Sunday, 26 August 2012

Noises in the night

The night before the night before we went on holiday, I heard noises, past three in the morning, in the street. People were talking: perhaps not loudly, but the thinness of the street and the thickness of the walls often seems to magnify any noise that takes place just outside.

There isn't much: you would think that obvious, in the small hours of a summer evening, but one of the reasons we moved away from Huesca and into the village was that in our previous home, early-morning noise was frequent, sometimes from rubbish collection which took place after midnight, and sometimes, in the summer, because of people gathering in the plaza outside, drinking and chatting until the police arrived to move them on.

We lived on the second floor: I used to think about buying a powerful water pistol, or even a hose, to drive them off without waiting for the cops. Moving away was probably a better option.

I heard talking. Gradually I understood that I was awake, and that the noises I heard were coming from the street, rather than having their origin within whatever part of the brain makes our dreams. My mind had been resisting waking, but now it had accepted it, it became more passive, more receptive, and the noises organised themselves into recognisable form. I realised that it was my wife talking. To whom, I couldn't understand: the only voice I could hear was hers, but stopping, like a telephone conversation, even though the noise appeared to come from the street.

The street acoustics are strange, and not just because noise becomes, apparently, magnified. Noises from the plaza behind our house also appear to come from the street in front, as if thrown there: a car passing behind the house will often sound as if it is passing in front. A succession of sounds will often echo between facing walls, multiplying their number while disguising their location: last summer, a horse, having broken out of its field above the plaza, ran through the village, at a similar hour of the morning, and with the clattering of its hooves and the echoing of the noise around the walls, it sounded as if a whole string of horses were galloping in circles around our house, since the noises never seemed to ease or pause. But when we found out, the following morning, what had happened, it had only been the one horse, trotting round the streets until it got tired.

That night, we had been in our spare bedroom, a storey below our normal room and hence closer to the street, because of an insect infestation that we were yet to completely repel. This summer we have been in that the same room, while R has been decorating the room. But though I was there, she seemed to be on our doorstep, insofar as I could determine where her voice was coming from. "¿No hay nadie?" I heard her say, and thought, from the question and the time, that she was talking to a child, who for some reason was outside our house in the small hours. I thought that she was asking them if there was anybody else at home.

In truth it was more serious. The question was that all right, whether anybody else was at home, but she was outside, not on our doorstep, and was asking not a child, but the very old lady, G, who lives in the house opposite us. Or what passes for opposite us, which means on the other side and along a bit, like the platforms at Haltwhistle station. G had fallen over, and had been crying out in pain, apparently for some time, before R woke up, and realised, more slowly than I had, since the earlier sounds were weaker and more distant, that there were noises outside. Eventually she had got up, put on some clothes and started talking to G though the thick, old-fashioned front door of her house.

She lives with her son, M, a farmer, who that night was away in Huesca, at a dance club, and we didn't have his number. Nobody seemed to have his number: R called JM, concejal for the village, but though he came straight down to see if he could help, he didn't have a number either, nor any way of getting into the house to see if G was all right. She had hurt her leg. How badly she didn't know, but too badly to be able to get up and let anybody else in.

Nobody did: and for the next hour or so there was a to-do outside as more people arrived, none of them having any clue of M's number or his exact whereabouts, or of how to get inside the house. Pliers were located, and applied uselessly but noisily to the door, and unsuccessful attempts were made to pick the lock. I couldn't understand why they didn't call an ambulance for G, and the police, so they could break in: but it is their village, to which I am relatively new, and for that matter their language, in which I am more than relatively weak. So the talking continued, accompanied by banging noises produced by the various means of trying to force an entry.

This went on for about an hour or more. Eventually they did call an ambulance, enabling me to make my own small contribution to the rescue by pointing, from our front step, down the street to guide the ambulance as it arrived, as if any assistance was in fact required. Meanwhile people had finally gained entry by breaking a pane of glass in an upstairs window. G, it transpired, had broken something in her leg, and the ambulance took her away.

It was not good news, though it could have been worse. Her femur was broken, and they say (as I write, a week and a half before this piece is published) that she needs an operation, if she is ever to be able to walk again. It would be difficult to live in her house if she couldn't walk, as it would in any house: but perhaps particularly difficult in one of these houses, where there is nothing on the ground floor but a hallway. Perhaps they could rearrange it, but even if they did, the hallway is not heated. They couldn't afford to change it round. M struggles to afford a few euros for a tractor part when he needs one. And there is not likely to be any help from anywhere else.

For now, she is in hospital. We are packing. Had she fallen two days later, or had we been in our normal bedroom, or had R not been, that night, a lighter sleeper than me, it's quite possible that nobody would have heard her.

I lost a couple of hours sleep. It's not important. Life in Spain at the moment is a permanent lesson in what is important and what is not, in what you can afford to lose and what you can't. But I think I could have worked this one out without the crisis. I lost some sleep. Somebody else might have lost the ability to walk.

She might, still, never get it back. But I did get back to sleep that night. I slept, and dreamed of snakes.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Whatever you say, say nothing

By the time you read this I will be away on my holidays and Mariano Rajoy will be back from his: I am going back to England, which is where I am from, and he has gone back to Galicia, which is where he is from. I am travelling home through France, with my wife, in our van. He is unlikely to have travelled through France, most certainly travelled with his wife, and whether or not he travelled in a van, I cannot say.

There are those who are unhappy that Rajoy is on holiday, even though he is cutting it short and not taking the whole, traditional, holiday month. (Not that everybody does actually take a month's holiday. But the Rajoys apparently do.) Some think he should be on duty trying to prevent the apparently-inevitable rescate: they include PSOE, but not the present writer, since he can recognise a piece of shameless politicking when he sees it.

Personally I don't care a fig whether Rajoy spends all month on holiday or all month in the Palace of Moncloa. Or, if he wants, a month walking the Camino de Santiago. His capacity to do anything about the rescate, or indeed anything else where the economy concerned, is nil, not because of any limitation in his own abilities, limited though they be, but because there is nothing that in his power to do except ask for the rescate when he is told to ask for it and not do so until that moment comes.

There really is nothing that Spain, or anyone in Spain, can do. Spain is in the same position as one of its nearly six million jobless, or at least one of them with a mortgage. (I pause to note: just as any rescate is likely to be draconian, so are Spain's mortgage laws.) Spain is acquiring more and more harrassed and hopeless debtors, who lose their property yet still face growing, insuperable and permanent debt. One of those harrassed and hopeless debtors, shortly, will be Spain itself.

But today, the holidays. Obviously Rajoy's capacity to work is, in some small and frankly unimportant sense, inhibited by being on holiday. As is mine, so for that reason I am relying on an unpaid blog comment, and not a new one at that, to do much of my work: it comes from the Naked Capitalism blog, last month, and explains, at least as well as I could do myself, the situation in which the government of Mario Rajoy, and his Partido Popular, find themselves.
In the case of Spain, the PP has a radical vision of massive privatisation, sale of public assets and property, dismantling of the social welfare apparatus (to the point of charging for public schooling) and so forth, and the economic crisis has given them a marvellous opportunity to implement it without all the compromising that would otherwise have been necessary. Their vision is a sort of restoration of an aristocratic oligopoly, in which there is no middle class, and everyone works for a few.

When the PP got into power, to some extent it believed its own propaganda, thinking everything was the fault of the Reds (how their more radical elements, like Esperanza Aguirre, call the socialists) and imagined that in a year or two the economic situation would take care of itself and they would hailed as heroes for having solved such a difficult problem. Obviously not all of them are idiots and some of them knew better, but the more political hack types amongst them thought (and to some extent still think) along lines like this. They saw the opportunities to implement their societal vision - and to establish themselves for a long time in power – and this was exacerbated by being in absolute majority. And they failed to see the gravity of the already extant problems. To this day it remains hard for them to see that the fundamental problems are not too many labour union representatives and too many public employees (both shibboleths also of minor significance in the current context).

Of course, by now it is fairly clear that the PP cannot do what it wants – it takes its orders from higher up. Half a year ago they criticized the PSOE for raising the VAT by 1 point – now they raise it by 3 and change categorizations so that the general rate is more generally applicable. As much as I detest the PP, I would not claim that they wanted to raise the VAT – they certainly did not – and they did so because it was a quid pro quo that came more or else explicitly with the bank bailout. The hacks keep floundering around because they are incompetent and oblivious, and the more serious players in the PP don't know what to do, because it is already probably too late to right the foundering ship.
it is already probably too late to right the foundering ship. Precisely*.

There are knaves and fools, and ideologues. Some of the PP obviously thought that removing Zapatero and going back to Aznar's philosophy would turn Spain almost instantly around. These were fools.

There were some who didn't care what they were saying as long as they got back into power (or, in many of the regions, retained and extended it.) These were the knaves, and quite probably the largest single section of the party.

Then there are the ideologues. Many of these undoubtedly want the IMF to come in, and implement, drastically and irreversibly, the program they really want. And also to play the role of the power who cannot be contradicted, of the lender or last resort who we cannot do without - and also of the voice of authority, the wise ones from outside the brawl of Spanish politics who confirm that one side of that brawl is in the right.

Most economic ideologues are really social ideologues with markets playing the role of God - but Spain resembling the US in this respect, in this country both God and the markets share the same role and the same opinions. What do their disciples want? What are these ideologues expecting? That things will get better when they get their way?

I do not think so. I think they are just expecting that, to get their way.

No doubt some of them believe, in some sense, that living standards will improve again once all traces of the social model are extirpated. But these are the children of Franco as well as Hayek and Los Reyes Católicos, and all they really want is to get their way. To see that they are in the saddle while the unions are crushed and the people are firmly under their feet again. Or emigrated.

That it what the more intelligent of the PP want. Others just want to keep their noses in the trough. Others are just thrashing about because they do not know what to do.

But what all of them did, at the last election, was to lie.

[*Or nearly precisely. I have made some small adjustments of punctuation.]

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Out to lunch

I often observe that once you get into your forties, it becomes hard to tell the difference between satire and reality. I've said so, in fact, ever since I got into my forties. In Spain, today, though, it is difficult to tell the difference between reality and madness.

This week the Telegraph had a story to the effect that parents who have withdrawn their children from school meals, because they can't afford them, are liable to be charged anyway, an amount "up to 3€" according to the Telegraph. (Although they actually say €3, I have always been taught to put the symbol on the other side of the figure, thus 3€. In news stories they tend to omit the symbol altogether in favour of writing "euros". But I pedantically digress.)

As is probably true of all news stories, you find it is more complicated when you have some knowledge of the field. Which I have, because I presently work in schools, and more so, because my wife R. has worked in Spanish schools for about fifteen years. The levy will not be 3€ everywhere, partly because education is under the control of the various Spanish regions ("communidades") who have different financial positions, as well as political and economic philosophies, and partly because the levy will at any rate be up to school councils to impose, or not, as they choose. Of course those who choose otherwise will have less money than those who do.

One also assumes that this doesn't apply to children already in receipt of free school meals, though this can be assumed to be a shrinking category, at precisely the time when more children are in need of help. The Telegraph also reports:
In Madrid alone, the regional education board has cut €26 million in grants for school dinners and text books for the new school year.
Those are compulsory text books, by the way, not text books that schools and pupils will simply be without. Parents are obliged to buy them. And now it appears that they are obliged to buy lunch too, even when they have provided it themselves.

So it's possible that many parents will not in fact have to pay this levy, that many schools may choose not to charge it, and that it may in many plces be rather less than 3€ per child per day. All right. Nevertheless, as so often, you can hack away at the complicating detail of a story to find an obvious truth within it. Which, in this instance, is that this is insane.

It is insane in all sorts of ways. It is insane to suddenly decide that people should have to pay for their children to sit in a room and eat, which has never occurred to anybody before. It wouldn't, because it is insane.

It is insane to charge people for bringing in food who are only doing so in the first place because they can no longer afford to pay for hot meals. Of course not everybody who brings in a packed lunch come in that category. School meals vary drastically in quality - some schools in which I've worked are very good, but in some schools, virtually no teachers, tellingly, choose to eat in school. But the whole point here is to replace revenue caused by parents who used to buy their children school meals deciding they can no longer afford it. Insane. They have already told you they can't afford to pay. They have told you by withdrawing their children from school lunches. So how, rationally, does anybody decide that this means they can afford to pay?

It is insane because, even if we decide that the charge will be less than 3€ a day, it is still a monstrous amount of money. Calculate over a month. Bear in mind that there will usually be more than one child in the family. Two kids, more than twenty schooldays a month - how much is that going to be, for a family that you already know can't afford school meals?

It is insane because the more you loot people's pockets, the less they have to spend, and the more you guarantee that the economy continues its plummet to destruction. Everybody knows this. The people who are making this orders know it. The people in the so-called "markets" know it. The people in the IMF and and the ECB and in Brussels and Helsinki and Berlin know it. But they are not going to suffer for what they know.

You also know it, I must add, if your living consists of selling books in Spanish schools, as does mine. A living not likely to be made easier - I put it more gently than I might - by a deliberate and callous policy of impoverishing the public who are the market - a real market - for our books. I believe that in the theology of free-market economics, recessions are supposed to drive inefficiencies and impurities out of the economy. In real life, it feels rather different. This is because it is rather different. What it feels like is madness.

There are all kinds of madness going on. There is an epidemic of failure to pay employees. Earlier this year we were working in Alcorcón, on the western edge of Madrid, where the school cleaners were on strike. They were on strike because they hadn't been paid for three months. What else are people to do? But while we were working, strikebreakers came in to the schools to clear the rubbish. The ayuntamiento was actually paying people to come and break a strike which was only taking place because employees weren't beeing paid. This is madness.

Last week a friend came round, and during the evening he mentioned a colleague of his who is on the point of losing his house. Unemployed, as are so many of the people being thrown onto the street? Not at all. But he hasn't been paid for six months. Six months. You hear of companies being paid late by ayuntamientos, which is often the case, and is quite wrong. (Schools, by contrast, pay us with a swiftness that we much appreciate.) People, however, being paid late by hear much less of. Except by word of mouth. And by word of mouth, you hear it all the time.

I seem to remember this happening in Russia, during the time in which the IMF was saving that country by wreaking destruction upon it. What do you do, when you are not paid the money on which you depend? What happens, when you are desperate? What do you do? One answer is that you loot the shops, as is happening in Andalucía. Presumably when they put a stop to that, the desperate will start robbing people, instead. And then there will have to be money found for prisons and policemen, and this will only be found by making more people homeless and poor.

Madness. Madness of all kinds. Madness on top of madness. And it is only just beginning.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

If it keeps on raining

There were fiestas in the village yesterday. Every year the municipio, seven small villages which together elect a mayor, holsd fiestas, the site of the celebration falling to each in turn. This year it was turn of our village and so ther plazas were cleared for bouncy castles, foam sprays, a band, a comedian of sorts, an exhibition of old cameras inside the ayuntamientio and one of old cars outside it, then tomato bread and chocolate for all and finally a dinner that was due to start at ten in the evening.

It didn't start at ten in the evening, as the rows of tables were still being laid and the plates filled one item at the time. Periodically people would move into the gaps between the tables to try and claim their places, and each time the catering staff would wave them away, insisting that they weren't yet ready. I lack the patience to wait far beyond the time I have been promised, and this is one of many things which make this, often, a difficult country for me to live in.

What did begin, as close to ten exactly as makes no difference, was flashes of lightning, which hadn't been forecast. Not until the following day. In retrospect, I suppose it was a little closer, when I went out for the dinner just before ten, than it had been when I went out for tomato bread and chocolate some hours before: but for some reason nobody, myself included, thought that anything disastrous was about to happen. There was no rain, nor any sign of any.

Around half past ten, the places were ready. Or, in truth, some of the places were ready, and because some people moved forward to claim them, everybody scurried to make sure they and their friends had a group of chairs together. The catering staff were still putting out the last few sticks of asparagus and being asked to replace the plates of people who were on special diets with plates catering for those diets, but other than that, everything and everybody was ready to begin. At which point, as soon as everybody was comfortable, it started to rain. It rained, and then it became a flood.

First spots, then spatters, then steadily, then in torrents. An English-style drizzle is rare, here, but most other identifiable stages of rain were passed through in a matter more of seconds than of minutes. At first, people who had umbrellas opened them and tried to keep both their bodies and their plates under cover, but once it began to pour, they ran from the plaza into the surrounding houses, most of which have doors that open into a large hallway - so between them they were able to accomodate most of the two hundred people seeking shelter. Many of them took their plates, with their asparagus, vol-au-vent, slice of jamón, tostada and whatever else was it, and their cutlery too.

But I wanted umbrellas, so I ran the hundred metres, maybe less, downhill from the plaza to our house, and picked up two. But by the time I ran back, the route uphill was a river, and running in my sandals, even with my umbrella open, I was wet through. Given that I could have run into a house instead, the umbrellas seemed a stupid waste of time. I was wetter than anybody.

I got inside, but it kept on raining, and raining, and everybody had to just wait, powerless, to see if the rain would stop. They kept expecting it to, with the optimism, alien to me, that Spaniards, at least, always identify in themselves. And even if it didn't stop soon, well, never mind, it would stop in the end and then the fiesta would go on.

But as far as I could see, it was a disaster. I was too wet and fed up to speak, but there was nothing to be said. By the time the torrent had eased off, everything was already ruined.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Bring on the empty houses

One of the first things that struck me about Huesca was all the empty buildings. Big blocks of flats, normally, on the edges of town, not obviously occupied, not obviously finished. One of the second things, if you like, that struck me was that even though these buildings were in the state they were, there seemed no end to the building of new ones.

Obras are rather less ubiquitous in Spain now than they were when I arrived. At the time - and for several years after that, even after the crash of 2008 - it was barely possible to walk through a city centre in Spain without detouring several times to avoid them. Not all obras, of course, involve the construction of subsequently unsellable flats, but enough did, and enough have disappeared, to make it possible, at some level, to grasp why there are three or four million more unemployed people in Spain than there were when I moved here in 2006. The works have gone and the jobs with them.

Current wisdom, which is to say the prejudices of people who will never be affected by their consequences, is that if it were easier to sack people then fewer of those people would be unemployed now. Perhaps it would, though their sheer numbers do not suggest that it is all that hard to sack them as it stands. Besides, when the IMF (or one of their European allies) orders the dismantling of social protections, along with the country's health and education services, after a "bailout" is arranged in the near future, we will get to find out. Or it may just be that they dismantle the country instead.

Our village is full of empty houses, too, though for very different reasons: the people are old and the houses are older, and many of the houses, if you can say "many" about a village as small as ours, would probably cost less to pull down than they would to repair. Others are weekend houses, not necessarily pieds-à-terre for well-off people from Barcelona (though there are a couple of these) but houses owned by people who live and work in Huesca, but have a house in the village because their family comes from there.

The 2008 census reckoned there were forty people living here: during the week, though, there are barely more than a dozen. But when there are fiestas, and almost everybody connected with the village comes, the population grows like a seaside town in August.

I draw the comparison because, when August began, I was in a seaside town, specifically Sitges where we stayed for a couple of days so that I could attend an appointment in Barcelona. We stayed on a campsite to the west of the town, half an hour's walk from the centre, from which we returned by way of the seafront and then through a dark, almost-deserted estate. One full of large houses, with reinforced hedges, and rutted roads.

It was presumably a purpose-built estate, built to provide second homes in a fashionable resort. Deserted because it was midweek and, just as many of the houses in our village are empty in midweek, the owners of the Sitges houses were elsewhere, presumably in most cases Barcelona. One or two were occupied, their light, necessarily, seeming all the brighter for the absence of light from any of their neighbours.

Just as well. Without those few signs of human life, artificial as they were, walking through the estate was beginning to feel like we were walking though a JG Ballard. I knew he wrote Cocaine Nights, set much further down the same coast, but I haven't read it and that wasn't why I thought of him. What brought him to mind was imagining the estate carrying on for miles, almost deserted and almost lightless.

There is a natural tendency to imagine identical things reproducing themselves in greater quantities, even to the point of infinity, and though the houses themselves were not identical, the hedges were, at least in their basic design. And in obscuring the houses they imposed their own absence of individuality on whatever genuine character the houses may have had. So one imagined them stretching, in uncountable number, down the coast towards Tarragona, dark and empty, waiting for their weekend occupants - who, in my hypothetical Ballard, were, because of some natural or social catastrophe, never going to arrive.

Yet as it turns out, empty houses are the cause of the catastrophe rather than the consequence. And the crisis is unlikely to be felt much by those who, de vez en cuando, live inside these ones. Meanwhile, outside the houses, we saw several cats. Thin cats, they were. And sad.