We recently celebrated Dia de Andalucia in the region of southern Spain where I live. To mark the occasion, our language teacher invited us to a traditional breakfast made by some local women at the adult-education centre. We ate toast spread with grated tomato, garlic and olive oil and drank coffee from flasks. A halting conversation took place in which we were asked why we had come to live here. We mumbled the usual things about the climate and the culture, and how we wanted to try a simpler life, growing our own food and making our own entertainment. "Look at these people," Guadalupe exclaimed. "They have come to live in Spain. And without television!"
How they marvelled. For any self-respecting villager in Andalucia, a TV is a status symbol. Go round to their houses and they are just as likely to be eating Pop Tarts as grated tomatoes, and the television is always centre-stage. But we don't want to know about that. Like Jason Webster, we British settlers want to experience what we think of as the real Spain. We want to see people dance flamenco, fight bulls in the plaza, and cook paellas in the olive groves.
Miraculously, these customs do survive and Webster has set out to record them in his books – Sacred Sierra is his third – before they disappear. He tells us how he came to Valencia in the heady days of the early 1990s, when the post-Franco party was still in full swing. He recounts how he set up home with a native flamenco dancer in the city and how – now in his late thirties – he began to look for a country house in which they could reconnect with the earth and learn something about the history and traditions of the land they love.
What follows is the story of the remote house they buy in the province of Castellon and how, in the process of rebuilding it, they find everything they dreamed of and more. The book is arranged chronologically to follow their first year, every chapter marking a month and the seasonal changes that take place. So we hear about the almond harvest and the olive picking, the visit to the oil mill and the secrets of truffle cultivation.
Webster prefaces each chapter with a short folktale, many of them passed to him by a hermit called Faustino. The story is populated by a cast of characters it would be hard to invent: El Clossa (the crutch), a man who hops around as the local guide; Arcadio, an ancient neighbour whose farming wisdom is worth its weight in gold; and finally Concha, a lesbian who runs a commune in the next valley. Somehow it comes as no surprise to find "Terry, Kevin and Dangerous Dave" relegated to the acknowledgements.
Webster's style is engaging and elegiac, although he is prone to the occasional laddism (prickly gorse bushes are "bastards", snails "crap out their toxins" and, after describing a quest for manure, he concludes "What a man won't do for good-quality shite"). He has obviously studied the genre and Sacred Sierra fits comfortably into the lineage in which Gerald Brenan's South from Granada is the gold standard and Chris Stewart's Driving over Lemons is the number one bestseller.
Much as I enjoyed reading about Webster's experiences, there is something about this book that niggles me. It's to do with our fetishisation of Mediterranean culture – clearly I'm guilty of it too – and the idea that somehow the only authentic Spanish life is the one that has been lived on the land for hundreds of years, with all its rituals and traditions unchanged. As Webster puts it: "The strangeness of Spain had always attracted me. I'd often felt it had something of a fairytale air about it, as though by living here you came as close as it was possible actually to stepping inside a magical world of spirits and ghosts, of evil witches and wise old kings."
It's a romantic image, but the real Spain is gritty and modern too. The nation is currently gripped by the story of a teenage girl murdered by her ex-boyfriend. There is daily talk about "la crisis" and the dire economic situation. Sacred Sierra is a highly selective view of Iberian life. So take care to add something like JG Ballard's Cocaine Nights and Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother for a more rounded picture of Spain, flawed but alive.Reuse content