The Gypsy Scholar and the Cambridge Don: Walter Starkie and JB Trend

The first Concurso de Cante Jondo in Granada in June 1922, organized by the great Spanish composer Manuel de Falla with the help of the poet Federico García Lorca, was a seminal event in Spanish music and also in the professional lives of two of the 20th century’s most prolific and forgotten hispanists, John Brande Trend (born in 1887-died 1958) and Walter Starkie (born 1894- died in 1976).

Falla personally invited Trend and Starkie was also there. Whether they met is not known. If they did, it is fair to say they would not have got on very well. The two men came from very different backgrounds and could not be more unalike, intellectually as well as physically. Starkie was short and portly: he liked his food and wine. His height almost equalled his girth, and he had a “huge and massive head, a lion’s head” in the words of another Hispanist, Gerald Brenan, in his book, The Face of Spain, when describing the archetypal Spaniard in old age. Trend was a little taller, rosy-cheeked and according to a former student of his looked like a “merry mediaeval monk who had strayed into the 20th century.” Starkie could have passed as Sancho Panzo, but Trend not as Don Quixote.

Trend was the son of a surgeon and Starkie’s father was a Greek scholar and the Resident Commissioner of National Education for Ireland under British rule (1899-1920). Trend studied Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and became interested in Spain through its music, while Starkie, whose ambition was to be a concert violinist, studied classics and history at Trinity College, Dublin and was drawn to Spain by its gypsies (after writing about them in Hungary). Starkie was a right wing catholic – he sided for a time with Fascism in Italy as a bulwark against Communism – and Trend, nominally Protestant, a liberal free thinker.

As a six-year old boy, Starkie sat captivated under a tree in Ireland listening to a tinker playing the violin. He was something of a wandering minstrel, a gypsy scholar and took to the highways and byways with his violin, which he regarded as the equivalent of Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante or the Bible of George Borrow, who travelled around Spain in the 19th century as an agent of the Bible Society. Starkie first came to Spain in 1921 on his honeymoon with his Italian wife. Trend first visited Spain in 1919.

Trend became the first professor of Spanish at Cambridge and Starkie the first professor of Spanish at Trinity College and the first cultural representative in Madrid of the British Council (1940-54), an institution that played a part in keeping the Franco regime out of belligerent involvement in the Second World War on Hitler’s side. Starkie’s eccentricity was also a good cover for his work as a British agent. His flat in Madrid was used by the British Embassy as a safe house for escaping prisoners of war and Jewish refugees en route to Gibraltar and Lisbon.

Trend helped organize the evacuation of 4,000 Basque children who were shipped from Bilbao to England in May 1937, and he found academic posts for exiled Republican friends such as Alberto Jiménez Fraud, the director of the Residencia de Estudiantes.

Starkie, among other works, wrote two travels books on Spain – Spanish Raggle- Taggle and Don Gypsy ; the two volume Spain: A Musician’s Journey through Time and Space and translated Don Quixote, while Trend wrote A Picture of Modern Spain, Spain from the South, Manuel de Falla and Spanish Music (the first study of the composer in English), The Origins of Modern Spain and The Civilization of Spain.

Trend never returned to Spain after the Civil War, while Starkie was made a Comendador de la Orden de Isabel la Católica by the Franco regime and spent the last years of his life in Madrid where he died.

Their books illuminate from different stances the passing of the “old” feudal Spain (Starkie laments it) and the emerging of a “new” one (Trend welcomes it) and are virtually impossible to find except in the original first editions in English. While Starkie is hyper romantic and takes on many guises in his travel books, and has the Irish gift of the gab (many of the conversations and stories in the book are rather difficult to believe) Trend is down to earth. In one of his books, Starkie returns during his travels to a railway station many years after first being there and claims he found the umbrella he had left in the waiting room.

Spanish Raggle Taggle, published in 1934, takes its title from a song of the same name, which tells of a lady living in comfort and leisure who absconds with gypsies. One of the verses goes as follows:

“What care I for my house and land?
What care I for my treasure, O?
What care I for my new-wedded lord,
I’m off with the raggle-taggle gypsies, O!”

I knew Starkie in Madrid during the last year of his life. The photograph of him in the festival catalogue taken by me is one of the last ones before he died. He once told me in one of our conversations which I recorded that he had “an entirely divided personality, and I am not ashamed of it either. I think you have to have moments of vagabondage, but I also like university life and have had my nose to the grindstone as my wife and I never had much money. I suppose you could say I was a forerunner of the hippies. I went very rough and was absolutely filthy and full of bugs. When I returned home my wife would not let me in the house until I was deloused.”

Despite suffering from chronic asthma, Starkie constantly travelled around Spain in the years before the Civil War. While walking he would converse with himself. Often he would enact a conversation between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, telling himself: “Get thee behind me, pot-bellied Sancho, the true vagabond is no hiker who has visited Woolworth’s”.

In Spanish Raggle Taggle, Starkie highlights the plight of the Spanish nobility in the wake of the founding of the Republic in 1931. He wrote: “There are nearly as many Spaniards as French on the Côte d’Argent – why, the entire noblesse espagnole sits along the coast and looks with melancholy longing across the bay at Fuenterrabía.” Starkie drums up sympathy for the clergy – without mentioning the Church’s privileged and powerful position.

He was rowed into Spain from Hendaye to Fuentearrabía by an old Basque fisherman who told him of Spanish priests escaping to France “carrying, hidden beneath their soutanes, church ornaments.” When the boat reached the shore of Spain, Starkie was spotted by a policeman and asked to show his passport. He was not someone who could easily blend into the background. Here is what Starkie wrote about the incident in Spanish Raggle Taggle.See page 36.

As Jacqueline Hurtley observes in her excellent biography of Starkie, the only sympathetic comment to be found in favour of the Republic’s reforms in Spanish Raggle Taggle is expressed in the last chapter when Starkie recognises the importance of the reforms in higher education. Starkie’s depiction of the country under the Republic, with comments like there being “many ragged villages where in former days proud heroes dwelt”, is ubiquitously negative. Starkie’s next book, Don Gypsy, was published in 1936 a month before Franco’s uprising and the text seems, on occasion, to be anticipating it.

Gibraltar figures in Don Gypsy. As Starkie approaches Gibraltar from the sea he witnesses a conversation between a Spaniard and an Englishman which goes as follows. See pages 4 and 5.

Starkie came to Gibraltar with Tom Burns, the father of Jimmy Burns and press attaché at the British Embassy in Madrid who was also a British agent. Jimmy, a former colleague at the Financial Times, has also been speaking at this festival. As Jimmy recounts in his engaging book Papa Spy, while his father touched base with local intelligence contacts in Gibraltar, Starkie played a concert of Irish jigs in the great hangar below deck of the Ark Royal, the Royal Navy’s flagship aircraft carrier, which was docked in Gibraltar.

With his wide range of contacts, particular among intellectuals and the nobility, and knowledge of the country, Starkie was an inspired choice to establish the British Institute in Madrid in 1940. He also professed the right religion: the Franco regime made it a condition that the Institute’s director was Roman Catholic. He became persona gratisima in Franco’s circles.
Spain’s ambivalent political position during the war and its lack of support towards the Allied forces strained relations with Britain. Thanks to the tireless work of Starkie, music and art became a bridge between the two nations and were used as a political tool to encourage Spain to remain neutral rather than directly collaborating with the Nazis.

Trend, on the other hand, was vehemently contemptuous of the British Council in Spain for being pro-Franco. He called it the “B. Council” (the “B” stood for bloody).

Starkie’s eccentric public persona put him in a good position to be of use to the British secret service. There is a fascinating photograph in Hurtley’s book, originally published in the Irish Independent newspaper, that shows Starkie in December 1938, two years before he was posted to Madrid, on Franco’s side of the Ebro front during the Civil War, where the temperature was -18ºC, standing next to the British double spy Kim Philby and another war correspondent. Philby, an agent for the Soviet Union and later MI6, has his head bandaged following an accident in which three other journalists had been killed. Philby covered Franco’s side of the Civil War for The Times, which enabled him to pass information via Moscow to the Republican side and burnish his credentials as a supposed conservative. He had been recruited by the Russians in the 1930s (he defected to Moscow in 1963). Starkie is not identified as a war correspondent like the other two in the photograph and the role he was playing at this juncture remains a mystery. Perhaps he was keeping tabs on Philby.

Starkie made the British Institute in Madrid a genial atmosphere for Anglo-Spanish relations, with tertulias, music, lectures, exhibitions and the promotion of British books. On any one evening one could count on finding in the Institute a great novelist such as Pío Baroja, a rising star like Camilo José Cela (Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1989), composers like Joaquín Rodrigo, best known for his Concierto de Aranjuez, and painters such as Ignacio Zuloaga.

In 1943, Starkie organised a propaganda tour of Spain by the actor Leslie Howard, best known for his role as Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind. Not all the events at the Institute were subtle in their political agendas. Howard gave a lecture on Hamlet, comparing the plot of murder, deception and madness to the actions of Hitler in an attempt to turn Spanish support away from the Nazis. Howard died that year when the plane he was travelling in from Lisbon to Bristol was shot down by Luftwaffe Junkers. There had been speculation that Winston Churchill was on the flight.

The Institute also became a support to refugees in Spain. The American Red Cross provided flour and milk for 400 families in need, a process coordinated by Starkie’s wife. Every subsequent Tuesday, around 50 Spanish and British women went to the Institute to turn the sacks that had been used to transport the food into clothes for destitute children.

In 1944, Starkie met the Spanish minister for education to discuss the place of English in the national Bachillerato. The law at that time decreed that English should not be available for study, but Starkie convinced the minister to change the law. A new ruling gave pupils the choice between English or German. Starkie reported back to England: “I have gained a great victory for English in Spain and have destroyed one of the main advantages of the Germans here.”

Unlike Starkie, Trend had no wish to construct a romantic, imaginary Spain for consumption by readers of his books. Like the great Richard Ford, author of Handbook for Spain, published in 1845, and still one of the most perceptive books on the country, Trend possessed el vivo afan de comprender, a real desire to find out the truth, understand it and explain it to his English speaking readers.

He witnessed the attempts made before the Spanish Civil War in 1936 to modernize the country, particularly in the field of education. He was a fervent admirer of the Republic, established in 1931 after King Alfonso XIII went into exile, and of the liberal and secular intellectuals who preceded it, particularly Francisco Giner de los Ríos, a law professor and founder of the Institución Libre de Ensenanza (the Free Educational Institute), in 1876 which lasted until 1936 and the outbreak of the Civil War. This elitist and very influential institution was not “free” in the sense that there was no charge for classes, but free from the inspection and control of the government and the Catholic Church. The Institución made a firm stand for individualism, for freedom of thought in its widest sense; the mind should never submit to any principle of authority.

Trend wrote in his book A Picture of Modern Spain: Men and Music published in 1921: “Don Francisco and his little band of fellow-workers were not all rationalists; they believed that fixed and doctrinaire opinions were as deplorable in unbelief as in belief itself. They were almost the first men in Spain to realize how important to human welfare is the study of science, and they built laboratories which until then had been unknown.”

Trend likened Spanish history to “the state of an old gramophone record when the needle keeps slipping back into the same groove at the same point, each time it revolves”. For him, Giner de los Ríos was the first modern Spaniard because more than any other man he “gave to Spain the impulse which set it moving.”

Trend realized that the problem of the lack of progress in Spain was closely connected with the problem of education. “The function of a teacher, and more than ever in Spain, is a continuous effort to free the spirit … and this will never happen in a rigid teaching system, “ Trend wrote. “Only a real passion for truth and justice will give rise to the development of toleration and social solidarity, which are the only hope for the future of Spain and of all nations.” Given the barbarity unleashed by the Spanish Civil War 15 years after the book was published, how right he was.

At that time boys of the upper classes in Spain, not girls, – in a country where illiteracy was very high and the Catholic Church was immensely powerful – were often educated by the Jesuits. Trend noted in A Picture of Modern Spain: “It is literally true that the ‘vice of thinking’ is discouraged along with the other deadly sins. The teaching is superficial and one-sided; modern criticism is excluded, and history and science are only admitted in bowdlerized form.”

The picture that Trend paints of Spain in this book and in The Origins of Modern Spain, published in 1934, was a very different one to the romantic one generally coming from other people writing about the country, such as Starkie, and later Laurie Lee in his book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, recounting his experiences in pre-Civil War Spain. Trend’s books are particularly important, though not as fun to read as Starkie’s, and have stood the test of time. Trend was not interested in perpetuating the stereotypes about Spain. The nearest he came to writing a voluptuous non-academic book a la Starkie was Spain from the South, published in 1928, which is a kind of informative companion for travellers.

This book begins in Algeciras, as follows: “Algeciras is not the best introduction to Spain. As a frontier station it is apt to give a bad impression. Generations of harassed and hard-worked soldiers on short leave from ‘Gib’, with their women-folk more accustomed to travel in the East, perhaps, than in Europe, more used to giving orders than asking people to do things, have led to the impression that English travellers never know the language and will pay anything rather than be bothered.” Trend quickly leaves Algeciras and takes the train to Cádiz.

Thanks to Trend’s book Origins of Modern Spain, the outside world was aware of the reforms that benefited women. In a country where in Trend’s words Spanish women were still thought of in terms of “Carmen, fans and mantillas, just as all English women wear uniform and do all sorts of things which no one in Spain would ever dream of”, few people knew about the Residencia de Señoritas, a college for women founded in 1915.

Trend wrote: “The clerical parties and the other reactionaries had hoped to spring woman suffrage on an unsuspecting and uneducated country as a great measure of democratic reform, well knowing that in Spain ninety-nine women out of a hundred would go straight off to a priest and ask him how they should vote.”

The answer in a catechism published as late as 1927 – nine years before the Civil War – to the question “what kind of sin is committed by one who votes for a liberal candidate?” was “generally a mortal one.” The same edition of this catechism condemned Darwinism, freedom of education, and the unrestricted right of meeting and propaganda. Some Spanish priests, Trend wrote, were more enlightened but the majority were ignorant and averse to social or intellectual progress.

For Trend the aim of the Residencia de Señoritas was to “teach students to think for themselves; to understand both sides of a problem, and choose the alternative which most commends itself to their good sense and their affections.”

There was another Residencia to which Trend was particularly close and that was the Residencia de Estudiantes. Whenever he was in Madrid, as Margaret Joan Anstee writes in her biography of Trend, home-from-home for Trend was this Residencia, another pioneering institution created in 1910 as an offshoot of the Junta para Ampliación de Estudios, the brainchild of Trend’s hero Gíner de los Ríos. The Junta financed the studies abroad of graduates. The Residencia is perhaps most famous for three students who were there at the same time – the film director Luis Buñuel, the poet Lorca and the painter Salvador Dali. Trend was the first person to bring Lorca’s poems to the attention of the British public.

Trend found a niche in the Residencia for it aspired to follow the pattern of the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. It provided halls of residence where students could live and work together and well-known writers and artists also stayed there. The students thus had direct access to intellectual giants who opened their eyes to wider horizons than were offered by the confines of the traditional curriculum, with little or no interchange between the disciplines. Tutorials were provided along the lines of the Oxbridge system, there were scientific laboratories, and the Residencia became the centre for many special events such as concerts, song recitals, plays and lectures.

Trend became a great friend of Alberto Jimenez Fraud, a disciple of Gíner de los Ríos and the director of the Residencia who went into exile in 1936 several months after the Civil War started. When the war started the British and American flags were flown at the Residencia which enabled some intellectuals to take refuge and live there. Although Republican supporters, they feared for their lives from anarchists.

Trend helped Jimenez Fraud find a job at Oxford University.

Catalan independence was in the air when Trend visited Spain, just as it is today, and a federal solution seemed to be that which most commended itself to the Catalan people. One of the main and fortunate differences between then and today was that strikes, lock-outs, social conflicts, bomb-throwing and assassinations were becoming common in Barcelona during Trend’s day

Trend had more sympathy than Starkie for the Spanish view on Gibraltar. On this contentious question Trend wrote: “We (he means the British) are so thoughtless in this matter than it never occurs to us to understand the bitterness which many Spaniards feel towards our continued possession of Gibraltar. It is as if the French were in occupation of Dover, and is more galling to the Spanish people than the American seizure and protectorate over Cuba.” Spain lost Cuba in the Spanish-American war of 1898.

Trend continues: “Many Spaniards, who are neither screaming militarists nor anti-English, observe with annoyance how Gibraltar under British rule is apparently a refuge for undesirable characters from the peninsula, and a place where, as it seems, there is an open door for all kinds of smuggling into Spain.”

“To the majority of Spaniards an Englishman is still an unknown quantity and – if he take the trouble to learn the language – something of a curiosity. It is only between Ronda and Algeciras that any real dislike exists; and that arises from the overbearing behaviour of some members of the Gibraltar garrison when they are on leave, and from the way in which certain English landlords have screwed up the rents of the houses which they own on the Spanish side of the frontier”.

I wonder what Trend would have said about the current conflict between Spain and Gibraltar.

Trend’s last visit to Spain was in the summer of 1937 when he went to Valencia, where the Republican government was installed after leaving Madrid besieged by General Franco’s troops and constantly bombed. The main purpose of Trend’s visit was related to the measures being taken to save the major art works in the Prado and other museums from the bombs. Some bombs had fallen on the Prado roof but fortunately had not exploded.

The Republican government invited various governments to send art experts to witness their efforts to save Spain’s national heritage and to demonstrate that it was not they who were the Philistines but rather the fascists who were destroying it with their bombing. Two British experts went and Trend accompanied them to help them with their contacts. Hundreds of paintings were eventually loaded onto trucks and sent for safe keeping, first to Valencia and finally to Geneva.

Trend refused to return to Spain during the Franco regime. His friends, the cream of the intellectual class, were into exile. He turned his attention to Portugal, from where he would observe Spain nostalgically from the other side of the border on many a visit, South America and Mexico.

I have with me a copy of a letter that Trend wrote in 1952 from his favourite hotel in Lisbon to a Spanish exile in London regarding Juan Ramón Jimenez, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1956 and died in exile in Puerto Rico. In the letter Trend says Jimenez had begged him to visit him but he says the journey was too far and expensive. Furthermore, he writes, “for an honorary exile, like me, to get permission to enter a US territory would be like a Puertoriqueño trying to get a British visa for Cyprus.”

Starkie spent the last years of his life in Madrid after retiring from the University of California. He is buried in the British Cemetery in Madrid. On the 10th anniversary commemoration of Starkie’s death, in 1986, the author Cela, who three years later won the Nobel Prize, read out a very short story he had written for the occasion called “El violin de Don Walter”, a copy of which he gave me.