Friday, April 30, 2010

I defy anyone to give an intelligible account of the law as it applies to the building of property along the Spanish coast. Or anywhere in the country for that matter. In this de facto federal state, there seems to be a complete mare’s nest of overlapping and contradictory laws at the state, regional and municipal level. But at least one thing is now clear; it isn’t only foreigners who have their properties demolished. Spaniards do too. Though the process may well be ratherslow. Not far from here along the coast, a seven-floor building constructed illegally in 1984 is finally being knocked down this week. Actually, I felt rather sympathetic to the owner’s claim it had been legal when built and had only become illegal under subsequent changes in the law. Probably not true in this case, of course, but it could well have been.

When writing about Greece, Portugal and Spain, the last thing I’d want to do is give the impression I think the UK economy is in a sounder state. The truth is the IMF probably has Britain in its sights and the efforts required to keep them at bay will be draconian. Including a 6 pence in the pound increase in income tax according to one commentator today. As the writer of this article points out, it’s not only the Spanish who are living in something of an unreal world. So are the majority of Brits, distracted as they are by the trivia of Prime Ministerial gaffes on the non-subject of immigration. As he says, “We will have to tighten the budget by some 70 billion pounds a year. Yet one extraordinary survey, released yesterday, discovered that 75% of Britons, despite the dire warnings and the huge figures, believe that sufficient money to reduce the deficit will be found from efficiency savings alone. They do not believe either that taxes need to rise or that real services need to be reduced. Their accomplices in this fantasy have been politicians whose own plans have all failed to detail to the electorate what they will do when in power.” But, then, there is a general election looming up in the UK. Sr Zapatero has no such excuse for his eternal optimism and his obfuscation. Not to mention his lies. And then there’s the PP opposition! Mired in corruption and led by someone who’s had a charisma bypass. Do people really get the leaders they deserve?

Anyway, here’s what you might call a classic Anglo view of the EU situation. It seems a tad apologetic to me. Until the last line.

Just returning to Gordon Brown’s much-reported verbal gaffe of yesterday . . . What really surprised – and impressed – me is that he didn’t swear. I dread to think what I would’ve been caught saying if I’d been as annoyed as he clearly was.

Finally . . . I’m pleased to say that the collared doves which nested just outside my bedroom window a couple of years ago have returned to their excuse of a nest – typical of the breed, I understand – to breed another pair of chicks. For pictures of the last two as they emerged, click here.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The only surprise in reading that Spain is still the second noisiest country in the world is that Spain is the second noisiest country in the world. The first is said to be Japan. Which is not how it was the three times I visited the country.

So, it’s come to this … The heads of the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – who are both French – went cap-in-hand to Berlin yesterday to beg for support for a Greek bailout that might just prevent a chain-reaction spreading to Portugal, Spain and beyond. There can be little doubt now that Germany, is the “undisputed master of Europe”. Third time lucky, I guess. I suppose there always was a certain historical inevitability about this. More importantly, I like all the Germans I know. At least if they say they’re coming to dinner, they do turn up.

Back in the world of funny money, the latest betting seems to be on ‘debt restructuring’. Which appears to mean the write-off of a proportion of the debt and heavy losses for the banks. To think, none of this would be happening if the EU had remained a customs union until the economies had really converged and until the members (including the big ones) had learned to play by their own rules. In other words, until they’d all learned to live in the real world and not in some political fantasy of their own dreaming. And yet, if the Germans can finally be persuaded to fund the more leisurely lifestyle of other members – not just that of Greece – everything could be alright on the night. And the EU galleon will sail on until the next storm. With battered sails but with the strong wind of a lower currency. If so, someone will inevitably emerge to tell us this is exactly what was planned. Just as membership of the eurozone was intended to ensure the economies of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, etc. were transformed into something resembling that of Germany, France and Holland, etc. That, of course, was Plan A. But we’re now on Plan B, C, D or E. One thing’s for sure – there ain’t going to be any retrenchment in Brussels. Or even Strasbourg. Where salary and pension entitlements probably exceed those in Greece and Spain.

In the UK, a well-regarded teacher who’d succumbed to stress attacked a disruptive pupil and was prosecuted for attempted murder and grievous bodily harm. Today he was found not guilty of both charges, though there seems little doubt he, to say the least, lost his cool. Here in Galicia, the local government has announced it’s bringing in a law restoring the authority of the region’s teachers. Teachers as a class are, of course, rather prone to complaining and the many Galician profesores I know are no exception. But I’d hazard a guess that the awful life they routinely moan about is nowhere near as bad as the lot of British teachers. Of whom my younger daughter is one.

Don’t take my word for it 1: I asked recently why on earth the Lib Debs would want to form part of the next UK administration, given what a poisoned chalice it will be. Well, the governor of the Bank of England is now reported to have said the next government will be so unpopular that the party who forms it will be out of power for a generation after the election that follows the one coming up.

Don’t take my word for it 2: I asked yesterday whether the Spanish weren’t still in a bit of a dream. A columnist in the Voz de Galicia today opined that – “In Spain we’re immersed in a serious but complacent lethargy. It’s as if were expecting some invisible hand to give us back the wealth we used to know.”

The Spanish government has announced it will soon be possible to conduct debates in the Senate in any of the state’s five official languages (or four, if you think Valenciano is the same as Catalán) and that investment will be made in simultaneous translation facilities. Which some might see as a bit of a luxury in these straitened times. But Sr Zapatero needs the support of the minority parties.

Talking of questionable expenditure – Reader David has sent me an article from down South, in which the minimum cost of a First Holy Communion is 3,500 euros and the maximum somewhere in the stratosphere.

Finally . . . . By pure coincidence, one of the authors of the book I cited yesterday wrote to me today to advise of a press release in which it was reported that the Spanish media had introduced it to a bemused Spanish public. Following which their web site crashed under the weight of hits. Click here for more info.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Spain’s unemployment rate has now reached 20% and the country’s credit rating has been taken down a notch, on fears it’s heading in the same direction as Greece and, now, Portugal. Will we finally see some social unrest here, as (increased?) austerity measures begin to bite? Or is there something very different about the Spanish economy to the extent that – as in the property market – normal rules don’t apply? Or is it that the Spanish are still living in a bit a of dream world, from which they will be rudely awoken in due course?

Over in the UK, the news media is fixated on a verbal gaffe by Gordon Brown, who today labelled a woman he’d just spoken to a bigot, not knowing his microphone was still on. This, it seems, is far more important than his record as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. Of course, not many observers are surprised that politicians say one thing but think another but the irony is that Mr Brown’s recent election pitch has been “With me, what you see is what you get”. Apparently not. Maybe I should now withdraw my bet on the Liberal party getting less than 20% of the vote in a couple of weeks time.

Finally . . . An unsolicited plug for a book called “In the Garlic” by Valerie Collins and Theresa O’Shea, which they describe – justifiably – as Your informative, fun guide to Spain. I dip into this regularly and was interested today to be reminded that the average Spanish family now spends 3,000 euros on their child’s First Communion. I checked this out after recently seeing a shop window full of the ridiculous outfits cited by the authors in their entry on Primera Comunión. Namely, “white meringue dresses for the girls and military uniforms and sailor suits for the boys”. By the way, I’d love to say I quarrel with some of the contents of this book but, sadly, I can’t.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Catholic Church may be going through difficult times but here in Spain it continues to show the spirit that’s kept it going for more than 2,000 years. As of this week, you can buy virtual candles in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral - either by going to the relevant web page or by sending a text message from your mobile phone. Your ‘candle’ will ‘burn’ for between 11 and 31 minutes, depending on what time of the day it is. Though you may have to go on the waiting list, if demand is high. In Candle Limbo, I guess.

There’s one aspect of bullfighting which for me has never been in any doubt – the bravery of the matadors. Spain’s leading proponent of the art – José Tomás – was badly gored in Mexico over the weekend and was allegedly only minutes from death in what’s been described in the Spanish press as a Third World medical facility. But my guess is he’ll be back in the ring before too long. Mad but impressive.

Driving from Oporto airport on Sunday morning (prior to doing this again today), I noticed signs for an imminent fiesta in the Miño/Minho-side town of Melgaço. This was billed as A Festa do Alvarinho y do Fumeiro. I recognised, of course, that Alvarinho is the Portuguese equivalent of Albariño but was lost with Fumeiro. Surely not a fiesta of wine and smoking? Smoked fish perhaps? My Galician friends haven’t been of much help – suggesting only the possibility of a barbecue–type event – and neither has an internet dictionary search. So I’d be grateful for help from any Portuguese reader.

Finally . . . Here’s a musical recommendation for all those Gallegos around the world suffering morriña because they’re away from their pueblo back home. It’s Arthur Alexander singing “Detroit”. OK, this city isn’t exactly Galician but you’ll recognise the sentiments.You’re unlikely to get this on the internet but Spotify has a number of versions, including one by Tom Jones and a better one by Solomon Burke, who came to Pontevedra two or three years ago for our summer Blues Festival. And was a big hit, in every sense of the word. Then there’s Dolly Parton’s stab, which fare warbles along. Take your pick. None of them matches the original by this talented but neglected songwriter and singer.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Apologies for the absence of posts over the weekend. The invisible cloud of ash which did for all Europe’s airlines smothered my computers on Saturday morning and put me out of business. Not really. I’ve been tied up with a visitor since I got back from the UK and unable to attend as I’d like to my blog. In fact, I’ve not read so much as the headline of a Spanish newspaper since I got home a week ago. Indeed, it dawned on me last night that, thanks to visitors and my UK trip, I haven’t had an evening to myself in more than six weeks. Happily, this will change tomorrow. Though possibly only for a week . . . Meanwhile, I’m grabbing an hour during my visitor’s final shopping expedition to pen this . . .

There’s nothing like a crisis to reveal design flaws and we’re surely seeing that now in respect of the EU monetary union. So much so that it gets harder and harder to predict not just what is going to happen to Grece but to the EU as a whole. Our friend Ambrose feels that “In barely two weeks, the City mood has shifted from ruling out a Greek default as absurd, to accepting that it could happen, to now fearing that restructuring is highly likely.” Of course, both Ambrose and the City may be wrong in their perceptions and beliefs but anything is credible – or incredible – right now. Ambrose takes the view that “In a rational world, Brussels would tap the EU’s AAA rating to issue cheap "Barroso Bunds" to cover rescue costs. But we are not in a such a world. We are in the Maastricht madhouse.”

Talking of crazy worlds . . . Here’s a little irony. The European Community Fisheries Control Agency is based in Vigo here in Galicia. And “the conservation organisation Oceana has condemned the Xunta of Galicia for granting 4.2 million euros in subsidies to fishing pirates.” Evidence, perhaps, of the logic for putting the agency in Vigo. If not its effectiveness.

Oh, hell. She’s back from the shopping expedition. Before they’ve actually closed. And with no purchases.

Ata loguiño.

Friday, April 23, 2010

In the currently bizarre world of British politics, today's ‘poll of polls’ suggests that the opposition Conservative party will soon be forming a coalition with a Lib Dem party which has been a bit-part player for seven decades and which contains no one with any experience that would be useful in dealing with the country’s problems. Indeed, one poll even has them achieving a greater share of the vote, 33%, than the Conservatives at 32%. So, is this the British people showing genius or madness? Or just exasperation at the totally discredited political class as a whole? Either way, I’m sticking my neck out and saying the Lib Dems won’t get more than 20% of the popular vote when the moment of truth arrives in early May. Though the prospect of the Conservatives having to form a coalition with them remains a better bet. As to why the Lib Dems would want to form part of what is bound to be an unpopular retrenchment administration, one can only guess. Possibly they’re overcome by the excitement of having their names in the media for the first time in seventy years. But not for long would be my guess.

Talking of unpopularity, I see that things in Greece have reached another pretty pass, with the Athens government admitting further failure and having to seek billions from the EU and the IMF. Which may or may not calm a bond market which is jittery about both Portugal and Spain The times get more and more interesting with each passing day. Though you’d never guess this from walking around the streets of Madrid. Or even Pontevedra.

Which reminds me . . I missed my chance to change the course of Spanish judicial history tonight. Going into dinner with my Galician (and American) friends, I learned that one of them had just bumped into the judge (Varela) who’s taking the key decisions in the cases against the (in)famous Judge Garzón. Like Sr Rajoy, judge Varela hails from Pontevedra. And when I learned that Señora Varela was very short, I realised I’d passed the judge and his lady on the street on the way to dinner. However, it turns out they are my neighbours up in Pijolandia on the hills overlooking Pontevedra. So maybe I’ll get another chance to affect history. If Graeme from South of Watford could just send me a list of key points to get across.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

As time is tight tonight, I’m lifting two items from a recent issue of Private Eye awaiting me on my return to Spain.

The first relates to the massively inflated municipal taxes that Brits now have to (supinely) pay. It’s a cartoon showing a man approaching three cashier windows in his local town hall. The first is labelled Arms, the second Legs and the third Shirts.You may have to be a native speaker to get this but I guess reader Moscow will manage it.

The second item comes from a long-running series of letters from readers who use punning surnames to add to the points they make. Some of these really are brilliant and I suspect Private Eye will soon be bringing out a collection of them. Meanwhile, though, here’s one that made me laugh out loud tonight - 

Dear Sirs.

Although I love it to bits and look forward to its appearance in every issue, I’m not at all sure what the highly cultured Chinese would make of your Pseudo Names section.


I fancy this one is going to be even tougher than the first one for non-native speakers. And even for some of the latter. So, this old joke may just help:
Man in Chinese restaurant: Waiter, this chicken is rubbery!
Waiter: Oh, thank-you very much, sir.

Finally . . . Talking of bad English, here’s a relevant story from today’s Spanish press. . .

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sometimes you just can’t get away from a notion which has caught the attention of the media. Driving down to Plymouth from London on Saturday, I heard a program on the subject of “erotic capital”. I then read an article on this in the Sunday Times during the boat trip to Santander. And today there’s something in Prospect magazine on the subject. It’s pretty uncontroversial stuff as far as I’m concerned. But perhaps that’s because I live in a Latin country and, as the (female) creator of the concept says, “Only in the puritanical Anglo-Saxon culture is the idea of looking good viewed as superficial.” I particularly enjoyed her feminist ‘opponent’ exploding in response to this during the radio broadcast.

If you’re still bewildered by the Garzón case in Spain – and, as far as I can see, that’s all of us except Graeme over at South of Watford – here’s something from Qorreo that should help.

As a regular visitor to Portugal, I can vouch for the fact that our neighbour hasn’t seen anything like the growth experienced by Spain over the last ten years or more. So I wasn’t surprised to read today that “Euro enthusiasts are mystified at why Portugal's catch-up growth stalled in the 1990s. Portugal has not been reckless. It has been run better than Britain for the last eight years. You cannot argue that Portugal is a basket case. It has hit a brick wall anyway.” All in the context that Portugal looks like being the next big challenge for the EU, once it has satisfactorily dealt with Greece. If it ever does.

Finally . . . Would you believe that teenagers rank their contentment higher than those in their 30s and 40s? In fact the level doesn’t rise past that of teenagers until the age of 74. Or so they say.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

There are signs that the Spanish construction industry is finally rising - Lazarus-like - from its deathbed. At least on the site behind my house. The major indication? Our street is again clogged with cars from people (OK, men) working on the site. I’m guessing that some time next year title in these properties will finally pass to the people who foolishly committed to buying them ‘off plan’ five or six years ago, at prices they possibly now regret. And they will then be registered as 2011 sales and contribute to the uplift in mood. Even though they aren’t.

Can there be a better paradigm of Bureaucratic Britain than the UK National Health Service? This, I believe, is still the largest employer in Europe after the Red Army and it’s not altogether astonishing to read that last year the numbers of nurses, doctors and managers in the organisation rose 2, 6 and 12%, respectively. The Americans, of course, have a ridiculous view of “socialist medicine” but sometimes its easy to understand why.

What’s less hard to understand is the cynicism of politicians. This weekend in the UK we were asked to believe that, on the back of a single broadcast seen by less than 15% of the population, the leader of the Liberals – previously unknown – was the greatest British statesman since Winston Churchill. God help us. Or them, rather. As I write this, two women on Sky News are discussing the differences between ‘Brand Cameron’ and ‘Brand Conservative’. And there are still weeks of this claptrap to go. Does anyone know a convent where they make good wine?

As an example of how pathetic the debate on healthcare in the UK is, we now have on the TV the Labour spokesman saying we don’t want to take the service in the direction of the USA, when the appropriate model – totally ignored – is that of the judicious mix of public and private care observable in many European countries. It’s enough to make one emigrate. Oh, I already have.
Safely back in Ponters, where it's not yet raining and the temperature is a lovely 24.

But the phone doesn't work and the fence-fixing said to be imminent when I left for the UK four weeks ago has not been done. But the grass and the weeds have grown a treat.

The six-hour drive back from Santander was uneventul, so I won't bore you with the question of whether it took one, three or five minutes to be 1. irritated by a driver with no lane discipline, 2. swerving to avoid an illegally parked car, and 3. annoyed by a Mercedes up my backside. Yes, you've guessed. Five minutes for all three.

Good to be back in a country where at least one thing is utterly predictable!

Normal service this evening.

P. S. Feast or bloody famine.I called Telefonica early this morning and have now had three calls asking me what's wrong with the line. Don't these people ever talk to each other? Or are they like the doctors in the emergency rooms at the local hospital - rushed off their feet but endlessly inefficient?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

My younger daughter was supposed to fly from Madrid to Liverpool yesterday but has just told me the earliest sensible flight offered is next Sunday, from Oporto in north Portugal! Fortunately, she's staying with her sister, so won't have to pay additional hotel bills.

Picking up my car from the long-term car-park yesterday was an eerie experience, witnessing the Heathrow hive at a complete standstill. But perhaps the oddest aspect is that the skies yesterday and today have been mockingly blue and clear. No sign of an atom of ash. It’s up in the stratosphere, I understand. Assuming it exists at all and someone is not playing an expensive cosmic joke on us.

I was going to write the other day – in the context of the Garzón case – that the words “democracy” and “justice” in Spain often seem to mean the suppression of all views except your own. But I pulled this comment as being perhaps an overstatement. However, reading this today, I’ve begun to wonder whether I wasn’t right. That said, I’m not as sure as I think Graeme is that the Left has clean hands.

More positively, the Spanish health minister has said that the law banning smoking in public places will come into operation during June. But we will see.

The English are, of course, an odd people. Especially if you’ve been living in Spain for a number of years. Which is a cue for me to again cite Kate Fox’s wonderful book – “Watching the English - The hidden rules of English behaviour”. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s an official review of the book:- Kate Fox takes a revealing look at the quirks, habits and foibles of the English people. She puts the English national character under her anthropological microscope, and finds a strange and fascinating culture, governed by complex sets of unspoken rules and Byzantine codes of behaviour. Her minute observation of the way we talk, dress, eat, drink, work, play, shop, drive, flirt, fight, queue – and moan about it all – exposes the hidden rules that we all unconsciously obey. The rules of weather-speak. The Importance of Not Being Earnest rule. The ironic-gnome rule. The reflex-apology rule. The paranoid-pantomime rule. Class indicators and class-anxiety tests. The money-talk taboo. Humour rules. Pub etiquette. Table manners. The rules of bogside reading. The dangers of excessive moderation. The eccentric-sheep rule. The English 'social dis-ease'. Through a mixture of anthropological analysis and her own unorthodox experiments, using herself as a reluctant guinea-pig, Kate Fox discovers what these unwritten behaviour codes tell us about Englishness. "Watching the English" is written with an insider's knowledge, but from an outsider's perspective. If you are English, it will make you stand back and re-examine everything you normally take for granted, discover just how English you really are – and laugh ruefully at yourself. If you are not English, you can laugh without squirming, you will finally understand all our peculiar little ways, and, if you wish, you can become as English as we are. Englishness is not a matter of birth, race, colour or creed: it is a mindset, based on a set of behaviour-codes that anyone can decipher and apply – now that Kate Fox has provided the key.

Read and enjoy. I'm off to catch a boat, so that I can move from a week of sun of England to a week of rain in Galicia!

Friday, April 16, 2010

You might not know that the volcano currently causing travel chaos in much of Europe is called Eyjafjallajökull. Which says it all really. I think.

Here in Britain the big news is that the almost unknown leader of the small Liberal party wiped the floor with the leaders of the two large parties in the first of three pre-election TV debates. Such is the depth of the antipathy towards politicians in the UK, the sad fact is the majority of viewers appear to have been impressed by nothing more than a ‘plague on both houses’ stance which one commentator rightly dismissed as a “pious, sanctimonious, oleaginous, not-me-guv display of cynical self-righteousness.” Which reminds me of the old saying that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the public. But these are undoubtedly interesting times. And amusing too. For one commentator – inevitably in the left-of-centre Guardian – disagreed with 99.99% of other viewers in concluding that Gordon’s Brown’s wooden performance had won the day for him. That’s loyalty for you.

At the European level, events around the EU support for Greece continue to dumbfound, leaving the future even more difficult to predict. The off-the-wall suggestion of a couple of weeks ago that the denouement might even be Germany leaving the currency union appears to have gained some traction, raising the question of what on earth this would mean for the EU super-state project. Click here and here for recent articles of relevance. They must be rather worried in Madrid.

Meanwhile, the good news for Britain is that the devaluation not available to Greece, Portugal, Spain, etc. has now begun to work its inevitable magic. And the pound has begun to rise in sympathy. Though it fell back again a little at the prospect of a hung parliament now that the Liberal party – thanks to the debate fiasco – have some wind in their sails.

If you click on the label Corruption over on the right – or, better still, use the search facility for this blog – you’ll find I’ve written on this subject many times over the years. And that I’ve occasionally been taken to task for overemphasising its place in Spanish society. Well, now comes another fine article from Qorreo which covers all the bases and asks all the right questions. It starts with the puzzled comment - Political corruption is a vice commonly associated with developing countries. Dictatorships, banana republics and failed states are usually in its grip. But Spain is none of those things. And it ends with the the challenging statement - But the country does clearly have a major problem, one that its express-speed modernisation has failed to tackle adequately. The structure of the Spanish state, a massive housing boom, the remnants of a pre-democratic mindset and a lack of rigour in the media have all allowed corruption to flourish. However, ordinary Spaniards will also have to look at themselves as they wonder how they can stop their country from resembling Berlusconi’s Italy. A large portion of the Spanish economy operates on the black market, reflecting a dangerous tolerance of corner-cutting. Writer and broadcaster Josep Ramoneda has warned that “the totalitarianism of indifference” threatens to govern the country. Its citizens can at least make sure that does not happen. You can read it all here.

Finally . . . . This, I’m sure you’ll agree, is an odd headline - Body of rare beaked whale washes up in Galicia. But not quite as odd as the one I thought I’d read - Body of rare naked whale washes up in Galicia.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Well, quite a day driving down to London. First came the unwelcome news there was a large fire next to the M40 near Oxford, with thick, black smoke impeding drivers on the motorway. In fact, only the first bit of this was true and we were slowed to 50mph for no perceptible reason as we passed the conflagration in the roadside services. Then came the bizarre news that all flights in and out of all UK airports were cancelled, thanks to volcanic ash drifting across from an eruption in Iceland. Finally, there came signs on the M40 that Heathrow airport was closed. Which was a worry, as I was planning to park my car there for three days and then head into London on the tube. In the end, all worked out better than usual, as I was Purple Parking’s only customer of the afternoon, entitling me to a coach all of my own to the tube station at Terminal 3. In fact, I think the bored drivers had a fight over which of them would have the privilege of taking me.

The (lucky) coach driver’s radio was airing an interview with the BA pilot forced to make an emergency landing at Jakarta in 1982, when I was living there. In brief, the plane lost all four engines and the pilot – in preference to gliding down to land on the Indian Ocean – decided to put the craft into a steep dive from 37,000 to 12,000 feet, to clean out the engines before re-starting them. This was successful and the happy passengers and crew, being largely Brits, later formed an association of some sort. But, when they tried to get off at Jakarta airport, they were prevented from doing so because – having been Australia bound – they lacked visas for Indonesia. Which must have been a bit of an anti-climax. And very, very annoying.

I’ve been driving in the UK for three weeks now and what a strange experience it’s been. Despite my short fuse, no one has annoyed me; I’ve seen no one driving while using a mobile phone; and everyone who enters a roundabout either doesn’t signal at all, if going straight on, or signals right or left, if they’re turning off. And then heads in the direction they’ve signalled! As I say, all very surreal and unsettling, as I’ve been pointlessly looking out for drivers cutting across me in all directions in the sort of melée I’m used to.

Finally – and reverting to the Jakarta incident – I recall a dinner party at the time at which a Dutch guest who worked for the Fokker company insisted it would have been perfectly safe for the pilot to land the stricken jumbo jet on the water. I formed the view at the time that Dutchmen were all quite mad. An opinion which I’ve not yet had cause to revise.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Spanish government has finally put a toe into the hot water of labour market reform, something which has been talked about for at least the nine years I’ve been in Spain. The unions, of course, have rejected the proposals out of hand. So it’ll be interesting to see where we go next, in pursuit of ‘sustainable growth’. Not to mention budgetary stability.

Meanwhile, click here for an insight into the often surreal world of the Spanish politico-judicial nexus.

And here for a fine article on the origins of the superb quality of Barca’s football. They’re Dutch apparently.

I wrote of UK government IT incomptence both yesterday and the day before. But, of course, they don’t have a monopoly on this. The Pontevedra Philharmonic Society today sent me sixteen copies of the same email message. Plus a later message apologising profusely for this oversight. Actually, I think they sent sixteen copies - and the apology - to each of the people on the circulation list but I’m not sure how they managed this.

God knows I make enough typing mistakes myself but it’s disappointing to see gaffes like the following in a front page article in of one of the UK’s upmarket newspapers:-
- At the end of the day, Greece has to carry out monumental fiscal tightening even as it slides deeper into recession. They risk chasing their tale."
- A collective effort is needed to get us out of the whole we are in.”

Finally . . . I’ve been a little dismissive of the UK’s Daily Mail but it had an editorial today which seems beyond reproach. At least to those of us who’ve despaired at the onwards march of the bureaucrats. The background is the imminent General Elections in the UK and the issue this week of the various party manifestos:-

Yes, it's easy to be cynical. But the central message of yesterday' s Conservative Manifesto  -  that power should be returned to the people  -  is at least a breath of optimism in an otherwise depressing political landscape.

After years in which Britain has suffered under an ever-more-bloated state's centralising, box-ticking, finger-wagging, authoritarianism, slowly destroying any sense of individual or community pride and responsibility, it was a moment to savour. Here was a major political party unflinchingly committing itself to a smaller state with power taken from the bureaucrats and career politicians and given to the people. Yes, there will be problems. But we should welcome plans to free schools from local education bureaucracies, to give people a chance to elect local police commissioners, to insist that patients have proper access to GPs, and to enshrine the right of constituents to sack failing MPs. And yes, why shouldn't communities buy their local pubs and post offices to keep them going? Above all, though, we should rejoice at the Conservative Party's clearly stated belief that government spending, borrowing and taxation - all to prop up a vast, incompetent, self-reliance-sapping state - must be reduced if Britain is to have a hope of prospering.

Ensuring the people at every level have control and responsibility over their lives will contribute to bridging the gap between a disillusioned and cynical electorate and a discredited and disgraced political class. 

It's easy to say that this is a naive vision, but the fact is that communities in France and America have far greater involvement in running their affairs. The decline of active local politics has been one of the more damaging forces in British life of the last fifty years.

Of course, there are inconsistencies in the Tory programme. Crucial areas like the monolithic NHS have been placed off limits, immune to reforms that might make it both more efficient and more effective. Nor are there any plans to reform local government taxation. It's hard to see how it will be possible to revitalise local democracy if town halls remain dependent on central government for most of their funding. But at least there is original thinking here. It deserves a fair hearing.

Amen to that. Even if it is unlikely to happen.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In an interview with the Financial Times today, President Zapatero asserts that Spain has the political will to do whatever's required to ensure the country doesn't go the way of Greece. Shame this can't be said of the commitment to ban smoking in public places 'sometime' this year.

You couldn't make it up . . . I mentioned that my daughter in Leeds had received a letter from the UK National Health Service (NHS) about plans to centralise medical records on a huge new database. And I stressed the widespread concern about the reliability of government IT schemes. My mother received the same message and asked me to access the web page where she can elect to opt out. When I did so, I got the following message:- Sorry, an error occurred. We apologise for the inconvenience. Please wait a couple of minutes and try again. I did. Several times. With the same result. Impressive or what?

Relatedly, I see that “In the midst of the worst recession since the Second World War, average pay for NHS chief executives has gone up by 7 per cent.”

I had my annual game of golf today, with my old friend Mike, at the course in Birkenhead where caddying for my father as a kid instilled in me a deep hatred for the game. But today – in the glorious sunshine my two daughters are not getting in Madrid this week – it was an absolute joy. In part this was because we were joined by two Liverpudlians who asked us to make up a foursome. Like Spaniards, Scousers love to talk. And, like Spaniards, four hours with them leaves you feeling you’ve known them all your life. Though this isn’t always a good thing, of course.

Incidentally, the golf course entrance is opposite a vast cemetery. Every time we drove past it, my father used to say “This is the most popular place in town; people are dying to get into it.” Which drove me mad. So, naturally, I say it to my daughters every time we pass the cemetery in Pontevedra. How they laugh!

Finally . . . Visiting my sister in Liverpool last night, I came upon picture of a defecating dog stencilled every twenty metres or so on the pavement near her house - alongside the written instruction “Pick it up!”. Is there no limit to the barmy schemes Britain’s bureaucrats can dream up? Probably not. My guess is there’ll soon be a picture of a dog on every Liverpool lamppost with at least “Microchip them!” stencilled alongside it. But possibly “Don’t let them piss on this!”

Monday, April 12, 2010

Staying with old friends in the beautiful Cheshire town of Knutsford, I woke early this morning and took myself off to the local petrol station to pick up a newspaper. Here the attendant was mopping up after a leak from somewhere on the premises. When I sympathized and, after a suitable pause, asked for a paper, he said he hadn’t counted them yet and asked me to come back in half an hour. I said I’d rather not and that I only wanted a single copy. “I have to count them first!” he rather peremptorily repeated. Whereupon I decided I was dealing not only with someone with a poor grasp of the concept of customer service but also with the village idiot, incapable of adding one to whatever the total of papers might later turn out to be. And so I walked another kilometer to the next petrol station, where the attendant happily cut open his bundles and gave me a copy from the uncounted pile of Times. So, there you have it, folks – If you want decent service, eschew Esso and select Shell. At least when you’re in Knutsford. At six-fifteen in the morning.

A lady friend in Galicia has asked me to cite this article on the competition in a gay magazine for the most handsome 'famous' man in the region. I’m not sure why; perhaps she’s a fan of one of them.

On a heavier note, here’s our Ambrose with his latest perspective on the developing Greek/Eurozone crisis. And its implications for Club Med members, such as Spain.

Finally . . . One of the joys of being in the UK this last two weeks has been the chance to make bacon sandwiches with good (Danish) meat which doesn’t comprise equal portions of fat, salt and water. And which doesn’t reduce to a white-ish liquid when you cook it. Simple pleasures. Unless you’re a vegetarian. Or a pig, I guess.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

It’s Grand National Day in Liverpool today. And I’m visiting friends in Knutsford who are big theatre fans and who’ve booked us a seat at a Shakespeare play in Manchester that starts at the same time as the famous steeplechase. Who was it who said “Friends are God’s apology for relatives”?

But, anyway, an article in yesterday’s paper reminded me that, around this time last year, I got on a train to Liverpool and was treated to an astonishing display of what passes for dress sense among the city’s females. If you’d like to see what this year has thrown up, click here and then move to this link for pictures that you’ll have difficulty believing. Unless you’ve ever lived in Liverpool. I like to think it’s all a reflection of the importance of humour in this great city but have to admit I’m not entirely sure about this.

To be more serious, click here to see what happens when “politicians set policy on the basis of ideology”.

A regular reader has kindly sent this comment on the announcement of the discovery of Governmentium:- "A good friend of mine from Stanford University's Linear Accelerator has advised me that this element is so powerful it can't be destroyed by any force known to man. On the other hand, a professor at U.C. Berkeley's Poli Sci. department published a paper indicating that it would be harmful to the environment if not dealt with kindness and love."

A couple of observations on life in Leeds, as I get ready to return to Merseyside:-
- How many bloody Starbucks and Costa Coffee places does a city really need?
- How long will it be before there’s a Greggs’ Pie shop on every street corner?
- What does a Greggs pie actually taste like? Especially the steak and chilli one.
- Will I ever be able to get a steak and chilli pie in Galicia?

My younger daughter does have her uses. Flicking through the functions on my camera like all those who routinely eschew instruction manuals on the just-suck-it-and-see principle, she’s shown me how to take blog-destined fotos that don’t have to be laboriously down-sized before being posted.

Finally, and talking of fotos, here’s a pic of one of our Thai dishes of the other night - a rack of lamb in a coconut-based dish, to be exact. To the average Galician – who (like my mother) believes sauces only ever serve to mask bad meat – this would be as appealing as a plate of dog vomit. Especially as it was pretty spicy. In sharp contrast, we were in taste-bud heaven. Chacun a son goût, as the French don't say apparently.

En passant, a significant part of the enjoyment of this dish was that the meat - as it should be in all spicy dishes - was mutton and not young lamb. Took me right back to Tehran in the mid 70s.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Life in Leeds, still.

I’ve mentioned that eating out in the UK benefits from a relentless search for novelty. In contrast, I imagine the menú del día options in Galicia, at least, are exactly what they would have been a century ago. On the other hand, the latter always include your wine (or water) in the fixed price and so represent much better value at 8-13 euros than a 9-12 pound main course in Britain that can easily rise to 15-20 pounds once you’ve added a small glass of wine at 3.75 and a dessert at much the same. Overall, my impression is that Spanish places operate on low margins but high volumes, whereas British places operate on high margins and lower volumes. Which means they make a fortune (“Have their August” in Spanish parlance) when times are good and volumes high. Right now, of course, this ain’t the case and there are a lot of deals around. And I don’t just mean in blood pressure monitors.

As I’m sure many will agree, (almost) the best thing about the wonderful Lionel Messi is that – even though he’s Argentinean - he isn’t an arrogant little bastard. Which confuses the Spanish for, in Spain at least, these folk are renowned for this quality. “What does an Argentinean think when he first sees lightening? . . . That God is taking his picture.”

One of the political analysts in The Times has probably accurately captured the mood of the country with this comment – “The election campaign has only just started but I am already confident about whom I want to win. And I suspect that most voters, as they start thinking seriously about the state of Britain, may reach the same conclusion. The answer, of course, is ‘None of the above’.”

The Greek situation just gets more and more tragic and it’s anyone’s guess what happens next. The British, of course, have no grounds for complacency. The respected Bank for International Settlements has just issued a report suggesting that, over the next 20 years or so, the UK’s debt situation could become the worst in the developed world.

We’re now in Phase 5 of the phone saga, my poor daughter having now been through the same pointless routine with at least five desk-wallahs in India. She was supposed to receive a call from a real engineer last night but, of course, she didn’t. It’s almost encouraging to know telecoms service in the UK is as bad as it is in Spain. Anyway, we’ll see what happens now that she’s told them she’s cancelling her monthly payment at the end of this month.

Finally . . . A kind reader has sent me this announcement of the discovery of a new element called Governmentium. Enjoy.


University researchers have discovered the heaviest element yet known to science. The new element, Governmentium (symbol = Gv), has one neutron, 25 assistant neutrons, 88 deputy neutrons and 198 assistant deputy neutrons, giving it an atomic mass of 312. These 312 particles are held together by forces called morons, which are surrounded by vast quantities of lepton-like particles called pillocks. 

Since Governmentium has no electrons, it is inert. However, it can be detected, because it impedes every reaction with which it comes into contact.

A tiny amount of Governmentium can cause a reaction that would normally take less than a second, to take from 4 days to 4 years to complete

Governmentium has a normal half-life of 2 to 6 years. It does not decay, but instead undergoes a reorganisation in which a portion of the assistant neutrons and deputy neutrons exchange places. In fact, Governmentium's mass will actually increase over time, since each reorganisation will cause more morons to become neutrons, forming isodopes.

This characteristic of moron promotion leads some scientists to believe that Governmentium is formed whenever morons reach a critical concentration. This hypothetical quantity is referred to as a critical morass.

When catalysed with money, Governmentium becomes Administratium (symbol = Ad), an element that radiates just as much energy as Governmentium, since it has half as many pillocks but twice as many morons.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Life in Leeds, continued.

Well, the phone saga is now in Phase 4. We spent yesterday proving to the responsible company that it really was a line fault and not something to do with the handset. And we now await today’s developments, which I strongly suspect will be disappointing.

I read yesterday’s post to my daughter last night. She laughed and pointed out I’d forgotten the microwave she’d bought. I asked what on earth she was planning to put in it. Which prompted her to go out and buy some cat food. We had pizza for dinner. Delivered, of course.

Two interesting conversations here in Headingley yesterday. The first occurred in the street, when I was approached by a young woman - well-dressed but a little too made-up - and things went as follows:-
Excuse me. Do you have a Day Rider?
I need a Day Rider.
I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about [Though I had my suspicions]
I’m a student and I need to buy a bus ticket to get into town. But I don’t have all the money I need.
Do I look like I was born yesterday?
No, it’s true. You can watch me get on the bus, if you like.
So what exactly are you asking for? Money?
I’m not a beggar. I’m a student and I need to get to a lecture.
And I’m the queen of Sheba, as it happens.
No, I’m telling the truth. Do you think I would embarrass myself doing this if I wasn’t?
I don’t know. And I care even less.
[Opening her bag and purse] Look! I haven’t got any money.
So what. Why don’t you push off and find another sucker.
[As she walked away] I’m not a drug addict looking for money or something.

As Hannah took another five minutes or more to come out of the restaurant where she’d just treated me to lunch (she’s not all bad), I had the opportunity to watch the woman work the rest of the street. First a guy in his fifties and then a Muslim woman in a head-scarf. As the latter passed me, I asked him if he’d given her money. “Yes” he said. “How much?” I asked. “Well, I gave her a ten pound note and she gave me seven pounds in change.” So much for her not having the funds for a 2.50 ticket to town and back. Anyway – being young and naïve – Hannah insisted I call the local police and report the incident. Which I dutifully did. But, if they were really interested in doing anything about the con-woman, they did an excellent job of hiding this. Though it must have allowed them to fill in a few dozen forms at least.

The second odd exchange took place in a Lloyds pharmacy outlet:-
I’d like this blood pressure monitor, please. And the separate cuff as well, of course.
OK. That’s 30 pounds plus 3 for the cuff. But there’s a special offer. If you buy two machines, it’s only 20 pounds and the two cuffs come free.
You mean it's 20 pounds each? So 40 for two?
No. It's 20 pounds for two machines and the cuffs.
Sorry? It’s cheaper to buy two machines than one? And you throw in the cuffs for nothing?
Yes. I know it’s crazy but they’ve done it before, with some TENS machines.
Well, they really must want to move the stock.
Now, at this point, I figure there might just be something very wrong with these machines but, as I’ve ‘contracted’ to buy one at 30 quid, my options are to reduce the outlay to 20 or to back out of the purchase completely. So, being still partly British . . . anyone want a BP monitor for 10 quid? Free delivery if you live anywhere near Pontevedra.

Finally . . . My daughter received a letter yesterday from the Chief Executive of the National Health Service, advising that, unless she took the trouble to opt out, all her medical data would go onto a humongous central database and be available to any professional who needed to see it. Now, there’s been a lot of attention recently to the inefficiency of government IT schemes in the UK but the letter made no attempt to deal with concerns around the accuracy and security of the information. Which is perhaps just as well, as the last paragraph read:- “Note: If this letter has been sent inappropriately, please accept my apologies for any inconvenience caused.”

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Well, the phone company which twice disclaimed responsibility for my daughter's defunct phone line has now accepted it, having been confronted with the evidence of a monthly payment from her bank account. And they’ve promised to fix it today. I could be back in Spain. Unless it gets fixed today, of course.

Meanwhile, I have to report that my daughter has taken my tradition of guest-neglect to a new low. I’ve been here five days now and the fridge is as empty as it was when I arrived. In the interim, she’s managed to acquire a new camera, a new bed, new trainers and various other things for her flat. Against which, I’ve even bought the food for the bloody cat the past three mornings, when going out for the paper and juice. But I exaggerate. She did buy a pack of ground coffee four days ago. Which she leaves open in the fridge, imparting flavour to the three lonely carrots occupying it. Where did we go wrong?

A kind reader has pointed out that, if I really were a native Iberian, I wouldn’t have noticed that my driving was ill-mannered. Which I have to concede is absolutely correct. But he should know; he’s Spanish.

On the point of starvation, I took my daughter to a local Thai restaurant last night, for a meal we both thought quite exquisite. We actually had a choice of three Thai restaurants within half a mile. Plus a noodle bar which goes under the name of Wokon. Which appealed to me. Though this is more than can be said, according to Hannah, about the food they offer. But, anyway, I was reminded once again of just how much variety and innovation there is here in the UK when it comes to food. And wine, of course. A walk round any major supermarket does the same. Which rather contrasts with my experiences back home in Galicia. Racking my brain, I’ve only been able to come up with one innovation in my local supermarket in more than nine years - you can now get tuna in olive oil as well as brine. Great.

Which is partly why I come to Britain by ferry and go home with a car far heavier than when I arrived. Though this time I'll have the added weight of my very first girlfriend, whom I hadn’t met for 45 years until last week and who’s foolishly agreed to a week’s hospitality in Pontevedra. I have a talent for complicating my life. I blame Friends Reunited. At least in this case. And the boogie, of course.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Here at my younger daughter’s place in Leeds, we’re playing the ultra-modern game of Find the Company Which Accepts Responsibility for Fixing the Phone Line. This ceased functioning four days ago, denying us access to the internet over the holiday period. Worse, wifi cafés are a lot harder to find in Leeds than in Pontevedra. More accurately, this has proved impossible so far. But I have high hopes of a nearby place this morning, which is said to serve one of the top 10 coffees in the UK. Though this may not mean a lot if you come from Spain.

If I’m successful, you can read these three recent articles from Qorreo, while I go off with my daughter to the races at Weatherby. This one is on the less-than-objective travel specials issued by newspapers; this one is on the rather more serious (and interesting) issue of ‘industrial scale’ prostitution in Spain; and this one is on the country’s ubiquitous digital piracy.

My new sat-nav has confirmed what I already suspected – that in the UK you’re never far away from a roadside speed camera. The bloody thing never stops bleeping.

Talking of driving . . . The only bad manners I’ve witnessed in ten days have come from me. Doing things that just come naturally after almost a decade in Spain. If I hadn’t gone quite so native, I guess I’d feel at least a bit embarrassed about this. But, of course, I don’t. Though I apologise profusely. As if I really meant it. Well, there’s no point in going only half-native, is there?

Finally . . . My daughter asked me last night what the rationale could be for one of the lanes on the Leeds city ring road being dedicated to cars having at least two occupants. I guessed that someone in the town hall had “Traffic Coordination” in his/her title and that it was possibly intended to make driving in this lane a faster proposition than in the other. Thus motivating people to share their car with others. At least in theory. A Leeds-based old friend has confirmed this, adding that the result, of course, is that, during rush hours, one lane is virtually empty, while the other is choc-a-bloc with traffic moving even more slowly than it ever did before. I guess it makes sense to someone. Though it might be just another bureaucratic triumph.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Here’s a nice list of the April Fool reports printed in yesterday’s British press, including the ferret story I’ve already cited.

And here’s an article on the state of politics in Britain today. Not to mention Spain. And probably a lot of other countries as well. The author deplores the “intellectual emptiness into which contemporary politics has collapsed”. And adds that “Most mornings, I listen to the obfuscation that masquerades as parliamentarians' highbrow comment and fight a primeval urge to smash the radio. . . When poison is Westminster's currency of exchange, disaster is to let slip a fact which may incur disfavour with a slice of the electorate, especially "minorities". Respect for the underdog, an honourable British tradition, has been twisted into a morbid fear of offending anyone. . . . Substance is irrelevant, the goal is simply to nail a rival's ‘mistake’. . . . When leadership is entirely driven by a search for tactical advantage, plain speaking is a sin.”

The trouble is – this genie is well and truly out of the bottle and it’s devilishly hard to see it being squeezed back in. Or to predict in which direction things will turn. Hopefully not towards a search for a strong, straight-talking leader. A Fuhrer even.

Finally . . . Here’s a few fotos of the streets around the house of my friend, Mike, where I’ve been staying all this week. The total – or near total – absence of cars parked on the street makes everything very reminiscent of an earlier age. Shame there’s no prospect of this happening with politics.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

It being April Fool’s Day, I wasn’t too surprised to read in today’s Daily Telegraph that specially-trained ferrets, fitted with microchips, are now being used to check the underground pipes carrying broadband wiring around the country.

Talking of fools . . . On Tuesday in Liverpool, my Madrid-based daughter and I turned up at the Museum of Slavery at 5.40 to (re)discover that things here are different from Spain. So it wouldn’t be open until as late as 9. Having closed at 5. Just when things are re-opening in Spain. How we laughed.

And talking of the weird Spanish timetable . . . I had to smile at UK news reports of a Spanish woman asking – in the context of over-rowdy British party-goers in Salou – “Who runs around makes such a noise and vomiting at one in the morning?”. To which the answer is “All young Spanish kids”. As this is when they start the fun, before going on until eight or nine the next day.

There was a report in the British media yesterday about the owner of a pet-store being very harshly treated for selling a goldfish to a kid under sixteen. I was going to resist the temptation to cite this but the Daily Mail writer, Richard Littlejohn was on fine polemical form on this in today’s edition. And you won’t be surprised to hear I found myself agreeing with him that “Britain must now be about the most regulated, inspected, restricted, nannied, spied-upon country on earth which still pretends to be a democracy.” Of course, it’s the standard response of the guilty parties to blame ‘EU regulations’. But the real cause, as I regularly say, is a particularly British form of corruption which allows petty bureaucrats to – perfectly legally – feather their own nests by ‘gold-plating’ all legislation emanating from either London or Brussels. Anyway, you can read the whole article here.

Good to read that two major political parties in Spain are “putting the final details on a pact to stop corruption among their officials.” Even if it is after most of the money-making schemes have vanished along with the boom that induced them.

It looks like I was wrong to think the penny is finally dropping in Spain. The latest survey of national attitudes shows that, while 83% of the population are worried about unemployment, only half are worried about the economy. Which - taking 20% unemployment into consideration – is, I guess, less than 40% of those is work.

Talking of surprising Spanish attitudes . . . Here’s my fellow-blogger, Lenox, on the current state of play around the demolitions of ex-pat houses in the south and south east. I guess it's inevitable that, if you live entirely in the here-and-now, you're going to be short-sighted most of the time. If not always, even.