The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
An intimate tango through Argentina’s troubled history
The dance thrived under populist regimes – under Juan and Eva Perón, it became like ‘the national Muzak’
NO ONE TAUGHT ME TO TANGO by Trevor Grove 167pp, Black Spring, T£16.99, RRP£20 (0844 871 1514) ÌÌÌÌÌ
During the 1990s, thanks to the lovely, Latvian mother of two dear friends of mine, several of us would sometimes go drinking in the bar of the London Latvian Club, in Bayswater. If you were there on a Thursday or Friday evening, and peeked round the door of the ballroom upstairs, you would often spot none other than Clive James tangoing – devotedly but innocently – with a variety of beautiful young partners. I remember reflecting that he cut a surprising figure at these gettogethers, but I also, and above all, envied his evident expertise in this most marvellous, notoriously hard-to-master of dances.
Well, it turns out that the great Australian wasn’t the only distinguished London-based man of letters to have been bitten by the tango bug later in life. The same cherishable affliction claimed Trevor Grove, editor of The Sunday Telegraph from 1989 to 1992, husband of the writer Valerie Grove, friend of James’s and – in the interests of full disclosure – a grandfather at my son’s primary school.
True, his dance floor of choice – when learning, at least – was a rather more modest room at the Boston Arms in Tufnell Park. But as his impeccably selective, immensely enjoyable new memoir No One Taught Me to Tango makes clear, his own connection with Argentina’s national dance in fact goes back far further than James’s did, even if the latter’s advice – “Don’t even try any fancy stuff ” – was something he clearly took to heart.
Grove’s father was in the meat business, which in 1946 took him, his wife and the then two-year-old Trevor on the 7,000-mile voyage to Buenos Aires. (The planned stay of “a few years”, to earn an extra £5 a week on top of what he could pocket at Smithfield, would turn out to be something else entirely.) In a style at once eloquent and drolly conversational – nearconspiratorial at times – Grove vigorously, affectionately evokes this teeming Latin American city as seen through the wide eyes of a young gringo. From the “pistolpacking policemen, corrupt customs officials, beseeching porters, sweating stevedores and bewildered passengers” of Puerto Madero to the shop he and his mother would pass on the way home from market – “a panaderia whose pastries were baked in heaven” – the birthplace of tango comes kaleidoscopically alive.
Slender as it is, Grove’s book is, however, far more than a colourful, nostalgic recollection of an “exotic” childhood (though it is certainly also that). Tango – “the music of lonely young men” – runs through it like the words in a stick of rock: every chapter is named after a tango-related term, and the passages on its history (and
technique) prove particularly fascinating, both in purely dance-aficionado terms and as a kind of social history-in-miniature of Argentina itself.
Tending to thrive under populist governments, it became, under Juan (and Eva) Perón, “the national Muzak”, shunned by the anti-Peronist middle-classes. For a nice young fellow such as Grove, learning it (seeing it, even) was utterly infra dig. Hence his excitement later in life when various tango shows and films in Britain brought a Proustian rush back to his formative years in Buenos Aires – steeped as the city was in this music – coupled with the frustration explicit in the book’s playfully plaintive title.
Tango, then, also becomes an emblem of Grove’s inevitably complex relationship with Argentina, forced to a head of sorts when the country invaded the Falklands on April 2 1982. That crisis yields one of the book’s most fascinating sections, Grove “revolted” by President Galtieri’s Machiavellian expansionism, but also fearing for friends’ safety and balking at “the spectacle of my former countrymen being reviled as a nation of uncouth desperadoes”.
A handful of related anecdotes are particularly revelatory about the Argentine soldiers’ attitudes to their British counterparts (and probably not in ways you might expect). By this point, the book has in fact already come to a climax of sorts with Grove’s remarkable account of a clearly terrifying event: the kidnap of his father in 1972, a period during which prominent employees of foreign businesses were on guerilla groups’ hit-lists. And that same, final chapter, “Gancho” (or “hook”), also brings in some charming quotes from the Groves’ children, particularly engaging on their own Latin American-inclined aspirations, expectations and disappointments.
By its close, you may well wish there were a little more of Grove’s memoir. And while I’m carping on,
I must say that the description of tango as “the vertical expression of horizontal desire” strikes this dance critic as not only spot-on but also rather borne out by the book itself (even if Grove dismisses it as a “wearisome cliché”).
But the work’s very concision is also arguably its (all-too-rare) virtue. It positively rockets along, nevertheless leaving you with considerable food for thought and – thanks to the handful of Argentine recipes woven, Laura Esquivel-style, into it – the tools with which to whip up the real, evidently delectable thing. All that and – yes – a burning desire to track down a friendly tango teacher as soon as possible.