When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Gerald Brenan was living with his wife Gamel Woolsey in Churriana, a village west of Malaga. At first they decided to stay on, but the situation became so dangerous that they finally returned to England. Hurt, disheartened and surprised by the cruelty and hatred displayed by the Spanish people, Brenan wanted to understand why the civil war had started. After intense research, he produced The Spanish Labyrinth, a key work of analysis on the causes of the civil war.

On his return to
Spain, ten years after the war ended, he travelled with his wife Gamel through the south of Spain up to Madrid and kept a diary on his impressions of Spain under Franco's dictatorship. Drawing on his knowledge of Spanish life and customs he wrote The Face of Spain, a book that gives an accurate image of a country still under reconstruction after the war and governed by a dictator.

was in a sad and depressing state, stricken by severe draught, famine and poverty. Its leading party the Falange, instead of guiding the reconstruction was a nest of corruption supported by a large black market. Gerald and Gamel visited Granada, one of the cities most punished during and after the civil war. The atmosphere was strange. Brenan knew the city quite well, as he had been an assiduous visitor while he was living in Yegen. Granada was a small provincial town, austere and conventional. Now it was more than austere, it was sad. People's faces were gloomy, the streets and shops empty, and the previously lively quarters seemed silenced. Brenan describes the atmosphere as being full of resentment, a suppressed anger and tension enclosed the entire city. Workers looked suspicious and spoke with bitterness. It was much worse than other places they had visited.

When Gerald and Gamel walked up to the Albayzin and from there to the gipsy quarter, the Sacromonte, looking down over the city Gerald sensed the reason for
Granada's sadness: "This was a city that had killed its poet". They started to look for Lorca's grave to lay a wreath of flowers on it. A symbolic homage to one of Spain’s best poets.

Gerald had actually met Lorca in
Granada in the twenties when the poet was starting to gain recognition for his poems and plays. They met at the house of a mutual friend, a local aristocrat called Rodriguez Acosta. Gerald Brenan in those days was not a writer, only an eccentric retired soldier living in Yegen. He was very taken by Lorca's neat way of dressing and fine manner. They got on well together but this did not turn into real friendship as Lorca left soon afterwards to live in Madrid. Gerald admired Lorca as a cultivated man who had an understanding of popular culture such as flamenco, plays and coplas or folk-poetry.

In 1936, Accion Catolica, the clericals syndicate, hunted down all liberals and freemasons of the city and anybody connected to the left was persecuted. The Falange also inflicted against those on the left a hidden oppression. They were organized in secret cells, and drew up lists of the people to be killed. Those on the list were taken at night by the Black Squads and never seen again.

Lorca had arrived at
Granada a couple of days before the military rising broke out. He had a great number of enemies amongst the conservatives, as he was a left wing intellectual, a poet and homosexual, and had criticized the narrow, conventional minds of Granada's bourgeoisie, which he categorized as "the worst in Spain". Also he was the brother in law of Montesinos, the socialist mayor of Granada, and a close friend of Fernando de los Ríos, the leading socialist intellectual of the city. Knowing this, Lorca hid in the house of his friend Luis Rosales, whose brother was a leading Falangist. During his friend’s absence, a group of gunmen took him away and he was never seen again.

Gerald and Gamel visited the cemetery. They walked up by the Avenida del Generalife. Foreign guests staying at the Washington Irving hotel remember this road. Every night they heard lorries packed with prisoners change gears on the slope, after a while they heard shots and then silence. Obtaining information was not an easy task, the Civil War had left a great deal of fear and suspicion behind it. At the cemetery, after making many enquiries and seeing a small enclosure with thousands of skeletons, they found out that Lorca’s body was not there. But two local gravediggers put them on the right trail; Lorca was buried in the ravine or barranco of Viznar. Gerald knew many people in the city and he went to see them to confirm the gravedigger's information. Lorca and Viznar were two forbidden names-something to keep quiet about-but it was a secret known to everyone. He was told that the deputy Ramon Ruiz Alonso ordered Lorca’s death.

Gerald and Gamel took a taxi up to Viznar, a small pueblo lying on a hillside a few miles from
Granada. Its ravine was tragically known to be a Falangist burial ground, one of the many scattered all over Spain. The taxi driver was a Nationalist, probably a spy watching their activities. In Viznar, a local woman guided them to the well-known barranco and, as they went, she described the horrors that happened there. When they reached the place, they took off their hats and Gerald threw a blue grape hyacinth into the wind flowing through the barranco.

For twelve years, Lorca's name and books were kept under a strict censorship. But this changed because of international pressure. The poet had become a symbol and his death was a bad advertisement for Franco's regime in its task of trying to open up internationally. The two leading Nationalist syndicates, the Falange and the Clericals, blamed each other for the crime.

Gerald Brenan can be considered a pioneer, in the search for Lorca´s burial place and the first to throw light on the poet's death. A few years later inspired by Gerald Brenan, Ian Gibson started a deeper investigation, which has produced two wonderful books, "The Death of Lorca" and "Federico García Lorca: a Life", two masterpieces of contemporary writing and research.

Published by Carlos Pranger in The Olive Press, Issue 16, Jan
uary 24th 2007.


Gerald Brenan is one of the best known interpreters of
Spain and Spanish life as well as being an inspiring commentator on the country’s literature. His writing has many facets and ranges from the analysis of the social background to the Civil War in The Spanish Labyrinth, his reporting on the state of Spain after the war in The Face of Spain, to a biography of Saint John of the Cross.

And Gerald Brenan’s name will always be linked with the
village of Yegen. In a life full of the most varied adventures, perhaps amongst the most surprising of them were the years he spent there, in a poor, backward village in the remote mountains of the Alpujarra.

This was partly in reaction against his comfortable middle class background. His father was a Major in the British army who wanted his son to follow in his military footsteps and in 1915, when he was twenty one, Gerald went to the front in the First World War. However, while he was in the trenches his mind was far away, full of exotic walks in faraway countries. This tendency to live in the world of dreams had already appeared during his years at Radley public school, where he was bullied and found refuge in reading and writing poetry. After the war, feeling oppressed by his school and family background, especially by his authoritarian father, all he wanted to do was to travel and educate himself through reading. His idea was to take time off in
Spain and then go on to Greece or Italy, or live with the Tuareg in the desert.

When Gerald first arrived,
Spain was not a promising place to settle in. He found a primitive country, with no roads to speak of, only mule tracks covered in mud, dirty posadas (inns) full of insects and bugs, and oily food that gave him dysentery. He crossed Spain and reached Andalucia. After inspecting the region, he went to a mountainous area scattered with minute "pueblos", the Alpujarra. He heard it was a cheap place to live, so after an attempt at renting a house in the village of Mairena he finally arrived at Yegen, where he rented a big house belonging to a local cacique or landlord for six pounds a year.

At first sight, the place did not seem attractive. Located one thousand two hundred meters above sea level, the pueblo lay on the hillside looking like a cluster of small brown boxes stuck together. The houses were not whitewashed and were left the natural colour of stone and mud; only those of the rich people were white. It was divided into two parts or barrios, the Barrio de Arriba and the Barrio de Abajo. Brenan lived in the first one, which started below the road and ended at the church. This division, though strange in a place with hardly a thousand inhabitants, created a strong feeling of belonging. Each barrio was ruled by a landlord, the rivalry was fierce and people only related to the others in their own barrio.

Here, living in small farming community and surrounded by the beauty of the Alpujarra, life seemed more real to him. But life was not easy from the point of view of modern comforts. The houses had neither electricity, running water or glazed windows. After renting the house, one of the first things Brenan had to go through was the inevitable building work (obra) to adapt the huge house to his necessities. He suffered the idiosyncrasies of local builders who were always promising to turn up “mañana”. The house had to accommodate the two thousand books that were waiting in
Almeria, ready to be brought to Yegen on mule back. Also, during the following years, he would receive important visitors: Virgina Woolf, Lytton Strachey and Augustus John, amongst others.

It was a great event for the locals to have a foreigner or forastero living with them. Although Brenan wanted a quiet life, he ended up participating in the pueblo's activities, such as helping at the harvest, organizing bailes or dances at his house, or occasionally going to church. The village had a fixed social structure made up of caciques, the farm workers and the poor, but everyone was on familiar terms with everyone else. As Gerald lived in the Cacique's house, he was treated as somebody of importance and wealth and greeted as "Don Geraldo". But the villagers also treated him with spontaneous human warmth which he felt for them in return.

His main occupations were reading, writing letters and taking long walks in the mountains.
Reading and writing formed the imaginative currents of his life in Yegen, and were of prime importance to him during the rest of his life. He started reading the two thousand books, which included Virgil, Cervantes, Gibbon and St. John of the Cross. The text had to be explored and gone into deeply. Reading was a matter of discovery, and an important stage before writing. With an incredible capacity for concentration he would often spend ten hours reading non-stop. After that, he would get up full of energy and, in a kind of ecstasy, start walking in the mountains at full speed to the village of Mecina Bombaron where he would swim in a mountain pond to cool off

At Yegen, he started to note down the village customs, the coplas or songs that he heard, and descriptions of its inhabitants. He also made notes of the books he was reading, as well as writing poetry and extensive letters to his friends, especially the painter Dora Carrington. His imagination was stimulated by the view of mountains, trees and streams, and the surrounding solitude and silence. The rest of the world did not seem to exist.

There was only one other foreigner in the district at that time, a Scotsman who lived in a farm called “Cortijo del Inglés”, located near the village of Murtas at about nine miles from Yegen, on the other side of the mountain. Gerald paid him a visit and found a man full of resentment and prejudice against the Alpujarreños. He spent his days locked up in his room drinking whiskey and was obviously very relieved when his visitor left.

Gerald Brenan moved to Yegen in 1920 and it was his home until 1924, although he visited it regularly until 1934. In this little village left behind by time, he found what he needed at that particular moment in his life. By setting there he rebelled against conventional middle-class standards, its quietness allowed him to catch up on his education and it also gave him an understanding of Spanish life which inspired his later books.

In 1934, he left Yegen and moved to Churriana a village close to
Malaga with his new wife, the American poet Gamel Woolsey. Using his memories and notebooks he wrote South from Granada, the record of life in the Alpujarra as lived by a romantic-realist. Brenan always lived on the boundaries between poetry and reality, trying to draw together the best of both worlds. At Yegen, combining instinct and observation, he got to know the measure of things.

Published by Carlos Pranger in The Olive Press, Issue 12, 22nd November 2006.