Bloody Flags, Bleeding City


Strolling back from the bank on the second Monday of November in Sant Cugat del Vallès, I’m sweating, over-dressed for autumn, and once again I’ve underestimated the extraordinary persistence of summer in these parts. I’m heading back to my barrio, Coll Fava – not so long ago a piece of agricultural land just outside the old town, now, with the rapid expansion of the last 30 post-Olympics years, a modern housing development combining apartments, gardens and swimming pools – and, crossing the green space in front of the 4 story apartment block where I live, I once again see the flags, plenty of them, dripping from the balcony spaces. In fact, hanging from the balconies of the two apartments below and the one above my place, there’s three identical flags: the blue starred flag ‘L’Estelada Blava’ of the Catalan independentist movement. There’s nothing unusual about this, they’re everywhere, all variations of the basic four red stripes on yellow Catalan Flag ‘La Senyera’ – Els Quatre Dits de Sang (The Four Fingers of Blood). A few years back, we were returning from the beautiful volcanic La Garrotxa National Park in the even more independentista heartlands of northern Catalunya when, crossing a small town, we drove past a faceless rectangular apartment block jaw-droppingly over festooned, bedecked and weighed down with flags, all shouting the same colour-coded slogans of past Catalan traumas and future separatist longings. While the red and golden yellow stripes, along with the blue and yellow triangles, certainly added much needed colour and geometric diversity to the drab architecture of the building, I was shocked and disturbed at this display. That was 2014, the year when Catalunya remembered 300 traumatic years of Bourbon oppression and hegemony, a year when those of us for whom this is not our cause, were also dying of Bourbon!!

English novelist Martin Amis writing about the impact of ‘the rise of extreme Islamism’ wrote about ‘a great symbolic victory for boredom’ through the banning of books and the time spent in airports having been rendered unendurably long. To Amis’ ‘age of boredom’ surely must be added the flag-waving, flag-hanging tedium of the omnipresent Catalan flag. Ironic, because here in the least visually boring place, all these flags feel so jarringly at odds with what surrounds them.

But then of course this is not a question of aesthetics. Nor football, despite Barca’s away kit in recent years being modelled on the flag, the great club’s separatist longings clearly do not stretch as far as a Catalan breakaway from La Liga. These are matters connected to Catalan identity and belonging, and their intense deeply rooted historical conflicts with invading and oppressive others, not just the Bourbon and Francoist Spanish but also the Saracens, the French and the English, who so often seem to have played a part in setting in motion insoluble historical tensions. All these bloody flags are a reminder that the Catalans are a wounded people, a wounded people yet to heal, still bleeding, even bleeding from their buildings.

The colour red, a symbol of blood, love and belonging, draws us into the open wounds of past glories and traumas and the blood ties of people bound together by their shared traumatic past.  I read somewhere that 77% of national flags contain the colour red. This is far from coincidence. Flags are one way of connoting, not just blood ties and belonging, but also of putting chosen collective traumas on display.

According to Vamik Volkan Turkish Cypriot Psychoanalyst, former Director of the Centre for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction and author of Blood Lines,

Understanding chosen trauma – the mental representation of an event that has caused a large group to face drastic losses, feel helpless and victimised by another group, and share a humiliating injury – is key to discerning the process of transgenerational transmission of past historical events (1999).

The story (actually there are many) of the Catalan flag – more a legend than history – La Senyera goes back to 898AD and Visigoth Wilfred the Hairy (Guifré el Pélos, first Count of Barcelona sometimes referred to as the founder of Catalonia) and his death at the hands of the ‘invading’ but defeated Saracens (medieval term used for Muslims). Legend says that on his deathbed while mortally wounded and bleeding he was visited in his tent by Frankist King Louis the Pious. To honour his ally and at the request of the dying man the King created a coat of arms by dipping his four fingers in Wilfred’s blood and running them across the gold leaf on his shield and in-so-doing gave birth to the “quatre barres…els quatre dits de sang” of Catalunya’s national flag.

The legend of the flag’s origins goes back to both the traumatic loss of an early heroic founding figure and the glory of a victory in battle in defeating and repelling Islamic attempts to occupy the city of Barcelona. So, when we look around and see the Catalan flag dripping from the balconies and brickwork of every building in Catalunya, it is the blood of Wilfred that pours down the walls.

As injured self- and internalised object-images pass from generation to generation, the chosen trauma they carry assumes new functions, new tasks. The historical truth about the event is no longer of psychological importance for the large group; what is important is the sense of being linked together by the shared chosen trauma, which usually becomes highly mythologised (Volkan, 2006)

However, the trauma of most immediate importance, if we are to understand the bloody buildings of Catalunya today, happened many centuries later in 1714 when Philip V, the first King of the Bourbon dynasty, came to the throne of Spain. The end of the bloody 14 month siege of Barcelona, during which 5,000 civilian Catalans fiercely defended their city against a professional army many times bigger, under the black banner of “privilegis o mort”, signifying a determination to fight to the death. This brought an end to the War of Spanish Succession, an end to the inbred and ineffectual Habsburgs, their corrupted twisted faces immortalised by Velázquez, and an end to the boundaries between France and Spain, “The Pyrenees are no more,” Louis XIV rejoiced at his grandson Philip V’s accession.

The acceptance of the Spanish crown by Philip V in the face of counterclaims by Archduke Charles of Austria, who was supported by England and the Netherlands, was the principle cause of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-14), the first “world war” fought by European powers. In 1705 an Anglo-Austrian force landed in Spain. A Franco-Castilian army halted its advance on Madrid, but the invaders occupied Catalonia. Castile enthusiastically received the Bourbon dynasty, but the Catalans opposed it, not so much out of loyalty to the Habsburgs but more out of fear of a French-style centralisation of control being imposed by a Castilian regime.

The Treaty of Utrecht (1713) brought the war to a close and recognised the Bourbon succession in Spain on the condition that Spain and France would never be united under the same crown. The seeds of a modern single unified kingdom of Spain were born at this point and Catalunya came to an end as a political entity. The flags, the bloody flags, remind us that neither the siege of Barcelona, nor an independent Catalunya, ended in 1714 as core defining ideas and aspirations. The buildings here bleed and will continue to do so until……

The recent independentist riots, following a general strike in late October 2019 in protest against the Spanish supreme court’s decision to jail nine leaders for sedition and the misuse of public funds, began to feel like a new siege of Barcelona as

Black smoke rose 10 metres above the city as protesters set fire to rubbish bins and a newspaper kiosk. Thousands gathered in the surrounding streets chanting: “The streets will always be ours!”

Although many were hurt, surprisingly nobody died. And for months afterwards the rubbish mounted on the pavements and the scarred streets were slowly repaired by the local council.  And the bloody flags continued to hang above these same damaged streets, reminding us that the wounds of this region are far from healed.