This short essay was written in December 1996, in the village of Chite in the hills south of Granada where we lived for seven months. I shopped it around to several Canadian newspapers, which were (unsurprisingly) not interested in printing a critique of their own bondage to advertisers. The piece has not previously been published.
Even in December the white adobe houses of this mountain village are washed in a strong Mediterranean sunlight.
Most of the young adults have gone off to join the twentieth century in cities like Motril or Granada, leaving the middle-aged to herd goats or lead their mules every morning down to the orange and olive orchards that surround the village, and the old men to display their leisure in public by clustering in the hottest corner of the square to gossip and grumble together.
The women are invisible, except for occasional sorties, until late afternoon. Then they emerge to dominate the paseo, strolling through the village in twos and threes, while the men retreat to Carmen's bar or the Noche Azul: the Blue—or let's get poetic—the Azure Night.
There one or another may raise his voice in the quavering lamentations of the flamenco cante jondo, or deep song. I have heard this same wonderful music from the throat of an elderly neighbour as she sat husking almonds by her open front door.
All very exotic, no? Especially if we add the high sierras brooding over an arid landscape, and the many traces, from the Alhambra in Granada to the irrigation system that gives this village its orchards, of a once-glorious Islamic culture.
But this corner of Andalusia, scarcely touched as yet by the mass tourism that has spoiled the Costa del Sol, is no more typical of contemporary Spain than the fishing villages of Nova Scotia or the Pacific northwest are of Canada.
The thought tips me into comparisons of this foreignness with the land I know best, and more particularly with the Ontario “heartland” that is my home.
By the measure of GNP, for what that's worth, Spain has for some years had more right than Canada to sit at the table of the G7 industrialized nations. But Spain's economic spurt since it emerged from the long darkness of the Franco dictatorship has come at a cost.
Traffic congestion in Barcelona or Granada is only slightly less nightmarish than—well, than Toronto's. And Spanish political leaders seem nearly as benighted on environmental issues as—well, as Mike Harris and his environment minister, if there's still such a post in the Ontario cabinet.
Let's turn to newspapers. In Canada, some 60 percent of all dailies are now owned by Conrad Black, under whose guidance they are becoming ever more completely vehicles for the sale of a tranquillized readership to the papers' commercial advertisers.
Try by comparison Ideal, the main regional daily of Andalusia. A typical midweek issue contains 56 pages, tabloid format. Almost three-quarters of the copy in front of me (41 and two-thirds pages) is devoted to news stories, for the most part written by Granada-based journalists rather than wire copy, and to editorial comment. Classified ads and small announcements by municipal or regional governments take up ten percent of the remainder, leaving some eight and three-quarters pages for commercial advertising—about 15.6 percent of the total space.
Compare these ratios with those of any of the papers in Conrad Black's Canadian stable: it's an instructive way of spending fifteen minutes. You'll see at once why Mr. Black's wallet is so fat and why, despite the physical bulk of his papers, their news and editorial content seems so thin.
El Païs, the principal national newspaper, has a ratio of news and editorial content to advertising similar to that of Ideal. In a typical Saturday issue of El Païs, you'll also find eleven or twelve full pages of book reviews, and a further ten pages of commentary on music, theatre, art, television and popular culture. Though I retain a perverse fondness for English Canada's “national newspaper,” the Toronto Globe and Mail, I have to admit that it doesn't come off very well in any comparison with El Païs.
Turn on the radio, then. (When I'm not listening to my small collection of cante jondo tapes—mostly singers of the 1930s who rejoiced in names like Niño Gloria, Niño Isidro, and Pericon de Cadiz—I have the radio going by my writing desk.) On the FM band there are two, count 'em, public networks with national and regional programming. One is devoted to news and public affairs; the other, Drrradio Clásica (I'm spelling it as I hear it), offers a rich blend of classical music, baroque to contemporary, and of folk music from around the world.
I think by comparison of CBC Radio, which thanks to Jean Chrétien's broken election promises is firing hundreds of technicians, programmers, and announcers.
But my neighbour is singing again. I turn off my radio and listen to her voice rising from the other side of the narrow street. It is an old song, of a young man taken from his girl and his orange grove to fight against Napoleon's army and stain the soil of a distant hilltop with his heart's blood.
My neighbour does not read El Païs or Ideal; nor does she listen to Radio Clásica or the news. Apart from what the TV soaps have taught her, I suspect that she knows as little of the world outside this pueblo as I know of Mars. Yet if the news media of our countries have any say in the matter, her grandchildren in Andalusia have a better chance of growing up into well-informed citizens than my children—or yours—do in Canada.