Friday, September 30, 2016

Pontevedra Pensées: 30.9.16

Note: This being Friday, several items below come courtesy of Thursday's Business Over Tapas bulletin.


Security of Employment: From BoT: Following a determination in EU law, temporary contract workers are liable for compensation. El Confidencial warns that some two million erstwhile short-term workers who had lost their jobs in the last twelve months are now claiming indemnities from companies.

  • Per BoT again: EU auditors warn of "waste" in Spanish maritime ports. The European Court of Auditors estimates that €394.2 million of European funds have ended up ‘underexploited’ in infrastructure. The original story in El País here.
  • And again from BoT: Spain is the European country with the most corrupt politicians of all, says a report here. Interesting to see the UK gets a worse rating than France, Germany and Holland.


GDP Growth: Despite the absence of a government for the last 8 months, this ploughs/plows on. The number for this year is forecast to be 3.2%, better than virtually any other EU country. And up from 2.7% as recently as June. The impact of massively increased tourism? It's an ill wind . . . 


The PSOE Party: Just like Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the leader of this left-of-centre party is facing attempts by his own team to oust him. I've mentioned he might be succeeded by the Presidenta of Andalucia and wondered how she'd deal with long-standing allegations of vast corruption down there. Here's something on this.

Acting President of the PP Party: As I suggested, he's being seen now not as a stubborn Gallego but as a strategic genius who could see the PSOE ripping itself apart, after being squeezed by Podemos from the Left and the PP from the Right. Here's one Spanish political commentator on him: Rajoy’s way of playing a winning hand is to hold on and not have to play his hand. He was already the leader of a unified and hierarchical party with more parliamentary seats, but now he is also facing a party in a vitriolic rift, whose institutional renewal will be complicated and will require time, especially as we know the fragmentation of the left is here to stay. As in the UK, so here in Spain.


The Banking System: Here's another worrying article from Don Quijones, explaining how the EU – with the help of lawyers - might manufacture legality out of illegality to save not just Deutsche Bank but also the entire banking systems of Germany, France, Italy and Spain: When failure becomes the ultimate virtue, you know the game is almost over. Once Germany’s über-austere government bites the bullet and rescues its own flagship bank with public money (as it quietly did with many of its smaller banks in the wake of the first leg of the global financial crisis), all attempts to reform Europe’s deeply dysfunctional financial sector will have come to naught.

En passant, I noticed at the Post Office yesterday that the Deutsche Bank desk had gone. A search quickly confirmed that their collaboration with the Spanish government ended last March.

Nice Quote: Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt: We went on a fact-finding mission to Brussels recently. It was a failure. There are no facts.


Russia: Here's a catalogue of Moscow's disinformation on the Malaysian airline shot down over Ukraine. And there's a Times article on the need to stand up to this at the end of this post.


Localism: 60% of Galician holiday-makers stayed here in Galicia this year. Only 7% went abroad. The rest presumably went somewhere else in Spain. Though you never know, as the word extranjero(foreigner) is sometimes used here for Spaniards from outside Galicia.


Touché: In a supermarket checkout yesterday, those in my queue were advised to move to another line. The 2 women behind me got there first but, as the second one had a ton of items, I went ahead of her as she was placing them on the belt. This conversation then took place after I'd paid:-
Hombre, you should have asked my permission to go in front of me.
Mujer, firstly, you were behind me in the first queue; secondly, I only have 2 items; and 3. In other cultures it's considered polite to let the people in front of you go first at the new line. So, please don't lecture me on manners.

TBH, I'd anticipated a comment and had my response ready. Everyone else in the queue seemed amused at the exchange.


The Nazi Government: This flew high for a while in the 1930s and 40s. This fascinatingarticle shows just how high.


More examples of Finnish/British nightmares:-


The West must stand up to Putin’s lie machine

In June 2014 I flew back from Sydney to London by Malaysian Airlines. Every now and then I’d consult the moving map to see where we’d got to. When the little pixellated plane showed us to be over the Ukrainian city of Donetsk, I wondered at our flying high and untroubled while under us a civil war was going on. Less than two weeks later another Malaysian Airlines plane, flying over that almost exact spot, was blown out of the sky and nearly 300 people — children, doctors, Dutch families, random travellers — were killed.

It’s more than two years on now, and the machinery of justice has ground exceedingly slow. The interim report of the Joint Investigation Team of international prosecutors was published yesterday afternoon and concluded that the passengers and crew on MH17 died when their plane was hit by a ground-to-air missile fired from territory held by pro-Russian separatist rebels.

Actually we knew all this within a week of the disaster. Various sources, including most notably a website called Bellingcat, operated by a British blogger called Eliot Higgins, had begun the task of using maps, contemporary social media utterances by witnesses and photographs (they call this “geolocation”) to establish that a Russian BUK ground-to-air mobile launcher had driven to the area where a missile launch had been detected. Bellingcat was even able to suggest what unit the BUK had belonged to (the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade) and where in Russia it had originated. It was a remarkable job and would have been impossible in the pre-internet age.

From the very beginning the Russian authorities were determined to fight the conclusion that they were responsible, directly or indirectly, for the 298 deaths. So they contested the work that Bellingcat and others were doing, and it is that contest that holds such significance for the West today. That’s because it plays upon a weakness that exists in modern democratic societies, a problem — a crisis almost — of trust.

In the first instance the Russian authorities directly contradicted what we might call the Bellingcat version of events. A week after the shooting down they held a press conference presenting crudely manipulated satellite imagery to suggest that a Ukrainian plane was in the vicinity at the time. They altered the supposed flight path of MH17, said they had radar data that they never produced, and gave wrong information about the photographs that already existed of the BUK in Ukrainian territory.

This was only one aspect of their disinformation campaign. At the same time Russian media (almost all media outlets there are run by allies or employees of Putin) began to broadcast their own theories, or those of Russian separatists. One such was that the plane had been loaded with dead bodies in Amsterdam so that it could be shot down and create a pretext for war.

They also ran character assassination campaigns originating in the Russian media about Higgins and some of the people whose work he used. One was a former “Stasi agent”, Higgins himself was unemployed and therefore probably deficient. And so on.

If we cannot trust anybody any more, if everything is moot, then we can have no confidence in ourselves. Everything: our democracy, free press, beliefs in human rights, become relative
There were some figures in the West who needed little prompting from the Russians to conclude that all was not as it seemed. The veteran Australian journalist John Pilger (whose books I once revered) wrote that autumn that if there was disinformation, it was western. “Without a single piece of evidence,” he thundered, putting a Nelsonian eye to his telescope, “the US and its Nato allies and their media machines” blamed Russia, whereas, said Pilger, “a wealth of material from credible sources shows that . . . the airliner may well have been brought down by the Ukrainian regime.”
The “wealth of material” mostly came from Moscow originally. But just to show how something like this can stay in the mental water supply, the Daily Express ran a headline this April: “SHOCK CLAIM: Ukrainian fighter jet ‘SHOT DOWN Malaysia Airlines MH17’ say witnesses”. In fact this was a report of a BBC documentary examining conspiracy theories about MH17, which concluded that a Ukrainian jet had done no such thing. By the time the documentary went out the Express was being prayed in aid in scores of “alternative” western news sites.

We’ve known for some time that some westerners prefer Putin to our own flawed leaders. It is an area where, interestingly, the left of the Stop the War movement and the right of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen overlap. And one of the things they agree with Putin about is the contention that the “mainstream media” is corrupted in its opposition to all of them, is not to be trusted and must be fought.

In June this year the press agency Russia Today even hosted a three-day conference entitled The New Era of Journalism: Farewell to Mainstream, to which it invited 300 journalists from around the world — though not Bellingcat. Among those addressing the conference were that great friend of journalism Vladimir Putin and (by link from the Ecuadorian embassy in London) Julian Assange, who chose to attack Hillary Clinton. A British invitee was a writer called Neil Clark, who used to guest for The Guardian and who appeared on Russia Today in the wake of MH17 to decry the theory that Russia had anything to do with it. Other attendees were obviously quite unaware of what they had walked into.

Russia Today (or RT) was also recommended for its “more objective” coverage back in 2011, by one Jeremy Corbyn. Weeks after MH17 Seumas Milne, later to become his communications tsar, went on RT (“away from the mainstream media echo chamber”, said his host) to blame the West for what had happened in Ukraine. The plane disaster wasn’t mentioned. Why bring it up?
More than one observer has noticed that the use of selective web hacks, including Assange being given the Democratic National Committee emails by the Russians, add up to a system of blurring any idea of the truth. According to one view these tactics are designed not to convince of an alternative, but to disrupt. If we cannot trust anybody any more, if everything is moot, then we can have no confidence in ourselves. Everything: our democracy, free press, beliefs in human rights, become relative.

Maybe this is a strategy, and maybe it isn’t. And maybe, given our capacity for self-laceration, it doesn’t have to be. For months after the MH17 shooting down I would be told by people on social media or even on our own website that the evidence against Russia wasn’t there. Just as they said about Assad’s chemical attack a year earlier. I take some comfort from people like Bellingcat. But, in the Age of Stupidity — who needs Putin to make us dumb?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Pontevedra Pensées: 29.9.16


Cash: This is possibly still used here more than in other European countries. But things are gradually changing, if this article is to be believed.

Planning: We all know the Spanish adore having fun and put spontaneity on a pedestal, meaning that planning gets 3rd place, at best. But a friend surprised me last night with the news that football fixtures here are not known for more than 2 weeks ahead. And that in one of the Cups (the King's?), the final venue isn't decided until the last 2 teams are known. Actually, this might be very sensible.

Almodovar: Here's a few comments from a review of his contribution to cinema. I might now watch one of his films:-
  • There is a bawdiness in Almodóvar’s work that taps into an essentially Spanish approach to life, one that dates back at least to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Unlike its British equivalent, Spanish humour has never turned on a nudge or a wink; there is a frankness to everyday conversation that can be disconcerting to outsiders. Fat people often get called “fattie,” bald people, “baldie.” This is a country where you can innocently ask for a bag of “nuns’ tits” in a bakery and come away with some suggestively-shaped marzipan
  • Popular culture is awash now with gender-bending characters and so it becomes more and more difficult to find the transgression that was so easily found after 40 years of National Catholic dictatorship.
  • Spain has been rushing headlong into things, racing forward with the Pacto de olvido [the Pact of Forgetting, an agreement not to pursue political grievances related to the dictatorship], with the European Union legislation and new democratic freedoms. By contrast, he’s not afraid to take his time.
  • The church in Spain had recently taken offence at a gay pride event. The Spanish thought they had shaken off those shackles, but the atmosphere is very different now. Almodovar wouldn’t be able to make those early films now.
A Nice Story: About a truly exceptional Spaniard.


The PSOE: The leader of Spain's traditional main opposition party is in deep doodoo, following what are seen as poor results in 2 regional elections. This, of course, is the result of Podemos splitting the vote of the Left - thus, as elsewhere, entrenching the Right in power. If it weren't so serious, you'd have to laugh at the irony. With the UK being a classic example right now, it seems the Left will never learn that idealogical purity that splits the voters will never deliver electoral victory. If the PSOE's current leader is, as expected, replaced by the ambitious (and disloyal) Presidenta of the Andalucian region, it'll be interesting to see how she handles accusations of eternal rampant corruption down there. Meanwhile, the unimpressive Sr Rajoy of the right-of-centre PP party must be laughing his socks off. I wonder if he'll now withdraw his offer of a coalition with the PSOE and go all out for an absolute majority in a 3rd general election in December. You could hardly blame him. Especially as he'll be seen as a strategic genius, if he succeeds.

Meanwhile, here's an article on the allegedly corrupt ex-mayoress of Valencia who's taken Sanctuary in the Senate. She clearly takes her duties there very seriously. 


Banking:s Don Quijoñe has been warning of collapses for some months now, most recently in respect of Germany's giant Deutsche Bank. Here he is on the subject of the EU's failure to deal with the problems of weak banks:- Investors who believed in all the hype and in Draghi’s promises and in Merkel’s strength and in the willingness of all of them to do whatever it takes to protect bank bondholders and stockholders, and who believed in the miracle of Spain’s recovery, and in Italy’s new government and what not – well, they’re not amused. More worrying observations – and a fascinating chart – here. And here's another article on DB - slightly more optimistic? - in today's Daily Telegraph.

I think I'll move my account to Bankinter . . . .


The Labour Party: The besieged leader, Jeremy Corbyn, yesterday gave us his vision of the future under a Labour government. Socialism for the 21st century, he labelled it, proudly and defiantly. He's yet to tell us how exactly this differs from socialism of the 19th century.


Russia: It's hard not to be shocked/disgusted by this, even if you've been watching RT News for a while: Russia faced accusations last night that it had deployed a weapon capable of blasting a massive ball of flame across wide areas of Aleppo. The TOS-1A launcher has been dubbed the “Blazing Sun”. The 24-rocket fusillades it fires cause chemical explosions designed to suck up all the oxygen in the target zone. Western diplomats last night said they were “reasonably confident” the rocket launcher has been in action in Aleppo. TOS-1A is basically a huge flamethrower,” said one western diplomat. “It’s one step down from a nuclear weapon.”


Onion Frying: Stimulated by reader Perry's advice, for the second attempt at this for a curry, I set the timer to 10 minutes. My phone duly rang. And I duly ignored it. But this time I enjoyed eating the three-quarters-burnt offerings. A new dish?


Words: Reading an article in Prospect Magazine yesterday, I learnt 2 new words:-
  • Scrim, and
  • Shisha.
I'll leave you the fun of finding out what one or both mean(s). I've added that S for the benefit of pedantic readers . . .


More examples of Finnish/British nightmares:-

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Pontevedra Pensées: 28.9.16


Well, said it wasn't going to be a good week . . .

I arrived at the Tax Office in time for my 12.30 appointment and waited 35 minutes to see a chap who clearly hadn't used the advance notice to bone up on my case. But he did explain how they'd calculated the demand, while adding he couldn't do anything about it He recommended I write an appeal and bring it to him to take forward personally. So, a 3rd visit tomorrow, then. A mix of written and oral approaches.

I'd parked my car on the outskirts of town not far from the Tax Office. Returning from a midday tiffin, I found it wasn't there. Not stolen but taken to the pound, I discovered via a call to the company.

I walked 25 minutes under a hot sun to the location of the pound, plus another 15 because the map on their site was inadequate and so I went wrong towards the end; and because there was no sign indicating the presence of the pound either on the street or on the warehouse down a little lane leading to it. So, I had to double back to it, after deciding it couldn't be what it was, and after asking 2 not-too-sure locals where the place might be.

At the office, I was naturally asked for ID to prove I really was the person who'd called, who had the car keys and who wanted to pay the €119 to get it out of the pound. Then I drove back to where I'd parked to check on the claim there was a yellow line on the kerb that I'd missed. Need I say that, at the first roundabout, I was almost hit by a pillock in the outside lane doing a U-turn?

Back at the space, I confirmed my recollection that it was within a box of dotted white lines on the road which signify permitted spaces but, yes, there was also a very faded, patchy yellow line on the kerb which I'd missed.

I drove away trying to convince myself that, because I was normally very careful about parking, the cost of €119 euros spread over 16 years wasn't at all bad. But this was before I got home and noticed the ticket from the local police, tucked under the wiper, telling me I'd also been fined €200 for the 'grave offence' of illegal parking. I imagine the pound operator and the police have a field day at this spot every day of the year - shooting fish in a barrel. Another lucrative trap, in other words. Made all the more effective by the recent conversion of all spots nearer to town into 15-minute-only spaces. All totally legal, maybe. But ethical? Anyway, I'll be talking to legal advisers today.

All in all, the mistake by the Tax Office has cost me not just several hours of my time but also a good deal of money. And the saga isn't over yet. So, it's such a good job I'm totally inured to these little irritations of life in Spain. . . .

And it's only Wednesday morning . . .


Bulls: I think it's safe to predict bullfighting will still be part of Spanish culture in, say, 20 years time. But probably not this sort of thing, which does so much harm to the image of the Spanish outside the country. Of course, it might depend on whether there's still an EU then. Which I also doubt.

Corruption Among Bankers
Case 1Bankers and consultants took part in a multi-million loan scam and spent their ill-gotten gains on prostitutes, luxury holidays and expensive gifts, a court heard. But not in Spain! This was in the UK. See this link to the Times article.
Case 2Black credit cards. And the ex President of the IMF. This time in Spain.

Sefardi Jews: A trifle belatedly, the Spanish government is compensating for stupidly chucking them all out in 1492 by offering them quick and easy - possibly even cheap - Spanish nationality. 'Only' 2,424 are reported to have taken up the offer but I've no idea what percentage this is.


The Labour Party Conference in Liverpool: Here's the scurrilous view of the Times cartoonist on the leaders who are openly but vainly trying to bring back Socialism and state control of just about everything, to the delirium of some members of the party. But to the despair of most supporters:-


Mass Kamikazes?: Sitting in their offices alongside the AP9 autopista, members of El Tráfico were gobsmacked to see a peletón of cyclists racing past their window.  They turned out to be a group of Polish pilgrims en route to Santiago who'd taken a wrong turn at a (very confusing) large roundabout on the south of town. Fortunately, they were stopped before any of them could be mown down.


More examples of Finnish/British nightmares:-

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Pontevedra Pensées: 27.9.16


Banking: I went to my bank on Monday to make the simple transfer I hadn't been able to make on the internet. The pleasant lady couldn't explain why this had happened but gave me an envelope containing my new username and access code. Need I say that, when I opened it, I couldn't read the former.

The Tax Office: So, I went there yesterday and again went through the security check. But things had changed since my visit there 3 weeks ago. There's now a small waiting room at the side of the large room where the clerks are. Directed there by the security guard, I tackled the machine which would give me a number later than those of the 2 people already waiting. But it wouldn't. The chap at the adjacent desk, once informed what I was there for, told me I had to get an advance appointment. This was something that hadn't been necessary the last time and which hardly seemed necessary now, as the people in the waiting room were outnumbered by the clerks in the main room, who weren't actually talking to anyone. But this is Spain and logic isn't always a clincher here.

Getting the Appointment: So, I went on the net last night and, of course, immediately ran into problems. Firstly, the computer told me the service wasn't available and I should try later. Then, my ID number wasn't in their system. I wish! These problems resolved, I then ran into the usual challenge of which of my 2 names and 1 surname the computer considered my 'First Surname'. Spanish bureaucracy, after 30 years of EU membership, still has to come to terms with the fact that no other European country except Portugal operates the same naming system. But, anyway, after 6 attempts, I finally got an appointment for 12.30 today. When I anticipate further problems in processing my complaint. More anon.


Wine: Here's The Local's list of 10 things you might not know about this wonderful stuff here in Spain.

Corruption: Here's just one of the endless cavalcade of trial reports.


Sunday's Parliamentary Elections: This is a conservative region and it was to be expected that the right-of-centre PP party would again get the most votes. And it duly did, retaining all its seats on the Xunta. But the left-of-centre parties – as usual – split their (larger) total vote between the newish Podemos-based party, En Marea, and the traditional party of the Left, the PSOE. The former did rather better than the latter, meaning big problems for the national PSOE leader ahead of a strategy meeting with his regional presidents. Or 'barons' as they're called here. In fact, the Left got 53% of the vote, against 47% for the Right but it's the PP which will stay in power. All of which will give at least moral support for President Rajoy as the national parties continue to try to work out how to avoid a 3rd stab at a successful general election in December. Meanwhile, it's noteworthy that the Galician National Block got fewer votes than last time and lost one of of its handful of seats in the regional parliament. Here's the NY Times with more details, if you're interested.


Pontevedra's New Museum: As I've mentioned, John Brierley was not impressed by this newish and ugly granite and glass building and felt that he couldn't recommend a visit to it in his popular guides on the Portuguese and Spiritual caminos. For me, the irritation was that they've introduced a security check. So, now there are not 4 but 5 people sitting or standing around the lobby doing very little, as visitors are very few: 2 at the Information desk; 2 at the main desk for recording where you've come from; and now the security guard. Who had the decency to blush when I joshed him about the place now boasting security at the entrance. Ironically - as John later noted - there was nothing in the galleries to prevent us doing whatever we wanted there. Say with a sharp implement made of wood or plastic. But, as I often say, I guess this makes sense to someone.


Not a good week so far . . . 
  • I left some onions to cook slowly in advance of making a curry. And then forgot about them, as I feared I would.
  • The €2 glasses cord that rose to €5 broke after 3 days. I'll be returning to the shop today.


TV ADS: Driven to distraction by an ad for credit checks on Sky, I researched the availability of an ad blocker like the one I have on my computer. And, yes, there is one. I'll now investigate further.


Napoleon: There are some - not even French - who persist in holding him in high regard. Well, there's at least one nasty act he and Hitler had in common - stealing the Ghent altarpiece.


More examples of Finnish/British nightmares:-

Monday, September 26, 2016

Pontevedra Pensées: 26.9.16


Health: In an international survey, Spain ranks as the 7th healthiest country in the world. Alongside the UK, Australia and Canada. Given the life expectancy here – the highest in Europe – I was surprised Spain doesn't do better. But there are elements of the total package where things could be much better and which drag down the overall ranking. Some details here.

Paradors: I'm a great fan of these but I can take or leave the service you get at them. The staff are, in fact, civil servants and I long ago concluded that some of them imbue themselves with the importance of their highest status clients. Most Sunday mornings I go for a coffee and a read of the national papers on the terrace of our parador. For the last 2 weeks, my presence has been ignored by the staff setting the lunch tables. Which suits me fine, of course, as it means I can read the papers for free. Anyway, here are what The Local thinks are the Top Ten paradors. Nice to see that 2 of the top 3 are here in Galicia,


Brexit: There's an interesting article at the end of this post on the challenges ahead for Mrs May. The first paragraph is a gem. And here's an article from Giles Tremlett, a well-known Brit who's one of those affected by it. As an aside, he mentions that the UK doesn't give us a vote in key elections. Well, neither does Spain, even though we pay taxes here. In fact, we don't even get a decent ID card.


Drug Smuggling: One of our well-known narcotráfico clans is facing demands for a total of 94 years in jail from the public prosecutor. Well, we'll see.

Our Sunday Flea Market: You may recall this was moved from Veggie Square and a licence system introduced to deal with the problem of local and Romanian gypsies taking it over with household junk offered from the floor. Well, this worked well for a while and the traders now all wear badges. Or some of them do. For, as this fotos shows, the gypsies are sneaking back in. And, if things follow the Spanish norm, it will be while before the authorities take stock of the complaints and do anything about it.


Theists: As regular readers will know, I'm a lapsed-Catholic atheist, with Catholic and Jewish relatives. Over the last year or two, I've been in dialogue with a pious Catholic and an equally fervent Jehovah Witness over their beliefs. The major difference between them, of course, is that the JW believes the Bible is 100% true while the RC doesn't. Both of them regard themselves as the only true Christians. Indeed, my JW friend believes neither the RCs nor any other followers of Christ are Christians at all. Another major difference is in their approach to scientific developments that question their faith. The JW's simply regard anything that conflicts with the Bible as, well, wrong. Whereas RCs accept them and then argue that, in fact, they fit with their fundamental beliefs. Indeed, that they strengthen their beliefs. One conclusion I've reached is that the RC approach is essentially an abuse of intelligence. It starts with an un-evidenced, subjective, a priori belief and then indulges in intellectual legerdemain to accommodate everything that blatantly undermines this. Which is a lot harder to deal with than the either-you-agree-with-us-or-not approach of the JWs. With them, either you accept the truth and the moral precepts of the entire Bible or you don't. With the RCs, in contrast, there's a great deal more room for argument and disagreement. If only because of their cop-outs and their obvious self-deceptions. Anyway, I'm pleased to say that – with the dialogue now over – I remain friends with both theists. And am still an atheist. As is one of my daughters. Thank God.


The 'Cicret' Magic Bracelet: Hopefully, you won't have contributed to the crowdfunding for this. If you did, you might not enjoy this video as much as the rest of us.


More examples of Finnish/British nightmares:-


Summon the troops, Sergeant-Major May, for our EU marching orders

After the Duke of Wellington had held his first cabinet meeting as prime minister, that great soldier is said to have exclaimed: “An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.”

When she launched her campaign to become leader of the Conservative Party, a week after the vote for Brexit defenestrated David Cameron, Theresa May reminded her audience of MPs: “I grew up . . . the granddaughter of a regimental sergeant-major.” Perhaps Mrs May was trying to let them know that, Wellington-style, she expected her cabinet to be as obedient as the ranks should be to their commanding officer.

Certainly, her office has been brutally direct in slapping down two of her cabinet ministers who expressed an opinion on the likely nature of this country’s departure negotiations with the European Union. First, David Davis, the secretary of state for Brexit, was publicly rebuked by No 10 for telling the House of Commons that it was “very improbable” that the UK would remain a member of the single market.

Then, last week, it was Boris Johnson’s turn to have one of his epaulettes ripped off. The foreign secretary had told journalists that Britain would formally invoke article 50 (the element in EU treaty law that formally initiates the secession of a member state) “early next year”.

Next day, under the headline “May’s Brexit rebuke to Boris”, the front page of The Daily Telegraph — whose comment section Johnson had for decades adorned as a columnist until sadly sidetracked by his new job — informed the nation: “Downing Street sources last night made clear that all decisions on the timing of Brexit were the prime minister’s alone . . . ‘The decision to trigger article 50 is hers,’ the source said.”

Sources or source — they, he or she — are, or is, mistaken. Such decisions are not “the prime minister’s alone”. They are the decisions of the cabinet, collectively. That is how governments work in this country. The prime minister is, as the very title suggests, no more than primus inter pares; she is not an elected president. Indeed, Mrs May has not even won a general election as leader of her parliamentary party and (as it happens) backed the losing side of the referendum. By contrast, both Johnson and Davis did campaign for Brexit, which is presumably why May put them in two of the cabinet jobs most critically involved with our EU departure negotiations.

I can see why the prime minister — especially as a person who doesn’t like to make any sort of commitment until she has examined it from every imaginable angle — may have been irked by these two men sounding off with what she would regard as reprehensible spontaneity.
There can be a transitional period of post-Brexit tariff-free trade with the EU.

The trouble is that the debate about how, actually, we should depart the EU is in full flow. If the government is mute on the matter, the silence will be filled chiefly with the noise of self-interested lobbyists explaining how difficult it will be to exit the EU and that unless we at least remain a full participating member of its single market — which would involve free movement of labour and continued multibillion budgetary contributions — Britain’s economy will be reduced to a “medieval state”. (That was a comment in the Financial Times, a newspaper in such deep mourning after the Brexit vote that it swathed its pink pages in funereal black.

By contrast, those who understand how international trade works know this is really not an intractable problem. Their message needs to be relayed publicly, to reassure the British people (or at least those who believed the former chancellor George Osborne and his co-opted mates Mark Carney at the Bank of England and Christine Lagarde at the International Monetary Fund when they foolishly chorused that a Brexit vote would be economic hara-kiri).

Admittedly, Mrs May has declared: “Brexit means Brexit — and we’re going to make a success of it.” That’s a brilliant soundbite. But not an argument.

So, first, let’s deal with the City lobbyists who have been wailing (not least to the new chancellor, Philip Hammond) that the Square Mile will be sunk if we don’t remain full members of the single market, with the so-called passporting that enables a firm in London to market financial assets within the EU without needing to set up offices in each country.

Allegedly, this is essential to maintaining the capital’s pre-eminence as a financial centre. But as the former Conservative trade and industry secretary Peter Lilley — who actually negotiated the first passporting directive — observed last week: “British financial companies seem to export very successfully without passports to countries like the USA and Switzerland — our two largest markets.”

When it comes to financial services, London is a global leader, competing with New York, Tokyo and Shanghai. It is a leader because of its extraordinary concentration of expertise, honed and toughened over centuries.

That helps to explain why some large foreign financial firms have announced plans for significant expansion in London — since the Brexit vote. It also explains why half as many more financial companies “passport” into the UK than out of it: EU firms want access to the skills London provides.

This serves to illustrate a wider point about free trade. It may be very complicated to negotiate such agreements in the first place — but once they are set up, there are colossal incentives, on both sides, not to wreck them. The point is we already have free trade with the other member states of the EU — and if there were a sudden imposition of tariffs after a failed Brexit negotiation, it could be hugely costly for both sides.

Given that the UK is the single biggest engine of demand for goods produced in the EU — we import 66% more goods from the EU than we export — are the economies and banks of the eurozone so robust that they can tolerate a juddering shock? With the electorates of those nations in a febrile state, are their political leaders really prepared to act in such a way as to increase already grotesque levels of unemployment?

None of that is remotely necessary. As Alice Enders, of Enders Analysis — who spent the best part of two decades working with the World Trade Organisation — put it to me: “All of this can be done without any mess or fuss. There can be a transitional period of post-Brexit tariff-free trade between the UK and the EU until a formal free-trade arrangement is finalised — this is the wholehearted wish of EU companies reliant on supply chains involving the UK.

“There is much precedent for such an arrangement from the EU side. And this would not involve the UK continuing with unchecked migration from the EU or substantial payments into the EU budget.”

I should add that Ms Enders was absolutely not in favour of Brexit: this is dispassionate analysis, not politically motivated wishful thinking.

I can see that there is something inherently unsettling about such an undefined transitional period while negotiations for a final deal drag on for who knows how long. So perhaps the British government might need to agree on some sort of final deadline with the European Commission.
Over to you, Mrs May. The nation awaits your orders.

dominic.lawson@ sunday-times.co.uk

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Pontevedra Pensées: 25.9.16


Francoist Fascism: You might have thought this would be dead by now. Or that no one would admit to being an admirer of it. If so you'd be very wrong. As this article shows. As does the appalling monument and vast Nazi-like basilica in the Valley of the Fallen, where Franco's bones lie. Nowt as queer as folk, as they say.

Corruption: HT to Lenox of Business Over Tapas for this article on the tale of the AVE high-speed train down south.

Spain's Constitutional Fabric: This – never very soundly stitched together – is stressing and straining and may well come apart at some of the seams. Essentially, corruption and extravagances are easier to live with when times are good than when times are as bad as they now are at the micro level in Spain. For one thing, people who pay for other people's extravagances (think Cataluña and Andalucia) find it hard to stomach this situation when they're having their pips squeezed until they squeak. It's enough to make anyone a nationalist. Anyway, as the Spanish state struggles to get a government in place, Cataluña is spending €9m on preparing Catalan passports for when the region/nation secedes 'next year'. Mark my words, it will end in tears.


Here in Galicia, we're facing regional elections next week. One party which has emerged over the last couple of years is En Marea. Asking my Galician friends about this at dinner on Friday night, I discovered this was an amalgamation of Podemos, Izquierda Unida and 6 or 7 other leftish parties. Needless to say, they're falling out with each other and schism appears to be imminent. An age-old story of the Left. Meawnhile, the expectation is that the right-wing PP party will be returned to power, with an absolute majority.


Imminent Death???: As I've been predicting its collapse under the weight of its internal incongruities for more than 20 years, I was interested in this article. Though not in any self-justificatory way, I stress. It's all rather sad, if inevitable. See also the article at the end of this post.

Immigration: Hard to say the EU's strategy has been successful so far, I guess. But maybe there's time to get it right. If not the political will.


Russian Propaganda: It's hard not to be shocked by this, even after months of watching RT TV.


John Brierley: I spent a very enjoyable few hours with this chap yesterday, the writer of excellent guides on the Camino. He was passing through Pontevedra in preparation for the next edition of his guides to the Portuguese and Espiritual caminos. He was duly horrified by our ugly new museum-cum-art  gallery. But impressed by a bottle of godello white wine we shared over zamburiñas al ajillo. I was pleased to find we shared a disdain for percebes, or goose barnacles. Inter alia.


Movemento Up!: Here's the brochure for an event taking place at the moment in front of our town hall. It's in gallego - naturally - but its text contains at least 20 English words in addition to the obvious one of UP. Including stands and speed-dating. The latter seems to be something to do with companies meeting each other in this case.


More examples of Finnish/British nightmares:-


Juncker is fiddling while EU economy burns.  The Times.

Saint-Georges-de-Mons is one of those French towns you barely notice on your way to the more scenic parts of the Auvergne. There is a small church, a few bars, an unappetising restaurant and a brutalist town hall.

The only interesting thing about it is a nearby building site — not because of what is being built there (a factory to recycle aviation-grade titanium) but because of who is paying for it. For the EcoTitanium plant is one of the only visible signs of the project which was supposed to save Europe.

Last year, shortly after taking charge of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker trumpeted an unprecedented £268 billion investment programme to kick-start the EU economy. The Juncker plan made all the right noises: Europe needs more investment in infrastructure, more shared spending and more economic growth. But as with all infrastructure splurges (Philip Hammond take note) those big promises have proved difficult to deliver.

The whole point was to go beyond Europe’s existing infrastructure plans but the vast majority of the projects are small schemes that qualified mainly because they were too boring to feature in European finance ministers’ own budget speeches. So there are obscure road widening projects near Stuttgart, home insulation schemes in France and a proposal to roll out smart electricity meters in the UK.
Indeed, according to the Bruegel think tank, of the 55 projects approved by the EC, only EcoTitanium would have struggled to get funding from existing investors such as the European Investment Bank. 

In other words, the great legacy of the Juncker plan might be a factory you’ve never heard of doing a job you’ve never heard of in a town you’ve never heard of.

Still, while other cultures would see this as evidence of failure, that’s not the European way. So today, Mr Juncker will propose an extension of his scheme at the EU summit in Bratislava. It is worth dwelling on this for a moment, because the failings of the Juncker plan are a useful shorthand for the deeper economic malaise affecting Europe.

After all, on the surface, things seemed to have improved across the Channel. For a brief period before the Brexit vote, growth in the euro area exceeded that of the UK. Most economists were forecasting decent growth this year and next, thanks to the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing programme, and to the fact that Germany has pledged to spend a bit more on investment. Berlin even hinted that it might help Greece by writing off some of its debt.

But a closer look reveals the cracks. For one thing, economic growth has started to peter out. Economists now expect the euro area to grow at a slower rate than the UK this year. The same is true of the Continent’s supposed engine room, Germany, where recent surveys of industrial activity suggest the economy is flatlining.

One explanation is that for all his promises — to the IMF, to the G7 and to every other international body — that he would spend more on investment, the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has reverted to type. His obsession has always been what Germans call the “schwarze null” — getting a big “black zero” on the fiscal balance sheet. Mr Schäuble has actually gone further, posting a comfortable surplus in the first half of the year.

While a fiscal surplus would be good news for most countries, for Germany it is damaging. Weak government spending means weaker growth, not just at home but throughout the eurozone, which depends on its leading economy to lift everyone else. It also prevents the kind of rebalancing needed to allow Greece and its fellow Mediterranean economies to survive within the single currency.
Economists now expect the euro area to grow at a slower rate than the UK this year.

Already there are some worrying echoes of the euro crisis: the ECB’s so-called Target2 accounts which measure how reliant the troubled southern economies are on the north show imbalances are rising again, in Italy’s case to the highest level on record. Inflation is still barely in positive territory. Investment spending across the continent is now actually lower than when the Juncker plan was launched. In short, Europe is deeply vulnerable.

Most worryingly, this time around, Mario Draghi, the central bank president who in 2012 promised to do “whatever it takes” to safeguard the euro, seems to be running out of ammunition. The ECB’s massive programme of quantitative easing is struggling to find new eligible bonds to buy. The question of whether it will continue beyond next March was not even discussed at the bank’s policy meeting last week.

All this before one considers the two main issues under discussion at today’s summit: Brexit and the refugee crisis. Leaders arriving in Bratislava have been given a dossier by the commission showing that immigration and terrorism are now the biggest concern for EU citizens.

The optimistic take is that these two crises finally force the leaders to resolve their problems, to create a true monetary and fiscal union for the euro and an arm’s-length outer doughnut with migration controls that even tempt Britain. Moreover, while he seems deaf to economic reason and the struggling economies of the Mediterranean, the German elections next year may at last force Mr Schäuble to loosen his purse strings.

Then again, Europe’s history of doing the wrong thing and then doing it all over again suggests the road ahead might be even bumpier.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Pontvedra Pensées: 24.9.16


New Ways to See Spain: Here's something from the Daily Telegraph. Sponsored, of course, but might still be useful.

The Tax Office (again!): Drawing up my appeal, I noted that none of their letters ever has a date on it. No coincidence, I imagine. I sent the draft to my asesor, who advised me to hold off sending it and to go to the local office on Monday for a chat with someone there. He's right, of course: it's always more productive to deal face-to-face in Spain, where emails and letters are not always answered. To say the least.


School Homework: Perhaps because they've been studying the Finnish education system, parents here are said to be up in arms against the amount of work their princes and princesses have to do after hours. Click here for more on this.

A Major Irony: It was Global Car-Free Day on Thursday, aimed at showing how much more rapidly we'd move on bikes or foot. It caused huge traffic jams around this country.

A Headline You Don't See Everyday: Driver Crashed when he was drunk and with his mother's ashes in the boot. Or trunk, if you're (North). American


Bastards: There are reported to be 145,000 people driving around Galicia without insurance, raising premiums for the rest of us. Not to mention leaving us with no one to get compensation from. Been, there, done that. Albeit in the UK.

An Unsellable House?: This is an attractive place in Pontevedra's old quarter, right behind the basilica of Santa María. It's been for sale/rent since I came here 16 years ago. I could understand why no one wanted it when the old quarter was blighted by the teenage binge drinking known as the botellón but this was exiled to the other side of the river a few years ago. Can it be the price? Must check this out.

Sic Transit . . : Talking of the basilica . . .  There used to be a wonderful tapas bar beside it - O Cortello. Or The Pigsty. It was owned and run by an Andalucian with a huge personality. When he decided to sell it, he sadly discovered that most of its value lay in him and that no one was prepared to pay what he thought was a reasonable price. They were right, of course, as all the businesses 'goodwill' did reside in him. So it remained unsold and he closed it. Now it's going, as they say, to rack and ruin. Here's a current foto or two. Very sad:-


A Bit of Trumpet Blowing: Going through some correspondence with my elder daughter during her first year at university, I came across this poem I'd composed while walking our 2 border collies. It's pretty good, if I do say so myself:-
In the library at school lurked a predatory fool, who bullied us kids something horrid.
But he fell foul of a prank while stealing a plank supporting ten volumes of Ovid.
Five fell on his head and, while he lay spread, five gave him a rupture splenetic.
And, after he died, the librarian sighed: "Well at least it was justice poetic".


You Have to Laugh: There are witches where you least expect them, it seems.

Another Daft Corporate Puff: E-On. We're on it.


More examples of Finnish/British nightmares:


The value of walking . . . 

Step on it: how walking keeps you younger for longer

It almost sounds too easy: the simple act of walking will make you healthier and add years to your life. Yet a wealth of new research is now saying just this. That the single most important thing you can do to improve your longevity is to move more — and the best way to do that is to walk.

One study, published last month, found that even just half an hour a day of moderate-paced walking can cut the risk of a fatal heart attack by half. Another six-year study, concluded earlier this year, found that walking is just as good as running for reducing high blood pressure and cholesterol and for fighting heart disease. Some experts say it is even better. Research is also showing how walking can help to protect against type 2 diabetes, arthritis, depression, memory loss and even Alzheimer’s. It’s also the best way to combat the negative effects found to be emerging from our increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

In the most recent study, presented to the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) Congress, Finnish researchers reported that people aged between 65 and 74 who walked for four hours a week cut their risk of dying from a heart condition by 54 per cent.

Riitta Antikainen, professor of geriatrics at the University of Oulu, who led the 12-year study, said that walking is “protective even if you have other risk factors for cardiovascular disease such as high cholesterol”. The second study was conducted by researchers at the University of California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. They analysed 33,060 runners in the National Runners’ Health Study and 15,045 walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study. They found that brisk walking and running resulted in similar reductions in risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and possibly coronary heart disease. The more people walked or ran each week during the six-year study, the greater the benefits to their cardiovascular system. Overall, for the same amount of energy used, walkers experienced greater health benefits than runners. Last year, another study showed that people who walked a lot had lower BMIs and smaller waists than those who took part in more vigorous activities such as jogging.

Type 2 diabetes affects 2.7 million people in the UK. The risk of this can be slashed by up to 30 per cent by walking for only 30 minutes daily, according to data from the Harvard Nurses’ Health Study. And there is a reason why many of us instinctively feel the need to take a stroll or walk the dog after a large meal. A trial on a group of older people at George Washington University found that the act of walking after eating (when blood sugar levels can rise significantly) helped to control blood glucose levels for a full 24 hours. Poor blood sugar control is a key risk factor for diabetes in the long term.

Other recently published papers have shown how walking can offset many of the negative side-effects of ageing. Researchers at Boston University found that walking 6,000 steps, or three miles, a day could improve knee arthritis by helping to build muscle strength and flexibility, and also reduce arthritic pain. The paper’s author also found that even those who walked very little could improve their health by making a bit more effort to get out of the house. For someone with knee arthritis, who walks very little, walking only 3,000 steps a day, or 1.5 miles, can lead to improvements, says Daniel White, a research assistant professor in the department of physical therapy and athletic training. “The more walking one does, the less risk of developing functioning difficulties.”

While walking has always had healthy benefits, adding a stroll to our daily routine is more important than ever. As our life-styles become ever more sedentary, research is increasingly showing how bad this is for our longevity. Some scientists are now saying that the modern culture of sitting at a desk all day is as detrimental to health as smoking and drinking excessively. In a study by the University of Cambridge this year, scientists found that workers who barely moved from their desks for eight hours were 60 per cent more likely to die prematurely.

Walking is emerging as a potent weapon. “It’s the best form of defence we have against the onslaught of sedentarism,” says Greg Whyte, professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University. “ Recent data has shown how substituting one hour of sitting with one hour of walking results in a 13 per cent drop in all-cause mortality. You live longer, in other words.”

Indeed, only 25 minutes of brisk walking a day could add up to seven years to your life, experts claimed in research presented at the European Society of Cardiology congress last year. Sanjay Sharma, the professor of inherited cardiac diseases in sports cardiology at St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said it could halve the risk of heart attack death among those in their fifties and sixties. “When you exercise moderately, you reduce your risk of dying from a heart attack when you’re in your fifties and sixties by 50 per cent.”

So what is it about walking that makes it so effective? Certainly, it helps to shred fat by burning calories at an average rate of 88 per mile at a moderate pace (more if you move faster). It helps to strengthen muscles in the legs, buttocks and core. As you walk, the force of each stride stresses bones in a positive way so that bone cells respond by creating more tissue and strengthening the skeleton. Also it is obviously something our bodies are designed to do.

Stephen Zwolinsky, a researcher in the Centre for Active Lifestyles at Leeds Beckett University, says. “Anthropologically, humans are designed to solve problems while walking for up to 14 hours per day,” Zwolinsky says. “Yet many people spend almost that amount of time sitting instead. And this seems to be a growing issue as we age.”

Surveys by the Department for Transport show the average person now walks 181 miles a year — less than half a mile a day and a drop of 63 miles since 1986.

It is not just our bodies that respond with remarkable effect. A regular walk three times a week has been shown to increase the size of brain regions linked to planning and memory over the course of a year. Thus it helps to slow the brain shrinkage and weakening mental skills that occur as we age. Neurologists at the University of Miami recently suggested that people who don’t walk or do some form of light exercise experience a cognitive decline equivalent to ten more years of ageing compared with those who are active. Others have shown how walking for at least six miles a week may protect brain size and, in turn, preserve memory in old age.

The speed at which people can walk in old age has been shown to be a determining factor in detecting Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers at the University Hospital Toulouse found an association between the slow walking speed of elderly people and a build-up of plaque associated with the disease in several areas of the brain. Those who walked at an average pace (3.48 feet per second) or faster were less likely to have the disease hallmark. “The mental benefits of walking are phenomenal,” says Whyte. “There is so much proof that walking outdoors improves mood and helps alleviate mild depression by helping to balance brain chemicals.”

So if we want to increase the amount of walking we do, where should we start? Recently, 10,000 daily steps have been widely touted as the goal to aim for, but Whyte says it is better to work to individual goals. Indeed, a new study showed how fitness trackers can distract users from their weight loss goals as they become overly dependent on the devices. The key, say experts, is to set your own limits. Walking 10,000 steps — or about five miles — is too much of a leap if you do nothing at present, so build up gradually. The idea of a 10,000-steps tally first became popular in the 1970s and is not based on any scientific evidence. It’s almost certainly not enough for most people.
“If it’s your main activity, you need to be doing a few more steps or miles each week,” Whyte says. Findings from a study involving 3,127 adult volunteers and 14 researchers from the US, Canada, Sweden and France, suggested 11,000-12,000 was a more appropriate target for most people.

Turn your walk into a workout

Add in short busrst of speed

Try adding 30-second or one-minute bursts of fast walking. “You will naturally get faster as you get aerobically fitter,” says Greg Whyte, professor of applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University. That, in itself, can pay dividends because your body will move more efficiently, enabling you to keep going for longer without getting out of breath.

Take on some hills

Adding hills to the walking equation will take the intensity up several notches. Calorie-burn can increase by as much as 60 per cent compared with walking on flat ground and it is likely you will burn at least 140 calories per undulating mile. What’s more, hills provide resistance and will strengthen muscles everywhere, particularly in the buttocks and legs.

Make your walk longer or harder each time

Build up to 5 miles (around 90 minutes or 10,000 steps) of moderate walking and then progress from there. The longer you keep it up and the more you do, the more pronounced the health benefits of walking. “This is key,” says Whyte. “You need incremental increases in time, distance or intensity so that it makes you work harder over time. You want to avoid hitting a fitness plateau. Mix up your walking, adding more variety to challenge yourself. The harder you walk, the less distance or number of steps you need to take to reap the benefits of walking.”

‘It’s most liberating to the spirit’: Matthew Parris. 

I’ve been walking since the age of four, when I ran away from home and got as far as the eucalyptus trees by the main road out of Nicosia before being apprehended in my break for freedom. Funny, really, that what’s undoubtedly the most pedestrian form of locomotion also feels the most liberating to the spirit. In my dreams of escape I am forever walking, unhurried, towards a distant, flat horizon.

And what can come closer to that dream than walking in a desert? There’s something pure about desert walking: one foot in front of the other, stripped of distraction, the art of walking reduced to the barest of its essentials.

You rarely climb, you don’t scramble, you don’t march, you never stumble and you never, never run. There’s no watching your step, searching for a foothold, worrying about balance or wondering how to get through. Poles or sticks would only be an encumbrance, and legs do what legs do while the mind can decouple, float free, scan the skyline. A to B is almost always a straight line, and you can usually see B from A before you start. Distances can be estimated at a glance. Rhythm — that most subtle of pleasures and the wings to any hiker’s heels — comes easy.

And the thing about walking in hot, dry deserts is that it needn’t be all that hot, you needn’t be thirsty, it won’t rain, and when you want to sleep you only need a pillow. In short, walking the desert is just walking.

My Saharan walks with Arab guides have been four or five-day journeys that typically involved only about ten miles a day walking and sublime stops for meals, snacks, lemonade and water.

Nothing can beat it. I love the English fells, the Derbyshire Dales, the open slopes of the Pyrenees, and in places such as these I intend to keep walking until, at 70, God willing, I get new knees.
But the desert is my favourite. For, as desert travellers will endlessly tell you, the desert is many deserts, and only rarely a flat, monotonous waste. The big picture is flat, but within the big picture you pass countless small pictures, many landscapes in a single day — hills, rock gorges, oases, rolling gravel plains, and intense little sand deserts too. Your surroundings change constantly.
The walking itself is surprisingly gentle. There are no great slogs, no unforgiving mountain slopes, and if you do tire — although few of my companions ever have — there’s usually a camel or two following the group that (with complaining snorts, and farting alarmingly) carry you swaying across the sand until you conclude that it’s actually more pleasant to walk.

Serious walkers know to pace themselves; never to get breathless or hurry in the heat; to try to break into a sweat as infrequently as possible; to cover your skin — no bare heads, legs or arms — in loose-fitting, light cotton; and to see your environment not as a fearful, hellish threat, but as a beautiful and fragile place, to be respected and worked with, not against.

Climbing in Scotland and Spain, hill-walking in England, even walking the country roads of Derbyshire, I have so many memories of biting off more than I could chew, of getting exhausted, horribly overheated, or uncomfortably chilly; memories of racing pulse, panting for breath, sweating, shivering and forever putting layers on and taking layers off.

Desert walking — partly because you know from the start that you’re taking on something much bigger than you, from which rescue would not be straightforward, and you must keep well within your capabilities at all times — turns into a gentler and more level experience. I’ve had days in the Sahara when my pulse rarely quickened.

And the nights! Our Saharan guides would try to arrange that there was sand where we slept. Scoop out a little depression for your hip, lay out a blanket, put down your pillow — and that’s it. The feeling of being completely exposed is at first strange, even uncomfortable, horribly exposed; but by the time your trip is over and you return home, it will be your first night enclosed in a bedroom that feels all wrong. Now you are trapped again. But you can dream: dream of a bed that’s only a blanket, from which you rise and walk across a landscape without walls, to a distant horizon. That’s the meaning of a walk in the desert.

‘I walk 12 miles a day, I’m hooked’: Polly Vernon. 

I started walking — serious walking — 17 years ago. One morning, the bus I relied on to take me to work didn’t come. Exasperated, I started walking the bus route, assuming my arrival at one or other of the later stops would coincide with the arrival of the bus. It didn’t. So I walked on, and on, and finally arrived at my office on foot — a little blistery, a little sweaty, but triumphant, and only half an hour later than I would have been had my bus arrived when it was supposed to.

So the next day I walked the bus route again. And the day after. And the day after that. Within a fortnight I was hooked. There was such a complete ease to walking, something so liberating about opting out of the push, stress and crush of the London transport system. More than anything else, there was something so incredibly sensible, so natural about it, that I couldn’t have stopped walking had I wanted to. Which I didn’t. When, a couple of weeks after that, I began to register fully the impact walking was having on my body — how it was toning my thighs, lifting my bum, flattening my stomach — well, I started walking home too.

Now, 17 years into my walking habit, 17 years of averaging 12.5 miles — about 25,000 steps — a day, I would describe myself as a raving walking addict.

Walking is central to my wellbeing. It is the thing I factor into my daily schedule with as much dedication as I do sleep and food. On the incredibly rare occasions I really can’t walk — because I have to catch an early flight somewhere, say — I will be in a foul mood as a consequence.
What does walking do for me? It keeps me thin. People who walk are more likely to lose weight, and maintain weight loss, than those who do any other forms of exercise; it is easier to sustain; it has infinitely more purpose than any machine you’re likely to find in a gym.

That’s all pretty obvious. Perhaps less obvious are the mental health benefits of walking. Walking is meditative, it is endorphin-releasing. It reconnects you with the physical world you inhabit, it shows you stuff you’d otherwise miss: skies, the tiling on the front of pubs, errant puppies. For all these reasons, walking calms me absolutely. I can start a walk in any sort of mood — anxious, angry, hungover, heartbroken, overburdened, grieving, hyped and giddy — and within 20 minutes of one foot hitting the pavement, of then weaving through traffic and cutting through parks — I will be OK. I will be calm. I will even be approaching contentment.

When you walk, you inject an hour or two of guaranteed, uninterrupted sanity into your day. All you need is sturdy trainers, a sturdy umbrella and an extra half-hour or so, time stolen back from aimless internet trawling.