air ferry from Leeth – as I myself deeth.

Let me now try to recreate for you something of the atmosphere of a corrida d’olivas. By three o’ clock in the afternoon, the stands in the great Plaza d’Olivas are packed with spectators; and excitement mounts as the band strikes up a paso doble, announcing the grand entry into the arena of the olivador. He is closely followed by his assistants, the picador, with his pick of sharpened wood, and the matador, with his small round mat. They bow to the Presidente Municipale, or Mayor, in his box, who gives the signal for the trumpet to sound, and the first olive to be wheeled in. A gasp goes up; for this is no ordinary olive. This is the giant, pendulous oliva brava, specially bred for the ring in the rugged foothills of Andalucia.

A corrida d’olivas is divided into three parts, or tercios – the first, a tercio of quites, or passes. Here, the olivador, keeping the rest of his body entirely motionless, passes the olive from hand to hand, trying to soften up its tough outer skin, in a bewildering series of Veronicas, Naturales, Media Veronicas, Veronicas Reverso. All this before the hyper-critical eye of the aficionados, each with his bottle of aficiolemonad.

The trumpet sounds a second time, this time the tercio de banderillos, and now it is the turn of the picador. Planting his feet firmly together in the sand, he holds his picks at arm’s length and prods into the olive, trying to determine whether the stone runs true up and down, or whether it is set at an angle, favouring one side, the dreaded oliva revoltosa.

The trumpet sounds a third and last time, for the tercio del muerte, the moment of truth. The olivador bows again to the Presidente, saying to him, “I dedicate to you this olive”. He then places it on his knee; murmuring a prayer to St. James of Compostela, he takes the pica, raises it high above his head. All is hushed. And then, in one sudden movement, he brings it jabbing down into the heart of the olive. And a great cry goes up of “Olé!” – he has made an ‘ole.

But before the gutted olive can fall to the sand it is caught by the matador on his mat, dragged out of the arena, and handed over to the estufadores, who are of two types: the estufadores pimentos, and the estufadores anchovas. Their dread work done, it is distributed among the poor.

No olive is ever allowed a second time into the arena. And woe betide the olivador whose olive is revoltosa. For then, at the moment of pica, the pick, glancing off the angled stone, will jab hard – ungh! – into his own knee.

A cruel sport. Some may think it so. But this is surely more than a sport, this is more than just a vital art form. What we have experienced here today is total catharsis, in the acting out of that primeval drama of man pitted against the olive.

And as the sun sets over the now empty Plaze d’Olivas, nothing is left but a few footprints in the hot sand, with here and there a tell-tale smear of olive oil. And one is reminded of those immortal words of Garcia Loca – in the Roy Campbell translation – “all lust and life must pass away, to make a cocktail canape.”

And this hat – this hat was introduced by perhaps the greatest olivero of them all, Flaminguez. Flaminguez it was who, at the very moment of pica, would give a deft twist to the wrist, which sent the sharp olive stone flying high into the air. And this peak – is to stop it going down the back of the neck.’

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Mary Poppins

You might recall that I wrote a slanderous and cynical poem about Mary Poppins some time ago. On a whim I submitted it to what turned out to be the INK Festival in Newcastle, and – though I have no evidence to support this – apparently it was performed on stage. I hardly dare think it, but maybe it even raised a smile, if not an eyebrow. Not exactly the Hay Festival, as the thriftily wrought programme attests, but exciting for me all the same.

Here’s the poem, as originally posted.

I recall writing (here in fact) a warning not to get me started on Mary Poppins. Well, someone did, and I have:

When comes the time to find a nanny
And you have searched in every cranny,
But failed to find a trusted ward
To raise and nurse your little horde,
Unto the heavens you cry, ‘Oh please!’
Then who should blow in upon a breeze,
Assuring you she’ll quiet the din
It’s Mary Poppins proper and prim!

A fun kind-hearted, caring sort?
Who conveniently travels by weather report?
But she flies an umbrella… and I have an itch,
A tickling suspicion that she might be a Witch!

Immediately she sets about
(Before her contract’s been drawn out)
Conjuring tricks and song and dance,
The goggle-eyed children are rapt in trance
Pulling a lampstand from a carpet bag?
Behaviour like that should raise red flags
On a CRB check, should one have been done
But I fear Mr. Banks was too over-run.

As if witch-craft weren’t quite enough
Poppins weans them on to harder stuff,
She takes them to visit some silly ass
Who’s off his face on laughing gas,
And I beg to question nannies who keep
Company with a common Chimney Sweep.
He leads them (like Pied Piper) to a fantasy place
Where merry-go-round horses up and race
Dancing penguins? The local hunt?
This Cockney fella’s pulling quite a stunt!

None too soon the madness abates
And sage Mr. Banks quite rightly dictates,
That the children must learn and the children must tarry
For a while at Fidelity Fiduciary.
A prestigious London investment bank
Where he occupies a senior rank.

Meeting the board of directors no less
Michael and Jane are advised to invest.
But the little dears have been brainwashed
By Poppins’ liberal musical tosh,
For an uppity governess is not much cop
When advising one where to cast their lot.
Not prudently in a respected bank,
No, spend it on nuts bought from an old tramp!
It waters the eyes to see such a deed
A children’s trust fund turned into bird seed.

As chaos ensues, Banks gets fired then re-hired,
And the dancing faux-Cockney that Poppins admired,
Arrives at the house with a troupe of his goofs
Who put the kids up the chimney and dance on the roof.
Then somehow they all wind up in the park
Gaily flying kites as if it all were a lark,
And away slinks Poppins when nobody’s looking
But alas, for the Banks family, the rot has now set in.

The Walt Disney story neglected to mention
The outcome of Poppins meddlesome intervention.
Vilified for quitting the Suffragettes
Mrs. Banks turned to gin to douse her regrets.
The run on the bank had caused national recession,
George Banks, now director, resigned with depression.
Then become disillusioned with being unemployed,
And ran away with his mistress to live in Hanoi.
On her sixteenth birthday Jane also chose to elope
With Bert from the dancing Chimney Sweep troupe.
Michael traded for Fiduciary, clever and slick
But to shake the Banks legacy changed his name to Leeson, Nick.
He was sacked in due time for insider sharing
And of course he’s now infamous for bringing down Barings.

Inspired, of course, by Roald Dahl.

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“Shall I lay on dinner?”
“No, I’d rather you didn’t. It does tend to bruise the Brussels sprouts. Let’s eat out tonight.”

Weekend meal times have lately found me stuck fast between table and chair in a variety of Madrid’s chophouses, wedged immovable by my swollen midriff and often having to be manhandled out on to the street by the strapping Maitre d’. Below are a few brief summaries of some of my culinary adventures, though I’m more epicurious than epicurean, and more a gourmand than a gourmet, so don’t expect any, “…far too much seasoning between ourselves. After all, the mission of the herb is to accentuate not impregnate, n’est-ce pas? And the lobster bisque at Le Chien Que Fume was a bit on the vicious side don’t you think?”

Toma is a tiny little restaurant tucked away on Conde Duque. Ideal if you want reasonably priced, modern Spanish cuisine but can’t face being in a room with more than 6 people. I recall the menu being rather short, but as I can be hopelessly indecisive this was a blessing. It was some time ago that I visited and I can recall only that whatever meat I ate was good and that when I ordered the Tiramisu the waitress returned with a blindfolded horse. “No dear, mascarpone.” Decent grub if you’re passing but don’t make a night of it. Take 30€, leave any bulky baggage behind. Or send her to her mother’s.

Ginza is slung beneath a grubby building and appears rather dull and uninspiring upon descent of the stairs. The sushi conveyor belt, being an antiquated steampunk style thing, chugs along through a plastic tunnel that looked like something I’d expect to encounter in an animal testing lab. I half expected to see a sad-looking rabbit in blusher and false lashes parade by. What did pass us was plates of delicious, sea-breeze-fresh Maki and Nigirizushi. I was reassured that a lot of Ginza’s customers were Japanese and I especially liked that they put little display-only items on the conveyor, but obscurely labelled so as to catch out the unwary. I damn near broke my tooth on an ersatz California roll, but was quickly pacified with soothing green tea ice cream. Costs slightly less than those hip, trapped-inside-a-chocolate-box-chic Sushi places that are dotted around Madrid. Refreshingly unpretentious. Go on a bad hair day.

Asia Gallery takes up a resplendent oriental room at the back of the grand, Victorian, Westin Palace Hotel. I’m accustomed to gorging on Chinese (or what passes for it in these parts) by the bucket load, counting the subsequent bloatedness and indigestion as part of the experience (I did warn you that I’m not a critic!), but this was my first time for a la-di-da, silver service Chinky.

Por entradas the deep fried crab was crisp, flavoursome, and complimented perfectly by The Brunette’s choice of an ice-cold bottle of Kripta Cava. Dim sum was sticky and meaty (and somewhat chewy, is it supposed to be?) and the aromatic duck was by far the best I’ve ever tasted. Our attentive waiter constructed the duck rolls with more care and attention than I would have, and happily he kept them coming until pleaded with to cease and desist. For pudding I had a traditional and familiar black forest gateau which the Spanish call Black Wood Pie (where did Richard Blackwood end up?) or in some restaurants, Tarta Selva Negra – black jungle pie, a name which I’m sure is faintly racist. The best thing of all was the opportunity, taken with relish, to trot out another Tim Vine joke when presented with the duck.

Oh, all right then, if you insist. I was in a Chinese restaurant and a duck walks up to the table with a red rose and says, “Your eyes are like stars in the night.” I said, “Waiter! I asked for a-romatic Duck.”

In Situ deserves a mention, though don’t let the guide books on to it. They do fun things with smoke and tuna that I wouldn’t advise for asthmatics and their nouveau (or is that nouvelle, or nuevo?) cuisine would command twice the price in London. Café Oliver and Le Pain Quotidien have brunch wrapped up, though by no means perfectly. The former seems to have misunderstood the portmanteau and serves breakfast followed immediately by a Caesar salad, the latter purveys its viands in a slovenly and very French manner. Any more impertinence from their staff and next time I shall purloin the confit de miel et noisettes!

If you fancy a bite midway through a game of whist and only, “What John Montagu is having.” will do (and you’re conveniently close to Calle Espíritu Santo) both Home and TM Burger will be happy to furnish you with a bit of meat and two bread. They’re both good (think GBK, Byron Burger, Hamburger Union) but there is a limit to how much you can improve a burger. I suppose it all comes down to your sources (sauces). An honourable mention goes to Cafeteria HD on Guzman el Bueno in Chamberi. Not only are the burgers very agreeable, but the proprietors positively encourage one to lounge about all afternoon watching YouTube whilst the lovely Polly dispenses a comprehensive selection of gins.

If you fancy a postprandial tug on a six-inch Cuban stogie (and I certainly don’t) then you’ll be disappointed by Pasíon Habanos Club Privado which only sells high quality cigars (a stogie, as favoured by Mark Twain, is a cheap’un with the ends already clipped). Pasíon Habanos also offer any accompanying refreshment you care to mention, except perhaps the horizontal sort, though I didn’t think to enquire. It is a private club, but to echo Marx’s sentiment (Groucho not Karl) it can’t be all that exclusive if they let yours truly in.

Apparently Bar Cock does some of the best cocktails in Madrid, but I should imagine one finds it a trifle difficult to seriously appreciate the citrus twist in an Old Fashioned when some cretinous, snickering tourist is posing for photographs with every object the name adorns. Instead go to O’Clock on Juan Bravo in Salamanca. The fanny-pack brigade soon run out of monuments to photograph in the “posh” barrio and quickly tire of pressing their noses up against the windows of Serrano and Hermosilla’s boutiques. I’ve never seen Lonely Planet guides north of Ayala, so assume it’s safe. The discerning drinker will, of an evening, be greeted by the heartwarming sight of two London taxis and a bowler-hatted, if resentful-looking, doorman. Downstairs one can sink into a (repro but who cares) Chesterfield and avail oneself of fine cocktails and top notch bar snacks.

C/ Conde Duque, 14

Kaiten Sushi Ginza
Plaza Cortes, 3

Cafeteria HD
C/ Guzman el Bueno, 67

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Parque de El Capricho

Having slandered most of Madrid’s popular parks, here are some photos I took in one I visited recently in the North East of the city. No complaints at all. Delightful in fact.

Casa de la Vieja

Casa de la Vieja


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Apologies for the lack of blog activity, things have become a little hectic lately, what with the new baby, the court case, and my imminent move to Canada.

All right, not really.

I’ve been denying myself a 6,000ft colonial penthouse with aquarium and retractably-roofed private pool for too long, so I’ve been spending all my evenings of late on moonlit balconies in the oily company of Madrid’s least trustworthy estate agents.

A few nights ago I was hustled around a set of apartments on the upper floors of Torre de Madrid, which must contain some of the highest apartments in Madrid since all the taller buildings seem to be offices or hotels. It might sound glamorous, but in fact it was a stark lesson in what is wrong with modern “penthouse” apartments. The word “penthouse” is bandied about far too often. Let’s be clear, what the estate agent is likely to be hawking is an atic, perhaps with a terrace if you’re lucky. A penthouse is where Bruce Wayne resides (in The Dark Knight, 2008) with helipads, 40ft-high ceilings and 360-degree views of Gotham City.

Torre de Madrid

The “exclusive” floors of Torre de Madrid (made so by key-only lift access and a snooty sense of superiority) have their own Wellness Centre (Guantanamo Bay gym) and a bar where you can have a pint of bitter with some other lonely yuppie whilst vibrant Madrid parties 100m below. Great.

What immediately put me off this horizontal gated community was the abundance of unnecessary technology. Computer controlled blinds, lighting, heating, air conditioning, alarms… you just know it’ll go haywire at some point leaving you imprisoned in your own blacked-out apartment waiting on hold at 3€ a minute to get a man in Mumbai to press reset.

A.A. Gill’s question (in Condos of the Living Dead, Vanity Fair magazine), whilst written about New York loft apartments applies just as easily to most new apartments I’ve seen, ‘…there’s hardly anywhere to hang a picture, let alone your hat. The basement swimming pool I saw looked so dystopianly depressing that I expected to see an inflatable fund manager floating facedown. Who’s going to live here? Who are the new, insecure, design-anemic rich?’

Not me that’s for sure. The apartments were utterly devoid of character. Vapid and suffocating, like a business hotel. What saddened me most, amongst all the flat-screens, uplights and sticks-in-jars, was that I couldn’t see a single bookshelf. I know you’re supposed to add a few furnishings yourself but it sort of made a statement about the kind of person expected to live there.

The view was dramatic. Made more so by Madrid being, on average, only 6 storeys high. But there’s a view, and there’s a view. And I’m not sure I could pull back the curtains – OK, buzz back the blind – every day to be confronted with a giddying vista of all of Madrid and Middle Earth akin to that of Sauron’s Tower. I haven’t the stomach for it and I certainly don’t want to live in anywhere that might be besieged by the Last Alliance of Elves and Men of a morning. So dramatic was the view that on stepping out onto the terrace my stomach somersaulted, my knees gave out a notch and I had to grasp the railing, trying as I did so to conceal the panic under an air of casual diffidence. It worked! The estate agent lady, she of killer-heels and hatchet face, thought I was playing it cool and hounded me round a further three similar apartments before typing a 13 digit code into the lift keypad, swiping a card, scanning her retinas and descending us to freedom.

If anyone knows of a comfortably appointed 2-bed between the 2nd and 6th floors in a quaint old part of Madrid, do give me a heads up.

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