The Pyrenees with Michael Portillo – Channel 5



It was strange to see Michael, whilst still garishly-clad, on foot rather than by train; but I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of this new series, which saw him walking through mountainous parts of the Basque country.   It’s an area with special resonance for him, because his parents met whilst his Spanish refugee father was working/studying in Britain and his Scottish mother was caring for Basque children evacuated after the bombing of Guernica.  Thankfully, ETA have stuck to the ceasefire for years, and the beautiful area is very welcoming to tourists.

Thirty-five years ago, the late Howard Kendall became manager of Athletic Bilbao.  Having done great things with Everton, a lot was expected of him; but he struggled, largely because they’d only sign players either born in or trained in football in the Basque country.  That’s got nothing to do with Michael’s programme, sorry, but it did teach English football fans a lot about Basque issues.  The rule’s still in place now.

We saw Michael meet a walking stick maker, a smuggler, a British author living in a Basque village – and made very welcome there – a miller, a stone maker, and an expert in local mythology.  And, of course, we learnt a bit about food and drink in the area.   Then, at the end, we saw him join the Camino route, and talk about its importance.

He’s such a wonderful presenter, and I enjoyed every minute of this.  As he said, he thought his best days were behind him when he left politics, but they most certainly weren’t.  Looking forward to more.




The Blind Eye: A Sephardic Journey by Marcia Fine (Facebook group reading challenge)


  This month’s Facebook reading challenge was to read a book about refugees.  There are many excellent novels about refugees.  Sadly, this is not one of them.  The fact that it got the most important date in Sephardi history wrong on the very first page was not a great start, and set the tone for the rest of the book.  Furthermore, the error was with the Hebrew date, but the characters were annoyed about being forced to use the Gregorian calendar – and, given that this was in a chapter set in 1492 and the Gregorian calendar didn’t exist until 1582, I was rather annoyed too.  But that was pretty mild compared to what happened later on, when the author seemed to get the early 16th, late 16th and mid 17th centuries all ingloriously tangled up together.

I was left with the impression that the author had heard various different stories about Sephardi history and just bunged them all in together.  It was as if, say, someone had written a book about civil wars in England and claimed that Oliver Cromwell had murdered the Princes in the Tower and then recognised Henry FitzEmpress as the heir.   What a mess!   And then people who aren’t familiar with the subject matter will read this and take it as being historically accurate, which really does irritate me.

It’s a dual timeline book.  These are very popular now.  I have no idea why.  The modern timeline involved someone who lost her job because she had a bad leg after being bitten by a horrible dog (I do sympathise over anything involving horrible dogs), went off on a three month research trip with a researcher she’d only just met, and married him.  As you do.  I wasn’t really interested in that, more in the storyline about the refugees.  However, it turned out that the refugees were actually the invention of the said researcher, who was writing a novel, which confused the issue even more.

Our two refugees, teenage aunt and illegitimate baby niece, were living in Granada, which seemed unlikely as it had only just been reconquered, and were forced to leave due to the 1492 Edict of Expulsion, which was unconvincing as they were actually conversos.  And why hadn’t the niece’s mother married the father?   There seemed no reason.  However, off they went to Portugal, with their parents/grandparents.  This bit was actually quite well-written, and reasonably historically accurate, with some rather good descriptions of the forced conversions which followed when the Portuguese authorities changed their policies, and the seizure and deportation to Sao Tome of children of Jewish families.

But then it just got silly.  The parents/grandparents having died (one murder, one suicide), our two girls took ship for Brazil, where they found work on a plantation.  No, no, no!   Yes, there was significant Sephardi migration to plantations in Brazil, but not until the 1630s, when part of Brazil came under Dutch rule.  Not at the beginning of the 16th century!   Yes, a very tiny number of Sephardi refugees left for Brazil at that time, but hardly any.  If you were escaping from the Portuguese authorities, you’d hardly go to a Portuguese settlement, would you?  And there wouldn’t even have been any plantations that early.

Then the auntie eloped with a slave.  Well, that’s very likely to have happened, isn’t it?!  And, again, it was too early for slavery on plantations …. especially as it was too early for plantations, full stop.  And the niece was shipped over to Amsterdam as a mail order bride.  Where she lived happily ever after in one of Europe’s most tolerant cities – and found her long-lost mother, who’d become a nun in Castile but was transferred to Amsterdam.

Oh dear.  People moved from (what’s now) the Netherlands to Brazil, not the other way round.  And not until over 100 years later.  And Amsterdam becoming a centre where religious minorities could live in peace didn’t happen until much later on in the 16th century, after the United Provinces had declared independence from the Habsburgs.

The whole thing was just a mess.   It was like when little kids think that anyone over 30 must have lived through the Second World War, because they’ve got a concept of “the olden days” but not that “the olden days” weren’t just one amorphous mass.

Amazon informs the purchaser that “the author has carefully researched the historical events”.  I beg to differ!

Painter to the King by Amy Sackville


I was really looking forward to reading this, because it had excellent reviews, and there are very few books in English set in 17th century Spain.  Unfortunately, it turned out to be the literary equivalent of something like Tracey Emin’s “unmade bed”, or one of those “modern art” paintings which look as if a toddler’s run riot with a paintbrush.  There were no speech marks anywhere in the book: any dialogue was just written as ramblings.  In fact, there was very little punctuation at all, and scant regard for grammar or syntax.  It was nearly all just written as ramblings.

Why do people write rave reviews about books like this, or the equivalent in painting or sculpture?  Do people actually enjoy reading a load of ramblings, or is it some Emperor’s New Clothes thing where no-one likes to be the one to go against the “cool” crowd?  Why is it cool to write something like this anyway?  Breaking all the rules does indeed seem very cool when you’re 12, and you’re wearing nail varnish to school and sneaking up the staffroom staircase, but I don’t see what’s praiseworthy about writing a book which is so difficult to read.  Apologies for being a fuddy-duddy, but give me some proper writing in proper English, please!

It was a great shame about the style of writing, because the subject matter was actually very interesting.  It’s extremely difficult to find books in English set in 17th century Spain, which was why I was so pleased to find this one.  I don’t know whether there’s a lingering Black Legend feeling which makes Anglophone writers avoid the subject, or whether, more likely, the courts of Charles II and Louis XIV just seem more appealing than the court of Philip IV.  The painter of the book title was Diego Velazquez, a courtier and court painter at the said court of Philip IV, but the book was far more about Philip than about Velazquez.

It assumed that you knew what was going on, which I rather liked.  Olivares wasn’t even mentioned by name: the book just referred to “the Count-Duke” and assumed that the reader would know who he was.  There was no background information about the Thirty Years’ War or the Eighty Years’ War: the reader was expected to know what was going on.  It could have been a fascinating insight into the decline of Habsburg Spain, the sad loss of so many royal children, the desperate trying for an heir, all the intermarriages, the revolts in Catalunya and Portugal, and indeed the visit of the future Charles I of England and Scotland during the “Spanish Match” negotiations.  It covered all of those subjects.

Unfortunately, it was almost unreadable because of the poor writing.  I don’t for one second think that the author couldn’t have written it in proper English had she wanted to.  She just, for whatever reason – wanting to seem arty, or avant garde, or just different – chose to dispense with grammar and punctuation.  All I can say is that I’m glad that I got a cheap copy of this book from Amazon, and didn’t pay full price!   I just do not understand why people write in this way.  What a disappointment.  Am I missing something?  I just don’t get it!


A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas


This book made a lot of promising starts, but, frustratingly, jumped away from every scenario just as things were getting interesting!   It wasn’t just starts: sometimes it jumped into a plotline in the middle, leaving you wishing you’d got the background in more detail.  And I think the author must have read Jane Eyre just before reading it, because one of the storylines was distinctly Mrs Rochester-esque.  It wasn’t a bad read, although the Mrs R.-ish “madness” storyline really had no place in a book written in the 21st century, but Maria Duenas could have made several really good novels out of the material, rather than a single bitty and, by the end, slightly bonkers, one.

Our hero, Mario, has emigrated from Spain – with a complicated background involving the Basque country, Mallorca and illegitimacy – to Mexico, and, arriving as a young man with nothing, made a fortune from silver mining. It would have been fascinating to have heard how he did this, but we don’t.  We only meet him as a middle-aged man who’s borrowed a load of money to buy machinery from the United States, unluckily just as the Civil War/War Between The States was breaking out.  The guy he’d been dealing with has been killed at Bull Run/Manassas, and the machinery’s been requisitioned by the US government, leaving our man in deep doo-doo.

Mexico, 1861, then. Surely the scene is set (if we ignore the title!) for a novel about the French and Austrian intervention.  Bring on Archduke Maximilian!   Er, no.  We’re out of Mexico before the French have even invaded, never mind the Habsburgs getting stuck in.  And we’re off to Cuba – the glamorous Paris of the Antilles, where it’s all happening.  And where the slave trade is still legal: it wasn’t abolished there until 1867, and slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1886.  Mario then gets embroiled (in a business sense only) with his son’s fiancée’s auntie.  Again, there’s a back story, this time about how she “had” to marry someone unsuitable, but it’s never really gone into.  There are some wonderful descriptions of life in Havana, about its relationship with Spain and how that’s viewed by different groups – Cuba was to rebel against Spanish rule in 1868 – and about the effects of slavery, and it really gets interesting when the dodgy auntie tries to con Mario into getting involved with the slave trade, and he refuses.

But, just as the reader’s really getting into it, we’re off again!   Mario and the auntie’s husband play a high-stake game of billiards, and Mario wins the vineyard in Andalusia (well, the title was a bit of a giveaway there) which the auntie’s husband has recently inherited from a cousin.  Goodbye Havana, next stop Jerez!

And so we now get on to the fascinating tale of the importance of sherry to the Spanish economy in the 19th century – making up around 20% of total exports, most of them to Britain.  I was saying only recently, after a visit to Marsala and reading up on how the Marsala wine trade was developed by a Scouser and a Yorkshireman, a year after I went to Porto and read up on how the port wine trade was developed by a man from Ashton-underl-Lyne, that someone really needs to write a book about the effect on European history of British boozing!  Seriously, it has had a huge impact on the history of Portugal, the history of Sicily and, to some extent, the history of Andalusia.

And, yet again, a fascinating back story that we don’t hear enough about. The auntie’s husband came from a rather complicated background involving various cousins and friends who all expected to marry each other but didn’t.  One of them has ended up as the Mother Abbess as a convent.  One of them has married an Englishman and is trying to con her dangerous stepson, who keeps kidnapping people – cue a dramatic rescue by our hero and his Indian (“Indian” is the acceptable term when talking about the indigenous peoples of Latin America) servant.  The auntie’s husband thinks he killed one of his cousins by mistake, except that it turns out that it was someone else who killed him by mistake.  Our hero agrees, in order to con the cousin’s stepson, to pose as the cousin who’s recently died and left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped, and a doctor who was going to marry the one who ended up in the convent gets involved.  Er, yes.  I said it was rather complicated, didn’t I?!

Oh, and he can’t flog the vineyard until a full year’s passed since the death of the cousin who left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband. And the one who’s married to the Englishman has got the needle because she thought she’d inherit it.  And the sister in the convent’s fallen out with them all because she wanted to marry the Englishman.  Well, she wanted to marry the doctor as well.  Presumably either or, not both.  It would have made a great story if we’d followed them all from when they were children and these complicated relationships were being formed, but, as it is, it’s all rather confusing.  Then the son’s fiancée’s auntie turns up, along with her slavewoman.  The slavewoman gets involved with the Indian servant, and they eventually live happily ever after.  And the son decides to dump the fiancée, which is irrelevant because neither of them are really involved in any of it – and it’s all complicated enough as it is, and really rather bonkers by this point.

It then transpires that the English husband is mad, and that he comes from a family of mad people. I really, really hate it when people put storylines like this in modern books.  It’s quite understandable that someone like Charlotte Bronte should have written a storyline about someone being “mad.  Gothic-type novels are full of “mad” people.  And that whole idea about “the taint of hereditary madness” – it was a huge thing, and a huge tragedy because it meant that people with mental health issues were shoved away out of sight for fear that the family name be tainted.  But for someone to write a storyline like this in the 21st century – no, no, no.  I appreciate that attitudes vary between countries and cultures, but I wouldn’t really expect to be finding a storyline like this in any book written within the last thirty years or so.  Can we please, please get past this?  Can we not talk about people being “mad”?  Can we please get past this idea about the taint of madness within families? Can we please stop stigmatising people like this?

I think that, in this case, what the husband actually had was early onset dementia. OK, that term would not have been used in the 1860s, but there are still far better ways of putting it than Maria Duenas did.  But I said it was Mrs Rochester-esque, didn’t I?  I don’t actually know how well-known Jane Eyre is in Spain, but I think it’s one of those books that’s well-known worldwide.  The part set in Cuba was really good, and the background story about the complicated family past in Jerez could have been really good had it been gone into properly.  But it all got very strange at the end.  No Grace Poole, but the “mad” husband gets packed off to stay at the convent where his sister-in-law, the one who’d once hoped to marry him (when she wasn’t hoping to marry their doctor pal) was Mother Abbess … whereupon he sets the place on fire, and kills himself, conveniently leaving the way clear for his wife to marry our hero Mario.  They then live happily ever after on the vineyard.

I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve made this all sound rather silly. It wasn’t really.  Some parts of it were very … well, promising rather than good, because they weren’t developed properly.  If the book had been longer, and if the focus had been on either Mario or the vineyard family (both Andalusian and Cuban branches) and the background stories had been developed properly, it could have been very good.  As it was, it was rather frustrating.  By the end, it read like something that an over-enthusiastic teenager with an over-active imagination, desperate to pack in as much drama as possible, might have written.  Promising … but the promises were never really fulfilled.



The Seamstress by Maria Duenas


This book is set partly in Madrid, partly in and around Lisbon, partly in Tangier, then a multicultural international zone associated with everything from artists to espionage, and mostly in Tetouan, which served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1913 to 1956. Four fascinating cities, and an interesting story set mainly during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, with a mixture of real people and fictional characters.

It’s not a spy story – I don’t really do spy stories, apart from James Bond! – but a lot of it does involve the Special Operations Executive. I generally associate Special Operations Executive with Occupied France – and I’m afraid that that’s just made me think of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but never mind – and the Norwegian heavy water sabotage, and don’t think very much about Spain and all the other countries where operations were taking place; and I think there’s also a tendency to think of Spain and Portugal as being outside mainstream European history during the period of the fascist dictatorships there, despite the well-known links between Franco and Hitler.

Also, despite the Rif War and its effect on Spanish politics in the 1920s, and for all the ongoing rows over Western Sahara (why does no-one make a fuss over the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?), and the fact that Spain holds Ceuta and Melilla, it’s easy to forget that Spain was, and still is, involved in North Africa – it wasn’t all about France, Italy and (in Egypt) Britain. As the book points out, Spain didn’t really get involved in the Scramble for Africa, but it did, after losing control of Cuba and the Philippines, make an agreement with France which gave it control of a couple of bits of Morocco.  Tetouan, a city with a complicated history (involving a lot of pirates, back in the day!), and a mixed population of Arab Muslims, Berber Muslims and Sephardi Jews, was the administrative centre of the southern bit.

I’m not sure that we really got the distinction between Arabs and Berbers, though: there were just a lot of references to “Moors”. I was slightly bemused in Sicily recently to see a sign warning people to beware of “Saracens” in cafes.  I assume that it was in the sense of the old-fashioned English term “street Arabs”, but you just wouldn’t dream of using that term in English now, and you wouldn’t really say “Moors” when talking about the 20th or 21st centuries.  Anyway, things are presumably different in Spanish and Italian … and I have now got off the point.  I just have a lot of sympathy with the way that the Berbers have been treated in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere.  And, having said all of this, there were quite a few references to “Riffians”, and Riffians are Berbers.

OK, OK, back to the point!   Amongst the Spanish officials there in the 1930s were the pro-British Juan Luis Beigbeder y Atienza, later Franco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Franco’s pro-German brother-in-law, who would eventually replace Beigbeder as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramon Serrano Suner.

So some pretty influential people. Both of them, especially Beigbeder, feature in the book, as do Alan Hillgarth, the British adventure novelist who was an intelligence agent in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rosalinda Powell Fox, Beigbeder’s lover and a British spy.  Churchill’s supposed to have said that “the war might have taken a very different course were it not for Rosalinda”.

None of them are very familiar figures. It’s not a part of twentieth century history that gets a lot of attention.  Too much else going on at the time, to be fair!

The main characters, though, are the fictional ones. The first person protagonist, the seamstress of the title, is Sira Quiroga.  The early part of her life’s a bit like a cross between Evita and a Georgian melodrama – she’s the illegitimate daughter of a Madrid seamstress and her married former lover, grows up in poverty, and dumps her nice boyfriend for someone who is clearly bad news.  Her long-lost dad reappears on the scene, gives her a load of money and jewellery, and suggests that she get out of Spain because trouble (the civil war)’s coming.  She and the new boyfriend go off to Morocco, and, whaddaya know, he runs off with her money and jewellery and leaves her with a huge pile of debts.  She gets involved with various shady characters, and sets herself up as a high-class dressmaker in Tetouan, where most of her customers are the wives of Nazis hanging around there, but where she also meets and becomes friendly with the aforementioned Rosalinda Powell Fox, and is recruited by the British Special Operations Executive.

She goes back to Madrid, and is sent on a mission to Lisbon, and there’s a lot of chasing around and jumping off trains … it is all a bit James Bond, but it’s largely a historical novel, full of information about what was going on in the Spanish protectorate and in Spain itself at the time. What would have happened if Spain had joined forces with the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy?  It could well have happened.  Maybe it’s best not to think too much about it.  It sounds a bit weird that a book should start off as a tale of poverty and dodgy boyfriends and then turn into a wartime thriller, but it does work really well.  I love the idea of writing notes in Morse code, made to look like the stitches for a sewing pattern!

And it’s been made into a TV series, under its original title – El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) – in Spain, but unfortunately it’s never been shown in the UK. Sky Arts used to show some good Spanish drama series – I really enjoyed Grand Hotel and Isabella – but they don’t any more, which is a shame.

The ending is really annoying, though. We see Sira reunitedwith Marcus Logan, a British spy with whom she’d become involved in Tetouan and then (as you do) just happened to bump into whilst she was on her secret mission to Lisbon.  After they’d dramatically got off the train together to escape the agents of the Spanish double agent who’s working for both the British and the Nazis (I did say it was all a bit James Bond), and it’d turned out that he knew her long-lost dad (yes, OK, it did get a bit far-fetched), but we don’t actually find out what happens to them after the war – we’re told that it’s all a mystery.  Sorry, but that’s a rather silly way to end a book!

But, apart from the ending, and the fact that some of the spy adventure stuff is a bit bonkers for a book that isn’t actually a spy story, it’s very entertaining, and very interesting. It really is easy to think of Spain and Portugal as having been outside the mainstream of European history for much of the twentieth century, and maybe even the second half of the nineteenth century too.  They weren’t.  And Tetouan – I love Morocco, but I knew nothing about Tetouan before reading this book, but what a fascinating place it sounds!  And, come on, Sky Arts, give us some more Spanish drama!

Pilgrimage: the road to Santiago – BBC 2


No, this isn’t about religion: it’s about history and culture.  Honestly!!  I’d always wanted to go to Santiago de Compostela, for historians’ reasons, and I finally made it last summer.  Sadly, due to lack of time off work (not to mention being lazy and unfit!), I didn’t get to do the Camino, the pilgrims’ walk to the Shrine of St James, but the BBC have got seven “celebrities” (we’re not talking A-list here, but anyway!) who are doing the full thing.  I don’t normally watch reality TV, but this is something different.  Oh, and do go to Santiago de Compostela.  It’s a lovely place, and not only because of its historical importance.   They have people playing the bagpipes, because Galicia likes to think of itself as being Celtic.  And they have Torta de Santiago, which is a very nice type of almond cake.  They even give out free samples in the street.  You don’t get that at other “holy” places: I’ve never got over the shock of how much a café in Assisi charged me for a tidgy little piece of “the bread of St Francis”.  And, if you don’t want to talk religion, the locals will be only too pleased to talk to you about Celta Vigo or Deportivo La Coruna.  Or maybe that’s only if you say “Soy de Manchester” 🙂 .  “Eu son de Manchester”, even, in Galician rather than Castilian.

So, what’s the story? Well, St James the Great, one of the Apostles, son of Zebedee (I don’t think they have The Magic Roundabout in Spain, though), is supposed to have travelled to North East Spain during his lifetime, and is supposed to have been buried there.  A hermit in the 9th century AD then found his body – and stars shone overhead, showing him the way to the tomb, hence Compostela – campo stella, field of stars.  The scallop shell became the symbol of Santiago de Compostela and of the Camino because some horseman wanted to accompany the body from the Holy Land to Spain but couldn’t fit on the boat, so shells protected them as they swam all the way.  Or another version is that the body was washed overboard by a storm, and protected by shells.  The BBC didn’t mention those bits, actually: they said that the shells were supposed to indicate that people came to the same point from different directions.  You can get some very nice shell-shaped jewellery there, incidentally: I got some earrings.

The alternative version of events? St James never went anywhere near Spain: he actually went to Caesarea, on what’s now the Israeli coastline, but someone managed to get that mixed up with Caesar Augusta, the Roman name for Zaragoza.  A hermit came across a tomb from Roman times, and, there being rather a lot of issues with Pelagian heretics at the time, the religious and temporal authorities in Galicia decided that finding the remains of one of the Apostles in their back yard would be just the thing to get everyone toeing the line.  And the word “Compostela” probably comes from the same root as, er, compost.  Yep.  The field of stars version’s better, isn’t it?!

Pilgrimages were a big thing in medieval times, partly as a way of getting your sins expiated and partly because as a way of satisfying people’s thirst for travel and adventure, or people’s need to try to find something, or try to get away from something. And that’s still true today, with the Camino – which has become very popular in recent years.  It was pretty much dead in the water – or dead in the mountains – by the 1980s, but it’s a really big thing again now.  OK, there are plenty of people who do it for religious reasons, but I think that a lot of people do it as an adventure, or a challenge, or because they’re looking for something – well, aren’t we all?!  The same with, say, the Inca Trail.  To some extent, it’s part of a general shift in the nature of travel and tourism: many people are now looking for something beyond two weeks lying on a sunbed round the pool.  But this is particularly interesting because it’s a return to something which began to lose popularity nearly half a millennium ago.

Just going back to the subject of pilgrimages, obviously don’t have to be to sites associated with Christianity. The biggest pilgrimage site in the world is Mecca, although unfortunately that’s closed to non-Muslims, and people also visit sites associated with Hinduism, Judaism, Sikhism and other faiths. And there are plenty of pilgrimage sites.  Lourdes is probably the one that most people would think of, because it’s become seen as a place where sick people can be cured.  And there a lot of others, but they don’t have the international appeal of Santiago de Compostela.  Czestochowa is very Polish, Montserrat is very Catalan, Fatima is very Portuguese … and they don’t have the actual saints’ remains thing going on.  And they’re all, Lourdes included, relatively new, in historical terms.  Canterbury does have both the saint and the longer tradition, but that’s all bound up in English history.  And none of them have anything like the Camino.

The three big, historical, international Christian pilgrimage sites are Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Jerusalem, tragically, has been fought over for centuries.  Rome’s also seen its share of conflict … and Rome’s too much a seat of temporal power to feel really spiritual anyway.  The Iberian peninsula has obviously seen its share of conflict as well, but Galicia was never actually conquered by the Moors – and St James, “Matamoros” (the Moor-Slayer), is supposed to have appeared at the 9th century Battle of Clavijo and led the Christians to victory.  Not very politically correct, these days.  And the battle never even happened, never mind saints who’d been dead for eight hundred years appearing at it, but St James became a big cult hero.  And, for centuries, people in what’s now Spain were made to pay a tax to support the upkeep of Santiago de Compostela cathedral, because of a medieval document which turned out to be a great big whopping forgery.  Fake news is nothing new!

The BBC did not mention any of the fake news stuff.  Well, to be fair, they did mention the Battle of Clavijo, following it up by pointing out that the Camino is now open to people of any faith or none, but they didn’t emphasise what a big deal it was at the time, and they certainly didn’t mention the tax-dodging or the more likely explanation of the origins of the shrine.  Oh well …

Fake news and rip-off taxes aside, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela really did become a big thing. And the Camino, the walk to Santiago de Compostela … I can’t actually think of any other pilgrimage route which is anything like as well-known.  There used to be more of them – there was some sort of campaign a few years ago to draw attention to traditional pilgrimage routes in England, but it largely got ignored! –  but this is the one that’s lasted.  There are shells all over Galicia, and in other parts of northern Spain, in Portugal and in southern France, pointing the way.  And, obviously, hostels sprang up along the way: it was all big business, even though pilgrims are, even now, supposed to get a discount on accommodation and food.  That’s now happened again: the people featured in the BBC 2 programme visited various hostels and refreshment stops, all aimed at pilgrims, including one run by British people – offering cups of tea and chocolate digestives! – and one run by an Australian lady.  It’s unique.  And it’s a medieval tradition reborn as a modern tradition.

Incidentally, whilst the route across the Pyrenees from southern France is the best-known one, there are others. There’s one route which comes from Portugal.  And there’s the route known as “the English route” – which is actually the shortest, yay 🙂 , because, it being rather a long way from our sceptred isle to the Pyrenees, you went by ship to A Coruna (lovely, lovely city, even if people are still harping on about Deportivo beating United in 2001), and walked from there.  Only about 45 miles!   There are various others too – including routes from different parts of Spain, obviously.  However, the route from France is the big one.  It’s also known as the Milky Way, in French, because the stars are supposed to light the way; but that sounds like a chocolate bar.

And you’re actually supposed to go on beyond Santiago de Compostela, to Cab Fisterra, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (not quite the most westerly point, although it was once thought to be).  There’s a nice little marker there, and you get your photo taken by it.  Er, even if you’ve come by coach, like I did.  You are not supposed to take photos of yourself with the statue of St James in Santiago de Compostela – as well, as the actual tomb, there’s a statue, which you hug.  Trying to show respect, I dutifully refrained from taking any statue-hugging selfies, and was not very impressed to see that a lot of people, mostly younger people, were taking photos anyway.  Oh well.  You can but try to do the right thing!

The other big thing at the cathedral is the Botafumeiro. Not, not Botafogo: that’s a Brazilian football team.  The Botafumeiro is a giant swinging thurible (incense holder).  Unfortunately, it doesn’t swing often.  It famously flew out of the window when Catherine of Aragon visited Santiago de Compostela before setting sail for England.  A very bad omen.  It obviously knew something!!  There’ve been a few of them, over time.  The current one’s only about 200 years old.  Napoleon’s troops stole the previous one.  Typical!

Well, who have we got in this? “The lovely” Debbie McGee, who used to be seen as a bit of a joke but has now become something of a spokesperson for people who’ve been widowed and are trying to rebuild their lives.  Heather Small from M People, who’s said that she struggles with organised religion because it lacks inclusivity and has been used to oppress black people.  Neil Morrissey, of Men Behaving Badly fame.  Humanist and comedian Ed Byrne.  And three people I’d honestly never heard of before – Sheffield vicar Kate Bottley, Invictus Games medallist, TV presenter and former soldier J J Chalmers, who was injured in Afghanistan and lost close friends there, and journalist Raphael Rowe, who was horrifically jailed for life for a murder he didn’t commit and served twelve years before being acquitted and freed.

The route goes through some interesting places. The first episode showed us Roncesvalles, as featured in The Song of Roland – which I was forced to read in my first year at university.  It was supposed to get people into medieval history.  It really didn’t.  They’d have been better with Jean Plaidy books (Elizabeth Chadwick was only just getting going then).  But, still, I’d love to see Roncesvalles, and even more so Burgos.  I was hoping that the BBC’d show Burgos, and Leon, but, rather annoyingly, none of the big places have featured.

We’ve seen plenty of smaller stops, though. They’re not actually walking the whole way: they’ve got the bus for parts of it!   Even horses, at one point!  But that’s OK – it’s only the last 100 kilometres that you actually “have” to walk in order to be classed as a bona fide pilgrim.  Complete with a passport with stamps on it.  The programme mentioned that 40% of pilgrims just do the last 100km, but I bet that’s as much to do with lack of time off work as to do with just not wanting to walk the full route.  Having said which, doing the whole lot must be very hard going.  Neil Morrissey and Kate Bottley have done an awful lot of moaning about how physically exacting it is, although Heather Small and Ed Byrne seem to be thoroughly enjoying it, even on days when it’s either been wet or very hot.

So, what have we seen? Pilgrim hostels with dormitories, and people doing the “My name’s X and I’m …” thing over the dining room tables.  And some small churches, and places with other Camino connections, including the highest point of the Camino, where people traditionally leave stones from home.  Kate Bottley said that she was really into doing whatever “the thing” to do at a particular place was, and that’s me as well.  Oh dear, what horrible grammar!!  But, yes – leaving a stone from home at a particular place, or walking barefoot round a particular church, to give two examples from this programme, and knowing that millions of people have done so before you and millions of people will do so after you: I really like that.  And they even got given free wine at one place!  This is what we like.  Free wine.  Free cake.  Maybe not some of those dormitories, though.

I’m not sure exactly what the BBC are getting at with this, though. Sometimes it does seem like a religious programme.  They certainly haven’t shied away from controversy, though: we’ve heard some members of the group talking about how they were put off formal religion by child abuse scandals, racism, feeling that they were brainwashed as children or the arrogance of people who claim that being Christians (and the same could be said of people belonging to any other religion) makes them better than anyone else.  Sometimes it feels a bit Big Brother-ish – no silly “challenges”, but we’ve heard people baring their souls about some very personal experiences.  And I really am quite disappointed that we haven’t seen the big cities and their historical sights: that was my main reason for watching, not to see people washing their pants or putting plasters on their blisters.

The nearest there seems to be to any sort of general theme is whether or not the Camino is still relevant in modern times. That probably depends on what you think the Camino’s about.  Presumably most people are past the idea of thinking that going on a “pilgrimage” means that all your sins will be given.  I’m trying to remember the Jane Eyre quote about that.  I don’t mean that Jane Eyre went on the Camino 🙂 , but Mr Rochester says something about maybe bringing up Adele Varens will expiate all his sins. I don’t think he means it seriously, though!  And going on a long walk is hardly to be compared with taking in a child who would otherwise have been destitute.

But there are other aspects of it too, and they do work from both a medieval viewpoint and a modern viewpoint.  Adventure!  Camaraderie with the other people on the walk, both those in your party and those you meet along the way.  And just that feeling of time out, away from the daily grind.  Neil Morrissey and J J Chalmers both said that they were happy in their own skins and with their own lives, and that’s great, but is that how most people feel?  It’s hard to make sense of anything much when the leader of the Opposition can’t deal with prejudice within his own party, people are being poisoned by nerve agents in Salisbury, the President of the United States seems to have no morals at all and the captain of the Australian cricket team thinks it’s OK to cheat!   A lot of people are looking for something that’s a break from it all, and maybe a chance to think – and how fascinating that a tradition which goes back over a thousand years, and had been in decline for nearly five hundred years, has been revived as a way of trying to find that.

And you get cake …



Daughter of Catalonia by Jane MacKenzie


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Most of this book’s set in Northern Catalunya, i.e. the part that’s legally part of France, rather than part of Spain, in the 1950s, and tells the story of a young woman from a well-to-do background in England going to the village in Northern Catalunya where she spent the first few years of her life with her father, a Republican refugee and Resistance fighter from “Spanish” Catalunya, and her half-English, half-French mother, and what she finds out there about events during the Second World War.

The main character does sometimes sound as if she belongs in some sort of Girls’ Own novel – nasty strict grandparents, posh family home – rather than a novel about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and what they did to the people of a small (fictional) fishing village – but, especially if you overlook that, it’s quite a good read. This is a part of the world where the two wars overlapped and intertwined, and that comes across very well in this book, particularly regarding the plight of the refugees who fled into France from Spain. Just wandering slightly off the point for a moment, there was something nagging in the back of my mind about Eric Cantona and Catalan refugees fleeing to France, and Wikipedia has helpfully reminded me that, yes, Cantona’s mother’s family were Republican refugees who left Spanish Catalunya for France. Not that that’s got anything to do with this book, but it’s a point about the plight of those forced to flee Spain after Franco’s victory, and more of them were from Catalunya than from any other part of Spain.

In addition to the political elements, the book involves, inevitably a romance, and also the discovery of dark secrets. There must have been so many secrets after the Second World War ended … personal secrets – an affair, a child whose father wasn’t his mother’s husband – and darker secrets about treachery and betrayal, sometimes amongst friends and neighbours. It’s not the best book ever written, maybe a bit too light for the subject matter, but it’s an interesting read about a region and a time in history not often covered in novels in English.

Blood and Gold, episode 2 -BBC 2


Word PressI said last week that the title of this series sounded very “1492 and all that”-ish, and this was the “1492 and all that episode”.  There ought to be more than three episodes in this series, really: the final episode’s got to cover everything from the Golden Age/Philip II/the Armada right up to the present day, all in the space of an hour!

So.  1492 and all that.  The completion of the Reconquista (with the fall of Granada) and the expulsion of the Muslims (the Moriscos, descendants of Islamic converts to Christianity, were expelled in 1609), the expulsion of the Jews, and Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.  Strangely little attention was given to the unification of Aragon and Castile, which was a lot more complex than just the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and was a process which took many years … and is rather topical at the moment, with all this talk of Catalan independence.  And a lot of emphasis was put on the religious aspects of Columbus’ voyage, and perhaps too little on the power politics and commercial aspects – although there’ll probably be more talk next week about the Spanish Empire.  And the very valid point was made that El Cid was a mercenary who fought for both Christians and Muslims, depending on what suited, rather than being some sort of crusading Christian hero!

The real focus of this episode was the destruction of so much Jewish and Islamic culture, and the horrific persecution which followed for many years afterwards.  Even now, we tend to talk about “the Spanish Inquisition” rather than “the Inquisition”.  The attempts at hunting down those suspected of being crypto-Jews and, to a lesser extent, those suspected of being crypto-Muslims.  It’s one of the great Terrors of history, and can probably be spoken of in the same breath as Stalin’s reign of terror, Pol Pot’s reign of terror, and the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France.

Religious cleansing, for lack of a better expression, is something which, shockingly, we are now seeing again.  Across many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and in other places, such as Chechnya, most of the Jews have left and many of the Christians are now leaving.  Sometimes it’s largely just because of a feeling of unease, as with the Jewish community of Morocco.  Sometimes it’s because of a growing sense of persecution, and sometimes acts of violence, as with both the Christian and Jewish communities of Egypt.  And now we’re getting very disturbing reports of the rape, torture and murder of Syrian and Iraqi Christians in areas controlled by Daesh/IS.  Over half a millennium on from the expulsion of the Jews and Moors of Castile and Aragon.

On a more cheerful note, the story of the crypto-Jews of Spain and the Spanish Empire – Simon Sebag Montefiore discovered that some members of his own family had gone to Mexico, although, tragically, at least two of them were hunted down there by the Inquisition and murdered in an auto-da -fe (burning at the stake) is quite fascinating: there are stories of Jewish practices being passed down through families for hundreds of years, whilst those practising them were outwardly practising Catholics.  But the destruction of the great Jewish and Islamic cultures of what we now know as Spain, and the persecution and murder of so many people, was a great tragedy.

Those were dark times.  There are reasons for the Black Legend.  But next week’s episode will take us up to the present day, and a Spain that’s a long way removed from 1492 and all that.




Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain – BBC 2


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The title of this programme sounded very “1492 and all that”, but that’s next week: this first episode, focusing on the southern part of what we now know about Spain, was about the earlier stuff. It was very interesting – despite the distraction caused by Simon Sebag Montefiore’s silly hat – but I found some of a little bit negative. Oh well.

It started off with the Carthaginians. Now, we all know all about the Carthaginians in Spain, don’t we? Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal (he of elephants fame), founded the city of Barcelona, and that’s why FC Barcelona are known as Barca. Er, actually, no. It’s a nice story, but it isn’t true. The Carthaginians in Spain hung around in Cartagena (“New Carthage”) and Cadiz, and Barcelona gets its name from an Iberian settlement called Barkeno. Simon Sebag Montefiore stuck to the facts and didn’t even mention the Barca story, which was probably a sensible approach but was rather boring of him!

Anyway, he spoke about the Carthaginians in Cadiz, spent a worrying amount of time going on about castration, and then moved on to the Romans, showing us some very nice shots of the remains of Italica, just outside Seville, which I was fortunate enough to visit a couple of years ago, and making the important point that several of Rome’s most successful emperors came from Hispania. Then on through the Vandals, the Byzantines and the Visigoths, reminding us just how complex the history of southern Spain is, and then on to the coming of the Umayyads.

Talk of caliphates centred on Syria has unfortunate connotations at the moment, but obviously none of what’s going on at the moment has or had anything to do with Spain. And the general view of the Caliphate of Cordoba is quite a positive one, but I found Simon’s presentation of it to be rather negative. All right, he showed us the wonderful Mezquita, one of my favourite buildings anywhere in the world, and he spoke about what a beautiful city Cordoba is, and went on at rather considerable length about the development of toilet hygiene, but I was expecting him to talk about the “Golden Age” of Cordoba, how Muslims, Jews and Christians all lived together in relative peace and how culture flourished there as a result … but he didn’t, really. Instead, he emphasised how some of the rulers were tyrannical, how many concubines they had, the slave trade and the resentment of some Christians about Islamic rule. None of it was untrue, but I was disappointed that he chose to focus on the negative aspects of the period and give so little attention to the more positive aspects.

He then moved on to Granada, where, to be fair, he spoke a lot more about the flourishing of Jewish culture under Islamic rule, and how there were two Jewish Grand Viziers there … before ending with the 1066 Granada Massacre.

Next week, I assume he’ll be focusing on the north and the Reconquista, and then all the many aspects of “1492 and all that”, and then the establishment of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, the war in the Netherlands and the sending of the Armada against England. That is where I would have expected negativity.  The Black Legend casts a long shadow, and there is a fair amount of truth in it, but I did think he might have been more positive about the Caliphate of Cordoba.    Oh well, we all have our own views on things.  The programme was interesting, as I’ve said … it just didn’t show things quite as I’d expected, but maybe that’s just me.

Armada: 12 days to save England – BBC 2


Word PressI really could have wished that the BBC hadn’t chosen to show a programme about the defeat of the Spanish Armada on the first day of the French Open (are things not stressful enough?!); I’m not quite sure why they felt the need to spend licence-payers’ money on letting Dan Snow play about in his yacht; and I really could have lived without seeing Angie-Watts-dressed-up-as-Elizabeth-I talking to a pet monkey, accompanied by someone who was supposed to be playing Blanche Parry but looked as if she were trying to be Nursie from Blackadder.  Having said all this, the defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the key episodes in English history, and the programme did say some interesting things in amongst all the silly playing about.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada.  1588 – a date we all know.  It’s one of the key moments in English history.  Elizabeth’s stirring speech at Tilbury, Drake finishing his game of bowls, beacons being lit across the nation.  OK, it has been rather “1066-and-all-that”-ed – England the underdog, not yet the great power she was to become, taking on Black Legend Spain … the speech, the bowls match, the derring-do of those who grabbed the gold from the Spanish galleons or singed the King of Spain’s beard, etc etc, but we’re still talking about a very important event, and something which is very important in the whole idea of England.  The BBC did a lot of talking about Philip II, but they failed to talk about the about the plots to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, and, even more importantly, the Spanish Fury in the Netherlands and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France.  Yes, the “Black Legend” idea was exaggerated, but (it’s breaking my heart to write this during the clay court season!!) it wasn’t made up either.  Imagine knowing that Islamic State were about to mount an invasion of this country.  That’s how people at the time must have felt.

Where the BBC got it much better was in the discussions about the nitty-gritty of what actually happened.  And that was frightening.  The weather was against the English fleet: the Spanish, off the coast of Plymouth with the English trapped by the weather, could have chosen to try to land, and who knows what could have happened then?  Instead, they stuck to their plan – Philip micro-managing, the Duke of Medina Sidonia not really being the man for the job but having been chosen because of his social status – of heading for Margate, where they hoped to link up with the Spanish forces in the Netherlands.  Bad decision on their part – what a relief on England’s!  And then there was some very practical talk about blast furnaces and how they meant that England had better cannon than Spain, not the sort of crucial-but-a-bit-dull stuff that the legends of the defeat of the Armada tend to focus on.

This could all have been presented much better, but it was very, very interesting – once you waded through Elizabeth’s make-up, the pet monkey, the ridiculous accents in which the actors playing the Spanish were using (think Speedy Gonzales the Mexican Mouse) and so on, and got to what was really happening.  Two more episodes to come.  Please, BBC, don’t mess up the speech at Tilbury …