Article for Daily Telegraph about my father, Luis Portillo, 8 January 1999.

Author: Michael Portillo


It’s impossible for me to think of my late father, Luis, without remembering his love of words. He wrote poems in his native language, Spanish, and even when I was quite young he enjoyed reciting to me his newly-written lines. I was a poor audience because many of the words were unknown to me. Most Spaniards would have struggled with them too, as my father had an unusually large vocabulary. Perhaps some of the words were archaic, and the expressions flowery, but the lines sounded gorgeous and mellifluous.

When I think of him, the fingers of one hand are striking his forehead, tapping rhythms of sonnets that form in his mind. Or he’s looking up from the typewriter through smeary spectacles, enveloped in the smoke of a self-rolled cigarette. The poems were typed on thin sheets and he revised them by cutting and pasting, so as to produce an infinite variety of shapes and sizes of paper. They were then stored carelessly in drawers, or between the pages of books, and one of the daily dramas of my childhood was the search for missing scraps of genius. When my father became ill towards the end of his life, it fell to my mother to rummage through the house for every fragment, and at last, just before his death, to publish a volume of his work.

He wrote about Spain, bullfights, girls, nature, politics. And about exile. He had come to England at the end of the Spanish Civil War as a refugee, and for many years was unable to return home. His exile was like the unhealing wound that he bore throughout his life. The war had shattered everything. As a young man he had been conscientious, studious and brilliant. In his twenties he became a teacher of law in one of the world’s most ancient universities, Salamanca, a city which was paradise to him. In the early days of the war it came under the control of General Franco who led a military coup against the government. Luis was strongly opposed to Franco and left his job and his beloved city to support the government and join its army.

He never taught again. After three years Franco won, and Luis escaped in order to save his life. Although he talked obsessively about Franco, he told me relatively little of his war experiences. The slaughter was terrible, and the brutality beyond description. In the midst of that general horror, my father was gripped by a special fear: that he might kill one of his six younger brothers, all of whom were enlisted on the opposing side. He refused to shoot a gun, and so at the front he was a courier, running risks without the option of defending himself.

That was typical of his idealism. He was scarcely of this world. He was good and kind and generous, and he believed the best of everyone, until he encountered General Franco, whom he blamed for all the evil that befell his country.

One of his brothers found my father’s unearthliness loveable, but exasperating. Victor was so different in his political outlook from Luis that as an adolescent, at 17, he was already in jail for political activity against the government which my father so firmly supported. When I interviewed my uncle for a BBC television programme, he told me that to him it was obvious that the government was going to give Spain away to the Russian communists. He thought that Luis, who as a devout Catholic was certainly not a communist himself, was just too dreamy to see what was really going on.

The interview forms part of the trip across Spain that I made for the series Great Railway Journeys, retracing my father’s childhood and youth. In the earliest picture I have of him he’s with his parents and young brothers. It must be about 1914, but by the style of the dress, and my grandfather’s forbidding black beard, you would guess it to be Victorian. Luis is in a sailor suit, and characteristically he has a book on his knee.

The village where he grew up, Madrigal, is deeply historic. Spain’s most famous queen, Isabel, was born there in the fifteenth century, and most of the buildings and the fortified village walls have survived unchanged from that time. The village lies on the plain of Castille, which is baking hot in summer, and buffeted by icy winds in winter. Life is not easy, and the majority who work on the land are poor. My grandfather was the village doctor. He had a good sized house and a little land around it. For his family, life would have been more comfortable, but money was not plentiful.

The villages of Old Castille are full of memories for me. At the age of 8, I made my first solo visit to Spain. My parents thought rightly that it was the best way for me to learn Spanish, surrounded by people who spoke nothing else. My relatives were very kind and loving and helped me get over homesickness. There were many good things and it was the start of an adventure of discovery that enthrals me still. I had never experienced the rural life, and here were donkeys and mules, and a horse and cart in which we went off for our picnics.

But the heat was appalling, and the food seemed to consist largely of chickpeas, which made me gag. There was no plumbing. I filled a hand basin with water from a jug and when I had washed, pulled out the plug. The water ran all over the floor, and a maid scolded me as a naughty child. It hadn’t occurred to me that the basin was not plumbed in, and it didn’t cross her mind that anywhere else it might be!
I have often returned to Spain in the years since but usually for brief visits. You need time to be re-absorbed into the language and the provincial way of life. The railway journey gave me two weeks in which, like a proper Spaniard, quietly to observe the goings-on around us; the hubbub in the square on a summer’s evening, the old men playing dominoes and cards, the young lovers strolling, the children at play: in every sense, lives lived in the open.

Some of my family still live in Madrigal. Although, as I discovered, Spain has changed enormously in recent years, the village retains the traditions that still set Spain apart. Each summer at festival time, they let bulls run through the streets. A few years ago my aunt, who must be approaching 80, was standing at the gate of her house, when an enraged bull attacked her. Its horn caught her clothing and tossed her across the street, and then trampled her with its hooves. She was saved only by the bravery of a young man rushing forward and dragging her out from beneath the beast. I recently heard that her gallant rescuer appeared again at this last summer’s festival. He was running ahead of a bull when he collided with someone, fell and was too slow to pick himself up. He was gored to death.

It’s puzzling that growing up in such a place, my father should turn out to be almost fanatically gentle. He hated it if as children we tried to swat a fly, or stamp on an ant. Spiders found in the house had to rescued and put outside. He was often to be seen preparing bowls of bread and milk for hedgehogs. I think one of his main reasons for supporting the Spanish government was that it abolished the death penalty. It was used again during the civil war, and for part of that time Luis was responsible for reviewing the cases of condemned men. He commuted them all.

At the very beginning of the war, the rector of Salamanca University, Miguel de Unamuno, made a remarkable speech. It was to find its way into the history books, thanks to my father who pieced together eye witness accounts and wrote his version of what happened. Unamuno was a hugely-respected man, a devout thinker and author, who lived a hermit-like existence of study. He was Luis’s inspiration. The audience for the speech included Franco’s wife, and a very senior general, Millan Astray, mutilated veteran of Spain’s North African campaigns. Unamuno began to condemn the military coup, and was heckled by the general yelling out his regiment’s battle cry: Viva la muerte ("Long live death"). Unamuno rounded on him saying that that was the equivalent of crying "Death to life". It was a prophetic remark given the carnage of the civil war to come. After his outburst, Unamuno was led away, put under house arrest and died of a broken heart a few weeks later.

One of the more unusual things that my father learnt from Unamuno was to be one of the delights of my childhood. Luis would take a piece of paper and fold it down the middle. With a pair of scissors free hand he would then cut out the perfect silhouette of an animal, say a sheep or a cow. The fold was its back, so that the animal had four legs and would stand. The speed with which he did it, and the detail of the udder, tail and hooves, were astonishing.

Living with someone so kind is not always easy. My father was obsessive in putting others before himself. He worried about everything, and was always suffering on our behalf, puffing up minor problems into sagas, prolonging the grief. He couldn’t let a matter drop. Years later he might still be pondering some painful matter that the rest of us had consigned to oblivion.

He was vigorously eccentric. He spoke to himself out loud continuously. He would call out to strangers in the street at the top of his voice and in Spanish. As a self-conscious child I didn’t always find this easy. And I worried about his age. I remember when I was about 10 working out that when I was 30 he would be 76, and so on. I knew at that young age that he was going to grow old and I was going to lose him. I was already so like him that this became my quiet but obsessive worry.

Most of the political exiles from Spain made their way to Latin America where they could speak their own language and where there was a better chance that they could use their professional qualifications. Luis stayed in England because he met my mother, Cora. She was a Scot, but as World War II approached she was at Oxford University reading Spanish and French. Like so many British people Cora was intensely concerned about the war in Spain, and did her bit by helping out at a home for refugee children who had been evacuated following the bombing of Guernica. That’s where my parents met.

By staying in England, Luis had to find something new to do. Our law is so different from Spanish that continuing with that was not an option. For some years he worked for the BBC World Service, and I remember crouching around one of those huge 1950s radio sets to hear his voice over the air waves. There were cuts even in those days and he was made redundant. For the rest of his working life he translated from English to Spanish. The typewriter again. How often in my bedroom above where he worked into the night, I drifted to sleep to the throbbing of its keys and the ting of the bell when the carriage reached the end of each line. Since he was working with words, he took great pride even in such routine work. Again he would read me his efforts, to show how he had converted commonplace English writing into magnificent cascades of high Castillian prose.

Ask anyone what they remember about Luis and it’s always the same. Everyone loved to hear him talk. He was one of life’s natural story tellers.
How could we have guessed that one day he would forget how to speak? Alzheimer’s Disease is like a terribly cruel game. It teases you by leaving intact the body of the person you love, but changes everything that defined them as a person. We feel there’s a special sort of sadism at work when the artist goes blind, or the musician deaf. I felt it when this poet and talker lost of the power of expression.

In the long years before his death, occasionally certain stimuli could evoke a response. It might be an aria from an opera that we had enjoyed together. A picture of a cow; or of Salamanca. There was a photograph of me as a young man which made him so emotional, that we had to hide it away. We guessed he thought it was his young brother Justino, who despite my father’s self-denial in going unarmed, died in action in the civil war.

While my father lived on, or rather while his body lived on, I found it hard to recall what he had been like before the illness struck. When he died, it was as though a curtain that had obscured him fell away, and I discovered him again. In my memory there he was again, whole in his mind, telling me the story of Don Quixote, El Cid, and Unamuno.

My railway journey took me back to the land of Luis’s heroes, to the village of his formative years, to front line of the civil war; and to Salamanca, the city which he loved, and of which he dreamed during his long years in exile. I guess it is to Salamanca that his spirit returned.