Late November in Malaga is beautiful and easy: sun, cloudless skies and highs in the upper twenties. The olive trees bask in the late late heat, the Mickey-Mouse-head-shaped cactuses bloom with geranium-pink blossoms and the tourists still soak up rays outside cafés like solar batteries. But drive two hours inland to Granada and the temperature halves by day, then plummets by night.
I managed to persuade half a dozen friends to come away to the mountains in Granada for a trip around my birthday last year. We stayed in a self-built off-grid house a few miles up a steep dirt track off the old ski road. We planned a week of winter walks in snowless gorges, long lunches in slow-moving tapas bars in the off-season ski town, and extra-large servings of sherry round the log burner before bed.
But the holiday fell the week after the US elections. I was working at a listings magazine at the time, and wrote a round-up of places to watch the election. The editor commissioned an illustration of Clinton and Trump’s grinning heads bobbing like giant olives in a martini glass for it, which ran in the issue distributed on Tuesday morning: the day of the election. On Wednesday, the editor came in looking ashen. By Thursday morning, British writers had connected the US election result with Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Others including Yanis Varoufakis began to write about how the increasing racism and nationalism in both public attitudes and political rhetoric had a whiff of the 1930s about it. Even Christine Lagarde indulged her satisfaction, reminding Davos that she had predicted the resurgence of populism in her address to the summit four years back.
I expected winter sun and pre-Christmas cosiness: what I got was something else. For readers of mainstream travel journalism like me, Andalucia is the land of Tio Pepe, Hemingway and Iberico ham. But the reality of the region – all the starker at the dark end of the year – is the legacy of the Spanish Civil War. Out of season, the ski towns of the Sierra Nevada feel skeletal. Maps mark the ruins of trenches. The rain patters a one-two rhythm on the windows at night that sounds like feet on the gravel outside the house.
The Spanish Civil War still lies like a ghost print across the region. Street after street is named for one martyr or another.
After the EU referendum I had begun to think – somewhat obsessively – about the English Civil War. In the spring I watched back the Channel 4 series from a few years previous, The Devil’s Whore. However hyperbolic the link in my mind, I was struck by the battles taking place in fields in what are now the home counties: neighbours slashing one another’s throats, gory attacks in sight of what are now our southern A-roads.
The trip to Grenada kicked the whole idea into perspective. The Spanish Civil War still lies like a ghost print across the region. Street after street is named for one martyr or another – all murdered a few years before World War Two. Estimates suggest that as many as 26,000 people in the area were killed in the 1930s by Granada’s then governor, Valdes. Britain knows no cultural event like it – perhaps making the increasing patriotic nostalgia for World War Two all the stranger. We were shaken by bombs and we nursed the wounded, watched for U-boats on cliff tops, suffered under the Troubles and rioted in the streets, saw homes burn during the Clearances, grieved lives lost in crowds and under truncheons, unloaded flag-draped coffins off planes and suffered violent ideological attacks in pubs, tube carriages and schools. But war? On British soil? Not since 1651.
In Granada, rain falls on a memorial park for a poet shot by fascists. “In Spain, the dead are more alive than the dead of any other country in the world,” he had written.
Back at the house that night, fireworks went off behind the ridge of a mountain. All that showed to us was a plume of burnt gunpowder that crossed from the city side of the ridge over to our side, flooded for moments with colours that lit up the white cloud. Without the light of the explosions, the smoke would have been just another invisible yard of mist in the dark, drawn over the hillside like a blanket against the cold. We saw it, and that night it felt like we were the only six that had. We gathered on the balcony, trying to guess what it was, and the words felt out the truth: that not everyone saw the fireworks, but everyone could see the smoke.
Phill Hopkins, Nos 43,44,45 (Post Truth). Household paints, varnish, spray paint on Fabriano 100/100 cotton paper.
This ongoing series is based on photographs that were taken on the Pembrokeshire coast. They are made in the light of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and Trump’s election to president of the U.S.A. With his ongoing preoccupation with conflict and war, this new series poses an important questions for Hopkins: how does an artist continue to make socio/political work in this new post truth world?
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.