Sunday, 27 July 2008

Argentina in the UK

On Thursday I was at a very curious event. I was there as the guest of a friend who organises a milonga. We'd been invited to the Argentine Residence, for a book launch. It turned out when we got there that it was also a small leaving party because the Ambassador is going to retire. It looked as though they'd invited more or less everyone they could think of, and were slightly startled at how many had turned up.

The Residence is a house on the corner of Belgrave square, so of course a fine house, of a kind very different from what any of us would normally enter, with marble reliefs in the octagonal entrance hall, squared columns, gilt details, chaises longues, and beautiful windows and balconies where, of course, people hide to smoke. It's also (apart from the gilt) painted entirely magnolia.

The book seems to have been the Ambassador's idea. He gave a little speech which was exactly what I'd expect from a retiring diplomat; graceful, neither too long nor too short, thanking the sponsors and volunteers, expressing his surprise at getting money from the Ministry, sketching the inevitable last-minute panic, referring to the book as his child, and telling us we would all be presented with copies on our way out. We were then served canapés, empañadas, which I find are a miniature Cornish Pasty with crunchy pastry, and a very soft, likeable red wine.

It's really more of a brochure than a book. It's written in an elegant, slightly erroneous English, and reminds me of the kind of thing big international companies give to all the new employees when they take over a smaller one. It has just the same vulnerable crispness, the identical freshly-printed smell of ammonia, and the same solemn, careful willingness to please. The cover is pale blue, and the title and back-cover blurb are in reflective silver; allusive and patriotic, but rather hard to read. There are pages and headings where they couldn't refrain from printing in white on a sky-blue background, but most of it is kinder to your eyes.

It starts with a historical chapter, interesting and new to me. I had noticed the blue plaque of José de San Martín on a house near Regent's park, but I had never heard of Don Juan Manuel de Rosas, who it seems was largely responsible for the existence of Argentina, and who lived the last twenty years of his eighty-three on a farm near Southampton, always wearing a poncho and silver spurs, planting espinillos in his garden (what are they? a cactus?), and personally lassooing his horse. He died in 1877, admired by all.

As though he could be topped, they now turn to double-page portraits - a page of photo, a page of text - of interesting Argentinians now or recently living here. Aside from"notorious" not being the word they wanted, this works very well. In case you're interested, the 'characters' to look out for are:

César Milstein - Nobel Prize winner (for finding a way of making monoclonal antibodies)
Mario Blejer - economist (advisor to the Governer of the Bank of England)
Agustín Blanco-Bazàn - international lawyer (also contributes to the book with an interesting two-page spread about the war)
Carlos Brebbia - engineer (founded the Wessex Institute of Technology and edits some engineering journals)
Dame Julia Polak - professor of medicine (much cited on tissue engineering)
Bautista Heguy - polo player
Marcelo Loffreda - rugby coach (oh yes we've heard of him, now at Leicester Tigers)
Diego Jacquet - head chef at the Zetter hotel (never heard of him or it, but I'm no foodie, I'll ask my sister)
Elena Roger - singer, actress (previously Evita, Edith Piaf next)
Marianela Núñez - principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet
Marcelo Álvarez - tenor (I may have heard of him but it's not quite clear why he's in this as I don't think he's based here)
Gabriela Salgado - curator of Public Programs at Tate Modern

Next is a a cultural chapter with a picture of Miguel Angel Zotto hiding underneath some chiaroscuro and a hat, and discourses on arts, films, football, and shopping; nothing on rugby, which is a pity, as I think it's got promotional potential. They've certainly been my second team ever since the World Cup. They really were the best thing in it. Unless you're France.

After Blanco-Bazàn's two pages about the war, honoured with bright yellow paper, there follows an illustrated product guide, telling us where to get Argentine beef, dulce de leche, mate, Quichua arts and crafts, saddlery and polo accoutrements, agricultural machinery, and wine. My favourite bit of this is the rather beautiful technical drawing of the 'pneumatic monograin system', which I think is for planting seeds.

It concludes with some pages of charts about trade since 1900, which tell you a good deal more about the strange history of Argentina's economy than they do about this relationship in particular. Curiously, the charts for 'now' only cover merchandise. Maybe services and remittances - dancing teachers, rugby coaches, footballers and whatnot - are difficult to measure, or negligible in size. Or it could be that they don't show up because so many of them have Italian passports, with the automatic right to work here. But it doesn't seem to say so, and I wondered.

In the back are some pages of links, including ten milongas, one my friend's.

All in all, it's a funny thing, and destined no doubt for utter obscurity, but I just had to tell you about it because it's so clearly a labour of love. If you wanted a copy you could probably ask them, here.

I was told that the government of Argentina, which is a bit busy, hasn't yet got round to providing a new Ambassador. This means that the young gentlemen and ladies who work at the Residence will be partly left to their own devices for some months, and one who I have danced with once or twice has some ideas. Will he ever get away with it? Dunno.


Anonymous said...

Hi MsHedgehog,

I have a google alert for 'Marcelo Alvarez' therefore I found your blog.

Marcelo Alvarez is an Argentinian tenor, born in Cordoba. As an artist nearly always has to go away from home to become famous, he went to Italy in 1995 where he has won a competition in his first days there. From that time on he sang with big success in all major opera houses in Europe, the MET, Argentina and in Tokyo etc.. He is one of the best singers of our times.

Since 1998 he nearly sang each year in the Royal Opera House and made many major roledebuts there. Unfortunately he will not sing there next season but he will come back with a new role in 2009/10 and I will be there, of course, maybe you too?

Sorry for my English, I am from Austria, and the AT which I saw around your nickname told me that it could be that you are also from Austria? Would be nice to meet you in an opera performance with Marcelo Alvarez!

Best wishes,


Visit my website for Marcelo Alvarez, maybe you also like his beautiful voice:

Anonymous said...

And now I hope the link works:

msHedgehog said...

In this context, "AT" stands for "argentine tango". The link was meant to be like this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for correcting my link, MsHedgehog!

BTW, I forgot to mention that Marcelo Alvarez also made a Tango CD with Sony in 2000.

Hope my link works now, lol:
Marcelo Alvarez sings Gardel

Best wishes,


one2tango said...

Just wanted to add, as another piece of information, that Juan Manuel de Rosas, who, as you say, it seems was largely responsible for the existence of Argentina, is also largely responsible for the non-existence, or extermination, if you like, of the indigenous population of Argentina.
There are still discussions about whether his famous Conquista del desierto was a genocide or not. The portrait of the General de Rosas, in the meanwhile, graces the banknote of 20 pesos I think it is...

msHedgehog said...

If so, I don't suppose he'd be the only genocide who died in peaceful obscurity, if not near Southampton, then near some other English town.