Spanish writer who fled civil war to a British village honoured in Madrid

Spanish writer who fled civil war

Arturo Barea, loved for his books and BBC talks, has had a city square named after him in the Spanish capital near his former school

In March 1939, a hungry and haunted Spanish refugee arrived in England with his wife, a typewriter and a head still roiling with the carnage and squalor they had left behind.

“My life,” Arturo Barea would later recall, “was broken in two. I had no perspectives, no country, no home, no job.”

Although exiled and “spiritually smashed” by Spain’s civil war, he would eventually recover three of those four losses and write perhaps the most definitive and personal account of his country’s history during the first four decades of the 20th century. On Saturday, partly at the prompting of British admirers, his achievements were finally given proper recognition in Spain, as the mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, formally opened a square in his honour, the Plaza de Arturo Barea.

Barea’s autobiographical trilogy, The Forging of a Rebel, was admired by George Orwell, who drily noted: “Señor Barea is one of the most valuable of the literary acquisitions that England has made as a result of Fascist persecution.”

He also proved an asset to the BBC. Having made anti-fascist broadcasts while working in the Republican government’s foreign press censorship office in Madrid, he found a job in the corporation’s Latin American service. Between 1940 and his death 17 years later, he recorded 856 talks in which he mainly chronicled the idiosyncrasies of English life, winning himself a huge and devoted listenership.

And yet, despite the books, the status as a kind of Spanish Alistair Cooke, and the wartime encounters with Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn and John Dos Passos, Barea has until now been a little overlooked in his native Madrid.

Saturday was the culmination of a long campaign designed to rectify the omission. A little after 11.15, beneath a bright blue sky and to shouts of “Viva Arturo Barea!”, Carmena inaugurated the plaza. She had brought her own copy of the first Spanish edition of The Forging of a Rebel, published in Spain two years after Franco’s death. Beside her stood the British ambassador to Spain, Simon Manley, who praised “a great BBC journalist”.

Also there were William Chislett, the Briton who has spent the past seven years seeking to honour Barea in the UK and Spain, and Uli Rushby-Smith, the niece of Barea’s second wife, Ilsa.

Chislett, a former Times and Financial Times journalist who has lived in Madrid for more than half his life, came across The Forging of a Rebel in the 1990s.

In its pages – and in Barea’s relationship with Ilsa, who had come to Madrid from her native Austria to support the Republicans – Chislett found a potent embodiment of what he calls “Spain’s 20th century tragedy, particularly that of decent, independent-thinking intellectuals whose lives were shattered by the country’s civil war”.

He became obsessed with trying to find the stone that commemorates the Bareas in the Oxfordshire village where they lived until Arturo died in 1957. In 2010, on his third visit to Faringdon, Chislett stumbled across it.

With help from a trio of Spanish writers – Javier Marías, Antonio Muñoz Molina and Elvira Lindo – the stone was restored and Chislett began pondering a more visible reminder of Barea.

Inspiration came from Ilsa’s niece. Rushby-Smith, who is now 77, arrived in England in 1956 as a 17-year-old orphan who had lost both her parents in the war. She went to live with the Bareas in their basic cottage, whose homemade shelves were crammed with books and whose walls and ceilings were stained brown from the 100 filterless cigarettes her aunt and uncle got through between them per day.

The couple soon became her surrogate parents and their working routines a familiar sight, with Ilsa translating Arturo’s books and articles into English.

“They worked all the time, discussing points, arguing about details – sometimes heatedly – related to their respective articles, talks, stories or whatever was being worked on at that particular time,” said Rushby-Smith.

“Arturo found an environment in England that helped him to regain some peace of mind and thus he was able to follow his creative urge to write – and, in fact, it became his way of making a living.”

But it was not all work: Rushby-Smith still remembers the friends who dropped by, giving Arturo the opportunity to cook paellas and tortillas using the precious olive oil he ventured to Soho to buy.

Equally important was The Volunteer, Arturo’s favourite Faringdon pub. As the Bareas’ cottage is tucked away at the edge of the village, Rushby-Smith and Chislett thought the pub would do just as well, and a plaque for its wall was designed by another Spanish exile, Herminio Martínez.

Before long, Chislett’s focus returned to Madrid.

While there is a street named after Barea in the south-western city of Badajoz, where he was born, his life had gone unmarked in the Spanish capital, which was his home from infancy and where his mother supported the family by washing soldiers’ uniforms in the river Manzanares. “This was the obvious place for him to be remembered but there was nothing there,” said Chislett.

Thanks to a petition, a helpful council and an absurd amount of luck, Barea has now returned to the Lavapiés neighbourhood of Madrid where he grew up. Not only had the square that now bears his name previously lacked one, it is also right by the Jesuit school he attended, and which he saw devoured by flames in the early days of the Spanish civil war.

Chislett describes the naming of the square as a civic gesture, “a labour of love after all my years here” and an effort to ensure Barea finally received the remembrance he is due in his homeland. Besides, “he was the kind of guy I wish I’d known”.

As the speeches ended and a torn and faded Republican flag, hung from a balcony in the newly baptised square, shivered in the breeze, Rushby-Smith reflected on the end of her uncle’s long exile. “I think of all the years they wouldn’t let him back into his country, which he loved so much,” she said. “And now he’s come home.”

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