Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 18.6.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Just in case there's anyone under 25 reading this blog . . . Advice on summer life in Spain.
  • And here, for everyone. is The Local on Spanish estival celebrations. In July and, especially, August it sometimes feels there's nothing else going on . . .
  • The way of all extremists, from the Right and the Left.
  • Prostitution and related people-smuggling is a real scandal in Spain. Here - in Spanish - is El País on the subject of shocking maltreatment. In Galicia, as it happens.
  • Last weekend, up near A Lamas, saw one of Galicia's strangest ceremonies - the procession around a church of (live) people in open coffins. I attended it a few years ago and seem to recall that the 'corpses' are infirm folk hoping for a miraculous recovery. Weird. And possibly pagan in origin:-
  • My guess is few people know that Galicia has its own separatists, Resistencia Galega. And that they occasionally indulge in violence. Though this is on a small scale and I don't think they've killed - or even injured - anyone. I believe the last episode was 6 years ago and involved the blowing up of an ATM. Anyway, 2 alleged leaders of RG were arrested in Vigo last weekend.
  • More than a couple of decades ago, my elder daughter commented it was a great shame that so many beautiful buildings in Lisbon were in a state of dereliction. Much has changed since then but it's still not difficult to come across tat among the glossy new buildings and the renovated old ones. For example, this was the view from my room in a Lisbon barrio which is being gentrified. I guess it has a certain charm. At least, that's what someone said in a booking.com review . . . 
  • Here's a foto of one of the piles of marble I saw on the edge of Estremoz:-
  • In Elvas , I parked my care in a space in front of this sign but then worried I wasn't permitted to:-

I had no idea what the initials stood for but was sure the receptionist of my hotel 5 metres away would know. But she didn't and just shrugged. So, I moved the car to the public car park 15m away. So far, the internet has only been able to tell me that D.R.A.P.A.L stands for Direcção Regional De Agricultura e Pescas Do Alentejo. But I'm stumped with S.R.N.A. I doubt it's a reference to a Croatian football player. . . Anyone know?

The EU
  • See the article on Italy below.
The USA 
Finally . . .
  • Several years ago, a couple of collared doves nested in the bougainvillea just below my bedroom window and I snapped the two-weeks development of the squabs from eggs to first flight. Now, there's another nest, just above the door to the garden, and I'm wondering if this is the same couple, or perhaps their progeny. Either way, it means I can't use this door for a couple of weeks:-


It’s only a matter of time before Italy’s Black Wednesday moment: Roger Bootle, Daily Telegraph

One of the items for discussion at this week’s meeting of the European Council will surely be the situation in Italy. The recent European elections were a great victory for Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, one of the two partners in the governing coalition. No doubt emboldened by this result, he has called for tax cuts that would, if implemented, surely cause Italy to break the EU’s borrowing limits. The EU Commission is supposedly contemplating whether it should begin a disciplinary process against Italy that could end up with the imposition of substantial fines.

The markets seem to be fairly relaxed about the Italian situation. But you shouldn’t take comfort from this. They are focused on the immediate future. For all the sabre-rattling, the Italian government will not want an early showdown with the commission. And the commission would probably accept some sort of fudge. It will surely strive to avoid fining Italy.

Yet the Italian public finances are in a frightful mess. The ratio of government debt to GDP is now at 132%. Danger territory is supposed to begin at 90%. Even so, excluding interest payments, the government actually runs a budget surplus. Indeed, it has done so for 25 of the last 27 years. Italy shouldn’t have to squeeze its budget still further. The fiscal problem derives from a combination of a heavy weight of debt incurred in the past and very sluggish economic growth, continuing into the present.

A dose of decent economic growth in the future would work wonders. But it is difficult to see how Italy is going to grow at all, never mind strongly. Accordingly, the debt burden may rise. More importantly, even though it has fallen by 3% since late 2014, unemployment is still at 10%. Youth unemployment is over 30%. Since the euro was formed in 1999, the Italian economy has barely grown at all and living standards have been stagnant.

What is the way out? Mr Salvini’s proposed tax cuts might help a bit, although alone they are unlikely to achieve much. What Italy needs in the long term is a root-and-branch reform of both the economy and the political system. But in the short term it needs more aggregate demand.

Yet, if Italy’s sclerotic economy has hardly managed to achieve any growth when its leading trading partners have been growing well, then what is going to happen if and when they experience a serious economic slowdown, such as is now under way?

The answer is that Italy will slip into economic contraction and unemployment will start to rise. It is difficult to see how the Italian people or their political leaders will accept such a result meekly.

The course that would be open to Italy if it were not a member of the euro would be a depreciation of its exchange rate, combined with a more stimulatory fiscal and monetary policy. This is the policy that dare not speak its name. From originally being overwhelmingly staunch supporters of the European project, the Italian people have recently turned distinctly sceptical about the EU. Even so, a majority of Italians still do not want to leave the euro. This is a major political barrier stopping any Italian government from taking Italy out of the euro.

The prevailing attitude towards the euro is not surprising. If there had been a poll of British people before we left the Gold Standard in 1931 I am sure that there would have been an overwhelming majority for staying on it, even though it was the cause of major economic difficulties. Similarly, if you had conducted a poll of British voters on continued membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism before we were forcibly ejected on Sept 16 1992, a day that was soon dubbed Black Wednesday, a majority would have voted to stay in. People tend not to like such radical shifts. Accordingly, they need to occur through some sort of shock, without people having a choice in the matter.

In the Italian case, the most promising route to that result is through the introduction of a parallel currency, such as the so-called “mini-BOTs”, that have been touted for some time. (The name derives from the acronym for Buoni Ordinari del Tesoro – short-dated Italian government bonds.) These mini-BOTs are zero interest perpetual bonds. They look like bank notes and could serve as money. If Brussels would at least covertly allow Italy to introduce such “bonds” then they could finance increased government spending, and/or reductions in taxes.

But if the ECB reacted by cutting off, or even limiting, support for the Italian banking system then Italy would be ready with a new currency in waiting. Italy could support the banks with its newly issued currency. To all intents and purposes, Italy would then be out of the euro. This result could be presented as deriving, not from the Italian government’s choices, but from the European Central Bank’s actions.

This could be Italy’s Black Wednesday moment, with the president of the bank cast in the role of George Soros. Before long, Black Wednesday became known as Golden Wednesday, as the British economy surged ahead. This could happen to Italy too. But there is a major political risk. In September 1992, the Conservative Party trashed its reputation for economic competence and, after losing the next general election, it was out of power for 13 years. For Mr Salvini and the League to avoid a similar fate, or worse, might require the greatest political skill – and luck.

No one should expect such events in the next few months, let alone this week. The politics haven’t yet reached boiling point. But unless and until the economy produces some decent growth, you should expect something like this to happen one day. It is only a matter of time.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 17.6.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • The separatists are beaten off in Barcelona. Thanks to a Frenchman.
  • If you're alone on a large Spanish beach, there's a good chance the next Spanish couple to arrive will sit right next to you, expecting to chat. So, here's some valuable advice for beach lovers to whom this won't appeal.  
  • Which reminds me . . . Driving up from Lisbon yesterday, I regaled my non-Spanish passengers with accounts of how the Spanish love to talk. After these had got out at Oporto, I picked up 2 Galician guys who uttered scarcely a word until we got to Vigo. Galicia is not Spain, as a nationalist Galician friend regularly tells me
  • Checking on laws relating to driving I found this bit of advice: On roundabouts, stay in the center lane until you find your exit. Then, carefully merge to the outside lane directly before exiting. This, as  long-time readers will know, is exactly the opposite of the (senseless) advice given in Spain. Or at least this used to be the case. I have read that things have changed but all the learner drivers who practice near my house are clearly still being taught never to go into the centre lane, unless (perhaps) they're doing a U-turn. (En passant, nor do they seem to be taught anything about signalling.)
  • As we know, tourism eventually ruins places that used to be worth visiting, before the hordes arrived. Lisbon has a 'chic' food hall down by the riverfront, where you can't get a shandy, the food and drinks are not great but are expensive and the parking costs you at least an arm and a leg.
  • Outside its tourist hot-spots, Portugal remains remarkably cheap. Except for petrol or, indeed, anything to do with owning and driving a car. Coffees and beers can be half the cost they are in Spain.
The UK  
  • Can you believe it? The UK’s government’s flagship “Help to Buy” equity loan scheme, launched ostensibly to give cash-strapped first-time buyers a leg up onto the property ladder, has dished out billions of pounds of publicly subsidised loans to relatively well heeled homeowners who were perfectly capable of buying their first property without need for outside help, asserts a new report by the National Audit Office. More on this here.
UK Politics
  • Advice for British women:- Ditch your dignity, desperate Tories, and get into bed with Boris, the ‘hot totty’ hustler.  See the nice article below. From one of the female tribe.
Finally . . .
  • This is another painting from the Gulbenkian Museum - A hunchback and an old woman. I couldn't help wondering what he's doing with his right hand. Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to be making her happy . . .
  • And here's another coin from about 2,000 years ago. Seems to predate British colonial headwear of the 19th century. And even the bowler hat of the 20th.


Ditch your dignity, desperate Tories, and get into bed with Boris, the ‘hot totty’ hustler: Camilla Long, Times

Not a great week for Tory women, was it. Grasping, unlikeable, unelectable — and that’s just Esther McVey. On Monday, Maria Miller was wanly wheeled out to make excuses for Dominic “I’m not a feminist” Raab, cracking a weak joke about how she’d persuade him to be a feminist one day (don’t worry, not sure they want him).

On Friday the jangling vowels of Priti Patel scratched like nails down the world’s biggest blackboard on Radio 4’s Today programme, defending what she described — and this is where my ears pricked up — as Boris Johnson’s “track record when it comes to women”.

Johnson was in fact a great supporter of women, she said, an outstanding “champion of female education”. He had campaigned for many, many minutes on his “girls’ education programme”, a brilliant global scheme that he had used to reach out to the most vulnerable women in society.

I thought: she’s not. She’s not going to pretend that Boris, of all people, was God’s gift to marginalised women, was she? No one’s ever going to believe that. Why would she bother? The only “girls’ education programme” he’s seriously conducted has been in and around the wine bars of Westminster.

Agreed, it’s been a tireless and dedicated scheme, in which he has indeed reached out to many vulnerable young women, often on a one-to-one level, late into the night, offering a strict timetable of chemistry, biology and opera. But to pretend he’s some sort of feminist panacea is ludicrous — the last gasp of a doomed party.

In many ways I wish Patel had been more honest. I’d have preferred it if she had said, yes, there have been three mistresses on record, an abortion and at least one love child, but we’re absolutely desperate. Who else do you want up against the Euro bastardi — a robot who can’t remember whether his wife’s Japanese or Chinese? Or a man who claps funny and whose wife has to write him encouraging notes?

Boris may not be viewed as “sufficiently moral” by his critics, but we already know that he isn’t “sufficiently moral” and never has been. So the question now isn’t, what are the awful things that Boris has done? But: why aren’t the awful things stopping him?

It says everything about the mind-bending horror of Brexit that we are now considering putting a man who once wrote car reviews for GQ magazine at the highest level of negotiation (of a Ferrari: “it was as if the whole county of Hampshire was lying back and opening her well-bred legs to be ravished by the Italian stallion”).

So great is the Tories’ collective terror over the mess of their own making that they are actively willing to lie about a man who didn’t even excel at a novelty job — yes, they are putting Dick Whittington forward to oversee the next stage of negotiations. You wouldn’t let Ken Livingstone anywhere near it, so why does the mayoralty of London qualify Boris? If he were one iota more strategic, he might even feel suspicious — am I just cannon fodder? Why do these locusts want me now, when they’ve spent decades laughing at me?

This has led to a bizarre “minestrone”, as he would say, of emotions in which I find myself revolted by his personal conduct but also desperate for him — anyone — to make it all go away. I’m worried about his sexual incontinence, yes, but only to the extent that incontinence of any sort is bad at the negotiating table. I’m worried about his ability to lie as well, but only because he gets caught so often — so inept. And can we rely on a man who schedules the break-up of his 25-year marriage at the same time as he’s meant to be doing all this? It’s simply disorganised.

So here we are: the Tories are offering us the first philandering prime minister since Lloyd George; the first prime minister to have written about the “hot totty” at a Labour Party conference; the first prime minister to have put up a Pirelli calendar in his office; the first prime minister to have promised the electorate that “voting Tory will cause your wife to have bigger breasts”.

He’s unsuitable as prime minister in a million ways, but the Tories are in such a panic, they’ve ignored the small print. On and on they go, pretending he was the best foreign secretary and a brilliant promoter of women, a man who not only supports their rights but “will defend” them, said Patel, as if we somehow should be grateful. As usual in Boris’s life, the loudest cheerleaders are women. He’s like a crippling payday loan they’re rushing to take out, even though they know it’s bad and he’s bad, and they are the ultimate victims.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Thoughts from Lisbon: 16.6.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

Note: One or two of the items below have been borrowed from Lenox Napier's Business Over Tapas of Thursday

  • Not a good development in Madrid. Unless you're a fan of Vox.
  • More bad news.
  • And even more bad news. I remember these mosquitos from Indonesia. They're ferociously aggressive. To be avoided.
  • Talking of badness . . . If I ever knew, I'd forgotten that the notorious Italian family - the Borgias - were actually Spanish. From Borja, in Aragón. They spoke Catalan in the Vatican and held bullfights in St Peter’s Square. Though they're famous for things far worse than this, of course.
  • Entering the metro station at Olaias - which, from outside, was nondescript, to say the least - I was astonished - nay, staggered - to find myself in a vast futuristic hall which wouldn't have been out of place as the main station in, say, New York. A few fotos:-

  • Here's a bit on it from Wiki. Click here for a lot more fotos.
  • As for buying a ticket . . . Well, the process is different from that of Oporto. Here in Lisbon, the system is very much like Madrid's, in that you have to first buy a card - at €0.50, against €2.00 in Madrid - and then put on it one or more rides - at only €1.50 each. So, no need to employ someone to stand by the machine explaining to confused foreigners how it works.
  • I might have complained about beggars in Pontevedra but I've never had the experience there of one of them aggressively pursuing me for 50m, loudly demanding (I guess) a donation, as happened just before I reached the metro station.
  • Here's one of the things that makes Spaniards think the Portuguese are more British than other Iberians:-

  • Another is their quietness, of course. Or 'dullness', as the Spanish put it.
UK Politics

  • This is a coin from about 2,000 years ago, seen at the Gulbenkian museum yesterday. Looks to me like the inspiration for Fart's hairstyle . . . 

Finally . . .
  • I guess it had to happen but I didn't know whether to be pleased, impressed, insulted, annoyed or depressed. A young man offered me his seat on the metro train yesterday . . . I pretended to be amused and declined it. And then walked up the exit stairs while he took the escalator, along with virtually all the other passengers. The youth of today, eh!

Saturday, June 15, 2019

Thoughts from Lisbon: 15.6.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • I forgot to say that I could swear I saw a sports version of the (in)famous Sinclair C5 flash past me in the other direction on a quiet road the other day. Painted a gold colour, which was matched but the helmet of the driver. Of course it could have been some other 'car' but the C5 is what it reminded me of.
  • Talking of vehicles . . . I parked my car behind the hotel of my friends last evening, only for a passing police patrol to stop and advise me not to do so, as the spaces were reserved for staff from the nearby police station. I wonder if this would happen in Spain these days. Or would the police have waited until I'd gone and then slapped notice of a fine on my windscreen?
  • Something that is totally different from Spain - an early-morning café where the TV is off and there is no loud conversation/arguments taking place between the customers.
  • This is how they start off making those roads made of rows of small bricks. Sometimes in parallel line and sometimes not, as here:-
  • I was checking on Lisbon metro lines last night and came across this claim: The ticket machines are user-friendly, logical and provide instructions in multiple languages. I beg to differ in the case of the first adjective. Unless the system is different from that of Oporto. I'll find out today.
The Way of the World 
  • See the article below, arguing that comedians must have the right to experiment with ideas. Even in this time of snowflakes.
  • Word of the Day: Monda.
Finally . . .
  • At a restaurant in Ericeira yesterday, there was a very modern couple at the next table. He was chatting non-stop to a friend on his phone and she was occupying herself by reading the labels on the olive oil and vinegar bottles.

The Jo Brand scandal has revealed the Left's hypocrisy, but the answer isn't yet more censorship: Konstantin Kisin, a comedian and the host of the TRIGGERnometry podcast

We comedians must have the right to experiment with ideas

While heads in Westminster were fixed on the Tory leadership race, a scandal was erupting over the radiowaves. Comedian Jo Brand, speaking after a number of European election candidates were covered in milkshakes last month, quipped that since “certain unpleasant characters are very easy to hate… why bother with a milkshake when you could get some battery acid?”.

Her remarks immediately triggered outrage from many on the right of the political spectrum, including Nigel Farage, one recent victim of ‘milkshaking’, who branded the incident ‘incitement to violence”, and called for a police investigation, reportedly now under way.

As a genuine centrist, who identifies with neither left nor right, I quite understand public anger at the obvious double standards at play. Had a right-wing comedian joked along similar lines about, say, Diane Abbott, they would expect to be sacked within hours, their TV career over, their reputation in tatters. The offending comic would immediately face accusations of racism and sexism from the great and the good, and might even be ostracised from public life.

However, the answer to this depressing state of affairs is not to subject Brand to the same knee-jerk response. Those who criticise ‘Snowflake Millennials’ cannot now call for heads to roll when comics joke about things that upset them. You don’t fix political double standards by treating everyone equally unfairly.

Context matters. In this case, Jo Brand, a well-known and hugely accomplished comedian, was performing on a Radio 4 programme called Heresy, a talk show which aims to challenge received wisdom and dogma through humour. In other words, she was joking. And everyone knows this. Even if you ignore this background, Brand made her intent crystal clear by adding “I’m not going to do it, it’s purely a fantasy”, for good measure.

I doubt Brand would consider it one of her best jokes and the timing is unfortunate to say the least, but we comedians must have the right to experiment with ideas because, the truth is, we often don’t know whether something is funny until we say it. What’s more, comedians don’t always mean everything we say. Shocking, I know.

The desire to take words literally has infected public discourse. When Nigel Farage called on the police to investigate Brand, the ever-vigilant Twitter mob responded in kind. Had Mr Farage not said that if Brexit is not delivered he would, “don khaki, pick up a rifle and head for the front lines”? But did anyone in the country genuinely interpret this as a threat of armed insurrection and not a metaphor?

Sadly, this is the world we live in: fighting faux battles about things we intentionally misunderstand so we can pretend to be offended. And while the outrage may be fake, the consequences are very real.

Last year, Count Dankula, a YouTube comedian, was found guilty of breaching the 2003 Communications Act for posting a video in which he trained his girlfriend’s pug dog to perform a Nazi salute. The comedic intent of the video was undeniable. So undeniable, in fact, that the police struggled to find anyone who was genuinely offended by it. It was only when officers started showing the video to people who might be offended by it that they managed to secure a suitable complainant.

One of the most dangerous implications of the case was the Scottish court’s appalling decision to accept the prosecutor’s assertion that “context is irrelevant”. The notion that the environment in which words are uttered and the intent behind them has no impact on their meaning is absurd and dangerous nonsense – by this logic, John Cleese should be urgently extradited from his ‘hideout’ in the Caribbean to face charges of glorifying Nazism in Fawlty Towers.

As if to make this very point, later in the year, Liverpool teenager Chelsea Russell, was found guilty of a ‘hate crime’ for posting rap song lyrics by Snap Dogg, a black artist, on her Instagram which contained the n-word. She was placed on an eight-week, 8am-to-8pm curfew, fitted with an ankle tag, ordered to pay £500 costs and an £85 ‘victim surcharge’. Her conviction was eventually overturned on appeal but the fact that she was found guilty in the first place is terrifying.

It is our failure to take a stand against these ridiculous prosecutions that now allows the police to investigate a comedian for telling a joke, something that should never happen in a free society. Too many of us have been willing to turn a blind eye as our freedoms have been eroded, and some, particularly those on the progressive Left, have cheered on this creeping authoritarianism.

But framing the battle over freedom of expression as “Left vs. Right” is both unhelpful and inaccurate. Free speech is not a political club with which to batter your opponents – it is a universal birthright and a cornerstone of Western civilisation. We must defend it, even when doing so is personally uncomfortable.

When I turned down a "safe space contract" sent to me by SOAS students for a gig at their campus in December, within hours Kate Smurthwaite, a radical feminist, called me a ‘Nazi’ on national radio. It was a stupid thing to say and a ridiculous accusation but it’s the price we pay for living in a free society. Besides, I’ve now got a niche – I’m the only Jewish Nazi comedian in the world!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Thoughts from Lisbon, Portugal: 14.6.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

Note: One or two of the items below have been borrowed from Lenox Napier's Business Over Tapas of yesterday.

  • Smiling again: The Spanish are always smiling. The Portuguese, rarely. Even when you greet them with a smile. Worse than the English really. The only person who's spontaneously smiled at me was a (very pretty) young woman in the centre of Estremoz, whom I'm pretty sure wanted to entice me into having an eye test in the nearby vehicle. Unless it was a brothel on wheels. Either way, not really very spontaneous. Is this why the Portuguese are said to be the Chinese of Europe? I know that's said about the Dutch but this is because of their commercial expertise/aggression. In Portugal, I feel that all those years I've had to spend learning to make direct eye contact and smile at strangers have been wasted . . .
  • I might generalise about the Portuguese disinclination to smile but there are, of course, exceptions. The lady in a cake shop in Portalegre yesterday could not have been more friendly, for example.
  • Portuguese towns are astonishingly quiet. In Portalegre they play music - not loudly, of course - through speakers on the walls of houses and shops. At least in the old quarter. If not, you might succumb to the delusion you were in a cemetery. 
  • And I do wonder how shops here make money. I rarely see a customer in them. Perhaps I walk past them at the wrong time of day.
  • I've heard it said that it's a legal requirement in Spain that there be a non-toll road as well as a toll road to your destination. So, you have the N6 as well as the A6 if you want to avoid the latter's toll as you get near to Madrid from the West. This doesn't seem to be the case in Portugal, as - driving from Portalegre to Lisbon - you have no choice but to continue on toll roads after your original N road morphs into an A road, with overhead cameras in gantries. Followed by the A1 with traditional pay stations.
UK Politics/Brexit
  • The full name of the man/oaf who's expected by most to be the next prime minister is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, usually known as merely Boris Johnson. Or BoJo. I'd  never heard or seen the bizarre name Pfeffel but found this on it: This most interesting and unusual surname is an Anglicized form of the Germanic surname Pfaeffle", a derivative of "Pfaff", from the German "pfaffe", cleric, parson, or "papst", pope. This is an example of the sizeable group of early European surnames that were gradually created from the habitual nicknames. More here.
  • Says Richard North of him todayNow would be a good time to remind ourselves how awful Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson really is. But we've already been there, pace Max Hastings and his 2012 article headed: "Boris Johnson: brilliant, warm, funny – and totally unfit to be PM".
The Way of the World 
Finally . . .
  • An interesting message in my Spam box this morning, 3 times:- Linda Dierks. FUCK YOU!!! I HATE YOU . . . I wonder if this is the lady in question.