A Report from the Orwell Society’s tour
of Barcelona and Aragon, May 2019
by Dennis Glover
Why go on a history tour? What can you possibly gain from it that you can’t learn from books? One answer is to make good friends from around the world and collect unforgettable memories of an extremely enjoyable week. (I digress at the beginning, but those who were there will never forget a very drunken evening in the echoing thirteenth-century mountaintop monastery “Albergue Monegros” (think of a castle owned by a certain count from Transylvania) being entertained by John Lloyd – singer, comic performer and one-time acquaintance of Rudolf Hess. (OK, OK, he was only 16 months old… It’s a long story…)
So here’s the question further defined: What can you possibly learn about George Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War that you can’t learn from reading Homage to Catalonia? It is, after all, one of the greatest books of travel reportage ever written. The answer turns out to be: a great deal, both about the man, the war in which he fought, and maybe also today.
Over seven days the tour’s ten participants, led by Richard Blair and assisted by some incredibly knowledgeable academics, historical experts and translators (to call them tour guides does them a profound disservice), travelled to Barcelona, Valencia and the battlefields of the Aragon front near Alcubierre and Huesca, to see for ourselves the places Orwell described and gain a greater understanding the war’s importance to his life and work.
Our first site was a visit to Valencia to witness the dedication of the new memorial to Orwell’s comrade from the ILP Contingent, Bob Smillie. In a moving event, members of the Smillie family and representatives of Independent Labour Publications (the descendant organisation of the ILP) unveiled a plaque by Scottish sculptor Frank Casey. The full facts about Bob Smillie’s death were made by local researcher Mariado Hinojosa, who attended the event. The official speech made by David Connolly of the ILP can be found here. It was quite something to see the POUM flag unveiled over the memorial and witness the depth of feeling that still remains about Smillie’s untimely death – but as were to find, strong feelings about the civil war remain everywhere you go in Barcelona and Aragon.
On the second day we visited the Sanitori Maurin, which was a sanatorium for convalescent wounded POUM troops during the conflict (and which Orwell writes about in chapter 13 of Homage). After Orwell left it, communist agents came looking for him and his comrades, who by then had wisely disappeared and gone into hiding. The building, now the Benjamin Franklin International School, hosted a public meeting where people could ask Richard Blair questions about his father.
Next up was one of Nick Lloyd’s sought-after historical tours of the civil war in Barcelona, which took in all the important places mentioned in Homage: the Placa Catalunya, the Hotel Continental, the Hotel Falcon, Café Mokka (where members of the group breakfasted each morning) and, most importantly, the roof of the Poliorama theatre, where Orwell famously stood guard duty during the May Days fighting. Something I know members of the Society will never forget is seeing Richard read from extracts from Homage while standing on the Poliorama’s roof. (More on this below.) Importantly, the tour stopped at the shop (an upmarket clothing store called “Stradivarius”) that was once the gaol in which Richard’s mother and father visited Quentin Kopp’s father before they escaped to France – an act of extraordinary bravery that tells you a lot about George, Eileen and Georges). Our thoughts at that time were with Quentin, who hadn’t been able to join us because of illness. By the way, Nick’s tours are not to be missed and anyone going to Barcelona can contact him here. He is always delighted to host members of the Orwell Society.
In Lleida the tour group visited the hospital where Orwell received treatment for his bullet wound to the neck. A new plaque commemorating Orwell’s time here stands in the hospital’s park. Local television stations and other media joined us there to cover a special event in which Richard, local politicians, members of the hospital staff and academics from the local university gave public readings from chapter 12 of Homage.
[Photograph by Darcy Moore]
For the following three days, we were led by Huesca journalist and historian Viktor Pardo Lancina and his translator Elena Torralba through sites that appear in Homage, including the famous “La Granja” farm and the trenches at Alcubierre and Tierz where Orwell and his opponents fought during the Aragon campaign from February to late May 1937. The Tierz trenches, with their spectacular views towards the castle of Monte Aragon and Huesca, were where Orwell was shot in the neck in May 1937 (see chapter 12). At each stop, Richard read from the appropriate passages of Homage and at Tierz his granddaughter Bella read beautifully from a poem by John Cornford. (It brought home to us that many of the combatants and victims of that terrible war were not much older than Bella.) The academic and artist Nuria Saura re-joined us during this part of the journey, to record and research for her forthcoming Orwell-related writings, poems and documentary film.
We also visited Viktor’s Spanish Civil War interpretation centre in Robres, where he showed us evidence of the terrible atrocities committed by both sides in the war. One wall contained the names of the more than 10 000 republican sympathisers who were killed by Franco’s forces in Aragon in 1936 alone. Upstairs from this were lists of the dozens of local priests, nuns and landowners killed by angry peasants and Anarchists at the start of the revolution. Viktor told us that the disproportionate numbers speak for themselves and tally with most credible historians’ estimates of the imbalance of the killings that took place. Visitors are free to draw their own conclusions. Given this was a civil war tour, it was fitting that our travels finished in the Huesca Cemetery, with its moving memorials and unmarked graves to the fallen in the war.
Each participant will have his or her own conclusions about the Spanish business and the book Orwell wrote about it. Here are some thoughts that are partly my own and partly those which came up in our traveling party’s discussions in restaurants, bars, trains and cars.
The first is, for want of a better term, the prosaic nature of the war. Homage is a typically transparent and (literally) down-to-earth account of Orwell’s six months in Spain. Because it’s about a war, there’s a tendency for even the most careful reader to mentally visualise the events in spectacular, colourful, glorious ways. This isn’t George Orwell’s fault. His accounts are dominated by shortages, hunger, cold, dirt, boredom and fear – even his descriptions of the uplifting revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelona at the end of 1936 are balanced by misgivings. The fault is ours and has its origins in the fact that the Spanish Civil War suffers from its romanticised heritage. As Nick Lloyd, our historian-guide in Barcelona put it, the Spanish Civil War was the most noble of causes – a fledgling democracy, pledged to much-needed modernising reforms, standing up against an attempted military coup. It therefore attracted many of the great left-wing writers, poets, film-makers and artists of the day – Hemmingway, Dos Passos, Auden and others whose work stirred the emotions of millions. It’s maybe not surprising therefore that in the popular memory the struggle is a lofty one. The images we tend to remember are of beautiful militia women in the front lines, saluting soldiers, colourful posters, rousing songs and the defiant republican armies crossing the Ebro in a last ditch appeal for international support. These things happened, but as in any war the reality for the combatants and the ordinary people who were stuck between them was anything but romantic. We saw this in our cemetery visits, including Bob Smillie’s memorial stone in Valencia, the bullet holes in the walls of the castle in Lleida (later used as a concentration camp and execution site), the un-marked graves of republican soldiers and the marked graves of Francoist soldiers (many of whom of course would have been unwilling and unfortunate conscripts). The Huesca cemetery sculpture commemorating republican sympathisers executed against the wall was perhaps the saddest place of them all. Everywhere in Spain we saw bullet holes; it’s little wonder you get a sense the war is not fully over and it remains a touchy subject.
My second set of thoughts, related to the above, is about Homage to Catalonia. Being there brings a new perspective to the story. As historians know, when you go to where history occurred, it tends took rather different to the picture you have of it in your head. The roof of the Poliorama, for instance, was far smaller than I and others envisaged. It is far from grand, although the view is spectacular and we were lucky enough to go there on the sort of gloriously clear day Orwell recounted. While on the roof, Nick Lloyd observed that we were on ground zero of the birth of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s arguable that Nineteen Eighty-Four’s origins go back further, but Nick’s timely insight makes you think about how history is often made in ordinary places and in ordinary ways. The conclusions Orwell derived from his time in Spain, including from his time on the roof of the Poliorama, have transformed the way millions of people in the world have viewed politics ever since.
The same thoughts run through your head while looking at the battlefields around Zaragoza and Huesca. The trenches were muddy, squalid, dangerous and cold – even in mid-May. One shudders to think of what it must have been like to sleep in them in February. It’s obvious why Orwell’s account lists the gathering of firewood as the most important priority. Being in those trenches raised two further thoughts.
The first is about the total reliability of individual facts in Orwell’s narrative. As our historian-guide Viktor pointed out several times, because his diaries were seized from Eileen’s room by security agents in Barcelona, Orwell was forced to write Homage almost totally from memory some months afterwards. He had no documents or maps and only a few photographs to work with. This is a difficult feat, especially when it concerns traumatic events like being hunted down or shot. (Even just a few weeks after our pleasant tour I’m struggling to recall details without the help of documents, maps and photographs.) He was also a creative writer, and as analyses of his other books like The Road to Wigan Pier have shown, his reportage was occasionally mixed with fictional invention. Think of the expression on the face of that woman poking her stick up a drainpipe which he claimed to have seen in detail from a moving train in the north of England. (Every writer does this sort of thing – it makes for great literature.) The precise details in Orwell’s account of what happened in Spain may therefore be open to question, although the general picture seems sound. For example, as some observant members of our party pointed out, his description of being shot by a sniper while he had the rising sun at his back doesn’t quite tally with what we saw – the POUM trenches being backed not by clear skies but by rocky hills.
The second is how lucky indeed Orwell was to be shot by that sniper, which occurred just weeks before the attempted republican assault on Huesca. One look at the Huesca battlefield suggests that the republican forces never had a chance. From our high position in the trenches near Tierz, Viktor showed us that the assault had to take place across open ground by forces devoid of heavy artillery, tanks and air support. Our tour took in several heavily fortified Francoist machine gun emplacements, and when one considers that these hard points would have been connected by trenches and barbed wire and raked by well-ranged field artillery, the ill-equipped republican assault was always doomed. It’s little wonder it was repulsed with several thousand republican casualties, turning out to be one of major republican military disasters of the war. Had he been in the front line, Orwell may have been one of them. It’s no wonder therefore that one of his first thoughts upon being hit was that Eileen would have been pleased – because a decent ‘Blighty’ wound was a safer bet than ‘going over the top’ in a major battle. It struck me that the world owes that slightly wayward Spanish marksman a great debt indeed.
One final set of thoughts from the trip is about what the Spanish Civil War has to tell us today. We will all have our most moving moment from the trip. For me that came during our tour of Barcelona. Near the end of the tour, Nick Lloyd stopped us at the site of the School of Sant Philip Neri, infamously bombed on 30 January 1938. The attack killed thirty schoolchildren and the effects of the blast can still be seen today on the walls of the church’s façade. It’s one of the simplest and most moving memorials I have ever seen. As children at today’s school played in the square, Nick recited from memory the final paragraph from Homage to Catalonia, which every Orwell admirer will know so well. To me it has always been one of Orwell’s finest passages, employing all his best rhetorical tricks, but hearing it recited before those children and those ruins made it incredibly moving and prophetic.
And then England — southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world… Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen — all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
Maybe that’s what you learn from going out and visiting the past: it’s all still there, with all its important lessons and meanings – but only if you care to see it. The past is still with us and can sometimes look and sound worryingly prosaic and familiar. My guess is that were George Orwell still around today, his message would be the same one he gave the world in Homage to Catalonia and in Nineteen Eighty-Four: Don’t let it happen (again). It depends on you!
Melbourne, June 2019.
Dennis Glover is the author of The Last Man In Europe