Tricks of time in life and in fiction

This month marks twenty years since I left England for Granada. The years are rolling by now at such a runaway pace I can scarcely believe it’s been two decades. My first year in Granada, on the other hand, felt more like ten. One of the great benefits of major change is the way time expands, the freshness of new experience lending every moment a savour that marks it out. That year, 1999, stretched out with a miraculous elasticity: a collection of discoveries, impressions, experiences like beads on a string, each one precious, if only for what it taught me. Striving to live wholly in the present, I learnt to use my senses more fully, to appreciate more.

The speed of time passing is one reason I dislike too much routine in my life. If you want to prolong time, routine is the enemy. Not that drawing out time is always desirable; sometimes I long to speed it up. When you’re in pain or waiting for something, time can drag interminably. I think the longest year of my life was the one following my miscarriage as I attempted to get pregnant again, my hormones screaming out their loss. Patience is not my best virtue but for a writer hoping to get published, it’s a necessity. Waiting for phone-calls, emails, other people’s decisions in any sphere of life can make every minute seem like an hour. Becoming a parent warps time similarly. There’s no comparison between the first month or year of your baby’s life (especially the firstborn) and a month or year when they’re at secondary school.

Time plays other tricks too, cruel or kind. Looking back on my own life as I work on my memoir, it strikes me just how crucial timing is in so many aspects of our lives. Meeting the right person at the wrong time or the wrong person at the right time can ruin a life. Catching the zeitgeist as a writer or any kind of entrepreneur requires astuteness but also an element of luck. Getting it right can make all the difference between success and failure. Accidents frequently happen through the tiniest of misjudgements. A split second when life and death are a mere hair’s breadth apart. Timing is all. The opening of my novel, Secrets of the Pomegranate, shows Deborah and her friend catching a train by the skin of their teeth. The train is one of four targeted in the 2004 terrorist attack in Madrid, ‘the train of death’ as the press (in real life) later termed it. Had they missed that train, there would have been no story.

Writing fiction entails making important decisions about how to deal with the passage of time. A novel can span a day or a century. As a writer, you can manipulate the passing of time to best suit your story. In Secrets of the Pomegranate, the action is condensed into four weeks, with the past conveyed through Deborah’s diaries, which go back twenty years. The Red Gene, only a little longer in word count, spans eighty years with protagonists from three generations. Maintaining the thread of the story when bypassing large chunks of time poses a challenge but omitting or skimming over the less eventful periods is the only sensible option. No one wants to read about the boring bits of the characters’ lives. (Would that in real life we could press a fast-forward button to skip the boring bits and a repeat or slow motion button for the good bits.)

Time can so often fool us, distorting the passage of time as we look back. Events that our brain places in the distant past may have taken place just weeks earlier if some dramatic interruption to our normal routine has occurred in the interim, while experiences from long ago may be so strong in our memory that they seem like yesterday. Watching a slide show of my overland trip to Kathmandu in 1974, taken by a fellow-traveller, transported me back to my twenties, the forty plus intervening years shrunk to nothing. My married years up to 1984, on the other hand, belong to a whole different lifetime.

Writing from the point of view of Rose, the central character of The Red Gene, I had first to get into the mind of a girl in her early twenties. Seeing life through her eyes as she aged and was moulded by the experiences that made up her story involved accompanying her right through to her nineties. Having worked with older people in the past (decades ago but still vivid in my mind) helped me portray Rose in old age. I don’t feel my age or I don’t feel any different were phrases I would hear almost daily. What is forty or sixty or eighty supposed to feel like? Time impacts people in different ways. Assumptions about age and attitudes to it differ from one culture to another and even in the same culture expectations of age change over time.

When I reflect on my twenty years in Granada, I don’t feel I’ve changed significantly although the world around me certainly has. The steep learning curve involved in settling in a new country has been tough at times but also energising. Maybe I’m a tiny bit wiser and know myself a little better as a result. I’ve become a grandmother (five times over). But do I feel my age? Of course not!


Forward into a New Year


The year is coming to an end, another about to begin. In front of me lies a virgin diary. Its ruled divisions into days, weeks, months represent an uncharted future. Just as I did last year and the year before, I stare at the blank pages, wondering what will fill them. Will 2019 be good or bad or a balanced mix? Who will I meet? What unexpected events – personal or political – will mark it? Will my loved ones stay safe from harm? It sounds dramatic but can I even count on surviving the year? This year, amongst my friends, one was diagnosed with an already well-advanced cancer that came completely out of the blue to him. Another friend lost her partner, also due to an undetected cancer; he lived for only weeks from first diagnosis. But the future can also bring unlooked for miracles: hopes fulfilled, unexpected joys, triumphs over adversity.

The blank pages of a new diary have something in common with the blank page – whether on screen or paper – that faces a writer. The difference is one of agency. I have only partial control over what will happen in the year to come. World events, accidents, illness, freak weather, other people’s actions are beyond my personal control, whereas I can fill the blank page of my story, poem or novel with whatever I choose.


As I began to jot down the first entries for 2018 at the close of last year– a family reunion in Wales for New Year, my return flight to Granada, the resumption of classes, lunch with my publisher – I had no intimation of what would intervene to derail some of these arrangements. No idea that my house would catch fire, forcing me to move out for a month. Not an inkling that one of the absurdly expensive hearing aids I depend on for communication would fall out and be irretrievably lost. Nor the slightest intimation that the publishing contract I’d secured a month earlier would, halfway through the year, be cancelled. (Had I known in advance that three months later it would be reinstated, my summer would have been a good deal happier.) The accumulation of all these unexpected events made a big hole in my finances that I could not have anticipated.

2019 will, I hope, be better. On the personal level I have the publication of my novel, The Red Gene, to look forward to in April. Soon I will begin planning the launch and, hopefully, more talks, presentations and interviews in the UK and in Spain. Will the spark for a new novel strike? Of the various half-formed ideas in my mind will one compelling project emerge? Or will I continue with and perhaps complete the memoir I am currently working on?

The Red Gene Amazon

On the global stage I am more fearful than at any time since the eighties, when the threat of nuclear war – by design or accident – appeared highly credible. I spent considerable amounts of my time during that decade campaigning against nuclear weapons. Now the dangers are multiple and I fear more for my children and grandchildren and their entire generations than for myself. I fear for the hungry and dispossessed of the world, the refugees and victims of war, of climate disaster and the poisoning of the environment. I am afraid in the face of rising fascism in Europe, east and west, and in America, north and south.

Those are depressing thoughts for the start of a new year but there is always hope in new beginnings, the renewed energy that comes with longer days and the budding of nature in all its forms. Change for the better is possible if we care enough and don’t give up the struggle.


To end on a lighter note, this coming New Year’s Eve I will make sure to don my red underwear – Spanish superstition deems it essential if you want to ensure good luck in the year to come. Needless to say, it slipped my mind on 31st December last year.



Censorship in Franco’s Spain

In my novel The Red Gene, Consuelo, born in 1939 soon after the start of Franco’s dictatorship and brought up in a family of the landed class fully supportive of his regime, has limited access to books. As a child, her reading matter is restricted to religious works like Lives of the Spanish Saints and approved classics such as Don Quixote. Later, her somewhat subversive sister-in-law passes her a handful of novels banned by the censor and smuggled in from Mexico, among them Gulliver’s Travels and Portrait of Dorian Gray. Romantic serials in women’s magazines and romance novels by prolific author Corin Tellado formed the reading diet of most women – if they read at all. Illiteracy levels, especially among women, were shockingly high until as late as the 1970s.


Censorship under Franco was imposed on literature, radio, film and television, music and public performances. The great majority of books submitted to the censor for approval were banned. The Falange and the Church had direct control of the process, acceptance being subject to conformity with Franco’s political ideology and with Catholic morality. At the end of the Civil War, most of the intellectuals and artists who had defended the Republic – those who had not been imprisoned or killed – had gone into exile. In terms of culture and art, it was a bleak time. Those whose creative endeavours were not inspired by the principles of Francoism – exalting the military ethos, Spanish nationalism and fundamentalist Catholicism – were liable to be persecuted.

Unsurprisingly, the Press came in for particularly strict curbs. Franco’s brother-in-law, Ramón Serrano Suñer, was placed in charge of press and propaganda. His Interior Ministry controlled all types of publication so that the news could be manipulated and used as a means of spreading propaganda. Republicans and communists were to be reviled. For example, at the end of World War II, newspapers were encouraged to play down Russia’s victories over the Nazis but extol those of the Americans and British. The directors of each newspaper were appointed by the regime and only approved journalists were issued with the press cards required to practise their profession. ‘Informative’ texts were sent out for obligatory insertion in the media. ‘Fake news’ is nothing new. The only written medium to escape government censorship was the magazine Ecclesia, the organ of the Episcopate and Acción Católica. In the issue of March 1944, they advised: No se debe leer, más que por inmoral, que lo es bastante, por repulsivamente realista. Reading was discouraged for its ‘repugnant realism’ as well as its immorality.


The censors, well paid by the Ministry, had to read every publication from beginning to end and indicate any part that infringed the law. To begin with, they were academics close to the regime. Later the task fell to untrained functionaries or in some cases writers (Camilo José Cela was one; ironically his own novel La Colmena, The Beehive, was banned in Spain until 1955 and had to be published first in Argentina). In the absence of any clear judicial guidelines, much depended on the personal prejudices – ideological or moral – of the particular censor and on his character or his state of mind at the time. It was the job of the illustrators of magazines and newspapers to retouch any drawings or photographs so that they complied with the requirements of Francoism and the Church. Usually but not always this involved the female figure.


Radio Nacional España had a complete monopoly on broadcast news. However, at the suggestion of Dolores Ibárruri, ‘La Pasionaria’, the Spanish Communist Party set up a clandestine radio station, Radio España Independiente. Broadcasting from Moscow (and later Bucharest) every day between 1941 and 1977, it brought news from the BBC and Radio Francia Internacional in Spanish and was known as La Pirenaica, to give the impression it came from somewhere closer (the Pyrenees). Merely daring to tune in to the station was considered a sign of opposition to Franco. In The Red Gene, the local pharmacist in Consuelo’s community is arrested and imprisoned for many years after being caught listening to La Pirenaica.




Films, especially foreign films, were an obvious target for censorship. Moral, religious and ideological content was tightly controlled, which frequently meant cutting scenes and manipulating dialogue (dubbing provided the perfect opportunity for this). Sexual content came in for particular attention. Actresses had their busts reduced and the necklines of their dresses raised so as not to scandalise their audience. Certain terms were forbidden, such as the words for thigh or groin or for items of underwear. ‘Lewd’ kissing, over-effusive demonstrations of affection, states of undress, uninhibited dancing, divorce and adultery were among the objects of the censor’s scissors. This was at times taken to extremes. For example, in the 1953 John Ford film Mogambo, starring Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Donald Sinden and Grace Kelly, dubbing transformed the lovers into brother and sister – a change that left Spanish viewers watching the original footage somewhat puzzled. Adultery had given way to incest. During the early years of the regime, any actor or director who had expressed sympathy for the Republic was blacklisted. The list included twenty-nine Hollywood stars, among them Charlie Chaplin, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.


Theatre and music were similarly controlled. Theatre companies had to subject their plays to the Board of Censorship for Theatrical Works, which could change dialogue or entire scenes or ban the work completely, besides changing details of the set design, the costumes or the sound track. With regard to music, some Spanish artists were considered a danger to the regime and blacklisted, while foreign singers and groups were strictly censored. Four million songs were vetoed on radio and television; album covers like the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the Who’s Quadrophenia and David Bowie’s The Man who Sold the World were embargoed.


Another form of censorship was the prohibition of regional languages in favour of castellano and the repression of regional cultures in order to impose national uniformity. This often involved manipulating history so that it bore little relation to the facts. Journalists in any case had little opportunity to inform their readers truthfully. As everything had to pass through the filter of Francoism, citizens were offered only a partial view of reality. In 1966, the Press Law of 1938 was replaced by the Fraga Law, named after the Minister of Information, Manuel Fraga. Although the new law appeared more liberal, in practice transgression could result in financial sanctions, confiscation of editions or closing down a publication completely, creating a climate of self-censorship among writers and editors. Only after Franco’s death was censorship finally abolished.

Placing myself, placing my novels

Sometime in the next few weeks I will take a bus to Málaga and collect my German citizenship papers from the Consulate there. As if having two identities, two countries I can call home is not enough, I am about to acquire a third.

spain-flag-small          flag-400      germany-flag-small

In 1933, my father, who came from a secular Jewish family in Berlin, left Germany and headed for London. It proved a wise move. He studied and qualified for a new career, changed his name to one that sounded more English and when the Second World War broke out, joined the British army. After the war, he married my mother, also from a European background. Both had by now acquired British nationality. They had three children and lived a more or less conventional life. No German was spoken in our home, we were all baptised and sent to Sunday School; we felt as English as anyone else. In fact I took great pains to conceal my parents’ foreign origins. To be German in the fifties – not so long after the end of the war – was to be associated with the baddies of comics and playground games.

How could I ever have foreseen that in my late sixties, I would be applying to become a German national? For twenty years now I have had a foot in two countries, but neither of them is Germany. The bigger footprint is in Spain, where I’ve lived since 1999; Granada is the place I call home. And yet I still have a stake in the country of my birth. All my family are there; I fly over frequently to see them. I am still more at ease speaking English than Spanish. My sense of humour is more English – and probably a slight eccentricity too. But this split identity does not include Germany. I’ve been there three times, the last in 1974 on my way to Kathmandu. I studied German at school up to A-level but have rarely used it since. However, with a chaotic Brexit looming, I am liable, along with several million others – Britons resident in Europe and Europeans resident in Britain – to have my whole life overturned if the UK ceases to be part of Europe. Spain does not allow dual nationality; Germany does. So when the German government offered citizenship to the descendants of all those forced to flee by the Nazis, it seemed only sensible to apply. Together with other members of my family, we assembled the necessary documents and sent them off. My siblings and their children, my son and even my Scottish grandchildren have duly been granted German nationality. How ironic that the country my father fled has now made me one of its citizens with the right to a passport.


I don’t expect to become German in any meaningful sense. It will ease my life by helping avoid visa applications, border queues and other bureaucratic obstacles whenever I travel to or from the UK. Perhaps I will visit Berlin and explore the city of my paternal roots. Perhaps I will try to brush up my German. But understanding and feeling at home in two cultures is hard enough; I don’t think I could start from scratch with another. Adapting each time I move between my two countries is a disorienting process. The switch from one language to the other is the least part of it. Much trickier are the cultural and lifestyle disparities – more pronounced than I would ever have imagined before I came to live in Spain. The differences shout out at me every time I go back: attitudes to personal space, to touch, to punctuality, to noise levels, to what is regarded as tolerable and what is beyond the pale. The different timetable for eating and sleeping disrupts my body rhythms; I roam the supermarkets bewildered by the vast range of ready meals, shocked at the prices. I feel like an outsider.

When I lived in Britain, the novels I wrote had British settings. The culture was familiar; I’d been immersed in it all my life, absorbed it from birth. But cultures don’t stand still. After ten years or so in Spain, I found I was out of touch with 21stcentury Britain. I could no longer write convincingly of contemporary life. The cultural references familiar to my family and British friends meant nothing to me. Yet setting my fiction in Spain also posed problems. I could write from the viewpoint of guiris, the foreigners resident in Spain, as I did in Secrets of the Pomegranate. The three main protagonists in that novel were English by birth. To write from the perspective of Spanish characters, whether historical or contemporary, presented a much greater challenge. It felt imperative that what I wrote should be authentic enough to convince Spanish as well as native English readers. But did I have the necessary in-depth understanding of the Spanish mind-set and culture, contemporary and historical? After all, I was an outsider here too.

In writing The Red Gene (to be published April 2019), I took on this challenge. Twenty years of living in Spain have given me some insight, or so I like to think. In addition, for the historical parts in particular, I researched widely, reading extensively in Spanish as well as English, watching Spanish films, talking to Spanish friends. However, what helped most, without a doubt, was interviewing older people, recording the small details of their lives as they remembered and recounted them, as they told me their stories. I am immensely grateful to all of them.

Over the years, I have developed a keen interest in the history of my adopted country, in particular its more recent history: the 2nd Republic, the Civil War, Franco’s dictatorship. Learning more about the part played by the International Brigades who came to support the elected government in their fight against fascism led me to wonder if my father had ever considered joining the Brigades. They had a large contingent of Jews – several thousand – from the East End of London, from the United States, Hungary, Germany and above all Poland. Many of them were communists or socialists alarmed by the rise of anti-Semitism. According to some estimates, 70% of the medical volunteers were Jewish. My father wasn’t the fighting type and he’d studied law, not medicine, so it’s unlikely he would have considered it, but he may well have had friends who did. He would certainly have been aware how important it was to support the Spanish Republicans in their fight against the rebels, who without the help of Hitler and Mussolini would not have succeeded. How I would love to have discussed all this with him but he died in 1972 when I was barely grown up. Neither of us could have anticipated that I would develop such an interest in 20th century European history or that the war in Spain would form the background to a novel I would one day write.


Edinburgh Book Festival: my annual treat

Whatever the competition from screen-based forms of entertainment, books show no sign of losing their popularity and the burgeoning of literary festivals bears this out. I love these events, love being surrounded by books and readers and writers. August invariably finds me in Edinburgh, where my son and his family live. For at least a week every year I have all the cultural riches of Edinburgh’s Festival, the largest arts festival in the world, at my disposal. But for me it’s not the four thousand or so acts of the Fringe that compete for my attention and money. Rather, it’s the International Book Festival that seduces me every time. It feels like my natural home and I come away from each talk exhilarated, inspired and wishing I had all the time in the world to read and to write. With hundreds of events and speakers from over fifty countries, Edinburgh Book Fest is always stimulating, thought-provoking and entertaining.




One talk I attended this year had the sea as its pivot, ranging from migration and the tragic loss of life in the Mediterranean to the plight of sex slaves and drug mules at sea and the environmental damage to the world’s oceans. Another focused on Jewish fugitives in the 1930s and 40s, with two writers – one Icelandic, the other English but of Hungarian Jewish descent – speaking about their new novels. My vote for most entertaining was the talk by Viv Groskop about what led her to write her book, The Anna Karenina Fix, which attempts to use the Russian classics as a reference point for solving all life’s problems. Want to know how to survive unrequited love? Read Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. Struggling to overcome inner conflict? Read Crime and Punishment. And so on.


Literary festivals happen all over the world, from Gibraltar to Jaipur, and wherever they take place, there is always that same incredible buzz. I suspect a fair number of their enthusiastic fans not only read but also write, gaining inspiration from their favourite authors just as I do. Over the years, I’ve been to many literary festivals and heard numerous authors, some famous, others less well-known. At Cheltenham in the mid-90s, only a couple of years before his death, I was privileged to hear Laurie Lee talk with eloquence about his Spanish experiences as a young man, and it was there too that I listened to Yevtushenko reciting his poetry in the original Russian, his voice stirring and passionate, his eyes blazing with intensity. (His 16 year-old son read the English translation rather less dramatically). Jeanette Winterson, Maggie O’Farrell, Ian McEwan, Sue Townsend, A L Kennedy and the late Helen Dunmore are among the many authors I’ve heard talk about their writing processes and sources of inspiration.



One thing I love particularly about Edinburgh’s Bookfest is that alongside Nobel and Booker Prize-winners, leading politicians and thinkers, debut authors are given a voice and a chance to promote their books. Each year, particular themes are chosen, always with an international perspective. This year they included Freedom and Equality, Identity, Politics for Change and Our planet and us. However, this year more than any other, the Festival was hit by visa problems. A dozen of their invited speakers, mostly from the Middle East and African countries, were refused entry to the UK after a humiliating process that involved submitting three years of bank statements, even though these authors had their costs guaranteed by their publishers and the Festival and were being paid. Womad musicians had experienced similar problems earlier in the summer. How sad that even cultural events like music and literary festivals should suffer from the ‘hostile environment’ that has taken over in Britain. Depriving us of non-native  artists, many of them highly acclaimed, can only serve to impoverish our culture.


Writing a Memoir

When I enrolled on a one-week memoir-writing course last March, I had not seriously considered writing about my own life. What I had in mind was giving myself space to think creatively and with luck finding inspiration for my next novel. I also felt in need of some relaxation in a peaceful, nurturing environment, after what had been a challenging start to the year.

Five months on and to my great surprise, I am well into writing a memoir. The course, at Cortijo Romero in the Alpujarras, was led by Rosie Jackson, a poet, writer and experienced teacher. Her facilitation, along with the contributions of ten interesting and talented fellow students fired me with enough enthusiasm to explore the idea further. Taking time to reflect on our lives and write short pieces – scenes from our childhood or later episodes that proved to be turning points – had triggered a process in all of us, a search for meaning and connection, as memories, some of them long buried, began to surface.

I set about reading the memoirs of other writers, including Rosie’s own, The Glass Mother. I had already read Maggie Gee’s My Animal Life and more recently, Bella Bathurst’s Sound, which described her experience of going deaf at twenty-eight. (On the course, I had written for the first time about my own early loss of hearing and been touched by the other participants’ empathy and interest.) I read Jeanette Winterson’s Why be Happy when you could be Normal? and Rose Tremain’s Rosie, learning from all of these.

Twelve years ago, I had written a kind of travel memoir about my move to Spain and my impressions of the country. Single to Granada was never published but returning to it now, I found parts of it served well as an entry into a fuller and deeper interpretation of my life. It gave me a theme – migration – that connected naturally with my family history.

Writing about my life has been an eye-opening process, prompting a period of self-examination and deep personal reflection. The mind plays strange games, frequently surprising me with long-forgotten incidents from my past while others elude me. With the memories come newly awakened emotions: guilt, anger, sadness, regret, as well as gratitude for the times of happiness and good fortune. I had not expected this profound interior journey as a side-effect. Trying to make sense of my life, I’ve found myself exploring different ways of accounting for it. How much is determined by genetics, how much by childhood influences? Some might scoff, but could astrology, the configuration of the stars at my birth have played any part? So much that has happened in my life seems down to pure chance.

Although I’m finding my story more interesting than I expected, the motivation to publish remains tenuous. Who would want to read about me? I’m not famous; my life has perhaps been more colourful than many but hardly exotic or of great significance. And I’m a very private person. How can I possibly expose myself in such a public way, reveal secrets I’ve guarded for decades? Looking back, I’m not always pleased by what I see. Writing a memoir is not like writing a novel. In a memoir I am the protagonist, there is no disguising myself as a fictional creation. To be worth anything, it has to be honest. True, I can choose what to reveal and what to stay silent about, but hide too much and the danger is that what I produce will be so bland and boring that no reader will engage with it.

It also feels wrong – vain and self-indulgent – to be looking inward at my own inconsequential life when there are so many causes to fight for. My own migration, embarked on by choice with little risk and no hardship, pales in significance besides the tragic stories of today’s desperate migrants and refugees. In my novels I have addressed what seemed to me important topics – through a story, because that is often the best way to emotionally engage an audience, but with underlying themes that add depth and have some kind of moral relevance. A memoir would serve no such purpose. However, until inspiration for a new novel carries me off in a different direction, I’m happy to continue with this exploration, leaving aside for the time being the big questions of why I’m writing it, who it’s for and whether to publish.

Can fiction help change our perception of refugees and migrants?

As we watched the hulk of the overloaded ship finally cast off into the dark, carrying our hopes with it, the chimes of some distant church clock reached us faintly through the damp night air. Twelve o’clock. Time, which had been measured only in the slow forward movement of the throng, now took on a different meaning as a collective slump of despair spread through the thousands still waiting at the port. A seemingly impossible number of refugees had succeeded in boarding the British ship. But now the Stanbrook had gone, tilting low in the waterand we were left stranded, at the mercy of the cruel victors whose arrival could not be far off. How much time remained?

Children were crying, an old man standing near us cursed the fascists, yelling his abuse into the darkness while his wife made futile attempts to calm him. Rumours of rescue passed in forlorn wisps from one group to another, forming and dissolving like ripples on the ocean. But mostly people were silent, exhausted by days and nights on the road, trudging with as many of their possessions as they could carry, defeated, despairing, afraid.

The above was an early draft of the opening paragraphs of The Red Gene. I was still experimenting with possible scenarios, still deciding where to situate my protagonists as the inevitability of a Republican defeat in the Civil War became clear. In the end, I discarded it and took the plot in a different direction; I set Rose and Miguel elsewhere as they faced the prospect of imminent victory for Franco. But the scene I described, in the port of Alicante, was realistic enough by all accounts.


Fifteen thousand people had gathered at the port in the hope of escaping Franco’s forces. The Stanbrook was captained by Archibald Dickson, a Welshman who left his cargo of oranges and saffron on the dockside and instead allowed two and a half thousand desperate refugees to board his vessel, occupying every inch of space above and below deck. Leaving the port, he had to brave missile attacks from the rebel destroyers forming a blockade there. The Stanbrook took its shipload of refugees to Oran in Algeria, where they remained on board for a month in dire conditions before being allowed to disembark. They ended up in internment camps but at least they had escaped Spain.

Those refugees were the last to leave. As thousands more continued to join the waiting crowds over the next few days and no more ships arrived, many committed suicide, drowning or shooting themselves. The rest, some forty-five thousand, were rounded up by the Italian troops fighting on Franco’s side. Families were forcibly separated (does that ring any bells?). The women and children were packed into a cinema, where they had no access to water for washing and virtually nothing to eat, while the men and older boys were taken to the bullring or to an almond orchard known as Los Almendros, basically an improvised concentration camp. Later they were moved to another camp at Albatera where once again they had to sleep in the open with no protection from wind or rain, where they were deprived of food and water beyond a minimum – scarcely enough to keep them alive – and forced to work in the salt marshes. They were frequently beaten; many died of fever or starvation; others were shot, supposedly trying to escape.

During the course of the war, a steady stream of refugees had been heading over the French border as different regions fell to Franco’s rebels. By the time it became clear, in early 1939, that all hope was lost for the Republicans, nearly half a million had fled across the Pyrenees into France. They fared little better than those trapped in Spain. Interned in camps and held in intolerable conditions, large numbers died of cold, malnutrition or disease. Of those who survived, thousands were later transferred to German concentration camps, the majority to Mauthausen, where most ended up in the gas ovens.

Some, however, had better luck. Mexico, one of the few countries to welcome Republican refugees from Spain, sent ships to France, the first being the Sinaia in 1939. During the next three years, Mexico took some 25,000 of the Spaniards who had fled over the border, liberating them from the French camps. On arrival in the port of Veracruz, their passengers were given a heroes’ welcome.

Nowadays the prevailing image of refugees is of black or brown people fleeing from Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq or sub-Saharan Africa. Europe is fortifying its borders against the invading hordes, as many see them. It’s too easy to forget who started the wars or caused the environmental destruction that forced these people to flee. What does it cost to leave your home, your family and friends, your possessions, your country; to embark on a journey you know will be fraught with countless dangers; to expose your children to those dangers? How does it feel to be greeted – if you finally succeed in arriving in a safe country – by hostility and suspicion; to be locked up in a detention centre, deprived of basic human rights and any semblance of dignity; faced with the threat of being sent back where you came from? Who would do it other than as a last resort?


Memories are so short. We are all potential refugees. Eighty years ago, the exodus was in the opposite direction: refugees were fleeing Europe from Hitler or Franco. It could happen again; any minority group is at risk. Right now, sixty-eight million people are displaced due to war or persecution, one in every 110 of the world’s population. The vast majority are in developing countries, their own or neighbouring ones. But since 1993, some 34,000 have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe; countless others have died crossing the desert.

Politicians pander to populist opinion for electoral advantage, while much of the press influences that opinion by using dehumanising vocabulary to describe migrants and refugees. They exaggerate the numbers with terms like swarm and flood and invasion, designed to instil fear. Refugees are referred to as animals, cockroaches, criminals and terrorists, outsiders who do not share our ‘European values’. Hungary’s Victor Orbán has made it a crime to aid migrants and now the EU has ruled that NGOs should stop rescuing drowning refugees, instead leaving it to the Libyan coastguards. Who cares if they are left to drown? Or subjected to torture and slavery? European values??

It seems to me that not only journalists but fiction writers too could play a part here. Stories that give names and personalities to migrants and refugees are desperately needed to counter the depersonalising vocabulary of press and politicians. The image of a dead Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, caught people’s imaginations and led to a call for more humane treatment of refugees (though the effect proved to be short-lived). Novels, poetry, plays, films could perhaps help change the opinions of those who see refugees as a threat. Every migrant is an individual with a history (often a tragic one), a human being who feels and suffers like any of us and just wants a life free from danger. It seems so obvious, yet it’s easy to forget. Reading about individuals, whether real or fictional, helps us to relate, to see the world through their eyes, feel their fear and despair, understand their hopes and dreams.