A Letter From Barcelona



It’s 9 am. I’m on the balcony in my dressing gown, doing my ‘tired face’. Got a cup of tea and a cuerno in my hands. Clear blue sky, empty street, but there’s something in the air. I can hear distant shouting and then – singing.

Some children run past at full pelt carrying flags. I look around at the other balconies. Red and yellow stripes everywhere. Imagine if we did that with Union Jacks in England! It can only mean one of two things. Either its yet another unfathomable Catholic holiday, Our Lady Of The Unfeasible Miracle, perhaps, or it’s another separatist protest day.

I get dressed, go around the corner to my coffee shop, a cavernous, permanently empty joint staffed by one sleepy girl who didn’t get in until 7am. Today there are about 150 pensioners crammed into it, and they’re singing. Catalan colours everywhere.

My worst fears are confirmed. There will be fireworks, bands, gigantes, speeches, chanting. And I live at Ground Zero, beside a 100-foot high Catalan flagpole marking the city of the ancient city.

Catalonia lost their battle for independence. In 1652 the Spanish captured Barcelona. The battle-site is under my flat. But, just as the wounds of the Franco years have never fully healed, the fight for Catalan independence splits families. Madrid is seen as arrogant in its refusal to acknowledge that the Catalan economic powerhouse drives the rest of Spain, but if Catalans secede there will be at least four other parts of the country that want the same thing.

It’s hard to deny that the history of Catalonia is one of suppression. Separatism is in the air around the world right now, so if it doesn’t happen now it never will. Look at the crowds, though, and you can see that they’re swelled by over-50s.

But there’s more at stake here. While most towns and cities are desperate to increase tourism, Barcelona is seeking to reduce it. A victim of geopolitics, Spain has become a safe haven for holidaymakers. Uber has been banned, new hotels have halted, a restoration of balance is being sought for residents.

I cannot imagine this ever being proposed for London. Barcelona has brought the problem upon itself by agreeing to build a port that can take gigantic US cruise ships. The tourists follow a preplanned rat-route and see nothing of the city. They pass by us and we don’t see them.

As Brexiteers have discovered, you don’t get to cherry-pick the parts you like about economic migration. Largely, Barcelona is still a city in balance. In summer the tourists flock to anything old, as they do in every city. They don’t visit the parts where people actually live.

I’ve been back here for about a month, overcoming a problem I’ve been having on a novel. I have the world’s noisiest neighbours, whose child seemingly drives a cement mixer at 1:00 am, but they argue in Catalan so it doesn’t bother me.

My crazy neighbour seeks to apologise for the noise. ‘You must understand, we are a family, not like you.’ Cheers for that, love.

The preconceptions we have about European cities are revealing. Paris and Italy have long been regarded as more classical and intellectual than Spain. Maybe they were once, but not now. Paris is conservative and deadlocked, ignorant of the powderkeg beyond the Périph. Italy is a wonderful mess, crushed between commercialism and the church. Spain has forty unaccounted-for years that it would still rather not talk about, and like all countries that have emerged from repressive regimes, has embraced modernity in the awareness that freedom must always be fought for. So I’ll go with the flags and fireworks – it shows people are thinking about their liberty.

Giles Tremlett’s superb ‘The Ghosts of Spain’ is the go-to volume on Spain’s complexities.

12 comments on “A Letter From Barcelona”

  1. John Howard says:

    Planning to do something similar in a weeks time. The sitting outside in the dressing gown thing you understand not the problem with writing thing.
    I my case there is a bakers recently opened across the road for me to pop out to for my breakfast tosta. So civilised.
    Thanks for the salad ideas earlier in the year by the way.

  2. davem says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation.

  3. admin says:

    On a jollier note, Barcelona’s one-month-long ‘winter’ ended on Jan 31st, at which point the thermometer bounced up to 19C. I’m writing this in a T-shirt and shorts on my balcony, and dreading going back tomorrow.

  4. Brooke says:

    My old stomping grounds were Seville, Cordova, Granada — Moorish Spain which I love.

  5. Hello Mr Fowler; Just to say how much I enjoy your Bryant and May stories. I have picked up many a new word and/or phrase from the books, also some hitherto unknown and interesting facts about London itself where I lived and worked for some 10 years. I have just finished reading ‘Strange Tides’ – fascinating, as ever. I have now read every B & M book , starting a few years ago of course.
    Now I look forward to the next……..
    Very best wishes

  6. Peter Dixon says:

    I’m writing this in a T-shirt and shorts but I’m only 5 miles from Newcastle and its a damp 6 degrees.

  7. Jo W says:

    I never knew you had a balcony in your dressing gown,Chris. Well, you learn something new every day!;-)

  8. Helen Martin says:

    Jo that really is a bit cheeky. On the other hand I have just written a nasty note in my copy of the Memory of Blood where His Excellency forgot he’d already told us all the stuff in this paragraph. Perhaps it was another place where he was having writing difficulties.

  9. Diogenes says:

    Barcelona won’t secede unless Real Madrid are successful in creating a European Super League of the sixteen best teams from England, Italy, Germany, Spain and France. La Liga won’t allow FC Barcelona to play if Catalonia secedes from Spain. Mes que un club.

  10. Andrea yang says:

    Enjoyed that description of you life in Barcelona. Have you ever considered a book about your travels?

  11. admin says:

    Diogenes is proof that ultimately, everything comes down to football.

    I may write a travel book one day – still travelling at the moment!

  12. Juan says:

    I’m afraid the situation here in Barcelona (or the whole region of Catalunya) is a bit more complex than that right now, since you have to add the fact that politicians on both sides of the spectrum are using the secesionist feeling for their own interests (Spanish right wing to make people vote for them to “protect the unity of Spain” while they cover all their corruption cases, and Catalan right wing to make people vote for them to “protect the interests of Catalunya from the greedy hands of Spain” while they cover all their corruption cases). So, maybe it’s not really that complex in the end…

    And about the tourist issue, again you just need to follow the money, politicians (again) were the ones closing the deals with the big cruising companies, to get their cut (same as they did – or tried to – when they spent so much public money building airports like the one in Lleida, which nobody is using now). Though the main problem in the city is housing price, it’s rocketed so much that most people can’t afford an appartment.

    Finally, in order to understand better the Catalan spirit, I would recommend a novel, “Victus”, by Albert Sánchez Piñol, where the 1714 battle in Barcelona is explained in a really nice way, with lots of sarcasm and without wallowing in self-pity. A good read while waiting for your new book 🙂

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