Thursday, 10 December 2015

Franco's gone, but are his heirs coming back?

Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who held dictatorial power over Spain for just shy of forty years up to 1975, was born one 4 December (specifically, the one that came in 1892) and died on a 20 November (the one in 1975, natch – I reckon I gave that away earlier in this sentence).

That means we’ve been getting a bit of a flurry of reflections on Franco recently. They’ve made me think of my own slight experience of that fine chieftain, the last fascist dictator in Western Europe – or last so far: we haven’t seen the French Front National really get going yet and, if Labour can’t neutralise them, UKIP could offer us some Trump-like surprises in Britain too.

The Spanish Caudillo, with a mate of his
Way back, in about 1967, my family was on holiday in South West France, in a trip which took us right down to the Spanish border at Hendaye. Would we go across? Would we pop over? What was right, what was appropriate?

These were momentous questions. Many of our friends, two of my teachers even, were exiles from Franco’s Spain. Would visiting the country, while the dictator was still in power, be a breach of faith, a betrayal of the principles we shared with them?

In the end, we went across. Just for the day. I remember we bought leather wine gourds for my brother and me. They had spouts from which one could squirt a stream of drink straight into one’s mouth, whether wine or anything else. It didn’t actually matter what liquid we squirted, as they all tasted brackish and foul from the pitch with which the inside of the ghastly container had been lined. It was such fun squirting the stream that it took me ages to stop denying how horrible anything from it tasted, and chuck it out.

Our home was in Italy in those days, and since none of us spoke Spanish, we tried to get by in Italian. It worked fine until we wanted a beer – “birra” doesn’t sound anything like “cerveza”. The experience was almost as unsatisfactory as drinking anything from one of awful gourds.

Eight years later, I was working in what was called the “lift section” of the Greater London Council. Even that Council itself has disappeared since then, undone by a Maggie Thatcher who loathed the fact that it was run by lefties, and who wasn’t above making a long-term damaging change to attain a short term political goal. For some time, London was the only city its size without a strategic authority to manage its affairs as a whole, instead being run by a plethora of councils in the individual boroughs, each working to its own agenda.

As for the lift section, it had nothing to do with uplift or anything inspiring like that. Oh, no. It was concerned with what our transatlantic cousins call elevators. We took calls from caretakers on housing estates to report lifts out of action, or to yell at us because we hadn’t fixed them yet, and passed the information on to a bunch of engineers who took responsibility for getting the repairs carried out.

In their own good time.

As light relief from this exacting work, we’d sometimes be asked to add up the totals of huge piles of invoices. We’d do that on calculating machines which had a big handle you pulled downwards each time you’d entered a number by changing the settings on a series of dials; as you pulled the handle towards you, it made a lugubrious clanking sound followed by a clashing of rotors engaging, and one more number would be added to the total.

The final figure never corresponded with what you were expecting but, since the only way of correcting a problem was to go back and start all over again – you couldn’t just correct individual figures as you might, say, in Excel – we’d usually go through the process three or four times and then decide that whatever we’d got was as near as dammit and stop there.

Now, there’s a particular type and style of man who emerged from the thirties and forties, immediately recognisable to anyone who knew it. He wore corduroy trousers with a tweed jacket, generally with leather patches on the elbows, and thin rimmed glasses behind which lurked a pair of sharp and intelligent eyes. He was quick-witted, well read, often Jewish and always left wing (I say that with nostalgia: many men from the Jewish side of my family fitted that stereotype, hard to remember at times these days when the British Jewish community is so generally Conservative).

In particular, those were the men who’d either fought in the Spanish Civil War, along with the George Orwells of this world, or at least raised money for the Republican side and campaigned for the support it so badly needed and never received.

In our lift section office in 1975, one of our engineers was straight out of this mould. A throwback, already way behind the times. Dressed exactly as I’ve described, expressing exactly the views I suggest – though always indirectly, of course, by implication, as befitted the office environment.

“Hey,” we called as he walked in on 3 December 1975, “Franco died yesterday!”

“Yes,” he said, “I’m devastated.”

“What do you mean?” we asked, nonplussed.

“I blame his doctors,” he replied, “they should have kept him alive for another six months of increasing agony.”

Well, they hadn’t, and he’d gone. We shall never see his like again. Or at least we can fondly hope so.

But when I hear Nigel Farage, Donald Trump or Marine le Pen, I’m afraid his spirit could come back to haunt us yet.

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