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La tertulia

There is, in Spain, an institution called the tertulia.  Four or five people sit down together and then loudly and vehemently discuss the issues of the day.  But let me go back a little.

When I first came here, over thirty years ago now, I was convinced that there were immense differences between Spain and England.  ‘España es diferente’, I was told, and that’s how it seemed to me.  For example, in Spain everyone went to bed between one and two in the morning and then turned up at work at eight the next day.  How productive they were between eight and nine I am not sure but at least they were there.  I found this timetable hard to follow then, and I manage it even less well thirty years on.

Later I felt that at heart there wasn’t much difference at all.  We all look forward to the weekend, manage our spending as best we can to make it through to the end of the month, enjoy a coffee every morning, and criticise the government of the day. We were, in effect, just the same.

A few years later I have come round full circle, convinced once more of immense differences in how we tackle the day to day.

So what are some of these differences that now seem so large?  Back to the tertulia.  ‘Como decíamos ayer’, said Fray Luis de Leon to his students after being imprisoned for five long years. ‘As we were saying yesterday.’ But, as we were saying only a moment ago, back to the tertulia. 

The tertulia may be at home after a long Sunday lunch or at work over a coffee in the morning or in a bar with a beer in the evening.  Every day about half the programmes on the radio are tertulias of one type or other. When the news bulletin ends, several people are invited to talk about the events they have just heard.  These people always represent opposing views.  For half an hour there is valiant thrust and counter-thrust, there is logical, reasoned discussion and there are emotional calls from the heart. Above all there is heated argument.  One person always loses their cool and begins to shout and gesticulate but this is expected and remains within the rules. Then a point is reached when so many people are talking simultaneously that no one understands anything and the presenter has to intervene.  The intervention is not a criticism of bad manners but a happy admission that the discussion has reached the required pitch of intensity. If the participants do not all shout at the same time, the tertulia is regarded as a failure.  

It is addictive, this spirited defence of a point of view. All strategies are used, as in a good game of tennis, though in the tertulia no one ever wins.  This is another rule of the game. At the end, when time is called, the participants feel exhausted, but they are satisfied with a good job done. Everyone shakes hands and they all make for the bar to have a coffee together.

In fact, nothing has been achieved at all.  No conclusions have been reached.  No recommendations will be implemented.  No suggestions will be enforced.  No one has been persuaded to take another view and, if anything, all positions are more entrenched than before.  However, the rules have been followed and everyone is content. From an Anglo-Saxon point of view nothing has been done.  But is this the right way to look at it?  One might as well ask a Spaniard what has been achieved at the end of a game of cricket.

In the late 70s I went to a concert in Barcelona given by a group of singers from Chile.  It was a time of repressive dictatorship in their country.  The group sang very moving songs about liberty and the audience applauded warmly.  A New Zealand friend said to me, as we walked back through the crowds in the street, ‘But what good has it actually done?’  It had, of course, given the singers hope and it had struck an echo in the hearts of the Catalan audience who had suffered Franco’s restrictive measures for so long. But, from an Anglo-Saxon point of view, my friend had a point.  What had been achieved?   

The tertulia and songs about liberty lead on to another difference and that is intellectualism.  In English we are shy of the phrase, ‘He is an intellectual.’ It suggests someone suspicious, wordy and ineffectual. If a pub in London were described as being frequented by intellectuals, most people would avoid it like the plague. 

In Madrid, however, intellectualism is an attraction. A bar full of intellectuals is a magnet and such a bar is the Café Gijon. Go in quietly and look around in reverence at the grey heads who must solving age-old problems of ethics and polishing pearls of language for eternity.

In a newsletter I saw that my old college were going to have a reunion in Madrid and were planning to visit this bar. As I had had a beer in this bar not long before I emailed the organiser of the trip and I mentioned that it was famous for intellectual discussion. ‘I don´t think we´ll be doing any of that.’ she answered. ‘We plan to have a good drink there!’

A year or so ago a well-known Spanish university teacher retired and was asked about his plans.  He said he was going to think over some aspects of philosophy that still concerned him.  At about the same time I read in ‘The Independent’ of a British professor, in a similar post, who was also retiring.  He too was asked about what he would do.  ‘I am going to spend most of my time gardening,’ he said. 

I am sure that in fact the two men were going to do much the same thing. They were going to think about matters which their busy university life had not given them enough time for and to pursue ideas which had been on their mind for some time.  But the British academic could never have said this. Had he done so, his listener would have looked at him, nodded, said nothing and thought. ‘What a pompous git!’

I have to draw this to an end.  It is ten past nine in the morning.  The news has finished and the tertulia is just beginning on the radio.