In Segovia’s spectacular new public library, the librarian shows me, in the smooth stone of the floor, something extraordinary.
I should say first, that the fact Segovia invested in this library of magnificent proportions and stunning horizons, in one of the outlying districts of the city, feels unimaginably wondrous in itself in this age of austerity. I could whoop for joy. No one is forgotten, not children whose imaginations are afforded a bright hall with craft tables at which they’ve made creatures of fantastical magic from kitchen sponges and toilet rolls. Not teenagers, who have their own social space in the library where, as the librarian tells me with a wink, ‘They come to flirt.’
We walk the airy reading rooms, looking out of the windows which circle the entire circumference of the building, taking in the unbelievable Segovian horizon – its turrets and spires and hills.
And then we stop.
He points to the ground.
‘It just happened to be there, in the stone,’ he says. It’s a fossil. A whole crab. A message from thousands of years ago, claws still sharpened in the fossilised profile.
I bend to touch the stone, inscrutable and smooth, trying to read the crab within it like a hieroglyph, and wondering what it’s saying to us through all these millenia?
The ancient crab and its contemporary library epitomise something of Segovia’s relationship to history. Segovia, with its unfeasibly spectacular Roman aqueduct, soaring cathedral, turreted castle (upon which Disney based its Camelot, apparently), medieval streets and hushed Jewish district, is a place where you walk constantly reminded of the transience of your own small moment against the vastness of time.
The previous public library – which is now a reading rooms in the old part of town – was once a jail. Within its walls the Baroque poet and playwright Lope de Vega was incarcerated. I love the thought of that transformation, from jail to library, and of the catharsis of all the books when they arrived to be flung open by readers one by one, like doors and windows.
Outside that library stands a memorial to the Segovians who were killed defending democracy and freedom.
This then, is the way literature takes its place within the city: in opposition to incarceration and dictatorship, a force for freedom, for democracy within the everyday.
It seems important then, to meet not just the well-known voices of Hay Festival, but some of those people who, in their small and huge ways are custodians of literature and the written word within Segovian daily life: librarians, poets, novelists, teachers, journalists, playwrights, small publishers, and independent booksellers. I give them books and Welsh writing slates, and in return they give me their own volumes of stories, poems, comics and plays. A poet I meet writes in the book he gives me, ‘For our shared love of words, which reflect the world, and can change the world.’ Others, like Maribel Glisanz scratch words in Spanish into the slates I give:
there are no mirrors
and no men.
to the forest
of combining it
She writes it with a giggle. In Segovia, chatter and laughter and kerffuffle grows around this gifting, and something else too: Alegría.
Alegría, is a word often translated as ‘joy’ or ‘happiness’ or ‘fun’. To me, it’s all three combined, and then some. Not as lofty or old-fashioned as ‘joy’, not as earnest as ‘happiness’, and not as cheap and cheerful as ‘fun’. Like many words in Spanish, there’s a romance and an enthusiasm to its use, and its pursuit, which English struggles to speak. Alegría is something you make, and remake. Hilarity taken seriously perhaps. Joy taken with a pinch of salt. It’s what happens when we make happiness together, a kind of fun that’s allowed its place in the grown-up world. Right now, in the UK, we need a whole lot more Alegría.
Last week with my students, as part of their ‘freshers week’ activities, we watched the film ‘Arrival’, about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. In the film, aliens come to earth to teach humanity a language that enables us to transcend time. Now, I sit in the university in Segovia watching a talk about ‘The Future of Europe’ from my vantage point on some ancient steps that climb the side of the over-packed hall. The stairs no longer lead anywhere, and I have a feeling that with all this past, present and future, Segovia has me transcending time too as I sit on their steps stairs, thinking both back and forward. Back to when I was around the same age as my own students are now, when I first learnt Spanish and Catalan, as a student in Barcelona on a university exchange programme called ‘Erasmus’, funded by the EU. And forward, to a time when I might no longer be a citizen of the European Union.
Erasmus, for me, was a life-changer. It transformed the way I think, the way I feel. Learning other languages, as the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests, made me see the world anew. I would not be the writer I am in English, would not see things and feel things as I do, without the Spanish and Catalan that I also speak. Because of that time spent in a country which had lived under dictatorship until so recently, I also learnt to feel in my bones what the word ‘democracy’ is worth, and how we must fight for it.
It’s that experience that compells me to sit here, in the packed halls of Segovia, listening to intellectuals, politicians and philosophers debate in Spanish over several events on populism, democracy, and the future of Europe. And it’s that experience that gives weight to Andrés Rodriguez-Pose’s words when he says ‘I don’t think we should be afraid for the state of democracy in the UK, I think we should be terrified.’
In the great hall, Fernando Savater, a small, charismatic philosopher, round-faced and bearded, spreads ripples of laughter and agreement through the audience as he talks animatedly on the subject of European citizenship. He traces the history of the EU back to its origin as a space of cooperation after an age of conflict and fascism, speaks of what European citizenship means and how it can protect citizens of each state from the worst excesses of poor leadership. He speaks of it as a dream, as an ideal fundamentally wedded to democracy and rights. Politicians that oppose Europe, he says, are not opposing the EU itself but the rights of citizenship that it enshrines.
Since the Brexit referendum, I have been numb. I haven’t really been able to access my own feelings. As I file out of the hall today in Segovia, among a crowd of passionately pro-European Segovians, my throat is tight. My throat is aching.
It is so inappropriate that I should cry here, in the queue to leave the hall, but I am struggling to breathe through the tears of it, and there’s a pressure in my chest. The rows of people also filing out are looking at me and worrying is she alright?
I am having my citizenship of this taken from me. The people of my increasingly impoverished nation won’t be able to have the support of the EU for their vital social and community projects, their badly needed infrastructure, their roads, railway stations, museums, cultural projects, training schemes, galleries, libraries. My first job, as a youth worker, was for a EU funded youth project that changed young lives, and that funding will be gone. My students, in years to come, may not be able to access an EU funded scheme like Erasmus and walk the streets of strange cities for long enough to learn how to see afresh, or hear from the mouths of people who have lived them their beautiful and painful histories of wars and freedoms and alegría, nor get to stand arm in arm with them and say that they belong to the same community. We won’t be able to take steps forward together anymore. We are throwing all of that away.
In the bathroom of the university in Segovia, I wash my face, and make my way out into the fresh air, tired, and sick at heart.
I’m walking back toward the aqueduct when a woman catches me by the arm and bundles me up into the front seat of the wonderfully ridiculous, red, open-top, vintage fire truck that’s ferrying people back and forth between the university and the aqueduct. As I huddle in beside the elderly driver, smart in his black cap and brass buttons, he grins at me, and shows me how to sound the siren, by pressing my foot into a lever in the footwell.
We take off, sirens whirring, and I almost fall out as he puts his back into turning the heavy wheel amid the toot of horns.
‘Where are you from?’ he asks me in Spanish, shouting over the sound of the siren, and, when I tell him, ‘Ah, what a shame, what a shame. You’re leaving us!’ But he chuckles, and winks at me, before swerving by accident. As the truck winds unsteadily around the roundabout by the enormous arches of Segovia’s aqueduct, making an incongruous spectacle, the Segovians in the back are whooping and laughing, and taking pictures. And I am laughing too, despite it all, because, like our European citizenship, Alegría is something which, for now at least, we share.
Boarding the plane, on the way home, I meet a Liverpuddlian couple who seem lovely, but rather fed up. They complain that the Madrileños were rude to them all week.
‘It’s because we’re leaving Europe,’ he says. ‘They think we don’t like them. But it isn’t that; we just want our independence don’t we?’ before we are separated into different queues by the airline staff.
‘To every problem,’ Fernando Savater had said in that hall in Segovia, ‘There is a solution that is simple, straightforward, and wrong.’
On the plane to Liverpool, I read an article which quotes Rebecca Solnit’s description of political history as ‘a crab scuttling sideways’: not history as a linear, straight forward, simple progress from a to b, but as the drip by drip and sometimes sideways movement of our everyday lives. There are no big, simple, straight-forward solutions in politics and history, there’s only subtlety, and nuance, and a need for understanding and deep thought. That’s why libraries, learning and democracy are so closely aligned, and why the attack on learning and expertise that we are seeing in the UK, is an attack on democracy itself. And that is why, in that extraordinary library in beautiful Segovia, there’s an ancient crab, immortalised in stone, walking its neither simple, nor straightforward walk, sideways, through a place of books and learning.
Alys Conran is Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow 2019/20, travelling to each Hay Festival edition. Her novels, Dignity and Pigeon, are out now. Find out more about Hay Festival Segovia here.