Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside (published by Cookwood Press) is a collection of essays written by British author and journalist Matthew Tree. Tree has become well-known in Catalunya for his prolific output in Catalan, with novels, essays and articles published in the language, while his belief in Catalan independence has made him a regular commentator on local radio and television programmes. What follows is an extract from the book, taken from the first chapter.
Back in the Sixties—Franco’s time, when use of the Catalan language was still largely illegal outside the privacy of home—there was an incident on the Spanish Cadena SER radio station that’s still remembered in Catalonia today. The best-known voice of the period, a presenter called Bobby Deglané—who usually came on to his guests, according to author Quim Monzó, like a “knight in shining syrup”—invited a Catalan comedienne, Mary Santpere, also well-known throughout Spain, onto his weekend show. Straight out, he came out with: “Mary, is it true that you Catalans, rather than talk, simply bark, just like dogs?” To which Santpere, after a moment of being taken aback, replied, “I wouldn’t say that, but in Catalonia, as it happens, Bobby is a very typical dog’s name.”
Those of us who came to live in post-Franco Catalonia found and still find it inexplicable that in the rest of Spain anti-Catalan jibes of thebobbydeglanesque type, or worse, are a lot more common than anyone might reasonably expect after 30 years of democracy. The stories come trickling in year after democratic year from over the Catalan border, stories of Catalans going out into monolingual Spain, being identified as such, and then being looked at askance, or short-changed, or insulted on the street, and so on and so forth. For example, one television cameraman I knew told me how in 2004 he and his crew had sat down in a restaurant in Burgos only to be told by the manager, and I quote: “Si queréis hablar en catalán, mejor lo hacéis en otro sitio.” My favourite story of this type, however, is the one told on public radio a couple of years ago, by the Catalan-language writer Empar Moliner.
No sooner was she speeding out of Madrid airport in a taxi to the city centre, than her mobile rang. A friend from Barcelona. She answered. Started chatting. In Catalan. Within seconds, the driver had turned to remonstrate: “Here in Spain, we speak Spanish!” Moliner leaned forward and lied: “Hey, I’m speaking Italian, eh?, not Catalan.” The reply: “Oh, that’s OK then. No pasa nada.”
Personally, I find it incomprehensible that the Catalans who’ve had such experiences never seem to be especially affected by them. If someone were to tell me to stop speaking English to another English speaker, in any context whatsoever, I would get very cross.
It’s true that all these anecdotes, plentiful though they may be, are just that: anecdotes, mere episodes, isolated cases of regional sparring of a kind in many places around the world. Perhaps, it did on occasion occur to me, the Catalans were right, even, to treat such incidents as teacup-sized storms.
Then, in the year 2006—when the Catalan parliament was putting together the third Statute of Catalan Autonomy—I came across two incidents which seemed to me to be indicative of a great deal more than mere interregional bitching. On both occasions I was on the breakfast show of the private Catalan-language radio station RAC 1. Musician Miqui Puig and I had what must have been one of the easiest paid jobs in the Western Hemisphere: for half an hour all we had to do was talk about things we’d liked and disliked over the past week. Occasionally, if the pressure of this got too much for us, the presenter would open the lines and let the hoi-polloi mention a few likes and dislikes of their own. One Friday, we got a call from a Barcelona taxi driver; the previous weekend he had upgraded his taxi to a Mercedes, and decided to celebrate by going for a long spin to the capital of Aragon, Saragossa, where he could show off this brand new tool of his trade—freshly painted, of course, in the instantly recognisable black and yellow of all Barcelonan cabs—to some Aragonese friends of his.
No sooner had he stopped at the first set of Saragossan traffic lights than the drivers to right and left of him began to wind down their windows and treat him to a mixture of forthright verbal abuse and earnest recommendations to leave town which were clearly provoked by the Catalan nature of his car. He made it to his friends’ place, only for them to ask him please not to leave his taxi parked in the street, where they could not guarantee it remaining in one piece for long. So he drove it to a car park, on entering which he was accosted by a group of angry young men who threatened to do his windows in, no matter where he parked. At this point he gave up, and, abandoning Saragossa, headed post-haste for the safety of the Catalan border.
The following Friday, in the same radio studio, we got another similar call, this time from a town near Barcelona—Mataró, if I remember rightly—from the mother of a sixteen year old girl who had just been on a school trip to Madrid to see the Prado gallery. When this girl had been chatting to her school friends in Catalan on the Madrid metro, an elderly man sitting opposite had told her to speak in Spanish. She refused, saying she would speak Spanish to him but not to her friends. The old gent’s reply was to the effect that if he were a younger man he would, and I quote, “Smash her face in.”
Upon which a younger man who happened to have followed all this stood up and offered to do just that. The mother of this girl went on to tell us how she and the mothers of all the other girls going on the trip had given their daughters highly specific instructions before leaving for Madrid: they were not to wear any Catalan or Barcelona Football Club insignia, and if asked about what they thought about any political issue related to Catalonia, were to keep mum or change the subject or make themselves scarce. All these mothers considered these precautions absolutely necessary.
Now, it might look as if, once again, we’re simply piling isolated anecdote upon isolated anecdote and trying to draw some overall conclusion from them. But in these cases, I think it’s the small print that counts, so to speak, in the sense that what makes these two stories significant is that both the Aragonese friends of the Barcelona taxi driver and the mothers of the teenagers off to their school trip took for granted that there was—in Saragossa and Madrid respectively—a general (not an anecdotal or residual) antipathy towards Catalan people that might turn ugly, possibly with violent consequences. That struck me as being indicative of a more widespread phenomenon that was both unpleasant and—given certain circumstances—potentially explosive.
As it happened, when reading about anti-Catalan prejudice in Spain later on, I came across this observation by the Spanish historian José Antonio Maravall: “to speak of something Catalan or to speak in Catalan, in a café in Madrid or any other major Spanish city, exposes one automatically to a hostile reaction.” He was writing not about Spain in 2006, but about Spain in 1931. What was happening in 1931? The Catalans were negotiating their first Statute of Autonomy with central government. What were they doing in 2006, when the taxi-driver and the teenage girl’s mother phone in their stories of Catalan-baiting? As mentioned, they were negotiating their third Statute of Autonomy. So, I thought, is this the key to it all? Is it just the Catalan Statues of Autonomy that foment anti-Catalan prejudice in Spain at given moments in time? Or did it exist before? Is it manifested even when there is no Statute of Autonomy on the horizon?
Extract from Barcelona, Catalonia: A View from the Inside by Matthew Tree, published in e-book format by Cookwood Press (with a print version soon to be made available).
We have three copies of the e-book to give away. To win one, tell us the answer to this question: what was the name of the television show that Matthew Tree presented on Catalan TV, where he travelled around the region meeting people? Send your entry to email@example.com, to arrive no later than May 15th, 2011