The Spanish connection

Like many of his generation, my father had never been abroad as a child. Being a dutiful son, even after I was born, he always allowed himself to be persuaded to take his valuable vacations with his parents in Scotland.

We lived in Southport and I well recall the trek north. My grandparents resided in Dumfries during the winter months and then headed further north for the summer. The schlep up ‘Shap’ on the old A6 was interminable. Anyone of my generation would agree. 

This high fell in Westmorland that lay between England and Scotland, caused long delays to many a weary traveller. During this time, I acquired the ability to read in the back seat of a travelling car.

It was five hours to Dumfries and triple that to Bettyhill on the north coast of Sunderland. Yes, we did see some spectacular scenery, but the “huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’” style of holiday was a little too wholesome even for Dad’s tastes.

One spring in the late 1960s, he rebelled. Package holidays were just beginning and he bagged a bargain – two weeks for £35 each, including flights, rooms and full board. We flew to Seville at some godawful hour of the night. I fell asleep and awoke in a wonderful whitewashed room, hot Easter sun streaming in and the outdoor (unheated) pool beckoning.

Dad loved Spain from the outset: the sun, the scenery, the strong coffee, the cheap cigars, the cuisine and anything else you care to mention, apart from bullfighting, of course. Perhaps the only other he didn’t adjust to was the local ‘cava’. After a boozy reception at the hotel one evening, the cheap bubbles took their toll and he ended up with a humungous hangover of undergraduate proportions. This was not helped by hitting his head on the bed-frame, for he had failed to climb into the bed and merely slept beneath it on the cool, marble floor. Still in his suit. My mother was not impressed.

Our hotel was a converted bodega that stood on the beach, near a tiny village called Chipiona, a few kilometres from Rota, the US naval submarine base. The dining room was the converted barrel room, and featured three giant barrels of local plonk. Red, white or ‘rosado’. Luxury.

For a Scottish chap who’d only just got his licence, imagine the excitement of hiring a miniature Seat 500 and setting off into the sierra. Of course, we got lost with monotonous regularity. I remember a particular ‘Clouseau’ moment in Chipiona, where we clattered down impossibly narrow cobbled streets only to zip past the policeman on traffic duty in the central square. We did this so many times, he stopped directing traffic and simply waved at us, with his white-gloved hands and beamed at such silly tourists. 

My dad was six feet tall and his head was flat against the roof of the car. I was in the back, with no seatbelt, where I had intimate experience of the crater-like potholes. The only decent road was the one to the US base, which we saw from a distance, complete with hostile boundary fencing. The politics behind the US base, the so-called ‘Gateway to the Mediterranean’ clearly inspired the story of Not With A Whimper.


Naval Station Rota lies significantly near the Strait of Gibraltar and at the halfway point between the United States and Southwest Asia, or so they say. It has been in use since 1953, and has been of strategic importance ever since, despite localised protests, although numbers of US personnel declined after the Cold War.

Other sojourns took us through the sherry regions to Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Jerez – and even Arcos de la Frontera, where we splashed out and had lunch at the Parador. Afterwards, we clustered on an eyrie-like balcony, surveying the exhilarating views over the town and the rolling plains below. A Spanish vulture with a 10-foot wingspan flew beneath our feet.

Editing Not With A Whimper brought back so many memories – the people, the scenery, the burgeoning tourist boom. I can smell the herb-scented woodland scrub of juniper, olive and myrtle as I type.

Andalucía is more Moorish than Spanish, and the cultural step-change for the family was striking. I soon ran out of reading in those pre-Kindle times, and spent my time learning the phrase-book off by heart. A nervous ten-year-old, I found I had a knack for the language and often helped Dad buy his favourite cheap cigars, which the protagonist Alan Christian clearly prefers. We continued to commune over Spanish for many years, especially leading up to my exams, when he seemed to enjoy testing me on my vocab.

We didn't return to Scotland en famille much after that. Dad had acquired a taste for the Mediterranean lifestyle, and he went back year after year, later discovering the joys of the Catalan seaside town Cadaqués with his beloved Maggie. 

I feel sure he would have retired there had fate not intervened.

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