Spain is not merely a cultural museum for outsiders

One book that recognises this, and one that fails to do so.

The Village Against the World
Dan Hancox
Verso, 288pp, £14.99

The Train in Spain: Ten Great Journeys Through the Interior
Christopher Howse
Bloomsbury Continuum, 256pp, £16.99

One consequence of the eurozone crisis has been a shift in British perceptions of southern Europe. The return of widespread poverty to countries previously seen as perpetual holiday zones has revived memories of the old continental divide between the industrialised north and the fundamentally peasant, agrarian south, where Greece, Spain and Portugal laboured under postwar fascism. So the publication of two new books about Spain, both from the serious end of freelance journalism, seems to be particularly opportune.

Yet neither book pretends to offer an analysis of that country’s current situation. Instead, Dan Hancox’s The Village Against the World tells the story of Marinaleda in Andalusia, a communist community of 2,700 people functioning – just – within the contemporary state. As Hancox shows, the experiment has real significance in raising Andalusian political awareness and as a model of how to redistribute agricultural wealth and control.

Local knowledge of individual rights and of the needs of Andalusia as a whole springs from the region’s historic and contemporary rural poverty. In the 1930s, on estates belonging to the family from whom the marinaleños would eventually win independence, “Starving labourers who attempted to plough the fallow land were beaten by the police.” In the 1980s, 50 per cent of Andalusian farmland was owned by 2 per cent of the area’s families.

One of the questions to which Hancox returns in his thoughtful, take-nothing-for-granted account is whether tough conditions necessarily produce resistance or whether effective action needs a charismatic leader such as Marinaleda’s mayor, Juan Manuel Sánchez Gordillo.

So this engaging book is as much a study of idealism in practice as it is of life in a highly unusual pueblo. Hancox lets us experience village routine without pretending to know more than he does or resorting to “funny because it’s foreign” clichés. When he encounters a heatwave, for example: “You try and sweep the dust off your patio, one marinaleña told me, and find yourself dripping sweat straight on to the floor you’re supposed to be cleaning.”

The respectful, intelligent writing places the villagers at the centre of their own story – and that story is fascinating. The Village Against the World discovers the near-feudal patterns of Andalusian land ownership, recounts the pueblo’s struggle with the local landowner and ends with questions about whether Sánchez Gordillo will continue to lead the village in years to come.

Marinaleda’s struggle first became widely known in the 1980s. In 2012, it was back in the news when Sánchez Gordillo led a series of symbolic raids on Andalusian supermarkets, “redistributing” goods to impoverished locals. These gestures of solidarity with the poor beyond its own community illustrate what Marinaleda stands for: a belief that the land “belongs to those who work it”, in “the sovereignty of food” and that food is “a right and not a business”. Its project is utopian, not locally self-interested; its resistance is not only to the state but to the workings of global capital. The village-owned olive-pressing factory, bars and outdoor theatre that Hancox visits are the fruits of a six-year campaign of land occupations, hunger strikes and battles of principle that finally ended in 1991, when the government granted the villagers 1,200 hectares from the duke of Infantado’s extensive estates.

Landowners also feature in Christopher Howse’s The Train in Spain: “Born in 1926 . . . the 18th duchess of Alba . . . inherited seven dukedoms, 19 marquessates and 23 titles . . . She attracted attention by her wealth, gusto and mischievous disposition . . . Her palaces and works of art were breathtaking.”

Howse isn’t interested in the cost of those “palaces and works of art” or the workings of Spanish society. Legends, architecture and the local history of the wealthy cram the pages of his tourist guide with busily researched detail. To some extent, this justifies the astonishingly brief introduction to the book and its raison d’être. “This is a book about Spain, not about trains,” the first sentence reads, before Howse, in the next, boards a “single-carriage train . . . in the foothills of the Pyrenees”.

But is it? This is not a study of how Spain became its contemporary self. It isn’t concerned with climate or citizenship, cultural life or economics. It doesn’t even reveal Howse’s passion for Spain: curiously, this travelogue omits the first-person singular. The omission produces stylistic distortion. When Howse and his companion eat in Sahagún, “Only a man and a woman were dining . . . They ate a plate of jamón, then a leg of lamb. There were kidneys on the menu, too.” It also seems to distort the book as a whole, making it feel oddly purposeless.

Slow travel is about quality, not quantity; flavour, rather than flavourlessness. Trains allow their passengers to see the context of a country’s great cities, the influences and resources that have produced local culture and Culture. The traveller sits right next to a country’s citizens instead of observing them from a hotel terrace.

Yet the coherence and chaos of contemporary life – and of the forces that shape it – are missing from Howse’s account. It’s as if he has forgotten that Spain is a society that exists for itself, rather than a cultural museum for outsiders. Perhaps he travelled first class.

Fiona Sampson is the editor of Poem. Her latest book is “Coleshill” (Chatto & Windus, £10)

Mayor of Marinaleda and member of the regional Andalusian parliament representing the United Left (IU) party Manuel Sanchez Gordillo (R) embraces an activist of the Andalusian Union of Workers Union (SAT) as they take part in a protest. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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