Book Review: 'Madrid - The History'
By Gerald Clarkson

     Jules Stewart has produced another exceptional book, his seventh in so many years. And here he writes with the authority of a journalist who worked in Madrid for two decades covering Spain and the Latin American world for several publications. His 'Madrid - The History' provides a very readable tour de l'horizon of the city's development from the arrival of the Moors in the 8th century to the present king's succession after the death of Franco in 1975.

     Stewart dismisses Franco with aplomb as an unintelligent man with a squeaky voice who failed to move with the times. He  also notes the dictator's extraordinary murderous record. Going back into history he produces some interesting facts. At the height of the Moorish hegemony its centre at Cordoba held over 100,000 books compared with only some 700 in the whole of France at the time.

     The Christian Reconquista, which saw control of Spain gradually wrested from the Mohammedans, took eight centuries and became the longest war in history (ending with the capture of Granada in 1492). Recent reports of wine adulteration in Tuscany show things have not changed. In the late 15th century hundreds of squalid Madrid taverns were diluting wine with water provoking a harsh government decree. A publican would receive 100 lashes if convicted of adulteration and have his wine stock confiscated. The author describes Madrid, then only 12-14,000 in population, as infested with filth. Tramps and beggars made up 10%.

      Today's economic crisis in Spain is not exactly new. For instance the country was declared bankrupt eight times between 1557 and 1680. By the 1590s interest payments to Genoese and Augsburg bankers absorbed 40% of national income. Spain in those days was almost entirely reliant on revenues from its huge far flung empire, now lost.

      Stewart provides a lively account of Charles I's visit to Madrid in 1623, when the Prince of Wales, in the company of Charles Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. They entered the city, simply clad, as John and Tom Smith.  Charles had travelled  to seek the hand of King Felipe IV's sister, the Infanta Maria Ana aged 17. But marriage plans foundered on religious controversy and Papal interventions. Maria Ana ended up as Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, wife of her cousin Ferdinand King of Hungary. Many years later, shortly after Charles 1st's execution in London, a party of dagger weilding English royalists murdered Oliver Cromwell's ambassador to Madrid, Anthonly Ascham, in front of his official residence. An act of revenge, of a sort.

     Stewart depicts the softening of Franco's dictatorship with the passing of years, but dissent remained risky. He narrates his own police experience shortly after Franco's death. He was arrested in 1976 for wandering too close to a street demonstration led by the wives of jailed factory workers.  "I was fortunate to get off with a few jabs in the neck with an electric cattle prod and a reprimand by a plain clothes functionary with a pencil-line moustache, pinstriped double-breasted suit and Brylcreemed hair, who could have walked off the set of a 1950s gangster film."

     This official told Stewart to bear in mind that Spain's image was being distorted by scaremongering foreign journalists. At which point he was released.

      The book ends with a mine of information on Madrid's restaurants, bars and markets.


©Jules Stewart 2010