Cable cars are cool


During my sojourn in Barcelona last month, I made a day-trip to Montserrat, a many-peaked mountain in the city’s hinterland that’s home to Santa Maria de Montserrat, a gorgeous Benedictine abbey.  The mountain also boasts some spectacular and weird-looking rock formations, towering above the abbey, and a network of walking trails that follow the ridges between the peaks and offer fantastic views.  There’s a number of stunning attractions at Monserrat, then, but I must admit that the feature that made me most excited appeared at the beginning of the visit.  To get from the local railway station to the abbey, near the mountaintop, you have to ride in – yes! – a cable car.
















Put a male of my age and from my part of the world inside a cable car and he’ll immediately start reliving boyhood fantasies about being a World War II Allied commando trying to penetrate some Alpine castle that’s become an SS headquarters and is accessible only by an aerial cable system.  He’ll be inside one cabin, dangling thousands of feet over some vertiginously deep Alpine ravine, while another cabin is approaching from the opposite direction packed with hostile German soldiers.  He’ll be shooting at them with an imaginary machine gun and making duh-duh-duh-duh-duh noises, while imaginary German soldiers are falling wounded out of the other cabin, plunging to their doom and screaming, “Aaaaargh!”  (According to the World War II-themed comics I read as a kid, that was the main difference between German soldiers and Japanese soldiers.  One lot went “Aaaaargh!” when they got shot, while the other lot went “Aieeeee!”)


For this you can blame Alistair Maclean.  Brought up in the 1920s as the son of a church minister in the Scottish Highlands – he was a native Gaelic-speaker and spoke English as a second language – Maclean served in the Royal Navy during World War II and saw action in the Atlantic, Arctic, Mediterranean and Far East.  After the war, he started turning his experiences into fiction and wrote well-received novels like HMS Ulysses.  Later, however, perhaps realising that a growing part of his readership was too young to have actually experienced World War II, was less interested in gritty realism and was more interested in slap-bang adventure, he made his stories faster, flashier and pulpier.  Accordingly, 1967’s Where Eagles Dare, a World War II story about a band of commandos led by a British officer and his American sidekick, Major John Smith and US Army Ranger Lieutenant Morris Schaffer, attempting to rescue a captured Allied general from the Schloss Adler, a castle high in the Bavarian Alps that is equipped with – yes! – a cable car, was little more than a string of action set-pieces.  The only thing that spiced it up slightly was some intrigue involving agents and double agents, and double-crossing and triple-crossing, that Maclean had obviously borrowed from the spy genre.


If Where Eagles Dare-the-novel sounds cinematic, it’s because MacLean wrote it at the same time that he wrote the screenplay of Where Eagles Dare-the-movie, which was released the following year, in 1968.  It also got a re-release in the mid-1970s, when I was starting to discover the joys of my nearest fleapit cinema, and by the following decade it was popping up regularly on TV.  Playing Schaffer and Smith were the up-and-coming Clint Eastwood and the mighty Richard Burton, whose life had several similarities to that of Alastair Maclean – both men ended up living as tax exiles in Switzerland, both had a fondness for the bottle that eventually helped to kill them, and both are now buried in the Vieux Cemetery in Celigny.


Though the movie version of Where Eagles Dare has an impressive cast, it’s the action sequences that stay in the viewer’s mind.  This is particularly so with the sequence involving the – yes! – cable car system that connects the Schloss Adler with the world below, when Burton leaps from the roof of one cabin, across an abyss and onto the top of another cabin passing in the other direction, just before the first cabin blows up.  The jump was performed by legendary stunt man Alf Joint, whose feats appear too in the James Bond, Superman and Star Wars movies.  When I was nine years old, I saw a profile of Alf Joint on a TV news programme and was so impressed that I spent the next six months telling everyone that I was going to be a stunt man when I grew up.  At the time I was eating about three Twix bars and half-a-dozen bags of crisps a day and was shaped like one of those then-popular space hoppers, so people took this claim with a large pinch of salt.


Despite the excellence of Where Eagles Dare’s stunts, and despite Eastwood and Burton, I suspect that filmgoers in 1968 who paused outside the cinemas long enough beforehand to take in the film’s poster might have been slightly disappointed by the film itself.  This is because the poster was designed by Frank McCarthy, surely the greatest film-poster artist of all time when it came to war / adventure movies.  McCarthy had the ability to capture all of a movie’s big action sequences in a single, adrenalin-drenched tableau.  The characters were depicted in taut-and-sweaty action poses, guns invariably blazing, whilst the surfaces tilted at crazy angles beneath them and explosions went off around them like turbo-charged fireworks.  Here’s what he promised cinema-goers who were queuing to see Where Eagles Dare:




McCarthy, in fact, did posters for some of the greatest war movies of the 1960s – The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express, titles that are guaranteed to make blokes of a certain age (including, no doubt, Quentin Tarantino) go misty-eyed with nostalgia.  Here are a few more of his posters, although my favourite one (after Where Eagles Dare) is actually for a lesser-known movie, 1968’s The Mercenaries.  In that poster, the action takes place on the roof of a train, which is only slightly less thrilling than on the roof of – yes! – a cable car.




A good number of Frank McCarthy’s film posters can be viewed online at  Meanwhile, here’s a link to a fan website devoted to Where Eagles Dare:


That’s gotta hurt


Here are a few details from a 12th-century church mural displayed in Barcelona’s Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya that prove that the public’s appetite for seeing fellow human beings tortured and mutilated in gruesomely imaginative ways did not begin with Hollywood ‘torture-porn’ movies like James Wan’s Saw (2004) or Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005).  That appetite was present a very long time earlier and it was catered for by the gory depictions of martyrdom found in countless works of religious art.


The difference, of course, is that while critics and social commentators have reacted to today’s torture-porn movies as if they heralded the end of civilisation as we know it, it was perfectly okay to be turned on by images of saints being dismembered, flayed, impaled, etc, in the Middle Ages so long as you hid your morbid fascination behind a veneer of beatitude.  And anyway, such images had the church’s approval.


As if to reinforce the claim I’ve just made, the fourth and final detail shows someone falling painfully foul of a saw.



The Palau de la Musica Catalana



Built between 1905 and 1908 as a home for Barcelona’s influential choral society the Orfeo Catala, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palau de la Musica Catalana is a gorgeous and elaborate work of Art Nouveau in brick, steel, glass and tiles.  It was designed by Lluis Domenech i Montaner – despite what Barcelona’s tourist information would have you believe, not every building of note in the city was masterminded by Antoni Gaudi – and its construction was partly funded by the city’s industrialists.


Yes, it’s a great irony that the flowery, swirling dreaminess of Art Nouveau was meant to give its admirers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries an aesthetic escape from urban life and from its landscapes of factories, slums, smog and dirt.  Yet the people financing Art Nouveau were often the factory owners and businessmen who’d made all their money from the industries that’d created those grim urban landscapes.



The centrepiece of the Palau is its concert hall, which seats 2,200 and is supposedly the only such hall in Europe that during daytime is illuminated only by sunlight and not by artificial lighting.  This is thanks to the huge inverted dome of decorative, mostly blue glass that dips from the centre of its ceiling.  Adorning the sides of the hall, meanwhile, are 18 female figures who are supposed to represent the muses of Greek mythology, a bust of the Catalonian choir director Anselm Clave who was instrumental in reviving his community’s folk songs, a bust of Beethoven, and a depiction of the Valkyries from Wagner’s celebrated opera.  The guide showing us around the building explained that Clave was chosen as part of the decor because he symbolised ‘old’ music, Beethoven was chosen because he symbolised ‘classical’ music, and Wagner’s opera was chosen because in 1908 Wagner was seen as the embodiment of ‘new’ music.


Wagner – a representative of modern music?  Well, he did invent heavy metal, I suppose.



Barcelona shops



Although the United Kingdom has been in recession for the past five years and many high-street shops are currently derelict and hidden behind sheets of hardboard, I doubt if the average British retailing street looks much worse now than it did when all its shops were open.  Composed of soulless modern frontages, plastic chain-store logos, sterile internal lighting and huge blank panes of glass, those shops were eyesores even before the economic rot set in and many of them closed down.


One of the little pleasures offered by my recent jaunt to Barcelona was the chance to stop on a street now and then and admire a traditional shop, with an ornate and antiquated façade, whose windows displayed a handsome arrangement of goods that suggested that the art of window-dressing was not yet dead, at least on the Iberian peninsula.  On a British street, no doubt, these lovely little establishments would have long ago been ripped open, gutted and transformed into a branch of Boots the Chemist’s or W.H. Smith’s.


Here are photographs of a few Barcelona shops that caught my fancy.



Firstly, here’s the magic shop El Rei de la Magia ( at Number 11, Carrer Princesa, which was founded by the conjurer Joaquim Partagas in 1881 and sells stage-magic tricks and paraphernalia and practical jokes.  For a long time, it was the only shop of its kind in Spain.



Lurking at the back of one of the shop’s display-windows is a poster for a show by the early 20th-century magician Harry Jansen, a Dane who performed under the stage name of Dante.  Jansen used the supposedly magical words ‘Sim Sala Bim’ as his stage catchphrase and appeared in the 1942 comedy movie A-Haunting We will Go alongside Laurel and Hardy.



At Number 7 on the same street is Arlequi Mascares (, which is famed for its production of Venetian-style carnival masks.  Looking at the wares in its windows, I felt that if the late, great Angela Carter had gone into the retailing trade instead of making a living writing baroque gothic fantasy stories, she would probably have opened an establishment like this one.



Meanwhile, up at Placa del Pi is Ganiveteria Roca (, a shop that sells and repairs knives.  Its windows contain the most intricate displays of tools for cutting, slicing, chopping, peeling, trimming and (potentially) stabbing that you could ever hope to set eyes on.



Its collection of shaving utensils gives pride-of-place to several gorgeous but lethal-looking cut-throat razors, the likes of which I’d only seen before in a Jack the Ripper movie.



Finally, here’s an interior photograph of Cereria Subira, a candle shop that has been on the go since 1761, although it moved into its current premises at Number 7, Baixada de la Libreteria, in the relatively recent year of 1847.  Inevitably, its products have changed with the times and nowadays it sells a lot of scented, novelty and New Age-y candles; but at one point its main business was supplying candles for ceremonies in Barcelona’s many churches and cathedrals.



The dumbest bank-note in the world




Before leaving Tunisia the other week to take a short break in Barcelona, I needed to get some cash out of my bank account at BIAT, the Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie.  As the Tunisian dinar is non-convertible, I asked for the money in the form of ‘hard’ currency.  I was not thrilled when the guy at the counter told me that he could only give me euros – and all he had in the way of euros were 500-euro notes.


“Don’t worry,” he told me.  “You can change it at any bank in Europe.”


That, however, was not my experience when I got to Barcelona, where the only bank that seemed willing to touch the gargantuan 500-euro note was the Banco de Espana on the corner of Placa de Catalunya and the Avenue Portal de l’Angel.  Even then, there was a fair amount of form-filling, ID checking and hanging around to do before I got the thing broken down into something less unwieldy.


Why on earth is such a bill printed if most banks blanch at the sight of it?  I get the impression that it was invented to keep the wheels moving in the lucrative financial sector that services the needs of drug barons, money launderers, international terrorists and super-rich tax fiddlers.  An illicit fortune in 500-euro notes is a lot easier to conceal and carry around with you than, say, the equivalent sum in 20-pound notes.  And surely it’s no coincidence that the only bank-bill in the world that’s higher in value is to be found in that nation of dodgy bank accounts, Switzerland, which has a 1000-Swiss-franc note.


As was observed in the following article, published in the Independent in May 2010 after Britain’s Serious and Organised Crime Agency managed to have the 500-euro note taken out of circulation in the UK, nine-tenths of those notes in Britain at the time were estimated to be used for criminal purposes:


Perhaps that’s why there are still 500-euro notes swirling around the financial institutions of Tunisia.  In the days of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, whose in-laws the Trabelsi family ran Tunisia like a Mafia fiefdom, the 500-euro note was no doubt the ruling family’s currency of convenience.  When the Tunisian revolution happened in early 2011 and the wretched clan had to scramble onto a plane bound for Saudi Arabia, I wonder how many 500-euro notes the ex-first lady Leila Trabelsi had stuffed down the back of her knickers.


Barcelona, by George


Last week I was in Barcelona for a short holiday.  On April 23rd, two days after my arrival there, the citizens celebrated St George’s Day.  Now I’d known the dragon-slaying saint was held in high esteem in quite a few places – he’s the patron of England, obviously, and he’s also much admired in Ethiopia, where I’d lived from 1999 to 2001.  I hadn’t known, however, that the Catalans think a lot of him too – Sant Jordi, they call him.  In fact, last week, I saw them make a big deal of his day.



St George cakes and chocolates were on sale in shops and at street-stalls, as were Disney-fied toy dragons.  Playing up the romantic side of his legend, in which he slays the dragon to save a princess — which makes the story seem like a retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda — April 23rd has also been turned into a Catalonian equivalent of St Valentine’s Day.  Roses were on sale everywhere, and in the evening I scarcely saw one lady heading homewards through the streets or on the subway who didn’t have a St George’s Day rose in her hand.



The other gimmick used in Barcelona to market St George’s Day is… books!  Yes, every street corner and stretch of pavement above a subway exit seemed to have a stall piled high with good, solid, traditional volumes of reading matter.  There wasn’t an e-reader in sight.  This is because, I was told, April 23rd is also the day that both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes passed away — although when I Googled Cervantes later, I learned that he’d actually died on April 22nd.



All this is in contrast with England, where every year around this time the newspapers have a right old moan about the English not doing enough to celebrate their patron saint – and by extension, their own Englishness.  After all, the Irish have profitably turned St Patrick’s Day into one of the biggest hooleys in the world’s calendar.  And while the Scots and the Welsh make less of St Andrew and St David, they at least – thanks, perhaps, to devolution – have a greater sense of their own identity nowadays.


The English media also sees an annual debate about how they should celebrate St George’s Day.  Should they play a little cricket?  No, that’d be boring, surely.  Should they indulge in some Morris dancing?  No, that’d be way too embarrassing.  Meanwhile, liberals voice their suspicions that making more of St George’s Day would encourage nasty groups on the far right to crawl out of the woodwork.  After all, the St George’s cross has often been visible at gatherings by the likes of the English Defence League, British National Party and National Front, and there’s even a neo-fascist organisation on the go called the League of St George.


Well, the Catalans provide two examples of how St George’s Day can be peacefully celebrated, in a romantic manner with roses and in an intellectually stimulating manner with books.  Mind you, in this era of Catalonian nationalism, when speculation is rife that Catalonia might soon secede from Spain, I suspect they use St George too to differentiate themselves culturally from the Castilian Spaniards.


Incidentally, during my week in Barcelona, I think the only time I saw a Spanish flag was when I was in the Place Sant Jaume.  Compare that with Edinburgh, where the most prominent flag in the Scottish capital is the Union Jack flying high above the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle – a none-too-subtle reminder for the Scots that the real power still resides in London.  Cheekily, someone used St George’s Day in Barcelona to hang this banner on the façade of the Banco Espanol de Credito building at Plaza de Catalunya:



Regarding the English far-right’s fixation with St George, when I lived in Ethiopia I found it ironic that the saint’s image could be seen nearly everywhere – and often he was depicted slaying that pesky dragon.  This being Ethiopia, though, St George was black.  And why shouldn’t he be?




Finally, it was a pity that the enthusiasm expressed in Barcelona for St George, or Sant Jordi, didn’t inspire the local football team to give a better account of themselves that day.  April 23rd saw Barcelona FC get gubbed in the Champions League, 4-0 by Bayern Munich.