South from Granada

I feel very remiss in not having posted anything for over two weeks. The suspense from last time’s Emily Game cliffhanger question must have become near unbearable! The answer is Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, thanks to Saleem’s magical power.

This blog hiatus has been thanks to the happy circumstance of having been in a Spanish villa with friends, and without internet. The villa is in a beautiful part of Andalucía, on the outskirts of a national park. We lazed by the swimming pool looking out at a magnificent hilly backdrop, occasionally spotting a stag in the distance, or an eagle soaring overhead. The garden was planted with thick bushes of rosemary and lavender, so the smell – especially after the sprinklers played their 1.30am trick of turning themselves on for a while and getting us and everything else very wet – was intoxicating. As was the vast amount of sherry that we drank, from as soon as we awoke till when we went to bed.

We all swiftly began to ignore our phones, which soon lay abandoned in our bedrooms, and this, coupled with the fact that we were several miles from even a village, meant that we felt wonderfully cut off from the outside world. There was no need to stress about anything – I was released from the worries of work and wedding planning and everything else. We spent most of the week with no idea what time it was. (Until that moment at the end of the day, when climbing into bed and hunting for my phone to try and switch it off. Then it was a bit of a shock to see that it was four or five o’clock. I blame that on the rum and anis that we started drinking after dinner, by which time the day’s sherry supplies were usually exhausted.)

This trip to Spain was in many ways the perfect opportunity to take my own advice and read something Spain-related – see this piece here for the Spectator. Indeed I was flattered and thrilled to see that some friends had done exactly that and brought with them all three of the books that I’d recommended for reading in Spain. (Luckily they enjoyed them.)

I brought with me South from Granada by Gerald Brenan, which is a very good book. Essentially Brenan moved to a tiny Andalucian village in 1920 and spent several years there. The book is a very personal study of the Andalucian way of life, such as the villagers’ beliefs and customs, interspersed with accounts of visits made by various members of the Bloomsbury crew. Brenan’s account of Lytton Strachey’s visit is my favourite. Lytton’s frail and delicate constitution makes for a rather tiresome trip, and Brenan’s description is peppered with sentences like this:

He sat there silent and bearded, showing no signs of enthusiasm.

At the end of the chapter, Brenan mentions his relief at Lytton’s departure, followed by:

And he must have been even more relieved at making his escape. When, three years later, Leonard and Virginia Woolf were preparing to come out and stay with me, he advised them strongly against attempting it, declaring in his high-pitched voice that it was ‘death’.

I definitely enjoy reading about someone else’s experiences of the place where I am. For instance, Brenan’s observation that the women of his village used ‘bushes of rosemary, thyme, and lavender’ for their cooking fuel, cast a new light on the rosemary and lavender bushes in the garden. And here is his description of sharing a meal of salt cod and rice:

There were no plates. Each man, keeping his hat firmly on his head in the manner of a Spanish grandee asserting his equality to everyone present and to come, chose his section of the bowl, and after inviting myself and the others to do the same, dipped his spoon in it with great formality and began to eat. He continued eating till the partition that divided his section from his neighbour’s had worn thin, when he laid down his spoon and, as soon as the others had done so too, got up and washed it at the pitcher and returned it to the faja or red-flannel waistband where he usually carried it.

I can’t pretend that this didn’t give me some ideas for how to eat our own meals, especially as one of them was an immense and delicious paella, in a gigantic pan which needed to be carried by a minimum of two people. But, aware of the risk of turning meal-times into prolonged versions of The Chocolate Game, I didn’t suggest it. Instead, we just occasionally put some rosemary branches on the barbecue.

But, sadly, this is the moment when I have to confess to something a little shameful.

I find it very hard to read when I’m on holiday.

I know this is terrible! I feel like a fraud.

Summer holidays are the time when most people find it easiest to read. June, July and August see the bookshop filled with customers buying stacks of paperbacks to read on the beach, or by a pool, or in a villa. And I – I who recommend all these books, I who have written about how important it is to read relevant books while holidaying abroad – I find it very very difficult to do it.


Usually, at home in London, I read at least a book a week. I read as often as possible – in my lunchbreak, in the evenings, on my days off. If it’s a book to which I’m particularly addicted, I might even sacrifice cycling to and from work in order to get the extra tube commute time to spend a bit longer with the book. Why is it that on holiday, when all I do is laze around, I find it so hard to concentrate?

After giving it much thought, I have decided that it boils down to being on holiday with friends. I know that over the past few years a vogue has arisen for thinking of reading as something of a social activity. This is the age of book clubs and reading groups. And yes, for sure, I love to talk to people about books. But reading – the actual process of reading the words on the page – surely has to remain a solitary activity. It simply isn’t feasible to expect to be able to read with lots of friends.

Lazing by the pool all day with friends seems to me more of a blissful opportunity to natter, rather than to impose the solitude of reading. And, inevitably, even if one does try to read, some people will start to natter, and gosh it is so incredibly difficult not to listen to their conversation and to resist the urge to join in. Maybe, just maybe, if I were reading something like Harry Potter, I might be able to close my ears. But, frankly, lyrical and fascinating though he may be, Gerald Brenan doesn’t cut it.

So I was rather ashamed to find myself at the end of the week, barely half-way through the book. I made a bit of headway on the aeroplane, but, frankly, as I’d only had three hours sleep the night before, it was hard to persuade myself that the time wasn’t better spent with closed eyes. And then I found myself back in cold, windy London with half a book about Andalucia left on my hands.

I returned from holiday to enter an incredibly busy and intense period of work, for which I had to work from 7.30am till 10pm, three days in a row. There was usually a break in the afternoon for a couple of hours, for which I’d wander, semi-catatonic, up to Hampstead Heath, search for a relatively-sheltered spot, try to tuck my hair out of the wind and try to read for a little while.

Then I discovered that there is only one thing worse than reading about England while one’s on holiday abroad … and that’s reading about somewhere abroad – hot, rural and remote – when in England, back from one’s holiday.

Hampstead Heath is usually one of my favourite spots. But, over the past few days, it has just seemed cold and autumnal, strangely busy and bustly in comparison to the empty landscape of Andalucia. The trees were wrong, the smells weren’t right, my smoked-salmon bagel was no more than a poor imitation of boquerones.

So now reading South from Granada is an exercise in nostalgia. I read it and can’t help but remember the blissful escape of last week – the heat of the Spanish sun, the sweet taste of sherry, the company of friends – and long to return. This is not helpful in the slightest, when I have to accept the fact that the holiday is over and real life must begin again.

Oh well, only another seventy pages to go. I think the next book I read had better be related to Hampstead Heath …


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