Socialist Worker

A lovely but heartbreaking book about memory and loss

A Spanish Civil War veteran is haunted by the horrors of the past—and the dying dictator Franco—in Last Days in Cleaver Square, writes Sadie Robinson

Issue No. 2765

Last Days in Cleaver Square, by Patrick McGrath

Last Days in Cleaver Square, by Patrick McGrath

This is a lovely book brilliantly narrated by Francis, an ageing poet and veteran of the International Brigades.

Francis has many problems. A batch of his poems seems to have gone missing. His garden is inexplicably starting to rot. His cat Henry disappears.

And he worries about being “left behind” as his daughter Gillian ­prepares to marry and move out of his home in Cleaver Square.

But Francis also has a more unusual problem, namely that general Franco keeps appearing in his home. Yet this is 1975 and the real Franco is at death’s door.

Last Days in Cleaver Square is heartbreaking, slowly unravelling a story of guilt, regret and loss.

Francis is pursued by journalist Hugh Supple, who wants to write about his time in Spain.

Eventually we learn about some of the horrors Francis witnessed, and why he has spent decades carrying around intense shame.

There is a deep sense of the ­growing vulnerability that comes with ageing.

Francis fears the “curtailment of my freedom of movement”—which really means that he could be stopped from going to the pub.

But he remains spirited, carrying out small acts of resistance to try and keep control over his own life.

Fighting fascism—remembering the International Brigades
Fighting fascism—remembering the International Brigades
  Read More

Francis is captivating as a cantankerous old man, obstinate and set in his ways while worrying about the future. And much of the book is hilarious.

Gillian’s fiance, Percy, suggests Francis move in with them.

“I can give you a garden, Percy Gauss said.

“But can you give me a smelly Fascist dictator with blood on his hands who comes into my bed at night and kills all my plants and then demands an apology?”

Francis gets to display his ­anti-fascist credentials fantastically during a visit to Madrid after Franco’s death, causing many ­“diplomatic issues”.

His enduring radicalism, even as the rest of the world appears to have moved on, is great to read.

At one point, Francis wonders why he should care about Franco’s atrocities after so many years. “Nobody else does. It is all peace and reconciliation now, all best forgotten.

“Ha. Not by me.”

Last Days in Cleaver Square, by Patrick McGrath, out now

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