Sunday, 21 August 2011


After Goya has received a 3-star review over at Goodreads.

I'm really very pleased - the Goodreads community is mainly made up of sincere, dedicated readers - who better to ask for an honest opinion?

And, I'm pleased too because the three-star rating tempers the four and five-star reviews - hopefully causing potential buyers to be less cynically inclined to think that the reviews are too good to be true. 

The reviewer makes some insightful observations, especially with regard to the political background:

" ... the amount of organisations. I'm sure if I was more up on my history I would have been able to cope with this with more ease, but I did at times get confused about who was part of what and the various different causes and what they stood for." 

The preface to Antony Beevor's excellent The Battle for Spain gives a partial list of thirty-eight political parties and groupings, plus a list of acronyms of more political, military and intelligence organisations active during the conflict. The title of Gerald Brenan's account of the war, The Spanish Labyrinth, reinforces the perception of the splintered nature of dissent.

In After Goya I tried to get this across - and challenge the convenient reductionism of Franco's bloc and Soviet Communist inspired opposition, viz. good versus evil, fascism versus socialism, monarchism versus republicanism, nationalism versus federalism - without labouring the point.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Thought for the Day

Riots are an expression of rage.
Rage is an expression of thwarted desire.
Riots are prompted by the refusal of some to engage with the sincere desire of many.
Desire may be formed by the want of information, by the need of sustenance, by the rejection of taxes, levies and hindrances to the common good.
Those few who thwart the desire of the many will always need armies to defend their estate. Such defence is a ruinous occupation; ruinous of compassion, of common wealth and of common desire for advancement.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011


My novel, After Goya, now has a 5-star review over at Amazon US:

"A Gripping Read.
After Goya is engaging from page one and takes you on a thrilling journey throughout Spain and across time. Its a wonderful mix of Art History, Spanish Civil War politics, International espionage and conspiracy theory. Haarlson Phillipps is a great writer who skillfully pulls you into the intrigue and twists and turns the plot keeping you riveted. A great read! "


Friday, 1 July 2011


I'll be in the UK when you're reading this.

Visiting the North to attend the wedding of a very good friend's daughter.

We may have time to meet up with a very good friend - depends on train schedules.

Then hooking up with my son to visit Edinburgh and catch up with a friend and former colleague whom I've not seen for several years.

Then flying to Bristol and meet with a dear friend who lives in Box, before moving on to Banbury to stay with two close friends and attend a meeting, as a guest author, of The Thin Ladies' Reading Circle.

And, I'll take a trip to Oxford to catch up with my daughter - who, though having finished her PPE finals, will still be at St. Hilda's.

After this excitement I'll be calling in on my mother and sister in Bishop's Cleeve and attending a birthday party for one of my two nephews before flying back home to Barcelona.

One of the organisers of the Thin Ladies' Reading Circle explained, "We are not called the Thin Ladies because we are undeniably lithe and attractive. No. We are called the Thin Ladies because we prefer thin volumes. However, we've made an exception for you."

Sounds OK by me.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Guardian City Guide to Barcelona

My non-fiction writing alter-ego has had two articles published in The Guardian.

Go HERE and HERE if you'd like to find out about interesting bars and tapas bars in the wonderful city of Barcelona.

Other contributors to the Guardian Barcelona City Guide include Jill Adams (editor of the esteemed multi-lingual Barcelona Review); Matthew Tree, esteemed English-born writer of fiction and non-fiction in Catalan; and  writers from Le Cool, the online monthly events guide (well worth signing up for), and the Barcelona based, English-language, Metropolitan magazine.

The Guide hangs together very well - with lists of literary haunts, bargain shops, contemporary Catalan restaurants, art hangouts, clubs, as well as boutique hotels and pensións, etc etc. And it's all fresh - deftly avoiding mention of many of the usual suspects which get mentioned in the popular guides.

And, I discovered a few surprises. For example, Matthew Tree lists the café-bar Bauma as a literary haunt. I'd never have guessed. Bauma is very near where I live, and I pass the place nearly every day.

To choose only 10 bars, 10 bars which serve tapas, and have a maximum 120 words to describe each, was a testing exercise. They are not The Best, but 10 of the best. I got the assignment through Spotted by Locals - where you can read more, and more up-to-date, articles about bars, restaurants, clubs, galleries, museums and other local spots.

Spotted by Locals was awarded The Guardian Best Travel Website Award, 2011.

Monday, 30 May 2011


After Goya has received a first review on Amazon UK. Four stars no less. 

"... original in its theme, coherent in its writing, with good descriptions of place and character and delivers appealingly cinematic action scenes."

You can read the full, and fairly lengthy review HERE.

I'm very pleased, and feeling a little humbled, that the reader took the time and trouble to post a review. 

If you're still dithering about whether to splash out £2.06/€2,32 or $2.99 on the Kindle version go check out the review. 

Or, if you don't have a Kindle, go to Barnes & Noble and buy the Nook version HERE

Or, if you have an i-Pad, (yes, I mean you, Sumner) go to the Apple Store HERE, download the FREE i-book app and go to the i-bookstore.

Or, you could venture over to Smashwords HERE.

And, if you don't have any of these gadgets you'll have to wait for the print version priced at £7.99 in the UK.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Barça v. United: Poetry, Philosophy and Ethics: 3 - Drama: 1

OK, let's get two things straight before we discuss the details.

The difference in this match was not Messi versus Rooney - the difference was Ferdinand versus Piqué.

Old Trafford sells itself as The Theatre of Dreams. I'm aware Guardiola encourages his players to read poetry.

The difference in this match was the difference between POETRY and DRAMA.

Poetry won.

Poetry is more closely associated to Ethics - Drama associated to Entertainment. Poetry won AND provided more entertainment than Drama.

Piqué played a quiet, effective blinder - blocking, intercepting United's thrusts and then, via both carefully aimed clearances, and luckily timed back passes, but with constant awareness, consistently delivered the ball upfront. By contrast Ferdinand clumbered around like a club-footed donkey - outpaced, wrong-footed and out-thought. The difference can clearly be seen when Messi hits his goal scoring shot - Ferdinand instinctively shies from the ball's flight to protect himself - Piqué would, by instinct, have put himself between the ball and the goal.

Rooney's goal was offside - look at it again - and again and again,  and you will clearly see one, then another, Man U player clearly offside and in position to influence play just before the ball goes in.

Valencia should at least have copped a  yellow in the first half - and, by rights, should have been sent off. I counted his niggly, little trips, pokes, shoves and deliberately badly timed tangles (not tackles, not tangos - but somewhere in-between) - 11 altogether. I counted them off, and after four, I said, "Next time it's got to be a yellow card." But no. We were well into the second half before the ref finally reached for a card - minutes after too quickly grabbing a yellow for Alvés.

Barcelona took United for a little spin on the carousel - and won.

Then, after winning, Barça formed a pasillo - or guard of honour - to clap their opponents from the field. Ethics - not Drama.

Then Carles Puyol, the team's current true captain, handed Abidal the captain's armband so that he could legitimately receive the cup - knowing, as all Barça fans know, Abidal had recently recovered from liver surgery. Ethics - not Drama.

Nothing more to say - or be said - Poetry, Philosophy and Ethics won tonight - Drama lost.

Saturday, 21 May 2011


I'm pleased and proud to announce that my novel, After Goya , is now available as an ebook in several formats. The global price is $2.99 and at Euro and Pound equivalents, but with VAT added.

If you have a Kindle, or a Kindle app for PC or i-Pad, etc you can sample a few free chapters and buy a copy at, and I've already sold a few copies at both the U.S. and U.K. Amazon sites.

If you have any other type of reader, or want to read a sample on your laptop or desktop before buying a copy then I suggest you go to Smashwords. ISBN: 978-1-4581-2596-5.

The book has already shipped to Barnes & Noble and the Apple i-Tunes store - and will be appearing in their catalogues next week.

In a few weeks readers in Australia and New Zealand will also be able to purchase and download the ebook at Borders, Australia; Angus & Robertson and at Whitcoulls in New Zealand.

And, again all being well, you will soon be able to buy a very special EPUB edition from this blog. I say very special because Ester, indefatigable formatter-in-chief at ebookation, has done an outstanding job of not only converting the text but also the ornaments which separate sections and chapters, replaced missing and mis-placed accents, and included a table of contents and additional material in the end papers. The result is very impressive for an ebook.

Converting a word processor document into an ebook format, though not difficult, is not straightforward. The conversion process often strips out  common punctuation marks and accents and replaces them with less common marks and symbols; line spacing, justification and section breaks can go walkabout all over the page.

Smashwords' conversion engine, known to writers and publishers as the Meatgrinder, converts basic Word docs into eleven different ebook formats. And, it does a pretty good job of it. However, because, by default, it is designed to produce texts that can be read in all formats the result is a compromise.

And so, after successfully formatting the Smashwords version -- and ensuring it was good enough to get into what they call their Premium Catalog --  Ester, at ebookation, spent more time refining and embellishing the text as an EPub file. In effect, Ester has produced a limited edition of an ebook.

Friday, 29 April 2011


Yesterday my daughter was walking through Oxford town centre when she received a call on her mobile from Amazon. (US? UK? Germany? France? We do not know.) The caller, with an Irish accent, demanded she give him my mobile number.

'We've sent him two emails - we need a reply,' the caller said.

My daughter, a little fazed by this bizarre contact and its timing, refused to give them my number. She doesn't know my mobile number by heart (and neither do I), and didn't see it was her business to help other, unidentified, persons meddle in mine.

Today she hands in her thesis. You can imagine her state of heightened sensibilities. Three years of intense study - collections imminent and finals looming. And there was Amazon hassling her - on the High Street - as she enjoyed a rare few carefree moments.

How did Amazon get her mobile number? I have never given it to them. I have never given them my mobile number (which is why, the caller said, they were asking her for it).

And, then I remembered. Two years ago I ordered a book for her from Amazon France - I must have given her number as a contact in case ... in case. Hang on ... she's changed her phone and number at least three times since then.

'Tell yer da' to contact us,' the caller said.
'Give me your number and I'll tell him to contact you,' my daughter replied.
'I can't give out our number ...'
To be continued .....

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Let's Eat Art

Called into an exhibition at La Pedrera, you know, as you do, on the way home from work, the other day.

Really glad I did.

As I say,  just turned up - no expectations - and woah!

When you have chance you must go see this exhibition.

There's work by Picasso, Dalí, Juan Gris, Ben Nicholson, Joan Brossa, Joseph Beuys, Piero Manzoni, Richard Hamilton, Daniel Spoerri, Sarah Lucas, Sam Taylor-Wood, Gordon Matta-Clark, Martin Parr, Miquel Barceló, and that Belgian surrealist whose name always slips me (Marcel Broodthaers), and short films by Chantal Akerman, Werner Herzog and Marina Abramović.

However, for me, turning up off the street, not knowing nothing, the section comprised of still-lifes was a revelation. Incredible. So vivid - so full of life. One of the works - Kitchen Corner by Spanish artist Vicente Victoria (1650-1709) - is so fresh it would not look out of place on the cover of a contemporary culinary or gourmet magazine.

I was so taken by the exhibition I've since re-visited it four times - each time finding something new, something worth lingering over.

Though the whole exhibition builds to a premature celebration - or artistic endorsement - of the much lauded chef, Ferran Adrià -  it is a fascinating show.

I'll be going back.

The exhibition runs until June 26th. The exhibition is open from 10am to 8pm EVERY DAY. Admission is FREE.

The image of pomegrantes above is called Epitaph, created in 1996 by Antonio Girbés, born in Valencia in 1952. Click on his name and check out four amazing photo galleries of his work.

Friday, 1 April 2011

English University Funding: A simple, workable all-round win-win solution

Undergraduates who have had the benefit of a private or independent secondary education should pay FULL market-rate fees (i.e. cost plus margin) plus a contribution to a bursary fund.

Cambridge £60,000 per annum. That'll do nicely, thank you, sir.

Oxford £72,000 per annum. Thanks, m'lord.

Undergraduates who go to University via a state education, i.e. five consecutive years attendance at a publicly funded secondary school, should pay NOTHING (and receive a stipend).
Problem solved.

Why should the State subsidise the academic aspirations of the wealthy?
If members of Oxford's dining club, the Bullingdon, can afford to spray fellow students with £400 bottles of French champagne then I'm sure they (or their parents) can find the wherewithal to properly pay their way.

The real-life consequences of this policy could prompt a rush of middle-class parents to enrol their kids into middling along secondary schools, thus dragging up standards in classrooms, and also prompt prospective undergrads from wealthy backgrounds to look to ensconce themselves in U.S. Ivy League universities or at comparable, distinguished European universities. This, of course, would in turn prompt the press to howl about a brain-drain.

In fact, there is already something of a brain-drain in process. Last year more than 22,000 UK nationals signed up to universities in Europe. The UK press seems remarkably quiet about the phenomenon. Why? Well, it's mainly students from working-class backgrounds taking the initiative. Courses are cheaper, accommodation is cheaper, public transport cheaper, health and welfare services more efficient, and the quality of life generally much better. And, they get to graduate without a debt the size of a mortgage hanging over them.

An unanticipated consequence of the new fees regime has been to stimulate a rise in the number of european universities offering a range of undergraduate and post-graduate courses delivered wholly in English and targetting English learners. I know, I teach on such a course. The students I teach each pay €5,400 (£4,750 give or take a few quid) for an MA.

You may think this solution a product of old style class-warrior thinking -- but think it through -- it's a win-win solution.
Over the medium to long-term such a policy would probably kickstart a few private universities into being - allowing middle-class undergrads to maintain their distance from the oiks. Teachers will have a choice of employer and terms and conditions (and avoid the ridiculous national requirements for teachers to have qualifications in unrelated disciplines). Recruiters will be able to target more clearly.

Some will call this educational apartheid, others will welcome this as a sign of maturity of the market in higher education. Even Portugal, the so-called economic basket-case of Europe, has more than 10 private universities and Spain, 20. The UK, France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands could be said to be over-dependant on an exclusively public higher education system. While in Poland (the 6th largest higher education system in the European Union, with 1.9 million students) the rise of the private university sector has been dramatic - there are now more than 330 private institutions in the higher education sector.

And, in the UK? The singular instance of the University of Buckingham does not comprise a sector.

So, what do you think? Am I barking mad, or misinformed? Is my logic faulty? Is my analysis, and prognosis, misguided?

In the interests of disclosure - Between 1980 and 1983 the local authority paid my tuition fees and paid me a full maintenance grant for my first degree. In 1984 I paid  £3,000 for an MA from a publicly funded university - approximately £8,000 in today's money, and received no assistance whatsoever from the State. My daughter is currently studying PPE at Oxford, and my son is studying Anthropology and Philosophy at Manchester. I am occasionally employed by a private university and a public-private teaching foundation.

BTW the image is of Glasgow University - by pixelsandpaper

Monday, 28 March 2011

Barcelona, INK

In October last year Barcelona, INK published one of my short stories. The magazine - Barcelona's only literary magazine in English - (The Barcelona Review is in English, French, Catalan and Spanish) has now published six editions.

It was a real joy to go to the shop in Gaudí's apartment building, La Pedrera and see the magazine (containing my story) for sale.

If you'd like to sample Barcelona, INK go HERE and download pages from Number 5: Laughter in the Light – Henry Miller in Barcelona by Matthew Tree; a poem by Pere Quarts; Making Dance With Fruit by yours truly; a poem by Carles Riba; and an excellent story - See you in a mo (Manchester Barcelona Manchester) by Jeff King.

And, when you visit the Barcelona, INK website you'll see my name in the header, along with Colm Tóibín, Rupert Thomson, Joan Brossa, Paul Preston, Joan Margarit, Richard Gwyn, Henry Miller, Ian Rankin and George Orwell.

You'll understand why it makes me smile when I see my name there - even though it is spelled incorrectly (my grandfather used to go ballistic when anyone spelled the family name with only two 'p's).

Hope you enjoy reading the excerpt.

Barcelona, INK Number 6 is now on sale. It is available at the following outlets: La Central Raval, Central Mallorca, LAIE Pau Claris, CCCB, La Pedrera, Fundacio Miro, MACBA, BCN Books, Come-in Books and Hibernian Books in Gracia.

Friday, 24 September 2010


Exhibition opening at Gràcia Arts Project last night.

Didn't go.

Instead went along to a regular meeting of an English creative writing group to listen to five people give their opinion on the current chapter twelve of Heavensfield - a novel in progress, and to hold forth on my take of three other novels in progress. All good stuff.

Heavensfield could be characterised as a hard-edged cosy.

In general the writers' group meetings are pretty useful, and a good opportunity to not only get feedback on current projects but an opportunity to help fellow writers identify strengths and weaknesses in their current output. There's also a social dimension which can sometimes lead to opportunities to explore other creative, or wholly social, activities.
For example, last night, after the meeting, a gang of writers headed off into the city centre to get with La Mercè, the city's festa major, while I headed off home to eat.

Anyway, didn't get along to the exhibition opening at Gràcia Arts Project last night, but my partner did, and I'll probably check out the show before it ends.

And, I didn't get along to any Mercè events, but I'll be out and about tonight.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Escoles d'Altres Mons - Kim Manresa

Photography exhibition preview at the Maritime Museum in Drassanes last night. 
Names of contributors you'll likely recognise include Salman Rushdie, Hanif Kureishi, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes along with Michael Crichton, Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, Wole Soyinka, Juan Goytisolo, V.S. Naipaul, Gabriel García Márquez, and one of my current favourite poets, Joan Margarit.

The exhibition and book, Escoles d'Altres Mons/Escuelas de otros mundos, is a collection of photographs of scenes from schools in 50 countries by photo-journalist Kim Manresa. Each black and white photo is accompanied with a text by a Nobel laureate or other prize-winning literary luminary.

Have to say the preliminaries to the exhibition opening were pretty tedious - with six speakers all wanting their say. There were no seats, so for invitees who had come straight from work, or whom had left work early, to dash across the city during the rush hour and then having to stand for 45 minutes and listen to, mostly, self-serving gush was a bit much. There were no refreshments, and what irked most was that the museum's café-bar closed at 8pm.

Still, we made a night of it and repaired to the nearby Bar Pastis to meet up with a friend for a good old chinwag about football, poetry, Guardiola, Cantona, Ken Loach, Maragall and books - great fun.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

CENSORSHIP? or cock-up? Repression & Resistance on the streets of Barcelona

Have been active on the Trip Advisor Barcelona travel forum over the past month or so - perhaps a more socially useful form of procrastination than merely surfing.

Anyway, on June 10th El Memorial Democràtic launched a street documentary photography project: Repression & Resistance. It's a fascinating and worthwhile project.

At 12 sites across the city centre there are near life-size photographs mounted on substantial plinths. Each plinth shows a real-life scene from the dark days of Francoist inspired repression

The plinths are erected on exactly the spot where the depicted event took place. So, for example, in the middle of our paseo we now have a stark black and white photo of half a dozen riot police whacking hell out of a petrified group of locals, including an old man and a young woman, cowering in a huddle on the floor. At the junction of Gran de Gràcia, Diagonal and the top of Passeig de Gràcia there is a photo of riot police armed with tear-gas firing rifles.

When out and about with a group of visiting American friends we unexpectedly happened upon one of the photo-plinths. It really brought home to them the terror faced by ordinary folk during the popular struggle for democracy and recognition for Catalunya. And, it reminded them how young a democracy Spain is.

I posted a version of the above text on the Trip Advisor forum, advising visitors to keep their eyes open for the exhibit during their stay. Prompted a fair few responses.

So, inspired by this project I spent a Saturday afternoon wandering from site to site taking photos of the photos. I then wasted a few hours uploading the photos to Trip Advisor. (I think they're there somewhere - lost amid the morass of 24,000 photos of Barcelona). So, then I thought to post a review to Trip Advisor - the review would be searchable, and, if people were so inclined they could view the photos.

Here is the text of the 'review':

Repression and Resistance - a documentary photography project installed on the streets of Barcelona June 10th - September 18th 2010.

A series of 12 near life-size photographs mounted on substantial plinths. Each plinth shows a real-life scene from the dark days of post-Civil War repression. The plinths are erected on exactly the spot where the depicted event took place. So, for example, in the middle of our paseo we now have a stark black and white photo of half a dozen riot police whacking hell out of a petrified group of locals, including an old man and a young woman, cowering in a huddle on the floor. At the junction of Gran de Gràcia, Diagonal and the top of Passeig de Gràcia there is a photo of riot police armed with tear-gas firing rifles.

For more information, including free guided tours, go to:


After uploading 20 photos attached to the reviews (had to split it into two parts) the review was marked as 'pending' (i.e. pending moderation). Six days later I received an e-mail from Trip Advisor telling me that they had decided to not publish the reviews as it was deemed it had infringed their guidelines. No details of the supposed offence were given.

Censorship? Or, ineptitude? I suspect a cock-up by not very well-informed moderators.

But, how to know for certain?

Well, got me fired up, and I'm now on the case ...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Downtown Top Rankin

Ian Rankin was in town last week. He was here to receive the Pepe Carvalho prize. The prize, named after Manuel Vázquez Montalbán's detective, is awarded annually to a writer working in the crime genre in recognition of their career achievements. Established in 2005 previous winners include: Michael Connelly, P. D. James, Henning Mankell and Francisco González Ledesma.

The Prize giving, held at the City Hall in Barcelona, coincides with a week long festival of crime writing - BCNegra. And so it was that Ian Rankin took part in a round-table discussion at a former chapel in the Raval.

I went along with a friend, and fellow writer, to check it out.

Well, I went along to check it out but I also had another agenda. I'm still in search of a well-known writer to scan my novel After Goya and provide a suitably glowing endorsement for the cover. Who better, I thought, than Mr Rankin? Well read, well liked and well regarded creator of one of the UK's most popular fictional characters, surely his imprimatur would strike the right chord with a lot of potential, discerning readers?

I only have one heavily marked up and annotated proof copy at home so I printed off the first chapter and cover design and took them along. I could have ordered a clean version but I didn't want to weigh the man down. I thought if I could persuade him to take the first fifteen pages then, if he liked what he'd read, I would send him an ARC.

I bottled it.

Before the talk started I sat at a café terrace table immediately next to his, not intentionally, he just happened to be sitting at the next table to where my friend was sitting. He was with a group of four or five people. I wasn't nervous, or anything like, but I didn't want to crash his conversation. It didn't seem polite to interrupt his pre-stage quiet time. Maybe catch him afterwards I thought, congratulate him on the prize, and ask whether he was enjoying Barcelona. Not thinking, of course, there would be a very long line of readers all wanting him to sign copies of their books.

What a plonker. (Me! Not him!)

But, to be honest, I did feel a bit of a fraud. I've only read two of the man's books. And there I was, without a copy of his book to sign, contemplating asking him to read, and in a sense, sign, my book.

His talk was good, he gives good chat. It wasn't so much a round-table discussion, more that he was being prompted by a trio of writers and readers. Interesting and witty, though, as my friend noted, his chat was very much more aimed at readers rather than writers. Nonetheless it was an entertaining and pleasant way to spend an hour or so in the Raval (Montalbán's childhood barrio).

If you enjoy crime fiction, and if you ever get the chance, then do get yourself along to BCNegra. It really is a very good event, with a range of interesting discussions featuring some very interesting and talented writers from across the globe. Most events are simultaneously translated (and the translation is good) and all are free.

And I'm still left with the problems of who, and how, to approach a well-known writer to give me a good quote for my cover. Any ideas?

Sunday, 4 October 2009

AFTER GOYA - A quick flick review

Scott Pack, over at Me and My Big Mouth has very generously given my novel After Goya a positive mention.

You can read my comments on this over at the After Goya blog.

Of course, overall I'm pleased but feel in something of a quandary.

It's encouraging to receive such a positive public plug for the book but I feel a bit stupid because I am not able to follow through with sales.

Ah well, such is life.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

The MINISTRY OF TRUTH: D.J. Taylor - Orwell -The Life: Assault Guards during the May, 1937 events.

or the publicly funded, private rearguard armies of the Republic's Stalinist lackeys.

Part five of a series of six posts: Part One; Part Two; Part Three and Part Four.

On page 223 of Orwell - The Life D.J. Taylor writes:
Later that evening government troops from Valencia - crack assault guards, the pride of the Republican Army -

Incorrect. The Assault Guards, or Asaltos, or more popularly known as La Guardia de Asalto, were a public order force, under the control of the interior ministry, not an army unit under the control of the defence ministry.*

This is an important error which needs to be addressed because it undermines Orwell's point that police and public order units in the rearguard were better armed, equipped and provisioned than were frontline units.

Yes, the Asaltos did play an important role in the early streetfighting, especially in Barcelona, but they were a police and public order force who were later tasked with rounding up perceived dissidents. And yes, they were occasionally drafted into the frontline, but they could not, by any measure, be considered 'crack troops' nor 'the pride of the Republican Army'.

In Homage to Catalonia Orwell is very careful to (repeatedly) make the distinction that D.J. Taylor overlooks:

H.T.C. Chapter 10, page 137: "They were the Assault Guards, another formation similar to the Civil Guards and the Carabineros (i.e. a formation intended primarily for police work) ..."

H.T.C. Chapter 13, page 193: "The Assault Guards were a corps not intended primarily for the front, and many of them had not been under fire before. Down in Barcelona they were lords of the street, but up here [i.e. the frontline] they were quintos (rookies) ... "

H.T.C. Chapter 10, page 138: "They [the Assault Guards] were splendid troops, much the best I had seen in Spain, and, though I suppose they were in a sense 'the enemy', I could not help liking the look of them ... I had not known that the Republic possessed troops like these. It was not only that they were picked men physically, it was their weapons that most astonished me. All of them were armed with brand-new rifles ... vastly better than the dreadful old blunderbusses we had at the front. The Assault Guards had one sub-machine gun between ten men and an automatic pistol each; we at the front had approximately one machine-gun between fifty men, and as for pistols and revolvers, you could only procure them illegally. As a matter of fact, though I had not noticed it until now, it was the same everywhere. The Civil Guards and Carabineros, who were not intended for the front at all, were better armed and far better clad than ourselves. I suspect it is the same in all wars - always the same contrast between the sleek police in the rear and the ragged soldiers in the line."

The photo above shows members of the Security Corps, albeit in parade dress, and without their machine-guns and armoured cars, but gives an indication of the sight Orwell reported.

Orwell was correct to note " ... that they were picked men physically ... " The new formation had a minimum height requirement of 180 centimetres and an age requirement of between 22 and 32 years old, whereas the previous incarnation of the Assault Guard had a minimum height requirement of 170 centimetres.

Orwell's assessment can be backed up by the Republican commander General Vicente Rojo. Rojo bemoaned the fact that the Asaltos were much better equipped than the forces under his command, and noted that when called on to fight in the front line the Asaltos' incompetence and lack of experience had a disastrous impact on the morale of troops in the same sector. Hardly an endorsement for 'the pride of the Republican Army'.

Accurate, reliable, figures are impossible to obtain but it is generally agreed among Spanish historians that:

Between 50% and 55% of Civil Guards, 55% and 60% of Carabineros, and between 65% and 70% of Assault Guards remained loyal to the Popular Front government.

Technically, from early on in the war loyal elements of the Guardia Civil in the Republican zone were re-named The National Republican Guard (Guardia Nacional Republicana), but in practice people continued to call them the Guardia Civil. The conjuction of National and Republican in the title serves to confuse even more.

The Carabineros were what could be called frontier police - in effect armed customs men (what the Brits used to call the Reveners [corruption of revenue] or Duty Men.)
Here are two photos of Carabineros - the left in duty order, the right in ceremonial order:

The photos used for this post were taken from Sociedad Benéfica de Historiadores Aficionados y Creadores

The Assault Guards were first formed in 1932 by the Republican government of 1931.

The government did not wholly trust the loyalty of the Guardia Civil (for good reason given that Mola, codename: The Director, the co-ordinating conspirator behind the military rising, was Director-General of National Security during the final period of the Monarchy) and so created their own public order force, staffed by reliable elements. But, for fear of antagonising sections of the Right (as now) never got around to disbanding the Guardia Civil - a rallying call of Largo Caballero's Socialists.

It's important to bear in mind that the Civil Guard came under the Defence ministry, the Carabineros came under the control of the Treasury (Hacienda)**, while the Assault Guards came under the Interior Ministry.

So, in summary, at the outbreak of the uprising there were three distinct paramilitary formations each under the command of a different government department.***

When discussing the Assault Guards it's as well to have in mind that for Nationalist apologists it was a squad of Assault Guards who started the war - by assassinating right-winger Calvo Sotelo (in revenge for the murder of an Assault Guard officer by members of the Falange) on July 13th, 1936, four days before the uprising began.****

Of course the apologists would have it that the assassination was carried out on the orders of the Popular Front government.

In his Notes to the Text of Homage to Catalonia, in Orwell in Spain, Peter Davison makes an honest and sincere attempt to disentangle the confusion surrounding Orwell's uses of the terms Civil Guard and Assault Guard, but in doing so he confuses the issue even more by stating,
"... by the Spaniards referring indifferently to all these formations as 'la guardia' ..." [p.29].

Technically Peter Davison is wrong on this point, and the Spaniards he refers to were theoretically correct in referring to a singular formation.

At the time of the May events theoretically (as with the formation of the Popular Army) with the passing of a decree on December 27th, 1936, the Guardia Civil and the Guardia de Asaltos had been re-incorporated into a single entity -- the Security Corps, or, more accurately, Cuerpo de Seguridad y de Asalto.

This corps was divided into uniformed and plainclothes sections. Further, the uniformed section was divided into cavalry, motorized and infantry sections. This combined Civil Guard and Assault Guard formation had a unified command structure and a single uniform. The Security Corps came under the Interior ministry not the Defence ministry.

Interestingly, when the new formation was initially deployed theoretically the two former elements were mustered on the basis of two former Assault Guards to every one Civil Guard. This so the generally more loyal, and politically reliable, ex-Assault Guards could keep a close eye on the less trustworthy ex-Civil Guards. As with all decrees issued from central government implementation was patchy and depended on regional and local affiliations and local personalities.

I am only surmising, though my educated guess is based on thorough research, I contend that the formation Orwell refers to as "government troops from Valencia" were in fact members of the unified Security Corps, neither assault Guards nor Civil Guards but ex-Civil Guards and ex-Assault Guards all dandied up in brand new uniforms. SEE colour photo above.

Here's a photo of a squad of the Security Corps with their machine-guns:

As with the reformation of the armed forces the Soviet Union and Spanish Communists were very keen on pushing this reform through. The new formation gave their NKVD (secret police) operatives direct access to about 8000 plainsclothes agents - whom they quickly put to work as undercover informants and agent provocateurs.

It's a slippery analogy but the Security Corps could be likened to a hybrid formed of a full-time professional, fully armed, US National Guard and a section of the F.B.I. under the control of Homeland Security.

I can appreciate that the intricacies of rearguard formations mustered and deployed by the Republican government can confuse casual commentators, serious scholars and historians.
And, I can appreciate the temptation for scholars to shrug and say, "So what? What does it matter what these agencies of repression or public order were correctly called?"

Well, in response I would say that when considering the balance of power between competing statist factions, and when considering the Stalinists' objectives, as every serious scholar of the Civil War must, such knowledge does become important.

It is important to be aware that each of these well-funded, well-equipped, formations answered to a political boss - each of whom felt the need to defend their position, or advance their strategy, with the use of armed force as necessary.

The most sinister part of this jigsaw of Soviet consolidation was put in place on August 9th, 1937 with the integration of all intelligence and security services into the SIM - Servicio de Investigación Militar. This grouped all civil and military espionage and counter-espionage agencies under a single command - organised into six military and five civilian sections.

The task of Stalin's agents was to gain control of all three formations - Security Corps, SIM and the Carabineros - in order to confront those less well-armed, but much larger in number, proletarian elements which would deny them complete hegemony.

D.J. Taylor is the current Chair of the Orwell Trust

* The Assault Guards were commanded by Army officers, as were the Civil Guard. This was regular practice. Indeed, regular Army officers continued to command all police units (even traffic police) until reforms in the '80s.

** When Finance Minister Juan Negrín steadily reinforced the Carabineros during his term in office - ensuring he had a loyal armed cadre he could call on should he need it to counter resistance when, as per the Soviet plan, he was appointed Prime Minister. The Soviet Communists had approached him in December 1936 to obtain his agreement to be the next prime minister. This gave Negrín five months to build his army, with Soviet help obviously - being appointed Prime Minister on May, 17th, 1936, conveniently two weeks after the May streetfighting.

*** In Catalonia another paramilitary group, the Somatenes re-surfaced briefly. The Somatenes were an anti-organised labour protection force for landowners and factory owners - perhaps analogous to the notorious Pinkerton's Men in the United States. Also, I daresay former members of the Mossos d'Esquadra - a Catalan autonomous version of the Assault Guard, dissolved in 1934 - also dug out their old uniforms and weapons and joined the fray. And, there were likely similar Basque formations - though I have no information on this at the present time. And there were also the Militias of Rearguard Vigilance - an irregular force soon incorporated into the Assault Guard.

**** The assassins included a Captain of the Civil Guards.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Barcelona May Days, 1937. The Ministry of Truth: D.J.Taylor: Orwell - The Life

Part Four of a series of six posts. SEE previous posts here, here, and here.

OK, let's put Orwell's caveat in place first:

It will never be possible to get a completely accurate and unbiased account of the Barcelona fighting, because the necessary records do not exist. Future historians will have nothing to go upon except a mass of accusations and party propaganda. H.T.C. p.144.

What Orwell wrote remains true. However, historians now have access to the former Soviet Union's archives and material from the Salamanca papers.

On page 220 of Orwell – The Life D.J. Taylor writes:

It was an odd state of affairs, Orwell reflected, that Barcelona, of all places, should turn out to be probably the only major city in non-Fascist Europe not to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Soviet Revolution.

Orwell reflected no such thing.

What Orwell actually reflected is rendered thus:

It was a queer state of affairs. Barcelona, the so-called revolutionary city, was probably the only city in non-Fascist Europe that had no celebrations that day. H.T.C. Chapter 9, page 116.

No mention there of Soviet anniversaries!

The official anniversary of the Soviet Revolution is November 7th , not May 1st.

In fact the Communists in Barcelona marked the birthday of the Soviet Union with three weeks of celebratory events in October and November, 1937! This is well documented; the Museum of the History of Catalonia in Barcelona has at least one copy of the official programme in its collection – I know because I've seen it and read it.

I consider this to be the most serious error in the text because D.J. Taylor ascribes an erroneous reflection to Orwell, i.e. puts thoughts into his head.

Orwell would most certainly have known that May 1st, International Workers' Day, has nothing at all to do with the founding of the former Soviet Union.

To interpolate Orwell's reflections in such a way shows a lack of judgement and a lack of knowledge, or perhaps belies a deliberate attempt to distort.

The May 1st International Workers' Day was called into being by anarchists in the American labour movement by way of commemorating the Haymarket (Chicago) Martyrs.

The May Day protest date was subsequently adopted and promoted by the International Working Mens Association (now the IWA or AIT), and the 1889 Paris meeting of the Second International, as an international day of workers' solidarity.

The show trial of eight anarchists, and the subsequent execution of four of them, and the suicide of another, which followed on from a police riot and disputed bombing of police, was a cause célèbre. At one stage of the international campaign even William Morris and George Bernard Shaw, among many other intellectuals and artists, publicly registered their protest. Check out A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, HarperCollins, New York, 1995, pages 265-266.

The Soviet Union, having unilaterally positioned itself as leaders of the international workers' movement, certainly used the day to propagandise its success at founding a so-called workers' state, but it never proposed that May Day should be considered the official anniversary date of the State.

Given the pre-eminence of the anarchist movement in Barcelona at the outbreak of the Army Uprising in July 1936 Orwell noted "a queer state of affairs" [NOTE: Orwell uses the word 'queer' not 'odd' as paraphrased by D.J.Taylor] because it served as an indicator of the extent of how the anarchists (and radical socialists) had been undermined by an alliance of bourgeois Catalan, and Spanish and Soviet Communist interests.

D.J. Taylor studied Modern History at St. John's College, Oxford.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009


When noting that sign-language was proscribed by Franco during the early years of his dictatorship in this post I recalled the Carlos Saura movie ¡Ay, Carmela!.

The movie, set during the Civil War, features a mute performer among a troupe of travelling players who end up on the wrong side of the front line. It's an excellent movie and well worth watching. The slight, comic tone of the movie belies a very human dilemma and the deadly predicament faced by the players. Saura coaxes some wonderful, award winning performances from the cast (which features the excellent Carmen Maura - best known to UK and US cineastes for her collaborations with Pedro Almodóvar).

Anyway, the point is that the mute actor uses a chalkboard to communicate. (Though not because he is obliged to by martial law). There's a triple-edge being played here by the writer - José Sanchis Sinisterra. This referencing of non-verbal and non-visual language is an allusion to the voiceless masses, the brutal suppression of dissent, and the attack on Catalan.

And, when thinking about the above, my thoughts turned to Franco's fascination with the movies.

Franco feared that foreign language movies could be used to communicate coded messages to dissidents, or camouflage open exhortations to rise up against the state. Can you imagine it? Errol Flynn, mid-swashing his buckle, crying, "One for all, and all for one! No gods, no masters! Seize the day! Smash the State! Seize control!"

Conscious that his subjects needed cheer and distraction to prevent their dissatisfaction from fomenting dissent, and realising Spain's wrecked post-war economy could not support an indigeneous film industry which could compete with the US and UK film entertainment industries, Franco encouraged the importing of movies.

At first Franco insisted on watching every single imported movie in the private cinema he had built in his palace, El Pardo. A few of the big Hollywood studios offered to supply subtitled versions. Franco could not speak English. How could he then be sure the Spanish subtitles were an accurate translation of the US English dialogue?

Franco insisted on the films being dubbed, and dubbed by politically reliable producers. This spawned a huge, continuing, industry*. Today Spanish TV schedules are filled out with dubbed foreign programmes.

A similar phenomenon took place in Mussolini's Italy.

But Franco's fascination with movies extended beyond acting as chief censor - he wrote at least four screenplays. Well, in truth, he scribbled the storylines and a loyal hack wrote the scripts. Two were produced as movies: Raza (based on a novel supposedly by Franco) and another, whose title I can't recall at present, about an isolated troop of Foreign Legionnaires in the Moroccan rif who fight to the last man to defend the flag against a horde of natives.

Franco also wrote film reviews for the neswpaper ABC.

Winston Churchill knew of, and exploited Franco's almost childlike fondness for Hollywood glamour when, in 1943, he asked hearthrob Leslie Howard to undertake a secret mission. (Howard had had a passionate affair with Conchita Montenegro, a leading Spanish Hollywood star in the 30s. Montenegro was, at that time, before their marriage in 1944, having an affair with diplomat Ricardo Giménez Arnau, a senior member of the Falange and ambassador to the Holy See.)

Without advising the British Ambassador in Madrid Churchill asked Howard to arrange an audience with El Caudillo to remind him that should he (Franco) make any advance on Gibraltar, or assist any German attack on Gibraltar, then the Royal Navy would seize the Canaries and gift them to the US for use as a miltary base.

During the return flight to the UK Howards's plane was shot down by German aircraft over the Bay of Biscay. (According to Ronald Howard, Leslie Howard's son, on the orders of Goebbels, "who had been ridiculed in one of Howard's films and who believed Howard to be the most dangerous propagandist in the British service." (go here)

In 1950, during the prelude to negotiations with the US, Franco ordered the movie Raza, originally released in 1941, to be re-edited. So as not to upset his potential future supporters ("He may be a bastard, but he's one of our bastards now," Eisenhower.) Franco insisted all critical comments about the USA to be watered down and all mentions of the Falange to be excised. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer even organised an English dubbed version for distribution in the States.

And Franco's fascination with the movies, and movie glamour, went even further. As part of a strategy to end Spain's isolation, and domestically project an image of 'normality', Franco invited a string of well-known Hollywood celebrities to visit Madrid. Franco ordered that his Hollywood guests be treated almost like visiting royalty. Sinatra, Ava Gardner and may others duly took advantage and helped put Madrid on a glamour circuit along with Rome, Paris, the French Riviera and Venice. Over 50 years later and Madrid's La Gran Vía still retains an air of shabby, faded glamour.

*My partner's son has often stated he wants to be a voice dubber (or voiceover actor as they're called in the UK) when he needs to earn a living. He practices dubbing scenes from well-known movies on his laptop using a neat bit of software. He attends dubbing conferences, and has met the actress who gives Spanish voice to Lisa Simpson and the actor who voices Brian, the dog in Family Guy (Padre de Familia).