fine travel piece on Zaragoza and Aragon reminded me of when we were living in Seville and I was working on Spain's Expo 92. At one point, I had to meet with representatives of the Aragon (state) Government. This involved flying to Barcelona, renting a car, and driving across Cataluña and into Aragon.
I got happily lost for a while in the sleepy backroads of Cataluña among a pretty, wildflower landscape with swallows diving around old farmhouses and broken sheds. Everything speeded up when I reached the autopista. Dry arroyos, cone-shaped hills and sharp-sided mesas flicked past the window like images from a magic lantern, and the road arrowed straight across a landscape so flat it seemed like the roof of the world.
BMWs and Mercedes flashed past while my rented Ford Fiesta bucketed along at a steady 160 kilometres an hour. Close to Zaragoza the hills turned a chalky grey, the land arid and lifeless except for patches of dry, creeping scrub. Then the muddy brown Ebro curved up to the road, turning leisurely in a bed of high green reeds, infusing the surrounding fields with colour and shadow, and Zaragoza's great Basilica de St Pilar rose slowly out of the plain until its magnificent dome towered above everything else.
It was late afternoon when I got to my hotel. After a shower, I went down to the dining room to eat. Not long after I took my seat, a man at a nearby table demanded loudly in English to be served what was in fact a complimentary sherry and hors d'oeuvres. 'These are typical regional prerequisites to the meal,' he said to his companion. He had an irritating, nasal voice which carried to all corners of the dining room. I had started mapping out a strategy for my meeting next day, and the voice was interrupting my thoughts.
When the waiter brought the sherry and appetisers, the English-speaking man sent the sherry back as inadequate and ordered a different brand. The sherry he'd returned sat for a long time on the bar. There was no sign of the waiter preparing another one for him. My 'compatriot' diner sat and drummed his fingers on the tablecloth, and complained to his friend about the delay. Eventually, the waiter brought him more bread and bologna, but no sherry.
Halfway through the bottle of Rioja that he ordered with his meal, the English-speaker turned to his companion and began to explain some of the causes and events of the Spanish Civil War. The Civil War was not a subject for discussion around Zaragoza. Memories are long and deeply scarred in that part of Spain. A hush fell over the restaurant. I put my deliberations about the upcoming meeting to one side and waited.
The English speaker motored on. It had all started, he said, because the leftists got into power. They burned churches and killed priests and a lot of other people, and the Russians supported them. Then the Spanish Army got itself organised and appointed a general to take charge of things. This first general, he said, overcome with his own importance, packed too many uniforms into his aeroplane. It crashed because it was overloaded and the general was killed.
I glanced round the room. There were only a few diners and they all seemed to be Spanish. Their demeanour certainly suggested it; all of them had their eyes down, staring at their drinks, or the table, or the floor. The waiters were nowhere to be seen.
I knew a little bit about the general the English-speaker had been talking about. His name was José Sanjurjo and he had indeed been a vain man. The pilot of the small aeroplane that was to take him from exile in Portugal to Burgos had refused to take all his uniforms on board. When Sanjurjo pulled rank, the pilot cleverly reminded him that he was far too important to risk the whole Nationalist cause over a few uniforms. The general succumbed to the flattery and left most of his uniforms behind in Portugal, and the two of them flew safely to Burgos.
It was a different general with a similar name who died in a plane crash – General José Sanjurjo y Sacanell, the 1st Marquis of the Rif. The Marquis didn't get into the Civil War at all. He didn't overload his aeroplane with uniforms, but it crashed anyway and he was killed.
Another general took over, continued the English-speaker, still talking about the wrong man, but things did not go well for the Nationalists. This new general died under mysterious circumstances. Generalissimo Franco then arrived to patch things up, he said. Franco was cruel, but he won.
When the waiter came to take my dinner order, I found myself trying to emphasise the Andalusian lisp in my Spanish pronunciation, pretending to be native, hoping the waiter would believe my accent was a southern one.
There are times when revisting one's yesterdays is not a good idea. The Beano
, a couple of years younger than I am, was part of my wartime childhood and has been given an exhibition in Somerset House which runs until March next year. It sounded tempting. I grew up on all those DC Thomson comics – the Beano
, the Dandy
, the Oor Willie and the Broons strips in the Sunday Post
, that obligatory part of the week's reading – and the story ones like Hotspur
and the Rover
. I read about cricket played by chaps who went to boarding school – both being way out of my experience – with little understanding of how the game is played and enjoyed it. I still don't know. And there was also that amazing athlete Wilson to inspire.
– although very well drawn by the great Dudley D Watkins and others – were not as much fun to look at as the American comics that used to arrive in the food parcels our cousins in California would send, which were in full colour. However, they were still enjoyed and swapped. Lord Snooty, Big Eggo, Minnie the Minx, Desperate Dan, Pansy Potter the Strong Man's Daughter, Musso the Wop and Dennis the Menace still lurk there in the darker corners of my brain. As for Pa, Ma, Hen and the rest of the Broons, they are still well and living somewhere in Scotland.
The exhibition has been well staged, but the words to read as you go along, the claims made for them take a bit of swallowing. Were they really that anarchic? I certainly do not remember them encouraging that. The Dandy
ceased to exist some years back although it seems to have an online presence, but the Beano
is still in the shops, although not enjoying the circulation of its glory years. Currently it is around 54,000 but once it reached over one million.
Lots of children were going round the exhibition but none were paying much attention to the dreary looking pages from the comic on display but at the artifacts and the screens. I gave up after about half-an-hour, left through the shop, bought some Walker's shortbread – what on earth was that doing there? – and ignored the distinctly tatty souvenirs and copies of the annuals. Some things are better left as memories.
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