Sunday, 30 September 2012

Another week for the weak

On Tuesday, plastic bullets outside parliament. On Thursday, the announcement of more gigantic cuts. After which, there will be more protests and more plastic bullets. After which, there will be more cuts. But this is a spiral, not a cycle.

A spiral, and yet every week is the same: a week of waiting, by the activists as much as everybody else, for what everybody knows is going to happen. You can call it cuts, or bailouts, or whatever term you choose, but those terms have been leached of meaning by their overuse and their misapplication. Endless and self-defeating cuts are not cuts at all: baillouts that drown their beneficiaries in debt are no bailouts. What they are, is punishment. How could it be otherwise? If you want to kick people, you must first convince yourself they deserve to be kicked. Mot that this is hard to do.

This week, the kicking was a literal one, for a number of our protestors: but we spent it waiting, as we spend every week waiting, for the kick we know is bound to come. A kick that we will have asked for - literally, the government of Spain will be obliged to ask for it, though the asking is the asking of a child being sat on by a bully. But this is an age of bully-worship. And we marvel at the patience of the bully.

I had a strange thought, this last week, while I was working, while I was waiting. I was thinking that in Ireland, where the corruption and the role of finance were particularly evident, the story was that "we all partied". Everybody was guilty, at least according to those who were more guilty than most. But here, where the problem is, in part, the relation between the Southern and the Northern states and their economies, there is no sharing of responsibility. The partying was ours, and the responsibility was ours, alone. We blew it all on airports. There was a bubble, but it was only the Spanish who were doing any blowing.

I got home, after this last week working in Zaragoza, and caught up on Krugman, binged on the columns I had missed during the week.

They all partied. There is no division between innocent Northern European investors and crooked Spanish banks. They were doing the same things and each knew what they and the other were doing. The moral argument in nonsense. It is a lie.

But it doesn't matter. There is no truth so powerful as a lie that suits. And the more important truth is that only the poor are ever guilty. Only the weak are ever at fault.

We are very weak right now. And we are going to be poor.

[25S poster]

Sunday, 23 September 2012


As the "bail-out" draws ever closer, the narrative changes, and shrinks. Everything that is wrong with Spain derives from Spain itself, and nothing is external. Everything that is wrong with Spain is classifiable as waste, or overspending, or corruption. Everything that is wrong with Spain is wrong with Spain, for there is no need to distinguish between different regions, different parties, or different personalities. Spain, waste, overspending, prestige projects, corruption. Overspending, waste, prestige projects, Spain, corruption. It is like a kaleidoscope, but one that shows you the same pictures every time.

Perhaps it just feels like that, but then again perhaps it doesn't. I am sure there was a time, not very long ago, when you would regularly read that Spain's public finances had actually been the best in the EU, that the deficit was rather smaller than, for instance, Germany's, or that its real problems lay with the ending of a construction boom. I am also sure that I have seen a lot less of this recently. There is none of it in, for instance, Paul Mason's latest, about a Valencia with prestige projects and pharmacists going unpaid, but one without Francisco Camps or the Caso Gürtel, one where the problem with the banks was the "appointed politicians", as if the banks themselves had had no choice.

Paul Mason, according to his reputation, is usually better than this. The Economist, according to its reputation, is not, and it excelled itself in a tendentious piece* discussing Catalonia's aspirations to independence, which piece carried the remarkable and offensive line
Regional governments, which spend almost 40% of public money, blithely ignored deficit targets last year.
Blithely ignored. You may as well argue that the British public blithely ignored the Olympics, or that Saladin blithely ignored the Crusades. Is the Economist under the impression that the cuts only started this year? If it is, then it is under a very stupid impression indeed.

But it doesn't matter. We are to be cut, therefore it must be our fault, and our collective fault at that, and no-one's fault but ours. And when it doesn't work, that story will be told and told again.

I work - for as long as I am able, before the education cuts destroy my business - selling books to children. You can tell a story to a child, and they will ask for the same one over and again. But eventually they will get tired of it, just as a cat will eventually tire of its cushion. This story, though,is one that some people never seem to tire of.

This is not to say that there hasn't been waste on public projects, or corruption, or that political interference wasn't an issue with the banks, or that none of Spain's problems derive from Spain itself (although I don't believe that political interference made any significant difference to bank policy, nor that the solutions to its problems lie within its borders). And Paul Mason will probably write better than that next time, though the Economist will probably write worse.

But it does seem to me that the aspects of our particular situation that don't fit the Spain-is-wasteful-and-they're-all-guilty narrative - which includes all or most of the important ones - have disappeared from view in recent weeks. Not from our view, for sure, a view which naturally has its own failures of perspective. But from the view of mainstream English-langauge commentary, external commentary, commentary which forms of the views of those who cannot see directly.

When the crisis in Greece broke, it was necessary to blame the Greeks, and it has remained necessary, since the responses to that crisis, imposed on those same Greeks, have made it immeasurably worse. At the time, Spain wasn't Greece. It was defined by its differences from Greece. But now, we are about to be Greece. Not quite so much, since we cannot be quite so easily kicked. But Greece-lite, with the responsibility of suffering falling heavily on those least equipped to do so.
Watch, as along with the burden of paying for the crisis, the responsibility for causing the crisis is shifted to the Spanish. Watch, as the crisis turns out not to be about construction bubbles but about public sector pensions and employment rights. Watch, as the role of international lenders in financial profligacy is forgotten and the blame falls entirely on Spanish banks and political interference in those banks. Watch, as the blame falls, like Plymouth Rock, on Spain. Or on "the Spanish". Because we all know what they're like.
Así. Así hablé yo.

[* thanks to Tom Clarke]

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Mas movement

It has been a week for demonstrations in Spain. One yesterday, in Madrid, was against the cuts.

Another, last Tuesday, in Barcelona, was for Catalan independence. I was in favour of the march in Madrid. But not the march in Barcelona.

I didn't go to either: strictly speaking I am retired from active political involvment and try to avoid actually doing anything. So yesterday I was in la pardina de Ayés, in the Pyrenees, enjoying myself. Nevertheless, despite my absence there were tens of thousands in Madrid, albeit many fewer than in Barcelona.

How many there were on that march depends on which police force you choose to ask. Six hundred thousand according to the Guardia Civil. Els Mossos d'Esquadra, by contrast, reckon a million and a half. Which, in itself, says much of what needs to be said.

In principle I don't care whether Catalonia is independent or not. In practice I'm against it. I don't want to weigh up the pros and cons, to discuss the meaning of the term "nation" when applied to Catalonia, or to go through the history of Catalonia's inclusion in Spain. None of these are at the root of my opinion. What I am against is the process of polarisation between Catalans and Spaniards which, it seems to me, any move to independence would necessarily entail.

If I thought we were highly likely to have a peaceful, relatively amicable separation, as - for example - we will presumably have if Scotland separates from the United Kingdom, that would be a different matter. But I don't believe it. The prospect - the prospect, that is, of what is likely to happen - scares me. I see no good coming from all this.

Catalonia, like other parts of Spain, is not allowed to vote for independence. Nor is it allowed to organise any such vote. (This is why if you visit, say, the Basque Country on 8 December, El Día de la Constitución, you find the shops are open, which in most of Spain, they are not.) Presumably, in the near future, it will defy this prohibition, and presumably it should be allowed to, because if the army were called in to prevent such a referendum - which the loudmouths on the Spanish side will certainly demand - then we would be in a civil war, or close to one.

Nobody wants this, of course. But nobody wanted the Yugoslav war either.

I'll confess to a particular dislike of Convergència i Unió, who ran in the last elections on an apparent platform of making the Partido Popular seem like reasonable human beings - Duran i Lleida in particular going out of his way to be obnoxious, claiming that Andalusians sit around in the village bar all day, living off subsidies. This is not to say that the leading Catalan nationalists are any worse than their counterparts on the other side. Far from it, since Esperanza Aguirre is on the other side, and there are worse still than her.

But the immediate casus belli - to use an unfortunate term - is the financial relationship between Catalonia and Madrid, which Catalonia considers unfair and unreasonable, and compares unfavourably to that enjoyed by País Vasco. With some justice, I think. But when that complaint is made accompanied by language like Duran's, it is the Lega Nord, and the way it talks about the Mezzogiorno, that comes to mind. The situation of Catalonia is specifically framed in terms of a productive part of the world held back by lazier, poorer parts living off them. The Lega Nord are nasty people. As are the CiU.

Rajoy - no admirer of Andalusia himself, particularly as that region, against expectations, failed to hand itself over to the PP in the spring election - may even be inclined to give Catalonia some of what they want, although unlike his Andalusian party he did win an overall majority and (unlike Zapatero before him) has no need to rely on Catalan nationalist votes in the Cortes. But it is hard to believe he can give the Catalans enough to satisfy them without falling victim to the loudmouths on the Spanish nationalist right.

Which Artur Mas knows. Which is why, having imposed gigantic cuts on the Catalonian health and education system, he wants these to be blamed on Andalusia as well as Madrid. And so huge demonstrations in Barcelona against Mas and the cuts are superseded by an even more huge demonstration in Barcelona, essentially in support of Mas. Not so simply, since Mas did not call the demonstration, nor has he been previously identified as a supporter of outright independence. But he has supported it, and he has done so because he thinks they will work in his support.

It is not always remembered that the collapse of Yugoslavia was preceded by a deep economic crisis. But I remember, and I have kept on remembering ever since the present crisis started. Wikipedia currently puts it well:
Real earnings were in a [sic] free fall and social programmes had collapsed; creating within the population an atmosphere of social despair and hopelessness.
Does that sound familiar? It goes on:
This was a critical turning point in the events to follow.
Quite so. And just as Yugoslavia was not neatly comprised of Croatians in Croatia, Slovenes in Slovenia, Serbs in Serbia and so on, there are many, many people who don't fit neatly into the scheme of Catalan-speaking Catalans in Catalonia, and Castillian-speaking Spaniards outside it. What will happen to them, if and when things kick off?

What will happen when Spanish-speaking parts of Catalonia demand to remain in Spain, and want the army to protect them? What will happen if some Spanish Milošević emerges, to tell Spaniards in Catalonia that nobody will ever beat them again?

What happens in La Franja, when Catalonia moves towards independence, and Spanish nationalists start picking on Catalan-speakers there? What happens if we have a mini-war of destroying street signs in one another's language? What happens when that escalates into attacks on people, their houses, their villages? What happens whjen terrified people on both sides of a language divide start calling on their co-linguists to support them?

This - a low-level but violent degree of ethnic cnflict - is the sort of thing that was happening in Yugoslavia before any tanks crossed any borders. Duran i Lleida knows all about La Franja: he is from there, from Alcampbell, which is not in Catalonia but, like the village where I live, in Huesca province. What will be the ultimate effect of his rhetoric on the people who still live where he used to?

What happens when people are in marriages where one partner is Catalan and the other Spanish, as is the case with our best friends in our village, and our best friends in the nearest village to the south? What side are they on? What side will they be expected to be on? If Spain disintegrates as Yugoslavia did, where will they be safe? Where will they go?

Or it might be that the wave of pro-independence feeling falls away. Or that I am wrong, and though Catalonia separates from Spain, it does so as Slovenia did. Or as the Czech Republic separated from Slovakia. At the moment everybody is being very civilised, talking about whether an independent Catalonia would have to leave the Euro, whether Barcelona could carry on playing in La Liga, and so on. But But as yet it is all talk. Nothing is really happeneing. And it is when things really start happening gthat, I fear, things will deteriorate. Politics deteriorates in a recession. Politics deteriorates when flags are waved. What happens when we have both?

If you are Colm Tóibín you can treat Catalonia v Spain as an exercise in fantasy, your personal fantasy of modernity confronting the past. But it is not, nor likely to be. It is likely to be one bunch of loudmouths confronting another. And the noise becoming louder, until it comes not from the mouths of people but from guns.

I have never touched a loaded gun. They frighten me. As this bout - more than a bout - of flag-waving also frightens me.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Shooting Orwell

I think about Orwell a lot, partly because of who I am and partly because of where I live. I grew up reading him: most of the novels and - over and again - the first part of the Collected Essays, Letters and Journalism.

I live a few kilometres back from where the front line was - in this part of Spain - during the Civil War. I used to live in the city, Huesca, which Orwell was beseiging. And we rent a lock-up in Tierz, part of the Republican front line during that siege and not far from where the Manicomio (mentioned in chapter six of Homage to Catalonia) was situated.

I read a few years ago in the local paper that the Manicomio had just been demolished: I assumed it was the same building, though I don't know that for sure. I wasn't disappointed that I never got to see it. Spain is not a Civil War theme park, just as the UK is not a Royal Family theme park, though many foreigners (and, for that matter, many Brits) often seem to think so.

It's marked by the Civil War, for sure: deeply so, marked more by its past, I'd guess, than any other Western European nation with the exception of Northern Ireland. Its process of recovery from Franco is far from complete and will likely never be completed, either economically, given the crisis, or psychologically, given the amnesty and the prohibition against investigating Civil War and Franco-era crimes. I've been to the Ruta Orwell and for all I know, I'll end up giving tours in Huesca to Orwell enthusiasts. But it's not a theme park. The present is not a backdrop to discussion of its past.

For all that, I think of Orwell frequently. Not every time I have coffee in Huesca, but often. Sometimes when I am in Siétamo, where he was in hospital, and sometimes when I am in Barbastro, where he met the Italian militiaman. This was after he was shot. Confused, as I often am, I had always thought he was shot when he was on Monte Irazo, close to the border between Huesca and Zaragoza provinces and not far from Alcubierre. But he wasn't: re-reading his chapter twelve he says
There was not much happening at the front. The battle round the Jaca road had died away and did not begin again till mid June.
The Jaca road runs north out of Huesca, while Monte Irazo is a long way south. Orwell was actually shot while on the Huesca front, and for that matter, not very far out of Huesca at all.

According to The Orwell Society, Orwell was probably shot from the tower of the Ermita de Salas, which is close enough to Huesca "un kilómetro al sudeste de Huesca" - that my wife, when living in the city, used to exercise by jogging there and back.

Close to the Ermita flows the river Isuela, or does when there is actually any water in it. The Flumen is about a kilometre further on, to the east, and east of the Flumen is Tierz. The Orwell Society, who were kind enough to respond to my enquiries, tell me that they don't yet know precisely where Orwell was when he was shot, but I'm assuming he was somewhere between the Isuela and the Flumen. Perhaps I will walk over there some time and take a look. And then remind myself that Spain is not a theme park.

But I think of Orwell often. His account of being shot begins:
I had been about ten days at the front when it happened. The whole experience of being hit by a bullet is very interesting and I think it is worth describing in detail.
The whole experience of watching the destruction of a country is very interesting, and I think it is worth describing in detail. And this is why I write.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Golden opportunity

It used to be conservatives who would look back thirty years and see a better time. Geoffrey Pearson wrote a brilliant book about it, every generation imagining that life was better thirty years before and making the same complaints about their children that their parents had made about them.

But at least in the past, the pay-off for the kids was that life was easier for them than for their parents. I remember saying that, cockily but not actually wrongly, to an oldish man in Stevenage town centre when I was a teenager, on overhearing him complain that kids had it easier than in his day. Aren't they supposed to, I asked him? Isn't that the point?

So it is. Or so it was, before a generation came to power in Europe with the plan of making everybody worse off than before. Everybody except them.

I once asked my late great-aunt, who would never have been so crass as to complain about the younger generation, and who spent her life working for a better future, what she thought her Party had achieved. She told me that you hardly saw homeless people on the street any more, which fact she attributed to what Labour had done in local and national government. And you didn't, back then: something which must be as hard to imagine for somebody young today as it must have been for her when she was young.

I don't remember quite when the conversation took place. Perhaps during Mrs Thatcher's first term. It was really in her second that homelessness was deliberately created in a series of social security cuts, and the shop doorways of our major cities were filled with sleeping bodies.

What this taught me was that it takes longer - far longer - to bring about social progress than it takes to reverse it. If this is not generally understood, it's because the job of reversing social progress used rarely to be undertaken: conservative parties in government were usually pragmatic, accepting changes they had previously tried to prevent. But now those days are gone and their rules are broken. And everything may be broken very soon indeed.

I rarely or never saw homeless people when I was a child, though I grew up in London- and I don't believe I ever saw a pawn shop. I am sure, though sure from no particular memory, that I read about them - in all probability in a history book! - and had to ask what they had been. I wouldn't have to ask today, thirty years of social progress further on.

You see shops, you see posters on walls, you see leaflets under windscreen wipers. What they say in Spain is COMPRO ORO. I buy gold.

As far as I am aware the only gold I have is in my wedding ring. This is probably true of most people, and almost certainly true of the people at whom the shops, the posters and the leaflets are aimed.

Just as there is a plague of evictions across the land, and a plague of non-payment of wages, so there is a plague of COMPRO ORO. A plague of pawn shops, thirty years after I had to ask, in London, what they were. It is as if Spain were turning into a Britain of the Thirties. It is like Love On The Dole.

I have never been to a pawn shop, but I know enough - now - about them to understand that they are places to which one goes in fear and shame. But everybody understands that. They are a refuge of the desperate. You would not advertise that you were going to one. You might as well advertise that you were going to the workhouse.

But here we are, after thirty years, not just of social progress, but of advances in the culture of acquisitiveness and advertising - and now even the furtive journey to the pawn shop must be dressed up as if it were an adventure in consumerism.

I walked across Huesca on Friday, from the station to the Mercadona on the east side of town, via Calle de Cabestany and past a COMPRO ORO shop that I don't remember seeing there before. On the wall of this shop was a poster. (A photo would be helpful in illustrating this anecdote, but my camera and I are presently separated by about a thousand miles, you will have to imagine a poster depicting a ring in its display box, a treasure chest with a string of pearls coming out of it, and a delighted old lady unable to believe her luck. If this is hard for you, to imagine a cheerful poster on a pawn shop, imagine how much harder it was for me, thirty years ago, to imagine what a pawn shop actually was.)

On this poster, which - slightly and suitably amended - one might have associated with a bingo hall, was written:
How would you translate? Perhaps you're sitting on a fortune - and you don't even know it. Perhaps. Or perhaps you'd be too gobsmacked by this exhibition of bad taste to find it worth the effort.

You might as well put a big poster on the wall advertising exciting new openings in prostitution. Everybody knows that brothels exist, just as everybody knows - in 2012, at at rate - that pawn shops exist. But we don't talk about them as if going there were the opportunity of a lifetime. As far as I know. Maybe I just haven't seen the posters.

I mean I always hated Antiques Roadshow. But going to a pawn shop isn't Antiques Roadshow. It isn't some old biddy finding there's something in her attic that she can sell for fifty quid and buy presents for the grandchildren. It's a pawn shop. Pawn shops, like cholera, happen among poverty and disaster. And dressing them up as a destination of opportunity is dressing up the disaster that's happening to Spain as if it were a road to wealth and happiness.

There have been rather bigger outrages than this in Spain, in this past week alone: but sometimes it is the small things and the symbols which make you angriest. Either way, this is Spain today. We are not short of pawn shops. Nor are we short of emetics.