When I visit a country I like to be surprised. I don't like being too 'prepared' before I set off. So I much prefer reading about a country after I've been rather than before I've gone. Since my return from Spain in late February this year I've been enjoying Travellers In Spain by David Mitchell, which is packed full of quotes and commentaries by distinguished visitors to Spain over four centuries, people like Casanova, the Duke of Wellington, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Robert Graves and Laurie Lee.
I hadn't quite realised that the grinding poverty and the universally harsh living conditions in Spain lasted until well into the 1950s. This was partly due to the legacy of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). The war was fought between the Republicans on the one side - an amalgamation of liberals, Marxists, anarchists, working-class revolutionaries and international volunteers - and the Nationalists on the other, who were conservatives, monarchists, Carlists and Falangists, and who had the support of the Roman Catholic Church.
Britain and the US did not get directly involved in the war - although some American corporations such as Texaco, General Motors, Ford, and the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company did supply the Nationalists with trucks, tyres and fuel, to their eternal shame. However, many volunteers (the 'International Brigades') mobilised from all over the US and Canada, as well as from all over Europe, and fought alongside the Republicans. These included writers like George Orwell, who described the experience in his book Homage To Catalonia. After the war had ended, terror, repression and censorship continued for a long period under the dictatorship of General Franco.
About 300,000 people died during the Spanish Civil War. And after the war 150,000 Republicans or 'Reds' perished in prisons and forced labour camps, or were executed in waves of bloody reprisals.
Travellers to Spain in the 1940 and 50s found a country starkly divided between rich and poor, with little impetus for changing the status quo: Most surprising perhaps was the way in which the comparatively wealthy and the abysmally poor accepted their destiny. The latter lived sometimes 10 or 15 to a room, children had nits, weak eyes, TB through overcrowding and undernourishment... But they accept their poverty and the rich accept it without fear, without guilt.
Picasso's extraordinary painting Guernica shows the horror of the Spanish Civil War. (The Basque town of Guernica was bombed on 26 April 1937 by aircraft from Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.)