Monday, August 31, 2009

In 1984/5, I had the good fortune to lead a team which took to market the DNA fingerprinting technology of Dr (now Sir) Alec Jeffreys, who later got the Nobel prize for it. Right at the outset we had fun trying to figure out what applications it would have over time, including that of proving a product was what the seller said it was. But who could have imagined that one day I’d be sitting in Pontevedra receiving an email from a reader in Australia (Ian) telling me DNA fingerprinting had been used to prove that many ‘Albariño’ wines around the world are not cooked from the Albariño grape. Or at least not exclusively. Even, perhaps, here in Galicia, where it’s Spain’s premier white wine. It’s a wonderful world. See here for details of what the cat is doing among the pigeons. And, if there are any typos in this blog, put them down to the Albariño I’m possibly drinking as I type.

Today in Spain is officially the last day of summer. So a good time to summarise the weather of the last three months. In a word, neither as wet as it can be nor as hot as it usually is. Best described as more variable than usual, with changes taking place at greater frequency than normal. So, more ‘British’, if you like. Yesterday, for example was very hot and close (bochornoso), whereas today is just as sunny but fresco. I assume the wind has shifted from the south west to the north and that we can expect rain tomorrow. So, pick the meat out of that. If you want.

Or French friend, M Rocca, has now reached Andalucia in his military travels and waxes lyrical on what he found there. How intriguing to see him citing the same sort of thing as us later scribblers. . . . In Andalusia, still more than in any other province in the Peninsula, one meets with traces and monuments of the Arabs at every step ; and it is the singular mixture of the customs and usages of the east, with Christian manners, which distinguishes the Spaniards from the other nations of Europe. The town houses are almost all built on the Morisco plan ; in the middle they have a large court paved with flag stones, in the centre of which there is a basin, whence fountains continually rise and refresh the air ; the basin is shaded by the cypress and the lemon tree. Trellis work, supporting orange trees, whose leaves, flowers, and fruit last all the year, frequently covers the walls. The different apartments communicate with each other by the court, and there is commonly an interior gate on the same side with the door opening to the street. In the ancient palaces of the Moorish kings and nobles, such as the Alhambra of Grenada, the courts are surrounded with colonnades or porticos, whose narrow and numerous arches are supported by very tall slender columns ; ordinary houses have a single and very plain interior court, with a cistern shaded by a large citron tree in one corner. A sort of pitcher or jar, in which water is put to cool, usually hangs near the door or wherever there is a current of air. These pitchers are called alcarazas, and their name, which is Arabic. These jars have the same form, and are applied to the same purposes, as those described by M. Denon, in his travels in Egypt ; and which are made on the banks of the Nile, between Tentyre, Kenan, and Thebes indicates that they were brought into Spain by the Moors.

Strangely enough, we have an exhibition in Pontevedra this week which pays homage to the Arabic architecture of the Alhambra. Or that’s what it says here in the brochure. You can make up your own mind . . .

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reflecting on the importance given by France 24 to elections in Gabon this week, it struck me just how ‘parochial’ national news programs are. In the UK, Zimbabwe rates highly on the interest scale, for example. And here in Spain this applies to every South American country except Brazil. But, not seeing itself as ex-colonial power, I suspect US bulletins don’t show much interest in the Philippines. Though perhaps Cuba merits a few mentions. Anyway, wherever Gabon actually is, it seems that a certain Mr Bongo is about to be succeeded by a Master Bongo. Which I’m sure you were anxious to know. Unless you’re French; in which case you’ll know it already.

Despite being a left-of-centre paper, El País today ran a hard-hitting editorial on the failures of Señor Zapatero to manage the Spanish economy, first through boom and now through bust. In fact, I rather got the impression they might even agree with my accusation of stupidity matched only by obstinacy. Essentially, they feel he’s addressing a deep recession from a position of weakness, needing the support of minority and nationalist parties to get anything through the parliament. I’ve often said I wouldn’t like to have the task of governing this fractious country; but never less than now. And it’s not as if the Opposition inspires much confidence either, as we head towards a raft of tax increases that will be ‘limited and temporary’. Limited to adults, I guess. And as temporary as any makeshift building you’ve ever known. Hey, ho. Pass the sackcloth and ashes.

Talking of ashes . . . I was chatting this week to three Spanish ladies about smoking. As you’d expect in modern Spain, all three of them are pretty heavy smokers. Whereas I’m not a smoker and never have been. When I confessed I’d never countenance a relationship with a woman who smoked, they dismissed me as ‘crazy’. After I’d given my rationale and pointed out that, as a libertarian, I’d never tried to stop them indulging their habit and had even joined them in the Smoking section of the café, they withdrew the accusation of insanity and satisfied themselves with 'fascist’. But, as this is the stock word used in Spain for anyone with whose views you disagree, I could muster no objection to this much-devalued term.

This evening I was telling my friend, Jon, about UK TV ads for sandwiches containing “responsibly caught prawns”. Knowing fish, he pointed out this was a genuine concern around the world. I agreed wholeheartedly, while scoffing at this and other ‘goody-goody’ marketing techniques. And I added that, looking at things from the viewpoint of the prawns, it hardly made any difference how they were trapped. Such is life that, only a couple of hours later, I read this account of how Robert Benchley approached an exam question in Harvard in 1912 . . . “Asked to frame the legal dispute over fishing rights on the Grand Banks from both the American and British points of view, Benchley began his answer by saying that he had never understood the American argument, never cared to know where Britain stood, but that he would like to consider the problem from the points of view of the fish. This statement of purpose introduced a dialogue in which a flounder and a cod take up the question as to whether it is better to be roasted in Liverpool, boiled in Boston or sautéed in Paris.”

Needless, perhaps, to say, Benchley failed the exam.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Well, it's August 29th and the sun is shining. Which it may not do again this year. So I'm off down to Plaza Verdura for some wine and maybe some calamares. I'm copping out and leaving you with this account of bullfighting in 1808, by our French friend M. Rocca. Who found himself at a loose end in Madrid, in between slaughtering Spaniards and pillaging the countryside. Good to see that he could appreciate the couleur locale. . .

En passant, the word chulo these days has different meanings from those of 1810. Including, I think, 'pimp'. But mostly 'cocky'.

Oh, and these days packs of dogs don't rip up the wimpy bulls. They go home to mother.

Apart from that, Plus ça change . . .

The origin of bull-fights among the Spaniards is derived from the Moors, shepherds of Africa, a nation skilled in training horses, in managing unruly flocks, and conquering the wild beasts of the desert. The Spaniards inherit from the Moors the practice of a wandering life, which they have preserved even to our times. Throughout Spain there are extensive tracks left for the travelling flocks. The king and the grandees have vast studs appropriated to the raising of choice breeds of horses and bulls. The royal stud of Aranjuez, on the banks of the Tagus, is fifteen or twenty leagues in circumference. Gentlemen formerly fought on the bull-festivals; but they seldom now present themselves in the arena, either because the manners of the age are become milder by time, or rather, perhaps, because the frequent abode in the capital and the pleasures of courts have extinguished for the moment in the Spanish nobles their inclination for such sports.

We should form a very wrong idea of the bull that is to fight, if we judged of him by those which are seen, in some countries of the north, straying innocently through the meadows round the herdsmen which guard them : he is not the friend, the peaceable companion of the husbandman, the ox accustomed to bow his head gently to the yoke fastened to his horns, to obey without a murmur the goad that spurs him on ; he is the king of the forest, where he has lived, almost wild, under a meridian sun ; a fiery blood boils in his veins, and excites him to anger. The hills and vales lately echoed with his lengthened bellowings. He is a proud conqueror accustomed to fight for the young heifer, to see every thing give way, and even men fly at his approach, or at the first sound of his formidable fury.

I saw pass one of the unruly animals that were to fight in the evening; he had been brought, it was said, from Salamanca; his dark rusty coat gave him an air of great ferocity ; six powerful men could with difficulty hold him, by ropes sufficiently long to prevent danger. A young heifer preceded to entice him into the Tamil, a dark, narrow enclosure furnished with trapdoors, in which the bulls are separately put till the time fixed for the fight. In this place their angry passions are still farther inflamed by different torments : on the upper part of the breast is placed a riband which denotes by its colour their origin, breed, and birth-place.

The bull-fights at Madrid are given in an amphitheatre open at the top ; the spectators are seated in rows and separated from the arena, which is in the centre, by a strong wooden fence. Boxes are constructed in the upper part of the edifice ; places in the shade pay double the price of those that are exposed to the heat of the sun. The spectacle opens with a sort of parade executed by the horse and foot combatants, all richly dressed according to the old Spanish costume. The Picadores fight on horseback, armed with lances; their horses are saddled in the Moorish fashion ; the lances are furnished with a sharp four-cornered head, made so as to wound the bull, without entering deep into his body. The Chulos fight on foot, armed with darts ; their arm of defence is a piece of red cloth which, attracting by its glare the bull’s eyes, enables the skilful to avoid his attacks, and baffle his fury by favour of this illusory buckler.

Flourishes are heard ; the barrier opens, and the bull appears. He has to avenge the many injuries received in his dark prison, and the craft by which he was entrapped ; with his hair on end and nostrils on fire, he stamps the ground, and threatens with his horns the spectators ; the solemn silence that instantly succeeds the thrilling sound of the trumpets, far from intimidating him, seems to increase his ardour. He surveys the arena, and, in three bounds, darts on the first picador that comes forward. The picador, firm in his seat, lowers his lance which he holds in rest, and, pulling round his horse, drives it into the bull’s broad breast, just as this fierce adversary inclines his head to make a dreadful blow. The shock is sometimes so violent that the lance shivers to pieces ; and the bull suddenly stopped in his course, is forced backward with pain from the wound. Should the picador’s horse be thrown, one of the foot combatants approaches, and draws the bull from his victim by a red cloak ; proud of his success, and attracted by the scarlet, the noble animal turns his rage against this new enemy, more formidable to appearance, and proportions his effort to the expected resistance: the chulo leaps aside, and leaves the cheated bull to roar and wreak his fury on the cloak left between his horns.

Every time the bull conquers a new enemy, he lifts his proud head, and casts a scornful and haughty look around him ; calmed, for a while, by victory, he seems to delight in the repeated plaudits of the multitude, and listens with pleasure to the shouts of Bravo, Bull ! Bravo, Bull ! that come from all parts of the amphitheatre.

The Picadores are succeeded by the Chulos or Banderilleros, who advance on foot. The bull attacked takes a fresh spring; he thinks, in one course, to free himself from this weak, light and nimble troop which unceasingly harasses him; but they everywhere open at his approach; the Banderilleros pass and repass ; adroitly plant their darts in the bull’s neck and breast, and, by their extreme agility, sport with his fury. I have seen one of these Chulos, too closely pursued to escape by leaping the fence, boldly place his foot between the bull’s horns and, tossed by the blow that was intended for him, fall unharmed some paces behind.

The troop of Banderilleros retires at a signal agreed upon, and the Matador appears, to finish the fight by the bull’s death ; he holds a sword in his right hand, and a flag in his left. After a low bow before the magistrates’ box, he turns round, advances with a firm and orderly step towards the bull, whose motions he several times studies, by presenting and withdrawing his flag. The spectators are suspended betwixt fear and hope ; all eyes are fixed on the point of the Matador’s sword, who must pay with his life his irresolution or want of skill, should his blow fail or his hand falter : at length he lifts his sword, and plunges it, between the shoulders, into the very heart of the bull, who, eager to strike the Matador, closes, staggers, falls, and measures the ground with his huge body. The four-footed hero, victor in many battles, raises, for the last time, his dying head, and in one lengthened roar, the blood gushing from his mouth and nostrils, he expires. Flourishes announced the bull’s entrance, flourishes are again heard at the death

Three mules harnessed abreast and richly caparisoned come from a door opposite that by which the combatants entered, gallop to the bull, and drag him away with cords fastened to his horns. The bull which comes next respires sometimes with frantic horror the still reeking blood scattered about the arena; and seized with the fury of revenge, he attacks indiscriminately all his foes at once. Sometimes too a timid bull wanders cowardly about the course, and returns to the outlet whence he came ; but that is irrevocably shut. The spectators consider him unworthy the honour of fighting with men ; the dogs are loudly called for, and the bull, assaulted by a pack, is soon thrown ; he is struck on the head with a sharp-pointed instrument made for the purpose, and dies amid barkings, shoutings and abuse.

This bloody tragedy, of which the devoted bull is the chief actor, presents the living picture of war as it was before the invention of gunpowder ; it offers to the mind its tumult, uncertainty and agitations, and the spectator, as in a field of battle, feels that electric emotion which is excited by the shedding of blood.

Directly the spectacle begins, an almost convulsive joy seizes the spectators of every age and of both sexes. In an instant the gravest countenances expand and become cheerful. The men, seated on benches, lean forward, and open their cloaks to be more appropriate to the action, as if they were to take part in it. They are seen to follow with their eyes and gestures every motion of the Picador or bull, and even encourage the animal by words, thinking thus to influence, by their own eagerness, the fate of the combat.

Friday, August 28, 2009

British – and, indeed, American - readers may well be worried about the state of education in their country. But here’s a clip which suggests things might just be worse here. This is the swearing-in ceremony for the new Ministress of Education. Or Ministra de educación in Spanish. Or so we thought.

During my recent trip to the UK, my dog and my house were kindly looked after by a Madrileño friend of my daughter’s. Just before he left, he commented on how noisy my neighbours could be. So I felt a little guilty I hadn’t warned him about Toni. Or even hinted he might find it useful to click on the Noise label on this blog. But, then, Toni is still at sea and not back until this weekend. Suffice to say poor Pablo had found the kids noisy enough. I question his true Spanish-ness.

For those who thought I was a bit harsh on Ted Kennedy, here’s why. I was in the USA years ago when he was drumming up support for the IRA hunger-strikers, referring to them as ‘freedom fighters, not terrorists” and seeking to secure Congressional funds for them. I wrote to him to advise I’d just set up the CRA and would be seeking his own financial and moral support for my bombing campaign designed to force the return of California to Mexico. But – surprisingly - he never replied.

Here's another quote from M. Rocca’s account of the French army’s adventures in Spain between 1808 and 1814. This time on the Spanish character. And the ability of both the English and the French to completely misread it:- “There was a momentary misunderstanding between the Spaniards and English which occasioned a want of union in their military operations. The Spaniards, forgetting that the English were only auxiliaries in their quarrel, reproached them, first with the slowness of their marches, and soon after with remaining stationary. The English general, in his turn, accused the Spaniards of having constantly concealed from him their situation, and their defeats, and of exaggerating their strength and means of resistance. He was deceived, like the leader of the French armies, in the Spanish character, and generally mistook for imbecility the enthusiastic belief and representations of a people without military resources, but strong in patriotism, and in their national character, and who are invincible, inasmuch as it is their own determination and spirit which exaggerate their means.”

If you live here in Spain and you’ve been stimulated by my extracts from George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain, you might like to know that the GB Society is holding its Annual Meeting in Salamanca next month. I was intrigued to read in one of the papers supplied that, at the start of the 18th century, the Jesuits of Valladolid found that the Irish students who came to the Irish College there were “unmanageable”, being “not used to regimentation”. Díos mío! A people less rules-inclined than the Spanish . . . Who’d have thought it.

Finally . . . For those of you entranced by the news that the new Miss Universe has Galician grandparents and might just come and visit them, here’s more on this. Not far from here, actually.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

I trained to Vigo today. And back, of course. Once you leave the outskirts of Pontevedra and before you enter those of Vigo, this must rank as one of the prettiest short journeys in the world. And, as everyone knows, it runs along the bay into which the Nautilus sailed in search of the booty which dropped to the bottom when British and Dutch ships destroyed the Spanish bullion fleet (and its French escort) in the Battle of Rande in 1702. All of which seemed at least 300 years away as I revelled in the setting sun on the way back home.

The most practical advice I can give anyone when coming to live in Spain is - Always carry reading matter. The validity of this was demonstrated again this evening, when I discovered that the 20.25 train runs on only two days of the year. Christmas Day and New Year's Day. That old small print again.

Anyway, the purpose of the lunch was to bid a fond farewell to a lady who's been - in various guises - an outstanding feature of Vigo for quite a while but who's now taking her charms to Madrid. She's requested that I advise here that, if you go to the Ann Summers web page and insert the words "bad" and "boy" into the search facility, you should learn a lot more than you possibly wanted to know about the male G spot. As I haven't done this and don't know what's to be found there, I must here disclaim all responsibility for any shock or disgust it might occasion those who do.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Second post of the day . . .

I think it was John Denver who once sang “Some days are diamonds; some days are stones. Sometimes the hard times won’t leave you alone.” Which is up there with Shakespeare, as far as I’m concerned. Anyway, I thought of these lines this morning when I woke to another Atlantic Blanket, a hot-water boiler that wouldn’t start and a car which had adopted the same strategy. As if all this weren’t enough, there were molehills on the lawn and the kitten I’d rescued from the engine compartment of my neighbours’ car yesterday was camped outside my back door, mewing for food. I am not a cat lover but this was impossible to ignore. So I put out some milk and fish for it. But the kitten was too nervous to come out of hiding to take this. Which was not true of the bloody semi-wild adult cats that prowl the communal gardens. So, all in all a great start to the day. It’d be something of a compensation if the felines caught and ate the moles. But, of course, the lazy, fussy buggers don’t.

Writing of his recent drive from Santander to Madrid, Ben of Notes from Madrid commented on several things observed from the car. This inevitably included crazy Spanish driving. For what it’s worth - after many thousands of kilometres of driving on Spanish roads of all sorts - my version of the truth is that the majority of people here drive as well as anywhere else in the world. The real problem is that the quotient of macho cretins is higher than in most, if not all, other European countries. So, even though laws have been tightened and penalties massively increased, you will surely see things here which will both amaze and frighten you. Though I don’t mean the confused and confusing things that happen at roundabouts, which reflect the fact that Spain seems to have a law about negotiating these which is both bizarre and unique. Backing off from the detail, the rather large positive is that it can often be a great pleasure to drive on Spain’s excellent and lightly occupied new motorways.

Back to the bad times, though at a more macro level . . . This is the view of one knowledgeable observer of the Spanish banking and economic scenes – “It’s undeniable that the implosion of Spain’s formerly-hot construction sector is going to blow holes in a lot of balance sheets; the only question is where and when. The gist of the Variant Perception report is simple: the problems of Spain’s construction industry and homeowners have become the problem’s of Spain’s lenders. And, going forwards, the problems of Spain’s lenders are going to be a major problem for all of Europe. Meanwhile, Spain will become Ireland-but-worse, as real interest rates soar thanks to deflation and extreme levels of unemployment, combined with low wages, depress the entire economy for the foreseeable future. . . My feeling is that the pessimists are right - the situation in the country is going to get much worse, and spill over into the rest of Europe, long before it gets better. We haven’t hit bottom yet.” Hmm. I take no comfort in being of this pessimistic view both well before and throughout this recession. The EU economic regime was so obviously inappropriate for Spain that you had to be an idiot not to see this coming. In which group one is compelled to include the Spanish President, Señor Zapatero. Perhaps the most worrying thing is that supporters of the EU have argued that all this was, indeed, predictable but the bad times which would follow the inevitable good times would allow the EU and Spanish governments to force some much-needed reforms on the country. In this, they seem to have under-estimated both the stupidity and obstinacy of said Señor Z. Which, I guess, is why it’s now easy to predict that things will get worse before they get better. Perhaps things will change if, as some have predicted, the IMF effectively takes over the economic management of Spain, once the government has found it impossible to raise the loans it needs to keep the country running. Interesting times. For those who are rich or on a secure income, I mean. Rather worrying for everyone else. No wonder even more Spaniards than usual are keen to get a job as a civil servant. And, God knows, this was already a high enough percentage.

Car Footnote: I've just been told that it will cost me more than 500 euros to replace the ignition barrel in my steering wheel, on top of the 2,000 I paid a couple of months ago when the head gasket blew. And in addition to what it will cost me to replace a broken track rod end on one of the front wheels. Whenever I contemplate what I have had to lay out on this heap of junk, I recall with affection that the four guys who bought Rover for a peppercorn from BMW and then sold it to a Chinese company each walked away with millions of pounds of easy profit. Enough to make anyone question the capitalist system. If not for long.

Finally, and curmudgeonly . . . Does anyone in Europe really care that that old rogue, Ted Kennedy, has died? Was it really justifiable that this was the lead item on the BBC, Sky and France 24 news programs this morning?
This is the first post of what is turning out to be a most frustrating day . . .

One major irony associated with Ryanair's decision to locate its NW Iberia hub in Oporto is that the airport expects to benefit enormously from next year's Xacobeo Year, in which Catholics can get extra time off their Purgatory sentence if they make the pilgrimage to Santiago. Reminding us once again that it was the RC Church which invented Marketing.

Our major local paper - The Voz de Galicia - reports today that the airline's decision is a major blow to our economy and that our three airport cities are now demanding a plan from the Xunta which will allow them to compete. Rather too late for this, I would have thought. This horse has bolted, jumping over spilt milk as he fled. Of course, the Voz didn't see this as a really important development and so put it on page 4. The major front-page news was that the new Miss Universe from Venezuela has grandparents in Galicia and might well come and visit them. We all get the governments we deserve. So, God help us.

But why, I hear you ask, did Ryanair favour Oporto over, say, Santiago? Well, my guess is that they found someone who could - unlike our new President - speak to them in English. And that the Portuguese were not distracted by arguments about whether the official documents should be in Gallego or Spanish. But I could be wrong. It could just be rank stupidity and inefficiency on the part of our businessmen and politicians.

More later.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

One thing that didn’t happen to me during my recent drive to and from the UK is that – as far as I know – I didn’t get yet another fine for speeding. Though there was a scare yesterday evening, when I came up against a Guardia Civil patrol stopping a fair number of cars at the end of one of the A8 autopista stretches. I could scarcely believe it when mine was waved on. I was reminded of this when reading a letter in one of the main papers today about how confusing it is these days – for one reason or another - to know what the correct speed limit is. And how irritating it is to see official cars flashing past way above whatever it might be. Why, asked the writer, should politicians be above the laws which they promulgate for others. Good question. “Spain is different” hardly seems adequate.

In his book on the Spanish War of Independence, the French cavalry officer, M. Rocca, seems genuinely impressed that the Spanish irregular forces proved more than a match for their French opponents when it came to anything other than a traditional pitched battle. At the same time, though, he comes across as both surprised and irritated that this arises from the famous Spanish pride and individualismo. Supplemented, perhaps, by the topography of much of the country . . . . The Spanish generals, like their government, had no authority, excepting while they acted in unison with the feelings of those whom they commanded. They could neither restrain their soldiers in success, nor command them when a reverse of fortune occurred, and these undisciplined bands, in victory or in flight, dragged their generals with them. The pride of the Spaniards was such, that they would never attribute their misfortunes to their want of experience, or to the military superiority of their enemies : the moment they were beaten, they accused their chiefs of treason. General Saint Juan was hanged by his soldiers at Talavera, General la Penna was superseded by the divisions of Andalusia, and the Duke del Infantado forced to take the command of the army at Cuenca. The Spaniards were a religious and warlike, but not a military, people; they even detested and despised every thing belonging to regular troops ; therefore they were in want of officers, subalterns and all the means that tend to constitute a well regulated army. They considered the present war as a religious crusade against the French, for their country and their king; and the only military distinction of the greatest part of their citizen soldiers was a red ribbon, with this inscription, ‘Vincer o morir pro patria et pro Ferdinando septimo’. At the first call, men from every province presented themselves, almost naked, at the great assemblies, which they called their armies. There the ardent desire they had for conquest, made them support, with admirable patience, privations to which all the power of the severest discipline could never have subjected the best regular troops. Even at the time of our victories, the people of the provinces manifested the greatest incredulity concerning the successes we gained ; no Spaniard would believe in the disasters of Spain, or own that she could be conquered : these sentiments, inherent in every mind, rendered the nation invincible, notwithstanding the frequent defeats, and individual losses of its armies. The modern equivalent, of course, is the firm belief that your region’s cuisine is the best in the world and that no one makes a better tortilla than your grandmother.

I don’t, of course, know what drove M. Rocca to turn to the pen but this paragraph from an article in Prospect magazine struck me as having more than a grain of truth about it. Though I’m sure it doesn’t apply to my would-be novelist daughter, currently taking tango lessons in Buenos Aires . . . Why write a book? To change the world? To make money? No. Geoffrey Miller’s answer to this kind of question is simple: it’s all about showing off. Our evolutionary history has bequeathed us strong tendencies to display signals that indicate our desirability. Being an author, for example, advertises intelligence—something that in turn is supposed to correlate with brain size, physical and mental health, semen quality in men and, ultimately, sexual attractiveness.

As if. But, anyway, welcome to the two new Followers (awful word) to this blog.

Finally, I can’t say it was a great surprise today to read that Ryanair is investing heavily in Oporto airport so as to turn it into a North West Iberia hub for 25 international flights. If any of the three small international airports here in Galicia ever stood a real chance of competing for this boost to the local economy, its hopes must have been destroyed by the pathetic parochial infighting of the last few years. So, let’s hope some lessons are learned. The main one being that localist pride in one’s patria chica can be overdone.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Well, I’m back in Pontevedra, after another smooth-as-a-millpond crossing on Brittany Ferries’ excellent big boat, the Pont-Aven. Splashed out last night in the main restaurant and was royally fed on a shoulder of lamb that could have fed three. Appropriately called Agneau Gargantua. But the Sancerre wine helped it go down, even if it was the wrong colour.

Anyway, here’s the inevitable re-entry report . . .
- Time to first cut-up on a roundabout – Less than one minute. British driver.
- Time to witnessing first near-miss between two cars – Less than three minutes. Both British.
- Time to being forced to pull out into fast-moving traffic in the main street of Santander because of illegal double parking – four, five, six and seven minutes.
- Time to hearing first young female say to another “Mira, coño.” – Seven hours forty-five minutes.
- Time to recalling how pretty Spanish women are – Seven hours forty-six minutes.

Good to be home, even if the weather between Cantabria and Galicia was even worse than that in Plymouth when we set sail yesterday.

P. S. Welcome to Liliana. I may be getting the hang of this Followers thing . . .

Sunday, August 23, 2009

I’ve always seen Plymouth as a rather drab place in which one is forced to run a gamut of numerous speed cameras en route to and from the ferry to Santander. But my old friend, Frank, today introduced me to the pleasures of its charming old quarter, down by the harbour from which the Pilgrim Fathers set sail to the USA in the Mayflower around 1620. And where we were later able to witness the heavily-policed bacchanalias I’ve only ever seen on British TV before. Truly do the youth of Britain enjoy themselves in a unique way. Perhaps only Hoggarth could do justice to it all but I do have a couple of photos that I’ll post in a day or two. One abiding memory will be the night-long queues of ten or more young folk at each of the bank ATMs, preparing to blow their week’s wages on semi-naked drunken revels. And the fleet of taxis standing by to take them from one watering hole to another.

Anyway, two things I’ve not encountered during ten days in the UK are:- 1. anyone with swine flu, and 2. a motorway (autopista) free of lane closures caused by road works. In fact, I wonder whether there’s a single motorway in all of England, Scotland and Wales on which your progress will not be impeded by these. Even at 11.15 on a Thursday night just south of Knutsford. Or ‘Cranford’ as some of you will know it. Spain’s highways are blessedly free of these but this may simply be because they’re newer. Perhaps we have this pleasure in store for us in the years ahead. Meanwhile, though, it’ll be at least another ten years before the A8 along the northern coast is completed, giving us unimpeded travel between Santander and Galicia. Hey ho. Back to the fray.

Friday, August 21, 2009

With nothing British to comment on – except my ability to screw an extra 5 quid out of a notebook seller in Tottenham Court Road today – I turn to The Economist for a view of Spain’s performance against that of its EU partners. The article begins:- “Enthusiasts for European integration used to spend a lot of time fretting about a ‘two-speed Europe’ (meaning that some countries would engage in closer integration than others). Now they are fretting about a two-speed euro zone as well” and you can read the rest here. One – unsurprising - comment is that “Spain’s exporters look puny compared with her large, idle industries, such as construction, that cater to domestic demand.” So all a tad worrying for the next few years. Especially if tourism doesn’t quickly pick up from its 10% drop over the last 12 months. Difficult to be optimistic. Especially for a pessimist.

And here’s another Economist article on Spain. This time on the world of top-team football, where money seems to have lost all meaning for the President of Real Madrid.

If cricket is your bag, then tomorrow will be a good day to stay glued to your TV or radio. Especially if you’re English. For the Australians may well have blown it in the final and conclusive match of the 5-match series. If so, this would compensate most of my compatriots for a summer that was forecast to be hot enough for endless BBQ’s but which hasn't been. To say the least.

Finally . . . No sooner do I boast that the aggregate of Followers plus Google Readers has reached one hundred, then one of the latter unkindly departs the scene. So, thank God for the news from a considerate reader that there are other RSS feeds that I was overlooking. I was already depressed enough about leaving the UK to return to Spain. As if.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Second post of the day . . . .

Stopping off for what our American cousins call “ a comfort break” on the way down from Leeds to London today, I decided to eschew the 4 quid sandwiches and buy myself a couple of Snackers bars at 65p each. Happily, there was a double pack for only 89p but the checkout girl then told me a special promotion would allow me to get two of these for only 1.30. The numerate among you will have realised this makes the unit cost of 4 bars only 32.5p, or half the usual price. Given there's a plague of obesity in the UK, this says something not only about the margins of the manufacturer and retailer but also their morality. But - as I’ve asked before - in a free society how on earth do you stop capitalism morphing into rampant consumerism? Perhaps via regular recessions. Meanwhile, is it any wonder that members of my daughters’ generation eat and drink to excess and regard 5 pounds as ‘only the price of a drink or a sandwich”? And that one of the joys of my niece’s wedding last weekend was the sight of so many “well-fed” young women bulging out of their tightly-fitting Sunday best?

In more positive mode, here’s another unsolicited testimonial. This time for PurpleParking, who offer a remarkably efficient service for leaving your car near Heathrow airport at what has to be considered a very reasonable price these days. If anyone knows of a better way to take a car to London and to park it outside the congestion charge area, I’d be delighted to hear it.

Which reminds me . . . As you approach London, there are huge signs saying you're entering a Low Emissions zone. Which should worry you if you have a diesel-powered commercial vehicle, apparently.

Finally . . . I guess I’m not so odd in being a nervous flier. But I do wonder how many people feel tense just approaching Heathrow in order to get the Tube into London. Pathetic, really.
Am now down in London, chasing my tail. So here's what I got from my sister in Liverpool today . . .

I dialled a number and got the following recording:- I'm not available right now but thank-you for caring enough to call. I'm making some changes in my life. Please leave a message after the beep. If I don't return your call, you are one of the changes.

Aspire to inspire before you expire.

My wife and I had words. But I didn't get to use mine.

Frustration is trying to find your glasses without your glasses.

Blessed are those who can give without remembering and take without forgetting.

The irony of life is that, by the time you're old enough to know your way around, you're not going anywhere.

God made man before woman so as to give him time to think of an answer to her first question.

I was always taught to respect my elders but it keeps getting harder to find one.

Every morning is the dawn of a new error.

Thank-you and Goodnight.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Having dined this evening with my daughter in an excellent Thai restaurant in North Leeds - one of three near her flat - I'm now wondering when we can expect to see one of these in Galicia. Probably not in my lifetime, I suspect - given the standard Galician reaction to the thought of spicey food. But, hey, we do have Japanese restaurants in both Vigo and La Coruña. Though, sadly, not yet in Pontevedra.

We re-visited Harrogate today, enjoying an excellent steak and ale pie in a traditional British pub, before spending a couple of hours in some beautiful Royal Horticultural Society gardens not far from the city. It struck me that it wasn't hard to understand why chocolate-box Britain is so appealing to foreign tourists. Especially when the sun shines, as it did today.

But rain is forecast for tomorrow, when I drive to London. And the horse chestnut trees are two weeks ahead of schedule, raising concerns about the international conker championships scheduled for October. Dratted global warming. Which brings cold, wet summers, apparently.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Spain is not, of course, the first country in the world to find that fining motorists for petty or even non-existent offences is an easy source of revenue. Things have gone so far in the UK that magistrates are reported to be reluctant to give police the power to hand out 60 pound on-the-spot fines and penalty points for careless driving because they “can’t be trusted not to abuse the system”. Local councils, though, don’t need the approval of the judiciary and have become evermore creative. And devious. In Portsmouth, for example, motorists who park more than 19.7 inches from the kerb are set to be fined £70. Presumably, what someone has called the Traffic Taliban will all be carrying tape measures as part of their uniform. Or perhaps just a stick measuring 19.7 inches. Or 41.75cm. Creating the risk that some of them may duly find this up their fundament.

There's been something of a controversy raging in the UK about a Conservative MP who criticised the British National Health Service on US TV. British politicians have finally moved away from the egregious boast that the NHS is the "envy of the rest of the world." But – regardless of what they really believe - they still can’t say anything in public other than it’s wonderful and in need only of a bit more tinkering. Of course, everyone in the country with half a brain knows this isn’t true and some of them may be aware of how much better things work in France, Germany and even Spain, for example. But such is politics. So it was ironic to read today that employees in the NHS - the largest single employer in Europe – have levels of obesity, smoking, absenteeism and illness-related absences which are way above the national averages. Needless to say, these impact on the quality of patient care. But it’s not terribly wise for any politician to even hint at this, as it will lead to accusations of the anathema of “secret privatisation plans”.*

Finally . . . A plug for a band which “plays Celtic music for those who hate Celtic music but love rock”. This is a group of my younger daughter’s US friends called Scythian, whose Immigrant Road Show can be heard here. The Washington Post rightly called them “One of Washington's most energetic and eclectic bands”. For an indication of their virtuosity, click here and, if you can’t wait, go to minute 4.26 of Gypsy Fiddle. Or take a dip into this YouTube search, where you can hear Danny Boy like it's never been done before. It’d be good if someone reading this can help me get them an invitation to next year’s festival of Celtic music in Ortigueira. Failing that, to at least one Fiesta or another in Galicia.

* Postscript: I've since read this interesting article on this subject.

Monday, August 17, 2009

I see that 23 people were injured during a recent fireworks display down in Elche, despite the fact that everyone involved (in a special enclosure) was wearing protective footwear and clothing. It put me in mind of a night in that city in 1970 when the local youths took great pleasure in hurling every sort of incendiary device at a group of terrified British girls. And anyone else, for that matter. There was no question of protective gear back then. Or safety in any guise.

And talking of change in Spain  . . .  the Health Minister has said that 70% of the population support a total ban on smoking and has stressed that Spanish society is now mature enough to accept this. Hmm. I have my doubts and we will see. Sadly, the filthy habit is still widely seen here as a symbol of sophistication and personal freedom. Unlike pissing against a wall, which only reflects the latter.

Still down south . . .  A divorce lawyer this week argued that his client shouldn't be denied custody of the children simply because she had a nasty temper. This, he claimed, was simply part of her (stereo)typical Andalucian character. The judge was not impressed. Though possibly amused.

At last something to moan about here in the UK . . .  Last evening in lovely Leeds, I waited 10 minutes at a bar while the couple in front of me had their 3-quid-each cocktails mixed (slowly) by the bartender. I then paid 10 pounds for two (quickly delivered) half pints of lager, a Coke and a glass of NZ white wine. Or 2.50 each, on average. This seemed a lot to me, though I suspect I'm rather out of touch. Primarily because my daughter laughed and told me they were cheap. But this is not my real gripe. What annoyed me was the attempts made to embarrass me (as if!) into buying a 'large' glass of wine:-
"Would that be a small or a large glass of wine, sir?", and later
"You did say a large glass, didn't you, sir?"

There, I feel much better now.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

As I’m having rather a good time in the UK – so far at least – I’m rather stuck for acerbic things to say. Hence this desperate little tale . . . .

I sent a camera to Nikon in the UK a year or so ago for an estimate of the repair cost. They quoted me around 220 pounds, including a charge of 50 quid just to send it back to me. I ignored the quote and bought a better camera for the same amount of money in Madrid. And I only finally told Nikon last week that I rejected their estimate. Whereupon they sent me a new estimate of 20 quid to have the un-repaired camera delivered to me in Spain. Quite why it suddenly got so much cheaper to return to me I cannot guess. Perhaps they’re as keen as I was to get rid of it.

By all accounts, George Borrow was an extremely intelligent man and a wondrous linguist. But this didn’t prevent him being a truly fanatical Protestant who went as far as insisting that not only was the Catholic Church not a Christian church but that the Pope and his Cardinals were well aware of this. Here he is, for example, on the question of the Pope’s true nature:- I said repeatedly that the Pope, whom they revered, was an arch deceiver and the head minister of Satan here on earth and that the monks and friars whose absence they so deplored and to whom they had been accustomed to confess themselves were his subordinate agents. Which, even to a ex-Papist like me, seems a tad harsh.

To end on a Spanish note . . . Trevor of Kalebeul has sent me confirmation of the lengths to which councils are now willing to go in order to extract one type of fine or another from anyone living in or passing through their bailiwicks. Meaning that Spain has ceased to be one of the more relaxed, live-and-let live places in the world in which to live. Laws are no longer to be loosely applied, but severely tightened and ruthlessly imposed. Including that of whistling during the siesta hour. Whether this will continue once la crisis is over, God only knows. In the meantime, whoever would have thought I’d be even more conscious of mobile radar traps and fixed cameras in Spain than I ever have been in “Big Brother” Britain? Which prompts the question – Has anyone in Spain yet set fire to or blown up a speed camera?

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Well, it was a long but enjoyable day at the family wedding today, starting with a church service at 12.00 and running right through to our departure from the evening event at 11pm. I knew we were in Britain when the vicar announced that the church was in a conservation area and that only biodegradable confetti was to be thrown. And when the lunch menu stressed that the coffee was Fair Trade. And when the evening dinner and disco provided yet more examples of what my brother-in-law had, earlier in the day, referred to as “well-fed girls”. With tattoos. Not to mention drinks prices in the stratosphere.

My elder daughter, Faye, couldn’t make it as she’s in Buenos Aires taking serious tango lessons. But my younger daughter, Hannah, had just flown in from the USA and here’s her photo, to prove the point I made a while ago that they were both lucky enough to inherit their looks from their mother.

And here’s me, Han and my mother, who’d celebrated her 65th wedding anniversary yesterday.

Finally, I’d lust like to say that the aggregate of the 26 lovely Followers of this blog and the 74 who access it direct via Google Reader has finally reached 100. This made me feel good this morning. Until I realised there might be an overlap. But, then, Google’s Blog Alert for Galicia did include mine last week – a rare occurrence. So it was still a good week.
It was a long day of family celebrations today, around the 65th wedding anniversary of my parents. This, I feel safe in saying, is an achievement which few of us following after are likely to emulate. In my case, for example, I’d have to (re)marry tomorrow and live until I was 127. Which I discount.

Time to think about a post has again been short so I’m resorting to another quote from M. Rocca’s memoirs of his time in Spain during The War of Independence. In this paragraph, he majors on the dignity also observed twenty years later by Borrow. At times, one gets the impression that the Frenchman - while admiring Spanish resistance - nonetheless feels it isn’t entirely fair. I’m reminded of the old joke in which the Coliseum crowd takes exception to a Christian buried up to his neck in sand biting off the testicles of a lion which leaps at him . . . .

Hurried on by the pleasure of the ride and the impetuosity of my horse, I climbed one hill and then another; I crossed a torrent, and arrived at the entrance of a large village. The inhabitants, having seen me coming from afar, were afraid that I should be followed by a numerous body; the alarm instantly spread among them, and they hurried from all quarters to their houses, where they were occupied in barricading the street-doors, preparing, according to their custom, to escape over the walls of the back courts. Seeing that I was alone, they gradually came out of their dwellings to the market-place, where I had stopped. I heard several men repeat, with considerable energy, the word "matar" ; as I did not then know the Spanish language, I thought at first that it was a manner of expressing their astonishment at the sight of a stranger; I afterwards learnt that the word means to kill. The Spaniards were not so peaceable as the inhabitants of the plains of Germany, where a single French soldier gives laws to a whole town. When I saw the crowd increase, and the agitation augment, I began to fear lest the inhabitants should detain me as a prisoner. I spurred my horse on both sides, and went without the village, placing myself on a hillock, where I was soon followed both by the men and the women ; I then began to make my horse leap backwards and forwards over a low wall, and a ditch behind me, to show the inhabitants I was not afraid of them, and that I could easily escape when I pleased. Detained by curiosity, (it was the first time since we passed the Ebro I had seen a village entirely inhabited, and above all by women) I returned to the height where I had at first placed myself, and made a sign with my scabbard to the people not to come within ten paces, and tried to make them understand that my horse wanted food. The inhabitants, wrapped up in their great cloaks, looked at me in silence, with a kind of astonishment; keeping up, nevertheless, in their looks and behaviour, that gravity and that dignity which characterize the Castilians of every age and of every class : they appeared heartily to despise a stranger, ignorant of their language.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

I’m en route to the UK, to celebrate the wedding of a niece, the 65th wedding anniversary of my parents and, if I recollect correctly, the Assumption of Our Lady straight into Heaven. Though in the last case the festivities will, of course, be marred by the non-attendance of the celebratee. Who ever comes back from Heaven?

Anyway, it’s an appropriate time and place to give an unsolicited testimonial to Brittany Ferries, who do a grand job on their Pont Aven boat, ploughing between Santander and either Plymouth or Southampton. To be honest, I wasn’t knocked out by last night’s Michael Jackson impersonator but it seemed every other person on the boat was. Including the entire crew, packed into the rafters. And I have to admit that the guy looked so creepingly authentic I kept waiting for him to keel over with a heart attack. But, when he failed to oblige, I crept early off to bed.

So . . . Saturday’s bullfight. Long-time readers will know I’m decidedly ambivalent about this Spanish institution. And I have two daughters whose attitudes are literally poles apart. So I hope one of them never reads this.

First off, I scoff at people who deny the cruelty of bullfighting. On the other hand, I find it impossible to disagree with those who rave about its (occasional) artistry. And no one will ever convince me it doesn’t take great courage to get into the ring with the magnificent bulls. I would never ban it. But, that said, I don’t often attend a corrida - for the not-very-laudatory reason that they can, frankly, get very boring. And I’m not very proud of the fact that I seem to get inured quite quickly to the outpourings of blood. For which I blame my genes.

Anyway, in the boredom stakes, Saturday night was an exception.

First of all, I was there with Pontevedra’s largest and most raucous peña, Gin Kas. Membership of which is conditional on your being prepared to hacer el ganso. Or play the fool. (This, by the way, might well be conclusive evidence of the claim that Pontevedra audiences are not the most knowledgeable and serious in Spain.)

Secondly, the evening was special in that each of the first five bulls was dispatched quickly with a single sword thrust between the shoulder blades. Meaning none of the awful multi-stabbing atrocities that often unfold.

Finally – and most importantly – the final bull was ‘pardoned’ - after a combination of an angry and brave quadruped and an angry and talented biped had given the crowd something to remember. Only twice in more than a hundred years has a bull been allowed to leave the Pontevedra ring (just about) alive, to be nursed back to a life at stud. So, it’s understandable the crowd was pretty delirious at the close of the corrida. Even the breeder of the bulls was carried out on someone’s shoulders. In fact, I think I might well have been.

So, no. For so long as the Spanish people want to retain the institution, I would never ban it. But I still won’t be going very often. And I will always believe that, if they could just bottle the first five minutes of every ‘fight’ – when the torero faces an uninjured bull alone – then they might just have something to sell to the rest of the world. As it is, no bloody chance whatsoever. Even in Spain itself, it’s a tougher and tougher row to hoe. Which should be a crumb of consolation for those readers who regard as insane anyone who doesn’t totally support their outright rejection of bullfighting.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Time again being short, I offer you these comments from the French cavalry officer. M de Rocca, who took part in the War of Independence between 1808 and 1813. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that he emerged from the war with great admiration for the Spanish people, who had refused to lie down and accept defeat and servitude in the way so many others across the continent had done . . .

When the Emperor Napoleon gave his brother to Spain as a king, he hoped that he would have to deal with a feeble nation, without energy, which, once deprived of its chiefs, would prefer the government of a stranger to the scourge of war in the very heart of the country. Europe herself believed along with the Emperor Napoleon that the Spaniards were to be subdued without a struggle. During the five years the war had lasted, the French had won ten pitched battles successively, they had taken almost every strong place, but nevertheless they had not secured the lasting possession of a single province. Spain had been in a way reduced to Cadiz, as Portugal was to Lisbon. But even if the French had been able to take those towns, the fate of the Peninsula would still not have been decided. While the French armies lay under the walls of Cadiz the Spanish partisans were making incursions to the gates of Toulouse, in the very heart of France.

The Spaniards, as a nation, were animated by one and the same feeling, love of independence, and abhorrence of strangers who would have humbled their national pride by imposing a government upon them. It was neither armies nor fortresses that were to be conquered in Spain, but that one, yet multiplied sentiment which filled the whole people. It was the inmost soul of each and every one that resisted the blow that entrenchment which neither bullet nor bayonet could.

Since these memoirs were written we have seen, first the Muscovite, and then the Prussian people, give proof of devotion to their country similar, in many respects, to that which the Spaniards showed ; and Russia, Prussia and Spain were early delivered from the common enemy. These events have changed the face of Europe; they demonstrate as fully as the long and noble resistance of the Spanish people, that the real strength of states does not consist so much in the number and strength of their regular armies, as in that religious, patriotic, or political feeling which is alone powerful enough to interest every individual of a nation in the public cause as if it were his own.

The irony here is that, almost 200 years on, this same spirit of patriotism and independence may be taking Spain beyond plurality to dismemberment. Maybe it’s true that one can have too much of a good thing.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Apologies for the absence of a post yesterday. The BBQ began with the arrival of the first guests at 1.15 and ended when I and the overnight guests went to bed at 2.20. To spend what was left of the night fighting off and swatting the mosquitoes that had taken advantage of the open doors.

So little time to even think of a post, let alone write one. Which was a shame as I wanted to relate aspects of an extraordinary bullfight on Saturday night. Perhaps tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are the promised paragraphs giving George Borrow’s observations on Spanish women. Or at least those of Sevilla:-

San Lucar was always noted for the thievish propensities of its inhabitants - the worst in all Andalusia. The roguish innkeeper in Don Quixote perfected his education at San Lucar. All these recollections crowded into my mind as we proceeded along the strand. We at last arrived nearly opposite to San Lucar. Here a lively spectacle presented itself to us: the shore was covered with a multitude of females either dressing or undressing themselves, while hundreds were in the water sporting and playing; some were close by the beach, stretched at their full length on the sand and pebbles, allowing the little billows to dash over their heads and bosoms; whilst others were swimming boldly out into the firth. There was a confused hubbub of female cries, thin shrieks and shrill laughter; couplets likewise were being sung, on what subject it is easy to guess, for we were in sunny Andalusia, and what can its black-eyed daughters think, speak, or sing of but amor, amor, which now sounded from the land and the waters. . . . . . I now revisited Mr. Phillipi, who introduced me to his family, his wife an English woman, and his daughter an amiable and beautiful girl of about eighteen years of age; three or four other ladies from Seville were likewise there on a visit, and for the purpose of sea-bathing. After a few words in English between the lady of the house and myself, we all commenced chatting in Spanish, which seemed to be the only language understood or cared for by the rest of the company; indeed, who would be so unreasonable as to expect Spanish females to speak any language but their own, which, flexible and harmonious as it is, (far more so I think than any other) seemed at times quite inadequate to express the wild sallies of their luxuriant imagination. Two hours fled rapidly away in discourse, interrupted occasionally by music and song, when I bade farewell to this delightful society, and strolled out to view the town.

After a long day spent in the company of several lovely Spanish ladies, it would be strange indeed if I were to find myself disagreeing with old George’s sentiments. Especially as they insisted on helping me clear up. Viva España!

Saturday, August 08, 2009

For reasons which will become clear, this is an early Saturday post, following a late Friday post last night . . . .

A couple of weeks ago, having decided I’d like to attend one of this year’s bullfights, I called a friend who’s a member of the biggest local peña. In true Spanish form, he rang me at 11pm last night to say he’d arranged this and that we’d be meeting for lunch at 2.30 today. And that, also in true Spanish fashion, this would go on until the corrida began at 7pm. Worryingly, he also advised me not to wear any good clothes. I guess this is connected with his initial comment that I’d have to be prepared to hacer el ganso. Or play the fool. Ya veremos.

I see that petrol has risen to 1.07 a litre in other parts of Spain. Not so here in Galicia, where - as ever - our prices are 6% higher. Perhaps someone will one day explain this to me in a sentence which doesn’t use the word ‘cartel’.

The Spanish savings banks (the Cajas/Caixas) are widely thought to be in trouble, thanks essentially to foolish loans during the long construction boom. A few mergers have already taken place and more are surely in the offing. Here in Galicia for example, and notwithstanding ‘localist’ rivalry between the respective cities in which they have their HQs, our two leading Caixas have long been reported to be talking about fusion. More recently, there’ve been rumours that one of them is being eyed up by Caja Madrid. Addressing this theme, a columnist on the right-of-centre paper, ABC, yesterday began an article as follows:-
Cataluña and Galicia are threatening to take advantage of the bank rescue fund. Andalucia doesn’t need to. It’s already consummated the intra-regional merger of its Cajas. A political cycle has ended. Spain no longer exists, only the Communities. The unanimity is total – Don’t touch the Cajas; they’re ours. Nothing unites more than a good external enemy. A rumour that Caja Madrid was thinking about a merger with Caixa Galicia was enough for the socialists, conservatives and nationalists to sink their irreconcilable differences in defence of their land - that of the savings of we Gallegos and the sweat of our emigrants.
Of course, the Cajas/Caixas are not true banks. They are cash-rich organisations controlled by local politicians and their operations are less than fully transparent. So I guess it’s hardly surprising that the politicos want to protect their multi-purpose fiefdoms. Even if it means allying with people whom they routinely label ‘liars’. Strange bedfellows indeed. One can’t help sympathising with the columnist’s view that power - if not yet all the money – has moved to the Spanish periphery. In UK terms, I guess it’s rather like the Yorkshire County Council having a veto over all commercial activities involving companies in their region. Or the Scottish government being able to stop the merger of Lloyds and the Royal Bank of Scotland. With hindsight, of course, this might not have been a bad thing . . . And not just for the Scots.

Finally . . . I promised you George Borrow’s comments on the Catalans, or at least their language. And here they are:- Sunday morning came, and I was on board the steamer by six o'clock. As I ascended the side, the harsh sound of the Catalan dialect assailed my ears. In fact, the vessel was Catalan built, and the captain and crew were of that nation; the greater part of the passengers already on board, or who subsequently arrived, appeared to be Catalans, and seemed to vie with each other in producing disagreeable sounds. A burly merchant, however, with a red face, peaked chin, sharp eyes, and hooked nose, clearly bore off the palm; he conversed with astonishing eagerness on seemingly the most indifferent subjects, or rather on no subject at all; his voice would have sounded exactly like a coffee-mill but for a vile nasal twang: he poured forth his Catalan incessantly till we arrived at Gibraltar. Such people are never sea-sick, though they frequently produce or aggravate the malady in others.

Tomorrow - Spanish women. In which he usuallys seems rather less interested in describing than the men he meets. It seems to me. Perhaps the former kept out of his way. Wisely.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Well, August continues to be like September – or even October – up here in Galicia, while the rest of Spain swelters. Putting it another way, it’s like a good English summer month. Though with temperatures in the high 20s and more sun of an evening. The local papers surveyed some (Spanish) tourists the other day and one Madrileña assured us that folk didn’t all come to Galicia for the sun and the beaches. Just as well, then. But at least our weather forecasters are not so desperate to avoid mention of the rain that they cite it as a positive that the grass pollen season is over and will be now be replaced by the weed pollen season.

I recently rescued a grass snake from the track near my house in the hills. Or, rather, I thought it was a grass snake but diligent research has revealed it’s actually a legless lizard. It’s usually called a ‘slow worm’ in the UK. But, then, you’d be slow if evolution had deprived you of the use of your pins. In Galicia it’s called the escáncer común or liscanzo. Anyway, I mention it because, passing the anglers’ shop today, I decided to see if they stocked its favourite food. Ironically, this is worms. The woman in the shop duly produced a box, took off the lid and revealed a pile of algae. Rather my astonishment, she then turned it over and tipped a writhing mass onto her palm. When I commented that she didn’t seem to have the standard female fear of worms, she laughed and said that maybe up in the interior things would be like that but, down here on the coast, they were used to digging them up and handling them. Be that as it may, the ex-snake has so far refused to touch them. Fussy bloody eater. One-fifty down the drain.

You’ll all be aware of the so-called greengrocers’ apostrophe, as in “Apple’s 80p a kilo”. Well, here are a few examples of an approach that goes way beyond this in a web page I stumbled on today - thes'e document's; it speed's up the process; three occasion's; speeding fine's; citie's ring road's; 6 point's; and village's and town's. Ironically, it was a well-written and informative article.

I’ve mentioned a couple of times that George Barrow wasn’t too keen on Galicia and Galicians. But he didn’t reserve his disdain just for this region. Here he is not mincing his words on Andalucians:-

The higher class of the Andalusians are probably upon the whole the most vain and foolish of human beings, with a taste for nothing but sensual amusements, foppery in dress, and ribald discourse. Their insolence is only equalled by their meanness, and their prodigality by their avarice. The lower classes are a shade or two better than their superiors in station: little, it is true, can be said for the tone of their morality; they are overreaching, quarrelsome, and revengeful, but they are upon the whole more courteous, and certainly not more ignorant.

The Andalusians are in general held in the lowest estimation by the rest of the Spaniards, even those in opulent circumstances finding some difficulty at Madrid in procuring admission into respectable society, where, if they find their way, they are invariably the objects of ridicule, from the absurd airs and grimaces in which they indulge,--their tendency to boasting and exaggeration, their curious accent, and the incorrect manner in which they speak and pronounce the Castilian language. In a word, the Andalusians, in all estimable traits of character, are as far below the other Spaniards as the country which they inhabit is superior in beauty and fertility to the other provinces of Spain.

Yet let it not for a moment be supposed that I have any intention of asserting, that excellent and estimable individuals are not to be found amongst the Andalusians.

In truth, it’s becoming clear that old George wasn’t just a Spanish nationalist but was actually a narrow Castilian nationalist. Contrary to what the Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalists would have us believe, there are other regions in Spain apart from Castile:-

Tomorrow - the Catalans!

And Sunday - Spanish women.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Reader Ointe pointed me – well, all of us actually – to the English translation of a memoir written by a French officer not long after the end of The Peninsular War/War of Spanish Independence. This is available on line and I’ve posted bits about Galicia’s key role in this war on my Galicia site, here. I’m re-formatting the whole thing, for posting tomorrow, but right now here’s a lovely description of the hotch-potch that was Madrid in 1808. With the obligatory reference – albeit indirectly – to the noise levels of the city in the final sentence:-

One is astonished on entering Madrid . . . at the tumultuous concourse of people from the country and the provinces, diversely clothed, going, coming, arriving and departing. Here a Castilian gathers up the ample folds of his cloak with the dignity of a Roman senator wrapped in his toga. There a drover from La Mancha, with a long goad in his hand and clad in a kilt of hide, which also resembles the ancient form of the tunic worn by the Roman and Gothic warriors. Farther on are seen men whose hair is bound with long silken fillets, and others wearing a sort of short brown vest, chequered with blue and red, which reminds one of the Morisco garb. The men who wear this habit come from Andalusia; they are distinguished by their black lively eyes, their expressive and animated looks, and the rapidity of their utterance. Women, sitting in the corners of the streets and in the public places, are occupied preparing food for this passing crowd, whose homes are not in Madrid. One sees long strings of mules laden with skins of wine or of oil, or droves of asses led by a single man, who talks to them unceasingly. One also meets carriages drawn by eight or ten mules, ornamented with little bells, driven with surprising address by one coachman, either on the trot, or galloping, without reins, and by means of his voice only, using the wildest cries. One long sharp whistle serves to stop all the mules at the same moment. By their slender legs, their tall stature, their proudly raised heads, one would take them for teams of stags or elks. The vociferations of the drivers and the muleteers, the ringing of the church bells, which is unceasing, unceasing, the various vesture of the men, the superabundance of southern activity, manifested by expressive gestures or shouts in a sonorous language of which we were ignorant, manners so different from our own, all contributed to make the appearance of the capital of Spain strange to men coming from the north, where all goes on so silently.

If you go to the above extract of Galicia’s role in the war, you'll see that the author was rather critical of the British General, Sir John Moore, who died in the engagement at La Coruña and who is buried in a little grove there, kindly maintained by the city council. His comments – though reasonable-sounding to me – proved too much for the translator, who felt obliged to insert this paragraph:- [These causes are sufficiently known to the English reader; yet it is impossible for the translator, who has the honour to call Sir John Moore a countryman, to pass over this passage without a protest against any censure, or implied censure, conveyed in Mr. Rocca’s pages; and without entreating the reader to turn to the narrative of Sir John Moore’s campaign, where the griefs and vexations of that noble heart are recorded, and the bright page of his military career laid open for the admiration and example of his countrymen.] Which is a relief to those of us who had to learn off by heart as kids a long poem about the unfortunate man's internment.

Commenting on French failures in the mountains of North Iberia, our French officer candidly opines – “In Galicia, Portugal, and the Asturias, we had lost, among the insurgent peasants, that reputation of invincibility, more powerful still than the real force which had conquered so many nations.” You’d think this would have been compulsory reading for the British, Russian and American armchair generals who’ve sent troops into the mountain fastnesses of Afghanistan for the last hundred years or more. But apparently not.

Finally . . . I was intrigued by George Borrow’s observation that both the Basque people and their language came to Iberia from the steppes of Tartary. And I wonder what the current view on this hypothesis is.

And, of course, I continue to be impressed by his huge regard for the ‘common man’ of Spain . . .

Who was it said that "Cervantes sneered Spain's chivalry away?" I know not; and the author of such a line scarcely deserves to be remembered. How the rage for scribbling tempts people at the present day to write about lands and nations of which they know nothing, or worse than nothing. Vaya! It is not from having seen a bull-fight at Seville or Madrid, or having spent a handful of ounces at a posada in either of those places, kept perhaps by a Genoese or a Frenchman, that you are competent to write about such a people as the Spaniards, and to tell the world how they think, how they speak, and how they act! Spain's chivalry sneered away! Why, there is every probability that the great body of the Spanish nation speak, think, and live precisely as their forefathers did six centuries ago. . . He who wishes to become acquainted with the genuine Spaniard, must seek him not in seaports and large towns, but in lone and remote villages, like those of the Sagra. There he will find all that gravity of deportment and chivalry of disposition which Cervantes is said to have sneered away; and there he will hear, in everyday conversation, those grandiose expressions, which, when met with in the romances of chivalry, are scoffed at as ridiculous exaggerations.

You didn’t really think I was going to write a post this week without mentioning him, did you?

And you'll appreciate that GB probably didn't include himself in the tribe of scribes writing about what they knew not . . .

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Just in case it isn’t already clear, I should stress that I find George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain a rollicking good read. That said, I’m not convinced all the episodes he relates actually took place. Or that, if they did, they involved him in person. The cast of odd characters and unusual situations is just too long and colourful to be truly plausible. But no matter, I recommend it to all.

One of the constants of his account are the references to Catalans doing business all over Spain. Of Valladolid, for example, GB writes:- “It is a manufacturing town, but the commerce is chiefly in the hands of the Catalans, of whom there is a colony of nearly three hundred established here.” As regards Galicia, he relates the response of someone who was told it was a poor region. That might be so, said the chap, but this didn’t prevent enterprising and hard-working Catalans getting rich on the back of her natural resources. I will think of these pioneers whenever I see the ex-fish salting factories along the coast.

As is not uncommon in Spain, the people of Galicia believe their produce is better than any other in Spain – the fish, the shellfish, the beef, the pork and . . . the potatoes. But I have a challenge. I’d like to hear from any Gallego who’s actually eaten new Jersey potatoes the name of the Galicia spud variety he or she thinks is superior to all others. Then we can have a taste-off.

The murderous Basque nationalists of ETA have had more ‘success’ in the last week, killing two Guardia Civil officers with a car bomb. I wouldn’t want to put any ideas in their twisted brains but I’ve thought many times when driving close to the wall around the Pontevedra barracks that it wouldn’t be too difficult to lob a bomb over it.

Finally. . . A public service notice: The latest truco of the tax revenue officers disguised as traffic cops is to place a camera near an un-busy junction and then film everyone who doesn’t stop for at least a micro-second at a Stop sign - even if there is no oncoming traffic visible in any direction. You will then be overtaken by a motorbike cop who will tell you of your offence, some time after you’re alleged to have committed it. And then handsomely fine you for it. So roads joining autopistas could well be their favoured spot. You have been warned.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Without apology, here’s another relevant quotation from old George, this time on the dignity of the Spanish:- “I laugh at the bigotry and prejudices of Spain; I abhor the cruelty and ferocity which have cast a stain of eternal infamy on her history; but I will say for the Spaniards, that in their social intercourse no people in the world exhibit a juster feeling of what is due to the dignity of human nature, or better understand the behaviour which it behoves a man to adopt towards his fellow beings. I have said that it is one of the few countries in Europe where poverty is not treated with contempt, and I may add, where the wealthy are not blindly idolized. In Spain the very beggar does not feel himself a degraded being, for he kisses no one's feet, and knows not what it is to be cuffed or spitten upon; and in Spain the duke or the marquis can scarcely entertain a very overweening opinion of his own consequence, as he finds no one, with perhaps the exception of his French valet, to fawn upon or flatter him.”

In deference to all the angry Basque, Catalan and Galician nationalists who complain about me including them in the term ‘Spanish’, I should stress that the above comment may not hold true for their regions/countries/nations. And nor may all French valets be obsequious.

Conversation in the Vodafone shop today:-
So, this ADSL package for 39 a month will both replace my Tefefónica fixed line [Rejoice! Rejoice!] and give me a wi-fi dongle for my laptop which I can use anywhere?
And the price won’t rise after 3 months and there are no other charges, apart from the VAT?
OK, then. I’m interested.
So, where do you live?
In Poio, across the river.
Ah. We don’t have coverage there yet. But it will be available by the end of next month. In the meantime, you can have this 45 a month package for a dongle and then we will make the change without any further costs.
At the end of next month?
[Smiling] Maybe.
Err . [blushing] . . Yes.
OK, I’ll talk to you then.

Talking of Telefónica, I see they’ve announced a recession-defying 10% increase in profits. Must be a well-managed company, worthy of all our admiration.

I’m having a big BBQ next Sunday. You’re all welcome, of course. Meanwhile, with a little exaggeration, these are the standard responses:-
British:- Great. Can I also bring X and Y?
Spanish:- Well, my husband is going to the bulls on Saturday night so he won’t be able to make lunch at 3. I’m not going with him but I am going out with girlfriends until late. So it all depends what time I get out of bed on Sunday. Can I call you then and let you know?

Being the multi-cultural chameleon I am, I'm pretty relaxed about both of these. And the Spanish no-shows will make up for the British add-ons. Así son las cosas. And it's better than getting a Yes from people who then don't turn up.

The Spanish government has begun to talk of a real ban on smoking, perhaps embarrassed by what’s happened in the rest of Europe. It can’t come too soon for me as this is the one aspect of Spanish life which still gets to me. This morning, for example, I had to leave one wi-fi café when a group of five women and one man came in and all lit up at the next table. But at least I could leave. The poor kid who was coughing was stuck there with his inconsiderate parents.

Spanglish, perhaps. 1. Is there such a word as ‘horseball’ in English? There is in Spanish and it seems to mean basketball on horseback. 2. The word ‘handicap’ now appears to have assumed the meaning of ‘barrier’ in Spanish, as in “I’ve applied for a mortgage pero el banco me pone handicaps.” Or possibly handicapes.

Finally, I’m used to odd routes to my blog but this search rather left me wondering why it'd had the honour of being cited:-

men's brown malboro trousers uk

Monday, August 03, 2009

A kind reader – plus my friends at dinner last Friday night – have pointed out there’s a Spanish riposte to the accusation of ugliness, at least when it’s directed to a male - El hombre es como el oso; mientras mas feo, mas hermoso! Which I guess we can translate as “Man is a like the bear. The more ugly, the more magnificent!” Thank-you, gentlemen.

Thanks are also due to the people who set up the exhibition on the Peninsular War in Pontevedra's ugly new museum - for not overlooking the British contribution to the Spanish success. On this, I was surprised to read that the Supreme Junta of the Kingdom of Galicia negotiated a treaty direct with the British Government in 1808. Reader Ointe has made some interesting comments on this subject to yesterday’s post. Perhaps it was really the Galicians whom Napolean had in mind when he made this comment from his retirement home on Saint Helena – “That cursed war with Spain was the primary cause of all France’s misfortunes.” Wellington, it’s true, had some good things to say about the Spanish soldiers. Though I seem to recall he was less enamoured of the generals who commanded them.

Back again to Mr Borrow, who was wandering around Spain about 20 years later . . . Here he is alluding to the Spanish pride and individualismo I’ve touched on a few times over the last few years . . . . “I have visited most of the principal capitals of the world, but upon the whole none has ever so interested me as this city of Madrid . . . Within a mud wall . . . are contained two hundred thousand human beings, certainly forming the most extraordinary vital mass to be found in the entire world; and be it always remembered that this mass is strictly Spanish. The population of Constantinople is extraordinary enough, but to form it twenty nations have contributed. . . but the huge population of Madrid, with the exception of a sprinkling of foreigners . . . is strictly Spanish - a population which, however strange and wild, and composed of various elements, is Spanish, and will remain so as long as the city itself shall exist. As for the higher orders - the ladies and gentlemen, the cavaliers and senoras; shall I pass them by in silence? The truth is I have little to say about them; . . . The Spaniard of the lower class has much more interest for me, whether manolo, labourer, or muleteer. He is not a common being; he is an extraordinary man. He has not, it is true, the amiability and generosity of the Russian mujik, . . . There is more hardness and less self-devotion in the disposition of the Spaniard; he possesses, however, a spirit of proud independence, which it is impossible but to admire."

Finally . . . A correction: there were seven, not six, Galician provinces in 1815. I missed out Mondoñedo. Like Tui on the border with Portugal, this is a place which has seen more important days. But six or seven, Pontevedra wasn’t among them, coming under the jurisdiction of Santiago I believe. When Vigo was just a piddling little fishing port. With a beautiful bay. Who could have predicted that one day they'd be slugging it out for provincial dominance? Not George Borrow, that's for sure.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Well, the thronging kids may have been happy squirting wine at each other in the centre of town last night but, over in the bullring, all was not well. In fact, the audience was revolting. It seems that the toros bravos “had less class than cows and didn’t even provide milk.” However, it might not have been all the fault of the spineless, mortality-bound quadrupeds. One of the bullfighters is quoted today as saying Pontevedrans are taurinely ignorant and were simply unable to appreciate the excellence of his faenas. I guess he won’t be coming back in a hurry.

I’ve mentioned that George Borrow was none too keen on Galicia, Galicians or the local language, Gallego. Having now gone back to the beginning of his book, I can’t help wondering whether his distaste for the language arose from his attitude towards Portuguese – expressed in this passage about his border crossing:- In little more than half an hour we arrived at a brook, whose waters ran vigorously between steep banks. A man who was standing on the side directed me to the ford in the squeaking dialect of Portugal; but whilst I was yet splashing through the water, a voice from the other bank hailed me, in the magnificent language of Spain, in this guise: "O Senor Caballero, que me de usted una limosna por amor de Dios, una limosnita para que io me compre un traguillo de vino tinto" .

These days, I guess we’d just have to dismiss Borrow as a Spanish nationalist.

Another paragraph that tickled my fancy was this one, written just after he’d expressed regrets at losing his temper at a Portuguese soldier who seemed rather ungrateful for the loss of British blood shed in Wellington’s campaigns between Lisbon and Spain:- The French have ravaged [Portugal] with fire and sword, and shed the blood of its sons like water; the French buy not its fruits and loathe its wines. Yet there is no bad spirit in Portugal towards the French. The reason of this is no mystery; it is the nature not of the Portuguese only, but of corrupt and unregenerate man, to dislike his benefactors, who, by conferring benefits upon him, mortify in the most generous manner his miserable vanity. There is no country in which the English are so popular as in France; but, though the French have been frequently roughly handled by the English, and have seen their capital occupied by an English army, they have never been subjected to the supposed ignominy of receiving assistance from them.

Back to Spain . . . Here’s the latest Economist view on her economy. Which reads both convincingly and depressingly.

And back to Pontevedra . . . If you ever come visiting, you might want to see our many petrogliphs in the hills near Campo Lameiro. But you don’t even have to go that far. For, a few metres from my house on the hills overlooking the city, there's a new ‘petrogliph park’, just opened by the council. As you can see, the best thing about it is that they’ve killed all the eucalyptus trees around it.

And here’s the stairway up from the road. As you can see, it’s made of wood. Untreated wood. So, don’t leave it too long.

Finally . . . Against the background of the current fight for urban supremacy in Pontevedra province between Pontevedra city and Vigo, I was interested to see in the exhibition on The Peninsular War that, in 1813, Pontevedra wasn’t even one of Galicia’s then six provinces. These were Santiago, Ourense, Tui, Betanzos, Lugo and La Coruña. Or they might have been; I’ve lost the relevant scrap of paper. As if anyone cares . . .

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Well, it’s the first of our four annual bullfight nights tonight and the city is overrun with peña members whose intentions, as ever, are far more bacchanalian than taurine. It will be a miracle if I get home without being sprayed with wine. Or at least water.

I went today to see a nice little exhibition on Pontevedra’s role in what the Spanish call The War of Independence and others call The Peninsular War. Presumably because Portugal was involved as well. Actually, I went yesterday but either the city Events Guide was wrong in saying it opened on Thursday or there were a couple of days delay in getting it up and running. Happily, eight years here has given me enough command of written Gallego to allow me to read the wall plaques and the item notes but God knows how all the tourists will get on, if they aren’t satisfied with the short brochure in both languages. Anyway, I was intrigued to see references to two Spanish generals with decidedly un-Hispanic surnames. The first was Joachim Blake, who was of Irish descent but who clearly lacked the famed luck of his compatriots. And, as if one Irish-Spanish general wasn’t enough, there was another of the buggers active on the battlefield. This was Luis de Lacy and he was even more unlucky, being executed in Barcelona in 1817.

Talking of Gallego – The new PP government of Galicia recently commissioned a survey of what language parents here want their kids educated in. As for the results, you buys your paper and takes your choice. According to El Mundo, “The majority of parents want all primary education to be in Spanish”; according to El País “Only 20% of parents want their children to be taught exclusively in Spanish” (though they neglected to add that the corresponding number for Gallego was 6%); and the Diario de Pontevedra went with “Galician parents want their children to share Gallego and Spanish”. I don’t know how fair this survey was but on the face of it – and as with the recent regional elections – it doesn’t seem to provide much comfort for those Galician nationalists who want all of us, in effect, to be propelled towards fluency in Gallego.

And still on this subject – One of the things that emerged from my re-reading of George Borrow is that the greatest writer in Galician of the 18th century was the so-called Curate of Fruime - Diego Antonio Cernadas y Castro. I also learned of another Gallego writer, Benito Feijoo, said to be Spain’s greatest enlightenment author, whose Teatro Critico Universal is regarded as a great read. I may be very wrong on this but, despite his literary pre-eminence, there doesn’t seem to a street named after him in either Pontevedra or Santiago. Though there is in Oviedo, where he died. And where, by the way, there’s also a bronze statue of Woody Allan.

Finally . . . The last day of July brought with it two well-established Spanish institutions – the mass exodus from the cities and the hike in petrol prices for those departing in cars. Here in Galicia, it's also brought more un-seasonal weather, the tail-end of yet another depression centred on the UK. On the latter, the Sky woman this morning stressed there were two compensations for another weekend of misery:- 1. The pollen count would be very low, and 2. The bad weather would also hit France, North Western Spain and Portugal. I do hope this made everyone in Britain feel at least a bit better.