Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Chapter 23

Colin McAllistair ended his call with Cyril Galloway with a whole mix of thoughts spinning in his head. He remembered the last time they met, and it brought to mind an episode in his life he would rather have forgotten.

His interview with Jonathan Harcourt had gone well. Once Colin had got over his initial surprise that the gentle, careworn old man sat over the table from him in the kitchen of a small, terraced house in North Yorkshire was in fact the same man who had penned such brilliant articles on the early months of the Spanish Civil War, he knew he had found a rich seam of memories of the period. For his part, the writer seemed to relax almost by the minute, as if the very telling of his story was a catharsis.

He described vividly his arrival in Madrid, and the chaos of a city starting to fracture under the unstoppable pressure of social upheaval and political division. He had made his base in a small hotel off a side street on the Gran Via, the main artery that pulsed through the city, sharing it with a clutch of foreign journalists from America, Italy and France. He remembered long and bitter, late-into-the-morning, arguments in the local bars: a melting-pot of communist, socialist, trotskyist and anarchist ideas that were vying for support in the capital, leavened by the views of nationalists from, Catalonia and northern Spain. This was a period like none he had witnessed before, nor since: a Popular Front Government trying desperately to cohere against a National Front opposition, following a wafer-thin victory in elections in February 1936. Chaotic general strikes two or three times a week, assassinations (by both sides) more frequent still. Churches ransacked by crowds, clerics hiding in basements, fearful of their lives.

Colin had been mesmerized. He had read so much about the Spanish Civil War, and Harcourt was by no means the only survivor he had interviewed, but rarely had he heard such a vivid and moving account of what life was like at the epicenter of a social revolution. He found himself astonished that his subject had not published a memoir of his time in Madrid.

Harcourt had explained how he had filed weekly reports for six months or so, encouraged by an editor who fired back telegrams describing the effect his writing was having on his paper’s readers. He had tried to remain objective – to explain the background to the rising social tensions. Then, in July, a calm voice had been broadcast across the radio in Spain: “Over all of Spain, the sky is clear.” Many who heard that phrase would have had no idea of its significance – but for Nationalists, it was the agreed signal to start a military uprising, the start of a protracted and bloody Civil War.

In Madrid, the rebel forces soon found themselves beleaguered, forced to retreat into the safety of the Montana Barracks, where within a day or so they fell victim to superior Republican force. Harcourt had watched the slaughter from the window of a bar across the street, strangely detached and yet witness to it. He remembered how he had tried to write an account of the battle, but at each attempt his words dried up. In his mind, he was already determined that he couldn’t any longer stand on the sidelines: the Republic, which he so admired, was under threat.

He told McAllistair how he noticed, suddenly, that a woman was watching him from in the corner of the small bar. He had caught the touch of a smile when he glanced across to her, his pen held in his hand seeming, suddenly, like an instrument of cowardice. He smiled back, and she took his signal as an encouragement to walk across to him. “I’ve watched you writing,” she said: she was English. “I never saw a more beautiful woman in my life,” Harcourt had told Colin. “She had the loveliest, palest complexion you could imagine. I suppose I fell in love with her at that very moment…” and his voice had trailed off, as his mind tried to catch the echoes of his first meeting with Lillian Blyth.

1 comment:

Theresa111 said...

I stopped to meet and greet. Blogged today. Made dinner @ 11 PM. More adding, reading and joining. I came back because I needed to read more and get to a good stoping point and this is it. How old was Lillian when he met her? I am too tired to figure it out. I e-mailed my sister, an avid reader, a link to this site. If you receive comments from Lillianvargas, that is my sister, Melody. I like your story and cannot wait til tomorrow so I may read again. So as I catch up I will be asking you to type faster. Cheers!