Friday, 1 March 2013

eAddiction and its side effects.

This is not a rant against technology. Technology, generally, is neither good nor bad. The man who invented the motor car is not responsible for every pile up that has occurred since.
Today I have been to a lecture by Garry Kasparov (Former world chess champion and now politician) on Innovation. Nearly a thousand people pressed into the University’s Examination Schools to see and hear him. Late as usual, I had to sit in a wing of the hall where the acoustics were so bad that the speech may well have been in Russian at times for all I knew. The men on each side of me constantly fiddled with their smartphones and later one took out his iPad and started typing a memo or something. Somewhat annoying.
Went to an open-mike night at the Cape of Good Hope, Oxford last night. It often attracts some talented performers and the beer’s quite good. I soon found a place with a reasonable view of the stage. On the table next to me sat two young men armed with their smartphones. During the hour or so that I was there I estimate that they spent 90% of their time taking or sending messages, 5% of their time talking about the messages that they had received, and the other 5% poised – their eyes darting between the stage and the briefly quiescent phones. I found it distracting.
Last week in the Rose and Crown the landlady beckoned me over and pointed to a couple sitting at a corner table: they were not communicating, both had their laptops in full swing, neither of them had drinks.
Nora Ephron, Nick Hornby and  Zadie Smith all use Freedom, an app that switches off Internet access for fixed period so that they can work on their next masterpiece without wandering out onto the Web and forgetting the next twist in the plot they are developing. This is the inverse of opening hours, sort of, for those pub goers who can remember those wonderfully restricted days.
On a walk last month through wonderfully snow-covered Cotswolds hills, we passed Sezincote Manor. In true guiding spirit, I told the little that I knew of the origins of this fascinating Mogul edifice. A friend of a friend then whipped out his iPhone and just minutes later read out full chapter and verse on the place, right there in the middle of a snow covered field. I learned a lot – not.

The nearest thing to violence that I experienced whilst teaching in China was when I confiscated three mobile phones that students had been using during one of my classes. I survived.

One in four people check their phones every thirty minutes, while one in five check every ten; and 84 percent of people surveyed in a new TIME Mobility Poll said they couldn’t go a single day without their mobile device in hand.
I’m over 25! Other findings from Retrovo include:
*42% check or update Facebook and Twitter first thing in the morning
*48% check or update Facebook and Twitter during the night or as soon as they wake up

Sunday, 24 February 2013

An embarrassing encounter at the bookshop

Soon we are to go abroad to Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia, so I am deciding which travel books to buy. Whilst in Smiths' bookshop in the High Street I heard my name mentioned, not once, but twice, by a small group of women behind me. They were examining a book and as I passed by them I did something very silly.
I should know better. One of my favourite novelists is Douglas Kennedy (one of his books is set in Australia: the rather scary ‘Dead Heart’) and I feel that I know him. I do not, not really. I once went to a talk by him somewhere in Oxford. He described his rise as an author and the thrill experienced when he was told by his agent that ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ was being auctioned to the highest bidding publisher.
Later I asked him a question about getting one of my books published and he answered very kindly – that’s why I feel that I know him. During his talk, he related a cautionary tale. Wandering around Foyle’s in London, he saw an elderly lady waiting in the queue to pay for a book: the book she was holding was one of his novels. He then did something very silly. He marched up to the lady and announced, “I wrote that book.”
She turned to him, looked him coldly in the eye and spat, “Fxxk off!”
Back to Smiths’. As I passed the ladies, I glanced down at the book the three of them were examining: it was my ‘Haunted Oxford’. And then I did a Douglas Kennedy.
“I am Rob Walters,” I announced and waited to be told to fxxk off.
Actually, the ladies were delightfully kind and feigned delight.
“Oooh, I‘ve never met a writer before,” enthused one.
“Have you ever seen a ghost yourself,” asked another.
I told her that I had not, but that my wife had. The other lady told me that she knew a Rob Walters at work, but that he didn’t look at all like me.
“Better or worse?” I asked wittily.
“Just different,” she said diplomatically.
I left them still looking at my book. I don’t know whether they bought it or not. In any event, I hope my publisher (The History Press) reads this. The book has sold out and needs reprinting.

Friday, 8 February 2013

A day in Oxford

I only usually write a diary when I’m travelling, but if I did write one when in England this might be an entry.
8th February 2013. Left Stow at about 10.30am to pick up the Oxford bus in Chipping Norton. Still enjoying driving the mini. It’s a bit like sitting in a go-kart. Bus driver was really friendly with everyone. That’s nice.
Entered the flat at about midday. Always nice to be back though it was chilly and empty. All well. Fired up the computer and had a look at what’s on through the Daily Information web page: piano concert at Harris Manchester College at 1.30pm and a play on Marx in Soho at the Burton Taylor theatre at 9.30pm. So, with the Writers in Oxford meeting at 7.30pm, that was my day mapped out.
Beans on toast for lunch. Mmm. Then off on the bike to Harris Manchester. The recital was in the chapel. It’s a plain building, but graced with colourful stained glass windows by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones (both Oxford boys). The place was virtually empty – twelve people at most – and the show was free!
A nice looking couple were introduced. They bowed gracefully then approached the gleaming grand piano. She was slim, tall and blonde with hair stretched back into a tight bun. She wore a thin cerise jumper over a small black dress. He wore a smart grey suit and sported serious glasses topped by a crew cut.
They played together: a four handed performance. How fascinating, how graceful, how intimate. First came a complicated piece by Mozart, then - changing places - a typically ethereal piece from Debussy. They finished with a romp based on a children’s’ game. Lovely.
Afterwards I explored the college. I rarely go there as a guide and, though it’s not old, it is impressive. I passed the college tandem (yes) and the dining hall to make a discovery. The college owns a long stretch of houses in Hollywell Street and one of them has a blue plaque on its back wall stating that Bishop Berkeley was ‘perceived to have lived there’. Berkeley was the 18th century philosopher who stated that the material world was created by perception. I was born in the town of Berkeley and there is a connection, I perceive.
After that a short cycle ride to the Museum of History or Science which is running an exhibition on meteorology at present. Mildly interesting. I asked the bored attendant what the illuminated blue balloon with Dell Computers written on it was supposed to represent. Apparently, it should have contained some sort of animation portraying super computing for weather forecasting - but it had broken down!
Next off to Tesco to stock up on ready meals, bananas and biscuits. I was amused to see Mark, an ex railwayman and characterful regular at my local pub behind the till. Had a light chat with him, and then home again.
Most of the afternoon spent writing away at my current novel. It’s a sci-fi, futuristic book tracing the lives of three distinct groups of people: the dispossessed, the departed and the disembodied. Just now I am writing about the departed (I write a short chapter on each civilisation in order, it’s like a long collection of connected short stories) and have managed to get Tali, my youngest character, out of a bad place. Can’t wait to know what happens next. I’m really enjoying it.
Whilst I write my laptop is perched on a high wooden flower stand. I write standing up, overlooking the passing traffic and pedestrians of the busy Woodstock Road. In the background my radio is tuned to a station called Magic which plays music almost uninterrupted by DJ’s and adverts. Best song that afternoon was Jar of Hearts by Christina Perri.
An unremarkable chicken, bacon and leek pie from Tesco for dinner, then walked off to the King’s Head pub for a Writers in Oxford meeting on publishing. It was quite stimulating, apart that is from an irrelevant talk on formulaic marketing from a Brookes academic (the four Ps and all that). One speaker gave a very good outline of the publishing world today and how it had changed out of all recognition in the last four years: the main influences being the Web, the eBook and self-publishing. He concluded by saying that content today has be shaped by the customer, at which I balked. Seems a recipe for suppressing innovation and imagination to me. Was appalled to see that most writers at the meeting were not drinking, not at all. No wonder they can’t get published.
Then a dash around to the Burton Taylor theatre for the short play on Marx. They wouldn’t let me in! They claimed that all of the seats had been sold, but I knew that they were simply discriminating against bearded men, or older men, or writers or something. Waited for returns but no luck so walked around to the Far from the Madding Crowd pub to spend the fiver it would have cost me to see the play.
Met Mark again in the pub. That’s Mark, not Marx. He’s the man from the supermarket and I find him a very interesting fellow. I think we covered capitalism, communism, the closure of the railways, the overblown sexuality of some men, children, protest movements, and who knows what else. All that discussed over three excellent pints of real ale. And so to bed.

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Been to the bin lately?

We have much to thank America for: McDonalds, Budweiser beer, Elvis Presley and bourbon whiskey, to name some random examples. I do not, however, feel moved to thank it for the corruption of our language.
When we were teaching English in China we were shocked to find that the course books which we were expected to use (but did not) were American. Hang on, we thought, we are here to teach English: surely that means British English not American English. We were wrong and that’s China’s choice of course.
Personally, I have no problem with Americans speaking their own form of the language – in fact I quiet like it, sometimes. I don’t even mind Americans saying ‘bin’ when they mean ‘been’. It’s just their way, I suppose.
In fact when I grew up in the Gloucestershire we said ‘bin’ when we meant ‘been’. But that was just our way, I suppose. We also said ‘sin’ when we meant ‘seen’ and ‘snot’ when we meant ‘it is not’. We spoke a sort of slangy dialect and I had to unlearn it as I grew older, particularly when I ‘nidded to spik’ to foreign folk or attend a job interview.
Funny you know, no one says ‘baked bins’ when they mean ‘baked beans’ or ‘grin’ when they mean ‘green’. Yet it has recently become very popular in Britain to say ‘bin’ instead of ‘bean’.
OK, I know what you are thinking: grumpy old man and all that; picky old sod, or peaky old cod; a latter day canny newt trying to hold back the tide of change.
But why, oh why do British people pick up these things from the USA? In particular, why, oh why, are people here saying ‘bin’ when they mean ‘been’ even at the BBC? Also why are they all saying ‘guy’ when they could say: man, chap, fellow, bloke, etc? Is it because they are deliberately emulating Americans, admiring Americans, being trendy, going with the flow, or just showing a liberality of spirit? Or do they genuinely enjoy confusing foreigners? I would really like to know.
I am not trying to hold back the tide of change: English is an ever-evolving language and that is one of the reasons that it is the second language of the world. But ‘bin’ when you mean ‘been’ is not an evolution, it’s a confusion. We do need new words to express new concepts. I don’t tweet much but I see the need for the word – any twit can see that. I couldn’t blog until the Internet, etc had matured sufficiently to allow me to so, and then we really needed a word for it. And so on.
Well there we are. Glad I’ve got this off my chest. It’s bin bothering me a lot lately.

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Bookends: Hedy Lamarr revisited and goodbye to Harry Potter.

I’m bereft. I’ve just finished two books that I enjoyed very much and in very different ways. Do you know that feeling? You get caught up in a story so much that you devote more and more time to reading it, then it’s finished and there is a sense of loss - a little like losing a pet dog or something.
More of that in a moment. I have news. After reading my book on Hedy Lamarr and her contribution to the invention of spread spectrum, a friend commented that it was now out-of-date. My initial thoughts were: too bad, I’m busy writing my science fiction novel, what’s done is done. But he had pricked my conscience. I looked at the book and was shocked to find that eight years had passed since I first published it. More than that it is my best seller as an eBook and it is a publishing adage that books sold sell yet more books (like everyone else I list all of my eBook titles in each book).
Most of Spread Spectrum: Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone is historical. Hedy died right at the start of the 21st century and that would seem to draw a line beneath the story. However, my book was not simply a biography of Hedy and her friends; there are plenty of those around anyway. No, it was in fact an attempt to trace the history and development of this spread spectrum thing in an approachable way. Spread spectrum is the technology that, amongst many other uses, carries most of the wireless Internet traffic worldwide. Ain’t that something?
Spread spectrum is the basis of the third generation of cellular which was just entering the mainstream when I first wrote the book. Now the fourth generation is just entering the mainstream promising ever-faster Internet access and that makes my book look really dated - at least in the penultimate chapters. I’ve launched the new version on the Kindle store for a knock down price 99 pence or cents. If any of you bought the first version on Kindle and want the update then email with the address of you Kindle and I will send it to you free.
Back to reading rather than writing. Yes, I have completed the final volume of the Harry Potter saga: all volumes read in Spanish over a period of four years or so. And my opinion of them at the end of it all? Damn good. Of course, it’s a flawed opinion because my Spanish is pretty crappy – though hopefully a little better for the experience. Actually, the first book was an easy read even for me, but by the time I got to the last one Harry had become an eighteen-year-old and the vocabulary used had grown with him. I found it very hard going yet still mostly resisted grabbing the dictionary (a sure way to lose the thread). The plot is masterly and its appeal to children undeniable. There’s a good balance between slow and fast movement together with all the ingredients of a good tale: love and hate, sin and goodness, friendship and jealousy, exhilaration and depression, birth and death, loyalty and treachery – topped off with a happy ending. If you had asked me four years ago whether I would one day be expressing such praise for J K Rowling’s creation I would have laughed in disbelief, but there we are. And it’s all great background for my Oxford tours – the fans think that I really know my stuff about Harry!
The other book I have just finished is Absolute Power by David Baldacci. This starts with a bizarre scene involving the president of the US beating up his best friend’s young wife whilst watched unbeknown by a burglar trapped in a closet behind a two-way mirror: the unfaithful wife then attacks the president and two secret service spooks shoot her dead. Believable? Not at all, but I was drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed a narrative that became increasingly complex in which the baddies do get what is coming for them. And it’s mostly well written and fast moving.
By the way, I haven’t read a real book since I got my Kindle. I may even invest in a Paperwhite so that I can read in bed without disturbing my long-suffering wife. She will then have my old one. Kindle sharing doesn’t really work and she doesn’t read in bed.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Dreaming of a warm Christmas

So we stayed in La Fresneda, our village in Spain, for Christmas – and what happened? Not a lot.

The long term weather forecast predicted cold but sunny for us all over the Christmas period. It was wrong. I was working happily in my Tshirt on the Sunday before Christmas and on  Christmas Eve (my woman’s birthday) we sat drinking coffee on the terrace of a lovely hotel located in the depths of the countryside near here drenched in sun and in temperatures approaching twenty degrees (that’s sixty-eight for Fahrenheit folk).

The hotel is called Torre del Visco and locally pronounced with awe. Our friend Jet, who now owns a camp site nearby, used to be the receptionist at the place and was actually instructed to ask potential customers if they were aware of the prices before accepting a reservation – simply to avoid heart stopping moments when the bill was presented. But La Crisis (the Spanish name for their current financial condition) reaches everywhere and we, as the only people for lunch, were shown around the place by the manageress and treated so gushingly by her overly enthusiastic  Swedish assistant that I really believed that I could ask for anything. Yes anything.

After a siesta we set out at eleven or so that night for a pub tour of our village. This didn’t take long since there are only two bars and it was a little disappointing. The promised music and dancing in the second bar did not materialise. There was music, but just recorded stuff, and no dancing. In fact all seemed much as usual in Lo Coscoll except for two things: first of all most people seemed to be companionably drunk, and second everybody was smoking (yes they do have a smoking ban in Spain, hence the surprise).

Christmas day was cloudy but warm. We went to the bar again only to find it virtually empty and Raul, the barman, keen to close up and celebrate Christmas with his girlfriend’s family – then return in the evening to open the bar again - so we strolled around the seemingly empty, completely silent village. We did meet one person, Carlos, but he is Swiss and has obviously taken an assumed name and can therefore be discounted. Then home for the Christmas dinner which featured turkey with a pop up. Margaret had already told me about the pop up and I was intrigued. In my imagination I thought of the first Alien film: the scene where the alien pops out of an astronaut’s stomach. The reality was a little disappointing: the pop up is a white plastic tube with a red end which rises when the inside of the turkey has reached a certain temperature. I experimented with it afterwards. It works like a car thermostat I believe - based on wax. It could be placed in old people’s ears to indicate when they have been sitting for too long in front of the fire. I’m saving mine.

Boxing days I usually take a long walk. In England it is cold so I dress up well. Here it was warm and sunny. Mostly I walked in shirt sleeves.  I used the time to trace the origins of the asequias (aquifers?) that keep our land supplied with water, but didn’t reach the place where they are diverted from the main river. Next year I will find the source. For most people here the day is a normal working day and thankfully the bar was open as I trudged tiredly back into the village for a well deserved pint (half litre of Heineken actually, but when in Rome).

In the evening friends came round. We drank a lot (beer,wine, cava, port), ate a lot, sang carols, played poker dice, talked a lot and went to bed late. Usual Christmas really, but warm outside and in.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

The nose knows.

A strange transformation takes place when you live in a small Spanish village for some time.  When we first came here we were both appalled and amused by the nosiness of the locals: they stared at us so openly, they peered through the windscreen as we passed by, they walked so slowly past our open garage door that time seemed to stand still, they asked us highly personal questions. Now we behave similarly.

Twelve years ago we were the newcomers, the first English people to live in the village of La Fresneda. We were exotic plants imported from foreign shores. Now we are part of the flora and hence of little interest.  “Los ingles son aqui tambien,” they might say: The English are here again.

We once felt like outsiders. Now we view the people who have family homes here and travel down from Barcelona for the main fiesta in August and other holiday weeks as intruders - even though they have ancient roots in the village. We stay for months, they for weeks.

There are three houses undergoing renovation in the village at present (there are still a number of houses that are wrecks, supported only by their better preserved neighbours in the terraces that characterise old Spanish villages) and we study them avidly. What is happening? Is it simply a repair or complete renovation, who owns it, who is doing the job? The answer to the last question is usually simple: the workmen are Rumanian immigrants and the builder is Senor Enfadafo. His real name is Boris and he is the angriest man in the village and gets all of the contracts, but is still angry. He treats his workers like mierda and they love him because he provides work.

Today Margaret witnessed the kept woman who lives near us buying cheap boxes of wine. According to Louisa, the owner of the least gossipy of our two shops, the kept woman buys two or three litre boxes of gutrot wine each day. Margaret tells me that she (the kept woman) smells strongly of tobacco and our Swiss neighbour tells us that she is pregnant with twins! The father is the brother of the local bruja (witch) who used to run the bar in the plaza and bewitched the carpenter so that he moved in with her leaving his wife (Louisa of the shop) distraught – the shop was closed for weeks. What’s more the keeper of the kept woman has been in prison and recently threatened  a neighbour with a long carving knife over a parking dispute! Crikey, who needs a TV that broadcasts soaps that we cannot understand?

Some years ago a man was taken ill in the bar and the ambulance was called. When it arrived the ambulance men had great difficulty getting out of the bar with the stretchered patient due to the villagers crowding the exit. We were not amongst them, but if the same thing happened now…

I peer into the trailers of cars and tractors as they pass below my little building site. What are they carrying? Olives, firewood,  almonds, furniture, stolen cement mixers, stones… It is all so interesting. I watch the ants carry the crumbs from my packed lunch as I sit in the sun. Where are they going, do they gossip, why do the prefer cake to bread, how much can they carry?

We have lost our intellects and are now led by our noses. We are curious about things that seem trivial in frosty Stow-on-the-Wold and more so in cloudy Oxford . What is happening? Is this the first stage of dementia or a new awakening?

Anyway, after much Internet based research into where we should spend Christmas  (ranging from Casablanca, Madeira, Cadiz and San Sebastian) we have decided to stay in our village of La Fresneda. We just have to find out what goes on here during the festive season. The lights went on yesterday!

Monday, 3 December 2012

The road to nowhere.

The village of Torre del Compte is the reason that we live in Spain. Our estranged daughter, Sheena, lived there for some years and became the landlady of the local bar. We rediscovered her, came to visit, and fell in love with La Fresneda – a nearby village - our village. Sheena found a house for sale there and we bought it.

Sheena left, but we remained. It was partly in her memory that we bought a huerto (smallholding) on the banks of the Matarranya River looking out towards her village. This is where I do my stonework. Sheena used to say that we were ‘stealing’ all her friends and it has turned out to be true. Tonight we went to a performance of Shirley Valentine by Dolors her best friend and we regularly dine out with her and husband Willy. On Wednesday next Amador, the village mechanic, will call in for whisky and dinner: he too was a close friend of Sheena’s.

The village of Torre del Compte has an aging population of less than one hundred people including just one child of under fifteen years. There is little reason to go there and many reasons to leave. I like the place, particularly the church, and of course it has these associations with our daughter and her sons. We spent a lovely fiesta night there a few years ago: following a group of guitar playing minstrels through the streets, stopping at friendly open houses for a drink, dancing in the plaza – cherished memories.

It still has a little-used bar - nowadays run by a pleasant Rumanian lady who does not even live in the village. It also has a shop and little-used swimming pool. The school closed years ago, probably as a result of my daughter leaving with her three sons. The streets are currently lit for two weeks at a time, on rotation, to save money. Spain, as you know, is in financial crisis – not a day goes by without at least one mention of ‘La Crisis’ in the news.

So why, oh why, is Torre de Compte getting a new access road? Nobody knows. A mammoth crane with a gigantic jackhammer has been cracking away at some solid limestone cliffs for all the time that I have been here this year. Slowly, very slowly, it is cutting off the sharp corners which gave the old road character and never, to my knowledge, led to death or injury. Slowly the stone is carried by a small fleet of lorries to fill the gaps between the old curves, gradually creating a straightened, widened road leading to the dangerous corner which provides, and will continue to provide, the narrow entrance into the village itself.

The road to nowhere will not create jobs, attract tourists, or stimulate the economy of the village in any way. In China we saw many new roads being built apparently to nowhere, but nowhere rapidly became somewhere as apartment blocks, shops, schools and industrial buildings followed the roads. Here, in a declining rather than booming economy, that is not going to happen.

Of course, there is a short-term effect. The road workers spend their pay in the bar and the shop, local people hopefully get some temporary work, the crane and jackhammer are kept busy.

In the long term I will benefit. Here in Spain non-degradable rubbish can be taken to the local village dump and discarded. Every month or so a digger is employed to push the stuff over the hillside where it adorns the steep slopes. Here there are dump-combers: cheapskates like myself and other incomers call around to see if anything jettisoned is worth reclaiming. Just last week I lassoed a good strong door and pulled it back up the slope from the Torre del Compte dump and it now acts as an excellent platform from which I do my stonework. The village has my favourite dump and soon, when the road to nowhere is complete, I will be able to shave at least half a minute off my journey to it.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

They even stole our apple.

It’s true, someone did.

Settling back into the rhythm of life in La Fresneda  we find that we are less trusting after the theft of all of my building equipment. As a consequence I have finally, after many warnings from Guillermo (Willy) who keeps his motorbike in my garage, secured the door with bolts rather than the screws which could be removed from outside. I also watch suspiciously as the few (probably five a day) vehicles pass the caseta from which all of my stuff was stolen. Terry, who owns the pizzeria in our nearest town and lives in an much more remote spot, tells me that he takes down the registration number of every car that passes! I have not gone that far.

I had planned to install a very secure steel door in the caseta from which the stuff was filched, but now that I am living here again I know that  would be stupid: comparable to hanging a notice outside saying “Valuables within”. Instead I hung up a notice saying “Quiero Piedras” meaning I want stones and applied myself to more practical security mechanisms. First, I have strengthened the door of the caseta whilst leaving its outward appearance unchanged. Second, I have retained the ruined slide lock (which the burglars easily disabled) because it looks locked to the casual thief. And third, I have installed a mechanism of my own design implemented by Alberto, the son of the local blacksmith, for a small sum. Having opened the broken lock, future robbers will find the door barred and hopefully the current version of my mechanism (version eight) will then completely fox them.

I have also installed a gate within the growing framework of heavy cornerstones that will, one day, support the front door to our second home in Spain: the place where we will pretend to be peasants tending our olive and fruit trees. This is above the original caseta and is the place that I have been working on for three years. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to install that temporary and trumpery gate made from an old palette. It is secured by a cheap bicycle lock from the local Chinese bazzar: a lock that any burglar will laugh at but hopefully is enough to deter the causal thieves who are always pilfering my stuff (this time they took a particularly useful long board).

On Saturday we had  lunch in Calaceite, a nearby  town. We had been going to visit Anna who is a self proclaimed “permaculture” fan and is building a sort of education centre for permaculture nearbye. Later we learned that “permaculture” is like “self-sufficiency” from our own day, but with a little more science and religion. Anyway, it rained so we all retired to a pleasant bar and had a pleasurable meal there. At one point we discussed security and I innocently asked whether it is legal to place mantraps in locked property where it is clearly marked, in many languages,  that mantraps are within. The reaction varied between absolute disgust and a concern for the very poor who have to steal because they have no other means of sustenance. Yet there is an empty house along our road which is guarded by a ferocious Alsatian dog with jaws as strong as any mantrap and I presume that’s legal.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not thinking of installing mantraps in the orchard which we are creating. We have now planted nine trees there and were delighted to find that, despite a very dry summer season here in Spain, the Granny Smith did bear fruit. On a slender branch hung one small apple and we were really looking forward to sharing it. But some kind passer-by ate it for us. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Cultural comparisons.

Having lived in Spain on and off for nearly twelve years and still not mastered the language I am in no position to make any grand observations on Spanish culture, but I have my opinions and everyone’s entitled to those. We are all individuals and all perceive culture from a very personal viewpoint.

We live in a village in Spain so my comparisons must reach out to Stow-on-the-Wold. That pretty place is the highest in the Cotswolds and before we left there a controversy of major proportions brewing. The town council had, following the example of nearby Bourton-on-the-Water, decided to install a comprehensive communication system. Loudspeakers were to be installed at many points in the town and then linked to the town hall. Announcements can then be made that will be within earshot of every resident. Information concerning forthcoming events in Stow will be given plus news of the death of any outstanding citizens and the time and place of council meetings. Every announcement will be preceded by a burst of loud music – and this is where the controversy lies. The council is completely split on this issue: one third favours the National Anthem, another Jerusalem and another Our Generation by the Who (for obvious reasons).

Naturally this is a complete fabrication, such a thing would not be considered for a moment  and the merest suggestion would cause a major explosion amongst residents so loud that it would be heard as far away as La Fresneda, our village in Spain. Yet La Fresneda has such an arrangement. It is called the ‘pregon’ and announcements are preceded by local music (called Jota) which sets all of the dogs howling. Not only does our village have a pregon,  I do not know of a village around here without one, it is just part of the culture.
So too is calling one’s wife one’s woman. How would that go down in Stow-on the-Wold? And the collective noun for parents is fathers and for children boys! Liberators gird your loins.

Car horns are used here to gain attention, or as a passing greeting, or just for the hell of pressing the button. Continuous white lines in the middle of roads on bends are regarded as advisory or at best as a warning to other drivers. I rarely undertake a journey here without seeing cars on the wrong side of the road: cutting corners is the norm. Spanish people are in a hurry; they drive very fast to complete their journey as quickly as possible then amble to their final destination.

Blocking the narrow streets of the villages is OK in Spain because that gives someone else a good chance to use their horn so that the owner can stroll good naturedly to the offending vehicle and move it.

The shops close at one and open again at six. The bars close only because everyone has gone home. It is quite normal for a musical session in a pub or wherever to begin at gone midnight. If you order meat as your main course, that’s what you get! No chips, no veg.

Young people here form clubs in their parent’s garages where they play music loudly and consume stuff. Many people crack their own almonds. The butano man calls once a week to sell bottles of gas, he uses his horn to attract custom. It is common to sit in a bar for many hours and not drink. Bars generall empty at nine as the menfolk go home to their dinner. They may refill later. There is a selection of police forces in the country. Spanish people have ceased to dance, they just sway to the music.

To the Spanish conversation is a competitive sport. To be a good listener is to be a bad sport. Here, real men drink small beers. The Spanish had conquests where others had colonies.

In Stow-on-the-Wold throwing rubbish onto the floor of a pub is a capital offence. In Spain it is an abnormality not to do so.

So what does all this add up to? Spain is a country of unliberated, rubbish throwing, noisy, horn addicted, strongly carnivorous, tippling,  late night party animals  who live in places similar to the that experienced by the Prisoner (do you remember that series, the whole place was also wired for sound). Anyway, how’s all that for stereotyping?

For myself I find little to object to and if I did then the obvious solution is to go home. Spain is supposed to be on its financial knees at present, though I see little evidence of that where we live - well away from the big cities. The problem, the Spaniards tell me is that the politicians are corrupt. So are the bankers, so are the big companies. Everyone is corrupt. What everyone, I ask. Yes everyone. That is a problem, that perhaps is the problem.

What I like most about the place is that it is different and, because I understand only a little of what’s being said, it’s also mysterious. Long may it remain so, and I think my woman agrees with me if only I could tear her away from the Daily Telegraph (delivered to my Kindle) and the Archers Omnibus (downloaded from the net).