There is something winning about those optimistic upbeat books about living abroad - as opposed to travelling as a tourist abroad - that a number of British writers have managed to execute with particular style and flair. Reading Chris Stewart’s first book recently, Driving Over Lemons - An Optimist in Andalucia (first published 1999, numerous printings thereafter) was like taking a tonic. The book simply made this reader feel good about life.
Leaving aside our pipe dreams, the truth is that few of us would aspire to do all the hard and fiercely demanding work Stewart did to make a home for himself and his family at El Valero. Prior to Stewart's extensive refurbishments, El Valero was a decrepit series of farmhouse buildings, deep in the remote Alpujarras mountain range above the city of Granada. Stewart bought the place from a brusque farmer who was moving - very slowly, as it happens- into a nearby town with his much put-upon wife .
If these writers don’t do it right, of course, they come across as vapid and uninspirational. Two such books by Emma Tennant about Corfu seem too light, excessively fey, not rooted enough in the reality of the place. Much preferable are the various travel books of Lawrence Durrell whose deeply engaged poetic accounts of his time on Corfu and Cyprus (Bitter Lemons of Cyprus) are masterpieces of elegance and evocation.
Durrell (whose mother was Irish, incidentally) painted Corfu in unforgettable clarity in Prospero’s Cell, perhaps my favourite book of all time. In the course of that account, he recalled with some poetic licence no doubt - after all, he was a poet- his years on that beautiful island during the 1930s. As the work concludes, the beginnings of what was to be the Second World War looms on the horizon. War comes like a sinister ship from across the sea, overwhelming with its long shadow the soporific, peacful charms of this lush island.
Unwittingly so or otherwise, Chris Stewart's writing is more akin to the style of Lawrence Durrell’s brother Gerald. He was the author of a much better-known book about Corfu called My Family and Other Animals which was the subject some years ago of a popular BBC drama adaptation. As in My Family and Other Animals, Driving Over Lemons runs on an indefatigable vein of slapdash, easy humour, although there are far more serious episodes in Stewart's books.
That’s the abiding impression anyway, even if half the time the author is telling you about hard physical, back-breaking work he had to do twenty years ago, when he was in his forties anmd first moved into El Valero. With the help of a kindly neighbour, Domingo and his family, Chris and Ana managed to settle very well into relative mountain isolation. Primitive beginnings, indeed - their acquired farmstead was on the wrong side of a river, necessitating the building of the bridge, or fording it with the Range Rover to get to shops and civilisation.
A natural outdoors man and a kind of latter-day Robinson Crusoe, Stewart duly builds the bridges, stoically moves the rocks, cuts down tree trunks, engages in large-scale DIY building, and plans the whole thing as best he can. His books have their inevitable share of eccentric locals, but these individuals are not easy fodder for caricature – the author tacks a fine line, and that line is on the right side of affection.
There is nothing too heady or literary about Driving Over Lemons and its equally appealing sequels, A Parrott in the Pepper Tree and The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society. These are matter-of-fact yet incisive accounts told with humour and stylish pace, about rural struggle, impecunity, getting to know neighbours and friends, the wonders of sheep shearing (both in las Alpujarras and in Sweden). Stewart is a master of interesting mood shifts and does great dialogue, even if he is obliged to translate idiomatic phrases from Spanish.
In Driving Over Lemons, there is a riveting account of the author as novice sheep farmer trying to lead his flock home on his own down off a perilous mountain-side, without a sheepdog. Darkness descends and he fears their loss over mountainous precipices. In another passage, unusually heavy rain falls for days on end and inevitably the overflowing river sweeps away the bridge.
However, as Peter Gabriel writes on a cover endorsement, Chris Stewart’s Spanish idyll is not abandoned, because he is made of “sterner stuff” than most of us. Peter Gabriel you ask? Well, Chris was an original member of Genesis at Charterhouse, the school where that band formed. He was the drummer, who in fact played on the first album (a certain Phil Collins took his place on the drumstool after his unregretted departure.) That late-teen period and his time spent drumming with a circus afterwards is recounted in a chapter entitled From Genesis to The Big Top in A Parrott in the Pepper Tree.
Without having actually read the book, you might feel a little envious of Chris Stewart’s lifestyle in El Valero, surrounded by breath-takling mountain scenery and in sight of two rivers. But what Stewart has to do to make a comfortable life for his small family would break the heart of most people. Some of us might consider life in the Alpujarras with ready-made home comforts and mod cons already installed, right? At one stage he and his neighbour Domingo must knock down the entire wall they have just built built because the bricks are not properly aligned. You feel for Chris, well, kind of, but he so purposefully and promptly deals with the problem that you don’t have to sympathise for too long.
You sense a nice guy in a book, and the author comes across as a companionable sort, whose father incidentally was of Liverpool Irish stock. People like Chris actually make the reader want to be nicer themselves, which can’t be bad – the trilogy of Spanish books is as much about moral decency as anything else, unwittingly so, like many fine books. Check out another book by Chris called Three Ways to Capsize a Boat – an Optimist Afloat, which concerns his adventures as a novice sailor sailing around the Greek islands, before his Andalucian years began.
Driving Over Lemons, A Parrott in the Pepper Tree, The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society and Three Ways to Capsize a Boat are published in paperback
by Sort Of Books. www.sortof.co.uk