It’s late in an April afternoon
as my memory walks beneath the arches of the Mezquita,
between the Juderías white walls,
thinking how in this architecture
an affection warms and billows
along the streets’ short emptiness.
Chalk Farm: After Reading a Translation of Ibn Zaydun
Holy Thursday, 1992. Five of us are packed into a Ford Orion heading out of Derry, on the road to Dublin. The car is struggling with the weight. From Dublin we will fly to Seville, then on by train to Córdoba and Granada. It is a pilgrimage of a kind, a small act of homage to a country and a culture that we are each in our different ways absorbed by. In the play Translations by Brian Friel, set in Donegal in 1833, one of the English soldiers asks the old hedge-school master if he has heard of the poet Wordsworth. Hugh replies magisterially, ‘Wordsworth?… No. I’m afraid we’re not familiar with your literature, Lieutenant. We feel closer to the warm Mediterranean. We tend to overlook your island.’’ A quarter of a millennium later, five of us are drawn to that warm Mediterranean once more.
Just outside Aughnacloy, the exhaust pipe gives up the unequal struggle and clatters on to the road. If you’re going to lose an exhaust pipe in Northern Ireland on a Holy Thursday, best let it happen in a little Protestant town where there’s half a chance of finding a garage open. Half an hour’s welding later we’re back on the road, leaving behind the red, white and blue kerb stones and the tattered Ulster flags that bedeck every lamp post.
I wish I could claim that I began to study the Spanish language out of a sense of cultural adventure but the truth is it had more to do with self-preservation than intellectual curiosity. I was thirteen, choosing O’Level subjects. The choice was Spanish or Irish and the latter, the native tongue spoken by fewer and fewer natives, meant a priest who was not averse to bouncing heads off the classroom wall. It wasn’t a tough decision.
All I knew of Spain at the time was the Costa del Sol. We had been fortunate enough to go there on family holidays, in the days when people smoked on planes. I remember clearly the wall of heat that hit us as we stepped on to the tarmac at Malaga Airport, the different taste of milk, newspapers that were always a day late, the blur that was the Spanish language, all gesture and noise.
Gradually, Spain became a fixed point on the compass, drawing me back time and again. It was there, a small transistor radio held to my ear that I heard a Spanish newscaster announce the death of Lord Mountbatten, blown-up off the coast of Donegal. A long time later, it was in Spain that I watched the planes fly into the Twin Towers while our baby son Jack took his first faltering steps beneath an orange tree outside, a harrowing elision of public and private worlds.
On one of those early holidays we somehow fell-in with a family from Córdoba. Marie José was my age. Suddenly this language I was learning took on an urgent relevance. We became pen-pals (does that happen any more?). I can still see the blue airmail envelopes and her careful handwriting. Now there was a living, breathing point to all this grammar and vocabulary, those glimpses of another culture that filled that small classroom at the end of a corridor.
The literature came later, contemporary literature even later still. At school it was La Familia de Pascual Duarte, Cela’s bleak, violent, rural tale, just the ticket for teenage readers; or Carmen Laforet’s Nada, a very different proposition, with its eccentric cast and its evocation of post-Civil War Barcelona. There were too the plays and poems of García Lorca, especially Romancero Gitano, even more especially for our all-male A’Level class, his poem La Casada Infiel (The Unfaithful Wife), ‘her elusive thighs like startled fish’. We knew nothing of Lorca’s life at this stage, only his death; Ian Gibson’s wonderful biography was still some years away but in Bob McKimm we had an inspired teacher, a man whose quiet passion for Spain led us carefully out of our insularity, this was the north of Ireland in the grip of the ‘troubles’, and showed us that there was indeed a world elsewhere.
He is in that car that has just crossed the border at Aughnacloy. So too is the poet Paul Wilkins, Willie McLaughlin, teacher and incipient Hispanophile, my brother Cormac and myself. On our last night in Granada we will return to the hostal to find Paul, a stranger to the Spanish language, in striped pyjamas and new, blister-inducing trainers, suffering a tirade of incomprehensible abuse from the owner who is demanding payment before our early departure. But that is all ahead of us.
By nightfall we are in Córdoba where the rooms I had booked turn out not to be booked at all. In desperation, I lead the party on a late-night trek through the streets of that city in search of the house where Marie José lives, even though I haven’t seen or heard from her in twelve years and what exactly am I going to do if we find it? Thankfully, we don’t. La Judería defeats us with its intricacies, its narrow, balconied streets. The night tour of Córdoba, locked out of the Mezquita, locked out of the Cathedral, locked, not unreasonably, out of everywhere ends in the train station where my brother has managed to get on the wrong side of the Guardia Civil by sleeping on a bench. Suddenly the RUC start to look like nursery school teachers. This is not quite the start to the pilgrimage I had envisaged but soon it is daylight and we are on a train to Granada, changing at Bobadilla where a shepherd steers his herd of goats past us as we wait for the connecting train.
Late afternoon, the city, even in Holy Week, quiet in the heat. Only an occasional motor-bike, like a stone thrown into a pond, ripples the silence. We take refuge in the Cathedral; perhaps it is a surfeit of sun, more likely too much tinto, but in the Capilla Real the Carrara marble figures of Ferdinand and Isabel appear to move. Ireland went through a craze for ‘moving statues’ not so long ago. All over the country, various saints, alabaster, bronze and whatever, were kicking their heels in the air. It can’t have reached Spain too. Beside the monarchs, their daughter Juana la Loca and her husband Felipe el Hermoso seem, even in death, one of history’s least likely couples.
By night, the processions. We listen to a saeta sung from a balcony above an ice-cream parlour and watch shadows thrown by flaming torches dance on the Cathedral walls. The processions, usually starting in a local barrio, move slowly, almost funereally through the streets and squares of the city. The floats are elaborately decorated, the statues of the Virgin swaying gently as the carriers, the conquered Moors, bear their burden through the watchful crowds. Somehow, there is in the noise and colour and movement a sense of recognition, an awareness that the grammar, the literature, the desk-bound hours in those classrooms have led almost inevitably to this moment of immersion. It is a baptism of sorts, perhaps even a kind of homecoming.
For all its beauty, its architectural intricacies, its music of fountains and birdsong, the Alhambra is as much a state of mind as an actual place. Before we go there the next day, we gather in a small city-centre bar where we are to meet Ian Gibson, author of The Assassination of García Lorca and, of course, the later biography. The bar, one of the oldest in Granada, claims Lorca as a past patron. It is small, more a kiosk than a bar, but the manzanilla is crisp and we have a wonderful day ahead of us, not to mention somewhere to sleep that night. The maître’d of a nearby restaurant hunts us out to say that he has had a call from Senor Gibson whose car has broken down. Half an hour later, we are gathered on the street, looking under the bonnet of a tired Volvo which is hissing and steaming like a launderette. What is it with cars on this trip? I begin to wonder if our friend from Aughnacloy might have any unlikely Spanish relations.
Our paseo through the palace is magical and memorable; the presiding ghost is Lorca and we are acutely aware of those photographs of the poet at the Carlos V Fountain or in the Patio de las Damas with Juan Ramón Jiménez. We stop in the Plaza de los Aljibes where the famous cante jondo competition took place in 1922. Could there be a more evocative place to host such an event? The Alhambra is a place of myth, a palimpsest. As Robert Irwin has written, ‘… there are very few facts about the Alhambra that are securely established and agreed upon. It is a sunlit place of many mysteries.’ There is one fact, however, that is indisputable; Lorca loved Granada and the Alhambra and was taken to his death from that city, causing Antonio Machado famously and furiously to write, ‘The crime was in Granada, in his Granada!’ Lorca’s biographer, meanwhile, is such a celebrity in contemporary Spain that at one point he is asked to autograph a serviette.
Spain. What started as if by accident in a classroom has become part almost of my DNA. It begins with a language, the nuts and bolts, the gradual piecing together of a way of writing, reading, talking and thinking. The transformation, the epiphany, that indefinable shift to something that has infused the life, happens later. It comes through the literature, the history, the newspapers, the architecture, the people, through the very atmosphere of the place. It is in the mix of a thoroughly modern country with history at every turn. In Andalucia, remembering, perhaps mis-remembering, a golden age when Jew, Muslim and Christian approached a tolerance, you sense that here might be the place where a new harmony can emerge.
We end our day and our visit a long way from Derry, Dublin and Aughnacloy in La Castaneda, at the foot of the Cuesta de Gomérez. It is a place of dark wood and beveled glass, waiters writing tabs on the counter with chalk. Outside, the city is throwing off the siesta, readying itself for evening.