Magazine article The Spectator

Catalon Ia Notebook

Magazine article The Spectator

Catalon Ia Notebook

Article excerpt

We sang a hymn called 'Poble en Marxa' at the beginning of Mass in the working-class parish of Sant Blai. 'Marxa' was not a reference to the bearded prophet of revolution; it's just the Catalan way of spelling marcha. People on the march.

There was a lot of it about. In Barcelona, a million (the Catalans say two million) had marched to demand independence from an economically incompetent Madrid. In broke Madrid there were ten demonstrations in one day, with teachers and firemen being bused in to hold up banners and shout and blow whistles.

The anarcho-syndicalists made a particularly brave showing. But that was all on the television. Here in Tortosa, in the parish of Sant Blai, there wasn't much marching, just lots of hanging around. The black Africans hung around sadly, as they often seem to, singly or silently in pairs. None of their women were to be seen. No doubt they were at the other end of the cheap telephone lines that keep in business the public call shops, locutorios. The Asians hung around more gregariously, outside bars for which most of them had little use, some in long shirts and loose trousers, most in Maghreb-style jeans and T-shirts with unsuitable slogans ('Sexy lady!';

'Bad influence'). Opposite the locutorio, through the open door of a house, men could be seen prostrate at prayer in their makeshift mosque. Never mind secession: on Sunday afternoon, with the shops shut, Tortosa is not for the Spanish, or for the Catalans.

A tap was set up on the wall in a street up the hill near the Castle in Tortosa, surrounded by a few coloured tiles with the date above: 1976. It is not much to ask for one tap in a street, and 20 years ago, when I first saw it, I thought it was a sign that the very poor neighbourhood was being improved.

Today, the tap is there still. But it doesn't work. A round-limbed girl wearing no shoes, but with painted toenails, had just filled two big containers with water from a hydrant nearby, somehow, and one of the bright-eyed, thin cats was lapping up spilt water from the broken pavement.

That tap had been installed 40 years after the war began that devastated Tortosa in the Battle of the Ebro. But as the historian of Tortosa, Jacobo Vidal, has remarked, the destruction of this historic city in the 1980s repeated what it endured in the war, except that at least after the war there was some attempt to mend things.

Now ancient houses, which in England would be snapped up and restored to the brink of tweeness, are abandoned and left to fall down, streets are cleared, and the only people who want to live in the medieval town are immigrants and others with nowhere to turn. …

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