Barcelona, according to George Orwell


 [words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]

Over the centuries Spain has made “prisoners” of many foreign writers who have come to travel here, to call it home (Washington Irving, Gerald Brenan, Michener, George Sands, Somerset Maugham et al) and in several cases to fight for it (Laurie Lee, Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, William Herrick). Last week, we looked at Granada, the city Laurie Lee said was “probably the most beautiful and haunting of all Spanish cities; an African paradise set under the Sierras like a rose preserved in snow”. Today, we head up the coast to George Orwell’s Barcelona.

Spain: a romantic prison for foreign writers, part II

When George Orwell first arrived in Barcelona in 1936, in the early days of the civil war, he was struck by a workers’ metropolis, swathed in red banners, “where waiters and flower-women and bootblacks looked you in the eye and called you comrade”. For a short period it was considered the spot where the hammer struck the anvil.

He saw most of his action further west on the Aragon front, but got to know Barcelona well at various times… including a three-day period of political rioting spent on the roof of a cinema guarding a building in which his wife, a secretary, had taken refuge. The concepts of “doublethink” and “the thought-police” that he would use to such terrifying effect in Nineteen Eighty-Four occurred to him during these days of manipulative propaganda.

James A. Michener summed up the feeling of a journey up through Spain to Barcelona as “like drinking a respectable red wine and finishing up with a bottle of champagne”.

Today Barcelona is the most cosmopolitan city in Spain and, still stoically Catalan, tends to look more for its lead towards northern Europe than to Madrid, and to strive more towards cool-and-chic than fiesta-and-siesta.

Homage to Catalonia relates Orwell’s wartime experiences and gives an insight into the Catalan capital that you are not likely to get from other travelogues: “the worst of being wanted by the police in a town like Barcelona is that everything opens so late”. The old town still harbours the eclectic mix of rundown portside taverns and bourgeois salons and the main boulevard of La Rambla still flows with sightseers and buscavidas (hustlers). And the terraces where, in Orwell’s time, off-duty militiamen and communist spies sipped overpriced wartime coffee… not much has changed, and today on those terraces, they still serve overpriced coffee.

 Coming up on 19 March: Gerald Brenan’s Cordoba.

If you’re travelling to Spain, be sure to take a look at the 25 fiestas you really shouldn’t miss.

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