A while back I asked Rod Younger from Books for Spain to recommend a book on the Spanish Civil War. He suggested “The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic” by Henry Buckley. I never really paid much attention to Spanish history when we lived back in Lanzarote where it has little relevance in many ways. After moving to the Peninsula last year and getting used to seeing the occasional signs of the war and the lasting effects of the Franco regime on the landscape and the society in which I now live, I felt I owed it to myself to brush up.
I’m not a habitual reader. I’m very choosy about what I decide to spend my time on. I lean to non-fiction with the exception of a few fiction authors I know and trust not to waste my time. Committing to read non-fiction can be a risk; however much I’ve wanted to read up on a subject, I am more than likely to lose interest a chapter or two in. This is not a clinical and stuffy tome on twentieth century history. The book is simply superb; I was gripped within a few pages. Why? I liked Buckley.
It was clear early in the book that Buckley belonged to a different age, his tone, and choices of words were of their time. What was timeless about him though was his professionalism as a journalist. On the rare occasions he refers to events he has not witnessed or been able to corroborate he informs the reader.
It could be said the book was one sided in the historical sense, because it is. There’s a part of me wishes that Buckley had split his time, and I had a volume two to look forward to in which I might learn more about the Franco opposition.
Buckley was there; he knew or had met a great many of the key players. This is no academic book – it is a first hand account by a highly intelligent and compassionate man who lived through the war and who loved the country and its people. You sense both his despair in the closing chapters of the republic, and his respect for the dignity and heroism of both the Spanish forces and the civilians who lived through the horror. He also appears to have had a huge respect for the International Brigades. Of one young Briton he encountered in a hospital bed he says, “For once in these days of national disgrace, I could feel proud of my country. We still bred men who would give up good careers and easy lives to die for an ideal.”
Buckley is the master of understatement, where these days would you read so much into the phrase “He was unmarried”? A statement preceded a couple of paragraphs earlier by the description of a how particular politician’s love of literature, particularly poetry, left him no time for ‘feminine society’. Equally, such understatement applies to some of the real horrors in the book, “I got some of his insides on my boots and other bits were sticking over the Duchess’s car.” In another piece he recalls the death of a young boy in the most understated but moving way. I won’t spoil it too much for you with these quotes, and there are many; it’s seriously worth your time finding them yourself.
It’s fair to say that Buckley laid the defeat of the republic by Franco’s forces firmly at the feet of Britain and France through the policy of non-intervention; a policy which the Germans and Italians chose to ignore. The inability of the republic to arm itself and the assistance given to Franco by the then Fascist countries of Europe, whilst the western European democracies stood idly by, was in his eyes the deciding factor. Buckley saw, perhaps before most, the bloodshed that was to come as a result of British and French inaction due to their fear of the potential rise of Communism.
When did you last read a ‘history book’ that moved you to tears? This one just might. It did me in places.
It doesn’t matter whether like myself you’re just curious, or even if you’ve read every other book on the subject. I feel confident saying that anyone who reads this will take something away from the experience.
Whilst reading this book Rod Younger of Books4Spain sadly passed away from a heart attack. Our sympathies are with his family and friends. I personally did not know Rod well, but have been long aware of his reputation as a consummate professional and true gentleman. We wish the website every success in the future as a fitting memorial to Rod’s passions for literature, for Spain and to his work. RIP Rod, you will be missed.
One of Rod’s passions was raising money for Motor Neurone Disease. His sister is continuing this in memory of Rod. If you would like to donate, click here: http://www.justgiving.com/Christine-Younger