Francisco Umbral

Merciless commentator on Spain
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The Independent Online

Francisco Pérez Martínez (Francisco Umbral), writer and journalist: born Madrid 11 May 1935; married 1959 María España Suárez Garrido (one son deceased); died Madrid 28 August 2007.

Francisco Umbral was a prolific writer. Not only did he produce a stream of more than 80 books that commented acidly on contemporary Spain, especially Madrid, but his byline was possibly the best known in the country, appearing on the back page of El Mundo newspaper every day for the last 15 years. The accompanying photograph, with flowing silver locks and deep frown, reflected the role he cultivated as merciless dissector of a flawed society.

The harshness of his childhood must have contributed to the bitterness and melancholic self-absorption of Umbral's writings in later years. He was illegitimate, born in Madrid but brought up in the austere Castilian town of Valladolid by a distant mother. Dogged by early ill health, he attended school only briefly, between the ages of 10 and 11, before being expelled. Three years later he became an errand boy at a bank. Later in life, he lost his only child, aged six, from leukaemia. His 1975 book Mortal y Rosa (A Mortal Spring, 1980) described the anguish this caused.

His columns, peppered with references to Spanish literary heroes and underworld street talk, included elaborate reflections on politicians, public figures and show-business personalities that bordered on the spiteful. He was renowned for being curmudgeonly: he once declined to meet a distinguished visiting American journalist because it would mean leaving his suburban study to come into town. And he famously walked out of a television programme because participants were not discussing his latest publication. "I came here to talk about my book," he grumbled.

Self-educated and an avid reader, he began his career as journalist in Valladolid at the regional El Norte de Castilla newspaper in 1958, and in 1961 went to Madrid as a correspondent. He threw himself into the literary circles of the capital's café society, and later described the hunger of a provincial outsider desperate to make his name.

He become a well-regarded reporter with Spain's most varied and influential magazines and newspapers, from the satirical Hermano Lobo, to the soft-porn political scandal weekly Interviú to the daily El País (where he chronicled the sexual and artistic excesses of the 1980s "La Movida" counterculture) and, from 1990, El Mundo.

With its baroque style and biting irony, his was a powerful voice during the decline of Franco's dictatorship in the 1970s. Many who later fell out with him forgave him because of his brave and trenchant defence of liberties during Spain's transition to democracy.

Umbral won many literary prizes including, after barely veiled lobbying, Spain's Prince of Asturias prize for arts in 1996 and the Cervantes Prize, Spain's highest cultural award, in 2000.

Elizabeth Nash