England’s black legend: a right old load of haggis

“Uncle,” exclaimed … Antoñita, “didn’t it disgust you to see so many drunks in the streets? I’ve started feeling frightened.”

William Maltby writes in La Leyenda Negra en Inglaterra (1982) that

In more than one aspect, the position of the US in the twentieth century appears similar to that of Spain in the sixteenth. Brandishing enormous power in defence of an essentially conservative ideal, it finds itself the target of the hate and the jealousy of both friend and foe. No one who reads the papers can doubt that the nations of the world are compiling a new Black Legend, nor that the US has enjoyed global power; as in Spain, self-criticism has been allowed to proceed to the extreme; and, at the end of the day, its destiny may be the same.

The light wing assaults that the US is now undergoing were previously directed at the British. Although in Spanish society there is still a strong current of anti-British feeling masquerading as anti-capitalism, I think the big switch came in 1898 when the US kicked colonial power Spain out of Cuba and oversaw the installation of an elected government. However, not all of the literature is to be taken completely seriously. The following excerpts are from a 50-page guide, England. Her History, Geography, Art and Customs, published in Spanish in 1896 in Barcelona by Alfredo Opisso (no, it’s not a bizarre pseudonym), in which it transpires that London, den of capitalist exploitation, is literally black.

Although I’m sure that Opisso had never been to England and wrote his book using a popular almanac and the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle, he still manages to get more right than the miserable Rafael Ramos. Some of you will find all of this spectacularly boring, but I particularly liked the stock engravings (reproduced below) of, respectively, an English cove, a game of cricket, and an Irishman (Spike Milligan’s grandad?). One wonders what he did to publisher Antonio J Bastinos’ picture editor when he got back from his holidays.

Rich, independent, young still, for hardly his fifties, and in possession of a bomb-proof constitution, nothing disgusted Don Sebastián Pérez de la Tejada more than not seeing the implementation in Spain of full-scale free trade. He was known not just in his home town, Cadiz, but in the whole of Spain as an ardent propagandist of this school of thought, being one of those never absent from meetings and congresses convened by their co-religionists; however, [he was] not content with his knowledge of the economic doctrines he professed …, being neither farmer, industrialist, merchant, manufacturer nor anything …, merely a holder of government bonds… [He thus resolved] to drink from the very springs from which they flow, whence his voyage to Great Britain, commercial freedom’s native land.

Having established for purposes of narrative exposition that Don Sebastián is a Manchester liberal, Opisso sends him off, together with his nephews, Antoñita and Pepito, on steamship the King William. Five days later:

“But how black the Thames is!” exclaimed Pepito. “And the city also looks like a coal bunker! How black everything is here! We’ll have to see how we get the soot off us when we get back!”
“Don’t worry, lad,” replied Don Sebastián. “Here they use soaps that leave one cleaner than silver.”

The ship’s captain, a Mr Walls, kindly undertakes to show London’s marvels to the Andalusian delegation. After an introduction to some of the bridges over the Thames and a brief excursion up Regent Street, the party is proceeding along the Strand in the direction of Fleet Street when Don Sebastián asks:

“So this street is parallel to the river?”
“Yes, sir; it follows its left bank, from west to east.”
“So if we went through these streets to the right we would get to the river?”
“Would … if you could.”
“What do you mean? Don’t you know the way?”
“Oh yes I do, yes, I know it; but I wouldn’t be able to assure you that they wouldn’t rob or murder you ten times in a row on seeing that you are decent people, as you say in Spain. If you want to follow my advice, never adventure into these centres of misery and crime, even when accompanied. On the other bank it is different; in the southern part, or on the right bank of the river, one can travel perfectly without any fear.”
Don Sebastián, curious, told the captain and his nephews to wait a moment, because he just wanted to have a peep into one of these little streets that were so dangerous according to Mr Walls. The latter smiled at this and said to him:
“Very well, we will wait for you here, but be careful and don’t advance more than 150 or 200 paces, and come back when you see that they are not observing you with good intent.”
Our intrepid explorer would have nothing of the entreaties of Antoñita and went into Arnudel [sic] Street
“What was that over there, Holy God! What drunks, what tramps [adanes], what miserable beggars, but truly miserable, horribly miserable!! What a stench emanated from those infected caverns, like the unhappy sight of a lunatic asylum in freedom!”
The enthusiasm of Don Sebastián for England suffered a terrible crisis with every step with which our hero advanced down the muddy pavements of Arnudel Street.

At this stage, one could still be forgiven for assuming that Don Sebastián has observed the cream of the British legal profession sallying from the nearby Temple for their afternoon tea. But no:

It was already getting dark, and the misery appeared more lugubrious than ever in the twilight. Those weren’t Spanish beggars, but English beggars, each with a top hat, the female beggars with hats of extravagant shape; clothed one and all in frock coats, waistcoats, skirts of silk or wool, fur coats, all of it ragged, grimy, lamentable, worn-out. Because Don Sebastián had already observed that in London nobody used blouse, jacket or cap, but that everyone went clothed in top hat or hats with feathers or flowers. The only difference between banker and beggar was in the degree of dirtiness or antiquity of his dress.

Suddenly Don Sebastián found himself surrounded by a number of drunks of both sexes who made ready to rob him, but being robust he managed to beat them off, and, crying “Run for your life!” he retreated as fast as he could, arriving in Fleet Street, where the captain and his nephews were waiting for him, with his tie undone and his hat beaten to shreds.

Antoñita and Pepito were alarmed to see him in this state, and the captain said to him, “Do you see, Don Sebastián? Didn’t I tell you?”
“My friend,” replied Mr Pérez de la Tejada, “I could never have imagined that a city like London could contain the ghastly misery which, albeit rapidly, I have just seen with my own eyes. How dreadful! And two paces from the Strand!”
“Well now you see; but I warn you now that these neighbourhoods in Temple are heaven in comparison with others, like the poor suburbs of the North and East: Bethnal Green, Spitalfield [sic], White Chapel [sic], Saint Gilles [sic]. And still now all this that you have seen is a picnic; it is in winter that it chills you to see those miserable neighbourhoods; when it snows, when at midday the thermometer reads four or five degrees below zero, when the fog makes it impossible to see two steps…”
Don Sebastián felt himself assailed by a terrible sadness, and declared that it would be best to go back on board, which they did, taking advantage of a passing omnibus on the line Ludgate Hill to Charing Cross.

Nothing untoward occurs the next day during a trip to St Paul’s (where they note the title, Duke of Ciudad Rodrigo, on the Duke of Wellington’s tomb), the Tower and the City. The customs office makes a deep impression on Don Sebastián, who believed that England had dispensed with such barriers. But then,

“Uncle,” exclaimed … Antoñita, “didn’t it disgust you to see so many drunks in the streets? I’ve started feeling frightened.”
“Of course, but they’re not used to drinking wine,” responded Don Sebastián, “and with the little they drink they become intoxicated. England should allow free entry of Spanish wines, and they would become accustomed to it. At least, if I were a member of parliament, I would propose this to the House of Commons as one of the best means of combating the plague of alcoholism.”
Captain Walls understood that they were talking about the drunks and said, “You had already noticed that there are many drunks in these streets, but fortunately they are not English… They are foreigners!…
“But they all said, ‘My house!’ or ‘I be drink!'” [sic] said Pepito.
“Shut up, you rascal!” exclaimed Antoñita, pinching him.

The rest of the book narrates a journey by train and ship through the kingdom and is informative and amusing. However, I want to finish by returning to an episode from the party’s London adventures. Leaving the British Museum,

They ascended in a lift and found themselves in an aerial station. The railway crossed over the rooftops… Tired, exhausted, worn-out they alighted close to London Bridge…

Is Opisso confusing London with New York, is he anticipating HG Wells, or have I completely missed one of the most important episodes in the London’s railway history?

I am sure I will return to Mr Opisso one of these days: historian, translator, prominent vegetarian, prominent Tarragonian (there’s a street there named after him), father of Richard, the popular Gaudi-trained illustrator, he also allowed his personal brand to be associated with guides to other European countries.

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Comments

  1. Re Maltby: I am intrigued by the notion of Noam Chomsky as the new Bartoleme de las Casas.

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