Acclaimed travel book is paella in the sky, claims flamenco tutor

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

His book has been hailed as one of the finest debuts of modern travel writing - a colourful first-hand account of life with the gypsies who taught him how to play flamenco guitar.

His book has been hailed as one of the finest debuts of modern travel writing - a colourful first-hand account of life with the gypsies who taught him how to play flamenco guitar.

Jason Webster's travelogue Duende: A Journey in Search of Flamenco, chronicling his mastery of the Spanish guitar style and his escapades in a curious underworld, has been acclaimed internationally and nominated for a major prize. A film deal is in the offing.

Duende - described variously as "compulsive reading", "fascinating", "exhilarating" and "spine-tingling" - has made its author a hot property in publishing.

An Oxford graduate, born in San Francisco, Mr Webster is young, good-looking and considered a "new star of the genre". Literary Review called it "the most authentic and compelling account of flamenco in English, and one of the best books ever written about Spain".

But a half Spanish, half British music teacher says he actually taught Mr Webster how to play the guitar in Oxford - not in Alicante as Mr Webster says in his book - and claims other episodes in it "are so parallel to my life".

Rafael Lloyd has even consulted a lawyer to see if has some form of legal redress. Mr Lloyd's claims are strongly denied by the author. Mr Webster, speaking from Spain, where he now lives, told TheIndependent on Sunday: "Everything in the book is essentially true. I can't answer for what [Rafael] says.

"The flamenco world is a very weird world. It's a bit like the martial arts world. Everybody is trying to find the truth and nobody knows what it is ... rather than concentrating on the flamenco. They get worked up with backbiting and backstabbing. It seems to be par for the course people going around saying this kind of stuff."

Mr Webster said he went to Spain to learn flamenco guitar in 1993. The book describes his lessons and his acceptance by a band of gypsies and a series of public performances.

But Mr Lloyd alleges when Mr Webster, who has a degree in Arabic from Oxford University, came to him at his Oxford home in 1998, the author was a complete novice - even though it was many years after his mastery of the instrument detailed in the book, published last year.

In his account Mr Webster hits on the idea of heading to Spain to learn flamenco following the end of a relationship. He leaves Oxford with a ticket and a newly bought guitar "with almost no idea about flamenco or where it might lead me".

But Mr Lloyd said that when they first met in 1998 "he'd never picked up a guitar and he didn't know where to put his hands".

Duende - the name is taken from an intense emotional state which is key to the passion of flamenco - has been hugely popular with critics.

Published in January 2003, it made it on to the non-fiction longlist for The Guardian First Book Award last year. The book acknowledges "some of the names of people and places have been changed" to protect their identities.

Mr Lloyd claimed: "Certainly a lot of the things that he has written about in the book are very close to what happened in my life."

He has also sought legal advice from specialist music and media lawyer Murray Buchanan of Glasgow legal firm Maclay Murray & Spens.

Mr Buchanan confirmed he had spoken to Mr Lloyd but said: "There's no copyright in a life story as such unless it is expressed in a fixed form - in layman's terms, if it is written down or dramatised and filmed. However, issues of privacy could potentially arise."

Mr Lloyd said that he met the author in about 1998. "He phoned me up and asked me what to do so I told him to buy a cheap guitar and what kind of model, and he appeared the next week and started his first guitar lesson. He got pretty hooked on it; he was a good student actually, a very good student. He started doing one lesson a week ... it took over his life.

"He got to what I would call an intermediate level. He had got a good command, a good knowledge of the art as such. He was a good aficionado but if you ask me my professional opinion he wouldn't be able to do a concert."

Dr Zamin Iqbal, another student of Mr Lloyd's, confirmed that when he met Mr Webster in 1998 they were both beginners.

"He certainly didn't appear to have been playing full-time since 1993," he said. And he said the book had a "flavour" of the stories Mr Lloyd had told him over the years.

Mr Webster's book is not the first travelogue to have doubts raised about its accuracy. Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia was at first seen as a travel book, but was later dismissed as a fictionalised account of his experiences in South America which would be better classed as a novel.

Marianne Velmers, publishing director at Transworld, which published Duende, said: "If you ever write a book, a memoir or travel book, the kind of book he wrote, you don't organise the facts in the way 'at two o'clock on Wednesday the 30th this happened'.

"He may have rearranged some of the facts to suit the story. It's a way of telling the story. It isn't meant to be factual reportage."

She adds: "I believe every word of it. The emotional response is true - that's what people have responded to, the idea of finding yourself in a different culture."