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.

Last Chance Saloon


Are you drinking in the Last Chance Saloon?

Christmas is coming, the new year approaching, has 2011 done it for you?

Coming up for retirement ? What will they be saying and thinking about you as they hand over that clock that will tick its way all the way to the end?

Do you fancy a new life ? No need to go down to the sea and fake a disappearance, how about going down to the sea and become a writer , that’s what I did !

I have been made redundant and been divorced over the past two years. 

 I have come down to the sea to start again and embarked on a full time 1 year MA in Professional Writing at University College Falmouth.

As a writer you read and as I have read during these first few days I have found some rich inspiration.

The Sense of an Ending is a novel, by Julian Barnes, that has just been awarded the Man Booker prize for 2011.


You might think it strange to start a new blog with a story about an ending but stick with me.

I  prefer to think of it as the end of my first life. I read the book just as I started my new life by the sea in Cornwall .

The book is a sumptious bittersweet story of the ordinary and contented life of Tony Webster, viewed in flashback and narrated by Tony himself. During the course of the novel we see how the prism of memory and perspective distorts reality. Tony talks of how we unwittingly paint our own picture of ourselves and our lives, one that suits our needs and one that without which we could not keep going. 

” Our life is not our life merely the story we have told about our life, told to others but-mainly-told to ourselves”

Tony comes to see by the end of the novel that there is little left of certainty in his life to cling to and he is left to deal with remorse and emptiness. I feel many similarities with Tony, in my case a 25 year local government career notable for nothing much if I am being honest, happily married for 17 years with a gorgeous daughter. Like Tony I am now divorced.

I look back on my life and marriage and wonder at the veracity of my personal narrative over the years. One of Julian Barnes’ characters comes out with a perceptive take on why history or the past or the truth is so often perceived in different,often opposite ways, by people who have occupied the same space or time.

 ” History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacy of documentation”

The divorce, unlike my redundancy a year earlier, has come as a surprise. I am still reeling from the shock, feelings are still raw, senses still numbed. I have moved away, left soon to be ex- wife behind, left my home behind, my daughter, my memories, my cats.

Again a coincidence in timing but Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, in her new collection of poems “The Bees” has penned a short, devastating but beautiful piece :”New Vows” which resonates painfully at a personal level to anyone grieving after a divorce.   

 ” From this day forth to unhold, to see the nothing in ringed gold,uncare for you when you are old…..”

I am a baby boomer, I have it all, career, state of the art pension deal, golden retirement beckoning….It doesn’t feel like that.
It is not easy: there is the grief of a lost marriage; a crudely ended career; a difficult reevaluation of one’s first life. A first life that can only be reviewed through one perspective only, a flawed one, your own very subjective personal memory.

Second lives do not flow naturally, they do not cruise along on waves of youthful bloom and zest, they need to be negotiated, bodies cared for and re-invigorated, demons fought and setbacks surmounted. There are ups and downs.

I need to find my voice as a writer and I need to find my voice as a person.
I want to write about my passions, Spain, community and social enterprise, translation, sense of place, home grown local food, and what it’s like to go through a life- changing experience.

 I want to tell my story and that of others who have sat at a table in the last chance saloon and refused to go quietly into the night.

I have started an MA in Professional Writing at University College Falmouth as a significant step towards earning a living in my second life as a writer.

I would like to share my journey through my own personal Indian Summer which coincided with a real one as we entered Autumn this year.
I have not been born again and I have not, yet, transformed my life but I have taken that all important first step.

Don’t wait until New Year’s Day to make that resolution, do it today and change your life….forever!