Ironic Detachment Will No Longer Do: On Sarah Watling’s “Tomorrow Perhaps the Future”

By Ian EllisonJanuary 14, 2024

Ironic Detachment Will No Longer Do: On Sarah Watling’s “Tomorrow Perhaps the Future”

Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War by Sarah Watling

AROUND THE TURN of the 20th century, thousands of people left their homes in Spain to seek a better life in the United States. On their way, many of them passed through the English port city of Liverpool. But plenty also stayed there. Although their histories may have been largely forgotten, their descendants still live in the city today and every family has fascinating stories to tell. Growing up in Liverpool and later living in Bilbao, Spain, I was largely ignorant of these stories. But the Hispanic Liverpool Community Collection has done tremendous work in recent years to make available the histories and experiences of arrivals from Spain to the city. Its digital archive is free to access and contains many captivating photographs and other artifacts. Earlier in the century, however, the situation was harder to miss.

On June 23, 1937, Virginia Woolf noted in her diary the arrival of Basque refugees in London:

[A] long trail of fugitives—like a caravan in a desert—came through the square: Spaniards flying from Bilbao, which has fallen, I suppose. Somehow brought tears to my eyes, tho’ no one seemed surprised. Children trudging along; women in London cheap jackets with gay handkerchiefs on their heads, young men, & all carrying either cheap cases, & bright blue enamel kettles, very large, & saucepans, filled I suppose with gifts from some Charity—a shuffling trudging procession, flying—impelled by machine guns in Spanish fields to trudge through Tavistock [Square], along Gordon Square, then where?—clasping their enamel kettles.

Over the course of the 1930s, however, traffic went both ways. Numerous women and men from across Britain, Europe, and the United States traveled to Spain to join what they considered to be a historic fight for freedom from fascist tyranny. Sarah Watling’s rollicking book Tomorrow Perhaps the Future: Writers, Outsiders, and the Spanish Civil War (2023) follows a wide range of these extraordinary outsiders who chose to live out their lives according to their principles, with conviction and great courage.

The book entwines the path of young American journalist Martha Gellhorn with that of experienced radical Josephine Herbst. Sylvia Townsend Warner and Valentine Ackland, British writers and romantic partners, orbit the deeds of aristocratic rebel Jessica Mitford and maverick poet Nancy Cunard. Drawing on these remarkable figures’ responses to the Spanish Civil War in both literature and life, Watling also considers the more cautious positions of writers like Woolf, who tried—and failed—to keep the conflict out of her family. Most engaging of all, perhaps, are the less well-known stories of African American nurse Salaria Kea and German Jewish photographer Gerda Taro. For each of these women, Spain became, in way one or another, a defining experience, a place where they found a freedom that would have been quite unimaginable at home. Ackland and Warner, for instance, were limited in how open they could be about their queer relationship in their Dorset village. In revolutionary Barcelona, however, they experienced an extraordinary sense of queer liberation.

Until I first saw Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), then shortly thereafter began to study Spanish as a beginner at university, I had—like many people in Britain—a very romanticized idea of the Spanish Civil War. There is a persistent impression in the popular imagination that it was the war of Ernest Hemingway, George Orwell, W. H. Auden (whose 1937 poem “Spain” provides Watling’s title), Langston Hughes, and other writers who went to Spain, believing in what was to become the great lost cause of the Spanish Republicans. And there are many good reasons why that impression of the war persists, not least because, between 1939 and 1975, Spain was seen as the site of a terrible tragedy—the place where a democracy that had battled so tenaciously to survive was snuffed out. Tomorrow Perhaps the Future explores what it meant, for the writer-activists from outside Spain who set out to fight alongside Republican forces, to be so galvanized by a valiant but lost cause, which Albert Camus would later declare his generation carried in their hearts “like an evil wound.”

Watling’s book asks what would happen if we recentered the history we already know, which is so focused on what famous men were doing. She reveals the huge range of women who felt that the Civil War was significant to them. “They saw history coming,” Watling pronounces, “and went out to meet it.” Not that this was always recognized for what it was. When Jessica Mitford, the only professed communist in a family of aristocratic fascists, ran away to Spain with her second cousin, Esmond Romilly, a member of the International Brigades, the scandal sheets of the day reported it as an elopement, rather than the serious political awakening Mitford felt it to be.

The book’s cover image, an extraordinary picture taken by Gerda Taro, shows a female militia member kneeling and aiming a pistol on a beach outside Barcelona. Surely the reason Taro took this picture was because she understood how incredibly newsworthy the idea of a female fighter was in 1930s Europe. The photograph also encapsulates something about this period of change and upheaval that Taro was living through in Barcelona in the early stages of the war, when it seemed as if things like women’s liberation would be possible in the revolutionary flux that had been unleashed by the chaos of Franco’s attempted coup.

Martha Gellhorn is famous for two things: one, for better or for worse, is being the wife of Hemingway; the other is her extraordinary career as a war reporter (she is probably best known for being the only woman to cover the D-Day landings). It was in Spain, however, that both of these aspects of her life crystallized. Her affair with Hemingway took off (he was still married at that point to his second wife, journalist Pauline Pfeiffer), and she had her first experience of being a war correspondent, having not really been a journalist at all before the Civil War. Over the course of the conflict, her writing searched for a mode that could accurately capture and convey what she was witnessing in Spain. Bear in mind that this was before the Blitz or Hiroshima, and no one had yet witnessed such bombardment of civilians as was happening in towns like Guernica. In her writing, Gellhorn strove to go beyond simply reporting on events, writing in an almost literary style and employing devices usually confined to the realm of fiction to aid her evocative descriptions. She wanted to make her readers abroad understand what it was like to be living through these experiences, and how people in Spain were affected by them.

When thinking about why outsiders were so animated by the Civil War, we have to remember the appeasement policies of Britain, France, and other democracies that declined to stand up to Hitler and Mussolini when they interfered in Spanish affairs. Gellhorn’s attempt at changing the narrative, forcing people abroad to understand how high the stakes were, marked a significant intervention. It was clear to her that the only reason people were not protesting about these events was that they didn’t know about them. She sought to portray Spaniards not as distant foreigners but as people who should matter to her readers. Often she would try and get under her readers’ skin, describing in her articles for Collier’s magazine how walking through Madrid was just like walking through New York, right up until you came across a trench or a barricade. The events Gellhorn was witnessing were so horrendous that she felt it was wrong to try and write a typically “balanced” or merely informative journalistic account. What she wanted to provoke in her readers’ pain was the disquieting thought that if it could happen over there, it could happen anywhere: perhaps London could be bombed, or New York.

Despite the policy of appeasement, the fascist powers in 1936 were, after all, becoming highly aggressive on the international stage. Mussolini had invaded Ethiopia the year before, and Germany was rearming in the Rhineland. Many individuals felt they needed to head to Spain given their own governments’ failure to support the Spanish Republican cause. They recognized that disaster was coming for Europe if they chose not to stand against the forces of fascism. This palpable sense of urgency, of looming catastrophe for the continent, is communicated well by Watling. This theme, above all, is what unites the disparate cast of characters peopling the book: they all paid attention to what was happening in the world. They were also unafraid to look to the future. They thought some terrible war would come, but they didn’t despair, refusing to let fear overwhelm them.

Several months into the Civil War, Nancy Cunard, a former socialite who by the 1930s was a poet, journalist, and publisher, produced a widely distributed pamphlet. She had written to about 200 writers in Britain, asking them to state publicly which side they supported in the war, whether it was the Republic battling to survive or Franco and his allies in Germany and Italy. “It is clear to many of us throughout the whole world that now, as certainly never before, we are determined or compelled, to take sides,” she wrote. “The equivocal attitude, the Ivory Tower, the paradoxical, the ironic detachment, will no longer do.”

In his 2020 book Following Franco: Spanish Culture and Politics in Transition, Duncan Wheeler argues:

It is not necessary to subscribe to the ‘collective madness’ theory, propounded by some apologists for Francoism, which bypasses the fact that the Civil War has a very specific origin—an illegal uprising against a democratically elected Government—to recognise, as so many foreign volunteers discovered too late or not at all, that the two sides were far from homogeneous, nor was everyone fighting for the same objective.

Watling’s book is not a new history of the Spanish Civil War, and she says rather little about the complex views and multifarious actions of the Spanish population; it is nonetheless a valuable intervention precisely because it focuses on the intensely felt—at times idealized—perspectives of outsiders to Spain. The book reveals the extraordinary range of people from beyond the country’s borders who were mobilized by the Civil War, coming to see it as the great cause of their lives.

What resonates throughout Watling’s thrillingly informative book, and beyond its pages in our age of entrenched political division and the renewed conflicts of recent months and years, is the question Nancy Cunard asked of her contemporaries: which side are you on? Tomorrow Perhaps the Future confronts head-on the role of the arts in solidarity and resistance. It compels its readers to reflect on what it means to declare a side, how to recognize when the time to step forward has come, and whether their outrage will make a difference.

LARB Contributor

Ian Ellison is the postdoctoral research associate on the “Kafka’s Transformative Communities” project at the University of Oxford and a visiting fellow of Wadham College. He was short-listed for the 2023 Peirene Stevns Translation Prize, and his first book, Late Europeans and Melancholy Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium, appeared in 2022.


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