Monday, May 27, 2019

Thoughts from Galicia, Spain: 27.5.19

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable. 
                  Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain
  • Earlier this year, the Spanish government decided to do something about the country's poor international image arising from what it regards as 'disinformation' around Catalan developments. Particularly the trial of several local politicians. So it launched This is The Real Spain and gave it considerable funds for counter-PR. Here's the estimable Guy Hedgecoe on the initiative. I love his top-of-his-head list of the things Spain means to him, with which I readily relate.
  • Being positive, here's a recent article from on the subject of Spain's wonderful tapas culture.The admiring reference to the unrelenting energy of the locals that surround you is surely a nice way of describing people shouting at each other simultaneously.
  • Being negative, take a look at reader Sierra's comment after yesterday's post, on his voting experience as a foreigner entitled to vote in the local elections of yesterday.
  • There's a very Galician song festival coming up in Santiago de Compostela. It'll feature lots of local and national artists, plus that well-known Celtic performer, Iggy Pop. Oh, and the Black Eyed Peas. There are events all around Galicia but, sadly, Pontevedra seems to be missing out.
The UK and Brexit
  • Well, the best comment on the (very low turn-out) EU election results is that they produced just what the country didn't want - even more confusion. Richard North puts it at greater length thus: No doubt, there are endless ways of playing with the figures and there will be differing interpretations from the rival factions. Suffice it to say, though, that the great Farage "victory" seems to owe more to the voting system than it does the overall number of votes. In fact, Farage seems to have under-performed on the day, taking 31.6% of the vote, compared with the 37% some of the opinion polls were giving him. The overall results, therefore, are ambiguous and settle nothing. Certainly, with less than a third of the vote, this is no mandate for a no-deal Brexit. 
  • Poor Mr Corbyn still doesn't seem to grasp realities. He promises that parliament will prevent a No Deal Brexit, ignoring the fact that this is the default option in the absence of an agreement between the UK and the EU. Which still looks remote. No wonder the pound has lost all its recent gains. If there's no deal by end October, then - to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU - there'll have to be yet another extension - over M Macron's dead body? - or a revocation of the letter which triggered Article 50.
  • Meanwhile 1: Nobody knows who will be the next prime minister, but it is already clear that, like Mrs May, they will fail to restore strong and stable government.
  • Meanwhile 2How true . . . The number of Tory MPs threatening to throw their hats into the leadership ring risks turning the contest into a circus. 
  • Finally . . . Election trivia: What are the odds? In the EU's 'South East Region' there were 2 people called Alexandra Phillips, standing for different parties. 
The EU
  • Not a good night for M Macron. He went head-to-head against the leader of the far right party - Marine Le Pen - and lost. Although his defeat was a narrow one, it's seen as a personal blow to his national and EU ambitions.
  • See below the article I cited yesterday, entitled: Battle for top EU jobs ‘like Game of Thrones with ugly people’.
The USA/The Way of the World
  • UK politicians are wont to go on and on about a 'special relationship' between Britain and the USA. The reality is that almost no one in the USA is aware of the concept, and there's precious little evidence that any US government has ever taken it into consideration. 
  • Here's a very relevant article -  from the current issue of Prospect - on the ruthless hegemony of the US.
  • As for the US itself  . . . Here's a video from exactly a year ago on Fart and the rule of law.  It's even more accurate and relevant now.
  • More positively, the second article below describes the very positive effect on UK culture of the temporary residence of hundreds of thousands of US troops back in the 1940s.
Finally . . .
  • Until this morning, I had no idea that the Italian for 'football' is calcio, as against futbol in Spanish.

1. Battle for top EU jobs ‘like Game of Thrones with ugly people’

When the leaders of the European Union gather for a dinner in Brussels on Tuesday to begin the long process of wrangling over who will head its institutions for the next five years, sparks are expected to fly.

“It’ll be like Game of Thrones, only without the dragons or good-looking people,” quipped one official last week.

Five heads must be appointed to the key institutions in the coming months in the largest shake-up of top jobs in the EU’s history. Matters are likely to be complicated by a surge in support for populist parties in the elections to the European parliament.

In theory, the most high-profile appointment, the successor to Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission, should be dictated by the results of the poll, which are expected from tonight.

Under the so-called Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” system — used for the first time five years ago when Juncker was picked — the role should go to the nominee of the political grouping that wins the largest number of seats.

This is almost certain to be the European People’s Party (EPP), which includes the Christian Democrats and other centre-right groups.

The EPP’s choice this time, though, is Manfred Weber, a 46-year-old German MEP who is light on charisma and almost unknown outside his native Bavaria or EU circles.

Despite his shortcomings, Weber has support from most of the eight EPP heads of government, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who on Friday night described him as “a bridge builder . . . the right person” and pledged to fight for him to get the job.

Yet Weber’s succession is far from certain because of the fragmentation of European politics expected to be revealed by the poll results.

Traditionally, the EPP and the Socialists have an absolute majority, giving them the numbers to achieve the parliament’s required backing for their candidate.

This time they look set to fall short, thanks in part to the rise of the populists who could receive up to a third of the seats. This could make kingmakers of the Liberals and the Greens, who both refuse to back Weber.

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, is a more formidable obstacle. He has said the next EU chief should have senior experience in either government or the commission. Weber has neither.

“I don’t feel bound by the Spitzenkandidaten system,” said Macron, whose En Marche! MEPs will join the Liberal grouping in the parliament. “There are leaders among these candidates that have the qualities I alluded to. There are also leaders around the council table that can be pretenders to [the commission presidency].”

This could block Weber. “It is inconceivable that a new commission president could take office without the support of the French head of state,” said Mujtaba Rahman of Eurasia Group, a political consultancy.

He said Weber could fall victim to Macron’s veto. The victor could be Michel Barnier, the Frenchman who has won admiration in EU capitals for his handling of the Brexit negotiations.

Macron was initially reluctant to support Barnier, favouring Liberal names such as Margrethe Vestager, the competition commissioner, but he is believed to have changed his mind.

“Undeniably, Michel Barnier is a man who has great qualities and he demonstrated this once again in the way he handled negotiations with the British,” Macron told the Belgian newspaper Le Soir last week.

Yet while Barnier may have some support in Paris there is only muted enthusiasm for his candidacy in other capitals. His age — 68 — may count against him. Christine Lagarde, 63, managing director of the International Monetary Fund — and who, like Barnier, is from the centre-right — is another French candidate in the mix.

As part of the horse trading that accompanies such appointments, choosing a French candidate to head the commission could open the door for Jens Weidmann, the hawkish head of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, to take over the helm at the European Central Bank (ECB).

“The price of a French-led European Commission could well be a German-led ECB,” said Rahman.

It will also have implications for the other jobs that have to be filled, given a need to provide a rough balance of parties, ages, gender and geography.

If either Barnier or Lagarde gets the top job at the commission, that would favour Liberals such as the Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, or his Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte, to succeed Donald Tusk as president of the European Council.

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch commissioner, is the centre-left’s Spitzenkandidat and that grouping will want at least one of the five key appointments. Dalia Grybauskaite, the voluble Lithuanian president, could emerge as a compromise candidate, but she has no major party affiliation which could dent her chances.

Although the bargaining will not last as long as Game of Thrones, it could drag on through the summer, leaving a leadership vacuum on both sides of the Channel.

2. The Friendly Invasion: how American soldiers reshaped Britain during the Second World War: Peter Caddick-Adams, author of Sand & Steel: A New History of D-Day  

Hitler plotted the conquest of Britain, but 3m US troops achieved it — armed with Spam, swing music and swagger. After D-Day, 75 years ago, they left behind a nation transformed

Along the coast of southwest England 75 years ago, they gathered in their hundreds of thousands. They are largely forgotten now, apart from memorials in small harbours such as Weymouth. There, an easily missed monument on the seafront remembers “the American assault force which landed on the shores of France 6 June 1944”. The statistic that follows is mind-boggling. “From the Weymouth and Portland harbors . . . From 6 June 1944 to 7 May 1945, 517,816 troops and 144,093 vehicles embarked.” It’s a hint of the huge American presence in the country during the war years.

The US “friendly occupation” of Britain is all but forgotten. Yet in 1944 Cornwall and Devon, Wiltshire and Dorset, and Gloucestershire and Somerset were overwhelmed with Americans preparing to invade France. Stan Jones, recalling his childhood in Wiltshire, said: “My home town of Trowbridge was one huge tank park: they lined Union Street and from our bedroom windows we could look down into the turrets. Up Middle Lane half-tracked vehicles were parked on the grass verges. Over the hedge old Farmer Hancock was still keeping his cows, driving them down to market through lines of tanks and supplying us with milk.”

Many US servicemen were billeted with local families, who shared precious rations, inviting GIs to sit before warm fires. Sergeant Forrest Pogue was visiting his brother in the 703rd Tank Destroyer Battalion in Mere, Wiltshire, when caught in a downpour. He recalled on reaching his brother’s civilian hosts: “Mr Gray built up a roaring fire and hung our wet things in front of it while we warmed ourselves. Despite the severity of rationing, he and his wife soon set out cakes and tea, not only for us, but for the dozen chaps who came in during the four hours that we stayed there.

“These people, not because we were Yanks to be welcomed, but because they were friendly folk, wrote our parents back home not to worry, and did for us the wonderfully thoughtful things that make up true hospitality.”

The invasion of the UK had started early in 1942 with US ground troops trickling into Northern Ireland. However, by the year’s end, 60,000 US air force personnel were building bases in Britain, the majority in East Anglia. With its flat, open fields, the region proved the perfect springboard for endless streams of heavy bombers to attack German-held Europe. Within two years, 71,000 GIs were stationed in Suffolk, meaning one in six residents was American. When the Yanks occupied Wiltshire in May-June 1944 the ratio would be one in three.

The airmen were followed from 1942 by more than 10,000 men of the US naval construction battalions (USNCBs, known as Seabees), who erected coastal bases throughout south Wales and along Britain’s south coast.

Daniel Folsom was a Seabee billeted in a private house just before D-Day. “We had been instructed to eat only our own rations and not to eat anything the English had because they had only their poor food. In my billet this woman had a cat; next morning she invited us for breakfast and I saw this dark meat on the table. And — until I heard the cat meow — I wouldn’t eat that meat,” Folsom reminisced with a smile.

The Yanks brought with them Spam, canned peaches, bacon, sugar, rice and peas. Coffee, too, arrived not just in tins of beans, but in the form of granules — the nation’s first real introduction to instant coffee. Their guidebook, Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, warned: “The British don’t know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don’t know how to make a good cup of tea. It’s an even swap.”

New year 1943 brought hundreds of thousands more Yanks, mostly ground forces. By May 1945, 2,914,843 American servicemen — and women — had arrived in the British Isles by sea, plus well over 100,000 more by air. The impact on the resident population — then 40m — was huge, because many of their menfolk were fighting overseas. This meant — with a third of a million Canadians, and as many Free French, Irishmen, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, Czechs and Belgians strutting around the UK in combat dress — that about 20% of the adult male population between 18 and 40 were foreigners, mostly Americans.

The Yanks appeared with their jitterbug dances and the tones of Glenn Miller. While transatlantic musical influences were slowly infiltrating the UK, notably jazz and blues, the regular dances held at American bases spread the popularity of swing, boogie-woogie and bebop, genres generally disdained by the BBC.

The influx of 130,000 black GIs both dwarfed and predated the postwar Afro-Caribbean Empire Windrush generation. The former were extraordinarily well received by their new hosts, if not the British government, which chose to back the official US army policy of separating those of colour from their white brethren in restaurants, pubs and dance halls.

A wider bone of contention was the average Yank’s huge spending power. Clad in smart walking-out uniforms with shirts, ties and shoes, GIs were accused by their jealous rivals of pinching their girls and being “overpaid, oversexed and over here”. The standard US riposte was that the British were “underpaid, undersexed and under Eisenhower”.

It was a truism that even the lowliest GI private — earning the equivalent of a British captain’s net pay — could dine out in the best London establishments — but only if he could negotiate his way past the imperious doorman.

All of this has to be seen in the context of the GI generation who grew up in the Great Depression. In little more than a decade they had gone from chronic unemployment to being able to afford the finest hotels. Wonders indeed. The consequent status of all Americans as big spenders — in their eyes and those of the average Briton — has lasted since.

Many young boys learnt to chew gum or smoke at this time because of the generosity of GIs; but there was usually an ulterior motive: in exchange for cigarettes or large bars of chocolate, a photograph of a sister or aunt was expected, with the promise to arrange a date. One Nottingham 19-year-old with stars in her eyes recalled the 82nd Airborne Division invading her city: “Just take the uniform the American paratroopers wore. It was fantastic and we were attracted to them straight away. You must imagine what it was like back then. Before the war, all we could do for entertainment was to go to the pictures, and most of the films we saw were made in Hollywood. So for us to actually meet and hear these young men talk like our screen idols was, to us, like something out of this world.”

Hollywood was all that young British women — like the rest of the population — knew of America. Estimates suggest about 9,000 war babies were born out of wedlock as a result of transatlantic liaisons. Others were more honourable. As US soldiers were permitted to marry at their commanding officers’ discretion, about 45,000 young women became GI brides, emigrating at the end of the war.

The friendly occupiers changed British life in other ways. On the arms of their Yank admirers, women invaded that ultimate working-class preserve — the public house. “Every night a truckload of 15 or 20 Yanks would arrive at the Queen’s Arms,” remembered Dougie Alford of his local in St Just, Cornwall. “When the GIs arrived, that was the beginning of women going to the pub in our village.”

Troops were amused when pub landlords, at the end of licensing hours, would call out: “Time, gentlemen, please — and you bloody Yanks, too.” In quieter country pubs, GIs learnt not only the game of darts and the rules of shove ha’penny, but also words of a dozen naughty songs. “It was our job to buy the drinks and lose at darts,” one surmised.

The approach of D-Day saw the number of newcomers soar. In Wimborne, Dorset, Patricia Barnard observed that “in April 1944 we began to see the arrival and build-up of American soldiers on our roads. Their trucks suddenly appeared, parked up everywhere throughout the countryside and back inland for 20 miles. Thousands and thousands of them. They talked to local people as we went by, and made friends with families in whose gateways they were parked.”

Then Operation Overlord took them all away to France, and as suddenly as they had arrived, they were gone. The concrete runways of a few East Anglian airbases, the odd road leading to a south coast harbour, and seaside memorials are the only physical reminders of the 3m from across the pond.

Yet they left their indelible mark in the memory, as Vera Anderson neatly summarised of the friendly invasion: “I am so glad I did not miss those years. Everyone helped and shared what little we had and it left me with so many memories. When the Americans came to Britain, it was a huge boost for us all and I am so proud to have known them.”

No comments: