History is full of ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ but do we always know who is who? Mark Oldfield’s novel The Sentinel is set during the Spanish Civil War when the Nationalist General Francisco Franco was in armed conflict with the Republicans. Following 30 years of visiting and working in Spain, Mark was convinced that ‘the bad guys won, the good guys lost’ but as he explains below it really does depend whose side you are on…
‘On a bright morning in Pamplona, I was talking to the mother of a Spanish friend. We looked down from her balcony at the busy street below and began talking about the way the city was changing, the new developments outside the ancient city walls, the expensive shops that were opening. She turned to me and said, ‘you know Marcos, people often forget all the good Franco did.’ I was surprised: to me Franco was a mediocre individual with a keen instinct for survival, a cautious, arrogant and spiteful little man whose every move seemed to be made with a view to career development or self-aggrandisement.
My friend’s mother remembered the day war broke out as a pleasant event. It wasn’t a complete surprise, it had been expected. She recalled crowds of men marching around the Plaza del Castillo, the main square in Pamplona, signing up to fight. Crowds watched them proudly, applauding. It was an exciting time for many. Later that afternoon, the first executions began.
Following the conversation with my friend’s mother, I talked to another old lady who lived about a quarter of a mile away in a small dingy flat tucked away behind the Cathedral. She too remembered the day war broke out. She heard a commotion in the street as the Civil Guard kicked in doors and took away trade unionists, communists, Freemasons and anyone else judged not to be on the side of the ‘true’ Spain.
She remembered her husband running up their steps, stuffing a few things into a bag and climbing out the window with only a muttered goodbye as he fled. He had been a member of a workers’ association of such limited political ambition that it’s hard to believe now how anyone could consider him a threat. But they did, and had he stayed in Pamplona, he would have joined hundreds of similar unfortunates who were lined up and shot without a second thought. So many people attended the execution that stalls were set up in the early morning serving hot chocolate to the eager spectators.
For that old lady, there were long years of hardship ahead. Spurned and abused by neighbours as a ‘Red,’ she found it hard to get rations because shopkeepers didn’t want to serve her or left her until last when serving. The Guardia Civil would visit her regularly, trying to find the whereabouts of her husband (he had reached France) and threatening her with vile reprisals should she conceal his whereabouts from them.
If she missed Mass, the Guardia would call, demanding to know why. Twelve years later, her husband came back, pardoned in an amnesty. They survived the war and they survived the peace, though things never went easy for them and the old lady was teaching English to supplement her income almost until the day she died. She deserves to be remembered and it was for that reason I decided to use her name for one of my characters, Alicia Martinez.’
Mark adds that his ‘characters illustrate in a fictional way some of what he learned from those two old ladies’ and that whilst ‘recalling history, people’s memories have a narrative quality. They relate stories, explanations and theories, sometimes reliable, sometimes less so, but there is always at the heart of those narratives, something that provides us with a unique perspective on that particular period. The task for anyone writing fiction that draws on historical issues is how to harness that material and make best use of it. ‘
Many thanks to Mark for taking the time to share his experiences with me and I wish him every success with The Sentinel. It’s currently available in hardback, kindle and audio book and a paperback version will be published on 1 April. The second book in the trilogy is called The Exile and it will be published by Head of Zeus on October 1st.
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Coming Soon – Interview with non-fiction author Gwyn Headley on his fascination with follies and how it has led to him writing over 40 books.