This, my first (I now have three) copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, was purchased in about 1999 in one of Hay-On-Wye’s many second-hand bookshops. Its a little shabby, and has evidently had some water damage at some point but I love it. I love how it looks (the instantly recognisable Penguin orange with a great sketch of a Republican soldier), how it feels (soft and well thumbed), how it smells (it really does have that amazing old book smell) and most importantly how it makes me think.
Whilst I would hesitate to call myself a historian (I have a History and Politics degree and have taught those two subjects since graduating), I would definitely say I am passionate about history. My particular areas of interest are French history from around the time of the 1789 Revolution onwards (and in particular 1848, Louis Napoleon and the Third Republic), 19th and 20th Century Russia, 20th Century China and the Spanish Civil War. I have my school form tutor and history teacher, Mr Jones, to thank for my near-obsession with the Spanish Civil War. I’d never even heard of it until he got us to study local miners who went away to join the International Brigades. There was just something about the significance of those 3 years that hooked me in. Europe, the World, stood at a crossroads but just watched as a country, a new democracy, tore itself apart in a foretaste of what was to be replicated globally months later.
But of course not everyone stood and just watched. As I just mentioned there were the International Brigades which were formed of brave volunteers, predominantly working class men willing to fight for their beliefs, their idealism. And amongst their number were writers and artists, including Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. Whilst Mr Jones probably told us about Orwell it didn’t really sink in, or at least I made no effort to actually read Homage to Catalonia that came a year or so later when Helen James, my equally influential and inspirational tutor on the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at College said I should look at it as part of my Extended Essay, which I’d chosen to write on the British government’s decision to practice ‘non-intervention’ (standing at the crossroads but just watching). And, when that May half term my parents took me to the Hay Festival as we/ I still do, I sought this book out.
Homage to Catalonia is Orwell’s memoir of his time spent in Spain fighting for the Republic with the POUM (a Trotskyist militia). It sums up perfectly the reasons for the tragic defeat of the left to Franco’s forces; the poor quality weapons, the shortages of food, the boredom of war and, most frustratingly of all, the in-fighting between the factions of the left most bloodily played out in the Barcelona May Days, an event that makes me weep with frustration as men and women on the same side turned their guns on each other.
My Spanish Civil War obsession was cemented further in University when I took a course on 20th Century Spain and opted to write my dissertation comparing the response to the war of the South Wales and South Yorkshire coalfields. For both I dipped in and out of Homage to Catalonia of course. Interestingly, I was also directed to it in part of one of my politics courses “National Identity and the British State” as Orwell ponders the stubborn endurance of the English way of life in an arresting juxtaposition to what he has seen in Spain;
the railway cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policeman- all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear we shall never wake until we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
I haven’t read it cover to cover since then (yes, another one due a good re-read) but have directed many students to its pages and I think that at least one has picked it up. If you have only ever read Orwell’s fiction (1984, Animal Farm etc) then this is a great place to start with his non-fiction which really is just as readable and powerful.
The picture above also shows a couple of other pieces from my Spanish Civil War collection, a postcard bought by a friend for me in Madrid (it lives in a clipframe on my study wall) and an International Brigader badge which lives on my ‘spring mac’ coat, given to me by another friend in one of the least ‘secret’ Secret Santa’s ever!