Forever England

In the concrete jungle of Andalusia, Ben Mallalieu discovers a British way of life he thought had va

To say that Andalusia is undergoing yet another building boom is an understatement. The Spanish have always been keen on building - the first thing they did after conquering Granada was to build an enormous cathedral in the middle of the Alhambra, marking their territory - but what is going on now is almost a self-destructive building frenzy. The whole of coastal Andalusia is being buried in concrete apartments that no one will want to buy and hotels that few will want to stay in. Most roads seem to have been replaced at least twice in 20 years; and there is hardly a mountain left without a tunnel, or a valley without an expensive new viaduct.

In the Alhambra, if you reserve a ticket for 8.30am entry, there are briefly more swallows than tourists in the myrtle courtyard. Their shadows flicker across the walls while their reflections flit across the water in perfect synchronicity. You realise that the Moors would have noticed it, too, but otherwise there is little contact with the original inhabitants. The Alhambra is now public property, wiped clean of memories. The design of the gardens has hardly changed, but the planting is woeful, like an English municipal park suffering under local government cutbacks. Nothing remains of the Moors that could not be looted or destroyed, except the tiles they left behind them.

Not only are there no Moors where we are staying on the coast, but there are also precious few Spaniards. It turns out to be one of those peculiar English enclaves that, about 20 years ago, were the setting of a famously bad BBC soap opera called Eldorado.

The enclave is not a bad-looking place, its concrete structures disguised as whitewashed hacienda-style villas and apartments with terracotta roofs and Moorish tiles. There are lots of steps, plants and narrow, white-pebbled alleys, and no high-rises. Nor is there much wrong with the villa in which we are staying. Anything similar in Cornwall would cost three times as much and be booked up a year in advance. This is far from the worst excesses of the Costa del Sol, such as Torremolinos on the other side of Malaga - an area damned for ever by Monty Python, along with Watneys Red Barrel.

The Moors who were expelled from this part of Andalusia mostly moved to North Africa, some of them becoming Barbary pirates. One Sunday in July 1625, the inhabitants of Mounts Bay in Cornwall were at church when the door was smashed down and they found themselves surrounded by men in djellabas wielding scimitars; as nasty surprises go, that is right up there with the worst of them. The entire population of the village was captured and taken as slaves.

The occupants of the current enclave are voluntary migrants, although equally trapped. The building boom has flooded the market and their homes and bars are virtually unsaleable.

They are people who have asked themselves the wrong questions and come up with the wrong answers. "Wouldn't it be fun to run a bar in Spain?" "When we retire and the children leave home, wouldn't it be nice to go on holiday and not come back?" "Isn't it just like England, but with cheap alcohol and better weather?" The correct answer to each of these questions is "No". Life in the enclave lacks everything that makes life worth living in England, and the weather and the booze are too high a price to pay. A major problem if you are staying for longer than a week is that there is really nothing to do.

Many of the villas and apartments have been bought under the mistaken impression that the owners could let them out when they're not there, and that they would pay for themselves. Our villa has a musty smell by the door to the roof terrace: a house left empty too long. A note in the kitchen warns against leaving food lying around, in case it attracts "beetles". Most of the accommodation in the enclave is empty, even in high summer, giving it the slightly weird air of an out-of-season resort despite the perfect weather.

The bars are run by British couples, who specialise in "home cooking" with particular emphasis on the deep-fryer - actually quite appropriate, as English fish and chips has its admittedly distant roots in the cooking of the Sephardic Jews expelled from Andalusia at the same time as the Moors. They keep smiling ("Yes, we love it here! Look at the weather") even though they are up to their necks in debt.

There are also traces of that other semi-mythical place usually encountered only on television: the Costa del Crime. The bar at the bottom of the hill at the downmarket end of the enclave is largely populated by heavy-duty Mancunians. "Hello," says one of them, greeting you with a smile. But he doesn't move out of your way, and your instincts tell you to get out. At the top of the social pile are retired couples with names like Winnie and Willie.

I am not much of an expert on Middle England, but the class distinctions in the enclave appear to be not just more pronounced than in England, but to belong to an altogether earlier time.

With people who have been out of England a long time, their "Englishness" is often frozen at the moment they left home, while the England they left behind has carried on changing without them. You get cornered by them in bars across the world, terminally nostalgic for an England that no longer exists. Yet that process usually takes ten or 20 years for it to be instantly noticeable, and often they have absorbed enough of their new country to compensate.

But perhaps, when people move abroad, they take it as an opportunity to adopt a new persona: the British in Spain now playing at being the British in India when the sun never set on the empire, just as the real British in India were playing at being the English aristocracy back home, and not doing it very well.

Willie is putting his years as a Round Table secretary to good use. His well-honed skills of being a total pain in the arse are appreciated on the residents' committee: drawing up lists of those who have not paid their dues and so are Not Allowed To Use The Pool. Winnie, though, wanders about, talking to the new English faces about the wonderful weather. "My daughter is taking her family to the Lake District this weekend," she says. "Torrential rain!" She looks up at the sky and smiles. "Another heavenly day."

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?