The Early Days of a Better Nation

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Black Train

The annual Semana Negra in Gijón, Asturias is a literary festival like no other. For one thing, it has a crowded and raucous funfair attached, complete with Ferris wheel, scary or sedate rides, and air thick with the smells of hot sugar and – this being Spain – abundant, freshly grilled meat. For another, its focus is on genres that some might not regard as literary as all: mainly crime fiction, or 'black novels' as they're called in Spain, with an added peppery dash of comics, westerns, horror, fantasy and science fiction. And finally, it's directly and proudly political.

Just how proudly and directly, I found out a couple of weeks ago when we rode from Madrid to Gijón on el Tren Negro - the Black Train. Hired to transport dozens of writers and journalists to the festival, the Black Train is part of Semana Negra's quarter–century of tradition. It has to defer to the time-tabled trains, so progress is full of unscheduled stops and starts. Our one scheduled stop was in Mieres, a coal-mining town in the mountains of Asturias, where we were due to be greeted by the mayor and a delegation of striking miners and taken on procession through the town for a late-afternoon two-hour lunch.

Thousands of miners in the mountains of northern Spain are on strike, against a projected slashing of the subsidies that keep the pits going. The strike is bitter and militant. Passing through one nearly deserted town and village after another, you can see why. It's also popular.

At La Robla in León, the province just south of Asturias, we found ourselves held up for an hour. Journalists piled out on the platform, mobiles to their ears. León miners had blocked the track up ahead, quite unaware that their comrades in the next province – and in a different union – were waiting for us.

This misunderstanding sorted, we arrived late at Mieres, where Paco Ignacio Taibo II, legendary crime writer and festival director, led a group of writers in solidarity T-shirts out to a tumultuous welcome from the mayor and a dozen likewise T-shirted miners. Songs were sung, to the accompaniment of a bagpiper and a drummer in Asturian costume, who then led writers, mayor and miners through the quiet town. After the mayor had rallied us to a brief sit-down in the main street, we arrived at a courtyard of laden tables. We might have done the lunch justice in two hours. We had twenty minutes and made the most of them. Then it was back on the train and down from the hills to the coast, and Gijón, where a brass band at the station played the Internationale as we climbed on the bus.

Apart from that - well, like I said, it was a literary festival like no other!

Many thanks to Ian Watson, Cristina Macía, Javi, and the whole magnificent team.

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The train must have taken you over the Puerto de Pajares. I strongly recommend the use of this method, as opposed to, say, negotiating the subsequent one-in-six downhill in a van full of books.

I like Gijón a lot - I think it would remind the British visitor of Newcastle in some respects. But the whole of Asturias is to my liking, (with the exception of some snooty cider waiters in Oviedo) and a major piece of evidence in my contention that while most British visitors to Spain go to the south, they really ought to try the other side.

Yes, Gijón was great, a place I'd be happy to go back to for a longer holiday. Maybe the absence of British visitors has something to do with how great it is, though :-)

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