I’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.
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.
As 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.
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?
Perhaps 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.