ONLINE ONLY: Castles in Spain
A visit to Andalucia, where unemployment is higher than it was almost anywhere in Europe in the Great Depression
As Gibbon might have said: I breakfasted in the Alhambra, among the ruins of Moorish palaces and reflected. But whereas Gibbon, you will recall, reflected in similar circumstances upon the decline of the Roman Empire, I was reflecting, more selfishly and immediately, on the deal. The price of our room in the parador in the heart of the Alhambra in Granada was listed as 415 euros, reflecting its status as a tourist location. But we were paying less than double that for seven nights in various paradors, including dinner. The paradors are state-owned hotels in or near Spanish historical buildings and monuments. They were invented in the 1920s, in the time of Alfonso XIII and the dictator Primo Da Rivera and were intended to offer accomodation to Spain’s upper classes (servants’ quarters were usually provided) at the same time as preserving ancient buildings. There are currently around ninety of them throughout Spain and a few years ago, with recession setting in, they were operating at about 30% capacity. Then somebody explained to them about special offers, packaging, marginal cost pricing and all that so there are now deals to be had. Ours is called Andalucia II and one of its consequences is that in an obscure, though charming, hill town in one of the poorest provinces in Europe on a Monday night during the worst recession in decades the fairly expensive restaurant is full. The predominant language is English because the British middle-class pensioner is to a good deal as a buzzard is to a rabbit. I offer this first reflection, Unknown Reader, because you may find it the most interesting thing I have to say.
For much of its history Andalucia was a prosperous and important part of the known world. In Roman times Cordoba alone produced Lucan and Seneca and in the Moorish period there were Averroes and Maimonides, all authors who are still studied today. But as the Spanish monarchy and empire declined the province declined at a multiplied rate; like Crete and Sicily it became backward and peripheral, a frontier which attracted writers simply because it was so different. The anglophone writers about Andalucia since the 1830s include George Borrow, Richard Ford, Washinton Irving, Gerald Brenan, Laurie Lee and Alastair Boyd. They all more or less paint the same picture, of a province backward, illiterate and wild. Their stories are of rotten roads, barely edible food, incompetent blacksmiths and drunken postillions and of rumours of disputes over a single olive tree which end in death. Thus Boyd, writing in the 1960s, by which time the diseased and burned out coastline had been re-branded as the Costa del Sol, was able to report that his rides in the interior, described in The Road from Ronda (1969) were in a landscape and among a people not much different from those described by Borrow and Ford in the 1840s. For centuries Andalucia was the unchanging back of beyond, the wilderness attracting only the adventurer. Part of the attraction was always a certain nobility, a refusal to modernise or to sell oneslf to commerce which the Andalucian was thought to possess. Their qualities were, as Boyd put it in his foreward to the 2004 reprint of his book: “simplicity, directness, stoicism, hardiness, hard work and an almost obsessive honesty”. (p. xix) Judith Keene, in her account of the British, Irish, French, Australians, Americans and others who volunteered to fight for Franco (Fighting for Franco, 2001) reports that few of her subjects knew anything worth knowing about the Spanish political situation, but they all saw Franco’s cause as a peculiarly Spanish opportunity to fight against the vices of modernity.
But I claim no adventure or hardship points now for having travelled round Andalucia. Not counting a day trip to Cordoba, we were last there 40 years ago (yes, same companion) when Franco was still in power and the world of Boyd and Brenan was still entirely recognisable. Andalucia now has superb roads, railways and airports. It is a literate and friendly place, tolerant of my poor Spanish and with many people who speak excellent English; many of its restaurants are superb – English cuisine is not the only one which has been re-invented. The landscape is unusually neat, consisting mostly of symmetrical plantations of olives and almonds patrolled by king-sized tractors, though the mountains, always somewhere in the background and variously forested, rocky or snowy, still suggest wildness. A recent poll suggested that two of the world’s ten greatest tourist sites are in Andalucia, the Mezquita in Cordoba and the Alhambra in Granada. There are new buildings everywhere: houses, apartments, commercial and industrial parks. All of this is the product not only of 30 years of capitalism and democracy, but also of the “solidarity”, “cohesion” and “regional funding” of what is now the European Union. Even in the high Sierras the new way markings on long-distance footpaths have the badge of the EU on them.
All this is real, but arguably entirely superficial. You take your second glance and there is another reality. Everywhere there are men in cheap clothes, chatting by fountains or lingering long over one drink. (They must love us as consumers: when we’ve consumed, we buy something else!) Look again at the new industrial and commercial development along the main road and you realise it is entirely inactive. The big tractors have been marshalled, not to tilth the land under the trees, but to protest against declining subsidies. There is graffiti everywhere. The estate agents in the charming hill town are offering a four-bedroom apartment for 40,000 euros. People do not look hungry, but the charities in Malaga feed up to a thousand people every night. The socialist government of Andalucia has fallen foul of almost all economic opinion by passing a law to protect domestic properties from foreclosure, in effect confiscating them from the banks. The intense modernisation, the great catching up, longed for and dreaded for centuries, has come at a terrifying cost. Adult unemployment is 37 per cent; the rate for those under 25 is over 60 per cent. Even taking into account the observation that Spanish unemployment figures have always hidden casual work and been higher than those in most other countries, these are incredible figures. A higher proportion of the population is unemployed in contemporary Andalucia than was the case almost anywhere in Europe in the Great Depression.
There were the “Regional Funds” and the “Common Agricultural Policy”, transforming the land with their lovely new roads and their shiny new tractors. Then came the euro. (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.”) So what happens now? For all the graffiti and the demonstrations I do not sense any revolutionary spirit. I know that in saying this I risk being like the traveller who thought on his visit to France in 1788 that Louis XVI was doing just fine, but I think Spaniards probably accept their current political arrangements to a degree unprecedented in their modern history. Sadly, they have exchanged an old and familiar form of poverty for a new one, the consequences of which are unknown. Mr. Micawber suggested that the greater determinant of human happiness is not the level of prosperity, but its sustainability and I think of him when I read about the suicides of people who had once thought themselves well off, including a British “ex-pat” family of three with medical problems they could not afford to solve who killed themselves while we were there.
Washington Irving (who has two memorials in the Alhambra: a statue and a fountain) has a typically flowery passage in which he says that if you give an Andalucian bread, wine, garlic and a guitar, he considers himself an hidalgo and needs for nothing more even though he is dressed in rags. The pride and self-sufficiency of the southern peasant is a constant theme of such writing in English: five generations later Boyd constantly warned that economic growth and industry were irrelevant to southern Spanish needs and would prove corrosive to Andalucian culture. It was ironically and in the end, Generalissimo Franco, the symbol of tradition for many, who decided to put Spain on the road to modernisation in 1957. When he announced the introduction of a (sort of ) constitution in 1966, he listed the traditional Spanish virtues, but then added a note on the vices of the country:
Let Spaniards remember that every country is haunted by its demons, which are different for each one. Those of Spain are by name: Spirit of Anarchy, Negative Criticism, Lack of Solidarity between Men, Extremism and Mutual Emnity . . .
Quite an indictment from a patriotic leader, and one that he used to suggest that the limits of democracy in Spain were more constricting than in other European countries. But,if one accepted the lists of Spanish vices and virtues what would you expect to happen now? When you see a Spanish family out together, under the trees of a restaurant in a square, they seem to have a capacity for collective contentment and tradition in excess of that in other countries. Perhaps they can survive the new forms of poverty and deprivation. But 60 per cent youth unemployment, put alongside a history of violence and the new technological addiction . . . perhaps they can’t.
It was the pretty young lady who worked for the hotel who pointed out that the lemon on the tree above my head was ripe and of good quality and would enhance my gintonic. In a flash, like Newton before me, I had solved a major problem by the contemplation of fruit on a tree. All you need to do to solve Andalucia’s unemployment problem was to ban the use of mechanical devices for the picking of olives and almonds. Olives were traditionally picked either ordenaňdo (“milking” them with the hands) or vareando (hitting them with just the right force with a stick). There are now thousands of square miles covered in olives at about three dozen trees to the acre. Andalucians could again become bands of agricultural labourers, roaming the countryside, with spoons to eat from the communal pot prepared by the farmers wife and guitars to accompany their singing under the moon at night before they retired into the barn for a good night’s sleep. The Luddite Solution: it doesn’t have a great historical record, but right now it seems as least as plausible as anything else.