The Deserted Village

This was the title of a poem written by Oliver Goldsmith in 1770. The village of the poem is Auburn.

“Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain.”

Auburn represented all the dying villages in Ireland and England in the 18th century but it also represents hundreds of villages in Spain today. They are all Auburn.  As more and more hotels and apartments rise on the Mediterranean coast, the little communities in central Spain are dying.  And no one does anything about it.

Some people make money on the coast with their hotels, restaurants and bars but inland things are very different.

“Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,                                          

Where wealth accumulates and men decay.”

On Spanish television at 8.30 every evening there is a programme called “Aqui la tierra”. It does its best to be cheerful and bolster people’s spirits before the depressing news bulletins which will follow at 9 o’clock. A week or so ago a young reporter from this programme went to one of the dying villages. There she found a couple in their mid-eighties who were the last of the villagers there. They were happy and more than a little surprised to see that their situation was of interest to anyone. They did not know the programme as they had no television.

They showed the reporter around the village and took her down the main street, which was waist-high in grass.

“Such are thy bowers, in shapeless ruin all,                                           

And the long grass o’ertops the mouldering wall.”

The couple were uncomplaining. They had accepted the gradual decline of the countryside and assumed that their lonely life was normal. Unfortunately, in many parts of Spain today, it is normal. Go to Soria and look around. Go to Extremadura and find out. Whole villages lie empty. The churches are derelict and the little houses around them are beginning to fall.

This is what happens. First the school is closed, and once its school closes, a village is doomed.  Then the only shop pulls down its shutters for the last time. One by one the houses close up. The old door is locked and the key is carefully put in the pocket, just in case, but it will never be used again. It might as well be thrown away. The young people have gone to follow their careers in Barcelona, Bilbao or Madrid. Only their grandparents in the village live on where they were born. Some of the old villagers go to live with their children, some go to homes for old people but a few stay on in the place they grew up in until they too die.

The village is then left to the sun and the wind. One by one the tiles fall from the roofs. As the rain comes in, the walls fall down leaving only the gable ends. The grass grows higher and rabbits come to eat it.

Meanwhile in the city the apartments are crowded. Many young people cannot afford the mortgage to buy one. It is impossible to find a space to park, and the air is more polluted than ever.

For those few who still have work in the village, the situation is dire. A sheep farmer was recently interviewed on the local radio of Castilla and Leon, a region of long roads and small towns in the north of Spain.

He complained that sheep farmers like him are obliged to sell their milk to cheese makers and receive a pittance in return.

‘Do you ever go on holiday?’ the interviewer asked the farmer.

‘I have had no holiday for 10 years. The sheep do not take care of themselves!’

The expression 24/7 has a special meaning for men like him because 24/7 is the only working life they know. In the farm there is no clocking on or clocking off, no shutting of the office for the weekend, and no putting the ‘Closed’ sign on the shop door.

This farmer feared that he would have to stop farming altogether. He said, ‘I will have to give up and leave. And to think that my parents and my grandparents managed to eke out a living on this same land, and I will fail.’

To add insult to injury, university environmentalists sometimes come to the villages from Madrid and give instructions on how to avoid global change and how to protect the environment.

“They should live here all the year round,” said another farmer. “And then they would not be so ready with their advice. One of these experts told me ‘You should not use diesel in the tractor. It contaminates the air.’  My poor tractor has served me well for over 20 years and should have been retired long ago. I just don´t how many more years I can go on here.” So before long another person will leave the country, another tractor will be left to rust in a corner of a field, and another village will die. The roofs will fall in and the grass will grow high in the road between the houses, and everything will be silent.