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.

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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.

Second Chances in Life

36 Steps to Democracy in Spain

On the 20th of November 2011, a General Election was held in Spain. It was won comfortably by the centre right party “ Partido Popular”.

36 years ago to that day, the Spanish Dictator, Francisco Franco Bahamonde, had relinquished his 36 year hold on Spain by the simple act of dying. He had held the reins of power since the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939, when a military coup overthrew the democratically elected Republican Government. The violent three year war fundamentally divided Spain and Spanish families and was seen by the wider world as a seminal struggle between the forces of good and evil, left and right, fascism and democracy.    Franco was not going to be divested of his power by any other means than death following a protacted period of illness.  

  I was there in Spain that day, in Seville, on the 20/11/1975, allegedly studying for my BA in Spanish Studies. My tutors, back in England, were  ready to summon me and my fellow students home. I remember thinking, in a romantic moment, that my favourite writer, Laurie Lee, had also found himself trapped in Spain in 1936; caught in the crossfire of early fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He had been rescued in a rather melodramatic fashion by a British naval boat destroyer, patrolling off the coast of the Costa del Sol.

My tutors had no need to worry; they had feared a blood letting; a rising up of an oppressed people seeking justice. It didn’t happen and it has not happened since.  Spain had chosen to take the easy way out and entered into a collective pact of national amnesia, the so-called “Pacto de Olvido”

They have sleepwalked through the last 36 years.

However, significant undercurrents of concern and tension have been stirring lately. Not enough to emerge as a significant election issue, given the depths of unpopularity to which the incumbent socialist party had plummeted-a result of harsh counter austerity measures.

The concerns have been sparked by a recent controversial decision by ex Prime Minister, Zapatero, which may  prove to be his lasting legacy to the nation. This was the introduction of legislation to allow the exhumation of old civil war mass graves that had lain undisturbed for 72 years. The older generation have always been well aware of their precise locations but have not had the will to start digging into the past.  Their grandchildren do have the will and a period of national reflection is guaranteed.  Jason Webster, a new writer on Spain, has captured the new zeitgeist perfectly in his recently published book “Guerra”.

Interestingly, a final act of the outgoing Government has been to publish a report that it had commissioned which recommends the exhumation and removal of Franco’s body from the controversial ” Valle de los Caidos” memorial which literally claims to be a monument to the ” fallen” of the Civil War.  In reality it remembers only the dead of the victorious fascist dead. It is a recognition that a period of reflection and reconciliation cannot be entered into whilst a Monument to the dead of one side in a civil war remains as a National Museum.        

I have a passion for Spain and a desire to see social justice done there.

I am enjoying a second chance in life.  I am studying to be a writer after a torrid few years of redundancy and divorce. I am having an Indian Summer in my life, or as the Spanish would say, “Una Veranilla del membrillo”, which literally and deliciously translates as “the little summer of the quince”

Spain, with its new generation, has a similar window of opportunity to reflect, look deep into their souls and start afresh. Will they take it? The election result was not a good start but there are 36 good reasons why I think that this will not be the end of the story.