People - Walter Starkie

Walter StarkiE

Walter Starkie, Author (c1900-1976) ©
Walter Starkie, Author (c1900-1976)

Walter Starkie appears to be a man from another age, the age of the wandering scholar, the age when a sound knowledge of languages, music and literature could take you down the roads of a semi-mystical Europe in search of patronage, further knowledge and adventure.  Despite this tendency to roam, Starkie was no autodidact in the Quixote mode, he had a very firm academic grounding and was a Professor of Modern Languages at Trinity College in Dublin, specifically Spanish and Italian.

Owing to asthma, Walter was rejected for service in the First World War, but joined a group entertaining the forces in Italy, where he married an opera singer and somewhat complicated his legacy by supporting the initial stages of the Mussolini regime, although he was certainly not alone in that.  His Spanish adventures were long and tangled, but really took off when he was appointed to the British Institute in Madrid.  Starkie was a virtuoso on the violin and even played for an impressed Fredrico García Lorca.  In common with Lorca, he shared a fascination for the gypsies of Spain and penned books entitled Spanish Raggle Taggle and Don Gypsy.

Walter attended the famous flamenco Concurso de Cante Jondo in Granada, the 1922 event held at the Alhambra, which was put together by the composer Manuel de Falla with the help of his friend Lorca.  It would have been the perfect setting for Starkie, as he was a great story-teller who enjoyed his wine and music.  In the early 20th century, the divide between academe and the wider world was a big one, but Walter didn't just straddle this divide, he actively went to the edges of normal society.  Read his books and you can see him busking for his food at the café tables of Antequera or walking out of Ronda, his fiddle over his shoulder.

Starkie's vision of Andalucía, indeed, his picture of Spain as a whole is a romantic one, an image of the past and a lament for the changes he saw.  Despite his connections with Lorca, he was no lover of the Republic, an opinion that you can easily spot through the reading of his books.  Walter was a Catholic with right wing sympathies, a fact that meant Franco was happy with his selection as the head of the British Institute in Madrid, a position which enabled him to set up other branches, notably in Seville.  During World War Two, taking advantage of his privileged position, Starkie allowed his home to be used as a safe house for allied airman who had escaped occupied France via the Pyrenees.  

In many ways, Walter was a slightly updated version of George Borrow, a polyglot wanderer, but he had none of Borrow's puritan tendencies, although they shared an innate conservatism despite the liberality of the open road.  Starkie steeped himself in Spanish literature and his books reference many a classic, including Don Juan and Cervantes' Exemplary Novels.  He even took on the challenge of translating Don Quixote.  Starkie was fascinated with the image of the Andalusian pícaro, the rogue or chancer who made a living through his conniving wits.  He also spent a great deal of time with Andalusian gypsy musicians, chronicling their music and listening to their stories.  Writing gave him the chance to indulge this passion.  Don Gypsy is subtitled Adventure with a Fiddle in Southern Spain.

On leaving Spain, he moved to the United States, finally ending with a professorship at the University of California.  He never neglected his interests, as his field of study continued to be Spanish culture, language and folklore.  The draw of the country proved too great and he returned in the 1970s, taking up residence in Madrid, where he died in 1976.  He is buried in the city's British Cemetery.

Andrew and Suzanne Edwards have written Andalucia - A Literary Guide for Travellers, published in September 2016 by I. B.Tauris.  It may be purchased online directly from the publishers, Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers or from Amazon. This compliments their previous work, Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers (Literary Guides for Travellers)