Some countries have no image: Belgium and Paraguay, for example. Spain’s image is one of the world’s strongest and oldest. Close to 30% of Japanese respondents in a survey, conducted by the think tank for which I work, spontaneously associated the word ‘Spain’ with bulls and almost 20% with flamenco. What image conjures up Belgium? Chocolates? With what do we associate England?
Marmite? Fish and chips?
For centuries the bull has been the supreme iconographic image of Spain, to the chagrin of many Spaniards desiring a more modern image not associated with the national sport of bullfighting. During Spain’s recent crisis, the international media used the bull in creative metaphors to reflect the situation. The Economist, for example, put on its cover a bull wounded by banderillas placed in pairs into the muscle on top of the bull’s shoulders, in order to make the matador’s job easier, and above it the word Spain with the S falling off so it read pain.
Spain’s image dates from the 16th century with the conquistadores who forged an empire in Latin America, the Armada that set sail for England (Sir Francis Drake is a hero for the Brits and a pirate for Spaniards) and the Black Legend associated with the Inquisition of the all-pervasive Catholic Church. That image lasted through the 18th century. Spaniards were seen as intolerant, narrow minded, indolent, calculating and intensely Catholic.
The pre-eminent building was the vast, austere palace-monastery of El Escorial near Madrid, with its ashen façade, from where Philip II ran the Spanish empire and which has been called an expression in stone of Catholicism. The traditional belief is that the grill-like shape of El Escorial was chosen in honor of St. Lawrence, who, in the third century AD, was martyred by being roasted to death on a grill.
The other and very different image of Spain originated in the 19th century, and is the one I am going to talk about today. This romantic image emanates from British, American and French travellers, known collectively as los curiosos impertinentes, who visited the country and wrote about it. The term curiosos impertinentes, which can be translated as the annoyingly curious, comes from one of the interpolated tales in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, about a man, Anselmo, who tests the fidelity of his wife by asking his friend Lothario to seduce her. How the term ended up being applied to travellers is a mystery. I am going to talk about eight British writers, three of whom I met – Walter Starkie, Gerald Brenan and Robert Graves – and another of whom, the late Michael Jacobs, was a friend for many years.
According to the stereotypes forged by this romantic image Spaniards were anarchist, individualist, tolerant, passionate, impulsive, natural, generous and pagan – the total reverse of the other image. The emblematic building was the exotic, sensual, Moorish Alhambra palace in Granada, the residence of Muslim kings until the Christian conquest of the city in 1492. All women were like Carmen, a beautiful gypsy with a fiery temper, responsible for the downfall of many men and immortalised in Bizet’s 1857 opera, which brought together all the romantic clichés of southern Spain, from banditry to gypsies and matadors. Incidentally, it is still one of the most performed operas in the world. Carmen was inspired by Prosper Merimée’s novel of the same name, which sparked the French interest in Spain. The romantic image of Spain can be seen as a variation of the West’s fascination for the the East.
In the words of the late Michael Jacobs: “Spain is a country continually identified and constrained by metaphors, and there are even those who have interpreted its very shape as a protruding spiritual presence thrusting out not into the Atlantic but into the mystical imagination.”
Few other countries have produced archetypal personalities of such resonance as Carmen, Don Juan and, above all, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, whose names are continually invoked to describe the opposing extremes of the Spanish character.
The ‘exotic’, primitive Spain was epitomised by the phrase ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’, the idea that Spain is different, not European, apparently coined by Alexandre Dumas, best known as the author of The Three Musketeers, first published in 1844.
Some of these ideas and images fed the concept of “Spanish exceptionalism”, tainted by association with Fascism in the 20th century. The notion of Spanish exceptionalism played into the hands of the dictator Franco, who won the 1936-39 Civil War, as it explained why Spaniards, unlike other Europeans, could not live in democracy: because democracy was an unSpanish and thus a dangerous, foreign system.
The modern Spanish mass tourism industry was promoted in its first years in the 1960s during the Franco regime with the slogan, “Spain is different” (it was the only dictatorship in Western Europe apart from Portugal). More than 75 million tourists went to Spain last year, close to 18 million of whom were Brits.
The father of the curiosos impertinentes, as far as British writers are concerned, is Richard Ford, author of the two volume Handbook for Travellers in Spain and Readers at Home, published in 1845, the forerunner of today’s growth industry of travel guides, which runs to 1,064 pages of double-column closely-printed pages text, 140 journeys and a 50-page index. The original 2,000 sets costing the considerable sum for its day of 30 shillings were sold out in little more than a year. I have long coveted a copy of the first edition.
Ford, a High Tory grandee of independent means, had an opinion on everything Spanish. The scope of the book can be gauged from the sub-title: “Describing the country and cities, the natives and their manners, the antiquities, religion, legends, fine arts, literature, sports and gastronomy … with notices on Spanish history.”
Some of Ford’s comments were so caustic that the 1844 edition was suppressed. Even so, the expurgated edition is still full of comments like, Valencians are “vindictive, sullen, fickle and treacherous; in Murcia “the better classes vegetate in a monotonous unsocial existence: their pursuits are the cigar and the siesta” and Catalonia is “no place for the man of pleasure, taste or literature … here cotton is spun, vice and discontent bred, revolution concoted.” As for the Andalucian he “is the greatest boaster; he brags chiefly of his courage and wealth. He ends in believing his own lie, and hence is always pleased with himself, with whom he is on the best of terms. His redeeming qualities are his kind and good manners, his lively, social turn, his ready wit and sparkle. The provincial dress is so extremely picturesque, that it is adopted in our costumeless land for fancy balls.”
Ford travelled around Spain in the 1830s by horse, wearing gear which he recommended to adventurous travellers: a jacket of black sheepskin or lambskin, with, in his words, “a sash around the waist which sustains the loins and maintains an equable heat over the abdomen,” a cloak, and in summer “the head should be protected with a silk handkerchief tied after a turban fashion, which all the natives do. In addition we always lined the inside of our hats with thickly-doubled brown paper.”
Ford not only produced a book which in many ways has stood the test of time, with wonderful descriptions of places, bullfighting and generally perceptive remarks about Spain – apart from the insults – but he also returned to England with more than 500 sketches. Few Spanish artists had bothered to memorialise their native scene, so that the drawings and watercolours done by Ford and his wife Harriet are often the only record of buildings and localities that have vanished or changed beyond recognition. He found the hams of Montanchez so delicious and the amontillado sherry that he introduced them to England.
Too much sentimental nonsense had been written about the Alhambra, the Islamic palace in Granada, he wrote, almost certainly referring to the American writer Washington Irving, whose Tales of the Alhambra had been published in 1832. To be truly appreciated, according to Ford, the Alhambra had to be “lived in and beheld in the semi-obscure evening. The shadows of the cypresses on the walls assume the forms of the dusky Moor revisiting his last home, while the night winds breaking through the unglazed windows and the myrtles, rustle as his silken robes or sigh like his lament over the profanation of the unclean infidel and destroyer.”
One of Ford’s many acute observations which still holds today was that Spain was the country of the patria chica. Patria is first and foremost place of origin – more than mother country – and chica means little and hence something to be protected. A Spaniards’ first loyalty is often to the village, town or city where he was born, a tangible place, and not to his country: these feelings are expressed in the tens of thousands of annual fiestas that still take place in villages. He called Spain a “bundle of local units tied together by a rope of sand.” Judging by the push for independence in Catalonia, the ‘rope’ is not much stronger today. Ford called Catalonia “the classic country of rebellion, always ready to leave”.
Ford was so taken by Spain that when he returned to England and moved into Heavitree House, a rambling Elizabethan farmhouse, near Exeter he had the buildings decorated in a Spanish manner, and sent for pines and cypresses from Spain to plant in the garden and built a summer house in the Moorish style. The cornice of his bathroom was taken or perhaps I should say stolen from the Casa Sánchez in the grounds of the Alhambra. He died in 1858 and on his tombstone was fittingly inscribed in Latin the following, Rerum Hispaniae indagator acerrimus, “Ardent researcher on Hispanic matters,”
Ford was largely responsible for the publication of The Bible in Spain in 1842 by George Borrow, our next curioso impertinente. While Ford was writing The Handbook, his publisher John Murray sent him Borrow’s manuscript and he urged Murray to publish it.
George Borrow peddled and printed in Spain the Protestant Bible for the British and Foreign Bible Society, founded in 1804. He spoke several languages including Russian, and his first job as an agent for the Society was in St. Petersburg, followed by Spain which was suffering the aftermath of the ruinous Napoleonic wars and in the throes of the Carlist War.
Mounted on his thoroughbred Arab horse, Sidi Habismilk, Borrow, known as Don Jorgito el Inglés, saw himself as a knight-errant of the Bible.
Borrow called Spain “the most magnificent country in the world, probably the most fertile, and certainly with the finest climate. Whether her children are worthy of their mother is another question, which I shall not attempt to answer, but content myself with observing that, amongst much that is lamentable and reprehensible, I have found much that is noble and to be admired; much stern heroic virtue, at least amongst the great body of the Spanish nation, with which my mission lay.”
He got into many scrapes with the Catholic authorities who hounded him and at one stage imprisoned him. The Bibles were seized wherever found, and those sent from Madrid impounded at the custom house where all goods went so that a duty could be levied on them. Borrow’s reporting of such acts reinforced Spain’s image of religious intolerance at the official level, though not among the people. Not surprisingly, Borrow had hardly a kind word for the Catholic Church as an institution.
Ford’s Handbook and Borrow’s The Bible in Spain were bestsellers and went into many editions. They did much to fuel Spain’s tourist boom in the 19th century by Brits. As Ford wrote, “Though a land of adventures and romance full of historic, poetic and legendary association, (Spain) yet is withal a kind of terra incognita where the all-wandering foot of the all-pervading Englishman but seldom rambles. The beef-steak and the tea-kettle which infallibly mark the progress of John Bull are as yet unknown”.
The steady extension of the railway through Spain, particularly in Andalusia, facilitated tourism – a mode of transport detested by Ford and by his hero, the first Duke of Wellington, the victor of Waterloo and of the Peninsular War (which Spaniards call the War of Independence). The Iron Duke, who gave Ford financial support, had complained that the railway would “encourage the lower classes to move about.”
While Borrow travelled with copies of the Bible, Walter Starkie, born in 1894 near Dublin, took his violin with him when he travelled through Spain in the 1920s and 30s and was something of a wandering minstrel. He was a gifted musician and linguist, and regarded his violin as the equivalent of Don Quixote’s horse Rocinante. While walking Starkie, as recounted in his book Spanish Raggle-Taggle, published in 1934, 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”. Starkie’s life was something of a tussle between the practical Sancho Panza part of his nature and the idealistic wandering Don Quixote side.
Starkie is hyper romantic in lamenting the passing of the “old” Spain. He had the Irish gift of the gab. Many of the conversations and stories in the book are difficult to believe, as is his claim that he retrieved from the waiting room of a railway station an umbrella he had left there many years before.
Starkie later became 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.
Victor Sawdon Pritchett, born in Ipswich, Suffolk in 1900, was also walking through Spain at the same time as Starkie, but their paths did not cross. Pritchett first came to Spain in 1924 as a correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor, a US newspaper, and in 1926 walked through Extremadura. The journey is described in Marching Spain, published in 1928, a book Pritchett, best known for his short stories, later disowned and was happy to see go out of print until 1988, eight years before he died. Pritchett began that journey by arriving by boat in La Coruña from Southampton and then getting to Badajoz via Lisbon where he begins his journey. As the boat arrives he sees the Spanish flag in the harbour flying at half mast. He wondered what great personage had died:
“Perhaps a prime minister, an archbishop, a public man of sorts, even one of Spain’s 800 generals. It was clearly an occasion of official mourning, and no people love death as the Spaniards love it. They enjoy the evidence of death. They love the sight of a good, bloody corpse, well gashed and bruised – who can forget the revolting realism of the agonised Christs of their galleries and processions? The curious Pritchett asked a policeman who had died. “He turned on me, and his eyes were musingly half-closed like a cat’s. “It is our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. I remembered then that it was Good Friday”.
Religion comes into Pritchett’s journey quite a lot: there is Don Benito with his illicit copy of the Book of Genesis and the Scottish Protestant missionary, who had been roughed up by the civil guard for proselytising and whose house is known as the House of Ill Fame. Marching Spain is full of encounters with people, with what Pritchett calls “human architecture”, which he preferred over buildings. He rarely described a building during his wanderings.
It is not long before Pritchett encounters olive oil, and for him it becomes the smell of Spain. “Each country has its smell: Spain reeks of rank olive oil. The fumes of that oil, which is used by the peasants for lighting their fires, for burning in their lamps, and for cooking their food, hit out from every doorway with a blow that at first sickened. I struggled for two days with the stink, and then it conquered me, sank into me, and permeated my system, gripped my limbs, possessed my palate, pervaded my nose – in fact, behaved like a Spanish stare so that henceforth I noticed it no more – and ate it unknowingly – the abominable stuff.”
The Spanish Temper, published in 1954, 26 years after Marching Spain, is not a travel book in the sense that we follow Pritchett on the road, although it reads like one, but a distillation of his study of Spain and his thoughts and experiences about the country.
Spain had changed by the early 1950s when Pritchett goes back. Franco had been dictator more than 10 years. Many of Pritchett’s friends and contacts had gone into exile after the Civil War. He notes early on in the Spanish Temper that:
“Spain is the great producer of exiles, a country unable to tolerate its own people. The Moors, the Jews, the Protestants, the reformers – out with them; and out, at different periods, with the liberals, the atheists, the priests, the kings, the presidents, the generals, the socialists, the anarchists, fascists, and communists; out with the Right, out with the Left, out with every government. The fact recalls the cruel roar of abuse that goes up in the ring when the bullfighter misses a trick; out with him.”
Recalling an incident during his travels in Marching Spain when Pritchett mentioned Málaga and Seville in the same breadth, in the presence of a young man from Málaga who passionately denounces Seville as much inferior, Pritchett muses in The Spanish Temper that the “provinciality of the Spaniard is his true ground and passion, His town is not like any other town. It is the only town. And he too is not like any other human being; he is indeed the only human being.” Richard Ford made a similar point 90 years earlier.
Pritchett’s observations on the complexities and contradictions of Spanish life including the intensity of regional differences remain pertinent today. At one point he says “there is no such country as Spain.” His description of the streets lying off the Puerta del Sol in Madrid after midnight could apply to some Spanish towns and cities today.
“They are streets of small bars crowded with men roaring away at each other, drinking their small glasses of beer or wine, tearing shellfish to bits and scattering their refuse and the sugar-papers of their coffee on the floors. The walls are toiled and in gaudy colours. The head of a bull will hang there, or some bloody painting of a scene at the bullfight.”
The main difference between then and now is that women and not only men would be roaring away at one another.
Pritchett’s great friend Gerald Brenan, whom he first met in 1936, also went back to Spain after the Civil War and wrote about the country. Brenan, unlike Pritchett, had made it his home after the First World War in 1919 and left Spain in 1936. Regretting he had not gone to university because of the war, Brenan used the bounty given him as an officer when he was demobbed to buy a library of 2,000 books and had them shipped to the village of Yegen in the Alpujarra near Granada where he immersed himself in educating himself.
Like his contemporary the poet and novelist Robert Graves, best known for his autobiography Goodbye to All That, which describes his bitter leave-taking of England following the cataclysm of the First World War, one reason for Brenan choosing to live in Spain was his calculation that his small income would go further there. Graves’s “All that” included the constrictions of a public school education, the class system and British philistinism. Graves moved to Mallorca in 1929 and died there in 1985, but hardly wrote about Spain except Majorca Observed published in 1965.
Brenan returned to Spain in 1949 and recounted what he saw in The Face of Spain, published in 1950. By then he had made his name as an authority on the country with The Spanish Labyrinth, still one of the seminal books for understanding what led to that savage conflict.
The Face of Spain is written in the form of a diary. Here is an extract. “The impression that abides from my visit is of how little, after all the vicissitudes of the last 13 years, the character of the people has changed and this, to anyone who knew Spain before the Civil War, will be the best recommendation. To those who did not, let me say that there is something about this country and its way of life which makes a unique impression. For centuries a mixing bowl of the cultures of Europe, Asia and North Africa, Spain gives off a note which is unlike any other. A sharp, penetrating, agridulce strain, both harsh and nostalgic like that of its guitar music, which no one who has once heard will ever forget”.
Brenan vividly describes what he encounters 10 years after the Civil War: severe poverty, deprivation, corruption, black market, the suffocating political atmosphere of the dictatorship and the village of Yegen where his home had remained intact. The picture that emerges is a depressing one. Nevertheless, Spain continued to attract him, and he returned for good in 1953, despite being openly critical of the regime. As he expressed it:
“The Englishman, fresh from the dull hurry of London streets and from their sea of pudding faces – faces which often seem to have known no greater grief than that of having arrived too late in the chocolate or cake queue – feels recharged and revitalised when he bathes in this river.”
By river, he meant Spain.
Brenan’s next book South from Granada recounts his life in Yegen in the 1920s. It is an intimate, insider portrait of life in a village that had changed little over the centuries. The writer Bruce Chatwin visited the village in 1987, almost 70 years after Brenan moved there, and said it reminded him of Afghanistan. The analogy was apt. To appreciate what Brenan did in the 1920s you must imagine that a young Englishman decided today to go and settle in a remote village in Afghanistan 4,000 feet above sea level, like Yegen. The nearest town of any significance to Yegen was Almeria which until the 1960s was more accessible by sea than by land.
To say that Brenan was an object of curiosity in Yegen is to put it mildly. Encouraged to go to church by the local priest, despite declaring himself Protestant, Brenan was given pride of place in the bishop’s chair in full view of the congregation.
Norman Lewis, slightly younger than Pritchett and Brenan, set out in 1934 with his brother-in-law to reach Spain through France by taking with them a collapsible canoe, but they did not get very far and abandoned it. The canoe and baggage weighed more than 100 kilos and was transported on a small cart. They spent more time carrying the canoe than paddling it. Lewis was also escaping Graves’s “all that”. In his first volume of autobiography, Jackdaw Cake, Lewis describes his lower middle-class suburban London background as “an endless, low-quality dream… nothing, with chips”.
Lewis’s Spanish Adventure, published in 1935, recounts their journey through pre-Civil War Spain including the armed revolt by
Asturian miners. At one point when they arrived in Madrid by train they were caught in shooting between snipers and soldiers.
Lewis was particularly struck by the singularity of Spain’s landscape. As he later wrote:
“Its surprising combinations of desert, forest and mountains contain an element of the fantastic that is lacking in any other part of Europe. Only Spain can supply the profound and exciting sense of personal incongruity which is engendered by finding oneself in a boundless plain of billowing rock, from which all colour has been purged by the sun, leaving a panorama empty of everything but whiteness of cloud and rock and the blue of the sky. Against such terrestrial purity one is demoted to the status of a stain.”
Like Brenan, Lewis lived in a Spanish village on and off for a couple of years in the early 1950s after serving in the Army overseas and wrote about it in Voices of the Old Sea, published in 1984.
Lewis lived in the remote fishing village of Farol in Catalonia, in the last period before Spain was opened up to mass tourism. He became a fishermen, which enabled him to integrate into the village. He had a keen eye for the absurd. The village’s muleteer had trained his mule to deposit its manure only at the door of the inn, for which he received a glass of wine twice a day.
I will end with my friend Michael Jacobs, once dubbed “the George Borrow of the high-speed train era” by the conservative Spanish daily ABC. Michael left behind a substantial body of work on Spain. His Between Hopes and Memories, published in 1994, is a highly original and erudite departure from the 20th century travel writers whom he said “lamented the modern Spain and regretted the passing of rural life”. He called such sentimentality offensive. Laurie Lee, whose As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, is the most poetic account of Spain, and Jan Morris are the best-known such authors. Indeed Michael’s remark in his book on Andalusia, published in 1991, that Jan Morris found poverty “pictureseque” provoked a furious letter from her. As Michael told me: “She wrote saying there was a kind of beauty in the closeness of peasants to the soil, which only proved what I said.” Despite the clash, Morris chose his book as one of her 10 favourite books on Spain, calling it an “antidote to sloppy romanticism.”
Perhaps because of his academic training as an art historian – he received a doctorate at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London and was the last postgraduate student of Anthony Blunt, the former curator of the royal art collection who was publicly exposed as a spy in 1978 – Michael took a more all-encompassing approach to his travels around Spain. He digresses on food (one of his great passions and he found the Spaniards even more obsessed than the French or Italians) and writes knowledgeably on art and literature.
In his book Between Hopes and Memories Michael looks at the unusual and eccentric aspects of Spain, often contrasting what he found with how it had been described by previous writers.
He explores the less-publicised aspects of Spain, concluding that if he had to choose one characteristic common to the many fragments that make up Spain, it would be neither “profound permanence” nor ”Moorish sensuality”, – the two opposing images I mentioned at the start of this talk – but something Spaniards refer to as cursi. This word carries a wide range of nuances: flashy, genteel, affected, kitsch, quaint and cheesy. He was interested in a Spain that contradicted and even parodied romantic images of Spanishness, an ephemeral and anarchic Spain of discothèques, pollution, unpublished poets, architectural tack, gastronomic passions, historical shams and fantastical bad taste. He could have called his book Unromantic Spain, but that title had already been used by Mario Praz in 1929.
Most of us would find not being able to drive a handicap. Michael regarded it as an advantage for the modern-day travel writer. As he told me: “It forces you to take public transport where you talk to more people. And more importantly if you arrive at some God-forsaken village in a car you can always drive on, but if you get there by the last bus or train you have no option but to seek out the nearest fonda, which is an experience that fewer and fewer people have these days. So much of tourism in Spain today involves carefully-planned journeys and paradors in the attractive towns while those of greater interest are ignored.”
The lack of his own transport and the scarcity of public transport in some of the remote places he visited led him into some strange travelling experiences, such as touring Huelva in the back of a van belonging to a rock-flamenco group called Dulce Venganza (Sweet Revenge) and travelling in La Mancha, on the trail of Don Quixote, with a photographer obsessed with dead dogs.
I drove Michael to see Camilo José Cela, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1989, and then left him to follow the same path as that pursued by Cela on foot in his book Journey to the Alcarria, published in 1948. Our meeting with Cela is amusingly recounted in the Hopes and Memories book. Michael visited the same places as Cela, and he discovered that the great writer‘s celebrated book was not liked.
“Cela would just spend a night in a village, go into a shop or bar, meet up with the village idiot or some deformed unfortunate, and – there you have it, the whole village summed up,” the son of the gardener who showed Cela around Brihuega in 1946 complained.
When Michael visits the Alhambra in Granada, he finds romantic attitudes to the palace no less prevalent than they were in Richard Ford’s day.
“A continuing fascination with gypsies, meanwhile,” he wrote, “has led to coach outings to ‘gypsy caves’, where tourists watch a sorry display of flamenco and drink an insipid glass of sangría. To complete the whole ‘romantic experience’ there is the obligatory evening trudge to the Albaicín church of San Nicolás, where row on row of video cameras wait poised to catch the setting sun as it suffuses the Alhambra’s russet-red turrets with a golden glow, a performance that sometimes inspires a spontaneous round of applause.”
Like Norman Lewis, Michael also lived in a Spanish village. He bought a house in Frailes in the province of Jaén and spent part of the year there. His experiences in this strange place – which my wife and I stayed in – are recounted in The Factory of Light, published in 2003, appropriately by John Murray, the publisher responsible for Richard Ford’s Handbook.
When he died in 2014, Michael left an uncompleted book he was writing on Diego Velázquez’s enigmatic masterpiece Las Meninas which hangs in the Prado museum in Madrid and whose mirror game of truth and illusion had fascinated Michael ever since he first saw the painting as a schoolboy. The book, Everything is Happening, was published in 2015 with an introduction and coda by his friend Ed Vulliamy. There are many interpretations of the painting’s ultimate significance. Michael follows the trails of associations from each individual character in the picture, as well as his own memories of and relationship to the extraordinary work, concluding that part of its greatness lies in there being no ‘definitive’ interpretation.
The same can be said for Spain, which is what makes the country so fascinating.