Spain in Cold Storage

Pat Neil

And bearing in mind  the NLP no politics ethos, this is definitely about life as she was lived in those days, no theory, just a story.

It was mentioned, in passing, ‘write about Franco’s Spain’. Really? So long ago, can I remember? Was it not a time to forget even? But hang on, the dark side of the moon is always mysterious, and the dark side of that Spain was the foil for what came later, the great explosion of creativity and progress that burst upon the peninsula in the years after the old dictator’s death, or rather when his minders finally let him die. Weeks in limbo he was, weeks and weeks.

So, Franco’s Spain? A tired hungry country when I was first there in 1960, hungry for everything – freedom of speech , information, prosperity, food. The old man’s dead hand clamped over every aspect of life. Or tried to. Even as a young naïve extranjera I managed to discover pockets of resistance. Don Eduardo’s studio for example. Don Eduardo, short, grey-haired, serious, learned. He was an artist although I can’t remember much about his work, just the atmosphere of the little studio where young people gathered around him and talked and behaved as I imagined they would in Paris, the mecca of us all We drank coffee sweetened with condensed milk out of small Duralex glasses, decadent but delicious, and it was for that ambiente that I had left home, to find a raggedy life far far from the strict order of things in South Lincolnshire (only eat pork in the months with an ‘r’ in them, and then only with apple sauce and sage-and-onion). I left school after my A Levels, coming from a family with no history of further education, and I set my face firmly against university, seeing it as yet another institution (boarding school has that sort of effect). So I was a drop-out before the word was invented, but inexplicably Spain was calling. I set off before my 18th birthday to spend a year doing a course at Madrid University, which of course was not institutional to my way of thinking. In fact all the language students in our year said no to uni and set off for foreign capitals to study, Paris, Bonn, me in Madrid. It was unusual for the times.

In Madrid, Pat Neil (left) and friends

Not hard to imagine, this, after the chilly years on the coast of East Anglia, gazing at the grey North Sea and yearning for colour and warmth, but the street life of the city enchanted me. We sat in cafés for hours, nursing one small cup of nectar, OK then, espresso as it’s known now but café solo to us, or a chato de vino or a caña de cerveza – both these came in the same wee tumblers, and still do in traditional places. Nobody got drunk, there were no drugs. Clean as a whistle we were. But the talk round the tables was not the usual free-wheeling discussion of young people exploring life. Far from it. No politics. No religion. Sex pretty much out of the question, The Pill not even on the horizon and wouldn’t have been available for singles in Spain anyway for years and years.Which left Art! Wondrous and available. And the beauties of their country of course. National pride ran strong in that department. Politics in Madrid was only talked about in the privacy of the family, and then with people you trusted, no outsiders. A friend who lived with a family in Barcelona at this time remembers that Catalan was only spoken behind closed doors, a proscribed language. Move on 50 years and you can hardly hear Castilian in those parts, you feel a bit of a pariah in fact if that’s all you speak.

The Spanish economy was a joke (a bad one), at a standstill, nothing thrived. Work of a productive kind was hard to come by. I first lived with a family and Carlos, the father, had two jobs to make ends meet and was permanently exhausted, while Maria Teresa took in foreign students as PGs. The pair of them were always strapped for cash and one month when things were particularly tight they asked if I could arrange to have my next month’s rent paid in advance to see them over a crisis. Seemed normal enough to me but my father went ballistic. ‘What sort of people live hand to mouth like that?’ he thundered, but from a distance – no phones, no email. Everybody, that’s who. That’s how it was.

But they still employed an old woman as a maid, living in a windowless boxroom off the kitchen, who wore white gloves to serve the skimpy meals. Oh I was always starving, after the bountiful food of the Fens. Juana came from Extremadura and remembered eating acorns in the Civil War – that was really starving. The same acorns, guys, which now feed the famous black pigs, which end up as the famous jamon de bellota, the exquisite dried ham of Iberia, the taste, smell and texture of which you never forget. And yearn for till your dying day. No, I shan’t ask for a Bellingham’s pork pie as one of the Georges did on his death bed – a few slices of jamon will see me away with a smile. Take note children, take note.

The Author, centre of attention in sixties Spain. What’s that fellow at the back thinking?

Winter in Madrid was baltic, the city sits high up on the meseta and the Sierra de Guadarrama is only a couple of hours away. On those cold cold evenings in the flat we huddled round the brasero, a splendid arrangement dating back centuries. It’s a round table with a framework beneath which holds a wide metal dish filled with hot charcoal – you soon learnt to feel for the wooden stretcher to rest your feet on so you didn’t singe them. Then over the top hung a very large chenille cloth (ours was maroon) which you draped over your knees – sehr gemütlich! I loved it. Many years later, we found a pair of high end copper and brass braseros in Newcastleton, deep in the heart of Liddesdale, what a mystery. We bought them of course.

That’s getting away from the subject so let’s bash on Bertha. Let’s go back to food, and what about callos? Tripe that is. I found fame at Maria Teresa’s table as being the first extranjera to eat and what’s more enjoy callos a la madrileña, tripe the way the Madrileños make it, in a nippy tomato sauce. I cook it to this day, but have to eat it by myself, metaphorically in a corner, as it repulses nearly everyone. Mind you, with such tiny helpings at 48 Calle Maldonado I would truly have eaten anything they put in front of me and I now put a lifetime of omnivorous munching down to those days of real and continuous hunger.

Buildings – dilapidation everywhere. No money for refurbishment, investment. I remember a decaying swimming pool we used to visit, in the decaying grounds of a decaying country house. No one lived there. The whole atmosphere was like those French films of the 60s, a lot of drifting about in ruinous gardens and so forth, dead leaves, cracked paving stones, weeds creeping, creeping and taking over. I thought it was romantic and fabulous, but in the wider sense it meant the country was falling apart too.

Perhaps we should now visit the sanitary systems. Rickety and smelly certainly, but in the flats I stayed in in those days at least not footprints in the snow. You got those out in the country. In the city flats the seats were always a flimsy plastic and certainly didn’t give you a sense of security. In fact you didn’t want to linger in there at all. Every single one smelt of drains, as did a lot of other places. In the cinemas (where we spent a lot of time) the usherettes used to stride up and down the aisles going pfff pfff pfff with air-fresheners, which was a decent touch. Just to stay with cinema  outings for the moment… no popcorn, no sweeties, no crisps, just a poke of sunflower seeds to crunch. I’ve lost the knack now but used to be able to crack them in my mouth and spit out the husks, a universal Spanish skill, meaning that the floor was carpeted with little black and white shards. And reminds me that in bars you scrunched over layers of seafood shells, olive pits, little paper napkins, toothpicks – all tossed on the floor and it was OK! Bliss. To have filthy habits and to be normal!

Back to the loos? A friend and I had a room in a flat (left) with a widow called Doña Lola (short for Dolores if you didn’t know, which means ‘sorrows’ – fancy being called Sorrows then?) who we liked a lot. She had a hard time of it financially, there was almost no state help for anyone on a tiny income, which she was. We had to eat out, no kitchen facilities, but student restos were very cheap – a biftek was 5ptas, sopa de lentejas 2ptas, a bottle of lemonade 3ptas (which was kept aside ready for your next meal there) and so forth. But Doña Lola’s loo was something else. She told us very emphatically, right from the start, that it would swallow hardly anything, and that used paper had to be put into the basket at the side. Eh? This was common enough practice we discovered later, but it went against the grain. This loo was the bane of our lives but some time later a plumber was called and found… what? That a previous obrero had dumped a bucketload of plaster down the pan, which of course had set hard and blocked the entire system. You can hardly believe. But again, it didn’t seem  too out of the way for the gimcrack quality of everyday Spanish workings.

Before we leave Doña Lola let’s imagine being woken up in the night with low groanings and moanings, ahhhh, oooohhh, with the occasional ‘Ay madre!’. We rushed into her room to find the poor woman ironing her stomach. Bad pains, no hot water bottles in Spain, very little available pain relief (no NHS) – what else do you do? Come on, think about it. It was on a low setting after all.

Fast forward to later in the 60s, when I worked as a travel rep on the costas in the summer and looked for non-existent work in Madrid in the winter. That was another time (although I was still always hungry) but things had begun to move insofar as tourists were arriving, hotels were being built, something was developing even though Franco was still hanging on. But all that’s another story. Farewell Franco, he was a bad old man and kept his beautiful country under the cosh for far too long, and for that alone I cannot forgive him.

Pat Neil lived in Spain for 6 years during the 1960’s, first as a student in Madrid then working on the Costa Blanca in the summers as a resident rep for tourist agencies. In the winters she would move to Madrid with her friend and their meagre savings to try and scrape a living until blessed April came round again. The friend had a Renault Dauphine in which they quartered the country on various ploys. She still speaks fluent Spanish, even if all her slang is still that of the sixties streets. After Spain, Pat lived and travelled in South East Asia before returning to Britain and writing ‘Tiger, Tiffin and Mee’ one of the finest and most authentic oriental cookbooks to be published on these shores.

5 Responses to “Spain in Cold Storage”
  1. A truly fascinating piece, Patty. And an important historical document. I especially enjoyed the image of the decaying swimming pool, it is so evocative of the crumbling country around you. Photos are fascinating also. The man in the centre of the second photo is beautiful and looks like a film star. Glamour. Thanks for the writing, it is a window on the past and a singular experience of a forgotten history.

  2. Lisa Neil says:

    That was wonderful and evocative and you’ve left me thirsty for more! Have duly taken note of the jamon request, and if you decide to change your mind and instead wish for callos a la madrilena, I promise to fight the nausea and do that too. And you’ll be happy and not surprised that I will not partake, the whole dish will be yours, and all yours. And I won’t make you eat it in a corner. xx la

  3. Anna Dickie says:

    More please! I too was an English teenager in Franco’s Spain so Pat’s piece brought memories tumbling back. The handsome boyfriends! The extraordinary food! The sunshine. The playa catolica (beach) divided by a rope – boys one side and girls the other. And No One Mentioned La Guerra Civil, it was too painful and hidden away. And we weren’t interested in politics in those days. A super piece, congratulations.

  4. Victoria Wood says:

    Wow Pat, what a truly tantalising piece. There has to be a follow up and longer too! This needs to be a book it is so evocative. The powerful and compelling images transport you to another world, when it finishes you feel a little left behind and yearning to turn another page…definitely more please!.

  5. Kristen says:

    Wonderful story! Would love to hear more and see more old photos!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: