Sunday, 10 March 2013

Wheel of fortune

Visiting central Madrid today is like being in London in the Eighties. No row of shops is complete without at least one crumpled person in a doorway, with a cardboard sign in hand and a hat or a cup, almost empty of coins, in front of them. The difference is the graffiti: political graffiti has never really caught on in the UK, but I remember it from holidays in France when I was a child, and I see it in Spain now that I am middle-aged. We ate our lunch in the Paseo del Prado, just south of the Plaza de Cibeles, sat opposite a graffito reading
which is a tempting thought, but not actually true. No doubt the Spanish electorate voted for a different programme to the one they got, but the did vote for the people who are implementing it.

We should have been working, but we had a cancellation and therefore had a day off to visit the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and particularly their Impressionism and Open-Air Painting Exhibition, in which Monet's painting of poplars on the Epte reminded me of the Thames between Oxford and Abingdon. I wonder if anybody else will ever have the same thought unbidden.

Beggars in shop doorways, political graffiti, an art gallery on an unhurried afternoon. When you're looking out at Cibeles from the Thyssen, you can barely even hear the traffic, let alone see anything disturbing. There were police officers and barriers in the street, but they were merely preparing for the influx of Real Madrid fans if their team won at Old Trafford - as indeed they did - as Cibeles is where they go to celebrate. (There was a guy in a Manchester United top going round the exhibition with us, and I wondered if he had got his dates mixed up, confused the ida with the vuelta and found himself in Madrid when he should have been in Manchester.)

Next day we were back in reality and working in Alcorcón, a suburb of Madrid that barely existed seventy years ago but is now not very far short of 200,000 inhabitants, a little smaller than Móstoles, the poorer suburb to its west where we were staying. Móstoles, which reminds me of Stevenage on no basis better than the small shopping precinct near the Metro station, is more likely to remind a Spaniard of the Empanadilla de Móstoles sketch from a New Year's Eve television special years ago.

I'd like to claim that I know this because of my wide knowledge of Spanish popular culture: in fact I heard of it by accident while watching the Spanish equivalent of Wheel of Fortune. Talking of gaming wheels, the present-day population of Alcorcón is less than the total number of jobs promised by the Eurovegas project, a gigantic Las Vegas-style gambling complex which Sheldon Adelson has agreed to build in Alcorcón, provided it is exempted from the usual tax laws, gambling laws, employment laws and smoking laws.

Naturally it would be unfair to assume that this was a corrupt operation, just as it would be unfair to asssume that its model in Las Vegas was corrupt just because it was founded by the Mafia. It's merely unfortunate that just last week, while we were working in Alcorcón, Adelson's empire was accused of having been engaged in bribing overseas officials. This appears to have been in Macau - rather than Spain, as some Spaniards naturally at first assumed - but nevertheless there was an immediate political ruckus in Madrid, with the opposition essentially expressing the view that bribery and corruption are what projects like Eurovegas are for.

There must be some law about this stuff in the unofficial field of Capitalism Studies: the more ambitious the project, the more dubious the individuals concerned. It's not the first Las Vegas In Spain we've heard about: a few years ago there was Gran Scala, which was to be situated not in Madrid but in Los Monegros, the arid region north of a line between Zaragoza and Lérida and not at all far from where I live.

According to its Wikipedia entry, this project "has construction work beginning in September 2008" while "opening is planned for mid-2012", an entry which could really do with some revision since although it is now 2013, construction work has not yet begun and opening is likely to take place never.

Not to my surprise: the scheme's backers, in so far as one could find out anything about them, never seemed to have the money to go ahead with the scheme on their own, and I kind of assumed that they would try and kick off the project regardless, then leave the regional government with no option but to throw good money after bad if and when the entrepreneurs ran out of capital on the way.

In fact it never even got that far, though there was a fanfare in the regional media when some of the old boys in Ontiñena - unsurprisingly big supporters of the project given they were promised very good money in exchange for very poor land - received, as I understood it, the first tranches of their money in a public ceremony. Alas for them, that was all they were to see, as the project appeared to collapse shortly afterwards.

This was partly because of the crisis and partly - in so far as it is a separate reason - because the backers clearly couldn't find enough other chancers to stump up cash for their manifestly iffy project, though allegedly efforts to find new investors are continuing.

But it was also because one of the backers went home to London and murdered his wife. He was jailed for life.

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