Chris Packham chose Grace Petrie’s song “They shall not pass” as one of his selection for BBC Radio 6. The song, evocative of the anti-Fascist cry of ¡No Pasarán! during the Spanish Civil War recalled tales told by Laurie Lee in his memoir As I walked out one midsummer morning.
Lee’s description of going to pre-Civil War Spain with no luggage other than a knapsack and a violin, and with no more than a handful of coins to spend, seemed a life beyond imagination of someone reading it forty years later, deep in the rural West Country. Had I ever had the courage to go alone to a foreign land, had I ever had the courage to try to live on my wits alone, I would have fled home to England at the first sign of danger, Laurie Lee stayed in Spain and participated in the conflict.
Memories of the Spanish Civil War were still recent in my student days: the young men who had gone off in their twenties to join the fight against Franco were still only in their sixties. The London School of Economics was probably not typical of English colleges, and was certainly a far remove from the village in which I had grown up. It was a place where reprints of the posters from the 1930s were still pinned to the walls of student rooms. Spain seemed a place of flamboyance, of colour and vibrancy. In the pages of Laurie Lee, it became a place where anything seemed possible, even for a youth no older than the one struggling with undergraduate essays. Sunshine and red wine are perhaps more conducive to rallying to a cause than grey dampness and flat beer.
It was forty years after the Spanish Civil War, and those sympathetic to the losing, Republican side could still pin up posters with pride. Even in theological training in Dublin of the 1980s, the vision of the war in Spain as being a place of reckless heroism continued. A classmate, (who was to be murdered in his Rectory in 1990), would tell stories of his uncle, Robert Hilliard, a Church of Ireland cleric who had died in Spain, fighting against the Fascists.
There is a sadness in the fact that forty years after my student days, the cry, “they shall not pass” remains relevant, that the ideologies of division and hatred have revived, that the successors of those who chased my grandfather through the streets in London in the 1930s are still peddling their lies.
They shall not pass.