Churchill, Shakespeare and the Jocs Florals

On May 28th of 1943, Winston Churchill flew from Gibraltar to Algiers on board of one of his personal airplanes, ‘Ascalon’. The plane was named after the sword used by the patron saint of England, Saint George. That year would be a turning point in WWII, as the Soviets would advance on the Eastern Front and the rest of the Western Allies would disembark in Italy.  Two years later, Germany surrendered, and ten years later Churchill received his Nobel Prize in Literature “for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values”.

One wonders how Winston Churchill would react to recent arguments related to the celebration of Saint George’s day in England. When faced with the dilemma of whether Saint George’s celebration is bound to be an ugly nationalist celebration, one should remember that England is not the only country that has Saint George as its patron saint: Catalonia, Romania and Portugal, among other countries and cities, also count with the ‘protection’ of this Roman soldier. Those that are not comfortable celebrating Christian traditions may find comfort in the fact that Saint George’s day coincides with the commemoration of Shakespeare’s death and with the international book day. In fact, Saint George is a recurrent motto in Shakespeare’s work, appearing over 18 times, and the story of Saint George’s killing of the dragon is mentioned in Richard III and King Lear.

The medieval legend of Saint George is a symbolic story that tells us about the importance of individual courage against totalitarianism and injustice. In the tale, a small Roman town is terrorized by a tyrannical and seemingly invincible dragon, which is only appeased when fed. Once the cattle are gone, the citizens of the helpless Roman town decide to feed him one person a day, chosen by lottery. One day, the princess of the town is chosen, and the king is forced to accept her certain death. When the city is about to lose to tyranny its most beautiful citizen, the young and beloved princess, a hero riding a horse appears: he has come to rescue her from her dreadful fate. Saint George bravely pierces the dragon’s scales with Ascalon and is cheered by the town’s people as their saviour.

The Catalan version of the legend of Saint George, Sant Jordi in Catalan, has a romantic dimension lacking in others: before leaving the village that he has just saved, Saint George makes a gift of a rose, sprung from the dragon’s blood, to the princess, as a token of love. Mimicking this gesture, Catalan men traditionally give a rose to their beloved on Saint George’s day.

But how did Saint George’s day become World Book Day? In the late 1920’s, Vicente Clavel, an editor living in Barcelona, noticed that the long-held tradition coincided with the commemoration of the death of two of the best writers that mankind has seen: Shakespeare and Cervantes. He then proposed to give books together with roses, binding love and literature in what would prove to be a very successful marketing move for the editorial sector. The addition of the celebration of the book day on the same date converted what was a unidirectional transaction into an exchange in which the woman receives a rose, and the man, a book (although in the present day, many couples exchange books, even if the woman receives a rose).

The link between spring, roses, and literature was not novel: in 1323, the Jocs Florals, ‘floral games’, also known as Jocs de la Gaia Ciència, ‘games of the light-hearted science’, were instituted for the first time in Toulouse, in the Languedoc. This literary contest gathered troubadours from the Occitan-speaking world and the Crown of Aragon, who contended for three blooming prizes: the golden wild rose, for the best patriotic or historical poem, the natural flower, for the best free-style poem, and the golden or silver violet, for the best poem on a religious subject. The history of this literary contest is turbulent and subject to political changes: in 1393 the games moved from Toulouse in the Languedoc to Barcelona, where they have remained, and where they still take place on an annual basis, albeit with a different format. The date of the celebration of the Jocs Florals was traditionally the 1st of May. The proximity with Saint George’s day, as well as the new literary connotation of April 23rd, has blurred the boundaries between both events. Hence, many schools, for instance, celebrate small-scale Jocs Florals on Saint George’s day (as will do Catalans UK, on April 23rd in London).

We don’t know if Winston Churchill named his plane ‘Ascalon’ himself, but in a way, he was a modern-day Saint George. When Europe was terrorised by its worst dragon, and England was tempted to accept a humiliating compromise, Churchill guided us to the most important fight of modern history: the combat of the people against tyranny. Nor do we know if he knew of Catalan Saint George’s traditions, but it is certain that as a man with a mastery of words like few others, he would have cherished the bond between love, courage, and literature.

YOUR BODY IS JUST SITTING THERE

My family left Europe generations ago, fleeing from anti-semitism and economic oppression. For an American, that kind of suffering can feel (literally) far away, a part of the distant past. Returning to Europe as a student, however—first to France and now to England—makes it feel very recent and visceral. With ‘YOUR BODY IS JUST SITTING THERE’, I wanted to think about what it means to be American and Jewish in Europe, a place my relatives were desperate to escape from, and the intimate, physical ways in which alienation and exile manifest themselves.

1.

mostly i do not think about my Polish relatives and your Polish relatives

& who took up residence in whose houses but

sometimes, then, i do
think about it

2.

there was a memorial for it
( )
in berlin but no bodies

hundreds of gravestones and no bodies
was that the joke

german children kept playing
on the stones so i knew
at least something was still alive

3.

now it is Sabbath &
i continue to work

4.

remember when we were in the orchard
when i was in the orchard

it makes me so sad to
see the last light turned out

5.

what does it feel like
he asks
to be beautiful?

mina loy: ‘Beautiful
half-hour of being a mere woman
[…]
Understanding nothing of man’

6.

i talk about studying in france,
forget to mention
how i was cold for weeks
in july in the south

how the missing,
my host mother said,
made me cold

i wore sweaters—
i wrote about blue fingers—

how i lost my sense of taste,
avoided food,
then went to morocco

8.

i don’t miss new york but i miss something
or something misses me

9.

your body is just sitting there
raw exchange value
the way
your body is just SITTING THERE

10.

it is Sabbath &
i continue to work

The Politics of Spanish Monuments: Dictatorship, Democracy and Colonialism in Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor

Salamanca or, La Dorada as it is known by many, is a city brimming with some of the most eminent jewels of Spanish architecture. One could say that Salamanca, in the northwest of the Spain, is an emblem for a wider trend throughout its province, Castilla y León; home to one of the most prestigious universities in the country, it is a charming Gothic patchwork, with a plethora of buildings with glowing yellow sandstone that almost tints the vast blueness of the sky above. Many sites of interest come to mind: the stunning New Cathedral, the University building’s façade, the Convent of San Estebán… but none so much as the striking Plaza Mayor, the beating heart of the city and, indeed, the royalty of this moda castellanoleonesa. This grand example of the Spanish conception of a plaza is firmly in touch with its historical and artistic roots in the aesthetic it projects, but is also part of every-day salamantina life. The square, like many of the city’s monuments, is magnificently lit up at nightfall, 365 days a year, evoking a warm and inviting ambiance even in the depths of December. Indeed, it is an essential part of day-to-day Salamanca, an intersection between the residential and shopping zones, and the stylised old town. It experiences the daily trajectories of many and is even the location for public events. In November, the plaza glowed purple, rather than its usual golden warmth, in solidarity with the Día Internacional contra la Violencia de Género, and every December 16th it is host to eager university students as they celebrate a premature Nochevieja with their classmates before returning home for the Christmas holidays.

Yet the rich history of the site has, in recent years, come into conflict with the present. Comprised of four pabellones, the square pays tribute to the faces of the Spanish past, with each wall adorned with numerous medallones, or plaques in honour of various historical figures. The iconography of the Pabellón de Petrineros is probably the most varied of all, documenting profiles ranging from the literary celebrities of Cervantes and Unamuno to religious figures such as Santa Teresa Jesús—even the Duke of Wellington makes an appearance. The plaques of the Pabellón Consistorial, on the other hand, have experienced a fraught history, some of them being removed during the Revolution of 1868 and others disappearing during the Second Republic. It does now, however, feature allegories of the First and Second Spanish Republics and proudly displays plaques in honour of an important monarch in the democratic history of Spain, the recently-abdicated Juan Carlos I and his wife Sofía.

These familiar faces of democracy have, however, been neighbours to a very different figure ever since their arrival at the plaza—but not for much longer. The medallón which commemorates General Francisco Franco, the dictator from 1936 until his death in 1975, is to be removed after a unanimous vote by the Comisión Territorial de Patrimonio Cultural. While exactly how the plaque will be removed is still to be revealed, the commission announced that they would do so with the aim of guaranteeing no harm to the architecture of the plaza.

But why take such a step, over 42 years after the death of the General, who remains an important figure in Spanish history? Answers to this question are plentiful. Firstly, the medallón has always been rather misplaced on the Pabellón Real, which, prior its commission, had always been reserved exclusively for Spanish monarchs from across the ages; his neighbours include Isabel I & Fernando II de Aragón, Alonfso XI, Carlos I de España… the list goes on. Thus, one powerful argument, albeit not the central reasoning behind the decision, is the fact that the plaque categorically does not belong on the pabellón.

A further logic behind the commission’s vote concerns the conservation of the plaza from an artistic-historical perspective. Over the years, a number of restoration attempts have been carried out on the medallón in the aftermath of acts of vandalism, most poignantly those carried out on the 20th November (the anniversary of the dictator’s death). Consequently, the members of the commission maintained that the plaque had been so changed over time due to these restorations that it no longer concurs with, “las suficientes razones artísticas, arquitectónicas o artístico-religiosas protegidas por la ley.”

A final reason presents itself as more problematic still, as it concerns the fraught historical and cultural significance of Franco in current Spanish national imagination. The key question is: how does he fit in?

The memory of the dictatorship, which ended a mere 40 years ago, means that it is still alive for many, particularly those who experienced it personally. Indeed, it is unsurprising that there should exist Spaniards who remain in support of Francoism given the very length of the regime and the illegality of political opposition throughout its duration, coupled with an air-tight propaganda machine. Yet since the Transición began, shortly after the Franco’s death, there has been an outpouring of reactions against public monuments in his honour. Indeed, in 2007, the government prohibited official public references to Franco; thus, government buildings and streets named after El Caudillo reverted to their original names, and memorials to him were removed, the last of which being an equestrian statue in Santander removed in 2008. Just last year, the city of Malaga also revoked honours and distinctions concerning him, including the titles of “Hijo predilecto, Hijo adoptivo y Alcalde honorario.”

These conflicting associations are symbolically summarised in the very fact that, while the Spanish national anthem, the Marcha Real, is no longer sang with the lyrics introduced under Franco, no new lyrics have been introduced to replace them due to a lack of consensus. The decision to remove the plaque, conversely, ‘tenía que ser tomada por unanimidad,’ according to historian María José Turrión, a member of the commission. Thus, for the commission, the answer to the question is, he does not fit in, be it artistically or architecturally, categorically, or as a figure worthy of depiction in this national emblem to Spanish history. The law introduced in 2007, known as the Ley de Memoria Histórica, sought to recognise and amplify the rights and established mediums in favour of those who suffered persecution of violence during the war and dictatorship (paraphrased trans.). Turrión went on to defend the decision as, “un acto de justicia y de coherencia con el Estado de Derecho y la democracia”. And yet, adjacent to the Pabellón Real, the Pabellón de San Martín, boasts an array of conquistadores, important figures in Spain’s colonisation of the Americas such as Cristóbal Colón and Hernán Cortés. A few kilometres further west in Salamanca, as in many Spanish cities, there lies the Plaza de Colón, with a monument of the conquistador as its centrepiece. With colonisation still largely viewed as a major scientific and geographical discovery in Spanish history, it seems that it is not only recent history with which the country has yet to come to terms.

Book Review: Im Westen nichts Neues

This book is intended neither as an accusation nor as a confession, but simply as an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by the war—even those of it who survived the shelling.
—Erich Maria Remarque

The reason why I decided to read Im Westen nichts Neues was a little naive. Aged sixteen and studying twentieth century history at school I was curious to read about the experience of the war from a German perspective. How often are we constrained to our own country’s version of events? I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, perhaps some portrayal of nationalistic fervour, slander against the English or a platoon of ferocious German men-turned-soldiers. Yet ironically after a few pages, one of the things that struck me most was that the narrative could have been written from the point of view of a British, French, or American soldier: the daily experience of war, the suffering, was no different.

Nonetheless, this is also a novel with a close focus, shedding light on the impact of the war upon the ordinary Private—a member of the ‘lost generation’. Our narrator is the direct, albeit sensitive 19 year old Paul Baümer, who has enlisted in the army in 1914 with his friends, goaded, initially, by a sense of ideological patriotism, and the spirit of adventure. It is this scenario which gives Baümer’s story its particular poignancy. Emerging straight from their school classroom, these boys experience the harrowing transition from students to soldiers as they face the blood, mud and massacre of trench warfare. Friendship is certainly one of the most uplifting themes of the novel. Remarque examines the enduring camaraderie which could stop a soldier taking his own life, or which could carry him bleeding, a ‘splinter of shrapnel in the head’ through a hellish wasteland.

Baümer’s home leave is an especially intriguing part of the novel. Like many of his fellow soldiers, he is unable to reconnect with his past life. His family doesn’t understand him, and their sympathies cannot help him. How can they? War seems to exist in a time-zone of its own. Returning home from the front he gazes upon the books, notes and letters which he once treasured, now devoid of meaning for him; there is no redemptive power to be salvaged from those pages. They are merely shadows of his past self: ‘words, words, words-they can’t reach me…’

The final lines of the novel are damning, but not out rightly cruel. Remarque dwindles between exploring the degenerative effect of war and the solace of finding peace in death. Baümer’s first person narration then abruptly changes to the third person. This switch of pronoun hits us hard. Baümer is snatched away from us and from his narrative. He is no longer the observer, but the observed; he becomes an outsider to his own story:

“He fell in October 1918, on a day that was so still and quiet…that there was nothing new to report on the western front”

After reading Im Westen nichts Neues I was left feeling restless, saddened and a little empty. I began to research Erich Remarque’s life, which is truly fascinating and gives us a new insight into his masterpiece. Remarque was born in Germany in 1898 and experienced first-hand the horrific ordeal of life on the Western Front. His account is honest and realistic. When the Nazis had risen to power, and 10 years after the publication of the novel, they stripped Remarque of his German citizenship and later executed his sister. Perhaps most shocking of all is that the Nazis banned and publicly burnt Im Westen nichts Neues, seeing it as a betrayal of the German soldier. His novel, testament to the supposed “the war to end all wars”, was thus cast aside only to give way to a second war of mass genocide. A hundred years on from one of the deadliest conflicts in history, I urge you to read Im Westen nichts Neues. Wartime heroism never tasted so bitter.