Posted by: davidjmarlow | 25/04/2014

Chronicle of four deaths at the end of their eras…

For politically-minded obituary watchers in the English-speaking world, possibly the two signature deaths in 2013 were Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela (although of course I recognise Madiba’s first language was Xhosa). In epitomising extremes of political emotions and positions, their deaths said something very profound about an Anglophone political and cultural world-view. Thatcher’s celebration (on both sides of the spectrum) of a deliberately dissonant, divisive, ‘the witch is dead’ posture contrasts dramatically with the heroic, reconciliatory, seemingly good-humoured resilience of Mandela.

One of the reasons I love Hispanic (and Lusophone) culture is that, in ‘greatness’, it appears to me to project a more human AND magical world view than their Anglophone counterparts. I shall therefore predict, that, although we are only at the end of April, two of the signature deaths of 2014 for the Spanish-speaking world will be Adolfo Suarez who died in March, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez who passed away earlier this month.

This blog has written before about the influence of ‘Gabo’ and magic realism on the formative years of my career. The ability to describe and juxtapose the magical in everyday reality is the watermark of Gabo’s greatest works – but did not impede him being a highly professional, innovative, and astute journalist and political activist. Indeed his first notoriety was in exposing the cover up in an official account of a Columbian navy shipwreck through direct interviews with a surviving sailor. During his career a deep suspicion of US imperialism, opposition to right wing Latin American dictatorship and caudillismo, his friendship with Cuba and with progressive forces more widely, provide an understated, underlying narrative to much of his work.

I have been struck throughout my career at the multiple meanings of reality, and how some of them may be ‘magical’ in character – both benevolent and choleric. Take the academies and free schools programmes of Gove. Generally derided as authoritarian, educationally and financially incompetent, and ‘unashamedly elitist’, there have been occasional examples of ‘magical’ capture of this divisive, policy by genuinely progressive libertarian and passionate educationalists and parents. Similarly, closer to my professional area, it is almost the norm to look for ‘real meaning’ far outside the formal language of ministers, and the bureaucratic congestion of the process. So, ‘community’ or ‘whole place’ budgets are only tangentially focuses on either communities, whole places, or even budgets – but that doesn’t mean you can’t do some very creative, innovative things along the way.

Turning momentary magic into more sustained progress is frustrated by the endless repetitions of choleric themes by those in power. Structural reforms – e.g. NHS, national/regional/local development agencies and instruments in growth and regeneration; changes of language – e.g. Total Place to community budgets to whole place budgets; cycles of ‘pilot’ projects usurped by policy before they are evaluated; the ministerial necessity to be seen to be doing something/anything; become the barriers to radical transformation.

Yet, ‘revolution’ can come from the most unlikely places. And this is where the second signature obituary comes in – that of Adolfo Suarez.

Suarez, who was appointed as Spain’s then-youngest Prime Minister in 1976, eight months after the death of the dictator, had been the General Secretary of Franco’s ‘Movimiento Nacional’. He was generally perceived of as a rather colourless political functionary with modest talent. Yet within a year he had dismantled much of the Francoist system, legalised Spain’s left wing political parties and the trade unions, won a referendum and a general election. He is undoubtedly as much an architect of Spain’s democracy as King Juan Carlos and Felipe Gonzalez, the first Socialist Prime Minister.

I am far from an expert on Suarez, but I did read ‘Anatomy of a Moment’ by Javier Cercas. In Marquezian terms, this would have been called ‘Chronicle of a Coup foretold’. It describes Suarez’s behaviour and role in defeating the Tejero Coup of 1981 which tried to reimpose a military junta on Spain.

Lieutenant Colonel Antonio-Tejero and a small band of (almost ‘comic book’, toy soldier) troops stormed the Spanish Cortes (parliament) during the vote on installing a successor Prime Minister to Suarez. Recorded live on TV and radio, they held the parliamentarians hostage. Bullets were flying. Only three deputies didn’t duck for cover – Suarez; Carrillo, Leader of the Communists; and General Mellado – Minister of Defence.

Cercas’s book considers how these three men, representing three very different traditions of Spain, ended up collectively asserting the ‘new Spain’ against Tejero and his allies. He also describes how the ‘myth’ of Spanish resistance to the coup is inaccurate and how close it came to succeeding.

‘Anatomy of a moment’ is far from perfect as a novel, but is an exquisite illustration of how interpreting, and even acting in, events through a ‘magic-realism’ lens (alongside more prosaic analysis) can be immensely powerful. It also makes Suarez, Carrillo and Mellado brave and sympathetic characters – even though one of them was on the ‘wrong side’ in the Spanish Civil War and Suarez’s career was founded on being a Franco apparatchik.

I believe the endless repetition of English politics interpreted through the good/evil, right/wrong, left/right lens needs a more prominent place for a ‘magic realism’ that celebrates the creative and surreal; that can allow a ‘Suarez’ or a ‘Mellado’ to become ‘great’, heroic, and ‘to do the right thing at the right time’ alongside the ‘Carrillo’ or indeed the ‘Mandela’.

I suspect this requires an England that is genuinely European and embraces a cosmopolitan internationalism in the way Gabo, a Columbian, was most proudly Latin American in a global domain.

More immediately, we need some magic-realism to defeat the Little Englander forces poised to win the May EU and local elections…

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