Joan Smith: Even now, the death of Lorca offers a warning to the world

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In the hills above Granada, amid a forest fragrant with the scent of pine needles, there is a shady hollow. In its centre, heaped with flowers, is a simple monument to the great Andalusian poet Federico Garcia Lorca, murdered in this lonely spot 60 years ago this month. Lorca had enraged Spain's conservative establishment by celebrating Gypsies and exposing the harsh lives of Andalusian women; he was one of the earliest casualties of the Spanish Civil War. Ceremonies to commemorate the anniversary of this terrible conflict, which ushered in almost four decades of dictatorship, have been low key this year, even in Spain.

In this country, where hundreds of volunteers defied the British government and fought for the Republican cause, we are in the middle of a Lorca festival, not in the West End, where I saw Joan Plowright give a searing performance in The House of Bernarda Alba, but in the Arcola theatre in east London. This month, the award-winning actor Kathryn Hunter stars in Yerma, Lorca's play about a childless marriage which caused uproar when it opened in Madrid in December 1934. Right-wing critics accused Lorca of blasphemy and immorality, calling attention to the number of gay men in the opening-night audience and denouncing the play as a "shameful affront" to decent people.

Last week, standing in the place where Lorca was shot by Falangists, I could not help thinking that modern Spain seems almost embarrassed to admit what had happened to him. The official monument is up the road, near the village of Viznar, and it is a soulless, concrete affair. Even that was not constructed until 11 years after Franco's death and it seems a shabby memorial to the pre-eminent Spanish writer of the 20th century. In the pine forest, a sense of homage has been created by scraps of paper on which admirers have written letters and poems. Lorca was shot on 18 August 1936, with a schoolteacher and two bullfighters known for their left-wing politics. Five thousand other Granadans were murdered by Nationalist firing squads.

When one of the Falangists who arrested Lorca was asked the reason, he replied succinctly, "His works." The officer in charge said Lorca had done "more damage with a pen than others have with a pistol", a backhanded compliment to the power of ideas over weapons. In 1940, in the Franco regime's sole reference to the murder, they issued a death certificate claiming Lorca had died from war wounds and his body found on the road.

Sixty years later, the poet remains a troubling figure, not least because of his homosexuality; it is only in the past couple of years that Spain's Socialist government has taken up gay rights, facing down outraged Spanish bishops and the Vatican. The other reason, I suspect, is shame that someone as eminent as Lorca was allowed to die ignominiously at the age of 38. Hated by the Nationalists, the playwright was always likely to be a target, yet he was left to take refuge with a Falangist family in Granada when it became clear that his life was in danger.

His murder reflects badly on Spain but it is also an episode from which the British government of the day emerges without credit; in a situation with striking contemporary parallels, its refusal to intervene allowed atrocities on both sides and aided the Nationalists, armed by Hitler and Mussolini.

In that sense, this year's anniversary of Lorca's tragic death should have greater resonance than ever, a reminder to our present Prime Minister of the dire consequences of "neutrality" when a country is in flames.