Andalusian home of British writer Gerald Brenan takes on new life as a cultural centre

The building was once a hub for celebrities, shepherds and beatniks
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The Independent Culture

After years as a bricked-up shell of a building on the outskirts of the Andalusian village of Churriana, the former home of one of Britain's foremost Hispanists – Gerald Brenan – has now taken on a new life as a cultural centre.

Brenan lived in a massive villa-cum-farmhouse in Churriana, just a few kilometres away from Malaga airport, for several periods between 1934 and 1969. During that time, he wrote two of his best-known historical and travel classics, The Spanish Labyrinth and South From Granada.

Although he was a much-loved celebrity in Spain by the time of his death in 1987, the house in Churriana fell into disuse and was boarded up. But after a lengthy process of restoration, its heavy wooden front door has finally reopened – as a cultural centre that aims to honour Brenan's memory by promoting his own fearlessly eclectic branch of Hispanism.

"Brenan was continually shifting between the world of high-class culture and the more down-to-earth variety," says Carlos Pranger, the son of Linda Nicholson-Price, Brenan's last secretary, whose family lived with the writer during the final part of his life.

"You could wander in here and he'd be having lunch with [Sir] Laurence Olivier before going off and visiting the beatniks and hippies in [nearby] Torremolinos. He was open to everybody." House guests ranged from writers and poets to local bullfighters and shepherds, and Brenan's refusal to recognise social barriers made him very popular with the villagers, too, who nicknamed him Don Gerardo.

But while Brenan's ability to relate with very different sectors of Spanish society helped him deepen his knowledge of the country and enrich his writing, it sometimes put him in grave personal danger – such as during the Spanish Civil War. "Brenan was a supporter of the Spanish Republic, but he was friends with everybody, including one local leader of the Falange [the Spanish Fascist party fighting the Republic], and he hid him here," recounts Pranger. Despite covering the house with an immense Union Jack to put off unwelcome enquiries, Brenan had to see off two Republican search parties, which, at that point, were sometimes executing fugitives on the spot.

As bombardments of nearby Malaga continued, Brenan and his wife, the author Gamel Woolsey, left their home, with Brenan working briefly as a war correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. However, he resigned following the paper's front-page publication of an article with his byline alleging – inaccurately – that General Franco faced a rebellion in Morocco.

By 1953, the couple had returned to Churriana, and a Spain still devastated by the effects of the war. The village had one car, many local children were dressed in rags, and, as Pranger writes in his blog ( "This austerity was reflected in Gerald Brenan's house… tepid food, dishes scrubbed clean in cold water, cheap wine poured into smarter bottles, no fireplaces, no bathroom or any running water in the house." But Brenan himself, along with the exterior cobbled courtyard with orange trees and a fountain, nonetheless gave Churriana a real appeal. Thus, over the next 15 years, a stream of well-known visitors, ranging from Orson Welles and Vivien Leigh to Ernest Hemingway, Bertrand Russell and E E Cummings, rubbed shoulders and dined alongside local villagers, craftsmen, musicians and writers – Brenan's way of uniting two worlds that the newly opened centre is keen to continue.

"We want not just to study the mixture of cultures, but also types of culture – which is very much what Gerald Brenan did," says Grijalba, the novelist and journalist responsible for the centre. "Malaga and the region around it is very cosmopolitan and has a strong international feel, so I want the centre to help unite its community of foreigners with the local people of Churriana."

One of Grijalba's first projects will therefore be to bring the American composer Perla Batalla, formerly a backup singer for Leonard Cohen, to Churriana to create and perform music that fuses local Malaga song forms with some of Brenan's very prolific writings, including more than 25 books.

Even in the last years of his life, Brenan never lost either his didactic spirit or his creative urges – his last book, Thoughts in a Dry Season, was published in 1978, when he was 84.

Objects from Brenan's life, such as his typewriter, part of his private book collection or the postcards he sent his Spanish neighbours while travelling, are all on view on the centre's ground floor. Meanwhile, in Brenan's study upstairs, from where the author and his wife watched the city they loved go up in flames in the Civil War, the hum of planes landing at the nearby airport, many bearing British tourists, drifts in through the open window. For one Briton who stayed for good, though, a more permanent link with the Spain he loved has now been established.