I’ve been working in Madrid for most of the last month, so I’m a bit behind on everything, but took a long weekend in Valencia at the end of it.




I’ve been busy moving into my new flat but I’m slowly managing to sort everything out but right before I moved in I had to go to Madrid for work, and so I took a day off and extended the trip over the weekend and went to Toledo.


Spain – The Centre of the World 1519 – 1682 – Robert Goodwin

His complaint would have resonated with the stereotypical Spanish hidalgo with a preference for poverty over labour, honour over trade, and an obsession with purity of blood. Worse still, the Netherlands seemed a naturally heterodox land, so flat ‘it affords the people one commodity beyond all the other Regions: if they die in perdition, they are so low, that they have a shorter cut to Hell…And for this cause, perhaps all strange Religions throng thither.’

Starting with Charles V becoming King of Spain and the first treasures from the America’s docking on Spanish shores, Goodwin charts the incredible journey of the Spanish empire, as, fuelled by the riches of the Americas, and it’s monarchy, driven and weighed down by destiny and dynasty, became the centre of the world.

Goodwin’s pen merely touches the new world, with an early view of Oviedo and Las Casas, advocates of very different views on ruling the burgeoning empire in the Americas. Charles however had pressing concerns, as he secured the crown to the Holy Roman Empire and had to suppress the increasing irritable Dutch, culminating in Charles declaring Luther a heretic and creating a slight schism within the Christian church. One of my early favourites, leaping of the page in a flourish of both sword and wordplay, mostly on the back of good press, is Garci Laso de la Vega, or Garcilaso as he was known by the common folk.I would like to read more on him,  and his life has Netflix original series written all over it.

During it’s golden age Spain had famous artists flowering amongst it’s opulence, such as Titian, whose painting of Dona Isabella of Portugal, the mother of Philip II was, and still is highly lauded, and who was a yard stick who time and time again was claimed had taught many followers, including El Greco, who came to Spain from Italy and took up residence in Toledo. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, which is subjected to a thorough discussion in the book, about it’s relation to the life and times into which the windmill fighting warrior trots on his battered horse.

Following the abdication of Charles, came the succession of Philips, starting with the bookish and beareaucratic Philip II, who commissioned and built the magnificent Escorial palace, from which he ruled the far reaches of the empire using paper. Goodwin manages to paint Spain in broad brush strokes while at the same time colouring in smaller details of it’s rulers and more humble residents.

At Lisbon, Philip was in melancholic mood: following the death of Elizaberh of Valois, he had married his niece, Anne of Austria, and fallen deeply in love; but she died suddenly, in 1580, and soon afterwards he lost his son Prince Diego to smallpox. Stoical in his sadness, he could gaze out from the windows of the Royal Palace and mediate on the massive sweep of the great harbour, watching the drama of the Indies fleets arriving battered by the Atlantic storms and the massive galleons coming home from the Far East; he saw them leave, filled with old hands, the merchants’ factotums and thousands of would be colonists.

Philip III and IV sat back and little interfered in the decline of the mighty empire, as their favourites ruled in their name and stead, often putting their own interests above that of the Empire. Still there was glitter as Goodwin points out, and the arts flourished even as the empire began to crumble.

And crumble it did. Throughout all this there were ongoing wars with the troublesome French, the sinking of the armada by the English, who ironically had built up their navy on the advice of Philip the II, the explosion of litigation through the law courts by all parts of Spainish life and the flourish of religious festival and tradition in Seville. Abroad Henry the VIII embraced Protestantism after Catherine of Aragon failed to provide him with an heir, the Ottomans pestered the edges of the Hapsburg empire and the America’s slowly slipped from the Spanish grasp. It could be argued that maybe the empire would have not have lasted so long if not for it’s King’s, but the line from Charles to Philip IV all had a hand in the eventual downfall of one of the most crucial Empires in the world.

A definite if you’re interested in Spain or it’s history, and even if you’re not. Goodwin makes the life and times of an incredible number of people accessible, highlighting the greatness as well as the pettiness and even ordinariness of Spain in it’s greatest period, shining a light on the glitter and the gold.

And so, the city fathers of Seville celebrated a papal ruling about the immaculacy of Mary’s conception with a grand fiesta involving plenty of gaily dressed noblemen, the sacrifice of a handful of bulls, a few dead horses, the odd gored human, a bullfighting dwarf and some very tall Africans. That is the world in which the protagonists of this story learnt to think and live.



Monsignor Quixote – Graham Greene

A vine is alive like a flower or a bird. It is not something made by man – man can only help it to live – or to die,’ he added with a deep melancholy, so that his face lost all expression. He had shut his face, as a man shuts a book which he finds he doesn’t wish to read.

An well meaning and unexpected promotion sends the humble Monsignor Quixote on a collision course with his Bishop, and he takes leave and drives across Spain in his old car ‘Rocinate’ with his good friend the ex-mayor, his Sancho Panza. Greene cleverly plays in this, re-writing the Cervantes classic, but at the same time acknowledging it within the story, the referring to the original Quixote as the Monsignor’s ancestor throughout was a playful touch, particularly as it enrages the antagonistic Bishop.

As the Monsignor and the Communist ex-mayor road trip across Spain, protected almost in equal parts by Quixote’s innocence and naivety and the Panza’s more practical and worldly nous, they explore each other’s beliefs, gently probing and teasing, with the tacit understanding of the fundamental differences between their two ideologies. What draws them closer, apart from the endless supply of manchegan wine, is the doubts they both share in the infallibility of what they hold dear. Quixote suffers terribly, in the way that Greene’s protagonists seem to do, with his own inadequacies, both in the church, and in life, as his travels expand his horizons well beyond El Toboso. Later, when he aids the thief, it is almost with a bewildered, cheeky delight that he tells Sancho.

Despite the intimate conversations between the two friends, Monsignor Quixote is shot through with dry humour, the moment when Quixote discovers his steak is horsemeat is a brilliant example of the simple humour that Greene wields so effectively

He explained the situation in which he had found the bishop.
‘But the steak ..’ Teresa said.
‘What about the steak?’
‘You can’t give the Bishop horsemeat.’
‘My steak is horsemeat?’
‘It always has been. How can I give you beef with the money you allow me?’

There are still touching moments between Quixote and Sancho, as they grow their friendship by gently pushing back the boundaries of their faiths, until they have small patches of common ground, meanwhile the Bishop and Father Herrera lightly scheme in the background, impotently outraged at Quixote’s promotion to Monsignor.

Despite being hauled back to El Toboso, Quixote once again hits the road in Rocinate, with Sancho faithfully by his side, but his horizons are expanded too far, and the innate sense of what is right and just, and how the church should act and be treated is tested and he perhaps becomes the Monsignor he was all along.

As my Green collection grows I find I am loving the sheer readability of his novels, particularly the comedies, that produce genuine laugh’s, while at the same time containing poignant pictures of life. Yet, despite the surface simplicity, Greene always seem to paint a bright picture that delights and amuses.

‘Dreaming or delirium?’ Father Leopoldo wondered.
Sancho said, ‘I seem to remember …’
‘You have no right to burn my books, Excellency. The sword, I beg you, not death by pin stabs.’
There was a short period of silence, then, ‘A fart,’ Father Quixote said, ‘can be musical.’
‘I fear,’ Father Leopoldo whispered, ‘that he is in a worse state than the doctor told us.’

The Carpenters Pencil [Manuel Rivas]

As she made her way towards the house she felt the trees in blossom were scrutinising her as well, next to the path of white pebbles.  As if the camellias were giving each other a nudge and the Chinese magnolias were whispering gently

Completing my Spanish themed quartet, The Carpenters Pencil took me back to where I started with Jason’Webster’s Guerra, the Spanish civil war.

Herbal recounts the early months of the war, when his life seemed inextricably linked to that of Dr Daniel da Barca, an inmate at a prison in Santiago de Compostela.  While fiddling with a carpenters pencil he kept after shooting it’s owner, Herbal tells a tale of two men, of the war, and through both of them, a beautiful love story that saves one of the men, while dragging the other in it’s slipstream.

Although a relatively short novel, there is so much that is conveyed by what Rivas doesn’t write.  Somehow he fully evokes the brutality of the civil war, in the background, while the spotlight of his poetic prose shines on Herbal and da Barca, yet illuminating the stubborn, unconquerable love of the doctor and Marisa Mallo.

While imprisoned the doctor survives the firing squads while Marisa asks her powerful grand father, on the opposite side to her lover, for help.  And all the while Herbal is in the background, sometimes watching, sometimes intervening, without always understanding why.  Indeed, it is the conflict within him, as well as the fierce devotion of Mother Izarne and the thoughtfulness of Sergeant Garcia, that show how people and their actions make wars more complex than the simple division between one side and another.

For all the majesty of the love story, it is just as much Herbal’s story, the ex Franco soldier, who recounts the tale to try and understand his relationship with the doctor, and perhaps his own life, and as he gives the carpenters pencil to Maria de Visitacao, he draws the final line under his past.

The two of them fell silent, drawn by the sun setting on the stage. It slid behind Mont San Pedro on it’s way to a quay of exile.  On the other side of the bay, the first watercolours from the lighthouse intensified the sea’s ballad.

The New Spaniards [John Hooper]

So I am wading through the thousand paged, unabridged classic, The Tale of Genji, but as it’s way to big to fit in my bag for work, I slipped in The New Spaniards by John Hooper to transport me away from my tube seat (when I’m lucky enough to get one).

Covering Spain’s most recent history and the breakneck pace at which it has, and continues to change, Hooper’s depth of knowledge and research is immense, yet the book flows along and is never bogged down by facts and figures, and through it you get a clearer picture of a country that must barely recognise itself sometimes.

From post Franco politics, the waning influence of the church, the strengths of the family and regional identity, royalty and the army to welfare, education, an absolute lack of ballet, law and the love of radio, all these are focused on as Hooper lifts the lid on the average Spaniard, their championing of the individual, propensity of easy money over hard slog, a fierce love and loyalty to their family over and above everything else along with their drive to embrace modernity as Spain moves forward.

There are a number of factors that will influence Spain’s future, not in the least the pull of the strong regional identities while the army sits in the middle waving the 1978 constitution, in which it is entrusted with the defence of Spain’s territorial integrity (and which one General has already alluded to, although he was quickly removed).  Yet as the immigrants pour in, and start to slowly reverse the decline in birth rates, Spain is becoming a more tolerant society, yet without losing it’s renowned Passion, and Hooper easily articulates how and why this is happening.

In much of South Amercia, gallego is synonymous with ‘Spaniard’.  Perhaps the most contemporary descendant of Galician immigrants is Fidel Castro, whose surname derives from the Galician word for a Celtic hill-fort.

GUERRA! [Jason Webster]

I’ve picked up Duende many times while in book shops, but have never been convinced enough to buy it.  However, while helping my brother redecorate his house he offered me a few books he was getting rid of, including Guerra and Sacred Sierra, by Jason Webster, the author of Duende.

A chance encounter with his neighbour in the mountains (Guerra comes after Sacred Sierra) leads Webster to look into the Spanish Civil war, and Guerra is his recounting of the events, intersped with his travels around his adoptive country investigating the events of 70 years ago, only some of which seem entirely relevant.

And that is the main reason I struggled with Guerra, Webster himself.  His retelling of the civil war is detailed and uncluttered, giving great background into the events and their significance.  However, his own travelling parts are both hackneyed and seemingly bland fantasy.  Webster sets the scene up and when the inevitable happens there is no surprise or concern, or even interest, just a feeling that it all seems made up.  While there are no reasons to doubt the veracity of the book, the retelling makes Webster seem incredibly either naive or extremely unlucky.  From the mistaken arrest, the abandonment by the taxi driver, to the text book theft in the train station, it seems as if he has pulled out every cliche for a travel book, to make his own story as interesting as the war he is writing about.  When he meets a jogger outside Castuera, where a concentration camp had once stood, the jogger tells him that someone in the nearby village saw a ghost, right where he was standing.  I couldn’t make up my mind if it was ludicrous or just badly written.

The book picks up when he reaches Madrid and stays with his friend Kiki, who is by far the most interesting person in the book, and despite Webster claiming you can’t explain Kiki, he spends a great deal of time trying to do so.  But Kiki is much more engaging and thought provoking than Webster.  The scene where Pio Moa gave a speech to a room full of old elitist and students and whipped them into a frenzy was fascinating to read and Webster’s favour for Javier at the end was genuinely touching, but it wasn’t enough to rescue the book from a complete lack of interest.

I don’t really like writing a bad review, but you can’t like them all..and Webster has given me a great introduction to the Spanish civil war, and for that I am thankful.

From his headquarters, General Miaja urgently wired the government in Valencia for more ammunition.  In reply he received a counter-order from the Prime Minister telling him to send down the cabinets table silver, which had been left behind in the rush to get away.