Thursday, May 31, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 31.5.18

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

  • The censure vote will take place tomorrow. I get the impression PM/President Rajoy thinks that, if he clings to power for another 2 years, he'll be able to restore the PP to its leading position in the political spectrum before the next general elections in 2020. He comes across as an arrogant dead-duck who takes no responsibility at all for the party's massive corruption of the last 20 plus years or so. But - as the PSOE struggles to get the required numbers - he might well be given the chance to succeed or fail.
  • In the UK, Mrs May constantly contends – publicly - with people in her own party who aspire to replace her. There must be such folk in the PP party here but, so far, tribal loyalty has been rock-firm and no one has put his/her head above the ramparts. It's very hard to believe there are no people in the party who know that more of Rajoy could well be very bad for the party. But they're clearly not willing or able to do something about it. Two more years of power and money is clearly a less unattractive option than getting the boot in 2020.
  • But, for now, an El País columnist takes the view here that the PSOE leader has fluffed his chance and will not only fail with the censure but will actually strengthen Rajoy and the PP party in the process. I fear he's right. And this can only be because the newish 'liberal/centrist/right-of-centre' Ciudadanos party believes keeping Rajoy and the PP party in power will be to its benefit in 2020. Of course, they might be right too. Stuff the country and its image in the meantime.
  • For the Left, the only hope is that PSOE and the far-more-socialist Podemos party will come together in the 'coalition' which the leader fo the latter is hinting at.
  • Spanish banks might well have yet another headache to deal with – Turkey. Says the Express, at least. Not a paper I'd usually trust much. Click here.
Life in Spain
  • I had a minor op yesterday and was impressed by the informal, non-hierarchical environment in the operating theatre. To me, this is a key - and very attractive - feature of Spanish society. Instantaneous 'friendship'. Albeit pretty superficial, of course. I was less impressed by the surgeon arriving at 9.15pm for a 6pm discussion of whether or not I could go home. But surgeons are busy people everywhere in the world. And I'd taken a book of cryptic crosswords, which came in very handy. As it always does.
The EU:
  • If you want to know why Italy has gone from loving to hating the EU, read the first article below, or click here.
  • In similar vein, here's  Roger Black -a self-confessed 'EU pessimist' (my club, of course) - on the threatened future of the EU. Which stems from admitting as a member another country apart from Greece which didn't qualify - WYB Italy? And from countries - France and Germany - breaking the fundamental rules whenever it suits them, while castigating (if not actually ruining) others. Under a government which can't be voted out.
  • Also below, as the second article, is Ambrose Evans Pritchard's latest thoughts on the subject of the mismanagement of Italy. After years of reporting from Brussels and observing the EU in action, AEP now sees it as a 'bankrupt edifice'.
I might have to shorten my odds on the EU failing to survive another 20 years. Hope we can all keep the good bits that middle class liberals love so much. 

Social Media
Finally . . . For Spanish readers/readers of Spanish, a friend in the George Borrow Society has produced George Borrow en España, which can be obtained here. It's a collection of articles on the fascinating man. In case you need it, here's the Wiki page him. He was quite a character.

© David Colin Davies, Pontevedra: 31.5.18


1. This is the New Italy: Attilio Moro, a 'veteran Italian journalist'.

Years of neoliberal economic policies imposed by Brussels and by Italian politicians alike have devastated numerous industrial towns and the very fabric of Italian society.

Sesto San Giovanni, a town on the outskirts of Milan, used to be one of the industrial capitals of Italy. With around 200,000 inhabitants (45,000 blue collar workers, and a robust middle class), it was the headquarters of some of the most dynamic Italian companies, including Magneti Marelli, Falck, Breda and many more.

Today Sesto is an industrial desert – the factories are gone, the professional middle class has fled, many stores have shut down, and the city is trying to reinvent itself as a medical research center.

Twenty-three kilometers (14 miles) to the north of Sesto, the town of Meda was the seat of various symbols of Italian excellence: Salotti Cassina and Poltrona Frau, both of which exported high-quality furniture all over the world and employed tens of thousands of workers and designers. They fed a number of small family-based companies providing parts and highly qualified seasonal labour. Today both companies are gone.

Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, a former chairman of Ferrari, Fiat and Alitalia, and now a public enemy because of his dismissal of the “Made in Italy” label, acquired both companies and moved them to Turkey, choosing profit over quality—and Italian jobs. Montezemolo, of aristocratic background, is a champion of Italian neoliberalism, having founded the influential “free market” think tank Italia Futura (Future Italy) in 2009.

Another victim is the town of Sora, with a population of 25,000, 80 km. (50 miles) east of Rome. Until recently Sora was an affluent commercial city, with medium-sized paper factories and hundreds of shops. Today, all of the factories are gone and 50 percent of shops have closed.

All over Italy, the neoliberal policies that led to the economic crisis and resulting social decadence have accelerated in the wake of the financial collapse of 2007.

Once The Stalingrad of Italy

Sesto San Giovanni used to be known as ‘the Italian Stalingrad’, due to the strength of its working class and the Communist Party receiving over 50 percent of the vote. Now the strongest party in town is the Lega (The League), a right wing, xenophobic party. This has been accompanied by a demographic shift, as Sesto has lost almost one third of its population, but acquired tens of thousands of immigrants, which today constitute almost 20 percent of its population.

The Italian Communist Party, once the strongest in the capitalist world, has in the meantime disappeared, together with the working class. There is also the destitution of a dwindling middle class accompanying the breakdown of the social fabric with rampant corruption. All the traditional political parties have been wiped away.

They have been replaced by the so-called ‘populists’: The Lega and the 5 Star Movement, undisputed winners of the latest elections in March, who are now in the process of trying to form a new government. The Lega expresses the frustrations of the north of Italy that is still productive (fashion, services and some high quality products), and demands lower taxes, as Italian taxes are among the highest in Europe. They also want a parallel national currency, a reduction in circulation of the Euro (which slows down exports, especially to Germany) and limits to immigration.

The 5 Star Movement, which is partly considered to be the heir of the former Communist Party but with a different social base consisting of an undifferentiated lower class replacing the disappearing working class. It advocates a moralization of the political parties and a universal basic income of 750 euros per month ($875) for the poorest to reduce the effects of the social disaster which took place in the south of the country in the last 10 years: 20 percent unemployment, affecting 40 percent of young people, making the mafia and organized crime the biggest ‘employers’ in the most critical southern regions.

This is the new Italy. The old one, the Italy of Fiat, Cassina, small family-run businesses, the Italy of the Christian Democrats, the Communist Party and vibrant working-class culture is no more.

2. Brussels' kamikaze tactics to keep the EU dream alive will end in tears: Ambrose Evans Pritchard

No, you can’t leave the EU, you can’t quit the euro and you can’t even have a little less Europe. How dare you even ask? You don’t really believe that we would let you have your own way, did you? That has been the establishment’s breathtaking retort to every democratic cris de coeur across Europe these past few years, most recently in Italy.

This is an absurdly risky strategy straight from a kamikaze playbook: the EU is not merely playing with fire but deliberately setting light to the tinderbox. Why provoke electors by conceding nothing to their demands and treating them like children? Why incite a backlash, with potentially devastating consequences?

Yet for those who buy into the EU’s warped logic, this fear-driven double or quits strategy makes some sense. The worldview that motivates many true European believers is based on a simple, yet demonstrably flawed, premise: that “disunity” and the existence of competing nation-states is what caused the First and Second World Wars, and so the creation of a single European state is the only way to save Europe from itself.

The stakes are so immense in a nuclear world that – to these pro-EU ideologues – it’s worth sacrificing everything else, from free speech to democracy, for the ultimate goal. Hence the pro-EU side’s ruthlessness, the increasingly successful attempts at stopping a meaningful Brexit, the support for Madrid’s obscene crushing of the pro-Catalan independence movement, and now the rejection by the Italian president of a Eurosceptic finance minister.

The political and moral cost of defying democracy, of the lies, of the endless obfuscation and hypocrisy: none matter in a world where the means, any means, justify the end. All will be forgiven, even the destruction of Europe’s enlightenment values and its historic institutions, as long as the project survives indefinitely.

The “hope” was that the next economic crisis, when it came, would allow the EU to integrate further, rather than threaten the collapse of the whole edifice. And that is why Brussels is panicking

Yet the pro-EU side’s understanding of history is hopelessly flawed. It is simply not true, wherever one looks in the world, that modern, democratic self-governing countries have a tendency to go to war with their neighbours. The very opposite holds: almost all are inherently peaceful, and very few seek armed conflict.

In the 1930s, Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union had never been properly liberal or democratic. It is certainly true that countries can regress spectacularly, as we have seen with Erdogan’s Turkey. It is more than likely that at some point one or other country in the West will embrace an expansionary fascist, communist or other authoritarian ideology, perhaps as the result of a depression.

But the answer is not to pre-emptively abolish all nation-states and subsume them into an unaccountable, technocratic empire: there are such things as internal, civil wars, and there would just be more of those. The better answer is to create multilateral alliances that ensure the world can deal promptly with countries that go rogue, while embracing international economic policies that make extremist lurches less likely.

Caretaker prime minister Carlo Cottarelli leaves parliament for a meeting with the Italian president, aiming to break the impasse in the country's politics Credit:ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not just the EU’s understanding of history that is dodgy, leading it to overreach dangerously: its grasp of economics is equally disastrous and is the other, related explanation for the current madness. Ever since Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU, economics has been seen as a tool of politics: policy has been designed not to maximise growth or promote free markets but to force political unification. Crises can be a good thing in this dystopian vision, especially with a set of institutions whose answer to every problem is more powers for Brussels.

The euro was always necessary to achieve political unification: all states have their own currency. But the EU took a massive gamble when it launched the euro. It was designed not merely with no possible way back for the Franc, Mark or Lira but also to ensure that the fiscal affairs of member states were interlocked to a far greater extent than almost anybody still realises today.

The euro isn’t really a single currency but a hopelessly complex monetary system, with internal debits and credits reflecting capital flows between the different national central banks as part of the Target2 system. Despite all of that, the euro didn’t come with any explicit fiscal integration: there was no single tax system and Treasury for the EU as this would, rightly, have been anathema to electorates, including in Germany.

The “hope” was that the next economic crisis, when it came, would allow the EU to integrate further, rather than threaten the collapse of the whole edifice. And that is why Brussels is panicking: Euroscepticism is rampant, and almost nobody wants to massively increase the size of the EU budget, which would be the logical next step. Brussels is facing the wrong sort of crisis, one that wasn’t part of Monnet’s playbook, and one that could trigger another 2008-style calamity.

The EU’s last roll of the dice is to portray itself as the only true supporter of bourgeois values and capitalism. It’s nonsense, of course

Even if it were managed carefully, a dismantling of the euro would wipe out the Bundesbank’s nearly €1 trillion in Target2 credits, which would finish off the German centre-Right and centre-Left and threaten political stability in Berlin; it also means that the Eurocrats will do anything, including shutting down a dissident country’s banking system, to stop anybody from leaving.

The EU’s last roll of the dice is to portray itself as the only true supporter of bourgeois values and capitalism. The message to the middle classes is simple: if you value your assets, support the status quo. It’s nonsense, of course: the EU’s economic system is a cross between corporatism and social-democracy, with strong protectionist tendencies, and an ultra-distortionary monetary policy rigged against savers. It is not designed to promote economic liberty and prosperity, which is why the EU has underperformed for so long.

But it means that Eurosceptics, in Italy and elsewhere, are using Left-wing rhetoric to oppose the EU, another appalling development. In Italy’s case, they are blaming “speculators” for not getting their own way, rather than a political stitch-up. Down that road lies not Eurosceptic rejuvenation but economic ruin.

That is the problem, ultimately, with the EU’s scorched earth policy, its decision to sacrifice every ideal and every value to keep itself alive: when its bankrupt edifice is finally torn down, be it in a year or in a decade’s time, there will be very little left to save.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 30.5.18

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web pagehere.

  • Two comments on Spain's property market:-
  • From Lenox Napier of Business Over Tapas:- A rising number of foreign buyers, led by the British, helped sales rise to their highest level since 2014 in the first three months of 2018. Sales recorded by the Land Registry increased by 13% in the first quarter of this year, the highest quarterly figure since the third quarter of 2008, according to the latest report from Spanish property registrars. British buyers accounted for 14% of foreign sales, followed by Germans and French at 8%, Belgians at 7%, Swedes and Italians both at 6%, Chinese buyers at 4% and Russian buyers at for 3%.
  • From Don Quijones: Wall Street mega-landlords piled into Spain's rental property boom and now it hits a wall. Full story here. Oddly, this comment clashes with the previous report from Lenox: Demand for buying properties is more or less where it was last year, says the study. Different sources, I guess. That's Spain.

Life in Spain
  • Wouldn't you know it but the day after I cite someone else's criticism of Post Office(Correos) clerks, I have this chat when I go to collect something that arrived when I'd been out. The lady clerk has taken the chit left by the postman and gone and collected the item. Incidentally, it's not a 'letter' as the latter had written on the form but a large-ish packet I'd been expecting:-
Clerk: Could you let me have our ID card please. . . . . . But this is expired. Don't you have a valid one?
Me: No. The Spanish government doesn't give them any more to British residents in Spain.
Clerk: I think they do.
Me: No. I wish they did. In fact, they give us a certificate saying you have permanent residence but, as there's no foto on it, it's useless for proving identity. And you certainly wouldn't accept it.
Clerk: Well, other foreigners have cards.
Me: Yes, North Americans and other non-EU citizens but not citizens of other EU states, I believe.
Clerk: Well, I can't accept this.
Me: OK, here's my driving licence with exactly the same details on it.
Clerk: Please sign the PDA. By the way, you couldn't use your expired ID card to get on a flight.
Me: No. For that I use my passport but I'm not willing to carry my passport around all the time. And, by the way, you're only the 2nd person in 7 years to even notice that it's expired, never mind refuse to accept it as proof of my identity. The other was a notary.

The thing about all this is that, given that I turn up with the chit left by the postman and an ID card which has my foto and all the same details as the addressee on it, the chances that I'm not the person the package is meant for are extremely remote. But logic has no place. And, to be honest, my card hasn't been rejected by any other clerk in the last 7 years.

Europe: Italy
  • Ambrose Evan Pritchard is shocked at what he sees as the stunningly stupid action of the president. And he expresses concern in the article posted below on the possible consequences for Italy and the EU. The worst case scenario would involve Germany finally coming clean on its total resistance to a real monetary union and ensuring the imposition of restrictions on capital flows to Switzerland et al. But mainly Switzerland. Whose currency has started on an upwards projectory. The article contains some nice comments from Italian participants in this imbroglio. Which I'm pretty sure is an Italian word . . .
  • There's real controversy raging now around the proposal to limit the speed of cyclists to 5kph in the city's pedestrianised areas. Especially as the originator of the measure has now come out and said that cyclists should also be stopped from riding on pavements elsewhere. This, it turns out, is already illegal and the argument has been put forward that cyclists should appreciate that the law isn't being enforced against them and be a bit more cooperative. Meanwhile, the Voz de Galicia has leaped into the fray with a scientific study – 4 people on bikes passing their office door – which proves that a bike won't stay upright if it's only moving at 5kph. Which might well be true but there's a big difference between, say, an effective 8kph and a reckless 20kph-plus down the old quarter's several slopes. My question is – How is the eventual compromise going to be enforced? Perhaps it'll be via the new, portable, laser-based machines being rolled out by the Guardia Civil against motorists. If so, the task could be given to the Policia Local, the lowest ranking of the 4 or 5 forces which operate in the city. Which would mean they'd actually have something to do, other than riding round in pairs in cars or on motor bikes and arriving at crime scenes to back up, I guess, the other forces. So, everyone would be happy. Except the bastards who endanger pedestrians. But who cares about them?
  • It's reported that Pontevedra city is experiencing a tourism 'boom'. The Spanglish word used is bum and the Voz de Galicia illustrated its article with the picture of a female 'pilgrim' taken from the rear. But I doubt this verbal-visual pun was intended. Just a happy coincidence. If a bit cheeky.
Finally . . . 
  • In my Google News feed yesterday, there was an item on Spain from the Arizona Daily Star: When I tried to read it, I got the message: We’re sorry. This site is temporarily unavailable. We recognise you are attempting to access this website from a country belonging to the European Economic Area (EEA) including the EU which enforces the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and therefore cannot grant you access at this time. Can this be right? It surely isn't what the GDPR is all about. Well, I checked and the Wall Street Journal, for one, doesn't have this policy. Yet. [Extract: Italy is hurtling toward a political crisis that is reigniting debate over Europe’s future]. Nor the New York Times.

© David Colin Davies, Pontevedra: 30.5.18


Europe's soft coup d'etat in Italy is a watershed moment: Ambrose Evans Pritchard.

Italy’s pro-euro elites have overreached disastrously. President Sergio Mattarella has asserted the extraordinary precedent that no political movement or constellation of parties can ever take power if they challenge the orthodoxy of monetary union.

He has inadvertently framed events as a battle between the Italian people and an eternal ‘casta’ with foreign loyalties, playing straight into the hands of the insurgent Five Star ‘Grillini’ and anti-euro Lega nationalists. He unwisely invoked the spectre of financial markets to justify his veto of euroscepticism. Taken together, his actions have made matters infinitely worse.

Risk spreads on 10-year Italian bonds jumped almost 30 basis points to a four-year high of 235 on Monday as investors woke up the horrible implications of constitutional convulsion: a rolling crisis through the summer that can only end in fresh elections that resolve nothing.

Much had been been made of falling bank bank equities over recent days. They are falling even harder now. Banca Generali was down 7.2%, and Unicredit down 5%

Whether or not it is a ‘soft coup’, it is certainly dangerous territory. President Mattarella stated openly that he could not accept the Lega-Gillini finance minister - Paulo Savona - because his past criticisms of the euro “could provoke Italy’s exit from the euro” and lead to a financial crisis.

In one sense, this veto should have been expected. The Berlusconi government was toppled in 2011 by Brussels and the European Central Bank. Whistleblowers have since revealed that they manipulated bond spreads to exert maximum pressure. The EU even tried to recruit Washington. The US refused to help. “We can’t have blood on our hands,” said the US Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner. What is new is that euro sanctity should be formalized as an Italian constitutional imperative.

“We have a problem with democracy because the Italian people are sovereign and they cannot be ruled by spreads,”said Matteo Salvini, the strongman of the ascendant Lega. “ It is a very serious matter than Mattarella chose the markets and EU rules over and above the interests of the Italian people.”

“Why don't we just say that in this country it's pointless voting, since it is the ratings agencies and the financial lobbies who decide the governments?" Luigi di Maio, the leader of the Five Star Movement.

President Mattarella has certain powers under the Italian constitution but they are mostly untested and in a grey area. He can make a case that the Lega-Grillini fiscal blitz violates Article 80, and that he has a duty to safeguard the EU treaties. Yet he has no direct mandate from the people. He was picked as low-profile compromise in a backroom deal. He has no blanket authority to lock Italy into the euro in perpetuity.

Mr di Maio is now leading calls for his impeachment under Article 90. "I want the president to be put on trial. I want this institutional crisis to be settled by parliament to avoid popular discontent getting out of hand,” he said. The insurgents have the votes to remove him.

What is remarkable is that pro-EMU elites have acted so crudely and pushed matters to such a dangerous impasse. The proposed finance minister was not a hot-head. Mr Savona was a former official at the Bank of Italy, a former minister, and a former chief of the industry lobby Confindustria, as well as directing a London hedge fund.

He had made conciliatory noises, dropping past suggestions that the euro was a “German cage”. He insisted that his 2015 ‘Plan B’ to leave the euro was no longer operative and that his real objective was to return to a fairer euro, rooted in Article 3 of the Lisbon Treaty calling for economic growth, jobs, and solidarity. His legal arguments were impeccable.

With a little subtlety, Italy’s ‘poteri forti’ and the mandarins could have worked with Mr Savona and found a way to soften the hardline agenda of the Lega-Grillini. That was almost certainly their instinct. The push to exclude him altogether - and in doing so to try to smother of the eurosceptic rebellion, as they smothered Syriza in Greece  - came from Berlin, Brussels, and the EU power structure. Time will tell whether they blundered into a trap.

“In a way I am very happy because we have finally wiped the bull**** off the table,” said Claudio Borghi, the Lega’s economics spokesman. “We now know that it is a choice between democracy or comfortable bond spreads. You have to swear allegiance to the god of the euro in order to be allowed to have a political life in Italy. It worse than a religion."

"What we are seeing is the fundamental problem with the eurozone construction; You can't have a government that displeases the markets or the spread club. The ECB and the Eurogroup will use this to crush your economy. You are very lucky in the United Kingdom that you still live in a free country,” he said.

President Mattarella has picked Carlo Cottarelli - an IMF-veteran and a symbol of austerity  - to form a technocrat government. This desperate venture has no chance of winning a vote of confidence in the Italian parliament. It will exist in constitutional limbo. “It is incredible that they are even trying to do this. It is going to lead to riots and mass political protest. The vast majority of Italians don't give a damn about spreads any longer,” said Mr Borghi.

The calculus of those around the president is that chastened Italians may change their minds as they look into the financial and political abyss and recoil from insurgency. The bet is that political attrition will reshape the landscape by October, deemed the mostly month for a fresh vote. This may succeed but it is a dangerous assumption.

The Lega’s Matteo Salvini has already gained eight points in the polls since the last election. He has seized on events of the last 24 hours to capitalize on the heady nationalist mood, like Gabriele d’Annunzio at Fiume in 1919. “We will never be serfs and slaves of Europe,” said Mr Salvini.

He has already proclaimed that the next vote will be a plebiscite on Italian sovereignty, and an act of national resistance against “ Merkel, Macron, and the financial markets”.

But there is another danger. Capital flight has its own relentless logic. It visible in the surging exchange rate of the Swiss franc. There is a risk that outflows will accelerate and push the internal Target2 payment imbalances of the European Central Bank towards breaking point.

The Target2 credits of the German Bundesbank are already €923bn. They are likely to blow through €1 trillion in short order, prompting loud demands from Berlin for a freeze. The IFO Institute in Germany has already warned that there must be limits. Any move to restrict liquidity flows would signal that Germany is close to pulling the plug on monetary union and would set off an unstoppable chain-reaction.

Mr Mattarella faces a gruelling summer. He risks ending ending with exactly the same Lega-Grillini alliance in four months, with an even bigger majority and a thunderous mandate for their “government of change”.

He may go the way of France’s legitimist president Patrice de MacMahon, who tried to impose his government “Moral Order” on a hostile Chambre des Deputies in the 1870s by invoking his theoretical powers under the Third Republic. The bid failed. Parliament confronted him with an ultimatum: “submit or resign”. Democracy prevailed.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain; 29.5.18

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web pagehere.

  • More on the fight-back in Spain against the impact of Airbnb and the like
  • Details of those jail sentences for humungus, decades-long PP corruption.
  • A good report on the chaotic political scene here, ahead of Friday's very-unlikely-to-succeed censure motion against Sr Rajoy in Congress. Will he resign? Nah.
  • And here's Tim Parfitt with his weekly write-up on Spanish developments. He's not an admirer of Rajoy and the PP either. Just in case you haven't twigged that from previous columns.
Life in Spain
  • I had thought that I might be the only person in Spain who felt I should write a book of anecdotes or jokes about my visits to the Post Office(Correos). But this comment comes from a columnist in yesterday's Voz de Galicia, in a short item posted below. My own belief is that the introduction of new technology over the last decade or so has caused the clerks to be even slower than they were when I came here in 2000. But I've become inured to it. As you do.
Europe: Italy
  • The singular reason for Italy’s woes is its membership of a terribly designed monetary union, the eurozone, in which the Italian economy cannot breathe and which consecutive German governments refuse to reform. So says the Greek ex-Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis. He goes on to say that the Italian president has fallen into a trap and presented the far right with a gift they will now exploit ahead of new elections. See the full article below.
  • A UK columnist has opined that the EU is a project that increasingly looks time-limited. And that his suspicion is that in a hundred years, the demise or drastic reform of the EU will appear inevitable in retrospect. How could it ever have hoped to build a unitary state out of so many magnificently diverse and democratic nations?  Sound familiar?
  • Could this happen anywhere else in the developed world?
The UK
  • No one with any intelligence could doubt that the world needs a new model of capitalism. A Conservative minister has some ideas of what. See the 3rd article below.
  • The proposal to limit cyclists to 5kph in pedestrian area has produced an OTT reaction from the  Pontevedra Association of Cyclists. It would mean the death of cycling, they ludicrously claim. It turns out that the massive increase in the nuisance of speeding cyclists is a direct consequence of road planning aimed at making people stop using their cars in the city. Who'd have thought it.
Finally . . . Duff Cooper Bits and Bobs
  • The only person more irritated than Churchill and DC by de Gaulle was the US president. Well, all the Americans, really. Including future president General Eisenhower. De Gaulle reciprocated the enmity, of course, being someone who was always looking to be slighted by Anglos. And revengeful to boot.
  • DC's wife Diana was, allegedly, a beautiful socialite, and their wedding was the equivalent back then of the Prince Harry-Meghan Markle jamboree. Her 'job' was to appear in the papers and to receive gifts of large amounts of cash, expensive dresses and even cars from, for example, newspaper barons. She then moved on to 'acting' in silent movies, for which she was paid a prince's ransom. No wonder she and DC could afford to have more than 500 bottles of the best champagne in their cellar.
  • Having driven one new car into a river, Diana went out and bought a new one. It caught fire the next day. Life was really tough for them sometimes 

© David Colin Davies, Pontevedra: 29.5.18


1. Mariana's box

Mariana travelled to Vietnam, as she usually does for work reasons, and before returning home she decided, to lighten her luggage, to send home by post a box with some things, some t-shirts, a bag of cashews, personal belongings...

The box, of course, arrived a month later than Mariana.

It has now been guarded for weeks at Barajas airport by the Soviet postal services of the Khrushchev era in Rajoy's Spain. Bolshevik officials have fun at Mariana's expense. They're asking for papers, plane tickets, visas, IDs, listings. One at a time.

The English measured the strength of the empire by the postal service. And it seems to me to be such a wise measure that I believe that in the museum of weights and measures in Paris, next to the iridium platinum meter and Foucault's pendulum, a properly stamped letter should be kept.

I've been going to the post office twice a week for 15 years. I have calculated it and I have 1,560 days, each of which made me feel like a spoilsport, someone who comes to annoy, an intruder.

Sometimes it occurs to me that I should write a book of anecdotes or jokes about my visits. For example, when I was attended by someone eating sunflower seeds, or when they asked me about the postal ratefor the city of León. Things to laugh at, bitter laughter.

Things such as education or the birth rate - a much more serious problem than Catalonia - things from Feijoo's Galicia, from Rajoy's Spain.

2. With his choice of prime minister, Italy’s president has gifted the far right; Yanis Varoufakis, the former finance minister of Greece and co-founder of DiEM25 (Democracy in EuropeMovement)

Sergio Mattarella’s defence of the status quo has ensured the success of racist and populist policies

Italy should be doing well. Unlike Britain, it exports considerably more to the rest of the world than it imports, while its government spends less (excluding interest payments) than the taxes it receives. And yet Italy is stagnating, its population in a state of revolt following two lost decades.

While it is true that Italy is in serious need of reforms, those who blame the stagnation on domestic inefficiencies and corruption must explain why Italy grew so fast throughout the postwar period until it entered the eurozone. Was its government and polity more efficient and virtuous in the 1970s and 1980s? Hardly.

The singular reason for Italy’s woes is its membership of a terribly designed monetary union, the eurozone, in which the Italian economy cannot breathe and which consecutive German governments refuse to reform.

In 2015 the Greek people elected a progressive, Europeanist government with a mandate to demand a new deal within the eurozone. In the space of six months, under the guidance of the German government, the European Union and its central bank crushed us. A few months later, I was asked by the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera if I thought European democracy was at risk. I answered: “Greece surrendered but it was Europe’s democracy that was mortally wounded. Unless Europeans realise that their economy is run by unelected and unaccountable pseudo-technocrats, committing one gross error after another, our democracy will remain a figment of our collective imagination.”

Since then, the pro-establishment government of Italy’s Democratic party implemented, one after the other, the policies that the unelected bureaucrats of the EU demanded. The result was more stagnation. And so, in March, a national election delivered an absolute parliamentary majority to two anti-establishment parties which, despite their differences, shared doubts about Italy’s eurozone membership and a hostility to migrants. It was the bitter harvest of absent prospects and withering hope.

After a few weeks of the kind of post-election horse-trading common in countries like Italy and Germany, the Five Star Movement and League leaders Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini struck a deal to form a government. Alas, President Sergio Mattarella used the powers bestowed upon him by the Italian constitution to prevent the formation of that government and, instead, handed the mandate to a technocrat, a former IMF employee who stands no chance of a vote of confidence in parliament.

Had Mattarella refused Salvini the post of interior minister, outraged by his promise to expel 500,000 migrants from Italy, I would be compelled to support him. But, no, the president had no such qualms. Not even for a moment did he consider vetoing the idea of a European country deploying its security forces to round up hundreds of thousands of people, cage them, and force them into trains, buses and ferries before sending them goodness knows where.

No, Mattarella chose to clash with an absolute majority of lawmakers for another reason: his disapproval of the finance minister designate. Why? Because the said gentleman, while fully qualified for the job, and despite his declaration that he would abide by the EU’s rules, had in the past expressed doubts about the eurozone’s architecture and has favoured a plan of EU exit just in case it was needed. It was as if Mattarella declared that reasonableness from a prospective finance minister constitutes grounds for his or her exclusion from the post.

Beyond his moral failure, the president has made a major tactical blunder

What is so striking is that there is no thinking economist anywhere in the world who does not share concern about the eurozone’s faulty architecture. No prudent finance minister would neglect to develop a plan for euro exit. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the German finance ministry, the European Central Bank and every major bank and corporation have plans in place for the possible exit from the eurozone of Italy, even of Germany. Is Mattarella telling us that the Italian finance minister is banned from thinking of such a plan?

Beyond his moral failure to oppose the League’s industrial-scale misanthropy, the president has made a major tactical blunder: he fell right into Salvini’s trap. The formation of another “technical” government, under a former IMF apparatchik, is a fantastic gift to Salvini’s party.

Salvini is secretly salivating at the thought of another election – one that he will fight not as the misanthropic, divisive populist that he is, but as the defender of democracy against the Deep Establishment. He has already scaled the moral high ground with the stirring words: “Italy is not a colony, we are not slaves of the Germans, the French, the spread or finance.”

If Mattarella takes solace from the fact that previous Italian presidents managed to put in place technical governments that did the establishment’s job (so “successfully” that the country’s political centre imploded), he is very badly mistaken. This time around he, unlike his predecessors, has no parliamentary majority to pass a budget or indeed to lend his chosen government a vote of confidence. Thus, the president is forced to call fresh elections that, courtesy of his moral drift and tactical blunder, will return an even stronger majority for Italy’s xenophobic political forces, possibly in alliance with the enfeebled Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi.

And then what, President Mattarella?

3. Hammond wants to curb capitalist excesses: Rachel Sylvester, The Times

The Tories know they need forward-thinking reforms of the free market to counter Labour’s rehash of 1970s policies

John McDonnell is absolutely explicit that he sees his role as to overthrow capitalism. His aim, he explained recently, is to create a socialist society and that means, if he becomes chancellor, “transforming our economy . . . in a way which radically challenges the system as it is now”. After a decade of wage stagnation and rising wealth inequality, it is a message that may appeal to voters who are tired of austerity and resent the rise of an unaccountable financial elite who look a little too comfortable on their luxury yachts. For the Tories, the revolutionary zeal of Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is a threat but it is also an opportunity if they can throw off their own ideological baggage in a way that is impossible for the hard left.

That may now be happening. Philip Hammond — seen by many of his colleagues as a small-c conservative — has become increasingly radical about the need for reform of the free-market liberalism championed by Margaret Thatcher. In his Commons office hangs an illustration portraying him as a goth, dressed in a black trenchcoat, with Doc Martens boots, multiple piercings and a Guardian tucked under his arm. The chancellor wants to be a disruptor rather than a reactionary on the economy.

With the high street under threat from the rise of online shopping, the jobs market transformed by the gig economy and the Treasury apparently powerless to extract enough money from the global internet giants, he is convinced that the current economic model is no longer fit for the digital age. Mr Hammond is working on a major speech about the need to modernise the free-market system and has asked his officials to draw up a list of proposals for a new approach.

The argument he has already begun making in private conversations at Westminster is that the economy is changing before our eyes at an unprecedented rate, but ideologues on left and right look backwards for solutions rather than seeking to prepare for the future. In his view, the Tories must defend but also reformulate capitalism for a generation that is attracted to Corbyn, even though his policies would undermine the choice, flexibility and individualism they take for granted along with their Uber app.

As the chancellor likes to tell colleagues, although a state-designed iPhone would be useless, the government has a duty to intervene to protect consumers and maintain competition in the era of robotics and AI. “If we don’t come up with a solution that makes people feel the system is working for them then Labour will come along and scrap it,” says one senior Treasury source.

While right-wing Tories promise a bonfire of red tape, Mr Hammond is considering what new regulation might be needed to curb the excesses of capitalism. Taxes could also be rebalanced. Although the chancellor was forced to ditch his plan to increase national insurance for the self-employed last year, he was right to identify the fact that the tax system has failed to keep up with changes in the way people work and shop, as well as how companies make their money.

At the same time, a free-market system, designed to promote competition, has allowed a small number of companies to become virtual monopolies online, with implications for privacy and democracy. Emmanuel Macron recently warned that the internet giants were in danger of becoming “not just too big to fail, but too big to be governed” at a time when the world is still paying the price for bailing out the banks a decade ago.

Across Whitehall, pure free-market liberalism is being challenged by reality under a prime minister who promised to “fix broken markets”. Rail services on the East Coast Main Line are being brought back under government control. The Tories have also promised to cap energy prices and are looking at how to punish property developers who “bank” land rather than building on it. Meanwhile, Matt Hancock, the culture secretary, has promised to tame the “Wild West” of the internet, with new laws for media companies designed to curtail everything from cyberbullying to online porn. “Humans created the internet and we need to make sure that it works for the good of humanity,” he says.

The public sector is reeling from the collapse of the construction giant Carillion, which was blamed by the Commons work and pensions select committee for “recklessness, hubris and greed” among the directors. Instead of idolising chief executives, a growing number of Tories have started railing against corporate greed. Nick Boles, the former planning minister, has urged the prime minister to take on the “robber barons” of the 21st century, with new curbs on executive pay and more public spending on infrastructure to balance the power of the private sector. George Freeman, the former head of the prime minister’s policy board, warns that the Tories must do more to tackle “crony capitalism”; an “economy” tent will be one of the central features of the Big Tent Ideas Fest he is organising at Hatfield House in September.

There are divides within the Tory party about how capitalism should be reshaped — between those who want to mirror Labour’s anti-wealth rhetoric by, for example, clamping down on boardroom pay and those, such as Mr Hammond, who favour more structural reform. What matters is action not words, of course, but it is striking how many senior Conservatives are willing to break with their party’s recent history.

Margaret Thatcher once said she wanted the free market to counter the “collectivist” drift in society with a more individualistic approach. “Economics are the method, the object is to change the heart and soul,” she explained. Now the personal has merged into the communal through technology in a way that changes people’s emotions and expectations. Mr McDonnell is right that the system needs to be challenged, but the truth is the economy has already been transformed and neither main party has fully caught up. Labour wants to go back to a 1970s world of renationalisation and taxing the rich. The cabinet is embroiled in a row about regulatory alignment with the EU after Brexit, when in fact it may be the internet giants from whom we really need to take back control.

The future will be owned by the politician who best understands how to use the power of the state to harness the new economic reality for the sake of the people.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia: 28.5.18

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web pagehere.

  • For Banco Sabadell it never rains but it pours. On top of the TSB IT debacle, the bank now ranks high on the list of banks exposed to dicey Italian bonds. According to Don Quijones, it has the equivalent of almost 40% of its entire fixed asset portfolio, worth €26.3 billion, and 110% of its tier-1 capital invested in these. Which is not a good thing, apparently.
Life in Spain
  • Last week there was an horrendous explosion in the Galician town of Tui, down near the border with Portugal. It killed 3 or 4 people and destroyed 40 houses. The cause was fireworks illegally stored in a residential area by a man who'd had his factory closed down and who'd disobeyed court instructions with impunity. Contrast this with the fate of people who insult the police, the 'authorities', the monarchy or the Catholic faithful. These will be relentlessly pursued and even jailed. Which says something about modern Spain under the PP government.
The EU
  • After Italy’s president last night rejected the appointment of a eurosceptic as Economy Minister, the country was plunged into a political crisis, with the leader of one of the coalition parties going so far as to call for the impeachment of the head of state. Which must all be a tad worrying for EU technocrats in Brussels. Of course, Italians are well used to 'political crises', so are probably less concerned.
  • Here's Don Quijones on the banks – Italian and other - which are exposed to Italy's sovereign bond debt risk.
The UK
  • In the last few years, carrots have become massively popular in the UK. And possibly elsewhere. This is because, predictably, people have twigged that – when you use a check-out machine – a 'carrot' weighs less than, say, an avocado. Allegedly, this is now so common people have forgotten it's a crime. Progress.
  • The Pontevedra municipal government says it plans to restrict the speed of cyclists in the (so-called) pedestrian areas to 5kph. Let's hope so. And let's hope they apply the law to kids on buggies and adults on those 2-wheeled vertical things. They'd do well to also do something about cyclists, etc. on pavements outside the pedestrian areas. But this might be expecting too much of them.
  • If you're coming to Galicia, you might want to take advantage of Renfe's Trens Turísticos (Trenes Turísticos in Spanish). In a brochure that fell out of a newspaper yesterday, I noted there are 12 of these, centering – inter alia - on monasteries, gardens, river valleys, thermal springs, lamprey-eating and, of course, vineyards. Impressively, the English version of the descriptions has clearly been done by someone who can actually speak the language well. Which is never a given in local brochures.
Finally . . .
  • I told a German friend that the Liverpool goalkeeper, Karius, had been labelled French in one Spanish newspaper. He replied that the hapless chap had his German nationality withdrawn after his disastrous performance in the Champions League final against Real Madrid on Saturday night.
  • To general astonishment, Gareth Bale revealed the extent of his poor relationship with team manager Zidane by confirming that the latter hadn't spoken to him after the match, never mind congratulate him on his 2 goals.
A Special
  • I've mentioned more than once Terry Gilliam's ill-fated plans for a Don Quijote film. Well, it finally made it to the screen in Cannes last month but wasn't greeted with universal acclaim. Below are 3 reviews. Two are negative and only one positive, from The Guardian. I am with the writer of this one on his final comment: What a dull place the world would be without Terry Gilliam. I certainly plan to see the film. And am determined to enjoy it!
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

After countless false starts and dead ends, Terry Gilliam brings his magnum opus to screen — and it's a loud, belligerent, barely coherent mess. Peter Debruge

Delusions of grandeur, old-fashioned ideals of romance and justice, the eternal clash between cynicism and dreams — these are the themes of not just comic hero Don Quixote but also the career of director Terry Gilliam, for whom a film about the ostentatious knight-errant seemed like the perfect match of artist to material, to the extent that he devoted a quarter century of his life to getting “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” made. After setbacks more epic than anything described in the novel itself, Gilliam’s magnum opus exists at last, and the sad truth is, the reality can never live up to the version that has existed in his (and our) imagination for so long. If anything, it’s what the director’s fans most feared: a lumbering, confused, and cacophonous mess.

Opening with a wink — “And now … after more than 25 years in the making … and unmaking” — the film starts off on a promising foot. It teases us with Don Quixote’s most recognizable feat, jousting at windmills he has mistaken for giants, before revealing that we are in fact on the set of a TV spot for some Russian vodka brand (or maybe it’s insurance — the film is frustratingly unclear or downright inconsistent on many points). Once an ambitious young filmmaker, commercial hack Toby (Adam Driver) has effectively sold out, not only artistically but in his personal values as well — as when the director, asked by his boss (Stellan Skarsgård) to keep an eye on his beautiful young trophy wife (Olga Kurylenko), instead proceeds to seduce her.

Amid juggling the distractions of his comfortable yet meaningless existence, Toby is reminded of a black-and-white student film he made nine years earlier, also inspired by Cervantes’ classic novel, which sends him delving into long-forgotten memories of the humble shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) he cast as Don Quixote and the 15-year-old village girl (Joana Ribeiro) with whom he innocently flirted at the time. Weirdly enough, until stumbling across a bootleg copy of the film, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to Toby that there exists a connection between his present project and this earlier one, shot just a stone’s throw from his current gig. As the details come flooding back, he feels compelled to follow up with these two actors.

Just outside the small Spanish town, Toby stumbles on the old cobbler, who — as revealed via flashback — has spent the intervening years believing that he is indeed Don Quixote. This being a Terry Gilliam movie, there’s a good chance that he’s right, or at least has some valuable perspective to impart upon the skeptical Toby, whom he mistakes for his “loyal squirrel” Sancho Panza. After all, in Gilliam’s two most acclaimed films, “12 Monkeys” and “The Fisher King,” the director blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, toying with the idea that perhaps only lunatics see the world for what it truly is. In those earlier projects, part of the fun came in trying to guess just how much had been a hallucination, whereas here, it’s all one big jumble.

What does the man who thinks he’s Don Quixote want? And what service does Toby provide by going along with the charade — which he does in some scenes while strenuously objecting in others? When a filmmaker has as many years as Gilliam did to think about a project, one expects all that time for reflection to help in clarifying what he intended to say all along. Plainly, there are elements of autobiography at play (like Toby’s character, Gilliam must have revisited the people and places who participated in the version maudit chronicled in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s fascinating what-might-have-been documentary “Lost in La Mancha”). But it’s terribly unclear whether Gilliam identifies with either of his protagonists — the jaded young director grappling with the emptiness of his career or the foolish old coot uniquely capable of recognizing adventure in a world stripped of magic. Each is unpleasant to be around in his own way, while an ill-fit romance with either or both Ribeiro’s and Kurylenko’s characters feels grafted on and incoherent.

Beneath a grizzled beard and beak-like prosthetic nose, Pryce makes a fine-looking Don Quixote (a role for which Gilliam worked with many actors, including Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, both acknowledged in the end credits), but his sonorous voice starts to sound like a braying donkey, given the over-loud levels at which the film is mixed. Combine that with Driver’s antic performance as the exhaustingly incredulous Toby (which sorely lacks the quixotic comic touch that Johnny Depp would have brought), and the whole experience feels like a recipe for a migraine.

It doesn’t help that Driver’s dialogue requires him to drop more F-bombs than a David Mamet character, dooming the whole slapsticky enterprise — which clanks and honks with the sort of off-kilter energy only children seem to appreciate — to an inevitable R rating (early on, Toby even insists on using the F-word in his TV commercial … as if it’s totally normal for expletives to find their way into advertising campaigns). If only such an easy fix might transform this misbegotten project into something commercial, although Gilliam remains his own worst enemy, insisting on artistic freedom while lacking in many of the fundamental skills expected of a director (from basic screenwriting to getting consistent, relatable performances from gifted actors) to sustain our interest once things start to go off the rails, which they do about 20 minutes in, around when Don Quixote murders two Spanish police officers he mistakes for “enchanters” — a word you will never want to hear again, so long as you live.

To Gilliam’s credit, no one creates characters as spectacularly unhinged as he does, giving us over the course of his career such larger-than-life nutjobs as Baron Munchausen and Hunter S. Thompson — although they so often wear out their welcome. In theory, Don Quixote should be a welcome addition to the stable, but what wouldn’t we give for an interpretation of the crazy crusader who treated his quests as something more than the silly ravings of a colorful eccentric? Early in the film, one of Toby’s cohorts warns that “we become what we hold on to” — a line that may as well be an open admission on Gilliam’s behalf of a certain kinship he feels with the character, although the result feels like evidence of someone who spent too long obsessing over Don Quixote, eventually losing sight of whatever attracted him in the first place.

Film review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote at the Cannes Film Festival

If there were a Palme d’Or for persistence, then Terry Gilliam would walk it. When he started work on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote in 1991, George Bush Sr was president and Adam Driver, his eventual lead, was seven. In 2002 the former Python’s cursed efforts to complete the film even inspired what may be a first, a making-of documentary, Lost in La Mancha, about a film that was never made. It showed an increasingly haunted Gilliam beset by fighter jets screaming overhead, his original Quixote falling ill and the set being washed away by a thunderstorm. “It’s going to be an extraordinary film,” the director said at one point, trying to convince himself as much as his cast.
“It’s going to be beautiful and terrible at the same time.”

It pains me to write this, but he’s been proved right. Yes, he’s done what eluded Orson Welles and brought Cervantes’ tale of mock heroism to the screen, reviving the production and settling a lawsuit from a former associate before the film could be shown at Cannes (there’s a disclaimer at the start of the film and a message saying: “And now, after more than 25 years in the making, and unmaking . . .”). Yes, the result is ambitious, sometimes clever and often beautiful. Yet it’s often as empty as the parched Spanish landscapes in which it takes place. It didn’t once make me laugh or cry. Not that those things are always essential, but they’re to be hoped for with a tale with as much potential pathos and comedy as this. Cannes, sadly, hasn’t ended with the climactic triumph that everyone was hoping for.

The film is certainly multilayered. There are four Don Quixotes: the actor who plays the deluded knight in a commercial; Toby, the quixotic American director of the commercial (Driver, in the role that Johnny Depp took in the abandoned production); Jonathan Pryce, taking over from Jean Rochefort (who died last year), as the Spanish shoemaker who starred in an amateur film of Don Quixote directed by Toby when he was a student and who now believes he really is Quixote; and Gilliam himself, tilting at the windmills of his vainglorious imagination.

Clear as mud? Welcome to Gilliam world! Like A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom’s adaptation of Tristram Shandy, this is a tricksy telling of a tricksy book. The difference is that Winterbottom’s film was properly funny. Gilliam too often resorts to ’Allo ’Allo!-style language gags as the Spanish locals confuse “squire” and “squirrel”, “telephone” and “elephant”. Failing that, he gets Driver to fall over a lot and say “f***”.

Driver is otherwise rather good as the enfant-terrible director, as is Pryce, dementedly chivalrous with rusty armour, straggly beard and Denis Healey eyebrows. There’s a bonkers postmodern plot involving a Russian vodka baron, Stellan Skarsgard as Toby’s boss and Joana Ribeiro as the Spanish girl who appeared in Toby’s student film and had her head filled with dreams of stardom. Toby somehow ends up as Pryce’s Sancho Panza, absurd astride a mule while his “master” surges ahead on his charger.

Seeing someone with their nose in the book of Don Quixote, Pryce asks, astonished, “Have you read it?”, a nice gag about the small proportion of people who have actually made it through Cervantes’ weighty tome. There are also plenty of in-jokes about the production’s troubled gestation. When a rainstorm strikes, one of the ad-shoot team cries: “This is the one month of the year when they say it never rains!” Gilliam’s self-reflexive story fits the novel’s themes of reality v fantasy, madness v sanity and, perhaps most pertinently, the vain dreams of old men.

Yet all this narrative sleight-of-hand means you don’t end up caring a great deal about any of the characters. Nor is the film particularly mindblowing visually. We get a vivid Semana Santa celebration and some fun CGI giants, but not quite the grandiose flair of Brazil and 12 Monkeys.
Gilliam has described the project as the story of a man’s “last hurrah, one last chance to make the world as interesting as he dreams it to be”. Let’s hope that’s not the case with Gilliam and, with this itch finally scratched, he can make more of the inspired films of which he’s capable. Because the problem with this one, strangely for such a labour of love, is that it’s missing a bit of soul.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote review – Terry Gilliam's epic journey finds a joyous end: Peter Bradshaw Guardian

After a three-decade production ordeal Gilliam has delivered a sun-baked fable of money, madness and the movie business – and done so with trademark infectious charm

Terry Gilliam has brought to Cannes his long-gestated and epically delayed movie version of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a biblical ordeal of wrecked sets, collapsed funding and bad luck that has outlived two of the actors once cast – John Hurt and Jean Rochefort – and which has been attended by colossal legal acrimony and brinkmanship right up to the red-carpet steps themselves, as the former backer Paulo Branco sought to injunct its showing here as closing gala. A French court found against Branco last week, but its screening here has been prefaced by a solemn lawyerly announcement respecting Mr Branco’s future claims. It’s a backstory of enormous drama, well told in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s documentary Lost in La Mancha, all the way back in 2002, when it looked as if Gilliam’s Quixote film, like Orson Welles’, would never be made.

Well, hooray for Gilliam’s energy and self-belief because now it has gotten made, co-scripted with Tony Grisoni, and although it doesn’t have the visually ambitious and even revolutionary style of Brazil and 12 Monkeys – nor the hard edge of my own favourite of his later films, Tideland from 2006 – it is a film of sweet gaiety and cheerful good nature, an interesting undertow of poignancy, and with a lovely leading turn from Jonathan Pryce as the chivalric legend himself and roistering action scenes pleasantly like Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers movies from the 1970s. It’s almost like a children’s movie, in fact – and there’s nothing wrong with that.

This is a film with a sentimental respect for its source material – but Gilliam has new and vigorous insights to offer. It’s as if he is politely waving away our obvious view that he is a Quixote figure tilting indefatigably at movie-business windmills. No, the key player here is Sancho Panza: the servant, the enabler, the rational sceptic whose detachment is faltering, the sorcerer’s apprentice who doesn’t realise that he is being inducted into a mysterious art of creative self-delusion.

As befits Cervantes’ daringly postmodern novel, in whose latter part Quixote is aware of being a famous figure because of to the publication of the first part, Gilliam’s Quixote is multilayered. Adam Driver plays Toby, the arrogant and overpaid ad director who has been given the chance to make a feature and has opted for Don Quixote. We see him filming in Spain, shooting the giants/windmills scene and enduring those same nightmares of delay that famously tried Gilliam’s faith and have become mythic expressions of imagination and reality. The movie is being bankrolled by an obnoxious, racist businessman, played by Stellan Skarsgård, whose jaded wife, Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), tries to seduce Toby. Skarsgård’s mogul is in hock to a sinister Russian oligarch, Alexei (Jordi Mollà), who has a huge castle and is given to throwing fancy-dress parties and staging various dramatic events.

But in the midst of his ennui and cynicism, Toby is suddenly galvanised: he chances upon a bootleg DVD of his first film: a lo-fi, black-and-white indie that was an adaptation of … Don Quixote. He remembers his passion and idealism, and how he used local non-professionals to make it. His star was a kindly old shoemaker, played by Jonathan Pryce. While shooting is on suspension, Toby journeys to the nearby village to discover what has happened to his old star, and is astonished to discover that the experience of that film completely unhinged the man – or rather it gave him an energy and passion that he never had before. He now believes that he is Don Quixote, striding around looking for worlds to conquer and wrongs to right, his overwhelming vocational energy carrying him along. The bewildered Toby, overstressed and not used to the blazing heat, starts to become his Sancho Panza, losing his grip on boring old reality.

It’s a nice premise – similar, perhaps, to Dennis Hopper’s 1971 cult film The Last Movie, about a film-shoot in Peru creating a new kind of ritualistic culture. Pryce has exactly the right daft pomposity and wide-eyed credulity, believing in his own publicity, his own mythology. Driver creates a pretty straightforward character, aggressive, sweary and without much in the way of nuance. As he starts to lose it, his arrogant Americanness starts to curdle and he begins to fantasise that Moroccan illegals are jihadi terrorists, and hallucinates a visit from the Spanish Inquisition (surely Gilliam was tempted to add a line on whether they were expected), antisemitic bigots whose prejudice affords Toby an insight into his own heatstruck paranoia. Joana Ribeiro is interesting as Angelica, herself ruined by being cast as a teenager in Toby’s movie, and who endured 10 long years of disillusionment in showbusiness before returning to her home town, where the poor shoemaker now thinks that she is his Dulcinea.

It may not be Gilliam’s masterpiece, but it is a movie with sprightliness, innocence and charm and it is a morale boost to anyone who cares about creativity that Gilliam has got the film made at all. His own intelligence and joy in his work shine out of every frame, and his individuality is a delight when so much of mainstream cinema seems to have been created by algorithm. What a dull place the world would be without Terry Gilliam.

© David Colin Davies, Pontevedra: 28.5.18

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 27.5.18

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web pagehere.

  • You almost have to admire Spain's President Rajoy. Or at least his chutzpah. He's destroyed Spain's image abroad and ensured a multi-year crisis with Cataluña but still accuses the PSOE leader, via his censure motion, of wanting to damage Spain purely for reasons of personal ambition.
  • That motion probably won't succeed, given that 2 of the 3 large parties – the PP and the new-ish Ciudadanos – have different reasons for not going along with it. But the chances of an early election grow by the minute, the result of which would probably be the inexperienced Ciudadanos being the largest party. Though possibly without an absolute majority.
  • Meanwhile, I've posted below a devastating - and spot-on - comment on Rajoy's Spain from yesterday's Voz de Galicia.
Life in Spain
  • So, what does a jail sentence of 37 years actually mean in Spain? Well, it seems to mean an effective max of 18 years. But, after a minimum of 4 years, you can be given permisos [temporary releases] and, after 7 years, 'semi-freedom'. When you can access your millions offshore. IGIMSTS.
  • Developments in Italy seem to have brought to the fore a thought of some months/years ago – viz. That it might be Germany who leaves the EU . . . . Seems unlikely but so did the election results in Italy. Not to mention the Brexit vote.
  • The Spanish aren't known for being early risers but, both yesterday and today, there've been men strimming undergrowth near my house at 7 in the morning. At a weekend. It sound like there's dozens of them but I can only see 2 in this (poor) foto:-

Finally . . .
  • I read the headline: Chris Froome set for Giro d’Italia glory despite being spat at by a fan and wondered whether 'spectator' wouldn't have been a better word that 'fan'.

© David Colin Davies, Pontevedra: 26.5.18

Corruption: the new Brand Spain: Luis Pousa

My generation grew up watching Corruption in Miami, the legendary series in which Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson), Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) and Lieutenant Castillo (Eduard James Olmos) fought cocaine trafficking and organized crime in the Florida of the 80s that looked so much like Galicia of the 80s. In fact, in one chapter they even dressed Crockett and Tubbs in the beautiful wrinkle[outfits?] of Adolfo Dominguez.

Designer clothing was Brand Spain in the 1980s. Now it is a government reduced to rubble and a PP in a state of putrefaction waiting for someone to resurrect it from its own ashes. The damage that PP party corruption has caused to our international image, in the midst of the Catalan secessionist challenge, is now irreparable. While Rajoy remains impassive, there is no end to pro-independence propaganda abroad.

The devastating Gürtel ruling also dates back to the 1980s. It confirms that at least since 1989 - that is, since Fraga's PA party became the PP of Aznar - the man who managed to make the communion celebration of El Padrino[The Godfather] look like a birthday party in Mola Bolla in comparison with his daughter Ana's wedding in El Escorial - the party had been running a cash box full of black money and illegal donations. It speaks of the institutional corruption established by the conservatives and, in addition sets very severe penalties for the leaders of the gang - Luis Bárcenas, Pablo Crespo and Francisco Correa - and sentences the PP to cough up 245,000 euros for being a lucrative participant in the Genoese[PP HQ] mafia and affirms that the testimony of the President of the Government "is not sufficiently credible". What did Rajoy say when journalists asked him about the court's questioning of his credibility? Well - he replied in the style of Podemos - credibility is given by the people and that he has many seats granted by the people.

Mariano Rajoy again said these judged episodes were a long time ago: from 2003. A long time? Does Rajoy say that he was a member of the PP even before the PP existed? Was already a Galician deputy of Fraga's Popular Alliance party in 1981? And has been a member of the PP's National Executive Committee since its foundation in 1989? Yes, friends, when Sony Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs were driving their Ferrari Testarossa in Miami, Mariano was already there.

This corrupt and out of control PP - unable to enforce the law in Barcelona or Algeciras - needs to be switched off by someone. Like Hal 9000 in Odyssey 2001 in space. All we have to do is find someone who has the guts to turn it off before it's too late. The PP itself will have to accept that - even though Rajoy still thinks that the best decision is not to take any decision - after Pedro Sanchez's unworkable censure motion collapses,  the red button must be pressed by an alternative candidate to the burn-out Mariano. So long as this doesn't happen and Aznar doesn't seek forgiveness via public penance, Spain won't have closed the shabby chapter of the Transition entitled Corruption in Moncloa, which has certainbly been entertaining but which lacks the inimitable class of Sonny Crockett, Ricardo Tubbs and Lieutenant Castillo.

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 26.5.18

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web pagehere.

  • Lenox Napier of Business Over Tapas thinks that Sr Rajoy is a dead duck, following the corruption-related developments of this week. El País seems to agree, here (in English). But the man himself appears not to. Among his characteristic responses to a motion of centure in parliament include:-
  1. These events happened long ago.
  2. The PP is much more than 10 or 15 isolated cases. 
  3. We’ve been ruling for many years.
  4. The no-confidence motion is a ruse employed by opposition parties to install the PSOE leader in power.
  5. It goes against the political stability that our country needs and it goes against the economic recovery. It is bad for Spain,
Almost Churchillian, in their eloquence, aren't they? Nothing about the Augean stables needing to be cleaned, though. Sr Rajoy clearly doesn't think that rooting out corruption would be be good for Spain.
  • Actually, it gets worse. After the trail judge had questioned Sr Rajoy's credibility as a witness, the latter - who's widely believed to draw not just one but 2 illegal registrar salaries - responded with the question: Who issues credibility certificates? The citizens of this country. Which doesn't say a lot for them. Or at least for the more than 20% of the electorate who'd still vote for him and the PP party. Does he really need to assassinate someone?
  • Oh, by the way, I was right about the trial seeming to last a decade: It was a nine-year investigation, says El Pais.
  • Finally on this, a Spanish columnist has opined that: The justice system has done its job, and we should congratulate ourselves for it. But politics has not, and it can no longer hide under the mantle of impunity. Yes, indeed! I can't pretend I was optimistic.
  • Will Northern Europeans finally wake up?
Life in Spain
  • You don't want to get too free with your speech in Spain. If you do . . . 
  • See the Guardian article below on Trump. With my boldings.
Nutters Corner
  • I've mentioned the fraudulent evangelist Jim Bakker a few times. Here's a video which speaks for itself. His wife appears to have been able to afford an awful lot of plastic surgery. And possibly doesn't look remotely like she did on her wedding day. As I've noticed before, her vocabulary seems to be limited to one-syllable words of endorsement of her husband's daft comments. It's very hard to believe people can be so gullible. Even US evangelists. Oh, I forgot. They made Fart the President.
  • Sorry, can't resist adding this one . . .
  • And then there's this . . . Paul McGuire, the guy who said that Trump is now engaged in the greatest spiritual battle in world history, now says that Trump is under attack by Luciferian “advanced beings” who are using “supernatural multidimensional power” against him.  Click here for his full insane rant. I feel flattered.
Duff Cooper
  • This is a rather characteristic paragraph of his, written in 1949, when he DC 59 and not far off his death in 1951. It again raises the question of what on earth he means by 'love': Susan Mary [aged 27] plays a part in my life. She writes me the loveliest letters and she loves me far more than I deserve. I love her too, very deeply and tenderly, but not as I love Caroline. I am not ‘in love’ with her, although there is nothing I wouldn't do for her. I owe her so much. Maxine is a new star in my firmament. She is only 26. Diana[DC's wife] thinks her the most beautiful girl she has ever seen. She is also good and intelligent. She loves her husband who is extremely nice. I like being with her, but I am not in love with her and would never seek to persuade her to do anything she thought wrong. Such a gent. He later gives her an illegitmate child, of course.
  • I don't even know who the hell Caroline is but she's quite likely an old flame, Caroline Paget, the wife of Sir Michael Duff, DC's nephew. She's last mentioned 2 years previously in this comment: I made love to everybody - to Caroline, who was in a heavenly mood, to her sister, to a lady whose name I don't know but with whom I pledged to lunch on Friday, to a very pretty widow called Diana Goldsmith. I also, it seems, had at one time Dick Wyndham's pretty mistress on my knee and this annoyed Diana, who left in anger. But I had a wonderful time.
  • By the way . . . DC's real forename was not Duff but Alfred. No idea how this became Duff or whether it's used for all Alfreds. I suspect not.
Finally . . .
  1. Here's some good news, especially for those of us who've just been deleting all those emails without even reading them: You can stop plowing/ploughing through every GDPR-related email asking if you want to keep in touch. But the bad news is that: You shouldn’t have received (most of) them in the first place. Experts are saying European consumers didn’t need to be on the receiving end of the avalanche of emails that landed in their inboxes this week. More here on this.
  2. A bit from the Daily Telegraph which includes a mistake I've never seen before: I can’t imagine that those Nats who reckon their’s is a true party of the Left  . . . . The paper is said to have ditched its experienced subeditors and farmed out the (overnight) work to teenagers in New Zealand. You'd never guess.
© David Colin Davies, Pontevedra: 26.5.18


The North Korea farce makes it clear again: Trump is dangerous: Simon Tisdall

How much longer can the world tolerate having this narcissist in the White House?

This is where hubris and arrogance lead. By indefinitely postponing his summit with Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, in a fit of petulance and political cowardice, Donald Trump has squandered a golden opportunity for peace on the Korean peninsula, plunged the Asia-Pacific region into a period of renewed uncertainty, blindsided America’s allies, and resurrected the dread prospect of nuclear war.

All may not yet be lost. But that’s no thanks to Trump. The author of The Art of the Deal thought he alone could pull off what had eluded successive presidents in Washington. He prematurely hailed Kim’s decision to free three US citizens as a major breakthrough. He basked in utterly ludicrous talk, notably from Boris Johnson, of a Nobel peace prize. When Kim made clear “denuclearisation” did not mean what Trump thought it meant, he meekly offered more concessions.

In short, Trump messed up. He rashly promised more than he could deliver. Then, when Kim balked at unrealistic US demands, he got cold feet.

North Korea’s measured response offers some hope. The US decision was regrettable, it said. But Pyongyang remained open to talks with the US at any time. Trump should study this statement to see how the diplomatic game works.

It cast the White House in the troublemaker role usually reserved for Pyongyang. It grabbed the moral high ground before a watching world. And it reiterated the North’s longstanding aim: to establish direct, bilateral communication with the US, bypassing the stalled multilateral talks process.

Attempts to make the best of a bad job cannot hide the possibility that a rare chance to bring North Korea in from the cold may have been permanently missed. Most worrying is the effect of this epic snub on Kim and his apparently genuine efforts to improve relations with the west. Sceptical North Korean generals will say, “We told you so,” and push for more, and bigger, nukes and missiles. Kim’s own position could be in jeopardy. His politically and personally risky policy of reform at home and engagement abroad was blown apart by Trump on the very day he voluntarily blew up his nuclear test site.

At risk, too, are Pyongyang’s rapprochement with South Korea and President Moon Jae-in’s exemplary bridge-building. Trump was the undeserving beneficiary of Moon’s efforts, which took flight at the Winter Olympics. That opening may have been blown, thanks also to his national security adviser, John Bolton, his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and other lower-order Team Trump chicken hawks. Moon declared himself “perplexed” – a feeling probably shared in Tokyo. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, has worked hard and thanklessly to keep Trump on course.

China’s leaders will experience mixed emotions as they survey the smoking ruins. Increased regional instability and resumed US sabre-rattling on its doorstep are not in Beijing’s interest. Nor will China welcome further, alarming evidence of Trump’s whimsical irrationality. On the other hand, the upset is a timely reminder to Kim about who, when the fog clears, are his only true friends – and the centrality of Beijing to any eventual security deal. China may also be less inclined to observe US-inspired international sanctions. Indeed, a return to the Obama-era policy of maximum economic pressure may no longer be credible. If so, military options will once more gain traction in Washington.

Given Trump’s now familiar mercurial behaviour, it’s possible all this could change tomorrow – even that the June summit will be back on again. Trump indicated as much on Friday, suggesting airily that he and the North Koreans were “playing games”. This is no way to conduct a deadly serious nuclear weapons negotiation. And it raises a much bigger question. How much longer can the international community pretend that having a narcissistic amateur running the White House is a tolerable or even manageable state of affairs? Just look at the global wreckage after 18 months of Trump. A landmark climate change pact trashed. Protectionism, trade wars and divisive border walls on the rise. Hopes of peace in Israel-Palestine, and dozens of Palestinian lives, sacrificed to the presidential ego. A potentially catastrophic dereliction of duty under way in Syria. Continuing appeasement of Russia. And a new Middle East war in the making, after Trump’s unilateral renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal. It is no exaggeration to say US authority and credibility on the world stage are now at stake.

This is not leadership. It is day-by-day, manmade chaos masquerading as policy. It’s not America First. It’s America Foolish. Yet there is no end in sight to the damaging tomfoolery. Trump does not learn from his mistakes. He just makes bigger ones. For Britain, soon to host him, the Korean lesson is clear: this US president should carry a health warning wherever he goes. Keep him at arm’s length. For he is weak, cowardly and dangerous – and not, on any account, to be trusted.