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CASTLES IN SPAIN—AND BAGPIPES, TOO
Anthony Carson
August 14, 1961
Some writers settle for stone castles and weary flamenco dancers. But Anthony Carson, the Briton whose cheerfully bizarre travel sketches were introduced to the U.S. last spring by Sports Illustrated, finds that Catalans build tall towers of men and that Galicia has more—and stranger—pipes than Scotland. Carson wrote the first of the two pieces that follow after a recent visit to Spain. The second is from his book, 'Looking for a Bandit'
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August 14, 1961

Castles In Spain—and Bagpipes, Too

Some writers settle for stone castles and weary flamenco dancers. But Anthony Carson, the Briton whose cheerfully bizarre travel sketches were introduced to the U.S. last spring by Sports Illustrated, finds that Catalans build tall towers of men and that Galicia has more—and stranger—pipes than Scotland. Carson wrote the first of the two pieces that follow after a recent visit to Spain. The second is from his book, 'Looking for a Bandit'

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I was having a drink in my local bar in the square of the town hall in Tarragona, Spain when I heard the sound of a whistle and everybody rushed out into the street. Right in the middle of the square was a mass of brawny men with lowered heads riveting themselves together like a football scrum. They were surrounding five men, standing upright, whose arms were linked together, and at the moment I arrived another four men climbed on top of them, standing on their shoulders and also linking their arms. All these men wore red shirts, white trousers, sashes, head scarves and white shoes. Then there was the whisper of a drum which grew into a steady roll, you could feel it in your nerves, and high above the drum, like a lark, soared the notes of a whistle. The sounds tapped in your head and descended to your loins, a magic current ran through the watching crowds as the third group of men clambered on top of the second. There was a slight wavering and shifting of position, the edifice shuddered into a new form of wholeness, and the whistle soared higher, more imperiously as the next group climbed up and took its position. There was a pause and a fourth group clambered slowly to the top, the drum rolled, and then a fifth took its position.

At this point the construction began to tremble. It trembled from the top right down to its base, and the trembling ran right through the crowd. The drum suddenly grew louder, firmer, it was beating a mounting challenge, and the whistle, clearly and bravely, sang of the serene steadiness of the sky. Five minutes later there were six ranks, with the top rank composed of two men. There was again a fit of trembling, and the structure began a sickening sway, it did not seem possible for it to right itself. Hundreds of eyes gazed desperately upward, pitting their rays against the danger, until the construction settled again, to be surmounted by yet another man. At this point, emotion was almost at snapping point, and a woman near me began crying. I turned around and recognized a friend of mine called Ignacio. "What do you think of the Castle?" he whispered. "I've never seen anything like it," I said. "What happens next?" "The ascension of the child," said Ignacio. "That is why the woman is crying. She is the mother of the child." "Can't she stop it?" I asked. "No woman has ever refused her child to top the Castle," said Ignacio. "It completes the bravery of the building." The whistle now shrilled its most piercing challenge and the drum rolled thunder. A boy, dressed in gay Castle costume, began climbing the human rock face to the sky, slowly, prudently but ever ascending, and not for a second did he look down at this mother, praying to Santa Tecla in anguish.

Finally the boy was there, his head was in the blue, his eyes straight with the far line of the sea. He smiled with a prince's pride and raised his hand upward, making the tower of flesh elegant, gallant and complete. The whole edifice shuddered from top to bottom, the boy's eyes continually steady to the sea. The crowds stood hushed. There was a signal from the whistle, a tap from the drum, and suddenly the Castle began to crumble and dissolve, there was absolutely nothing there, nothing but the crowds and the dusty square and the blind lottery man shouting his tickets.

Ignacio, my friend, was very well versed in Catalan custom and, like a good, honest Catalan, thought any manifestation of his own country's genius (you can call it a country rather than a region) superior to the castanets, flamenco and heel-stamping of Spain. He knew everything about the Castles, their history, origin and the rules of the craft. They only assembled, he told me, on certain festivals in Catalonia, the fiesta of San Juan in Valls, the fiesta of Santa Ursula in October and during the Fiesta Mayor in Villafranca del Panad�s. In Tarragona they are constructed during fiestas of Santa Tecla and San Magin. Their history is obscure but it appears the Castles themselves originated from a dance called the muxiganga. "It's actually being resurrected again," said Ignacio, "from the memory of a very old man who painfully hobbles through the steps in the institute." During the Moroccan conflict in the 19th century the Castles were used in a rather sensational manner. "It was during the leadership of General Prim," said Ignacio. "The general led a body of men to climb over a redoubt in Tetu�n when he discovered he had recruits from Valls. Among them were some xiquets, or Castle men. He called them together and explained the nature of the enterprise. They approached the redoubt, formed Castles of eight or nine ranks and filled the defending Moors with terror."

Ignacio and I went to Valls, where he had some friends who were xiquets. We called at a house in the town and I made the acquaintance of Ram�n Palleres. He was a wood turner.

We went off to a bar and had a drink. "Actually I am a segond," said Ram�n. He had a very pleasant, open face. "That's to say I am in the second tier of the Castles. Not as difficult as a Third, but it requires a certain art and strength." "But don't you want to be a Third?" I asked him. "I wouldn't mind, but we always keep to our places by families. For instance my father and grandfather were segonds. As a matter of fact, you would make quite a good segond."

"Once upon a time," I said, "perhaps...." "It's not as difficult as all that," he said. "Why not have a shot at a Pillar? As a matter of fact we're doing a Pillar this evening. It's a special job for a wedding."

"What is a Pillar?" I asked. "It's not the same as a Castle," said Ram�n. "It's just one man on top of another and then the child on top. There's no human wall underneath. And it's mobile. It can move about anywhere. The real Castle doesn't move. Here the Pillar was born, and here in Valls the Castle was born, and we know more about them than the Tarragona xiquets who are only bloody amateurs!" At this point we were joined by a middle-aged, thickset man who was introduced as the cap de colla. He was the castle manager and leader, to whom was owed the perfect discipline of the group. For discipline, even more than strength, is the most necessary virtue of the construction of a Castle, and the xiquets obeyed the commands of their cap de colla even in matters relating to their private lives. "For instance," said the cap de colla, looking me up and down, "to make a good segond, you'd have to give up drink and do a lot of exercise. And you'd have to learn how to fall—which is almost the most important part of the game. There are quite a lot of casualties still in the hospitals who never learned the art properly."

"I suggested to the English writer," said Ram�n, "that he join a modest sort of Pillar." "It's a good idea," said the cap de colla. "We needn't do a large one and we've only got a fairly small boy." I didn't like the idea. "The Pillar would collapse," I said. "You can be a Second," said the cap, "and the two above, added to the boy, are very light." "Very well," I said, reaching for my drink, but the cap de colla immediately removed it. "No more for today," he said, "Not till after work is over." "What I don't quite understand is why you are doing this Pillar," I said. "I thought all these Castles were only done at certain festivals." "This is a special occasion," said Ram�n. "It's for a marriage. And the boy who crowns the Pillar is the brother of the novia—the fianc�e. You'll soon see how it works."

After lunch I was dressed up in the uniform of the xiquets, and we all met in the square near the town hall. A small crowd soon congregated and there was some cheering. The cap de colla made a signal, the whistle fluted and the drum tapped a roll. Then the biggest of the xiquets walked out into the open and waited, hunching up his shoulders. "It's your turn," shouted Ram�n. "Me?" I said. I knew it, but I held back. Finally I approached the waiting First and somehow or other was pushed up on top of his shoulders. I tried balancing myself up there but fell off. There was more cheering. The next time I clambered up, with a great deal of striving. I managed to stay there, keeping my eyes fixed on the second-floor window of a house opposite. "We'll make it a Pillar of two," cried the cap de colla, "and go and collect the boy at once. It's getting late."

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