6/2/08

AN EVENING WITH CHRIS STEWART.

We met up for supper at the ‘Cueva of Mora Luna’, a restaurant in the village of Mecina-Fondales. Chris Stewart has now become a star writer in Spain and he has appeared on TV and radio and in all the important newspapers. I commented the attention he was attracting. “It’s tiring sometimes but I must make the most of it,” he said as we sat down. “Although, I really enjoy meeting people. I am fascinated by strange characters who live an unconventional life.”

His book Driving Over Lemons had brought him great success and now translated into Spanish under the title Entre Limones it was bringing him a similar success in Spain. As it was quite a few years since I had last met Chris, I was curious to see if he had changed and went along to the presentation of his book in Granada.

There he was, the same as ever, with his contagious smile and energetic gestures. He talked about his book with warmth and humour, the audience was amused and asked numerous questions.

After Chris Stewart retired as the drummer of Genesis (he played in the first album), he started travelling and pursued various careers becoming a sheep shearer, working in a circus, flying aeroplanes in Los Angeles or writing a guide to China. Then he arrived in the village of Orgiva in 1981 and bought a farm called El Valero, which is located at the junction of two rivers (the Trevelez and the Guadalfeo). Chris and his wife Anna, visibly influenced by the reading of Gerald Brenan’s book South from Granada, had decided that the Alpujarra was the place to settle.

Driving Over Lemons was his debut as a writer, and a great success all over the world, this was followed by A Parrot in the Pepper tree and the Almond Blossom Appreciation Society. Seen through the eyes of an outsider, Chris takes us to La Alpujarra, a mountainous region south of Granada, and into a series of adventures with a fascinating combination of peasants, shepherds and ex-pats. A very important person in his history is his neighbour Domingo, a shepherd who oriented Chris and Ana when they first arrived. “Domingo fell naturally into the role of guide, introducing me to my new world of villages and mountains.” The heroes of the book, however, are the farm that he and Ana bought, El Valero – land full of olive, almond and lemon trees, located on the wrong side of two rivers, with no access road, water supply or electricity – their animals and the people.

After the presentation, we talked for a few minutes and fixed a meeting for some time when he was more relaxed and did not have so many commitments with his Spanish publisher Almuzara.

Do you know that my editor, Manuel Pimentel, used to be a minister in Aznar’s government,” Chris said as we looked at the menu. “He is a really nice man, very cultivated and a workaholic. He is amazing.”

Chris wore his glasses, his face was sun-tanned and smiling as usual, he spoke with his characteristic enthusiasm. “I have just been contacted by an English newspaper to write something about Andalucia, but in a too romantic way. I do not feel comfortable with that, there is a dark side of what is happening with all the building that is going on. I told them I would do it if they allow me to write about this too.”

Chris Stewart’s success as writer was totally unexpected. Some friends who had a publishing house for travel guidebooks came to stay with Chris at El Valero. They were taken by his anecdotes about his life in the Alpujarra and the characters he had met among the alpujarreños. “They asked me to write a book. At first, I was reticent. You just cannot become a writer from one day from another. But I got down and really enjoyed it and I discovered the pleasure of writing.” Driving Over Lemons. An optimist in Andalucía, published by Sort of Books made a resounding entry in the world of books and received the prize Newcomer of the Year for the best new author. Since then it has sold more than one million copies.

I asked him about the reaction towards the Spanish translation of Driving Over Lemons. “People seem to have liked it. The only criticism has come from the man who used to be the Mayor of Orgiva, but I doubt if he has really read the book. I get stopped in the street. ‘Cristobal, I saw you on TV – that must be good for the village.’ They are great characters,” Stewart said. “I did not expect it to make such an impact. And the same thing has happened in Spain, the book has sold more than 100000 copies and it is on its ninth edition,” Stewart said. “I receive letters from the most interesting people and some are very moving, for example when very ill people say that my book has helped to get over the pain.”

In spite of all the success, Chris and his family live as before. They use solar energy, have a vegetable patch and swim in their ecological swimming pool. “We still live in El Valero, a cortijo on the wrong side of the river, and the perfect place being at the junction of two rivers for building a dam. It seems that there was project, but it has not been done.” I mentioned other writers who have been threatened to leave their land, the writer Alistair Boyd in Ronda, for example. “It is a shame that things are changing so quickly for the worse. All the large-scale building and the concrete everywhere repel me. My translator, Alicia, was planning to leave Scotland and live in Ronda, but by the looks of things I think she has changed her ideas, because of what is happening in the Ronda area.”

Chris Stewart has strong convictions about using his success for changing things. In the recent municipal elections he joined the party of Los Verdes. “I was the last one on the list. I joined them to show that I am concerned with where I live,” he said. “I am more and more alarmed by our beautiful environment spoilt by concrete. I know Spain lives on tourism, but if it goes on like this, they are going to ruin the country. What will happen if all those tourists suddenly go somewhere else?”

The evening moved on, and we talked about future projects. “I am quite involved in ecological matters. I was in Granada the other day at a meeting against the project of a huge golf course with thousands o houses in Dilar and Gojar (Granada),” he said. “I am amazed by the Mayors in Spain, and they seem to do anything they like. The Mayor of Dilar did not let us meet in a public building paid by our taxes.”

I then asked him about his writing an if we can expect some new book soon “Writing has been a discovery but I do not know if there will be a fourth book about us after The Parrot on a Pepper Tree and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society. You never known what will happen next. Maybe in a few years we will disappear as a race because of our own fault.”

The night was coming to an end. Chris and Ana had to return to their cortijo, to their daughter Chloë and all their animals including a misanthropic parrot. “Maybe we have been a bit too negative about things. There are still nice corners in Andalucia. Look at that moon on those mountains.” This made reminded me Gerald Brenan’s descriptions of the mountains in the Alpujarra at the feet of Sierra Nevada. “The Spanish press always tries to compare me with Brenan. We are different, he was erudite and I am not, although in the end we both ended up in the Alpujarra for similar reasons.”

No matter how bad the situation, Chris Stewart remains the eternal optimist, although Andalusia’s development through golf courses and large-scale building are starting to cause the first dents in his optimism.