My friend Noel Murphy adapted the words of Prince on the morning Trump got elected. “Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 1939.”
I believe in democracy but sometimes even fundamental beliefs get strained by events. It seems we’ve entered a new democratic era where it’s become acceptable to tell lies and say outrageous things to win votes. I have a very biased view of the world, as does everyone, yet I’ve found it hard to believe what happened last week. Apparently for half the American electorate it’s OK to demean women and demonise those seen as ‘other’. How can this be?
The 1939 reference resonated with me because my second novel Spanish Crossings is top of my mind. I’m now in that exciting phase where we’re moving closer and closer to publication next April. There are dates associated with the novel that also make me think harder about that pre-war period now.
I’ve just written an article about the novel for the International Brigades Memorial Trust. The International Brigades were volunteer soldiers from around the world who saw the rising danger of fascism and went to Spain to fight in the Spanish Civil War from 1936 to 1939. Many were from the UK. Many died in action, the fate of one of my characters in Spanish Crossings – Harry James, an International Brigader, who provides an eye-witness account of the bombing of Guernica in 1937. Those bombers of Spanish civilians were German – both planes and pilots – sent by Hitler and just getting in a bit of training for the second world war that would follow soon after.
A second 80th anniversary, just a few weeks later, is that of the arrival in Southampton of 4000 Spanish child refugees on the boat Habana. This is another story I draw on for the novel, but it’s also part of my family history. My mum and dad, as I’ve described in this blog before, ‘adopted’ a refugee Spanish boy at that time. I take comfort in 2016 from the friendships between citizens of the UK and Spain that now flourish.
The last chapter in the novel’s first part is set in 1939 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s east end. A crowd gathered to see a new work displayed and to hear the Labour leader Clement Attlee. That new work was Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, perhaps now his most famous work, certainly one of the greatest anti-war paintings ever. Here’s a mural version that stands near the Museum of Peace in Guernica/Gernika that I visited last year as part of my research for the new book.
I don’t want to draw ‘a moral from the mural’. We all draw different conclusions from history. If I have a thought it’s simply this: art allows us to see and feel things that we might otherwise choose to ignore. Art can be the human conscience. Dictators and demagogues hate artists for that reason. So, uncomfortable as the current times are, and wimpish as this thought might appear to some, art represents our best hope in the resistance to hatred, bigotry, injustice and ignorance.
What can you do? Go create.