Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Very Idea


My favourite scene in Casablanca is where the German officers are singing Die Wacht am Rhein. Victor Laszlo strides up to the band. "Play the Marseillaise - play it!" Rick nods. The band strikes up and everyone but everyone sings their lungs out. The Germans struggle but they have to give up. They are beaten by a song that unites a people a song with history. I just love that sort of idea.

A long way from Casablanca, in Monóvar to be precise, there's a little museum operated by the social arm of the Sabadell/CAM savings bank dedicated to the writer José Martinez Ruiz better known by his pen name of Azorín. It isn't the most exciting museum I've ever been to but it is free and something to occupy a few idle moments. Azorín was one of a group of Spanish writers called the Generation of '98. That's because, in 1898, The United States kicked the Spanish out of Cuba and the Philippines the last two remnants of the once mighty Spanish Empire. These young men were, apparently, scarred for life by the defeat. The loss of Empire, or at least the idea of it, influenced Spanish foreign and domestic policy for years to come.

A fair way from Monóvar I was browsing the public library shelves in Cartagena when I came across a book called Castilla by Azorín. It was free, something to occupy a few idle moments. The book consists of a series of essays several of which are about the coming of the railway to Spain. Imagine the change. Suddenly 200 miles isn't an expedition of ten days on foot but just seven hours sitting in relative comfort watching the world pass by. For farmers and craftspeople trains made it possible to move product, crops or livestock to new markets. Horizons widened and the world shrank. Railways as an idea.

Not far from Monóvar, close to our house, there's a track with a battered sign on it that says "Via Pecuaria" which means something like Drover's Path. Some time ago, in 1273, King Alfonso the Wise guaranteed the rights of cattle drovers and shepherds to shift their herds and  flocks along public rights of way without let or hindrance. It's a system of tracks that reached 125,000kms at it's peak and, even to this day, those rights of way are still protected. That's why a flock of sheep bleats its way through the middle of Madrid every year just to prove they can if they want.

Now focus not on the physical reality of all those people over all that time walking or riding along all those paths, focus instead on the idea. Herd after herd, flock after flock going this way and that for hundreds of years until the coming of the railway changed the face of transportation and travel for ever. Think of the shepherd walking from the summer pasture in the North to the winter pasture in the South and telling anyone who would listen along the way about the new King or the latest war. Maybe it was just gossip about the celebrities of the day, or new foods and fashions or, closer to home new farming techniques. From time to time the animals themselves were the news as new breeds of sheep, cattle and goats came munching and farting down the track. And disease of course, diseases from the New World walked that path as well as old favourites like plague, syphilis and cholera.

What an idea.

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