Sunday, April 02, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 2.4.17

Needless to say, someone has to pay for the bribes which Madrid is now throwing at Cataluña, to reduce the chances of a referendum there on independence. The latest state budgets indicate one of these funders will be the rather poorer region of Galicia. And guess which project is now at risk - the AVE high-speed train. Already about 15 years late. In so far as state projects are ever 'late' in Spain.

The historian Ian Gibson on Spain. See Supplement 1 at the end of this post, in an interview with El País.

The Future of Spain: A VP of the EU Commission has told the Spanish that the departure of the UK gives their country 'a golden opportunity to become the leader of the EU'. I doubt there's more than a handful of people even here in Spain who would find this remotely credible. The Spanish are more aware than you and I are that their country is awash in commercial and political corruption, is polarised between Left and Right, has an economy with huge structural faults and is beset by high debt and low productivity. What on earth does it say that a leading EU politician regards Spain as a model for anywhere other than Greece?

Which reminds me of a thought I had last week . . . Did the EU founders really think that poor, low-ethics, low-productivity, high-corruption societies would be miraculously transformed into, say, Scandinavian-like societies simply by virtue of letting them become EU members and hosing cash at them? Or that, failing that, taxpayers in German, Holland, Scandinavia, etc. would go on supplying this cash regardless and in perpetuity? I guess we have to conclude they did. After all, they are the same people who introduced the euro, despite all the warnings from economists.

The major complaint some of us have about said EU is its democratic deficiency. There's an article at the end of this post on this theme. Some readers might enjoy it. Others won't.

A Pilgrim in Spain: Supplement 2 to this post is my final - not very flattering - comment on this book. Again, some readers will enjoy it but others won't.

Finally . . . Last night I sat through a PBS documentary on German death camps. It showed appalling fotos I'd never seen before, endorsing my belief that everyone in the world should be made to watch a program like this every 2-3 years. For those with a strong subject, it can be found here.


Eurocrats are ashamed of their history – so they cannot forgive Britain for being proud of its own Janet Daley, Telegraph

Even adamant Leavers must have been affected by Donald Tusk’s obviously genuine emotion when he accepted that letter announcing in final but emollient terms that we were off. “We miss you already,” he said. It was a great line – and all the more moving because it seemed unrehearsed.

The thought may have struck you that had there been more talk like that, all this might have ended differently. Just imagine if during the referendum debate there had been an unstinting flow of admiration and affection from Brussels and Strasbourg. What if, instead of a barrage of bloodcurdling threats and obnoxious bravado (those strangely contradictory warnings that we would be punished for this even though by leaving we would only be damaging ourselves) there had been a chorus of regard and regret?

Could none of those belligerent official spokesmen have managed a speech that would have been easy enough to write? “The British have the longest tradition of unbroken democracy in Europe. We have the greatest respect for the integrity of your institutions and your historic understanding of the relationship between government and people. Your experience and your knowledge are vital to us in the great task of evolving a successful confederation of modern countries.” Etc, etc.

Just think: what if they had all been reiterating that theme, instead of veering between vindictiveness and insulting our electorate’s intelligence? Might that, even if you had been pretty squarely in the Leave camp, have given you pause?

Not that such words, had they been uttered, would have affected any of the real contingencies of our membership. They could have been seen as cynical tosh designed to suit a short-term diplomatic purpose. But the point is that nobody – or hardly anybody – ever thought of offering them. This was not a coincidence.

Britain’s reluctance to accept supra-national authority and its insistence on maintaining its own unique adversarial (rather than consensual) political culture is not admired in Europe. Its pride in the longevity of its particular democratic institutions is regarded as arrogant and reactionary. It has always been the bloody-minded, uncongenial member of the family. The unmentionable subtext is that so many of our EU partners have democratic histories which are, to put it bluntly, patchy. Which brings us back to Mr Tusk who, being Polish, might well feel a rather special bond with Britain.

There has been a good deal of attention paid to his personal memory of growing up under Soviet domination and his particular reverence for the EU, which is often credited with guaranteeing security and freedom to Eastern Europe after the Cold War. This is not true, of course. It was the collapse of Soviet communism that accomplished that. The EU with its unlimited right to travel in Western Europe may seem like heaven on earth to Eastern Europeans, but it was not responsible for liberating them. Nor would it, on past form, be much use if they were (as indeed they are) under imminent threat from a newly resurgent Russia.

But Poland has other reasons to hold the British in special regard: this country did, after all, declare war in response to its invasion – by Germany. Now I do realise that it is tactless to bring this up. Germany is now one of the least bellicose countries in the world and its determination to avoid anything resembling domination of its neighbours, while not always one hundred per cent successful, is genuine and admirable.

But that very determination – that diffidence about its own dominant position – is a product of its history. Germany knows that its own competence and national character raise suspicions and resentments that hark back to its 20th-century experience. (It was striking how quickly such resentment sprang to life in Greece when the austerity policies dictated by Germany were imposed.) So Germany has atoned and rebuilt its institutions in ways that are designed to guard against any relapse, even if the realities of the eurozone present a constant danger.

If Britain is self-regarding, or “arrogant” as Brussels would have it, that is because its 20th-century experience was the opposite. It is not triumphalist or jingoistic to point this out. It is a necessary condition for understanding why the British are justifiably proud of their national sovereignty and have good reason to fight for its preservation – in a way that many other European populations do not. The history of a people is central to its idea of itself.

The bullying and the threats – when flattery and appreciation might have been more helpful – were not simply a mistake of judgment. This was no accidental lapse of tactical wisdom. The EU commissioners who competed to give the most uncompromising, intimidating ultimatums – just like the absurd Project Fear concocted in the same spirit by British politicians – were of the essence. The European project is about obliterating the shameful past – which is what they mean by “preserving the peace”. This requires compulsion and conformity to rules devised by an establishment that is out of the reach of the people, who have an alarming tendency to go off the rails. Whereas the British stayed firmly on the rails during the last century, a fact for which they are unlikely to be forgiven.

The fond bereavement which was embodied in that Tusk moment survived for about five minutes. Then it was back to business as usual with predictable relentlessness: threats, ultimatums, a refusal to consider the British request for “parallel” negotiations over post-Brexit trade until certain levels of progress (to be determined by them) had been made on withdrawal, the latest round of nonsense over Gibraltar and even a warning not to cut taxes and regulations after we leave.

Confusingly but unsurprisingly, there are contradictions in the messages: on the one hand, we are threatening the stability of the entire global economy, but on the other British withdrawal, according to Giscard d’Estaing, was “not a worry” for the eurozone since the UK would be the “main losers”.

In the frenzy of accusation that followed, there was a particularly arresting comment from the European Parliament’s chief negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, warning the UK not to “go behind our backs” and try to deal with member states individually. This is tantamount to saying that the elected national governments are – and should be – powerless to make deals of their own, even if they believe that such arrangements would benefit their own electorates. Does the idea of democratic accountability come in to this at all? If an elected government has no power to deliver what would be advantageous to its own people, what is the point of it?

I can’t recall a more explicit statement of the principle that the EU has eliminated the function of national governments and undermined their relationship with their own populations. Mr Verhofstadt compounded this by denying that the warning was any sort of “revenge” or “punishment” for the UK. It was, he said, just “the logic of the European Union”. You can say that again.

The premise with which this column began was a ruse. The EU officials and all those assorted blowhards in the more excitable European capitals who are busy hurling threats could not really have behaved otherwise. It was not within their remit to offer a gracious plea to the UK to remain within what they call their “club” but which is actually more like a coercive cult. The EU has demonstrated once again in the past week that it is inherently authoritarian, rigidly conformist and deliberately undemocratic. It is, in other words, the opposite of Britain. There can be little doubt now that we are better off out.


Ian Gibson: “I am deeply pained that Spain is not at peace with itself”

He arrived in Spain at age 18, nearly 60 years ago. He has held Spanish citizenship since 1984, is probably the closest thing to a genuine Madrid native in the neighborhood where he lives, Lavapiés, and he claims that he can make a “pretty decent” Spanish omelette – a tortilla de patatas. But Ian Gibson, a renowned historian and scholar of all things Spanish, says that he has not lost the emotional distance he needs to keep between himself and his subject matter.

“I am a Dubliner,” he tells El País in an interview in Spanish. “I am not part of the crowd here, although I do feel at home.”

The hispanist is presenting a new book, Aventuras ibéricas (or, Iberian Adventures), a 412-page journey across six decades of expertise spanning a wealth of places that he has seen, characters he has met and books he has read.

In the beginning, even before falling in love with history and with the work of the “most famous missing person in the world,” a reference to the poet and playwright Federico García-Lorca, there were the birds. He confesses as much in his book.

“Birdwatching was my passion, especially wild geese. I was fascinated by them. When I learned from a well-known naturalist, Michael Rowan, that nearly 100,000 of them spend the winter in Coto de Doñana [in the Doñana National Park], I could scarcely believe it,” he recalls.

The chance to observe the geese made Gibson choose Spain over Italy. At that point, he explains, “I didn’t know anything about the Civil War, or about the dictatorship, or about censorship; I was a stray Irish sheep.”

The thing that struck him most on his first visit to the country where he has ultimately spent most of his life was “the fear.”

It was a uniformed Spain that he was seeing. Widows dressed in black. Gibson rented out a room in the home of one widow who never dared tell him what had happened to her husband. And there were “men in gray” who ran after other people – the Armed Police Corps, put in place by the Francoist state to quell opposition to the regime. “They were very tall and strong. Before seeing los grises, I had never been afraid of the police,” he recalls.

At age 26, he settled down in Spain permanently with his family and with the determination to write a dissertation on the popular roots of Lorca’s literary oeuvre. The research work became “a detective-like investigation into his murder.”

In his book, Gibson reveals that he committed “small crimes” to obtain information. “I stole a few documents, nothing important. I wanted to steal another one but didn’t dare in the end, and I also made myself some phony business cards.”

While following the writer’s trail, Gibson walked into a military command center and introduced himself as Michel Groyane, “a professor of botany at Grenoble University.” His goal: to get his hands on maps of Viznar, the area in Granada province where Lorca was shot. His body has yet to be found.

Q. Of all the native Spaniards whom you have interviewed in the last 60 years, which one impressed you the most? Who has helped you the most to understand this country?
A. My encounter with Salvador Dalí was fascinating. He received me in a white silk outfit and a red Catalan cap. He had Parkinson’s disease and there were tubes coming out of all the holes in his face. He spoke to me in a mixture of Catalan and French about his relationship with Federico [García Lorca]… It was one of the climaxes of my life. Also [Communist leader] Santiago Carrillo, and [Catholic right-wing politician] Gil-Robles…

Q. Your book mentions some of your own predecessors, such as Richard Ford, the British author of a book that you consider “the best guide to Spain.” Ford stated that the main problem affecting Spaniards was that, with a few exceptions, they had been ruled by corrupt leaders for centuries. This was written in 1845. What would you say is Spaniards’ main problem today?
A. Spain has lots of problems. One of them is its identity problem. It does not promote that wonderful blend of races, cultures, languages… why are children not taught a few rudimentary lessons in Arabic? And people complain that leaders get rich and then walk away. They think that if you have a post, you have to make the most of it, as Ford used to say. There are constants like that which keep repeating themselves. During the Second Republic things began to flourish, but the left was divided and the right was united. We want a solid democracy, but everything is too provisional. Now, [Spanish PM Mariano] Rajoy has the sword of new elections hanging over his head, while the Socialist Party does not know who its leader is going to be, whether it will be Susana Díaz or Pedro Sánchez…

These events are reminding me of the Second Republic, with Largo Caballero and Indalecio Prieto. If they’d let Prieto be the head of government in 1936, I don’t think events would have unfolded the same way, because he would not have sent Franco to the Canary Islands, he would have kept him close at hand to better control him. But Largo Caballero’s people didn’t let him.

In any case, this book is a call for common sense. Spain has all the necessary ingredients to be a great nation if it can solve its pending problems, if it stops doing and undoing, as [19th-century writer and politician] Larra used to say. If there is a true territorial chamber where all languages are used. It is important for other Spaniards to know a little Catalan. I dream of the Iberian Federal Republic.

Q. Does Spain cause you pain?
A. Yes. Of course I have cried over Spain. I am saddened to see its unfulfilled potential, and I am deeply pained that this country is not at peace with itself; the topic of war makes me feel anger and pain.

Q. The US journalist David Rieff has just published In Praise of Forgetting, a book that rejects the notion that keeping historical memory alive is a moral duty. Should Spain forget?
A. What do you gain by forgetting? You can forget when you know the whole truth. It can be faced because a long time has passed since 1936. The Civil War should be a study subject at all schools, and the dead should be dug out of the roadsides. This country’s right needs to admit that there was a holocaust here, instead of opposing exhumations. The Popular Party (PP) has acted in a vile way on this issue. [The Nationalists and their descendants] exhumed their own [victims], and denying others a dignified burial falls within the realm of sin. Lorca is a symbol for all that. Some people have said that I want my picture taken next to his skull, but the truth is that I could not bear to gaze at his remains, I would have a heart attack. What I want to know is where he is and what they did to him. And I will want to know this until the day I die.

Q. What is your favorite spot out of all the places you have visited on your extensive travels through Spain?
A. There are two. One is Granada, and the other is Cabo de Creus in [the Catalan area of] L’Empordà, the epicenter of Dalí’s world, where I spent many intensely happy hours of research. Those are Lorca and Dalí territories in their full diversity. There, I feel like a fish in water.

Q. And where will you never return?
A. To the Valley of the Fallen. It is the most sinister place I know. I have never visited something so gloomy. It was terrible seeing what was probably the biggest Spanish murderer of all time lying under that oversized cross. I am not setting foot there again until they take out Franco, the only cold Spaniard who ever existed, the one who signed death sentences while he sipped on a cup of coffee.


A Pilgrim in Spain: Christopher Howse

Although an ex-Catholic atheist, I have an abiding interest in religious buildings, primarily for the magnificent - but very human - craftsmanship they contain. I might even have visited more Spanish churches and cathedrals than Mr Howse has. But I ultimately found his book A Pilgrim in Spain to be too much of a bad thingIf only because he comes across as a believer in all the tosh talked about Spain's myriad saints and their multitudinous, supposed-miracle-performing relics. But also because the amount of detail can only be of interest to a minute number of highly religious people. Clones of Howse, in other words. How he got it published is beyond me. If it sold more than 100 copies, I'd be astonished. Even after the positive reviews in the UK national newspaper for which he writes. Correction – I'd be astonished if more than 10 people actually read it through to the end.

The most interesting thing about the book is that my copy, bought cheaply as 'used', was in pristine condition. In other words, there was no evidence any previous reader had opened it. Having struggled through to the very end of it – speed-reading and text-leaping to the max – I can't say I found this surprising. For I'd long concluded it was close to being the most boring book I'd ever forced myself to finish. Or perhaps even start.

Here are comments I agree with. Tellingly, 90% of these come in The Introduction. The book rockets downhill after this:-
  • Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
  • In the past generation, the unseen ties holding its complex culture together have been dissolving.
  • Spain is less anomalous, and a little[?] more like modern Europe. We have seen the last days of what was.
  • Spain is the strangest place with which Westerners can identify.
  • Spain is a living museum, with breathtaking churches, altar pieces, paintings and sculptures.
  • Every journey through Spain is[can be] a pilgrimage.
  • The best way of travelling through the country is by train. [If there is one].
  • Spain is not a country where invitations to homes are readily given.
  • Spain is still only beginning to adjust to the disappearance of a shared culture in which the ordinary word for a human was cristiano.
  • The Spanish use of por favor [please] is more a mark of exasperation than routine politeness.
  • The tranquillity offered by a hotel is a rare quality in a country that rejoices in noise.
And here's where I disagree:-
  • Beggars in Spain are silent. Well, they might be outside the thousand churches CH visited but not here in Pontevedra
  • One 'fries' a tortilla. Not in the opinion of either myself or the cook in my regular bar-restaurant. Who now does a special Tortilla de Colin. With added ginger.
  • The lavadero (public clothes-washing place) has disappeared. There's one in use a few hundred metres from my house and many more around Galicia
  • All bathrooms in Spain smell. Well, some do. As elsewhere. Maybe he means in small villages.
  • King Alfonso the Wise wrote poetry in 'a language common to Galicia and Portugal'. By this he means Galaico-Portugués, the original post-Roman language of Western Iberia. But, as Alfonso was writing c. 1250 - more than a hundred years after this began to split into Galician and Portuguese after the creation of Portugal – I rather suspect today's Gallegos would feel he actually wrote in Gallego/Galician,
  • Spain boast dozens of Virgin Marys. I rather think it's hundreds. We have 3 in Pontevedra alone: La Virgen Peregrina, La Virgen del Camino and La Virgen del O. (Don't ask me)
  • Secularisation is not inevitable. Give it time, mate.
Not that the book was totally without merit. I learnt a few things about Spain and here they are:-
  • The zaguán* is/was an essential feature of Spanish life. 
  • Err . . . That's it.
Finally . . . My nadir was reached towards the very end of the book, when Howse is taking a tour of the Cathedral in Guadalupe which I've done myself. This culminates in you being given the chance to kiss a bit of the statue of the Black Virgin there, something from which I and a few others recoiled in disgust. Howse relates that, in his group, a couple of people declined to do this 'out of secular propriety'. The obvious inference is that he didn't. Which says a great deal about Howse, of course. An intelligent and learned man warped by indoctrination.

* Wiki: A house plan configuration where a central passageway leads from a front door to a patio or a courtyard. Not many of these in the north of Spain.


Maria said...

Of course, no one is going to listen to Ian Gibson. He's a "foreigner" without the clout necessary to bring money or glory to Spain. It's a pity.

La Virgen de la O is also the Virgen de la Esperanza, or of the Pregnancy. She's called "la O" because songs in her honor at vespers during Advent begin with the admiring, "Oh". Or, at least, that's what I've read. Thanks for calling my attention to it; I'd never thought about it.

Colin Davies said...

Thank YOU, Maria. As ever.