Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Home again, where I can write to my member of parliament.

My trip to Spain and back covered nearly 10,000 kilometres this time. Here’s a very stunted and biased review of the countries we passed through: Belgium, boring (but not the beer); Germany, efficient, regulated; Poland, bad roads, nice people; Slovakia, scary, struggling; Austria, see Germany, Italy, exciting, dangerous, historic; France, depressed yet delightful.

And so we came to Spain, our second home. I have lived there on and off for fifteen years, but often find that I am only just getting to know it, just now diving below the superficial. This time I began to understand why nearly everyone in our village owns plots of land: some tiny, some quite large, and often a number of them. More importantly, though I admire the degree of decentralisation – villages have significant local powers in Spain – there is a flaw: Spanish voters have no direct representation.
By Huse Fack March 05, 2013

Years ago, when I was politically active, I wrote a letter to the local paper about proportional representation – yawn, yawn. Wait! In my article I set the scene in a pub; four people were deciding what to drink, they each settled on a different tipple then one of them went to the bar to order. He returned with four glasses each containing a cocktail of all four choices: beer, gin, cider, whisky – a mixture that none of them likes, yet all of them had collectively chosen. That was forty years ago, now I have seen this plausible, but unworkable, scheme in action and it stinks as badly as that awful cocktail. It is the system used to ‘elect’ those anonymous, but very well paid, people whom we call MEPs and it is the basis of Spanish ‘democracy’.

Recently my half-Spanish grandson was amazed when I said that I had written to my MP about some aspect of immigration. He seemed unable to understand the concept and told me that you could not do that in Spain. I assumed that he just did not understand, after all he is young. But he is right, it is just not done. In Spain you are represented by a cocktail of people drawn from the parties who stood for election in your particular state, province or whatever, there is no single representative for your area.

Now, I am not saying that the British democracy is perfect:  far from it, turnout for elections is depressingly poor and respect for politicians and the system they operate in is discouragingly low. However, we do have representatives who hold surgeries in order to hear the views of their constituents and we can write to or email our MP. What’s more, in my experience, they do respond – it is a major part of their job. I wonder what the Spanish congress members and our MEPs do with their time.

There is more. Spain is a Eurozone country so monetary affairs are effectively in the hands of the EU. Other governmental responsibilities are delegated to the various states or autonomies which comprise the country (Galicia, Catalonia, Andalucía, etc) and those responsibilities include health and education. What does this leave for central government? Not much: just things like defence, foreign policy and transport. So, the power of parliament in Spain is severely limited. It is interesting then that regions like Catalonia and the Basque country are demanding ‘complete’ autonomy so that they can attach themselves directly to the mothership: the European Union.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Corruption: the Spanish disease?

Last week I spent alone here in our little Spanish village; Margaret had returned to England. Embarrassed by my failure to master the Spanish language, I decided that a period of total immersion was called for: speaking, hearing and reading entirely in the Spanish language. It did not work out. John, of Joy and John (see previous blogs), is in poor straights with no job and no money so I decided to give him a little work shifting my rubbish tip. As a result, I spent the Monday with him - speaking English. Then I met Terry at his pizzeria and spent an evening talking to him, in English. Then, on another evening, I bumped into a friend who runs the camping site - he’s Dutch but we speak in English, of course. Following that chance meeting I went to the campsite the next day, hence more English conversation with Joost and his wife Jet. Then my neighbours who live above us invited me to dinner on Friday evening. I accepted with alacrity; my cooking being not so good. But that meant another English night. And so it went on.

However, I did immerse myself in Spanish TV and radio. With the former I usually switch on the subtitles (in Spanish) otherwise I understand little or nothing. “Did your mother have subtitles on her head when she taught you English?” Claire, the daughter of my dinner party neighbours, challenged me when I confessed to this, and I suppose she has a point – I turned them off. I still understood little, but I did pick up some words and sometimes, just occasionally, the gist of what was being discussed.

During that entire week, guess which word stood out most on both TV and radio news? You’ve probably guessed it – immigration. No, not at all, but it was one of the words ending in ‘ion’ (most of these words are identical or very similar in Spanish and England, thanks be to Latin). No, the word of the week was - corruption. The previous president of Catalonia, Pujol, came up for trial, accused of massive diversion of state funds into foreign bank accounts. A number of mayors in Madrid were arrested by the police on charges of corruption. Corruption was unveiled amongst socialist politicians in Andalusia. And so on, and on.

Is corruption endemic in Spain (and its former colonies in Latin America, the Philippines, etc)? I suspect that it is, and that it pervades all levels from the very top (royalty and politicians) to the very bottom where it is conventional practice to avoid the swingeing stamp duty (7%) exacted here on house purchase  by allocating a good proportion of the cost of the purchase to incredibly expensive furniture apparently lying within.

Does corruption exist in the UK? Of course it does, it exists everywhere. Remember MP’s expenses, cash for questions and the bankers manipulating interest rates? But these are, I believe, exceptions and not the rule. And the guilty are chased by the press, and usually punished by the courts.

Spain is my second country despite its woeful lack of real ale and my lamentable attempts to speak and understand the language; I therefore wish it and its people well.  It is a young democracy in some respects, still smarting from its years under the iron hand of Franco, yet still luxuriating in its splendid history. It calls its present parlous economic situation ‘La Crisis’. Whilst it continues to wallow in the gutter of corruption,I fear it has little chance of recovery from that crisis and the youngsters in the cities who are unemployed, which is most of them, will remain so.


Interestingly, a new political party has emerged in Spain recently. It calls itself ‘Podemos’ which I think translates to ‘we can’. I do not know its policies or aims, but it is the symbol of change to many and is gaining traction. Perhaps it will help to eradicate the ‘C’ word from Spanish politics and business.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The last step and my perfect shop

Here  in Spain, things go at a different pace. In England the corner shop has been eradicated by the supermarket and the ironmongers replaced by the sheds: Wickes, B&Q and so forth. I have a love/hate relationship with the sheds, they seem to have everything except the thing you actually want and I, an amateur, often know more about using their stuff than the people who work there. In Spain the process of eradication and replacement is ongoing. Here, in our small village, we have a fully operational carpentry business which can make anything from a bird box to a barn and a blacksmith who once made nice cowl for my fire for a mere fifteen euros, but is more likely to be making or repairing huge agricultural machines to be towed behind tractors. Oh, and we have two bakeries and two corner shops too.

Though an amateur, I do a lot of things myself and in order to do DIY I need bits and pieces, usually small numbers of them. In Oxford, since the closure of the one and only remaining ironmongers in the city, I have been forced to traverse the huge sheds searching for some small item: asking for help but getting none. Here we have Falgas. Falgas is a shop in a village some ten miles away that sells almost anything that you might need, literally. Yes, from a teaspoon to a watering can to a welding machine, they have it all, and they can tell you how things work, and adapt them to your needs.

After the first robbery here I tried to secure the door of my caseta (stone hut) with a swinging arm of my own design. I had it tested by criminally minded friends and finally settled on the Mark 3 version. The  latest thief made short work of my clever design. Finding that he or she could not get in after angrily ripping off the door bolt he, it surely was a he, violently tore off part of the door and simply swept my swinging arm to one side. The Mark 3 had failed. I am now working on the Mark 4 and strengthening the door with iron bars. The Mark 4 will have a ratchet mechanism so that it cannot be swept aside. However, in early tests, I found that the ratchet requires a spring assembly to force it into place. I tried to fabricate something using a hacksaw blade as a spring, but it was no good. So, off I went to Falgas to explain my problem in broken Spanish. In very little time the manager had shown me a few possible readymade solutions but they too were no good. Then, as a team, he and I brought together a spring, two bits of tube, one of which fits inside the other and I had my solution. He even drilled holes in the tubes and inserted pins to keep the thing together. Total cost six euros!




Security aside, progress continues on my project. Two weeks after laying the last stone in the walls, I have completed the external stairs that lead from the main room of the caseta to the terrace above where I am currently building a small stone hut to house water tanks and batteries. For about two years I have been using the slope that now supports the stairs to ascend and descen and to pull up concrete and large stones. During all of that time Margaret has refused to ascend the slope because it is ‘dangerous’. I completed the last of the fourteen steps on Friday and invited her up the steps for a first view of the terrace the next day. I made a table out of concrete blocks, covered it with a white cloth made from a bag in which sand had been delivered then laid out two glasses and a bottle of local red wine. She was touched. Of course, I could have bought a proper table from Falgas…and a wine cooler…and a table cloth…and a bottle opener…and…

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Stoned at last. And stunned.

On Saturday 25th of October, I laid the ultimate stone on a low sloping wall on the new terrace of my caseta. I laid the first on 20th March 2010, nearly five years before. It’s been a long haul. Like Sisyphus, I thought it would never end, and at times, like a quitter, I felt like walking away from the whole thing. So how did I feel when I laid that last little stone? Bathos. Do you remember finishing exams at school or whatever? For weeks you studied and crammed, hardly sparing the time to dream of what you would do when it was all over. Then it was all over and you were at a loss for something to do. Swatting had become your life. Building with stone became mine, so laying that last stone produced a strange sense of loss.





Though it was hard work and often quite boring, there was a sense of progress. At the end of a week the wall had grown a little, another corner stone could be added, maybe the gap between the two halves of the wall could be backfilled with concrete. It has been frustrating at times: the search for the right stone, the careful shaping of a stone to fit into “the jigsaw with no solution” followed by that final smack with the hammer that disintegrated the thing, the amazing tendency for stones to align with those below rather than bond. But there was also a sense of creation. I could see where I had been and, overlooking a few mistakes, there was no going back.

There were times when did feel like giving the whole thing up, but a spell in the UK usually cured that: I came back with the enthusiasm of an absentee returned. I clearly remember finishing the first, the south, wall up to terrace height and feeling rather pleased with myself, then I turned to the north and realised with a sinking heart that I had to do it all again. And when I finished that I had to do the west wall before I could install joists and lay the concrete terrace floor upon them and the walls. And that was not the end I had to build the terrace walls and the little casita above to house batteries and tanks and stuff. The end seemed unreachable. Yet I have reached it – though there is still lost of other work to be done on the project, I have finished stone work.

Skill is an acquired thing, though some people build on an innate ability. You can look at someone plastering a wall, or engraving a glass, or making a pot, or playing a guitar, and think, “I wish I could do that”. And of course you could, but it would take many years of practice to be really good at it. I have served my apprenticeship in stone walling – but would only rank myself as semi-skilled. I currently have a good eye for a required stone and a reasonable feel for the nature of stones: crumbly, workable, fracture prone, brittle, etc. However, those abilities will soon fade if I do not exercise them. What will remain is the stone caseta, or at least I certainly hope it will.

Whilst every cloud might have a silver lining, the satisfaction of completing my stone work has been marred. A few days afterwards, I was burgled again. It happened during my lunch break, a mere hour and half. Fortunately, and most strangely, they only stole petrol (worth less that 20 Euros), ignoring my drill and angle grinder which were both nearby. They made a fearful mess smashing in the door and, most galling, they made short shrift of my clever security mechanism – back to the drawing board.

Stunned and vengeful, I called in the Guardia Civil who were about as much help as a turnip in a training college. Constantly fingering their guns as if the thief might be nearby, and grinning as if at some secret joke they both shared, they told me that I must go to the station and make a report. I said, “That is what I am doing, I am making a report to you”. But they could do nothing they said, for all they knew an animal might have committed the crime or I might have done it myself. “You must make a report,” they reiterated. “And then what?” I asked, exasperated. They seemed confused by this question, as if the answer was too obvious for words. They left, fingering their revolvers and grinning.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The AIDS question

Whilst living in Spain I am mostly busy: building the extension to my little stone hut (the caseta), writing notes on our life here, social outings which usually involve eating and drinking, and the usual practicalities of life including visits to the shops and house maintenance. But, I still find time to read – mostly when eating, siesta time, or in bed prior to sleeping.

Recently I finished “Are you positive?” by Stephen Davies and started “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” by Robert Tressel,  “Chrome Yellow” by Aldous Huxley, and “Germinal” by Emile Zola. The middle two I have abandoned. “Ragged” because, though many socialist friends have recommended it in the past, I found it unreal, not well-written and belonging to an age of the past where most active socialists rest their case. “Chrome” because it was also unreal, set amongst a world of rich and shallow people to who I could not relate. “Germinal” I will finish because it is so powerfully written and convincing, and because it touches on both rich and poor of a distant past.

“Are you positive?” has no ending. It portrays a fictional court case and leaves the reader to decide the verdict. However, at the end of it all, my eyes have been opened: it has cast doubt upon a subject where before I had none. I knew that HIV caused AIDS, that you die of AIDS (or actually the diseases to which you are no longer immune),  and that HIV is passed by blood or semen or both which is of no direct concern of to me since I am not a haemophiliac, do not inject things into my body with dirty needles, and always wear a condom. Now I am not so sure, and have therefore discarded the condom.

The trial concerns a young man accused of murder. The prosecution state that he knowingly had unprotected sex with a younger woman fully aware that he was HIV positive. She consequently became HIV positive, took the prescribed medication and died of liver failure. The masterly defence lawyer calls upon expert witnesses from around the world in order to prove that:-
  • ·         The tests for HIV are flawed and anyway only show the presence of antibodies – proof that you have had HIV and your body’s immune system developed a defence against it, or that you inherited that defence.
  • ·         That there is no proof that HIV leads to AIDS.
  • ·         That the medication given to HIV positives to prevent the onset of AIDS kills many of them.
  • ·         That HIV is not transmitted by heterosexual intercourse.
  • ·         That the reason for death allocated to HIV positives is recorded as AIDS when it may be something else entirely.

All of this took me back to San Francisco, somewhere near Alcatraz prison, in the late 1980’s. Listening to the sales pitch of a super-confident and racist man who presided over the company supplying some technology we were about to buy, I was shocked when he suddenly announced, “AIDS…it's something that homos, actors and druggies get. We’re better off without ‘em.” And it reminded me too of TV coverage given to America’s favourite princess, Diana, bravely holding the hand of an AIDS sufferer to prove to us all that aristocrats were immune. It’s that blue blood, you know.

Is it possible that the entire AIDS mountain is based on a fallacy? That Robert Fallo who is said to have made a fortune from the patents surrounding the HIV virus and its detection in humans and who is also  said to have stolen the virus from the French (oh no, not the “French disease” again), was in fact, intentionally or otherwise misleading the whole world.

The trial and its background is seen through the eyes of a lady reporter who is convinced that her brother died as a result of taking the HIV medications and whom she had encouraged to do so. She has little doubt that the AIDS Industry is there to preserve itself and its income. Personally, I really don’t know.

If in doubt, consult the oracle. Not surprisingly, the Web is full of contradictory arguments. One site provides quote after quote disparaging the case for HIV=AIDS from seemingly pucker sources such as the Sunday Times and Lancet. However, there are others which argue the opposite, for example the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has an online paper providing a myriad of references to research studies which are said to prove the link between HIV and AIDS. It lists, then systematically destroys, a whole series of AIDS myths. Who is right? I still don’t know. But I am left with a question mark in an area of my brain that was formerly quite positive.


Meanwhile, should we be spending a fortune on medication for AIDS in Africa where there may be deeper problems like malaria and unclean water and civil wars – killers all? What do you think?

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Walking, working and following the band - Spain again.

I‘ve settled back into my second country after the trek (in our motor caravan) across  Europe. It is nice here, though the weather’s a bit too hot so I’ve taken to a siesta. I start work on the caseta reasonably early, go home for lunch at one, by which time it is pretty much unbearable (especially becuase the flies love it), bit of a nap and a read then back down at three – by which time part of my little building site is in shade.

On Sunday I went on a walk organised, I think, by the local government. I’m not much of a group walker, but thought it would be interesting. A friend picked me up and we arrived at Nonaspe, a village some way to the north at nine-thirty. Things seemed pretty quiet at the starting point (the main square of the village) and that was not suprising since we were told that everyone else had started out two hours earlier!

We became known as “the ultimos” – the last ones -  and seemed to get special attention from the many helpers dotted along the way: we were often mentioned on the radio links (as the ultimos). The two ladies at the starting location actually applauded as we returned. Anyway, for us two it was not a group walk at all, though we did meet some of the returning heroes from the long route – they looked so professional, and hot. Nevertheless the walk was great; after a stumbling start we ascended to a ridge which gave a lovely view of the curving Mataranya River framed by a vast, striated cliff beyond which, I think was the Ebro, the river that ours joins and is then swept down to the Mediterranean.

The walk cost fifteen euros, and that included a meal – of sorts - canteen paella swilled down with dubious white and red wine diluted, for taste, with soda water. It was held in the vast and modern sports hall which even the smallest villages hereabouts seem to have. There were a few hundred of us there and we took up only a fraction of its extent. It was fun though. Once it was discovered that I came from La Fresneda, then someone was dragged out of the crowd and introduced to me. She was born in Nonaspe, but now lived in our village. Such camaraderie between fellow villagers.


Our favourite village in the area of the Mataranya, beside our own of course, is Cretas. We disliked it at first, seeing only its uninteresting main street and the unsightly modern development to the east. Then we discovered its wonderful plaza, its bars, its wine festival, and its late-in-the-year fiesta. Last night we went to the opening night of the latter, and followed the jota musicians and singers around the delightful antique streets. At regular intervals we stopped at tables laden with savoury or sweet tid-bits and, since this was supposed to be a tour of the bodegas (the wineries), there was also sweet, sour, or red wine available in little plastic cups – all free. I cannot imagine a better way to spend a warm October night – or maybe I can. Anyway, it was delightful. I was the only one left of our small party at the end – around two thirty in the morning – and they did save the best to last. More music, snacks and wine, but this time in the vast innards of an olive oil press, dwarfed by the olive grinder and using the presses to stand our drinks on. I was introduced to the mayor of Cretas, I believe that this glorious night’s expense was on his tab.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Tunnelling through Europe as a drain mole

This trip to Spain was our longest by far: it took three weeks and on the way we visited Belgium, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Italy and France. In three and half thousand miles (5.6 Km), we suffered only two minor collisions: both affecting the same wing mirror!

Most of the time we were above ground, but we did spend many hours in tunnels: like moles we threw ourselves into the ground, popped out for a few seconds then under again. Unlike a mole, we could see, but I can assure you that there is little of interest in tunnels except, perhaps for civil engineers (damned impressive curve that, just look at the finish on that concrete, etc). One tunnel was over two miles long…and the words ‘never ending’ were mentioned.

How does a mole navigate? I guess it does not; after all, it has nowhere in particular to go. A mole’s journeys must be fairly random (witness the tell-tale molehills) searching for the next worm. They are a bit like us on our journey: for ‘next worm’ substitute ‘next pint and a schnitzel’; gosh I ate a lot of schnitzels, love ‘em.

 SatNav, of course, does not work below ground, so would be little use to moles and, though our radio is SatNav capable, we do not have the necessary disc to enable it. I am in charge of route planning, whilst Margaret is the real time navigator and back up sign reader. We use maps of course, and as a back up - in other words when we get lost - I ask for help. We do meet lots of nice people that way. I would not say that we deliberately get lost, but it is worth considering.

Italy loves tunnels. I do not know why, perhaps there is some link here with macaroni. The coast to the west of the incredibly busy city of Genoa is laced with them. In fact, the gaps provided by the elevated motorways which bridge the deep valleys between each pierced mountain range are much shorter than the tunnels themselves. Yet the coastal road is incredibly bendy and often dangerously narrow for a motor caravan, so the mole route is essential. It costs of course. Margaret is in charge of payments since the toll booths are on her side of the van. It was quite amusing to watch her antics as she almost climbed out of the window to reach a high ticket machine, or almost vanished as she dangled down to make a payment. I almost lost her once.


Towards the end of our journey, we actually slept in a tunnel! Portbou is the first resort on the Mediterranean coast below Perpignan. It has a wonderful mirador (viewing place) high up in the cliff side looking down towards the village in its bay, and south along the Costa Brava. There was no one else there and no notices barring overnight sleeping in motor caravans (this was Spain). So we overnighted there looking forward to breakfast with views to die for. At about four in the morning, I could stand it no more: the howl of the wind and dangerous rocking of the motor caravan on its springs became too much. Unwilling to die, I drove down into the village and parked in a very long tunnel beneath the railway line, just alongside the notice that stated ‘Danger. No Parking in case of rain’. The howling of the wind was replaced by the sound of trains overhead and wind-blown plastic bottles bouncing through the tunnel. We did get some sleep though, then returned to our mirador for breakfast.


Now, settled in our village of La Fresneda at last, we are enjoying the sole produce of our huerto: one large watermelon. That’s above ground. We also have potatoes below if Adrian Mole hasn’t stolen them.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scotland viewed from afar

I have just reached Verona in Northern Italy, having travelled fairly rapidly from Poland via Slovakia and Austria. I liked the latter best. On our travels we have met a number of people of different nationality and almost every conversation  contained a discussion on the Scottish independence question (now mercifully answered, and for good I hope). The most common response was incredulity: incredulity that the Scots would consider independence at all and furthermore that the vote might be a ‘yes’. “That sort of nationalism is a thing of the past,” a man from Germany told me.


Leaving Slovakia, we circled Bratislava on our slow progress towards the south-west and got badly lost. This was not unexpected; the route was a difficult one to plot on our inadequate atlas of Europe and intersections, road numbers and terminal points were vague. Finally, we found ourselves on the road to Budapest in Hungary whereas we were supposed to be heading for Graz in Austria. We knew that we had lost it when we passed through an extensive set of dilapidated border control buildings. I left the main road and headed north in the hope of intersecting our original route. Soon we passed another border control complex and my these things were big: splitting the road into many lanes and dotted with ugly concrete constructions. The building were in an atrocious state: ceilings collapsing and the area dotted with the detritus of neglect and, of course, entirely deserted. The army of border guards had long dispersed and hopefully were now doing some more meaningful task.

Baratislava has nearby borders with Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, now completely unchecked and, as far as I can tell, creating no problems. Those crumbling frontier posts should be a monument to Europe united now by peace and beneficial commerce – and to the death of that evil force that has caused so much death, pain and suffering: nationalism.

Our passage through Slovakia was not the most memorable, though the Tatra mountains were impressive and a great contrast to the flatlands of Poland. The country seems poor and neglected and our first choice for an overnight stay, Zilina, was quickly rejected. We found a better, smaller place nearby called Bytca and had a meal in the Galleria restaurant, just me and Margaret in a vast and beautiful subterranean restaurant. I was awakened at 3 a.m. by a loud scream. Someone was trying to steal our bicycles from the rack at the back of the van. Fortunately Margaret’s scream was enough to scare them off, but further sleep was near impossible.

Why Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic, I do not know. I cannot even remember it happening. Comparing what I saw of country with previous visits to Prague (probably not a fair comparison), this nationalistic split has not benefited the country. However, they do have Tesco supermarkets and Margaret took some mysterious delight in visiting one: her attempt to use her club card was, however, rejected.

And so back to Scotland. We celebrated the confirmation of the union last night with a dram in a Veronese bar. The waiter found three whisky bottles from which we could choose; of course we chose the Scotch. We talked animatedly of what would follow the “no” vote and drank again to the welcome news of the First Minister’s resignation. I then asked for the bill: sixteen euros for two whiskies!!! It was enough to make a Scotsman - and an Englishman – blanche. Why you can by a bottle of the stuff for that and, worse still, - I do not even like it.


Anyway, roll on the union. Time for closer economic ties with Ireland and a united British Isles rather than United Kingdom. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Poland for Vaulters

Someone (Ken Spence, actually) once told me a story about the Olympics of the past - I don’t know when. A man from the press walked up to a male contestant and asked, “Are you a pole vaulter?”
He replied, “Yes, and how do you know my name?”

We left England on the 3rd of September 2014 and did a quick dash through Belgium – very flat - and into Germany, finally slowing down in Kolenz where we camped outside the camp site (cheeky) and began our Rhine experience. It was lovely: the castles, the river, the villages, everything. A bit busy though – and far too many motor-caravans (we thought we were special, in Germany everyone owns a motor-caravan). We enjoyed Heidelberg, Bamberg and Meissen, then finally by-passed Dresden at 1,500 miles and achieved our goal: Poland.

It’s not so different here. Hmmm, oh yes it is different. They do not have the Euro, the roads are mostly terrible, they drive maniacally and have their own wonderfully unique language. Hangman cannot be played here. Many of the town names lack vowels entirely: rhythm would not be an exceptional word in Polish hangman.

Our first Pole was not called Walter, but Yollande. She was incredibly helpful when we were lost, shaken (from the roads) and despondent in Swidnica. She mounted her beloved bicycle and guided us to a campsite near the centre of town (we do not usually use them, but Swindica threatened) following slowly as she pedalled through the streets. She has a daughter in England and showed us the photos on her smartphone, many of them of the daughter’s dog actually. We thanked her effusively for her help, but she declared, to our surprise, that she did it for Jesus. So disappointing, I thought that she did it for us.

Our first meal in that city cost less than £12, including five beers. Who cares about bumpy roads now then?

Our next Pole was called Kamila, not Walter. She was the daughter of the innkeeper whose garden we cheekily parked next to for the night. He came to complain – I thought. He kept pointing at our bicycles as if this was the final straw. Here he was running a hotel in remote and rural Poland and cheeky chappies arrive from England, with bicycles strapped to their camper-van, preparing to sleep right next to his hotel.  We shared no language so he finally called his daughter Kamila and she joined us to explain that her Dad thought the bikes might be stolen: would we like to store them overnight in the hotel! Next morning Kamila served us tea in the hotel and told us that nearly all of her school friends had emigrated to England.

Our third Pole was called Yan, they often are. We met him amongst the meteor craters north of Poznan. He translated the signs for us and described his life as the proprietor of a company supplying sinks and taps to kitchen installers. We also discussed the possible independence of Scotland – bizarre and expensive – and the current economy of Poland
.
Polish people, at least the English speakers with whom we interact, are so nice, so helpful. Can they possibly be the same people who have cut me up on the roads, shattered my wing mirror and who wake me at six o’clock in the morning by assembling in the car park where I am sleeping in my motor-home solely in order to start a cycle race?


Tomorrow Krakow: Poland for the tourist? We will see.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A tree line to John Fowles

Just re-reading John Fowles' The Tree with whining chainsaws and the clattering of a wood chipper in the background. My house at Stow has had a line of cypress trees close to the eastern wall ever since I moved in: they were big then, now they tower above the house and they give me nightmares.

There was a similar line of trees to the west which had to go when I extended the house some years ago. My brother-in-law and I cleared them, bringing down the telephone line and nearly causing a neighbourhood feud. We burned the felled trees in the back garden as we took them down; the smoke was so dense that I was completely unaware of the visit by my enraged neighbour and of his angry castigation of my poor, innocent brother-in-law.

This time, for various reasons, I have employed professionals and am hoping for an end to my nightmares. Imagine waking up in the early hours to a strange slithering sound which you cannot identify but your half-awake mind exaggerates into the worst of horrors. Realising that the sound was simply the brushing of the branches of those trees against the roof helped a little, but also reminded me that their roots were undermining the house itself.

I love trees and destroying them pains me, but these had passed the line. Twice, I discovered that they had blocked my storm drains. Their roots had broken into the pipes and extended five metres into the weepers! Finally, they managed to topple the retaining wall beside them thus sealing their fate. Sad, but there we are.


If he were still around, I think that John Fowles would be quite happy with their demise: too regular, unnatural. He remains one of my favourite authors and a man I would have liked to have met. Exploring the Undercliff near Lyme Regis recently reminded of him and it was there that I took this strange photo of my son Rafe and my friend Robert Twigger. Fowles loved the wildness of nature and you can easily imagine him puzzling over the events that produced the distorted wonder that the two men are sitting on: they look like leprechaun out to enjoy themselves. In The Tree, John Fowles tries to describe his philosophy which itself underscores his wonderful novels (French Lieutenant's Woman, The Magus, etc). He believed that science and learning fetter our ability to enjoy nature. In labelling, describing, cataloguing we bury the immense joy that can be felt in finding a new flower or shrub or forest. Nature is wild and by categorising it we box it in, we curtail it: He was not a fan of Linnaeus.


When I write novels, I have only the vaguest notions of plot and ending. This gives me great enjoyment. Locked within my own creation, I often cannot wait to get back to it and to see what happens next. Reading The Tree, I was humbled and pleased to learn that my favourite author wrote in the same way. I wonder if they encourage this in "creative writing" courses. Meanwhile, though I very rarely read a book twice, I might descend once more into Fowles' magical worlds by re-reading The Magus. That's if I can get it cheaply on Kindle; I do find it hard to read a "proper" book nowadays.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

I hate computers

What if your car behaved like your computer?

You buy a new car. You had a test drive and it drove well: that's why you bought it. And for the first few weeks it is fine, just as the salesman said it would be. Then, things begin to change. Suddenly the car slows down, you push on the accelerator, but the car still slows down. Then all the dashboard displays dim out. Suddenly, miraculously, everything is OK again and you are on your way.


 No worries, just a glitch perhaps. Then it happens again and again. You take the car back to the garage, but the mechanics can't find anything wrong and snidely infer that there is something wrong with your driving.
You drive home sadly, and the slowing down starts again. You drive straight back to the garage where the mechanics greet you with a scowl - yet still they can find nothing wrong, even on a test drive.

You learn to live with the car's strange behaviour. What else can you do? Then something else develops. The car still behaves erratically, but also its top speed decreases as time goes by so that you are crawling along the road, overtaken by bicycles and joggers. The mechanics examine the car and accuse you of overloading it: too many passengers, too much shopping.

Finally, you buy a new car, what else can you do? Then the same cycle begins all over again.
Some years ago Bill Gates reportedly compared the computer industry with the auto industry stating, "If General Motors had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon."

GM responded with a long list of outcomes if Microsoft made cars, including:
1. For no reason whatsoever, your car would crash twice a day.
2. Every time they repainted the lines in the road, you would have to buy a new car.
3. Occasionally your car would die on the freeway for no reason. You would have to pull to the side of the road, close all of the windows, shut off the car, restart it, and reopen the windows before you could continue.

So much of this is still true today - and the worrying thing is that a computer now controls most of the functions of the car.


Actually, I do not hate computers. I have grown up with them. Indeed I programmed one that controlled a telephone exchange many years ago (it rarely crashed once we had removed most of the bugs). A computer is just a machine, it does what it is told and rarely goes wrong. Unfortunately, the software that tells it what to do does go wrong and it is that which, over time, causes the enraging slowness that plagues most PC's. Problems like these bring out the witch doctors of course, but the spells they cast are temporary and the problems recurrent. In the end you buy a new machine with new software and begin the whole cycle again.

As you might guess, I am nearing that point just now - probably for the fifth or sixth time.

Friday, 18 July 2014

Babel in the Cotswolds: On language

According to the Bible (Genesis), the whole world at some time "had one language and a common speech".

Cheeky chappies of the world then got together saying, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”


But a jealous God is not always pleased with his supplicants. He responded in this way, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”




Which is why our house in Stow on the Wold has been transformed. Our two grandchildren have recently arrived from Taiwan and chatter away in English and/or Chinese. They have been joined by our Spanish grandson who is struggling with English, but is already bilingual in Catalan and Spanish. It is still a marvel me to converse with my three-year-old granddaughter in toddler-English only to see her turn to her mother and enter a conversation in Mandarin which is entirely beyond me.

Of course, the interchanges are often puerile; after all she is only three. Recently we visited the imposing remains of Raglan Castle in Wales. I spent some time having mock fights with my seven-year-old grandson. At the end of one battle, we heard a call in Chinese from the top of the central tower; it came from his sister. He responded and for a while they shouted the same words back and forth. I asked him what they were saying. He grinned and replied gleefully, "We are shouting 'pooh-pooh' in Chinese."

In Spain we often think that the conversations that we overhear in the village are quite profound. The villagers are very intense, they gesticulate wildly their expressions graduating from solemnity to rage. Yet when we ask someone what they are talking about it is often the price of bread, or the ripening of tomatoes, or straightforward gossip. The language barrier when lifted can lead to disappointment.

And of course, the language barriers are falling. My Taiwanese grandchildren will have direct access to 1.4 billion Chinese plus all of the English-speaking nations of the world and all of those who speak English as a second language (the most prolific second language). My Spanish grandson will have all of the latter plus the entire continent of America (north and south) at his command. I envy and admire them even though, for the Taiwanese children, bilingualism it is a natural process requiring no conscious effort on their part.

Why has English become the dominant second language of the world - the equivalent of Latin in the middle ages? Well, it certainly does have a simple verb structure (though I think it is more complex than Mandarin where past present and future are all the same); but it also has grave spelling and pronunciation problems (remember 'fish' spelled 'ghoti' from George Bernard Shaw: 'gh' as in rough, 'o' as in women, 'ti' as in nation). I suppose we owe the success of English to the British Empire and the global dominance of the USA in commerce and entertainment.


Of course, the Americans have tried to improve English by rationalising the spelling of, for example, 'plough' to 'plow'. So sensible, yet we then lose the derivation of those words over time. What I am really unhappy with is the dumbing down of our language by emulating the Americans, and I am thinking now particularly of the use of 'guy' instead of man, bloke, chap, fellow, old boy, etc. OK, I know that the term can be used as a generic for men and women, but we already have generics such as folk, people, etc which are asexual. So, let's get together folks and speak English-English thus avoiding any confusion between rubbers and condoms, pants and trousers.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Reflexions of an Oxford City Guide

I have been an Oxford city guide for some eight years now and it seems a good time to look back over this new career of my third age. You meet people from lots of countries in this job: mostly nice, some irritating. One of my first experiences of the latter was provided by a large woman from the USA who, at the beginning of a two-hour walking tour, asked very loudly "will there be much walking involved in this tour?" I explained that it was a walking tour to which she responded, "Well, I cannot walk very far you know". I allowed silence to reign and tapped into the growing discomfort of the other eighteen or so walkers.
Encaenia 2014
Tour groups are like a person, they have a mass character usually determined by the more vocal members and backed up by the rest. Some are great: the spokespersons ask sensible questions, engage in repartee with me and sometimes supply useful additional info. Like the performer that you are, you feed off this: it fuels your ego and pumps up your act - it really does. Children, teenagers and corporate groups can bring you down: the former two by showing complete disinterest in anything not connected with Harry Potter, the latter by their their overweening interest in their work and their corporate buddies. These groups have not chosen to come on a tour; someone selected it for them and paid for them. They reap what they sow: a lukewarm performance from a clockwatching guide.

Interestingly, when you start out as a guide you fear questions that you cannot answer - and have to restrain yourself from attempting to answer them regardless. As you mature into the job then you relish an interesting question that you have never encountered. I have not stopped learning (information about Oxford is glacial), so an interesting question turns me into a researcher rather than a regurgitator. Science tours are best for this I find, it's in the nature of the people who choose that tour to be searching, and in my nature to search.
Occasionally I have taken 'important people' on tours. I do not wish to do so again. Usually these people are accustomed to 'royal' treatment and cannot or will not respond to my same-level approach to guiding. One of them would not follow me (I am the guide!), another would pass on by when I stopped to explain something.

One thing worries me about people in groups (and perhaps about humanity): they can so easily lose their individuality. For example, there are times when you have to cross a road where there is no pedestrian crossing. I ask them to be careful then begin to cross only to find they are following like lemmings - not looking out for traffic at all.

You do regularly meet the same type of punter. There's the 'echo' for one. After a spirited description of a college in which you supply its name, age and history the 'echo' asks, "Which college is this?" followed by, "How old is this college?" Then there's the 'expert abroad' who is intent on telling you and the other 
members of an Oxford tour all about their hometown: Northampton, or Swindon, or wherever - fascinating. And there is the 'googler' who asks why a particular niche is empty, or why a hand is missing from a statue, or where a particular chunk of limestone came from. But all these types are the exceptions not the rule and they are sent to test our gentility.

When I started guiding, there was little competition. We, the trained and badged guides, worked from the Tourist Information Centre; there was also a small group hanging around Trinity College for the good summer pickings; a nice man from Blackwell's called Peter; and a drunk who haunted the remoter regions of the city.  Nowadays you can barely pass the information centre without tripping over a board offering 'free' tours, or hear yourself speak for the cries of so-called guides vying for the punter's attention. One lot offers 'official free tours' whatever that means. Another encourages their free-borders to leap up and shout under what they misleading call 'The Bridge of Sighs'. Disneyland has arrived and there is no attempt to regulate this menagerie.


Thing are not what they used to be, but I still enjoy far more than half of the tours that I do - and grin and bear the remainder. The city is beautiful and its history sublimely interesting.

Monday, 16 June 2014

England, my England

Likes: greenness, pubs, real ale, historic buildings, most people.

Dislikes: bad weather, thoughtless development, bad beer, some people.

Living away for significant periods certainly stimulates awareness of your homeland. Last week we did a little historic tour of the south west, or at least a small part of it. As usual we travelled and lived in our motor caravan, mostly sleeping in car parks. Maybe there is a book there: England's Car Parks at Night. Not really; nothing much happens.

First, we went to Woodchester Mansion, a gothic revival project near the town of Stroud - itself located in the delightful golden valley. The mansion is Victorian, and one of its main features is the fact that is incomplete which allows visitors to view its internals in a way that verges on voyeurism.

Things that stick in the mind are: the fireplaces suspended high up in the floorless walls, the one room completed for the visit of some dignitary, the horseshoe bats who are the only occupants, the large ladder still standing against a wall and partly rungless, the crumbling chapel, the use of brick infill in a limestone clad edifice, the unfilled holes where the putlogs of timber scaffolding once rested.

We travelled on to Wells, the smallest city in England. Its cathedral and bishop's palace punch well above Well's weight in the population stakes. The west end of the cathedral gave me one of those moments: a surge of emotion that happens rarely and brings unexpected  and inexplicable tears to the eyes. It is wonderful. The two towers look chunky from afar, but close to are intricately carved and light in texture. The long internal arching is brilliant and the eye-like crossing formed by its inverse gothic arch is quite entrancing. I could go on and on - enough. We had a brilliant guide, an ex-architect with a depth of understanding of church structure that impressed the hell out of me - if you can say that of such holy surroundings.

But my favourite stop was Sherborne: a small Somerset town with something for all - and a quiet car park to sleep in. There is a group of delightful buildings around the strange conduit building in the centre and nearby a very large abbey church with a well-preserved Norman entry tower (we did not go in - you can become a bit over-churched). And the pub! They still exist you know: traditional pubs with no music or TV and a sign indicating a fine of 50p for anyone daring to use a mobile, real ale at £2.40 a pint,  lots of alcoves...the Sherborne Tap is a jewel. We left reluctantly to purchase fish and chips from a Glaswegian fryer who set me to rights on Scottish independence and many other topical points while cooking the cod. Then jazz in another pub! I don't even like jazz, but I liked it there - and enjoyed the people that we met.

Next day I jogged around the Sherborne Castle Estate, then we visited the two castles - old and new. The latter was originally the house of Sir Walter Raleigh, an Oxford graduate who brought potatoes and tobacco to us from America. He was executed before lung cancer and blocked arteries could bring him down and his house was bought by the Digby family who expanded it into the castle that we saw. It has nice stone framing, but the inset panels are rendered (the receptionist told me that it was the first rendered house in England). Concrete does not age well so, at close quarters, the place looks somewhat unattractive. But inside it is wonderfully furnished and decorated. The unusual shape provided by four wings built out from the original house ensures an extremely light interior and delightful views of the grounds from almost every room. It is a treasure, as is the ruined old castle and the extensive lake.

We spent our last night in Bradford-on-Avon's station car park after enjoying the delights of an open-mike night in the Swan. It is a lovely town with many attractive stone buildings clinging to the hillside and a simple, but endearing, Saxon church.


And so back to Stow, where I dug in the lettuce plants bought in Wells and admired Margaret's colourful flower garden. An English country garden.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Political Chemistry

Sometimes things go wrong, yet turn out right. I launched my book on the chats between Margaret Thatcher and Dorothy Hodgkin in March then dashed off to Spain. Not a good move. I had real difficulty drumming up any media interest (Thatcher aversion?) then Radio Oxford had a programme on Margaret just after I left and invited me along to speak, but I was in transit and am not one for turning back. Then, just before I left, I received two pages of comments, criticisms and suggestions from Margaret Bullard, a lady who was married to Dorothy's cousin and had known both of the subjects of my book well. Her son Robert had kindly passed a copy of the manuscript to her and, to be honest, I did not really expect a response so was unwilling to delay publication - the changes came too late.

But in this world of instant publication it is never too late: the comments were so important that I knew I would have to incorporate them. Coupled with this I had a strange reaction to the book - some people thought that the conversations were real! They were shocked to discover that I had invented them and I was shocked that they should think otherwise. Did they think there was a tape recorder under the desk? Well, be aware people, Bing Crossby only discovered the tape recorder in 1947, the year of my book, and it was then much too big to conceal under a desk. Nonetheless, I looked at the title and decided that the mention of conversations might, just might, have led them to this absurd conclusion, and realised that I would have to change it.


Now I have a new, and better, title - Political Chemistry - and a better book thanks to Margaret Bullard's comments, so I have republished. I suppose that this sort of thing has happened before in the era of printing presses and such, but not this quickly. Political Chemistry in eBook form is available as I write and will be available as a paper book within a few days - both on Amazon and cheap at present.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Letter from Spain: I finished a wall!

I have been working on my little stone hut for some years now, on and off. The end is now in sight. I still have more stonework to do when I return to Spain in September, but I left this time feeling that I had really got somewhere. In the early days, whilst still honing my skills as an amateur stonemason, I had almost despaired at my slow progress – thinking that I would never finish the project. At the time I was only partway through the south wall - my first.

The wall I have completed is the north wall and it is largest in area.I have given the walls a slope upwards to carry on the angle of the original roofline. I will then cap them with tiles and from most aspects they will look like a continuation of the roof – in fact there will be a small roof at the western end, it will cover a little hut or cupboard in which I will install the water tanks and batteries and on which I will securely clamp the solar collectors (people steal them I’m told). In the middle there will be an open terrace, the base of which I have already laid.

The plan is this: Margaret and I will crouch beneath the sloping walls waiting for someone to come by at speed (there is a 30 kph limit on our track). They will admire the new roof from below then, suddenly, we will pop up, as if from nowhere! This will cause them such a shock that they will lose control of their car, tractor or van and plunge into the stream that runs alongside the track. We will then present them with the proverb “more haste, less speed” carefully translated into Spanish and printed on one of the terracotta bricks that they use to build modern casetas and houses around our area and they will never speed again.

Many Spanish people do tend to drive quickly and dangerously. It’s odd because they amble to their cars, slowly get in, gradually get started – then roar off at high speed, cutting corners wherever they can (the white lines on Spanish roads are there to straddle), overtaking anything in their path and then screaming to a halt at their destination (if they make it). They then turn off the engine, sit for a while to rest, then amble slowly to wherever they are going – the shop, the bar, the friend’s house or whatever - chatting amiably and patiently to anyone they meet on the way.


Back to my wall: you know, I felt so good when I finished it. I had to keep looking at it from different angles. There is a great satisfaction in achieving something like that, despite the fact that it’s taken so long. “Poca a poca,” say the locals – little by little. I hope to complete the outside of the place later this year and am planning the opening party for next.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Letter from Spain: Easter without eggs

Easter, or Semana Santa (saint’s week), is a big thing in Spain, really big. And it’s not about bunnies, or hot crossed buns or stuffing yourself with chocolate. In fact, in our area of Spain, it’s all about drumming. Yes, I know - of course I know - it’s supposed to be all about the death, resurrection and ascendancy of Jesus Christ – and of course that religious thing still sets the scene for the Easter celebrations here. However, the thunder of the drums has mostly drowned out the praying and hymn singing in the churches, and most of the drummers are not at all religious - they do it because they enjoy it, because it’s a tradition and because it creates community.

However, our week started without drums and within our own little community of La Fresneda. The village had organised a charity bash based on local talent. It started late, of course, though I had raced to get there on time. The first performer was a young bearded man with guitar – quite nice. Then Dolors, our friend, introduced her ensemble from nearby Monroyo including four reluctant kids, three enthusiastic old men Jota singers, a short play, poems from Dolors, plus a finale. All mercifully short and therefore quite enjoyable, though I hardly understood a word. Then the stonemason’s daughter played her violin, though at no time could we see her face since it was entirely blocked by the music stand. The star of the show was an aging lady from La Fresneda who sang Jota with and without guitar accompaniment and got the audience to join in. Jota, by the way, is the music of our area: the Flamenco of Aragon, if you like. The usual old man played his accordion – not well I think, but he loves it and the crowd loves him. The finale featured a magician. He did the cut rope trick that I sometimes do, but so much better and involving the kids. He also used the linked rings with two little boys as assistants, and then for a finale passed a rope through his body. Only three tricks, but he really made them last and did them well.  

As ever, it all ended with bingo. But this was bingo with a difference: rather like a nightmare where the caller is a young woman who only says the numbers once and very quickly in Spanish. She was assisted by a friend who could not work the ball ejector mechanism that selected the numbers, so she was joined by a three-year-old girl who would not give up the balls and read out the numbers herself, quite unintelligibly. Many numbers seemed to be repeats. Calls of bingo were found to be wrong “incorrecto” shouted the three year old. Luckily, we did not win.

The week passed to the sound of distant, and not so distant, drummers practicing. Nearby Calanda is the undisputed mecca for drums around here. It is almost always featured on TV and there are claimed to be more than a thousand drummers there on a Good Friday. We have been to Calanda and will go again, but this time we went to the town called Valderrobres which is near our village for the “breaking of the hour”.
It was difficult to park, as expected, but we were still at the appointed place before quite a few of the drummers. Amazing, they practice for weeks for an event that is just once each year and must start at noon, and they turn up late! About a hundred drummers in total I guess, and all impressively dressed in shiny purple gowns. As ever, it’s the little children with their little drums that take the eye. The central Plaza de Espanya was packed. The lucky early arrivals were up above in the street that leads to the castle and some residents were out on their balconies.

Though it certainly can be, the breaking of the hour was not that dramatic that day, a roll on a single snare drum, followed by the thunder of all of the drums – big and small – as they echo the roll. It still thrills me, bringing tears to my eyes as I sway to the insistent rhythm. They repeat the sequence over and over until, at some signal from the leader, the big drum players hold up their free hands then everyone finishes together as they simultaneously bring them down. Almost immediately, the lead drummer plays a different roll and off they go again.  This lasts for maybe half an hour or more when they march off in two different directions to meet each other again in another half an hour. In that time the audience takes over the square and we, along with others, buy drinks: drumming brings on a thirst. Following a fast, furious and noisy finale, the players break up into smaller groups and seem to compete; some walk off with their drums, the day done.  Some play throughout the afternoon and into the night, their hands bleeding onto the skin of their drums.

Our vantage point was not that good. We crossed the bridge over the river and pushed forwards into the crowd just where the street enters the plaza. In our turn, we were pushed aside by the late arrival drummers. It was quite a squeeze and many of the smaller ladies could not see a thing. Ifilmed one young man nonchalantly chewing gum as he played a big drum. That was just before I spotted Jesus, right there amongst the drummers. Of course, he had disguised himself by wearing sunglasses and feigning overweight. But he had the beard, the flowing hair and the beatific face. I’m sure it was him – at times he looked wishfully upwards to the heavens as he drummed.


I do not enjoy being part of a crowd, but even this cannot stem the visceral waves of emotion created within me by all of those drums filling the plaza with sound and causing me to tap out the rhythm with my feet. Is everyone so affected? I do not know. One of the delights of the affair is to see whole families of drummers performing, the tiny ones being groomed for the future.

As if this wasn’t enough, our own village had its own procession of drummers that night. They followed the statue of the virgin from the little church to the big one. The virgin’s attendants were wearing white conical hats (Ku-Klux Clan as the opponents of this nonsense keep repeating). Later, the leader of La Fresneda’s drummers passed by our house. Fired by the emotion of the day and a few pints of fizzy beer, I opened the window and volunteered my services and those of my grandson, Robin, for next year. He accepted with enthusiasm.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Letter from Spain.

We’ve been living here in the delightful little village of La Fresneda, our village, for nearly five weeks now, it will be the first of our visits of 2014 – we plan to return in September, travelling via Poland for a change. So, what’s new in Spain?

Well, I’ve been to a beer festival! It was held in the main town of our area, Valderrobres, and it was a first. Differences: there was no real ale, there were lots of unaccompanied children, there was a very noisy Irish band with bagpipes, drums and whistle, nearly everyone was smoking, nearly everyone was shouting. The beer was mostly artensal, a word that conjures images of idyllic people picking idyllic hops and malting their own barley with love, but actually means that it is not produced by San Miguel, or Estrella. It was also mostly ‘orribley’. The only brew that stands out in my memory was called Evil Wedding (yes, in English, the founder had a pop group by that name) and was the nearest thing to used engine oil that I have tasted (not that I have, of course). Most beers were cloudy (its artensal, so its natural ain’t it), all needed the help of carbon dioxide to reach the glass (plastic by the time we arrived). All that said, I enjoyed it, and the excellent pesto pizza at Terry’s pizzeria afterwards. The place was packed, but he found us a table near to the (artensal) wood pellet burner. I drank wine – very good.

My little project is progressing  - slowly. I think the whole thing is coming together now. On Saturday I treated my wife to a ten euro ‘menu’ in the café attached to supermarket in our nearby big ‘city’ of Alcanyiz. Don’t scoff, for ten euros you get three courses and the ability to keep watch on your laden supermarket trolley to ensure that no one runs off with it. And the waiter speaks some English and he has style. 


Afterwards we headed  to the ‘huerto’ (pronounced ‘where-toe’) where we planted eight grape stocks and some other fruit trees on our recently recovered third terrace.  If all goes well then one day we will be eating our own peaches, apples, pears, cherries, plums, apricots, loquats, olives and, of course, grapes. The land here is incredibly fertile, so the weeds grow exuberantly.  But now we have a new battle plan. We’ve bought a lawn mower! It’s yellow and the very sight of it makes the locals roar with laughter and the weeds wither in fear of decapitation. Just think, all three of our terraces were covered in dense blackberry infestations a few years ago. No w Margaret mows the ‘lawns’.
My stone hut is growing. Just today, I set two huge cornerstones at the head of what will be the stairs. I bought these, with other stone, from a Rumanian man from the town which held the beer festival. He didn’t go, he was too tired. This is not surprising since on that day he carried, on his shoulder, many of my cornerstones up the ladder to the new concrete terrace: I can barely lift them. I asked him if he went to the gymnasium. He said, “Piedras son mi gymnasium” (stones are my gymnasium).

Some people wonder why I do not construct the stairs.The reason is simple: I cannot carry heavy stones or the concrete mixes that I need up there. The usual solution is a crane, but I have another. What will be the stairs is just a slope. I have now made a platform on wheels and can, just about, pull the large stones, or a wheel barrow full of wet concrete, up there using a pulley system. It is slow work, but it works. So, I am now building walls for the second storey; they will be sloping and at one end I will build a stone shed for water tanks and the solar battery arrangement. The rest will be a sun terrace from which we can survey our growing fruit trees whilst sipping a drop of Evil Wedding, or, more likely, San Miguel.
 Cheers Roberto.


Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Crimea, Catalonia and Scotland

Living in Spain does give you a different perspective. The Ukraine situation dominates TV and radio news here, as elsewhere, yet in this country the main concern seems to be the ridiculous plebiscite held in the Crimea: a vote where maintaining the status quo was not even an option. And why should that be of such interest? Because in this crazy vote the Catalan separatists see an opportunity to push their obsession: an independent Catalonia. This sideshow serves to deflect attention from the real issues in the world at large where Putin’s Russia seems to be challenging the west to step up or shut up. Meanwhile, in the background Spain possesses a number of semi-autonomous ‘states’, the Basque Country amongst them, waiting on the side lines and watching the Catalonia/Crimea story with great interest. The Spanish Prime Minister has even felt it necessary to point out that Spain is not Russia, which we all knew because Russians wear funny hats (don’t they?)

I am no expert on Spanish politics, but did observe the delight with which my (sort of) son-in-law greeted the news of the Scottish independence vote. Previously he had maintained that the Catalans, of which he is one, did not require independence; they merely wanted to be like Scotland - whatever that meant to him. Now that the Scots are going to get a vote on independence, the Catalans want that too. Whichever way the Scottish vote goes, and it is, of course, a legal vote with two contrasting choices, the Catalans and other separatists in Spain’s loosely coupled democracy will use it to bellow their ‘nationalistic’ fires.

Catalonia is on the east side of northern Spain, bordering the Med (e.g. the Costa Brava), and its capital is Barcelona. Here the natives do not wear funny hats: sombreros are solely for sale to English tourists. An independence vote is planned there for November and this is an illegal one in the sense that, in contrast to the UK and Scotland, the democratically elected central government have not agreed to it and therefore would not recognise a ‘yes’ result. Nor, I’m told, would the EU, including, no doubt, the UK.

By the way, as a bit of background, besides the usual chauvinism fuelling the Catalan separatists cause (food, music, language, history, poetry, etc) there is a rather selfish economic argument too. Catalonia, with a large slice of industry located there, is one of the richest ‘states’ in Spain: separatists want the largess this provides for themselves, rather than subsidising the predominantly agrarian economy of, say, Galicia.

I expect it’s pretty obvious that I am generally against separatism. I do not think that nationalist zeal is good for global peace, nor that is good for the separated and it is certainly unlikely to achieve their dreams (except those of the separatist rulers), furthermore, where does it all end – should the rich South-East of England separate from the poorer parts?


I have a particular and personal interest in the Catalonian situation. In Spain, we live in Aragón, just on the edge where it joins Catalonia. And within that frontier area, we live in Matarraña which is mostly Catalan speaking. It is just possible that we could, in some variant of the future, become part of a “Free Catalonia”, where the local children would have to be taught in Catalan and all official correspondence would be in that language. So, having spent fifteen years or so trying (not too successfully) to learn Spain I would have to start again with Catalan. Phew!

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Traversing France for Spain

Here we go again: Dover to Calais then a thousand mile journey to our village in Spain. We landed at four in the afternoon and motored rapidly south to Elbeuf which, from its name, sounded an OK place, but was, if fact, a bit of a dump. We parked in the Carrefour supermarket forecourt and set out for a cultural evening. This mostly consisted of searching for bars and restaurants that that were actually open: Elbeuf, which is just south of Rouen is a largish place, but quiet, very quiet.

Of course, we all know that French people are rude and arrogant and that they hate the English. Yet, in our experience, nothing could be further from the truth. After a trail through nondescript streets, mostly not lived in by French people, we found a bar and lo, it was open and lo, the beer was passable and lo, the barmaid did not speak a word of English, but was so friendly and so helpful we began to think that we could speak French. After a number of attempts she identified a restaurant that was open, was not too expensive, and had good food. She gave good directions, but we quickly became completely lost. Then, who should turn up beside us in her car but the smiling barmaid - now off duty. And, guess what, she drove us to the restaurant! She then took us inside and was greeted by the owner with such enthusiasm that we knew the whole thing was a scam. That last bit was invented for sceptics; she simply dropped us outside and continued with her journey home.

The restaurant was open (even on a Monday evening in France), there were a few people eating inside, and it was pleasantly French in decor. The waiter, Julian, spoke excellent English. He told us that he had spent some time in England and reckoned it the best time of his life. He insisted that we try the blue cheese on banana on toast as a starter because this was the only place that served it “in the whole world”. It was rather special, and so was the rest of the meal. Julian then gave us excellent directions to our supermarket car park home where we spent a much disturbed night (too much traffic noise – don’t these supermarkets care at all for their clients?)

I will not dwell any more on food, except to mention the fat man who robbed me by taking the last three meatballs in Parthenay. For me the climax of the journey, excepting its ending in our village of course, was crossing the Pyrenees by a new route. We slept in quiet surroundings in the city of Pau, then traversed the great mountain range that separates France and Spain along a glorious road topped by massive snow-capped peaks. And we were spared the dizzying climb we normally endure up to Andorra by slipping through the heights is a long, boring, but totally free, tunnel. After that, in no time at all, we were in our own Spanish communidad, Aragon.

It is nice to be back in La Fresneda. This time we have only been away for three months and it is a little disconcerting to observe that some people in the village haven’t even noticed that we we’ve been away! Others ask us the usual two questions: when did we arrive, and when are we leaving again?

The huerto looks good, nothing has been stolen or damaged and our trees are bursting with buds. One, a peach, is already showing its wonderful red blossom, providing a suitable contrast to the circle of daffodils around it. The sun is shining strongly even though the evenings are a little chilly. It is nice to be home again, just as it will be nice to go home to England in May.
(Photos not so good - from my cheap mobile)

Friday, 28 February 2014

Why are we here?

Though I don't live there all the time, Oxford is a great place to be. Last night I had a choice of lectures: one by Steven Pinker (prolific author), one by a lady who has rowed herself around the world, and one by A C Grayling the philosopher, They were all free and, fortunately, I chose the latter.

One thing about Grayling - he looks like his name. He has a splendid mane of graying hair. He is also a kindly looking bloke (a word that he uses a lot, good man) and a wonderful presenter. The lecture was in a church, a fact that he, an ardent atheist, made great fun of as he introduced himself.

This man is more than a philosopher. He has started his own university: a private one charging fees of £18K per annum and offering one-to-one tutorials (like Oxford) together with generous grants for those unable to pay the fees.

His talk was about myths and he cleared up something that has interested me for many years: why do nearly all societies have religion? He made it sound quite simple. The idea revolves around agency. From the moment of self-awareness, humans have been well aware of cause and effect. When a stone hits the water we want to know who threw it. Perhaps we threw it ourself - then we are the agent. We caused the effect. When lightning strikes, or a rainstorm begins, or a volcano erupts then primitive man believed that some agency must have caused it. It could not have been another person, the effect is too massive - therefore it must have been a mysterious agent - a god. The next stage is to personify the gods, and perhaps to appease them by worship.

Where did the gods live? Usually on high inaccessible mountains. However, as time went by that was disproven, the heights were scaled, there were no gods. And so the gods had to be moved up, up into the sky, yet still doing their stuff. Now that we have explored the sky and there is no god there, god has become ineffable ('too great or extreme to be expressed or described in words' - a convenient cop out).
That's a brief summary, there was more. Then, in question time, a local Muslim Mullah came forward in his black robes and white hat. He proceeded to preach and was booed, "Where's the question?" shouted members of the audience. He aquitted himself well, asking: "Where does all this come from? Why are we here? Where are we going afterwards?"

Good questions, replied the philosopher politely, and then went on to explain. Religion can answer those questions in about half an hour. Remarkable! Using logic, analysis and reasoning, the scientific method takes a little longer. It requires years to truly understand cosmology, or particle physics, or genetics. Yet religion can answer those really big questions in  just thirty minutes! There is something wrong here. Scientifically, we are still investigating those three basic questions, and the work will go on and on. Yet people of religion already have the answers. Or do they?

I found Grayling very convincing in almost everything that he talked about, but particularly his statement that there is a middle way between religion and utter disbelief. It is humanism. Today I am going to join the Oxford Humanists and I am also going to leave the Oxford Civic Society. The two are not directly connected. I am simply cheesed off with the latter for its pathetic response to those awful flats that the University has built on our beautiful Port Meadow and I therefore think that my money would be better spent on something more fundamentally enriching.


(The talk was organised by the Richard Dawkins Foundation)