The Telephone Exchange

By Jacqueline FeldmanSeptember 26, 2016

The Telephone Exchange

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

IN LATE MAY last year, I arrived in Barcelona with the newly published edition of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia in my backpack, and although I had bought it randomly, from an airport stall, I came to rely on it as my travel guide. Orwell had come in 1936 to fight in the Spanish Civil War, hoping, I think, to disappear in it. He “was tongue-tied, stammered and seemed to be afraid of people,” attested one contemporary. He was awkwardly tall. He had been working as a grocer and reporting The Road to Wigan Pier, a study of coal miners commissioned by England’s Left Book Club. The war was less noble than he had hoped, and Orwell struggled to react nobly to it. He became disillusioned by politics and, in the place of a politics, developed a vocation, clear language. The result, in Homage to Catalonia, is self-effacing. While observing the war meticulously, Orwell offers only suggestions of self-characterization that are exquisitely, almost comically, delicate: “The leaves of the silver poplars which, in places, fringed our trenches brushed against my face; I thought what a good thing it was to be alive in a world where silver poplars grow.” The 2015 edition is the first American version in which, according to Orwell’s instructions, the two chapters densest with politics are converted to appendices; “as time passed,” writes Adam Hochschild in the foreword, “to [Orwell’s] enormous credit, on some points he was not afraid to change his mind.”

I had come to Barcelona for a conference that gathered squatters and researchers on squats from three continents. Sociology PhDs came from European capitals, Polish squatters took vacations from the direct action by which they earned a living room, and delegates from Mexico presented about a library in Mexico City that archives anarchist materials. The common language was a fast-and-loose international English. Though what we were saying mattered to us deeply, we couldn’t say it perfectly, so there was a sadness to the interactions, which could be glancing and blistering. Greek workers who collectively ran a factory were put on the spot by a Copenhagener urbanist who leaned on theory as she interrogated their feminism. I disagreed with a Polish squatter who believed poetic prose was, by nature, bourgeois if it did not directly help the cause. “The cause” could mean many things: housing rights, anti-gentrification, anti-capitalism. It sometimes was discussed as if ideas, and not people, stood to benefit. Barcelona is a small city, smaller still than Paris, with a dramatic geography. Hills rise from the sea to partition its space vertically. We were meeting on the slopes above Parc Güell, at a onetime leper hospital that had been requisitioned by squatters who were tilling its grounds industriously, as, downhill, the city shifted.

When Franco took up arms against the Spanish Republic, Communist and anarchist militias, many based in trade unions, assembled to fight him in uneasy alliance with the state. Sympathizers like Orwell traveled to Spain and enlisted. Orwell joined a brigade of the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (POUM), which he categorizes as dissident Communist, for it departed from Stalin, favoring a faster-tracked revolution than the Communist International did. These militias controlled Barcelona. On the train there, a conductor warned Orwell to remove his necktie; if there were any snobs still in the city, Orwell writes, they had gone into hiding; citizens called each other the informal “” or “comrade” and “nobody cringed or took tips.” When he returned from the front, though, Orwell found Barcelona changed. Class displays had returned to the city. The Republic resented the militias, which ran the switchboards at the Telephone Exchange, a building that still stands on Plaça Catalunya. On May 3, 1937, police raided it. Orwell, who would pen invective against crossed wires and fuzzy signals, describes the fighting at length.

Orwell’s aversion to ideology made Homage to Catalonia unpopular with Left and Right when it was first published in 1938, Hochschild writes. It sold only 800 copies before Orwell’s death in 1950. Though it’s not the sort of journalism that assumes its own omniscience, it isn’t confessional writing either, Lionel Trilling wrote in his introduction to the 1952 edition, the first American one, comparing it to the trend of memoirs “of involvement and then of disillusionment with Communism.” (Witness, by the ex-Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers, was published in that same year.) Orwell does not assume the role of the story’s moral authority, and he does not center it insistently on his own analysis. He writes about himself mostly to kvetch about the temperature in the trenches and, at one point, “the harsh croaking of the frogs.” To his credit, Orwell took a bullet, but he did not try to hide his preternatural sensitivity. For Trilling, Orwell’s genius was his clear-sightedness: “when [his essays] are at their best, they seem to have become what they are chiefly by reason of the very plainness of Orwell’s mind, his simple ability to look at things in a downright, undeceived way.” Not assuming, not confessing: Looking.


At the end of a conference session, fuming, I took the subway to the Plaça Catalunya. I was smarting from an argument with an American conference-goer who often spoke of his involvement with the squats of New York City’s Lower East Side in the 1980s, before their legalization. I had read proofs of his book and asked that he cite me properly when he copied my words, and he became irate, saying: “Where’s your solidarity?” Solidarity was one of those flexible words, from the Latin, to which researchers from all three continents found it easy to cop. I was struck that some of the words we used were capacious, accommodating meanings and their opposites.

At Plaça Catalunya, there were campaign posters on lampposts, the mayoral election was the next day, and strikers had occupied the old Telephone Exchange. Since Orwell’s writing, the shark fin–colored building had passed into the ownership of Telefónica, which had once been the national phone company, now privatized. Periodically it is accused of monopoly and pays fines. On April 7, 2015, contract workers with Movistar, which is a subsidiary of Telefónica, had started striking, requesting better conditions and pay, and when I came upon the old Telephone Exchange that May 23, they were preparing to sleep there.

Inside the Telephone Exchange, which now is called the Mobile World Centre, high-resolution screens still idly played ads, but strikers had covered them with tape, forming the words HUELGA MOVISTAR, “Movistar Strike.” Soon, one striker switched the screens off. Candy-striped stairs, blocked by a rope bow, bore a sign: “CONNECTED BEINGS: How Tech Makes Us Better.” The exhibit’s signs and advertising were in English. I Googled it and found only Newspeak. “A shared vision and collective action for change, using mobile as a catalyst,” read the Mobile World Centre site. “The Mobile World Centre is an open platform and state of the art exhibition showroom where citizens are able to understand and experience how mobile is enhancing our lives.” Three men toting billy clubs and wearing shirts slightly open at the neck stood at the base of the stairs. Nearby, strikers charged iPhones. The sounds of rubber horns from strikers on the square reached us through an open door. Other tall glass doors let in light and heat but no air. The occupation was stifling. The strikers’ site made an Orwellian observation, in Spanish: “Telefónica has every real power at its disposal: the media, the police, economic power. With these strengths, Telefónica is able to impose its definition of reality.”

Outside, I talked with a striker from Seville who spoke slowly out of courtesy to my foreign Spanish. “Telefónica pays very little,” he said, “and each year, less, less, less. This is the only way they listen to us.” Other strikers rattled tin cans to collect Euros, offering up buttons. The sky was half pink with clouds. The strikers’ posters partly covered two metal plaques that read, in English, “FREE WIFI.” The workers had hung English signs, too — for tourists, possibly: “Movistar Technicians on Strike / For Decent Work / Help Us Resist.” Occasionally a striker would come to one of the glass doors and peer out through a gap in the signage.

Across from the Mobile World Centre, the department store El Corte Inglès is crowned by a coiled parking garage, which looks senselessly complex, like a soufflé. Well-dressed people passed by the strike, rubbernecking only slightly. Tourist buses departed from Plaça Catalunya. Barcelona plays host primarily to visitors (almost 9 million that year) rather than citizens (1.6 million). Foreign men in leis weaved through the throng of strikers, leading another man, who wore a pink wig, by a leash. They tooted party noisemakers, which startled me, sounding like police whistles in the instant before I placed them and relaxed. The Guardia Urbana blocked off traffic, directing it around the square, away from the strikers. The drivers complied. “Barcelona is a town with a long history of street-fighting,” Orwell writes, “… and when the guns begin to shoot people take their places almost as in a fire-drill.”

After police overcame the Telephone Exchange in 1937, “The bullets from the tower were flying across the street,” Orwell writes. He hurried down the Ramblas, an avenue that stretches from Plaça Catalunya to the sea, observing: “a crowd of panic-stricken people was rushing down the Ramblas, away from the firing; up and down the street you could hear snap — snap — snap as the shop-keepers slammed the steel shutters over their windows.”


Standing with the crowd in Plaça Catalunya, I saw gulls and remembered I was near the sea. I found the Ramblas and followed it. White light poured from half-shell gelato stands. I glimpsed, down an alley, an improbably elaborate wax museum, decked out like a wedding cake, lit up. After training my eyes on these intermittent lights, I could not make out the features of the faces that I saw. When he was on the Ramblas, Orwell ducked into the building that was serving as POUM headquarters and, when he ventured out, noted, “The streets were utterly dark and silent, not a soul stirring […] but no barricades built yet.” Here and there in the gloom, I saw men launch light-up toys they hoped to sell. Other vendors, called manteros, hawked knockoff bags and sunglasses off of sheets they could gather quickly, should they sight police. “Down at the bottom of the Ramblas,” Orwell writes, “near the quay, I came upon a queer sight; a row of militiamen, still ragged and muddy from the front, sprawling exhaustedly on the chairs placed there for the bootblacks.”

These were still benches for the desperate. Couples used them for privacy and spats. One man removed his backpack and his shoes. A bike with worn-out spokes flicked past. I smelled a cruise ship’s engine. A club’s bass boomed huge at my back like the footsteps of a giant. The most commonly spoken language seemed not Catalan or Spanish but a slangy French, which floated from large groups of teenage boys. A woman and a man staggered past me, balancing cups and a boom box. On the bench beside mine, a couple argued in Arabic.

The sounds overwhelmed me. I closed my eyes. The languages overlay each another, Arabic on Spanish on French on Catalan, pulsing like the beats from the club or the low waves of the manicured coast. People came to Barcelona for this reason, I thought muddily, for experiences that preceded words, precluded them.

Occasionally in Homage to Catalonia, Orwell idealizes knowledge as gestured or sensed rather than spoken or written. He describes his time at the front as a kind of idyll of silence. He takes every opportunity for solo guard duty, observing the countryside as well as the texture of life in the trenches. Hardly anyone speaks, and besides, his Spanish is bad. In the book’s first scene, Orwell meets a fellow volunteer who is Italian, can’t communicate except with halting words in Spanish, and subsequently is overwhelmed: “It was as though his spirit and mine had momentarily succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy,” he writes. This sentence is not the book’s best. When Orwell arrived in Barcelona, he writes, his political beliefs were loosely formed. He ended up fighting, but he had come to report. He was against Franco, for sure, but divisions among the various militias interested him only mildly. He writes of a zeal that preceded reason as if ineffability were proof of its truth:

Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

The “blue overalls” are a typically pleasing Orwell observation, but later, the clichés into which he slips, “a state of affairs worth fighting for,” better resemble the jargon against which he’d rail in the 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language.” Abstract, Latinate words cover up crime, he would write, and such words are to be shunned. In these moments of Homage to Catalonia, though, his stance on language is more extreme. He’s against it, basically. It risks defiling the sublime. He is so generous an internationalist that he finishes as an anti-intellectual. A man who instantly recognizes his brethren will also see enemies and kill them. He knew the word for “machine gun” and asked if he could learn to shoot one.

Having overtaken the Telephone Exchange, police engaged the anarchists in street fighting. The Republican government declared the POUM illegal, saying fascists had infiltrated it, printing propaganda. Police rounded up suspected Trotskyists and supposed secret agents for the fascists. Orwell assumed he was a wanted man. Police seized his papers and letters, including the notes that he had taken at the front.

He slept outdoors. The Republic jailed friends of his, other foreigners who had left behind lives to defend it, claiming they had aided Franco’s troops. Orwell wrote letters begging for their freedom, but freedom was denied them; the newspapers were against them. One died in jail. So much writing was lies. Orwell’s proposition, in “Politics and the English Language,” is especially tragic coming from a writer: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”


The next day in Barcelona, I attended panel discussions, the strikers awoke amid a shock of white faux marble, and Ada Colau was elected mayor. She took office June 13. The grassroots party that her campaign assembled, Barcelona en Comú, promised to “win back” Barcelona from tourism, European austerity, and housing speculation. Some of Colau’s supporters had camped at Plaça Catalunya and Madrid’s Plaza del Sol in May 2011 to protest austerity; the national left-wing party Podemos had supported her campaign, albeit belatedly. Colau had helped to found a housing-rights group, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH), which had prevented about 550 evictions by the time she was elected. In a country where 3.4 million dwellings stood empty and 95 families were evicted daily, PAH had a 90 percent approval rating, according to news reports. When eviction threatened the Movistar strikers, Colau went to see them. She had been a squatter, though a strange squatter, according to the Spanish sociologist Miguel Martínez, who studies and has been engaged in squats; the local movement’s stricter anarchists had considered her unbecomingly ready to parlay with politicians.

As the votes came in, Colau and her campaigners gathered at Fabra i Coats, a former textile factory. They danced, calling: el pueblo unido jamás será vencido, or “the people united will never be defeated.” She called the moment historic, which, to this outsider, sounded right. As she spoke, I couldn’t understand her Catalan words except the ones similar to Spanish or English, the Latinate and monumental words: momento, històric. Such words mean anything. Humans use them for evil and good. Still, I was grateful to stand in the red-brick courtyard of the former factory. I glimpsed an old man dance, lifting his arms, snapping his fingers. He saw me watching him and winked. I joined the chants. I had brought another conference-goer, a German artist who understands no Spanish. I suggested in English that he got the gist. “Not at all,” he said. “Do you have a camera? It’s dumb that we don’t have a camera.” I looked through the humid night to Colau, onstage, embracing her supporters. I watched the red brick catch her spotlights.

By now, Colau has banned new hotels, slashed official expenses, and levied fines on banks for owning houses they keep empty, but some of the leftists who elected her find her overly centrist, for example on the question of regularizing the manteros, or street vendors, many of whom are undocumented migrants. Barcelona en Comú holds 11 out of 41 council seats, so it must assemble coalitions to pass policy. Last September, a separatist majority was elected to the regional legislature, and the Catalan Left is divided between those who, like Colau, stand for anti-austerity measures, and those who are for Catalan independence. This September 11, Colau joined a demonstration for independence, however equivocally, for the first time ever. Members of one Catalan separatist party compare their situation with the one Orwell relates: they are the POUM, standing for revolution, which makes the social reformers the police who besieged the Telephone Exchange. On June 19, 2015, shortly after Colau took office, after 74 days and negotiations that raised their pay and did away with covertly overlong workdays, the Movistar strike ended.

I read Homage to Catalonia as I left Barcelona, just as I had read it as I flew in, over the Mediterranean, shipping containers, and airstrips. Finally, Orwell’s ideology was not politics, but the English language. His prose glimmers when conscripted into observation. He wrote, after leaving Spain: “The details of that final journey stand out in my mind with strange clarity. I was in a different mood, a more observing mood, than I had been in for months past,” as if clear-sightedness were a fickle gift, nothing intrinsic, only turning on the lights.A doctor has just told him that, because of the bullet in his neck, he will not speak again, and it is now, as if in reaction, that Orwell sees. Although he might apply this faculty to anything, he alights on this sight:  “I watched a man making a skin bottle and discovered with great interest, what I had never known before, that they are made with the fur inside and the fur is not removed, so that you are really drinking distilled goat’s hair.” An ordinary ritual: A skin bottle, a person drinking from it, Orwell just a witness. He had succeeded, disappeared. He left Spain, taking a goatskin bottle and a lamp.


Jacqueline Feldman is a writer living in New York who also works in artificial intelligence.

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