Monday, October 31, 2011

The EU: Late post yesterday, if anyone's interested.

From today's Times:- "The Mayor of Tehran is going to court in an attempt to reclaim a large compound in the affluent north of the capital used by the British Embassy since a Persian king gave it to the UK in the mid-19th century." Why on earth do I cite this? Because it takes me back to a Tehran summer in which I part-wrote and solely produced A Summer Entertainment in the grounds of this place, which was so successful we had to double the performances. Albeit from only one to two. I'm getting too old for modesty.

Less heartwarming is the bad news from Spain:- Unemployment - already a disastrous 21% - is still rising; growth in the economy in the last quarter was zero; the forecasts of growth for this year continue to fall; the property market is almost as dead as a dodo; the rich-poor gap continues to grow and is now almost the worst in the EU; the construction sector (once the engine of growth) is in intensive care and close to death; mortgage costs are about to rise again; repossessions are still increasing; local governments are laying off (probably the wrong) staff; and another new (vanity project) airport - Reus in Cataluña - finds itself without any flights at all and thus a reason for existing. As I said so often during them, what a truly mad period the euro-fuelled noughties were in Spain.

Despite all this, and notwithstanding demands from people as prominent as the owner of Santander bank, there's no sign of the country moving away from its ludicrous - and tellingly unique - working day. Which involves a very long "midday" break for 'dinner' (at 2 or even 3pm in Spain), a return to work at 4.30/5.00 and a clocking-off as late as 9.30pm. What's really amusing is that you occasionally hear the comment it's the rest of the world marching to the beat off a different drum. Implying Spain's got it right and everyone else should change. The truth is that, if any government were serious about increasing efficiency, they'd find some way to knock this horario on the head. Fatally. So, it'll be interesting to see whether the new PP government even mentions it once it's regained power this month.

The blue on the horizon? Despite the reports of a quarry opening up behind my house in the hills, a couple is very keen to see it tomorrow. Let's hope they like it and don't make a farcical offer.

I called my daughter's energy supplier this morning, to stop them taking her to court over the issue of a safety inspection. The computer at the other end of the line eventually told me I'd get a callback in 8 to 13 minutes. Enough time to achieve a new record for shaving, showering and dressing, I figured. You can guess the rest. As I rapidly soaped up for the shave, the phone rang; I rushed to answer it; and covered the handset with foam. Sometimes this country is too bloody efficient.

Finally . . . A conversation on the station as I and a couple of young women waited for the train to York:-
Announcement: Ladies and Gentlemen, we regret to announce that the 10.39 train to York will be three minutes late, due to people on the line.
1st. young woman: Three minutes! As if that's worth telling us!
2nd. young woman: Yeah.
1st. young woman: Yeah but we might just miss the shuttle bus and be late for our lecture.
2nd. woman: Fuck . . . me . . . sideways.
Me, unvoiced: Do you mind if I pass on that? 

I was going to say one doesn't hear this coarseness so much in Spain but then I recalled that virtually everyone there (both adults and kids) uses the Spanish equivalent - joder! - as if it was as innocuous as cripes! Which, in fact, it is in Spain. Unlike 'billy goat' - cabrón. Which you should only risk in company you know well.

Finally, finally . . . I've just read there's actually an organisation in Spain - The National Commission for the Rationalisation of Working Hours - which champions the cause of a more sensible, efficient and family-friendly working day. Joder! Good luck to them.

Short of time today, so here's the estimable Daniel Hannan on the euro and its proponents. My emphases. Don't forget to click on the Tony Parsons link . . .

How did so many clever people get it so wrong? The flaws in the euro were visible from the start, and were widely pointed out. Yet in every national parliament, in every academic faculty, in every central bank, in almost every newspaper editorial meeting, there was a collective suspension of disbelief.
If you listen carefully to what Euro-integrationists were saying at the time, you detect a subtext. It's not so much that they liked the euro, it's that they disliked the people who opposed it. Bizarrely, they're still at it, quite unabashed by how things have turned out. Here, for example, is Norman Davies in Britain's most Europhile newspaper:
“How marvellous” they chortle in the Tory clubs; “the busybodies of Brussels are meeting their come-uppance. After all, those ghastly Greeks who cooked the books to enter Euroland in the first place are sure to be cooking them again with an eye to ever larger bail-outs.” Euro summits, the argument goes, are just talking shops. Orderly default is a pipedream. The eurozone rescue fund is an underfunded piggy bank. The European Central Bank is toothless. There’s no central European treasury, and the German courts are obstructing remedies. Politicians are forever quarrelling and kicking the boite down the piste. Greece will push French banks down the chute first; but German banks won’t avoid it, and together they’ll finish Italy off. “With luck, Italy will suck Spain into the abyss; Portugal will follow Spain, and Ireland Portugal. Just think of it! Those Irish traitors from 1922 will get their deserts! Terrific!”
Then continental banks lock their doors and the cash machines dry up. Minestrone kitchens appear on the streets of Rome. Spanish bullrings house the destitute. The bridges of Paris fill with rough sleepers. Weeks and months pass free of money. Europeans relearn the art of barter. When the cash flow stutters back, machines distribute drachmas again, the franc nouvel and the peseta nueva. Yet Britain’s latterday Blimps will still not be satisfied. They hanker for the whole hog; before we pull up the drawbridge, they say, the EU itself must vanish.
For what it's worth, I have yet to meet a Eurosceptic who is enjoying the economic turmoil on our doorstep. It is plainly in Britain's interest that the eurozone – which takes 40 per cent of our exports, and comprises our allies and friends – should flourish. That's precisely why we fret at the way in which the prosperity of so many Continental countries is being sacrificed in order to hold the euro together. 
Not that being right will earn Eurosceptics a more sympathetic hearing. For many of our commentators, this was never really about economics. Britain's Euro-enthusiasts – Andrew Ranwnsley, Philip Stephens, Nick Clegg et all – still see the issue in terms of sensible progressives versus atavistic bigots.
It's odd. Commentators who are so quick to spot prejudice in others when it comes to racism, sexism or xenophobia are quite unable to detect it in themselves when it comes to people who don't share their Weltanschauung. Tony Parsons brilliantly satirises the phenomenon in the Daily Mirror.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Note: I posted another Special on the EU earlier today. Scroll down, if interested.

I'm pretty used to seeing young folk on the streets of Pontevedra early Saturday and Sunday mornings, after a night out in the bars and discos of the town. But nothing had prepared me for the sight of a (very) scantily-clad young woman staggering towards her front door at 12.45 today, with her beau guiding her by the elbow. It seems they know how to party in Headingley. This place must be pretty dull during the vacations.

So Jimmy Saville has moved on. He'll be missed in one particular restaurant in Leeds, which he used to patronise almost every night, I think - moving from table to table and chatting to you as if he'd known you all his life. The obituaries were all fulsome, as well they might be, given all he'd achieved. Interesting - and surprising - to read that he had a very high IQ and was a member of Mensa. A clown of genius then.

I mentioned the closure of the Ciudad Real airport last night. Here's Charles Butler with a good take on this.

Sad but not too surprising to read that "British attitudes towards the old are the worst in Europe".

The good news is that - back in Spain - a new measure's been introduced to allow landlords to evict non-paying tenants relatively rapidly. Aimed at improving the rental market, one hopes it'll work better than the last measure with the same objective.

I'm not sure I believe this myself but Terra (Telefónica) appear to have changed their email log-in so as to allow a maximum of only ten letters for your address. And mine is eleven. I regularly complain of a lack of customer orientation in Spain but this takes the biscuit. I've had this address for eleven years and all-of-a-sudden - without any warning - it's inoperative. Luckily, all my Terra messages still come through to my Gmail account, so I don't actually need to log in at Terra. But all the same . . .

Which reminds me, Google tells me that something called Buzz is "going away". This appears to mean "We're ending a crap facility which no one was interested in."

Here's an amusing article which more or less describes me. And perhaps quite a few of you. That said, I think I can do rather more than David Mitchell. But, then, I have lived rather longer. And so it was that I was able today to put back up my daughter's knife rack, using new rawl plugs and matchsticks to fill the over-large holes for the screws. A real achievement in my book.

Finally . . . Here's a nice quote from someone on the TV this morning - It's true that life's not fair. But it's a lot fairer than death.

A few citations from British newspapers of both the Left and the Right:-

Sunday Telegraph: Liam Halligan, who works in the bonds business. My emphases.

Last week's eurozone "agreement" . . .. Far from making the situation clearer, allowing investors to make considered assessments, this latest announcement made Western Europe's grotesque debt crisis even more acute, sowing further infectious spores of confusion.

Some say Western governments shouldn't "accept" what the market says. "Who do these trading people think they are," I hear from the lips of the educated but financially-illiterate political elite. Let's be clear – if global bond markets stop lending to a number of large Western economies, we are in the realms of unpaid state wages and pensions, transport chaos and closures of schools and hospitals – sparking the prospect of serious civil unrest. Forgive my intemperate tone, but these are the dangers we face. And I'm afraid the only rational response to Thursday's announcement is that the probability of such undesirable outcomes has just been increased.

What is needed, urgently, is a clean, transparent Greek default – allowing this flailing semi-developed economy to leave the eurozone, re-establish a weaker drachma and regain its self-respect. Portugal should leave too, its membership of the same currency bloc as Germany is as absurd, and self-defeating, as that of Greece. There would be further market turmoil, yes, but a few more months of volatility, leading to an ultimately more stable outcome, is surely better than the current situation where the entire world is living in fear of a massive "euroquake".

The eurocrats, of course, lack the guts to trim back monetary union to a more manageable size. Too much face would be lost. So "euroquake" fears, once viewed as outlandish, are gaining pace.

The eurozone must be consolidated. World leaders should similarly force European banks to disclose their losses, we all take the hit and then we move on. Instead, we are served-up, in ever more complex variants, the same "extend and pretend" non-solutions. It gives me no pleasure to write this, but I give this deal two weeks.

No amount of "pro-Europe" platitudinising will find jobs for millions of unemployed workers who are the euro's victims round the Mediterranean basin. No amount of patronising analysis will turn Italian farmers or Spanish fishermen into German technicians. The differences between states must be reflected in their terms of exchange. This is not a matter of being "pro- or anti-Europe". It is why the eurozone must find a way to a "managed shrink".

The dream of a fused Europe, like that of one America, was noble after the horrors of the 20th century. But it was unrealisable as envisaged. It instead morphed into a sanctimonious, mono-cultural elitism, dominated by the bankers and bureaucrats that have brought it to the present pass. At first the EU was just a mildly corrupt way of shuffling taxpayers' money round the continent. Under monetary union after 1999 it went both reckless and rigid. It has snapped, yet its apologists have nothing better to offer than bromides about budgetary discipline and fiscal union.

Sunday Telegraph: Janet Daley. On what it means for democracy in Europe. Death, essentially.

Citations are pointless here. If you think, as I do, that giving power to (new) unelected bureaucrats to determine national budgets is yet another hammer blow to democracy in the eurozone, then it's a must-read.

I used to cross swords with Moscow on this issue (and others) but he doesn't seem to be reading this blog since I told him he could write any comment he liked but I wouldn't be answering them, whatever the temptation. That said, it'd be good to hear him on these issues. And I might even break my word.

The Guardian on Sunday. Simon Jenkins, as brilliant as ever. Putting into immaculate prose what I've been saying for years. And others, of course.

The day of reckoning has come, but not yet gone.

Champions of the euro breathing sighs of relief deserve no sympathy. Since its launch in 1999 they knew this would happen. They knew the preconditions for a single currency – economic convergence and an enforceable "stability and growth pact" – were not in place. They knew that putting Europe back on a sort of gold standard would not bind national economies together into a single homogeneous powerhouse.

As the uncompetitive members lurched into debt, they tut-tutted about sinfulness but did nothing. Instead the eurocrats waffled on about a solution lying with closer fiscal and political union, a sort of Holy Roman Empire reborn. They knew this was rubbish. Yet I have not detected an ounce of shame for the misery this policy has inflicted on the Greeks, and will soon inflict on the Italians and the Spanish. Youth unemployment is now 46% in Spain, fighting an estimated 30% overvaluation of Spanish output against Germany. The single currency is mad, and politically dangerous.

There is no way a drastic increase in the central control of the European economy will gain support from national electorates. Nor will they accept that the European parliament offers sufficient accountability. People will not be further divorced from those who run their lives and fix their taxes. Were Germany and France to impose a single socioeconomic regime on all Europe as the price for a single currency, most governments that co-operated would be voted out of office. That is why Germany's demands will not be met. The politics will not sustain them.

As long as there is no united European state, there can be no united European currency. The euro may suit converged economies, like Germany's immediate neighbours, but it cannot be a tool of political suzerainty by Brussels over 17 diverse nations. Whatever the question, the euro is not the answer.

The marginal states of the European Union must, like Britain, revert to floating exchange rates, to take the strain of different lifestyles and working practices.

Comments are very welcome, whether you agree with the above or disagree. But please avoid making ad hominem points, however accurate they might be.

PS: Two of the above writers support the concept of a EU confederated state. Though obviously not in its current form. Which lacks a real Constitution and democratic legitimacy. Inter alia.

PPS: Since I first posted this half an hour or so ago, I've come upon a columnist (Will Hutton in The Observer) who supports the euro, dismisses arguments such as those above, sees the euro surviving and regards the developments of last week as "an inspiring leap."

And who knows?, he might just be right - if reports this morning of a massive new investment vehicle exclusively for China (arising, Phoenix-like, from the ashes) prove accurate. And the fund is actually created.

Vamos a ver.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Sad but perhaps not very surprising to see that Spain's only private airport is to close, after less than three years of operation. This is the Don Quixote airport near Ciudad Real. The place was reported to have been "dogged by bad luck" from the start. Though whether this label really applies when as many as 50% of the building were illegal and had been erected in defiance of environmental regulations is a moot point. And when an investigation by the Bank of Spain into the operation's bank "revealed more irregularities". While it may have been privately owned, one suspects public money went into the doomed project in one way or another. El Mundo today asked "Who's going to pay for this extravagance?". But I can't tell you who the candidates might be, as the paper now charges for its articles.

If you're interested in knowing more about what Spain's Indignados are currently up to, click here. At present, this remains a peaceful movement but I suppose there's always a chance 46% youth unemployment might eventually lead to some sort of unrest.

There are three things I've pontificated on regularly in the years I've been writing this blog:-
1. History will be unkind to Tony Blair,
2. The EU will one day collapse under the weight of its internal contradictions, and
3. Galicia's Mencia red wines are worth taking a look at.
By coincidence, all of these were the subject of articles this week. Here, here and here. Enjoy.

The football pundits all reckoned that the next team to play Manchester United would pay the price of their reaction to last week's hiding by Manchester City. I smiled in agreement at this. Until I saw this morning which team it was. Mine. And the score today was Everton 0 United 1. So, not that bad really. But worse than last year's 3-3 draw. Or tie, as our American cousins say. I think.

Click here for a good retrospective on President Zapatero. And don't forget to read the perspicacious comments.

Finally . . . A Joke currently doing the rounds:-
Wife: (Addressing her husband from the bathroom): Does my bum look big in this?
Husband: Come on, love. It's a very small bathroom.

Well, it's Saturday.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Note: I posted a Special on the EU earlier today. If you're interested, scroll down.

What a funny place Headingley is on a Friday night. And Saturday, too, I'm guessing. And probably Sunday as well. This is a residential area for both of Leeds' universities and, at 8 tonight (tea time in Spain), the streets were thronged with students en route (I suspect) to all-night parties. And all in fancy dress. Meaning togas (i. e. sheets) in the case of one group and nothing but green paint above the waist in another. With the temperature below 10 degrees.

But the funniest sight is to be witnessed during the day, when passing white kids sporting the sort of woollen hat Rastafarians wear to contain their dreadlocks. Even though they haven't got much hair to boast of. Bloody odd, as the hat just hangs down like an empty bag. And then there's the guys in trousers of which the baggy crutch hangs a foot lower than usual and of which the lower legs are skin tight. I guess one could come up with something dafter but it'd be difficult.

Anyway . . . Back in Spain, inflation is now 3% and the unemployment rate has climbed to 21.5%, meaning 4.98 million souls unemployed. The percentage is even higher in some regions of the country but there's still no sign of the forecasted social unrest.

There's some good news in the report of Spanish companies being given the contract for a high speed train to Mecca and in the growth of the construction services industry. Plus the tourism sector had the best year since records began this summer. So it's not all bleak.

Talking of tenders . . . There's been one issued this week for mobile phones for Spanish MPs. The specification is so written that only Apple has any chance of winning it. In fact, it's said that parts of it could have come directly from the company's technical data sheets. I've seen this sort of coincidence in both Iran and Indonesia but it's surprising to meet it in Spain.

The Brits, it seems, are losing their love of Spain when it comes to buying a second home. The greater stability and lower prices of France now make it the first choice for those who can still afford to buy euro-priced properties at today's exchange rate of 1.13. A far cry from the 1.40 or more of a couple of years ago. And a crying matter if your pension is in pounds.

But maybe things will swing back. Idealista reports that the average drop in property prices during September was 22%. Though Banco Santander abandoned plans to sell off their property portfolio this week when discounts far higher than this were demanded.

The O.I.S Section
1. A teacher friend in Madrid was asked if there would still be a class on Thursday. When he said of course there would and sought an explanation for the question, the student answered - "Well. it's forecast to rain on Thursday and we don't normally come to school when it's raining."
2. Another teacher friend asked his class to write down what they valued most in their friends. The leading answer - "He/she lets me look at his/her answers during an exam".

Some Spanish politician or other has suggested it would've been better to keep Portugal and let Cataluña go. I don't think so, mate. You'd now have the entire western quarter of Iberia - the Galaico-Portugúes bit, encompassing Portugal and Galicia - giving you the same grief that Cataluña does now. And in a foreign language which claims greater affinity with Latin. Though why that should merit respect is beyond me.

Finally, a plug for the blog of a new friend, Jack, who teaches in a local school. Check it out.

MIDDAY(ISH) EU SPECIAL  (Please return later for tonight's post)

First off, here's a brilliant and funny explanation of the European financial crisis. I believe I posted this a while back but it certainly merits another airing.

Now for the heavier stuff . . . .

Here's our Ambrose making the widely-supported point that there can be no solution to the problems of the eurozone without the ECB becoming a bank of last resort, able to print money. Which is rather hard to see Germany agreeing to, for one reason and another. And here he is addressing the Portuguese monetary contraction, with which we could all become a lot more familiar in the weeks to come.

And here's the always-superb Simon Jenkins of The Guardian, putting things in the way I wish I could. The bastard.

From the other side of the pond, here's Paul Krugman, taking a wider perspective on the critical capacity of the eurozone countries to generate growth via the hair-shirt measures they've either willingly introduced or had thrust upon them. In the latter case, effectively by Germany, unfortunately. No longer "Europe", "the EU", or even the Franco-German duovirate. But Germany. With all the gut reactions that causes. And the exact opposite of what the French objectives were in setting up the Common Market fifty years ago. 

As some cynic once said:- The effect of every major reform is the exact opposite of that for which it was designed. Though it sometimes takes a while. And often gives the nay-sayers no comfort at all in being proved right. Everyone goes down with the ship.

Finally, on this Titanic note, here's an on-the-ball editorial from The Guardian:- 

Under the principle of Occam's razor, every assumption is shaved away until – in Bertrand Russell's phrase – as much as possible is explained by known entities, and reliance on unknown entities is reduced to the minimum. In fashioning a response to the woes of its currency, Europe has taken the opposite tack.

The continent's leaders emerged bleary-eyed into yesterday's grey Brussels dawn not with straightforward orders to institutions which actually exist, but with baffling plans to magic money out of somewhere.

It is to be very much hoped that their fiendishly complex plan can be delivered, since the alternative is certain depression. Despite an excited reaction on the markets yesterday, however, the obstacles to success are legion.

Even if all the varied components come off, none will stimulate growth in the way the ECB could. And growth is what the angry, unemployed voters in all those disparate countries will demand. If, in the end, Europe cannot grow an economy big enough to shoulder its debts, the crisis will not go away.

Bottom line - It's hard not to be pessimistic, whatever hopes you entertain, be they europhilic or europhobic. Whatever happens next, there isn't going to be a soft landing. 

So . . . Where do I put my money, Charles?  China? Even if (because?) they're refusing to play ball and come to the party dressed as the Seventh Cavalry. Or the Sixth Fleet.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Long-term readers will know I've been a big fan of the lovely Letizia right from the start. But I don't think I'd go as far as Paris Match magazine, which has described her as "simply perfect" after her recent appearance at the Prince of Asturias Awards ceremony. Or as "halfway between Grace Kelly and Queen Rania of Jordan". For one thing, some of her beauty came at a price. Still great to look at but less than natural.

I made a jaded comment about the euro saga last night. Here's a Times columnist making the same point but at greater length. And with a lot more humour:- There's a good reason no one makes disaster movies about financial crises. In disaster movies, there is always a solution which a crack team of miners/scientists/politicians can get to work on, just as soon as one boffin has explained it. The obstacles are horrendous but they're simple. The tension builds as the final battle approaches, and it then it arrives, easy to understand. And everyone knows when the battle is won: the enemy is defeated and the heroes share a laugh. With the European financial crisis, it's the opposite: with every day that passes, it gets messier, more complicated, and, frankly, more boring. Instead of coming together to a logical conclusion, new subplots break out daily. Previously, it was relatively easy to explain: Greece is bankrupt and we don't know what to do about it. But then we bailed Greece out and it's still not over. Now it's something along the lines of: Greece is bankrupt, but then French and German banks own Greek debt, so they might be bankrupt too. Then Italy has lots of its own debt, which Germany would like it to pay off, just in case that markets start worrying that Italy is bankrupt too. And that's before we even get into the the proposed solution (mostly it seems to be that Germany should throw money at everything, which the Germans understandably aren't too keen on). How big does the bailout fund need to be? Who pays for it? Who do we (well, the Germans) bail out: the Greeks, or the banks? Should the European Central Bank be allowed to buy government bonds? No one is sure of any of this. Not even the people whose job it is to understand it.

But wait! Here it is explained with Lego . . . . Enjoy. In so far as you can.

The majority view - if not the consensus - is that the solution which emerged at 4am this morning has kicked the can further down the road and so bought more time. But no one seems to think it's solved any of the fundamental problems. To me, it's symbolic that another senior bureaucratic appointment has been made in the person of the President of the group of 17 countries in the eurozone. That should do the trick. Nasty letters from him to the Presidents of Greece, Italy, etc.

As for Spain, there were some bouquets but also some brickbats. "EU leaders reminded the Zapatero Government that it is key for it to keep to its budget adjustment plan, especially regarding spending in the autonomous regions." El País - which sees Spain as the "big loser" - today wondered why her banks were being disproportionately burdened with additional capital requirements when they're less exposed to Greek debt than others. Who the hell knows? Perhaps Zapatero left the room for a pee.

Finally on this, here's a nice article from Tim Garton Ash in today's Guardian, on the theme of national debates engendered by the crisis.

In sheer coincidence, no sooner do I mention Shakespeare than an article appears in the Daily Telegraph in which snobbery is advanced as the basis of the suggestion that the Earl of Oxford wrote his stuff. Despite being dead when several of them were written and performed - The 'uneducated' Shakespeare, an actor and theatre manager, who attended neither Oxford nor Cambridge, could not – could he? – have had all the knowledge of Greece and Rome and Italy etc displayed in the plays. Click here for the answer to this.
I'm indebted to Private Eye's Funny Old World section for the news that there's a clinic in Madrid - Cosquillearte - which is the world's first clinic devoted to tickling. Click here for more details.

The longer I live with my younger daughter, the more I realise I could sell her for a fortune in various parts of the world. This is despite the fact she seems unable to replace a finished toilet roll. Though I guess this wouldn't be a problem in the places I'm thinking of. But as if I would . . .

Which reminds me . . . Living with my daughter 4:
Your new beard is looking good, Dad.
In fact, with a bit of effort, you could look good all the time.

I think this was a compliment.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life with daughter 3:- Scenario: Leaving the house by car at 8.15, to get the 8.25 train to Leeds, Manchester and beyond. Hannah is negotiating the exit, between two brick pillars . . .
Can you check your side, Dad.
It's fine. In fact, I think there's probably too much space this side and you should give yourself more room your side.
Dad! I can see my side! And I've done this a thousand times.
Skkkkkkkkrrrrrrrrrrr. [Or however you represent brick on metal]
[Calmly] Well, there go hubris and nemesis in one swift go.

I'm truly astonished at how serenely she's taken this set-back. I cannot begin to describe how angry I'd have been. Overwhelmed with admiration - and wondering whether there really is a genetic connection - I find myself praying for just 10% of her ability to take things in her stride. And to see them in perspective. Probably in vain.

Ironically, the scratch-causing rush to get me to the 8.25 train certainly was in vain. It arrived stuffed to the rafters and only half the people on the platform could squeeze into it. The rest of us had to wait another ten minutes for the next one. The one I'd originally planned to get.

But, anyway. Given that only this week there was a report of a bus driving around Valencia with an ad for prostitutes on the back of it, it'll hardly come as a surprise to anyone who's spent time there that Spain leads the European Use of Whores League. By quite some way. Specifically - 39% of Spanish men have hired the services of a prostitute at one time or another, compared with Switzerland at 19%, Austria at 15, the Netherlands at 14 and Sweden at 13%.

Brits seem to have been too few to mention. But perhaps it's a reflection of hard times (no pun intended). We used to be the biggest buyers of property down south but last August the Alicante laurels were taken by the Russians, followed by the Scandinavians, the Dutch and the Belgians, with the Brits in a poor fifth place.

I did an awful lot of reading about the eurozone shenanigans on the train this morning. In fact, that's my excuse for missing the station I was supposed to get off at - just like the young woman next to me on the train to Liverpool last week. Fortunately, the next stop was only fifteen minutes walk from the house of two of my oldest and dearest friends and they were at home. And willing to give me a coffee and drive me to my destination. It's an ill wind.

My intention had been to thrill you with EU/euro quotes and citations but I figure you've had quite enough of this saga by now. Anyway, no one really knows what's happening. And may not for several weeks yet. I'll just say how amusing it is to see SPIVs coming to the rescue of the political experiment.

Walking through the lanes of Cheshire, I was nasally reminded of something I read a while back in a 1905 book on English counties - "The typical smells of Cheshire are cow dung and foxes' urine." I'm pleased to say things have moved on since then; you rarely get to smell foxes these days. Though I do see one - the scrawniest creature I've ever beheld - walking down my daughter's drive most days here in urban Leeds.

Walking back to the station to start the return journey, I passed a parked van with the words DEC ART on its side. I wanted to scribble below these "Je pense. Donc je suis." but the van wasn't dirty enough to give me the means. That's Cheshire for you.

At the Reception desk in the doctor's surgery
Can I trouble you for a Temporary Patient form?
May I ask why you would like one of these?
Internal Response: WTF do you think I want one?
External Response: I may be here for 3 months and want to become a temporary patient.
Sometimes I'm a veritable saint.

I'll leave you with the assertions that Bill Bailey is a comic of genius. As well as a bloody good musician. And that 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare is a rattling good read. Unless you're dumb enough to think that someone else authored his works. In which case, you'll find it very, very irritating.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

While I've been in England, fires have raged throughout Galicia. Very close to home in the case of my house in the hills. As always, conspiracy theories abound. In the case of the conflagration near my house, one theory runs that it was started to facilitate grant of permission to open a granite quarry nearby. Just what the village needs. Especially the last house, closest to the granite hillsides. Mine. I don't, of course, care how the fire was started; I'm just glad the flames stopped at the fence and hopeful that the village can mount a successful rearguard action against this development.

I am, of course, trying to sell the house and the quarry development will be a deal-killer. Meanwhile, it doesn't help to read that the real estate bubble in Spain was the worst in the developed world. Or so says the Wall St. Journal. In case you don't know, it peaked in 2008, the year the house was bought - albeit at a price 25% below the asking price. And the official market rates have fallen less in Galicia than in most other regions/cities. Crumbs of cold comfort.

Back in the present, the ex-head of the organisation which protects artists' copy-write - who was sacked last July amidst corruption accusations - is demanding 1.2 million euros as compensation for unfair dismissal. Only in Spain?

Brussels has pronounced illegal an agreement between Telefónica and Portuguese Telecóm under which they wouldn't compete with each other in Iberia. How can the two semi-monopolies possibly have thought it was legal?

Which reminds me . . . It's reported that the Spanish competition agency is to fine 47(!) constructors for price-fixing in respect of road contracts, as a result of which the government was defrauded of many millions of euros. Did they really all think it would remain a secret? And in how many other countries would so many companies conspire so brazenly?

Insight/Moan 1: If I had a son, maybe there'd be a shampoo in the bathroom without coconut or almonds or whatever in it. Though possibly not, considering the bizarrely fragrant concoctions which used to be on the shelf of my teenage stepsons.

Insight/Moan 2:- It seems to be possible for people to get into my Skype Contacts list without any action on my part. Hence the stupefying messages today that BuzzMolls and mickyd000 had come on line. If you're ether of these, please let me know who you are and how the hell you got there.

Down in London, it's been discovered (using heat-sensitive cameras) that only 10% of the tents blocking the area around the entrance to St Paul's cathedral are occupied at night. In other words, the protestors repair to the comfort of home when the sun goes down. Who can blame them but it does raise a few questions. Especially as the small, local shopkeepers are the real victims of this demonstration.

If the current travails of the euro don't interest you, switch off now. For the rest of you . .

This is a brilliant article from Simon Jenkins of The Guardian, who considers himself a 'good European' but refuses to mouth the requisite platitudes. Here are a couple of extracts:-

Greece's bluffing of the high priests of the eurozone may, after all, be called. The unthinkable may be unavoidable. The priests are suddenly talking of "when, not if," Greece defaults. Greeks themselves seem to regard devaluation as a less painful discipline than state-imposed austerity, and are probably right. Their partial default and de facto departure from the euro would be a truly seismic moment, requiring the instant restructuring of debts and possibly currencies across the periphery of the eurozone, covering Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy. It would be drastic, but since it has been predicted ever since Maastricht, it can hardly be regarded as unimaginable.

Because being "pro-Europe" is a faith cult rather than a policy, its adherents dare not raise a peep of protest at its outrages. Not for the first time in Europe's history, a centralised superstate stalks the continent with a retinue of uncritical appeasers unable to see the wood for the tax-free salaries. Sceptics are treated like Rhett Butler in 'Gone with the Wind' – traitors to the great confederacy who should be shot for speaking home truths

This is a true reformation moment in Europe's history, when a centralised and authoritarian Holy Roman Empire, grown fat and arrogant on the tithes of subject peoples, suddenly overreaches its power and faces a crisis of legitimacy.

Europe is clearly at a turning point, turning against the single-statism of the European movement, with its straitjacketed currency, its flows of economic migrants and counterflows of subsidies, its everlasting crises and its humiliation of democratic governments. It is turning back to national identity, and there is nothing the EU can do to stop it.

And here's the whole text of an article in The Times by Sam Fleming. Which I can't cite because of the pay-wall. It stresses, quite rightly of course, that Britain's destiny is inescapably tied to that of the eurozone, even if she's never been a member of this club:-

President Sarkozy of France may be complaining that he’s tired of being lectured at by British politicians, but David Cameron is quite right when he says that the dithering and bickering over the euro crisis is having a “chilling effect” on Britain’s economy.

The UK banking system is now showing symptoms disturbingly similar to those back in the dark days of the sub-prime crisis. This time the trigger is the Greek debt contagion, which is infecting big economies such as Italy and Spain.

The Bank of England put it succinctly last week in a report based on its latest discussions with the top UK lenders. The wholesale money markets, where banks raise a big chunk of their money, are becoming badly strained again, increasing banks’ cost of funding.

If the euro-induced tensions do not ease soon, the banks say that they are ready to sting customers with higher interest rates.

There could hardly be a clearer demonstration of how deeply integrated Britain’s fortunes are with those of the hapless euro area; if the single currency sinks, the UK will be pulled down with it.

So it is small wonder that Mr Cameron and George Osborne have been issuing increasingly desperate calls for action. By failing to deal decisively with Greece, whose GDP is only 2.5 per cent of the euro area total, the eurozone authorities have allowed the entire continent to be consumed by the storm.

The weekend’s summit made only threadbare progress, with Wednesday’s follow-up meeting now the latest final, final deadline to stitch up a deal. However, even then it is unlikely that the continent’s resources alone will stretch far enough to restore market confidence.

The European Central Bank has repeatedly insisted that it is unwilling to print vast quantities of money to throw at Italy and other periphery states. That means the International Monetary Fund’s role will be critical in stabilising the area.

Italy — and potentially Spain — will have to be thrown lifelines by the IMF. That would require the lender’s resources to be bolstered by deep-pocketed emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil in a further sign of the profound shifts in global economic and political power currently under way.

As for the euro itself, even a big rescue deal by the time of the Cannes G20 summit on November 3 and 4 would do nothing to make it a credible currency area. The flaws that led to the present fiasco — a gulf in competitiveness between the core and periphery, and a lack of fiscal integration — would persist. For Britain, the perils of our close proximity to the euro will be with us for a long time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Walking through the woods with my younger daughter this evening, the question arose:- What word do Americans use when we Brits use 'autumnal'? Answer appreciated.

Shopping with said daughter this evening, I whiled away some time by checking the Spanish wines on offer. Which was more challenging than expected as the reds were (finally) to be found in the American section and the whites in the South African section. Meaning they didn't - unlike the Italians - even make the Other European section. Which is odd.

It's tough staying with a child of a baby boomer. To say there are no habits of thrift would be a gross understatement. Kettles are overfilled with gay abandon, lights are left on as if we were an integral part of Blackpool Illuminations, and no thought is given to a sensible central heating regime. In short, there's absolutely no evidence of the disciplines drummed into us baby boomers by parents of the austere war and post-war period. Or perhaps I'm the odd one. Whatever, I need to learn to keep my mouth shut and accept it's not my money.

As of tonight, the news is that there might be some slow progress being made at the European summit. Which is a nice intro into a Wall St. Journal article entitled " Why Europe Dithers". As the writer concludes:- Some things change slowly and national culture is one of them. It was never likely the rest of Europe would choose to become more like Germany, or Germany choose to become more like rest of Europe, on a schedule that would allow the euro to work. And that's what we're finding out. Or perhaps we're not and the miracle can be brought off. Let's hope so anyway.

One or two readers have suggested Ricky Gervais might have been misunderstood. So here's the article in which the writer takes issue with what she calls his feeble-minded approach to the furore created by his referring to Down Syndrome kids as 'mongs'.

Finally . . . Some free advice: Avoid staying in places with a cat. If you must do this, don't leave your suitcase open on the floor. Especially not in a place where someone (say, your daughter) has neglected the litter tray for so long, the cat is compelled to find somewhere less unhygienic in which to urinate . . .

Postscript supplied by said daughter just now . . . Pupil's comment on MacBeth:- He leaves his wife out of the plans to kill Banquo and Macduff's family. This makes him roofless and cunning. . .