A glorious sunny day in Spain, and I have just been certified a genuine, card-carrying, paid-up cripple. Actually, being an old-age pensioner and a householding resident of Catalonia, I wasn’t required to pay or say anything. My doctor did the talking, and had to, because I can’t speak a word of Catalan. Anyway, it was all very pleasant except that I felt a complete fraud and thought dark thoughts about being had up for perjury. That didn’t seem likely, because the waiting-room had six people in it and they all looked perfectly healthy to me. And I did have my crutch. The examining doctor looked as though he might have a heart attack at any moment. He was a very fat and Falstaffian fellow, who didn’t bother to examine my foot. He merely looked at the X-rays and saw the four great metal staples and the two-and-a-half-inch screw in it and suggested that I’d be better off with more than one crutch. After that things got rather more serious, and I didn’t much like being registered by the typist next door as a ‘Retired Professor at the University of Cambridge’. I didn’t tell her that; la doctora did, and I remonstrated with her afterwards as she drove me home. I mean I don’t imagine for one moment that Porterhouse Blue has made me desperately popular in Cambridge. You had to be a virtual moron to get a third in social anthropology in 1951. Cut the ‘virtual’: a moron. And even in these halcyon days of educational cock-ups, I can’t see Estelle Morris approving the appointment of a third as a professor at Cambridge. La doctora did point out that professeur in Catalan merely means teacher. ‘But I taught at the tech, not at the university,’ I protested. ‘There’s a world of difference.’ But at least I can now have a cripple sign on the back of my car.
One of the many advantages of spending a large part of the year in Spain and not understanding Catalan is that one doesn’t have a clue what the locals are talking about. Seated outside a cafZ in the sun with some English tourists at the next table, one can’t escape hearing about the merits of various brands of soap powder or where to buy the best turkeys for Christmas. ‘I always get mine from Sainsbury’s,’ says one. ‘My butcher sells only organic turkeys,’ comes the riposte. The temptation to point out that all turkeys are damned well organic is almost irresistible. Of course the tourists invariably talk quietly, almost in whispers, which makes one prick up one’s ears all the more. The Catalans shout, and I can invent abstruse philosophical arguments that they’re getting heated about. Only yesterday, I thought two men were going to come to blows. Not that they ever do, but this row sounded like a serious one. I asked an English-speaking neighbour what on earth was going on and was told that they were merely discussing the best way to cook asparagus: boil it or braise it. ‘Braise’ on the menu means ‘roast’. I turned back to my newspapers – the Telegraph and the Guardian – to get opposite opinions on every question. As I contemplated the calm sea, I wondered why the northern countries talk so quietly and seem to enjoy fighting so much. I don’t think there’s been a single Catalan general in the last 100 years. The women are probably different. In the Napoleonic wars a regiment of women was raised in Girona and must have put the fear of God up the French. What really frightens me is driving on Friday and Saturday nights. The death-rate is appalling, and it’s always young people on drink and drugs driving small cars at hair-raising speed, overtaking on blind rises or corners and smashing into cars coming the other way. At least British drivers are the safest in Europe.
Have just learnt that Baix Emporda – Lower Emporda, where I have a house – is known as the mad part of Catalonia. I can’t see it myself, but that may well be the result of my own lunacy. My books are extremely popular and I was astonished to learn from the owner of a bookshop that he’d just sold 20 copies of Wilt, translated into Catalan, to the local school to be studied by pupils there. The fact that the book contains passages that take the mickey out of sex – not that it takes much, in my opinion, to do that – and that all my farces have been banned by high-minded booksellers in Britain at one time or another, made even me flip my lid at the thought of having a class of 13-year-olds reading Wilt and asking me what words like fellatio mean. I put this point to the bloke in the bookshop and he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. ‘But it’s what happens all the time,’ he said, and left me open-mouthed. I’ve checked his assertion with other people, and it obviously does. A local psychiatrist was visited recently by an irate woman who threatened to divorce, or preferably murder, her husband because he had a lover. The shrink was puzzled. ‘But surely you know that every man here has a lover?’ The woman didn’t and left in a huff, to put it mildly. The next week she was back as happy as a sandgirl. ‘I’ve checked with my friends and you’re quite right,’ she said. ‘So I’ve got a lover myself.’
On the same topic, the latest news is that a new and very luxurious brothel has opened on the road to Palamos. Heaven alone knows how many rooms the place has got. I’d guess about 60. I was talking to a charming painter the other night and he was extolling the elegance of the place. From the full-page coloured advert on the back of Baix Emporda, the local paper, the rooms do look luxurious and definitely five-star. The waiters are well dressed and have perfect manners, and there are three bars. My artist friend didn’t find the girls sexy. ‘Good-looking but no appeal for me. And the cost!’ Actually, it sounded like hell to me, because after the first bar, which has loud ‘music’, you go down to bar two where the lighting is low. He didn’t go down, but heard that there was yet a third. As a real diarist said, ‘And so to bed.’ All perfectly legal as far as I can tell, and the place is packed at five when people come home from the office. Definitely Lower Emporda.