THE TRAIN IN SPAIN; ten great journeys through the interior
By Christopher Howse
Published by Bloomsbury, ISBN 978-1-4411-9805-1, £16.99
If you are looking for a Spanish travel book filled with flirtatious dalliances with gypsy musicians and testosterone charged encounters with terrorists and bulls do not acquire The Train in Spain. The adventure-temperature in the company of Christopher Howse is comically low. Here danger comes from walking along a Roman aqueduct or trying to find a shady spot. Indeed the only aggressive encounter in the book is when the author repeatedly chides the long dead Sacheverell Sitwell for dismissing a church interior without a proper inspection of its many delights. Nor does Howse immerse himself into the famously rigorous landscape of Spain. So we are spared the taste of the wind, the scent of the soil, lone experiences in forests, abandoned castles and ancient drove roads of Spain.
Howse also avoids the task of excavating the identity, thoughts and aspirations of contemporary Spain through a thousand chance conversations. Indeed apart from an encounter buying stamps and the acquisition of sweet treats at the merienda hour - between lunch and dinner, this book is without any real engagement with a living human. For Howse’s real connections are all with carved stone and the printed word, especially with the lovers of Gothic architecture - John Harvey and G.E.Street, and early travelers such as Richard Ford and the Rev Joseph Townsend. While that inspiring catalogue of British Hispanophiles - Michael Jacobs, Gerald Brenan, Jason Webster, Chris Stewart, George Orwell, Paul Preston or that unsung hero of the Telegraph Foreign Desk, Henry Buckley - don’t enter the conversation. So at times it feels that Badger, Toad and Rat had been banished from the Wind in the Willows and we are left with a 217-page monologue from Mole, who insists on counting the number of steps up to the cathedral, the pillars in a renaissance courtyard and the numbers of passengers getting on and off his carriage.
How on earth can any travel writer hope to get away with this? But bizarrely Christopher Howse does succeed in taking us with him, for The Train in Spain, like some ship of the line shot through with holes remains gloriously afloat and cuts its own very particular and distinctive course through the waters. We learn to love his quiet and self-effacing personal honesty, the unhurried pace, the acutely observant eye, the dry unjudgemental humour and the opening up of obscure alleyways of knowledge.
So we set off on a long journey to Zamora to see just one thing, an ancient tomb, and ‘having seen it…the visitor can leave for another town.” But this tomb, for those who have eyes for the truths captured by carved medieval stone is a very potent thing, its canopy alive with feuding dragons, eagles and entwined harpies locked in conflict. They may protect the resting place of a Queen Urraca, literally the ‘magpie’ whose very name opens a linguistic doorway into the deep past of Spain, her Iberian roots, and the lost linguistic links with Basque. In Merida we discover that the Roman ruins of the theatre reveal a 20th-century taste for archaeology, having previously served as a bullring. Similarly the oven shrine of the city’s patron saint, St Eulalia is found to reveal evidence of a Visigothic chapel standing on a 4th-century church. Our own memory of St Eulalia, of her flesh being torn down to her bones with metal claws to test her faith, rests on the testimony of Prudentius’s Crowns of Martyrdom, which far from being a speculative poet in Constantinople, turns out to be a Spanish-born lawyer who rose to high government office in the Roman Empire and wrote just 44 years after St Eulalia’s death. In Granada, instead of enthusing and speculating on Moorish Kings and the Alhambra - like every other traveler with a pen these last two hundred years - we set off for The Emperor Charles V’s empty Renaissance palace and follow the tale of John of God, whose life was re-directed by hearing a sermon of Juan de Avila.
For this, of course is Christopher Howse’s real mission, the hidden backbone of steel that lies beneath his discursive trails. He is hunting out, like a medieval pilgrim, those who had been truly devoted to God, testing the stones for real belief, rather than sham pieties. Even so, like a packet of cigarettes, I feel that the publisher should have labeled the book with a clear health warning, only to be consumed by monument-loving, church-visiting readers of the Daily Telegraph. Should be a big enough parish, surely?
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by Barnaby Rogerson