As I Walked Out in Search of Michael Portillo

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I spent much of October over in Spain researching and writing my forthcoming book As I Walked Out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee. The book will be published in the spring of 2014 as part of the celebrations linked to Lee’s Centenary in June 2014. I have to thank Callum Christie who runs a great little Tour Operator “Frontier Holidays” that specialises in walking and cultural holidays in Spain. Callum lent me his home near Ronda as a writing base. Whilst there I met another entrepreneur, Manni Coe, who runs another great little Tour Operation called TomaTours that also does walking, gourmet and cultural short breaks in Andalusia. Manni is a great fan of Laurie Lee too and we had a great evening discussing his books and travels. He tipped me off about a relatively unknown scenic rail route through the Pueblos Blancos region between Algeciras (Next to Gibraltar) and Ronda.

He also told me about meeting Michael Portillo and persuading him to travel the route as part of the opening programme of a new series of Great Continental Rail Journeys that was broadcast last month on BBC2- you can catch it on BBC I-Player though. Michael Portillo does a great job of introducing the delights of Andalusia.

Manni invited me to visit the region and take a ride on the railway. I didn’t need asking twice and spent a great day travelling on Mr Henderson’s Railway and writing about it for Toma Tours. You can read the article here Walking Out In Spain in Search of Laurie Lee

I guess on this occasion I was also keeping a look out for Mr Portillo. I didn’t find him but I did meet him last night at a function in London at the LSE and we did have a quick chat about the programme. He was disappointed that the wonderful meal he had at Caserio ananda adjacent to the Gaucin station platform had to be cut from the programme due to time constraints.

My day spent travelling the railway was a moving one for me and brought back poignant memories.


Knitting socks, wet-eyed squirrels and drinking Cider with Rosie

It is the beginning of a magical sunny day as I drive across the Cotswold Way, high up overlooking the Gloucestershire countryside, lovely views once the early morning mist burns off under the gentle intensity of a warming-up autumnal day.

It is a real “Veranillo del Membrillo” day, as the Spanish in Andalusia say, “a little summer of the quince” – an Indian Summer day – and the English are out en masse to enjoy it.

It feels like a moment snatched away from the inexorable march towards the darker days of winter and I am looking to enjoy it to the full.

I am on my way to the inaugural “Walking with Words” event, inspired and led by Kevan Manwaring, a quiet, gentle Gloucestershire poet. The collection of guided walks and tours stretch from late summer, through the winter and into spring 2014. They celebrate  Gloucestershire’s links with classic English writers who took their inspiration from the  natural beauty of the county. The collection of writers range from WH Davies, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, Ivor Gurney through to John Drinkwater. Today though It is all about Laurie Lee, who would have been 100 next year. He is a hero of mine and I am writing a book about his Spanish Civil Wars years, that shaped him as a writer and a man, and a walk that started, well it started from here in Slad, a tiny village in a sumptuous English green valley on the edge of the Cotswolds.

We assemble in front of Rose Bank cottage where Lee grew up, we gaze down the steep bank to the cottage and imagine the scene of little Laurie Lee, only three, being set down from the carrier’s cart. It is 1917 and the Great War is still raging on the once-green fields of France. Laurie recollects his arrival in the village in his first memoir “Cider with Rosie”: “The June grass, amongst which I stood was taller than I was and I wept.”

There are no tears from our slightly surreal group, but I think it is close. Chantelle, a trained archeologist – IT boffin in the public sector by day, a backing vocalist for a progressive band at night – is distracting herself by knitting socks as she watches on. She is not digging up dead bones today, just gently sifting the earth and the air for traces of the spirit of a dead poet. Sylvie, a retired classical violinist who toured the world and once played with the Grateful Dead and taught Joni Mitchell’s daughter, is imagining a stained-glass commemorative centenary piece of Lee flailing against the grass much like a young Don Quijote acting against the whirling blades of the windmills on La Mancha. Sylvia, as vivacious as the uplifting vowel at the end of her name implies, another singer and a poet to boot, whose muse was Joni Mitchell herself, would be in grave danger, I think, if an older Laurie were to appear, armed with his charm, silver tipped tongue and come-to-bed eyes. In the words of the great American singer, that could have been written for Lee, he was all about “Court and Spark.”

We are an eclectic group, many, like me, looking for something, a second chance in life perhaps, after bereavement, divorce, the ending of first careers. Some first lives move into a second phase seamlessly, others end abruptly. Perhaps we are all looking for some of Lee’s alchemy to inspire and transform our lives. Anything is possible, I think, on a day like today, with grasshoppers chirping and apples, both red and green, ripe for the picking.The opening words of Lee’s second memoir “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” also have Lee standing where we are now. It is 1934, he is 19 years old and he is leaving home. He has no plans other than to walk to London, he doesn’t know that after a year in the capital, his feet would feel restless again and he would walk out again, this time down from the Atlantic coast of the north west of Spain to the Mediterranean…

“The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world.”

We walk for about five miles and circle the valley, like the red kites above us, stopping from time to time to admire views, relive scenes from “Cider with Rosie” and to read extracts from the book. Sylvie reads a piece about Peace Day and the annual blessing from the squire, a man always close to tears on these occasions apparently. Somehow Sylvie creates a more evocative scene than intended when she speaks of the party being welcomed by a “wet-eyed squirrel” on the steps of the manor house. I feel this is in keeping with the spirit of our pilgrimage and that Laurie would have loved the slip of the tongue.

The highlight of the day is visiting the newly christened Laurie Lee Wood, acquired recently by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and now protected from the threat of redevelopment. I had heard recently a BBC Radio 4 programme on the wood and had been touched by the many lovers of nature and Lee’s words who had raised £36,000 in just six weeks to ensure that this particular bit of the Slad valley, immortalised in Lee’s writing, was now secure for generations to come to enjoy. Lee’s daughter Jessy had led the fight to save the wood, continuing the work that her father had started when purchasing the wood when it was threatened by those that know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

We finish back at the church opposite Laurie’s favourite pub,The Woolpack, at his graveside, but not before Chantelle had taken centre stage and with knitting put away and with a glint in her eye had read a few lines from the climax of  “Cider With Rosie”, “The first bite of the apple,” Laurie’s first tryst with Rosie who was even prettier than Betty Gleed:

“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time…never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again.”

Chantelle, for me, had now been rechristened as Rosie and she leads us on to our lunch that we had all earned in the enchanting grounds of the Hawkwood Centre. Our lunch, like our morning, is organic, biodynamic and utterly delicious. No cider though, just apple sauce on the side.

I linger at the end of the lunch and then go back down to The Woolpack and look over the valley again to Laurie Lee’s Wood. I fell in love with Laurie Lee and his writing many years ago when I was drifting on the cusp of manhood, recently he had helped me negotiate a crisis in my life. I am writing a book for Lee’s centenary year that starts on 26 June 2014 and I realize now that on that day too, when Lee would have been a 100 years old, the wood will be one. I am not sure how yet but I want my book, its due date of birth falling at around the same time, to play its own part in conserving the enchanted wood. I resolve to speak to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust soon.

Malcolm Bradbury-Norwich’s History Man

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Norwich is in the news at the moment due to the launch of the latest Alan Partridge film, Alpha Papa set there. For him a sad city so easy to parody. And yet for me, the city and its literary heritage has come to define my attempt to create a Second Chance in Life, the theme of this blog over the last two years or so.

I was entirely unaware of my Norwich links until recently.

As for making headlines recently Norwich was also nominated by Unesco as England’s first City of Literature.

It was only when I was asked to write about Malcolm Bradbury, as part of a project to celebrate this nomination, that I came to appreciate the role of the city in my life. Bradbury was one of the founding fathers, in the 1970s, of the iconic Creative Writing Department at the University of East Anglia on the edges of the city. The university department has been in the vanguard ever since of Norwich’s growing status as a crucible of emerging literary talent.

The commission to write the article was linked to a project to commemorate 26 writers with Norwich connections, from 1094 to the present day, by asking contemporary writers to write about them and the Norwich of the time that inspired them.. A new website 26 for Norwich launched this week, presents the 26 pieces along with the creation stories of how and why the stories were framed and written. My piece is entitled “Say Hello to my Giacometti.”

I am a writer drawn to writing about my literary heroes. Currently I am writing about Laurie Lee and how his life was shaped by a few years in the 1930s by the Spanish Civil War. My book, As I Walked Out through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee (seeking a publisher for the run up to Lee’s Centenary year that starts in June 2014), tells the story of how, last year, I retraced Lee’s journey, much of it on foot, across Spain on the eve of the Civil War in 1935. At a time of personal crisis, I was looking for inspiration from Lee and from Spain to try and make sense of my first life which seemed to have become stuck.

I discovered a lot about Lee and about myself. I came to realise that Lee,a heroic figure and constant companian in my adolescence and throughout my life, although on the surface, a successful and fulfilled writer and man, was actually a somewhat tortured and secretive individual. And yet for me, I discovered a new empathy with my erstwhile literary hero, I discovered that failure is a most universal of human conditions and to experience it and be challenged by it, does not always mean the end of the journey.

When I set out to research Bradbury I came upon a number of links that have shaped my own journey towards being a writer:

Susannah Marriott, my non-fiction writing tutor for my book which I started on the MA Professional Writing at the University of Falmouth, started her own journey towards becoming a successful writer and editor by studying at UEA. She taught me to be bold and audacious in style and voice.She also gave me my title for my Malcolm Bradbury article “Say Hello to my Giacometti.

Richard Holmes, Director of the UEA Lifewriting MA from 2001- 2006 and successful author and biographer, provided the inspiration for my book on Laurie Lee through his innovative book Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. He showed me how immersing yourself in the sense of a place can connect you with people who have been there before and find, in Chatwin’s words “a trail of words and musical notes along the line of the footprints.”

Kathryn Hughes, Professor of Lifewriting UEA , chaired an academic conference on the future of Biography, Turning Points, at UEA in February 2013. The conference inspired my MA Paper on Biographical Writing Trends which was accepted for a possible post conference publication.Hughes introduced me to the Turning Points of Biography, “the event, the collective and the return of the life in parts.” To capture the essence of a biography you have to freeze the crystallising moments of a life and start from there. For me the start and end of Lee’s life turning points was his first step on to Spanish soil in Vigo off the boat from Tilbury in 1935 and the moment in which, as an enlisted International Brigade soldier he killed his one and only Fascist in the Spanish Civil War or did he?

Kashuo Ishiguru who studied for an MA at UEA in 1980 wrote a novel The Remains of the Day that struck a chord with me when I was researching the life of Laurie Lee. The book chronicled the unravelling of a man’s life underneath the novel’s perfectly still surface. A portrait of a wasted life, with 1930s Britain and the movement for appeasement always in the background. A man suddenly sees with clarity the wastelands of “the remains of his days.” He has let his life slip by, a life wrecked not by tragic flaws but by adherence to ideals. “Ideals” Ishiguru shows us,“can corrupt as thoroughly as cynicism.” Ishiguru underlined for me the complacency of my first life and pointed me towards the need to live a second life, before entering “the remains of my days.” Sadly, as I show in my book, Lee also seemed entrapped in a stultifying nostalgia for the England and Spain of his youth, his first and only active life stalling at the age of 23. He saw out his days through a haze of alchohol and drew his last breaths choking on the bitter taste of disappointment and unfulfilled potential.

All roads lead back to Bradbury and his History Man, Professor Kirk, who leaps off Bradbury’s pen like Bram Stoker’s draculan big black dog, stalking and prowling the pages, turning them and people over. The anti-hero Kirk epitomized the amoral tone of the 1970s, the decade when I went to a Polytechnic to study Spanish Literature in an old Lorry Depot in Portsmouth and where I took my first steps in my first life towards becoming a writer in my second life. In my second life I was drawn to the sea to study for an MA (Distinction) Professional Writing at the University of Falmouth and started my book on Laurie Lee.

For Bradbury, the last word falls to him:

He wrote once that ” A landscape comes to life through what has been written in it; writers come to life when we follow in their steps.”

Pictures work better on the radio

“Too much custard powder and not enough gobstoppers.”

This was my quote of the week from Radio 4’s new series of programmes devoted to Eric Blair, aka as George Orwell.  The Real George Orwell is celebrating the 110th anniversary of Orwell’s birth and the 75th anniversary of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell when struggling to make a name as a writer had turned to shopkeeping to earn a crust. He and his wife ran a small general stores in Wallington in Hertfordshire and sold desserts and confectionery. The quote came from a radio drama about Homage to Catalonia being aired at the moment.

I am particularly interested in radio drama at present as I am writing a book about Laurie Lee’s Spanish Civil War years for publication next year to coincide with Lee’s Centenary anniversary year. He was born in Slad, Gloucestershire in June 1914. His famous memoir  Cider with Rosie was set in this edge-of-Cotswolds village. My part -biography of Lee, is told by myself, as I retrace Lee’s walk across Spain on the brink of civil war in 1935. I had always assumed that narrated non-fiction drama would not work well as a radio drama piece.

However, as a just graduated MA Professional Writing student, I was invited back to Falmouth University recently to attend a talk being given by James Robinson, a senior BBC Radio Drama producer. James oversees the Radio 4 Afternoon Play series and is passionate about narrated drama and has made a career out of proving that it can work in a primetime slot with 1 million listeners. James played a clip of a drama aired last year called Cry for Me: The Battle of Goose Green. It was made to mark the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Goose Green, a key event in the Falklands War. This drama-documentary looks at the events of May 1982 from the Argentinian perspective. The drama tells the story of two fictional Argentine conscripts and it is gripping. The conscripts tell their story in the moment and a narrator pulls the strands together.

James demonstrated how narration can work in a very powerful way in the very intimate medium of radio. I began to wonder whether As I Walked Out in Search of Laurie Lee’s Spain, the title of my book, could work as narrated radio drama. I had a very general discussion with James after the talk and it was clear that the subject matter was potentially appealing, the existence of a significant anniversary being a big positive (he also told me that programmes on Dylan Thomas who also has a 2014 centenary were in the pipeline.) Significantly however, from my perspective, he also warned me that first-time radio drama writers very rarely pitched successfully for prime time Radio 4 drama slots.

That’s that I thought…. and then I began to think about a tie-up with an established radio drama writer who might adapt my book…. and then I listened to Orwell last week and his custard powder and gobstoppers and was captivated.

I remembered also a radio series aired a year ago on Radio 4. It featured a contemporary writer following in the footsteps of another writer who had made a journey in the early1930s through a troubled country, Scotland. Louise Welsh, crime writer and presenter of Welsh’s Scottish Journey retraces the journey taken by the Orcadian poet and writer Edwin Muir across Scotland. Like now Scotland was a country full of savage contradictions, a country uncertain about its future while struggling to live up to its past. Similarities certainly with the Spain of 1935 and now. Spain, a nation still hiding behind a” pact of amnesia” in respect of its civil war past, and facing austerity and mass unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1930s.

England, especially with the threat of the break up of the United Kingdom, is too suffering an identity crisis and the halcyon days of Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer morning could well provide a useful tonic in 2014 when, of course, the mainstream spotlight of the publishing and broadcast anniversary season will be focusing on the start of the Great War.

I will leave the last word with James Robinson who talked generally of great radio drama “going into somebody’s head and going with them,” and specifically about “finishing a scene with a question.”

So, what am I going to do about finding a great Radio 4 drama writer who shares my passion for Laurie Lee and Spain and who has got a window over the next 12 months?



Granada-A Place I am drawn to

Granada is for me where it all began. It’s where I first really fell for Spain and all its charms.

I lived there for a year in 1975.

On a Sunday evening I would walk up the slick black winding cobbled streets of the Albaizin, the Moorish quarter. I would not go up as far as Sacromonte, where gypsy families still lived in caves and underground dwellings.

I would take a right turn from the main street and climb steeply up a narrow whitewashed alley, past the house with the broken guitar affixed to its creased outside wall, and enter the Plaza de San Nicolas.. my plaza.

On those autumn evenings, I would sit on the low wall, feet dangling in the cool dusk air circling upwards from the valley far below. I would drink in the silhouette of the Moorish Alhambra palace, the green watered gardens of the Generalife still woozy from the drugged warmth of the early autumn Spanish sun, as darkness fell.  The snow- coated outline of the Sierra Nevada sat above the palace in a blood- red sky. A nightingale’s song would occasionally break the stillness, I would trace its journey down from that sky, through a rainbow of colours, to the Plaza.

Plaza de San Nicolas

I am drawn to this place when in need of succour. A place where African princes conversed with the birds from their homeland, mourned to their melancholy songs, rejoiced to their love refrains and whose lovers in the harem were rocked to sleep by their lullabies.
I am here again now, 37 years on from when I first came. Then, like now, it was both a beginning and an end.
I have left Laurie Lee behind in Almunecar, 70 miles to the south. I finally reached there, the end of Lee’s journey, a few days back. I have been retracing his steps on a journey he took from the North West Atlantic coast of Spain to Almunecar near Malaga on the Mediterranean in 1935,  when Spain was on the brink of a civil war.
To complete my own journey I had felt the need to come back to Granada.
I had risen early to see the sun rise over the Alhambra. After 37 years my internal compass was not set correctly and I had walked up too high and to the west of the square. Glimpses of the church steeple finally led me back down through the years.
It was a cold, damp November morning, like many in Granada- a magical but melancholy city. At 21 minutes past seven,the time of sunrise, the Sierra behind the palace was covered in a grey sheet, like my memories of its Autumn sheen.

Granada was the home of Federico Garcia Lorca, a soulmate of Lee, and someone who influenced greatly his poetic and lyrical style of writing, though they never met. It was also the home of Manuel de Falla who captured the soul of the City and its people with his music. (Click to hear Falla’s Nights in the Spanish Garden.) 

Lorca was executed by Franco’s followers, early in the civil war in August 1936. The favourite place for such executions was across the valley in front of me. The firing squad would line up its victims against the wall of the cemetery, underneath the cypress trees that lined the walk up to the Alhambra Palace. Lorca though was not buried there, he was buried somewhere in the green valley outside the city, the valley in which he grew up, the valley down below me covered in early morning dew.His grave has never been identified and those still alive who know the answer are silent on the matter.
I had started the second half of my journey in Madrid in October. Before leaving the city I visited the Residencia De Los Estudiantes. Part of Madrid University, it was where Lorca, Bunuel and Dali all studied and lived together back in the 1920s.

Lorca’s Student Digs

Lorca wrote about duende- the soul of the Spanish people- and defined  a concept as elusive as running water. What Falla captured in his “Nocturno del generalife,” Lorca nailed down in prose. I am fascinated by his words, I think Laurie Lee, such a charmer himself, was seduced, like me,  by Spain’s duende and came closest to expressing it in English. My retracing of Lee’s journey had led me to pure Flamenco song. A sound that,in Lorca’s words, originated not in the throat “the duende climbs up inside you , from the soles of the feet.” Lorca talks of “all that has black sounds has duende.”  I had seen, as Lee had seen, the “moon-frozen heads painted by Zurbaran” in Seville, I had wallowed in El Greco’s “butter yellow and lightening yellow” paintings in Toledo and listened to the “innumerable rites of Good Friday…the popular triumph of Spanish death” in Valladolid.
The wind ruffles the leaves on the square of the plaza, frustrating the efforts of my only companians, two street cleaners, and spreads them out over the indented images of the Granadino, the symbol of the city, the pomegranate, whose black shells and seeds carpet the cobbled floor.
Lorca had ended his homily to duende with the lines”Where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed glass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.”

Churros con Sol y Sombra

As I tore myself away from the plaza to a nearby bar for a well-deserved warming breakfast. I thought of Lee’s final thoughts as he left Almunecar, for what he certainly thought would be the last time in his life, as he set sail for England, “Spain drifted away from me, thunder-bright on the horizon, and I left it there beneath its copper clouds.”

The Sun Also Rises

It’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon and I stagger across the roman bridge into Allariz in the south of Galicia in the North West of Spain. I have been walking since that morning. It is the hottest day of the year so far in this part of Spain. 40 degrees centigrade in the town of Orense where I started the walk. A real baptism of fire, it is my first full day of walking.

“las heridas quemaban los soles, a las cinco de la tarde.” “the wounds were burning the soles of my feet at 5 o’clock in the afternoon”

I think of the line above from Lorca’s poem “El llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias.”

I rest for 2 days in a lovely shady restored farmhouse two miles outside the village. A Palleira, the name of my farmhouse, like much of Allariz, has been beautifully conserved. Much of it, no doubt, with public money. Money well spent because much of Galicia is now quite poor and suffering again from the emigration of its young, seeking work, much as they did centuries ago when they went off to find the New World and their fortune. Much is made of the reckless spending of the autonomous Spanish regions in the press and media but Galicia, much like many English northern areas,has no natural industry bases and no large conurbations. It needs support and investment in its tourism infrastructure.

Allariz is celebrating its annual festival “Festa da Bois”, a festival of bull running. 90 years ago,Hemingway went to Pamplona ,to the San Fermin festival and ran with the bulls and wrote about it in his book “The Sun Also Rises”. I read this book as a young man. I had recently heard an old BBC radio recording of Laurie Lee , talking of attending a similar small village bullfight festival in the Basque country. The tale he told was one of the English visitor, Lee, taking on the experienced and wily bulls, that the locals would not touch with a “bandillero”, and emerging as a much feted hero. Like much of Lee’s tales, it is possibly best taken with a large pinch of salt.

As the excitement builds , waiting for the first bull to be released into the small winding streets of the old town, I shelter in a tiny packed bar in the main square. I am there hiding,not just from the bulls,but from the incessant downpour that has followed the heat wave. Everyone is wearing their “fiesta” bright red “panuelos” (neckerchiefs) tied around their necks in what Lee would have called “cravat style”. The stylish young women were back home in their “pueblo” for the Corpus Chrsti holiday , escaping from their professional careers in Madrid. They mix with their brothers,sisters and nieces and nephews. The chatter is a mix of Castellano-purely spoken Spanish-and Gallego, the Galician language. Gallego has Celtic cousins like Welsh, Cornish, Breton.

Gallego Is the first Spanish language that Lee would have heard following his arrival in North West Spain. The large country of Spain is home to a rich melting pot of languages, Catalan, Basque, Andaluz and many people have died over the years to protect their right to speak them.  Many were executed in the Civil War for their allegiance to their region rather than to the centre. Ironically , Franco himself was born in Galicia. When in Orense, the day of 40 degrees plus, I came upon a plaque and a trail commemorating a local activist,singer and writer, Alexandre Boveda He was executed by Franco troops on the 17 August 1936, for simply being a local patriot. The date is now designated as a “Dia da Galiza Martir.” A salutary reminder that you did not have to be a cultural icon like Lorca to be hunted down. In those desperate times it was sufficient  to be a simple man with values who believed in something.

Six loud blasts are heard, the signal for the first bull to be released. We all rush outside. The bull appears, disappointingly but sensibly, not running totally loose but tethered to ropes, skillfully managed by a team of men in white outfits. The crowds scream and the bull is chased by a posse of young men, high on alcohol, adrenalin and machismo. I experience a fleeting sense of fear and awe and then almost immediately, complete empathy with the bull which is clearly scared out of its wits.

I return to my rural escape. My taxi-driver, a corpulent gruff fellow appropriately enough called “Macho”, spent the short journey singing the praises of the bull.

I guess I am no Hemingway and retire to my bed consoled by this thought.

Greek generals waiting in the wings?

32 years on I arrive once again at Santander on a ferry from Plymouth. This  time alone and on foot. I am picking up again my journey following in the footsteps of Laurie Lee who walked through Spain in 1935 , unaware that the country was already irrevocably set on a momentous civil war that would change it and Europe for ever.

Last month I travelled to Vigo where Lee landed in Spain. This time I am traveling to Orense in Galicia to walk south, along the Via De La Plata, towards Zamora. I lived in Santander for  two years in the 1980s with my first love and where I took my wife, not  the same person, two years ago for a short holiday.

A year ago my wife, out of the blue, decided to divorce me. I stand outside  C/Santa Lucia 15, and gaze  up at the 3rd floor balcony. Behind the shuttered window ,  I am lying with my first love. She pronounces sadly but definitively that I will not be the father of any child that she might have. We do not part for several months, years even, but that was the beginning of the end.

I wonder alone around old haunts but this visit I  am accompanied by the ghosts of two former lovers. There weren’t the signs in the bars of “crisis menus” that I had seen in Vigo, Valladolid and Madrid one month earlier. Santander was always more prosperous and protected from the economic storms of the rest of the peninsular.

I search for an old friend, not seen for 25 years. He has left the family travel agency business. He was the boss. Something feels wrong. Somebody else looking at a second chance in life?

I track down  the red-haired vivacious M who had fallen head over heels for  L, way back in the distant past, a “bombonero” man, in my previous life in Santander. L, in his vivid orange overalls,  would effortlessly sling a couple of heavy metal gas canisters on his shoulders and race up the stairs of the city’s flats. He was all rippling muscle and entirely defenseless against M’s Scottish charms. L would fly those steps. At the thought I recall Cortezar’s description of the uniqueness of a stair which perhaps put into words the thought process of an Egyptian pyramid architect or an Aztec master craftsman). L’ s life was unencumbered by such thoughts, mine dominated by them. Cortezar said…
No one will have failed to observe that frequently the floor bends in such a way that one part rises at a right angle to the plane formed by the floor and then the following section arranges itself parallel to the flatness, so as to provide a step to a new perpendicular, a process which is repeated in a spiral or in a broken line to highly variable elevations. 

Ducking down and placing the left hand on one of the vertical parts and right hand upon the the corresponding horizontal, one is in momentary possession of a step or stair. 

Each one of these steps, formed as we have seen by two elements, is situated somewhat higher and further than the one prior, a principle which gives the idea of a staircase, while whatever other combination, producing perhaps more beautiful or picturesque shapes, would surely be incapable of translating one from the ground floor to the first floor.

I had stayed recently in a hotel in Madrid on the Gran Via, Hotel de las Letras, in which the public and bedroom walls were not decorated with pictures, but with quotes from , mainly Spanish and Latin  American, writers. At the foot of the stairs was the quote from Julio Cortazar. It resonates as my personal emotional journey is a steep climb with many false steps and stumbles along the way.

As I make my way through Spain,I am reading the “Snow Leopard” about the quest in Nepal , by the writer, of a glimpse of the unattainable mythical creature . The process of the journey applies balm over raw grief, a product of a lost soulmate. A beautiful tale punctuated by devastating insights into the inner turmoil of a man’s loss. The book was a tip from Emily Barr , the writer, as a good read to take on a personal journey of discovery . I am not searching for an elusive snow leopard but I am seeking something as I retrace the footsteps of Laurie lee through Spain. Peter Matthiessen, the author, is grieving for his wife, and embarks on a journey through Nepal in search of a glimpse of the creature, real enough but rendered mythical  by dint of its invisibility to the human eye when in its native surroundings. Subtly interwoven into the story of his journey are slender threads of insights into his  buried feelings. These observations snag on the weft of the tale,momentarily, but are soon unpicked and the pattern continues to unfold. Matthiessen, at the start of his journey, talks of “Knowing that at the bottom of each breath there was a hollow space that needed to be filled.”

My hotel in Santander is on C/ General Mola, named after one of  Franco’s fellow rebel conspirators, reminding me of the city’s affiliations and my ex landlord, one of the conspirators who threw his weight behind the infamous  Lieutenant General Tejero, he of the handlebar moustache , who held the Spanish Parliament hostage on that infamous  day of 23 Feb 1981. The king, Juan Carlos, according to the accepted narrative, intervened decisively and ordered the rebels to go back to their barracks. Another version has the king, the figurehead of the old order and establishment, losing his nerve at the moment of truth, and betraying his fellow conspirators. Take your choice.

I recall the controversy in the 1980s  in Santander, when Franco’s statue, in a main square, had to be removed in order to build a car park. It never returned but I muse that perhaps it is there waiting in the wings for a dramatic return when, as some diehards of the right would no doubt like to think, the inevitable failure of democracy leads to a return of the old values … Over in Greece, I can see the old Generals dusting themselves down too, waiting for their moment.