FUN WITH THE FOREIGNERS
9. Sweethearts through the cat-flap
On long dark idle winter evenings, as a teenager living at home, you can imagine what I was getting up to, right? Yes, you got it- browsing my parents’ bookshelves in the sitting room. There were lots of Folio hardback titles, some of which Dad had signed up for without meaning to, including a lovely Lord of the Rings with wafer-thin pages, an extraordinary and incomprehensible (to me) set of jokey kitsch pre-war cartoons entitled “Love is…”, Gerald Brenan’s South From Granada, An Almanac of Words At Play, A Pictorial History of Slough, The Birds of the British Isles, A Gardener’s Yearbook, World Airports Magazine Pictorial Supplement, and a dark brown slab quite simply entitled The Last Two Million Years.
I didn’t work my way through all of them. I had a life! I genuinely think all these tomes were of equal interest to Dad, but after the Tolkien, I read only one other volume in full, and a new, exciting, future suddenly took shape before my eyes. I’m referring to World Airports Magazine Pictorial Supplement, obviously.
Just kidding. The book I examined, initially with the same scepticism I reserved for the other worthy, slightly dusty, post-war hardbacks, had a very simple premise: a well-educated but broke young man, aspiring to write, goes to live in a tiny mountain village in southern Spain. He gets help from locals to set up a modest home, has only occasional access to funds (loans from relatives back home), and sets about observing the social interactions, curious rituals, superstitions and eating habits of the people around him, without condescension or romanticisation. Sometimes he has to explain lots of background stuff about the church, politics, and history, so that we understand what he’s seeing. Then his posh friends from London unexpectedly come to visit… with hilarious consequences! It could be any one of a dozen airport paperbacks or a thousand blogs.
Except- this is the 1920s. The Spanish Civil War hasn’t happened yet, gypsies accost foreigners in the mountains and take them to the mayor at knifepoint, convinced that they are mythical monsters. There are no roads. In unruffled, unassuming prose, he moves from lucky charms and thistle soups to his visitors, who happen to be Lytton Strachey (suffering from haemorrhoids, forced to ride side-saddle on a mule alongside a sheer cliff drop to access the village, and on arrival refusing to eat garlic or olive oil) and Virginia Woolf (gabbling poetry as she scrambles amongst the fig trees, and slagging off D.H. Lawrence).
Perhaps his slight sense of inadequacy helped make his voice so young and accessible to me, as I sat on the sofa with a cup of tea, hearing the hum of M4 traffic and the buzz of landing planes through the double glazing. The narrative, whilst edited in a literary spirit, is far from formulaic. It winds up the hillside like a narrow street, reaching dead ends patrolled by cats, and doubling back on itself- it has two consecutive chapters entitled “Almería and its brothels” and “Almería and archaeology”.
On re-reading, I realise quite how much of an interest he was taking in courtship rituals. Perhaps there’s a reason why this didn’t strike me as strange. I do remember wondering if much would have changed in these small villages of the Alpujarra 70 years on.
Men would crouch or lie in the street next to small windows, or even cat-flaps, in houses, talking to their sweethearts within, and occasionally clasping their hands, until midnight. In towns, they would shout up one or two floors if necessary, for instance if the girl failed to obtain the use of a ground floor window from neighbours, friends or relatives. Only when society became more permissive in the 1930s, and young couples could go out to the cinema together, did customs change, and high blocks of flats start to appear. Before then, they weren’t built because no-one would have rented them- a girl living too high up would never have got married.
There is an extraordinary dowry-provoked dynamic in his village: the most eye-catching young women happen to be from the more modest families, so early courting is a painful, protracted process. The men are keen to seduce them, but never make an above-the-board move because of parental disapproval. The girls cannot get physical with them, because if anyone hears about it, their chances of finding another suitor are done for. So they are all in an unbearable state of tension until eventually the time comes for the young men to settle down, and their parents fix up a financially beneficial match with someone else.
So the poorer girls are desperately trying to catch their men and get them to over-rule their parents, but without appearing overly familiar with them in the meantime for the sake of their reputations, while the “lucky” few young women whose parents have a bit of land for their dowry can afford to play the waiting game, all the time privately seething at the flirting and intrigue they are witnessing, but are personally denied.
If you add into the mix the fact that the street itself, and the afternoon stroll, is, as Brenan describes it, the equivalent of an English ballroom dance for getting to know people, then you have what must be an arresting spectacle for this young man: a street full of women, half of whom are making promises with their walk and their eyes that cannot be seen to be directed at any one man. He mentions in passing that when they do dance, at a village fair, some of them have the “snaky, contortionist’s ripples of a gypsy”.
2 years later, as a student, I discovered that one option for my grant-funded integral “third year abroad” was a year at the University of Granada. Maybe there were some other options on the list, since no-one else came… I can’t seem to remember now. Snaky, contortionist’s ripples, you say? Yes, I’ll write. Bye!