On Night Trains in Francoist Spain

Ignacio García, University of Western Sydney

Grahame Harrison Night Train to Granada: From Sydney’s Bohemia to Franco’s Spain—An Offbeat Memoir Sydney, Pluto Press, 2002 (385 pp). ISBN 1-86403-141-7 (paperback) RRP $27.95.

I must have been sound asleep when the night train carrying young Grahame Harrison stopped at my home village of Villafría, just before reaching Burgos on its way to Granada. A small child then, I still remember the old house by the railway tracks, no electricity or running water, an unpaved ground floor we shared through a flimsy separating wall with three cows and a horse, the bedrooms upstairs. I could hardly have guessed that night how, some thirty years later, recently resettled in Sydney and with no more command of English than Grahame had of Spanish in 1953, I would come across his office at the Department of History at the University of Sydney. Brave I was too, and I managed to enrol in his subject Imperial Spain.

It was probably in one of his classes, or perhaps during talks I occasionally had with him, that I heard a particular anecdote that for reasons unknown has stuck. When at his pensión in Granada, he used to ask for hot water to shave in the mornings —a luxury taken for granted in Australia. Months passed before he realised that the warm, cloudy, smelly liquid he was getting came from the pot in which the landlady was slowly cooking the lunchtime meal. As I started Night Train to Granada, almost twenty years later, I had it on my mind: yes, there it was, pages 39 and 44. This was the Harrison I knew.

Why would a self-professed libertarian from the Paddington Push feel the urge to get himself trapped in fascist Spain? It is easy to understand why university students, overflowing with intellectual curiosity, wanted to leave the parochial Australia of the early Menzies years to get a world view from London —if for no other reason than because their role model peers were doing so. Harrison needed to take an extra step to get a worldview from a foreign, then ‘exotic’, culture. Why Granada? If he wanted to make a future for himself teaching Spanish or even to immerse himself there where anarchist culture had been strong, there could have been other places better for that. Whatever the calling was, once he got to Granada, lack of money first grabbed him, later the people he met. Making sense of a foreign language and of a culture with one of the darkest immediate pasts—that of the Civil War of 1936–39 and its aftermath—proved for a while irresistible.

Fiction it is not, the author warns from the first page, but the book reads like fiction. Of the some ten years he spent in Spain, the first three 1953–56 in Granada were years of poor wages—teaching English paid little—but also of a fierce eagerness to relate to others and to understand the elusive world around him. These three years marked him. The core of the book is there: coming to grips with a strange world, his outlook changed, no longer Grahame but El Inglés now. In the first part of the book he takes us back and forth from Granada to Sydney, to London, and even to his childhood years in Newcastle, pointing out contrasts (and similarities too) between the world he dropped out from and the one he embraced. The second takes us forward to 1965, now earning his living out of the proto-tourist trade, plus one visit in 1979, once Franco had already died, putting those three years into a broader context.

The anecdote, I have worked out, is the core of the book. There must be hundreds of them. Not often in a life of extensive reading have I come across a modern book with so many. The author uses them as the foundation for his biographical notes and his research: research and autobiography that continuously overlap. Every comment he makes on post 1936 Spain (or on Australia for that matter) has been thoroughly researched and, although it does not claim to be a book of scholarly history, only the footnotes are missing. Biographical details abound, although this is not a life retold in a linear sense. In fact, he is never the centre of attention of his own writing. He is always the observer, looking from the outside in, putting the background to the fore, with himself as the bloodline of the text. He draws attention to himself only when by doing so he can sharpen the profile of the people he meets and the circumstances in which he lives. He is there only as an exceptionally talented nobody. It is the stories he learned and the research he put together to explain those stories which count. He makes the voices of the people he listens to resonate with history, but he himself is the conduit, not the end point of his story.

Harrison is there only as an exceptionally talented nobody.

A master of irony, wit, and understatement, he learned well from granadinos what we Spaniards mean by sorna, that special mixture of sarcasm and coolness for which the English language seems to lack a synonym. His writing flows well although not without hiccups for the hurried 21st century reader. One anecdote repeats itself more than once: he is standing there, a demonstration by angry youth coming against him. It is time to fight or flee. Airport literature would not waste a second to let us know what happened next. But Harrison knows we are hooked, so he takes his time to tell us the background and details of the situation. This pausing of the main story to insert long details of related facts is typical of his style, but blame him not: serious books are not written to attract the reader with a short attention span.

Much can be said for Night Train. There are sections that read like manuals on Spanish pragmatics, with observations only a foreigner could make on peculiar uses of language and paralinguistic features (clapping, whistling, finger pointing—all no longer in use) to convey urgency, to show who has the power in daily interactions in bars, and in conversation and so on. Others give us the goosebumps we would not get while reading Stephen King or, closer to the topic given its Civil War background, watching films such as The Devil’s Backbone now screening in Sydney. The entertaining flavour of a comedy of manners permeates the text. And it is all in just one voice, articulated through a fresh, anti-authoritarian view of the word: sarcastic about the powerful (why is it that Sir Robert Gordon Menzies is always referred to in four words, never just as Menzies?); engaging with equals, never patronising, never grovelling; tender with the underprivileged.

A word has to be said about the author’s skills as an oral history researcher. He puts them down explicitly on page 164, but what in Spanish is called ‘scientific humbleness’ must account for it. Sure Ian Gibson went to Granada in the 60s and with much less personal involvement published a couple of books on Federico García Lorca that are now definitive. Lorca, one of the best internationally recognised Spanish writers of the twentieth century, was taken by Falangist squads from his house in Granada days after the military uprising of 1936. Until Gibson’s 1973 book, little was known about the circumstances surrounding his assassination. One of Harrison’s closest friends in Granada was a relative of Lorca. Harrison was eager to investigate the death of the poet yet he seemed, perhaps, too gutless to go to the cemetery and confront the caretaker, or to Viznar, the place where it was said that he had been murdered, to talk to the locals as Gibson would do later. Certainly, when a bit of luck came along and some invaluable letters were offered to him, written in jail by Lorca’s brother-in-law days before his execution by the Francoists, Harrison was not assertive enough to grab them. It must be said that the horrors of post-war brutality were still keeping sensible mouths shut in the 50s, and the risks of imprisonment or expulsion were greater then for the nosy foreigner. Nor did he have the money—and thus the time—that Gibson could afford.

Every generation should look at itself in the mirror of the foreign.

On the other hand, however, what better example of oral history is there than that of Grahame talking over a few drinks to Enrique in a bar, till late, never asking questions, then running back to his cold pensión room to write up the record under precarious lighting. Enrique had fought for Franco and had been witness to many atrocities committed on his side. He saw English as the passport to leave Spain, but also as the means to purge his ghosts by conversing on themes that could not be spoken about in Spanish. His is a spontaneous recounting of uncontaminated, chilly objectivity. And Harrison’s ‘passive’ strategy is not only the most ethical, given the sensitivity of the issues, but also the most effective. With such disturbing stories—and unfortunately the world is packed with them—asking questions would not have helped to fill the gaps, for these gaps in the stories are an integral part of them. Harrison is indeed a model for oral historians.

Harrison’s account is relevant 50 years later. It can remind Australians that there is a world out there, outside those our long borders that Menzies’ successors now are so obsessed with protecting. This world is foreign to ours, but still shares with ours many traits, traits that allow us to put ours in context, to understand ours better. Harrison achieves this by going back and looking at Sydney through the new lens of his Spanish experience, then forward, and interpreting Granada through Australian eyes. This looking at itself in the mirror of the foreign is something every generation should do, and perhaps more so in the Australia of today, if just to check whether we are as cosmopolitan a society as we think.

The book can tell even more to Spaniards, granadinos and otherwise, still coming to terms, after 25 years of democratic rule, with a haunted past the transition masters after Franco’s death thought better left untouched. It was not until the late-90s, when the generation that committed and suffered those crimes had already reached its biological limit that, with Santos Juliá’s Víctimas de la Guerra Civil, Spanish historians systematically engaged in the study of post-war repression. Apart from this, Harrison’s book covers many other aspects of life in the 50s from a perspective that would now sound original and refreshing in Spain.

I do not belong to Harrison’s generation, but I was there in the Spain of the 50s. I can see its society, its paralinguistic cues, its vibrancy and its silences accurately reflected. There is something, perhaps in the stories, perhaps in the way they are told, that sometimes reminds me of Joan Marsé, a Spanish author of fiction, for the way remnants of post Civil War Spain are brought to life. Night Train to Granada helps us to make sense of a most troubled world, allows us to look at it from a new angle. It is well worth the ride.


Brenan, G. 1943, The Spanish Labyrinth: An Account of the Social and Political Background of the Civil War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Gibson, I. 1973, The Death of Lorca, WH Allen, London.

Gibson, I. 1989, Federico García Lorca, A Life, Faber, London.

Santos, J. (ed.)1999, Víctimas de la Guerra Civil, Temas de Hoy, Madrid.

Ignacio García lectures in Spanish at the University of Western Sydney. His interests include the history of migration and translation studies.