21 Mar 2016

Farewells and friends

I’ve been rather quiet recently. February and March are for us quite busy months, in terms of work and socially, too. The vineyard needs a lot of attention: the grass and weeds need cutting and the vines need pruning. But the wonder of seeing, often in a question of days, new growth sprouting from the buds we carefully left on the cut-back canes and the minute inflorescences that will become future bunches of fruit make it all worthwhile. It’s also the time when friends who every year spend part of the winter here leave to get some skiing in the north or to see the spring start further south. It’s a time of farewell dinners, glasses raised, and seeing-off trips to the airport.

As in most places where people go on holiday or become “foreign residents”, it’s difficult to make real friends with the locals in the Canaries, so foreigners tend to mix more with people like themselves, usually of their own nationality. This is especially so in a small island like El Hierro. The Herreño is hospitable, funny, easy to get on with (if you don’t mind unexplained delays when getting the plumbing done) and often surprisingly generous. But he is the islander and you will always be the outsider. His society, despite apparent internal rifts and quarrels, is closely knit. Like the people from La Gomera, the people of El Hierro are all cousins, perhaps not literally but family ties are strong and very, very extensive. They had to be like this since it was a forgotten island, left to itself, and conditions were sometimes so hard that, as in the middle of the twentieth century, the population had to emigrate en masse. So, if you spend some time here, you’ll get to know a lot of people, acquaintances not friends although they’ll call you “amigo”.

An Herreño I once knew, he’s long dead now, was a man who had led a convulsive, hard life but was still able to talk about it with clarity and devilish humour. We were talking about “amigos”. He maintained he had never had a real friend and I said I had.
“What is a friend?” he asked.
“You tell me,” I said.
“A friend is someone you can wake up at two o’clock in the morning and say ‘Come on, get up, I’m going to kill Eusebio!’ and who pulls on his trousers to go with you to help.”
There aren’t many like that, especially if Eusebio is their cousin!


They can't see us behind the tinted airport glass but they know we're there. So they wave.
Or are they waving goodbye to the island?

Kilroy was here

People have an almost irresistible urge to leave their mark wherever they go. I remember going up to Las Cañadas in Tenerife many years ago. The road passed a spring called "Fuente de Joco". Over most of the other graffitti, some British hooligan had painted in huge white letters on the rock-face behind the spring "JOCK'S FONT". Criminal but funny! Luckily, on El Hierro we don't get many hooligans, just occasional lovers cutting his and her initials into a wooden guard rail appropiately at the edge of a precipice.

The last persistent Kilroys we had in El Hierro were here probably six hundred years ago, perhaps much earlier.They left words in an ancient alphabet inscribed into the surface of rocks. Juan Álvarez Delgado, in my opinion the best authority on these questions, called them "Libico-Berber inscriptions". The alphabet appears to be ultimately derived from the Phoenician which later spread, with variants, via Carthage (now Tunis) throughout North Africa and the Sahara. One variant is still used by some Touregs.

Our seaman's name may have been read from top to bottom
or from bottom to top. In any case it should be translated as
"Kilroy"! This inscription was found recently near
La Restinga.
It's fairly certain that the Canaries have been visited by seafarers since at least 500 BC. North African seamen were often crew and it is likely that some were left, voluntarily or not, on the island. Significantly, these inscriptions are often located near places where ships could approach the coast. So we can picture one of those stranded seamen anxiously watching day after day for a sail on the horizon. He may not have been literate but he could probably write his name, and so he did, into the surface of the rock. Some of these inscriptions are accompanied by simple figures that are clearly not letters. One repeated figure is a circle exuding clouds and could be a sort of helmet or hat with feathers. If so, these inscriptions may even be medieval (in our sense of the word).

There is another totally different sort of inscription on the island, similar to those dating at least from the bronze age and found in many parts of Europe and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Perhaps better described as "rock art" they consist of circle, lines, squiggles, spirals and other forms distributed apparently haphazardly on the rock face. These will be the subject of another post later on.

If you like exploring for this sort of thing, take a bottle of water with a spray trigger. Often the inscriptions are only fully visible if the rock is wet. One of the latest ones to be discovered was found by a tourist near La Restinga, so don't lose heart if you're not lucky first time.

"Kilroy was here" was, and perhaps still is, a common phrase scribbled in jest on the walls of public lavatories, historic buildings, classrooms, prison cells, phoneboxes etc.