A couple of years ago, on our advanced course in Spain, my Dark Angels partner John Simmons woke up one morning with a line in his head. It stayed with him and today, in summer 2017, it’s the opening sentence of his recently published second novel.
In Spanish Crossings, John Simmons has written a classic story of love, loss and the emotional and moral dilemmas we face in times of conflict, while also highlighting a little-known aspect of British involvement in the Spanish Civil War.
We first meet the central character, Lorna Starling, in London in 1937. A young pacifist, she has recently become caught up in the anti-fascist movement supporting the Spanish republican cause. Following a brief love affair with a fellow activist who then leaves for the front line in Spain, she seeks distraction in the work of the Basque Children’s Committee. This body has organised the evacuation to Britain of four thousand Basque children following the bombing of Guernica. They are now being housed in temporary camps on the south coast of England.
Lorna ends up taking one of the young Spaniards, a teenage boy named Pepe, under her wing. Later, after the camps have been disbanded and the children dispersed to families and organsiations throughout the country, she helps him to find work as a farm labourer. Their relationship develops as Pepe matures into adulthood and the story moves ahead to London in 1943 and the Blitz.
Pepe is still living in England, though below the official radar since the public mood has changed and there are now calls for the evacuees to be repatriated; but he hankers increasingly for contact with his parents, whom he has not seen for several years, and whose safety he fears for under the victorious Franco’s nationalist regime. The story reaches a dramatic conclusion in 1947, when Lorna and Pepe travel to Hendaye, on the French-Spanish border, for a reunion with Pepe’s parents.
In Lorna, John Simmons has created a richly drawn character who deals pragmatically and stoically with the personal difficulties visited upon her by the two conflicts. Many of the wider issues of the time, social, political and moral come to collide in her and we are drawn deeply into her interior world as she struggles to make sense of her life, her feelings and the turbulent world around her. In Pepe, meanwhile, a rite of passage is played out as he moves into adulthood, his deep desires begin to make themselves known, and his hot southern impetuosity is met with Lorna’s cool northern reason.
John Simmons has a sharp eye for period detail but a light touch in portraying it. By allowing us to experience the devastation of the Blitz, for example, through the narrow perspective of Lorna’s eyes, he presents a vivid and intimate vision of wartime London. And in one of the book’s most powerful passages, he employs the device of an eyewitness account to describe the horror of the bombing of Guernica, the first ever aerial bombardment of a civilian population.
Although, with that one exception, we only glimpse Spain from across the French border at the end of the book, its presence is felt throughout in Pepe’s story, his gnawing anxiety about his parents and his homesick yearning, and in Lorna’s growing disquiet about the dangers that await there.
While it must be almost impossible to write about the Spanish Civil War without evoking George Orwell or Laurie Lee, in Spanish Crossings it’s a pleasure to detect echoes of both in the elegant simplicity of John Simmons’ writing.
This is a fine novel which asks us to reflect on the way we look at relationships, responsibilities and conflict. Its quiet passion comes from the author’s deep personal connection with the events he describes: his own parents fostered one of the Basque children.
You can order Spanish Crossings here: https://urbanepublications.com/books/spanish-crossings/