Goodbye Buenos Aires

Andrew Graham-Yooll


Goodbye Buenos Aires

Andrew Graham-Yooll


Goodbye Buenos Aires is a vivid and earthy celebration of Argentina, which chronicles the rise and fall of the British colony in the ’20s and ’30s through the imaginative biography of one of its charismatic rep- resentatives – a hard-drinking, womanising, emigré Scotsman, who cut his way through the bars and brothels of the city whilst trading with farmers up-country. It is also the portrait of an errant father by a son, a descriptive labour of love for Argentina by one of its leading writers and journalists.

‘... an elegy to an immigrant who lived through a turbulent swathe of Argentine history.’ - London Magazine
‘Witty, brutal and beautifully crafted, there is probably no truer portrait of this remarkable country.’ - The Spectator
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Goodbye Buenos Aires
ISBN: 978-1906011-70-3
Format: 296pp demi pb
Place: Argentina

Author Biography

Andrew Graham-Yooll was born in 1944 in Buenos Aires of a Scottish father and English Mother. He is the author of about twenty books, written in English and Spanish. A State of Fear, first published by Eland in 1986 has become a classic on the years of terror in Argentina. Graham-Yool joined the Buenos Aires Herald in 1966, leaving the paper in 1973 when he had to go into exile during the military dictatorship. In Britain he worked for the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and South magazine before being appointed editor of Index on Censorship magazine. In 1994 he returned to Argentina and theBuenos Aires Herald, where he became editor-in-chief and president of the board. Before his return to Argentina, Graham-Yooll was a fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge.


Extract from Chapter One

THIS IS A SToRY I wanted to tell you. It is my father’s story, mostly; it is written as he told it to me, in some ways. This is how his times were and the way I think they should be told. By this means he will survive me. Thus together we can make up for his early death.

My father’s is the story of Argentina, of the end of Empire; an empire built by small countries to make a strong nation and by men who knew that hard work left no time to make money but only made rich men richer.

All the characters in these pages are real, distorted by memory, influenced by imagined recollections. All the situations are true, yet none of them need to be believed. This might cause some confusion. For what we understand is not true we call fiction, and what we do not believe we call fantasy. Such rules are clear. To alter them could give rise to mistaken impressions. This record has to be so.

This is a novel which claims to be the truth, sometimes.

The starting time is in a golden age of English influence in Argentina. It is English. It is not Scottish or Welsh, or anything else, because English is what people in Argentina called it. The ingleses were superior. That age is in part memory alone. Hence the events are recreated with a dash of whim by which many people recalled that they were part of events. Many thought that they were actors with a role to play.

My father was one of those many. The English, Scots and Welsh, and the US citizens, and the Canadians and Australians too, of that period at the start of the twentieth century in South America had much in their favour. It was enough for a man, and especially for a woman, to speak English to feel better than the others. England was at the centre of the world. That time of rich memory and impoverished reality also had the possibility of adventure in places remote from conventional society.

People dreamed of a chance of success without too much work, of the titillation of moderate danger, and yet they seemed fully aware of an approaching apoca- lypse leading to a future crash. For ‘Anglo-Argentina’, an expatriate state in which people were constantly escaping from the surrounding reality, and for the literary genre named Southamericana, that era, of commercial success, personal escapades and English-speaking pre-eminence, began in 1918. The period was intense and short.

That time began at the end of the First World War. on 2 october 1918, The Times printed a report from its Buenos Aires correspondent that showed just how ‘European’ Argentina wanted to feel:

Argentine joy at Allied victory. Buenos Aires, July 25: When brought into contact with the everyday life of Buenos Aires, it is difficult to believe that one is breathing a neutral atmosphere. Allied flags are everywhere; practi- cally the entire Press rejoices with open enthusiasm at the news of Allied victory, and the Fourteenth of July was marked by a gigantic procession, which passed along profusely beflagged streets... When the news first arrived here of the dramatic turn of fortune on the Marne and the rolling back of the Hun forces, I was walking down the Calle Florida, the principal street of Buenos Aires. Newspaper boys were shouting the latest developments with enthusiasm...

European immigration and farming exports had made Buenos Aires one of the great cities of the world in under three decades. It was an attractive destination for expatriation. Think of a Europe blacked-out by war, sickness and poverty, trying to put behind it the enormous grief of long and bloody battles. Then imagine a Buenos Aires of bright lights twinkling, with the magic of wealth and new opportunities, without grief.

As recently as the end of the nineteenth century Buenos Aires had been a small town. The guide books had still been able to inventory facilities available in the urban centre that was to become a capital.

George Newnes’s 1895 book, From London Bridge to Charing Cross Via Yokohama and Chicago, described the city as a large village. He listed four Prot- estant and twenty-five Catholic churches, eighty-three streets, twenty markets, fifty-five clubs, fifteen hotels, 322 schools and a fire brigade of seven companies. Helpfully, Newnes wrote:

In all parts of the city, and more especially in the vicinity of the Boca, there are numerous ‘conventillos’ or common lodging houses in which human beings are crowded together in a manner unknown in the worst slums of London. Some of these dreadful rookeries contain as many as 150 to 200 apartments... The air was deafened by the hiss and creak and rattle of machinery, trains, and lumbering vehicles; the hooting of tram horns, the shrill whistle of the police, the hum of myriads of insects, the incessant lurking of villainous dogs, and above all the peculiar, metallic, ear-splitting chirp of the tree frogs... The appearance of the city is monotonous and dismal, the majority of the streets being only forty feet wide, with high houses, and each bloc, or ‘manzana’, covering an area of about four acres.

But the gleam of something better was there. ‘Very cosmopolitan are the crowds on the streets of pleasure-loving Buenos Ayres. Most people are dressed in European fashion, but large numbers of Basques and Italians wear their national costumes: moreover, the poorer classes of Argentine women still wear their pic- turesque mantilla,’ wrote Newnes.

By the end of the First World War, Buenos Aires had nothing of the small town and was growing rapidly, in a haphazard way. J.A. Hammerton, author of The Argentine Through English Eyes, wrote in the Argentina chapter of Peoples of All Nations, a twelve-volume cyclopedia published in 1923:

There is no romantic element in the character of the Argentine today. The vision of opportunities to make money in large quantities, and in a few years without much labour, took hold of him as soon as the development of the Republic by foreign capital began to bear fruit. He thinks about money all his time, he talks about it most of the time, he spends it lavishly, both in Buenos Aires and in Paris, and he is always planning how to get more...

This aspect of Argentina, Argentines, Argentineans, whatever, would never change. This was the country that the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, and then the Duke of Windsor, found on arrival in 1925. For the British and North Americans, corporations and individuals, in Argentina the decade was develop- ing into one of comfort and success, of money, lots. Business had little difficulty in its operations.

President Alvear liked the English and tried to accommodate their wishes. The threat from an organized trades union movement had been eliminated after a decade of growth in labour strength. A strike in 1920 at the British-owned tanine producers, The Forestal Land, Timber and Railways Company in Santa Fe, had been crushed by the army. The defeat of a strike at the port of Buenos Aires, in May and June 1921, put an end to years of union progress. And the powerful railway unions had also been demolished. In Patagonia, a strike organised by expatriate European anarchists at British-owned sheep farms had been ended by the army, with the execution of the ring-leaders who fell riddled with bullets into the graves they had dug.

English and Scottish emigrants, travelling on their own, were favoured by a post-war fall in European immigration to Argentina. This made jobs easy to find for the loner with something of an education. Argentina’s interests in foreign commerce made employment with export traders attractive and easily available.

The visit to Argentina by the Prince of Wales had been preceded, in August 1924, by that of the heir to the crown of Italy, Umberto di Savoia, who had been met at the port by over one hundred thousand of his homesick countrymen. He wanted his photograph taken with the tango singer and actor, Carlos Gardel. Everybody wanted their photograph taken with Gardel. He was a popular hero, known in all the capitals of Latin America, in New York, Paris and Madrid. So Gardel posed shaking hands with King Alphonse XIII of Spain, with the writers Ramón del Valle-Inclán and José ortega y Gasset, with the French entertainer Maurice Chevalier, and with many more.

Even the Prince of Wales admitted that he would like to meet Gardel.

Buenos Aires and its stars had that kind of effect on visitors. The Maharaja of Kapurtala travelled to Buenos Aires wondering what the fuss was about and wanted to meet Carlos Gardel.

The city by the great brown river was an attraction to the wealthy and adven- turous from all over the world, and the locals were flattered by such attention.

Ralph Deakin, correspondent of The Times, in his report on the Prince’s tour in Africa and South America, and in his book Southward Ho! (1925), described great scenes of welcome. There was the city, three weeks sailing from Tilbury and two from New York, feeling far away, delighted to have European visitors, at once trying to lavishly care for and defraud those who made the long voyage south.

Ear-splitting shouts of ‘Viva el Príncipe de Gales!’ broke out. The Prince’s coach, one of the rarely used state landaus drawn by four magnificent black horses in gilded harness, was bombarded with roses, daffodils and lilies, which came hurtling down mercilessly shower after shower from women and girls leaning over the parapet of the Immigration Building. The carriage entered streets where millions who had waited impatiently almost exploded with enthusiasm... Progress through Florida, the Bond Street of the capital, was at a good deal less than walking pace. The party had just reached the state rooms at Government House when a mass of young men penetrated the hall below and had to be forcibly ejected.

From Casa Basualdo (the ortiz Basualdo family base known as the Palace Andrew) in Buenos Aires, the Prince of Wales wrote to his ‘Darling Mama’, on 17 August 1925. He said that his stop in Montevideo had been more enjoyable, and quieter.

Thank you so much for 2 very sweet letters received in Monte-Video & will you please thank Papa for his & all the nice things he says about S. Africa which I appreciate very much. My 3 days in the capital of Uruguay went off all right tho, it was a comic turn we had some grand laughs – But they gave me a fine & I think genuine welcome & I did my best. I’m picking up a little Spanish and tango as well so as not to feel too much of a stranger in this continent of S. America! And neither are very difficult.

of course this is a far bigger fence – the Argentine (than Uruguay) where we landed from ‘Curlew’ this afternoon sleeping the night on bd – to come up the Plate from Montevideo. You’ll remember the President, Alvear – he came to London in 1923 – and seems a friendly man, tho I’ve seen but little of him as yet, only on an official drive thru this gt city, tho I had a fine welcome here.

The mail goes to-morrow so it’s a rush but I wanted you to have a few lines from here even if I can’t tell you much about this place yet. There’s a big official dinner to-night – a full dress uniform stunt – and I’ll have to read a speech. All of this week is mostly official but I hope it’ll be better after that both in B.A. and way out in estancias in the country. I’m so tired of all these official stunts and stale too. You can understand that and you are too after this hectic summer you’ve had in England.

This is a wonderful city, some very fine buildings, and it’s all lit up to-night. But there were huge crowds in the street – all making a lot of noise and throwing flowers – so one couldn’t look around much. The Alstons, our minister and his wife, are v. nice. I was over at the Legation for tea this evening and met their staff and other Englishmen and their wives. But I must stop now and put my full dress uniform on. Bless you darling Mama. I’m very well but fed up with all these official stunts...

The prince’s second letter from Buenos Aires on 24 August, addressed to his father from the Estancia Huetel, on the Southern Railway, revealed a man exhausted by the hospitality. He had come to Argentina after a gruelling four-month tour of Africa. Protocol and Royalty demanded tours, and public understanding of the significance of such visits.

I’ve had a frightful official week in Buenos Aires. The worst of my life, I believe, and it’s a relief to get out to ‘el campo’ for a couple of days.

President Alvear and his wife are both v. nice and human but he has overdone the stunting and entertaining and we were all of us thru yesterday, tho feel better to-day after the first real night’s sleep we’ve had! These Ar- gentines are queer people – v. Latin in their touchiness and excitability but also human and cheery tho with quite a heavy veneer of pompousness. Their official and ceremonial stunts are v. ostentatious, but absolutely lacking in organization and time means nothing to them. Two or three days of it would have been interesting but a whole week has been too much. However I hope and believe there’ll be a let up from now onwards and I’m doing two days stunting for the British Community in B.A. this week...

I’ve spoken in Spanish three times, just a few sentences and am picking up a little of the language. The wealth in B.A. is amazing, and the cost of living there is 40 per cent more than in New York. But I’m v. glad I’ve been able to come here despite having to go thru with last week and hope I’ll enjoy the remaining month a bit – More private and peaceful days in B.A. and then seeing some estancias.

Still it’s some consolation to feel that it’s all been quite a success and these Argentines certainly are very enthusiastic and demonstrative in their welcomes everywhere. I’ve been absolutely mobbed at most of the stunts and I’ve had the wind-up for the safety of the people involved in the crowds. Alston has been wonderful and helped us thru marvellously. He and his wife are charming and I escape to the Legation often. He’s coming around with me everywhere thank goodness...

There were between thirty and forty thousand British subjects in and around Buenos Aires and they had to be entertained. The North Americans were estimated at a little over one thousand, and they came along too. Keeping them happy was no easy matter. on 28 August, for example, the Prince was required at St Andrew’s Scots School, founded in 1838, at 10 o’clock, within an hour he had to be at the British Hospital, on that site since 1887. Lunch with the British Chamber of Commerce at the restaurant in the Retiro terminal of the Central Argentine Railway was at 12.30. And then there was polo at Hurlingham Club at 2.30pm. oh, and a banquet in the evening, poor Prince.

In Latin America society begins its evening festivities at a late hour and finds it easy to turn night into day. The Prince drove to the State banquet at Gov- ernment House at nine o’clock through thoroughfares as brightly lighted as at the hour of his arrival. The whole length of Avenida de Mayo was bridged with portals of electric light suspended above the sidewalks by invisible wires, the Prince’s motto and feathers alternating with the Federal coat of arms and the English word, ‘Welcome,’

wrote Ralph Deakin in Southward Ho! Along the railway, which is British controlled and mainly British-owned, the

settlements waited and waved, and at Temperley a large community of English residents hailed the train... ‘There does not exist,’ said Dr Cantilo, the Governor (of Buenos Aires), ‘any expression of culture or progress in the province which, directly or indirectly, does not owe its growth and prosperity to your country...’

The Prince’s third and last letter from Buenos Aires, sent to his mother on 1 September 1925, was written on the notepaper of the Argentine Navigation Company (Nicolás Mihanovich) Ltd.

I’m sorry I’ve not written you in so long but these...! Argentine officials have given me a frightful program and no chance at all, with the result that I’ve been absolutely dead beat. You have to see the way they run an official visit before you can have any idea what it’s like. ‘Qué lástima!’ as they say in Spanish ’cos I’m interested in Argentina as I am in any new country and its people but I absolutely cannot compete with it all and be natural and cheerful when they won’t treat me like a human being, which they don’t seem to be able to do. But I won’t bore you with details now... But how can one see estancias or anything when one is surrounded by absolutely hundreds of officials – police – newspaper men (most of the police are newspapermen) and masses of stray and casual hangers-on who are using us (staff and self) to have a good time and eat and drink as much as possible at the expense of the Argentine gov- ernment. And crowd out the special trains too.

I can laugh now but ‘entre nous’ I was as near a mental crash on Saturday night when I left Buenos Aires as doesn’t matter. I felt so crushed by it all when I expected a little freedom and to be peaceful here. So much so that the Admiral and White suggested cutting out Chile.

I thought it over a few hours and then felt better and have decided to go thru with it. I really do feel better now although it’s been a ghastly 2 days in a train going up to Mercedes (Provincia de Corrientes) and Colón (Provincia de Entre Rios) to see Liebig’s estancias and ‘frigorifico’ or meat packing plant. I would have been interested without the crowd and have learnt something of it all despite everything. But it’s a great relief to be on board this ship taking us back to B.A. down the Río Uruguay, where I can any way sleep which I couldn’t do much in the train. We go to the Nelson’s estancia at San Marcos for 2 days before we leave for Chile. I spent 3 days stunting for the British Community in B.A. last week before this trip...

The year 1928 was a good one in which to say goodbye to Scotland and take refuge in Argentina. In South America life looked more lenient than in the old world. In Argentina the British could enjoy the wealth of their fathers and grandfathers, their trade protected and encouraged by the mighty power of their faraway island and their responsibilities were few. Their idea and innova- tions were also reduced in number. But that was not noticed amid the great riches. In Buenos Aires, in spite of the distance, people tried to emulate some of the desperate search for a good time that occupied an impoverished Europe. The difference was that Argentines had few of the difficulties of the post war. In Europe history was being written with anxiety and refused to be ignored. Events raced into being, grandly, or perhaps quietly, but never furtively, to the breathless rhythm of Maurice Ravel’s Bolero, which was published in 1928. The opus Dei was started in Spain, Trotsky went to Siberia, Bertoldt Brecht published The Threepenny Opera, Aldous Huxley published Point Counter- point; Andre Malraux’s The Conquistadors, Federico García Lorca’s Romancero Gitano and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover all went into print in that year.

The writers of Europe produced the papers that would punctuate the passage of a special decade in the century.

In Argentina history did not matter, there wasn’t any, the country was not old enough to have a history.

‘South America’ was a vast region of cheer, tragedy and excitement, in large portions. It said so in The Times, in every report from the continent. The Manguera samba school was started in 1928.

Also in Brazil, Colonel Fawcett vanished. In a report dated in New York, on 11 october, The Times quoted commander George Dyott saying that he was convinced that Colonel P.H. Fawcett, the British explorer, his son John and Mr Raleigh Rimmel, of Los Angeles, missing since May 1925, were dead.

‘He had found traces of their camps and trails, but rumours among the Indians indicated that the party had perished,’ along the Xingú river.

Meanwhile, the Spanish were ‘following with interest the progress of the flight of the Graff Zeppelin, because it depends on the result of the flight whether the airship service from Seville to Buenos Aires will be opened next spring or be postponed again.’ A man named Jorge Luis Borges, aged 27, published a study of Argentina’s Spanish, The Language of the Argentines. Nobody seemed to under- stand it very well but readers said that was because Borges was educated in Swit- zerland. To the embarrassment of the English-speaking community another local writer, Benito Edgardo Lynch (1880-1951), a descendant of Irishmen resident in Buenos Aires since the eighteenth century but identified by Anglo-Argentines as one of their own, published El ingles de los güesos (a play on words which translates as ‘the Englishman of the bones’, a thin man, but also an archaeolo- gist). In the story, an old professor goes to work in a place uninhabited but for a family living in an isolated hut. There is an adolescent daughter whose wordless relationship with the visitor ends in tragedy. People thought that was bad for the English image: the old man and the young girl. The title soon entered the language as a cliché to describe an imaginary prototype of a tall, shy, eccentric Englishman.

In Buenos Aires, on 13 october 1928, Dr Hipólito Yrigoyen began his second term in office as President, amid forebodings of failure. Argentina’s exports had totalled £200 million, the peak of prosperity of the golden years.