Sharp hot fantasies of a better world

We had come down now to the warm south coast, to a small fishing village which I shall call Castillo though this is not its name. Many years ago, in the summer of 1936, I had lived in this place. I was there when General Franco made his journey from Morocco and the Civil War exploded along the coast. I saw this poverty-stricken Castillo lift its head out of the smoke and clamour of those days and feed, for a brief hour, on sharp hot fantasies of a better world. I had come back now, as I knew I must one day, to see what the years had done to the town. I found it starved and humiliated, the glory gone, and the workers of the sugar fields and sea hopeless and silent.

– Laurie Lee, A Rose for Winter, 1955

FATALISM. THE ABSENCE of hope. Not the prison of absolute belief but its opposite – the despair of knowing nothing can change. Fate rules, and has already decided. This moment, this flat featureless eternity, is beyond our influence.

So English writer Laurie Lee found Spain when he returned in the early 1950s. It had briefly broken free from the pattern of centuries and as quickly found traditional authority restored and advocates of change punished for their audacity. The town of Castillo, never prosperous, fell into sharp decline. Lee felt he had seen its past and its future, a long line of surrender to the powerful. He found the locals apathetic, resigned to the inevitable.

Nearly two decades earlier, in December 1935, this skinny, blond-haired English youth arrived in the small Spanish coastal town of Almuñécar and decided to stay for the winter. Aged 22, an aspiring poet, Lee had just walked and hitched his way from the port of Vigo in the north-west to the southern coast of Andalucia, a journey of more than 1000 kilometres. Lee supported his travel by busking with a violin in town and village squares. Now, with winter chill, the crowds had grown scarce and Lee sought work in a hotel. He found a Swiss proprietor who would employ him until July the following year, working in the kitchen, repairing doors and windows and playing the violin for customers at night.

In spare hours, Lee explored Almuñécar. It did not take long. He found the stone buildings and rough pavements "almost gloomily Welsh", with a town square "like a cobbled farmyard". Almuñécar had known brief glory in the eighth century as the place where the Moors landed triumphant from Morocco and again, nearly 800 years later, when the now defeated Muslims departed from the same spot. The town retained a Moorish castle that, like the village, was ruined, pitiable and isolated. Indeed, beyond a few merchants, landowners and officials, "everyone now in the village was poor". Men from the town earned a meagre living in the only two local industries – harvesting sugar cane for a few weeks each year and fishing for sardines, though yields from the Mediterranean were meagre and unreliable, with the fishers unable to afford reasonable boats or equipment.

The visitor observed a strong streak of fatalism as men fished in the early mornings then clustered in cheap bars, watching the cold steady rains of winter. Here was Spain in essence, a country that had escaped centuries of change elsewhere in western Europe. Nothing would stir change.

And yet, in early 1936, came strange news from Madrid – news of national elections and a socialist government, of a possible army coup. Lee observed the mood of the village swing between sudden wild surges of optimism, and a "sick and desperate disquiet" about looming political violence. He began noticing guns around the town, people stockpiling ammunition as the poor of Almuñécar formed unions, furtively distributed pamphlets and chalked up slogans on houses and civic buildings. Soon, like all Spain, Almuñécar was "split down the middle, and the two sides drew apart, on guard". Some fishermen commandeered their rented boats and local tenant farmers began ploughing private land. The owners avoided confrontation, instead retreating to the casino to sit and peer from behind curtains, waiting.

With warmer weather approaching, impatience grew. The local iceworks and power stations were bombed, shops looted, priests insulted in the streets, the tax collector and his family chased out of town, the son of a former mayor killed and his body dumped by the river. A church was set alight. Peasants from the countryside began appearing in the streets, some with weapons. Gathered around radios, the people of Almuñécar learned of violence in Madrid, demonstrations in Valencia, strikes and riots in Barcelona. The flag of the republic was now flown defiantly, though few if any in the town understood the national political situation or had any real politics of their own ; they just welcomed change and braced for trouble.

Finally, inevitably, civil war began. "It started in the middle of July," recalled Lee. "There were no announcements, no newspapers, just a whispering in the street and the sound of a woman weeping." The radio reported army uprisings in Spanish Morocco and many mainland bases. In Almuñécar, people gathered at the town hall, expecting something to happen. They discovered the police had left quietly. Only the mayor stayed, to watch power shift to a citizen militia. Suspected fascists were rounded up and news arrived of battles in the major town of Málaga, about 100 kilometres west. Closer to home, fighting broke out in a neighbouring village. An ill-advised sortie by the Almuñécar republican militia achieved little – they arrived to find their ammunition left behind. On their return a republican destroyer shelled Almuñécar by mistake, believing it in rebel hands.

The Almuñécar of winter 1935 had vanished by the summer of 1936, gloom replaced by hope. Lee describes a social revolution, with the empty houses of the wealthy festooned with slogans – "Here will be the Nursery School", "Here will be a Sanitorium for Women". As Lee recalls, "Each of the large bold words was painstakingly written in red, a memoranda of a brief and innocent euphoria." Bridges linking Almuñécar to the outside world were destroyed and the casino set alight.

Lee's memories of one small town at the opening of the Spanish Civil War end abruptly. He was woken one night in July and told a British destroyer, dispatched from Gibraltar, was collecting British subjects stranded by hostilities. Lee knew signs for Almuñécar were ominous. The fascists held Granada to the north and, with Italian and German help, were transporting troops from North Africa to Andalucia. He bade his farewells and departed, watching from the warship deck as the Spanish coastline disappeared into the horizon.


THE "TUMBLING LITTLE village" of Almuñécar said much about the Spanish condition. Democracy was new, fragile and sharply contested. The second republic, proclaimed in 1931, struggled to establish legitimacy. It faced three army revolts in five years, the opposition of many conservative political interests, hostility from within the Catholic Church, separatist movements and labour unrest. The republican government in Madrid found itself caught between its many opponents and those in the towns and countryside without property, education or prospects, impatient for change.

In 1936, almost half those working in Spain toiled in agriculture, the highest percentage in western Europe. Few owned the land they worked, farming methods were outdated and inefficient and the seasonal nature of work in olive oil and sugar cane plantations ensured poverty and occasional starvation. When Lee visited a farmer outside Almuñécar, who described 40 years' working the land for others, he glimpsed the depth of resentment against landlords. Only a pervasive fatalism – and the Civil Guards – seemed to hold the country population in check.

Lee encountered the much-disliked Civil Guards long before he reached Almuñécar. Operating from fortified buildings, these "poison dwarfs of Spain" kept order. The guards were part of the army, led by a general, and often known for their brutality. As the most visible local representatives of the state, "all leather and gun", they made the poor distrustful of authority.

The Catholic Church, long the only tolerated religion in Spain, might have provided a countervailing voice. Many priests were indeed close to their parishioners and some bishops voiced support for liberal reforms. But Lee reports much hostility toward the Church, at least among poor men. They saw a church in league with the wealthy and the Civil Guards, an obstruction to change. "To the Spanish people, at any rate in Catalonia and Aragon," reported George Orwell, "the Church was a racket pure and simple." Between 1931 and 1936 some 200 clerics were assassinated and 500 churches damaged or destroyed across Spain. When a church in Almuñécar was set ablaze, Lee wrote, "Most of the watchers seemed in a state of rapture. I remember the faces of the fishermen, awed but beaming, and their satisfied grunts at each burst or flame ... only the women stayed silent, squinting sideways at their men, waiting for some stroke of doom to fall."

From 1931, coalition governments struggled with issues of land reform, a reduction of military influence and greater separation of church and state. Occasional successes, such as securing some redistribution of unused private land, seemed only to undermine support for the republic. Many predicted the elections of February 1936 would see major gains for various right-wing parties hostile to the institutions of the second republic, including a new fascist party, the Falangists. The parties of the left, however, found rare accord and ran as the Popular Front, a tactic imported from France. It was a successful formula for winning an election but provided a fragile coalition for governing the country.

Victory by the Popular Front ignited high expectations. Lee noted a new egalitarianism in Almuñécar. The staff ran the hotel now, treating the proprietor as a colleague but not as boss. The regular dances at which Lee played the violin took on an unexpected informality, even carnality. Later the same year, Orwell found a similar mood in cosmopolitan Barcelona. Every "... shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivised ... Waiters and shopwalkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared."

Such changes went far beyond anything advocated by the national government and were not to last. By July 1936, Franco and his co-conspirators denounced the government and launched co-ordinated uprisings in city garrisons. When Lee left the beach at Almuñécar, he departed a declared republican stronghold. The south, though, fell quickly to rebel forces. The eventual attack on Almuñécar came from the east, led by yellow snub-nosed tanks, supported by Italian bombers and German ships. Falangists occupied the town, returned property to owners, painted out the republican slogans and shot dissenters. General Franco promised – and delivered – a regime "based on bayonets and blood, not on hypocritical elections". The brief moment of hope passed and fatalism was restored.

When Lee returned in 1951 he found everything "as it had been before – though a little more ignoble, more ground in dust." He inquired about the various Almuñécar militia leaders from 1936 but found the townspeople evasive and unresponsive, reflecting no doubt the political dangers of remembering too clearly a different time. The fountain was filled with refuse, goats wandered around the empty streets, fishermen with nowhere to go slept on the beach. "A silence of sickness hung over the place now." Poverty had again become the dominant theme of Almuñécar life, with little optimism life would ever improve. Lee departed, dispirited – the Spanish condition apparently settled and immutable.


ANOTHER WINTER DAY, nearly 70 years after Lee settled in for the cold months: I'm approaching Almuñécar by road, keen to see how the intervening decades have treated the town. Does the despair noted by Lee on his last visit continue, leaving the locals "silent and hopeless"? My family share the car with friends in the vehicle behind. As Australians we are surprised by the familiar landscape – eucalypt trees, prickly pear, headlands, traffic and the brilliant blue sea. We hit the coast road and encounter a final similarity: an endless strip of coastal real estate. It is impossible to mark the boundaries of one town from the next – endless promontories and steep hills are covered with new apartment blocks.

Almuñécar is a small, isolated town no longer. There are now 22,000 residents, many more in summer. The town has endured a long tourism boom, with the few remaining sugar farms surrounded by buildings or up for sale. The beach is lined with bars and bistros, holiday blocks and newly constructed boardwalks. The talk – in Spanish, English, French and German – is of where to eat, how to park, of paella, beer and the cheap red wine and winter charter flights that keep Almuñécar thriving.

Behind the seafront, the old town is tidy and signposted. The cleaned-up Moorish fort is a tourist attraction, monuments mark the arrival and departure of its architects, roads are busy. Above all is the hum of building – more apartments, more parking lots, more of everything to woo and hold tourists. Already, the gaudy designs of the 1960s and 1970s are being torn down, replaced by large apricot-concrete blocks and faux-Moorish boutique hotels.

The transformation of the coast east from Torremolinos and Málaga began soon after the Second World War. Entrepreneurs such as Bavarian Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe-Langenburg saw the potential for attracting wealthy holiday-makers to the Mediterranean. In 1954, Holenlohe opened an exclusive club for "Middle East princes, Hollywood stars and the oldest families of Europe". A Costa del Sol Promoters' Co-operative began lobbying for improved infrastructure, including an all-important airport, and the boom with no end began. Almuñécar is not the most famous or up-market of the string of holiday towns along the Spanish coast facing Africa, but it has shared in the rise to prosperity.

Walking around Almuñécar it is hard to find places mentioned by Lee. Like most societies, Spain prefers the present. To survive, the past must be quaint or useful. The sights recorded by Lee before the civil war, along with political monuments erected by the victors, have largely vanished. There are scattered reminders of particularly violent battles and the occasional street still named after a Falangist general, but typically, the Spanish choose not to dwell on conflict or the 36 years of dictatorship that followed. Official websites for Almuñécar mention the civil war only in passing, and it is absent entirely from the tourist guide issued by the town hall.

One of the few references anywhere to conflict in Almuñécar is a small plaque on the boardwalk, recalling Lee and his time in Spain. I found the small brass panel only because Lee wrote a proud description of it shortly before his death in 1997:

Just before the Spanish Civil War, I lived in a small fishing village in Andalucia whose mayor has since erected a small monument on the seafront proclaiming that "The grand writer Laurie Lee once passed this way and immortalised the town in his work As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Rose for Winter." I originally concealed the name of the town for political reasons and referred to it as "Castillo". Fortunately, that reticence no longer applies, and I am now able to give the town its real name of "Almuñécar".


THE PLAQUE WOULD be easy to miss – and may disappear soon, as the council reworks a nearby boardwalk to accommodate new cafes and yet more parking. The world of 1936 has vanished. Then Spain was poor and isolated. There was no European Union to create broader links and markets, to build highways and fund economic development or sponsor education initiatives. This left the Second Republic alone to face a formidable set of challenges – widespread illiteracy and unemployment, violent separatist movements and frequent political terrorism. Legitimacy proved elusive in a country without a shared commitment to pluralism. Significant sections of society seemed hostile to liberal democracy and the freedom of thought it implies. Attacked from all sides, the centre could not hold.

Lee despaired on revisiting Spain, seeing little hope of change. Yet a generation later, democracy in Spain is not just possible, but unremarkable. While Franco ruled, little changed in public life. His authority lasted until a slow, lingering death during 1975. (Loyal supporters are reported to have circled the palace, shouting "Farewell, Franco". The general looked surprised and asked aides by his bed, "But where are they going?") After Franco's death, the transformation from dictatorship to democracy was swift, peaceful and enduring. The army is now part of the NATO command structure and no longer dabbles in Spanish politics. This was tested in 1981 when Colonel Antonio Tejero and some disgruntled civil guards seized the parliament building, only to discover the army would not play its traditional role. Tejero and his colleagues found themselves facing lengthy prison terms. It was an important sign that old patterns need not repeat themselves.

The Catholic Church, too, has long rethought its role. Pope John XXIII encouraged separation between church and state, a cause taken up with enthusiasm by the Cardinal of Madrid, Enrique y Tarancón. An open letter from Spanish bishops in 1971 apologised for the Church taking sides in the civil war. In subsequent years the Church has grappled, as elsewhere in Europe, with declining congregations and challenges of relevance amid a more secular society.

For Almuñécar, as for the rest of Spain, it was probably economic growth that most transformed personal possibilities. Even as Lee made his last visit, the Spanish economy was changing. Growth was funded initially by American aid, later by private investment seeking access to cheap Spanish labour. Above all though, Spain benefited from tourism. Budget European holiday-makers wanted affordable winter breaks under the Spanish sun. Generations of these tourists have reshaped Almuñécar, just as all Spain has been remade by relative prosperity.

The people of Almuñécar have different concerns now – expensive housing, traffic jams, endless crowds, the rush and pressures of a consumer society. For most, fatalism vanished with the symbols of dictatorship. Lee, who grew cantankerous with age and alcohol, might have preferred his tumbling little village and the grim certainties of a quiet, poor life. It seems unlikely the locals would agree. They eventually discovered the world could change, that patterns could be broken and a new life claimed. Fatalism need not be forever.

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