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.