Crikey. Where to begin? My beloved Dad has honed his tastes over the years and now favours dark European thrillers from Poland about serial-killer lorry drivers slashing prostitutes to death and a whip-smart young lesbian detective who vows to catch him. (I might have dreamt that synopsis, but you get the picture.)
But when I and my beloved late kid brother Derm were young, we used to mock him for his habit of watching old Technicolor® Westerns from the Fifties. Poor old long-suffering Dad would say, “Mock all you like but what I love about Westerns is they always have a beginning, a middle and an end, and you can always tell who the bad guys are.” This was his pre-pomo era.
(A note about “poor old”. It is a family tradition and Derm always spoke about me when I wasn’t there with great love and affection as “poor old Euge". God, what I would give to have a phone call with him or see him, looking at me sideways quizzically, eyebrows raised, with a lopsided, bemused grin.)
So I shall adapt the same vein of storytelling. It has been a year where a word that never really entered my lexicon hitherto peppers my speech and writing.
I toyed with the idea of giving this post the sub-head A 2020 Vision or Love In A Time of Corona but decided against it.
So why The Year of the Cat? Well, 2020 was The Year of the Rat, appropriately enough, but almost every day on my eclectic playlist, I am filled with joy by The Year of the Cat by Al Stewart. He is Scottish but has the knack of singing in a trans-Atlantic pitch, and was part of the British folk revival. He is one of those figures who pops up all over the place. He played the first ever Glastonbury, knew Yoko Ono pre-John Lennon and shared a London flat with a young Paul Simon.
It was written in 1976, and produced by Alan Parsons, later of The Alan Parsons Project (Eye in the Sky, Old and Wise, Chicago Bulls). He started out as a sound engineer at Abbey Road and worked on the Beatles’ Abbey Road, Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd and is a legend.
I adore the lyrics as much as the song and Stewart’s bewitching voice. Here is a taste:
“She doesn’t give you time for questions
As she locks up your arm in hers
And you follow ‘till your sense of which direction
By the blue tiled walls near the market stalls
There’s a hidden door she leads you to
These days, she says, I feel my life
Just like a river running through
The year of the cat…”
For some reason, it makes me think of being young and travelling across Turkey by coach or last year, while driving a truck from Walthamstow to Bamako in Mali, visiting the “Blue City”, Chefchaouen in Morocco’s Rif Mountains. “All these moments will be lost in time like tears in rain”, as Rutger Hauer’s character Roy Batty, says in Blade Runner just as he dies. Beautiful.
But I digress. Again.
I arrived in Valencia in February, had a couple of weeks ensuring that I became known to all employees in the night-time economy in my barrio of Ruzafa, then headed off to Anguilla on a press trip with my great pal, travel PR extraordinaire Laura Marfell-Williams, who would be my roomie for a week in a beachfront villa. Out there, I read that Spain would be entering a severe lockdown, so it was planes, trains and automobiles to get back, a 48-hour odyssey. Boat to Sint Maarten, plane to Charles de Gaulle in Paris, plane to London Heathrow where my saintly dad picked me up and dropped me in Victoria, train to Gatwick, six hours drinking Bloody Marys in a business lounge, last flight out of London to Valencia, and arrived at 10pm on Sunday March 15. More here: https://eugenecostello.co.uk/blog/home-thoughts-from-a-fraud-love-in-a-time-of-corona-part-the-eighth
To a flat with no heating, no TV, no wifi and no companions. A mere 81 steps up without a lift. We entered ten weeks of solitary confinement. I went crazy, it is fair to say, more or less a complete nervous breakdown.
And so I turn to my roll-call of those who have supported me, both near and far.
I had used my brief time in Valencia by befriending all types. The first person to welcome me to Ruzafa was my great friend Carlito, then at Cuatro Monos, one of my regular haunts. I love him for this and will never forget his kindness. He remains a true friend, and though him I met Grumpy Chef, Luca at Gastrobar Mali one day when I was bringing fruit to Carlito’s flat when he was laid-up in bed. A teddy bear underneath his gruff exterior. Through Carlito, I met Punk Chef Ivan from Extremadura, who might just be the best Japanese chef in Ruzafa, at the super-stylish Kawori on Calle de Cadiz. With his mohican, ripped T-shirts and ubiquitous tartan kilt and boots, he is a ringer for Adrien Brody in Summer of Sam. A great guy. And Luca Monos, Cristina and José have indulged my passion for Agua de Valencia with serenity, tolerance and astonishment at my sheer capacity for it.
One day, I let myself in to my flat with my great friend, Nico. Janneh was there, cleaning. Colombian music was blaring out. I have a long flat, like a train carriage, with my sala de estar at the far end. Janneh was dancing around with her mop, shouting out at the top of her voice, “Adoro mi mopa!” [I love my mop]. Then suddenly she saw us laughing hysterically – with her, not at her – shot us a startled look and ducked out of sight beside the oven. I still laugh when I think about it.
During the crazy days of lockdown, there were miracles – in the way of miracles, little ones, not epiphanies, and all the more transformative for that. One was that every day, as the law allowed, I would go la farmacia, often not to buy anything but just to chat to, and sometimes cry in front of, the girls, Margerita, Paula and Patricia, who were like angels to me. If they ever quietly wondered how I was managing to get through so many condoms, they were far too discreet to mention it, for which I love them. You can read more about it here: https://eugenecostello.co.uk/blog/home-thoughts-from-a-fraud-love-in-a-time-of-corona-part-the-tenth-(the-kindness-of-strangers)
In my despair, I wrote to the chief executive of Octopus Energy, for whom I work on a part-time basis. It was an angry, despairing letter of resignation. He is called Greg Jackson and is a wonderful chap. Dynamic, wise and ethical. He rang me. I will not divulge details of our conversation but, suffice it to say, I am still employed, and he persuaded me to start online therapy, through which I met the saintly Gosia Millward – Gosh – who talked me back from the precipice. It says much about Greg that, even in the middle of expanding his business to a global scale and turning it into a “unicorn” company, he took 90 minutes to talk to me on a Sunday afternoon. And his fellow founder, chief finance office Stuart Jackson (no relation), was incredibly kind to me, giving up great chunks of his precious family time to hold encouraging and wise Zoom calls with me. Again, I shall not divulge the content but what amazing guys these are who never lose the common touch.
Now, I need to talk about another hugely important member of my equipo de apoyo, my beloved Martina, whom I have renamed Tank Girl because of her inimitable style. In a matter of weeks, we have become inseparable and swap messages all day; it’s a wonder I have any time to get work done, but there we are. She swings by most days to admonish me for not eating, not being healthy enough and to iron my shirts – she adores ironing much as Janneh adores su mopa, but Janneh hates ironing so the two of them paper over my cracks between them. All my chicas adore my daddy, and always like to FaceTime with him, though they do not speak English, nor he Spanish, but they seem to rub along just fine with scraps of Italian that Daddy learnt many, many years ago, and there is always plenty of smiling and laughing.
Nico is my fellow callejero and we are inseparable, a regular sight around Ruzafa and El Carmen. People indulge us and call us “the odd couple”. He is a handful but I love him to bits – again, en mi manera propia, of course.
Tiscar Navarro, left, is my beautiful and brilliant lawyer who calls herself mi mama de funciones (acting mother, as does my landlady, Pilar). She has two toddlers but says I am her adolescent son who is a handful but with a good heart. She is at the expat agency Globexs and is married to Ludo, whom I adore, and we are all friends with the wonderful Chris and Klara, who now have a ‘baby’ – a gorgeous border collie puppy they have named Zoe Kravitz. Don’t ask. My brother from another mother (again) is Paul Knowles, a wonderful photographer and human being. He is also unfairly handsome, so it's a good job I love him, otherwise I would hate him, the utter bastard. He is lucky to be married to the beautiful and feisty Julia, whose daughter is Nicole and, in the years since Julia was widowed, Paul has become a wonderful dad to her. Lovely people. Plus Jill and Stefan who are moving to the barrio from Berlin! Yay!
I am lucky to have a home from home in Interno, a wonderful bistro and cocteleria here in Ruzafa, where I love Barbi and Eros who treat me like a mad, eccentric but loved uncle, and owner Dario who is a wonderful cook and has a warm, tranquil nature.
And I have three more angelitas at the café Perla Negra, Alex and Rose, left, and Lunita, equally beautiful and very loving. They made me feel so welcome in Valencia and their faces always light up when I turn up, usually on a bike, for my three cafes con leche, hot as hell and with sweeteners, as I never tire of reminding them. They are patient and loving with me, and are my sisters from other misters. God love them!
Other people I want to pay tribute to are all my friends in the UK who check in on me so regularly, such as Miles Leonard, Penny, Joanna Faulhaber, Helen Hodgson and a whole host of friends and fellow journalists who keep me sane, such as Jemma Patton and Garret Keogh. A special mention to my 'sister' Maggie O'Riordan of Daily Mail who has been incredibly kind to me for more than a year; we often spend hours on late-night calls, and she is wise, funny and exceptionally generous with her love and empathy.
Towards the end of the year, I had the great privilege of meeting Conor Wilde, a property developer who owns upmarket consultancy Found Valencia, with whom I bonded immediately and we have become close. While I responded to lockdown by going insane, Conor – who grew up in a fishing village, indeed, in a family of fishermen – in Skerries, north of Howth in Dublin, is a practical man and a man of action. Missing his Friday night sessions at the boozer with his three Spanish pals, he induced them to head over to Conor's gaff and set about turning an old paelleria in the garden into Spain's smallest pub, using a contact at the Guinness brewery to ensure that they have the dark stuff on tap. I wrote a short piece about it. Conor knows everyone in Valencia, yet remains humble, modest, diffident, even. I am proud to call him my friend.
And my beloved familia cubana, Raul, Yusnaidy and the boys Raulitin and Brian, plus Yusnay’s little sister, the utterly entrancing Ceci and her mum Elsa. I love them so much and we – you guessed it – message every day without fail. I adore my Cuban friends and would do, almost literally, anything for them. My beloved hermano Richard Simpson came to Cuba with me and we had a riot (and did a bit of work). He came with me one year ago to Valencia to recce the place – I hadn’t been before – so it is his fault, and that of the wonderful Annie Bennett that I find myself in exile here.
And finally, my beloved daughter Evie. I haven't seen her since February because... well, Covid an' shit. Here is my favourite pic of her. As blind chanteur Stevie Wonder crooned so memorably, Isn't She Lovely? Here she is with my other favourite person on the planet, my daddy.
Right, this has taken me an hour and I have shit to do, so let’s stop before this becomes a novella, if it hasn’t already.
I said there is a word that previously rarely featured in my lexicon.
Reader, it’s not Covid.
Nor is it corona.
It’s love, actually.
Thank you for reading.