Footprints in Spain by Simon Courtauld

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Reviewed by Liz Dexter

Footprints in Spain by Simon Courtauld

Written by someone who is obviously an expert on and traveller in Spain, this interesting book takes a look at the lives of British people – and their institutions – in Spain through the ages, grouped under themes and covering the whole country.

I will give a warning right at the start of this review that the author is supportive of the activity of bullfighting, writes supporting it overtly to an extent, spends quite a lot of time talking about it during the book, and includes some scenes which might upset the very sensitive. If you’re anti-bullfighting, I don’t think this book will convince you otherwise, and you might wish to steer clear. I’ve done my best to take as objective a view of the book as a whole as I can; this does not mean that I, too, support the activity.

There’s more than bullfighting in this book, however. The British figures in this book range from Catherine of Lancaster to Laurie Lee, from anonymous fighting men of the Peninsular War to kings and queens and the daughters and granddaughters of queens. It draws heavily on original and secondary sources to explain and elucidate the experiences various people have in the country, and then gives depth to the book by describing the author’s own visits to the places he discusses, looking for clues, memorials and references to the events he’s just described. This gives a freshness and immediacy to the book, adding in elements of travelogue to the history-writing genre.

It must be difficult to decide whether to go for history or geography as the organising principle of a book like this, which ranges both through the centuries and across the country. Courtauld has chosen geography, which does break up the march of history a little, but allows him to concentrate on both a place and a theme in each chapter. For example, the chapter on Toledo looks at the long history of the mingling of Spanish and English royal blood, that on Gibraltar the history of a Royal Hunt, sponsored by both Spain and England, that on La Coruna the battles of long and bloody wars and that on Barcelona the experience of George Orwell in the Spanish Civil War.

One slight casualty of this method of arrangement is that it’s difficult to grasp the sweep of history and if, like me, you’re not entirely au fait with the details of the Peninsular War (England helping Spain by driving France out), you can get a little confused. In addition, either the chapters were re-ordered or the arrangement as a whole was redone at some stage, as the Carlists are mentioned early but not explained until two thirds of the way through the book, and Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Ena‘s marriage to Alfonso XIII crops up a good few times. In addition, there’s not much about modern events or the effect of British people on 21st century Spain – however, there might not be any, as I’m far from an expert, and relying on historical sources maintains the authority of the book.

These are minor quibbles, however. People interested in this book are likely to be interested in history and to have sources to go to.  The influence of the British in Spain is seen in monuments and graveyards and even the food – the ‘cocido maragato’ of La Coruna being named after the soldiers who demanded the local people’s food to sustain their campaigns. Courtauld is by no means Anglophile and highlights the bad behaviour of especially soldiers running amok and sacking towns they had just ‘liberated’. But he shows how Spain, for example, celebrates the anniversaries of brave deaths in battle, such as that of General Sir John Moore, who fell in 1809.

There are also some rather amusing descriptions of exceptionally ‘English’ style houses and buildings that were erected, almost like the architecture of the Indian Raj, to house Brits abroad; whole rows of suburban semis or mock-Tudor edifices. And like those who returned from the Raj and had corners of India in England, he reports on Ramon Cabrera, El Tigre, who emigrated to Virginia Water and changed from being a murderous Spanish warlord to an English country squire. At its best the book pulls together series of mentions by writers and diarists of a particular place, for example, Cadiz, which rises and falls in people’s estimation over the decades.

Courtauld is very good on the essential differences between Spanish and English culture, not only in terms of animal welfare issues. He points out how realistic and horrific are the religious sculptures that are carried in processions, and how revered even a damaged religious icon is. He places this within the context of Spain being a country soaked in the blood of battle, be it invasion, civil war or revolution, with what he refers to several times as the “cruelty and beauty” of the country echoing back to the Moorish and Romany origins of flamenco, and the Catholic iconography, etc.

There are black and white plates of many of the main characters, but no map, which I did feel was a slight disadvantage, although obviously maps of Spain are not hard to come by and none of the cities covered have moved or disappeared.

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Liz Dexter doesn’t know as much about Spanish history as she thought she did. She does, however, know the Spanish for “mouth ulcer”. Her book review blog is at Adventures in Reading, Writing and Working from Home.

Simon Courtauld, Footprints in Spain: British Lives in a Foreign Land (Quartet Books, 2016). 978-0704374195, 223 pp., ill, hardback.

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