Friday, March 26, 2004

En route to and from the UK a couple of weeks ago, I managed to get to both the Museum of the Americas and the Institute of Fine Arts in Madrid. During my two hours in the former, I had one of those experiences that define Spain for me. Taking a coffee break, I waited at the bottom of some stairs while a snake of smiling 5 years olds came down with their teachers. At least half of the children spontaneously greeted me and a few also touched my hand as it lay on the rail. And the teachers, instead of scowling at me as if I were a ageing paedophile on the prowl, added smiles and greetings of their own. Coffee never tasted so good.

At the Institute of Fine Arts, I was one of only a few visitors and in most of the rooms I was entirely alone. The attendants, naturally, preferred to congregate and chat in one location rather than sit in attentive silence on their prescribed stools. This allowed me to stand only inches away from the [glassless] works of El Greco and Goya, contemplating them from the exact position from which they must have been painted. I suppose things will change - and this age of innocence evaporate - when some madman slashes one of the pictures or knocks the head of a marble statue. But, until then, what an experience!

I read this week that 56% of Spanish families find it hard to get to the end of the month. I imagine this is because 99% of these don’t think about the end of the month until the 28th or 29th.

I also read that the men in La Coruña are reputed to have the best sperm in the world, howsoever this is defined. It must be the sea breeze. Or gale, to be more accurate.

Alto standing – The very best quality. This is a stock feature of the vice ads at the back of the papers. I notice.
Chequeo – A test, as in ‘You can’t have your money from this ATM as we are running a test’.
Jersey – Pullover. Very long-established, this one.

Monday, March 22, 2004

In the aftermath of the Madrid bombings, I'm finding it hard to re-start my semi-humorous scribblings so, for the two of you out there who tell me you check regularly, here's something on Spain I have just sent to the editor of the Spectator magazine in the UK:-


Like Dan Hannan [‘Peace without Honour’, 20 March], I attended one of the nation-wide displays of solidarity on the evening after the terrible events in Madrid. And I share most of the views he expressed in his article. But I take issue with the suggestion that the Spanish electorate acted shamefully and primarily out of cowardice.

Dan Hannan places a great deal of emphasis on the events of Saturday, particularly the government’s mistake in reacting so obtusely to the demonstrations calling for truth. And he is surely right to do so. But rumblings had begun on Friday, perhaps even on the very day of the explosions, once the evidence of possible Islamic terrorist involvement had been reported during the afternoon. At that time, the government’s adamantine insistence that it couldn’t possibly be anyone other than Eta had seemed to me to be merely stupid. By Friday evening it looked crass. Worse, cynically manipulative. And I very much doubt that I was the only person in Spain with this perspective.

So why did the Spanish government make such a horrendous series of mistakes and why did the electorate punish them so severely? We will never really know but I have a suspicion that everything stems from the earlier crisis of the Prestige oil spill. This, too, was badly managed by the government and involved blatant manipulation of the media. Nonetheless the PP party came up smelling of roses. Perhaps, then, it gave them a false sense of confidence in their capacity to manage information and to ride storms. At least for a few days.

As for the Spanish voters, perhaps on Sunday they recalled they had been duped once before and reacted with an anger that was all the greater for it. In effect, they did what electorates normally do in mid-term elections and registered a protest vote. If so, there are quite possibly more than a few voters who regret what they did and won’t do it again. Given how impressive modern Spain is in so many ways, it is easy to forget that democracy is not yet 30 years old here. Both governments and electorates have lessons to learn.

So, yes, the wrong message was sent to both international and domestic terrorists but I very much doubt that this was the message the Spanish electorate thought it was giving.

Colin Davies

Pontevedra, Spain

Sunday, March 14, 2004

As I write, the general election results are coming in and it seems that the ruling PP [Conservative] party has been roundly punished by the Spanish public for their premature - and possibly cynical - attempt to lay the blame for Thursday's atrocity at the door of the Basque terrorist group, Eta. In effect, the PP party - which had a 10 point lead only a short while ago - is paying the price for taking the country into a war opposed by over 90 per cent of the population. On the other hand, what does it signify that the result would almost certainly have been different if the bombs had not gone off? Were people only supporting the PP on a contingency basis - with the proviso that the war wasn't brought home to Spain - or is a significant proportion of voters prepared to switch its vote on purely emotional grounds? The latter, I suspect. Such is democracy.

Anyway, I took part in the local manifestation of solidarity on Friday night - having passed through Madrid's Chamartin station only hours before the explosions the day before. So the following article from today's Sunday Telegraph had particular resonance for me. I hope Mr Howse doesn't mind me reproducing it:-

I have seen Spain's unity before By Christopher Howse

What brought tears to the eyes more readily perhaps even than the millions in Madrid were the crowds filling the normally windswept spaces around the bandstand next to Bilbao's Town Hall. For the people of Bilbao have marched against Eta before, and walls are scrawled with Eta Ez! - the Basque for "Eta No". It never stopped Eta.

What did those crowds think they were doing? Not preventing terrorism, but manifesting - in a manifestacion - a united attitude to it. Did those eight million really show the unity of Spain on Friday night? After all there is not one Spain. The monarch is "King of the Spains". Some of the Basques, but also some Catalans, Galicians, Asturians, Aragonese, even Leonese, demand independence.

This country more than twice the area of the United Kingdom, with only two thirds of the population, seems ready to fall apart. Spain invented the word guerrilla. And there are plenty of old people who remember when it tore itself in two in a civil war which killed half a million, or a million - no one was keeping count.

More than that, the Spanish character is often described as solipsistic. "La vida es sueno" - Life's a dream - and the only person to believe in is oneself. In church, the Spanish are undistracted by flapping fans or fidgeting children; it is as if externals disappear. No one can blank a wheedling beggar with so little indication of even seeing him as a Spaniard can.

Something of that haughty resistance to externals could be seen on the set face of the 9th Marquis of Tamaron, the Spanish ambassador in London, as he expressed in clipped English how much he despised the bombers.

The demonstrating crowds too showed disdain, and they showed courage. Another bomb might well have been set off in such a crowd. But they would not care any more than they took notice of the cold puddles through which they shuffled. If the British are surprisingly stoical in war, with the Spanish it is no surprise.

Spanish unity is not primarily political. It comes from the daily traditions of life. The Spanish live in public. They socialise not round the hearth but in the town square. At seven or eight in the evening - the time of those demonstrations - streets are suddenly full of people, as if invited, taking a paseo, a stroll, with husbands, with girlfriends, with little children who are sat up on the stainless steel bar counter while parents take a little glass of yellow beer and move on. This is not only in the warm south; in wintry Toledo they muffle themselves up and throng the Zocodover, as picaresque assemblies filled the same square before Madrid ever became capital.

Such cohesion of neighbours is even more easily seen in villages. The Spanish for a village is 'pueblo' - the people. National laws may be ignored - taxes or compulsory crash-helmets - but the pueblo behaves in unconscious unity, like a school of fish wheeling in unison. This unity applies to morality as much as to daily customs. To act against the mores of the pueblo is to be sin verguenza, shameless - an outcast, worse than a prostitute - like a bomber.

Lope de Vega latched on to this truth in the 17th century with his celebrated play Fuente Ovejuna. It deals with a village (present population, 3,110) that committed a murderous act. When the investigating magistrate tries to find the culprit he gets nothing but the answer: Fuente Ovejuna did it.

What goes for killing goes for suffering. When King Juan Carlos - a black-ribboned flag of all Spain behind him - said on television "Your king suffers with you", he was not providing a touchy-feely soundbite. As a constitutional monarch he stands or falls with the people. He entered into democracy on the death of Franco at the same time that they did. Whatever happens, it happens to all the people.