Ralph has been in Barcelona to receive the prestigious Association of Illustrators of Catalonia's highest award. In his usual self-deprecating fashion he dismisses this as rendered to him for "services to people who can't read", but in my heart I know he is deeply honoured. The jaunt was attended by a resurgence of the face rash which has been troubling him since he was in Colorado, and which a "medical man" has diagnosed as an inky allergy.
This flares up because of Ralph's extreme method of achieving his remarkable impasto effects. Many's the time I've pitched up at Steadman Towers to find Ralph sporting a thick mask of variegated ink, studded with little bits of paper, looking as if he's cut himself shaving and bled ink. Ralph believes that he can only impress his psyche on a given picture by employing his own features as a tool with which to smear and stipple. Naturally we've all begged him to desist from this practice, but I think you'll agree that without it his marvellous depiction of Gaudi's Sagrada Familia wouldn't have quite such an organic feel.
Ralph's award - perversely enough - is a gold nib in a wooden pen holder with a tap on it, the whole gubbins supported on a steel wire stand. Prior to receiving this bauble Ralph felt compelled to dance the flamenco for the audience of three hundred, while they waited for a carousel slide projector. Ralph despatched a postcard to me describing this unlikely shtick: "I shouted explanations in Catalan through a megaphone, to the delighted audience, who thought it was all part of the performance! Then I fell and twisted my knee, because they had given me antihistamines to alleviate the contagion. Now I must go to a dermatologist to restore my fine Welsh features. You know that me, least of all, deserves this anguish."
Quite so. I myself have only been to Barcelona the once, a whistlestop tour to recreate the experiences of George Orwell during the civil war. Orwell hid out from the police for a couple of weeks after the anarchist militia he was fighting for were proscribed by the Communist-dominated government. Orwell's Homage to Catalonia was a heartfelt depiction of the squalor, futility and above all absurdity of war, which confirmed him as the voice of conscience for an entire generation. By contrast I wrote about my two days pretending to be Orwell for Condé Nast Traveller.
It was a junket courtesy of Orwell Tours, a high-class outfit that offers to take the psychically adventurous traveller "into the mind of Eric Blair". They also do a week homeless on the streets of Paris, and a full three weeks pretending to be an imperial police officer in Burma. My guide for my two days on the run in Barcelona was Monica, a Mrs Orwell look-alike, whose task it was to meet me on the Ramblas each morning with copious supplies of tobacco.
"Why the tobacco?" I asked when she pressed two ounces of the stuff into my sweaty hands. "Orwell, yes, he smoke, smoke, smoke," Monica mimed puffing, "so you, smoke, smoke smoke!"
"Oh, all right then," I said dubiously. Then she poked me hard in the neck with the tip of her umbrella. "Ouch!" I screamed "that hurt."
"Neck eenjury," she chortled, "you 'ave been wounded at the front. Now, goodbye comrade. I meet you here same time tomorrow."
I spent a long day and an even longer night wandering the streets. I had no money, just plenty of coarse tobacco. My neck throbbed unmercifully. Still, when I met Monica the next morning I did at least feel haunted, paranoid, cut off from the world. "Eet work, yes?" she said.
"Um, sort of, but can I stop now? I fly back to London today and I'd like to see the cathedral."
"Cathedral!" she spat contemptuously, "such bourgeois frippery!"
Nevertheless she took me to a marvellous gothic pile, grandiose interior aching with gold. It wasn't until we were staring out over the city from the roof that I had the courage to say: "This isn't the cathedral I had in mind" - I pointed northeast to the dripping candle towers of the Sagrada Familia - "I meant that one."
"Fool!" she exclaimed and poked me in the neck again. I began, involuntarily, to dance the flamenco. "Fool!" she goaded me once more, "this is not even a Catalan dance!"