Spain’s Mengele

The Spanish documentary, The Silence of Others, about the crimes perpetrated by Franco during his 40-year dictatorship and the long drawn-out struggle for justice by victims and their descendants, was shown on BBC TV last week. Several of my friends in the UK told me how moved they had been, watching it. Having already seen the film, I was not surprised at their reactions. It is harrowing. The grief and in some cases bitterness of those interviewed – survivors and relatives of those imprisoned, tortured, executed, disappeared – is still raw decades later. There has been no reconciliation process in Spain, no apology or admission of wrongdoing, let alone prosecution, no attempt at any kind of reparation. The ‘pact of silence’ agreed in 1977 during the transition to democracy that took place after Franco’s death swept all the crimes of those years under the carpet. The silence continues. Forbidden to pursue their case in Spain, the victims are now relying on the Argentinian courts under the law of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. Some progress has been made. Arrest warrants have at last been issued against some of the alleged perpetrators, including torturers, former cabinet ministers and doctors involved in cases of stolen children.

The film includes interviews gathered over six years with those who were imprisoned and/or tortured, those who have family members lying abandoned in mass graves and with women whose babies were stolen from them during the long years of the dictatorship. Their stories are heartbreaking. How must it feel to see your torturer walking free in your own neighbourhood? To be unable to honour your deceased loved ones by giving them a decent burial? To know your stolen child exists but be unable to trace them? The documentary mentions the ‘red gene’ – the theory put forward by Franco’s chief of psychiatric services, Antonio Vallejo Nájera that gave the title to my recent novel.


Vallejo Nájera (sometimes referred to as Spain’s Mengele) was born in Palencia in 1889. He was sent to the Spanish Embassy in Berlin in 1917 and became a great admirer of the Nazis and their eugenics theories. After returning to Spain in 1930, he set up psychiatric clinics and later conducted experiments on Republican prisoners, including some from the International Brigades. He argued that Marxists, anarchists and anyone who supported freedom or equality was suffering from a pathological condition. The men, he said, were of low intelligence, while ‘red’ women participated in politics only to satisfy their sexual appetites. They were degenerate, given to delinquency and a marked sadistic nature that allowed their animal instincts to be unleashed. Reasons for their high level of participation in Marxist politics were found in their characteristic mental instability, poor resistance to outside influences and lack of control over their personalities. “When the brakes that normally contain women in society disappear, it awakens in the female sex the instinct for cruelty, surpassing all imagined possibilities, by removing intelligent and logical inhibitions and giving way to feminine cruelty that is not satisfied with merely committing the crime but grows stronger in the execution of it.”


Re-education of Republican prisoners, both male and female was therefore essential. According to him, order, discipline, personal sacrifice and punctiliousness in service defined the Spanish race or spirit and in order to improve it, schools, universities, workplaces, cafes, theatres and all social spheres should be militarised and strict rules be imposed on women.

It was Vallejo Nájera who gave a pseudo-scientific justification for removing the babies of Republican women from them at, or soon after, birth. He argued that it was the only way of eradicating or curing the ‘red gene’. It would avoid contaminating the children with the evil of their mothers and ensure that the Spanish race remained pure, thus liberating society of a terrible plague. His views on women obviously chimed well with those of Franco and the Falange: women’s sole function in life was to bring up their offspring. This would perpetuate their mental inferiority; what intelligence they had would naturally atrophy.


In writing The Red Gene, I wanted to bring home the dangers of fascism at a time when extreme right parties are gaining popularity in a growing number of countries. I chose to do so not by writing about politics but through the story of one family caught up in such inhumane practices as those perpetrated in Franco’s Spain. Up to 300,000 babies were stolen between 1939 and the 1990s (ideological motives later gave way to greed). In most cases, the mothers were told their babies had died. The Red Gene is fiction but true to its time and its context. It’s a story I feel could well have happened.

The Red Gene Amazon

Why Granada?


As the latest Brexit bill is debated in the UK Parliament following a referendum in which I had no vote and after more than three wasted years of expense and argument, I’m thinking about all my reasons for moving to Spain twenty years ago and all the things I love about living here in Granada. Many factors led me to choose this particular city: its size (not too big nor too small), its fascinating culture and history, its university, its mixed population, and of course the beauty of the mountains that form its backdrop.

I’d always felt at home in Mediterranean countries. Not just at home but happier. I think what made the greatest impression on me from my first experience of Southern Europe was the quality of the light. Colours were brighter, more intense. And my senses responded accordingly. Like a flower turned towards the sun, I opened up, all my senses becoming more alive. I still notice it when I return from visits to Britain: a rise in spirits, a loosening up, a long exhalation of release.






Warmth is obviously a vital factor: being able to live outdoors for much of the year, to eat outside whatever the season, linger in the streets or sit at a table on some restaurant terrace in sun or shade, or in summer by the light of the moon. It may be cold in winter (Granada is often a few degrees below zero in the mornings) but the sun still has strength and in the afternoons it’s usually possible to sit outside comfortably for a few hours.


I love the liveliness of the streets, where there is always something going on day and night, where people don’t all rush off to their separate homes, shutting themselves off from each other. I love the more grown-up attitude to eating and especially drinking.  That alcohol-fuelled aggression that can hit the streets when the pubs close – one of the least endearing features of life in Britain – is rarely seen here. Both eating and drinking are regarded as social activities and keenly enjoyed as such; ‘binge’ is not a word easily translatable into Spanish. The right of workers to half-hour breakfast breaks in the nearest bar for coffee and toast, a chat or a chance to catch up with the news in la prensa seems to me eminently civilised, as does the custom of a long lunch and siesta when the family can relax together. The Spanish manage that ‘work-life balance’ so much better.

Then there’s the quality, variety and freshness of the food: fruit, vegetables, fish that taste as they should. Luscious, ripe cherries or figs or apricots; tomatoes with real flavour; prawns, squid, sea bass, sole, sardines, fresh from the sea. Ready meals are scarcely seen, even in supermarkets. Every town and village has a market for fresh food, available in its proper season.

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In bars, good coffee doesn’t cost an arm and a leg, while freshly squeezed orange juice is nearly always an option. If you prefer tea, you can simply head for one of the many Moroccan teterías where you’ll be faced with a choice of up to eighty different types along with delicious Arab pastries. In Granada, tapas come free with your drink and when a glass of Rioja or beer and a tapa come at just a couple of euros, an evening out doesn’t have to cost a fortune.










Lecrin Valley tapa

I love the cariño, the warmth and affection expressed with touch, with kissing and embracing between friends. How cold a handshake seems in comparison. I love too the way the generations mix with far less segregation between age-groups. Go to a village disco, a wedding or any family occasion and you’ll see everyone from kids to grandparents bopping away to the same music, infected with the same good humour and sense of fun.

Of course not everything is rosy. Every place has its downside. But whatever setbacks I have to face seem immeasurably smaller when the sun is shining and the view from my window is so beautiful. If I ever have to return, I think a part of me will die.


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A thank you to my friends

This post is by way of a huge thank you to all the friends who have supported me in different ways on my writing and publishing journey. I am blessed in having a great number of friends spread all over the world – some going back to childhood, others relatively new, most somewhere in between. Writing is a solitary occupation and it’s easy to get discouraged. Being able to call on so many loyal friends has made all the difference – whether for moral support on the rollercoaster ride to publication, for giving me valuable feedback on early drafts, for practical help with accommodation, lifts or launch arrangements or for spreading the word about my books among their own friends and social media contacts.

In business circles, it would probably be called networking, but as a writer, I feel uncomfortable viewing contact with friends as a business strategy. In fact, although I’m selling something (my books), I have great difficulty thinking of it as a business at all. Perhaps this is because, up to now at least, it hasn’t provided me with any significant income. Perhaps it’s because money has never been my motivation for writing. Then again, perhaps I’m just being precious.

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Launching the book at (so far) half a dozen different venues in both the UK and Spain and always seeing friendly faces in the audience has meant a lot to me. I am truly grateful to all who made the effort to come and who then bought and read the book, posted reviews and/or bought more copies to give as presents – all of which has helped massively in getting the books out there.

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Thinking just of The Red Gene (though it was a similar story with Secrets of the Pomegranate), I have a multitude of friends to thank. My artist friend Allan drew the maps. Lala recommended reading material and put me up in London while I researched at the Marx Memorial Library. Javi, my pilates teacher, invited me to visit his parents in Antequera, the setting for a large part of the book. Lucy put me in touch with Pepita, a retired Spanish midwife. Paloma, a nurse friend in Granada, provided me with details of hospital routines. Rosa, a doctor, checked some of the medical details in my novel. Resu introduced me to her lovely mother, who spoke of her life during the dictatorship but sadly didn’t live long enough to see publication. Sue, Lily, Andrew, Lucius, Ann and Jane gave me valuable feedback on my first draft. Isabel read the Spanish sections to check their authenticity. Expert photographer Candi did a photo-shoot that has provided me with an ample choice of shots for publicity. She also arranged for me to use the beautiful Carmen de la Victoria for my Granada launch and introduced me to Gerardo, a fellow Granada University professor, who gave a brilliant introduction to my talk. My brother Tony helped arrange my Oxford launch and spread the word mong his friends and acquaintances as well as putting me in touch with Marcos, the flamenco guitarist who played at the launch. Barbara, Anne and Jill made sure my book was included in their reading group programmes for next year. Flor took the record for number of copies bought for friends – about twelve, I think! Sue arranged my talk in Mojácar and invited me to stay with her for the weekend. Almost all my Spanish interviewees were friends of friends or relatives of friends. Numerous others – too many to mention by name – encouraged me along the way when, believe me, encouragement was badly needed. My sincere thanks to every one of you. Without your support and belief in me, my journey would have been lonelier, less successful and a lot less rewarding.

The divine power of the novelist

I’m not the world’s most decisive person. Even quite trivial decisions cause me endless stress. I dither and agonise, considering one option and another, sometimes half the night. Yet when it comes to my fictional characters, I suffer no such torments. Quite the reverse, I revel in my control over their fates. Limited only by my imagination, I am free to manipulate their lives at will, reward or punish them, bring tragedy or triumph onto their heads. Like an omnipotent god, I can give them what they most crave or deny them all consolation. And what’s more, it’s power without responsibility because after all, it is only a story.

In both Secrets of the Pomegranate and The Red Gene, I had to kill off important characters – not an easy option. After accompanying them for months or years, sharing their innermost emotions, their hopes and dreams and darkest fears, I had come to regard them as close friends. Being so attached made it feel almost disloyal to sacrifice them for the sake of the plot. It might surprise some readers to know that even the author who has engineered their demise feels a keen sense of loss.

Far more than non-fiction writers, who deal mostly in facts, novelists are faced with myriad decisions at every stage of the process. Before even starting to write, the basic questions of plot, characters, setting, point of view and more have to be decided. But it doesn’t stop there. Although it’s true that the characters take on lives of their own, it is still up to the author to set the seal on every small act, approve each line of dialogue uttered, resolve the quandaries they face.

In The Red Gene, after researching the backgrounds of the real British nurses who volunteered in the Spanish Civil War, I had to decide on my heroine’s social and geographical milieu and her motivation for going to Spain. Was she one of those girls from the East End of London or a northern industrial city who had joined a trade union or the Communist party after seeing at first hand the terrible conditions of poverty and disease in the slums of her hometown? Was she driven by her political beliefs, the mission to stop fascism in its tracks? Or was she from a more comfortable background, moved less by politics than by humanitarian concerns, feelings of empathy for the suffering population in Spain.

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Once I had decided on Rose’s background and the impulses that prompted her to take this brave step, her personality began to emerge but not without a whole series of choices by her creator (me). All her actions, the decisions she herself made throughout her life, were dictated at least in part by this personality, influenced naturally by the experiences, good and bad, that I’d chosen to put her through.

As a girl born at the start of the Franco dictatorship, Consuelo had far fewer options open to her than did Rose. Whatever personality I bestowed on her, the mere fact of being female determined her function in life: to be a wife and mother. Growing up in a strongly nationalist family, it does not even cross her mind to question her role.



Her daughter Marisol, on the other hand, inhabits a very different Spain, one that has changed almost beyond recognition. She has many more choices, many more opportunities, which means I, as the author, was faced with many more possibilities. I was free to give Marisol the personality and path in life that best suited my purposes.

In developing the plot, there are logistical questions to be resolved – like how to get my characters from one place to another. Rose’s decision, revealed in the first two pages of the book, about what to do when the war was over, determined the whole direction of the story but it was up to me to decide on the outcome of that decision and later to find a way of getting her safely out of Spain. Achieving that tricky feat relied on an interaction between chance events and aspects of her personality. My ingenuity was similarly tested in Consuelo’s case. Having decided where I wanted her to grow up (in what kind of family and geographical location), my challenge was to find the means of enabling it. This time, I had to rely solely on fate to achieve my objective.

My biggest decision, however, concerned the resolution of the story, how it would end. Would Rose and Consuelo, the two most important characters, meet and if so, how and where. On that particular point, my lips are firmly sealed. To reveal the answer would be a complete spoiler for those who haven’t yet read the book.

Photos for The Red Gene: where it all happens

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Suicide Hill, Jarama  PART 1                       Republican hospital at Tarancón PART 1

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2004_1031Image0084 Railway line Antequera to Algeciras PART 3


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Rio Borosa 11      Rio Borosa 2


Sierras de Segura & Cazorla, Jaén  PART 3

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Civil War trenches, Sierra de Huetor, Granada

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indio-vigila-Andalucia-AYUNTAMIENTO-ANTEQUERA_EDIIMA20160318_0674_18Antequera: churches and Peña de los Enamorados (“The sleeping giant”)  PARTS 2, 4,  & 6

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River at Oxford  PARTS 5, 7, 9 & 13

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Parador, Jaén  PART 7


Granada, market in the Realejo PART 8


Campo del Prinicipe, Realejo, Granada (painting by Allan Dorian Clark)  PART 8

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Cañar, PARTS 7 & 9

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Alpujarras PARTS 7, 9 & 12

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Bibliography: Some of my background reading for ‘The Red Gene’


The Civil War

Paul Preston                                  The Spanish Holocaust

Richard Baxell                               Unlikely Warriors

Helen Graham                               The Spanish Civil War: a very short introduction

David Boyd Hancock                    I am Spain

Chris Farman, Valery Rose & Liz Woolley  No Other Way: Oxfordshire & the Spanish Civil War

Henry Buckley                                 The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic

George Orwell                                  Homage to Catalonia

Ronald Fraser                                   Blood of Spain: an oral history of the Spanish Civil  War


Women in the Civil War

Paul Preston                                        Doves of War: Four women of Spain

Angela Jackson                                   British Women and the Spanish Civil War

Jim Fyrth & Sally Alexander  (Ed.)  Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War

Judith Keene                                        The Last Mile to Huesca: an Australian nurse in the   Spanish Civil War

Nan Green                                            A Chronicle of Small Beer

Post-war Spain

Gerald Brenan                                     The Face of Spain

Ronald Fraser                                       The Pueblo

Ronald Fraser                                       In Hiding: the life of Manuel Cortes

Juan Eslava Galán                                Los Años del Miedo

Juan Eslava Galán                                De la Alpargata al Seiscientos


The Guerilla

David Baird                                           Between Two Fires

 Legacy of the Civil War

Giles Tremlett                                       Ghosts of Spain


Javier Cercas                                         Soldados de Salamina (Soldiers of Salamis)

Dulce Chacón                                         La Voz Dormida

Ángel Fábregas                                      Sulayr dame Cobijo

Almudena Grandes                               El Corazón Helado (The Frozen Heart)

Alberto Méndez                                     Los Girasoles Ciegos (Blind Sunflowers)

 Henry Buckley was the Daily Telegraph’s correspondent in Spain between 1929 and 1939. Based in Madrid but travelling widely, he witnessed first-hand the years of the Second Republic and the Civil War. His account, The Life and Death of the Spanish Republic, has the immediacy of someone on the spot throughout. Sir Paul Preston is the foremost authority on 20thcentury Spanish history and has written many books on the Spanish Civil War, including a biography of Franco. The Spanish Holocaust is a harrowing account of the war and its aftermath including the extra-judicial murder of around 200,000 men and women by the Franco regime. Doves of War: Four Women of Spain tells the fascinating and often tragic stories of four women involved in the conflict, two on each side. One of them is Nan Green, a communist who followed her husband George to Spain with the International Brigades and worked as a medical administrator. George was killed on the Ebro in 1938. She was an inspiring woman and her memoir, A Chronicle of Small Beer, makes compelling reading. For a concise history of the Civil War, I’d recommend Helen Graham’s The Spanish Civil War: a very short introduction. In I am Spain, historian David Boyd Hancock writes about the Civil War using the first-hand accounts of writers, artists, photographers and fighters from various countries who joined in the struggle against fascism. Unlikely Warriors   by Richard Baxell tells the story of the British volunteers, over 500 of whom gave their lives in the struggle. No Other Way, published by the Oxford branch of the International Brigades Memorial Trust, details the 31 volunteers, some quite famous, who had links with Oxford.

Angela Jackson examines the backgrounds, motives and experiences of women in the Civil War. Their involvement, whether as medical or relief workers, administrators, journalists or broadcasters, is also described, mostly in their own words, in the excellent anthology, Women’s Voices from the Spanish Civil War. Historian Judith Keene’s Last Mile to Huescais about Australian nurse Ada Hodgson and includes the diary she kept of her time in Spain.

Ronald Fraser’s oral histories, The Pueblo and In Hiding: The Life of Manuel Cortes give a fascinating picture of life during the long decades of Franco’s rule through the personal testimonies of one village’s inhabitants.

Between Two Fires describes life in the village of Frigiliana during the 1940s and 50s when quite a number of those opposed to the regime (and therefore under threat of imprisonment or worse) had taken to the hills and were conducting a kind of guerilla warfare with the Civil Guard. Local people were often caught in the middle, hence the title. David Baird, long resident in the village, uses many first-hand accounts to tell the story from both sides.

Juan Eslava Galán’s two books offer an ironic take on life during the dictatorship through stories peopled by fictional characters.

Ghosts of Spain by Giles Tremlett, formerly the Guardian’s correspondent, has lived in Madrid for many years and writes extremely well about contemporary Spain. The first part of the book, in particular, is about the legacy of the war.


Taking account of changing sexual mores

In writing a novel like The Red Gene with a time-frame that spans nearly eighty years and is set in two countries with differing cultures, attitudes to love and sex are one way of reflecting the changes and disparities in social mores. My three main characters, born in 1915, 1939 and 1975, respectively, one in England, the other two in Spain, have very different perspectives, due largely to the influence of the cultures they belong to.

Rose, born in the early 20th century, daughter of a Church of England vicar, has imbibed the conventional morality prevalent since Victorian times. Any departure from the acceptable norms of society carries a stigma, while the very real fear of pregnancy in the days before ready access to birth control is also a hugely inhibiting factor. Rose shivers at the thought of Clark House, a home for unmarried mothers in Oxford, run by Skene Moral Welfare. And of the disgrace an illegitimate child would bring on her parents. Jack is burdened with the intense shame of his own illegitimacy; another character must hide his homosexuality. War often breaks down social conventions and when Rose falls in love with Miguel in Spain after witnessing so many deaths at close hand, she grasps the fragility of life and how precious is love, and her inhibitions melt away.

Consuelo, growing up in the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, with the Catholic Church imposing its moral values and repressive rules on society, is reminded constantly of the penalties of sin. At home, at school, in church, in her compulsory attendances at Acción Católica or La Sección Feminina, the codes of acceptable behaviour are drummed into her, accompanied by warnings of the dire consequences should she stray from the correct path. The warnings start in childhood and increase further as she approaches puberty. From the age of thirteen, she isn’t allowed out without stockings, even in the summer; she must cover her arms and wear skirts that come well below the knee; she isn’t permitted to so much as speak to a boy… Meanwhile, her oldest brother Francisco considers her fair game and snatches any opportunity to sexually molest her. Another brother forces himself on one of the maids, leaving her pregnant, with the result that she is sacked in disgrace. As Consuelo notes, the rules are different for men. Her brothers openly frequent brothels. It is considered neither unusual nor immoral for men – whether married or not – to patronise these casade putas.

Courtship in the Franco years followed strict conventions. Novios were denied any time alone together; the chaperone (usually a family member) kept them in sight at all times. A brief, furtive kiss was the most that could be expected in 50s Spain. Consuelo is terrified at the prospect of her wedding night and feels only relief when the act is over. A couple of years later, she muses about the physical side of her marriage.

“They never talked about what went on in the bedroom. She relished the kisses and embraces, which kindled intensely loving feelings towards her husband, but the act that followed, though no longer painful as at first, was uncomfortable; she always felt relieved when it was over. Fortunately, Enrique’s performance rarely lasted long and, as the Sección Feminina book had promised, her husband quickly fell into a deep sleep, leaving her free to put in her rollers anapply her face cream. She still couldn’t quite shake off the notion that carnal relations were a mortal sin, even though the catechism stated that within the sacrament of holy matrimony, where procreation rather than physical pleasure was the aim, the act was sanctified. Enrique never asked if she’d enjoyed it; if he had, she would have lied rather than hurt his feelings.”

When the first northern European tourists begin to arrive on the coast in the 60s, with their bikinis and miniskirts, the repressed Spaniards are shocked. The men ogle, the women disapprove, worried about the effect on their husbands.

Marisol, growing up in the far more liberal atmosphere of post-dictatorship Spain, has a much more matter-of-fact approach to sex. For her it’s something to be enjoyed, not hung up about like her parents, who find it too embarrassing to talk about, preferring to steer clear of the subject and hope for the best with their daughters.

I’m of the opinion that when writing about sex, generally less is more. I don’t avoid it altogether but I do prefer to leave something to the imagination. Like most writers (I assume), I’d rather not be a contender for the Bad Sex Award.