Monday, 31 December 2012

Out with the Old Corruption

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it - Upton Sinclair
If I were a cocky young rightwing contrarian, rather than the opposite of all of those things, I would write a book in favour of corruption. What's the problem? (I would ask.) Great Britain grew to be the most powerful nation on the planet while its political system was the very essence of corruption. China is now a superpower despite being immensely and institutionally corrupt. Nowhere has ever been more corrupt or more powerful than Ancient Rome. I would receive admiring reviews from my friends at the Spectator and the Telegraph. I would appear on television. I would probably, in doing so, demonstrate the proof of my own thesis.

Sometimes I think we hear too much about corruption. Not because I do, in fact, think it doesn't matter, but because it often appears in public thought and discussion as a proxy for something else - for the failure of systems, a failure in which corruption plays a part.

Of course one can have scandalous, murderous corruption, presidential palaces built amidst huge and quite unnecessary poverty: in that kind of instance you can simply point to the money spent on the personal luxury of the rich. But in truth, more often the pattern is more convoluted and obscure. It is not that the money siphoned off, into Swiss accounts and yachts and villas and expensive suits is of such magnitude and importance in itself. It is not that it matters much financially that Spanish political representatives insist on flying first-class (a fact that was causing a lot of hostile discussion here, before Xmas). What matters, about the perks, the privileges, and for that matter the genuine corruption, is first, that it cushions the beneficiaries against feeling the consequences of their failures. Second, it prevents those beneficiaries from seeing the failures in the first place.

Why was the crisis not foreseen by those who had the power to see it and to stop it? Because they had no interest in looking, and every interest in looking away. That's not corruption as we normally understand it. But it's a process to which corruption contributes - and the process is more damaging than corruption itself.

But people tend to point to corruption instead. Partly because corruption is real enough. Partly becauser it is easier to understand. It is easier to understand that such-and-such creamed off x millions for themselves, or gave contracts to somebody who had bribed them, than it is to grasp that the problem is less that the money has been stolen, and is hiding somewhere, than that when a bubble bursts, a lot of money ceases to exist and never, really, has existed. And that therefore everyone has massive debts that can't ever be paid. Not even if we tracked down every last cent of misappropriated cash.

So we blame, not without reason, los políticos. But of course, anybody can do this, and from any political viewpoint. And although political corruption can be, perhaps usually is, institutional, sometimes this involves not seeing the wider wood of institutional economic failure for the trees of political corruption. Which is convenient, in some ways, for some. Especially if their wellbeing, if not their salary, depends on not understanding that there is more to this than corruption.

I said this, in another place, some time ago:
Re: corruption, this always comes up whenever there's a free-market disaster. The simple reason is that there's always plenty of corruption and cronyism about in a boom, but because there’s a boom, nobody wants to say much about it, everybody’s making their wedge, who cares. Then there's a crash and all the free-market enthusasists cry that it isn't the free market that caused the problem, not low taxes, dear me no – it was the corruption! Which, as I say, is always there for all to see and blame.

I tell this story often, but it suits. A dozen years ago, when I found myself working in the library of a university which included a business school, there was this slew of books all lauding as an example for Europe the South Korean economic model, which was defined as consisting of free markets and flexible labour. This was a bit odd, since there had just been an enormous crash in South Korea. But, of course, the books had been commissioned and written before that happened, and nobody could possibly have anticpated a crash when the free market was working so well.

Anyway, there was a pause of a few months and then a new flood of South Korea books arrived for the business school. All of which recommended that Europe adopt an economic model based on free markets and flexible labour – and avoid at all costs the South Korean model, defined as consisting of cronyism and corruption.
You see the point. Provided that your salary doesn't depend on your not seeing it.

Paul Mason made a film about the Spanish crisis, which was on the BBC the other day. It's pretty good.

One could of course quibble with this or that, and naturally if I made a similar film it would have less emphasis on the Spain of beaches and summer tourism. I would have shown more of northern Spain than a couple of shots of Asturian miners firing homemade rockets at the police. But this is not important. In fact, concentrating on Valencia had its merits, not least that it riled the mayor of Valencia, Rita Barberà, who complained about the image that the programme gave of her city.

Barberà might have been better off keeping her mouth shut and thanking the God, in whom the Partido Popular of Valencia fervently believes, that the programme merely used Valencia as an example to illustrate Spanish problems rather than go more closely into the Valencian administration itself and its particular quirks (which included fielding, at the last regional election, a sizeable number of candidates on its party list despite their being under investigation for corruption).

Although Mason makes reference to corrupt, or potentially corrupt relations between the banks and politicians - well illustrated here - he doesn't mention, for instance, the Gürtel Case, the network of corruption which has characterised the Valencian PP. Nor does he mention the name Francisco Camps, though that well-dressed gentleman can be seen in the clip that shows the opening of Castellón Airport.

Rodrigo Rato is another name that is not heard on the commentary, though he too appears in the footage. Head of Bankia, the bank which was formed in order to turn a number of chronically ailing Spanish regional banks into a huge chronically ailing national bank, Rato has, this past month, been testifying in court, accused of false accounting, a case which does not seem to have been, so far, widely reported abroad. This surprises me, given the normal, high degree of international interest in the legal adventures of former presidents of the IMF.

Come to that, Gerardo Díaz Ferrán is also facing trial, and unusually for a rich man, is actually in prison while awaiting his hearing. Who is Díaz Ferrán? He was head of the Spanish equivalent of the CBI.

So you can see why Spanish people talk about corruption: that's the head of the employers' organiastion, the head of the country's biggest bank, two former ministers (Rato and Jaume Matas) of Aznar's government, and for that matter a large number of other high-level politicians and businesspeople, all facing trial, under suspicion or already convicted of serious financial crime. This corruption is not trivial, nor unsystematic.

And yet, as Mason said in a blog post written while working on his Spanish film:
It is facile to search for "national" sources of corruption.
He went on:
Corruption happens in a market economy everywhere it is allowed to.

It's been rife, as we now know, in the London and New York financial systems; it was present in the German car industry; it is present across the Italian system of government.
Of course. But part of the problem with the "corruption" narrative is that it does tend to produce that "national" perspective. People do tend to "search for 'national' sources of corruption". Hence, for instance, the way the concentration on corruption as the source of the Greek crisis has enabled Greeks, and all Greeks at that, to be portrayed as the problem, as if it had nothing to do with anybody else and the whole of the international financial community had been helpless and innocent victims of a corrupt network of Greeks. That perspective has been crucial in turning a crisis into an absolute disaster.

But it can be portrayed like that from outside, so it is. Moreover it can feel like that from inside, too, since people are rightly angry about corruption, and rightly or wrongly, inclined to look, first, at home for the people on whom to blame the crisis. But to me, the involvement of a figure like Rato goes to show what an international affair the crisis has been. The corruption, the speculation, the recklessness - these were all international in nature. European banks and institutions had no secrets hidden from them that were known to Spaniards on the street. They knew. Their man was in charge.

But in 2013 Spain will ask for a rescate and from that point onwards, it will, I think, essentially assume national responsibility for an crisis which has international roots. Spain will be at fault, and the spending of Spanish state institutions, rather than international financial institutions, will be identified as the source of the crisis. Those institutions will be dictating the terms by which they try, at the expense of ordinary Spaniards, to pay for a crisis for which they, the institutions, were largely responsible. There is something corrupt, in one sense or another, about that.

[Thanks to doctorfive]

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Osasuna or later

We went to the Osasuna v Granada match last night, the first game I've been to in the Spanish top division. It cost less than a fiver to buy an Osasuna scarf but 35€ each for two tickets in the Tribuna Alta. With a good view, mind, albeit mostly a good view of Granada, since Osasuna disappeared for all but the first and last few minutes of a match they lost 2-1. It doesn't matter: whether I like it or not, they're my team now. Alea jacta est.

I was talking about belonging: it has taken me nearly seven years to find a team to belong to. In England this would be much more straightforward: find a place to live, go and watch the local team, carry on forever. You can do this because English football has, in all probability, the strongest lower-league football culture in the world. You don't have to pick out an elite team, one that you can't afford to go and watch, one which may be too far away to travel to. You can go and watch the nearest professional football club and the people all around you will lend the match all the seriousness you want, simply because they will treat it as the most important match going on in all the world. Other games may have world-class players on the pitch and sixty thousand people in the stands, but they are of secondary importance. The game you are watching is the most important one. That is what constitutes a proper football match.

I went looking for one in Huesca, when I came over in 2006. SD Huesca were playing at the time in Segunda B (the third tier, split into four regionalised divisions) and I went to watch a few games at El Alcoraz, though it didn't suit me much, the crowd more detached that I'd expected, almost seeming to talk among themselves while a football match went on in the general vicinity.

Fine, I thought, for a while at least - this is Spain, this is how they watch their football. So when Huesca reached the promotion play-offs at the end of the season, and the first leg, the ida, was played in Córdoba, I went along to the central Huesca bar where it was being televised on a gran pantalla. It was the biggest game the club had played for many years. The bar was full, rather than packed, but it is a very big bar and SD Huesca are not a very big club.

Córdoba scored early on, but it was only 1-0 at half-time. Then, just after the second half started, I could see radios being held to ears around the bar, because Barcelona, in some other game being played far away, had scored. People started discussing the Barcelona match. This, evidently, was what the fans were really interested in. Fine, I thought - but if you're not interested, neither am I. Córdoba scored a second and I left the bar, in no particular order. I left the bar and didn't go back to El Alcoraz for about three seasons.

Of course nearly everything in Spanish in football revolves around Barca and Real, something which I've always known, even if the extent of it, and the consequences of it, have surprised me. It still raises my eyebrows, and my hackles, to see news reports covering their training sessions - still more, to see these reports on a Thursday, when neither side may even be playing until the following Sunday (or have played since the previous one). Barca and Real, Real and Barca, the rigorous balance between the two obscuring the fact that all the other clubs in Spain are thus being obscured. To me it seems absurd, and damaging, and out of all proportion. But I am not Spanish.

There are other cultural differences too, a crucial one being that far fewer fans travel to away games. Partly because Spain is a much larger country, partly for other reasons (for instance, that the days and kick-off times for matches are not known a long time in advance) such a culture has not developed in Spain. In El Sadar last night there appeared to be no room allocated for away fans, no group of fans wearing different colours to the home fans and no section of the crowd which cheered when the home fans were silent. (There were, in fact, two people supporting Granada in the two seats immediately beside us, but they were in fact French. How they came to be supporting Granada, I didn't ask: nor did they ask us why two English people were there supporting Osasuna.)

Away games play a crucial part of forming the English fan's sense of attachment to their club, the sense that every weekend your club's game is the important one, the sense that your club is what matters, win or lose. That sense exists, in Spain, for sure: but not much in Segunda B, as it would in the third tier in England. Or even in Segunda A, the second.

It exists in Zaragoza, all right, Real Zaragoza being in theory at least one of the leading clubs in Spain, best known in England for winning the UEFA Cup in 1995.

I might have gone to Zaragoza - the nearest major city to here and the most convenient by far to get to - were it not that first impressions matter. A month before I moved to Spain - on a weekend when I happened to be over - Samuel Eto'o was all but forced from the pitch in Zaragoza by a cascade of monkey noises.

I couldn't go and cheer for Zaragoza, after that. Far from it - for a long time I wanted them to lose every game. It may be different, now, and I might view them differently too. (I found myself reluctantly siding with them as they rose from bottom place to miraculously escape relegation at the end of last season.) But the damage was done. It couldn't be Zaragoza.

But it could be Osasuna. It is two and a half hours' drive to Pamplona, but I work there a lot and have grown fond both of the city and of the journey there, past Los Mallos de Riglos and alongside the Pyrenees. Pamplona is the Spain I recognise, in the mountains, cold much of the year, a long way from Madrid or Barcelona and a long way from the beach. And when I was in the bar before the game, a proper football bar, before a proper football match, it felt, for the first time ever at a match in Spain, like I understood what was happening around me..

I cannot get to see them easily though, nor can I see them much on television, since this season, for the first time, games are no longer available on terrestrial TV, and I neither have satellite TV nor live in a village with a bar. A small connection made, with Spanish life and culture. A small connection lost.

They are knackered, of course. The present season, their thirteenth consecutively in the top division, will presumably be their last, if the absence of pace or skill of confience which they displayed last night, or the ease with which they were beaten at home by a side in the relgation zone, is anything to go by. They owe, if I understand it, forty million Euros to the local government, and their chances of keeping to an agreement, just made, to pay that off within ten years, strike me as non-existent if they are not even in the top division.

But if they are knackered, so is nearly every club in Spain, and if they owe silly sums of money, so does nearly everybody else. It is a proper club all the same, and now, it is my club too.

On the way home we stopped at Liédena on the way home, to eat some soup in the car park of a restaurant, and as I went to use the toilets, Zaragoza, who I have spurned, were winning 1-0 at Athletic on the TV. As I came out, they scored a second. But to be mocked by life is the football supporter's function.

The programme at Osasuna is handed out free, and is turned by their supporters into paper planes, which were launched from the Tribunal Alta all through the match. Two at least were miracles of aeronautical engineering, travelling from halfway along the stadium to make a gentle landing in the corner stand. Another, less impressive, landed by me, so I folded it anew and sent it on its way. It dipped over the front row of the stand - I was in the second row - and headed straight downwards, the trajectory it described thus resembling Osasuna's probable direction in the future. Or a graph of Spanish economic prospects for the next several years.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Lost for words

I had meant to write about gloom this week. We drove round the outer ring road in Madrid in a dim, almost disturbing light, as if the sun were shining through dirty glass - the sort of light that makes it hard to know whether cloud cover or Madrid's notoriously poor air quality is to blame. Then, in the bar of the Ibis at Móstoles, I read an El País editorial demanding that the government request a rescate. Which, if it happened, would not only mean further and unending disaster being heaped on an already-disintegrating country, but this happening with the consent and support of the government and the last left-of-centre national newspaper in the country.

I had meant to write about gloom this week. There was plenty of gloom to choose from. But then Ed Miliband appeared, with his own dark thoughts about immigrants and language-learning. On which subject I am an expert, by dint of my own status as an immigrant and my own absence of expertise in speaking Spanish.

I quite like Ed Miliband - more, certainly, then at least his last three or four predecessors, and more than any probable alternative - but it is difficult to be comfortable with him, when I am what he is singling out. Because I am the immigrant who has failed to learn the language of the country where I live.

I am not proud of this - rather the opposite - but it does mean that I know more, and can explain more, about why this might happen, than most commentators. One suspects, naturally, that most commentators, and for that matter most people, don't give a stuff about reasons. But reasons there are, and I am in a position to write about them.

How bad is my Spanish? How bad for somebiody who has lived here for seven years next March? I can hold a conversation, sort of, slowly and unsteadily, provided it is one-to-one, face-to-face and we both have patience. I can go shopping and I can deal with customers on our bookstall. I can answer the telephone, though if they do not hablar más despacio I cannot expect to keep it going long. I can follow the brief introductions to the music on Radio Clásica. I can read a book, if I have a dictionary. I can follow a newspaper story. I can write an email.

But, after nearly seven years, I cannot fill in a complex form, have a proper conversation with several people, follow the news without captions or subtitles, or understand the dialogue in a film or the lyrics of a song or the commentary to a football match. Sometimes, especially when nervous, or when dealing with fast-talking or impatient people, I can neither understand nor make myself understood at all.

This is embarrassing and upsetting, for all sorts of reasons. For the past fifteen years I have worked with words - as a writer, a librarian, a bookseller, a storyteller - and to be without words, when words are what I understand and live with, is distressing. Distressing and humiliating.

But naturally it's my absence of language, as an immigrant, that conerns me most. An immigrant who has been here long enough to be fluent, to expect fluency of himself, to have fluency expected of him. Instead, I understand almost nothing unless it is said slowly, or at least twice, and most things I never understand at all.

I hadn't meant it to be like this, though I emigrated at short notice, without time to try and learn any Spanish before I came. I wasn't too concerned: I wasn't going to be working for a while and expected to get up to scratch quickly enough in all the free time that that left me. I was actually working on some ill-conceived theory that having spent seven years learning French to A-Level, on a few hours' study a week, I could devote a few hours a day to learning Spanish and become equally proficient in six months. (I also have an O-Level in Latin. I am not scared of languages, or so I thought.) And so I started off, learning to read by reading Buñuel, learning to speak and listen by having conversation classes in which I swapped half an hour of English for half an hour of Spanish. So it went for three months, and so it went OK. At that point, however, real life intervened.

Real life intervened in the form of our flat being repeatedly and destructively flooded by corrupt and incompetent builders, working on the roof and neglecting to keep it covered during rainstorms. The consequent nightmare, of packing everything we could into the one dry room and being woken in the early hours, many times, by rain inside our flat, lasted several months. But the subsequent bureaucratic nightmare, of trying to get compensation out of two corrupt and incompetent insurance companies, lasted eighteen months. During that time, when we were being cheated by everybody who had the opportunity to cheat us, I hated Spain. I hated everything. I didn't want to see, or speak to, anybody.

There is a joke here about immersion, this being the best way to learn any language (and the reason why languages are not, normally, best learned before you come to a country). The immersion is supposed, however, to be in a language, and not in repeated floods of water through one's roof. That kind of immersion has the opposite effect. The lessons and the reading stopped. And when, after eighteen months, we had our laughably small cheque for compensation, I was working, and though I learned when I was working, I learned much more slowly than I would have done otherwise.

That's half the story, and a personal, particular half at that. But the other half is more generally applicable: and that is, mostly, that I am in my forties. You do not lern easily, in your forties. You do not learn as easily as you did when you were young (and doing, for instance, French at school). You do not learn easily. You do not learn in the same way.

Our work - until Olli Rehn and a rescate closes us down - is storytelling and selling books in bilingual schools. These are schools that give much of their tuition, in several subjects, in English, often from the age of three. Kids learn easily, and naturally. I see it every day, in my work. The middle-aged do not. I see that every day, in myself. (For people older still, it is very hard indeed. There is no point in expecting someone in their sixties to learn English or Spanish to anything more than a rudimentary standard. You may as well expect them to learn chess to master level.)

In your forties, however, you can learn. But slowly and with difficulty, for it does not come naturally. When I was a teenager, and we had family holidays in France, after a few days I would dream in French. After nearly seven years I have never once dreamed in Spanish. It does not come naturally, nor does it easily stick.

Just last week I found myself looking up loro. It means parrot (or "parro", if you believe my Collins Gem). But I have known this for years! Not only that, but I am regularly reminded. When we perform From Head To Toe, which we do several times a week, the kids shout "loro!" when I show them the parrot. Several times a week - but it doesn't matter. I still had to look it up last week. It doesn't stick, and the frustration of having to look up, over and again, something which you know you know, adds to the stress and difficulty of learning.

What I am trying to get over is that difficulty in learning a language is not to be confused with disinterest. For sure, anybody is free to condemn. Free to assume. Did you fail at something? You should have tried harder. Are you struggling with something? You just couldn't be bothered. That is how our bullying, kiss-up-kick-down societies function.

It is easy to say - easier by far than learning a language - and it is a very contemporary way of addressing other people's problems. Unemployed? Should have tried harder to get a job. Country in financial trouble? Must be their fault for overspending. Immigrant with language difficulties? Can't be bothered, can they. You know what they're like. It's a struggle. Well, life is a struggle, but it strikes me that we get through it more easily if we recognise one another's problems rather than condemning them.

Should I have done better, in the time I've had? I certainly think so. I expect, and I expected, better of myself. But what is Spain entitled to expect of me? What is Ed Miliband entitled to expect of immigrants to Britain? In principle, provided I pay my taxes and obey the law - something society expects, theoretically, of any citizen - is there actually any good reason to insist that an immigrant becomes proficient in a language that is not their own? What proper reason would there be for that?

My Spanish is, at least, rather better than the spoken English of several kings of England. And it is better than the written English of much of the UK's population. It is not, however, remotely good enough. And though I have, in fact, worked in a shop here, I wouldn't employ me in a job where I had to speak with the public. Then again, how many people are employed in circumstances like that? Next to none?

What are you going to do, if immigrants struggle with your language? Punish them? Make them uncomfortable? Condemn them? Are you going to give them time to learn? If you are, what time limit are you going to put on it? Are you going to vary that time for age? Education? Opportunity? Is there, in fact, much specific you can do, to make people learn, that is not going to be perscutory or absurd?

I do not think there is. I do think that there is an obligation for the immigrant to try and learn the langauge of their adopted country, and it is partly because I have not fulfilled that obligation that I feel ashamed. But it is a social obligation, not a legal one. It is the sort of obligation that we feel, one that arises out of shared humanity and the fact of living alongside one another, not the sort of obligation that needs to be imposed by law.

Or indeed, which can be imposed by law, because the purpose of such law is to make the immigrant feel unwanted, and hence unhappy, and nothing, absolutely nothing, makes it harder to learn than being unhappy. To really learn, you need immersion. For immersion, you need to socialise. To socialise, you have to feel comfortable.

That's the reality. But we do not, necessarily, live in a world of realities. We live, in part, in a world of imagined enemies, and the more insecure we feel, the larger those imagined enemies will loom. If anybody wants to have a discussion about immigrants, and language learning, then they must do so. But are they going to be talking of realities, of the real problems (which are considerable) in learning and the real problems (which are small) if immigrants do not? Or are they going to be playing to an audience, an audience which just knows that immigrants who do not speak the language are sponging off the rest of us and laughing at us all?

Real concerns are frequently unreal. I am a threat to nobody, sitting here, in my village, typing in English, wishing my Spanish would improve much faster than it does, dreading, until then, every conversation that I have. It is not good, but it is not a serious problem for anybody but myself. Spain does not need me to speak Spanish. England does not need all its inhabitants to speak English. Those that do not, are not dangerous. The ones who are dangerous are those who would have a hue and cry.

Which may well happen. In England and in Spain. For this is dangerous ground. And these are dangerous times.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

A sense of belonging

I have been away from Spain for most of the last week, coughing my way around England and paying very little attention to what was going on at home. If, indeed, Spain constitues "home". "Home" is the house in which I live: if we extend its meaning to "the place where I feel I belong", however, then I have never, yet, felt that I belong here.

There is familiarity, and there is belonging. You live in a place for a while, perhaps for a long time: after that while, you don't need to look up when you're walking somewhere. Your feet just take you there without your consciously taking any decisions. That's familiarity. But the feeling of belonging, of being an inseparable part of a place, that is deeper, almost entirely intangible. I felt it in Oxford, where I lived for fifteen years, but never since. I am very fond of our village, but I do not, as yet, belong here, nor feel I belong in Spain.

Maybe one day, if and when I am ever fluent in the language, that will change. Or maybe one never really feels more than once that they belong. Or maybe one's very awareness that one is a foreigner, that one possesses some degree of otherness, prohibits the feeling of belonging. I never felt so English, in England, as I have done in Spain.

Not because of any act of exclusion, nor because of people's attitudes. though some foreigners are more foreign than others, in many people's eyes. Africans are more foreign than Latin Americans, East Europeans are more foreign than Western Europeans. Signs at Zaragoza Airport may be in Romanian as well as English and Spanish, but Romanians are not viewed in the same way as the English.

I cannot imagine, for instance, an email hoax circulating claiming that a band of English people were dressing up as officers of the Guardia Civil and robbing people by persuading them to leave their cars for a breath test. But such a story has happily circulated for close to a decade about Bulgarians, Poles and Romanians: I saw this version in 2009, and Spain being a country of local variations, the local variation was that it had come from the Guardia Civil in Graus, and been disseminated via the Tourist office in Boltaña.

If this makes very little sense to you, this is because it makes very little sense. The modus operandi of the villains makes no sense, nor that of the cops, unless the police have started issuing warnings via tourist offices. A moment's Googling would reveal it to have cropped up in different places, over a period of years, and that it was an urban legend: but checking is not what sort of people who forward these emails actually do.

One version - not the one I received - includes this paragraph:
Si permitimos que un grupo de rumanos, búlgaros y polacos campen a sus anchas, todos los rumanos y demás delincuentes querrán venir a España.
"If we allow a group of Romanians, Bulgarians and Poles to do whatsoever they please, all the Romanians and other criminals will want to come to Spain." That's the sort of thing which many people are prepared to say about Eastern Europeans, and which I can't imagine them saying about English people. Just as it is hard to imagine the police torturing a British rather than (as in the current scandalous case) a Romanian citizen. Harder still to imagine them then being pardoned for it.

Whether you could ever feel you belonged, in circumstances like that - not circumstances of personally being tortured, but circumstances whereby it was possible torture your countrymen on account of their nationality, to slander your nationality as criminal in nature - that, I don't know. I don't suppose I ever will, because English people are not made to feel like that. We're never really one step down the ladder from our hosts, people who they feel able to look down on, people who have come to them to do the menial jobs.

Of course if Spain continues to get poorer at the present rate, then soon people in England will be circulating emails about bands of Spaniards, Portuguese and Italians. Or making comedy programmes whereby the dozy Spanish immigrant is the butt of the jokes.

It occurs to me that Manuel's English is no worse than my Spanish. But it is not really the absence of language, but the absence of status, which causes Manuel to be depicted as he is.

You cannot make yourself feel at home, and you cannot make yourself belong. But people can be made to feel that they don't belong, where they are far from home, and where they are far from home because financial circumstances have dictated their movements. We have a fine sense of other people's vulnerabilities, and the more vulnerable people are, the more we seek to punish them for it, the more we seek to stigmatise them. And who can be stigmatised, can never properly belong.

There are ways of getting your own back. When I was up in the mountains a few weeks ago, a friend of ours told a story about a man in the next village, who complained loudly and long about two Bulgarians who, he said, had burgled his house. As Bulgarians are wont to do, or so runs the common prejudice.

So they had. That part of the story was true. But, as my friend explained, there was more to it than that. The Bulgarians had been employed by the man in the next village, and like many people in Spain today had found, when the time came to be paid, that their wages were not forthcoming. And were, indeed, not going to be paid at all.

Consequently, the Bulgarians burgled the man who was cheating them - and took wine to the value of the wages they were owed. Or so the story goes. It is a better story than the email hoax, and more believable one. I'd like to meet these Bulgarians and buy them a drink. If they don't already have all the drink they need.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Fallen idol

I was working in Colmenarejo from Wednesday to Friday. It's a small town on the hills west of Madrid, one valley short of the Sierra de Guadarrama which is esentially the border between Madrid and Segovia provinces. The fashion on TV news last week, when the snow started in earnest, was to send a young female reporter to broadcast from one suitably bleak, windswept and snow-covered point or other, so TVE1, whose ratings have been falling, perhaps in part because of stunts like this, sent one to report from the Puerto de Navacerrada, which is not just a ski station but the highest car-accessible pass between the two provinces.

Fortunately for us we arrived by the A6, the La Coruña road, a little to the south, by which you either cross the Sierra by means of the Alto del León - 1511 metres above sea level, but still rather lower than Navacerrada - or you pay a few euros and go through the tunnel. Which we did, partly in deference to my vertigo, partly because of the still-powdery snow and partly because time was getting on and we needed to be in Colmenarejo to start work.

From where the school is in Colmenarejo you get a fine view, if a bleak one in late November, of the Embalse de Valmayor to your left and El Escorial to your right. The famous Monasterio is clearly visible. It is of that building that everybody thinks when they think of El Escorial - everybody, that is, but a chess player. As a chess player myself, what I thought was that's the place where Nigel Short beat Jan Timman.

I couldn't see El Valle de los Caídos. I didn't try too hard. I knew roughly where to look, and as I preferred not to see it if I could avoid it, I didn't look there. But in truth I have looked from the same point before, and I am not sure it is actually visible from where I was. There must be mountain in the way, because it is not easily missed. It is impossible not to see it if you are travelling away from Madrid on the A6, its gigantic and obscene cross dominating your field of vision until you are safely through the Puerto.

Of course practically every church in Spain is built on top of a hill so that your eye cannot escape it, and giganticism is a Catholic characteristic as much as a Fascist one, but then again, in the Francoist mind those two concepts were not and doubtless are not separable. Like Mass in Fifties Spain, El Valle de los Caídos is not something you are allowed to miss.

One does one's best, though, and so we came off the A6 at a different exit to the one we took the previous year, since that road had taken us right past the gates. This time we went past Galapagar, the older, busier town adjoining Colmenarejo and the one where everybody shops. We parked there, when shopping ourselves, at the end of Avenida de los Voluntarios. When I printed out a map of Galapagar last year, it didn't have that name. It was called Avendia del Generalissimo. I don'tt know precisely when it changed. Presumably, not very long ago.

The gradual removal and erasure, over the past three decades, of monuments, road names and other manifestations of the late dictator's existence, operates in some ways as a kind of quid pro quo for the provisions of the 1977 Amnesty relating to crimes committed in the Franco era, by which these crimes cannot even be investigated. Rather than dig up the past - literally, where the existence of mass graves is concerend - it will be erased, buried, forgotten. The Right may no longer commemorate its central figure: in return, the Left may not investigate what he and his lieutenants did. And whoever, like Garzón, breaks that bargain, pays for it. Who plays, pays, as the anti-Garzón graffiti said that I saw on the way back to Aragón.

I simplify, since if there really were such a bargain it would not have taken three decades to implement, and the truth about Francoist atrocities is gradually being pieced together, though not by magistrates and prosecutors. The main reason the process is not taken further by the Left is not because they do not want to, but because they are prevented from doing so. Which, legally, may be a sustainable position (provided you ignore the supremacy of international over national law) but it is hard to honestly maintain that Franco is over, gone and hidden from sight when his monument is among the most visible buildings in Spain. It is not so much an elephant in the room as an elephant outside the house where everyone can see it. You have have forgetting, or you can have El Valle de los Caídos, but you cannot have both.

Besides, the past never stays buried, however much earth you shovel upon its head. I don't know what Aznar has to say about his Francoist youth, in his autobiography, the first volume of which has just come out: but I do know that when he was in government, he had that government financially support the Franco Federation, the precise purpose of which is to preserve and celebrate the memory of Franco. Less quid pro quo, more an agreement only one side is bound to respect.

The same Franco Foundation has been trying to hold a celebration of Franco at a Madrid hotel: it was called off a fortnight ago, rearranged for today and then called off a second time. The Foundation are threatening legal action, which they are entitled to take without anybody shooting them without trial and burying their bodies in mass graves. Or, indeed, if their lives are spared, being forced to work as slaves in the construction of a monument to their enemies.

All this is something of an embarrassment to the government, who would rather the whole thing went away, especially since, as they have just chosen to pardon four policement for torturing an innocent man, it may provide an opportunity for their opponents to trace continuities between the present and the past. As does Aznar's autobiography, which has also unhelpfully reminded the public of the centrality to Aznar's government of the currently-indicted Rodrigo Rato.

Perhaps it is not entirely healthy, this persistent reference to the past. But perhaps there would be less of it if Spain actually appeared to have a future. And if you do not want people to recall the past, then perhaps you should not stick it, in gigantic and granite form, where nobody can help but see it. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice.