Catalonia and the Scots

Article excerpt

SOME tour-operators claim that Barcelona has usurped Paris's place as Britain's most popular 'short-break destination'. The trend could change if Catalonia's popularity with foreigners forced prices up to Parisian levels or, more seriously, some political or industrial quarrel even briefly endangered Barcelona's recent (but by no means traditional) reputation for civil peace and social harmony. But many things are going well for contemporary Catalonia, including its prosperous modus vivendi with successive governments in Madrid, the interest in Britain and elsewhere in its form of 'devolution', and the tourism which crowds the Ramblas and Gothic Quarter.

Many of the British are there for the wine, beer, and bars. Some are in earnest pursuit of Gaudi architecture, ready to pay for reverent inspection of the building sites within Antonio Gaudi's still unfinished expiatory church of the Sagrada Familia. Among them are perplexed Scots anxious to establish whether all Catalan architecture is as dramatic as the design by the late Enric Miralles for their much-delayed and embarrassingly expensive new Parliament building in Edinburgh. There is even a studious elite with copies of George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. They also seek out the square renamed after that Old Etonian volunteer who fought Franco's troops in Aragon but joined in his left-wing militia's private war around the Ramblas and the Placa de Catalunya with the Communist-controlled gendarmerie.

That now seems very ancient history. The second-hand bookstalls on the Passeig de Gracia will sell you yellowed copies of Civil War newspapers celebrating exaggerated or imaginary victories over Franco. Yet the mood of their faded print seems as remote from modern Barcelona as chronicles of the great sieges of 1652 and 1714 and many other battles for the city long ago. For, like Orwell, they emphasise the former things that have apparently passed away in Catalonia--the proletarian style, the revolutionary ideology, and the rabid anti-clericalism. Like Orwell, they also play down the distinctively Catalan nationalist factor in the old Republican coalition. It has reappeared, revived, and flourished as part of the uneasy consensus of Spain's constitutional monarchy. It is a consensus that will become uneasier still after the progress made by the independence-minded 'Republican Left' in last November's Catalonian elections, in which the Socialists failed to displace the mainstream centre-right Nationalists as the region's largest party.

Whether that distinctiveness and assertion of Catalonia's special character, which has led its politicians to seek even more autonomy, is best called regionalism, nationalism, or separatism is an argument best left to Catalans, Castilians, and other Spaniards. Even that last form of words will not please everyone, for there are political nuances in Spanish (which Catalans tend to call castellano) as awkward for the outsider as those involving Britain, England, Scotland, and other parts of the British Isles. But the distinctiveness is there, even though most British enthusiasts for things Spanish have recognised it, at least until recently, with rather a bad grace.

Orwell is the only one of the greatest British writers on Spain to give Catalonia a good press, but he was more in love at the time with revolution than with Catalonia. Even the Homage turns sour when its author recounts his return from the front-line to discover that the bourgeoisie was daring to wear ties and suits again and that war-time Barcelona was recovering its zest for pleasures which help attract the modern tourist.

But Orwell was a romantic as well as a puritan of sorts, at least in 1937. His romanticism attached itself to Catalonia's proletarian interlude and not to factors in its history which have been more obvious since the passing of Franco in 1975. Among these are the cult of Catalonia's medieval achievements, sometimes interpreted with a distorting perspective of modern nationalism; the commercial vigour which made Barcelona such an impressive and even startling city; and the nineteenth-century Catalan cultural revival. …