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Friday, 31 January 2014

FFB - Ghosts of Spain

When this book was first published (2006), about 75,000 retired British people move permanently to Spain each year and there are roughly 300,000 already living in Spain, mainly on the costas. Since the financial crisis of 2008, those numbers have reduced and several thousand have returned to UK. Be that as it may, the original impetus for emigrating to Spain remain valid: they’ve moved to obtain a better standard of living (still the case in most areas), to enjoy more sun and less stress, or to get away from ever-encroaching Big Brother government. A fair proportion of them have not bothered to learn anything about the history and culture of Spain and, sadly, the vast majority have failed to learn even the basics of the Spanish language. Whether you’re thinking of moving to Spain or simply want to spend a holiday here, this book is a fascinating introduction to the country’s “hidden past,” as the sub-title suggests.

Spaniards generally still believe it is their absolute right – even their obligation – to enjoy themselves. This may be the reason, researchers suggest, why Spaniards live longer than other Europeans.  Of course their diet, heavy in fresh fruit and vegetables, fish and olive oil, helps too. Inevitably, there is a down-side as well: the Spanish are Europe’s biggest consumers of cocaine, alongside the British. 

There is a dark side to Spain’s recent history.  The atrocities committed by both the left and the right during, and most pertinently by Franco’s regime after, the Civil War of 1936-39 have to all intents and purposes been buried with all those thousands of bodies. Only now, over sixty years later are unmarked graves being exhumed and stories being told. Tremlett movingly follows this tragic journey of the good and the bad, the victims and the killers. Supporters of the communist cause were murdered and buried along countless roadsides. About 30,000 children of communist Spaniards were abducted and adopted. Even after the transition to democracy in 1975, it seems that a tacit agreement of silence was made about all this.  [Indeed, these events inspired me to write the short story ‘Grave Concerns, published in a magazine, and now in Spanish Eye (Crooked Cat Publishing), paperback available post-free worldwide here].

Civil wars are often worse than other types of conflict, as it’s brother against brother, neighbour against neighbour.  At the war’s end, 500,000 Spaniards were dead, not to mention the Italians and Germans who fought for Franco and those Russians and other foreigners who volunteered for the International Brigades. Thousands went into exile. Then the post-war regime systematically rooted out sympathisers of the enemy and sent them to labour camps or executed them. Now, though, you’ll be hard put to it to find a statue of Franco; even the national anthem has been expunged of words - Francoist words; only now are they considering writing new words for the anthem.

To balance the endemic networking and nepotism of the Spanish system, they have other values, such as nobility, fairness, valour and justice.  In Spain, the politically correct brigade is never going to reach the idiotic levels it has attained in the litigation-fearful UK and US.  That’s because the Spanish are radically opposed to banning anything ‘that smacks of restriction or prohibition, as it’s considered immoral, old-fashioned and fascist.’ When you’ve lived through one dictatorship, you’re unlikely to welcome another.

Whenever possible, Spain has grasped change with eagerness.  Their women won the vote in 1931, only three years after the UK and well ahead of France, Italy or Belgium. Granted, many of these freedoms were curtailed by Franco while he was in power. But now, for such an ostensibly male chauvinist country, women can be seen in all walks and all levels of life, including the Guardia Civil (since1988). It’s estimated that Spain has the highest plastic surgery rate in Europe, and one of the highest rates of organ donorship. 
Eschewing the mañana stereotype, Spaniards actually have a can-do attitude. For example, the Madrid airport is the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, three times the size of Heathrow Terminal Five. The builders won the project for Terminal Five fifteen years ago and work still hasn’t started; the same builders won the Madrid airport project four years ago and it is half-completed already. Yes, much of Spain resembles a building-site – but at least they get on with it!

From new buildings to old. The British Isles is rich in history and castles and many British tourists are saddened and surprised at the dereliction of many fortifications in Spain. But bear in mind that Spain has about 8,000 castles and other fortifications and hundreds of monasteries and convents.  It’s just impossible to allocate restoration funds to all of them.

Tremlett strives to learn what binds gypsies, jails and flamenco. He attempts to discover the attractions of legal brothels – night clubs. He travels throughout the Basque and Catalan lands in the hope of learning the reasons for their demands for separation from Spain, wondering why Galicia, who also has a strong case, is quite content to remain without autonomy. 

The foregoing is a random selection from an interesting, humane and well-researched book by a British journalist who married a Spanish woman and has lived in Madrid for over a decade.  Tremlett is clearly writing about a country he loves, a country and a people who amaze and mystify him. Spain’s history is still shaping him and his family and, indeed, all of those expats who have chosen to live here. [The book has been updated and revised since I read it. Latest print date, 2012]
It will also change several preconceptions about Spain and the Spanish. 

Spanish Eye e-book available from here
Spanish Eye e-book available from here

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