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the last fandango (1)

Bubion, January 2007

Gheude’s remarks on the annihilation of (northern) European peasantry effected by the First World War echo in turn with a passage from the book which (indirectly) sparked the creation of this blog — Gerald Brenan’s South from Granada (1957), which I had the pleasure of discovering in late January while staying in Bubion in the Barranco Poqueira. This evocative account of rural life in a remote corner of Europe in the 1920s deserves more than one post, but I want to start by flagging up the following paragraph, which occurs fairly early on in the book (all page references are to the Penguin edition).

Brenan arrived in the Alpujarra in 1919 at the age of 25 to repair himself and make up for his lost education after more than two years spent serving in the trenches on the Western Front. He settled in the village of Yegen, towards the eastern end of the valley, where he rented a ramshackle house for 120 pesetas a year, filling his nine living rooms with the two thousand books he had collected over the years but never found the time to read.

Describing the dances he used to host, and to which he would invite the whole village, Brenan interrupts his description of the cante jondo to exclaim:

But where were the old Andalusian dances, the fandangos and sevillanas and malaguenas? Within the last dozen years they had become disreputable. Every woman who had reached the age of thirty-five could dance them, but none would do so in front of others. Historians, if such backwaters interest them, will note that the second decade of the twentieth century marked a wholesale destruction of peasant arts and customs in Southern Europe. German dyes replaced mineral ones in pottery; local costumes, folk customs, country dances vanished. Uniformity came in. The roads built for the motorists put an end to the autochthonous life of the villages, and with that to the remnants of a culture that went back to classical times. Only the church with its pagan ritual remained. (p.63)

Though Spain was still in the 1920s in such a state of relative ‘under-development’ that one historian could refer to it as “by north-west European standards a nineteenth-century rural economy” (Stanley G. Payne, A History of Spain and Portugal, 1973, p.597), what growth there was had been sufficiently dramatic, starting from such a low base, to have been felt as a major cultural landslide, even in Yegen. And the First World War played a considerable part in this sea change. Spain’s neutrality made her a natural source of goods for France, the other allied nations, and the whole of Latin America, and this export-driven growth stimulated a period of rapid industrialisation. Whence Brenan’s roads, and — later — his German dyes.

(Germany had a quasi-monopoly on industrial dyes which survived the Great War intact. When the American DuPont tried to enter the market, using German patents confiscated during the war, they found that they were written in such deliberately vague language that only a German chemist could interpret them accurately. In the 1920s, the German government had even stopped issuing passports to chemists, in their determination to prevent any rivals emerging. When in December 1920 DuPont tried to smuggle four Bayer chemists out of German, having tempted them with lucrative contracts, their new employees were stopped by Dutch border police and handed back to the German authorities, who promptly charged them with ‘industrial espionage’. It took a further seven months of cloak-and-dagger work before DuPont was finally able to get the four men to New Jersey, where they would lay the foundations for the firm’s 60-year domination of the US dye market. See Robert J. Baptista, “Spies and Dyes”, 6 September 2006, at the fascinating Colorants Industry History website.)

[Originally published 3.7.07]