So, why do I love Madrid? Especially now that the dark forces of neo-liberalism are conspiring to turn every city on the planet into every other city on the planet. Madrid doesn’t even have any good monuments. The Cibeles is alright and the Prado is ok if you enjoy being dragged around. The Royal Palace is just dull and the Santiago Bernabeu is home to Real Madrid, which should put any reasonable person off. The Post Office is probably the most impressive building in the city, and the Plaza Mayor is really very nice unless you’re stupid enough to order a drink there.
Madrid certainly has nothing to envy Paris, Rome, London or New York in terms of Zaras, H&Ms, and Pull & Bears. And there is a huge Apple store selling exactly the same things as every other Apple store in the world. And we have a Primark. There are even lots of Starbucks for fans of the milky and the overpriced. And if you value consistency then the food franchises that are spreading across the city like a virulent outbreak of gonorrhoea will certainly deliver that.
Luckily, Madrid isn’t about monuments at all. Instead, as the city’s tourist board spectacularly fails to comprehend, it is all about the atmosphere and that all-inclusive energy that lets you know you’re in the best city in the world. I arrived in Madrid in 1990 at the tail end of the movida that had set about removing centuries of repression in a heartbeat. It was genuinely lawless. Drinking and driving was obligatory. I once saw someone stop at a traffic light on Calle Fuencarral, open the driver’s door, vomit onto the pavement, and drive off again just as the light turned green. The toilets in most of the bars in Malasaña were jammed with people snorting cocaine which was fine as everyone pissed in the street anyway. Telephone boxes were the venue of choice for heroin smokers, while the intravenous users tended to favour doorways. The summer air was always thick with marijuana. It’s a wonder anyone got any work done, and most of the time they probably didn’t. Nights out started at midnight and never really finished. There didn’t seem to be any taboos. Kiosks in the Puerta del Sol sold hardcore porn interspersed with El Pais, and gardening magazines. Videoshop window displays mingled Dumbo and Snow White with XXX movies. No one seemed to think it was weird. And then there was the double parking, and the triple parking and the quadruple parking and the brilliant way very unreasonable behaviour could appear completely normal.
It all sounds terrible and I fell in love with it instantly. Strangely it was a very safe environment, apart from the carnage on the roads. There was a slight danger of mugging but none of that recreational violence that makes an evening out in England so special. Everyone was too busy doing whatever they wanted to do. And there were so many people in the street, all the time, at any time. But it couldn’t go on forever. There was a dark side. The heroin epidemic raged through the working class suburbs to the south, and gained a foothold in the middle class suburbs to the north. People burned to death in dark basements of dodgy clubs, and then the euro came along and everything got expensive and suddenly work became the focus, as the only way to obtain those lovely consumer goods that have dictated the rhythms of our lives ever since.
But, even now, even in Malasaña, infested as it is by hipsters with their crap clothes and annoying shops there is no still better place on the planet to have a good time. And of course Madrid is beautiful. It doesn’t have a Big Ben, or a Coliseum, or an Eifel Tower. And it doesn’t need one. There’s beauty enough if you look for it, in the steep little narrow streets of Lavapies, or in the sunsets that light up the Sierra and heaven beyond, or in the Retiro on a sunny day, and there are always plenty of those in Madrid. The local authorities have done everything they can to destroy the city, and even now the Municipal Police are cheerfully trying to obliterate its major asset, the nightlife. But they have failed, as they fail at all endeavours. Beneath all the franchises, and beyond all the ravages of the mindless global tourist, the city’s magnificent heart beats on. I’ve never met anyone who didn’t love Madrid, unless they came from Barcelona. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.