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.

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