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."


moscow said...


With a european championship coming up I assume the wave of rethorical outbursts will only intensify.

Some people are suggesting that the "battle for the euro" is nothing more than a struggle behind the scenes for economic power between two competing forces: the anglo-sphere and the teutonic juggernaut. On the one side the high-stakes gangsterism of the spivs in the City, on the other side Germany's hard-toiling industry. Or as others would put it: between the freedom and the transparency of the markets and a close-knit fraternity of colbertian protection-seeking craft-makers.

I had already read the comments by Ms Rojo a while ago. I couldn't agree more with her. I have a scientist friend whose permanent exile from Spain is to a large extent due to similar reasoning.

Spain is in my view one of the best countries to live in but it will be only really be great when micro-biologists, ballet dancers, cellists and astrophysicists feel they are not missing out on something by staying in the country. Huge changes in society will have to take place for that to become true. It will require decades, generations, (hopely not) hundreds of years? If Spain falls out of the Euro it will take even longer.

Ferrolano said...

Colin, it wasn’t only your mother and your aunt who would make money from the phone box, it was us kids as well. I remember as a child growing up in the 1950s, when a local phone call was four pence and the same “A” to pay and “B” to return public phone boxes were in use. Every time we passed one of the famous red telephone booths, we would always go in and press button “B”, just in case. We never collected very much as there were too many of us trying the same scam.

Justin Roberts said...

Those A/B style phones were still going strong in Zimbabwe in the 1990s! I wish we'd known about the design fault/strength!

Colin said...

@Ferrolano. Yes, I didn't want to admit that . .

@Justin. LMAO!

Azra said...

I'm fascinated by people who lived through wars, I always wonder what life was like during those times. If only I could have a lengthy chat with your mom...

Eugenia said...

Colin - I think people are trying this A/B thing nightly, with the parking ticket machine outside my house! It must be hard wired in since WW2.

And if simple button pushing doesn't yield anything, it's kicked repeatedly, a bit like John Cleese thrashing that poor car...


Colin said...

@ Eugenia. LOL. Tho' I don't suppose you are.

@ Azra. I'm sure my mother would be only too pleased to chat. And my father (who was in the RAF) but the problem is he's not too easy to understand after his stroke.

Colin said...


Dunno about the titanic struggle. Seems like conspiracy thinking to me.

Yes, the two young Spaniards I'm talking to here are both highly educated men (both engineers) who've quit Spain.

Agree with you re the QoL and the time it will take Spain to root out its besetting problems. Publicly admitting to them would be a good start.

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