Monday, 31 December 2012

Out with the Old Corruption

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it - Upton Sinclair
If I were a cocky young rightwing contrarian, rather than the opposite of all of those things, I would write a book in favour of corruption. What's the problem? (I would ask.) Great Britain grew to be the most powerful nation on the planet while its political system was the very essence of corruption. China is now a superpower despite being immensely and institutionally corrupt. Nowhere has ever been more corrupt or more powerful than Ancient Rome. I would receive admiring reviews from my friends at the Spectator and the Telegraph. I would appear on television. I would probably, in doing so, demonstrate the proof of my own thesis.

Sometimes I think we hear too much about corruption. Not because I do, in fact, think it doesn't matter, but because it often appears in public thought and discussion as a proxy for something else - for the failure of systems, a failure in which corruption plays a part.

Of course one can have scandalous, murderous corruption, presidential palaces built amidst huge and quite unnecessary poverty: in that kind of instance you can simply point to the money spent on the personal luxury of the rich. But in truth, more often the pattern is more convoluted and obscure. It is not that the money siphoned off, into Swiss accounts and yachts and villas and expensive suits is of such magnitude and importance in itself. It is not that it matters much financially that Spanish political representatives insist on flying first-class (a fact that was causing a lot of hostile discussion here, before Xmas). What matters, about the perks, the privileges, and for that matter the genuine corruption, is first, that it cushions the beneficiaries against feeling the consequences of their failures. Second, it prevents those beneficiaries from seeing the failures in the first place.

Why was the crisis not foreseen by those who had the power to see it and to stop it? Because they had no interest in looking, and every interest in looking away. That's not corruption as we normally understand it. But it's a process to which corruption contributes - and the process is more damaging than corruption itself.

But people tend to point to corruption instead. Partly because corruption is real enough. Partly becauser it is easier to understand. It is easier to understand that such-and-such creamed off x millions for themselves, or gave contracts to somebody who had bribed them, than it is to grasp that the problem is less that the money has been stolen, and is hiding somewhere, than that when a bubble bursts, a lot of money ceases to exist and never, really, has existed. And that therefore everyone has massive debts that can't ever be paid. Not even if we tracked down every last cent of misappropriated cash.

So we blame, not without reason, los políticos. But of course, anybody can do this, and from any political viewpoint. And although political corruption can be, perhaps usually is, institutional, sometimes this involves not seeing the wider wood of institutional economic failure for the trees of political corruption. Which is convenient, in some ways, for some. Especially if their wellbeing, if not their salary, depends on not understanding that there is more to this than corruption.

I said this, in another place, some time ago:
Re: corruption, this always comes up whenever there's a free-market disaster. The simple reason is that there's always plenty of corruption and cronyism about in a boom, but because there’s a boom, nobody wants to say much about it, everybody’s making their wedge, who cares. Then there's a crash and all the free-market enthusasists cry that it isn't the free market that caused the problem, not low taxes, dear me no – it was the corruption! Which, as I say, is always there for all to see and blame.

I tell this story often, but it suits. A dozen years ago, when I found myself working in the library of a university which included a business school, there was this slew of books all lauding as an example for Europe the South Korean economic model, which was defined as consisting of free markets and flexible labour. This was a bit odd, since there had just been an enormous crash in South Korea. But, of course, the books had been commissioned and written before that happened, and nobody could possibly have anticpated a crash when the free market was working so well.

Anyway, there was a pause of a few months and then a new flood of South Korea books arrived for the business school. All of which recommended that Europe adopt an economic model based on free markets and flexible labour – and avoid at all costs the South Korean model, defined as consisting of cronyism and corruption.
You see the point. Provided that your salary doesn't depend on your not seeing it.

Paul Mason made a film about the Spanish crisis, which was on the BBC the other day. It's pretty good.

One could of course quibble with this or that, and naturally if I made a similar film it would have less emphasis on the Spain of beaches and summer tourism. I would have shown more of northern Spain than a couple of shots of Asturian miners firing homemade rockets at the police. But this is not important. In fact, concentrating on Valencia had its merits, not least that it riled the mayor of Valencia, Rita Barberà, who complained about the image that the programme gave of her city.

Barberà might have been better off keeping her mouth shut and thanking the God, in whom the Partido Popular of Valencia fervently believes, that the programme merely used Valencia as an example to illustrate Spanish problems rather than go more closely into the Valencian administration itself and its particular quirks (which included fielding, at the last regional election, a sizeable number of candidates on its party list despite their being under investigation for corruption).

Although Mason makes reference to corrupt, or potentially corrupt relations between the banks and politicians - well illustrated here - he doesn't mention, for instance, the Gürtel Case, the network of corruption which has characterised the Valencian PP. Nor does he mention the name Francisco Camps, though that well-dressed gentleman can be seen in the clip that shows the opening of Castellón Airport.

Rodrigo Rato is another name that is not heard on the commentary, though he too appears in the footage. Head of Bankia, the bank which was formed in order to turn a number of chronically ailing Spanish regional banks into a huge chronically ailing national bank, Rato has, this past month, been testifying in court, accused of false accounting, a case which does not seem to have been, so far, widely reported abroad. This surprises me, given the normal, high degree of international interest in the legal adventures of former presidents of the IMF.

Come to that, Gerardo Díaz Ferrán is also facing trial, and unusually for a rich man, is actually in prison while awaiting his hearing. Who is Díaz Ferrán? He was head of the Spanish equivalent of the CBI.

So you can see why Spanish people talk about corruption: that's the head of the employers' organiastion, the head of the country's biggest bank, two former ministers (Rato and Jaume Matas) of Aznar's government, and for that matter a large number of other high-level politicians and businesspeople, all facing trial, under suspicion or already convicted of serious financial crime. This corruption is not trivial, nor unsystematic.

And yet, as Mason said in a blog post written while working on his Spanish film:
It is facile to search for "national" sources of corruption.
He went on:
Corruption happens in a market economy everywhere it is allowed to.

It's been rife, as we now know, in the London and New York financial systems; it was present in the German car industry; it is present across the Italian system of government.
Of course. But part of the problem with the "corruption" narrative is that it does tend to produce that "national" perspective. People do tend to "search for 'national' sources of corruption". Hence, for instance, the way the concentration on corruption as the source of the Greek crisis has enabled Greeks, and all Greeks at that, to be portrayed as the problem, as if it had nothing to do with anybody else and the whole of the international financial community had been helpless and innocent victims of a corrupt network of Greeks. That perspective has been crucial in turning a crisis into an absolute disaster.

But it can be portrayed like that from outside, so it is. Moreover it can feel like that from inside, too, since people are rightly angry about corruption, and rightly or wrongly, inclined to look, first, at home for the people on whom to blame the crisis. But to me, the involvement of a figure like Rato goes to show what an international affair the crisis has been. The corruption, the speculation, the recklessness - these were all international in nature. European banks and institutions had no secrets hidden from them that were known to Spaniards on the street. They knew. Their man was in charge.

But in 2013 Spain will ask for a rescate and from that point onwards, it will, I think, essentially assume national responsibility for an crisis which has international roots. Spain will be at fault, and the spending of Spanish state institutions, rather than international financial institutions, will be identified as the source of the crisis. Those institutions will be dictating the terms by which they try, at the expense of ordinary Spaniards, to pay for a crisis for which they, the institutions, were largely responsible. There is something corrupt, in one sense or another, about that.

[Thanks to doctorfive]

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Osasuna or later

We went to the Osasuna v Granada match last night, the first game I've been to in the Spanish top division. It cost less than a fiver to buy an Osasuna scarf but 35€ each for two tickets in the Tribuna Alta. With a good view, mind, albeit mostly a good view of Granada, since Osasuna disappeared for all but the first and last few minutes of a match they lost 2-1. It doesn't matter: whether I like it or not, they're my team now. Alea jacta est.

I was talking about belonging: it has taken me nearly seven years to find a team to belong to. In England this would be much more straightforward: find a place to live, go and watch the local team, carry on forever. You can do this because English football has, in all probability, the strongest lower-league football culture in the world. You don't have to pick out an elite team, one that you can't afford to go and watch, one which may be too far away to travel to. You can go and watch the nearest professional football club and the people all around you will lend the match all the seriousness you want, simply because they will treat it as the most important match going on in all the world. Other games may have world-class players on the pitch and sixty thousand people in the stands, but they are of secondary importance. The game you are watching is the most important one. That is what constitutes a proper football match.

I went looking for one in Huesca, when I came over in 2006. SD Huesca were playing at the time in Segunda B (the third tier, split into four regionalised divisions) and I went to watch a few games at El Alcoraz, though it didn't suit me much, the crowd more detached that I'd expected, almost seeming to talk among themselves while a football match went on in the general vicinity.

Fine, I thought, for a while at least - this is Spain, this is how they watch their football. So when Huesca reached the promotion play-offs at the end of the season, and the first leg, the ida, was played in Córdoba, I went along to the central Huesca bar where it was being televised on a gran pantalla. It was the biggest game the club had played for many years. The bar was full, rather than packed, but it is a very big bar and SD Huesca are not a very big club.

Córdoba scored early on, but it was only 1-0 at half-time. Then, just after the second half started, I could see radios being held to ears around the bar, because Barcelona, in some other game being played far away, had scored. People started discussing the Barcelona match. This, evidently, was what the fans were really interested in. Fine, I thought - but if you're not interested, neither am I. Córdoba scored a second and I left the bar, in no particular order. I left the bar and didn't go back to El Alcoraz for about three seasons.

Of course nearly everything in Spanish in football revolves around Barca and Real, something which I've always known, even if the extent of it, and the consequences of it, have surprised me. It still raises my eyebrows, and my hackles, to see news reports covering their training sessions - still more, to see these reports on a Thursday, when neither side may even be playing until the following Sunday (or have played since the previous one). Barca and Real, Real and Barca, the rigorous balance between the two obscuring the fact that all the other clubs in Spain are thus being obscured. To me it seems absurd, and damaging, and out of all proportion. But I am not Spanish.

There are other cultural differences too, a crucial one being that far fewer fans travel to away games. Partly because Spain is a much larger country, partly for other reasons (for instance, that the days and kick-off times for matches are not known a long time in advance) such a culture has not developed in Spain. In El Sadar last night there appeared to be no room allocated for away fans, no group of fans wearing different colours to the home fans and no section of the crowd which cheered when the home fans were silent. (There were, in fact, two people supporting Granada in the two seats immediately beside us, but they were in fact French. How they came to be supporting Granada, I didn't ask: nor did they ask us why two English people were there supporting Osasuna.)

Away games play a crucial part of forming the English fan's sense of attachment to their club, the sense that every weekend your club's game is the important one, the sense that your club is what matters, win or lose. That sense exists, in Spain, for sure: but not much in Segunda B, as it would in the third tier in England. Or even in Segunda A, the second.

It exists in Zaragoza, all right, Real Zaragoza being in theory at least one of the leading clubs in Spain, best known in England for winning the UEFA Cup in 1995.

I might have gone to Zaragoza - the nearest major city to here and the most convenient by far to get to - were it not that first impressions matter. A month before I moved to Spain - on a weekend when I happened to be over - Samuel Eto'o was all but forced from the pitch in Zaragoza by a cascade of monkey noises.

I couldn't go and cheer for Zaragoza, after that. Far from it - for a long time I wanted them to lose every game. It may be different, now, and I might view them differently too. (I found myself reluctantly siding with them as they rose from bottom place to miraculously escape relegation at the end of last season.) But the damage was done. It couldn't be Zaragoza.

But it could be Osasuna. It is two and a half hours' drive to Pamplona, but I work there a lot and have grown fond both of the city and of the journey there, past Los Mallos de Riglos and alongside the Pyrenees. Pamplona is the Spain I recognise, in the mountains, cold much of the year, a long way from Madrid or Barcelona and a long way from the beach. And when I was in the bar before the game, a proper football bar, before a proper football match, it felt, for the first time ever at a match in Spain, like I understood what was happening around me..

I cannot get to see them easily though, nor can I see them much on television, since this season, for the first time, games are no longer available on terrestrial TV, and I neither have satellite TV nor live in a village with a bar. A small connection made, with Spanish life and culture. A small connection lost.

They are knackered, of course. The present season, their thirteenth consecutively in the top division, will presumably be their last, if the absence of pace or skill of confience which they displayed last night, or the ease with which they were beaten at home by a side in the relgation zone, is anything to go by. They owe, if I understand it, forty million Euros to the local government, and their chances of keeping to an agreement, just made, to pay that off within ten years, strike me as non-existent if they are not even in the top division.

But if they are knackered, so is nearly every club in Spain, and if they owe silly sums of money, so does nearly everybody else. It is a proper club all the same, and now, it is my club too.

On the way home we stopped at Liédena on the way home, to eat some soup in the car park of a restaurant, and as I went to use the toilets, Zaragoza, who I have spurned, were winning 1-0 at Athletic on the TV. As I came out, they scored a second. But to be mocked by life is the football supporter's function.

The programme at Osasuna is handed out free, and is turned by their supporters into paper planes, which were launched from the Tribunal Alta all through the match. Two at least were miracles of aeronautical engineering, travelling from halfway along the stadium to make a gentle landing in the corner stand. Another, less impressive, landed by me, so I folded it anew and sent it on its way. It dipped over the front row of the stand - I was in the second row - and headed straight downwards, the trajectory it described thus resembling Osasuna's probable direction in the future. Or a graph of Spanish economic prospects for the next several years.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Lost for words

I had meant to write about gloom this week. We drove round the outer ring road in Madrid in a dim, almost disturbing light, as if the sun were shining through dirty glass - the sort of light that makes it hard to know whether cloud cover or Madrid's notoriously poor air quality is to blame. Then, in the bar of the Ibis at Móstoles, I read an El País editorial demanding that the government request a rescate. Which, if it happened, would not only mean further and unending disaster being heaped on an already-disintegrating country, but this happening with the consent and support of the government and the last left-of-centre national newspaper in the country.

I had meant to write about gloom this week. There was plenty of gloom to choose from. But then Ed Miliband appeared, with his own dark thoughts about immigrants and language-learning. On which subject I am an expert, by dint of my own status as an immigrant and my own absence of expertise in speaking Spanish.

I quite like Ed Miliband - more, certainly, then at least his last three or four predecessors, and more than any probable alternative - but it is difficult to be comfortable with him, when I am what he is singling out. Because I am the immigrant who has failed to learn the language of the country where I live.

I am not proud of this - rather the opposite - but it does mean that I know more, and can explain more, about why this might happen, than most commentators. One suspects, naturally, that most commentators, and for that matter most people, don't give a stuff about reasons. But reasons there are, and I am in a position to write about them.

How bad is my Spanish? How bad for somebiody who has lived here for seven years next March? I can hold a conversation, sort of, slowly and unsteadily, provided it is one-to-one, face-to-face and we both have patience. I can go shopping and I can deal with customers on our bookstall. I can answer the telephone, though if they do not hablar más despacio I cannot expect to keep it going long. I can follow the brief introductions to the music on Radio Clásica. I can read a book, if I have a dictionary. I can follow a newspaper story. I can write an email.

But, after nearly seven years, I cannot fill in a complex form, have a proper conversation with several people, follow the news without captions or subtitles, or understand the dialogue in a film or the lyrics of a song or the commentary to a football match. Sometimes, especially when nervous, or when dealing with fast-talking or impatient people, I can neither understand nor make myself understood at all.

This is embarrassing and upsetting, for all sorts of reasons. For the past fifteen years I have worked with words - as a writer, a librarian, a bookseller, a storyteller - and to be without words, when words are what I understand and live with, is distressing. Distressing and humiliating.

But naturally it's my absence of language, as an immigrant, that conerns me most. An immigrant who has been here long enough to be fluent, to expect fluency of himself, to have fluency expected of him. Instead, I understand almost nothing unless it is said slowly, or at least twice, and most things I never understand at all.

I hadn't meant it to be like this, though I emigrated at short notice, without time to try and learn any Spanish before I came. I wasn't too concerned: I wasn't going to be working for a while and expected to get up to scratch quickly enough in all the free time that that left me. I was actually working on some ill-conceived theory that having spent seven years learning French to A-Level, on a few hours' study a week, I could devote a few hours a day to learning Spanish and become equally proficient in six months. (I also have an O-Level in Latin. I am not scared of languages, or so I thought.) And so I started off, learning to read by reading Buñuel, learning to speak and listen by having conversation classes in which I swapped half an hour of English for half an hour of Spanish. So it went for three months, and so it went OK. At that point, however, real life intervened.

Real life intervened in the form of our flat being repeatedly and destructively flooded by corrupt and incompetent builders, working on the roof and neglecting to keep it covered during rainstorms. The consequent nightmare, of packing everything we could into the one dry room and being woken in the early hours, many times, by rain inside our flat, lasted several months. But the subsequent bureaucratic nightmare, of trying to get compensation out of two corrupt and incompetent insurance companies, lasted eighteen months. During that time, when we were being cheated by everybody who had the opportunity to cheat us, I hated Spain. I hated everything. I didn't want to see, or speak to, anybody.

There is a joke here about immersion, this being the best way to learn any language (and the reason why languages are not, normally, best learned before you come to a country). The immersion is supposed, however, to be in a language, and not in repeated floods of water through one's roof. That kind of immersion has the opposite effect. The lessons and the reading stopped. And when, after eighteen months, we had our laughably small cheque for compensation, I was working, and though I learned when I was working, I learned much more slowly than I would have done otherwise.

That's half the story, and a personal, particular half at that. But the other half is more generally applicable: and that is, mostly, that I am in my forties. You do not lern easily, in your forties. You do not learn as easily as you did when you were young (and doing, for instance, French at school). You do not learn easily. You do not learn in the same way.

Our work - until Olli Rehn and a rescate closes us down - is storytelling and selling books in bilingual schools. These are schools that give much of their tuition, in several subjects, in English, often from the age of three. Kids learn easily, and naturally. I see it every day, in my work. The middle-aged do not. I see that every day, in myself. (For people older still, it is very hard indeed. There is no point in expecting someone in their sixties to learn English or Spanish to anything more than a rudimentary standard. You may as well expect them to learn chess to master level.)

In your forties, however, you can learn. But slowly and with difficulty, for it does not come naturally. When I was a teenager, and we had family holidays in France, after a few days I would dream in French. After nearly seven years I have never once dreamed in Spanish. It does not come naturally, nor does it easily stick.

Just last week I found myself looking up loro. It means parrot (or "parro", if you believe my Collins Gem). But I have known this for years! Not only that, but I am regularly reminded. When we perform From Head To Toe, which we do several times a week, the kids shout "loro!" when I show them the parrot. Several times a week - but it doesn't matter. I still had to look it up last week. It doesn't stick, and the frustration of having to look up, over and again, something which you know you know, adds to the stress and difficulty of learning.

What I am trying to get over is that difficulty in learning a language is not to be confused with disinterest. For sure, anybody is free to condemn. Free to assume. Did you fail at something? You should have tried harder. Are you struggling with something? You just couldn't be bothered. That is how our bullying, kiss-up-kick-down societies function.

It is easy to say - easier by far than learning a language - and it is a very contemporary way of addressing other people's problems. Unemployed? Should have tried harder to get a job. Country in financial trouble? Must be their fault for overspending. Immigrant with language difficulties? Can't be bothered, can they. You know what they're like. It's a struggle. Well, life is a struggle, but it strikes me that we get through it more easily if we recognise one another's problems rather than condemning them.

Should I have done better, in the time I've had? I certainly think so. I expect, and I expected, better of myself. But what is Spain entitled to expect of me? What is Ed Miliband entitled to expect of immigrants to Britain? In principle, provided I pay my taxes and obey the law - something society expects, theoretically, of any citizen - is there actually any good reason to insist that an immigrant becomes proficient in a language that is not their own? What proper reason would there be for that?

My Spanish is, at least, rather better than the spoken English of several kings of England. And it is better than the written English of much of the UK's population. It is not, however, remotely good enough. And though I have, in fact, worked in a shop here, I wouldn't employ me in a job where I had to speak with the public. Then again, how many people are employed in circumstances like that? Next to none?

What are you going to do, if immigrants struggle with your language? Punish them? Make them uncomfortable? Condemn them? Are you going to give them time to learn? If you are, what time limit are you going to put on it? Are you going to vary that time for age? Education? Opportunity? Is there, in fact, much specific you can do, to make people learn, that is not going to be perscutory or absurd?

I do not think there is. I do think that there is an obligation for the immigrant to try and learn the langauge of their adopted country, and it is partly because I have not fulfilled that obligation that I feel ashamed. But it is a social obligation, not a legal one. It is the sort of obligation that we feel, one that arises out of shared humanity and the fact of living alongside one another, not the sort of obligation that needs to be imposed by law.

Or indeed, which can be imposed by law, because the purpose of such law is to make the immigrant feel unwanted, and hence unhappy, and nothing, absolutely nothing, makes it harder to learn than being unhappy. To really learn, you need immersion. For immersion, you need to socialise. To socialise, you have to feel comfortable.

That's the reality. But we do not, necessarily, live in a world of realities. We live, in part, in a world of imagined enemies, and the more insecure we feel, the larger those imagined enemies will loom. If anybody wants to have a discussion about immigrants, and language learning, then they must do so. But are they going to be talking of realities, of the real problems (which are considerable) in learning and the real problems (which are small) if immigrants do not? Or are they going to be playing to an audience, an audience which just knows that immigrants who do not speak the language are sponging off the rest of us and laughing at us all?

Real concerns are frequently unreal. I am a threat to nobody, sitting here, in my village, typing in English, wishing my Spanish would improve much faster than it does, dreading, until then, every conversation that I have. It is not good, but it is not a serious problem for anybody but myself. Spain does not need me to speak Spanish. England does not need all its inhabitants to speak English. Those that do not, are not dangerous. The ones who are dangerous are those who would have a hue and cry.

Which may well happen. In England and in Spain. For this is dangerous ground. And these are dangerous times.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

A sense of belonging

I have been away from Spain for most of the last week, coughing my way around England and paying very little attention to what was going on at home. If, indeed, Spain constitues "home". "Home" is the house in which I live: if we extend its meaning to "the place where I feel I belong", however, then I have never, yet, felt that I belong here.

There is familiarity, and there is belonging. You live in a place for a while, perhaps for a long time: after that while, you don't need to look up when you're walking somewhere. Your feet just take you there without your consciously taking any decisions. That's familiarity. But the feeling of belonging, of being an inseparable part of a place, that is deeper, almost entirely intangible. I felt it in Oxford, where I lived for fifteen years, but never since. I am very fond of our village, but I do not, as yet, belong here, nor feel I belong in Spain.

Maybe one day, if and when I am ever fluent in the language, that will change. Or maybe one never really feels more than once that they belong. Or maybe one's very awareness that one is a foreigner, that one possesses some degree of otherness, prohibits the feeling of belonging. I never felt so English, in England, as I have done in Spain.

Not because of any act of exclusion, nor because of people's attitudes. though some foreigners are more foreign than others, in many people's eyes. Africans are more foreign than Latin Americans, East Europeans are more foreign than Western Europeans. Signs at Zaragoza Airport may be in Romanian as well as English and Spanish, but Romanians are not viewed in the same way as the English.

I cannot imagine, for instance, an email hoax circulating claiming that a band of English people were dressing up as officers of the Guardia Civil and robbing people by persuading them to leave their cars for a breath test. But such a story has happily circulated for close to a decade about Bulgarians, Poles and Romanians: I saw this version in 2009, and Spain being a country of local variations, the local variation was that it had come from the Guardia Civil in Graus, and been disseminated via the Tourist office in Boltaña.

If this makes very little sense to you, this is because it makes very little sense. The modus operandi of the villains makes no sense, nor that of the cops, unless the police have started issuing warnings via tourist offices. A moment's Googling would reveal it to have cropped up in different places, over a period of years, and that it was an urban legend: but checking is not what sort of people who forward these emails actually do.

One version - not the one I received - includes this paragraph:
Si permitimos que un grupo de rumanos, búlgaros y polacos campen a sus anchas, todos los rumanos y demás delincuentes querrán venir a España.
"If we allow a group of Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles to do whatsoever they please, all the Romanians and other criminals will want to come to Spain." That's the sort of thing which many people are prepared to say about Eastern Europeans, and which I can't imagine them saying about English people. Just as it is hard to imagine the police torturing a British rather than (as in the current scandalous case) a Romanian citizen. Harder still to imagine them then being pardoned for it.

Whether you could ever feel you belonged, in circumstances like that - not circumstances of personally being tortured, but circumstances whereby it was possible torture your countrymen on account of their nationality, to slander your nationality as criminal in nature - that, I don't know. I don't suppose I ever will, because English people are not made to feel like that. We're never really one step down the ladder from our hosts, people who they feel able to look down on, people who have come to them to do the menial jobs.

Of course if Spain continues to get poorer at the present rate, then soon people in England will be circulating emails about bands of Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians. Or making comedy programmes whereby the dozy Spanish immigrant is the butt of the jokes.

It occurs to me that Manuel's English is no worse than my Spanish. But it is not really the absence of language, but the absence of status, which causes Manuel to be depicted as he is.

You cannot make yourself feel at home, and you cannot make yourself belong. But people can be made to feel that they don't belong, where they are far from home, and where they are far from home because financial circumstances have dictated their movements. We have a fine sense of other people's vulnerabilities, and the more vulnerable people are, the more we seek to punish them for it, the more we seek to stigmatise them. And who can be stigmatised, can never properly belong.

There are ways of getting your own back. When I was up in the mountains a few weeks ago, a friend of ours told a story about a man in the next village, who complained loudly and long about two Bulgarians who, he said, had burgled his house. As Bulgarians are wont to do, or so runs the common prejudice.

So they had. That part of the story was true. But, as my friend explained, there was more to it than that. The Bulgarians had been employed by the man in the next village, and like many people in Spain today had found, when the time came to be paid, that their wages were not forthcoming. And were, indeed, not going to be paid at all.

Consequently, the Bulgarians burgled the man who was cheating them - and took wine to the value of the wages they were owed. Or so the story goes. It is a better story than the email hoax, and more believable one. I'd like to meet these Bulgarians and buy them a drink. If they don't already have all the drink they need.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Fallen idol

I was working in Colmenarejo from Wednesday to Friday. It's a small town on the hills west of Madrid, one valley short of the Sierra de Guadarrama which is esentially the border between Madrid and Segovia provinces. The fashion on TV news last week, when the snow started in earnest, was to send a young female reporter to broadcast from one suitably bleak, windswept and snow-covered point or other, so TVE1, whose ratings have been falling, perhaps in part because of stunts like this, sent one to report from the Puerto de Navacerrada, which is not just a ski station but the highest car-accessible pass between the two provinces.

Fortunately for us we arrived by the A6, the La Coruña road, a little to the south, by which you either cross the Sierra by means of the Alto del León - 1511 metres above sea level, but still rather lower than Navacerrada - or you pay a few euros and go through the tunnel. Which we did, partly in deference to my vertigo, partly because of the still-powdery snow and partly because time was getting on and we needed to be in Colmenarejo to start work.

From where the school is in Colmenarejo you get a fine view, if a bleak one in late November, of the Embalse de Valmayor to your left and El Escorial to your right. The famous Monasterio is clearly visible. It is of that building that everybody thinks when they think of El Escorial - everybody, that is, but a chess player. As a chess player myself, what I thought was that's the place where Nigel Short beat Jan Timman.

I couldn't see El Valle de los Caídos. I didn't try too hard. I knew roughly where to look, and as I preferred not to see it if I could avoid it, I didn't look there. But in truth I have looked from the same point before, and I am not sure it is actually visible from where I was. There must be mountain in the way, because it is not easily missed. It is impossible not to see it if you are travelling away from Madrid on the A6, its gigantic and obscene cross dominating your field of vision until you are safely through the Puerto.

Of course practically every church in Spain is built on top of a hill so that your eye cannot escape it, and giganticism is a Catholic characteristic as much as a Fascist one, but then again, in the Francoist mind those two concepts were not and doubtless are not separable. Like Mass in Fifties Spain, El Valle de los Caídos is not something you are allowed to miss.

One does one's best, though, and so we came off the A6 at a different exit to the one we took the previous year, since that road had taken us right past the gates. This time we went past Galapagar, the older, busier town adjoining Colmenarejo and the one where everybody shops. We parked there, when shopping ourselves, at the end of Avenida de los Voluntarios. When I printed out a map of Galapagar last year, it didn't have that name. It was called Avendia del Generalissimo. I don'tt know precisely when it changed. Presumably, not very long ago.

The gradual removal and erasure, over the past three decades, of monuments, road names and other manifestations of the late dictator's existence, operates in some ways as a kind of quid pro quo for the provisions of the 1977 Amnesty relating to crimes committed in the Franco era, by which these crimes cannot even be investigated. Rather than dig up the past - literally, where the existence of mass graves is concerend - it will be erased, buried, forgotten. The Right may no longer commemorate its central figure: in return, the Left may not investigate what he and his lieutenants did. And whoever, like Garzón, breaks that bargain, pays for it. Who plays, pays, as the anti-Garzón graffiti said that I saw on the way back to Aragón.

I simplify, since if there really were such a bargain it would not have taken three decades to implement, and the truth about Francoist atrocities is gradually being pieced together, though not by magistrates and prosecutors. The main reason the process is not taken further by the Left is not because they do not want to, but because they are prevented from doing so. Which, legally, may be a sustainable position (provided you ignore the supremacy of international over national law) but it is hard to honestly maintain that Franco is over, gone and hidden from sight when his monument is among the most visible buildings in Spain. It is not so much an elephant in the room as an elephant outside the house where everyone can see it. You have have forgetting, or you can have El Valle de los Caídos, but you cannot have both.

Besides, the past never stays buried, however much earth you shovel upon its head. I don't know what Aznar has to say about his Francoist youth, in his autobiography, the first volume of which has just come out: but I do know that when he was in government, he had that government financially support the Franco Federation, the precise purpose of which is to preserve and celebrate the memory of Franco. Less quid pro quo, more an agreement only one side is bound to respect.

The same Franco Foundation has been trying to hold a celebration of Franco at a Madrid hotel: it was called off a fortnight ago, rearranged for today and then called off a second time. The Foundation are threatening legal action, which they are entitled to take without anybody shooting them without trial and burying their bodies in mass graves. Or, indeed, if their lives are spared, being forced to work as slaves in the construction of a monument to their enemies.

All this is something of an embarrassment to the government, who would rather the whole thing went away, especially since, as they have just chosen to pardon four policement for torturing an innocent man, it may provide an opportunity for their opponents to trace continuities between the present and the past. As does Aznar's autobiography, which has also unhelpfully reminded the public of the centrality to Aznar's government of the currently-indicted Rodrigo Rato.

Perhaps it is not entirely healthy, this persistent reference to the past. But perhaps there would be less of it if Spain actually appeared to have a future. And if you do not want people to recall the past, then perhaps you should not stick it, in gigantic and granite form, where nobody can help but see it. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

From both ends, now

My favourite Teruel story was told me by a teacher in the school where I was working last week. He was from Sevilla, and not knowing Teruel, went in search of a streetmap, a task which proved rather harder than he had expected. Oh, he was told, we don't have those - everybody already knows where everything is. The punchline is that this conversation took place in the tourist information office.

I had meant to write about Teruel today, and about the importance of provincialism in Spanish life, but the day after I came back I was taken ill. Not too ill, but ill enough to miss the eleventh annual Huesca tapas competition, ill enough to take to bed for a day or so and ill enough to find the task of writing anything substantial quite as far beyond me as the task of eating anything substantial.

So here I am, after six hours' drive, in a hotel room in Guardo, a town in the north of Palencia province and one that no Spaniard I have ever spoken to can place, save those who are from Palencia province themselves. As I am still vomiting, as it were, from both ends, perhaps for this week it is better to pass you from the north of Palencia to South of Watford where Graeme has a piece or two relating to the Catalan regional elections that have been taking place today, with a view of Artur Mas, his party, their cynicism and their relationship to the Partido Popular which is not very far removed from my own. Unlike me, however, Graeme actually reads the papers regularly and is therefore rather better informed than I. Albeit he may know less than I do about the provincial towns and capitals of Spain.

Talking of which, my favourite Huesca story involves the Cubans who opened a bar on the Coso - Huesca's main shopping street - and began by serving really good free tapas with the customers' drinks. As you would expect, in Spain, but not in Huesca where no such tradition appears to exist - a point made to the Cubans by various bar owners who came round to put them right on the subject. ¡No es de Huesca! they were told, and the tapas ceased.

Which is one reason to actually go to the concurso de tapas: it's virtually the only chance you get to see any in most of the bars in Huesca. Let alone eat any. Hasta la próxima.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Legging it

When I arrived in Spain, knowing not a single word of Spanish save either words (like matador) that everybody knows or words (like fútbol) that it shares with English, I decided to teach myself the language by reading Luis Buñuel's autobiography, Mi Último Suspiro. My theory was that the amount of work and learning that such a task would involve would be so great, by the time I reached the end of the book I would be able to read Spanish fluently.

So, I began to read, aided by R's little Collins Gem Spanish-English dictionary and the same publisher's guide to Spanish grammar and the conjugation of irregular verbs. I also had a rail ticket on which I wrote down words that Buñuel used for which I could find no entry in the dictionary, words which I would occasionally, and often unsuccessfully, look up later in a larger one.

I kept this up, on and off, for a couple of years until I finally gave up having completed maybe a quarter of the book and not yet reached the Civil War. What caused me to curtail the project wasn't so much that I was struggling to understand, but that I was struggling much less than when I started, and had developed enough comprehension to find tiresome Buñuel's habit of claiming he was best mates with practically every member of Spain's artistic community in the period before the Second Republic.

Still, by the time I finished I must have been about a quarter of the way towards achieving reading fluency, so perhaps my theory wasn't so ludicrous. And although Buñuel eventually got on my nerves, having read him so early in my time here I still find it hard not to think of him when I am in Teruel province, where he was born and brought up and where I will be working in the coming week.

Buñuel was from Calanda, host (as he relates) to the Miracle of Calanda and a place I have passed through several times, which, like having your leg miraculously restored by the Virgin, is more than most Spaniards can claim.

He has a good story about summers in Teruel, when the sky was so clear and the weather so dry that - according to him - on the rare appearance of a single cloud, neighbours would clamber up onto his father's roof and follow the cloud's progress, commenting to one another that nothing would come of it and it was bound to be headed for somewhere else.

Be that as it may, I've only ever been there in winter, where it is cold and bleak, even though, not far south, oranges are growing in Valencia province. Cold, bleak and foggy, and when travelling back from Bajo Aragón during the winter months you don't have much idea what is going on around you. You just have to stick to the road and trust that it takes you to the place you want to go.

This will not necessarily work as a metaphor for contemporary Spain, since although we know precisely where we are going, the most important thing is to get off the road we are presently on. However, since there have been marches this week, in connection with the well-supported general strike last Wednesday, we could take that, the path of strikes and resistance, as the path we are on. Even though we do not know where it will take us.

I did say it wouldn't work as a metaphor. Still, one of Buñuel's most famous images is of people walking apparently to nowhere, as they do in The Discreet Charm Of the Bourgeoisie and this week people have been walking with greater purpose and in greater numbers than that. You probably saw the march in Madrid:

it wasn't everywhere so large and well-supported as that, though it was apparently well-supported in Bajo Aragón, the comarca which includes Calanda. There are longstanding traditions in that area, which saw some of the most radical egalitarian experiments during the Civil War, and which, perhaps for that reason, continue.

Andorra, for instance, west of Calanda (and not to be confused with Andorra La Vella) votes for the hard left, which we would not expect from a small rural town in England. Nevertheless, the countryside is the countryside, and even in the provincial capital, the march wasn't quite as sizeable as the one in the national capital.

I didn't march. Our friend P offered me a lift to Huesca for the march at lunchtime, but I declined: "estas cosas", I said, "yo hice como joven", I did these things as a youth. But somebody has to do it, and to keep on doing it. We have to run, or fight, or hide: and while, for the moment, I have chosen to hide, I do know that there is no option but to fight.

Like Buñuel, I was brought up a Catholic, and I still appreciate a sermon for a Sunday morning. And today's sermon is that we have to march and keep on marching. Even if, like Buñuel's bourgeoisie, we do not know where we are going.

[Madrid: Digital Journal]
[Teruel: Diario de Teruel]

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Tired of waiting

Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday.
Before I emigrated in 2006, my last job in the UK was four years working at Imperial College Library Service. A lousy job, working for lousy people in what was more a cheating service than a library service. It went badly, it ended badly and it started badly when they neither paid me my first month's salary nor told me that it wouldn't be paid on time.

I had a row with the manager, who offended me further by telling me that it was up to me to expect this and the university was under no obligation of any kind. I replied that if this was so, I was no obligation to do any work, or indeed remain at work - and I went home, returning only when I had a guarantee of an advance against unpaid wages. Which guarantee, and advance, I received the very next day.

That was on the north side of the Bay of Biscay. When R first came to Spain, she wasn't paid for four months until after she started work. Nobody kept her informed. Nobody paid her any advances (save the friends and work colleagues who offered to lend her money) and nobody thought anything unusual or untoward was happening. Had she done what I had done, it would have made no difference whatsoever. Except that people would almost certainly have told her she was complaining too much.

Where experiences are different, expectations are different too. In Spain people are more used to bureaucracy, and more used to bureaucracy that moves at its own pace, taking months to carry out a task, giving you no opportunity to talk directly to the people involved, and then insisting that you travel somewhere at a moment's notice to collect a permit or fill in a form. This isn't a particular feature of the public sector: banks and insurance companies work the same way. All sorts of companies work the same way. You would expect them to: they operate to the level of the public's expectations.

It doesn't mean people think it is right not to pay you on time, or to suddenly withdraw your banking services without notice, or whatever it may be. But they just know that this will often happen, and to some extent, having learned to live with it themselves, they expect you to live with it too. But because people are prepared to live with it, it keeps on happening.

If you're looking for abuses by the business class, there is rarely a better place to look for them than football. If they can get away with it, then football is where they will get away with it. Naturally, in the UK, football clubs run up as much unpaid tax as they can, whenever they can, but football club staff, backroom and players alike, are normally paid, properly and on time - at least, until their unpaid tax brings on bankruptcy proceedings, at which point the office staff can find themselves relying on promises in place on payslips.

In Spain, by contrast, non-payment of players is common, even rife. I was having coffee just outside Cuenca a few weeks ago and reading the sports pages, in which the chairman of Conquense was claiming that his players had thrown a play-off game against Zaragoza B at the end of the previous season. At the point where the chairman claimed that though they hadn't been paid, they would have been very shortly, I started to believe him. Not, though, about how they would have been paid shortly. Only about how they might have thrown the game.

Conquense are in La Tercera, though they might not be if they'd paid their players. Málaga are in La Primera and the Champions' League. They have several times failed to pay their players. A couple of years ago Levante went through most of a season without paying their players: Rayo Vallecano did the same last term. (Rayo were nevertheless promoted. Levante, in the season I refer to, went the other way.) The owners of all these clubs are rich. They do it not because they need to, but because they can get away with it. And in part, they get away it because people expect no better- as Royston Drenthe found out when he went on strike when Hércules failed to pay him. Far from receving support and sympathy, he was crucified. Which is among the reasons why, had I been paid late in Spain, I probably wouldn't have walked out.

You are expected to take it. Which means that you can be taken advantage of. And this is an age of being taken advantage of. That is what Shock Doctrine is all about. If you are afraid, they take advantage of it. If you are without power, they take advantage of it. And if you already have low expectations, they take advantage of these too.

And this is what is beginning to occur in Spain, as it has been happening in Greece. The delays and lies that have occasionally occurred - and been grudgingly accepted - are occurring more and more frequently. All the time, you hear of people not being paid for months. Private and public sector both. And once you can go unpaid one month, why not four? Why not ten? Why not forever?

I was working in Cáceres last week, and two of the teachers - not new teachers, just ones whose contracts had changed - had not been paid for four months. But what is four months? I went back to our hotel room and on the news - on La Sexta news, which seems to be more protest-friendly than TVE - they had a story about employees in Novelda, in Alicante province. People who were on strike after not being paid for ten months.

Ten months! At what point do you start to believe you won't be paid at all? This is what I remember most vividly, from the Russian crisis of the Nineties. The collapse of life expectancy, the flight of people back to their home villages, professors moonlighting as taxi drivers, people relying on their vegetable gardens. I remember all of these. But I remember most the crisis of non-payment, the millions of people who failed to receive their pay, many of whom never received it, many of whom were paid in kind, in goods. If they were ever paid at all.

Nor is it only employees. In Valencia, chemists are on strike, not having been paid for nearly six months by the regional government. It wouldn't surprise me if Castilla-La Mancha followed their example - as long last February I passed a chemist in Valdepeñas which had a notice in the window saying that they hadn't been paid for several months. The cuts in CLM have been deeper than anywhere else. I wonder if they will have been paid when I am back there next February. Or whether they too, will be on strike.

Why are chemists and employees not being paid? To cut the deficit. Why is there a deficit? Well, if you believe mainstream commentary, it's because of bad financial practices by state and financial institutions. So how is this to be reversed? By not paying people what you owe, as bad a practice as one can imagine. In the name of fiscal rectitude, of "credibility", of restoring the markets' faith in the public accounts. And when that leads to people going without pay for months, those people can be lectured on the virtues and necessity of patience. Lectured by people who are accustomed to have their material needs instantly met.

Perhaps there should have been less patience, less shrugging of the shoulders. Perhaps, now there are strikes, there will be less patience. One hopes so. Had Spaniards been less willing to accept abuses, there would be fewer abuses now.

Maybe it is changing. Patience is even running out for football clubs (as Deportivo have just found out, to their cost). People are marching against evictions, now. People are occupying hospitals, now. Maybe people will decide that if they do not pay you, the best response is not to work. Or if they come for your wages and your pensions and your employment rights and your children's schools, then the best response is not to work.

There is a general strike on Wednesday. I hope it is successful. What does that mean? Nobody precisely knows. In itself, it can and will change nothing. But if it is followed by another and a bigger one? What if this process, like the process of austerity, gets completely out of hand?

Then they can sit and wait. And worry. And not know what will happen next.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Ni un voto

It's been a bad fortnight for Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, not that I care much about that: after PSOE's defeat in the Galician elections, he is having to issue a lot of statements about how the party is behind him. Actually both Rubalcaba's best times, and PSOE's, look to be behind them. PSOE might have expected, in the circumstances of extreme and disastrous austerity, to have reversed, in the polls at least, their standing relative to the PP which caused them to be massively defeated in last November's elections. Not so: the PP have lost some ground, but not a lot of it to PSOE, who have themselves leaked support, to their left and to abstentionism.

Rubalcaba was fortunate to remain leader after the internal PSOE elections earlier this year, elections which he was expected, even on the day of the vote itself, to lose to Carme Chacón. The term "fortunate" may not be right one, as the change in fortunes owed less to luck than to a last-minute arrangement with the Andalusian section of the party to give Rubalcaba rather than Chacón their support. If only it were possible to manage general elections like party elections, Rubalcaba must have thought. Unfortunately the electorate can't be quite so easily manipulated by horse-trading and arm-twisting. Not that it does them any good: if there is no horse-trading, it is because there are no horses to offer them.

Comparisons deceive as much as they explain, but if I were trying to find figures to compare to Rubalcaba, I might ask the reader to merge Jim Callaghan and Denis Healey, something I imagine is pretty difficult for anybody aged less than forty-five. (It is difficult enough for me, and I am forty-seven.) Rubalcaba is very much a machine politician, not that there is really any other kind, and undoubtedly able - as we were taught to write of politicians when I was studying History for A-Level. "He was extremely able and a fine orator", that was the phrase. Rubalcaba is very able and a mediocre orator.

Tough, as Healey was, clever, as Healey was, and on the Right of the party, as both Healey and Callaghan were, but supposedly with the avuncular appeal, to scoop up another cliché, that was one of Callaghan's electoral assets. Supposedly. Of course Callaghan and Healey are more famous for losing elections than winning them, and the same is true of Rubalcaba, on whose image and personality the PSOE campaign of 2011 rested almost in its entirety.

Nothing will come of nothing, and not much came of that. Nor has much come of it since.

As I say, I don't care much about Rubalcaba. But I would rather PSOE did much better in the polls, not because I care about PSOE but because I care about their voters: I view elections as a contest not so much between parties as between the people who naturally support them. Hence, just as one would support Democrats against Republicans - without necessarily assuming that their candidates will be significantly better if they win - I back, on a visceral level as much as anything else, Labour against Conservative, PSOE against PP. It's a civilisation thing.

Not that it matters, though, since in regional and national elections, I do not have a vote. Even if I did, there will not be national elections until 2015. But in the meanwhile PSOE are well behind the PP in the polls, and it's not a good sign. It's a sign that people think there is nowhere to go. Nowhere - or put another way, anywhere but here.

If Rubalcaba goes, Chacón might replace him, or Patxi López, or a surprise candidate, such as Zapatero was when he became Secretary-General. I'd rather either of the alternatives than López, whose spell as Lehendakari contradicted what I wrote above about not being able to fix elections with horse-trading: he ruled Euskadi with the support of the PP, purely to keep out the Basque Nationalist Party, which had come first in the election.

In my more cynical moments, which are most of my waking moments, I regard this as a dry run for whatever government of national unity - one of those phrases that is almost always a lie - may be imposed on Spain, as it was on Greece, by international pressure in the relatively near future. This would have the advantage that Papademos (and Monti) lacked, of a government actually being headed by an elected politician rather than somebody the financial markets happened to like. The advantage for the financial markets, anyway. It'd be a Potemkin government, naturally. But Patxi López wouldn't have any problem with that.

One could spend all weekend detailing and unpicking the reasons for PSOE's failure to recover from last November. Their own responsibility for the situation, the corruption and patronage of the party, the detachment of the young from mainstream politics and so on. But other people, with more time and subject knowledge than I have, can tell you about that. Besides, none of the elements which have led to their present position are likely to go away soon.

Corruption will not go away, nor the closed party list system, nor the crisis, nor austerity. Nor will PSOE, who have some way to go before they reach the nadir of, say, the Labour Party in Ireland, or PASOK in Greece: that would surely require another period in government. There will be plenty of time, watching Spain disintegrate, to observe how austerity is much more damaging to major left-of-centre parties, who are obliged to attack their own supporters, than to their counterparts on the right, who are much more able to protect at least their core support.

Maybe PSOE will find a way out of this. In the short time one cannot see how. If the politicised young despise the party's corruption - rather less than the PP's, but still widespread - how will the party address that? By purging itself? That would expose the party and tear it apart. So it cannot, and hence cannot attract the support of people who are inclined to use the term PPPSOE.

But to look at the question more sympathetically, what can PSOE actually do? What can they propose, what alternative political project to austerity can they formulate, which they and the electorate can believe in? "Credibility" is generally used in political commentary to mean "satisfactory to the financial markets", but it has other, less common but more fundamental meanings, including the conception that a political party's programme has less credibility with the electorate if they do not believe the party is going to implement it. And what faith can there be in an anti-austerity PSOE when PSOE gave us the first three years of austerity?

It is not just a question of will, but a question of means. It is often a conservative slogan, but sometimes a realistic one - where is the money to come from? The Spanish government pays nearly 7% to borrow money on the international markets. Because of this, its economy is in dire straits: because of that, it pays crippling interest rates to borrow money. To see this is simple, for anyone who wishes to see it. To say how you get out of that cycle is less simple. Austerity is no answer, that much is clear to anybody who cares. But what if there is no answer?

Other governments, which enjoy low rates of borrowing, could break with austerity tomorrow. If they do not do so, it is because they are malign, ill-motivated and foolish. The Spanish government is quite likely all of those things, and might be even if it were a PSOE government instead. But what can Rajoy actually do that Zapatero could not? What, of substance, could Chacón or López do that Rajoy has not? And that's before we even ask what meaning policy differences will have when the Troika are the ones dictating policy.

When you are paying a mortgage, it is not you, but the bank, that owns your house. A lot of people in Spain are finding out that truth the hard way. When you are paying 7% to borrow, it is not you, but the banks, that own your government. Spain is finding that out, too. That 7% is a halter around Spain's neck. A halter, and a halter that threatens to become a noose. Austerity pretends to ease its grip, but in truth, it tightens it. That is the purpose of austerity. But PSOE do not have the power to take the halter off.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Home free

A week at home after a week away from home: we usually rest in the week of Halloween. Or the week of All Saints' Day, if your cultural traditions are Catholic rather than American. What happens in practice is that the schools celebrate Halloween with the kids, and then All Saints' Day, Todos Los Santos, is a national holiday.

We travelled back to the village yesterday, from Valladolid, along one of my favourite roads, the one in Soria which goes from El Burgo de Osma past Gormaz and through Almazán. It's best travelled in the present season, autumn, to enjoy the trees, ranging in colour from bright yellow to dark green, that trace the route of the Duero as it passes through the province, for much of its route alongside the road. There may not be too much of autumn left: the snow on the faces of Las Tres Sorores was visible from the slopes of La Muela, 150 kilometres away.

In between Soria and La Muela we were obliged to pass a car which, despite having a temporary, small spare tyre fitted at the back, was nevertheless being driven at close to the speed limit up and down the mountains, swerving constantly into the overtaking lane as it did so. I had time enough to think that there had to be a metaphor in that, for life in Spain today: but what with trying to avoid the driver killing us, I didn't have time to work out exactly what it was.

But we got home. Safe home. Home in our village somewhere between Huesca and Barbastro. Close enough, I should imagine, to the geographical centre of Huesca province, were it possible to determine where that centre lay. In no other sense is it at the centre of anything. It is not, quite, Aldeaseñor, but it is small, its population is old, and to take the last turn to the village is almost to pass out of the world into a separate zone, where nobody comes except people who are coming to the village, where deer leap out in front of you, where hares leap out right at you and where, sometimes, wild boar hide behind hedges in the dark. We like it here. We feel separate, and we feel safe.

The house is very small, but it's paid for. We are not among the hundreds of thousands in Spain who are fearful of losing theirs. A man killed himself in Granada last week, just before he was due to be evicted: another, in Valencia province, threw himself off a balcony. These were not people who had somewhere to hide from the world. These were people who had run out of places to hide.

Eviction figures go up and up. Thirteen percent in the second quarter. There are empty flats and houses all over the country. The unemployment rate set a new record this week, more than 25%. (The IMF - as if it ever, ever did anything else - has revised its previous forecast of growth downwards, so that the policies which it recommended and approved are now expected to cause another year of financial contraction. No IMF personnel will lose their homes as a result of this mistake.) But we are throwing people onto the street so that their homes can be returned to a housing market which has collapsed. Which has collapsed not least because of the actions of the financial institutions which are putting people on the street.

There were protests outside the Cortes yesterday, against the budget, another budget consisting of enormous cuts, to go with the ones we have already had this year and the further ones which are undoubtedly to come. Cayo Lara characterised the budget as being riddled with concessions to
the banks, the speculators and the fraudsters.
These are not necessarily seen here as three different categories. Which is less than fair, but not, I think, quite as unfair as throwing people out of their homes, at the behest of the banks, because of an economic disaster to which the banks were substantial contributors.

This cannot go on, but it will. It will, and while it does, pay cuts will be recommended by people who do not expect to suffer them, and insecurity in employment and housing will continue to be recommended as an economic incentive by people who have no idea what it is to suffer it. I have never, personally, been on the street, but I have been close, and what it felt like was not an incentive to anything other than fear and desperation.

Here, we feel safe. It is Sunday morning. The church bells have rung in the tower behind our house and those villagers who are believers have attended Mass. The sun is shining and the sky is clear, presaging the coldest night for months. I can hear birdsong. We are at rest. Everything is at rest.

We seem so very far from fear and desperation. But it is all over the country, in the minds of millions. Before too long, we may learn what the desperation of millions actually looks like. Because of stupidity and recklessness and callousness, we may learn what desperation on a mass scale looks like.

[Las Tres Sorores: Clima y Nieve Pirineos]

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Here comes the flood

I was working last week in a school in Sarriguren, near Pamplona, and when the bell went, it wasn't a bell at all. Instead, they played music over the school's PA system, and for morning break, the music that the played was Singin' In The Rain.

I am not singing in the rain, because it is seeping through the wall. We have had torrential rain for most of the past twenty-four hours or so, which has closed roads, made rivers to overflow, caused a village just south of Huesca to be evacuated and swept away half a house in a village just north of Jaca. Meanwhile, in our village, the water is sweeping off the church terrace, onto the plaza below and, somehow, through our wall and into the kitchen. Today we have to drive all the way to Ciudad Rodrigo. We hope not to come back to a swimming pool in the kitchen.

While we are driving practically to the Portuguese border, there are elections today in the Spanish province to the north of Portugal, Galicia. There are also elections in the Basque Country, and strictly speaking the Basque elections are the more interesting of the two, especially where "more interesting" is a synonym for "less likely to go well for the Partido Popular".

Galicia, though, interests me more. I've never been there, though I want to, and I hope to go next summer, if enough money can be spared from saving-against-probable-unemployment (or, for that matter, a drainage ditch) to spare for a few days' break. As it is, I've seen much more of the road to Galicia than of Galica itself.

It is on the other side of Spain from me, and I do not go there for work, since the educational project with which I work doesn't operate in Galicia. Nor does it in País Vasco, come to that, but that region is closer to Huesca, and one also passes through it on the way to Cantabria and Asturias. But one only passes through Galicia on the way to the sea.

It appeals to me. Perhaps it is the idea of Galicia that appeals to me. Spain that is not like Spain as people think of it. The Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean. Wind and rain instead of sun.

It's the furthest point west in Spain (in peninsular Spain, at any rate) and it has a lot of rain. It also has a high emigration rate and normally votes for the right, a description which would remind a lot of people of Ireland.

Ireland, a friend recently said to me, has the most rightwing politics in Europe. I offered him Hungary and we bargained down to Western Europe instead, but that's still a large field for Ireland to be at the head of. Galicia may not even be the most rightwing region in Spain - Valencia, Murcia, Cantabria and the Balearics might all plausibly compete for that award - and it has occasionally elected PSOE leaders, but it is a question worth asking, why one of the poorer regions of Spain, on Spain's very edge, should vote for the Right (a Right which has been - and still mostly is - virulently centralist and anti-regionalist) and should continue doing so even in the teeth of austerity and recession under a government of the Right.

Maybe a comparison with Ireland is instructive, since that country, despite being, for most of its history, among the poorest in Western Europe, also votes for the Right and shows few signs of changing its mind now, despite experiencing an austerity programme that has been about as drastic and as deliberately targetted at the poorer sections of society as it could possibly have been.

When I was a young leftist reading, or attending meetings, about Ireland and its politics, we heard a lot about James Connolly and the carnival of reaction that he predicted would be the result of Partition. No doubt this is true, and there's no reason to think it will be any different if Spain undergoes a partition or two, and emerges as two or more states whose politics will consist of blaming one another for their problems. Which is the normal outcome of partition, and among the reasons why the Catalonian independence movement is such a bad idea.

But - among a host of other reasons - there is also emigration. Ireland, except for a short period in the recent past - it is a shock to realise how recent, just as it is a shock to realise how recently Spain had a booming economy and the soundest finances in the EU - has been a nation of emigrants. Galicia is a region of emigrants. Its young people leave in large numbers as soon as their education is completed. As is the case with Ireland.

Now it wouldn't be quite accurate to say that the young, and particularly the educated young, were the sole foundation of protest movements, nor of political movements of the left. Not in the Spain of today, nor in the Spain of the past, nor of anywhere. But it would be accurate to say that they are fundamental to movements of protest. I did most of my protesting between the ages of sixteen and twenty-one, and if I felt younger than the crowd when I began, I didn't for long. Without the young, these movements would be smaller. They would be weaker. They might never happen in the first place.

Which makes a difference - perhaps a huge one - to the politics of the places where they happen. Protests say - there is an alternative. The absence of protest says there is not. Or it says that there is an alternative, which is emigration.

What happens if, as we can probably expect, the effect of crisis and austerity is to drive as many young Spaniards out of their countryas can find somewhere to go? So that, in a few years' time - perhaps not very many - the experience of Ireland, or the experience of Galicia, or for that matter the experience of Spain itself until a generation or so past, is repeated across the country, and instead of protesting against their government and their financial institutions in the streets, they are watching from a distance, working or looking for work abroad? What happens to a country's politics when that happens?

I suspect that, as now, most of the young Rightists will still go back home, where their privileges are and where their ambitions will be looked after. But the young Leftists will mostly be abroad.

Poor countries - including those which have deliberately been made poor - have high emigration rates. High emigration rates keep poor most of those who remain. Because those who are most likely to cry "enough" have gone elsewhere. Leaving the political scene dominated by the corrupt classes and their mouthpieces.

Hence - to some degree, whatever other elements there may have been - Ireland's truncated political culture. And Galicia's. And, I fear, the political culture of a smashed-up and partitioned Spain, in a few years' time.

It might not go that way. It might not even go that way in Galicia, where, according to El Plural, the PP may not, quite, win an absolute majority. But that is clutching at straws. Though a drowning man proverbially will clutch at a straw, and Spain today is a drowning man.
The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who brings down his wages and standard of living. He also feels national and religious antipathies for him; it is rather the same attitude that the poor whites of the Southern states of North America had for the Negro slaves. This antagonism between the two groups of proletarians within England itself is artificially kept in being and fostered by the bourgeoisie, who know well that this split is the real secret of preserving their own power.
Thus wrote Marx, early in 1870. But he might have put it the other way around, and said the "real secret" lay not in the country which received the emigrants, but in the one which they had left. And that the real secret wasn't so much that "antagonism", real though it was. It was the boat to New York or Liverpool.

Or, in Galicia, the boat to South America. Or today, the airport. The secret of preserving power has the name of Ryanair.

They will be flooding out, tomorrow. But today, the rain is seeping through the walls. Everywhere, the rain is seeping through the walls.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Obelix in Spain

At the banquet with which Asterix in Switzerland comes to a close, Obelix is asked by Getafix what Helvetia - Switzerland - is like. Having drunk himself unconscious on the way, Obelix has never actually seen the Alps, though Asterix had to drag him up and down them while Obelix was sleeping. Which is why Obelix answers "flat".

The experience of many visitors to Spain is not dissimilar, since though they do not always drink so much, what they see of the country is basically the beach, a misleadingly flat section of what is, in large part, a country not only mountainous but a long way above sea level. This is mostly due to La Meseta Central, a plateau which turns much of the relief map brown.

Much of the country, therefore, is at altitudes rather higher than we normally associate with a beach. So, for instance, the A2, the main road from Barcelona to Madrid, passes through the Puerto de Alcolea del Pinar, which is 1206 metres above sea level, higher than anywhere in England or Wales. There is much more snow in Spain than people think, a point I am often keen to make when people's first reaction to learning that I live in Spain is to make assumptions about the weather.

For this reason, too, a country which may feel heavily populated, if you go to Madrid or the Mediterranean coast, seems the opposite if you live or travel outside the cities and the coastal strips. Spain, though twice the size of the United Kingdom, has only about three-quarters of the population, and its human geography is very unfamiliar to anybody who has lived mostly in the South-East of England. A Spanish province - to most intents and purposes the equivalent to a British county - is quite likely to have one middle-sized town, the provincial capital, and few, if any, centres of population other than that with as many as ten thousand inhabitants. As if the next-biggest town after Lincoln were Mablethorpe.

Teruel, for instance, or Ávila. As it happens, I have worked in the second cities of both provinces (Alcañiz and Arévalo respectively) but I doubt that even most Spaniards know what they are: and smaller than these, we are practically talking of villages. Spain is, to people who know it, a country of villages, of villages and the emptiness between them, and that is how I think of it, though every English-language news report I ever see from the country comes from Madrid or Barcelona. Or, if you are very lucky, Valencia.

It's always going to be like that - it is not as if Spanish reports from the UK tend to come from anywhere other than London - but it does mean that often, I feel that correspondents are talking of a different country from the one I know, and that the things with which they occupy themselves - the demonstrations, the government press conferences, the high politics and what's happening at La Bolsa - are things I do not see. They do not pass me by, so much as coming nowhere near.

Last week we worked in Cuenca. We left the Madrid road long before Alcolea, turning off at Calatayud, taking a side road to Molina de Aragón, which according to its English Wikipedia entry
holds the record (−28°C) for the lowest temperature measured by a meteorological station in Spain.
Not quite the Costa del Sol. After that we stopped to eat by the banks of the Tajo, in the Parque Natural del Alto Tajo, and carried on from there to Cuenca.

Most of the territory we had driven though reminded me of the sort of landscape one often sees in a Western: red earth, curved sandstone cliffs, scrubland with very few trees, and fewer people still. A few kilometres short of Molina we passed a couple of cars, by the side of the road, apparently being searched by the police: I speculated whether they had foiled an attempt to supply drugs to the good people of Molina, where there is probably not a great deal to do and which is a very long way from anywhere. Everywhere, in rural Spain, is a long way from anywhere else.

Our sales in Cuenca were 40% down on the previous year. It is hard to sell books to parents who have no jobs and schools which have no budgets. The head of studies told us there was no money for anything: if a light bulb stops working, they have to take one from elsewhere. The English teachers they used to have, have left: along with all their counterparts in similar schools in Castilla-La Mancha, they arrived at work at the start of the 2011/2 school year to find their jobs had been abolished without warning. Some, including one in Cuenca, had only just arrived in Spain. This is how labour market reform makes an economy more efficient.

Now, says the head of studies, English teachers are to be contracted through an agency whose owners (he claims) include Florentino Pérez and the husband of Dolores de Cospedal. Whoever owns the agency, they take a cut as large as is paid to the teachers: it introduces a new and expensive layer of bureaucracy, leaving the teacher poorer while neither the school nor the taxpayer is any better off. Meanwhile neither the school, nor the teachers themselves, know whether the teachers' jobs will be there next year.

At present it is a loosening, for want of a better phrase, rather than a falling apart: but there is only so much loosening one can do before disintegration happens.

Cuenca is an extraordinary city to see. Much of it, including our school, is high up on a hill - some of it, like a lot of Spanish citizens, barely clinging on.

The school itself is by the Torre de Mangana and the view out of the library window, over the river Júcar and the city, must be among the most striking that can be obtained from any school library in the world. The metaphorical view, from that same library, is less clear and less pleasing.

I have - somewhere, my shelves are less well organised than a qualified librarian's should be - an old pamphlet written by Michael Moorcock.

In it, he says something to the effect that in London, it is possible to believe in anything you like, provided you stay in the right places.

Maybe this is also true in Spain, today, and if you are in Madrid, with its dozens of demonstrations every month, Spain looks like a country on the brink of an explosion. But where there are fewer people, they are fewer protests, and where there are hardly any, there are none.

In most of Spain we are not about to have a revolution. We are just moving bulbs from one socket to another and hoping that the lights do not go out.

[Meseta Central: Wikipedia]