Tales inspired by Mercedes' colourful life

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MERCEDES CLARASO was just seven years old when the noisy streets of Barcelona erupted in an extraordinary expression of joy. A Republic had just been declared and the city's residents rushed out of their houses to celebrate the dawning of a new era in Spain.

"I was there with my family" says Mercedes, a successful novelist who now lives in Easthouses, Midlothian.

"I remember it very clearly. There were crowds of people dancing in the street and the trams were full of people waving flags and singing. You could hardly move but the optimism in the air was infectious."

That optimism turned to darkness when just five years later in 1936 a civil war broke out in Spain. During the conflict, Mercedes' family was ripped apart as fascism became a devastating force throughout the world.

Mercedes and her sister Anna Maria fled to Glasgow with their Scottish mother Jean, leaving behind her beloved father Josep, a Catalan businessman.

The family didn't see Josep for eight years as he continued to work in his job at a company which manufactured medicines.

Mercedes recalls: "It was very hard and we missed him terribly. He came over once but after that we didn't see him because he couldn't get out of the country."

Despite the separation, the family remained extremely close. "My mother was deeply in love with my father, and my sister and I always adored him," she says, "so despite the distance we continued to have a very close relationship."

Josep stayed in Masnou and the family communicated by letter. Though the details had to be kept to a minimum due to censorship, it was through this communication that the family learnt about what life in war-torn Spain was like.

"Day-to-day life was very, very difficult and there was great hunger," says Mercedes. "And they never knew whether they were going to be bombed.

"When I returned to Spain years later, the Civil War was still in everybody's conscience and conversation."

It is these experiences of hardship and different landscapes and cultures that inform much of Mercedes' work. Now 83, she took up writing in her sixties and has now had five novels published.

This month, Magda's Lady - her second collection of short stories about Catalonia, Spain and Scotland - hits the shelves.

Of course, none of this would have been possible if it hadn't been for the extraordinary love affair between Mercedes' parents.

The couple met when Jean decided to take Spanish classes as a teenager in Glasgow. Josep was her teacher and it was love at first sight.

The couple married and had two daughters before moving to a pretty village called Masnou near Barcelona, overlooking the Mediterranean. Mercedes remembers fun days playing in the sun with her sister Anna Maria, who was a year older than her.

But Mercedes' childhood was not conventionally Spanish. Her mother Jean chose to home educate her daughters, and they didn't have a typical Spanish diet - Mercedes describes it as very plain and remembers toast featuring regularly.

When the Second World War broke out, Mercedes and her sister were taken with other evacuees to Dumfriesshire, where they worked as Land Girls in the local fields and at the dairy.

Their mother joined them in Scotland a year later, when she was able to find a job in the area, but once the war ended in 1945, she returned to Spain to be reunited with Josep.

Mercedes followed her but quickly realised that she couldn't settle in Spain as she found it too claustrophobic.

She returned to Scotland in 1956 enrolling in a course to study Spanish and French at Edinburgh University.

"My mother was always keen on speaking other languages so you could say it was in our blood," she says with a smile.

Mercedes remembers meeting friends for a chat in the university refectory off Chambers Street and attending concerts at the Usher Hall.

Her love of languages continued with a job lecturing Spanish and Catalan at St Andrews University.

And thanks to long holidays during the academic year, Mercedes was able to enjoy regular trips to see her parents in Masnou.

Her mother died in 1967 and her father remained in Spain but visited Scotland annually, until declining health resulted in him moving over permanently.

During this time, Mercedes became his full time carer, combining nursing her father with running a wholefood shop downstairs from her flat.

She says: "My father had dementia and he was too ill to cope alone. I had to look after him for the last five years of his life and it was very hard. I didn't think twice about it though. We had spent so many years without him that I wanted to be able to be there for him when he needed me."

By that point, Mercedes was a single mother, full-time carer and was running her own business, yet despite the overwhelming workload, she wasn't fazed.

"My sister was living in Duns and her husband was ill, but she would help out when she could and I would catch up on sleep. You never knew how often he would wake during the night. But I loved running the shop because it was great fun and a distraction from my father."

Mercedes looked after her father for five years until his death in 1989.

Deciding on a complete change, she moved to Berwickshire to be nearer her sister, then to Easthouses six years ago.

"I wanted to be near Anna Maria but I missed being near the city too. I like this area because there's a balance," she says.

It was shortly after arriving in Easthouses that Mercedes began writing. The stories are set in Catalonia and Scotland and include themes on love, civil war and death.

"The story Gentle Hills is set in Edinburgh," she explains. "And many of the stories are inspired by the landscapes and atmosphere of Scotland and Catalonia.

They are fictional, but I do draw on my experiences - after all, you are inclined to write about what you know - and I have a fondness for both countries."

Age has proved no barrier to Mercedes, who regularly gardens and practices T'ai Chi.

And she has more books planned. "I am quite flexible about how much of the day I will spend writing. It really depends how the spirit moves me."

Mercedes never married but she adopted son Alvin, who's now 55. She recently returned from visiting him at his Californian home where he's a recording engineer.

And despite her fond memories of Spain, she hasn't been back for many years, adding: "I would have loved to, but in practice it is a little bit difficult to find the chance. You could certainly say I've got an active temperament and so I've always been tied up with other things."

• Magda's Lady is published by Black Ace Books, and is priced at 16.95.


IN 1931, King Alfonso XIII of Spain abdicated as anti-monarchists won local elections and set up the Second Republic.

At first the people celebrated, thinking that conditions would improve for the workers. But when nothing changed they rose up against the authorities once more to demand workers' rights. Fascism was also on the rise across Europe, and civil war broke out in Spain in 1936 as General Franco set out to wrest control of the country from the republicans. The war raged for three years until 1939, devastating much of Spain and killing at least 300,000.

The conflict soon became internationalised, becoming a battleground for the forces of Fascism and Communism as Europe itself prepared for war.

It was also the first "media" war, with film, radio and poster campaigns playing a huge part in attracting support from around the world. Some 40,000 foreigners, including many Scots, travelled to Spain to fight with the republicans.