In the Steps of the Spanish

Spain has been transformed in the generation since Franco died. The restored Bourbon monarchy has become embedded. Two democratic parties occupying the centre-ground have taken the place of extremists. A strong national press has emerged. The legal system has been rebuilt. Confidence has been restored in the previously politicised armed forces and police. EU membership has helped the economy to grow vastly. And the power of the Catholic Church has waned. In short, Spain has become a modern state.

Over the past 20 years or so Christopher Howse has been travelling through this transformed political and social landscape. But his focus has been on Old Spain, going back centuries before Franco, and made familiar to the English by the writings of Richard Ford and George Borrow, or the drawings of G.E. Street and Muirhead Bone. The dust jacket of the book charmingly caricatures this approach. It shows the author sitting sideways on a donkey and holding an umbrella, with the great pilgrimage cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and a torero being pursued by a bull in the background. In fact, Howse’s preferred forms of locomotion are train and bus, as opposed to the isolating “tin box” of  the car. Donkeys he finds no longer necessary, and no mention is made of corridas.

His travels centre on the old kingdom of Castile, in particular its cathedrals and churches. The mood is pleasantly melancholic. Places of historical interest often suffer from falling populations. The old way of life is dissolving. Yet the tattered fabric which remains has its attractions. Howse’s discovery in Soria of “an ancient street at just the right level of decay” encapsulates his feel for the past.

Each chapter covers a town or group of towns under headings of objects which typify Spanish life, from iron grilles to flies, blood sausages and the pilgrims’ way to Santiago. With frequent digressions, there is a rough historical progression from El Cid’s victories over the Moors to the Spanish Civil War. 

The text, dense with historical facts and minute observation, demands careful reading. Helpfully, the editors have marked the changes of subject within the chapters by putting the first three words of the introductory paragraph in capital letters, the literary equivalent of a newspaper crosshead.

Savoured slowly, the book is richly rewarding for those who enjoy poking around in the past. Howse has an eye for inscriptions, whether on the back of a wooden bench in Burgos Cathedral or a hilarious rhyming plea in the lavatory of a bar in Salamanca to pull the chain after use. He traces interesting links between Spain and Britain, from the role of Observant Franciscans at both courts to the patronage shared between Burgos and the Welsh village of Llandegla of the early Christian martyr St Tecla.

Allied with erudition is the gift of description. Howse writes of the “incised meander” of the Tagus at Toledo and of “swifts in their mysterious shoals” over Ávila. He observes the Ebro in spate at Logroño, its surface “shaped like cauliflower inflorescences, but transparent enough to catch the sun like sections of broken wine glass”. Before a mass in Caleruega, the birthplace of St Dominic, 12 old women say the rosary, the “machine-gun delivery of Castilian syllables” being “mitigated by a certain sing-song cadency”. In the chapter entitled morcilla or blood sausage, the slow martyrdom of St John of the Cross at the hands of fellow-believers is movingly told.

Howse is more chronicler than historical polemicist. I should like to have read his view of the Inquisition, which he touches on when visiting Toledo, and for him to have expanded on what he writes about the adverse effect of Republican zeal on the Catholics of Salamanca in the run-up to the Civil War.

The publisher has served the author well, both in the dust-jacket, mentioned above, and in diagrams and historic illustrations inside. The only criticism is the somewhat haphazard application of accents.

In the final chapter, Howse reaches Santiago and witnesses the swinging of the great censer or botafumeiro in the cathedral. Pilgrim numbers may have risen hugely over the past 20 years but he remarks on “a dangerous undercurrent of self-centredness, as if the journey were there to prove oneself”, an attitude reflected in Emilio Estévez’s new film The Way (see the June issue of Standpoint). 

For Howse, pilgrimage is “an expectation of a particular grace to be found in the journey”, which in Spain (“not always likeable” but “compellingly lovable”) is “never looked for and found wanting”. To travel with him through these pages is a delight.

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