Thursday, July 09, 2015

"Winter in Madrid".. a review

...a  recent comment on my review of "Dominion" [clicky] reminded me that I was going to read his Spanish Civil War inspired book, so, with an extended visit to a Greek sun bed in order what better time to do the deed...  (By the way, for those not considering coming to Greece because of the, frankly, quite scurrilous coverage in the UK press of the Greek economic problems, you need to re-consider* ..  I've been coming to Greece for years and this year is no different - food, weather, people {and beer} are as usual beyond compare... support them in the best way you can by continuing to spend tourist 'dollars')

* ..unless you're going to Athens.. 

Anyway, enough of politics, and on to some quite different politics, the Spanish Civil War, and that period of European history when the dichotomy between left and right, Socialism/Communism and Fascism was never clearer or more stark...  The book is set before/during and mostly just after the Spanish Civil War, and features the interaction between four main characters..  Barbara, a nurse working for the Red Cross, Bernie a working class scholarship boy (to an English public school) won over to communism and come to Spain to fight in the International Brigade, Harry his mate from school, and the slimy Forsyth, a former school mate of Harry and Bernie, expelled following an incident involving a traumatic joke on a school master...

Sansom delights in telling stories, and this is a big old rambling book that tells ...  stories...  I really enjoyed it, he goes in to all the background and surrounding events of the characters lives, and it shoots backwards and forwards in time, but it all reads really well....

So, Bernie arrives in Spain, but is accidentally shot in the arm, and while on convalescence meets and falls in love with Barbara (who is the emotionally damaged product of an English family where her sister is the preferred, and more beautiful, daughter, and where she is bullied at school). After recovering he is sent to the front and in the Battle of Jarama [clicky] where he is listed as missing in action.

Harry in the meanwhile has been wounded and is suffering from shell shock as a result of his experience at Dunkirk (his sergeant is blown to pieces just yards from him, so hardly surprising..). Having convalesced, he is recruited by the British secret service (because of his skills with languages, and Spanish in particular) to assist with efforts in Spain to keep Franco out of the war,but specifically because he knows Forsyth who is engaged in some nefarious business dealsin Spain with regard to a gold mine. It is not Harry's first time in Spain as Bernie's family had asked him to go out to see if he could find out anything about him after they had news of his missing in action - in Spain he had met Barbara.

I'm not going to spoil the story by revealing what happens, but there's a number of interesting plots and twists... Sansom is very good on conveying the misery of life in Spain after the Civil War, the jockeying for position between the (Fascist) Flanage party, and the old conservative/Monarchists, with Franco like the spider at the centre of the web balancing the conflict.....  the re-emergence of the Spanish Church and their climb back to power, the crushing of left'ist learning and attitudes...

British Battalion - XVth International Brigade - Jarama 1937 (from
What it made me want to do is go back and re-read my Orwell and Lee, which I'll do!  Steve the Wargamer rates this 9 out of 10, if you have an interest in the Spanish Civil war it is a hugely rewarding read, but don't expect a lot of detail on the actual fighting, this is about the background, the lives of the normal people, how they came to fight a civil war....


  1. I got this book either free or for pennies a while ago for the Kindle; have to agree it's very good.

    I donated many euros to the Mythos brewery a couple of weeks ago :).

    Splendid week in Corfu (again) and hope to get there again later this year. Nearest place to heaven on earth.

  2. Prince L; any Greek Island will do at a inch but yes, Corfu/Kefalonia/Thassos for preference... Lipsos (or Lipsi) for when I win the lottery...!

  3. Prince L; any Greek Island will do at a inch but yes, Corfu/Kefalonia/Thassos for preference... Lipsos (or Lipsi) for when I win the lottery...!