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Slightly Foxed Issue 46, Summer 2015
Artwork from SF Issue 46, James B. W. Lewis, ‘Summer Riverbank’ 

Summer is in full swing here at Slightly Foxed. The June issue of the quarterly has traveled far and wide to subscribers all over the globe and whether you too are off to far-flung places this summer, or simply staying at home, we hope you’ll find it good company.

In this month’s newsletter we’re travelling to southern France with ace reporter Alan Moorehead. Author of such bestselling books as The White Nile and Gallipoli, Moorehead was the perfect figure of the romantic writer and traveller, and a distinguished war correspondent in the Second World War. These vivid and haunting ‘Episodes in a Life’ describe his childhood in Melbourne, his apprenticeship as a journalist when he first arrived in Europe from Australia, and how, covering the war in the desert, he formed a close friendship with another young war correspondent, Alex Clifford, which lasted till Alex’s premature death.

In the following extract we join our man in St Jean de Luz from where, unable to procure a visa to cross the border to facist Spain, he ventures into the Hautes Pyrenees and witnesses an unusually sympathetic exchange between the Gardes Mobiles and a group of Spanish refugees. Please read on for an extract from his memoir, A Late Education, some recent comments from foxed readers and a few other summer reading suggestions from the SF shelves.
 

A Late Education


Anyone who was involved in the Spanish Civil War on the Franco side will remember St Jean de Luz on the Basque coast in southern France. Like the town of Riga in the Russian revolution it was a neutral staging-post on the edge of the conflict, and every traveller, whether he was a black-marketeer, a diplomat, a secret agent or a journalist would pause there for a while on his journeys in and out of Spain.
    In St Jean de Luz you could get anything from a forged passport to a million-peseta small-arms contract, and it was a remarkable place for intrigue. Had the French government not kept order there would have been serious disturbances in the town, since the foreign colony and many of the French themselves were sharply divided into two camps - those who were for Franco and those who were against him - and they hated one another with a deep emotional hatred . . .


. . . Nearly all popular journalism is an artificial trick of presenting facts at secondhand, but this was fourth- or fifth-hand work. I listened in my bedroom to the Spanish radio stations, I read the Spanish papers when they came across the border from San Sebastian, I talked to the refugees and travellers passing in and out; and I lunched and dined with the diplomats. But I saw nothing. I underwent no emotional or spiritual experience. I did not expose myself to the war I was writing about. The war, for me, was a crackle on the radio, a jumble of headlines in a newspaper, an improbable twice-told tale from an unresponsive refugee; a dim diplomatic theory muttered across the aperitifs on a sunny morning by the beach. I was not really writing about the war at all; I was writing about the war as it was reflected there in safe St Jean de Luz, and I might just as well have been looking at the reflections in London or New York or Moscow. There are only two aspects of a war (or any other event) worth writing about; the war as it actually is before your eyes, and the actions and mental behaviour of the men controlling it. There on the Spanish border I saw neither the men who were fighting nor the politicians who directed them. The news filtered through to me in a fog of propaganda, and it was not even clever or predictable propaganda. Some days a few gobbets of truth or imagined truth lay carelessly on the top of it.
    At other times the facts were buried erratically at the bottom. But each night I went off and pinned down what I could into a few careful little clichés and sent them off to London. Each night I said to myself: perhaps tomorrow will yield something true. Finally I decided to drive off into the central Pyrenees on a vague hunch that something was happening there . . .

   
. . . Beyond Luchon even the pine forests fall away, and you come at last to a fantastic semicircle of snow and ice which marks the topmost crest of the central Pyrenees and the border between France and Spain. Usually this is a place of silence and utter desolation, but that day at five o’clock there was a continuous stream of people making their way upward. I left the car in the snow and walked on with them to the top, where we looked down into Spain itself, a vast and frightening chasm broken by many sheer precipices of solid ice and white ravines that fell down out of sight.
    Peering down into that chasm we saw the Spanish refugees. There may have been a thousand of them, perhaps five thousand, or even more. They were toiling slowly up towards us, and seen from this height they made a long line against the snow. It was a line that kept breaking and rejoining itself, growing fatter and thinner, wavering, stopping and then coming on again. At the steeper places the leaders hacked steps into the ice, but some stumbled and rolled backward out of sight. Others, apparently too exhausted to go on, turned aside into the snow and lay there – so many stationary black dots beside the moving line.
    We who stood on the summit – about a hundred and fifty Frenchmen from Luchon, the gendarmes and one or two stray visitors like myself – all of us feeling warm and safe, stood without speaking in the snow and watched. There was an officer from the Gardes Mobiles in his black leggings and a red stripe down the side of his breeches, standing at the edge of the crowd, much exercised by his duties. He wiped his hand across his moustache. ‘They come to seek the hospitality of France,’ he said pompously. ‘It is the remnant of the red divisions. They have been cut off by the Spanish National forces.’
    When the first of the Spanish finally reached us on the summit we saw with surprise that nearly a third of them were not soldiers but women and children and elderly people, and they carried with them the most intimate and absurdly impractical goods, such as a canary in a cage, a flat iron, a coloured vase, an embroidered shawl, a dog suffering from frostbite, a parcel of books – anything, in fact, that a refugee might have snatched up at the last moment, not because it was of any practical use, but because he loved and valued it. They clung to these things, feeling no doubt that they represented something saved in the general loss, something that made a bridge between the happy past and this present misery, something that placed them as individuals in the surrounding confusion. Many of these people were wounded or suffering from exposure since they wore the thin clothes of the valleys below, and there were little groups knotted together where a man was being half carried by his friends, or a woman and child were being assisted with tugs and pushes across the snow. Perhaps more than anything else one was affected by the extraordinary kindness and solicitude they showed to one another when they were so weak.
    They came up quite silently to the French border, expressing no surprise at finding us waiting for them there, offering no explanation, revealing neither relief nor joy nor excitement. They simply stood like animals in the snow and waited. And we on our side, the group of Frenchmen standing about in a semicircle, watched them curiously, without at first making any sign of welcome or pity.
    The Gardes Mobiles were exceedingly efficient. They went up to the Spaniards and took away from them their rifles and pistols and leather pouches of ammunition. The Spaniards made no resistance, and as more and more of them arrived the piles of rifles and bayonets grew steadily higher in the snow, in the form of a pyramid. Next, the refugees were taken to an open log fire, where two big cauldrons of soup were steaming, and this was silently ladled out in tin mugs as each man and woman came by. Then there was a third ceremony which consisted of dusting the refugees with some kind of disinfectant powder. They stood like dogs while the police peppered them with the stuff. Finally they were formed into squads of perhaps fifty people each, and marched downward to Luchon, one gendarme leading the way in front, another with a submachine gun following behind . . .
 
Image from antan.unblog.fr. . . When some six or seven of these companies had gone down the mountainside into France I noticed a really distinguished man among the Spaniards. He was very thin and gaunt; he wore the most curious sort of leather kneeboots and a uniform which I took to be that of a major or even a colonel in the Spanish army. He was very tired, much too tired to assert his authority. He stood dejectedly between two peasant women and a soldier, his head bowed down, and dirty blood was seeping through a bandage on his arm. All round him the other refugees who had just arrived were supporting themselves in the same way, some of them crying quietly with the pain of the cold, some merely staring woodenly while they waited for an order to be given. But it was this wounded Spanish officer who especially caught the attention because his humiliation seemed more complete than that of the others, and his pride had had so much further to fall. Once, no doubt, he had been a great commander in the field. Now he was being contemptuously pushed about by the French like all the rest. A Spanish colonel wasn’t worth a row of beans this side of the border.
    My friend, the pompous little officer of the Gardes Mobiles, formed up this squad with the same precision as the others. He posted one of his men at the front, another at the rear. He opened his mouth to give the order to advance, and then suddenly he too caught sight of the dejected Spanish colonel in the sixth row. He hesitated. Then he did an astonishing thing. I was standing only a yard or two away so heard and saw what happened. He marched up to the colonel, saluted stiffly, and said in Spanish:
    ‘Sir. Excuse me, sir. Would you care to lead your men down to the valley?’
    Afterwards, when the day had gone and the last refugee had descended the mountain and I had thought about the matter again and again, I still did not understand what tug of conscience, what sudden delicacy of feeling could have prompted that sensitive and kindly gesture. It was the only gesture that could have gone home to the heart at that moment, and it was so utterly unexpected that no one there understood it at first, least of all the Spanish colonel.
    ‘What?’ he said vaguely. ‘I don’t understand.’
    The Garde Mobile waved his hand to the head of the column. ‘Would you care, sir, to lead your men to Luchon?’ This time not only the colonel understood, but all those in the ranks as well. He saluted, and as he came past me to take his place in front he had his head up, and it seemed to me that he had forgotten about his wounded arm, his exhaustion, and even perhaps his defeat. And when he gave his orders from the head of the column and the Spaniards recognised the familiar voice, they stooped and quickly grabbed up their bundles from the snow as if they had suddenly woken from a trance. They came to attention with a kind of ragged dignity, waited for the next word of command, and then stepped forward together. The colonel did not look back to see if they were following. He marched ten paces ahead, swinging his one good arm, and it was not possible to watch that pathetic figure in the blue boots or see the pride in the tattered men behind him without breaking into tears.
    At all events, we, the onlookers, burst into an emotional cheer as they went by; and from that instant everything became easier and more friendly. Just for the moment the French had forgotten their ‘sales étrangers’ attitude, and they made these poor Spaniards welcome in Luchon. That night they were fed and billeted in various compounds round the town. The next day, I was told, each one was to be given the choice of either returning to republican Spain by way of Port Bou to take up the struggle again, or of being sent to Franco’s newly conquered territories in the east – which meant that they accepted defeat. I for one would not have blamed them in their extremity if they gave up the struggle and submitted to Franco. Perhaps this was the choice before all Europe – and Europe’s governments did not seem to be taking very heroic decisions at the moment. It is so easy to give in, so easy to accept; to be indifferent if you are not hurt. It is the loneliness of taking a courageous decision which is the worst part, the necessity for turning yourself against the laissez-faire of the crowd. And in return for being an individual you get nothing but pride.
    From the way those Spaniards marched down the hill behind their colonel that afternoon I did not think they would yield. This was the first time I had seen refugees en masse, and it filled me with a sense of hopeless inevitability. I felt that this scene was going to repeat itself in one form or another over and over again, like one of those children’s games in which you shake the board and the same coloured beads rearrange themselves in another pattern; and so on and so on, with infinite variations. Everything I saw that evening would reappear; the same characters, the Gardes Mobiles and the Spanish colonel, the bewildered crowd, the emotional loyalties, the helplessness, the fear, the pain, the exhaustion and the pride; and here and there the story would be lighted perhaps as it was that day by some simple act of human kindness, perfectly timed and perfectly accepted.

Extracted from A Late Education © Alan Moorehead 1970, 2012
Travel the world with


A Late Education

 
With his striking and sensitive good looks Moorehead was the perfect figure of the fearless and romantic writer and traveller. As a war correspondent in the Second World War he was twice mentioned in dispatches. Later he would become famous as the author of books on Gallipoli, the discovery of the Blue and White Nile, and the Burke and Wills expedition across his native Australia. A Late Education describes how it all began.


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Bask in a golden summer with


A House in Flanders


There are some books, not necessarily the longest, in which the author’s intention is so perfectly realized, a seminal experience of life so beautifully recorded that the book becomes a small icon to be treasured not only on the shelf of a personal library, but in the mind. A House in Flanders is such a book. P. D. James

In 1951, a shy and introverted 14-year-old boy was sent by his parents to spend the summer with ‘the aunts in Flanders’. His account of those months in the dignified old French country house on the edge of the Flanders Plain has an idyllic, dream-like quality. Yet all was not as idyllic as at first it seemed. Gradually he teases out the history of the family and of the surrounding area and finally uncovers the secret at the heart of the book – the reason he has been sent there.
 

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Slightly Foxed Summer Cover Artist


James B. W. Lewis is a printmaker and illustrator based in London. He makes relief prints and drawings inspired by nature, history and literature. Recent clients include the Oxford American and Caught by the River. More examples of his work and prints for sale can be seen at www.jwestonlewis.co.uk.
Embark on an African adventure with


The Flame Trees of Thika


When Elspeth Huxley’s family arrived in Nairobi in 1913, British East Africa was still a Garden of Eden, virtually untouched by the destructive hand of man. It was also a land of dreams, a place for the recouping of lost fortunes by those who hadn’t managed things very well elsewhere. Elspeth Huxley evokes both the harshness and beauty of the life that, against all the odds, they managed to create, the mutually dependent society of those early white settlers, and the effect of Africa and its native population on the imagination of a solitary and self-sufficient child.
 

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We are always touched and delighted by the notes, letters, postcards and emails we receive from you. Here are just some of our recent favourites:
 

‘Thank you sincerely for the intriguing and very welcome set of Ronald Welch novels; as well as the diverse memoirs that arrived in my office from Slightly Foxed this past week. I can tell that this is but the first of many packages that will wend their way to me here in California in coming months. I am deep in the pleasures of Silver Ley as we speak, and remembering among other things my own childhood summers spent on my uncle’s farm in Co. Antrim, N. Ireland. Thank you again for helping me battle San Francisco’s digital obsession on my daily commute.’ M. Verzhbinsky, USA

‘Slightly Foxed is 100% guaranteed to awaken and stimulate that part which only books can reach. Thank you for another year of pleasure. I visit Toppings Bookshop in Ely and am pleased to see Slightly Foxed on the counter there. Many, many thanks and best wishes.’ M. Wren, Cambridgeshire

‘Dear Olivia, The three carefully-chosen books I had ordered for my wife arrived this morning, individually wrapped and with the most delightful message cards included. They got the kind of all-round reception which delights the heart of a giver. Thanks indeed.’ R. Smartt, Belfast

‘I felt that I had to write and thank you for the excellent evening on Thursday at Harris and Harris. As someone who rarely ventures to London it was a great pleasure to attend such an interesting event as well as giving us the opportunity to discover a different bookshop. We live some thirty miles from Clare, so by the time we were almost home it was getting dark under the trees. At this point an animal loped across the road, ears pricked and brush held low. A fitting end to a Slightly Foxed evening, even if this one was in search of some hapless chickens, rather than literary edification.’ E. Durbin, Suffolk

‘I love your books, the quality and size are so pleasing. I like a book I can get in my pocket.’ J. Bowen, Shropshire

‘SF is very hip with the literati over here.’ C. Barbercheck, Michigan
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