Book of the week

Our Lady of the Sewers (Little, Brown and Company, pounds 16.99) by Paul Richardson.

In the preface to this book the author complains about the modernity and conformity of modern Europe. Nobody, he says, writes travel books about Europe any more because it is all the same. Only good old Spain still retains any distinctive qualities.

What is fascinating about this assertion is that people have been making it for most of the 20th century. By the standards of the 1930s, today's Spain is horribly familiar to the rest of Britain. By the rapidly conforming standards of the 1990s, however, it is still exotically different. That's why I suspect that in 50 years' time, when we have the same currency and the same government, we will still be exclaiming over the vestigial differences that remain.

Which is one reason why there can still be room for yet another into- the-heart-of-Spain book, even after all those that have gone before.

Off we go then, in search of those medieval relics which have been cemented over in places like Britain but which are still hanging on by the fingernails in Spain. In Murcia we have the pig-killing, the matanza, in which the slaughter of a pig becomes an occasion for much ceremony and ritual. We have the meeting with a wizard in Galicia, and with Muslims left over by the Moors in Granada. In the Canary Islands we even have the unearthing of ancient indigenous sports such as calabazo where contestants compete to scoop as much water as possible from one place to another. We also get a fascinating little account of the Basques.

The really amazing thing about Spain is that it continues to stimulate people into writing books as interesting as this one. And it probably always will.