Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I was so excited to see a new series of this – I didn’t realise that one had been recorded pre-lockdown – in the TV schedules, and found it particularly interesting that much of the first episode was spent talking about the Spanish Civil War … largely with reference to Michael Portillo’s dad, who came to Britain as a Republican exile.  Scores of men from North West England fought in the International Brigades, and Spanish relief/aid committtees were set up all over the region; but no-one ever talks about it.  I remember once getting quite excited during a mid-1990s episode of Neighbours in which Karl Kennedy’s dad gave Billy and Toadie a lecture on the International Brigades!  It’s a subject that’s rarely discussed – except in connection with George Orwell, and we saw Michael visiting a Republican trench outside Huesca with Orwell’s son.

We also saw Michael visiting Salamanca, Avila and Madrid, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, and Zaragoza, which I haven’t … yet.  And a border railway station in the Pyrenees, used as an escape route by Jews and Allied soldiers fleeing Occupied France during the war.  No-one spells Zaragoza the old English way, “Saragossa”, since Real Zaragoza had that good run in the mid-1980s.  And no-one spells Marseille with an s on the end since they got to the European Cup Final in 1991.  This is an interesting linguistic phenomenon.  It should be investigated.

Anyway.  Michael, resplendent in a yellow jacket, purple shirt and vermilion trousers – I wonder if he dresses like that when he’s not filming – started off in Salamanca, with a Bradshaw’s guidebook (everyone knows that George Bradshaw was from Salford, yes?) from 1936.  We did hear a bit about the general history of Salamanca, but this was a very personal episode and the focus was on Michael’s late dad and his time as a professor at the university there: we even saw the index cards which Franco’s government had kept on Luis Portillo Perez.  Oh, and sliced ham.  Then lovely Avila, famed for its association with St Teresa.

And then on to Madrid.  We saw quite a lot of the architecture of Salamanca and Avila, but Madrid’s too big to cover in one segment of one programme, although we did see some of its highlights.  And, again, we heard about Portillo snr.  Michael stood in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” and talked about how his parents would never have met had it not been for the bombing of Guernica.  To be fair, he did talk about the devastation it caused, as well, not just its role in his own family history!  The lady at the Museum Reina Sofia said that “Guernica” was the most important painting of the twentieth century.  There’s certainly a good case for saying that.

Then it was on to Zaragoza, capital of Aragon … and we got a mention of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Things got a bit more light-hearted here, with the requisite making-an-idiot-of-himself segment, this one involving Michael trying to join in with the Aragonese Jota dance.  But then we returned to the subject of the Civil War, with the visit to the trench at Huesca.

Finally, after a journey through some lovely countryside, Michael ended up at the Franco-Spanish border station of Canfranc, opened in 1928, at which time it was the second largest station in Europe.  It’s not used much now.  That’s rather sad.  I do love those grand old railway stations!

And I love Spain.  We’ll get back there.  One day!   I’m not sure when this was filmed, but who would have guessed that, by the time it was filmed, going to Spain and indeed travelling by train at all would have largely vanished off the menu?   Let’s just hope that this doesn’t go on for too much longer.  In the meantime, especially with so many repeats on TV due to the disruption to filming caused by the pandemic, it is wonderful to have a new series of this lovely programme!   Thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and looking forward to the episodes to come!

Spanish Lavender by Joan Fallon

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I was hoping that this was going to be about the International Brigades; but unfortunately it was just a rather silly story, poorly-written and littered with irritating errors (“expatriate” was repeatedly spelt “ex-patriot”!), about a girl running off to take photos of the Spanish Civil War and getting involved with two men and a baby.  However, it did raise the never-ending question, very relevant in a week in which there’ve been reports of Syrian children dying of cold and hunger in refugee camps, of whether or not the international community should intervene in civil wars.

I’m not sure that the Life on Marbs idea of British expatriates (or indeed “ex-patriots”) living in the Marbella/Estepona/San Pedro area was really a thing in the 1930s.  However, OK, there would have been some Britons living there – although someone should really tell the author that they would not have referred to themselves as “Brits”, a term which didn’t exist until the Second World War.  Amongst them is our heroine, Elizabeth Marshall, a young woman in her 20s from a well-to-do middle-class family, living with her parents and brother.  With civil war raging and the Nationalists about to take Malaga, it’s decided that all British citizens in the area should be evacuated to Gibraltar, and then to Britain.  The evacuation of non-Spanish nationals was certainly true enough.

The dialogue’s poor, the characters are wooden, and silly mistakes such as the spelling of  the Spanish housekeeper’s name as “Conception” rather than “Concepcion” are annoying, but the book does make some good points with its descriptions of the bombing of Malaga by the Nationalists, with German and Italian assistance, and the desperate attempts of civilians to try to escape from a city bordered by water and mountains.

When the Marshalls reach the coast, they wait for a ship … and Elizabeth decides to run away, to take photos of what’s going on.  It’s supposed to sound brave and heroic, but it’s not really very convincing.  However, she gets to Malaga, where she rescues a baby who’s been abandoned in the street.  This is presumably meant to be very poignant, but the storylines just don’t work very well.  She meets up with a Spanish aristocrat, Juan, and an Englishman, Alex … and Juan checks her into a posh hotel so that she can get milk for the baby (as you do).  Then the baby dies anyway.  I’m not sure what the point of that storyline was.  And Elizabeth and Juan become lovers.

They all decide that they need to get out of Malaga, and head for Almeria.  En route, they’re caught up in a brutal attack by Franco’s forces on civilian refugees.  It’s thought that up to 5,000 people were killed in the attack, and many other citizens of Malaga were raped and murdered when the Nationalists took the city.  German and Italian forces bombed the refugees from the air, and Nationalist ships attacked them from the sea.  They couldn’t get away: there was no means of escape.  This isn’t a very good book, but this is something that’s largely been forgotten, and the book’s coverage of it is pretty accurate.  Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor working with the Republicans, did indeed rescue as many of the injured as he could.  As far as the story goes, Juan, who’s been badly injured, is taken to Almeria by Bethune.  Elizabeth and Alex follow on foot.  When they reach the city, he’s nowhere to be found, and they’re left to assume that he’s died and been buried, alongside many others, in an unmarked grave. However, the reader learns that he’s still alive and has joined the Republican army, hoping that Elizabeth, who’d refused to leave without him, will go home to Britain and safety.

Then, just as it’s getting interesting, we suddenly jump forward to the 21st century!  We learn that – why does this always happen, in books?! – Elizabeth, having duly returned to her family, had found out that she was expecting Juan’s baby, and had accepted Alex’s offer of marriage.  It could have been quite good.  Elizabeth’s photos could have been published and she could have made a name for herself.  Juan could have turned up a few years later – and we learn that Alex went back to Spain, found out that Juan was alive, and never told Elizabeth.

But we don’t get any of that.  Instead, we get a rather boring story about how, after they’re all dead, Elizabeth and Juan’s granddaughter Kate finds out that Alex wasn’t her biological grandfather, goes to Spain, and, within about five minutes, has found Juan’s surviving relatives and been welcomed into the bosom of his family (who’d tried to cover up the fact that he existed, because they were Nationalists).  There are a lot of references to golf.  Kate meets two different men, but neither relationship is really developed properly.

None of the storylines are developed properly, really; and, as I’ve said, the characters are wooden and the dialogue poorly-written.  But this is the first time that I’ve ever come across a novel which covers this little-known massacre: Spanish Civil War novels in English are usually set in Catalunya, and usually refer to the massacre in Guernica, in the Basque country, and never mention Andalucia.

We’re told that Elizabeth is angry and distressed about why other countries are doing nothing to help, especially when there are British ships at Gibraltar.  (We know now that the Gibraltarian authorities secretly aided the Nationalists – not during the massacre, obviously, but in general.).  There was a lot of debate at the time, especially in Britain, France and the USA, about whether or not to intervene.  A Non-Intervention Committee was formed, and no-one was supposed to be getting involved, except as observers and to protect international shipping, but Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and to some extent Salazar’s Portugal all aided the Nationalists, whilst the Soviet Union and to some extent Poland and Mexico provided support to the Republicans.

There was huge international press coverage of the war, and of course the International Brigades – who are now seen as being quite romantic – were formed.  Opinion in Britain and elsewhere was deeply divided.  It was feared that involvement by foreign powers could spark a pan-European war.  And “boots on the ground” in other countries’ civil wars … well, think of Korea, of Vietnam, of Iraq.  It never ends well.  But can it ever be OK to stand by and do nothing when you know full well that civilians are suffering, horrifically.  We know what’s going on in Syria.  We know what’s going on in Yemen.  We know what’s going on in the sadly misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo.  There aren’t any answers, but the Spanish Civil War was the first time after the formation of the League of Nations that the subject came up.  The war killed about 500,000 people, similar to the estimated death toll in the Syrian Civil War.

There are no answers, but there are a lot of questions.  This book isn’t very good, but it does ask some of those questions, and make you think about them.

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

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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!