PRIMARY SOURCES: a treasure for the historical novelist

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It really came home to me when I was writing my historical novel Spanish Lavender—set in Málaga during the Spanish Civil War—the importance of primary sources, eye-witness accounts. There were plenty of second-hand accounts: historical perspectives on the events, hundreds of books written about the Civil War and plenty of secondary sources from the relatives of those who took part. But to bring a novel to life, you really need to know what it was like to be there, living in a city where it was hard to know who was friend and who was foe. So I was very fortunate to come across two books written by people who were actually in the city in February 1937. One was written by Gamel Woolsey, the American wife of Gerald Brenan.

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She and her husband were living in a big house in Churriana when the war broke out. They soon found that the local people felt safer in their house than in their own homes—partly because of the Union Jack that they flew from a flag pole–and their home became a refuge for their frightened neighbours. The British government began to evacuate all the ex-pats from the area but the Brenans were reluctant to leave. They wanted to see with their own eyes what was happening in Málaga, so they walked into the city and the devastation they came across she recorded in her diary and then transferred to her book, Málaga Burning.
​For me this was a first-hand description of the city as it was bombed and shelled with mortars, and burned and ransacked by looters. She named the shops that were closed and boarded up, the hotels and bars that no longer had anything to offer but black coffee. She pointed out that some people were using the chaos to settle grudges and some seemed to have gone quite mad. Her pen portraits of the other ex-pats were also very enlightening and while she obviously had a great deal of sympathy for the Spanish, it wasn’t shared by everyone.

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The other book I used was even richer in detail and provided an enormous amount of information, ranging from the weather at the time to the state of the city’s defences. It was called Spanish Testament and was written and published by Arthur Koestler in 1937. Koestler was a war correspondent who had come to Spain to report on the civil war. He made his way south, through Republican held territory, towards Málaga but when he reached Motril he found that the bridge was down and the roads were flooded. It was impassable. He reported that there was a general state of apathy on the part of the Republican forces, combined with a supreme optimism that they would win the war. They had no ammunition, hardly any trained men and few arms. The Republican army was made up of women, men of all ages and abilities and was faced by a highly trained, well armed Nationalist army. The Republicans also lacked leadership. He described how the leader of the Republicans told him that he’d inspected the exposed front: the coast road Málaga-Marbella-Gibraltar and he found no trenches, no fortified positions, nothing but 2 militiamen sitting smoking cigarettes a mile away from the enemy positions. He asked them where their troops were and received the reply that they were somewhere in the barracks. They told him that if the rebels were to attack they would see them and have plenty of time to warn their men. So why should they sit out in the rain, they asked.
Anecdotes such as this were not something I could have made up. You needed to be there at the time to see what it was like.
Koestler also gave a first-hand account of walking along the road to Álmeria while the fleeing refugees were bombarded by the gunboats. He refers to it as ‘sheer target practice’ and describes how he and his companion threw themselves on the ground, trying to make themselves ‘as flat as flounders’.

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Another primary source I came across was from the diary of Norman Bethune. He was a Canadian doctor who invented the mobile blood transfusion unit designed to take blood donated by civilians to the injured soldiers on the battle field. He was strongly anti-fascist and when Spanish Civil War broke out he offered his services to the Republicans. He arrived in Álmeria on 10th February 1937 with a truckload of processed blood from Barcelona with the intention of going to Málaga. However before he could reach the city he met the exodus of refugees fleeing from the city and learned that Málaga had fallen. He took as many as he could and returned to Álmeria where he removed the blood transfusion unit from the ambulance and used it instead to ferry people to safety. His diary recorded how hard it was to decide which of the refugees they should take. ‘Our car was besieged by a mob of frantic mothers and fathers who with tired outstretched arms held up to us their children, their eyes and faces swollen and congested by four days of sun and dust.’ In the end they finished by transporting families with the largest number of young children and the solitary children of which there were hundreds without parents. For the next three days and nights they transported between thirty and forty people on each trip back to Álmeria.

For a historical novel to ring true, the research has to be sound and I was very lucky to find these particular sources, and others, which were able to transport me back into those dreadful few weeks of the Battle of ​Málaga in 1937, because history is not just about the battles that are won or lost but about the people who become onlookers, participants and casualties of war.

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Joan Fallon is a writer and novelist living in Spain.

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