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Last Installment


First published in GUIDEPOST
5 May 1967


Again, “the national cookery of Spain is for the most part Oriental, and the ruling principle of its preparation is stewing”; and, turning from taste in food to taste in art, “another remarkable Oriental trait is the general want of love for the beautiful in art, the abundance of that with which the ancients reproached the genuine Iberians; this is exhibited in the indifference shown to Moorish works”.

Naturally, much has changed since Ford’s day, but among the trifles of which he wrote so well an amazing number remains unaltered today.

The modern traveler with eyes as sharp as Ford’s will have seen the same carts in the North-Western provinces, “the unchanged plaustra, with solid wheels, the Roman tympana which consist of mere circles of wood, without spokes or axles, much like mill-stones or Parmesan cheeses, and precisely such as the old Egyptians used, as is seen in hieroglyphics, which are still used by Afghans and other unadvanced coach-makers. The whole wheel turns round together with a piteous creaking; the drivers, whose leathern ears are as blunt as their edgeless teeth, delight in this excruciating chirrio, Arabic charrar, to make a noise… The doleful sounds, however, serve like our waggoners’ lively bells, as warnings to other drivers, who, in narrow paths and gorges of rocks, where carriages cannot pass, have this notice given them, and draw aside until the coast is clear.”

The same traveler will have seen the thin, smouldering ropes which Ford saw “Murillo-like urchins run about with like artillerymen for the convenience of smokers, that is, for every nine and ninety males out of a hundred”. Nothing escapes his attention, or fails to arouse his curiosity.

Where shall we find a more vivid description than at a bullfight, during which, Ford tells us, “while gazing on the scene in total abstraction from the world, we felt our coat-tails tugged at, as by a greedly-biting pike; we were caught by a venerable harridan, whose quick perception had discovered a novice, whom her kindness had prompted to instruct. A bright, fierce eye gleamed alive in a dead and shriveled face, which evil passions had furrowed like the lava-seared sides of an extinct volcano, and dried up, like a cat starved behind a wainscot, into a thing of fur and bones, in which gender was obliterated—let her pass”. For a moment, the frightful hag comes to life before our eyes, and them, with a laconic “let her pass”, she is gone, and the bullfights on.

Even if the book has dated in places, this does enable us to relish a period charm of the “postillion struck by lightning” variety. No one is likely to find much use for the detailed advice on the choice of servants, and “intercourse with dependents”, nor is anyone likely to carry in his right-hand saddle bag (as being the easiest to be got at) a pair of blue-gauze spectacles or goggles against the dust of the plain of La Mancha. But if the reader´s curiosity matches the author’s, he may well be amused to learn that he should never rub his eyes when inflamed, except with the elbows, and that “the head should be well protected with a silk handkerchief, tied after a turban fashion, which all the natives do; in addition to which we always lined the inside of our hats with thickly doubled brown paper”.

Although these passages are dated, they make us realize what hardships Ford endured in roughing it across the torrid plains and the hostile mountains, and they make us marvel the more at his perseverance. Traveling on horseback was not much fun, especially in such extremes of climate and terrain. There is still some truth in Ford’s blunt warning to prospective travelers, “Those who expect to meet with well-garnished arsenals, libraries, restaurants, charitable or literary institutions, canals, railroads, tunnels, suspension bridges, steam-engines, omnibuses, polytechnic galleries, pale-ale breweries, and similar appliances and appurtenances of a high state of commercial civilization, had better stay at home”.

Of course the book is not free from faults. The style is sometimes over-blown or unduly ponderous, and Ford’s judgment is often distorted by the typical prejudices of his class. However, these are small faults, and many of his attitudes are surprisingly liberal, and even ahead of their time.

“Gatherings from Spain” is more than an extraordinary eye-witness report on Spain in the early 19th century; it is more than a travelogue teeming with adventure and erudition; it is an honest record of a remarkable Englishman’s reactions to a country he described as “the most romantic, racy, and peculiar of Europe, which hovers between Europe and Africa, between civilization and barbarity”.

“The traveling library, like companions, should be select and good”, wrote Ford. “Libros y amigos, pocos y buenos. Stow away at all events a pocket edition of the Bible, Shakespeare, and Don Quixote.”

And to these, the judicious traveler might make the honorable addition of Ford´s own “Gathering from Spain”. He will be fortunate indeed if his own gatherings turn out to be so rich.

(“Gatherings from Spain” is out of print, but Ford’s “Handbook for Spain, 1845” was republished last year by the Centaur Press, in three volumes, price  £ 15.5s, from which we take our illustrations.)                



Guidepost cover, 5 May 1967