Thursday, May 31, 2012

I was talking a day or so ago about odd forenames derived from wine grapes. And there's also been a bit of talk about harsh economic times. Well, I saw a cartoon today which managed - would you believe - to bring these together. A young lad of about 12 is looking up at his 18 year-old sister and asking - "Chardonnay. Were you born in a 'boom' time and me in a recession?" To which she answers - "What makes you think that, Plonk."

Anyway, something else I read today finally answered a query I've long had on my lips - What the hell is a cupcake? Turns out it's the American version - larger, naturally - of the British fairy cake. Or, as it says somewhere - A cupcake (also fairy cake) is a small cake designed to serve one person, frequently baked in a small, thin paper or aluminium cup. As with larger cakes, decorations are common on cupcakes. . . . The name "fairy cake" is a fanciful description of its size, which would be appropriate for a party of diminutive fairies to share. English fairy cakes are traditionally smaller and are rarely topped with elaborate icing. I'm not sure I'd go along with all of this; my mother's were nearly always iced, albeit not fancifully. Ours was a Catholic-Calvinist family. Or maybe just poor. Here's a mouthwatering recipe. Which, BTW, used to be 'receipt' in English.

Still on cake . . . If you're going to the UK this summer, be prepared to see the national flag (the Union Jack) everywhere. Even in the middle of your sandwich cake. The reason is, of course, not the London Olympics but the Silver Jubilee (60th) of Liz's accession to the throne and she is wildly popular right now. Brits can get very nostalgic and, even if no one (contrary to Moscow's perception) talks about the Empire, there's still the Commonwealth. So admired around the world it has a waiting list of countries that were never even in the Empire. Damn! I've mentioned the Empire. Ah, well.

But, briefly, back to wine - Here's an article on the white Godello grape used in Galicia (and bits of other Spanish regions) to produce a white wine that's a nice alternative (as with Ribeiro wines) to the ubiquitous and over-priced Albariño. Some see it as “Spain’s emerging hope as an equivalent to the great white Burgundies.” Others aren’t so sure. Try for yourselves. It shouldn't be expensive.

Musing about the Bankía saga this evening - in particular about how a decent profit turned overnight into a humungous loss - the question occurred to me - Is the difference between British and Spanish politicians that, whereas the former go in for maximum obfuscation of the truth, the latter prefer to just lie? Ever more brazenly until the lies catch up with them. Or is it, perhaps, that the British politicians deal more in half-truths, knowing that (as my old law lecturer stressed) these are often more deceptive than complete lies? I think because the listener creates his own untruths on the base of the half-truth. If you see what I mean.

One Spanish politician who'd be well advised to eschew both lies and half-truths is Ms. Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, Spain’s deputy prime minister. She has flown to Washington today for talks with Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, and Tim Geithner, the US Treasury Secretary. As the Spanish whirlwind rages around their heads, it's sobering to reflect that Ms. S S de S had never held down a (real) job before her appointment. Though she might have done a bit of lawyering before entering politics. At 40 and with no appropriate education, one wonders how she will fare against the truly daunting Ms Lagarde. 'Tying', 'into' and 'knots' are words that spring to mind.

As for the Spanish economy and national solvency, things get worse by the hour and Spanish politicians have yet to display much evidence they know what's happening and how to stop it. Given how important Spain's survival is to the EU project, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the Rajoy government soon finds itself being 'shadowed' by North European technocrats. As the British government was by IMF folk after the '76 devaluation of the pound. Things are certainly that serious.

Meanwhile, one Spanish politico has said “We are a highly leveraged nation. What we need is a Europe-wide solution.” Or 'solidarity', as the Spanish government usually calls it when it has the begging bowl out. And the head of the ECB, Mr Draghi, has put his name behind the calls for "euro-wide bank monitoring" amid mounting support for a “banking union”. It all sounds positive but does anyone really know WTF they are talking about?

Meanwhile, money moves and talks. And the handcart is picking up pace all the time, as Hell draws closer and closer. Stoke up the fires! We have some sinners for you. As well as an awful lot of innocents. An awful lot.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

There were a couple of articles in today's British press about the 'boomerang kids' - the ones who go away to university but come back home again when unemployment beckons. It seems there's almost 3 million of these now, aged 20 to 34. The advice to mothers is not to pander to them; to offer them a home and not a five star hotel. Tell that to Spanish mothers! In my own case, I left home for the Indian Ocean at 18 and have never boomeranged back. However, this doesn't stop my mother asking me - more than 40 years later - when I'm due 'home'.

Whisper the answer - Is it possible that Princess Kate has a Scouse Brow? Or maybe just well-defined eyebrows.

Here I was yesterday saying there were no particularly odd forenames in Spanish, when along comes the name Bienvenida Buck. Her real name is Bienvenida Perez-Blanco and her soubriquet was/is "The Spanish Firecracker". A lady of some repute it seems. Which seems only appropriate, as her name translates as 'A welcome Buck'.

More trivia - As you'd surely expect, the USA is no. 1 when it comes to McDonalds outlets. But which country is second? Yes, you got that right too - France. With more than 1,200 eateries. A better class of burger, no doubt.

And yet more (etymological) trivia - I came cross the word ycleped today, which can also be written yclept. This, it says here, was the standard past participle of the word clepe, to call. Despite dying out in the north of England about 1200 and in the south a little later, it still appears in modern dictionaries. More interesting (honest) is the fact that the initial y was once the standard way of marking the past participle - yfastened, ypunched, etc. etc. And it was the Old English equivalent of ge- in modern German. And modern Dutch maybe. Well, they say 'modern' but it looks pretty ancient to me.

By the way . . . I put a large glass of water down by my feet when I sat down to write this. Well . . . you know the rest.

All the above meanderings have been aimed at avoiding the question of the day. And every day. Where are we with the Eurozone Crisis today?: The answer appears to be that we may now have our first glimpse of a plan to stop the rot and to provide money to those who need it - most obviously Spain - after prising German fingers off the coffers. Well, their coffers really. Click here for details of a German scheme - known as the European Redemption Pact - which offers a form of "Eurobonds Lite" that can be squared with the German constitution and breaks the political logjam. It is a highly creative way out of the debt crisis, but is not a soft option for Italy, Spain, Portugal, and other states in trouble. In effect, Germany would share its credit card to slash debt costs for Italy, Spain and others. Yet it is the exact opposite of fiscal union. While eurobonds are a federalising catalyst, the fund would be temporary and self-extinguishing. . . The fund is a return to the discipline of Maastricht with sovereign control over budgets. . . . The South would still face the long grind of "internal devaluation" - or wage deflation - breaking societies on the wheel. Yet the Redemption Pact is at least a first step back from Purgatory.

Meanwhile, I realised today why I don't really understand what's going on in the banks and why I don't always get what Charles Butler writes in IBEXSalad. In a letter to one of the papers today, a professor of finance wrote that it takes him all of the first term to get certain concepts across to his students. And, even then, only 60% of them end up with a good understanding. The rest, he claimed, go on to become financial journalists. In other words, the source of my (and your?) knowledge. Or lack of it.

As for Spain's troubled Bankía, as I noted yesterday, it's now agreed the ECB backdoor attempt has been closed off and here's an article which is as good as any on the implications. For those who like their commentaries more graphic, here - courtesy of my friend Dixie - is something special.

And if you want a review of why Spain is where she is now, here's Part 1 of Alfie Mittington's review of the financial follies of the last fifteen years. I would only add that Sr Zapatero was even more stupid than portrayed, as with immense chutzpah he brazenly forecast that Spanish per capita income, after sailing past those of Italy and France, would even be higher than Germany's by 2012. Sic monumentum requiris, circumspice, José Luis.

Finally . . . I'm here to tell you that, even if - like me - you're a touch typist, if you lie virtually prone with your laptop resting against your bent knees, you're going to make a lot of mistakes. And irritate yourself no end. Thus shortening your life, they say.

I said something about the ladies of Basingstoke the other day so it's only right I should now pose a question about the men - Why do so many of them have a camouflage pattern on their shorts/trousers? As the latter end just below the knee, I suspect the irony is that real soldiers wouldn't be seen dead in them. Or with the beer belly that usually hangs over them.

Well, the Eurovision Song Contest was its usual farce, the worst thing being the gradual loss of the only reason for watching it - its capacity to amuse. It was interesting, though, to be reminded it once served a political purpose for Portugal. When their 1974 performers made their entrance carrying guns, each of these had a red carnation in the barrel. This was a signal to the rebels to begin the peaceful overthrow of the country's dictatorship.

I wrote last week of the upcoming exhibition of 'invisible art' in London. Coincidentally, I saw a cartoon in the Oct. edition of Prospect magazine today in which a gallery guard is rushing towards someone about to take a foto of a blank canvas, shouting "No photographs!"

And now for some surprising (English) word origins:-
- Neighbour: Near labourer; the guy who tilled the next field
- Nickname: Eek name.

It's a quick and easy flip from words to names . . . I don't know about the USA but the names of Chardonnay and Shiraz are now commonplace in the UK, especially for girls. Though I don't think I've seen Pinot and/or Grigio yet. Or even Tempranillo. But this article suggests that Timotei has appeared on the list of bizarre monickers. As has Nevaeh, said to be the fastest growing name in the USA. As well as being 'Heaven' spelt backwards. Spain seems to have fewer of these fad names, perhaps because the choice seems to be limited to those of saints or parents. Which is much the same thing. My all-time favourite is Jesus and Mary, from Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday", my recollection being that it took me a good few chapters to realise this was only one person. As for 'Shiraz', this is, of course, a wine grape - also called Syrrah - and is said to hale from around the city of the same name in southern Iran. Shiraz, not Syrrah. The best bottle available when I was in Iran in the 70s had a name which translated as One Thousand and One - Undoubtedly a reference to the Arabian Nights but also a brand of carpet cleaner in the UK. Actually, it's even a questionable brand name in Iran. Which is not an Arabic country and which, on the whole, looks down on its Arab neighbours. Especially those which try to invade it. With Western help.

A bit more on the troubled Spanish bank - Bankía - which is currently causing serious problems for Spain. And, thus, for the EU. Having previously reported a profit of 309m euros for 2011 it's now coughed and quietly admitted it made a 2.98bn loss. Yes, 2.98 billion euros. I asked yesterday whether anyone there could count but I think we have our answer now. Spain's Prime Minister, Mr Rajoy, who doesn't make many appearances before the microphones, has said there'll be no need for a bailout to put the bank on its feet and that Spain will sort out this problem on its own. But this appears to depend on how you define 'bailout', 'sort out' and 'own'. In so far as I can tell, he's asking for ECB help but in a way which would mean some mutualisation of the debt. Sucking Germany in through the back door. If not the coal hole.

Meanwhile, the articles on Spain get more and more apocalyptic and the word Spaxit has inevitably been coined. El Mundo has fanned the fears by claiming that three other banks will need rescue funds of 30 billion euros - CatalunyaCaixa, NovaGalicia, Banco de Valencia. Like Bankía, NovaGalicia is a fusion of two savings banks and I'm reminded of the old IT phrase - Shit in, shit out.

Finally . . . Have they found the Higgs Boson yet?

Monday, May 28, 2012

Driving back from Basingstoke-cum-Reading yesterday afternoon, I tried to fool my misbehaving sat-nav into guiding me back to Headingley. As I knew the way, this was all about checking whether I could surmount the problem of the thing's failure to have a UK map in its directory. Initially all seemed well, in that it correctly showed me on the M1 as I drove north. But I started to suspect it wasn't entirely correct as regards the A roads we were passing over or under. And when we got into the outskirts of Leeds, I realised two things were wrong:- 1. My actual position didn't tally with where the map said I was; and 2. The voice and the map were not in sync. Thus it was that, parked outside my daughter's flat, the map had me stopped in the middle of the A65 a mile away. So, not a huge success. But at least I got it to acknowledge the existence of the UK. Which is a start.

My Anglo-Teutonic friend - known affectionately within my family as "German Geoff" - told me of a cheap Spanish wine which had wowed the judges in an international tasting competition, beating wines costing up to ten times more than its price of only pounds 3.59. It's a brew called Toro Loco (Mad Bull) and is produced in Valencia from the tempranillo grape used for all the Rioja reds.This sounded rather incredible so I went off to a nearby Aldi to check it out. Sad to relate, there wasn't a single bottle of Toro Loco on the shelves. So, rather than come away empty-handed, I decided to try a bottle of alcoholic ginger-beer called Fursty Ferret. But, reading the label in the check-out queue, I realised it was just plain ale and put it back on the shelf. And so did leave empty handed.

Driving back home, I recalled being a tad shocked at the prices of the drinks in the pub outside Reading station yesterday. Pounds 3.25 for a bottle of Mexican Corona beer; pounds 3.50 for a pint of cider; and pounds 3.70 for a pint of Guinness. Verily has it been said that it's cheaper to get your pleasures in Spain. By the way, be prepared to wait to get served in a pub in the UK. Especially if the people in front of you are paying by credit card or getting three pints of Guinness slowly poured for them. Or, in my case, both. It could have been worse - in Spain they would've been asked for proof of identity. And to both enter a PIN and sign a pice of paper. Belt and Braces stuff.

There's a bit of a fuss here in the UK about a judgment from the European Court of Justice that votes must be given to prisoners, presumably because their human rights have been infringed. The government is posturing resistance but will have to give away eventually, when everyone's forgotten about it. Far better would be the Continental Solution of introducing voting into Britain's prisons, allowing the inmates to place their crosses and then losing the ballot boxes on their way to the counting house. Sadly, though, this is never going to happen.

One of my Spanish intercambios - Raúl - asked me this evening why so many Leeds students were decked out in fancy-dress costumes so often. In Spain, he said, this was only done during fiestas. I had to confess I had no real idea but that I now knew there were four, not just three, shops catering for this demand in the mile or so between here and the university. Nor could I explain why the students seemed able to wander abroad on any night of the week. Especially as exams should be coming up. It's a different world, I said, from the one I'd inhabited as a student. But that was back when only 7% of the population went to university, not the 40+% that does now.

Finally . . . I was going to include a few references to articles on the woeful state of Spain's finances in general and the banking sector in particular but, as the papers are full of them, I figure anyone interested can easily find what he or she is looking for, without my help. Plus I'm not sure I understand it. The Bankia bank asked for 4.5 billion euros last week but this week upped it 20 billion. Have they got no one who can count? Or were they hoping to hide their really, really toxic assets for a while longer but ran out of chutzpah?

What I really need is for Charles Butler of IBEX Salad to tell me whether it's finally time to join the capital rush from Spain. Or anyone else who's got an inside track. I'm listening . . .

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Down to Oxford yesterday, to see an old Anglo-German friend from my distant Jakarta days. Well, that was Plan A but my friend failed to read my text messages to his (switched-off) phone, meaning that - unaware of Plan B - he'd not met me at Reading station and so had to get a train back there from Oxford. Whereupon, we had to implement Plan C - Find a place to stay the night in Reading. Which is sort-of why we ended up with Plan D - Staying the night at The Red Lion Hotel in Basingstoke. It being another warm night, the youth of the town were out in force in minimal attire. Affording themselves ample opportunities to show off their fashionable tattoos. And leaving me with the question - Why are so many of the young women of Basingstoke overweight? Poor diet? Little exercise? Excess booze? Inescapable genes? The Essex factor? I certainly don't know but, interestingly, my semi-Teutonic friend was of the opinion that English women were getting prettier. Well, not if you live in Spain they aren't. Which should lose me a few readers.

Another friend of mine has built up a decent net-based business over the last five years or so, starting with the truly comprehensive Galicia Guide. But now he's had the rug pulled from under his feet by a change in policy on the part of Google. In an apparent attempt to do something about the appalling plagiarism that takes place on the net, they've penalised the sites which are being plagiarised! In other words, the more attractive your site is to the crooks, the more likely it is to be removed from Google's search engine. Which is a serious miscarriage of justice. Let's hope that this gets sorted soon, for my friend's sake. Incidentally, I understand from him that you can now buy software that allows you to duplicate a popular site in its entirety and then collect the advertising revenue by substituting your name for that of the site's creator. It's a wonderful thing the net, but not always just.

I mentioned the Falklands a couple of days ago and just want to add that the original French name for the place was an echo of St Malo back in the home country. This was simply distorted by the Spanish into the Iberian-sounding Malvinas, before the Brits did away with all that Latin nonsense and named them after someone we've never heard of.

As you drive down towards London, you're assailed by notices in lights advising you to plan ahead (i. e. leave early) for the Olympic Games. The inference is that the M1 and the M25 will be chock-a-block, meaning you should set out at least two weeks before the event you've been lucky enough to get tickets for.

The Economist this week asks: What will become of the European Union? One road leads to the full break-up of the euro, with all its economic and political repercussions. The other involves an unprecedented transfer of wealth across Europe’s borders and, in return, a corresponding surrender of sovereignty. Separate or superstate: those seem to be the alternatives now. After wandering around the considerata for a while, the journal plumps for the answer that:- The nations in the euro zone must share their burdens. The logic is straightforward. The euro zone’s problem is not the debt’s size, but its fragmented structure. Taken as a whole, the stock of euro-zone public debt is 87% of GDP, compared with over 100% in America. Similarly, the banks are not too big for the continent as a whole, just for individual governments. To survive, Europe has to become more federal: the debate is how much more. So, another step on the way to the Superstate. But one, suggests the journal, which seeks to limit both the burden-sharing and the concession of sovereignty. Rather than building a federal system, it fills in two holes in the single currency’s original design. The first is financial: the euro zone needs a region-wide system of bank supervision, recapitalisation, deposit insurance and regulation. The second is fiscal: euro-zone governments will be able to manage—and reduce—their fiscal burdens only with a limited mutualisation of debt. But in both cases the answer is not to transfer everything to the EU level. The Economist's concluding peroration is:- It is a long agenda; but it is more manageable than trying to redesign Brussels from the top down, and it is less costly than a break-up. Saving the euro is desirable and it is doable. One question remains: will Germans, Austrians and the Dutch feel enough solidarity with Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese and Irish to pay up? We believe that to do so is in their own interests. The time has come for Europe’s leaders, and Mrs Merkel in particular, to make that case. If interested, you can read the details of this argument here.

Talking of Germany . . . I read a paean of praise to the nightingale yesterday and went to YouTube to get an example of this bird's glorious song. And here it is. What's this got to do with Germany? Well, the recording was made one evening in 1942, and a minute or two after it begins, the drone of bomber planes is heard, first slowly rising to a crescendo and then diminishing. Which is an ironic backcloth and one which someone more poetic than I has described as a contrast between life and death.

Friday, May 25, 2012

How petty and counter productive of Madrid to veto the attendance of Queen Sofia at Liz's grand lunch, especially as they're cousins. This is because of some piddling dispute over the attendance of William and Kate at celebrations of the jubilee in Gib. And this from a government whose first act in coming to power was to end the tripartite negotiations which had gone well for a few years. Pathetic posturing fools.

Which reminds me . . . The Falkland Islands changed hands many times before they became British in 1713. The British took them from the Spanish, who'd nicked them from the French. In the process, the name changed from Îles Malouines to Las Malvinas and then to The Falklands. Needless to say, Argentina has never owned them, despite various attempts to plant a flag.

I've mentioned Spain's vanity projects and hugely expensive under- and unused airports. Well, now comes the news that the government is to partially close at least 30 of the country's 47 state-run airports. Hard to believe but some of these are fully staffed despite not having any flights. Only in Spain? I know it's hard to sack civil servants. But impossible?

And here's news that may or may not be a joke. Spain's Eurovision entry has been ordered to 'not win'. On the grounds that Madrid couldn't afford to host next year's event. I would have thought that, given Spain's record in this competition, this instruction was utterly superfluous.

And now some very local news - A worker at a branch of the La Caixa bank in Vilagarcía de Arousa, Pontevedra, has fled after taking a million euros. The man worked in the debt collecting department, chasing late payers. Perhaps he's run off to buy an airport. Or 30 of them

Some time this summer - you don't need to know when - London's Hayward gallery will host Britain's "first exhibition of art that explores invisibility and emptiness, with around 50 [interchangeable, I guess] works by artists including Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Maurizio Cattelan." "This" insists the director, "is not a joke." Obviously not, as there'll be the piece of [blank] paper that an artist stared at for 1,000 hours over a period of five years, as well as evidence of the movie that was shot without film in the camera. Sounds like a must-see; though you won't be able to buy the tickets with invisible banknotes. Damien Hirst is not exhibiting as his blank canvases were found to have been produced by one of this factory workers. More here.
Finally . . . On Sky News yesterday, they were discussing how to stop the supermarkets diddling you with their special offers. After the four Sky folks had all had their say, the only male there introduced an expert with the comment:- " I have lady here with big tips." Which brought proceedings to a momentary halt.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

So, more can-kicking from Europe's leaders, creating yet more uncertainty and fear, not just in Europe but also around the world. Yet, in truth, what can one expect from Brussels and the EU? They're not exactly designed for crisis management. Or even bad times management:-
- An artificial union of 27 members of widely differing cultures, politics and economies.
- An artificial monetary union of 17 members, not backed by fiscal or political unions.
- An artificial democracy of 754 anonymous European MPs, all riding a gravy train.
- Not one but two un-respected Presidents whose functions no one understands.
- An artificial management 'team' of 27 national leaders, representing nations which differ hugely in cultural, political and economic perspectives.
- A total lack of solidarity between member states which makes Spain's Madrid-Barcelona spats look like love-ins.

Frankly, what else can the EU's leaders do but agree 'solutions' based on the lowest common denominator? Which the national leaders can then try to sell to their increasingly sceptical constituencies. And what else could happen other than might (Mrs M) will be proved stronger than right (everyone else).

The result is that - while there may be talk of a Grexit - laughingly dismissed as impossible only a few months ago - we don't know whether there's a contingency plan for this. Or whether, if there actually is, it will be good enough to prevent (or even mitigate) the inevitable knock-on effect on other EU economies considered weak. Including, of course, Spain's. The end result - for me, at least - is a set of word pairings:-
Cat - Mouse
Carrot - Stick
Threat - Counter-threat
France - Germany
Germany - The Rest
Playing - Chicken
Piss-up - Brewery
Gun - Head
Brinkman - Ship
No - Plan
Right-hand - Left hand.
Markets - Panic
Self-fulfilling - Prophecy
This is a game you can try yourself at home, of course. But possibly not if you have some Greeks staying with you. Could be the end of your crockery.

As happens in Galicia, the temperature here has suddenly increased from 12 degrees to 23 or more. But it's different here; the heat is just not as pleasant, as the humidity (I guess) makes things muggy. Which is bochornoso in Spanish, I believe. Which reminds me - I met the second of my intercambios yesterday evening - a young engineer learning English while looking for a job here. Just like the other one. Anyway, he's from Granada. Meaning that he has an Andaluz accent and says, for example, ma inglé instead of mas inglés. Tough times ahead.

Where I live in Galicia, on the hill overlooking Pontevedra, I'm in walking distance of nothing except the granite carvers' school. Where they don't sell Cadbury's chocolate. Here in Leeds there's a petrol station seven minutes away which has a shop stuffed with items attractive to students. Fatal. Even when I'm going to the gym I have to walk past this, trying to block my ears to the siren calls of one choccy bar or another. But I'm as impotent as Mr Wilde when it comes to temptation. So, naturally, I've stopped going to the gym.

When I was reading the book entitled Jesus the Jew, I came across the following dictum of JC, quoted in both Matthew and Luke, respectively:-
- Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
- If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
I understand these (Abrahamic?) sentiments have caused problems for Christians, which is hardly surprising. I'd be interested to know what the resolutions are.

The other thing that confused me - Jesus appears to have told his disciples to abandon their families and follow him in his work of exorcising devils and, I assume, curing the sick. And very occasionally, raising the dead. But was this paid work? If not, what the hell did they live off as they went about doing this stuff? It being a Jewish society, they may have been paid good money for successful exorcisms or medical cures but I rather doubt they were showered with charitable donations wherever they went. The Bible is silent on these issues. By the way, why don't we see as many (very lippy) devils these days? Are even they shocked by the excesses of our society and feel that their work is done? And how many priests would know how to deal with a devil, if one did come along mouthing obscenities in English? Is it something still taught in seminaries?

Finally . . . I saw this on a university web page this morning:- A best practise guide for schools. I wonder if this included spelling.

P. S. I rather liked this comment, read long after I write the post above:- At last night's great Euro-crisis dinner the leaders dealt with all the big questions: red or white? Still or sparkling? Cheese or dessert?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

I know it's just a sign of increased national wealth but I still can't get over how many (fee-paying) students have cars around here. Indeed, there's one street near my daughter's flat which says it all - during term time you couldn't get a uni-cycle between the cars which line both sides of the street; but during the vacations there's not a single car there. The other thing that amazes me is the sight of students laden with shopping bags piling into taxis outside the high street supermarket. As someone who can't stop thinking of taxis as a luxury and students as (relatively) poor, I find I can scarcely believe the evidence of my own eyes.

Talking of taxis . . . There's an awful lot of them around here. And every company seems to be Asian-owned and manned. Like all taxi drivers, they're prone to giving you their opinions. Which, coming from a different perspective, can be quite interesting. If wrong. I got an insight into the question of why so many cars on the road are taxis when I overheard an Australian saying that, in contrast to back home in Oz, the buses here are expensive, whereas the taxis are cheap. So if there's two, three or four of you, it can be a no-brainer

There are, of course, several reasons why the Spanish government can't achieve either the deficit or growth levels demanded by Brussels/Berlin. Off the top of my (non-economist) head, these include:-
- You can't just stop the vanity projects initiated during the (phoney) boom years, either centrally (e.g. the AVE to Galicia) or regionally (e.g. the vast City of Culture complex outside Santiago de Compostela).
- It's tough to get rid of the extra layers of bureaucracy that were installed when people worried even less than usual about whether the jobs were justified. There's nothing more successful at resisting retrenchment than a bureaucracy. Witness the 7% growth in the EU budget for this year.
- You can talk all you like about merging the town halls of tiny councils but it's a tad harder to achieve this in practice. It's not just salaries at stake.
- It's impossible to change the ridiculous Spanish working schedule which means that many people don't start working until 9 or even 10, then take a long lunch break and come back at 4.30 or 5 to work until 9 or even 10 at night. Everyone knows this is a low-productivity pattern but no one seems interested in - never mind committed to - changing it.
- Madrid may shout at the (17!) regional governments and even issue instructions - e.g. to lower debt levels - but it's another thing to get them to respond, even if they're from the same party. And impossible if they're not. Or if they're of a secessionist stamp, like Cataluña or Pais Vasco. And
- It's impossible to do anything about the black economy which is estimated at 20-30% of the economy and which denies tax revenue to the regional and central governments. In fact, the evidence is that it's growing, as people do everything they can to reduce outgoings.

There aren't many activities for which one can boast a hundred per cent record. But I can lay claim to one of these. Every single time I put, say, a glass of wine or a mug of coffee on the floor and say to myself "You shouldn't do that; you're bound to step on it or knock it over" I subsequently do. As I just have with a mug of coffee. Good job my daughter has a wooden floor, otherwise I'd be in serious trouble now.

Of course, if she had a carpet . .

The other thing I'm great at doing is fulfilling the threat that I will decorate myself with 'dinner medals' whenever I take a dish of, say, curry (or even porridge) into the lounge to watch the News or Family Guy on TV. I managed it with some curry today and was a bit concerned to see that, when I tried to wash yellow stains out of my shirt, they turned purple.

Some readers will know that I'm not Damien Hirst's biggest fan. So I was pleased to read two perspicacious reviews of his latest exhibition, in which art critics aimed such barbs as "The paintings are an abomination." And - "Stop now. You have become a disgrace to your generation." As if he was ever anything but an untalented conman. Click here and here to enjoy more of these truly critical opinions.

Finally . . . I noticed this afternoon that the 12 year-old schoolgirls in the supermarket were in full make-up. For some reason, the phrase 'scouse brow' leaped into my mind and, on getting home, I went on the internet to find out what it was. I should first say that scouse is the adjective for folk who live on Merseyside. Thought to be of Scandinavian origin. Anyway, here's what I found - Scouse brow is the monstrous make-up movement gripping D-lebrity land - the most terrifying beauty trend to hit the high street since the 'vajazzle'. Yes, but what exactly is it? Well, here's a beginner's guide. And here are some pix. Now you know.

Finally, finally . . . . The euro and the EU: Here's a few paragraphs from an article from an American commentator.

Some two decades ago, when Europe’s leaders worked out the details of their grand vision to connect the European Union with a single currency, virtually every economist on this side of the Atlantic — and most of those on the other — figured out that the euro would be fatally flawed. What took economists some time to understand was that Europe’s leaders didn’t much care what they thought

The single currency served an overriding political objective. Like the single market before, it was conceived primarily as glue to bind Europe more closely together, tie Germany’s prosperity to that of its neighbors and prevent a third world war from the Continent which had brought us two. A few engineering flaws wouldn’t be allowed to get in the way of such an important project.
A little over a decade since the first euro bills hit the shops in Madrid and Berlin, the euro’s design flaws have pushed much of the European Union into a deep economic pit. And political imperative is again being deployed as a major reason to stick to the common currency.
Yet for a project intended to draw Europe together, the euro did surprisingly little to build solidarity. German voters endured a recession two decades ago after bringing in their brethren from the Soviet bloc. They now appear unwilling to spend a pfennig to help the Greeks, Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish or Italians. Conceived as a tool for integration, the euro could, instead, tear Europe apart.
Europe would be in much better shape if the euro didn’t exist and each member country had its own currency.
The main problem is that while leaders eagerly embraced the monetary bond, they rejected its necessary complement: a central budget that would transfer money from successful regions to under-performing ones.
Despite its flaws, there is one powerful reason to stick to the euro that even some of the most skeptical economists accept: the prospect of breaking away from the euro is very scary. It’s difficult to forecast how such a dissolution would unfold. There is, in fact, no legal way to leave. And it would be searingly painful for many countries.
Still, the risks of unscrambling the monetary union omelette must be evaluated alongside the risks of leaving it scrambled.
For the sake of European unity, letting go of the euro may be the better option.
Says it all, really. Click here for the few paragraphs I haven't pasted above.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

I heard an interesting BBC podcast today, featuring Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard. The good professor has written a book entitled What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. In this he warns that giving free rein to markets, even if they do deliver the material goods, comes at the cost of giving up a part of our soul. "We have", he says, “drifted from having a market economy to being a market society”. Putting this another way - "The most fateful change that unfolded in the last three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the expansion of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life where they don't belong." As Sandel concludes: "The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?" The Guardian's review of the book can be found here. By the way, Prof. Sandel is not a socialist.

As if to point up the accuracy of Sandel's thesis, on the day I heard the podcast I read that people who'd been honoured with the opportunity to carry the Olympic flame a couple of hundred metres in the UK were selling on eBay the torches they'd been able to buy cheaply. In one or two cases, at prices in excess of 100,000 pounds. Why, when there are dozens of them up for grabs???

Well, I did predict that Mr Sandwich wouldn't last very long. And, sure enough, there was a closure this week. Except it wasn't Mr Sandwich but the noodle place called Wokon (almost) next door.

Another thing I enjoyed today was a podcast on Spain which included a positive assessment of the Spanish economy. From a British economist. The only real serious problem, he insisted, was the troubled and opaque banking industry, creating the risk the banks would need to be bailed out. However, he saw the ECB as capable of rising to the challenge. There was mention of corruption, nepotism and croneyism as factors which hold back the growth of the economy. But, somehow, I can't see Sr Rajoy appearing on TV to pledge that his government will stimulate meritocratic growth by cracking down on - if not totally eliminating - all three of these. There was also reference to Spain's bloated civil service, with its administrations at central, regional and provincial level, all stuffed with the PP party placemen who replaced the PSOE government's placemen after their election victories late last year. Amusingly, the British historian, Paul Preston, said that 13 of Spain's 17 Regions ('Autonomous Communities') have no historical validity. But, again, I can't see any of them disappearing, however much they've overshot their budgets and run up colossal debts.

Talking of corruption . . . The President of Bancaja resigned suddenly yesterday and was immediately replaced by someone who's been charged with fraud and corruption after running the Banco de Valencia into the ground. Only in Spain?

Just going back to commercial excess - I heard a TV ad last night which seemed determined to convince us that women are strong. As a prelude to telling us that, therefore, they sweat. Just like all those men who used to be strong but have now been quashed by the legions of Amazons that now dominate us.

Finally . . . I'd just like you to know that: We are not old; we are recycled teenagers. Don't know who coined this. But, thanks.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Note: Last night's post wasn't published until this morning. Scroll down if you missed it and want to read it.

My mother was 15 when World War II broke out in 1939 and, by the time it was over in 1945, she was married. Without, I should stress, becoming pregnant in the interim. Most of these years she spent at the large pub in Birkenhead which my grandparents ran and which I used to visit every weekend as a kid. At lunch with my mother yesterday, I asked her to refresh my memory of a poorly-recalled anecdote she'd once told me about the public phone situated behind the largest of the pub's five bars. She told me that the phone there had had a box with two buttons marked A and B. You put your money in the top of the box and called the number. When someone answered, you pressed button A and the money dropped down into the bowels of the box. If no one answered, you pressed button B and your coins were returned to a niche at the bottom of the box. Except that the American soldiers who patronised the pub didn't know the system and usually left in frustration without pressing button B, when the call didn't go through. Allowing my mother and her sister to make a small fortune by pressing it, on the off chance, every time they passed the phone. You had to put in a lot of coins to make a trans-Atlantic call. Or to try to.

Those readers familiar with this type of phone - still in use for many years after the war - may or may not know that it was possible to use it without inserting any money. The handset rested on a cradle that rose and fell as the handset was taken off and put back. If you took it off and then tapped the number you wanted on the cradle, you were connected without any of that A and B nonsense. God knows how much money the relevant government department lost because of this design weakness. Or strength, as we viewed it.

Earlier this year, a Spanish ballet dancer, Tamara Rojo, was appointed Artistic Director of English National Ballet. Today I heard of a telling comment she'd made a couple of years ago, when the Spanish government was trying to tempt her back home to set up a national company - “I’ve said the only way I would direct a company in Spain is if they set up an arts council. The government have to reassure me that this is a long-term project. If I’m going to sacrifice my dancing career, I have to know that in three years’ time some politician won’t come along and put his cousin in my place."

Which is a good lead into this article on the level of unemployment in Spain. It endorses the view several of us have had for years, viz., that "The size of the underground economy means that more Spaniards are working than it might seem, and that the official unemployment figure may be overstated by as much as five to nine percentage points."

Finally . . . I was almost saddened to hear that, after the non-Germanic performance of Bayern Munich in losing a penalty shoot-out against an English team, their disconsolate supporters making their way home in the early hours of Sunday were hit by a non-Germanic breakdown in the city's metro system. Just not their night.

Finally, finally . . . My apologies to reader Moscow, who wrote a week or so ago that "I think you and your fellow countrymen should consider some day stop living in the past and making references to Germany and the war. It is really tedious."

The question for the BBC discussion program this morning was "Is there a difference between a religion and a cult", with representatives from both in attendance. Plus an Atheist or two. Though the latter didn't get much air-time. Needless to say, the question wasn't answered and not much light was shone on anything. I wasn't too surprised to learn that all cult representatives feel there's nothing wrong with their beliefs and activities. But I was surprised to learn there's a cult/religion called Jews for Jesus. Essentially, like Christians, these folk believe that Jesus was the prophesied Jewish messiah and so are a Christian sect. Understandably, they're not too popular with old-time Jews. Overall, I didn't find the discussion as funny as I'd hoped. Though it was certainly amusing to hear the representative of the Raelian sect/religion talk about UFOs, aliens and mankind's key role in the creation of the universe. Click here for a full description of this loopy creed.

I suspect I've cited this before but never mind. I came across a book on Galicia tonight at the house of some friends. It's entitled Spanish Galicia and, as it was written back in 1922, it gives the opportunity to contrast Galicia as it is now with Galicia as it was 90 years ago. Likewise literary styles. You can read it online or download it here. The author is Aubrey Bell, by the way.

And another book on the same shelf was "Call of the Camino", which was written rather more recently and which has garnered some pretty positive reviews on Amazon. The author is Robert Mullen, who's an American living (Why?) in Scotland. Having only flicked through it tonight, I can't express an opinion myself. But it looks good.

I'm very relaxed about - indeed, I enjoy - the ability of English to either absorb words from other languages or to coin a new noun or verb from a pre-existing word. Sometimes, though, I wonder whether they deserve to stay in use. So it is with the words remode and remoding. A British politician managed to get both of these in one sentence on Saturday - We're trying to reroute, remode, retime and reduce our travel, so I'm remoding at the moment. There's a prize for the first reader to translate this sentence accurately. You can hear the politician utter these words here. At 1m.10 secs into the video.

Finally . . . I found another large pile of bird droppings on the side of my car yesterday. And this morning I saw a large snail had somehow managed to slither its way to what was clearly an attractive meal opportunity. I found this impressive, as the snail can only have got to the car's bodywork by first climbing up the tyre. Which took some working out in a brain the size of the snail's. Nonetheless, I knocked it off, back into the road. But at least I didn't tread on it. On the grounds that it might be a member of the Raelian sect.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

I visited my father in his nursing home today. In the lift(elevator) there was a sign saying “If this lift stops suddenly, press the red button and wait for assistance.” As opposed to what? Making an ice carving of the Titanic??

But anyway, Chelsea delivered another outrageous result tonight, beating Bayern Munich on penalties, after the game was drawn 1-1 after extra time. And it's not often that English teams beat German teams on penalties. Not that there were a lot of Englishmen in the Chelsea team. But that's football for you. Although unworthy, they're now European champions.

I read somewhere today that the Dutch call officious people who stick to the letter of the law 'ant-fuckers'. Which seems like a welcome addition to the English language. To me at least.

Finally . . . Here's some of the millions of words currently being written about the euro and its (non)future. From a sceptic.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

One of the events of Liverpool's one-night arts and culture festival tonight was held in the Tate North. Which afforded me the chance to see some of the modern art works on show there. And, inter alia, to learn that:- "In his constructions, Gabo sought to create a sense of defined space, without enclosing or delimiting it." Which certainly helped in my appreciation of his work.

On a lighter note, I enjoyed this entry in a book of Sparkling Wit I found beside my bed in the house of some old friends last night:-

I'm half Catholic and half-Jewish. When I go to confession, I take my lawyer with me.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Here in Knutsford (Canute's ford) there is a McLaren dealer. The only car in the place costs 198,500 pounds. I'm trying to get my head round the supposition that someone who's able and willing to spend 200,000 pounds is influenced by the fact that he or she can save 1,500 pounds. And be deprived of the ability to boast that the car cost "more than 200 grand".

Knutsford seems to have gone up in the world since I lived here as a young man.

But it was nice to pass the cottage hospital where my elder daughter, Faye, was almost born 35 years ago last November. And where I was so long in a white coat that many of the patients assumed I was a doctor.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Is there anything more wonderful on a sunny spring morning than a blackbird singing its heart out at the top of a nearby tree? Maybe a song thrush, but I think these tend to specialise in twilight warbles.

And is there anything more crazy that a group of twenty-two white-clad men playing cricket at 8.45pm of a cold spring evening, when the light has long since more than dimmed? From the sublime to the bloody ridiculous, then.

As I've said, no one really knows what's going to happen either in Greece or in the wider eurozone. There are increasing signs that a Plan B is being put together, probably not to 'save' Greece but to ensure that Portugal, Ireland, Italy and Spain don't follow in whatever its wake turns out to be. As of now, we can only wonder if there are unknown as well as known unknowables; and, if Greece really is to go its merry way, will this be in an orderly or disorderly fashion; and is the former at all possible once folk believe that Greece really is a goner and headed for the door.

Meanwhile, the inestimable Simon Jenkins gives his take on the eurozone and its travails here. To whet your appetite, here's the opening paragraphs:- A looming black cloud is hurtling forwards over the European horizon. It is called economic nemesis, driven to a fury by a quarter century of the naivety and greed of most of the continent's rulers. In Berlin and Brussels this week the high priests and wizards of euro-finance gazed at the cloud in horror, muttering imprecations: it was "unacceptable . . . unthinkable . . . unmentionable". The cloud took no notice and raced on. 
Newspaper financial pages nowadays read like satirical spoofs. No one has a clue what is happening, so analysts play with words. Would a Greek exit from the euro be a catastrophe or a calamity, or is that what happens without an exit? Is unimaginable worse than abhorrent, is contagion worse than wildfire, is apocalypse worse than Armageddon? 
Markets indulge in no such fantasies. Money talks straight. Computers are already being fed "Grexit" algorithms, and modelling a disintegrated euro. Default swaps are in place. Spanish and Italian debts are being devalued de facto through soaring yields. Politicians panic, but money merely adjusts.

And here, to warm the cockles of Alfie Mittington's heart, is his final paragraph:- The peoples of Europe are made of crooked timber. They have always fought back against hubristic rulers seeking undue authority over their affairs. While the old Common Market knew its limitations, the euro was a step too far. It required a degree of union that Europe has never tolerated, from the Holy Roman Empire through Napoleon to the Third Reich. It always ends in tears. Kipling remarked after one such conflict: "We have had no end of a lesson; it will do us no end of good." Today's lesson has yet to be learned.

On a lighter note . . . There's been a lot of scoffing in British newspapers at the sort of text messages sent by Prime Minister Cameron to the (ex)Chief Executive of News International, Rebekah Brooks. The Times today carried a spoof message reading:-


For G's sake,

F O + D



I do hope that F O + D doesn't mean the only thing I can come up with.

Interesting Historical Fact: At the 1948 Olympics - also in London - the organisers were prevailed upon to let the French and the Spanish competitors bring in wine. Something that was (like everything else) in short supply in the UK in the post War years. As the writer of one official memo put it - "Wine is part of their normal diet and in their view it rates as a foodstuff." Quite.

Finally . . . . The Wisdom of Dr Osler

The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.