I was at a funeral last week, and the music in the crematorium as we filed out at the end, was Morecambe and Wise’s Bring Me Sunshine, which although appropriate to the deceased, was another example of the sometimes irritating quirkiness in the current vogue of remembering our recently departed. I’ve heard Queen’s I Want to Break Free more than once. The relevance is that for a good while I’ve thought that I’d like to have the mourners at my own send off have to sit through the entirety of Bach’s Chaconne for solo violin, which usually comes in somewhere between 14 and 15 minutes.
This is not some sort of revenge fantasy, but rather a reflection on the fact that I do not think that there exists, in the entire canon of Western music, a piece that contains within it so much of what is to be human. It’s all there: Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, War and Peace, and the Judaeo-Christian belief system. If that sounds like hyperbole, it’s not intended to be, it genuinely does seem to me to contain all human experience, particularly all that is noble and good. Sorry if that sounds pretentious, but it’s true.
The trouble is, I cannot say why it seems to contain all that. It just does. My earlier post on this theme applying skills in one discipline (writing) to an entirely different one (music), was about Beethoven’s string quartets, emphasising the brilliance and verve of Roger Fiske’s prose, in conjuring up what made Beethoven’s Op18 no 1 so special. Here all I can offer is an entirely different take, which is the veteran violinist Kyung Wha Chung providing a technical analysis of the Chaconne, interspersed her expert enthusiasms (taken from Gramophone magazine, September 2016. Click on each picture).
My feelings on this are not remotely original. It’s probably the most famous solo violin piece of them all. Many people will already know that it’s really just the final movement of BWV 1004, Bach’s remarkable Partita no 2 for solo violin. There are literally hundreds of recordings, but my favourite is still the first I heard, by Nathan Milstein. The almost equally profound piano arrangement (by Busoni) is similarly ubiquitous, and again my first recording, by English gentleman Ronald Smith, is still my go to option. To close with, and see if any newcomer can see what I mean, here is the uniqueGidon Kremer, a Jew, playing this truly universal masterpiece by Bach, a Lutheran, in a Catholic church, as recommended to you all by The Knife (a Catholic).
From one of the awesome Victor Davis Hanson‘s outstanding and very readable history meisterwerks, Ripples of Battle. Trump gets this, Hillary doesn’t, and nor does the UN. I think the US electorate are with Trump (and Heraclitus) on this, one of the reasons for my prediction of 6 months ago. Hanson, I should add, published it in 2003, two years after 9/11, and long before the Daeshbags of ISIS. A prophetic piece of work
A continuing series charting the Scottish National Party, and its very overrated leader, Nicola Sturgeon’s inevitable downward trajectory (part one here):
11. Three high up Nats advise Nicola to calm down
Yes, in a party where free thinking is actually verboten, the Glorious Leader has had to endure public dissent. Kenny MacAskill, the man who freed the convicted murderer and terrorist Megrahi (though in reality just a handy frontman for the unholy cabal of Blair, Salmond and Jack Straw) in a hilariously lugubrious and pompous speech, and Alex Neil, the amiable ex Cabinet Secretary for Health, last seen being chased around a hospital car park by an irate ex-follower, have suggested that Nicola buttons it going on and on about a second independence referendum. As sentient people now realise, she only does this to placate the zoomer element – she doesn’t actually want a referendum – but boy is it irritating. So far as anyone knows, MacAskill and Neil have yet to be stealthily ‘disappeared’. The third Nat, Bruce Crawford is quite experienced and quite normal, he’s now the finance committee chairman and is actually doing what he’s meant to do by insisting that the draft Scottish budget be adequately scrutinised. Admittedly his stern critique was addressed to apparatchik Derek Mackay, rather than Sturgeon herself, but the point was well made. Such appalling adherence to basic democratic instincts is currently a thought crime of the most heinous sort.
12. The SNP redefine the word ‘crowd’
It’s a long way from the heady days of Salmond encouraging unruly marches on the Glasgow BBC HQ to the latest ‘crowd’ gathered in George Square, Glasgow, to…er…go on and on about a second independence referendum. As STV news primly observed “around 200 people attended the event throughout the day”. Which is probably about the same as my outpatient clinic area, on any one day.
13. The polls haven’t moved, except Nicola is more unpopular
YouGov at the end of August were quite clear about this: ” just 37% of Scots backing a second independence referendum and 50% opposed. Should they be successful in forcing another vote, the results would be almost identical to last time, with 54% of Scots voting against independence and 46% in favour”
Ho hum. However, they found that the hated Tories’ leader Ruth Davidson is, strangely, not hated “Overall, 46% of Scots think that Davidson is doing well, compared to 25% who think she is doing badly, giving her a net score of +21 compared to Sturgeon’s +20. Kezia Dugdale, by contrast, is seen as doing badly with a net score of -17”
Poor old Kez is pretty useless. She managed to save Sturgeon from Holyrood defeat by failing to vote herself. However, in the relevant debate NS was at her shrill, unpleasant, hectoring unprofessional worst. Hopefully we’ll be getting it on YouTube in due course. Statesmanlike she is not.
Often there is a parallel between what the Limbourgs are depicting in their monthly cycle and what goes on in the countryside of my part of northern Europe. Not this month, due to our dearth of viniculture (actually there is a tiny bit). As always with Jean de Berry, he’s happy to show the rhythm of the seasons but what he really seems to like is showing off his real estate. In this case the Château de Saumur, which is satisyingly still with us.
Saumur is a big wine growing area on the Loire. The chateau sits more above the town the in the painting, but it depends a bit on the angle from which you’re viewing it. The building is remarkably unchanged, really
This is one painting in the series where the historians are pretty sure that given the stylistic differences, the upper two thirds was a Limbourg job, while the bottom third was completed much later by Colombe. It fits, to my untrained eye. Art historian François Cali described this scene as “These extravagant towers are a dream landscape with constellations of canopies, pinnacles, gables and arrows, with their crockets fluttering against the light”, but as you can see from the above picture, the painting is hardly exaggerated, the architects for Henry II of England and Philip II of France who owned the building in the decades preceding the painting weren’t hanging back. It was actually begun more than 400 years earlier – built to last.
The painting has two nice further details: bottom left is an exhausted looking pregnant lady, and in the middle foreground is possibly the first depiction of that well known artistic motif, the ‘builder’s bum’.
A few years ago The Knife wrote a brief summary piece about the now happily discredited Alex Salmond’s ongoing attempt to use his acclaimed gifts of lying and bullying to make Scotland independent (AKA ‘still dependent, but on someone other than those English bastards’). My post was entitled Alex Salmond: My Part in His Downfall. Older readers may recognise this as an allusion to one of Spike Milligan’s war memoirs – Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall. It’s a catchy phrase, but I wouldn’t want it to be taken as yet another tiresome comparison to a well known ranting demagogic bigoted nationalist despot. Heaven forbid.
The above title repeats the literary steal, in this case channelling Evelyn Waugh. I know it’s unoriginal. Oddly enough, long after my Salmond post, an excellent book appeared with the same title, written by one of the true cognoscenti in Scottish political hackery, Alan Cochrane, most recently of the Daily Telegraph, though I’m unclear whether he’s still there, given their axe swinging. It would be their loss. Cochrane is an amiable fellow and a wonderful writer, who has delighted millions with his precise and knowledgeable takes on whatever malign nonsense the SNP are promulgating in any one week.
In this respect Nicola Sturgeon is every bit as bad as the wretched Salmond, she just tends to get better press because she’s less unpleasant to the media. Her ‘achievements’ in power are limited, to put it politely. The trouble with even the well-intentioned balanced media, is that so many of them are remote from the battlefield. Superb writers like Fraser Nelson amped up the independence threat before the 2014 referendum when in all honesty it was never a goer. It still isn’t. The Nats are still benefiting from the same distant reporting, when Sturgeon’s every cliched appeal to her base is recycled weekly with the threat that another referendum is round the corner. It isn’t.
The two writers who are best on this are Gerald Warner, and Cochrane, who both now feature on the newish website of another fine analyst, Iain Martin, called Reaction. Martin is a Scot living in London, who is thankfully far more robust in his opinions and insights than most of the expat hacks. Don’t get me wrong – there a quite a few left in Scotland, like Euan McColm and Stephen Daisley, but not enough. The Nats don’t appreciate their work.
…the only people I hear even considering another referendum are either SNP stalwarts or journalists desperate for a story.
Ms Sturgeon has to keep the referendum threat on the boil to keep the daftest of her supporters on side, even if sober-sided realists in the Nat ranks – such as former leader Gordon Wilson, one-time deputy leader Jim Sillars and ex Scottish Cabinet member Alex Neill – have extremely grave doubts about the prospects of another independence vote.
To keep the zealots happy and feed the fears of all in London – whether London Scotties or Tory ministers – she’s been forced to make roughly the same speech, albeit with her fingers and toes firmly crossed, every couple of weeks, warning that independence is still very much on the cards because of Brexit….. It is a fact that the prospect of another independence referendum will keep rearing its ugly head as we enter the conference season, with the issue certain to dominate the Nats Glasgow event in October. But it is extremely doubtful if circumstances – especially on the economy where an independent Scotland would face a £15 billion black hole – will change much.
As a result my advice to my Anglo-Scot colleagues is simple one: Stay by your phones, lads, I shall tell you when to panic.
Perfect. Despite such sense, it can be hard to discern this stuff. Two of the doughtiest campaigners that I know, both against a Yes vote in the 2014 referendum – one a journalist, one a politician – were deeply concerned that their resounding victory was just a pause in the fight. I don’t think so. Here’s Warner on a similar theme:
A second independence referendum would be meaningless since only Westminster can authorise a binding plebiscite. All Sturgeon’s referendum would amount to – if she were ever rash enough to waste Scottish taxpayers’ money on holding it – is a glorified opinion poll, with no constitutional significance whatsoever. Even in those circumstances Sturgeon would be insane to risk it, since current opinion polls show Brexit has had no effect on voters’ opinions on the Union and the SNP could expect to be thrashed again, burying the separatist issue at least for a generation.
Unfortunately Sturgeon’s announcement came just 24 hours before the publication of this year’s GERS (Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland) figures; it may even have been a cackhanded attempt to distract attention from them. The latest statistics represented the SNP’s worst nightmare.
The GERS figures showed Scotland’s deficit now stands at a crippling £14.8 billion, or 9.5 per cent of GDP, compared with 4 per cent for the UK. Oil revenues have plunged from their peak by 97 per cent to a derisory £60m. If Nicola thinks these are favourable conditions in which to fight an independence referendum, good luck to her.
He’s actually being polite. He can be a lot more biting (and funny).
In fact, it has occurred to quite a few people, including myself, that despite the endless hype, the SNP’s trajectory is not at all good, not for their alleged dream. (I have a theory that the few wise heads don’t actually want independence. Far too much hassle and responsibility, if they can just get along enjoying the perks, the aggro, and a certain kind of low rent adulation from folk who don’t know any better). So I thought I’d do a quick recent timeline. It speaks for itself.
1. Scottish Independence Referendum 18th September 2014
…a relatively easy win for No, despite a wildly aggressive and triumphalist campaign by Nat maniacs: The “No” side won, with 2,001,926 (55.3%) voting against independence and 1,617,989 (44.7%) voting in favour.
Remember that we only had a referendum because Cameron rather nobly agreed to it after Salmond unexpectedly won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011. In retrospect that was their high water mark and it generated colossal quantities of Salmond hubris and hot air. It doesn’t take much.
We had something of a lull then, despite almost constant drivel from excitable Nats about “Indyref2”, even though they’d just been decisively gubbed in Indyref1.
2.UK General election 7th May 2015
It may seem odd to include this, but even though the Nats sent 56 clones to Westminster, their hated enemy, the Conservatives won an overall majority and were clearly not interested in Indyref2, ever. In addition, although Salmond will always be a solipsistic thug, he had acquired certain street smarts over the years, which Sturgeon, despite the robotic Stalinistic acclaim, just doesn’t have, yet she’s their leader.
However, they seemed to be on an electoral roll, surely…?
3.Scottish Parliamentary election 5th May, 2016
Well, that didn’t last long. They may still be running ‘the show’ (not a big deal in reality) at Holyrood, but they lost their majority, back to being a somewhat feeble minority government, in a large part thanks to those evil Tories having a resurgence. That wasn’t in the script. This was Sturgeon’s first real electoral test. The brave face didn’t quite convince.
4.SNP love triangle 22nd May 2106
The man accurately described by Euan McColm as ‘charmless’, Stewart Hosie, quits as SNP Deputy Leader because of his shenanigans with a posh English lady. Actually Hosie’s former wife, also an SNP politician, is a good egg, so I mention this just to keep the narrative accurate. He became (more of) a laughing stock. Another SNP MP, dopey Angus McNeil, was the third point of the triangle
5.Brexit! 24th June 2016
Britain votes to quit the EU, in Scotland the SNP make a lot of the % margins. The actual numbers are less exciting: 1,661,191 Remain to 1,018,322 Leave. That’s a difference of only 642,869 people, which is 12% of the population and 16.5% of the Scottish electorate. Yes it’s a majority, but hardly a ringing endorsement.
Needless to say Sturgeon and the Nats immediately went berserk with silly claims along the lines that Scotland just loved the EU, that Holyrood could block the result (very embarrassing that one), and that Indyref2 was now inevitable, because, y’know, the Scots really love the EU bureaucracy, but the consternation caused by Brexit in certain Hyndland salons seems to have died down pretty quickly, really. The concept that the EU might not want an essentially bankrupt independent Scotland fomenting trouble in Catalonia and elsewhere into the bargain, never seemed to cross her mind. History will not be kind on this one.
In the real world that the rest of us inhabit, neither business nor the voters agreed with her and her Nat toadies, that Brexit mysteriously made independence more attractive. The SNP parallel universe is a mysterious place.
6.The Named Person scheme gets hammered by the Supreme Court, 28th July 2016
With the SNP, authoritarianism is a constant temptation, to which they normally succumb. I have commented previously on their Jacobin tendencies here, where they seem to have decided that the state supplants parents, by right. It’s already failed, very tragically. Don’t these sanctimonious idiots think anything through properly? Clearly not. The Nats are now having an “intense consultation”, the sort of things that grown up governments normally do before pulling the trigger.
7.The SNP lose a significant by-election, 12th August 2016
Well yes, and it wasn’t widely reported considering the detail. The SNP leader’s own father, Robin Sturgeon, stood for an SNP seat in the Irvine West by-election, and lost. To the dismal remnants of Scottish Labour, who became the party with the most seats as a consequence. I would say that tells us something interesting about the grass roots of Scottish politics. If he’d won, as they clearly anticipated, we’d never have heard the end of it.
8.The Scottish Government Expenditure and Revenue (GERS) figures are released 24th August 2016
Put simply, Scotland as an independent nation is bust. Totally. Happily the UK isn’t quite. The Scottish deficit (not total debt) is officially £14.8 billion. This is rather important, and is one reason why Salmond is truly the most lying liar of all lying politicians. He makes Hillary Clinton look like George Washington. It’s a long story, but the Zen Master of GERS interpretation is the mighty Kevin Hague, over at Chokkablog. The Nats hate him of course. Read his long running commentary, it’s better than most professional journalists have managed.
9.The UK government politely tells the SNP they’re not needed in the Brexit plan, 2nd September 2016
This didn’t go down well. Having ranted about the iniquities of Brexit, Sturgeon appoints a Brexit minister, the ludicrous Mike Russell. He has no apparent role. The SNP are sad. Eager to get in on a process from which they are correctly excluded, they form an SNP Westminster committee to emulate Russell’s ignominy.
10.The SNP’s raison d’etre is independence, so when they announce their programme as the Scottish Government on 6th September, 2016….
Happily, some things are still within the party’s gift. So after the thrilling announcement in June that ‘the Summer of independence starts here’, Ms Sturgeon unveils her legislative programme for the forthcoming Holyrood term. What are the plans for Indyref2 that the foaming hordes have been eagerly anticipating, nay, promised, by their Nat overlords? Er…..nothing actually, just a weak-kneed ‘draft’. As Iain Martin aptly puts it: “Consulting on a draft is the government equivalent of a cash-strapped would-be tourist ordering a bunch of glossy holiday brochures and saying “we might go for St Tropez this year.””
I can’t be bothered to spell out the incompetence in administrative duties and basic educational and NHS needs, the grim faced North Korean approach to party management and independent thought, the humourless obsession with social media points scoring etc etc. None of it is hard to find on the internet, as they haven’t got round to censoring it. Yet. Chuck in the as yet only rumoured other ‘situations’ in the party, and one doubts that this cavalcade of incompetence, scandal and chippiness will go away soon.
So, from a glorious independence rolling in oil money to obsessing over the occasional tiger that finds its way north of the border, in just under two years, with support evidently and inexorably draining away.
It’s a joyous, deserved slow motion car crash. Well done everyone.
Sometimes you get wisdom and truth from the unlikeliest places. Dodgy narcissist Julian Assange has been doing the world a service by revealing Hillary Clinton’s duplicity, with hard facts. He claims also to be ‘working on’ Trump’s tax returns, and not as an accountant. Here he is on the two of them: you have really, two very bad presidential candidates, albeit he qualified this with the rider it was ‘from the perspective of Wikileaks trying to protect its sources’, whatever that means. Give Assange his due, though, this is the opposite of endangering national security, which is the kind of thing that he and Edward Snowden usually get accused of.
The Dems are very upset that from their point of view Assange seems to be favouring Trump. They might be right: “the natural instincts of Hillary Clinton and the people around her, that when confronted with a serious domestic political scandal, that she tries to blame the Russians, blame the Chinese, etc. If she does that when she’s in government, that’s a political, managerial style that can lead to conflict.”
Which leads me to wonder how to resolve the ‘two bad candidates’ issue, not that I have a vote, but the entire world retains a legitimate personal interest. Back in March (long before he got the nomination) I predicted Trump would do it, and I stick with that. The other predictions in that post seem about right just now.
Here’s a fairly typical comment to ponder: I’m stunned to think that anyone can consider a racist dishonest misogynistic hateful, despicable human as Trump as suitable over any other candidate. I agree Hillary leaves a lot to be desired but for sheer evil Trump outstrips her every step of the way
That was taken from an email from one of my family. I don’t see any evidence that Trump is a racist, he tells far fewer lies than Hillary, and on less important topics, his relationships with women are at times sexist rather than misogynist if you want to be critical (which is not say that’s acceptable, but I don’t think he hates women, far from it). In fact, on this I will respectfully defer to a zinging piece by my all-time favourite lesbian feminist, Camille Paglia.
‘Hateful and despicable’ really depend on the viewer rather than the subject. ‘Sheer evil’ is a tricky one, though if I had to make a judgement between them over public, rather than personal morality and behaviour, Trump is a clear winner. Benghazi, abortion, quite amazingly lucrative financial jiggery pokery, Huma’s dodgy links, aiding and abetting sexual molestation – it’s a long and well documented list that Hillary has racked up, before you even get to the mysteries like Vince Foster.
However, Trump is hard to like, respect or warm to, most of the time. He has quite a few very smart admirers, like Conrad Black and Bob Tyrrell, despite his many detractors, and he doesn’t hide from criticism. The UK opinion formers tend to hate him, but a straw poll of the punters – such as in my operating theatre – will tell a slightly different story.
One of the very best, and wittiest, American journalists is Kevin D Williamsonat National Review. He loathes both candidates, and despite his own claims to the contrary, has tied himself up in knots deciding which is worse and what an honourable position would be. If I understand him rightly, he’s abstaining. Here is a recent summary of his take on it:
If your argument is, “Regardless, I prefer him to Hillary Rodham Clinton,” okey-dokey. But let’s be honest about what exactly it is you prefer to Mrs. Clinton, what manner of man you would see entrusted with the most powerful political portfolio on Earth. If you are going to do that, then you should have the intellectual honesty and the moral courage to be straight and plain about what it is you are doing.
Well, if I did have the vote, that would be my position: vote for the anti-Hillary, who happens to be Trump. I suppose that it’s conceivable that someone worse than Hillary might be out there, but they’re not the Republican or Libertarian or Green candidate (so feel free to vote for the last two).
What about abstaining? Is it effective or ‘honourable’? If you genuinely cannot pick then I guess it is the honest approach. I knew a few EU Referendum voters who did exactly that, and fair enough. However, while this blogger at Ace of Spades HQ is, on the face of it, agreeing with KDW:
I am not hoping for Trump to get into some serious international snafu by supporting him. Yet I know that is a very real possibility if he’s president. Should this happen, I can’t just say “But I didn’t want Trump to screw up so badly.” People would say — no, but you knew the risks in supporting him, and you supported him anyway; you are therefore morally responsible for this.
…he takes issue with the abstension-get-out-of-jail-free approach:
…the #NeverTrumpers claim that the obvious, inescapable outcome of their position — that Hillary Clinton will be the president — is not their responsibility, just because they didn’t intend that as a primary matter.
He has a point. It’s a great piece, which while it’s stating the obvious – that this is a binary choice in reality – skilfully unpicks the fantasy world of an allegedly principled abstension. The main and somewhat selfish benefit of the latter is to be able to sit around a few years hence saying “it’s not my fault, I abstained on principle”. Abstension also has consequences. Oddly enough, if you Google ‘binary choice’, you’re already seeing quite a few Clinton and Trump images. Final quotations (I apologise for lifting someone else’s work so thoroughly):
All choices have consequences. By supporting Trump, I am responsible for the consequences of a Trump victory — and those consequences could indeed be dire.
But a childish morally-unserious fantasy has infected the #NeverTrump not-so-intelligentsia, that they can agitate for Hillary Clinton — by relentlessly disparaging Trump — and somehow, they are not responsible for the consequences of the Hillary presidency they are bucking for**.
They’ve dreamed up this self-pleasing, responsibility-evading dreamscape in which those who plump for Trump are responsible for the outcomes of a Trump presidency, but, for no explanation thus far discoverable, they are not responsible for the outcomes of the Hillary presidency they’re agitating for.…. If you think Hillary would be a better president — or if Trump is so repulsive to you, you cannot support him even if you think Hillary would be worse — fine. I respect your opinion.
We all have different brains. We all have different priorities.
But what I must insist you cannot do — what I will not permit you to do — is fantasize that while a Trump supporter is responsible for the gaffes and disasters of a President Trump, you are somehow innocent of the purges and witchhunts of a President Hillary.
Trump supporters will own the consequences of a Trump presidency — and Hillary supporters, both those who declare it proudly and those who wish it secretly — own the consequences of a Hillary presidency.
**For the record, I entirely agree with Kevin Williamson’s employers on Hillary, in their editorial a week ago:
If you need a reintroduction to Mrs. Clinton, we will oblige: She is an opportunist without anything resembling a conviction with the exception of her unwavering commitment to abortion, a “public servant” who along with her husband grew vastly wealthy exploiting her political connections and renting access to everybody from Goldman Sachs to Vladimir Putin, a petty, grasping, vindictive, meretricious time-server whose incompetence and dishonesty have been proved everywhere from Little Rock to Benghazi.
$$$ I now have to add a summary from the fiery and hilarious Ann Coulter:
Everything Hillary has ever touched has failed, been engulfed in scandal, resulted in massive investigations, litigation, financial ruin, prison or death. The final stage of any Hillary enterprise is a grand announcement that Hillary did not technically break the law. Or no one can prove she did. Or, even if she did, no one ever gets prosecuted for it.
If Jean de Berry was lounging around the Hôtel de Nesle in Paris, and fancied a spot of falconry, then it would have been an 11 hour walk, according to Google Maps, or probably a 5-6 hour trip on a horse or in a carriage, to get to his Chateau d’Etampes, featured in August in the Tres Riches Heures. This was quite a building for its day, TE Lawrence was a visitor who (on this excellent website) is quoted as calling it “perhaps the most astonishing production of the late twelfth century”. It had all sorts of defensive innovations and was well built, so its central keep is still standing, if a bit worn. It got hammered in the Hundred Years War, as did much of northern France.
I’m not aware that falconry is really a seasonal pursuit. These days in the UK it’s claimed to be a winter sport for reasons that aren’t clear to me, but there’s the Duc de Berry at it in high summer, and its ancestral home is mainly in the decidedly non-seasonal Middle East. More conventionally, there’s a hot sweaty harvest going on in the background, which brings to mind a drowsily persuasive masterpiece by Bruegel in his own series of seasonal paintings, The Corn Harvest
In a way, the Limbourg’s painting gets August right: no-one wants to work too hard, just the essentials, lots of lazing around (see the swimmers), and a general air of self indulgence before the weather begins to turn.
If you want to read wondrous, effortlessly descriptive prose, then try Laurie Lee. School children often get Cider With Rosie as a set text (and enjoy it). I’ve just read, for the first time, the magical As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and in terms of evocative writing it is sensationally good. The subject is Spain, and if there is a country that lends itself to vivid writing, this is it. That in itself probably made Lee’s task a little easier. It’s entirely understandable that he wrote it more than 30 years after the events in the book – a walk through Spain from Vigo to Andalucia, in 1934. Spain stays locked in your head.
The Knife spent 4 weeks in Andalucia in the summer of 1982, teaching English in a school on a mountain top in the Sierra Blanca. The best World Cup of them all (1,2) had just finished, with tattered posters for the Mundial everywhere. The next year I spent another 4 weeks on the train around the Iberian peninsula. 3rd class carriages with no windows and wooden bench seats, remote spaghetti western towns, terrible sanitation if you could actually find los lavabos (I once had to go under a tree on a roundabout in Granada), but still wonderful. I’ve been back lots of times since then. If anyone’s interested, the best meal I’ve ever had was in the Asador Donostiarra in Madrid, and the best breakfast in the charming Venta el Buscon, also Madrid.
1983 was the year I was ‘rescued’ in Algeciras, a grubby town which judging by Laurie Lee’s affectionate description, had suffered a bit in the interim 50 years. In the early 80’s Franco (died in 1975) still cast a long shadow in Spain. Despite what you will be told these days, rightly or wrongly, plenty of people mourned his departure. That whole secular/Catholic, left/right wing, Spaniards/separatists set of dichotomies is still a key part of understanding this country. Beevor’s book on the civil war is pretty balanced, in the way that many of them are not. If you want to really understand the unique nature of that conflict and its aftermath, Javier Cercas’ mesmerising novel Soldiers of Salamis is a nuanced and compelling tale. The fact that the Valle de los Caidos is still there (1, 2 a fascinating piece), still getting many, many visitors gives a clue as to how schizophrenic Spain remains on this topic**.
That said there are plenty of standard travelogues about, but quite a few tend to fall short in some way. The highly regarded Jan Morris’ Spain is chock full of adjectives but in the end, it’s a bit dull. Older writers like the admirable and prescient Halliday Sutherland (here) and the…er…controversialHV Morton (here) do a better job in summoning up the uniqueness of the place. In the modern age Christopher Howse (1,2) with an enthusiasm for remote monasteries, back roads and railways does the best job. He completely gets the enduring religiosity which you can still see in places like Valencia’s cathedral, where pregnant women (who often seem to be with their mothers) do 9 circuits before praying at the statue of the Virgen del Buen Parto.
Which emphasises just how key the whole Spanish Catholic intensity is in understanding the place and the people. That holds today, where the counterpoint of this intensity is a suffocating and aggressive secularism. The civil war all over again. So you need to experience Zurbaran, St John of the Cross, and St Teresa of Avila (a proto-feminist, believe it or not). If you sample the origins of the much maligned Opus Dei you’ll get an idea of the rooted nature of Spanish Catholicism. In fact, if you seek the best translation of the poems of St John of the Cross, by that remarkable man of action Roy Campbell, you will be back in Laurie Lee territory, as the young writer stayed with the older man in Toledo, as the civil war was beginning to rumble, in which Campbell played a valorous role.
There are lots more: Goya, Don Quixote of course (it’s not boring), George Orwell, even the tiresome Hemingway. The latter claimed that “For one person who likes Spain there are a dozen who prefer books on her”. If he’s right, then I hope this post gives some pointers. A better quote is from the tragic Lorca, which captures that uneasy feeling you get as you descend the stairway to the royal tombs and el pudridero in the mighty Escorial:
In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world.
**when I first wrote this, I neglected to mention the great Stanley Payne, a true historian of Spain in every era, and an expert on the whole Franco/Civil War thing (1,2)