Eighty years on, Franco’s refugees still haunted by the past

It is 80 years since one of Europe’s worst – and least known – refugee crises, but memories of the Retirada (or withdrawal) are still vivid for Madeleine Morena. Her family were among 500,000 Spaniards who fled across the eastern Pyrenees to France when Barcelona fell to Franco’s forces near the end of the Spanish civil war on 26 January 1939, triggering one of the greatest exoduses of modern times.

Photos and documentary footage show the incredible sight of half a million people pouring towards the border towns of Puigcerdà in Spain, and Prats-de-Mollo and Le Perthus in France – women and children, Republican fighters carrying weapons, members of the International brigades. The local French newspaper, L’Indépendant, described “a haunting cohort of civilians, armed soldiers, vehicles and animals”.

“I was six years old when Barcelona fell,” says Morena, speaking in the village of Vinça, nestling in the foothills of the Pyrenees. “My father and uncle were Republican fighters so we had to flee our village near the French border. I left with my mother, brother, aunt, and grandparents. My grandfather was furious, saying: ‘Why do we have to leave? I’ve done nothing wrong.’ Everyone was panicking and I was very scared. We knew we were in danger. We just took clothes and a few possessions. I had my doll.

“The roads gave out near France so we had to walk over the Col D’Ares pass. It was bitterly cold and there was snow. We had to abandon our belongings, we couldn’t carry them. We found a hut to sleep in. The man who owned it came. It turned out he was a distant relation and in the morning he took me on his shoulders and we walked into France.”

Numerous events will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Retirada, which came to an end on 13 February 1939 when Franco’s army reached the French border. There will be photo displays on Argelès beach, exhibitions in every village near former camps, lectures, performances, and a new website. But for many years there has been silence and denial.


Read more:

Rewilding: The Oostvaardersplassen experiment

The first view of Oostvaardersplassen, a controversial rewilding project in the Netherlands, is jaw dropping. Ahead of you, across open water, is grassland stretching into the distance. Darks clouds occasionally drift up from the land and then sink down. Only when one or two birds break away from the main group do you realise these clouds are huge flocks of geese.  Beyond the geese are animal herds. Nearest are several  groups of stocky konik ponies. Occasionally a stallion charges into a group and is met with another rearing up in defence. New born foals, on spindly legs, race about. Beyond them are outlines of huge cattle and, way beyond , what looks initially like shadows on the  land, resolves into a unimaginably huge herd of red deer.IMG_9911

The sight resembles nothing more than the great plains of Africa with their migratory herds of antelope and wildebeasts . ‘The landscape itself bears an eerie resemblance to truly wild savannah in Africa’  says Paul Jepson, senior research fellow in the geography department at Oxford university,  ‘with its drifting herds and profusion of bird life – spoonbill, black stork, egret, bittern, blue-throat, marsh harrier and even sea eagle mingle with vast flocks of duck and goose.’ Europe’s first rewilding project is certainly like nothing I’ve ever seen in Europe. It has a dream like quality arousing what feels like deep archaic memories as if I’ve always known this landscape but never before seen it. And maybe that is exactly what it is: the visionaries behind this place had in mind  ‘a landscape before humans’,  achieved by allowing herds of large herbivores – the nearest they could find to the extinct megafauna of the Pleistocine era – to roam free letting nature take its course.

The result, while jaw dropping, is also absurd. What at first appears vast, is not vast at all but 56 square kilometres (22 square miles), a little pocket of land enclosed on two sides by moderately sized towns, with the north sea to the front and a large fence to the landward side. This winter which was unusually harsh exposed the absurdity to full glare. Every year about 40% of the animals die causing local controversy, but this year hundreds of animals, trapped by fencing  and with no natural predators, starved to death.    Ecologists fell out with animal rights campaigners who threw food to the animals over the fences and the controversy went first national and then  international.

Even though the fresh grass was coming through and the animals no longer starving when I visit, feeling are still at fever pitch. I meet a photographer taking pictures for a court case hoping to bring charges of animal against the Dutch State Forest, which is now responsible for this nature reserve. ‘If our pets were in this condition’ he says indignantly ‘we would be prosecuted for neglect. So why not here too?’ His view has a lot of support including a  European wide petition.  It’s hard to disagree but simultaneously, over his shoulder,  I watch wild horses galloping across the dusty plains while a marsh harrier float along the water’s edge, I gasp at the sheer astonishing beauty of it.

Whether Oostvaardersplassen is inspirational or cruelly absurd matters far beyond local disagreements. The concept of rewilding, supported by  Rewilding Europe and Rewilding UK, gains ground by the day, embraced now even by some traditional conservation organisations. At Abernethy in Scotland for example the RSPB is recreating  the original Caledonian forest and re-introducing lost species. Elsewhere wildlife trusts have beaver re-introduction schemes while  landowners , like Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, at Knepp in West Sussex have turned over a 3000 private  estate to rewilding. Most proponents of rewilding acknowledge Oostvaardersplassen as their principal inspiration like Isabella Tree who  describes her visit there  in her book Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm as ‘an experience that would revolutionise our decisions.’

Oostvaardersplassen’s influence lies in the fact it provided the first  test of  the  hypothesis that  re-introducing  large herbivores, like those which roamed Europe before humans hunted them out of existence, could in turn bring back a pre-human ecosystem when nature was abundant.  Oostvaarderplassen started life like so many parts of Holland as just another area reclaimed from the sea and destined for industrial development – the working class towns on either side bear witness to what might have been. But this area was too boggy for industry  and, left as marshland, it attracted first huge numbers of geese and then the attention of Frans Vera, a biologist. He pushed not only for the area to become a nature reserve but for  re-introduction of herbivores.  He got his way and what followed was a rapid and astonishing transformation, first -before the herbivores seriously impacted the ecology – a proliferation of  trees, plants and birds , and then -as the numbers of herbivores multiplied – a new grassland dynamic. Birds appeared in vast numbers, including unexpected ones like fish eagles, as large numbers of mammals. Now when the visitor arrives there’s an incredible sense of  nature’s plenitude.

In Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm Isabella Tree tells of a similar experiment at Knepp. There,  konick ponies, deer, wild boar and the same Heck cattle as Oostvaarderplassen   – bred to closely resemble in their DNA the now extinct auroch – were turned wild. A varied landscape of forest, grass lands and wetlands  has emerged with the same extraordinary explosion of wildlife. Knepp now has a third of all the UK’s nightingales for example. In both experiments,  nature was left to reveal itself. And what it revealed was  the crucial role grazing animals have in releasing nature’s dynamic.  ‘Animals’ says Tree, ‘ are the key to biodiversity dynamism. The impact of free roaming grazing animals in a landscape was to put it into action.’

The  discovery of such ecological dynamism is so exciting you would expect it to carry all before it. But the contradictions, and absurdities, of  some aspects of rewilding which this winter Oostvaarderplassen  exposed to international scrutiny , actually  threaten  to derail  the movement.  One of these absurdities is the  dizzying preoccupation with  restoring ‘authentic’ pre-human ecology including  ‘original pre-human megafauna’ which can lead into questionable pursuits. Another massively influential rewilding project led by  Russian scientist Sergey Zimov  includes the ambition to  ‘de-extinct’ the woolly mammoth and the sabre tooth tiger. In the eighties Zimov  created an area of Siberia known as Pleistocene Park, where large grazing herbivores have been introduced  to restore the Steppe grasslands. Still awaiting the necessary scientific break- through to bring back the mammoth from its DNA tanks are used to imitate the heaviness of the mammoth to flatten the grass and break up the tundra.

Close up,  Zimov’s ideas are less absurd than they sound.  As well as having successfully recreated the glory of the Steppes landscape, there’s a solid scientific experiment here  about the value of grasslands as opposed to arctic tundra in the fight against climate change.  And his actual re-introductions – of elk, bison and cattle resembling aurochs – have had the same explosive effect on  biodiversity as Oostvaardersplassen. Nevertheless he might be  accused of theme park rewilding, using highly artificial means to recreate ‘original’  nature.  And bringing back extinct species has an additional danger, namely making people blasé about protecting existing species if they believe anything extinct can eventually be brought back to life.

But rewilding’s  more serious problem,  is a  much more prosaic one : fencing. Or  rather what fences  symbolise , which is the question of  how rewilding projects fit alongside its current , very far from wild, surrounding neighbours. Fencing is rewilding’s Achilles heel as Oostvaardersplassen’s winter problems exposed. It’s the only current solution because, outside the fences, agricultural, urban and development interests have claims on the land and invariably take priority.  Currently there is no readiness among these interest groups to accept re-wilding especially re-introduced species or migrating herbivores. Beavers which can change whole landscapes and  wolves which might threaten livestock are particular objects of hostility while motorways, towns and other land uses mean large herbivores must be prevented from fanning out in search of food.  But fences are controversial, opening up accusations that rewilding is a ‘rich person’s zoo’.  At  Oostvaarderplassen the herds can’t migrate out nor can predators like  wolves , currently spreading across Europe towards the Netherlands,  get in.

The only way forward seems to be to find practical solutions . Speaking of Oostvaardersplassen George Monbiot says  ‘I know they would like to operate in a larger area but cant. The major problem is evidently the lack of predators. .. without predators, you get overgrazing and long slow deaths of animals from starvation. This seems to me to demand intervention, mimicking the effect of predators  by keeping herbivore numbers down.’ Knepp has already quietly adopted the solution of keeping herbivore numbers down by limited culling and selling high quality meat to support the enterprise.

A longer term bolder solution is eco-corridors between rewilded areas. Originally Oostvaarderplassen was conceived as connected to other areas by  eco corridors but the original political support for this has weakened due to the expense. It included an eco bridge over a motorway.  Paul Jepson says the failing therefore is not with the project but  with the politics, ‘The Oostvaarderplassen  is a constrained system but early this was recognised and  the reserve was included in the Dutch ecological network plans. The decision not to complete the corridor was political so, in my view,  the starvation events are as much a political as they are a natural outcome.’

Monbiot’s suggestion that herbivore numbers are controlled to  mimic predation  and  Jepson’s call for long term political solutions suggest its not the ideas of rewilding that are wrong but that practical responses are  needed to accommodate such a radical and different vision of nature conservation. None of this is going to be easy but watching the wild horses and the flocks of birds at Oostvaardersplassen I hope they’ll succeed. Rewilding  projects says George Monbiot,  challenge  existing conservation values which are defensive.  In contrast the biodynamic energy unleashed by rewilding projects bears witness to a vision of how to do conservation differently, to let nature alone to flourish. Rewilding he says opens ‘ up the ecological imagination’ and shows  ‘other landscapes can exist’.

This article appears in Resurgence magazine , November 2018

The Fashion for Foraged Food

Food for Free

I’m fortunate to have a background where local food was valued. My father, who was not at all wealthy, was nevertheless a great believer in shopping locally. As convenience shops and supermarkets began to take over, he loyally supported the local fishmongers and butchers, seeking out high-quality local produce. I inherited his tastes – and habits – so have never felt alienated from local foods. Even so, my strong commitment to local foods turns out to have been very limited after all. Foraging for local wild food was way off my compass.

It never occurred to me that plants familiar on country walks were anything other than charming weeds. My awareness was only awakened by books like Richard Mabey’s Food for Free. In particular it took articles about thrillingly interesting chefs like René Redzepi from Noma and Simon Rogan from L’Enclume to awaken a real appetite for such food.

So last summer on regular walks in Kent, I began to gather and cook nettles, seakale, wild garlic and Alexanders.

This article is in the current edition of Resurgence magazine. To read further:


Trevor Phillips and the Multiculturalism Debate

Trevor Phillips programme, Things we won’t say about race that true, has opened the debate about how integrated is our society and whether ‘multi-culturalism’  has allowed separateness and cultural isolation to flourish. Fifteen years ago, in October 2000 the Observer carried a debate between cultural theorist, Stuart Hall,  and myself on Britishness  as a result of the publication of a Runnymede Trust  report. This report suggested that  ’Britishness’ connotes racism and suggested ways of diluting it. Firstly  Britain should be reconceived as ‘community of communities’. Then  there should be a formal  declaration  that Britain is a multicultural society’. I criticised this . ‘To suggest ‘Britishness’ connotes racism is absurd, an attempt to wring a mea culpa from guilty liberals and nothing to do with advancing racial unity and equality’  ‘‘Multiculturalism’ is riddled with problems, and it is not racist to think so.’
This article was ahead of its times when it was received as an attack on a much cherished liberal orthoxody of multiculturalism.

To read the original article by me , see


Cheap Milk & the ‘Lidlisation’ of shopping

Decent food isn’t cheap, and if the ‘Lidlisation’ price wars continue it could mean the end of grass-fed cows in our fields

Lidl, Asda, Aldi and Iceland have now cut the cost of milk to 89p for four pints, making milk cheaper than most mineral water. This is astonishing, given that milk is a food that is the end product of a slow, costly, and, hopefully, careful process of rearing animals and their fodder. No wonder the British dairy industry is now looking at ruin.

Read more


Spying on carers risks damaging the trust we need to raise standards

Finding care for frail parents in their declining years has just been recognised as one of the most stressful decisions we will ever have to make. According to a new Care Quality Commission survey, it is more stressful than getting married or divorced or choosing children’s schooling. Central in this stress is the fear that carers might not just be inadequate but cruel – understandable given recent court cases exposing extreme abuse in care homes. But is the solution to use secret cameras to monitor carers? Or would this exacerbate stress by adding further distrust and creating a surveillance mentality towards work that essentially depends on good and trusting human relations?

While falling short of actually recommending that relatives should install surveillance cameras, the CQC is nevertheless endorsing their use by issuing guidelines for relatives considering such action. Andrea Sutcliffe, the watchdog’s chief inspector of adult social care, acknowledges that this is controversial. Some people, she says, will think of her as the “devil incarnate”, but she defends the guidelines as guidance for those who choose this route.

I certainly don’t think these suggestions are diabolic: they are a legitimate response to heart-breaking cases, like that of 79-year-old dementia sufferer Gladys Wright, whose abuse at the hands of “carer” Daniel Baynes was exposed by a secret camera; and it’s not as if surveillance in public spaces isn’t now routine. But nor can I embrace the move either.

Read more



Bucket Lists show people love Nature but don’t protect it

The ‘bucket list’ is a staple of contemporary publishing. There are books about “the top 100 wines you must drink”, “the 100 cities you should visit” or “the 100 walks you should do”. Most bucket lists are simply “100 things to do before you die”. So prevalent is this activity now that there’s a master bucket list website where everyone can post a list.

What’s striking is how frequently these lists are to do with Nature. The places most often chosen are those regarded as having extreme natural beauty: the Great Barrier Reef, the Amazon rainforest, the Galapagos Islands, Arizona’s Grand Canyon, Yellowstone National Park, the Giant’s Causeway. The ‘sights’ also invariably include amazing natural phenomena: the Northern Lights, a meteor shower, a full moon (preferably during a full-moon party in Thailand), a total eclipse, an active volcano. Many experiences involve exposing yourself to the power of Nature, such as white water rafting, “floating in the Dead Sea” or “showering under a waterfall”. Some express a desire for close encounters with other species: swimming with dolphins, whale watching, riding an elephant, going on a safari, seeing the mountain gorillas, or, more dubiously, “hugging a koala bear” or “cuddling a tiger cub

Read More



Loneliness is not a bug with a technological solution

Helping elderly people to use the internet is a good idea. But let’s not mistake broadband connections for social ones.

In the UK, four out of 10 over-65s do not have internet access. At a time when so much of our lives is conducted online – the payment of bills, access to information – that should be a real source of concern about potential social exclusion.

But does this mean that by widening internet access, elderly people will feel more socially connected? Or, even, more radically, as a new report suggests, could this be a solution for loneliness in old age?

Read more



Why Envy is toxic

Posted on April 25, 2014 by Ros Coward0 Comments


A very wise friend who was also a psychotherapist had just listened to my litany of complaints about a female colleague.  I was bothered by how little interest she took in things I had done, how little acknowledgement of my  work, and most of all by her constant put downs and snide remarks  about activities I was involved with. ‘Envy’ said my friend.  ‘Classic envious behaviour.  She doesn’t want you to have anything and what you have got she wants to spoil .’

It was obvious that  the two of us might be competitive.   We were in the same area of work, both trying to publish in the same outlets with children roughly the same age who had taken remarkably similar pathways. And while competitiveness is nothing to be proud of in such a situation – after all we could just become best friends with similar interests – nor is it that unusual, especially in an unsupportive work environment. But as my psychotherapist friend pointed out, envy is  different from competitiveness .Competitiveness, at its worse, might entail  flaunting your latest news and achievements, showing off, or trying to have or be the best.  But envy is  destructive. Envy isn’t just about trying to go one better. Envy is a grudge-bearing emotion, arising from wanting to spoil what the other person has or enjoys,  including any good feelings they might have about their achievements. .

Read the full article on the new website: welldoing.org


Flight MH370: our morbid fascination is with the people, not the mystery

XXA rescue mission for the relatives is now as urgent as for those on board the missing plane.

Two weeks into the search for the missing Malaysian jet, the manager of the agency co-ordinating the search for debris has raised a hope that those on board might still be alive. “We want to find these objects because they might be the best lead to where we might find people to be rescued,” he said. The effect of these words on the relatives, most of whom are still waiting in hotels, is painful to imagine. While the general public exchange amazed theories about the mystery, the relatives’ situation is the nearest one can imagine to a living hell.

Read the full article: