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.

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