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Photo provided by Tusquets Editors
Archie and Nancy Johnstone with Walter Leonard
Archie and Nancy Johnstone with Walter Leonard, who worked at their hotel
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Image provided by Tusquets Editors
Un Hotel a la Costa
Cover of translated version of Nancy's two books
Just before dusk on a late July day in 1936, a British Royal Navy destroyer appeared opposite the bay facing the little town of Tossa de Mar on the Costa Brava. The Spanish Civil War was a few days old and as the destroyer—charged with taking off British nationals and other foreigners who wanted to flee the war—edged her way inshore, her crew was unsure how they would be received. Two ship’s boats carefully approached the beach where most of Tossa’s bemused population had gathered to watch. After dark, the destroyer’s powerful searchlight swept the beach and town as most of the foreign residents gathered up belongings and went aboard. However, one British couple watched the spectacle with a combination of mirth, disgust and contempt. They were not about to abandon the Republic and Catalunya. Tossa was then so isolated that the war hardly touched it, and they were determined to stay.
Nancy and Archie Johnstone had “discovered Tossa by accident” in 1934, while looking for a holiday spot. Some years later, in her first book about their Tossa experiences, Nancy wrote that Archie, with “his usual method of picking a place to holiday in, [had] chosen the Costa Brava because he knew of no one who had ever been there.” Tossa de Mar was then a town of 1,400, unspoilt by tourism and still dependant on fishing and agriculture. But in many ways, it was unlike other coastal towns. At the time of the First World War, a number of artists—from both sides of the conflict—had settled in Barcelona and holidayed in Tossa de Mar, attracted by its tranquility and the stark beauty of the rocky coast overlooking turquoise seas. During the Twenties and early Thirties, Tossa acquired a reputation in artistic circles as far away as Paris and Berlin, as a quiet, out-of-the way village but still relatively accessible. A second wave of artists arrived after 1933, consisting mostly of Germans who had left their homeland after the Nazis gained power. The list of artists who passed through Tossa is reflected in the municipal museum’s current collection that includes works by Marc Chagall, André Masson, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Olga Sacharoff, amongst others.
Soon after the Johnstones discovered Tossa, they took a leap of faith and decided to build a small hotel in the town. They would cater mostly to British tourists looking for an inexpensive holiday in a somewhat exotic locale. Perhaps they were tired of living in London and, like other Britons in recent times, calculated that they could live comfortably in Spain on modest means. Archie was a journalist with the News Chronicle and he was keen to escape the hurly-burly of Fleet Street. He was also a veteran of the First World War and it’s possible that this contributed to his ennui with life in England. Nancy was more than willing to oblige her husband. She seems to have been a whirlwind of energy, dashing ahead with their plans as Archie was swept along in her wake. A timely but modest inheritance set them on their way.
The Johnstones engaged one of the German refugees, an architect, to design and supervise the construction of their hotel on a bit of land on a hill overlooking the Platja Gran and across the bay from Tossa’s old town. Nancy insisted that the hotel be built as high up as possible on the hill. The result was that Casa Johnstone had magnificent views of the Mediterranean and the old town, although guests would complain of the uphill slog to get there.
Casa Johnstone opened its doors in 1935 and was soon a success. To fill the hotel, the Johnstones worked their connections in London, especially amongst their Fleet Street friends, and soon a parade of Britons made its way to Tossa de Mar.
The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War the following year did not stop the Johnstones, and their hotel continued to function. A number of visitors including Fleet Street luminaries and the odd British secret service agent came through their doors during these years. From time to time, Archie went off to the front to do some reporting for the News Chronicle. The couple were committed to the cause of Republican Spain and were embarrassed and frustrated by Britain’s abandonment of a democratically elected government. They also understood Catalunya as few foreigners did, even learning the language.
Nancy wrote two books about their time in Tossa. The first, Hotel in Spain (1937), dealt with their decision to quit London, the building of the hotel and the first months of the Civil War. In the second, Hotel in Flight (1939), Nancy wrote about their determination to keep Casa Johnstone going despite the war.
Toward the end of 1938, as the war became more desperate for Catalunya, Nancy and Archie turned their hotel into a children’s refuge, housing about 50 children escaping the war from all parts of Spain. Eventually the war touched even Tossa de Mar, and Nancy and Archie fled with their charges to France. There the children were incarcerated in refugee camps while the Johnstones arranged for their welfare. Happily, all of the children were later able to return to their respective families across Spain.
Nancy’s books have long been out of print and most historians of the Civil War are unfamiliar with them. Even the tourist office in Tossa was unaware of the books until Miquel Berga, a professor at Barcelona’s Universitat Pompeu Fabra, recently translated them into Catalan. The translations, published in a single volume entitled Un Hotel a la Costa (2011), aroused much interest in the Catalan press. “Nancy’s books are valuable documents,” Berga told Metropolitan, “not only because of their depiction of everyday life in a small Catalan town—the Tossa de Mar of those days no longer exists—but also as a contrasting account of the war by foreigners who came for reasons other than to fight.” While George Orwell wrote a somewhat unkind review of Nancy’s second book, calling it “chirpily facetious”, Berga believes that “Nancy’s first book has a level of humour in the style of Mayle’s A Year in Provence but in the second book that changes to irony and then sarcasm.” That change in tone reflects the seriousness of the changed circumstances.
The Johnstones felt so strongly about the British government’s betrayal of the Spanish Republic that instead of returning to Britain after the Civil War, they went to Mexico where many Republican exiles had fled; they were able to make at least one trip back to Tossa after the Second World War.
The Johnstones eventually separated. Nancy stayed in Mexico and Central America and remarried. She wrote two other books, including a novel. In 1950, Nancy was in a serious automobile accident in Guatemala and, although she survived, she later disappears from public records and nothing is currently known about the rest of her life. After the Second World War, Archie returned to England and then went to Moscow, where he edited a publication of the British embassy. Later, he joined the ranks of British defectors in the Russian capital, what British journalist John Miller described in his 2010 memoirs as the “grey men”. Archie, Miller wrote, “chose freedom, Soviet-style, and tore up his British passport.” He also remarried, with a Russian woman. There is a hint that in his old age Archie missed those exciting days with Nancy in Spain: shortly before he died in Moscow in 1978, Archie asked Guardian correspondent David Mitchell, who had recently visited Tossa, how the trees that he and Nancy had planted around Casa Johnstone were doing.
Casa Johnstone still stands but is now part of the large Hotel Don Juan complex and dwarfed by the buildings around it. It retains views of the sea and old town but now also overlooks the roofs of the hotels below it. To the relief of guests, escalators have been installed that alleviate the walk up the hill. But, if one visits Casa Johnstone there is nothing to indicate that the building was the dream of a remarkable British couple, with not even a plaque to recall the memory of Nancy and Archie.