18 Oct, 2020 @ 15:00
3 mins read

Driving Over Lemons author Chris Stewart chats to Olive Press about pandemics and politics in Spain

Chris Stewart Banner

LIKE Peter Mayle and Carol Drinkwater, his books have inspired a mass exodus of Brits hankering for the good life abroad.

But unlike A Year in Provence which brought the world and his wife to Mayle’s door demanding pastis and autographed copies, unsolicited visitors will never bother Chris Stewart unless their name is Indiana Jones. El Valero, his finca wedged between the Sierra Nevada slopes and the Costa Tropical, is way too inaccessible.

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FINCA: Chris’ home in the hills

Indeed Driving Over Lemons, the title of his first international best-seller, is only one of the  hazards to negotiate along the white knuckle mountain route from civilisation to his isolated farmhouse in Granada’s Alpujarras.  

“People come here and say, ‘blimey, it looks like Afghanistan’,” jokes Chris. ““All we can see are rivers and mountains, there are no other houses. It’s the perfect place for a lockdown.

“Things were closing down even when I was young and travelling and I never got to Afghanistan which is one of my few regrets,” he continues on a more sombre note. “Now it’s very difficult to travel anywhere in the world. My daughter has lived in China for the last six years and we visit her every year … but not this year.”

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FAMILY: With wife Ana and daughter Chloe

One move this born-again campo dweller will never regret is upping drumsticks and the chance of fame in a British rock band to farm sheep in the wilds of the Spanish countryside over three decades ago.

Alongside classmates Tony Banks, Peter Gabriel, Mike Rutherford and Anthony Phillips, Stewart spent much of his youth playing in a school band that would later become Genesis. He never got to tour the world playing The Silent Sun. Instead, when he was bumped from the band in 1968 to make room for John Silver, he hit the road to travel and work in Europe.  

“It was destiny that drove me to Spain” he says. “When I was 20 years old I came to the country to learn guitar. There is not a single day I regret moving. I’ve been here for three decades and I love the country with a passion. We’re the richest people in the world because we have beautiful countryside and this wild mountainous landscape around us.”

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WORK: Herding sheep

Today he and his wife Ana spend their days shearing sheep and planting olive trees with a parrot, two horses and sundry dogs and cats for company. Chris feels safer and happier in Spain than in the UK – and so attached is he to his adopted homeland he is set to prove it by taking Spanish nationality.

I’m about to become Spanish because I’m so incensed by the absurd nonsense of Brexit,” he fumes.

“And If I could personally thank (Prime Minister) Pedro Sanchez for how he’s handled this awful pandemic then I would,” he adds. “Just look at how Trump and Johnson and all those other fools have dealt with it.” 

His enthusiasm for Spain radiates from the pages of his quartet of autobiographical books chronicling his misadventures in the Granada countryside. More than two decades since the first was published, they still resonate with expats, travellers and homebodies alike. 

“I think I just talked about universal issues and experiences,” reflects Stewart. “I tapped into a universal vein. Everyone you talk to says ‘oh wow I’d love to move to a different country, get out of the rat race and get into the countryside but barely anyone actually does.

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HAPPY: Chris at home

“Our lives are so saddled by the desire for comfort, security and convenience. Those are three words that I hate. People shop on Amazon because it’s convenient even though the people working there have a crap time on zero hour contracts.

“It makes me realise how lucky I am, even during a pandemic. There is a monstrosity present in so many forms of work, corporations who don’t give a stuff about their employees. That’s capitalism for you … it’s given me a great run but I detest it.”   

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NOVEL: Best-seller Driving Over Lemons

Driving Over Lemons has sold over 1.5 million copies to date but the state of the world has shifted considerably since it was published 21 years ago: “Of course, inevitably, the world has changed,” says Stewart. “But the way it’s changing at the moment is so sudden and so profound.” 

However, the 69-year-old author is keen to look towards life beyond COVID-19: “Coronavirus is a global issue but it hasn’t made all the other problems go to sleep,” he says.

“I feel sort of guilty that the world my generation has handed to the next is pretty tainted, in particular with regard to climate change. And politics is moving towards a totalitarian right-wing way of doing things. It’s really unpleasant.” 

“One of the fundamental changes in Spain of late is the arrival of the wretched VOX Party,” he mourns. “I see them as a grim future and something we should all be afraid of. This country suffered 40 years of vicious dictatorship and you can still see the dregs of it in some elements of Spanish society today. 

“We must fight tooth and nail against the ignorance and hatred espoused by these people – it’s simply not the Spanish way.”

For Chris, now a best-selling Spanish author thanks to his new national identity, it will be the Spanish way forever.

“I love England because I was born there, I think of the cosy little green hills of Sussex and Surrey and my heart skips a beat,” he says. “I shall be like that forever, but I want to be European.”

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