8 Aug 2012
Hotel in Spain: the Johnstones of Tossa de Mar
Just before dusk on a late-July day in 1936 the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Hunter appeared opposite the bay facing the little town of Tossa de Mar on the Costa Brava north-east of Barcelona. The Spanish Civil War was a few days old and as the destroyer edged her way inshore the crew was unsure of how it would be received. Two of the ship's boats carefully approached the beach where most of Tossa de Mar's population had gathered to watch. HMS Hunter's mission was to take off British nationals and other foreigners who wanted to flee the war. The operation took some time and after dark the destroyer's powerful searchlight swept the beach and town as most of the foreign residents gathered up belongings and went aboard. Amongst the crowd on the beach one British couple watched the spectacle with a combination of amusement and contempt. As far they were concerned there was no reason to flee and they were not about to abandon the beleaguered Spanish Republic and Catalonia. Tossa de Mar was so isolated and inaccessible that, until then and for a long time later, the war had hardly touched the town and the couple was determined to stay.
Nancy and Archie Johnstone "had discovered Tossa de Mar by accident" in 1934 while looking for a place to vacation. Years later Nancy wrote that Archie had "by his usual method of picking a place to vacation in, had chosen the Costa Brava because he knew of no one who had ever been there." Tossa de Mar was then a town of 1,400, unspoilt by tourism and still mostly dependant on fishing and agriculture. But Tossa was unlike other other coastal towns. At the time of the First World War a number of foreign artists--from both sides of the conflict--who had exiled themselves in Barcelona were making the trek to Tossa de Mar for their vacations. They were attracted by the tranquility and the stark beauty of the rocky Costa Brava--the Wild or Savage Coast in Catalan--overlooking the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean. Through the 1920s and into early 1930s Tossa de Mar acquired a reputation in artistic circles, as far as London, Paris, and Berlin, as a quiet out-of-the-way village but that was still relatively accessible. A second wave of artists and writers arrived after 1933 consisting mostly of German Jews who had left their homeland after the Nazis gained power. The list of artists who passed through Tossa de Mar is reflected in the municipal museum’s modest collection of works by such artists as Marc Chagall, André Masson, Albert Gleizes, Jean Metzinger and Olga Sacharoff.
Soon after the Johnstone's discovered Tossa de Mar they took a leap of faith and decided to build a small hotel in the town. They would cater mostly to British tourists looking for an inexpensive holiday in a somewhat exotic locale. Perhaps the Johnstones were tired of living in London and like other Brits calculated that they could live comfortably in Spain on modest means. But Archie was a journalist with the London newspaper The News Chronicle and he was keen to escape the tumult of Fleet Street. He was also a veteran of the First World War and perhaps that contributed to his ennui with life in England. Nancy was more than willing to oblige her husband but she was also ready for an adventure. She seems to have been a whirlwind of energy dashing ahead with their plans as Archie was swept along in her wake. A timely but modest inheritance set them on their way.
The Johnstones engaged one of the refugees, a German architect, to design and supervise the construction of their hotel on a bit of land on a hill overlooking Platja Gran and across the bay from Tossa de Mar's old town, the only medieval walled town still standing on the Catalan coast. Nancy insisted that the hotel be built as high up as possible on the hill. The result was that the Casa Johnstone had magnificent views of the Mediterranean Sea and the old town but the guests would later complain of the slog up the steep slope. The Casa Johnstone opened its doors in 1935 and was soon a success. Nancy made an effort to feature Catalan cuisine in the restaurant. To fill the hotel the Johnstones worked their connections in London, especially amongst their Fleet Street friends, and soon a parade of Brits made its way to Tossa de Mar.
The civil war did not stop the Johnstones. They were committed to the cause of Republican Spain and were embarrassed and frustrated by Britain’s abandonment of a democratically elected government. They also understood Catalonia as few foreigners did, even attempting to learn the language. Bizarrely the Casa Johnstone continued to function during the war. The hotel was never empty and numbers of visitors including Fleet Street luminaries and the odd British secret service agent came through. A small staff helped run the hotel which allowed Nancy and Archie to dash off to Barcelona from time to time. Occasionally, Archie's journalistic instincts would get the better of him and he would go off to the front to report on the war for The News Chronicle. Toward the end of 1938, as the war grew more desperate for Catalonia, Nancy and Archie turned the Casa Johnstone into a children’s refuge, housing about fifty children escaping the war from all parts of Spain. Eventually the war reached even Tossa de Mar and Nancy and Archie had to flee with their charges to France. There the children were incarcerated in the refugee camps while the Johnstones, free on their British passports, arranged for their welfare. Happily all of the children were able to return to their respective families across Spain.
Nancy wrote two books about their time in Spain. The first Hotel in Spain (1937) dealt with their decision to quit London, the building of the hotel and the first months of the civil war. In the second, Hotel in Flight (1939), Nancy wrote about their determination to keep their hotel going despite the war. Nancy's books have long been out of print and most historians of the civil war are unfamiliar with them. Finding copies of the two books is very difficult. Even the tourist office in Tossa de Mar was unaware of the books until Miquel Berga, a professor at Barcelona's Universitat Pompeu Fabra, translated them into Catalan. The translations published in a single volume entitled Un Hotel a la Costa (2011) aroused much interest in the Catalan press.
Berga told me, "that Nancy’s books are valuable documents not only because of their depiction of everyday life in a small Catalan town--the Tossa de Mar of those days no longer exists--but also as a contrasting account of the war told by foreigners who came for reasons other than to fight." One of those foreigners, George Orwell, wrote a somewhat unkind review of Nancy’s second book calling it "chirpily facetious." Berga says, "that Nancy’s first book was written in a style and with a level of humour reminiscent of Mayle’s A Year in Provence but in the second book that tone changes to irony and then sarcasm." It's a change that reflects the seriousness of the evolving circumstances as the Nationalist armies advanced on Catalonia. In her second book Nancy writes about food shortages, the confusion regarding news of the war and the fear experienced by Tossa's residents. She writes about the experience of sitting in a cafe in Barcelona's Plaça de Urquinaona and suddenly running for cover as Nationalist aircraft drop bombs on the city. The book's final chapters deal with the desperate run to France, including more aerial attacks on helpless refugees.
The Johnstones felt so strongly about the British government's betrayal of the Spanish Republic that instead of returning to Britain after the civil war they went to Mexico where many Republican exiles had fled. They were able to make at least another trip to Tossa de Mar after the Second World War. Its unclear if they ever tried to recover their property. In any case the Johnstones eventually separated. Nancy stayed in Mexico and Central America and later married a French national. She wrote two other books including a novel. In 1950 Nancy was in a serious automobile accident in Guatemala and although she survived after that she disappears from the public record. After the world war Archie returned to England and then went to Moscow editing a publication of the British embassy. Later Archie joined the ranks of British defectors in Moscow becoming what a journalist at the time described as one of the "grey men", British ex-pats and defectors, who "chose freedom, Soviet-style, and tore up his British passport." He too later remarried, to a Russian. There is a hint that in his old age Archie missed those exciting days with Nancy in Spain. Shortly before he died in Moscow in 1978 Archie asked a visiting British journalist, who had recently been to Tossa de Mar, about the state of the trees that he and Nancy had planted on the grounds of the Casa Johnstone.
The Casa Johnstone still stands but now it is part of a large hotel complex and dwarfed by the buildings around it. Its rooms still have views of the sea and the old town but it now also overlooks the roofs of the hotels below. It seems lost in the confusion of hotels, apartments and private houses that now crowd the hill. To the relief of hotel guests escalators have alleviated the walk up that hill. But, if one visits the Casa Johnstone there is nothing to indicate that the building was the dream of a remarkable British couple, not even a plaque to recall the memory of Nancy and Archie.
P.S. The July/August 2012 issue of the Catalan-language magazine L'Avenç published an article that provided some additional information on the visit that Nancy Johnstone made to Tossa de Mar in the first half of 1951. The article was co-written by Glòria Bosch and Susanna Portell, two researchers who have over several years been researching the activities of the foreign artists who visited Tossa de Mar in the years prior to the Spanish Civil War. Bosch and Portell found several relevant letters in the archives of Faber and Faber, Nancy Johnstone's publisher for her two books on Tossa de Mar.
At the end of 1950 Nancy wrote a letter to her former editor at Faber and Faber asking if they would be interested in a third book on Tossa. Nancy was planning to return to Spain with her new husband and hoping to recover the hotel. The publisher wrote back saying they were interested. Nancy wrote another letter requesting that Faber and Faber draft a note saying that she had been hired to write another book on Tossa. Nancy had hoped to use the note to smooth things out with the Spanish Ministry of Tourism. However, due to some mix up at Faber and Faber she never got the note.
In any case, Nancy did go to Tossa to recover the hotel by then called the Casa Blanca. Much to her disappointment Tossa de Mar in 1951 was not the place that she and Archie had fallen in love with before the war. Catalonia under the Franco dictatorship had changed for the worse. Her new husband Fernand Caron was not prepared to put up with conditions then current in Spain. The hotel was sold and the Carons sailed for Brazil. In August of 1951 Nancy wrote a final letter to Faber and Faber with a forwarding address of a friend in Bath, England, a Miss Thomas-Porter at No. 13 Park Street. By then Nancy had disappeared from the public record.
The people responsible for the Catalan-langauge film Pa Negra are working on a feature film based on Nancy's two books. The film would be filmed in English.