|Manuel de Anchorena used to be Argentine Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Back home his influence was much more all-encompassing.|
“On this Estancia it is customary to wear the costume of the Gaucho”. That was a problem. I was at the entrance to the Estancia of one of the richest men in Argentina and before I had even got through the gate I was in trouble. I tried to console myself with the idea that maybe 20th century gauchos had seen the Levi advertisements on television and been converted to denim jeans. The idea was stillborn when the guardian of the gate eased out of the shadows, gave us a hard look down the barrel of a rifle before slinging it over his shoulder and opening the gate. He was dressed in bombachas supported by a wide rastra with a lethal looking facon in a silver scabbard thrust in the back. His loose white shirt and neckerchief were topped off with a cross between a fedora and a trilby, the standard headgear on the pampa. My driver, who incidentally was wearing a pistol in a holster around his waist and had a mean looking automatic weapon secured in a clip by the side of the door, gave a friendly salute and a smile and surged forward up the road leading to the house. The drive was about a half mile through stands of stunning trees and wide lawns. The house appeared as we rounded a sweeping bend. At first glance it wasn’t much to look at. Biggish, and, unusually for Argentina where houses are traditionally pink, painted white. As I got nearer I could make out a sort of crenelation running around the top. Decorative now but a hundred years ago the gaps provided convenient places for snipers when the Indians, gangs of disenfranchised squatters and criminal gangs roamed the pampas looking for easy targets.
As the Jeep drew up at the front steps my host and hostess appeared on the terrace that ran along the front of the house. It was a bit of a surprise. The last time I had seen them was in London. Manuel de Anchorena was the Argentine Ambassador to the Court of St. James and Annie, his Irish wife, looked after the social side of the business. We became good friends and when they returned to South America they had made me promise to go and see them. This was the first opportunity I had to take them up on their invitation. Later I was to live in Argentina for a while but this time I was there to make a film called, EL ULTIMO ENEMIGO and I was hoping to elicit some help from Manuel and his friends. Somehow I expected them to turn out in the clobber I had been used to in London. Manuel in an immaculate Savile Row suit and Annie in a posh dress. I wasn’t prepared for Manuel dressed as a Gaucho or Annie in the costume of a China. I had another mental trawl through my wardrobe. There was nothing there that could be pressed into service. As they came down the stairs four large – but large – long haired Afghan Hounds rushed past them and headed straight for me. I love working dogs but they always make me uneasy. Before they could get over friendly Annie gave them a curt order and they slid to a halt and then paced excitedly around me . I was glad when all the greeting and kissing was over and we could moved into the house. The entrance hall was on a scale with the rest of the house. Massive. The walls were decorated, if that is the word, with hunting trophies. The heads of pumas and less ferocious species gazed down with glassy eyes, fenced in with a variety of guns, spears and bows and arrows which, presumably, had been their nemesis.. One of the servants, a pretty little China (Gaucho girl), about fifteen years old came and grabbed my luggage. I tried to help but she looked at me scornfully and lugged the bags up the stairs as if they were light weights. The bedroom, naturally, was large and dark. Shutters are always pulled during the day to keep out the sun. The dark green painted walls served to cut down any beams of light which might get through the jalousie. It was the furniture which gave me a bit of a start. It seemed to be made from the bones and body parts of animals. At least I hoped they were animals.
The Estancia is in Buenos Aires province, about 100 miles south of Buenos Aires. As Manuel explained to me later as we sat drinking cooling, freshly made lemonade on the terrace watching the brilliantly coloured Humming Birds busily flying in and out of their delicately hanging nests, this was the smaller of two estancias that he owns.. Only 30 miles long and 50 wide. He stated it as a fact – not boastfully. He kept large herds of cattle and horses and was a well established breeder. He was also a renown keeper of exotic deer. While I was staying there a couple of people from National Geographica turned up to see what he was breeding in his back yard, They seemed very impressed. Manuel, a staunch loyalist, loves the Argentine and all its traditions. Hence the Gaucho gear. I also found out that he was a bit of a fascist, in a benign way, and a strong supporter of the Peronista Party which is still going strong 30 years after Juan Peron’s death. One of Manuel’s heroes is ‘Bloody’ Rosas. Juan Manuel de Rosas earned his sobriquet in the early 1800’s . He was elected to the Presidency in 1829 and did a lot to make his homeland an independent State. He was able to subdue any hint of rebellion with his huge, highly efficient military killing machine. Many of the methods that brought Hitler to power and were practised in the Nazi regime were first tested out by Rosas. The Native American Indians were particularly ill-used by him. He paid a dollar a scalp to his troops and supporters. He thought he had it all covered and couldn’t believe it when the electorate gave him the elbow when he came up for re-election. So he pulled a few strokes with the army which continued to be loyal to him and were afraid that if he went they might get a decidedly frosty reception from all the citizens they had been lording it over for so many years. He had been a handful as a legally elected President. Now, as a Dictator, he was merciless. But still a Patriot. Argentina still derives benefits from the years when he and his red cloaked men ruled pampas and metropolis. When he was finally deposed he was forced to flee to England. He lived in Southampton until his death in 1877. Buried in a small cemetery just outside Southampton with nobody to mourn him it should have been the end of the story. Except for the fealty of Manuel de Anchorena. He had been lobbying for the return of his hero for years but with a Military Junta in charge there was no chance. But with Democracy reinstated in the country , de Anchorena leaned on his friend, President Carlos Menem, to bring the body of Rosas back to his homeland. As soon as diplomatic relations were restored, post Falklands War, with Great Britain, Anchorena took the Dictator’s remains back to his homeland and had him buried in the grand oligarchic cemetery at Recoleta with full honours.
The evening I arrived Manuel threw an asado, a barbecue, under the towering Eucalyptus trees and the Southern Cross. My father had told me about the Southern Cross when I was a baby but I wasn’t prepared for it. On the pampas the huge bowl of the night sky with its millions of huge, sparking stars is dominated by the Cross. The Stars, and the fact that water goes down the plug hole in an anti-clockwise direction, are just two of the natural elements which fascinate me about South America. As guest of honour I was allowed to sit at the huge round table where traditionally only the Gauchos, real and pseudo, sat. It was a great evening. After the meal Gauchos produced guitars and sang Gaucho songs way into the night.
Next day I woke up early and Annie told me she had arranged for a couple of horses to be saddled so that she could show me around. I’m not a horsy person. Love them in pictures but find them a little overpowering on the hoof. But I was glad I made the effort. She showed me the little boliche which had been the first building on the estancia way back when. And the beautiful, vine covered chapel where the Gauchos prayed every Sunday. That evening Manuel had arranged for some of his friends to fly in for dinner. In Argentina, if there is a formal dinner – it is formal. Black tie, the whole nine yards. I hadn’t seen the Dining room so far. As Manuel escorted me in I couldn’t believe my eyes. On the wall at the far end was a massive picture of Juan Peron. I could take him. I had met him and his third wife Isabelita when they were living in exile in Madrid. He is still loved by the Argentinians and it is said of him that none of his enemies died with their boots on and anything good in the republic comes from the time he was President. Both tidbits of information subject to spin but more or less true. It was the picture at the other end of the room which knocked the king pins out of my knees, Adolf Hitler. It was a very uncomfortable meal and I don’t know that I did my mission to win friends and influence people much good. Worse was to come. Manuel turned out to be an avid collector of Nazi memorabilia. After dinner we retired to what he described as his ‘Club Room”. It was a large room with windows taking up the wall facing the door. To the left of the door and on the other two walls there was a display of daggers, flags, helmets, slogans ,swords and all the other remnants of Hitler’s evil empire. It seemed so at odds with the Manuel I knew that I didn’t want to ask questions. It was one of the most uncomfortable evening I have ever had.
I was happy when Manuel didn’t put on another dinner while I was there and we were able to eat either on the terrace or with the Gauchos. I returned there again a couple of years ago with Arthur Smith when we were making SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY for the BBC. Again the Anchorena’s feasted us nobly. But I skipped the tour of the house put on for Arthur and the crew and sat by the pool.
POINT OF INTEREST: IN OCTOBER THIS YEAR (2011), CUCKOO RUN BY INGRID PITT WILL BE PUBLISHED BY AVALARD PUBLISHING. IT IS A THRILLER SET AGAINST THE BACKGROUND OF LA CORONA.www.avalardpublishing.com