JOSEP PLA. THE CATALAN ANGLOPHILE
(Conference at Magdalen College, Oxford, 2018)
In the early 1920s, the young Josep Pla -then correspondent for La Publicidad in Paris- would develop a strange obsession with bowler hats. The painter Enric Ricart explained in his memoirs: with “a bowler hat in his possession”, Pla wanted to amuse himself by “greeting magnificently and running it through his fingers playfully during conversations”. After buying his first hat, Ricart noted, “when he came out of the shop, there wasn’t enough boulevard” for “the kind of greetings of which d’Artagnan would have been envious”. Undoubtedly, no-one is immune to the sartorial whims of youth, not even a writer who would come to rail against the “exhibitionist” eccentricity of, for example, Byron. Even so, it is remarkable that -among all possible adornments- Pla should choose the bowler hat, which, from the 19th century onwards, was to become an eloquent icon of Anglophile devotion worldwide. And it is indeed remarkable because Pla never shared that feeling which García Pelayo described as “that Continental sucker’s delight” about Great Britain. In fact, we never think of him as one of the cast -from Maeztu to Assía, via Madariaga- of Anglophile Spaniards.
After all, there seems to be no shortage of reasons to exclude him. Pla -who lived in Paris “for five years”- dedicated whole books to France, including some historical ones. For him Italy not only deserved hundreds of pages, but he wanted to identify himself fully with it: “Italy is my country (…) If I can, I will spend half of my life in Italy”. In Germany, the experience of “overwhelming inflation” between the wars would leave its moral scar on him for many years, and from the March on Rome to the birth of the State of Israel or the Second Republic in Spain, none of Pla’s British itineraries would offer an experience of comparable depth.
It is legitimate, however, to talk of a Planian Anglophilia, discreet for being less focused, but still functioning and real, and vivid enough for him to speak of “the soft light” of the pubs – that was “matt, ill-defined, meek, and floating”, the British legacy in Menorca, the Nicolson diaries or the high politics of Gladstone. The author also, occasionally, opens the door for us to a powerfully personal Anglophile archaeology, like when he remembers “the thoughts prompted” “by the names of English newspapers” when he was “a boy”, or when he confesses that his best guide to London was none other than the memory of reading Dickens.
It is not surprising: Pla was born into a world that still – in the words of that Italian-American version of himself, Luigi Barzini – “fiercely believed” that “British was best”. And throughout Pla’s work, that stamp of Anglophile flambée pops up here and there, when he praises the Anglo-Andalusian stateliness of the wife of the poet Maragall, when he describes the passion for all things British of writer and diplomat Josep Carner in Genoa, when he himself admits to “a great admiration” for Queen Victoria or praises the bourgeois attitudes of that English 19th century, “the best that have existed in this Continent”. Now this was a Britishness not of birth but of prestige, as lived by the European élite – Buruma illustrates this – between the time of Voltaire and that of Churchill. On the other hand, this awareness of British importance was to become clear, at the end of the 1960s, when Pla arrived in swinging London after “so many years of reading every day”, for example in pieces by the famous Catalan journalist Gaziel, “that England was already dying”. There is, then, an important foundation that precedes Pla’s first encounter with Great Britain, and the author himself admits to “genuine, sentimental affection” for the country.
From that first foundation onwards, the unfolding of Pla’s Anglophilia stretches across nearly six decades, from his Chestertonian pieces when he started at La Publicidad to the mentions of Boswell and Johnson in his late Notes del capvesprol. From one extreme to the other, the most substantial vestiges of the English Pla were in his vignettes for El nord, in Homenots (biographical profiles of great men) like the one dedicated to Joan Crexells, in his articles for Destino collected in El passat imperfecte or in his memoir of the June 1969 cruise included in El viatge s’acaba.
We are not talking about hundreds of pages: Pla himself regrets that his memoirs on England are “short”, but they do add up to a significant corpus of Anglophilia that is as bookish as it is lived and as read as it is travelled. We could even say, in the limited context – according to Valentí Puig – of Pla’s narrative, that Great Britain merited the rare privilege of inspiring quite a few of the stories collected in La vida amarga, including the unusually unrealistic Oscura santidad nórdica. Yes, it is legitimate to talk about a Planian Anglophilia which reconciles the knowledge of a literature with the observation of a country. And that Anglophilia is not so surprising. After all, England had helped him, he said, “to destroy all the seeds of gratuitous haughtiness I carried inside me as a Latin”. And that was something for which the writer would always feel “magnanimously grateful”.
Ladies and gentlemen,
One of the most surprising, and at the same time obvious, aspects of Pla’s Anglophilia is the extent to which his views on the British way of life and character coincide with those of the Continental Anglophile tradition.
“I have asked myself many times,” he writes in his profile of Winston Churchill, “(…) if it will ever be possible to understand the English”. Of course, the writer knows that “many” have asked the same question, from Ortega, who was capable of judging the English people as “the strangest thing on the planet”, to Casanova, who claimed “their way of life is unlike that of any other people”. And indeed, that British peculiarity could not have been a better testing ground for Pla’s skill as an observer.
As I said, it’s evident how much Pla’s notes on the world of the English correspond to those of the Continent’s Anglophile tradition, and how they lend it continuity. From his own writing, we know that Pla was well-read in, at least, the classics of the genre like Hippolyte Taine’s Notes on England and Moratín the younger’s Apuntaciones sueltas de Inglaterra. It is also possible that – so often quoted when he wrote about France – Pla also read Paul Morand on his love of London. And, without any doubt, he was familiar with Voltaire’s English letters, which he described as “one of the books which is read with the most fluency”.
Still only in his twenties, Pla arrived in London with “a certain disposition for collecting cities”. His first experience of the capital reminds us of the Doctor Johnson who said that to be tired of London was “to be tired of life”: in Pla’s words, “London has an atmosphere that rejuvenates and eases all the muscles (…) It makes you feel young again.” He even marvels at “feeling rejuvenated on arrival in a country that is so old”. Without leaving the capital, leaning -like Heine- on the balustrade of the Thames, Pla sees “the longest highway in the world” in that trading river which Verlaine had seen as the sum of Tyre and Carthage. From here, Pla and the essayists -native and foreign- on England lend themselves to comparison, in all their talk about London Sundays, the British love of animals OR their frequent condemnation of local cuisine. And it is enlightening to find parallels between Pla’s prose and that of some of the writings of his predecessors, as an endorsement of the quality of his observations on the Isles.
For example, where Moratín, Blanco White and Camba hated the aforementioned English Sunday, a “tedious and endless day” for Pérez de Ayala, Pla noted in one of his commentaries, it was the “delirium of silence” of those same Sundays in the north of England, which in London had struck him as “as tedious and lacking in humanity as the grave”. When the Catalan writer tells us of his futile attempts to “describe the built environment of London”, he confirms that he always returns with his hands empty, “without finding anything to indicate an intention to create an urban aesthetic that reflects the impressive political edifice” of the Empire. We could add a footnote here on Morand, who saw “the anti-Paris” in the improvised accumulation of London, and on Lord Kennet, who pointed out the success of the English countryside as against the failure of its cities. In fact, Pla always considers British architecture as “toned down”, “with a lack of inflated grandiloquence”, “at just the height of the human being”, chiming with the many commentators who have talked about the British rejection – we might think recently of Harry Mount – of the “grand projet” so typical of France.
Without leaving London, Pla claims that “the purely natural has a limited future here” seeming to give credence to D H Lawrence, who said that, in England, the countryside is beautiful while that which is created by man is vile. On the side of beauty, though, the London squares which Morand saw as “dozing poetically beneath the rain”, are for Pla “corners of silence and peace” with a “romantic look” “under the grey sky”. And from the rain of Mayfair to the British capital as “the city of fog”, Pla -who quotes Dickens and Sir Horace Walpole on this subject- insists that this meteorological phenomenon is still “liquid ink” due to the weight of its literary treatment. He even, when referring to the Paris fog, uses an English expression to describe it: “peasouper”, a phrase he would also use for other purposes. From the rain to the heat of summer, our author echoes the English inclination to “convert thought into a pleasant watercolour”, mindful of the most characteristic image of good weather in England: the cricket match. This is a sport in which, for Neville Cardus, “there is barely any movement”, and in which, for Josep Pla, the English can therefore “take their phlegmatic approach to new heights”.
If the appreciation of landscape was a constant in Pla’s writing, the attachment the English have for their land could not go unnoticed. “English landscape is much more composed and artificial than it seems, although geometry is excluded from that composition”, he wrote, chiming with Voltaire, who had already attributed to the British the “love of irregular beauty”. The English countryside illustrates “the nostalgic maintenance of the idyllic spirit”, Pla writes, in the same way as Washington Irving had praised “the moral sentiments which seem to permeate it (…) order, tranquility, restrained and well established principles, traditional uses and reverent customs”. Perhaps for this reason, the countryside, with its “poetic value”, according to Pla, “makes you understand the literature” of the country. This is no small observation, given that from the Lake District of Wordsworth, to Walton’s celebration of fishing, and the Hampshire of Jane Austen, British literature enjoys a particular coherence with nature as its backcloth.
As far as the human character is concerned, Pla, contemplating the miners of the famous strikes in the 1920s, can only admire the “extent of the courage, seriousness, dignity and virtue” that appeared on the countenances of these uncomplicated people. It is more or less the same admiration Orwell expressed for the masses who -until way after the post-war period- filled the football terraces as peacefully as those attending Sunday mass. In the same way, Pla knew how to distinguish the “cold type of Englishman, conventional and ceremonious”, so usual in Continental novels, from all the “typically English” “buffoonery” which originates in the cliché of ‘Merry England’. This cheerful basis is compatible with the notorious British love of ‘privacy’, and Pla observes that the Englishman “is a real, authentic recluse”, just as Waugh pointed out the “agoraphobic” character of the inhabitants of these Isles, from their medieval moats to their suburban hedges.
If, as our Rahola observed, alcohol has “the same importance in English public life as the sun does for the Spanish”, Pla offers us a portrait of a certain Mr Morton, “typical Englishman”, who in one of his British stories “drank a dozen bottles of Scotch (…) every week”. As Moratin had already noted, “finding men of distinction drunk on wine” was not considered “a great defect” in England. Regarding another cliché of the country, which I of course regret to mention, namely the reputation for sadism and perversion which dogs the English -a major point of agreement in international Anglophobia- Pla points out how “massively complicated” their crimes are, perhaps because -as Agatha Christie suggested- with a crime “everyone has something to hide”.
When specifically faced with these clichés of Anglophobia, Pla reacted very strongly in a paragraph which is in itself a powerful defence of Britishness. According to our author, “at parties in my unforgettable country, I’ve heard many times that England is a mercantile, egotistical and frosty nation”. As for actual English people, they are “slow, unflappable, rarely capricious, not particularly genial” (…) “They are labelled mediocre and largely insensitive” (…) “If one listens to what is being said aloud about them, one could conclude that England has nothing to offer: no literature, philosophy, science, art, wit, nor ingenuity”. Pla is right when telling about the most usual reproaches made upon the Britons. “Barbarians with a veneer”, Gautier wrote of them, just like Flora Tristan would talk about a people of “coldly calculating” Philistines. For Pla, however, “when it comes to (…) the moment of truth (…), the only thing that doesn’t disappoint, what is always maintained, what provides a plausible and tolerable way of life, is the English spirit”.
“The Englishman feels a zeal towards his past which we (…) sometimes see as exaggerated. If you want to make an Englishman happy, speak to him about the antique, the anachronism of everything around him. This explains the deep horror he feels about any kind of destruction and also why things are so long-lasting”. Like Ruskin, Pla understood that nothing could alarm an Englishman more than a house built to last no more than a generation. Visible in everything from second-hand bookshops to the shabby tweed of the Lords, the British affection for the past has always fascinated writers on English life, among others Pla’s friend Augusto Assía, who praised England for being “conventional, traditional and idle”, but also the economist Veblen, who spoke about the direct link between social status and the archaic resonance of property. “Tradition is considered untouchable here”, claims Pla, in words which Morand could have borrowed when he spoke of “the natural force which draws the English towards their past”. And even when this fascination suggests that “the English are illogical”, Morand finishes again Pla’s point: “everything is illogical, appearing absurd, like the laws and the English soul, but in reality all of it has deep and powerful roots.” The experience of tradition, after all, is a long way from fossilising public life in a country that Taine summarised like few others: in England, “reforms are superimposed onto institutions, and the present, leaning on the past, enables it to continue”. That is why, echoing Bagehot, Pla writes, now in the 1960s, that “the magic of the monarchy” remains “so alive” in Britain. And, echoing Edmund Burke, Pla wonders whether, in the French Revolution, as a result of “exchanging freedoms for Liberty, there was less of the latter”. Yes, all of them –Bagehot, Burke and Pla- were anti-revolutionary, just as Britain was going to be while Continental Europe went into political turmoil.
Perhaps aware of the common ground between his observations and those of some of his predecessors, Pla explains that, when he observes British life, he is not “inclined to pile on the clichés”. His real aim is to offer us an element which, like a continuous bass note, sustains his particular style: the desire to capture “those everyday things” which “make up the lyrical background of life”. The fact that so many of his Anglo-pieces have similarities with what classic writers of the genre have said, gives that same classical weight to Pla’s Anglophilia.
Ladies and gentlemen, another key aspect of Pla’s passion for Britain is the literature of its Isles, and I would like to talk about that now.
Pla writes that “the best work produced by men and women of letter is that which deals with themselves”. In line with that homing instinct, Pla admits he would have liked to have “lived in a literary environment characterised by a great profusion of personal documents: records, memoirs, reminiscences, biographical notes, correspondence, literary portraits”, and so on. There, Pla goes further in his praise with the mention of a distinguished tradition in the British Isles: “the incomparable – and so comfortable – greatness of English literature comes from the human lives it describes, the biographies”. In fact, Pla believes that “the literary biography is one of the most noble and thrilling intellectual pursuits there is”. And on this point he mentions André Maurois, an Anglophile as well as a biographer himself: “the English, at various points in history, took the biographical work to an extreme of (…) lofty perfection. (…) There is no great man in the history of England who has not found an excellent scribe to recount his life in a perfect manner”. Alongside this love of temperament-oriented writing, the aforementioned “comfortable” character of English letters would appear frequently in Pla’s pages about the literature of the Isles.
If today we take for granted what he calls the “immense prestige of the essay” in the English language, Pla also has an illuminating instinct during another moment of praise, which may be more deeply felt if that is possible. It is when he writes that English literature is, in his view, “the lightest in the world”. Confirming the intellectual perception that admires it for being a literature without great voids or empty spaces, Pla agrees that “the history of English literature is the one containing the fewest collapses, the least tonnage of forgotten paper for being unreadable or unbearable. And that applies to all literary genres”. Our author seems to be indifferent as to whether this literature “contains many great writers of genius, as is usual in the Continent”. What matters to him is to stress that “taking the literature as a whole (…), it is the one with many more books that remain alive and interesting”, and that its “average” “is always of the highest quality”. Returning to the artistic links between books and life, Pla recognises the English as having created a literature with “an atmosphere of conviviality and a light touch that make it unique”.
In fact, Pla was attracted to English literature for a variety of reasons. The weight of its output brought reverence from one who, as a writer in Catalan, felt he had before him a language which was “a superficially ploughed field”, “a virgin land”. And, of course, Pla’s conservative constitution –he states that “all the literature that has persisted and lasted is conservative”- could also find echoes in the well-documented tendency towards conservatism, which has been identified in the artistic expression of the Isles. Here, however, we would have to point out an exception: perhaps because of that same conservative inclination, Pla always admired quality avant-garde like that of, among others, James Joyce.
After his interview with Hemingway, our author revealed that his command of English was “a bit weak and undeniably poor”. Yet that did not stop him from having a more than thorough knowledge of English literature, both classical and modern. Since he was a young man, Pla had read and admired Chesterton. He always saw in him a style that “excluded pedantry” and some Catholic and conservative ideas which gave him “a tone of great and magical brilliance”.
Another passion Pla enjoyed in his youth was for George Bernard Shaw, who won the Nobel Prize in 1925. He admired him for his “depth of thought, his sensational mental agility, the living force of the characters he created”, up to his final rapture: “there is today no other writer in the world who is even at the level of the soles of the great Irish writer’s shoes”. Carried away by these strong feelings, Pla dares to expound on the British canon of the time with a critical spirit: “on the Continent, they value more or less equally Kipling and Chesterton, Galsworthy and Shaw, Wells and Thomas Hardy. This is a profound mistake. The writers who are at the top of everything, who are a thousand feet high above the others, who influence life and thought” are, indeed, Chesterton and Shaw.
As time passed, the great early affection Pla felt for the English would solidify in an impressive “Anglo” library. Moll Flanders would be “a book I have never been able to put down”. He points out a “very marked snobbery” in the novels of Disraeli, although he quotes with praise the role of his father as an essayist. On Chesterfield and his “many witty observations” we are left wanting more, in the same way as we have to make do with a very brief opinion on the “great wit” of Stern’s A Sentimental Journey. On greater works, he admits to a “weakness” for Macaulay with his use of “clear” and “elegant” language; when it comes to Gibbon, he stresses clearly his “essential influence on modern culture” and places him in the foreground when it comes to “nearly all French literature of the Age of Enlightenment”. As for his “old friend Samuel Butler”, he always held him in special affection, based on “his observation, his wit and his understanding of the human species”.
And so it goes on: with his great knowledge of the British cultural landscape, Pla, an intellectual himself, admits to being “frankly full of joy and happiness” that “intellectuals and artists do not manage to enjoy even the tiniest status in the Isles”. He celebrates this disdain in the face of “the psychological revolution” “against western culture” of D H Lawrence, but this anti-intellectualist attitude from the British people appears to break down in the case of Walter Pater. Pla considers him “a great writer, delicate, quintessential, opalescent, rarified”, but he asserts that “we still suffer” “when today we walk through the streets and contemplate the relics” of his Victorian taste. In any case, Pla will pay permanent tribute to a creative atmosphere “of well-established liberty”: an atmosphere capable of nourishing a writer like Lawrence Durrell and also George Orwell who, “has been the fount of all the reasoned arguments against totalitarianism”. The same liberal and tolerant tradition would be behind the “extremely elegant humanism” of Huxley, who Pla places “above all his contemporaries”, while the “comfortable” character of English literature reappears when he writes about William Henry Hudson. Even so, Pla the reader would harbour violent reservations about various authors: thus, Wilde is “the most sinister man of the last century”; Wells, “one of the most false prophets, one of the most profoundly untruthful politicians”; Byron, for his part, will be responsible for a literature that is “unreadable today”.
If Pla mentions a long list of British writers, there are four who stand out above the others, whether through the praise he gives them, or for the detailed attention he confers on them. For example, his knowledge of Shakespeare is worthy of note: he discusses him together with Voltaire as being opposites, just as “their respective peoples” are. One of Pla’s observations, no less true for being a common one, was that The Bard “has blended with, merged and united inseparably with the people” of his country, able to give us through his characters “the best examples of human depth”, “the eternal” in life, whether evil or good. Among notes on Hamlet, Pla praised the unadorned style of the Stratford man, the freedom of his “disorganised, enormously liberated” theatre, with “the clarity of a dark chaos”; he digresses onto the theories about the authorship of his works and, perhaps aiming to shock, even says that “he plagiarised heavily, as one might expect from such a great author”.
It is quite possible that, in spite of everything, Johnson was – through Boswell’s Life … – Pla’s favourite English author and, if not the most influential, certainly the one we would be most tempted to see in the pattern of Pla’s work. His eulogies do stand out here: Johnson is “extremely useful” “to get a certain idea of the English way of life”, “a definer par excellence” as he was “of the conservative, monarchist, ecclesiastical and imperialist structure” of England. “It seemed as though Johnson had created the vocabulary of a people”, underlined Pla during a night of insomnia and reading, and to firmly establish a connection between their two characters, we only have to think of the attachment Pla felt for two features he detected in the Doctor: his “intelligent and perfect conservative” character and, one rung down, “as a regular patron of all kinds of reputable drinking establishments”.
When it comes to the podium of novelists, Pla has no hesitation in placing Joseph Conrad high up, urgently extolling his virtues when he was still “little known”, complaining that his translations could have been better. Pla admires “the complexity of the novelist” even to the point where he found his defects to be “sublime qualities”. Essentially, the Catalan is attracted by the way Conrad can “extract the whole sensation of a landscape, all its suggestions”, above all through a literature of the sea which would make him “a more literary Stevenson”. The “mystical realism” with which Conrad approaches the sea reveals clearly “the undercurrent of a human struggle”, namely, “man’s struggle against outrageously tough hardship”. A prose writer as drawn to the sea as was Josep Pla could only feel seduced just as powerfully by the writer who succeeded best in conveying its adventure. And the verdict of contemporary critics – justifiably indulgent with Conrad – backs up Pla who, ahead of his time, admired him when hardly anyone knew him.
In spite of Pla’s self-confessed conservatism, his literary taste, far from stagnating, was capable of recognising greatness – as I have already said – in some of the most risky adventures of the literary avant-garde. James Joyce is a case in point, and – in fact, Pla had praised him since his youth. In the Irishman he not only appreciated the “glittering place occupied” by his compatriots in the panorama of literature written in English, but he asked himself “if there could be anyone with such force, wit, tautness and sensitivity, who wasn’t part of (with Irish fluency and freedom) the great qualities of English culture”. From the general to the specific, he found Ulysses “impressive”, technically “a marvel of perfection” and, in short, “one of the most beguiling documents of seemingly fantastic realism in the history of literature”. It is a brave opinion for its time and, while acknowledging his obvious complexity, Pla also recognises “a stunning ability for observation”, reflected in his interest in a “brutal reality” which “is never stylised”. And even though he says that only Proust can be compared to Joyce – and Proust “is better, in a literary sense” -, he admits that the Proustian “density” is “an arabesque next to the peasouper of the Dublin” in Ulysses. One of Joyce’s exceptional talents, writes Pla, consists in putting in front of our eyes the real “English and Irish”, human characters who, beyond mere stereotypes, in Joyce’s pen reveal themselves as “talkative, warm, lively, spontaneous, and indescribably sociable”. That is why, even in Molly Bloom’s monologue, Pla still finds a reason to praise the British arts with his favourite descriptor: English literature is “the most comfortable of all those created”.
Ladies and gentleman, I’m getting to the end of my lecture.
“As a minimum plan” for politics, the young Pla had asked for “a bit of English revolution, a bit of French revolution and a bit of Russian revolution”. Whether or not it was just a flippant remark, like that of the bowler hat in the Parisian boulevard, around 1964 the mature Pla had adopted a different kind of political seriousness. This shows, for example, in the aforementioned biographical sketch of Churchill which, with the great man already close to death, he would write for Destino. It is a piece in which his praise for Churchill is also, between the lines, a praise for England. We see it when he defines the grand politician as “one of the greatest men (…) of the freedom movement”. When he asserts that he was able to align his life “with the institutions of the country, which are based on freedom, tolerance and responsibility”. Or when he writes that he had defended “a human coexistence based on rights and the law”.
Pla’s combination of depth and brilliance when he writes on British politics can make us regret, as readers, how few pages he produced on the subject. In the end, if there is a reason for Anglophilia in the world – there is no doubt – it is because of the political genius of the Isles. Be that as it may, it is in Joan Crexells’ Homenot where – certainly – those brief ideas are taken further with a greater moral and emotional significance. Pla argues posthumously with Crexells who writes a letter to Carles Riba “about the English and England”. The humanist sage compares Germany with England unfavourably for the latter, and Pla, rather than allowing himself to be distracted, embarks on an exceptional strategy to draw the reader in to the English cause: to take him to the London he remembered, to ponder the Houses of Parliament, the Foreign Office and the Admiralty.
Contemplative beside the buildings that governed the Empire, Pla declares “the indefinable appearance of tenacity and solidity they give off”, always – and “it is one of the most significant things about this town” – without – “grandiose views”, without “looking magnificent at a glance”, without “anything to impress one out of proportion”. However, Pla testifies to the difficulty of “separating the effect they produce as urban structures from how they represent other perspectives of the human spirit”. So, from St James’ Park, looking at the departments that governed the politics of foreign affairs and the armed forces in Britain, the Spanish author is conscious of being in the presence of “two important pillars of the world – pillars that one can hate, that one can detest (…)-, but which undeniably produce a feeling of respect”, and which make the spectator think about the whole of life and history (…) from a perspective of imposing universality”. A few paragraphs earlier, in Westminster, Pla had asked himself “who could, beside the Houses of Parliament, not think of the historical and political significance of these stones? Beside that building, who could not ponder on the wave of optimism and liberty that has passed that way, on what was born in that place – the rights of the human being, the habeas corpus-, and has spread the world over, on what the English Parliament represents for anyone who was not born with blue blood?” Yes, “contemplating the Houses of Parliament gives you a rapturous feeling of pride simply to be a man and a joy in admiring a people who have done what they can, and without a material incentive, to allow the whole world to savour the taste of freedom”.
With the finesse of an historian, but in the present he was experiencing, this mature Pla was also an apologist for the period after the Second World War as compared to the period between the world wars: he was fiercely critical not only of the principles of Versailles but also of the political class in general – and in Britain in particular. And his long “news piece” about John Maynard Keynes, one of the people who most influenced the modelling of the 20th century, shows us Pla’s enthusiasm for the great economist and, above all, the so-called “post-war consensus”. This is worth mentioning, because this is not the usual Pla, although – characteristically – he justifies through conservatism his defence of economic interventionism: when looking “to salvage as far as possible an economic freedom that is reduced and dying”, he writes, “there is only one way: to apply the lesser of two evils, trim it a little to save what can be saved”. There is no doubt that in his praise for the Keynesian post-war period, Pla has in his mind the upheaval – notably in the Weimar Republic – that he has observed during the inter-war years. That is why his appreciation of the strategic merit of the “new capitalism” is so great, that as well as driving “the prosperity of western Europe”, it has suppressed “the objective possibilities of a triumph of communism”. It was the era of Macmillan and his “[Most of our people] have never had it so good!”
All these feelings of optimism resurface in the pages Pla writes during his final stay in London, in June 1969, collected in El viatge s’acaba. Here, Pla’s enthusiasm is at a premium. Even the air, he says, has “a sharp lightness of touch”. London “has ceased to be the city of fog”, replaced by “a city of light and much more benign facades”. The City, demolished by the Nazis and newly rebuilt, is “almost unrecognisable”; it is “a much more airy world, of wider streets, with some very modern, grand buildings”. In the facade of the – finally clean – National Gallery, Pla sees the differences between the London he had known in the 1920s and “the joy of the present city”, “a more agreeable London, much less morose and melancholic” and, of course, “teeming with rich tourists” which adds up to an “impressive concentration of life, both material and human”. In our traveller’s opinion, unlike the mediocre ruling class of the inter-war years, that “contented, clean, lively” London owes itself “in some ways, to the political situation”. And with the same justification he uses for defending Keynesianism, he admires Harold Wilson – without naming him – “a Labour politician who knows how to conserve”. At last, “the two worlds” of rich and poor, “of which Disraeli spoke in his novels, are coming together”, he confirms.
On what was to be his farewell to England, we should ponder with sadness on Pla’s support for “the tenacity of the Government regarding England’s entry into the Common Market” (…) “in spite of the campaign running against its entry”. And it is only human to rejoice in the fact that Pla could say goodbye to the Isles when they were living their last glory days for a long time. At the start of the 1970s, the now exhausted post-war politics would give way to a long decade of economic decline and civil discontent. The old values and formality admired by Pla would become the object of devotion for the nostalgic, among other reasons, as a result of the reformist measures of Wilson. And as for the “very modern, grand buildings”, erected hurriedly after the war, opinions are unanimous that, rather than maturing, they have merely deteriorated. These are pages that – luckily for him, sadly for us – Pla did not now have time to write. In any case, he would always have maintained an image of an Anglophilia capable of overcoming the eventualities of the age: those waters that flow “by the venerable stones” of Parliament, like “the waters of time at the feet of the towers of human toil and hope”.
Translation by Jenny Rivarola
- FEBRÉS, Xavier (1997). Josep Pla, biografía del gran tipo. Barcelona, Destino.
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