Sunday, 15 February 2009

The positive face of Euro tribalism

By the time Franco ceased clinging to life in 1975, I'd already travelled across most of Europe and beyond. Ships and trains in those days rather than air; the sleeping car at the Hook of Holland that would take you to Rome, or Vienna, or Berlin was a thing of utter childhood delight to me. The tiny berth-light fitting with a ring-tray and an aperture to insert your wristwatch so as to display the dial next your sleeping head, the 'peephole' that allowed you to look out without raising the entire window-blind, the individual heater and radio control levers all made the sleeping compartment a real temporary home.

Between 1946 and the 1970s the continent repaired itself. Across Europe the agrarian class did what they'd done for a thousand years. Picked themselves up, mended the war damage, had babies and went back to tending their fields and livestock. War damage was still quite visible in the early '70s. Even in England, every town had an NCP car park sited on a bulldozed bomb site surfaced only with the detritus of shattered lives, fragments of crockery and rotting scraps of fabric amongst the crushed brick and roof tile underfoot as you walked from car to shops.

And though Hitler and Mussolini were legends to me, their chum Franco was very real. A wartime Fascist dictator who still ruled with fear and force a primitive and religiously superstitious people. There was still something dark and off-limits about Spain. The executed corpses were still warm in their hidden graves. My sleeper car never made that journey across the Pyrenees.

As travel, trade and communication broke down the barriers of misunderstanding across Europe and allowed me to learn first-hand that there's not much difference between what a German wants and what an Englishman, a Frenchman, a Hollander, an Italian or a Swissie wants so Franco's death allowed a degree of cultural cross-exposure that transformed Spain rapidly. It also taught me that although I was part of an English tribe, I was also part of a larger European people with a common culture and heritage. Our local tribal identities were not a barrier to a cultural commonality but added a wonderful and positive spice of difference. The national distinctions of the French Citroen, the German VW, our Austin Morris and Vauxhall were replicated ten thousand times in differences in food, clothing, furniture, household goods, toys and popular entertainment. Europe was a joy of discovery of the different.

Today of course every European city is blandly homogenous. The same cars on the streets, the same beers in the bars, the same goods in the shops, the same shop chains even. Europe's agrarian populations have largely disappeared. This has fostered the illusion that our tribal differences have also been homogenised, but they remain still under the surface and nowhere more so than in Spain.

The collapse of the Spanish housing bubble is far, far worse than ours. Their transition from small scale agriculturalists to factory and construction workers has been far more rapid. The drug-fuelled club culture of the coasts sits lightly on an ancient and primitive Catholicism that learned under the Moors the wisdom of knowing when to keep quiet. And the wounds of their recent past are still unhealed, the executed corpses still being exhumed by their children or in some cases their parents.

The Observer carries a not terribly deep piece on conditions today in Zaragoza. It's a piece that makes me long for my old French House chum Ed Owen's take on things - Ed was for some years the Times' Madrid correspondent and is a journalist who understands Spain as few others do.

I'm hopeful that whatever the depth of the recession the Spanish people - and the Portuguese, come to that - won't want to go back to totalitarianism. I'm hopeful that, because they're nearer to it than anywhere else in Europe, they'll rediscover the best parts of their tribal identity quickly. And if the druggy rave clubs are bulldozed into the sand and olive groves planted on the ruins, if they become more Spanish and less Eurohomogenous, I shalln't be too disappointed.


Blue Eyes said...

There was a piece on the Beeb website yesterday covering this issue of Spaniards going back to the land. The people interviewed seemed quite resigned to it, unlike the chumps in this country who demand well-paid jobs for little actual work whether or not there is demand for their skills.

What ever happened to the British stiff upper lip?

lilith said...

As recently as 1989 my ex avoided a search by the Guardia by waving his Franco key ring at them...

Newmania said...

I had not realised you were quite so cosmopolitan or indeed so venerable Readwald you must date from some virtually prehistoric time to have done so much by the mid 70s , well just a few years older than me I suppose
I am not entirely convinced that the people’s of Europe have a great deal in common. Its boundaries are approximately as were Christendom’s at one time but we obviously have more in common with the US , Australia , New Zeeland and most of Canada . The exception to this is music , the same piano lewson might be taken from Swindon to Warsaw and beyond , also in Japan and most of the West of course.
I thought your opening paragraph was marvellous by the way , my wife and I got a cheap tour of Italy spending three weeks visiting everywhere from Pompei and Capri to Florence and Lakes . If there is a better way to spend you time I cannot think of it .This year we will go to Dorset ….sigh.

Incidentally nearer to home the Irish economy looks very shaky indeed and it has enjoyed a meteoric rise in living standards .

it's either banned or compulsory said...

In the mid 1970s I was fortunate enough to travel to Europe on holidays organised by my School, or rather by one dedicated School Master; these encompassed France, Benelux, Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland in the days of currency controls.
I learned the same lessons as you Raedwald; in 1983 I took a three week coach tour of Eastern Europe ( Andropov was USSR Premier at the time ) and found the same things there when talking to ordinary people.
Later, under my own steam I travelled again throughout western Europe ( by the fantastic means of Eurorail though that scheme is much diminished of late ) and found my way to Spain by motorbike. It was just begining its contruction boom and several times I was amused to find myself on new roads that just stopped.
During two such visits I had police guns pointed at me three times ( in part because they thought my very large 'bike meant I must be German, they were not popular but also because the 'bike allowed me to access parts of Spain ( including the Pyrenees in Zaragozas hinterland ) unfamiliar with outsiders.

One particular memory might be of interest.
In a small town in the remote north of Holland I overheard in a grocery store an elderly lady ask for " twee yonz jambon ," ( bad spelling) I was told that this means " Two ounces of ham ", some two hundred years after Napoleon had imposed decimalisation.

No amount of state/school/EU/BBC indoctrination can come anywhere near to fostering good relations with our European friends better than personal travel to those countries by our youngsters.
Sadly the program of schoolchildren swapping places with those of Europeans in Exchanges has ended beacause each and every adult having access to the homes of hosts would be required to have a CRB check. Law of unintended consequences which will negatively impact most upon the poor.

Raedwald said...

ieboc - absolutely agree.

Exchange visits have done more good than all the mountains of waffle and paper from Brussels in preventing conflict, and the Interail pass, and not the EU, has allowed us to discover our common cultural identity.

it's either banned or compulsory said...

Interrail, yes, sorry. As I understand it that has become much more structured, requiring you to more or less plan your itinerary in advance thus denying any spontanaity on the finding of new friends.
In such a way I found myself staying in the house of an Milanese family during part of the Falklands war. UK was not popular over that but their courtesy toward me as an individual was exemplary, a lesson well learned.