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Quartet, £20, Hardback, ISBN 978-0-74037-419-5
Sunday Telegraph, 1st January 2017


This is an idiosyncratic tour of Spain as touched by good, bad and ugly British feet. It is as if you have placed yourself in the hands of an authoritative host, who knows all the characterful places to eat and which bar to drink-in, but refuses to show you any of the expected sights of a grand tour of Spain. No famous art galleries, no Moorish ruins, no royal palaces and not so much as a glimpse of the Mediterranean beach-strip with all its over-tanned expatriate Brits. Instead we are taken firmly by the arm and shown some pretty offbeat territory, much of it in the unfamiliar east and north of the country. For we are on a quest. How else could one justify starting a tour of Spain at a British-built 19th-century mining settlement outside Huelva ? Most of us can probably make a stab at where Corunna, San Sebastian, Malaga and Cadiz are on the map of Spain, but I am sure I will not be alone in needing an atlas to locate El Puerto and Teruel. Initially bemused by our route, I grew entranced, for Simon Courtauld knows his ground very well, and his text is littered with fascinating digressions, historical, literary and genealogical. And when he came to the one place that I know well (which often provides the reviewer with an opportunity to throw the book on the floor in disgust) he got it all right, not only the close focus on individual characters and the street mood, but also the long-term historical tectonics.

Courtauld also has an ear for collective silence and our desire to project a happy multicultural tone on our past. The 19th century British might indeed be saluted for having set up the first football clubs in Spain but they also discouraged all fraternization with locals. In Huelva this aloofness was set in stone. The houses of the mine compound turn their back on the street to look at the sports club, dominated by a clubhouse closed to women and Spaniards.

At Badajoz, where one the first great allied victories against the hated Napoleonic occupation of Spain took place, Courtauld looks in vain for a battle memorial. It turns out that history is not so black and white when you get up close. Many liberal Spaniards supported the French regime, and when the British army finally broke through the walls of the city, they subjected it to a three-day sack - an orgy of rape and violence worthy of the Vikings, which is still remembered to this day. One hundred and twenty years later, when Francos’ Moroccan troops stormed through the same section of the walls in 1936, they did the same.

The multicultural history of early medieval Toledo is currently much sited, with its edifying tale of Spanish Jews translating Arabic manuscripts at a School of Translation set up by an Archbishop in 1140. All this did happen, but as Courtauld reminds us it was also swept away by a massacre of the Jews inspired by a Dominician preacher. In Valladolid we follow Courtauld as he traces the dawn procession organised by the Inquisition. Like an inverted Via Dolorosa, the victims were jeered at as they processed through the streets and in front of a stage that seated 2,000 gentry. When one of the condemned begged mercy from his king, he was told ‘If my son were a heretic like you, I would gladly carry the wood to burn him’. But lest we begin to think well of Protestants, we are also shown the desecrated and mutilated statue of the virgin recovered from the gutter after the English sacked Cadiz in 1596. We also listen to English Catholics such as William Allen, preparing young men for martyrdom missions while denouncing Queen Elizabeth as this, ‘incestuous bastard, begotten and born in sin of an infamous courtesan.’

It is only outside Corunna that we stumble across a hero that both the British and the Spanish can revere. Sir John Moore, having commanded a fighting withdrawal (leaving a 250-mile trail of burnt out villages and sacked farms) died directing a counter-attack by virtue of which his entire army could safely embark. 26,000 men landed at Portsmouth, having lost not a single cannon or regimental standard to the enemy, but without their general. For “we carried not a line and we raised not a stone, But we left him alone with his glory.”

His noble self-sacrifice is still honoured in Spain just as Wellington’s victories are ignored. None of the famous British volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War (such as Peter Kemp, George Orwell, Arthur Koestler) have achieved this legendary status, partly because, for all their stoic sufferings, they ultimately sailed home. Courtauld, as a foreigner is free to unearth the recent and bloody history of the Civil War, but he also (through researching such bizarre Anglo-Hispanic individuals as the Carlist general Ramon Cabrera) is able to show that it was not a unique outburst of rage. Instead he sees it as part of an endless war for the soul of Spain, fought between the anti-clerical Liberals (principally based on coastal cities such as Cadiz and Barcelona) and church-friendly autocrats, be they monarchs or dictators such as Primo de Rivera and Franco.

So Courtauld’s quest, chapter after chapter, shows us the cultural differences between Britain and Spain. We keep the political peace, while they have all the style and passion, be it in the kitchen, the street or the arena. Courtauld sees the most elemental expression of difference in the cult of the fighting bull. Britain banned the practice of bull baiting in 1835, but in Spain the ritualized slaying of a fierce wild animal, timed to punctuate the annual calendar and local festivals, continues to this day. It is part of the Spanish desire for heroism, defined as ‘the pursuit of honor through risk. Courtauld shares in this desire for a hero, though many of the great matadors he reveres held that status for only a few years. He makes a compelling case for the life of a Spanish fighting bull, roaming free in wild pastures for five years, rather than being castrated, kept in a shed and killed young in a slaughterhouse as is the English way. In passing he also sorts out a possible solution for Gibraltar by looking at the example of the Royal Calpe Hunt and Andorra. Viva la España and the British who love her.

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