26 Fruits

Keeping belief

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.


6 Responses

  1. Johnny Lyons says:

    It’s tempting at times like this to give up on democracy and perhaps even dream of living under some kind of enlightened if unelected liberal ruler. But, of course, the latter is and always has been a mere fantasy.
    It’s not democracy’s fault that the Brexiteers won or that Trump got elected. They are both symptoms of something else that’s gone wrong. Democracy may be peculiarly vulnerable to demagogues like Boris Johnson and The Donald but it also provides us with the the only chance we have to find a way out of this mess and together reaffirm what unites us rather than divides us. So if we give up on our belief in democracy we may as well give up believing in ourselves. And, as you rightly say John, one of the most powerful and reliable ways we have of restoring belief in the the more edifying aspects of our humanity is through the Arts.
    Thanks as ever John.

  2. Jon says:

    Hi John,

    I too have struggled to come to terms with recent events. Seeing Trump and Farage stood side by side, leering in front of a gaudy gold door was quite demoralising. I take great heart from your suggestion that ‘Dictators and demagogues hate artists’.

    Many thanks,


  3. I used to think we had reason to worry in the 80s. Back then we overused and devalued the word “fascist”. But when we watch charismatic people like Trump and Farage leading a growing crowd of angry men and women, simplifying every debate into a binary choice of “with us of against us” we need to draw breath and take in the whole big ugly picture. And we have to try and understand why so many of our neighbours and perhaps friends feel these people speak for them.
    I think that somewhere when we thought we’d won, we slipped from arguing the rightness of our causes: egalitarianism; anti discrimination; anti prejudice; human rights et al and began moralising. And in that moment we lost the people who would have followed and left them to the populists who now tell them they can say what they like and hold their heads up high. I am sure there are a million tawdry threads in this canvas but I believe this is one of them. I also believe these are only the preconditions for dark future and none of it is inevitable.

  4. Jan says:

    One tiny consolation here is that it seems only half of half of the US electorate accept Trump in his awfulness. Getting on for half didn’t even rouse themselves to vote. Democracy is no good if people don’t exercise their democratic right to choose. I know not voting is a sort of choice – it’s saying you have no confidence in any of the options before you. But it seems the great mass of people just feel totally let down by the apparatus of power and government. Maybe there’s a role for creativity in rekindling people’s enthusiasm for political engagement. It might even give us some better candidates.

  5. Irene says:

    Some thoughtful comments here.

    As a history interpreter working with schools, I do get depressed by the lack of historical awareness not only from students but also teachers (history ones included).

    Many children (these include A level students) find the concepts of time, cause and consequence difficult. Trying to explain/explore the concept of history, its cycles and repetitions is an uphill battle.

    Worringly, history like politics, is a subject that’s likely to get cut from curriculums in the future, making people’s understanding and awareness of democracy even hazier.

    Art history has already been chopped, meaning Piccasso’s Guernica may have no meaning for future generations.

    About 5 years ago I commented to several friends and colleagues that I feared we were heading to a 1930’s scenario based on what was happening in US and British politics, Middle East and Russia. Doesn’t cheer me to realise my gut instinct (based on history cycles) is close to hand.

    All we can do is to challenge and educate. Art and literature are the mediums to this. The pen, as someone said, is mightier than the sword.

  6. As I work on my own Spanish Civil War novel, I keep hearing of more British authors writing fiction in English about the Civil War, while in Spain (where I’ve lived for the last 18 years) the topic is touched on only briefly at the very end of the last school year’s history syllabus and often isn’t even reached. My novel, ‘The Red Gene’, is written from the point of view of an English nurse who goes out with the International Brigades. It follows three generations so covers the period of the dictatorship, stolen babies, mass graves and much more. I’ve interviewed many older people in Spain but mostly about life in post-war times; the war is a topic that few people will talk about. El Pacto de Olvido (the Pact of Forgetting) agreed on after Franco’s death was meant to heal divisions but I think it’s vital, especially with the rise of fascism once again, that people know their history.
    My last novel, ‘Secrets of the Pomegranate’, published in 2015 and set in Granada, deals with prejudice and stereotyping, in particular Islamophobia in the wake of 9/11 and the Madrid train bombings.
    I agree that art is a good way to try and combat the hate, greed and injustice in the world. For me, writing is the only way I feel I can make any difference – by engaging readers, through my characters and their stories, with uncomfortable truths that might cause them to reflect, or revise their opinions; might even stimulate them to act in defence of more civilised values.

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