Since I’m staying in Catalan country, I’ve started re-reading George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. He’s a writer I’ve always admired, ever since as a slip of a lad I did my MA dissertation on his fiction. He writes with a clarity and honesty that’s irresistible, and Homage to Catalonia is Orwell at his reporting best.
Unlike Nuala McKeever, Orwell understands what prompts people to take up arms. The book is set in 1930s Barcelona, during the Spanish Civil War, a short time after the Anarchists took over the city. He describes the worker control of everything, the red flags, the fierce, excited pride that there are no more Senors or superiors, only equals and comrades. Ever one to note the quirky detail, he reports that barbers in particular are passionate about the revolution. Orwell went to the city to write on what was happening, but within days of arriving found himself caught up in the fever of the city and joined up to fight the Fascists.
However – and this is the part I like – his admiration for the idealism of men committed to creating a better tomorrow is balanced by the honesty of his description of the war and preparations for it. Volunteers barely in their mid-teens, hopelessly out-of-date equipment, confused orders, hunger, cold, fear: for anyone tempted to think of war as a heroic endeavour, this takes the air out of that idea permanently. Orwell doesn’t stop believing in the nobility of the vision; he simply shows that to realize the vision entails a heart-breaking amount of stink and terror.
Do the hundreds and thousands of football fans who pour into Barcelona to watch the big games know about Orwell? Care about him or his account of the Spanish Civil War and the fire of idealism it lit around Europe? Time has a way of dimming great causes until they’re reduced to a small spark, ignored by most people as they press on with their day-to-day concerns and amusements.