Wednesday 23 October 2019

By George! It's Orwell's Barcelona

Nigel Richardson revisits the Catalan city through the pages of the author’s great civil war book

Nigel Richardson

George Orwell? "Of course I've heard of him," said Jose Luis Izuel, and reeled off the titles of some of Orwell's early, lesser-known works: "Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Coming Up for Air, the one about Burma."

Izuel runs one of the bric-a-brac stalls that are set up every Thursday in front of La Seu cathedral in Barcelona. Among the old soda siphon bottles and shoe lasts I had just found copies of La Vanguardia newspaper from 1936 and 1937, full of smudgy photographs of bombings and trench warfare in the Spanish Civil War.

Orwell may well have seen the very same newspapers, as he was in Barcelona at this time, fighting on the Republican side in the war.

"And Homage to Catalonia of course," added Izuel, referring to Orwell's account of that turbulent time and the part he played in it.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the publication of Homage to Catalonia, which struck me as an excuse not just to reread it but to visit the city that comes alive in its pages.

It is lauded as one of the great books on the reality of warfare, and the particular awfulness of fellow countrymen killing each other.

It is also a remarkable portrait of Barcelona at a crucial moment in its history. Yet this topographical aspect has been neglected. Few visitors view Barcelona through Orwell's pages, despite his having made it easy for us, and the modern tourist city largely ignores the terrible and momentous things that happened here less than a lifetime ago.

The most visible legacy of the war is tucked away in one of the city's quietest squares, the Plaça Sant Felip Neri near La Seu.

In January 1938, the square and its church were hit by a bomb dropped by Mussolini's air force; 42 people were killed, many of them children. The wall of the church is heavily pocked with shrapnel damage; someone has scrawled: "Always remember the victims of Fascist regimes."

As for Orwell, the only reference is a small square named after him, which in any case is known locally by another name, "Plaça del Tripi", or "Acid Square": the Plaça de George Orwell is where Barcelona's youth kick back on illicit substances.

There's one obvious reason for the apparent amnesia when it comes to the civil war. The conflict – and the long aftermath of Franco's dictatorship – left scars that few Spanish care to scratch.

"This is a country built upon 40 years of silence," said Pau Rubio, a Barcelona journalist who is researching his grandfather's and great-uncle's experiences in the civil war.

Rubio and I met in Café Zurich in Plaça de Catalunya, brought together by an English teacher and historian, Alan Warren, who lives in the city. Warren offers guided tours of revolutionary Barcelona, as seen through Homage to Catalonia. "It's all here but nobody knows about it," he said. "It's a bit of Barcelona people don't usually come by."

So precise and limpid is Orwell's prose that his descriptions of Barcelona read in part like stage directions: nearly all the places he mentions still exist, and you can work out exactly what happened where and when. Most of the action takes place in and around the artery of Las Ramblas.

Orwell arrived in Barcelona in December 1936 to find a city in the grip of idealistic fervour, with red and black Anarchist flags fluttering everywhere and loudspeakers on Las Ramblas "bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night".

He signed up with a militia of the Workers' Party of Marxist Unification (POUM) and served on the Aragon front before returning to Barcelona on leave in late April 1937.

Things had changed utterly in a short time. "The smart restaurants and hotels were full of rich people wolfing expensive meals," wrote Orwell. He also noted a "horrible feeling of political rivalry and hatred".

Orwell and his wife Eileen checked into the Hotel Continental – still there, on the left at number 138, as you walk down. On May 3 he was crossing the hotel lobby (now a Desigual clothes shop) when a friend casually mentioned "some kind of trouble at the telephone exchange" (also still there) in Plaça de Catalunya.

The various Leftist factions that had come together to fight Franco and Fascism were splitting apart. Barcelona was about to tip into violent insanity, and Orwell was at the centre to record what happened.

Across Las Ramblas was the octagonal tower of the church of Santa Maria del Pi. "And there's the Metro station," said Warren, referring to the entrance in the middle of Las Ramblas into which Orwell says the crowd was surging to take cover as the bullets flew.

Orwell hurried on down Las Ramblas to a cabaret theatre – the Teatro Principal – that served as the "Comité Local" of the POUM.

The Teatro Principal is still there, and still has the ramshackle air that Orwell described.

He survived the street fighting of May 1937 and returned to the front, where he was shot in the throat. Recuperating back in Barcelona, he became a fugitive when the POUM was declared an illegal organisation.

In late June 1937 he and Eileen managed to escape to France, and from there to the "deep, deep sleep of England" where he wasted no time in writing one of the 20th Century's great books about war.

Need to know

Aer Lingus flies to Barcelona from Dublin.

Alan Warren offers three- to four-hour tours of the Barcelona of Homage to Catalonia and revolutionary Spain: for €25 for the first person, and €15 per person thereafter, up to a maximum of eight people. Email him at Porta de la Historia:

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