Based in London; Formerly of New York, Buenos Aires, Fife, and the Western Cape. Saoránach d'Éirinn.


A writer, blogger, historian, and web designer born in New York, educated in Argentina, Scotland, and South Africa, and now based in London. read more

Borges’s Biblioteca

The old National Library on Calle Mexico in Buenos Aires

The intellectual Alberto Manguel grew up amidst the library of the Argentine diplomatic compound in Tel Aviv, as he recalls in this piece for Britain’s strangely underappreciated Literary Review.

At the end of 2015 Señor Manguel was appointed director of Argentina’s National Library, taking up his position in the middle of last year. In this role he steps into the shoes of Jorge Luis Borges who led the institution from 1955 until he resigned upon Peron’s return in 1973.

Returning to the ‘Queen of the Plata’ after a long career in exile was not a simple affair. As Señor Manguel writes:

The city, of course, was different. I found it difficult to look at the actual streets and houses without remembering the ghosts of what had been there before, or what I imagined had been there before. Buenos Aires felt now like one of those places seen in dreams, the geography of which you think you know but which keeps changing or drifting away as you try to make your way through it.

The National Library I had known during my adolescence was a different one. It stood on Mexico Street in the colonial neighbourhood of Montserrat. The building was an elegant 19th-century palazzo originally built to house the state lottery but almost immediately converted into a library. Borges had kept his office there when he was appointed director in 1955, when ‘God’s irony’, he said, had granted him in a single stroke ‘the books and the night’. Borges was the fourth blind director of the library, a curse I’m intent on avoiding. It was to this building, during the 1960s, that I used to go to meet Borges after school and walk him back to his flat, where I would read stories by Kipling, Henry James and Robert Louis Stevenson to him. After he became blind, Borges decided not to write anything except verse, which he could compose in his head and then dictate. But some ten years later he went back on his resolution and decided to try his hand again at a few new stories. Before starting, Borges wanted to study how the great masters had gone about writing their own. The result was two of his best collections, Doctor Brodie’s Report and The Book of Sand.

The library I discovered half a century later was lodged in a gigantic tower designed in the brutalist style of the 1960s. Borges, passing his hands over the architect’s model, dismissed it as ‘a hideous sewing machine’. The building is supposed to represent a book lying on a tall cement table, but people call it the UFO, an alien thing landed among pretty gardens and blue jacaranda trees. […]

In my adolescence, I tried to write, no doubt under the influence of Borges, a few fantastical stories, now fortunately lost. One of them was about an unbearable know-it-all to whom the devil, in exchange for I don’t recall what, entrusted the overseeing of the world. Suddenly, this oaf realises that he has to deal with everything at once, from the rising of the sun to the turning of every page of every book, and the falling of every leaf, and the coursing of every drop of blood in every vein, and he is crushed by the inconceivable immensity of the task.

I had wanted to try to put my ideas about reading and libraries into action ever since I received my first books. Now I have got my wish with a vengeance. I have never in my life done anything as demanding and overwhelming as directing the National Library of Argentina. I have become, from one day to the next, an accountant, technician, lawyer, architect, electrician, psychologist, diplomat, sociologist, specialist on union politics, technocrat, cultural programmer and, of course, librarian. I hope that, time and Argentinian politics permitting, I’ll be able to start a few things that may allow us to have, in the not too distant future, a national library we can be proud of.

April 6, 2017 12:55 pm | Link | 2 Comments »

All Change for Argentine Newspapers

BsAs Herald emerges as weekly as La Nación goes tabloid

Not Lucas de Soto

One of the saddest pieces of news to hit the Cusackosphere in 2016 was word that the Buenos Aires Herald was ending its 140th year by moving from daily to weekly production. The English-language Herald has been a stalwart of its city and country and, though little known abroad, has ranked among the finest newspapers in the world. But from 2007, when Charleston’s Evening Post Publishing Company sold the Herald onwards to controversial businessman Sergio Szpolski, the paper found itself in increasingly chaotic situations. Robert Cox, Herald editor in the difficult period from 1968 to 1979, said what happened to the paper was “like a car crash”, and blamed the papers owners.

My favourite feature of the Herald was Martin Gambarotta’s weekly ‘Politics and Labour’ column — a witty and insightful peek behind the curtains of Argentine public life. Like Miriam Lord’s Dail sketches for the Irish Times, one wished it was possible to redeploy Gambarotta’s pen at will towards whichever corner of the globe one happened to be situated in.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the republic’s venerable broadsheet La Nación announced around the same time its conversion to a smaller compact size. The centre-right daily is the most prestigious in Argentina since the demise of La Prensa under Peronist persecution. While its weekend editions will maintain their broadsheet format, from Monday to Friday La Nación will be printed in a compact format similar in size to a tabloid.

Marcelo García’s explanation of the changes at the Herald can be found below. (more…)

January 18, 2017 11:52 am | Link | No Comments »

A Maori in Buenos Aires

The Argentine stopover of Te Pēhi Kupe

So far as I can tell, the first Maori to visit Argentina (or the United Provinces of the River Plate as it was then called) was the young nobleman Te Pehi Kupe in October 1824. (The name is spelt varyingly as Te Pēhi Kupe, Tupai Cupa, Te Pai Kupa, and Tippahée Cupa). Te Pehi was born on the North Island, probably around 1795, and was a senior-line descendant of Toarangatira (founder of the Ngati Toa tribe) as well as an uncle to the more famous Ngati Toa chief, Te Rauparaha.

Most of New Zealand was a bit of a mess at the time, as various Maori tribes fought each other for land to grow potatoes on. Te Pehi Kupe, being a chief and military leader, was desirous to go to Europe in order to obtain weapons for his tribe. When the British ship Urania went past the southern tip of the North Island, Te Pehi forced himself aboard despite the violent resistance of the ship’s officers and crew. When asked what he desired by the Urania‘s captain, Richard Reynolds, Te Pehi replied in broken English, “Go Europe, see King George”.

Captain Reynolds did not think this a good idea and, knowing the Maori to be good swimmers, tried to have him thrown overboard, but the native nobleman’s physical strength prevented this. (And a good thing, too, as Te Pehi managed to save the Captain from drowning later on in the journey.)

The Urania made its return to England with Te Pehi Kupe aboard, calling at Lima and then sailing around the Southern Cone, where they called in at Buenos Aires. George Thomas Love provides us with an account of the Maori’s arrival in A Five Years’ Residence in Buenos Ayres (published in 1827):

In the month of October, 1824, the visit of a New-Zealand chief to Buenos Ayres, by name Tippahée Cupa, attracted much curiosity; he arrived in the British ship Urania, Captain Reynolds. Tippahée came alongside this ship in Cook’s Straits, with a war canoe filled with his people, and, in spite of the remonstrances and even force used by Captain R. refused to quit the vessel, expressing his determination to proceed to England. He bade his followers an affectionate adieu, enjoining obedience to his successor during his absence. The Urania sailed for London with her passenger the 8th December, 1824.

Tippahée, when he first arrived in Buenos Ayres, was clothed in an old red coat, formerly belonging to a London postman. The English paid him many attentions, inviting him to dine at their houses, and new clothing him. His behaviour at table was easy and unembarrassed; and, when requested, he would perform the dances and war songs of New Zealand. He understood a little of the English language, and spoke a few words of it; his intelligent manners, and circumspect conduct, rendered him an universal favourite.

On the map he could trace the ship’s course from New Zealand to Lima and Buenos Ayres. He knew an Englishman immediately; the Spaniards he did not much admire, fancying they viewed him with contempt, and was glad to get among Englishmen. His age is about forty; he possesses amazing strength; his tattooed face and appearance always attracted a crowd after him in Buenos Ayres.

On board ship he was found very useful, doing all sorts of work, but he positively declined to go aloft. The fate of Captain Thompson, and the crew of the British ship Boyd, ought to bespeak caution in using coercion with these savage chieftains of New Zealand.

In Cruise’s book of New Zealand, Tippahee was shewn a picture of a chief of his country, with which he was greatly delighted. The object of his journey to England is to solicit arms and ammunition, to place him upon a par with a rival chief, who possesses those requisites.

In England, Te Pehi was indeed presented to King George IV. He also learned to ride, visited factories, was given many gifts, and survived the measles before leaving England aboard the Thames on 6 October 1825. In Te Pehi’s absence abroad, peace had been agreed between the Ngati Toa and their Ngati Apa rivals. Ngati Toa eyes soon turned to the South Island, and during the military campaign there Te Pehi Kupe was killed, his body cooked and eaten, and his bones turned into fish hooks.

Still, at least he enjoyed Buenos Aires before he died.

August 12, 2013 3:56 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Linea A Loses Its Lustre

Century-Old Buenos Aires Subté Carriages Being Replaced

Disappointing news from Buenos Aires: having reached their hundredth year of service, all the original carriages on Linea A of the Subté (Line A of the Buenos Aires Underground) are to be replaced. Linea A was the first urban underground railway in South America, built by the Anglo-Argentine Tramways Company in 1913. The cars were built between 1911 and 1919 by the Belgian company La Brugeoise et Nicaise et Delcuve and were designed to be used as both tram and underground cars: low entrances at the ends permitted street-level access while middle doors were at platform level for the Subté. In 1927, the carriages were altered for underground-only use.

From 1921 onwards, the rolling stock underwent seven different refurbishments, but all with the original chassis and mechanics, and keeping the traditional 1910s interior. La Brugeoise having since been subsumed into Bombardier, original parts are no longer available for purchase, so they are custom-made at the Polvorín workshop of the Subté operating company. Of the entire Buenos Aires Underground network, these cars have the lowest rate of mechanical failure.

The La Brugeoise carriages are being gradually replaced over the next two months, and Line A will run with entirely new rolling stock from March of this year.

January 20, 2013 8:20 pm | Link | 6 Comments »

A Rioplatense Kingdom?

New book explores the monarchic projects of the River Plate, 1808–1825

A book recently published in Buenos Aires sheds new light on the difficult transition period between the Spanish Empire on the River Plate and the foundation of the Argentine Republic. The launch party for Bernado Lozier Almazán’s Proyectos monárquicos en el Río de la Plata 1808-1825. Los reyes que no fueron (“Monarchic projects in the River Plate 1808–1825: The kings who weren’t”) was held recently in the Quinta ‘Los Ombúes’, home of the municipal library, museum, and archives of San Isidro, the city in the Provincia de Buenos Aires known as Argentina’s ‘Rugby Capital’.

Proyectos monárquicos highlights the forgotten truth that most of the Argentine ‘patriots’ — San Martín, Belgrano, and Alvear among them — were monarchist, not republican. Proposals involving the courts of Spain, Portugal, France, and even England were proffered, and there was even an interesting proposal to marry a European prince to an Incan princess and offer him the throne of the Río de la Plata. (more…)

September 8, 2011 8:30 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

Civilised Barbarism, Barbaric Civilisation

“Despite my inclinations to the contrary, I have racial sensitivities. I am Latin. I regard the civilised barbarian in the North with an inherited sense of mistrust. Today [the United States] has become a colossal society, and has adopted the goal of imposing its industry, its commerce, and its imperialism. Each citizen of the Union is a kind of stockholder… [upholding] an ideal of material perfection above moral perfection, and equating civilisation with the triumph of industry and commerce. We, by contrast, descendants of the Latins and educated by the Greeks, regard that person as most civilised who is most morally perfect. … I am proud to say I am bored with railroads and factory chimneys.” – Belisario J. Montero

ONE OF THE best aspects of Catholicism is the affirmation (for lack of a better word) of absolutely everything that is good throughout the world. All the peoples of the earth, each with their particular genius, eventually descend from the same parents. This gives one, I hope, a certain sympathy towards every nation and every people, and an anticipation that each one will eventually grow into the full flower of a Christian order appropriate to their particular characteristics and personality. Christianity is not oppressive and conformist in its universalism but instead all-embracing.

There is much to be admired in the sentiments expressed by Belisario Montero, an Argentine diplomat, in the comments cited above. To put them in context, they were made after the final collapse of the Spanish Empire following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Argentina, as you already know, is a place that excites me. In her is found so much of the idea of Europe, varyingly perfected and perverted, accidentally demolished in an attempt to save it and then put back together again not precisely as it was before. Marx “travelled” to Buenos Aires, but so did Maurras (and ultimately the Frenchman was more influential). For a time, photographs of Mussolini cut from the illustrated magazines were plastered onto the walls of aspirational working-class porteños trying to keep up with the latest European fad, and the military elite and social aristocracy combined to oppose the vulgar and destructive forces of liberal democracy and unbridled capitalism. Almost every coup in the nation’s history was received with a sigh of relief, especially (and ironically) the coups getting rid of whomever the previous welcome coup put in charge. Argentina has a long history of terrible success and beautiful failure. Perón himself is the very embodiment of this.

Of course, unlike Don Belisario, I am not a Latin. (more…)

May 13, 2011 3:20 pm | Link | 7 Comments »

The Drakensberg in Buenos Aires

An Argentine-South African Naval Encounter

The South African Ship Drakensberg sailed into Buenos Aires last month as part of the sea phase of ATLASUR VIII, a naval exercise involving ships from Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and South Africa. Mr Tony Leon, former Leader of the Opposition and currently South African Ambassador to Argentina, was picked up by the ship-borne Oryx helicopter and landed on Drakensberg to observe the sail into Buenos Aires’s harbour. Mr Leon served in the SAN aboard President Pretorius in 1976. (more…)

January 9, 2011 4:06 pm | Link | 19 Comments »

The Start of Something Big in Argentina

The first-ever Nuestra Señora de Cristiandad Pilgrimage to Luján

SMALL SEEDS, IF well-planted and tended to, flower into much larger growths. On a Friday morning last month, just four pilgrims set out from the town of Rawson in the Buenos Aires province of Argentina, but by the time they reached their destination — a Latin Mass in the Marian basilica of Luján — their numbers swelled to nearly a hundred. The pilgrimage of November 5th, 6th, and 7th, under the patronage of ‘Our Lady of Christendom’ (Nuestra Señora de Cristiandad) was inspired by the traditional Paris-Chartres pilgrimage every Pentecost weekend. The organisers hope that, like the Chartres pilgrimage, this trek to Luján will become an annual recurring event.

“Renewing Christendom in Argentina” was the theme of this year’s pilgrimage, which “seeks to promote the rich tradition of the Roman Catholic Church for our times” the organisers announced in a press release after its completion.

“This new 100-kilometre pilgrimage was an act of reparation and praise to God, imploring the salvation of souls through the renewal of Christian culture and the rediscovering of the bi-millennial tradition of the Church.” (more…)

December 12, 2010 7:14 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

A Pro-Life Politico in Argentina

In the Sunday after-church tea-drinking circles of Manhattan, much thought and disputation was provoked by Damian Thompson’s recent revelation that the senator-elect from Florida, Mr. Marco Rubio, is in fact an evangelical Protestant despite his office claiming he is a Catholic. Word comes from Argentina about a member of parliament named Cynthia Hotton, a brazen defender of the right to life and solidarity with the unborn. (more…)

November 14, 2010 10:43 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Monument to the Latin Genius

The Palacio Barolo, Avenida de Mayo, Buenos Aires

THE PROSPECT WAS horrifying. The year was 1919, and Europe had only just brought to an end an orgy of self-destruction lasting several years. The negotiations to conclude a peace treaty at Versailles were ongoing, but from abroad it looked as if the continent had descended into a trend of violence, decline, and destruction. That year, Luis Barolo, an Italian textiles manufacturer who had immigrated to Argentina, commissioned his fellow-countryman Mario Palanti to design a fascinating and mysterious structure as a monument to “the Latin Genius” Dante Alighieri — a repository in the New World for the poet’s legacy as the continent that gave him birth slid into oblivion. (more…)

November 12, 2010 11:41 am | Link | 1 Comment »

4 de Junio

On June 4, 1943, a murky group of Argentine military officers called the GOU (standing for United Officers’ Group, or Government, Order, Unity) overthrew President Ramon Castillo and ended the Década Infame, or ‘Infamous Decade’ that had begun with the 1930 coup against Hipólito Yrigoyen. The ’43 coup was led by General Arturo Rawson, who served as President of Argentina for a month before being replaced by the more politically minded Gen. Pedro Ramírez.

Ramírez sympathised with the Axis powers in the Second World War, and his inability to successfully maintain Argentina’s neutrality in the face of U.S. pressure led to his resignation and succession by Gen. Edelmiro Farrell, who was viewed by most as the instrument of his charismatic junior, the infamous Col. Juan Perón (with whom we are all too familiar).

This poster produced by the junta incorporates a number of the symbols of Argentine patriotism and nationalism. ‘Liberty’ and ‘Justice’ are proclaimed the principles of the junta, and underneath the date of the coup is announced the ‘Dawn of a Greater Argentina’. The Phrygian cap of liberty, a frequent Argentine emblem, rests atop the scales of justice while the stars of the Southern Cross imply a divine favour over the new regime.

The map of Argentina coloured in yellow includes the British colony of the Falkland Islands and Antártida Argentina, the Argentine Republic’s claimed possession on the Antarctic continent (which overlaps with competing claims by Chile and the United Kingdom). Behind the whole composition, the Argentine Cockade looms ascendant like a rising sun, affirming the text’s proclamation of a new dawn under the nationalist-revolutionary regime.

June 13, 2010 8:05 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

BA: “an old-fashioned European city”

“Argentina has to be one of the most underrated travel destinations,” Michael Buerk writes in his salute to Argentina in today’s Daily Telegraph. An excerpt:

AT THE HEART OF IT ALL IS Buenos Aires, one of the world’s most exciting cities. I was there for months during the Falklands War, reporting for the BBC. They were praying for me in our local church. If only they had known how close I had come to eating myself to death – those steaks are huge – they would have prayed even harder.

It is an intensely Anglophile country, and was even then. The upper crust didn’t want to argue about the sovereignty of the Falklands (any more than they would want to argue now about oil drilling); they wanted to know where in Jermyn Street to order their cavalry twills. The hundreds of thousands of descamisados (literally, “shirtless ones”) who packed the Plaza de Mayo screaming for Mrs Thatcher’s blood would break off when they saw the BBC logo on the camera to make sure they had got the lyrics to “Hard Day’s Night” exactly right. The city’s biggest department store was called Harrods, the poshest club was (and is) the Hurlingham and the most popular film during the war was “Chariots of Fire”.

The veterans of the Malvinas, portly and grey-haired now, camp out in the Plaza de Mayo, still begging for better pensions. Porteños (the locals’ name for themselves) call them “the whiners”. The memorial to the 700 or so Argentine dead is prominent enough, but it is just a list of names and the eternal flame has long since gone out. It faces the great clock, built by the British a century ago (with a movement copied from Big Ben). The locals still call it the English Tower, even though it was officially renamed after the conflict. The cause still rankles, but the war is an embarrassment.

There’s poverty in the suburbs but, at its heart, Buenos Aires is a grand city, laid out in the days when its wealth and its future seemed unlimited. The world’s widest avenues, finest opera house, most opulent fin de siècle town houses, and – my idea of heaven – Italian restaurants cooking the world’s most wonderful meat. (Try La Brigada, where they cut the tenderloin with spoons. And don’t order “Baby Beef” looking for a light meal; it weighs in at just short of a kilo.)

It’s an old-fashioned European city, with a café society oddly short of dark faces. The original natives, and the African slaves, were wiped out or pushed out. The most prominent of the country’s remaining blacks (70 or so, it is said) was arrested at the airport recently because officials thought her Argentine passport must be a forgery.

The city is full of grand monuments, mostly to the chancers who snatched independence when Spain had its back turned, bowing the knee to Napoleon. They are as extravagantly memorialised in death as they were spurned in life; nearly all of them died in exile.

Argentina’s real heroes can be seen, stuffed, in the colourful old dock area, La Boca. Life-size models stare at you from the shops and down from the balconies. There are just three of them, and a tawdry trio they are. Eva Duarte Peron, of course, the actress who slept her way to the bottom of the movie business and into the life of a crypto-fascist colonel on the make; a long-dead tango warbler called Carlos Gardel; and Maradona, the squat footballer with the hand of God and the soul corroded by cocaine. Two of them died young; the third is still trying.

Death is a big thing in Argentina. La Recoleta cemetery is worth the trip in itself. It’s an entire suburb of gloriously overblown mausolea; a gentleman’s club for the dead, even harder to get into than the Garrick. Evita is there, in the Duarte family tomb. Her father’s relatives famously said they wouldn’t be seen dead with her; now she’s banged up with them for all eternity. There’s a new museum to Evita that’s worth seeing, with a pinch of salt.

I would dispute Bs.As. being “an old-fashioned European city”. It is instead a rather vigorous American city that retains many of the best attributes of an old-fashioned European city.

March 19, 2010 11:40 am | Link | 1 Comment »

Argentines Recall Blessed Emperor

An Argentine correspondent informs us that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was offered on October 28th at the Church of St. Boniface, the German-speaking parish of the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the beatification of Blessed Charles, Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary. The mass was organized by Viscountess Huges Stier de Saint Jean (née Princess Isabelle Auersperg-Breunner), whose mother was a descendant of the Emperor Franz Joseph through his daughter Valerie. The Mass was offered in Spanish and German, with the prayers of intention read in those languages as well as Hungarian, Slovak, Ukrainian, Croatian, and Italian.

Category: Charles of Austria

October 30, 2009 8:00 pm | Link | 1 Comment »

Avenida de Mayo

Looking down the Avenida de Mayo towards the Argentine Congress in the 1910s.

July 15, 2009 7:02 pm | Link | 8 Comments »

A humble house in Buenos Aires

Landowner Ignacio Pirovano rests in his family’s Buenos Aires townhouse, 1964.

July 6, 2009 2:34 pm | Link | 5 Comments »

A new look for Argentina’s Herald

The Buenos Aires Herald is one of those newspapers that, by the grace of God, simply must continue existing no matter what horrors befall the newspaper industry as a whole. Finding up-to-date information on Argentina, in English, can be exceptionally frustrating and I had the Sunday version of the paper sent to me in New York every week; perfect reading for the train ride into work. Martin Gambarotta’s “Politics & Labour” column has to be one of the most informative and well-written political columns in any English-speaking newspaper. I also enjoyed the paid announcements section, informing readers of golf tournaments in aid of the Hospital Británico, meetings of the British-Argentine Chamber of Commerce, and when the next convocation of the South America Piping Association would be held. That said, when the Herald started denominating their subscription fee in dollars instead of pesos, I had to call it quits — though very reluctantly.

All the time while perusing the newspaper, however, I kept thinking “This could be better…”. Readers know how design-obsessed I am, especially when it comes to newspapers, and the Buenos Aires Herald would be such a better newspaper if they just tweaked a few things: a more judicious font choice, standardized white-spaces between columns, a few meliorations here and there. But now they’ve gone and redesigned the thing — without seeking the input of this devoted fan! — and they’ve got it all wrong. (more…)

June 19, 2009 3:32 pm | Link | 3 Comments »

Argentina Mourns an Honest Man

RAÚL ALFONSÍN WAS often a stumbling, bumbling leader when he served as President of the Argentine Republic but, in a country of rampant corruption and abuse, his personal integrity was unassailable. It was probably for that reason that Argentines came on to the streets of Buenos Aires in April to mourn the loss of, certainly not the greatest statesman of the country’s history, but at least something simple: an honest man. For more on the late president, see my piece over at (more…)

June 16, 2009 8:01 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

A Sunday Afternoon in Buenos Aires

A sidewalk café on a Sunday afternoon, Buenos Aires, 1964.

Photograph by Leonard Mccombe.

March 7, 2009 2:25 pm | Link | 4 Comments »

February 1, 2009 11:07 am | Link | 1 Comment »
December 17, 2008 8:32 pm | Link | 4 Comments »
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