JUST over a year ago, three of us, all Spanish speakers, lifelong friends with a shared passion for both Spanish and Scottish culture, cycled and busked our way across Spain. We’ve been pedalling our way around both countries for decades together. This route, west to east, Vigo to Valencia, did not take us through Catalonia – a country we know well. It didn’t matter. It was everywhere.

We were interested in what makes a nation, or a family for that matter, or even a group of friends. The stories we tell ourselves, as individuals and as groups. What, and how, we choose to remember and celebrate. What we conveniently forget, airbrush out. And how the past plays merry hell with the present.

I first made an attempt to cross Spain in the mid-1970s, following the footsteps of Laurie Lee, who recorded his adventures walking and busking 40 years previously on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. In 2019 Liam and Eddie, my cycling buddies, and I interviewed people we met along the road, made contact again with old friends and colleagues – our own little inquiry into how Spain has changed. And Scotland and Europe.

This was just pre-Covid, and although Spain has advanced in many ways, problems are looming. The Civil War continues to haunt the present, with more graves being dug up in order to confront the horrors of a past that still has the power to shape Spain’s future.

The National: Everything Passes Everything Remains author Chris Dolan busked and cycled round Spain with friends Liam Kane and Eddie MorrisonEverything Passes Everything Remains author Chris Dolan busked and cycled round Spain with friends Liam Kane and Eddie Morrison

The reawakening of the Francoist right. In the book I wonder what happened to the teenager’s optimism at end of Fascism and for the bright, European, future?

In every village and city plaza, people engaged openly with us, telling us their life stories, considered current issues – at the time, the Spanish national and European elections, the emptying out of Spain’s interior, youth unemployment and emigration… Until somebody mentioned Catalonia.


An early example, during the first week of our journey: In the tiny village of Vendas de Barreira, we watched the semi-final of the Champions League, Liverpool v Barcelona. We were cagey at first, not wanting to support a British team against a Spanish one too vocally. We needn’t have worried. Liverpool won 4–0. Dumped the great Barca out of the competition.

The Bayona bar was in uproar. It turns out everyone – truckers, farmers, barflies – hates Barcelona. We’re in Galicia, a northern region of Spain with, like Catalonia, its own once discouraged language. The crowd in the bar weren’t actively supporting Liverpool, it was a case of ABB – Anyone But Barcelona.

We noticed for the first time the faded Real Madrid pennants behind the bar.

The next day we would cross the border into Castile. Frontier towns often look to their more powerful neighbours than back into their own heartlands (not unlike Tory-leaning, more Brexit/anti-independence voters in parts of the Scottish Borders). Anti-Catalan feeling is potent all over the rest of Spain, including in Galicia. The caricature of the Catalan is rich, snobbish, entitled, always causing problems for the rest of the country.

The locals celebrated with Liverpool players 1000 miles away in Anfield. They shook our hands, embraced us.


“Viva Real!”

“Amigos, ¿cómo se dice? … Fuck Barthelona!”

Later, in Valladolid, being treated to a hearty meal by friends of Liam’s we tried to keep off the subject. Not a chance. When it inevitably came up the decibel level increased tenfold.

“Let them have their referendum! If they don’t want to stay, they can beat it.” There’s anger, frustration, but often too, a hint of sadness, bewilderment. We experienced it at every point along our route.

READ MORE: Leading Catalan pro-independence party elects presidential candidate

Even in Valencia, where we ended our cycle, there is suspicion. I had assumed that, sharing similar histories and languages – Valencianos like to tell you that Valencia is the older and purer form of Catala – they’d be brothers-in-arms. But there’s a feeling among some in the southern city (Valencia) that the northern city (Barcelona) thinks it’s a cut above and, should Catalonia ever get its independence, it would make a bid to seize Valencia, city and province.

Back in Valladolid, one of our hosts proclaims: “The Spanish constitution – everyone agreed to it! Including the Catalans. They had their say, and everyone signed. You can’t just turn your back on it now.”

But why not? we wondered. Why can’t it be tweaked, updated? The constitution prohibits any part of Spain holding a referendum, or even considering self-determination. Franco died in 1975, and we were often warned not to “go on” about him. He was ancient history. Don’t mention the war. Time to move on. Yet the 1978 constitution, only three years later, is felt to be vital, current – and binding.

THERE are exceptions.

A friend from Cantabria says that the transición after Franco’s death feels, to the Catalans and some others, particularly in the Basque Country, like an imposition. That the constitution was drawn up largely to maintain the status quo. The loudest voices, including the Francoist Manuel Fraga and members of the centre-right UCD party, out-muscled the only two progressive members on the seven strong committee.

The creation of the autonomous regions, including Catalonia, was a step in the right direction, but outlawing any future vote on further devolution or independence was both a mistake and undemocratic.

Everything Passes Everything Remains takes an interest, too, in Spanish and Scottish writers and history. Robert Cunninghame Graham, for example, wrote in 1906: “As to Catalonia, your correspondent may be sure that if, in the long run, she wishes to be free, she will gain her independence, for the whole trend of modern thought and economics is toward the evolution of small states and every great and unwieldy Power, our own included, is on the verge of a break-up and a return to its component parts.”

The Catalan movement has grown stronger ever since. But Madrid has refused to engage with it, exacerbating the problem. Until the illegal, according to the constitution, referendum of October 1, 2017, and the Spanish state’s heavy-handed response to it brought the matter to where we are now.

I was still in Spain when the Spanish courts sentenced democratic Catalan leaders to up to 12 years in prison. For Spaniards even that is too lenient. They disagree strongly with the Catalanist position that Spanish corruption extends to the justice system itself or is in thrall to Madrid’s political power. And what about the corruption scandals in Catalonia itself, they point out – the region can hardly take the high moral ground.

Under the constitution the referendum of October 1 was against the law and when the law is broken castigation must follow. If, as these friends see it, the Catalan nationalists consider the constitution flawed then they should stand for election on that basis and argue to change it. We cyclists are lovers of Spain, and Catalonia, but we make no claim to be authorities on the constitutional matters of a country that isn’t ours.

We took part in the debate by asking questions and drawing comparisons with Scottish indyref and Brexit. Ironically, we found no resistance in Spain to Scottish independence. ‘Go for it!’ said the same people who had just lambasted Catalonia’s movement.

We found ourselves explaining to those baffled by Brexit that, for many Yes voters in Scotland, it felt like a vote against nationalism, against British exceptionalism. Rightly or wrongly, many Spaniards feel that Catalonia’s movement is more ethnically based than ours, a kind of Catalan exceptionalism.

The situation is different in various ways. Catalonia is one of, if not the, richest parts of Spain – if it secedes it could be a disaster for working people in Andalusia and other less wealthy regions.

And, perhaps because of the tactics deployed by both sides, the dispute, it seems, is more ferocious, heightened by feverish language, accusations on both sides of fascism: “Catalanazis” versus “Falangistas”.

The National:

Everything Passes records, too, a certain, understandable romanticism. Memories of the civil war and pride in the Catalan revolution of 1936, put down by both Spanish nationalists and republicans, largely Madrid-based. By 1939, the anarchist rebellion crushed, fascism won out. But what the Catalan people achieved in the mid-1930s is a potent reminder of the politically possible.

A Catalan friend gets in touch towards the end of my stay, while I’m writing the book in the Alicante hills. “The referendum in October 2017 was, indeed, illegal,” Dania says. “But justice doesn’t exist in a vacuum. There have always been unfair laws and, often, they have been forced to change via civil disobedience.”

We had a wonderful time pedalling and busking across Spain.

Everyone we met was open and generous. But we were left with a certain sadness at what felt like a deliberate refusal to at least understand, and engage with, the Catalan question.