An Exhibit of the Distinguished Writers Who Fled Franco

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Though the British government maintained a stance of non-intervention during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, the UK did welcome Republican refugees from the fighting. They fled as Franco's forces, aided by Hitler and Mussolini's bombers, gradually tightened their grip on the peninsula. The most famous are the 3,826 Basque children – los niños vascos – who arrived in Southampton just a month after the bombing of Guernica and were cared for by British families.

Now The Waiting Room – a two-month-long programme of free exhibitions and events at the Cervantes Institute in London – draws our attention to the influx of distinguished Spanish writers into the UK from 1936 onwards. They include historian Salvador de Madariaga, journalist Manuel Chaves Nogales, novelist and autobiographer Arturo Barea, poet Luis Cernuda and composer Roberto Gerhard.

This is a glittering line-up by any standards, but the arrival of this constellation of talent has rarely been examined from a British point of view. Beyond that, the programme encourages reflection on the multiple meanings of exile for writers: how separation from homeland can bring not just loss but a broadening and deepening of identity.

The fallout of wars, especially civil wars, disastrous as they are, can include beneficial cultural cross-fertilisation. This was certainly the case with the two writers featured in the permanent exhibition of photographs, books and manuscripts at the centre of The Waiting Room, Chaves Nogales and Barea.

Their reputation has suffered for decades because they refused to take up extreme positions in the 20th century's most complex clash of ideologies. Neither was a romantic revolutionary in the popular novelistic or cinematic mode.

Chaves Nogales – the Spanish Orwell – was an anti-fascist and anti-revolutionary who reported with prescient insight from Soviet Russia and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s ("red murderers, white murderers: murderers the lot of them!" was his verdict on the former) as well as writing on subjects as diverse as bullfighting and the fate of France.

Both he and Barea, author of Spain's greatest 20th-century autobiography, The Forging of a Rebel, got work at the BBC. Barea, another moderate Republican who worked as a government press officer, had already become known as An Unknown Voice of Madrid, broadcasting nightly from the bombarded city. Recruited by the BBC World Service's Latin American section, Barea gave more than 800 15-minute broadcasts before his death in 1957, including some of the most eloquent ever carried on the Corporation's airwaves. His brief of providing a positive view of British culture seems to have caused little strain: he was entranced by the peaceable comedy of English village life from the moment he arrived.

In London Chaves Nogales became director of the Atlantic Press Agency; he also worked for the BBC World Service and wrote a column for the Evening Standard. Less fortunate, and less enamoured of Britain, than Barea, separated from his family in Spain, he died of cancer in 1944 and is buried in an unmarked grave in west London.

Perhaps the most unfortunate, but also for me the greatest of all the exiled Spanish writers in London, was the poet Luis Cernuda. Cernuda's misfortune was as much internal as external: his refined, prickly and melancholic temperament made him an outsider wherever he went. By his own admission, he was not easy to get on with. Influential friends secured him work lecturing first at Oxford and Cambridge, then at Glasgow University. A deeply sensuous Andalusian, he found the cold, the grey and the ugliness almost unbearable. At the same time he admired many aspects of wartime Britain, comparing it to "the ark in which Noah survived the flood".

But despite hating Glasgow, Cernuda wrote his two finest collections of poetry, Las Nubes and Como Quien Espera el Alba, by the banks of the Clyde. They include some of the profoundest verse of the 20th century. Removed from the Mediterranean light and warmth he loved, Cernuda found a chastened style, simultaneously pared-down and heightened, in which he could express more universally his theme of the tragedy and glory of the solitary human being, "naked and resplendent son of divine thought".

When and where

The Waiting Room exhibition is at the Instituto Cervantes in London until 30 June

An Exhibit of the Distinguished Writers Who Fled Franco | Culture