Style: Saturday Night: Woman on the verge of a respectable career

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS time last year I phoned my friend Annie Bennett in Madrid to ask what was happening in Spain. It was the quincentenary of Columbus's adventure, Barcelona had its designer Olympic Games in the wings, the Seville Expo was wowing Japanese tourists, and Madrid was basking in its role as European city of culture. Spain was looking very glamorous from here.

'Spain is drunk at the moment,' said Annie, with that cutting tone the Welsh adopt so easily. 'The whole country thinks it is fabulously wealthy and witty. But next year it's going to wake up broke, and with a pretty nasty hangover.' I laughed and forgot all about it. Until a few weeks ago, when I noticed several newspaper articles about the Spanish presidential elections using the same metaphor.

Annie has since moved back to London. Last Saturday we met up to go and see Jamon, Jamon, a Spanish film about a prostitute and her beautiful daughter, who is pregnant by her yuppie boyfriend. His hateful nouveau riche mother will not countenance their marriage. She hires a would-be matador to seduce the pregnant girl, then begins an affair with him herself, leading to a convoluted and tragic climax.

But this is a Spanish tragedy, a parody of despair. It depicts human weakness in all its squalor and splendour, obliging you to see it as absurd. You must laugh; you feel you would be a fool not to. It mocks everything. This, and the sweaty, soft-porn surrealism, betray an obvious debt to Spain's most famous director, Pedro Almodovar. Which brings us back to Annie.

In the mid-Eighties, when Madrid's movida was the trendiest underground scene in Europe, Annie was there with Pedro and all the other black-clad aesthetes. At the age of 24 she settled in Madrid for a decade of fast and often ridiculous adventures. The movida was a movement in the truest sense, in perpetual motion. Writers, designers, poets, film-makers and artists, all, they would dine around 10 pm, have drinks at a terraza, then hit the club trail. Dawn would find them in their fifth or sixth nightclub. 'But it wasn't like Barcelona,' she says. 'No marble or chrome, no slick lighting. A new place would open every month with just a lick of paint. And it would be fashionable for three months, maximum.'

About three or four years ago, she says, madrilenos started earning more money and 'acting European'. Instead of going out every night, they stayed in until the weekend, when they all went out. Marble and chrome bars sprang up, taking prices with them. But the yuppification of Madrid did not drive her out. No, it was her friends back in Britain who were forging careers, buying property, saving money or becoming parents.

Annie, a linguist, was translating and teaching. It was not good enough any more, she realised. 'Madrid society is great for extending your youth. But from the age of 31, maybe, I started wanting some security and some long-term goals. I noticed my contemporaries out there weren't advancing, either career-wise or personally, while my contemporaries here were. And I was a bit afraid of getting trapped.'

And so, like most of us, she succumbed to the invisible yet irresistible forces of peer pressure. She now lives in Battersea, south London, and is hoping to land a job with the BBC. (Back in Madrid, people from programmes such as The Late Show would seek her out when they came to document the 'new' Spain.) She returned to find London more cosmopolitan than ever, and Londoners less intelligible. 'The way people talk is much worse. Everybody has started using Estuary English, the kind that Jonathan Ross speaks.'

She is resigned to the struggle of re-establishing herself. 'I know I'm going to spend at least a year treading water. I didn't mind that when I was younger, but now I know what I want, I find it frustrating.' Her friends here have their lives all mapped out and find it hard to make time to see her. But still, she is glad to be back. 'It's such a relief not being foreign. You can go to a bank and take out your own money, without having to fight for it.'

How we chuckled at the flabby underbelly of the 'new' Spain depicted in Jamon, Jamon. We left the cinema reassured, Annie and I, happy that Europe's cultural homogenisation will not reach the uglier parts of Spain for a long time. They may not be the parts you would prefer to save, but at least they remain Spanish. Annie, a connoisseur of Hispanic tackiness and drudgery, said she will miss this - the real Spain, a place of vast ugly plains scarred by motorways, where people from tenement blocks and roadside shacks live pointless but passionate lives - far more than life in Madrid's fast lane.

In the pub afterwards, I asked her who would win the election, which pundits were describing as too close to call. 'Gonzalez,' she said, without a moment's hesitation. Next time I ask her opinion of Spain, I'll put some money on it.