Will Chislett on the Faringdon connections of the exiled Spanish writer Arturo Barea

It took three visits to Faringdon before I finally found the commemorative stone to the exiled Spanish writer Arturo Barea, author of the autobiographical trilogy The Forging of the Rebel, one of the great narratives of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War and the events leading up to it.

I first came across the work of Barea about 20 years ago after I moved back to Madrid from where I had covered Spain’s transition to democracy for The Times between 1975 and 1978.

When I learned that Barea had spent the last 10 years of his life living at Middle Lodge, a house provided for him by the second Lord Faringdon on the edge of Buscot Park, finding out much more about Barea became something of an obsession. The lord was a socialist who had converted his Rolls-Royce into an ambulance and joined a British field hospital in the Spanish Civil War.

On my visits to Oxford, where my wife and I were born, we would go to Faringdon, but it was not until someone told us of the churchyard annexe to All Saints Church that we finally found the deteriorated stone.

Barea had been cremated in 1957 and his ashes scattered in the garden of Middle Lodge. The memorial was later erected by a friend.

Back in Madrid, I told several Spanish friends and admirers about the stone and we decided to pay for it to be restored. And rather than try to obtain a blue plaque to be placed at Middle Lodge, which very few people would see, we also organised a plaque for the facade of The Volunteer, Barea’s favourite pub in the centre of Faringdon.

The plaque was designed by the octogenarian Herminio Martínez, one of the 4,000 Basque children who had been evacuated from Bilbao in 1937 after the aerial bombing of Guernica (immortalised in Picasso’s iconic painting) and taken by ship to Southampton. A group of these children lived for a time at Buscot Park.

Barea had left Spain in 1938 after heading the Office of Foreign Press Censorship in Madrid where he met his second wife, the Austrian socialist and multi lingual Ilsa Pollak, and handled the copy of war correspondents such as Ernest Hemingway.

They arrived in England via Paris in March 1939, the month the Spanish Republic was defeated by General Franco. Barea was, in his own words, “spiritually smashed … I disembarked with nothing. My life was broken in two. I had no perspectives, no country, no home, no job.” What he did have with him was a draft of the first chapters of the trilogy.

In 1940 Barea joined the BBC Latin American Service and until his death gave more than 800 15-minute broadcasts, under the pseudonym Juan de Castilla (John of Castile) in order to protect his family in Spain.

His starting brief was to counter Nazi propaganda in South America during the Second World War by presenting a positive view of British life.

In Madrid, Barea had made radio broadcasts as La voz incógnita de Madrid (The Unknown Voice of Madrid). Barea’s BBC monologues, often observing and describing English life from his vantage point as a sympathetic outsider, regularly topped the listeners’ annual poll.

The first part of The Forging of the Rebel was published in 1941, superbly translated by Ilsa. George Orwell described Barea as “one of the most valuable of the literary acquisitions that England has made as a result of Fascist persecution”. His Struggle for the Spanish Soul appeared alongside Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn in the Searchlight series.

The trilogy was not published in Spanish until 1951 and then in Buenos Aires. It did not appear in Spain until 1978, three years after the end of the Franco dictatorship.

In 1956, the year before he died, the BBC sent Barea on a tour of Latin America. When the Franco regime got wind of the trip, it sought to denigrate Barea by calling him “the Englishman Arturo Beria” in reference to Stalin’s state security chief, Beria.

Barea never returned to Spain, but his Underwood typewriter did along with an obituary of him in The Times inside the well-worn typewriter case. After a well-known Spanish novelist wrote about my gestures, an English woman who had been given the typewriter asked if he would like to have it. It now has pride of place in his home.

Barea will, however, come home to Oxford this year when his archive is donated to the Bodleian Library.

Will Chislett will talk about Arturo Barea at the Oxford Literary Festival on March 28 in the Divinity School of the Bodleian Library.