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First Installment


First published in GUIDEPOST
5 May 1967

Who was it said that Cervantes sneered Spain’s chivalry away? I know not; and the author of such a line scarcely deserves to be remembered. How the rage for scribbling tempts people at the present day to write about lands and nations of which they know nothing, or worse than nothing! Vaya! It is not from having seen a bull-fight at Seville or Madrid, or having spent a handful of ounces at a posada in either of those places, kept perhaps by a Genoese or a Frenchman, that you are competent to write about such a people as the Spaniards, and to tell the world how they think, how they speak, and how they act. Spain’s chivalry sneered away! Why, there is every probability that the great body of the Spanish nation speak, think, and live precisely as their forefathers did six centuries ago.

The voice is that of George Borrow; the work is “The Bible in Spain”; the poet whom he misquotes is Byron. And still travelers in Spain scribble about their Peninsular gallop! When scarcely a single author adds to our understanding of the Spanish people—with the honorable exception of Gerald Brennan—, this may be the moment to fetch from the dusty, upper shelves a forgotten masterpiece, perhaps the best book ever written on the subject, which has not been reprinted since 1927.

The neglect of Richard Ford’s “Gatherings from Spain” is hard to understand. When first published by Murray in 1846, it was immensely popular with critics and public alike. One might reasonably expect a travelogue published 120 years ago to be of little more than historic interest, but remarkably enough, much of what Ford saw in Spain can still be seen today, and many of his observations on the Spanish character are so acute they still hold good. While one wouldn´t go so far as to claim, as Borrow does, that all Spaniards speak, think, and live precisely as their forefathers did six centuries ago, it is true that outside the great great cities life has changed very little during this time.

In 1840, Ford was helping Borrow to write “The Bible in Spain”, and reviewed his book on “The Gypsies in Spain”. He admired Borrow, and told his publisher he preferred that his friend write a Handbook of Spain. But “The Bible in Spain” was nothing of the sort, as it turned out. Borrow´s slightly comic mission had been to sell the Bible, translated into the vernacular, to the misguided Catholics in Spain, as he thought them to be. He had already distributed a Manchu Testament in the Far East.

“I was sent by the Bible Society as its agent, for the purpose of printing and circulating the Scriptures”, and he admitted, quite fairly, “I am no tourist, no writer of books of travels”. Entertaining and instructive as parts of “The Bible in Spain” are, it should not have been allowed to eclipse Ford’s far more valuable work.

Richard Ford went to Spain in 1830, at the age of 34, at a time when to travel for mere pleasure was quite a modern invention. This was five years before Borrow set foot on the peninsula with his cargo of Bibles. He returned to England in December 1833, still two years before Borrow’s departure.

The delicate health of his wife, the daughter of the Earl of Essex, forced a move to a warmer climate, and for that reason the Fords and their three children settled in Seville, and later, in Granada. From here Ford set out on horseback to discover Spain.

What restrained him for so long from writing of his travels? Why did he keep the public waiting for thirteen years? The reason seems to be indolence, the curse of all writers, combined with a preference for pottering about the garden, and a genuine, if mistaken belief that Borrow was really the best man for the job.

In 1838. a piece on bullfighting in the “Quarterly Review” brought Ford renown, and from then on Murray badgered him to write a Handbook on Spain. Once he put down the spade and took up his pen, however, he found it hard to stop. “My ideas come bubbling over like a soda-water bottle”, he wrote in a letter, “and I can´t help it”.

Erudition and reminiscence poured from his mind. Even after ruthless pruning the work amounted to 1,064 pages in two volumes when it was finally published in 1845. Ford found the prunings too good to waste, so he worked up the rejected matter—the anecdotes and descriptions—into “Gatherings from Spain” — chips which are far more interesting to the modern reader than the massive block from which they fell. The Handbook is a magnificent achievement, but whatever its use for the traveler as a work of reference, it has less charm for the reader than the “Gatherings”.

How then did Ford manage to assimilate so much in three years, riding the length and breadth of Spain on horseback? Obviously he possessed in full measure the two prerequisites of a successful traveler: curiosity, and a command of the language. The very slowness of his journeys gave him time to remark and memorize those details which can pass unperceived from the car and the railway carriage, and riding entailed endless adventure and constant intercourse with all levels of society. In particular, Ford was meeting that class which is the most representative of any country because it is the most numerous: the common people. Ford was not the last traveler to notice all his class prejudices vanishing when confronted by the Spanish people. Please proceed to the Second Installment of “The Original Tourist”.

Ed’s note: Due to its unusual length, we are bringing “The Original Tourist” to you in three installments. This way, we hope you’ll enjoy this witty and entertaining article better.


Guidepost cover, 5 May 1967