Saturday, June 25, 2011

History of the Moors of Spain

“ History of the Moors of Spain” by M Florian
A Review by Robert Bovington
I have read a number of books relating to the Moors’ occupation of Spain including Washington Irving’s excellent “Chronicles of the Conquest of Granada” and “Tales of the Alhambra. “History of the Moors of Spain” by M.Florian is an even more comprehensive account, at times too much so. It sometimes reads like the Book of Genesis with its frequent mention of who beget whom. Despite the occasional tedium, the book is a well-constructed history. It also contains a great deal that I find interesting, particularly the description of the Alhambra and Generalife.
The book has four main sections corresponding to four distinct epochs. The first covers the period 711-750, starting from when Tariq-Ibn-Zeyad and his army crossed the Straits of Gibraltar, which marked the beginning of the Muslim domination in Spain. This period ends with the Umayyad Caliphs of Damascus being relocated in Córdoba. This first section of the book also includes events in Asia and Africa during the 6th & 7th centuries that led to the spread of Islamism prior to the occupation of Iberia.
The second section of the book includes the reigns of the Caliphs in the west: the third relates to the various small Taifa kingdoms erected from the ruins of the Caliphate of Córdoba. The fourth part covers the prominent events in the lives of the rulers of the Kingdom of Granada. It culminates with the final expulsion of the Moors from Spain and, of course, includes the fall of Granada in 1492.
French author M.Florian wrote the book in the 18th century but my Kindle version was published in 1910 and translated into English by an American lady whose name I haven’t been able to ascertain. Anyway, she did a good job and, all in all, this book is comprehensive history of the Moors in Spain.
Robert Bovington
Roquetas de Mar June 2011

Friday, June 17, 2011

George Orwell

Eric Arthur Blair (alias George Orwell) 
by Robert Bovington 

George Orwell © Robert Bovington
George Orwell was English. So why, you may ask, have I written about him on the BooksAboutSpain blog! 

Well, he fought in the Spanish Civil War and wrote of his experiences in Spain in 'Homage to Catalonia' (1938).
He was born Eric Arthur Blair on June 25, 1903 in Bengal, India. However, at the age of one he moved to England with his mother. His father, a Civil Servant, remained in India until 1907. 

Eric Blair was educated at St Cyprian's Eastbourne, Wellington and Eton and had a number of jobs before embarking on a career in journalism. He had a short spell with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma and a brief period as a schoolteacher. 

Based on his experiences in Burma, Paris, London and Suffolk he was to write many novels including 'Down and Out in Paris and London' (1933), 'Burmese Days' (1934) and 'A Clergyman's Daughter' (1935). He wrote under the pseudonym of George Orwell. 

'The Road to Wigan Pier' was published in 1937. It was an account of poverty among the working class in the depressed areas of northern England. His political leanings were distinctly left wing. He had resigned from the Indian Imperial Police because of his revulsion to imperialism and his research for 'The Road to Wigan Pier' reinforced his socialism. 

In 1936, Eric Arthur Blair travelled to Spain, initially to report on the Civil War. He decided, however, to join the growing list of 'foreign' volunteers fighting for the Republicans against Franco's Nationalist Army. Trouble was, he found himself fighting against Communists factions too! He had joined the 'Workers Party of Marxist Unity' - the POUM and fought on the Aragón and Teruel front lines. He achieved the rank of second lieutenant but had the misfortune to be quite badly injured by a bullet through the throat. He recovered but his voice was never quite the same thereafter! 

In May 1937, he fought against the Communists, who were trying to suppress their political opponents, at the Battle of Barcelona. He was nearly arrested due to his membership of the POUM and was forced to flee Spain and return to England. It was these incidents that tempered his left wing views - he was still a passionate Socialist but with a dread of Communism.
'Homage to Catalonia' was published in 1938. The book was an autobiographical account of George Orwell's time in Spain and included not only his personal experiences but also observations about Spain and Spanish life.
Back in the UK, Orwell was to continue his journalistic work as well as writing further books including the classics - Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). He died of tuberculosis in January 1950.

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    • Spanish Impressions George Orwell fought in the Spanish Civil War
      25 February at 19:35 ·

Gerald Brenan

Gerald Brenan was an English writer who spent much of his life in Spain and who has written a number of books about the country and its people.
He was actually born in Malta - in 1894 but was educated in England and later served in the British Army in the First World War where he won medals for bravery.
After the war he lived in Spain for a while in the small village of Yegen, in the Alpujarras. He married an American poetess and lived for a time in a house near Málaga but returned to England during the Spanish Civil War.
During the Second World War he was an Air Raid Warden and a Home Guard. Afterwards he returned to Spain where he lived for the remainder of his life. He died at Alhaurín el Grande, Málaga in 1987.
He wrote several books about Spain including 'The Spanish Labyrinth (1943)' and 'The Face of Spain (1951)' but his best-known work is 'South From Granada (1957)' which is generally regarded as being one of the best travel books about Spain.
Gerald Brenan was awarded a CBE in 1982, and was much honoured in Spain.

"Familiar Spanish Travels” by William Dean Howells

A review by Robert Bovington

William Dean Howells (1837 – 1920)
In October 1911, American William Dean Howells travelled to Spain. The author wrote about his experiences in “Familiar Spanish Travels”.

As an avid reader of books about Spain, I have mixed feelings about this book. Certainly, I did not enjoy it as much as other books that I have read on the subject. I found Howells’ literary style too verbose. I wonder whether the author thought: “Why use two or three pithy adjectives when two or three pages of text will do the same job!” 

He describes with great detail the strangers that he encounters on his travels, yet often provides little detail on the principal sights. Many of Howells’ sentences are inordinately long – 40, 50 words or more! Yet, despite his longwinded descriptions, Howells manages to convey his thoughts to the reader in both a poetic and an extremely descriptive manner. The reader can easily imagine the bleakness of the Meseta and the “insurpassably dirty and dangerous” gipsy quarters of Granada and Seville. Howells certainly was not, what we today call, politically correct. He frequently describes some of the Spanish women as fat. Nor did the author view his surroundings with rose tinted spectacles. He mentions bad breakfasts; freezing hotels, cold rainy streets and “the thick and noisome stench” of Cervantes former home in Valladolid. But he waxed lyrical about a great deal of his experiences too: the incomparable grandeur of Burgos Cathedral; the glorious masterpiece that is Murillo’s “Vision of St Anthony”; the unparalleled beauty of the Alhambra and the magnificent structure that is the Puente Nuevo in Ronda are shortened versions of just some of his descriptions. 

I know people’s tastes are different but what really surprised me was the author’s likes and dislikes regarding the places he visited. He did not like Córdoba but, to be fair, it was raining during his visit and he described the houses as “wet and chill”. However, he was also disappointed in that city’s beautiful Mezquita. Yet he really liked Algeciras! Certainly, from the author’s text, I gathered that he preferred ‘people watching’ to visiting the famous sights, which probably explains the imbalance between his descriptions of people and his accounts of the places visited. But, then, the whole expedition was unbalanced. He spent only half an hour in Toledo’s magnificent Cathedral and not much longer in the Mezquita, yet he visited Seville Cathedral every day during his fortnight’s stay! He appears to have enjoyed Madrid, especially the Prado and he was greatly taken with Granada though, more for the views from within and without the Alhambra than for the wonderful Arabic architecture. He preferred the Palace of Charles V to the Nasrid Palaces in that magnificent monument to the Moors rule in Spain. 

Notwithstanding the author’s idiosyncrasies, “Familiar Spanish Travels” will probably be an enjoyable read for those readers who wish to partake of a “warts and all” commentary of life in early 2oth century Spain. 

Robert Bovington 
April 2011 

Glories of Spain by Charles W. Wood

A Review by Robert Bovington

“Glories of Spain” was published in 1901 and describes the travels and adventures of Charles W. Wood and his friends, on a trip to Spain. 
Despite the book title, the party only visited the east of the country. Nevertheless it is a thoroughly enjoyable read. 
Charles W. Wood thoroughly describes the places he visits – Gerona, Barcelona, Montserrat, Manresa, Lerida, Zaragoza, Tarragona, Poblet, Tortosa and Valencia but, more than that he provides the reader with a thoroughly entertaining dialogue of the people he meets and their stories. And what an interesting bunch! They included former sweethearts Sister Rosalie and Father Anselmo who sacrificed their love for each other for a life in the Church and the hopeful reward of life together in Heaven; Ernesto and his mother; Salvador the Monk who preferred to live in a cave than the monastery at Montserrat and Monseigneur Delormais and his world-wide travels. Then there was the downtrodden night porter and his wife Rose aka the Dragon; Quasimodo and his beautiful music; blind Nerissa and her husband Alphonse; Loretta & her donkeys and more. 
The author enthuses over many of the monuments he visits and provides the reader with detailed histories of some of the places. 
Surprisingly, Charles W. Wood is not well known. Very little information was to be found about him when I researched using the Internet. His mother, however, was a famous author – Mrs Henry Wood wrote over thirty novels, the most famous being East Lynn. 
Charles W. Wood did write other travel books including “Letters from Majorca” and "In the Valley of the Rhone. He should not be confused with another author of the same name – an American who wrote “The Passing of Normalcy”. 
In summary, “Glories of Spain” is a delightful travelogue written by an Englishman in the late 1890s. 

Robert Bovington 
May 2011

from 1901 edition

Castilian Days by John Hay

A Review by Robert Bovington

Castilian Days
I enjoyed this book. Unlike many travel books about Spain, it was not all about cathedrals, churches and castles.
American John Milton Hay was more famous as a statesman than as an author – amongst other things he was the 37th Secretary of State. He had also performed the role of private secretary to Abraham Lincoln and one of his publications “Abraham Lincoln: A History” which he co-wrote with John G. Nicolay was published in 1890. 
“Castilian Days” was first published in 1875, though my copy was the Holiday Edition of 1903, recently launched in Kindle e-book format by Project Gutenberg. 
The book is a good balance between people and places. The first part of the book is dedicated to the habits and customs of the ordinary people of Castile in the late 19th century. This is followed by a vivid description of the bullfight – a bit too vivid for my liking. Hay describes all the gory details, which includes horses being gored to death – old horses that have been worked to (near) death in the intense heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. So, if you are squeamish, miss that chapter.

John Milton Hay
The remainder of the book is less morbid. These final chapters are mostly about some of the “must see” sights of this area of Spain – Madrid’s Prado, Segovia, Toledo, the Escorial and Cervantes hometown of Alcalá de Henares.
The author does include some background history of the places he visits and provides the reader with a balanced account of these locations – sometimes with enthusiasm but with the occasional averse comment. 

There is also a chapter about holidays and fiestas. 
Unless I am mistaken, there is no mention of the year in which John Hay undertook his journey around Castile. It must have been between 1873 and 1874 because he writes of the country being a republic. Despite the fact that the book is set over a century ago, many of the descriptions applied to the Spanish people and places, in my mind, still hold true today.
Escorial - sacristy
San Juan de los Reyes - cloisters

A Long Hard Slog

Spanish Steps - Travels With My Donkey by Tim Moore

A Review by Robert Bovington

I found this book annoying, often tedious, occasionally interesting and very occasionally funny.

So why did I find the book annoying? Well to start with, various critics have described the author as humorous - inside the book cover, 'Image' described Tim as "Without a doubt, the funniest travel writer in the world"; the 'Irish Times' even hailed him as the new Bill Bryson. What rubbish! I find Bill Bryson so interesting and amusing that I have read all his travel books two or three times and even his other, more serious, works like "Mother Tongue" and "Shakespeare" are funnier and better written than Tim Moore's book about his long expedition with a donkey. Like his journey, I found the book a long hard slog.

I found his writing style extremely verbose, sometimes undecipherable and often plain irritating - okay, the word 'click' may be military slang for a kilometre but I found the copious use of the word irksome. I found his humour often grated - too many puns and too adolescent. I certainly didn't 'laugh out loud' but, to be fair, I did chuckle to myself on a couple of occasions. I didn't mind, either, some of his 'toilet' humour, though there were too many references to donkey poo for my liking. 

So what were the good points? Well, Tim Moore follows the travel writer's 'well worn path' by describing many of the places he visits and supplementing this with quite a bit of history. He does this quite well. He also manages to get across to the reader the sheer scale of the journey - the good bits and the bad. Blistered, sometimes sun-scorched, occasionally rain-soaked, the author does a credible job of describing his 750-kilometre trek across northern Spain accompanied by a donkey. 

I can applaud Tim Moore for completing the 'Compostela de Santiago' even if his ulterior motive was to provide material for a book. However, in my view, it is nowhere near the best travel book I have read. He may have walked the way of St. James but he is not yet fit to be mentioned in the same company as Washington Irving, Gerald Brenan, Ernest Hemingway or Chris Stewart - nor Bill Bryson.

"Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes

A review by Robert Bovington
Given that this book was written 500 years ago it is surprisingly readable. In fact, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and often comical read.
Maybe it is Edith Grossman's translation that has made it accessible to a reader who prefers Bill Bryson, Peter James and Dick Francis to great classical authors like Shakespeare and Dickens. However, untranslated, it must be a pretty good novel anyway because in many surveys it is considered one of the best books of all time. 
Cervantes great novel tells the story of an impoverished country gentleman who, having read too many stories about chivalry, decides to become a knight errant. He sets out on a series of adventures - or possibly misadventures - in a quest to put the world to rights. The escapades of the absurd Don Quixote and his companion, Sancho Panza, are set in the La Mancha region of Spain. 
Even if you only read one of the great classics of literature, I would urge you to read "Don Quixote" by Miguel de Cervantes and this edition would be recommended for English readers.


Miguel de Cervantes by Robert Bovington
Miguel de Cervantes, a Spanish novelist, poet and playwright, was born at Alcalá de Henares near La Mancha in 1547.
He spent many years as a traveller and adventurer but eventually, when quite mature in years, he settled down and started writing - he had to write right handed because he had lost the use of his left hand during a skirmish in Italy!
His best-known work was his novel "Don Quixote de la Mancha", which is considered by many to be the first modern novel even though it was written 400 years ago! At any rate it is certainly one of the greatest works in Western literature - it is one of Encyclopaedia Britannica's "Great Books of the Western World" and is one of the most translated works of all time.
Don Quixote & Sancho Panza
Cervantes wrote many other literary works including plays, poems, novels and short stories. Included among his finest work is "Exemplary Tales" which the literary world regards as er... exemplary!
Considering Cervantes status as the most important figure in Spanish literature it is interesting to note that he died on the same date as William Shakespeare - April 23 1616!

Cervantes lived for several years in Valladolid - his house, 'Casa de Cervantes', is open to the public.

Washington Irving (1783-1859)

Washington Irving by Robert Bovington

One of the books that all lovers of Spain and its culture should have on their bookshelves is 'Tales of the Alhambra'. The American romantic writer Washington Irving wrote it following an extended stay in Granada.

Whilst in Spain, working for the American Legation, he had spent a brief time in Sevilla before setting out for Granada with a Russian travelling companion in April 1829. On arriving in this beautiful city, he immediately fell under its spell. He had the extraordinary good fortune to spend several months living in the Alhambra. The book is one of the classic travel books. It is a groundbreaking account of his time there including folklore and local gossip about the handsome princes and learned Moors who had lived in the palace during the years of the Moorish Kings' residencies.

Washington Irving
sketch by Robert Bovington

Washington Irving had already achieved success as a writer - he had written 'The History of Christopher Columbus' and 'Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada' before his visit to the Alhambra as well as a number of other works that included biographies and essays. However, he is perhaps best known for his short stories. His most famous being 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and 'Rip Van Winkle'.

In 1806, he had qualified as a lawyer but writing was his first love and, following his early successes in this field, he was assured of earning a living as an author - so much so that he was the first American author to achieve International fame. Another title attributed to him was 'first American man of letters'.


"Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada”Reviewed by Robert Bovington

Half a century ago, in my school history lessons, I received a very blinkered history of Spain. It consisted almost entirely of the Spanish Armada, Christopher Columbus’ Discovery of America, the Inquisition, the Battle of Trafalgar, Catherine of Aragon and something about Francis Drake singeing the King of Spain’s beard at Cádiz. So, most of it was around the time of Ferdinand and Isabella and, yet, we children learnt nothing of the Moors occupation of Spain, let alone the conquest of Granada. Over the years, I have read a number of history books and all appeared to give a one-sided view of the ‘Reconquista’. Washington Irving’s "Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada” is a welcome departure from the norm.

Not only, in my opinion, is the book a jolly good read, but it appears to be a comprehensive history of the series of events and military campaigns that led to the expulsion of the Moors after 700 years on the Iberian Peninsula.

Washington Irving was something of a hispanophile and yet this book provides the reader with a somewhat balanced account of events. At times, he shows sympathy for the Moors – so much so, that he calls attention to the barbarity of the Christians and the prejudices and ignorance of the Spanish Court. He does this in the guise of “Fray Antonio Agapida”, a fictitious character who represents the monkish zealots of the period.

This is no work of fiction, however, though it reads like one. Irving carried out much research during his time in Granada and Seville including visiting the towns and villages that formed the backdrop for the events of this delightful book.

Robert Bovington
March 2011

As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee

A Review by Robert Bovington

First Edition
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (1969) is an autobiographical account of an epic journey around Spain in the nineteen thirties.

It is 1934 and Laurie Lee, the author, is a young man. He leaves the security of his Cotswold home to embark on an adventure.

Initially he travels to London and ekes out an existence by playing the violin and by labouring on a London building site. He decides to go to Spain. It seems a rash decision because the young lad’s choice of destination is based on the fact that he knows a phrase of Spanish - "¿Puede por favor dame un vaso de agua?” – “Will you please give me a glass of water?”

For a year, he tramps through Spain, from Vigo in the north to Almuñécar on the south coast. During this voyage, he experiences a country that ranges from utter desolation to extreme beauty. He manages to eat by a earning a few pesetas playing his violin. He sleeps at night in his blanket under an open sky or in a cheap, rough posada though occasionally he is rewarded with the warm and generous hospitality of poor village people that he meets along the way.

Laurie Lee provides the reader with a vivid account of life in Spain during the bleak years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. I enjoy reading travel books, especially those about Spain. “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” is as good as any I have read even though many of the places he visits – Vigo, Valladolid, Cádiz, Tarifa – are described as squalid, dark, decrepit, acrid, and scruffy. Even Seville is both “dazzling and squalid” according to the author. He does praise some of the places he visits- Toro, Segovia, Toledo – who wouldn't! However, Lee’s descriptions of the places and peoples that he has encountered are couched in an extremely well written and sometimes poetic prose.

Laurie Lee must have been a good communicator. If we are to believe that he only had one phrase of Spanish then he did extremely well communicating with the people on his travels. His first port of call was Vigo and, I suspect that in July 1935, the ordinary people of that city would have spoken Galician. He would no doubt acquire more words of Spanish as he travelled through Spain but in Córdoba, Seville, Cádiz, Algeciras, Málaga and his final destination, Almuñecar, he would have encountered the Andaluz dialect. A novice in Castilian Spanish might experience some difficulty in understanding the spoken word of the ordinary people of Andalusia.

I enjoyed this book very much. I would recommend “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” as a thoroughly good read.

Robert Bovington
March 2011