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]

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Less of a club

I don't like FC Barcelona much. I never did, not being fond of any club that's so big and powerful, but I've liked them less and less since I came to Spain. When you get closer to a football club than watching occasional games on television, the club itself loom larger, the team smaller, than they did.

There are things about FC Barcelona that I find thoroughly unattractive, over and above any problems I might have with gigantic sporting institutions in general. They are less likeable, Barcelona, than they think, and some of the reasons for that will be visible this evening, when el clásico takes place and they take on Real Madrid.

I won't be watching. It's on a satellite channel, which I do not have, our village has no bar in which to watch it and I wouldn't watch it anyway. I've taken to avoiding all games involving either Barcelona or Real, let alone both of them at the same time. I say "I've taken to", as if it were a choice, but in the last couple of weeks even that choice has disappeared, as the requirement to show one game from every jornada on terrestrial channels has been dropped, and the weekly game on La Sexta has moved to Marca TV.

I could still watch via the internet, but my connection here is slow, sometimes scarcely works at all if the weather is poor, and therefore not really good enough for televised football: and so I lose one of the small pleasures of Spanish life, the chance to watch a live game on TV in the privacy of my own home. A small thing, for sure, and small things don't matter. The accumulation of small things, however, does.

But Barcelona. If you only watch them playing football, you're likely to think of them simply as a very good football team. If you watch them as a club, however, you can form a different view - that they're a club that doesn't expect the rules to apply to them. Més que un club can get on one's nerves, too, as would any manifestation of somebody telling you, ceaselessly, how great they are, how much a cut above everybody else. When people think that, it's rare that it goes unaccompanied by a sense of entitlement.

It was the evening when Spain won the World Cup that brought it home to me. There had been, and would be, other things. Like, for instance, turning on the Camp Nou sprinkler system to try and stop Inter celebrating the victory in a Champions' League semi-final. Or one recalls the time they decided to kick off at midnight because they didn't like being told on what day they should play a game.

I didn't see either of these happen at the time (I was not in Spain until 2006, and I missed the Inter semi-final out of lack of interest in the Champions' League) but I did sit in a campsite television room, in Aragón but close to the Catalonian border, and watch Barca players pull a Barcelona shirt over Cesc Fabregas' head, while Fabregas was still an Arsenal player. In the room, around me, all the Barca supporters cheered.

Of course any bunch of players, and any bunch of fans, might behave stupidly on any given occasion. But maybe you'd have to be Barcelona to do that particular thing, that visibly, and not see that there was anything wrong with it.

That was, I think, the point at which I stopped being able to consider Barcelona as something better than their rivals - not more than a club, but more than one particular other club - and started seeing them as no better than Real Madrid. No different to them, either. Still, I have never actually wanted Real Madrid to beat them, and I don't suppose I ever will. But this evening, I am tempted, because this evening Barcelona will once again be going too far.

This evening, twice during the match, Barca fans will hold up red or yellow cards, so that they form a giant senyera, the Catalan flag. And when seventeen minutes and fourteen seconds of each half have expired, the supporters are instructed to chant in favour of independence, this being a reference to 1714, when Catalonia was stripped of many of its privileges by the Castillian crown.

This is, specifically, to express support for Catalan independence, in connection with which, elections have been called in Catalonia for 25 November. This is about as political an act as I have ever known in a football stadium. It is also stupid, provocative and aimed, as clearly as can be, at raising tensions between Catalans and Spaniards, something which is clearly visible to Gerard Piqué (who will not be playing tonight) and Sergio Ramos. And Lord, has it succeeded in that, as #CuléCabrónEspañaEsTuNación trends on Twitter from the meatheads on the Castillian side while the supporters of independence cite that tag as explanation for wishing to depart.

Stupid, provocative, and cynical.

There have been better precedents. In 1976, the year after Franco's death, Athletic Bilbao played Real Sociedad and the two captains of the two leading Basque clubs jointly carried the ikurrina, the Basque flag, onto the pitch.

But the flag was illegal then, and it mattered to display it: that really was a question of freedom, in the way that neither the senyera nor Catalan independence is now. Similarly, of course, with the use of Català by Barcelona supporters while Franco was still alive, the one thing about FC Barcelona's political history that everybody knows, and one the club and its supporters have every reason to be proud of.

But that, like the ikurrina in San Sebastián, was about a statement of identity from people who were denied identity, language and recognition. In creating the senyera this evening, Barca abandon the general purpose of representing Catalan identity in sport - a good and honourable thing to do - for the specific project of supporting Catalan independence, a project with which many of their supporters must disagree. It is a narrowing of the club's identity, not an expression of it.

Even then, it would be less provocative if they had chosen another game than the clásico. It would be less cynicial if the opponent was a club other than Real Madrid. The weekend before the elections, they host Real Zaragoza, the representatives of Aragón (on whose flag the Catalonian senyera is actually based). Why not create a flag and chant for independence in that match instead? Because there would not be so much fuss. Because there would not be so many meatheads on the other side. Because it would not produce the desired reaction.

It is not, from a Catalan perspective, the point, but I wonder whether this will do Barcelona permanent damage among their many supporters and sympathisers who are neither Catalans nor supporters of Catalan independence. Working around the country, as I do (not in the Basque Country, Galicia or the south, but more or else everywhere else) I get the sense that Barcelona are more popular than Real Madrid - not by much, but more popular nonetheless.

In Madrid, obviously not, and in Castilla y León or Castilla-La Mancha, probably not so either - but in Aragón and Asturias and Cantabria and La Rioja and Navarra, and perhaps even in Extremadura, one sees, in my experience, more Barcelona shirts than Real, and in most of those comunidades, overwhelmingly so. They are not favoured because they are Catalans, as such, but because they are the team that is not Real Madrid.

Naturally it might also be because they have won the misnamed Champions' League twice in recent seasons, and because they have been more attractive than their rivals in a number of respects - Pep Guardiola having been a rather more attractive personality than Jose Morinho, Messi much more so than Cristiano Ronaldo. And while Barca are sometimes with some justice accused of diving, they have absolutely nobody in their squad who is a thug like Pepe. Though who does?

That may end, now that FC Barcelona are now, overtly and aggressively, about Catalan independence - not just about Catalan identity, a certain approach to football, and beating Real Madrid. Which, tonight, I do not hope they do.

Wanting Real to win is still, probably, impossible. But I really do hope that, at some time close to seventeen minutes and fourteen seconds of either half, Real score. I even hope it's Cristiano who does so. Just to shut up the shouting which will otherwise be sure to happen. There is too much shouting on this subject, both sides bullies posing as victims. And if the shouting continues for too long, there may be more victims, and real ones.