This is a rarity – a novel of Liverpool-Spanish connections, which I came upon while digging around in the Liverpool Record Office archives for sources for my Hispanic Liverpool project. It’s the first of three novels published by the Liverpool ship owner Arthur Behrend (1895-1974), scion of the famous Bahr, Behrend shipping firm, and my copy – courtesy as ever of ABEbooks – is dedicated by the man himself: ‘Alan Bushby’s copy / Arthur Behrend / September 13th, 1935.’ Somehow, that signature makes me very happy.*
The novel is narrated by one David Grey, ‘nearing thirty’ and a new recruit at the Armada Steamship Company of Liverpool, run by the rather terrifying Don Pedro, who is:
a man of ability and wealth, his Company of world-wide repute. He claimed direct descent from Don Alonso de Guzmán, Duke of Medina Sidonia and Grand Admiral of Spain; on that account, it seemed, he named each of his ships after a galleon of the Armada. They sailed from Liverpool to South and Central America, to Spain, to Cuba and the Philippines – to wheresoever, in fact, there were Spaniards (p.3).
The plot centres around David’s increasing suspicions that Don Pedro’s business is not as straightforward as it seems, and that Don Pedro himself is at the centre of illegal activity, perhaps even violent crime. He spends a lot of time staking out Don Pedro’s isolated Wirral property Fen Hall, which is apparently based on the still existing, and still pretty isolated Denna Hall, near Neston. Very excitingly, I managed to persuade Mr BooksonSpain that we really needed to take a fieldtrip over to the Wirral to check out the landscape for ourselves (the bribe of lunch at the Boathouse in Parkgate may have had something to do with his surprisingly enthusiastic agreement…). The picture at the top of the post shows the corner of ‘Fen Hall’ – all that’s visible from the road, while the landscape to the right is the marshes in front of the Hall, where much of the novel’s action takes place.
Having got himself tangled up both in Don Pedro’s business affairs and with his beautiful daughter Margarita, David is – so he believes – kidnapped by Don Pedro and flung onto one of the company boats leaving for Spain. High jinks then ensue as, with Margarita’s help, he escapes the tiny Pyrenean village where he is being held, and flees back across the Pyrenees to England, before returning to Spain in the company of a Spanish special agent. It’s then that the novel really kicks in, with political intrigue, derring-do, claims, counter-claims, and of course, the inevitable romance. Don Pedro’s business is actually something quite, quite different from what David had understood – and through David’s eyes, we discover that he has chanced upon a significant moment in the course of recent Spanish history:
How could I have known the big bearded man was a rich landowner from the south, famous throughout the Spanish-speaking world as a breeder of fighting bulls? Or guessed the white-haired man with scowling eyes was a Catalan leader, the fat soldier on my left a general with a remarkable record of success and failure in Morocco, the red-haired man a novelist of international fame, the major a renowned aviator, the spectacled man with the mouth of a satyr and the eyes of a poet a Galician schoolmaster of humble origin one day to become president of Spain? Conspirators all, I suppose they were, yet to me they seemed on a higher plane (p.176).
The novel, which is great fun and includes some beautiful hand-drawn maps like the one I’ve included here, seems to have arisen from Behrend’s experiences in Spain as a young man, although I haven’t yet managed to untangle the entire story. We know from the family papers in the LRO archive that he spent at least 6 months in Bilbao in 1921, learning about the Spanish side of the family business, which also had significant connections in Barcelona. It looks as if this stay was the catalyst for The House of the Spaniard; he states in his history of the family company, Portrait of a Family Firm: Bahr, Behrend & Co., 1793-1945 (1970) that late in 1923, he was given three months’ paid leave from the office by his uncle, in order to finish the novel (p.92).
Behrend’s novel, of course, wouldn’t in the end be published for another twelve years – by which time the political situation in Spain would have changed considerably – but within months of its publication, it was snapped up by Ealing Studios and filmed, on location in the Pyrenees, under the direction of Reginald Denham. I haven’t yet managed to track down a copy of the film, although you can see a 5-minute segment on YouTube, with Brigitte Horney as a heavily German-accented Margarita and Peter Haddon as a frightfully silly-ass David. It’s mostly interior shots, but you get one or two externals that seem to feature typical Wirral cottages, as well as a brief glimpse of the marshes at around 4.00 that very much resembles my photo above, and a mocked-up cover of the Liverpool Echo right in the last frame. I’m very keen to track down the complete film, so if anybody has any leads, please send them this way!
*Behrend’s other two novels, both set in the world of Liverpool shipping, are Unlucky for Some (1955) and The Samarai Affair (1973).