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Walter Starkie: An Odyssey by Jacqueline Hurtley

Verónica Membrive
University of Almería, Spain

Creative Commons 4.0 by Verónica Membrive . This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-84682-363-3, 368pp.

Little is known about Walter Starkie (1894-1976), the Irish Hispanist, scholar, musician, travel writer and wandering minstrel, who, from 1940 to 1954, as the first director of the British Council in Spain, was able to foster and preserve cultural relationships between Spain and England despite political turmoil. This manifold figure enjoyed popularity in the first third of the 20th century due mainly to his travel writing, which recounted his wanderings around Romania, Hungary, Italy and Spain. The Dublin-born scholar proved to be quite elusive, and scattered information has created blanks regarding his life and contributions. The scholar Jacqueline Hurtley (University of Barcelona) has coped masterfully with the odyssey of compiling and assembling the whole lot of available data, giving birth to an excellent tribute to this unknown, multifaceted and “much mythologized subject” (Hurtley 2013: 6).

Hurtley, who had already published an advance of Walter Starkie’s biography for the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the British Council in Spain in 2010, now offers this wide-ranging text covering “Don Gualterio’s” life from cradle to grave. From the very beginning, Hurtley states her methodology, approaching Starkie’s life story through Benton’s concepts of histoire and récit, emphasizing her difficulties to apply the latter concept in the case of Starkie, her ultimate purpose being “to challenge the mushrooming myths, to deconstruct the sustained image of ‘that merry wanderer’ and to unravel the ‘complex’ character registered in recent scholarship” (7). Hurtley divides Starkie’s life into seven chapters structured in three parts and the text as a whole brims with documentation, including such details as every single article published by the Hispanist in The Irish Statesman and The Irish Independent, among other newspapers, allowing the scholar to trace Starkie’s almost constant whereabouts.

The first part, The Welding of a West Briton, includes Starkie’s birth in Harrow House, Ballybrack in 1894 and extends to his years as student at Trinity College Dublin and his London job at the Colonial Office when he was 23 years old, before going to Italy with the Y.M.C.A. as a volunteer during the First World War in 1917, just after the Easter Rising. Especially noteworthy is Hurtley’s description of Starkie’s upper-middle class family, which belonged to the Ascendancy, even though both parents professed Roman Catholicism (20), and his family’s influence on the construction of Starkie’s identity, in which, as Hurtley asserts, “performance is a fundamental notion” (4). When describing Walter’s childhood years in Killiney, Hurtley makes an oblique revision of Enid Starkie’s memoir, A Lady’s Child (1941), a book that very much contributes to portraying the Anglo-Irish family’s evolution during the first third of the 20th century and that describes the character of those children “who are shaped, and sometimes distorted, by its imprint” (Grubgeld 2004: 79). Like Elizabeth Bowen or Samuel Beckett, Walter Starkie grew up at a time in which class anxiety and loss were a consequence of the “performance of identity” (Kennedy 2005: 179) resulting from the combined factor of the Ascendancy’s declining influence on the new nation and the gradual emergence of the Catholic middle classes into a position of power. Like Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead”, Starkie is accused of being a West Briton; what is more, sometime later, during his university years, his relationship with James Stephens made his unionist allegiance totter. Hence perhaps the plethora of –and sometimes apparently conflicting– ways Starkie defines himself in his travel books: sometimes as Irish, sometimes as English, sometimes just as a wandering minstrel or a fiddler.

In part two, Courting Carnival, which covers Starkie’s years in Italy with the Y.M.C.A. while travelling with the itinerant band The Riviera Concert Party, his penchant for wearing his roving mask is thrown into relief. Hurtley shows that at the same time as Starkie met his wife-to-be, Italia Porchietti, his filofascism and enthusiasm for Mussolini’s rhetoric (he even interviewed him) start to become evident, a tendency that will pervade his entire life and will be reported in his travel writing of the thirties. After occupying the first Chair of Spanish at TCD and having Samuel Becket as a student (Whinston 2011: 1), he made his first trip to Spain in 1924 and he gave lectures at the Residencia de Estudiantes at the time when figures such as Lorca (whom he met), Buñuel, and Dalí were attending the famous institution.

Hurtley’s extensive description of “Walter the Wanderer[‘s]” (Hurtley 2013: 159) roamings around Hungary and Romania in Raggle-Taggle: Adventures with a Fiddle in Hungary and Romania (1933), and especially around Spain during the thirties in his two travel books Spanish Raggle-Taggle: Adventures with a Fiddle in Northern Spain (1934) and Don Gypsy: Adventures with a Fiddle in Barbary, Andulusia and La Mancha (1936) occupies most of part three: On with the Motley. At a time when travel books on Spain were very popular, Starkie, although mentioning some of his rather well-known predecessors such as George Borrow, John Ford or Théophile Gautier, decides not to follow their same strategy when depicting the country. Wearing his Quixotic mask, the wandering minstrel goes beyond the Romantic British attitude of superiority and abandons the description of tritely picturesque 19th century Spain. Starkie’s perusal of Spanish society and politics proves profound as he decides to collect remnants of all social classes, from the gypsies to important political or cultural figures, offering very detailed accounts in which, as Hurtley asserts, “the frontiers between fact and fiction become blurred” (2013: 178). As she mentions, the books could “function as a vehicle for anti-Marxist discourse” (188) and his fondness for Franco’s Spain can be inferred in the texts. However, although Starkie does not choose silence (159), he inclines towards prudence in his travel books on Spain, not displaying his political allegiances openly.

Nevertheless, the array of characters he meets and speaks to reveal his tendencies. Why else would the conversation between two British men regarding Gibraltar, showing a clear positioning in favour of the land’s belonging to the British empire, not have been included in the Spanish edition of Don Gypsy (1944)? Maybe to avoid censorship in Franco’s Spain since this was an uncomfortable topic? In the last pages of her biographical story, Hurtley focuses on Starkie’s significant work as first director of the British Council in Spain after leaving his positions as director of the Abbey Theatre and professor in different U.S.American universities. Although Hurtley, true to her established objectives, gives special attention to Starkie’s travel writing in the thirties and forties, a similar analysis to that of Starkie’s last travel account of Spain –The Road to Santiago: Pilgrims of St. James, published in 1957– would have been equally stimulating. In conclusion, this biography provides the reader with a many-sided perception of the multifaceted Irish scholar; thus, Walter Starkie: An Odyssey is strongly recommendable for those interested in a first-rate account of the Hispanist’s epic voyage.

Works Cited

Grubgeld, Elizabeth. 2004. Anglo-Irish Autography: Class, Gender, and the Forms of Narrative. Syracuse: Syracuse UP.

Kennedy, Seán. 2005. “Yellow: Beckett and the performance of ascendancy.New Voices in Irish Criticisms. Ruth Connolly and Ann Couglhan, eds. Dublin: Four Courts. 177-86.

Whinston, James. 2012. “Walter Fitzwilliam Starkie: (1894-1976).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: OUP [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/75075, accessed 3Jan 2014]