“When I say I left home at 18 the Spanish look at me as if to say, What was your problem?!”

As part of our series of interviews with people who have made their lives in Spain, Abi Clark meets Andy Mackay, the director of the British Council’s operations in Spain and Portugal

Director of the British Council in Spain Andy Mackay.
Director of the British Council in Spain Andy Mackay.

“My job here is to get to know people, to get to know the country and to look for opportunities to build relationships and build dialogue – so I can’t complain about that!”

The man with this enviable workload is Andy Mackay, who arrived in Madrid in 2015 and has since been in charge of the British Council’s operations in Spain and Portugal – a huge undertaking.

“The challenge for me was trying to get my arms around the scale, working out what was common and what was different, because working in Barcelona, Valencia, Bilbao or Palma de Mallorca is different to working in Madrid, our biggest center and my biggest work challenge,” he explains.

The British Council is the UK’s international organization for cultural relations and educational opportunities. A registered charity, it works with more than 100 countries across the world and its patron is Queen Elizabeth II. It offers a wealth of English courses for students of all ages, and through its British Council School in Madrid, provides a bilingual and bicultural education to students aged between two and 18. Andy has a long history with the organization, having worked in leadership roles across four continents .

Having visited Madrid many times in the 1990s, he has been surprised by how the Spanish capital has changed. “It has really reinvented itself, I’m impressed by the cultural and travel infrastructure and the incentives for people to come to here,” he says. “The city doesn’t have an Eiffel Tower so for tourism it has always been harder to say ‘this is Madrid.’ Today it is very much on the map and is now a dynamic and outward-looking city.”

A linguist by background, Andy has forged a career in education and cultural relations that has seen him live all around the world, from Egypt and Peru, to the US and Qatar. “I’ve been lucky enough to have a rich and varied series of jobs in fascinating and very different geographical locations. I’ve always felt that it is a huge privilege to live, work and learn in different cultures,” he says.

In 1996, he moved to Barcelona, and spent five years there working for the British Council. What were his first impressions of Madrid’s Catalan rival? “It was all so cool,” he replies. “I had been living in Dubai and at the time I thought it was very dynamic, fast growing and it was changing a lot. But post-Olympic Barcelona had this feeling of a really hip city where everything was in movement – design, creativity, the arts… All sorts of fascinating cultural things going on.”

Such a peripatetic lifestyle has brought Andy the excitement of other cultures, he explains, but also something of a sinking feeling on arrival in a new destination: “I am going to have to find somebody new to fix my shoes, to fix my teeth and to learn a different bureaucratic system…”

So what are the challenges is he facing today in Spain? “Three hundred of the staff are British so in the current context one of the challenges is what’s going to happen next with the UK and the European Union. We have a lot of people who are uneasy about what’s going to happen next. It has given me a challenge, given that my job is about building education and cultural relations. People are saying to me, ‘So if the UK leaves the EU is the British Council closing down?’” The firm response being: “Of course not! Our work becomes more important than ever because if we can’t have a basic relationship that grows out of educational and cultural links and the ability to have those conversations and dialogues, then we are lost.”

Does he have any advice for people moving to Spain? “The very family-based culture and society and the family unit is the most important thing of all, which for those of us who come from the UK is slightly different. When I tell people that I left home at 18 they look at me as if to say ‘What was your problem?!’ So it is different and that has an impact on the way you get to know people.”

Next year will be the 80th anniversary of the British Council in Spain. “It will be an act of gratitude to the Spanish society, for the warm welcome it has given us throughout all these years.” And will there be celebrations? “We’ll definitely be going big next year!” Watch this space…