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Chasing Hemingway through the streets of Madrid

‘Haaaaaaaaaooooooooooouuuuuhhaa’, I yawn while leaning back in my flimsy wooden chair, arms outstretched.

‘Just like that!’ Stephen shoots back, rolling his eyes up towards the wood-beamed ceiling.

Embarrassed, Theresa’s eyes are locked on the passersby outside while mine – after her left knee kindly introduced itself to my hitherto unbruised right one – are peering down into my “roasted” beer, which sits atop a sturdy marble-top table, next to a plate of cheese, the smell of which is sure to kill 99% of household germs.

It’s 2 January 2020, and the three of us are sitting in the charming Cervecería Alemana, a 116-year-old German bierkeller on the southern edge of Plaza de Santa Ana in central Madrid.

The day before, Stephen Drake-Jones, a Yorkshire born, Madrid-based historian, guided my partner and I around the local haunts of Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). Being New Year’s Day, however, its doors were closed firmly shut. Yet ever-generous with his time, the youthful 70-year-old professor agreed to meet the following day simply so I could hold a photograph that hangs above the literary giant’s window seat. (In ‘The Dangerous Summer, Part 1’, featured in Life magazine in September 1960, the American – christened by the Spanish as “Don Ernesto” – remarked that the establishment was ‘a good café and beer place … which I had frequented for many years.’)

It was at the unveiling of this photo (the first since 1962), back in July 2014, when a female CNN interviewer – sitting in the seat I am today, following in Hemingway’s buttocks – yawned. Given we’d built up a modicum of rapport over tapas and a tipple-or-two the previous day, I took the (fellow Northerner) liberty of mimicking her transgression, which appeared to be judged pitch perfect given the (comedian) Tommy Cooper catchphrase-verdict.

But any laughter is extinguished as swiftly as a flame in a tornado. Now, it appeared, was time so, with a nod of the head, Stephen summoned over a waiter from the wood-lined bar. As the white-jacketed, bow-tied man zig-zagged in between tables, the leader of a tour group entered, her stainless-steel flagpole and khaki backpack evoking the look of a Combat Signaller.

With the launch of Operation Rearrange-Tables-ASAP bringing a halt to proceedings I’m afforded, for the first time (sleeping aside) since starting our Hemingway-themed tour on the cobblestones outside exactly 24 hours ago, the opportunity to ruminate about the man.

Given our limited timetable, we’d arranged to meet by the Lorca statue late morning on New Year’s Day, an appointment I feared missing given Madrid’s billing as unofficial party capital of the world. Yet there was little need for three mobile or two bedside alarms, to say nothing of a wake-up call by reception, for we woke with disappointingly clear heads if pip-clogged throats from eating the customary 12 grapes as the (below) clock struck midnight.

I knew shamefully little about the Spanish Civil War, and even less about Republican-leaning poet Federico García Lorca who was slain by Nationalist forces, and momentarily believed – while standing in semi-circular-shaped Puerta del Sol looking at a black-and-white image of its former, battle-scarred self – that I’d booked T and I on the wrong trip. For, as Chairman of the Wellington Society of Madrid, 21st-century Renaissance man Stephen provides public and customised tours for history buffs as well as wine- and art-lovers, but I soon appreciated that such scene-setting (so laced with dates that his powers of retention reminded me of Mr. Memory from John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps) was necessary context for ‘Hemingway’s Madrid’, our private four-hour-long walking tour (€125 pp).

Although the writer’s love-affair with Spain dates back as far as 1923 when, aged 24, he first visited Pamplona and the festival of San Fermín (his last sojourn being in 1960), during the years 1937-39 it was Madrid that occupied Hemingway’s mind – and a place he was duly despatched to thanks to his previous occupation as a reporter. Much to the chagrin of pedant Stephen, however, the commemorative plaques marking the sites where he used to lay his semicomatose head are amateur: specifically those at the former Hotel Florida (the setting for his play The Fifth Column, but which refers purely to ‘corresponsales’), nowadays a department store (the top of which offers a similar vantage point to Hemingway’s hotel balcony, from where he could discern the front line), and present-day Hotel Madrid Gran Vía 25 (incorrectly pre-dating his arrival in the besieged capital).

It was only when T and I stood in awe gazing up at the 14-storey, 1920s-era Telefónica Building on Gran Vía – along which Hemingway would purportedly run under sniper fire to wire his dispatch – that we learned about his (r)evolution from apolitical figure to antifascist spokesman (literally, as narrator of The Spanish Earth film) and engagè writer. Suddenly, politics was elevated from secondary – even tertiary – to primary concern, a clenched-fist-saluting Stephen learnedly informed us.

From a literary point of view, it was this stint as foreign correspondent – writing in “cablese” – that underscores what great-granddaughter Cristen Hemingway Jaynes, author of Ernest’s Way, calls his ‘poetically succinct style’, perfected at the Toronto Star. Hemingway’s factual reporting not only acted as midwife to the birth of his fictional works, which display a similar narrative style, but also lends great authenticity to For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940; one of ‘100 genre-busting’ Novels That Shaped Our World, according to a 2019 BBC panel) and three short Esquire magazine stories (1938-39; the third of which, like the previous two being wholly or partly set in Museo Chicote’s cocktail bar, refers to Hotel Gran Vía).


‘Señor!’, the waiter repeats, slightly raising his voice in order to awaken me from a contemplative-like trance.

‘Apologies’, I reply, before being handed the wood-framed photograph, together with pinned State of Missouri flag, in exchange for my camera.

‘Muchas gracias’, I mutter, utterly transfixed by what I’m holding.

I manage to evade yawning in between clicks but my lips ultimately give way once the photo is rehung due to T and I having continued our Hemingway cocktail-and-culinary crawl long after Stephen left us in La Taurina – five-and-a-quarter-hours after our initial meeting – the evening prior.

With infuriatingly inattentive staff at the (now Westin) Palace Hotel Bar not as genteel as Hemingway’s protagonists recall in his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, we chain-drank Papa Dobles in Chicote’s (where I reread parts of ‘The Denunciation’, one of the aforementioned Esquire pieces, in a 1930s-style curved booth), ate roast suckling pig in the famed eatery Sobrino de Botín while sitting in Hemingway’s seat (after an enlightening tour around the most unoriginal novel destination on the Hemingway trail by Heather from Insider Madrid, pictured pointing to our seats), before ending with a night-cap in the (unatmospheric) speakeasy Hemingway Cocktail Bar at NH Collection Madrid Suecia (his last refuge in the capital).

Although the taste of pips lingered in my throat, 20-odd hours on, at Botín I drank the same wine as Jake and Brett (rioja alta) in the final scene of The Sun Also Rises in an attempt, Geography professor Michael K. Steinberg perceptively observes (in ‘Hemingway’s Cuban Landscape’, Human Geography, vol. 10, no.3, 2017, p.75), to join Hemingway’s novel through an ‘authentic experience[] in his literary landscape[].’

Notwithstanding touching a bronze bust in the refurbished Cuando Sali de Cuba bar-restaurant (where Stephen recalled Ernest’s niece Hilary wept during a recent tour) it was here, among the original décor of Cervecería Alemana that Hemingway would’ve laid eyes upon, where I felt closest. Yet this isn’t merely because it’s a literary landmark; which it undoubtedly is since it’s where (given its matador clientele) the appendix to Death in the Afternoon (his homage to bullfighting, published in 1932) was written, thereby placing the venue alongside those of profound literary gravitas, like room 511 at Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana or his Key West home at 907 Whitehead Street. Rather, the chief reason lies in Stephen moving into a pension (guest house) overlooking the plaza a month before the dictator Franco died.

The reasons behind the Spanish Civil War are multifaceted (as maturely illustrated in For Whom the Bell Tolls) yet Hemingway, whose writing style was minimalist, utilised to maximum effect his celebrity status to raise awareness of la causa through articles in American left-leaning and Marxist magazines as well as a Russian communist newspaper, namely Ken (‘The Time Now, The Place Spain’), New Masses (‘Fascism Is a Lie’) and Pravda (‘Humanity Will Not Forgive This!’) respectively. Despite Hemingway’s failed efforts at the preservation of democracy, his politics and prose help to preserve his presence in and around Madrid today, 120 years after his birth, although it’s Stephen’s recollection of Madrileños’ performing the Nazi salute in 1975 and thereafter that reawakened this literary pilgrim’s antifascist senses.

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