A Spanish girl is a volcano

John Pemble

  • John Kemble’s Gibraltar Journal: The Spanish Expedition of the Cambridge Apostles, 1830-31 by Eric Nye
    Macmillan, 416 pp, £100.00, January 2015, ISBN 978 1 137 38446 1

Franco’s henchmen arrested Lorca in the summer of 1936, after he’d taken refuge in a private house in Granada. Having extracted a ‘confession’, they transferred him to nearby Víznar where, on 19 August, he and another prisoner were executed by firing squad. Hardly anyone believed Franco’s claim that Lorca had been killed in a skirmish (‘a natural accident of war’), and the poet’s death – eight months before the bombing of Guernica – largely explains why dozens of foreign writers and poets went to Spain to enlist in the International Brigades, or to serve as medical auxiliaries on the Republican side. Before long, five British and Irish writers had been killed and almost everyone in Soho knew somebody, or somebody who knew somebody, who’d been under fire in Spain. Declaring that neutrality and silence were no longer options, the editors of the Left Review asked high-profile literati: ‘Are you for, or against, the legal Government and the people of Republican Spain? Are you for, or against, Franco and Fascism?’ and published their answers in the summer of 1937 as Authors Take Sides on the Spanish Civil War. Orwell hated the clichés and party-line posturing, and dismissed the pamphlet as ‘bloody rot’. Roy Campbell jeered at the Republicans: ‘The sodomites are on your side;/The cowards and the cranks.’ Ezra Pound said the enemy wasn’t Franco, but big-time international finance: ‘You are all had. Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes.’ Graham Greene hadn’t replied to the Left Review because he couldn’t make up his mind. As a Catholic he was sickened equally by Republican atrocities against nuns and priests, and by Franco’s brutal suppression of the devout Basques. But he wanted to say something; his silence was being noted. ‘Where is Mr Graham Greene?’ Anthony Powell asked in a review of Authors Take Sides.

So in December 1937, Greene published an article in the Spectator called ‘Alfred Tennyson Intervenes’. He recalled that what was happening now wasn’t the first instance of its kind. A hundred years before, the poets Alfred Tennyson and Arthur Hallam, with a number of their Cambridge friends, had been heavily involved in a conspiracy to free Spain from despotic Bourbon rule. The leader was General José Torrijos, a romantic veteran of the Peninsular War who was living in exile with other Spanish political refugees in London. In 1830, Torrijos led an expedition of about 150 men to Gibraltar, with a view to storming Algeciras, rallying the guerrillas of the interior, and marching on Madrid to overthrow Ferdinand VII and restore constitutional government. But the local rebel juntas quarrelled; popular uprisings failed to happen; the British authorities in Gibraltar clamped down; the money ran out; and Torrijos was left high and dry, making occasional raids across the Spanish frontier but spending most of his time planning a takeover that was obviously never going to happen. At the end of 1831, he and about fifty partisans made a last crazy dash across the bay and stormed ashore six miles east of Gibraltar. They were rounded up by loyalist troops, imprisoned in the Convento del Carmen on the hills above Málaga, and on 11 December taken down to the beach and shot by a firing squad, two at a time. There were five British victims: four Gibraltarians and Robert Boyd, a young Irish officer of the Bengal Army who’d put up most of the cash, hoping for a glamorous alternative to service in India as a grandee in Torrijos’s Spain. He was better treated, though, than Lorca would be. The Spanish government allowed the British consul to recover his body, and later he was reburied, together with Torrijos and the other rebels, in the Plaza de Riego in Málaga. The memorial obelisk is still there, opposite Picasso’s birthplace.

By now the other British freedom fighters were well clear. Tennyson was safely back at Somersby after playing a non-combatant role with Hallam in the Pyrenees: swarthy enough to pass as Spanish, he’d been able to deliver secret despatches to insurgent leaders without arousing suspicion. Hallam had relished the excitement: ‘A wild, bustling time we had of it. I played my part as a conspirator in a small way, and made friends with two or three gallant men.’ Mission accomplished, they returned to Bordeaux, embarked for Dublin on the packet Leeds, and enjoyed fine nights on deck with ‘certain agreeable samples of womankind’, singing songs and reading Scott aloud. Back in Cambridge for the Michaelmas term, Hallam lapsed into post-vacation dejection. ‘After helping to revolutionise kingdoms, one is still less inclined than before to trouble one’s head about scholarships, degree, and such gear.’ Low skies and torpid dons made him long for ‘the ferment of minds, and the stir of events, which is now the portion of other countries’. But his friends in Gibraltar were just as bored. Fed up with hanging around waiting for something to happen, they soon packed up their uniforms, rifles and military manuals and, according to Greene, ‘scattered through Spain with guidebooks, examining churches and Moorish remains’. There was a lot here, Greene suggested, for the respondents of the Left Review to learn from. Tennyson and his friends ‘were – questionably – more romantic; they were certainly less melodramatic; they were, I think, a good deal wiser’ than the current crusaders for Spain. They took politics less seriously and ‘the dilettante tone has charm after the sweeping statements, the safe marble gestures, the self-importance – “I stand with the People and Government of Spain”’ – of Authors Take Sides.

Apart from Robert Boyd, the crusaders in Greene’s story were members of the elite, semi-secret society of Cambridge students and graduates known as the Apostles. This select brotherhood was heavily into male bonding, arcane causes and Wordsworth and Shelley (Byron was too worldly and cynical). They wrote poetry themselves and communicated via interminable letters about the meaning of life and the problem of how to act in order to realise the self and redeem the world. But in Tennyson’s day the Apostles didn’t hop in and out of bed with one another, as they did in Keynes and Strachey’s. Most were flagrantly heterosexual (Hallam especially – the idea of sex between him and Tennyson is impossibly far-fetched), and the few who weren’t (like Richard Monckton Milnes, mad about Hallam) shrank from the macho recklessness of the Spanish adventure. So there are no sodomites in Greene’s account, and the only coward, crank and sap-headed dilettante is John Sterling, the would-be mastermind of the whole affair.

Charismatic, feckless and volatile, Sterling had dropped out of Cambridge, and by 1827, when he was 21, drifted to London, where he was dabbling in journalism and trying to sort out his doubts about entering the Anglican priesthood. Then he met Torrijos and decided he’d found a better vocation. He threw himself into the cause of liberty in Spain and persuaded his Apostle friends to join in; when his cousin Robert Boyd inherited a legacy of £5000, he talked him into staking it on a gamble for power and glory with Torrijos. Torrijos, Boyd and Sterling planned the invasion and started by buying and equipping, with Boyd’s money, the Mary, a schooner moored above Greenwich. But the Spanish ambassador got wind of the plot and tipped off the British government, requesting that they intervene. So on the night in July 1830 when the vessel – carrying Sterling, seventy-odd conspirators, a stack of printed proclamations and a consignment of arms – set sail from Blackwall Reach, the Thames police surged out of the darkness, clambered aboard and seized everyone and everything in the king’s name. Sterling escaped by dropping into a wherry and rushing off to warn Torrijos and Boyd, who were waiting to be picked up at Deal. They and most of the other conspirators now crossed individually to France, where they regrouped before continuing overland to Gibraltar. Sterling went as far as Paris, and then turned back. ‘The excitement,’ Greene wrote, ‘proved too much for him … Soon his health gave way and furnished him with an excuse to stay behind, saved him for the Bayswater curacy, for the essays on Revelation and Sin, for death at Ventnor.’ This came in 1844, after a struggle against consumption made more painful by a sense of guilt over his cousin’s fate: ‘I hear the sound of that musketry; it is as if the bullets were tearing my own brain.’

But no one else, Greene says, took it all so seriously. Hallam and Tennyson had got involved ‘for the fun of the thing’; even Boyd was ‘quite unserious-minded’. Tennyson’s only regret was that this turned out to be his last holiday with Hallam, who died in 1833. Thirty years later, revisiting the Pyrenees, he remembered not a momentous rendezvous with revolution, but a poignant idyll of youthful friendship by the river at Cauteretz:

All along the valley, where thy waters flow,
I walk’d with one I loved two and thirty years ago.
All along the valley, while I walk’d today,
The two and thirty years were a mist that rolls away;
For all along the valley, down thy rocky bed,
Thy living voice to me was as the voice of the dead.

After farce, tragedy. Having dealt with the literati who couldn’t help Spain, Greene turned in his next book to mandarins of power and money who wouldn’t. The Confidential Agent is a deeply engaged thriller, dense and dark with menace and atrocity. It’s about the struggle of an unnamed beleaguered socialist republic to secure crucial supplies of coal in a hostile capitalist environment. Together with the Spectator article, it delivered a powerful message to the liberal-democratic world of the 1930s: the Spanish Republic didn’t need poets trying to be soldiers; it needed vital resources and raw materials. And Greene was of course proved right. The writers in uniform changed nothing. By the time the novel was published, in 1939, Barcelona had fallen, the Republic had collapsed, and Spain had embarked on forty years of right-wing military dictatorship.

In his introduction to John Kemble’s journal, Eric Nye accuses Greene of underestimating the seriousness of the Apostles. He reckons Greene had been misled by Carlyle’s Life of John Sterling, in which the Spanish venture is all about sorcerers’ apprentices wreaking mischief with Coleridgean mystical ‘moonshine’. But in fact, Greene was more disingenuous. He wanted to show that the Apostles were wiser than their counterparts of the 1930s, less deluded about their own importance, and he could do this only by omitting half the story – which is a pity, because it’s the half that would have suited his imagination better. It’s the novel he never wrote.

It concerns the Apostles in Gibraltar, whom he mentions only to say something false – that after they’d quit, early in 1831, they ‘scattered through Spain with guidebooks’. The truth is, there weren’t enough of them to scatter – there were only two, John Kemble and Richard Trench – and they returned home directly, by different ships at different times, leaving Boyd with Torrijos. More significantly, they didn’t have guidebooks – because there weren’t any. This is a small detail, but it sums up what Spain meant, not only for writers of Tennyson’s generation, but for those of Auden and Hemingway’s too. Greene’s inventive flourish reduces Spain to territory for Grand Tourists and vacation connoisseurs; whereas in the literary imagination it was somewhere far from the beaten track, visceral, violent and unstable. It was Byron’s battlefield of civilisations, where ‘Red gleam’d the cross and waned the crescent pale’; Barrès’s orgy ‘du sang, de la volupté, de la mort’; Auden’s ‘arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot/Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe’, where ‘our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever/Are precise and alive,’ and where ‘History the operator, the/Organiser’ is usurped by existential acts of will: ‘I am whatever you do … I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.’

With Kemble and Trench included, the story of 1830-31 looks a lot more like that of the 1930s. The governing idea of Spain is much the same; the reasons for getting involved are identical; statements are equally sweeping, gestures equally marble, self-importance and melodrama equally – even more – abundant. Although this wasn’t quite as obvious in 1937 as it has become following the publication of Kemble’s journal, Greene still knew enough to recognise Left Review delusions and histrionics. But he was looking for differences, not similarities, so he wrote out Kemble and Trench.

*

Trench, an Anglo-Irish poet and aspirant dramatist, became fixated on Spain and things Spanish after getting to know Torrijos and the exiles. He learned Spanish and translated Calderón, and in hypertrophied verse urged the patriots ‘Like nightly watchers from a palace tower/In hope and faith and patience strong to wait/The beacons on the heights’. He returned in 1829 from a trip to Burgos, Madrid, Granada, Alicante and Valencia with a sense of ‘23 years of existence squandered away’, and desperate to bridge the gap between poetry and action. ‘We cannot live in art,’ he told Tennyson. Where better than Spain to become ‘surely supported on the actual reality of things’? Spain, he’d discovered, was ripe for ‘a bloody and terrible revolution’, and Kemble and himself were destined to ignite the beacons on the heights: ‘[We] are wanted in Spain. The possibilities are we shall both be hanged; however “a man that is hanged shall fear no colours, in that he shall see none” … It is action, action, action that we want, and I would willingly go did I only find in the enterprise a pledge of my own earnestness.’ It all sounds much like Auden a hundred years later: ‘I do believe that the poet must have a direct knowledge of the major political events … Academic knowledge is not enough … The time has come to gamble on something bigger … I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier, but how can I speak to/for them without having been one?’

No such problem for Kemble in imagining himself as a soldier. He had enough belligerence and self-confidence for a regiment, even though he’d never handled a rifle and had learned what little he knew about war from books. No problem for his friends in seeing him as one, either. After Cambridge he’d gone to Germany to study theology, and Tennyson hailed him as ‘a latter Luther, and a soldier-priest’. Hearing that he’d dropped the idea of ordination, Hallam was relieved: ‘The soldier predominates over the priest so much in Kemble’s character, that I hardly regret his altered intention.’ But judging from what he’d known and heard of him at Cambridge, he had misgivings about Kemble’s soldiering in Spain: ‘A man who could never command himself in the Union Society must be exposed to perpetual danger in the insurgent camp.’ He was as combustible as gunpowder and as undisciplined in his lifestyle as in his thinking. Hallam wasn’t the only Apostle repelled by his addiction to drink and drugs. ‘I was in hopes he had abandoned that horrid habit,’ Joseph Blakesley wrote, referring to Kemble’s ‘search for Truth at the bottom of an opium pillbox’. Theatre was in his blood. He didn’t follow his father, Charles, his sister Fanny and his uncle John Philip onto the stage, but he never saw life as other than a drama with himself in the leading role, and no thespian was ever more prone to declamation, posturing and inflammation of the ego. In his view, the Spanish adventure was ‘one of the most important conspiracies of modern history’, and he was engaged in ‘a brilliant push for fortune and name’. Grandly, he instructed Fanny: ‘If you see by the Papers that Madrid falls into our power, write to me there.’

The London junta didn’t employ Kemble as a soldier. He was sent in advance to Gibraltar to prepare for Torrijos’s arrival, by delivering despatches, convening the local rebel groups and managing the budget. But he had bigger ideas for himself and Trench, who joined him a month later. ‘We did not come here,’ he informed London’s Spanish representative, ‘nor make the large sacrifices that we accept … just in order to be bearers of letters or agents of similar small services.’ The result was predictable. To the Spaniards he was an arrogant intruder, exceeding his authority and exploiting their weaknesses; to him, they were a squabbling, corrupt and pusillanimous rabble. When they remonstrated, he ignored them: ‘I listened with a cool smile of indifference to the complaints … assuring myself that my own decisive character would soon set all this to rights.’ And when, instead, it made things worse, he cursed them as craven: ‘Damn their cowardly souls to hell for them!’; ‘All but Torrijos are mere eunuchs!’; ‘The great Devil of Hell take such lily-livered slaves!’ Finding himself impotent in a world he’d failed to understand, Kemble was overcome by violent swings of mood, and his supercharged journal would make disturbing reading if he didn’t so often sound like a transpontine barnstormer overdosed on Shakespeare.

He’d arrived having persuaded himself and assured his family and friends that he would soon be riding to Madrid in the vanguard of a victorious army as Torrijos’s right-hand man. Almost a year later he’d not left Gibraltar and had nothing more brilliant to show for his push for fortune and name than a few passages of translation from the Nibelungenlied and some random philological speculations, the fruit of countless hours of idleness. How could he ‘go home without having fired a shot or having been fired at’? The prospect was ‘bitterness and gall’. He’d watched the Rock change from ‘a barren grey stone with its hateful grey lines and angles all bristling with cannon’ into a mountain of ‘most lovely green’, blooming with ‘cactus and aloes, fig and orange trees’, and then back again into nakedness, while waiting for something to happen. Time after time the alert had been sounded and adrenalin had flowed. Uniforms were scrambled into, swords buckled on, pistols loaded ready for an assault against Algeciras or the frontier town of San Roque; and time after time, at the last minute, everything had stalled. Something, somewhere, had been done too soon or too late; somebody had lost his nerve; the Spanish authorities had been alerted; the weather had changed. In February 1831 he waited in a ramshackle brig in the bay for the invasion to start:

For five days have I been living in the hold of this cursed vessel among contrabandists, sleeping on a sail between two cannon, unable to stand or sit upright, damp, cold and dark, not daring to go on deck and compelled to spend half my day without books, or ink, by the light of a very foul lamp: chair or table, a change of clothes, soap, comb or toothbrush quite out of the question.

All ended as before. ‘As usual, nothing was done,’ and the would-be hero retired not covered in martial glory, but nursing a swollen testicle.

Gibraltar had become ‘this abominable hole’; the unsympathetic British governor ‘at once a bully and a coward’; his own existence a wreck: ‘The glory of songs and legends is fled for ever, there is a weariness upon my spirit which makes the very name of pleasure a mockery.’ He told Fanny he was ‘broken into the dust’. What he didn’t tell her was that on top of everything else he was in the throes of a torrid relationship that was turning poisonous. At a masked ball during the carnival he’d met a teenage Spanish girl called Francisca. She had responded to his advances, and soon they were passing hours fused in erotic frenzy. He pampered her, showered her with gifts; she submitted to his fetishes. ‘I prevailed upon Francisca last night to strip herself naked; and surely never either by nature or art was a more gracious creature made … I have now seen something of the Spanish women, and can call their passions nothing less than fearful. A Spanish girl is a volcano.’ She convinced him that she was the innocent child-wife of a sordid contrabandist – neglected, loveless and desperate for the affection and protection of a knight errant like himself. She, too, knew how to act. Kemble was devastated when he discovered that she was a notorious prostitute who was also servicing Boyd and most of the garrison. More shattered illusions, more humiliation, more self-recrimination – but a grain of savage satisfaction too: ‘Nevertheless to this bitch I owe two of the very happiest months of my life.’

By now, Trench had long since given up and gone home. ‘I could eat my heart out,’ he wrote to Kemble from Bath on 1 April 1831, ‘to think how we have played the fools with the times.’ Kemble, persuaded that Spain was ‘incapable of freedom and … [did] not desire it’, followed a month later, leaving Torrijos less than distraught. ‘When you go to London,’ Torrijos told him with gentle irony, ‘you can be almost as useful to us there as you are here.’ Kemble took the hint. The exiles in Euston and St Pancras saw no more of him, and he passed his time in the reading room of the British Museum, editing Chaucer and compiling an Anglo-Saxon grammar. Trench became an irreproachably eminent Victorian: archbishop of Dublin and a highly reputed philologist – author of The Study of Words and English Past and Present, and originator of the OED. Like Tennyson he carried on writing poetry, though unlike Tennyson he never made it as a poet. He reverted to his youthful military mode by versifying the Crimean War; but whereas Tennyson satirised the Charge of the Light Brigade in one of the best remembered poems in English, Trench celebrated the Battle of the Alma in one of the best forgotten:

Oh thou river! Dear for ever to the gallant, to the free,
Alma, roll thy waters proudly, proudly roll them to the sea!

No freedom fighter of Tennyson’s time would have failed to recognise his own experience in Orwell’s verdict on the Spanish Civil War – ‘a comic opera with an occasional death’ – or in Auden’s reflections on the experience of his friends (‘dyed-in-the-wool Stalinists’ excepted): ‘Nobody I knew who went to Spain in the Civil War … came back with his illusions intact.’ When, after his own return from Spain, Stephen Spender wrote The New Realism, he summed up a lesson first learned a hundred years before: ‘Writers who have attempted to throw off their bourgeois environment to enter a revolutionary one have only succeeded in uprooting themselves, in getting killed, or in ceasing to be writers and becoming politicians.’ He forgot to add, ‘or philologists’.