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Joan Miralles i Monserrat
Universitat de les Illes Balears
Working with oral history is both rewarding and enjoyable, as it gives knowledge, information and good vibes. I started doing interviews in 1969 – AD, of course – with people who would now be a century and a half old. The oldest person, who was from Llubí, was 103 and she was from the tribe of the wife of Gabriel Janer Manila, the writer. This tribe thing is absolutely true and correct. We’ll be judged by tribes, already we often are. My colleague at the Institut d’Estudis Catalans and friend, Joan Argenter, asked me for an article on something connected with my work on oral history or on popular culture. Straightaway I thought it might be good for me, and quite fun, to share some of the experiences that I’ve rummaged around for in the depths of my memory for this piece. They are anecdotes, in fact, about people who are often illiterate but frequently incredibly powerful, and it seems to me that their experiences, what they’ve lived through, could be turned into a fantastic life lesson. Such people would never have read Sartre or Camus, not to mention Marx or Mao’s Little Red Book (and what’s more they couldn’t care less), because their culture has been adjusted to suit their needs, like a skin-tight stocking.
Once, in Sant Joan de Sineu, I was trying to get to interview an old priest, the former parish vicar. It was a baking hot summer day in the early 1970s. I hadn’t learnt to drive a car back then, so my youthful body had to lug around the wonderful eight-kilo Grundig TK 14 tape recorder, which I’d bought on the never-never for 100 pesetas a month. The priest lived on the outskirts of town. It was harvest time. I didn’t know exactly where he lived. Suddenly, on the edge of the town, I could just make out a long cart coming towards me, loaded with bundles, all spilling over, like in a Botero sculpture. The cart slowly trundled towards me. Astride the driver’s seat was an anthropological Mallorcan specimen, chubby, hatted, ruddy-skinned, pensively smoking his pipe, sitting on his throne. A few metres before coming alongside me I gave him a friendly greeting: “Good day to you, sir!”. From the entrails of this example of ‘pithecanthropus maioricensis’ came a primeval, cosmic, full-on “oooou!”. The bundles made the cart swing alarmingly. “Good day, what’s up?” “Would you be able to tell me where Father Bauzà, the old vicar, lives?” “I’ll tell you. You follow the road straight on, then you take a left turn, you go downhill and you cross a little bridge. Afterwards, when you get to a barrier, go left, you’ll see a path, don’t take it, go straight on, to the right, and after fifty paces, more or less – I’m not being exact here – you’ll find the house!” “Thanks very much, sir!” I followed his directions as best I could and after walking maybe two hundred metres I could hear the sound of animals, things and people. Turning round, I caught a glimpse of the cart coming straight for me at high speed, like a war chariot, with the driver standing on top, eyes glittering, face aflame and sweating. The road was narrow and it wasn’t going to be easy to shake this thing off. Defenceless, I saw that life’s too short, with all the things I still had left to do. I felt like Verdaguer’s worm. I was asking myself what on earth I could have said to that little man to provoke such a reaction. Suddenly, when the war chariot was four paces away from me, I could see Ben Hur standing up with the reins in his hand yelling “oooooou!”, and once again I could see how flexible that war weapon was, as it swung back and forth but with its parts rigid. It turned out that it wasn’t a war cry and the man, by using these words, couldn’t have been wiser, kinder and more generous: “I’m so sorry, sir. I got it wrong. I told you to go left and you have to go right!” Dear reader, I was stunned, shell-shocked and rooted to the spot. As God is my witness, if that man had been Marilyn Monroe I’d have given him a kiss full on the lips.
One of the most interesting families or clans in my village is that of Can Rei. One of the members of this family married a girl from Montuïri who I was able to meet and interview. The couple got married by proxy because the man was in Mendoza working as a doctor and she was in Mallorca. When the bride went to Argentina to join her husband, she met the poet Josep Carner on board the ship and apparently she made a huge impression on him. Carner dedicated a piece to her, “Casadeta de Montuïri” (little bride from Montuïri), which is a good example of his humour. Later on, the doctor ended up going funny in the head and became a recluse in his home town. I had the opportunity to talk with the little bride and also with a brother of the doctor who ended up crazy. The experience shows you, I think, the flexible nature of memory and how memories from our childhood and our youth stick in our subconscious, unlike other memories formed closer to the present. This man, Joan Mateu ‘Rei’, told me various stories from his childhood, one of which was that his father had given him a bicycle when he was a child. He told me this apparently trivial anecdote in the early 1970s, when he was in his nineties, so it must date back to the late 19th century. Anyway, after two days his son, who worked in the Town Hall, turned up at my house and said: “Joan, you have to come to my house urgently and place the tape in front of my father!” “What, just like that, what’s happened?” “Nothing, but he hasn’t slept for two days because he says he told you his father gave him a bicycle when he was a child and he’s worried that his brother, who’s still alive, is going to get jealous.” (!)
This story is a reminder of the scope of historic memory. I’ll tell you another. Around thirty years ago the residents of our block of houses were summoned to a meeting at Montuïri Town Hall so they could tell us about the project for a road extension that would run through the middle of our properties. There were about a dozen of us altogether. At some point in the meeting, Joan Vermell, already an old man, launched an impassioned defence of the advantages of opening up the road. Suddenly, the chap next to me, Moreno, leapt up from his chair, strode up to Vermell and blurted out: “Look here Vermell, now you’re telling us it’s a really great idea to have this road coming through! You weren’t saying that in 1932, in the Republic, when we met right here. This is no time to change sides!”
Each interview is an unknown and we can always learn and have fun. I remember very well an interview in a farmhouse in Petra, on the outskirts of town. The old, old-fashioned house was inhabited by an elderly couple who had that typical wisdom for practical stuff coupled with a pretty sceptical view of the human condition. After the interview they showed me round the house, disparaging the old and singing the praises of modern life. At some point, they led me down a dark passageway: “And now we’ll show you something we think you’ll like”. As the old man said this, he stopped, pulled a large key from the depths of his trousers and opened the door… “Look, sir, this is called a bathroom. We had it done for our granddaughter when she got married two years ago. We’ve never needed it, thank God!” I don’t need to tell you that the bathroom fittings still had the polythene from the factory on them.
Another time, in Porreres, a tall, lanky old man with a hooked nose, a reincarnation of Quevedo’s Dómine Cabra, showed me the formula for curing warts and gave me the list of the town’s Falange members during the Republic, plus a lengthy account of the Republican disembarkation on the eastern shores of Mallorca by Captain Bayo and his troops in 1936. It appeared that this guy had had both the time and the inclination to get married three times, and in fact he had enthroned all three wives, like a Holy Trinity, over the sewing machine. He went on to introduce them to me post mortem: “Look, sir, this is Maria, a good woman, 130 kilos. This other one was called Antònia. She was good too… She weighed 120 kilos at her heaviest. And this other one, the last one, Aina, she was a bit skinny but she still made 100 kilos.”
For many interviewees, the tape recorder was a completely unknown tool, but some of the old people had clearly heard about these machines that recorded your voice. In Vilafranca de Bonany I interviewed a woman who was reputed to be a witch. I remember that it was the time of year when almonds were picked and cracked open. On summer evenings in the streets of Mallorcan villages it was normal to hear the sound of hammers striking stone as people cracked almonds open and extracted the nuts. The interview meandered through increasingly tricky but fascinating terrain, and we soon got onto taboo topics, like the Spanish Civil War, smuggling, intimate hygiene, witchcraft and the evil eye. At one point, the tape ran out and the recorder I was using at the time gave a rather loud “click!” Then the woman realised that I had been recording her voice. She hadn’t realised the purpose of the machine up to that point and she began to complain, then started to issue threats: “And what was that noise. Isn’t that one of those machines that takes your voice. Watch out, lad, I’m not joking and it’ll be the worse for you, you’ll pay for this!” I quickly came up with something for maximum dramatic effect, personally I think it was a master-stroke. On hearing these words, I quickly grabbed the hammer the old woman was clutching in her right hand, pulled out the used tape, threw it in the hippy basket on the stone block and took out a clean tape from the same basket. Wearing a furious and tragic expression, I then proceeded to hammer the clean tape to pieces on the stone block. It only lasted a few seconds and before the crone realised what was happening the tape was in bits. After my performance, her attitude changed completely: “Oh, oh, oh, now what have you done, lad? That’ll have cost you a lot. These things must be very expensive, you know. Look at it, good heavens and now what? Look, look…!”. So I now went on the attack: “Now you’re saying that, good woman, after you scolded me unfairly. I wouldn’t have misused what you told me, don’t worry…”
Other times, the experience involves new sensations. Anyone working with oral history needs to be prepared to put up with anything. For example, the place and the conditions in which the interview takes place. I think things are a bit better nowadays, but in those days it was quite common to find that the tanks where all human and animal excrement ended up would be located in the same courtyard where people stayed. I remember an interview I did with a poet and musician right alongside the privy or toilet and the resulting effluent flow. To make matters worse, the guy was reciting ditties about the healthy outdoor life. The sanitary conditions our old folk were living in were sometimes woeful too. Whenever I talk about this, I always remember the experience I had once on the outskirts of town with an elderly man who lived alone with his mother, aged nearly a hundred, a fountain of wisdom and good humour, and of patience too. She had a hole in her nose from a tumour and you could see the raw flesh through it, and the wound was always being sucked by a bluebottle. Every so often the poor woman raised her hand patiently and waved the beast away, but it was futile. After a moment the insect would be back making her life a misery. Back then, I used to wear Kissinger-style black rimmed plastic spectacles, and I had to invent something so I wouldn’t have to see the damned thing. The invention was simply to position my glasses so I couldn’t see the pierced nose and the invasive fly. Another experience: In Algaida I was interviewing the oldest woman in the town. It was extremely interesting. It lasted three and a half hours. My bladder was demanding to be emptied. It was no use. Whenever I tried to get up, the old woman would grab my arm with a strength I had no idea she could muster and keep me firmly at her side.
I think I’ve said enough for now.
In Montuïri, on 23 August, eve of the festival of St. Bartholomew, surrounded by the aroma of lavender and waiting for the medieval ‘cossiers’ dance to start.