Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Medical treatment; Charlie; Vikings; Like . . .; & Art for art's sake?

Here in the UK the myth persists that the national health service is the best in the world and the envy of at least every country in the EU. In reality, it's a bit of a  joke outside the UK. Within the UK, the subject is a political hot potato and no politician is willing to admit it's substandard and that, worse, it remains a bloody mess no matter how much money is thrown at it. The Labour party benefits most from this myth as it can always label any proposed change as an attempt to destroy this national gem, or even an attempt to completely privatise it. This despite the fact it was the last Labour administration who initiated contractual arrangements with private healthcare companies. But, anyway, I'm prompted to write this by a report this morning that some of the 12,000 patients who've waited more that 6 months for 'routine operations' in the UK have flown to one or other of 8 EU countries for rapid, private 'cheap' treatment. These include Spain, which seems to specialise in IVF treatment and 'veneers'. No, I don't know what this is either, unless it's something to do with teeth.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised to read that the famous Costa Concordia was found to be stuffed full of cocaine. But I was. I thought it all came into Spain. It turns out that one of Italy's 3 main mafia groups uses cruise ships to bring the stuff from South America. Giving a whole new meaning to the phrase 'the high seas'.

Talking of ships with dangerous cargo . . . I've long known, of course, that Britain's Wirral Peninsula was invaded and then settled by Vikings. Indeed, Wirral is the only place on mainland Britain to have documented evidence of Viking settlers. But I hadn't known these were primarily Norwegian and nor had I realised just how many of the local place names were Norwegian in origin. More here for those interested. I will now get my DNA profile done, to see how much of a Viking I am. And tomorrow I will be going to spend a couple of nights in Brunanburgh (Bromborough). In a road called The Rake. Or The Lane in Norwegian (rak). Never too late to learn.

The compiler of the latest edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage seems an admirable cove. Writing of the excessive use of 'like' by those under 25, he opines: "Overuse will cause listeners outside the speaker's immediate social circle, social group or age consort to ignore the content of the message, to assume that the speaker is little short of brain dead or, in extreme cases, to wish they had a discreet firearm to hand." I imagine extreme cases will be primarily our American cousins.

Finally . . . If you've got, say, €50m to buy a piece of art and you don't want to pay the import tax prior to hanging it on one of your walls, you can store it in a special vault at either Geneva or Luxembourg airport and leave it there until you want to sell it. For some people there would be a point to all this but it has nothing to do with art or its appreciation, I suspect.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Fur; Solar power; Petrol stations; Apple again; & Liverpool pigeons.

Famous models who scorned the wearing of fur 30 years ago are now said to be happy to sport the stuff. "Fur is back" said one headline. In Spain, of course, it never went away and the donning of a mink coat around February remains an annual ritual. I sometimes wonder if the Spanish have refrained from condemning the habit because it would mean taking on their fearsome grandmothers.

One regularly reads either that there's been a huge investment in solar power in Spain or that, by changing its fiscal policies, the Spanish government has just destroyed an industry in which it had a competitive edge. I really can't say I now what's happening, or what's become of all the panels one sees - or used to see - alongside the autovías. All I can say is I was reminded of the issue yesterday when I drove past what was the first building in the world - a school - to be heated by solar power. It's now called The Solar Campus and there's data on it at this site. Lowry fans please note the line about him near the bottom.

Apologies if I've said this before but another area where Spanish service is superior to that in Britain is in petrol stations. In Spain, it's nearly alway a smartly dressed young person (possibly relieved to have a job) who greets you with a big smile and a breezy Hello. In British service stations, it's not unusual to leave feeling you've been served by someone with a serious lack of social skills. Or who might be the village idiot. Though not at the place in Arclid yesterday, where the guy was more talkative than a Spaniard. And I'd only bought a bottle of water, as I wanted to use the toilet. Bit of a waste, really, as there wasn't one.

I cited my experience at the Apple shop in Liverpool the other day, which, by the way, arrogantly eschews a name on the shopfront. Prior to this, I'd searched for the outlets nearest to me. The first was Liverpool and the second was Belfast, across the Irish sea. Handy.

Finally . . . And just following up on yesterday's Liverpool special - If you're looking for a good pub there, then try the Liverpool Pigeon, which has just won the local Pub of the Year Award, for the second year running. Admittedly it's in Crosby and so not exactly in the Liverpool heartland. But it's still Merseyside. And the accent will be much the same, with a sprinkling of 'posh Scouse'.

Monday, March 30, 2015


Some readers will know that Scouse is the dialect of Merseyside folk, most properly those in the city of Liverpool itself. But how many of you know that it's also a lamb stew, similar to a dish served in many European countries, where it's called something like Lobscouse. But back to the dialect . . . Here's a bit of Wiki on it: Scouse is highly distinguishable from other English dialects and because of this international recognition on 16 September 1996 Keith Szlamp made a request to IANA to make it a recognised Internet dialect. After citing a number of references, the application was accepted on 25 May 2000 and now allows internet documents that use the dialect to be categorised as 'Scouse' by using the language tag "en-Scouse". Many natives of northern Europe, and especially the Scandinavian region, have suggested that Scousers 'sound like they sing when they talk' due to the flowing rhythm and pitch. Which is much the same as what the Madrileños say about the Gallegos. The Celtic/Gaelic link . . ?

By coincidence, there was a BBC Radio program on Scouse last Saturday evening. You can find it here, I hope. Perhaps the most unusual fact it gives is that the 28th February is Global Scouse Day. If and when you've listened to that, here are The Spinners singing the local anthem - 'The Leaving of Liverpool' - And here are The Dubliners performing it slightly more gruffly.

And here are the famous Three Graces built over what used to be a dock.

And here's a statue of Queen Vic, on the spot where Liverpool Castle used to look out over the river and the sea,

Finally . . . the HQ of the White Star Line, owners of of the ill-fated Titanic.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Revisionist history - That bastard Drake and the pesky Armada.


There are 2 things Spanish have a very different view on from the British:- 1. Francis Drake (Draké) and 2. The 'defeat' of the Spanish Armada in 1588. They are related, of course. In Spain, Drake is seen as nothing better than a licensed pirate and his depredations of the Spanish coast - as well as his thieving down in the Caribbean - are well remembered. In Pontevedra, he's famous for destroying a church on an offshore island and chucking a statue of the Virgin into the sea. (Whence it miraculously rose and replaced itself on the altar). But anyway . . . Controversy will inevitably arise again when a new docudrama - called Armada - goes out on BBC TV - even though it'll be more faithful to the Spanish version of events than to the British. Here's a article on this from a British newspaper:

Britain's other finest hour: For the first time, the real story of Francis Drake's victory over the Spanish Armada is told in a gripping new docudrama

Ask most people in the country what the Spanish Armada was, and they would probably be able to tell you just three things. 

First, the Armada consisted of a lot of ships from Spain that wanted to invade England. Secondly, we beat them. And thirdly, we only beat them after Sir Francis Drake finished a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe. 

Now, thanks to a landmark BBC docudrama series, we’ll no longer have any excuses for such ignorance. And furthermore, neither should we still believe that hoary old story about Drake’s game of bowls.

Armada tells the tale of those 12 fateful days in 1588 when the future of the Britain hung in the balance. 

Presented by historian and keen sailor Dan Snow, Armada tells the tale of those 12 fateful days in the summer of 1588 when the future of the British Isles hung in a very precarious balance. 

At the end of the 16th century, England was by no means the powerful nation she would become. Instead she was the equivalent of somewhere like Poland today – small, proud, but certainly not mighty. Spain, meanwhile, was truly a global superpower, with an empire that stretched from South America to Asia.
Its ruler was Philip II, a stickler for detail who at the time of the Armada was 61 years old. Philip’s béte noire was undoubtedly the English, and in particular the monarch Queen Elizabeth I. 

For Philip, Elizabeth ruled over a kingdom that encouraged the likes of Drake to seize Spanish ships and their cargoes of treasure as they headed back from South America. But Philip’s other gripe was that the English had rejected Roman Catholicism. An intensely devout man, he was concerned for the safety of his fellow Catholics under Elizabeth, and was determined to help them.

As well as providing analysis by historians, the series recreates the events in the courts of the two monarchs. The star of the show is Anita Dobson, who plays an ageing Elizabeth I. She brilliantly captures the vulnerability of the 54-year-old queen, who is worried not only about assassination attempts by Catholic agents, but that her kingdom might be overrun by the mighty fleet Philip had dispatched from Spain.

However, as the show makes clear, the Armada’s aim was not to invade Britain. With 125 ships and 30,000 men, the force was far too small to conquer an entire country. Instead, its purpose was to support an invasion army assembled in northern France by the Duke of Parma. 

Philip’s plan was for his Armada to link up with Parma in Calais, help the army cross the Channel and seize landing grounds around Margate, before sailing up the Thames providing cover for Parma as the Spanish army marched on London.

What the series portrays so well are the tensions among the senior figures in the Armada. Until now, much of this Hispanic squabbling has not been fully appreciated, but thanks to the work of Professor Geoffrey Parker, one of the experts interviewed, we are now able to understand what the Spaniards were thinking. 

A few years ago in an archive in Madrid, Professor Parker stumbled upon some old documents marked ‘Curious papers’, which contained letters between the leader of the Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, and his deputy, Juan Martinez de Recalde. ‘What we can now show is that Recalde, who was a tough sea dog and a far more experienced sailor than the Duke, wanted to attack England straight away, at Plymouth where the British fleet was berthed,’ says Snow.

However, Medina Sidonia was determined to follow orders and press on up the Channel to rendezvous with the Duke of Parma in France. ‘Had the Duke listened to Recalde, and the Armada had successfully attacked Plymouth, history would have been very different,’ says Snow.

Medina Sidonia’s lack of adaptability proved fateful. As the Armada sailed up the Channel on 21 July, the British commander, Lord Howard of Effingham, and his deputy, Drake, were able to send ships from their fleet in behind the Spanish and ‘pick off’ a few ships at a time with devastating artillery fire from their cannons.

It’s at this point that the myth of the game of bowls can finally be put to rest. There is no evidence to support the notion that Drake was so calm that he would rather play a game than go into battle. If Drake did wait to go into action, then it was for a very good reason – the tide was against him. As the show reveals, the bowls story was invented decades later by historians to add patriotic spin.

For the Spanish, Drake’s unconventional methods were immensely frustrating, as they preferred their enemies to draw near so their soldiers could board their ships and fight hand-to-hand. But Drake decided to keep his distance. For the next week, the British harried the Spanish fleet up the Channel. 

On 27 July the battered Armada eventually made it to Calais, but Parma’s army was not ready to embark. The Armada was vulnerable now, so Howard and Drake sent eight blazing fireships into the middle of it, causing it to disperse. Then Drake pounced, and for eight hours the British launched a fierce artillery assault, destroying five galleons.

Medina Sidonia now took the only option open to him – escape. For two months the once-mighty Armada had to circumnavigate the British Isles in order to get back home. As a result of unseasonal violent storms, almost 40 ships were run aground, and as many as 5,000 Spaniards drowned or, if they made it ashore, were butchered by locals.

The English victory cemented Elizabeth’s grip on power, and Spain would not attack Britain again until after the death of Philip in 1598. ‘We’ll be focusing on all these exciting events in tons of detail,’ says Snow. ‘There’s never been a televised account of the Armada as rich and as complete as this.’

'Armada' will be shown later this spring on BBC1.

  • 125 Ships made up the Spanish fleet – then the largest ever seen in Europe
  • 200 English and Irish exiles were among the Armada’s 30,000 sailors and troops
  • 11m lbs of biscuits and 14,000 barrels of wine were just some of the provisions
  • 2,431 Guns were aboard, plus 123,790 rounds of ammunition

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Spain's economy; Spanish trolls; Arnold Bennett; Liverpool shopping; Paradise St.; & A foto.

Spain's economic growth for 2015 is now forecast to be 2.8%, which certainly sounds like good news, as it will only be bested in the EU by Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania and Malta. There are those, though, who think things aren't as good as they seem, pointing to continuing weakness in consumer spending, for example. As ever with differing economists, I wish I knew who's right.

We know that the internet provides a pulpit for cretins who spew bile but it's always a surprise to read examples of their vomitous outpourings. Following the horrendous air crash in France, Spanish trolls have expressed the hope that compatriots who died were Catalans, Basques or Hispanic immigrants. With luck, the police will track them down and prosecute them.

I've cited the late 19th century/early 20th century writer, Arnold Bennett. Yesterday, I came across this little tale of his, dated 1925: I was walking in Selfridge's basement yesterday when I met Mr Selfridge in a rather old morning coat and silk hat. He seized hold of me and showed me over the new part of his store. Cold storage for furs - finest in the world. Downstairs to the book department. Fine bindings, etc. His first remark was, taking up a book: 'Human skin'. I had to hurry away. He kept insisting it was wonderfully interesting. And it was.

I went shopping in the centre of Liverpool yesterday. Astonishingly, it was even less productive than a morning in Pontevedra. My first port of call was Waterstones, where they siad they didn't have the book I wanted but I could either get it in London or wait a few days. Then I went to the Apple store, where there were at least 20 youngsters in blue T shirts anxious to ask me what I wanted and then pass me onto someone else. The final guy told me they could certainly help me with a new battery for my laptop if I came back in 4 hours - there being 25 people in front of me. Apparently, if I'd thought to make an appointment, things would have been better. So . . . it's the internet for me now. Thank God M&S had the sox I needed, though they didn't have the trousers I wanted. They did have a shirt I liked; but not in my size. Worst of all, when I went to pay for the sox, I didn't get the discount voucher on women's underwear and lingerie that the couple in front of me had been given. When I queried this, the assistant said these were randomly generated and, blushing but laughing, suggested I make another purchase. I did try but handkerchiefs are apparently an unknown item in British shops these days.

By what stretch of the imagination can Apple's customer service be called, well . . . customer service? But anyway, the store is in Paradise St. 'Back in the day', this was the location of Liverpool's VD clinic, as it was called then. It always struck me as rather a bizarre pairing of names. Admittedly it was in the dog-end of the street. I'm told.

Finally . . . This is the offices of the now-defunct National Bank in Liverpool. This was built at a time when companies were so confident of their eternal future that they eschewed paint and hanging signs and had their names carved into the fabric of the building. What hubris.

More fotos tomorrow.

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