Voices of the Old Sea, By Norman Lewis

A great travel writer painted wild Spain just before tourism
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The Independent Culture

Though Norman Lewis, who died 10 years ago at 95, is customarily classified as a travel writer, he was also a novelist, historian and campaigning journalist. His most memorable and enjoyable works are his memoirs about childhood (Jackdaw Cake), wartime experiences (Naples 44) and this evocation of a Spanish fishing village in the aftermath of the civil war.

His account of Farol on the Costa Brava is a quirky masterpiece. Lewis explains, "I looked for the familiar in England but found change… The Spain I returned to was still invested with its ancient virtues and ancient defects." In a limpid prose that stands alongside Waugh and Orwell, Lewis evokes a strange little society where the fishermen described their daily adventures in improvised poetry ("There in the clarity of the water, alone, alone, I saw many lively ghosts") while sipping acidic wine in a ghastly bar dominated by a mermaid, actually a mummified dugong.

The fishermen were directed in their annual tuna harvest by a visiting magician, who claimed to smell the fish. Farol was ridden with superstition and overrun with cats. Following the pattern adopted by isolated communities throughout the world, the village loathed its inland neighbour Sort, equally cluttered with dogs whose activities were curtailed by being attached to big logs.

Sustained by the strange offerings of his housekeeper ("Take your courage in both hands and pitch in"), Lewis was slowly accepted by Farol and allowed to provide assistance in fishing. He also helped the utterly innumerate populace by totting up bills.

Given its coastal situation, Farol could not keep the 20th century at bay forever. A black-market speculator erected a hotel and cleaned up the bar (removing the off-putting mermaid). At first, the fishermen complained about being "treated like African tribesmen" by camera-toting foreigners, who ironically sought images like the one on the cover of this book. When they discovered they could make a better income providing pleasure trips, the men of Farol lost both their fish and their poetry.