Noel Chandler passed away just a few days ago as I write this, on Wednesday 14th October. Whether one likes the term or not, there are certain people connected to Pamplona that I have always thought of as ‘Pamplona Royalty,’ be they locals or foreigners, and he was certainly one of those.
This magical, mystical and mythical city that many of us love so much has now lost one of the most popular and gentlemanly Sanfermineros there ever was with the passing of this proud Welshman. But I have no doubt his spirit lives on out there somewhere, and it will return each year for the Fiesta of San Fermin…just as the man himself returned for 54 uninterrupted years in a row.
I cannot claim to have known him too well, so this wee tribute to a lovely man will be made up mostly from the words of others, some who knew him very well, and some, like me, who didn’t. It will end with something I hope that those who loved him will like. And although he was so much more than just a Pamplona fiesta man, it’s that I am going to concentrate on for this specifically San Fermin website.
To anyone whose words or photos I have used without permission, my apologies but any problems in that regard can be easily rectified. Bueno, Sanfermineros and viñeros, mozos and maestros, let’s grab the bottle opener and uncork the wine and crack a smile and raise a toast to a Pamplona Sanferman sin igual.
Noel Chandler 1935 – 2015
Thanks to a few things that have been in the Spanish papers and on websites about Noel, I can give you a quick resume of the man…but this piece isn’t either a very small biography or a ‘brief life’ but rather an overview of a chap who was known and loved by many, and the quotes I have lifted from the internet and elsewhere since he went from this place to the next are exactly the sort of thing you might have heard if you were sitting at a bar talking about him with your friends.
And I just know that there were a lot of people sitting at a lot of bars or restaurants around the world over the weekend talking about him…and smiling, and laughing…
Noel was passionate about so many things uniquely, indelibly… Iberian. I suppose that’s why he lived in Madrid…to be at the heart of things. In an interview for Taurodelta he said, “Madrid is the centre of the world for bulls. This is why I live in Madrid.” We know he loved his wine, (‘’Wine is bottled poetry,’’ said Robert Louis Stevenson) and music, but he loved the corrida and the bulls too.
So where else, especially in those far off days when really, the only place most foreigners knew you could run with the bulls, thanks to Hemingway, was Pamplona, could a young man go to indulge both passions…to not just watch the bulls, but to be with them, among them, a part of them… As Marlene Dietrich said, ‘’Courage and grace is a formidable mixture. The only place to see it is in the bullring.’’
Yup, Pamplona. One might not be able to get in the ring with them like a torero, but you could be in the street with them, and lead them into the bull ring too, if you had the bravery and the skill, and yes, the cojones… And Noel had all three, and he became a known and respected runner amongst the locals, and that is the ultimate accolade.
He even bought a flat in Pamplona, on the Estafeta, because if you’re going to be at the heart of all those ‘Sanferthings’, what better place to be than on that long, cobblestoned, famous and infamous artery of the encierro… I’m pretty sure that during fiesta the energy and alegria created in that street because of San Fermin can literally lift people. Why, have you never felt you were actually floating down that street…?
He also loved his friends too, of course, and so it was that when his great mate, mentor, maestro, (and fellow mozo, to hoof) Matt Carney, died on Christmas Eve 1988, he pretty soon adopted Matt’s daughter Deirdre. The ultimate gift for a departed friend, but no doubt to Noel just an obvious action to take, to make sure his great friend’s daughter would always be well looked after.
Anyone who has ever been to Noel’s flat on the Estafeta knows that one of the rooms is called the ‘Matt Carney Suite,’ and it, along with the whole apartment, is a treasure trove of fiesta photos, mostly in black and white, that take one back to a time before this present computer age, and its access-every-second, a-million-too-many-pictures, me-me-me-selfie era. The photos in Noel’s flat are precious, and to treasure, because that one picture has to tell a story, unlike the multitude one gets now from every angle.
But enough from me. I’m going to briefly post a couple of things I’ve seen posted over the last few days, but mostly I’ll leave the talking to some pictures…you’ll see what I mean at the end of this piece.
From Bunny Centurion, this great photo of her, her daughter Annie, and the irrepressible Noel, to which she wrote these simple words, ‘Happier times. R.I.P Dear Noel. Thank you for all the joy you brought to our lives.’
To another Centurion, Wooj: ‘First time I met you, you asked me what floor I was staying on in Pamplona. I said I was staying a floor above you and you told me “Good, you’re closer to God.” I, for some reason, have never forgotten that. I happily hosted you and other elite company at the end of San Fermin 2014 thinking it would be the last hoorah, and it was a great night with great music thanks to you and a certain Equipo Rosa. We got another Fiesta together, and it was awesome as we simply passed that Jack around and celebrated with you. We will continue to celebrate you because you wouldn’t want it any other way. I see a bottle of Black Label and an absence to burn. This song is for you, friend. Although Pinks already knows there ain’t no grave…I think there’s a better song for you. I love you. Viva San Fermin. Viva Noel Chandler.’
(The song that Wooj posted, by the way folks, was by one of Noels favourite singers, Frank Sinatra, and it was that never-ending classic, ‘My Way.’)
From Rick Musica: “Another true legend has left us. He defined what being a gentleman is about. Noel was one of the most inclusive men I have ever known. He shared his knowledge, his passion and his love of not only Fiesta, but of life.
Life is not meant to be lived in black and white…it should be lived in tinto! Like Frank sang it…Noel did it ‘his way.’ ”
From Marc ‘Micky’ Bertman: “My friend Noel Chandler passed away. I don’t have any photos to share because when we got together we enjoyed life. We didn’t pose for selfies or ask others to take our photos, we talked and laughed. I will miss him dearly.’’
From Paul Bower… not a quote this time, but an action. A ‘doing.’ He posted on Friday evening about how he’d gone out into the autumnal London air…and sang three jotas for Noel. He’d have loved that. I know I do.
This is lovely, from Aitor Lakuntza Olaberri: ‘BUEN VIAJE MISTER CHANDLER……Volveremos a vernos, quién sabe si en un sanfermin eterno, donde existen encierros todos los días, la gente nunca deja de reir y de bailar, de cantar …Donde los amigos como tú nunca se van y las historias mas maravillosas que contabas se hacen realidad….volveremos a vernos,no lo dudes.’
My translation: ‘Safe journey, Mr. Chandler…We will see each other again, who knows if during an eternal San Fermin, where there is an encierro every day, where the people never stop laughing or singing… Where friends like you never ever leave and where the most marvellous stories you told become real…we’ll meet again, don’t you doubt it.’
From the inimitable Carmelo Butini Etxarte: ‘Grande, muy grande. Hasta siempre amigo.’ Short, simple and sweet and no need to translate.
From the one and only Kevin Gowen, longer but no less sweet for that and written as only he could: “Social media is a somewhat undignified place to discuss serious matters, but Noel Chandler was a mountain of a man, a mentor, and a dear friend of my father who I will forever remain in awe of. Due to the various frustrations of medical bureaucracy this message has been delayed, but it’s been a week since I knew he’d passed. Right before my Dad called with the news, I was visited by him on my front porch (Sean also witnessed this so, yes, I’m crazy, but this was very very real and if you were there too you would have been forced to agree) in the form of the most curiously alive praying mantis I’ve ever seen in my life. Noel, you were an elegant spirit in life, and you remain elegant in the afterlife. Thank you for making me finally without a doubt believe in spiritual reincarnation. I love you so much. My heart aches at your passing, and yet it swells ever larger. Truly the end of an era. Thank you, Noel. You’ve always been an angel so what else is new…”
All these people sent accompanying photos but for some reason I can only copy a couple. Sorry Sanfermineros!
There are so many things that have been said about him that I’d never able to stop, and anyway I know his true friends will write about him in a way I just can’t. But, I’m still going to say my piece if that’s okay. And if it isn’t…look away now…
I didn’t know Noel as well as some. He was such a fantastically popular fella that he was never alone, and for many years, a couple of decades actually, I just left him alone. It seemed anyone new in town would always gravitate to folk like Noel, as they were known for being good runners, bull fight aficionados…or just, as they became, due to the march of time, quite simply…classic and respected Sanfermineros who were gently slipping into what I might call ‘old timer-ship.’
But I had always wanted to meet this gentleman runner and true lover of all things Iberian. And then, once upon a time, I did. It was about 10 years ago and those few survivors of fiesta who had bravely stayed on in Pamplona post fiesta, (or more likely were just incapable of dragging their sorry culos out of the city) happened to meet up either by design or luck in the early evening of July 15th, in the classic surrounds of the Café Iruña in the Plaza del Castillo. People who knew each other pared up and people who didn’t began chatting to one another, (I distinctly remember that was when my brother met Tom Gowen,) and Noel and I just happened to be left standing together…
“Hello, hola…” And that was the first time we ever met, and for the next hour or so I chatted to this rather wonderful man, and he was as true a Gent as I’d always suspected and although my Spanish isn’t fluent he asked me if I’d like to talk in English or Spanish so I said Spanish and off we both went, chatting away as if we’d known each other for ages. He had that effect.
That night I think I spoke the best Spanish of my life, even I was amazed at how I was plucking verbs and words out of thin air, and I got to know a little about this man but learn a lot from him too. And as always with this connoisseur of the grape, the wine flowed and it was a pleasure to finally make his acquaintance.
He also read my first foray into the literary world, a wee tale told from the bulls point of view, and unlike many who seem to have just taken it and then consigned it to a cupboard or draw, to remain unread and never to see the light of day again, he didn’t just read it, but took the time to comment on it too… and luckily for me they were lovely comments so thank you for that Noel. Un caballero de siempre.
One of the last times I saw him in Pamplona this year he was at a table, surrounded by friends, as always, and he more or less said what I’m sure many, many people have heard over the years, wherever in the world he may have been, words to the effect of…” Hello, pull up a chair and come and join me, I’m having some rather fine wine here…” Ah, the wine, always the wine. “If we sip the wine, we find dreams coming upon us out of the imminent night” ? so wrote D.H. Lawrence.
Well, we didn’t know the final sleep and long night was approaching for Noel, but he’s somewhere else now and as happens with some people, Pamplona has lost something rather special as another Sanferminero takes his elegance and class to that great fiesta in the sky. But some of it, like gold dust, (except they’re called fiesta flakes in Navarra) remain to forever float around that beautiful city.
I have to include something just received as I was writing this, and it’s from Joe Distler, who, if you didn’t know, first went to fiesta in the late sixties. (Look out Joe, ‘old-timership’ is creeping up on you like an unseen suelto…!) For those who don’t know, ‘kaiku’ is a flavoured milk drink, and this is reproduced almost exactly as he sent it to me:
‘I met Noel when he was sleeping under a table in front of Bar Txoco in 1970. He looked up and said “I’d like a kaiku con cognac, por favor”. In those days I had absolutely no money but figured, what the hell the poor guy is probably broke and after all, this is Feria. “Why do you drink that?” I asked dumbly.
“The Kaiku coats your stomach and the cognac makes you happy, so why not?”
I then loaned him 200 pesetas, a lot of money in the days of 5 peseta wine. He told me he would pay me back when he came to New York.
One night in December I got a call and he said he would be in town and staying at a very expensive hotel. I told him not too as how could he possibly afford it? I arrived to pick him up in a white shirt and Pamplona sash. When I walked into the Hotel Warwick he was standing in the lobby dressed in a black, chalk stripped suit and patent leather shoes. I knew I had something wrong.
It turned out he was Vice President of one of the largest computer companies in the world. And that is one of the great things of San Fermin, one lives the Feria without bragging or showing off. We are all equals in the streets!
We went on to be friends till the day he died. We saw every boxing match our idol, Roberto Duran, ever fought; went to Jazz clubs, spent Christmas’s in Paris together for years.
But most importantly, we knew that if we were alive we would meet on July 7th on the Cobblestones of our Beloved Pamplona and gather with the greatest group of humans on God’s planet! We have lost a Giant of Feria but Feria goes on and we must live it to the fullest.
Viva Noel Viva San Fermin Viva. Joseph.’
One final thing, although it may appear a little trivial or unimportant to some. I’m glad Noel, a proud Welshman and big rugby fan, was around to see and enjoy, (and I don’t think ‘enjoy’ is a strong enough word!) Wales’s superb and stunning win over England in the Rugby World Cup just a couple of weeks ago. And at Twickenham, too, home of English Rugby. (And I speak as an Englishman.)
A class act and a game thrillingly and wonderfully played, Wales. Which could sum up your life, Noel. The poet Ernest Dowson wrote: “They are not long, the days of wine and roses. Out of a misty dream, our path emerges for a while, then closes, within a dream.” Well, you’re off on a new dream now, Noel, no doubt meeting again some loved family and old friends.
Adios, señor Chandler. Un Caballero Sin Igual.
And now, the video. Noel loved the traditional Navarran ‘jotas,’ (who doesn’t?) so the two songs on the film are for you, Noel. This is better than I could have imagined, and I’m hugely indebted to two people here: the photographer Jim Hollander, for sending me and allowing me to use all the photos you’re about to see in this clip, and whose copyright they are and who has asked that they be used in no other context because, of course…this is about Noel. Thank you so much Jim.
Also un grandissimo gracias to my great mate Manu Corera of Kukuxumusu, who takes my handwritten scribbles on various post-it notes and scraps of paper, sorts them out along with the mass of photos and cuttings from newspapers I use, (a sort of literary Humpty Scrappity mess) and manages to put them all in a hat, give ‘em a good shake…and hey tinto, they come out all-put-together-again in a nice computerised form.
One of Noels favourite songs was Frank Sinatra singing ‘My Way.’ Well, this is Noel doing it his way. Take it away, maestro…
Once again, photos and copyright courtesy of Jim Hollander, musica y montaje gracias a Manu Kukuxumusu, and idea mine…but thanks also to Jack Denault for his original visual and musical homage to Bomber from which I have stolen and copied. Ya falta menos. ¡Viva San Fermin! Gora!