John Galliano and the future of hate speech

This time last year, John Galliano was preparing to make his “triumphant return” to London Fashion Week as one of the most celebrated designers in the world. Since then, his reputation has disintegrated at an astonishing rate. Once described as “fashion’s great romantic”, his behaviour has earned him some rather less flattering labels. This week saw the conclusion of his trial at the Palais de Justice  in Paris. He was convicted of making “casting public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity” during two ruinous exchanges.

 

The scandal erupted when he was arrested on 25 February this year, and the details of his outbursts came to light. This marked the beginning of his spectacular downfall, which saw him fired from his position as chief designer at Christian Dior on 1 March. His sentencing today is the latest development in one of the biggest controversies to shake the fashion industry in recent years. But it has raised a number of wider reaching questions about how hate speech is handled.

 

This is one situation in which even liberal democracies are willing to accept some limitations on freedom of expression. There are some obvious reasons for this, the most compelling of which relate to consistency and deterrence. Certainty and predictability are vital aspects of the rule of law. As such, it follows that the law should punish the threat of violence equally robustly, whether that threat takes the form of a raised fist or vicious words. Race and religion are inherent to a person’s identity and integrity, which is what makes them such exceptionally sensitive territory.

 

The deterrence point is more politically grounded. I would not generally be in favour of speech being punishable purely because it was offensive, but the practical and political implications of hate speech cannot be ignored. Indeed, much of the legislation on hate speech has been enacted after major political events. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, for example, has been framed as a legislative response to the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London.

 

There are countless examples from around the world which show exactly how damaging racial tensions can be. In the European context, an intense fear of anti-Semitism and its consequences is understandable. That is why figures such as the Thilo Sarrazin and Henryk Broder are so singularly reviled.

 

What Galliano said to the women involved was undeniably deplorable. No one is seeking to defend the views he expressed. Today’s decision, however, could indicate an ideological departure from the post-WW2 horror at this type of speech towards a more lenient approach. When he was originally arrested, he knew that he could face up to six months in prison. Instead, he was given suspended fines of €6,000 and compelled to pay a symbolic fine of €1 to the women, as well as paying the legal costs of five anti-racist organisations who brought the case against him. As his lawyer remarked: “(The decision) amounts to no penalty.”

 

Of course there were mitigating circumstances in the individual case, so it is too early to detect whether this actually is the start of a new judicial trend. For example, the court took into account Galliano’s apologies at his hearing in June. The judges may also have recognised that losing his chief designer role was a very severe penalty, which meant that he had suffered enough for his actions. Galliano himself asked them to consider his physical and mental state at the time of the incidents.

 

Whatever influence these factors had on the sentencing, anti-racist organisations may well view this outcome as dismissive. Even if they acknowledge that Galliano could end up paying substantial legal costs, the ostensible message is that the law is becoming more forgiving in such cases. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen.

Originally published on The Vibe on 10 September 2011: http://www.the-vibe.co.uk/2011/09/10/john-galliano-and-the-future-of-hate-speech/

 

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The Leaderless Revolution

Former British diplomat Carne Ross has attracted a great deal of attention over his latest book, The Leaderless Revolution. Last night he spoke at the LSE, at an event which was so popular that they had to open an overflow room where the talk was broadcast via video link. The interest in the book is hardly surprising. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the public appetite for leaderless revolutions has rarely been so high.

Ross was introduced by Charlie Beckett, director of the LSE’s media think-tank, POLIS. He began by asking whether a “new kind of politics” is emerging. More specifically, he questioned whether governments are adequately equipped to address the problems we now face, or whether this has become the domain of “citizen activists and journalists.” Carne Ross would answer this latter question emphatically in the affirmative.

He began his talk by showing a picture of Piero della Francesca’s Ideal City. In the painter’s ideal city, Ross pointed out, there were no people. He used this as a starting point to ask the audience: “What would your vision be?” He made various suggestions which might be common to all our utopias: that the city would be “peaceful, crime free, uncorrupt and cosmopolitan”, and that there would be a “sense of community”.

He also suggested that our ideal cities might be “egalitarian” and contrasted this with the situation in Mumbai. This raised one shortcoming of Ross’ discussion, which was that he spoke of “egalitarianism” (as opposed to equality of treatment or opportunity) as if it were, per se, a universally accepted good. Nonetheless, having identified these desiderata, Ross went on to remark that it “says something about our political culture that it seems ridiculous to declare these aspirations”.

Throughout his talk, he was very critical of contemporary political systems. He claimed that there is “growing evidence” that governments and other decision-making institutions are “less and less capable of administering problems” including “climate change, economic volatility and terrorism”. The public is correspondingly “more and more sceptical about the claims governments make”, and there is “increasing disenchantment with politics”. Referring to US election campaigns, he remarked that “it is now political necessity to say that you hate the political system.”

This disenchantment, he claimed, has led to “increasing alienation from politics, and perhaps from each other and our authentic selves.” He expanded on this by saying that we “seem detached from each other, and certainly from the decisions being made”. The crux of the issue, as Ross sees it, is that we have “lost agency”, which he posits as an “essential component of life”. As such, his argument continues, “we have to take it back.”

He explained that his thesis comprises four key ideas. The first was that, “in an increasingly interconnected system” (globalisation), a change can be implemented by one person and quickly move to be adopted by small and then larger groups. He cited suicide bombing as an example, explaining that it started inSri Lankaand spread to the Middle East, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa before extending to Europe and the US.  States, he said, do not operate as a series of “discrete, independent players” but that “we live in an order which resembles a Jackson Pollock painting.”

His second idea was that it is action, rather than words, which convinces people to change. He contrasted the public response to the Spanish Civil War and to the killing in Darfur. In the former example, thousands fought and died to overcome fascism; in the latter, thousands signed petitions and “the killing continues with impunity.” In the late twentieth century, Ross claims, “we have shifted from action to inaction”, which is why effecting change has been more difficult.

The third idea focused on responsibility. This was one of the most illuminating parts of the talk, as he talked about his experiences in Kosovo, where he worked as Strategy Coordinator to the UN in 2004. He reminded us that at the time Kosovo was not an independent state, and said that you “could sense the political tension in the street”, which then “boiled over into violence.” From the way Carne Ross spoke, it was obvious that what he had encountered in Kosovo had moved him profoundly. “Violence engulfed the whole country,” he said, “and the peacekeepers had completely lost control.”

Ross explained that one cause of this violent disorder was the “political disenfranchisement of Kosovans from the decisions made about their future.”  He highlighted the importance of responsibility by pointing out that “if you don’t give people responsibility for their affairs you cannot expect them to behave responsibly”.

He advocated a departure from the “Golden Rule” that “we should treat others as we would like to be treated” on the grounds that this is ultimately solipsistic. A better maxim, he suggested, would be that we should “ask people what it is they want” and cultivate a system of collective decision-making. The internet has made it much easier to voice and hear such opinions.

Carne Ross’ fourth and final idea was central to his whole thesis – that there should be mass participation in decision-making, which, he alleged, “leads to better outcomes than elite decision-making”. Reasons he gave for this included the increased respect people would have for each other and for “science and facts”, and that the outcome would be “more equality and more egalitarianism”. He gave the example of Porto Alegre, a town in Brazil where there is “mass participatory decision-making over how the local government is spent”. Ross claimed that this initiative has led to resources being more equally distributed in what was previously a “very unequal” town.

Another advantage of including people in decision making is that “people are likely to be more committed to the outcome”. Ross illustrated his point by talking about the plans to rebuild New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He explained that the attempted online negotiations had been unsuccessful because of the “internet deficit” which made them unrepresentative. However, when they organised meetings they managed to secure an egregious 80% acceptance for their decisions since “everyone felt consulted and included.”

He explained how his theory worked in the corporate context by looking at the example of John Lewis, where all workers are partners and “enjoy agency”. They are “consulted over strategic decisions” and the Board is elected. Ross suggested that “this method of politics could fit under the generic root of the word “anarchism”.” He was quick to emphasise that he was not talking about violence, and that the association between anarchism and violence was a false one.

He moved on to condemn the current system whereby there can be state legitimisation of violence, quoting Max Weber who said that “the State has a monopoly on violence.” When asked aboutLibyahe opined that, whilst he had supported the  British government’s decision, “it should not have been necessary to get to the point where military intervention was necessary to protect civilians”. He thought that we “should have been isolating the regime and trying to sabotage them” through the non-violent options available. Indeed, he said that the Arab Spring and Libya had shown that our policy towards the Middle East has been “precisely wrong” and that rather than “collaborating with oppressive regimes to create order” we should have been encouraging “democratisation by the countries’ own people.”

On the subject of the Arab Spring, Ross revealed that he had “felt envy” because those involved in the uprising aspired to a “better” system of democracy, a desire he believes that we in the West have lost. He views this as folly, because now that “governments are losing the power to arbitrate about the things which most affect us”, we have “no other choice but to take it on ourselves to solve the problems”.

He acknowledged that this would be a “messy” process, and that there would not be a “geometric Ideal City”. He finished by asserting that the “greatest obstacle to this kind of political change” would not be the complexity of the task, or the unwillingness of the current dispensation to “welcome this change”. The greatest obstacle, he claimed, stems from ourselves. He blamed our “fear of change and ridicule” and, most importantly, our “fear of our own power to transcend the limits of the current models of what human beings are capable of: our own power to do something which is actually extraordinary.”

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Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century

London’s galleries have put on an impressive show this summer, but one exhibition stood out as unmissable. This was the Royal Academy’s “Eyewitness” exhibition, which features Hungarian photography from the 20th century. This was always going to be an ambitious feat, given the wide ranging and diverse subject matter. The photographs span almost a century of political and artistic upheaval and innovation. These remarkable artists brought new ideas and techniques to the spheres of photography and journalism.

The earliest photograph displayed was taken in 1912, and shows a young man sleeping in a café. This image exemplifies the popular technique of creating a ‘Z’ shape using the lines of the background. The most surprising aspect of this portrait is that it was taken by a very young Kertesz, who was then an amateur photographer. This early work pointed to a skill which would be lauded enthusiastically in the years to come.

The photographs from 1914 were primarily composed in the ‘Magyar style’, which involved layering film to produce romantic images which presented Hungary as a rural idyll. Rudolf Badogh was a renowned photographer and keen proponent of this technique. His words appear to have inspired this exhibition, as well as several generations of Hungarian photographers: “We need photographs to communicate our particularities and our national character.” It has been suggested that photography was the most effective way to communicate this to a global audience, since Hungarian was not spoken elsewhere.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Badogh moved away from his halcyon fields with no horizons. He recorded the brutality of war, paving the way for celebrated war photographers. One of the most famous of these was Robert Capa, whose work is displayed later in the gallery alongside that of his brother, Cornell. Robert Capa, who died in the course of his work, was described by Stefan Lorant as “the greatest war photographer in the world”. His Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, taken during the Spanish Civil War, is certainly one of the most recognisable and powerful examples of its kind.

For Hungary, the 20th century was one of war and suffering, fuelled by the violent clash of ideologies. I was especially moved by the images ofBudapest’s iconic bridges, destroyed in the Second World War. This was a tragic symbol of a once great nation felled by the horror of war.

More than many other countries, Hungary experienced the extremes of fascist and socialist rule. It fared equally badly under both. The 1950s saw the rise of Soviet-style government, interrupted briefly by the revolution of 1956. These were dark days for Hungary, as this uprising was violently suppressed by the Soviets. This oppression was intellectual as well as physical. The state censored art which it perceived as challenging its authority. The only photography officially permitted was that which reflected Socialist Realism.

The most striking example of this censorship was László Fejes’ Wedding. This was the piece which led to Fejes being banned from publishing his work, and one for which he won a World Press Photo Prize in 1965. Even as the international community was celebrating his brilliance, his prizewinning work could not be displayed in his home country. Fejes was punished for his depiction of a wedding party walking across the balcony of an apartment block in Budapest. This seems innocuous enough, until you notice the bullet holes: scars which speak of the revolution the authorities tried to hide.

The Hungarian photographers responded to this challenge by producing more and more controversial works depicting poor living conditions and drug abuse. The final image is a glorious celebration of the regime’s demise. A statue of the archetypal socialist worker falls towards the viewer as two distant figures appear in jubilation. This captures the rebellious spirit of the Hungarian photographers.

Cultural identity is a key strand which runs through these works. We see how this has been challenged and shaped by political events and the Diaspora of the talented. These photographers saw daily life with rare clarity. They captured people and sensations with equal skill whether the subject was a fashion model or a Republican fighter. The Royal Academywas right to celebrate such remarkable contributions to art and the media. “Eyewitness” was a triumph, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Tender Comrade

Tender Comrade, a 1943 film starring Ginger Rogers, is notable less for its cinematic merits than for the political controversy it provoked years later. The film’s director, Edward Dmytryk, was blacklisted, and imprisoned for several months during the Second Red Scare of the late 1940s. Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of the atmosphere of fear and suspicion by launching his infamous attacks on Communism.

Tender Comrade is one of a number of films which were called in evidence against Dmytryk when he was investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. On watching the film it is obvious that the alleged links to communist ideology were extremely contrived, and this is hardly surprising. Even the use of the word “comrade” in the film’s title was said to be a communist reference. In the context of a war film this was hardly the most obvious conclusion.

The film concerns the American Home Front as experienced by four women whose husbands are fighting overseas. It opens with the familiar scene of a wife greeting her husband who has returned unannounced on leave. Having satisfactorily swept her off her feet and kicked the door closed (an impressive feat at a first attempt) the couple recline on the sofa. There follows a series of atmospheric close-ups as they settle back into each other’s company.

We see them enjoying the short time they have together before they have to say goodbye at the station the next day. Rogers epitomises the distraught wife sending her husband away to war. She weeps for him on the platform, dressed elegantly in black. This was a rare fashion moment in a film where she showcases a host of bizarre outfits.

She then returns to join her co-workers at Douglas Aircraft, a defence plant. Over lunch, they realise that it would make better economic sense for them to live together. So they gather their wages together and move in to a house which is much more comfortable than each could afford independently. The concept of living collectively as a community and splitting their money equally (according to their motto, “share and share alike”) is, admittedly, somewhat nuanced with communist ideals. But these are also features of a democratic living arrangement, and it is continuously framed as such. I didn’t count how many times the word “democracy” was expressly used in this way, but it did become something of a refrain. Perhaps this was indeed a case of Dmytryk protesting too much.

Behind these rather crudely presented political messages are the stories of the women’s personal lives. The film particularly focuses on the relationship between Jo (Rogers’ character) and her husband Chris, whose picture she keeps on her bedside table. Their story is told through a series of flashbacks signposted by a dreamlike motif where the couple are shown holding hands on a hillside. The technique is old fashioned, but it is rather sweetly done here. The image is always preceded by a line which is relevant to the flashback, which can come across as contrived.

The film portrays the daily lives of these women and the challenges they encounter. This is often rather clumsily done. They hire a housekeeper from Dresden, who decries the way that Germany “murdered” its democracy. She is the one who objects most vocally when the women are given an extra ration of bacon. She condemns such hoarding as unfair on other people, particularly those who were fighting in the war. This incident gives rise to a fairly overwrought Kantian discussion about what would happen if everyone behaved like that.

It is undeniable that large sections of the film’s dialogue do constitute propaganda, but the explicit message is overwhelmingly pro-American. In the closing scenes, Jo gives her baby son a speech about how his father had died fighting for a good and noble cause, and cautions that he should never forget that or be led to believe otherwise. She claims that the legacy his father left him was a better world to live in, and that the price he paid was his life. Yes, it is extremely clichéd, and this monologue did make for slightly painful viewing, but we must remember it was 1943. It was made as entertainment for an audience living through the very war it depicted. As a film it certainly has its faults, but it offers an intriguing depiction of the clash of ideologies which defined that era.

Originally published by The Vibe on 21st August 2011: http://www.the-vibe.co.uk/2011/08/21/tender-comrade-film-review/

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Glamour of the Gods: Hollywood Portraits

I am very fond of the National Portrait Gallery, and particularly enjoyed their Hoppé exhibition earlier this year. So I had high expectations for their latest offering, which the gallery describes as “a celebration of Hollywood portraiture from the industry’s ‘Golden Age’” from 1920 until 1960. The platinum prints, which came from the John Kobal Foundation’s extensive archive, were created using the original negatives to stunning effect. The premise of the exhibition was to show how such photographs contributed to the legacies of the stars they depict.

 

On entering the exhibition I was met by a dazzling array of iconic images. They effectively capture the opulence of the lifestyle which Hollywood promised. This aspirational quality is part of what makes these photographs so alluring. They reflect the capitalistic ideals of individual success and financial gain, which are likely to appeal to a Western audience. The subjects of the photographs all look impossibly beautiful, and part of the exhibit shows how they were altered to remove perceived imperfections. This culture is still very much alive – indeed, the women’s magazine industry provides an apt illustration of this point.

 

The portraits are arranged chronologically, and chart the development of this art form from the 1920s through to the 1950s. One of the most striking photographs from the 1920s section is a promotional shot of Greta Garbo and John Gilbert for Flesh and the Devil. It shows Gilbert placing a kiss on Garbo’s cheek as she poses, immaculately made up and looking seductively past the camera. There is a clear tenderness in the way she caresses him, hinting at their real life romance.

 

The 1930s section includes the picture of Clark Gable and Joan Crawford which was used on the exhibition’s advertising, but there were others which deserve a mention. I particularly liked a vivacious shot of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire taken for Swing Time.

 

With the coming of the Second World War, the 1940s marked a shift away from the pure escapism of the 1930s and towards a realism characteristic of the film-noir genre. This section included photographs of Rita Hayworth as Gilda, the “ultimate femme fatale” and Marlene Dietrich, who looks particularly imposing. This decade also contained the dark days of McCarthyism, when several ofHollywood’s leading figures were blacklisted and investigated by the House of Representatives’ Un-American Activities Committee.

 

Perhaps the most well known of all the prints appeared at the end of the exhibition. This is where the photographs of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando were displayed. These appear to have combined the ideas of the preceding years by photographing the implausibly beautiful in ordinary settings.

 

As I left the exhibition, I felt that it hadn’t been quite as impressive as the Hoppé collection, but perhaps it was unfair to compare them. This was a significantly smaller display, after all, with a broader remit. Either way, it certainly made for a very pleasant afternoon activity.

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Murdoch abandons BSkyB bid

The shock closure of the News of the World last week raised a number of pressing questions. One of these was: “What does this mean for the BSkyB bid?” Indeed, the first question asked on that night’s Question Time was whether this represented a “cynical move” to save the £8 billion bid. Hugh Grant voiced popular opinion with one word: “Yes.”

The idea that News of the World was offered as a “sacrificial lamb” seemed like the only logical explanation, from a commercial perspective. This was a widespread view both nationally and internationally, as a friend in Berlin confirmed. Of course, News Corporation also had to be seen to be taking strong disciplinary action in the face of such appalling allegations. Murdoch must have known, though, that taking such an extreme step would be viewed by some as tantamount to an admission of guilt. There must, therefore, have been some compelling justification. We assumed the BSkyB takeover was just that.

As such, yesterday’s developments were unexpected, if not unwelcome. Rupert Murdoch has now abandoned the bid in what has been described as “the biggest single reverse of his career”. This coincided with David Cameron’s announcement that there would be a full public inquiry into “lawbreaking by the press”, led by Lord Justice Leveson. As such, we can extrapolate that Murdoch has given up the bid as a response to mounting pressure from the British government and increasing speculation that they would intervene to prevent Murdoch from acquiring total control of BSkyB. Chase Carey, News Corp’s deputy chairman, has explicitly commented that the bid was now “too difficult to progress in this environment.”

There is a sense that Murdoch jumped before he was pushed, as it is likely that MPs would unanimously have opposed his bid and called for him to withdraw it. Public outcry has been such that any other Parliamentary response would have been politically inconceivable. Another explanation which has been proposed is that he removed the bid to salvage his personal reputation. This seems laughable, in that it implies he had any personal reputation left to salvage.

Whilst this seems like a futile end in its own right, it makes more sense in its wider context. What Murdoch is really hoping to save is not himself per se, but the right to keep broadcasting in the UK. David Aaronovitch addressed this point eloquently at last night’s debate at the LSE, which was entitled “Phone hacking: Is it time to get tough on the press?” He said that whilst he did not “forecast” the loss of other News Corporation titles (including The Times for which he writes), he did recognise that this was a possibility.

The issue of foreign ownership of British newspapers was also addressed both in Parliament and at the LSE event. The Liberal Democrats in particular have been keen to push this angle and to limit the number of foreign nationals who can exert such control over the British press. The real issue here appears to be the independence of the journalists who work within such structures. Serious questions have been asked about how independent editors, such as Rebekah Brooks, can really be if they enjoy such close personal relationships with the newspapers’ proprietors. Commentators such as David Aaronovitch have made the controversial claim that we simply do not have a free press in this country.

These questions have formed part of a more general trend of questioning how the press should be regulated. Recent events and discoveries have made it all too clear that the current system of self regulation simply isn’t working. The Press Complaints Commission has been roundly derided and was described by Ed Miliband as a “toothless poodle”. Journalists and politicians seem to have agreed that the current system is wholly inadequate. Greater intervention, by the government or the judiciary, seems equally unappealing, so we are faced with a serious quandary. The press have proven that they are incapable of regulating themselves, but who else is suited to the role?

All these issues are united by one concern – that too much power should not be aggregated in one place. This has long been recognised as being constitutionally vital for the avoidance of tyranny. The principle of the separation of powers has been lauded for centuries, and expounded by political figures such as Montesquieu. What recent events have shown is that the British public will not stand for the concentration of power in one figure, or in one institution, and nor should they.

Originally published on The Vibe on the 15th July 2011 (http://www.the-vibe.co.uk/2011/07/15/murdoch-abandons-bskyb-bid/)

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Valencia

Walking through the narrow streets of Valencia’s medieval centre, we discovered a charming city steeped in culture and history.

Growing up in Surrey does not prepare you for intense heat, it transpires. Like lizards we sought the shade, ultimately finding refuge in the cathedral. A prominent feature of the Valencian skyline, it stands imposingly in the idyllic central square. The basilica looks beautiful today, but it tells of centuries of conflict and religious strife. Originally the site of a Visogothic cathedral, this was transformed into a mosque under Moorish rule. The present cathedral was consecrated in 1238, a powerful testament to the eventual dominance of Christianity in the region, and the success of the Reconquista.

We drank in the opulence of the high altar. The ceiling was painted a rich blue and decorated with gold stars. We saw this Baroque design emulated all over the city. In the face of such splendour it would have been easy to overlook the scars left by the civil war. The cathedral suffered fire damage during the war, and some of its features were lost permanently.

The civil war left a deep wound in the Spanish consciousness, and it is still an uncomfortable topic. Only fleeting references are made to this dark period of the city’s history. We realised this when we visited La Lonja de la Seda, the historic Silk Exchange. No other landmark could claim to have been so vital to Valencia’s economic and political life. This exquisitely decorated building served as a forum for trading in the 15th century, a time of great commercial prosperity. We were even more intrigued to learn that it housed the Spanish government after the evacuation of Madrid in 1936.

These more sinister political undertones were all but forgotten as we stepped out into the sunshine of the courtyard. Surrounded by the improbably perfect orange and lemon trees we soaked up the late afternoon tranquillity.

The summer air grew headier as the sun went down and the city’s inhabitants emerged. We passed an elegant wedding party outside the cathedral. Dressed in white lace, the young bride radiated elation. It was infectious. Parents brought their children out to play on the floodlit plazas, evincing a strong community spirit. As three young women, we valued the corresponding sense of safety.

The darkness belied the penetrating heat of the evening. The square was filled with music, although it was not always harmonious. A fracas broke out between a group of protesters and two musicians, the latter of whom attracted vocal popular support. This was proof, if we needed it, that live music will always triumph over its recorded rivals.

We sipped the luscious Agua de Valencia, a source of the same regional pride displayed in the Valencian-language street signs. The vivid orange nectar was a common centrepiece in squares which rang with laughter late into the night.

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