Many of us dream of giving up the rat-race and living the simple life in a community far removed from the hustle of cities. These remain dreams for most of us, but not for Chris Stewart and his wife Ana. In 1988, they moved to Alpujarras in Andalucia, Spain, and bought a farm called El Valero without running water, electricity, telephone or an access road. And they are there still.
Stewart’s claim to fame before he became a well-known writer was that he was the drummer in Genesis when they first started out. He has since sailed a boat (and written about it), worked on a building site, was the drummer at a circus and sheared sheep before settling down in El Valero. The sheep shearing came in handy when he was at El Valero—Swedish farmers would pay for his services, money that kept the farm going. I doubt that he needs to do that any more—his books about living in Spain have, much to his surprise, been huge successes.
This is Stewart’s second book about life in El Valero with Ana and their daughter, Chloe, who was born there. Like the others, it is laugh-out-loud funny. There are several wonderful moments: Stewart addressing a group of Swedish farmers about farming in England (about which he knows nothing) and leaving them with the impression of a country that produces two-ton cows and improbable crop yields. Walking home one day, he finds his neighbour Bernardo contemplating a fig tree. “I have a little problem.” The corpse of Bernardo’s dead Pekinese, Moffli, was stuck in the tree because of his attempt to hide the dog’s death from the kids (“I swung him round and round…and then I let him go…but I think I got the timing wrong”).
The Stewarts have a motley collection of animals, including the bad-tempered and misanthropic parrot of the title, Lorca, renamed Porca. Porca falls head over heels in love with Ana and won’t let her out of his sight. He hates everyone else (especially Stewart) because they are competition for the attentions of his beloved. Porca builds nests using whatever he can get his claws on—toothbrushes, bits of twig, cutlery. Once the nest is done, he tries to entice Ana in by emitting lovesick meeps.
All this sounds idyllic but Stewart doesn’t gloss over the difficulties of living the simple life. The family try to keep their vegetable patch safe from marauding sheep and badgers, he has to stop writing to deal with a bumper crop of potatoes, and making a phone call involves walking for hour, some of it through a fast-flowing river. The telephone belongs to a family who charge exorbitant rates. “Once inside the gloomy sitting room, she [the lady of the house] would click the meter back to nought and then stand beside it, arms folded, glaring at me. On a really bad day, other members of the family would gather and glare, too.” And all this while he is trying not to (and clearly failing) to drip river water onto the floor.
There is also the very serious threat hanging over their valley: if the planned dam in the area goes ahead, their valley would be flooded, and Stewart and his farmer neighbours would have to leave.
I love these books. The family have become part of the community and obviously love it there. Stewart’s affection for their neighbours and his love of the region comes through in the book. He writes lyrically about walking in the borreguiles, the high mountain meadows of the Sierra Nevada and seeing the Sierra Nevada gentians. “Common to them all is the perfect peace, the almost supernatural clarity of the water and the springiness of the deep green grass. … In early July…I walked up to the meadows… . As I clambered over the lip, I was struck dumb by what I saw. The grass was no longer green, it was a sheet of livid blue—a blue so dazzling that it seemed to come from outside the normal spectrum of perception.”
I, for one, am keeping my fingers crossed that the dam will not go ahead, and Chris Stewart will continue to be able to live in the place he loves and which he has made his home.