Time and limericks

brenan 2I’M reading Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada: Seven Years in an Andalucian Village, an evocative account of the author’s life in southern Spain during the 1920s. Brenan came to Andalucia in 1919 after spending the First World War in less hospitable circumstances on the Western Front. After walking from Granada to the coast, and traipsing through nearly every village in the Alpujarras, Brenan decided to rent a house in the mountain village of Yegen. And there he wrote the diaries from which he later compiled his book, giving us a unique and candid insight into life in rural Spain in the pre-republican, pre-Franco era . . .

I am immediately struck by the way human nature hasn’t changed much during the intervening years. It is tempting to take Brenan’s account of the villagers of Yegen at face value – that they were an insulated, introspective people who regarded neighbouring communities with distrust and contempt, and socialised and married only among their own numbers.

Author Gerald Brenan
Author Gerald Brenan

But this is the world as it was. Villages were planets in their own right because the knowledge and experience of their inhabitants seldom penetrated beyond the extent of their field boundaries. In the Alpujarras, the fertile valleys between Granada and the sea, roads fit for vehicles were a very recent development in Brenan’s day. Goods were transported on mules and travel was usually undertaken on foot. Neighbouring settlements – including those only a couple of kilometres distant – were as alien as Mars and Venus, and their inhabitants regarded with as much suspicion as beings from those worlds.

And I’m thinking, as I’m reading this book, that it would be dangerously simplistic to regard these villagers as curiosities from a bygone era; unwitting entertainers; peasants in a vaguely comical world defined by self-imposed barriers and state-imposed ignorance. But an uncomfortable signal from the back of my mind warns me against making lazy judgements. These mountain communities might have been isolated and inward-looking places during the 1920s, but I caught the end of something worryingly similar during the 1960s. And it wasn’t in Spain.

askam 1As a child I was surrounded by elderly relatives. Actually, I say “elderly”, but most of them were probably in their fifties, which is not classed as elderly these days – take my word for it. Besides, people used to look older back then because they dressed formally and the men smoked pipes and the women wore strange hats. They seemed older. And if you seem older it’s because you act older, and this hastens the ageing process. Again, take my word for it.

My elderly relatives were respectable people – church, parochial council, Mothers’ Union, Co-operative Society, St John Ambulance – well turned out and educated to a reasonable standard. We lived in a village called Askam-in-Furness – a post-industrial settlement of about 3,000 people on the banks of the Duddon estuary in a part of Cumbria that was, in those days, an appendage of Lancashire.

Courtesy of my elderly relatives, I inherited a suspicion of people from neighbouring villages – I’m a product of my environment. There was nothing wrong with our neighbours, it was just that they were viewed as being different. And these differences meant that they were, in the eyes of my elderly relatives, somehow morally and perhaps socially inferior.

Even now, fifty years later, I can hear my elderly relatives discussing the inhabitants of neighbouring settlements as if they were one homogeneous mass with a collective consciousness. My aunts, uncles and grandparents punctuated their comments with throwaway remarks that were expected and accepted. Such as: “Well, he should never have married that girl from Millom.” And: “Why Olive Proctor wants to move to Kirkby I’ll never know.” And: “He got mixed up with a crowd from Barrow, so there you go.” And: “She’s courting a man from Ulverston and (voice drops to a whisper) he’s a Catholic.

And, of course, the system worked in reverse. Askam people were regarded as rough and uncouth by inhabitants of surrounding communities. Popular myths were that Askam men “fought with shovels” and geese were allowed to graze on the main street. I always found these myths amusing, but my elderly relatives viewed them with outrage.

askam 3

A product of the environment
A product of the environment . . .

What I find particularly uncomfortable about Brenan is that he breaks down the insular Yegen into smaller component parts. His village has two districts – the barrio de arriba, or upper quarter, and the barrio de abajo, or lower quarter. Their respective inhabitants are more than capable of trading insults during times of crisis. I find this uncomfortable because my elderly relatives could do the same. “You steer clear of that Carter lad, our Alen – he’s from Steel Street.”

So aren’t we all the same? Villages, towns, cities, nations? Back in the seventies it was fashionable to tell jokes about the Irish. The Irish told jokes about people from Limerick. People in Limerick bequeathed us those catchy poems that poke fun at everybody else: there was an old woman from Leeds; there was a young lady from Kew; there was a young fellow from Dosham. People fenced themselves in and laughed at those outside, as people have always done. It was a laughter that disguised intolerance and fear.

Even now, in these supposedly enlightened times, you can pick up a newspaper or turn on the television news and phrases which betray our peevish parish-pump mentality sweep like poisonous arrows from the past: “Our country isn’t big enough”, “There’s no room here”, “We’ve got a housing crisis”, “They’re not real refugees”, “Multiculturalism has failed”, “They don’t integrate”.

Ignorance and prejudice categorise people and places. The Sun’s infamous branding of Liverpool FC supporters as drunks; Lord Howell’s suggestion that fracking should be confined to the “desolate” North-East; the Prime Minister’s casual remark about Yorkshire people fighting among themselves – made in jest, perhaps, but weren’t most Irish and Pakistani jokes back in their day?

brenan 1Perhaps I’m being a little too touchy. But I skip through Brenan’s account of his adopted village and I see the world as it is as much as the world as it was. His cocooned society might have been typical of 1920s Spain, but examine it through a microscope and you see 21st Century Europe with its in-fighting, petty jealousies, perpetuated myths, encouraged ignorance, misplaced fears, and deep, deep suspicions of neighbouring states. Is this what they mean by the global village?

I may have caught the tail end of inter-village rivalry and mistrust, but its big brother is still massaging our prejudices and stoking our insecurities. As countless thousands of refugees from war-torn countries stand at our gates, we peer through the palings scared and mesmerised while politicians demand withdrawal from Europe.

Meanwhile, I have determined to visit Gerald Brenan’s Yegen one of these days. It’s not far away – about thirty kilometres to the east along a road that winds through the Alpujarras. Perhaps I might stumble upon other similarities between it and my home village. Better take my shovel.

brenan 3

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17 thoughts on “Time and limericks

  1. Hi Alen! A great read! What? You’ve still got a shovel? (haven’t we all). One thing I’ve learned in my 60+ years is that human nature seems to have changed very little & I suspect it has changed little since we arrived on the planet.
    After reading my last book (about Vikingsinvasions) I thought I’d read something very different. Ever heard of Richard Skelton? He’s from Lancashire (that’s okay isn’t it?) but he lives & works near your old back yard: the Furness hills! Look out for the book, “Beyond the Fell Wall”! If you can’t find it I’ve somehow ended up with 2 copies. I’ll post one out to you if you like but it might be a tad damp. We’ve just entered the rainy season here in NI so it will be moving west shortly!

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    1. Hi Ash. Good to hear from you. Yes, I always carry a shovel in the van. You never know when you might need one.
      I’ve found Richard Skelton’s book on Amazon so I’ll download a copy. I’ve been reading loads of books lately because we’ve had plenty of spare time while house-hunting. So I’m on the look-out for new reading material, and his book sounds like just the job.
      Hope it isn’t too wet over there.
      All the best, Alen

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  2. A very interesting and thought-provoking read, Alen, if not for the reason you’d anticipate.

    I’d never properly made the connection before but if you’re the age you are, we come close to crossing over. My (Great-) Uncle Frank lived in Askam and I remember we twice stayed with him for holidays in the Lakes: they’re practically my first memories of going up there. My Grandad on my Dad’s side was his youngest brother (their father, Robert Crookall, was stationmaster at Ravenglass).

    I don’t know how long he’d lived there – he’d been a sailor in his younger days – and we lost touch after a family dispute over a Will isolated Grandad and his immediately older brother from their siblings. He’d have just preceded you: he died somewhere about 1964-6, and he lived alone up there.

    I don’t think I’ve been back to Askam since those early days, and I doubt I’d recognise a thing, though there’s a fluttering memory of sunlight, and somewhere green immediately outside his backyard where I would run around and play. It was a long time ago (I’m going to turn 60 on Wednesday). I wonder how different it really is now

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    1. Hi Martin. Firstly, many happy returns of the day. I turned 59 last month, so there is less than a year between us.
      Strange how small the world becomes when you start rattling things into a keyboard. Askam has changed a great deal in the past 40 or so years, with houses being built on nearly every available space, including on areas of sand-dune and on the slag-banks of the old ironworks. It’s a shame, in one way, but I suppose nearly everywhere else is more or less the same.
      If there was an area of green outside your uncle’s backyard the house could have been in one of a number of streets: Beach Street, Sharp Street, James Street, Marsh Street – or in the area known as The Lots, which features in the second picture, with my granddaughter scooting across the foreground. These old streets have hardly changed at all in recent years.
      Stationmaster at Ravenglass sounds like a dream job. If such a position existed today and there was a vacancy, I’d apply for it myself.
      Cheers, Alen

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  3. I’m afraid I’m going to have to put my hand up to a lot of that. I’m extremely parochial and hate all the non-Yorkshire folk who’ve moved into my village and removed our Yorkshire accent and Dalesfolk commonsense. I also do really believe that our country is full and we can’t keep bringing more people in and building over the small amount of remaining green land we have left.

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    1. Carol, I knew you’d write something like that so I am not disappointed. It did cross my mind to mention that I’d lived in Yorkshire as a Lancastrian for many years and emerged unscathed from the experience. But I forgot.
      All the best, Alen

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  4. I was going to write a blog post on my fiftieth birthday to recount some of the things I’ve witnessed and I drew the same conclusions as you: everything is cyclical and what we see today we’ve seen before. (It was such a miserable blog post I decided not to publish it!)
    Where I lived when I was young I remember the parochialism tended to run along the Catholic / Protestant divide, but that wasn’t Northern Ireland it was Hindley Green!

    And the mention of shovels immediately reminds me of the Trial of Eric Olthwaite and news that Howard Molson is going to put his new shovel next to his other one. Lovely word, shovel.

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    1. Hi Chris. I was a member of my village parish council for 14 years, and during that period the same problems affecting the community came round in three or four-yearly cycles – dogs fouling the pavements; blocked footpaths; children damming the streams; vandalism; cars speeding through the village. Each cycle was treated – by outraged members of the public – as if it was new and had never happened before. I thought about writing a novel based on the subject, but someone has probably done that already.
      Eric Olthwaite. A splendid yarn. That reminds me that I was once going to write a piece on the difference between a shovel and a spade. Perhaps not.
      Cheers, Alen

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  5. Very thought-provoking, Alen. Home truths are often the ones we keep under the carpet. I had some relatives like those, too – and it is all down to fear, and the perception of the world that they inherited from their own parents. I guess now the fear is more on a nationwide level, rather than limited to villages, because our perspective on the world has changed.

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    1. Hi Jo. Yes, I find the subject fascinating. On the one hand people like those elderly relatives didn’t venture far from their native communities, but one the other hand, some of them (certainly from the generation preceding theirs) were forced to travel widely in search of work. I had two uncles who found work in the Kimberley diamond mines when the local iron mines closed during the early 20th Century. My wife had aunts and uncles who moved to Arizona for the same reason. This was always treated in a sort of matter-of-fact way by those who remained and didn’t seem to alter attitudes.
      All the best, Alen

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  6. Alen,

    I don’t think you have chosen a good example. Askam and Ireleth are so obviously different!

    Jim, who wrote about Sand Martins, would have enjoyed your recollection about the roughness of Askam. After a distinguished international academic career, some in Spain which he notes in his Maali blog, he retired to a small house in Steel Street which he filled with guests, music, culture and science and thoroughly enjoyed a fulfilled and cultivated life.

    I thought I hadn’t looked in to your blog for a few weeks and now I find wholesale change; which I have yet to fully read. Well done! I am sure you will find Spanish life immensely interesting and satisfying.

    I couldn’t get away with Brenan. A classic, obviously, as my wife handed it to me. I think it is standard reading for anyone captivated by Andalucia, so I was told to read it. I first visited when staying with acquaintances outside Almunecar (sic, I think there are all sorts of accents to be applied). We had to sleep in the car on the front on the first night as we couldn’t find their house. It was built on an illegal suburban road and had no telephone or street name or any form of administrative recognition but was somehow tolerated by the authorities. Next door was a more substantial gated property reputedly occupied by an ex pat fleeing justice and perhaps his influence kept the street intact.

    It was a long time back, mid ’80s and no Internet. The cleverest ex pats had particular TV aerials to pick up a signal from Gib. Then, they did tell hair-raising stories of the rural locals. No doubt many myths to cement their apartness.

    The geography is stunning and we had a great, slow paced time, returning several times, even once with a camper van full of kids. Brenan, however, somehow was too far back and just didn’t speak to me. I am told that Jan Morris writes well on understanding the Spanish.

    Hope the allotment goes well. Will you have a proper shed? I trust that we will be able to distinguish your poly-tunnel from the others from space … ?

    Best,

    Jon

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    1. Hi Jon. Good to hear from you. I have a great deal of time on my hands at the moment because we are waiting to move into a new house (mid December) and I have had no garden or allotment to tend to for several months. My spade foot is itching. Consequently, I have rediscovered the art of reading and Brenan was a compulsory port of call. I quite enjoyed the book. However, I have just embarked on his Spanish Labyrinth, which deals with, in meticulous detail, the background of the Civil War. This I am finding extremely hard going.
      I would imagine that Andalucia in the mid-80s was a very different place. We have been coming here since 2009 and have seen changes in that short period. The scenery remains the same, however.
      The new “allotment” has a large wooden shed and established olive and fruit trees to provide shade for the vegetable beds – shade being necessary during the summer months in this climate. At the moment, it also has a Mongolian yurt – but this will have been dismantled and moved elsewhere by the time we sign the contract.
      All the best, Alen

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