IH Journal of Education and Development

IH Journal Issues

open all | close all


open all | close all

IH Journal Issues:

Published in:

The Tale of Babel en España

The Tale of Babel en España

by Brita Haycraft

A blow to Casa Internacional in Cordoba

In May 2006, an email from someone unknown to me in Cordoba arrived. A Spanish publisher wanted to publish John’s book Babel In Spain in Spanish and would I give permission to have it translated? I was stunned. This book had lain dormant for almost half a century.

1958: Babel in Spain by John Haycraft

Babel In Spain came out in London in 1958 with Hamish Hamilton to very good reviews, giving John’s writing career a promising jolt. But in Cordoba it caused a furore among the city’s ruling class, staunchly on Franco’s side.

A cluster of señoritas had been devoted students of John´s ever since the beginning in 1953 and one of them had bought a copy in London and begun to read her admired teacher’s book.  She would have found that it wasn’t the usual eulogy to the regime and she quickly told her fellow students and so her whole class upped and left the school. Most of our students, however, needed English too badly for their exams or careers to pay attention and so our busy academia continued unperturbed, luckily.

1950s: John teaching a class in Cordoba

But John felt indignant. His fond portrayal of Cordoba and the Andalucians including their frustrations with the regime, had appealed to the UK reviewers. But the Cordoba inner circles called it a scandal. Yet no one had read that English book!

Let me set the scene, as I remember it, after fifty years.

Cordoba in the early 50s was still dimly lit with 110 v. in the street and home, and reading books was not a common pastime, still less in a foreign language. Nor did the prevailing censorship encourage much reading, and illiteracy was common. Besides, there were many more fun things to do than to reading.

Everyone was outdoors in the cool evening, criss-crossing the main square, rich, poor, young, old, elegant señoras with fans, servant girls in neat aprons, passing mules, leisurely gentlemen taking it all in from the cafés lining the pavement, all observed by shopkeepers and waiters leaning in doorways. No opera stage could do justice to these lively comings and goings. It was of course also the perfect breeding ground for gossip.

1956: Relaxing at San Fernando 13, Cordoba

In an instant, rumours had spread among the influential citizens that John’s book – “el Libro “- was a disgrace, a horror, though no one had read it. Certainly the town´s only bookshop didn´t stock it – or any other foreign book.

When previously we had always been greeted in the street with affection, former good friends now shunned us and would cross the street if John was approaching. Their wives, though, would sometimes come up to me and squeeze my arm pitying me over my husband’s dreadful deed, particularly as I was pregnant again. The scene would have fitted into Mrs Gaskell’s Cranford, the recent BBC 2 series.

Our first four years in Cordoba we had no children, which worried friends and neighbours, even shopkeepers. So when our daughter Katinka was at last born, she was showered with gifts and now with a second child following, and a boy at that, born in Cordoba itself, there was jubilation. This posed a dilemma to those former good friends who now avoided us.

1953: First school in calle Osio 4, Cordoba

Our closest Cordobese friends remained loyal and congregated as usual in the Academia. Only the elegant, beautiful club closed their doors on us, where our three previous Easter courses in Spanish for foreigners had been held magnificently. This year it had to move to the local lycee. I remember myself feeling both guilty and astonished at the reaction to John’s vivid and affectionate book. But when two articles appeared in the local paper El Diario de Cordoba, with unjust accusations, making it evident that neither accuser could have read the book, John was fuming and defended himself in a calm measured reply printed in the Cordoba paper, as entitled by Spanish press laws.

While our school was doing well, our English teachers nevertheless felt uneasy – as did we – that this rift had appeared between the school and a certain section of the students, a minority but a powerful one.  Not long before, we had heard that the Town Hall was thinking of creating John “a favoured son of the city”.

Summer approached and as the heat intensified, it was time for our annual departure. The school always slowed down during the hot summer and could only keep a few teachers to run it, while we left for (more lucrative) summer jobs teaching in Sweden and taking American tourists round Europe.

But this time, with two small children, we needed to find a home in London, no longer able to sleep on London friends’ floors during our summer visits. In late May we left for good to begin our new life in London.

Revenge at the Spanish border

In October 1959, settled in Blackheath, we started a little school in London and when in June 1961 we moved into Shaftesbury Avenue, the school grew rapidly and the TEFL training course made its appearance.

Of course we kept close contact with the Cordoba school and our friends there, and re-visited Cordoba in 1962. The school was doing fine and there was a warm reunion with everybody. The cloud under which we had left in 1959 had dispersed, or mattered less to us, now that London and IH were beginning to swing.

1956: Academia Britanica on 1st & 2 nd floors

First International Week in Cordoba

We sold our remaining half share in the school to our Australian teacher Ned Thomas, who at once sold it Eulogio Cremades, one of our first students, and soon our school secretary.  And it now became affiliated to our new London Casa Internacional. With all the rapid developments in London, the Cordoba reaction to Babel In Spain had sunk into oblivion.

IH progressed and at Easter 1965 we took our first holiday, now with three children in the fold. We had rented a villa in Los Boliches on the Malaga coast and had flown to Gibraltar and taken the ferry to Algeciras.  We were sitting there in the sun, waiting for the Malaga bus on that dusty afternoon, with our six and seven year old Richard and Katinka, baby Jimmy in his pram and our Swedish au pair girl Lotta. Suddenly a small man in uniform approached and asked if John was ‘el señor Haycraft’. John nodded whereupon the official said “Come with me. You are “prohibido de entrar en España”. “What?” John blurted out. “Look!” said the man pointing to the open register he was holding. “You come with me.” He beckoned and John had no option but to follow him.

It was so sudden and I could hardly believe it. John returned after a short while and indeed he truly had to return to Gibraltar, as apparently he was banned from entry into Spain. “I´ll ring you from Morocco.” were his last words.

I pulled myself together and explained to the children that Daddy had to go back to Gibraltar to collect a suitcase we´d left behind. The bus arrived and we settled down for the coastal journey. My head was spinning.

Three hours later we spilled out of the bus at Los Boliches met by Katinka´s godmother Marete who had been our German teacher in Cordoba and had remained there. “Where´s John?” she wondered. “Oh, we left a suitcase in Gibraltar so he had to go back and collect it, but he´ll come later” I assured her, as casually as I could manage.

The villa was lovely and cool inside and Marete had prepared a meal for us. With the children in bed, we kipped down in the hall. Then I broke down and told Marete the truth. It was all so incomprehensible, so unreal. Our Spain suddenly seemed hostile towards us.

If people wonder why we didn´t remain in Spain if we were so fond of it, they don´t realise what a particular travelling animal my husband was. He always did the nearest thing to being in several places at the same time and always would have done, if he hadn´t had a family of three children. It would have been too big a decision  to bring them up in Spain and we didn’t have the money to allow us frequent visits back home. So we had settled down back in the UK.

1956: On the roof terrace at San Fernando 13

As Marete and I were lamenting away in the dark, there was a sudden knock on the front door. “That´s John.” I said. And it was! He´d got in via Malaga, and how he´d managed it is all told in his autobiography.

After a lovely undisturbed holiday, visiting Cordoba too, the family left, again via Gibraltar, without any problems. Back in London the whole episode remained an enigma – not to be boasted about – and gradually it faded in our memories.

It was strange that the Spanish authorities never sent a warning letter about a ban. Perhaps all bans are sprung on you like that for greater effect. Only two years later, however, John was back in Spain, unhindered, to be interviewed by Radio Madrid about teacher training. And with Ben Warren´s new school in Sabadell in the early 70s, both of us went went back to Spain and Cordoba twice while Franco was still alive and in power.  There was no more mention ever again of the ban.

A Belated Change of Mind

Then in 2006 a Spanish publisher wanted to translate Babel In Spain and bring it out in a series of foreign books about Spain not allowed in the Franco era. I felt utterly confused, but also euphoric. If only John had known… The publisher was a young man of 35, intrigued and fascinated by Spain in those days. I thought to myself that his family must have been fortunate enough to escape any dreadful happenings in the civil war or he wouldn´t have wanted to stir up old memories. I met the Madrid professor who had read about the “scandalous Babel In Spain” and the “stupidity of the Englishman Haycraft” in the recent memoirs of an 85 year-old famous Cordobese doctoriv. The professor who had grown up in Cordoba with parents still living there, smelt a rat and got hold of the book and read it – in English – and found it a rare account written about middle class life in an Andalucian city during Franco´s regime. He contacted the publishers who contacted me.

And so the scandalous book became Babel en España, beautifully translated, seeming almost to belong in Spanish and launched,  after almost half a century in a new large bookshop in Cordoba with book signing and copas de Jerez – the origin of sherry. Several former Casa Internacional students, now white-haired, turned up. At last the infamous book could be read, even by the famous doctor, and found innocent of the accusations. Old friends now wonder what the fuss was all about. On publication, the story was soon told in the press, who exaggerated it saying we had shocked the whole town and John´s passport had been confiscated and we could never enter Spain again. This was not at all so. Cordoba never ceased to be very friendly towards us,

With hindsight, it now occurs to me that the student buying John´s book in London might have felt in danger by attending the school of this “subversive” author, her uncle being one of Franco´s ministers. But it is a bit spooky to learn from old Cordoba friends now that it could happen in those days that an influential individual quietly arranged for a ban to be issued on someone as a revenge. Fortunately the ban was local and applied just the once, though no letter has ever arrived to say it has been lifted!

Further reading

Remembering Language Travelling                  IHJ Issue 5

Fifty Years of IH in Broad Brush Strokes           IHJ Issue14

Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell 106                       IHJ Issue 22

IH in Covent Garden: Then and Now                 IHJ Issue 24

Author’s Bio:
Brita Haycraft and her husband John founded International House in Cordoba, Spain in 1953. Back in London in 1959, after a year and a half modestly in Endell Street in Covent Garden, they found 40 Shaftesbury Avenue, where IH flourished but on a half yearly lease only. It was renewed every year until 1977 when John spotted a whole, historical, building with a 19-year lease at 106 Piccadilly! IH thrived there for 30 years. With the freehold never on offer, however, it was time to find a place IH could own.

Similar Articles: