Masters of the art of living

Image of Harry Eyres

As Spain is getting a barrage of bad press at the moment, I thought I would mount a mini-defence of the country. This is not an economic defence, more of a personal encomium. Or as Gerald Brenan put it in the preface to South from Granada: “I should like the lutes and violins to strike up and play a piece which might be called Loores de España, Praises of Spain.”

Before I get started on Spain’s more general contributions to culture, I want to talk about what the country has done for me. It might sound melodramatic but I could say that Spain saved my life. At a dark and difficult juncture, it – or rather its generous, warm-hearted people – opened up roomfuls of sunny windows, made me feel life was more various and richer than I had realised.

I was, I suppose, in rebellion against aspects of my upbringing, my schooling, my class. The Spanish and Catalan friends I made in Barcelona, and then more widely spread over the country, seemed to understand without too much explanation that ancient boarding schools and universities might have their oppressive aspects. It helped that they revered George Orwell, who saw Eton as a microcosm of a fascist state – even though that great and brave writer never seemed to me to convey much feel for Spain or Catalonia.

They backed up their understanding with practical generosity and hospitality. Friends would think nothing of lending me their car for a weekend. I was included, with no fuss at all, in family celebrations, invited to weddings, offered accommodation whenever I felt like it. There was also the unforgettable kindness of strangers, sharing picnics and on one occasion a bottle of cider on trains and buses, as if food and drink were not private possessions but communal gifts.

Whatever their economic and political shortcomings the Spanish seemed to have mastered, better than any people except the Brazilians, the art of living. It is no accident that the word gusto, meaning vigorous enjoyment, zest or relish, is a Spanish word. Not just that the Spanish lived with more gusto but that they hadn’t lost touch with the word’s original sensuous meaning. A gusto in Spanish means according to taste and to be a gusto means to be at ease, comfortable in your skin. Another untranslatable “g” word in Spanish is gana, as in “porque me da la gana”, “because I damn well want to”.

I was lucky to arrive in Spain at an intensely vibrant and exciting time for the country: the early 1980s. Democracy was being re-established (the country had only ever known one brief period of modern democracy in its history, the storm-tossed Second Republic of 1931-1936), and it was not without alarms, especially the attempted coup d’etat of February 23 1981.

The overwhelming sense I had, especially with young people, was a desire to experience the freedoms which had been suppressed during 40 years of dismal, hypocritical dictatorship. Bars stayed open pretty much all night; drinks did not come out of carefully measured optics but out of bottles you were invited to pour for yourself, to your heart’s content. The Spanish might have missed out on the 1960s, the summer of love, punk rock, but by Jupiter they were going to make up for it.

With the democratic renaissance came a cultural one. Splendid new museums sprang up: the Reina Sofia and Thyssen in Madrid, the Guggenheim (a bit later) in Bilbao. In the current negative, febrile atmosphere it is worth remembering that in the 1980s and 1990s Spain could claim to be leading the world in cinema, urbanism, gastronomy, not to mention football.

I was always a little sceptical about certain boom-time phenomena, such as the movida Madrileña, the capital city’s non-stop nightlife. I happen to prefer the underrated and understated director Victor Erice to the much more prolific and flamboyant Pedro Almodóvar. Erice’s masterpiece Spirit of the Beehive, made while Franco was still alive, managed to say more about the half-buried memories and legacy (especially the legacy of silence) of the civil war than any film made subsequently.

What I really loved about Spain was something more deep and permanent than any temporary boom or riotous excess, however much fun they might be. I loved first of all the physical texture of the country, its magnificent ruggedness – too much of it unfortunately tamed and destroyed by poorly planned or often plain illegal development in the boom years. Spain has an incalculable value as western Europe’s last wilderness and reservoir of biodiversity; so many times I have marvelled at the richness of bird life in particular, not just rare species but so many species all together, each in their right niche.

Beyond that, I see Spain as a great reservoir of humanity. The northern European travellers who visited Spain in the 19th and early 20th centuries were struck by the pride and dignity of ordinary Spanish people. So I think when large sections of Spanish society declare themselves to be indignant, we should not sneer and patronise but listen and take note.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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