Walking in Mind

A Trail of Thoughts


2 Comments

Letter From Barcelona

One of many fine examples of Catalan Modernista architecture to be found in Barcelona is the Mercat del Born. For almost a century following its completion in the 1870s this striking building at the heart of the historic Born neighbourhood housed the city’s main wholesale market. Eventually, however, demand outstripped its capabilities, and business was moved to a larger and more accessible site out towards the airport. Following its closure in 1977 the old market building lay abandoned for 25 years while urban planners and local politicians pondered over its plump carcass.

Throughout the early years of my time in Barcelona I only ever saw the building from the outside, and so, like many others, I was curious to see what would happen when, in 2002, a formal plan was finally announced to house a new provincial library beneath the roof of the original structure. What happened, however, was that work soon came to halt, as excavation of the site’s foundations revealed ruins dating back to the early 1700s.

The first decade of the eighteenth century had seen the major European powers locked in war over who would succede to the Spanish throne. The outcome proved to have enormous consequences for Catalonia, which having backed the Hapsburg pretender rather than the victorious House of Bourbon, saw its centuries-old political institutions dismantled. As for Barcelona, the city was laid siege to and finally surrendered to the forces of Felipe V on 11 September 1714. One of the things that the Bourbon monarch then ordered was the building of a new military citadel just beyond the old city walls, and in the process of its construction much of the old maritime quarter known as La Ribera was razed to the ground. Almost three hundred years later, however, part of the Ribera re-emerged from beneath the abandoned Born market, and the people of modern-day Barcelona were offered a further reminder of the city’s political history. There was no way that a contemporary Catalan government could cover up a site of such significance, and so a new plan was drawn up that involved preserving the ruins within a public museum space around which, and under the same roof, a new cultural centre would be built. The restored building, ruins and all, was finally inaugurated on 11 September 2013, the National Day of Catalonia and the 299th anniversary of the fall of Barcelona.

IMG_3401

Given its historical significance and symbolic value as a place of transformation it is perhaps not surprising that when parliamentary elections were held in Catalonia on 27 September 2015 the pro-independence coalition Junts Pel Sí (Together for Yes) chose the Born Cultural Centre as the place to set up its election-night headquarters. A stage was erected on the pedestrianized area that fronts the building, and it was from there that the then-president Artur Mas addressed the cheering crowd. Amidst the jubilation, however, there were two major obstacles to be faced. One was that the coalition had fallen short of an absolute majority and so needed to seek the support of a smaller pro-independence party that had chosen to remain outside the coalition, a party whose leaders had made clear their opposition to Mas being sworn in as a returning president. The other was the intransigence of Spain’s central government towards any restructuring of the relationship between Catalonia and the Spanish state. For these reasons alone, I couldn’t help feeling, as I watched Mas’s victory speech on Catalan television, that the most he could really offer his supporters was hope.

On Thursday 15 October, less than three weeks later, Artur Mas appeared before the Spanish Supreme Court, having been accused by the Madrid government of what it considered an anti-constitutional act: on 9 November 2014 he had permitted a public “consultation” (a formal referendum had been prohibited) in which the Catalan people were invited to express their opinion regarding a future independent Catalonia. As I write this, no-one really knows what the outcome of this process will be, but needless to say, a president has yet to be named for the new Catalan parliament.

On the afternoon of the day that Mas was testifying before the Supreme Court I caught the bus into the centre of Barcelona. A crisp morning had given way to a bright and warm autumn day, and the streets were thick with tourists and locals going about their business. I ambled my way through the crowds and after thirty minutes or so I reached the cobbled street that leads to the main entrance of the Born Cultural Centre. Like those Catalans who had gathered here on 27 September I had come with the aim of hearing a politician speak, except the man in question was neither Catalan nor still in office. Yanis Varoufakis spent barely six months as finance minister of the Greek government that was elected in January 2015, although his resignation over the terms of the third bailout plan has simply shifted the focus of his engagement with the problems being faced not just by Greece but by the European Union as a whole. He had been invited to Barcelona to speak on the question of identity in Europe, and entry to the event, in which he would be interviewed by a well-known Catalan TV presenter, was free and on a strict first come, first served basis. With hindsight, I should have guessed that turning up an hour and a half before the scheduled start would be too late, but I hadn’t imagined that so many people would be there. By the time I arrived, however, a queue of hundreds was snaking its way along the front of the building, around its eastern corner and off into the distance. It was clear that I wasn’t going to make the cut for entry into the 300-seater auditorium, and although a sign had been put up saying that the talk would be streamed live onto a large screen visible from other areas of the building, I decided against joining the queue.

IMG_3394

I loitered for a while, observing people’s expressions, their body language. Security guards were positioned at various points to make sure the growing line remained orderly, but they had little to do. The people gathering here had come not to cause trouble but to hear what might be done about it. For there is a lot of trouble out there. Just as there was three centuries ago, there is a struggle going on over how Europe should be governed – and by whom. As I headed off to catch my bus, none the wiser as to the mess we’re in, I wondered whether those who would soon get to hear Varoufakis speak would drift away later with more than a message of hope ringing in their ears. I hope so, for all our sakes.


2 Comments

In The Company Of Animals

It is the end of winter and I am out on the cusp of night and day. There is nothing of the frost of the last few mornings, and I know before I look that the stars will be tucked beneath a blanket of cloud. As I drop the latch on the front gate a familiar feral cat emerges from beneath a parked car and mews at me in hope. ‘You’ll have to wait, I’ll be back in a couple of hours.’

I stride off towards the southern edge of town and soon I am crossing the bridge across the riera, the seasonal watercourse that forms a natural boundary between the last houses and the fields beyond. Along the dry streambank a line of leafless poplars stand like giant upturned besoms. If I could I would take one and sweep the sky clean.

Beyond the bridge the road becomes first a gravelly path and then a more rugged track that cuts across the fields between drystone walls. A daylight of sorts is beginning to unfold around me now, although the sky remains the colour of wet clay. I know what my Catalan mother-in-law would say: Cielo de panza de burra, agua segura. When the sky is the colour of a donkey’s belly, it’s sure to rain.

Of all the local walks I’ve invented since moving to Sant Pere de Ribes three years ago, this is the one I keep coming back to. Eight kilometres of familiar yet unexhausted paths that can lead me into the day, much as a favourite bedtime story would ease me into sleep as a child. If, back then, the reward for early to bed was an extra chapter, then the prize for an early start today is in sharing the morning with others: with the rabbit shooting across my path and into the carob grove for cover, with the pied wagtails breakfasting on bugs in the freshly tilled field to the west, and with the pair of peacocks.

I hear their plaintive call well before reaching the end of the track and the smallholding where they live, but it is not until I am parallel to the farmhouse that I see them perched atop the two chimneys like ceremonial cowls, their draping trains tickling the terracotta roof tiles below. As I stand there watching, one of them begins to shake its tail feathers from side to side, and I’m reminded of a news article I’d read about the work of two Canadian researchers, Angela Freeman and James Hare. They discovered that the train displays of peacocks produce infrasonic signals, sounds that cannot be detected by the human ear but which both male and female peafowl are able to perceive. Freeman and Hare speculate that these infrasounds have something to do with maintaining territory, and may also add to the visual power of the trains in attracting females. If they are right, then there is something tragic about these two peacocks dutifully calling out and shaking their trains, despite living here in a kind of avian exile, far from others of their kind who might listen with more than superficial interest.

Beyond the smallholding the stony track narrows and becomes earthy as it skirts around the edge of the hamlet of Puigmoltó. It is here that my spirits are lifted again as I gaze ahead at what might as well be a field of strawberry ice cream flecked with the last snowflakes of winter. The path ends at the stone wall which encloses the grove, and here, up close, the colour scheme shifts. I reach over the wall and snap a flower from each of the two species of tree, letting them rest side by side in my palm. Now I can see that although the bitter almond blossom is predominantly pink and that of the sweet almond white, the delicate flowers of each contain subtle tones of both colours. Strawberry mixed with snow.

I let the petals fall to the ground and climb the gentle incline into the scraggy woodland to the south of the almond grove. First I follow a broad and stony track, then veer off down a half-hidden mulchy path that cuts back and forth through an undergrowth thick with mastic, rosemary and dwarf juniper. The sides of this path are pock-marked with the scrufflings of wild boar. I find myself mumbling the words of a local huntsman I met a couple of weeks back. ‘Hi ha almenys cent senglars en aquest bosc.’ At least a hundred boar in these woods, yet in three years I’d never seen more than telltale disturbed earth. One day, perhaps.

Whether it is the thought of boar or the fact that it is cold here in the dummity wood, I quicken my step along the bifurcating path, trusting my sense of direction. This, I think, is how best I like to walk, without map or compass in hand, wandering the borderlands between strangeness and familiarity, with the possibility of getting lost not as threat but as an invitation to learn.

After five minutes or so the path deposits me at a junction of five trails, and here I choose the most direct route out of the woods. As I emerge from the trees onto a low ridge I look up in the hope of seeing a break in the clouds, but the donkey’s belly remains unruffled.

Where the ridge path ends I need to make a choice, since it brings me out on the back road that links Sant Pere de Ribes with the neighbouring town, Vilanova. I could road walk all the way home, but I decide instead to go only as far as the next bend and there pick up a tarmaced trail that meanders through the vineyards that fill the land to the west of town.

At this hour of the day the vineyard trail is alive with the song and flight of countless birds. Blackcaps tut-tut at me from the hedgerows, while down in the vineyards proper, other birds – probably buntings but hard to discern in this light – flit around the bare stumps or perch briefly on the cordon wires along which the new vines will soon be trained. Walking here is easy, and a joy, and before I know it I am dropping down towards town. The path I’m on wends its way through a final patch of woodland before emerging alongside the castell de Ribes, which dominates the landscape on this side of town. Although the origins of the small castle lie in the tenth century it is now little more than a Mediterranean manor house proudly hanging on to its fortified past, its circular defence tower as obsolete as the shaking train of a solitary peacock.

Just after the castle the path empties onto the back road that earlier I had chosen not to take, and here I must choose again. I can make a beeline for home through the centre of town, or loop my way back along the dry bed of the riera. Although rain is in the air today, the last two weeks have been dry with cold nights and warm, sunny middays, so progress across the polished stones and cracked mud of the stream bed is relatively easy. Scattered around me are discarded juice cartons, cans and plastic bottles, man-made erratics that sooner or later will be washed into the sea, adding to our problems.

A path of dry, compact mud opens up now to my right and runs in parallel to the stony bed. It is as I join this path that I see the hound. Black, enormous and alone, sniffing around beneath the carob tree that stands where the riera curves around to the right. I pull up, unsure about the wisdom of moving closer. The hound has caught wind of me and has shifted its position to one of preparedness, head cocked forward, back legs slightly spread, a gangly sprinter desperate to leave the blocks.

I lose sense of time in this moment of shared alert, although it can only be a matter of seconds before I see the woman coming along behind. As she reaches the carob tree the hound cocks its head slightly to the right, and then back again in my direction. I call out to her. ‘Està bé? Puc seguir? She calls back, letting me know that yes, it’s fine to walk on. The hound seems as liberated by its owner’s voice as I am, and we set off toward one another almost at the same instant.

When our paths meet, I stop again and allow the dog to explore me with its nose. With its head tipped back its muzzle brushes against my breastbone, although I no longer feel intimidated by its size. It fixes me with amber eyes, and I shudder. Whether there is truly something in those eyes or they are simply acting as a temporary mirror for my own self, I can’t say. All I know is that I sense something forlorn about this creature.

Sembla que tens un nou amic!’ His owner is with us now, and she’s right, I can easily imagine this dog as a new friend. ‘Ès un danès?’, I ask her. To my surprise, she not only confirms that the glossy giant is indeed a great dane, but begins to tell me something of their life together. While the dog continues to snuffle at my feet the woman explains to me how our encounter would have been very different had we met five months ago.

Ha sigut un treball molt dur, ens ha costat molt.’ It’s been hard work, she tells me, really hard. The dog had been abandoned by its previous owner and had ended up in the hands of a group that organized dog fights for a betting syndicate. I don’t press her on how exactly she and her husband had rescued the dog. It is enough to feel my spirits buoyed by her account of the training they have had to do, day after day, to get the animal to where it is now, a friend in the making. I feel the dog’s wet nose against the back of my hand, and looking down I find myself gazing into its eyes, as if by staring long and hard enough I might discover some deeper truth about this animal’s life.

The woman and I bid our farewells and set off in our respective directions, but after a few steps I find myself pulling up again and turning my head. ‘Bona feina’, I call out to her. Good work. The words sound trite, but I had felt the need to say something, to acknowledge openly that I was glad there were people like her in this world. She pays me the courtesy of looking back. ‘Gràcies’, she says, and walks on, the dog loping ahead of her into a different kind of life.


2 Comments

Tears of Hope

Although it is Sunday I am up early, but to walk rather than work. As I drink my coffee I realise that my head is still full of images from the film I watched last night: The Weeping Meadow, by the Greek maestro Theo Angelopoulos. Planned as the first in another trilogy chronicling modern Greece, the film begins with the flight of the Greek community from Odessa in 1919, and follows the protagonists through to the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949. As it happens, The Weeping Meadow proved to be Angelopoulos’s penultimate film, since his life was cut short in a bizarre accident on 24 January 2012. During filming in Athens of the third instalment of the trilogy, provisionally entitled The Other Sea, the director attempted to cross a busy road and was run over by a motorcycle driven by an off-duty police officer. A story in the telling is left unfinished, the task of sense-making, of completion passes to the next generation. It might well be a scene from one of his films.

This morning the leading headlines are all about Greece. Make or break, high stakes, these are the words being used to describe today’s general election in Greece. The implication is that I should be anxious about the outcome, but it is not what I feel. In Europe there is plenty to be anxious about, but it doesn’t depend on the will of the Greeks.

Enough. I close the lid of my laptop, turn off the kitchen light and step out into the still dark day. The garden path crunches underfoot as I tread the woody seed capsules that have fallen during the night from the Japanese pittosporum, but once on the street my footfall softens. I look up at the waxing moon and feel content to be out at this hour, alone and quiet. For an hour or so that is all I do, walk alone and in silence, my only thought being how far removed this kind of walking is from displacement born of circumstance or fear. I walk through the woods and out the other side onto the tarmaced track that loops around beneath the hills that lie to the west of home. At the first fork in the road, I stop to drink from my water bottle and to eat a couple of the dried figs I had placed in my pocket before setting off. It is only then I notice that the place where I have stopped is marked by a mastic shrub. Until I came to live in Catalonia I’d never seen one of these evergreens, yet now I have become so accustomed to their presence in the coastal garrigue that I often pass them by unaware.

IMG_0713

Mastic (Pistacia lentiscus) near Sant Pere de Ribes

Until last week I was also unaware that despite being common throughout the Mediterranean it is only on the Greek island of Chios that Pistacia lentiscus trees produce the aromatic resin that is also known as mastic. In a recent article for The Island Review, Grove Koger explains how in early summer the inhabitants of the mastikahoria, or mastic villages, in southern Chios clear the ground at the base of the trees and cover it with a layer of white clay. Over the coming weeks they then make a series of small incisions in the bark of the main branches, thus allowing the sap to seep out. The droplets, which are also referred to as tears, fall to the ground and are left to harden before being collected for washing and sorting. The resin produced by these trees has been chewed as a gum for over 2000 years, and it is from the Greek mastichein (‘to gnash the teeth’) that we take our word masticate. Importantly for the island economy, mastic is also a key ingredient in various desserts and confectionery that are eaten throughout the Balkans and the Near East, and as a spice it is used to flavour the Greek liqueur known as mastika. I was once given a bottle of mastika by a friend who had just returned from Athens. Though it reminded me somewhat of grappa, mastika has none of the sweet fire of the Italian spirit, but rather a woody aftertaste that, if I’m honest, I found rather unpleasant. The next time you walk in a woodland after the rain, plunge your hand into the damp soil and then hold it close against your face, breathing in until the earthiness can be sensed not just in your nose but also at the back of your tongue. That, for me, is the trace left by a glass of mastika.

I take one more swill of water and head off down the right-hand branch of the forked track. The sun has risen now above the coastal ridge and in the vineyards to my right, countless corn buntings are jangling over and around the root stumps. This, more than the sun, is what warms me. Up ahead the track straightens into the distance, before disappearing as it rises into the copse of pine and carob that marks the south-eastern corner of Can Ramonet, the rural guest house in whose garden Paloma and I held our wedding party eight years ago. From out of the trees I spot three, maybe four figures coming towards me along the track. Gradually they come into focus and I see that the fourth figure is actually a bicycle being pushed by the older of the three men. As my puncture kit is at home in the garage, all I can offer him is a greeting: Bon dia.

In the opening scene of The Weeping Meadow a group of some forty or fifty persons walk slowly towards the camera across a sodden, grey landscape. The suitcases and trunks they are carrying speak of displacement, while their clothes suggest that a life of much greater dignity has been left behind. At the head of the group a man and woman are walking either side of two children. The boy is around five years old, the girl younger. She seems to be seeking his hand as they walk forward. Reaching the river’s edge the group stops abruptly, and the man begins to speak. We learn of their flight from Odessa and their arrival at the port of Thessaloniki. We learn too that the man and woman are not the girl’s parents, but that they found her amid the chaos, weeping over her mother’s body. As the man’s story comes to an end, the camera pans down to the water at their feet, and there we see the inverted reflection of a family suspended in time.

In an article published in The Guardian three days after the film-maker’s death, Costas Douzinas suggested that for Angelopoulos “humanity survives in the memories and dreams of exiled, travelling people who never fully make it back to Ithaca”. Or in the words that Angelopoulos himself gives to the protagonist of his 1991 masterpiece The Suspended Step of the Stork, “We’ve passed the borders but we’re still here. How many frontiers do we have to pass to get home?”

As in the opening scene of The Weeping Meadow, it is with this question that the beginning of our journey ends.


8 Comments

Remnants

The hamlet of Puigmoltó lies about a kilometre to the south-west of my home in Sant Pere de Ribes, and it is easily reached within fifteen minutes along a stony path that cuts through fields that have been planted to the east with carob orchards. Beyond Puigmoltó lies a scraggy woodland dominated by Aleppo pine and mastic bushes, and for the last two years I have been exploring the network of trails that open a way through these trees and shrubs. As I entered the woods last Tuesday afternoon I was drawn from my reverie by a flash of red up ahead. My first thought was that I had caught a glimpse of a bird passing from shade into light, but as I moved closer I realized that what I had seen was a remnant from the previous weekend’s adventure. I had forgotten. Once a year the local cycling club organizes an off-road event that takes full advantage of the wood’s gnarly trails, and what I had caught sight of was one of the coloured tapes the organizers hang from the trees and bushes as waymarks.

IMG_0894-1

As I walked on up through the wood I saw many more of these markers, and I started to get a sense of the route that the competitors would have followed. If there was something melancholic about these tapes two days after the event, then I think it was because they reminded me of the still-worn wristbands of festival goers who are sad to let go.

We depend on trees for many things. Beyond their taking up carbon dioxide and providing a source of timber, they are also places where we can leave our mark. In her poem The Wishing Tree, Kathleen Jamie movingly describes a tree into whose bark have been pressed who knows how many coins, a tree, she tells us, that is now “choking on the small change of human hope”. Were I to come across such a tree in these woods, would I take a coin from my pocket and add my own wish? Possibly, since there are days when it is hard to know how to ease the longing. Maybe that is why we linger when the time comes to remove the remnants of a time well spent.

.

 


Leave a comment

Midsummer Fires

Arles-sur-Tech is a small town at the eastern end of the French Pyrenees, and it is overshadowed to the north by the Canigó massif. These lands at the southernmost end of the Languedoc-Roussillon region have deep connections to Catalonia, both its language and traditions. On 23 June 1955, Francesc Pujades, a resident of Arles-sur-Tech, took it upon himself to continue a centuries-old European tradition by lighting a bonfire to mark the eve of St John’s Day. What made Pujades’ initiative stand out was that his fire burned at an altitude of 2,784 m, at the summit of the Canigó. The idea that followed was that a torch lit from the fire could serve as a mother flame, la flama, from which St. John’s fires could be lit in succession throughout the Catalan lands. As a symbol of a cultural identity that refused to be extinguished despite the prohibitions set in place by Franco’s dictatorship, la flama had considerable value, yet not until 1966 would the torch pass south of the Pyrenees. Today, however, la flama de Canigó is relayed freely throughout the land on both sides of the mountains, and St John’s Day is now a national holiday in Catalonia. As I walked home just before midnight on St John’s Eve, the streets around the main square of my Catalan hometown, Sant Pere de Ribes, were still alive to the sound of snappers, whistling rockets and conviviality.

In contrast to the light and spark of the night before, the town awoke to slate-grey skies, and around midday an intense storm blew in over the Mediterranean, rinsing the air of the gunpowder perfume that had hung heavy into the early hours. When the storm cleared I went out to walk some of the trails that wind their way through the vineyards, scrub and woodland that surround Sant Pere de Ribes. The dirt track I chose is lined to the west by carob trees, and at this time of year they are festooned with unripe glossy-green pods.

Unripe pods on a carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua)

Unripe pods on a carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua)

As the carob is also known as St John’s bread it seemed fitting to be following this path on his feast day. It also felt good to be alone after so much companionship the previous evening. Alone, that is, except for the birds, who seemed to be relishing the freshness of the storm-swept air. To my left, finches gold and green flitted over and among the vines, while ahead of me on the path, swallows swooped back and forth like stray fireworks. The skies, however, had yet to clear, and maybe it was this, their colour, that turned my mind to Cornwall. St John’s fires would also have been lit in many towns across my homeland, most notably, perhaps, as part of the Golowan festivities in Penzance. In Cornish, the verb golowi means both to enlighten and to illuminate, from the noun golow, light. Until the end of the nineteenth century it was common for the Feast of St John to be celebrated in Cornwall with bonfires, flaming tar barrels and torches, but adminstrative anxiety over insurance claims doused these traditions, which only re-emerged in force during the 1990s. Nowadays, festivities last a whole week, from St John’s Eve right through to the Feast of St Peter on 29 June.

As its name would suggest, my Catalan hometown of Sant Pere de Ribes also celebrates its annual festival on St Peter’s Day. So, barely a week after the St John’s festivities the streets were once again filled with the sound of fireworks and the hum of expectation. Before joining family for the traditional St Peter’s Eve supper I decided to retrace my steps from the previous week. The afternoon was much hotter this time, and I walked quickly past the carob trees with an eye on the shade offered by the small wood that lies at the head of the trail. Just before I reached the cover of pine and holm oak I stepped off into the scrub to inspect what is a dispenser of sweet carnality to all who walk this path in early September, a gnarled old fig tree. Now, in June, however, only green gobstoppers clung to its branches.

A fig tree (Ficus carica) in June

A fig tree (Ficus carica) in June

I pressed on into the wood and was glad that it offered a shaded path back down to the edge of town where my in-laws live. I reached their house just as the final guests were arriving, so I quickly showered and joined the party for an al fresco supper of cured ham, stuffed omelettes and grilled sardines, followed by a traditional sweet flatbread washed down with a bottle of Cornish sparkling wine that I had been saving for the occasion. As night closed in we waited expectantly for the aerial maroon that would signal the ten-minute countdown. As my in-laws house sits on the western permiter of town it offers a perfect vantage point from which to enjoy the firework display that is launched each year from the tenth-century castle nearby. On the stroke of 11 the first rocket was fired into the air, and for the next twenty minutes the skies were filled with willows and palms, serpents and strobes. The best, however, was yet to come, as the centrepiece of the St Peter’s festivities is a diabolic street parade culminating in the main square. Hessian-clothed and hooded demons of all ages take to the streets, holding aloft staffs from which fountains of fire shower sparks upon the expectant onlookers. The first time you witness it, it all appears quite mad.

St Peter's Eve celebrations in Sant Pere de Ribes

St Peter’s Eve celebrations in Sant Pere de Ribes

As I watched the parade I wondered whether next year I might spend these days in Penzance or in one of the other Cornish fishing communities that mark the Feast of St Peter, their patron, with bonfires. I remembered, then, something I had read back in March on the BBC News website. The item described how the only complete copy of the Catholicon Anglicum, a fifteenth-century Middle-English–Latin dictionary had been purchased by the British Library in order to save it from export to a private collection. Interestingly, one of the entries in this dictionary refers to ‘ban fyre, ignius ossium’, the bone-fire from which our modern bonfire is derived. As a young child I had encountered a similar Latin expression, fragilitis ossium, which for all its apparent authority did nothing to help me understand why my bones broke so much more easily than those of other children. The modern term for brittle bone disease, osteogenesis imperfecta, captures more of the problem, since we now know that the fragility is caused by a genetic defect that affects bone formation. Bone is a composite of two materials, a mineral called hydroxyapatite (a form of calcium phosphate) and the protein collagen. In brittle bone disease it is the latter which is deficient, either in quality or quantity, or both. Collagen is important as it gives bones a degree of flexibility, while the job of the mineral hydroxyapatite is to provide a complementary hardness. Too much collagen and our bones would be rubbery; too little or poor quality collagen and they become fragile.

As in so much of life, balance matters. A summer of too many wildfires can cause lasting damage to the scrub and woodland landscapes that surround my Catalan hometown, yet its people nonetheless turn to fire as a way of celebrating the feast days of St John and St Peter. For those who lived through Franco’s dictatorship it is a reminder, perhaps, that they now live in more enlightened times.