Jason Webster’s Or The Bull Kills You: Death in the Valencian afternoon

Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

Or The Bull Kills You by Jason Webster

I recently picked up a copy of Jason Webster’s Or The Bull Kills You, the first in his series of Max Cámara detective novels set in Valencia.

Webster, born in San Francisco and raised in the UK, has written a series of well-received non-fiction books on Spain, covering everything from flamenco to bullfighting, and it’s the latter topic that provides the backbone of this, his first novel.

Max Cámara is a shabby, forty-something ‘tec with a disintegrating personal life and a booze habit – not exactly breaking new ground in crime fiction, but a likeable enough protagonist (I imagine Javier Bardem playing him in the film version). His career is put on the line when a famous bullfighter is brutally murdered in Valencia’s Plaza de Toros and Cámara has just days to catch his killer.

It’s a pacy read, although some of the plotting is a bit odd – in an early scene, for example, Cámara is set upon by three attackers in the street and, having overpowered one of them, shows no apparent interest in arresting him.

The book’s biggest draw – for me, at least – is its backdrop: Valencia during Las Fallas is well-evoked and Webster puts his knowledge of bullfighting to vivid good use. You get the feeling that modern-day Spain, with its literally combustible fiestas, corrupt politicians and social unrest is fertile ground for Webster’s new detective series. Expect Cámara to do for Spain what Wallander did for Sweden and Zen for Italy.

The second book in the series, A Death in Valencia, is out now, with more on the way: “I don’t know how many I’ll do in the end. It can keep going as long as there’s life in the characters,” Webster told me in an interview in 2011. I shall certainly check out the next one.

Read more of my interview with Jason Webster here.

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Courtauld Gallery goes back to Picasso’s start

Becoming Picasso at the Courtauld Gallery

Becoming Picasso at the Courtauld Gallery

The Courthauld Gallery is going back to the very start of Pablo Picasso’s career with Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901.

The show draws on paintings from collections in Barcelona, Paris, New York and Moscow to illustrate that formative year. In 1901, Picasso moved to Paris aged just 20, kick-started his professional career, and even adopted his famous signature.

The work on display heralds the start of Picasso’s Blue Period (1901-1904), when most of his work was painted in – well, you guessed it – blue shades. It’s also, for my money, one of his most impressive spells (before all the ‘wonky faces’).

Becoming Picasso: Paris 1901 runs from 14 February to 26 May. It is included in the £6 admission price to the gallery, which is small and one of London’s most perfectly formed.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery turns into Seville church for Murillo show

Murillo exhibition at Dulwich Picture GalleryDulwich Picture Gallery, an oasis of calm in the hurly burly of south London, is turning its main space into a recreation of a Seville church.

The transformation takes place from now until 19 May, as the gallery celebrates the work of Spanish master Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682).

Exhibition curator, Dr Xavier Bray, told Dulwich OnView: “We are actually rebuilding our famous enfilade which stretches through the whole gallery and we are installing some mock niches in order to show Murillo’s magnificent large lunettes as they were hanging in his lifetime high under the dome of Santa Maria la Blanca in Seville.”

The show has been organised in conjunction with the Prado in Madrid and will highlight some of the paintings in the gallery’s own Murillo collection, which have been cleaned up and restored for the occasion.

More below:

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London’s big dig: Roman finds in the City

Walbrook Discovery ProgrammeOne of the biggest archaeological digs ever undertaken in London is happening just off Queen Victoria Street in the City.

The Walbrook Discovery Programme, led by Museum of London Archaeology, is turning up all sorts of Roman finds from the mud of the old River Walbrook.

It’s taking place on the site of the Temple of Mithras, which dates from 240AD and is currently in storage at the museum, awaiting a permanent home in Bloomberg LP’s new corporate headquarters.

Here’s an article I wrote for Londonist on the big dig in the City.

Hispanic Society of America: Visions of Spain on the Upper West Side

Provinces of Spain by SorollaTucked away on a shabby stretch of the Upper West Side, New York City is the Hispanic Society of America, the largest collection of Spanish art outside of Spain.

It’s a gem of a place, way up in Washington Heights on West 155th street and Broadway, an area that is largely Dominican these days. Part of a grand 19th-century complex now shared with a local college, the first clue to its existence is the statue of El Cid in the courtyard (not by a Spaniard, but by American artist Anna Hyatt Huntington).

El Cid on the Upper West Side

El Cid on the Upper West Side, at the Hispanic Society of America.

Its name is somewhat misleading to modern ears: the Hispanic Society is dedicated to Iberian art, although it does have some pieces from Latin America in its collection.

Hispanic Society of America

The Hispanic Society of America, in New York.

The Society was founded in 1904 by Hispanophile collector Archer Milton Huntington and boasts some 800 paintings, 6,000 watercolours and drawings, 15,000 prints and 176,000 photographs – plus a collection of, um, door knockers. Its reference library is available to the public and contains 600,000 books, manuscripts and letters from the 10th century to the present day – a Spanish scholar’s dream.

Some highlights from the collection:

  • Goya’s Portrait of the Duchess of Alba (1797)
  • A trio of Velazquez paintings (including the menina-style Portrait of a Little Girl)
  • Works from all the usual suspects: Zurburan, Murillo, El Greco, de Ribera
  • Roman mosaics excavated in Spain
  • A remarkably modern-looking sculpture of the young Saint Acisclus from the 17th-century
  • Tons of ceramics from Manises, Spain (a place for which I have a soft spot, as I used to teach there)
  • An entire room dedicated to Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida’s 14 giant canvases, the Provinces of Spain (1911-1919)

These last are a real highlight – a truly stunning display of scenes from early 20th-century Spanish life in a soft, impressionist style. Sorolla’s ‘visions of Spain’ depict cultural scenes from the country’s provinces: ‘bread day’ in Castille, newlyweds with oranges in Valencia, penitents and bullfighters in Seville.

Sorolla's Provinces of Spain

Sorolla’s Provinces of Spain

The scenes are pastoral, rustic, joyful, impossibly exotic and probably quite idealised – but they deliver a knock-out blow all the same. The paintings were commissioned by Archer Milton Huntington for the Hispanic Society itself and the room containing them recently had a makeover courtesy of Bancaja (who says bankers are good for nothing?).

Bread day at a Castille market, Provinces of Spain by Sorolla

Bread day at a Castille market, Provinces of Spain by Sorolla

If you’re a fan of Spanish art and eccentric museums, the Hispanic Society is for you – worth the trek to the upper reaches of Manhattan. It’s also free, publishes books and stages regular events. Give generously.

Plaque with scenes from Don Quixote

Plaque with scenes from Don Quixote – ca. 1727-1749, at the Hispanic Society of America.

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Cuba’s vintage cars: In pictures

Cuba carCuba is possibly the most fascinating place I’ve been – if you get the chance to go, go now.

No mental image of the island is complete without lashings of strung-together vintage cars filling the streets. Fortunately, it’s a pretty accurate image. Vintage cars are everywhere, some of them barely puttering along, others in surprisingly good nick.

These photos are by my friend, Tom Brooks, an engineer and car fanatic who visited Cuba for the first time in December 2012.

“Cuba is unlike anywhere I have ever been, it was like stepping back 50 years,” says Tom. “The cars are mainly from 1950s America,
with a smattering of British and French cars. The communist links are visible in the increasing numbers of Russian and more recently Chinese cars adorning the largely empty roads.”

cuba-cars-5

There are few more exotic images, to my mind at least, than a fleet of 1950s roadsters shambling along a run-down street in Havana.

Before long, no doubt, the unfair, antiquated blockade will be lifted, and Cuba will be opened up to outside investment. A handful of vintage cars will be kept in working order to give the tourists something to photograph, and the streets will be thronged with BMWs, Hondas and Fords – just like everywhere else.

But for just a little while longer, Cuba gets to stay in its time capsule. Like I said: go now, before it’s too late. These pictures may inspire you.

Cars in Havana, Cuba

Cars in Havana street

Cars in Havana street. A lot of American-built cars have since had their engines replaced by Russian diesel motors.

Car in Trinidad

Car in Trinidad, Cuba.

Lada in Havana

A rundown Lada in Havana. Cuba imported thousands of Ladas from the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War.

Havana traffic

Havana traffic.

Car in Cuba

Car in downtown Havana

Car in Trinidad

All images © Tom Brooks

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London Underground vs New York Subway: Which is the best?

NYC Subway

Which is better: the London Underground or the New York Subway?

The London Underground turns 150 this week. The Tube began operation on 10 January, 1863 with a steam train travelling between Paddington and Farringdon – and it’s barely stopped since.

We all know how important underground trains are to the life of a major city: the shutdown of New York’s MTA system during and after Hurricane Sandy showed just how critical subways/metros/tubes can be.

Having just returned from three months working in New York, and on the occasion of the Tube’s big 1-5-0, I thought I’d conduct this (mostly) unscientific comparison of the two.

Two great cities; two great transport systems. But if you had to rely on one or the other, which would it be?

Service

If TfL is to be believed, passenger satisfaction with the London Underground is at its highest since surveys began, in 1990. In August-September 2012, the Tube scored an 83% approval rating and LU operated 98.8 percent of scheduled kilometres.

The New York Subway, meanwhile, scored a 75% approval rating in a survey conducted in 2012. A Straphangers Campaign report found that trains operated a regular service 79% of the time.

Pigeon on Tube

Mind the flap. Image: Mike Towber

Not quite like-for-like measurements, granted, but I’d say the Tube edges it here. It’s worth noting, however, that the Tube’s estimated weekday ridership is 3.6 million, versus 5.3 million in NYC.

From an anecdotal point of view, I’ve experienced fewer stops in tunnels in New York than London. But frequency of trains is higher on the Tube.

Of course, the New York Subway has one huge trump card – it runs through the night. Though you’d have to be a pretty brave soul to take the A train at 3am, the option is there. London, meanwhile, shuts down around 12-12.30am, to allow ‘fluffers’ to clean the dust off the lines.

Verdict: 1-1

Safety and cleanliness

Let’s be honest, the New York Subway’s never had a great reputation. It is far, far safer than it was 20 years ago, and Subway users don’t think twice about having their iPhones or iPads in full view (even rolls of $20 bills, in one case I saw).

But there’s no denying the Subway is dingy and dirty, and leaks when it rains, while the tube is spotlessly clean.

Verdict: 1-0 London

Trains

Both networks run fairly iconic trains – though London’s now have the edge on modernity thanks to upgrades on the Victoria and District Line (most New York Subway cars are getting on for 40 years old).

But the Subway rolling stock can pack more people in, as the tunnels aren’t arched like their British equivalents. Riding the train in NYC involves fair less stooping of your head to get on board.

Verdict: 1-1

New York Subway map

I am where? Image: jshyun

Ease of use

An old complaint of tourists to New York is that the Subway is confusing to navigate. It’s all about the train, stupid: forget the colours or the names of the lines. A 4 train may look like it runs to the same places as the 5, but it only shares track with it for part of the way.

Then there’s the confusion between locals and expresses, which are not always clearly marked, either on the platforms or the train. And the fact you can have two or even three stations with the same name that are blocks apart (three 86th Streets in Manhattan, for example). And some Subway cars don’t have even Subway maps inside them. What’s that about, New York??

In London, by contrast, you have a set of clearly defined lines; you just need to know the direction. And this is made clear by maps and diagrams and signposts carefully positioned at junctures (or decision points) in stations. And you have Harry Beck’s map.

However, New York has express trains, and London could certainly do with a few of those.

Verdict: 1-1

Cost

It’s $2.50 for a single journey in New York versus £4.50 ($6.80) in London (£2.10 if you’re paying by Oyster). It’s $29 for a weekly travelcard, compared to a £30.40 ($48.80) 7-day zone 1-2 travelcard in London.

London Underground commuters

Tube passengers: taking out an extra mortgage. Image: makipon/Flickr

Yes, the Oyster card beats the flimsy MetroCard in terms of usability, but at these prices, the New York system is an absolute steal.

Verdict: 1-0 New York

Extent

There are 11 lines on the London Underground with 270 stations, running to 402km. There are 34 lines on the New York Subway with 421 stations, running to 337km.

Verdict: 1-0 New York

Age

New York’s first Subway train rolled out of the station in October 1904. London, as we’ve seen, is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

Verdict: 1-0 London

Annoyances

Anecdotal again, but I’d say you’re more likely to be bothered by panhandlers and crazies on the NYC Subway. On the Tube, you’re more likely to be bothered by flustered tourists and football fans trying to find their way back to Euston.

The Tube has mice. The Subway has rats.

Verdict: 1-0 London

Innovation

It’s New York’s turn to shine. Three simple words: air-conditioned cars. Also, at some stations, the Subway has bits of moving platform – yes, moving platform! – that jolts outward when the train comes to a halt, allowing you to mind that gap once and for all. Clever.

Verdict: 1-0 New York

Upkeep

They both have weekend engineering work. Go figure.

Verdict: 1-1

FINAL RESULT: London 7 New York 7

Surprised? I certainly am; I thought London would nick it. But with a late rally, the New York Subway has pulled level. It’s just as good as the London Underground. Unless you need to get to Hendon. Then it’s not.

Images: makipon, jshyun, M Towber

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