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.