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Stroud and the Spanish Spring

For the whole of my life so far, civil war has raged somewhere in the world and there seems no end in sight. In Spain, 75 years ago, the army led by general Franco staged a military coup against the legally-elected Republican government and the resulting civil war lasted for nearly three years. Franco’s army – boosted by the support of Hitler and Mussolini – eventually triumphed, and his dictatorship survived from 1939 until 1975. The political,social and cultural fall-out from this bitter conflict continues yet and the great poet dramatist and musician, Federico Garcia Lorca (1890-1936), remains a central and iconic figure in its story.

Lorca was murdered by a fascist assassination squad in the first weeks of the Spanish Civil War in August 1936. He was gay, famous, fêted, a staunch republican and in every way, an affront to the Catholic conservative political right. But he was just one among the countless republicans murdered and imprisoned during and after Franco’s military coup, whose collective fate was, for over 60 years, unaccounted for and undocumented.

And there’s where the peace movement, anarchism and the Gloucestershire town of Stroud collide. I have a hand-written line left me by the poet Adrian Mitchell after one of his performances in Stroud. It reads: “There’s nothing strange about Stroud”. “Put it in a poem Jeff,” he said, and I can hear his dry ironic comment yet. Actually, there’s a lot that’s strange about Stroud, not least its connections to the Spanish Civil War. Stroud strikes me as a radical boil on the Tory bum of Gloucestershire and I fancy Whiteway Colony, the Tolstoyan-anarchist community (Britain’s longest-surviving) founded near Miserden just outside Stroud in 1898, has contributed hugely to this strange fester. It is in this spirit that Stroud has hosted its festival (lorcainengland.org) throughout the summer and, as I write, its last event is about to take place at the tenacious Whiteway.

Characteristically, Whiteway has always been home and sanctuary for conscientous objectors, Spanish refugees from the civil war, free thinkers and anarchists of all stripes, and has nurtured the extraordinary literary and political links between Stroud and Andalusia in particular. The pacifist anarchist-feminist Lilian Woolf (1875-1974) lived at Whiteway with her companion Tom Keell – editor of Freedom, the anarchist newspaper – from the early ’20s until the Second World War, and founded a wholefood shop there. Older readers may remember Lilian street-selling Peace News. During the Spanish Civil War, Freedom became Spain and the World and in 1939 changed its name again to War Commentary. It reverted to Freedom in 1945.

The writer, traveller, Hispanist and associate of the Bloomsbury set, Gerald Brenan (1894-1987), lived briefly at Miserden village before departing to walk to China. He never got there. Instead, he lived most of his life in Spain and wrote The Spanish Labyrinth (1943), The Face of Spain (1951), South from Granada (1957). He was known at Whiteway and (I suspect) inspired Laurie Lee (1922-1997) to set out “one midsummer morning” to walk to Spain. Laurie Lee fought with the British International Brigade in Spain and his magnificent account of those times, A Moment of War, completed his autobiographical trilogy which began with Cider With Rosie (1959). He was an admirer of Lorca and his early poems in particular are held to be much influenced by Lorca.

Lorca’s three great plays, Yerma, Blood Wedding and The House of Bernarda Alba, are hardly ever out of production in Britain and there have been recent and new translations of his two great books of poems, Gypsy Ballads (trans Gloria Garcia Lorca and Jane Duran, Enitharmon Press) and Poet in New York (trans Medina and Statman, Grove Press) are testament to his understanding of the psychology of both Spain and America. Lorca made a brief visit to England in 1929 and went by train to Hereford (before leaving for New York). I like to think he went via Stroud.