Cafe Derby, First Night

This is the first of a new series of blog posts, in which I'll be sharing poems from my second collection, Santiago Sketches, which is entirely set in the pilgrimage capital of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. (For more on the background of the writing of the book, take a look at this recent post.) This is the first poem in the book, and is titled,  "Café Derby, First Night", just in case you were confused.

Café Derby, First Night

Past the leaky umbrella bin of dark wood,

girl facing boy, four teenagers play seriously

at adulthood. The boys’ hair is bullfighter-gelled,

engominado. French-style, each girl wears a sweater,

pastel, around her shoulders, another at the waist.

They are attended by a small bald waiter

who might have apprenticed at the tertulias

of Valle Inclán. Hieratic, a slight limp,

the collarless white coat buttoned to the neck,

unhurrying, he carries a tray to their table—

the dark, thick hot chocolate from the Americas,

the infusions in alchemical jars, unfurling.


(5th October, 1993)


Cafe Derby

Unsuspectingly, on my first night in Santiago as a 20-year-old Erasmus student, I had wandered into one of the oldest and most august cafés in the city. It has been compared to the Café Gijón in Madrid, where Camilo José Cela and pals used to meet. If you are ever in Santiago, make sure you go.

In the poem, "Engominado" means gelled. Bullfighters were, and perhaps still are, very fond of using massive amounts of hair gel, and certain "bro-ish" young Spaniards were also fond if it. (BTW, I love's definition of "bro":

"5. a young, usually white male variously and often negatively characterized as being preppy, party-loving, egotistical, sexist, etc.)

Ramón del Valle Inclán (1866–1936) was a Galician-born dramatist who wrote in Spanish. Again, for more information about him, click the link in the poem.

A “Tertulia” is the meeting of friends or associates, literary or otherwise. When I lived in Santiago, and later in Madrid, "tertulias" usually were late afternoon affairs for older men, who played ferocious games of cards and dominoes. Traditionally, though, they were also literary affairs, and Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca and the novelist and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno have all been involved in regular "tertulias". For more information, click the link in the poem.

Incidentally, as the rector of the University of Salamanca, Unamuno was involved in an incident during the Spanish Civil War that showed great moral courage. Initially he was on the side of the Nationalists / Francoists, but then realised the mistake inherent to their position. After Millán Astray, of the Spanish Foreign Legion, gave a speech full of cries like "Viva La Muerte", Unamuno denounced him. According to Wikipedia:


In 1936 Unamuno had a public quarrel with the Nationalist general Millán Astray at the University in which he denounced both Astray—with whom he had had verbal battles in the 1920s—and elements of the rebel movement. [The rebels were the Fascists, who had rebelled against an elected government. My note.] He called the battle cry of the elite armed forces group named La Legión—"Long live death!"—repellent and suggested Astray wanted to see Spain crippled. [Unamuno noted that the general had one arm and one eye, and wanted Spain to be equally mutilated.] One historian notes that his address was a "remarkable act of moral courage" and that he risked being lynched on the spot but was saved by Franco's wife who took him out of the place. Shortly afterwards, Unamuno was effectively removed for a second time from his university post. Broken-hearted, he was placed under house arrest, and his death followed ten weeks later, on 31 December. Unamuno died while sleeping, which he regarded as the best and most painless way to die.)

Put simply, cafés have always been on the side of civilisation. That's it for today, but more soon. You can read more poems here, in Spanish and in English, and if you feel inspired to buy the book, purchase information is on my website.