With the shedding of day
the skin of the sea
the grey the blue the gleam
of a million sardines
While walking this morning
along the edge of the little wood that
borders the vineyard, a hoopoe
flew straight and low across my path.
There is so much to love about this bird.
A more sociable creature might be tempted
to loiter and flaunt the gift of its garb,
but not the hoopoe. It offers
just enough of itself for us to savour,
and leaves us hopeful of another sighting soon.
Another sighting of that crest
which gives it the look of a youth
still full of fire and belief,
her hopes not yet extinguished
by experience and disappointment.
Another sighting of those two-tone wings,
opened with all the poise
of an Andalusian señora
on a warm summer’s night.
Another chance to utter
its perfect scientific name,
words that smack against the lips
like a cold beer
on a warm summer’s day.
Words like a miniature song
filling the chamber of the mouth
Justice will be done.
When the living know what the dead suffered.
John Berger, Pig Earth
Reaching into the blue it appears resolute, full of promise, and I find it beautiful. Strange, though, to think that its emergence signals demise. Having launched its flower stalk towards the heavens the agave will now – after 10 or 20 or 30 years of waiting – die. Semelparity, the biologists call it. Everything, life itself, is staked on a single reproductive event.
We reap the rewards of this kind of wager, since grain crops and many familiar vegetables are semelparous. But we forget, perhaps, the sacrifice.
We are wont to forget such things, or forget, at least, that there are questions worth asking. This, for instance. What had to be done, what had to be acquired or renounced so that I might take my place in this world.
It is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.
From where I live, some 40 kilometres to the south of Barcelona, there are two main driving routes into the city. One is motorway all the way, the other starts by taking the old coast road. It’s early on a spring Sunday and I’m tracing the coastline, one eye on the road, the other drawn to the play of light upon the sea. The message sent by this solar telegraph is the same as the one I heard an hour ago in the blackbirds’ song. All is well.
As I close in on the city, familiar landmarks come into view, but today I’m focused on just one, the flat-topped promontory of Montjuïc. Anybody who has visited Barcelona will know the hill, and many will have climbed it or have caught the old cable car that links it to the seafront, for Montjuïc is home to museums and botanical gardens, to the Olympic Stadium and an abandoned fortress. Clinging to its southern slopes there is a cemetery.
I had often looked down on the niches and tombstones from a soon-to-be-landing aeroplane, but visiting the place had never crossed my mind. My lost loved ones are elsewhere. I did know that this side of Montjuïc had been quarried for centuries, and that the stone had been used in the construction of many of the city’s buildings. What had passed me by, until recently, was the significance of one of those quarries. I park the car and walk over towards the small group of people already gathered by the iron gates.
When the cemetery was inaugurated in 1883 it continued to reflect the social divisions of the day. The richest families built their own mausoleums, while the lower classes purchased whatever niches and memorial stones were within their means. The remains of the poorest poor, those whose families could barely get by in life, let alone pay for death, were interred in a mass paupers’ grave in a space hewn from the rock of Montjuïc. Less than sixty years after the cemetery opened, the Fossar de la Pedrera, the mass grave at the quarry, became a deposit not only for the remains of the destitute but also for the bodies of those whose political allegiance or behaviour in life was despised by the country’s new rulers.
Franco’s troops took control of Barcelona on 26 January 1939 and within five days began to carry out summary executions. Over the following decade or so, around 1700 undesirables were shot by firing squad on a piece of waste ground by the sea, on the far side of the city from Montjuïc. In an illustration of how terror works, the bodies were not buried where they fell but transported by lorry back across the city, a macabre parade that ended with the remains being cast into the Fossar de la Pedrera.
As executions of this kind ceased, and attention shifted to industrialisation and tourism, the mass grave slowly faded from popular memory. Then, in the 1980s, the post-Franco Catalan government responded to a petition from a group of families whose past was entwined with the old quarry by commissioning an architect to bring a sense of dignity to the space. Beth Galí sought, in her own words, to create the effect of a secret garden, like one might find in the cloister of a Gothic church or monastery, a place that invites reflection. This goal has undoubtedly been achieved.
High up in a corner of the cemetery we reach a series of broad and shallow stone steps, split into three levels and shaded by trees. Six stone columns stand at regular intervals on the first level, and as I approach I realise that two of them bear inscriptions in Catalan. This is the first reminder of the place I am about to enter: Here in the Fossar de la Pedrera lie the remains of those who were shot by firing squad […] by fascist forces in 1939. Many of them remain nameless, but we pay homage to them all.
On the second and third levels there are a further twenty or so square columns, each one engraved with names and forming, as a whole, an alphabetical register of the executed whose remains are known to have been deposited here. Our guide shows us enlarged photocopies of old, black and white photographs, putting faces to some of the names. He tells us of the time he stood here and listened while a woman in the tour group explained, in shock, that she had just seen her grandfather’s name inscribed on one of the columns, his resting place finally brought to light. The time it takes to know. We listen to our guide in silence, and then pass between the columns into the bowl of the old quarry.
The flat ground that stretches away towards the cliff at the far end has been split in two, grassed to the left and paved to the right. A series of stone benches mark the border between the two terrains, both of which may be walked upon. Birds and insects flit around, but no flags fly, no single monument smothers the attention. With each step forward the sense of passing through into another world, another time, intensifies. The Barcelona I thought I knew is fading, and here, in a place of calm enclosure, I am invited to learn and to begin piecing things together.
In the months following an ordinary burial, the flesh, first, and then the clothes decay, until all that is left are the bones, still arranged in anatomical order, still recognisable as an individual. Individuality is lost in a mass grave. Bones mingle and move around, and in this process of dismembering, of disarticulation, the attacks on identity that were committed during the person’s lifetime continue to be suffered in death. Hearing the cak-cak-cak I look up and watch the magpie as it flies down to join its kin, spread out across the grass and pecking at the ground. I count them with the nursery rhyme – one for sorrow, two for joy – and get as far as seven.
At the far end of the Fossar, in the shadow of the cliff face, we wander with our guide among a collection of engraved memorial stones of various shapes and sizes. He explains that they have been placed here for the purpose of remembrance rather than as markers of actual burial sites. As I read the inscriptions it becomes apparent that the stories told above ground are as intermingled as the ossuary on which I am treading. Many of the memorials are to those who were executed and dumped here in the early years of Franco’s dictatorship, but there are also tributes to those whose lives were lost in the Spanish Civil War, including members of the International Brigades. Scattered among them I find a stone in memory of a child whose unbaptised status made her unworthy of burial in consecrated ground.
Stepping off the grass I walk over to what appears at first sight to be a sculpture, of the kind one might find in an ornamental garden. Standing on a small paved semicircle I look down at a shallow stone arc, the ends of which are submerged in a little pond. Inside the hollow of the arc a rectangular stone plinth sits just above the surface of the water, its two longest edges each joined to the underside of the arc by a metallic lattice. The lattice in the foreground, however, is parted in the middle, giving the impression of a portal into another world. This unassuming structure is in fact a mausoleum, and it is the only place in the Fossar to house identified remains.
In the early hours of 24 January 1939 the democratically elected president of Catalonia, Lluis Companys, fled Barcelona as Franco’s troops closed in on the city. On 5 February he crossed the border into France, heading first to Perpignan and then to Paris, from where he continued to represent the Catalan government in exile. Despite the subsequent Nazi occupation of northern France he refused to take up the opportunity of exile in Mexico as this would mean losing contact with his son, incarcerated with schizophrenia in a Parisian asylum. In August 1940, Lluis Companys was detained in a Breton seaside town by the German military police. At the request of the Spanish authorities he was extradited to Madrid, from where he was subsequently transferred to the fortress at Montjuïc and shot by firing squad on 15 October 1940. Having lain for over four decades in an unmarked niche within the main part of Montjuïc cemetery, the transfer of his remains to this final place of rest was a key symbolic element in the process of dignifying the site.
Death may be the leveller, but the protagonists of history are generally the illustrious. Here, however, in what was once just a quarry, paupers, the unhallowed and the ordinary victims of terror lie and are remembered alongside the president himself. This is perhaps the greatest achievement of the place. It marks the lives of named and nameless individuals and reminds us that their stories are the connective tissue with which we can re-articulate the scattered bones of the past.
Back at the car I decide to delay my journey home. I drive for half a kilometre around the foot of Montjuïc and then take the road that leads up and over to the far side of the hill. There I park and mingle among the tourists and locals who are strolling in the warm midday sun. Barcelona stretches away before me, offering up the sights of countless postcards and selfies: the towers of the Sagrada Familia, the Camp Nou football stadium, the Columbus monument at the foot of the Ramblas. All the familiar marks on the skin of a city.
My guide on the tour of the Fossar de la Pedrera was Nick Lloyd. Tours are free and take place a couple of times a month (note, however, that they are generally in Catalan). Nick is a mine of information about the Spanish Civil War, and I highly recommend his book Forgotten Places: Barcelona and the Spanish Civil War, available here, as well as in several bookshops around Barcelona. If you are visiting the city, then you really should set aside a morning to join one of his walking tours (in English) on the same theme. The stories he tells as you wander the centre of Barcelona will stay with you long after you’ve returned home. For more information, and to contact Nick, click here.
Information in English about Montjuïc cemetery, including how to get there by public transport, can be found here.
Friday 28 April, 20:55. Biennal d’arts plàstiques i visuals, El Vendrell, Catalonia
Wall drawing by Aileen Hamilton
Sunday 7 May, 13.34 . Garraf National Park, Catalonia.
Walk with Aileen Hamilton
Agave americana var. marginata
Wednesday 10 May, 23:07. Sant Pere de Ribes, Catalonia
What remains in memory
This being so, Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say they destroy them. For instance, he could no longer recall the wonderful Sistine Madonna he had seen in Dresden, try as he might, because Müller’s engraving after it had become superimposed in his mind…
– W.G. Sebald, Vertigo
I must have walked this route a hundred times, have contemplated these walls, these fields so often that what I see is perhaps more memory than perception. Something was different this morning. Perhaps the storm of last night had blown the dregs of winter from the air, sharpening the spring light, recasting the terrain. Or perhaps something had shifted in me. Maybe I was more willing than usual to look without remembering, or without wishing the world into view. Approach each session without memory or desire was the psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion’s advice to those who sought to learn his trade. This morning I looked through the familiar and the same things became something else, a brief outline of a story that began to be told thousands of years ago. Four stations along the via artis.
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5. Epilogue: The challenge we face
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