Sunday 22 September 2013


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Saturday 7 September 2013

Spain: "What is 'the crisis?'" - by Brett Hetherington

Brett Hetherington's latest article in Catalonia Today magazine (reproduced with the kind permission of the author):

(Photo: Javier)
This so-called crisis, which would more accurately be called a“depression” is a thousand varied things that need never have happened.

Despite the occasional sensation that life is just continuing on very much as before, the crisis here is certainly the more obvious things that many of us see when we care to look: more beggars on the streets, long queues in shoe repair shops, the recent appearance of solitary men selling tissues or cigarette lighters on the trains and Metro, a greater number of empty shops for sale or rent (or replaced by cheapo-import Chinese shops) and it is also reading more socio-political graffiti on walls.

The crisis is a European-wide failure of institutions like the financial system and the pathetic political response to it, but it is also a very immediate, local phenomenon.

In the small town where I live, three years ago there was both a bank and a restaurant – now there is neither.

As well, there are the abstract statistics that simply cannot put a human face to this tragedy - day after day of grim, sullen economic news.

Three months ago, a newspaper headline stated that “60% of Andalusian children live in poverty.”

This sounds remote and abstract until we learn that there were children in Catalonia who were still going to school in July just to eat lunch, and they had to do this because it is next to impossible for their parents to provide daily meals at home.

But the crisis is about work too.

It is hearing that another man has lost his job, or finding that your wife's job has been cut in half and therefore her income has also been halved.

It is thousands of workers still lucky enough to have a job but not being “lucky” enough to get paid for their labour...for yet another month.

And it is the insult of "mini-jobs" - (the underpaid mileurista is seeming like the one who is well-off) or it is listening to people at a café talking about the benefits of learning Chinese or German, ahead of English.

As well, the crisis is the news media being full of corrupt, cowardly politicians talking about everything except what could end the crisis.

For thousands of people not in the aptly-termed “political class”, it is a rapid or a gradual descent into poverty – what George Orwell called “the crust-wiping,” - that constant search for ways to save money but still ending up unsatisfied after you eat.

On top of all this, the crisis is that all-day sensation of being unpleasantly squeezed by the invisible forces of debt, a permanent unconscious burden that is carried by the unemployed and under-employed when a family has no genuine bread-winner.

But what is it that has saved this country from violence, riots and social disturbance on a grand scale?

The family.

The extended family, acting as helpers, carers and givers of money, love, and as many kinds of assistance that you can think of.

Without this blood-linked stability across Mediterranean Europe, things would surely be even worse.

Sometimes, when I have thought about the crisis I have been reminded of a Bob Dylan line about how the sun starts to shine on him.

But then (in a single phrase that could speak for millions of Europe's economic victims) he sadly sings “but it's not like the sun that used to be.”

[A version of the above text was first published as an opinion piece in Catalonia Today magazine, September 2013.]

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy.

Saturday 6 July 2013

France: John Ward on DIY, "Deliverance" and dog days

We’ve reached that time down here where the very ground beneath you pulsates with heat. Being alone here this year, I’ve taken now and then to dropping into the local Bar Portuguese for a beer. It’s full of swarthy latins – as always cheerful – discussing what they now see as an unavoidable disaster for their homeland. I can walk in and – with my hair and eyes – easily be mistaken for a German. There is an awkwardness, until they realise I’m British – and then everything changes: I am bought obscure Portuguese liquor, and given the sort of welcome usually reserved for Eusebio forty years ago, or Ronaldo today. I mention my passion for Manchester United, and more rounds are bought.

The main problem this consumption could pose is how I get home again. But luckily, there is a short-cut back to the house: I can use it to weave unsteadily back there legally on foot…unless under French law you can be found drunk in charge of yourself. I’d imagine you can’t be.

When it gets this hot and water is in short supply, more make do and mend comes into play. I collect all my bottled water packs and chop off the top and bottom. The main residue is then wrapped around new tree stems, and thus protects them from the attentions of deer…who are buggers for rubbing up against the bark and nibbling at it. If they nibble all the way round, then the young sapling dies in short order.

The top bit of the plastic bottle can be inverted to create a simple channel by the side of herbs and vegetables, and so massively reduce wastage of the water being applied to keep them going. The chopped-off bottom I fill with any stale beer knocking about. Snails are born beerheads and can’t resist it. They get legless, and then drown. Not that they have legs anyway. It’s a figure of speech.

At the top eastern end of the property is the real (as opposed to metaphorical) Slogger’s Roost. There I recycled a couple of pallets from the roof renovation two years ago, using them to create raised beds of flat-leaf parsley the rabbits can’t reach. I’ve also been gradually planting lavender, a rose, and a few shrubs up there. These represent a hopeful attempt to give some fragrance to an area whose main advantage is that first, it’s a long way from the house and offers me peace in which to write; and second, it is sheltered from the wind that can bite in mid-Spring and late Autumn here.

The main point of my little respite is that I achieved an aim in making it: to do so without spending one centime. Everything that went into its creation was recycled and reformed in a new role. But just before midday today, I noticed my least likeable farming neighbours using a crane-grab and chainsaw to slash back the high hedge behind the Roost. To one side of the site I’ve constructed a permanent windbreak out of old tongue and groove we ripped out when renovating the upper floor. In their enthusiasm, the chain saw artists looked about to massacre one of my better creations.

This farming family is, to say the least of it, a bit odd. None of the locals here like them. They have that beaky-nosed, eyes close together appearance of the sinister hillbillies in Deliverance, and there’s a very good reason for this: they’re the product of incest. Try not to be shocked: it’s more common in remote rural areas than you’d imagine. Their mum killed herself five years ago; I remember being horrified when I asked the Mayor why, and he replied with a shrug meant to be self-explanatory, “She drank”.

It’s amazing how often our species thinks that an observation of a symptom is somehow a diagnosis. It didn’t seem to occur to the Mayor that maybe she drank because of depression, or guilt about the incestual sex, or both. But either way, it was with some trepidation that I legged it up to Slogger’s Roost to see if her sons knew of my tongue and groove genius. Yes, they did was the answer…and then five minutes later they demolished the right-hand end of it.

It didn’t take long to fix, so I shouldn’t make a drama out of it. But deepest darkest France consists of far more than the starry-eyed bollocks you see on A Place in the Sun.

Tonight, the Andy Murray syndrome was at work again. The Wimbledon authorities closed the Centre Court roof – after to a lot of Polish whine. It was a fearsome struggle afterwards, but Murray came through in the end. Here by contrast, it is now cooling a little. The fire of late afternoon has dimmed to a mid-evening kissing the skin rather than burning it. The sun makes love to you here in a hundred different ways throughout the day. I’m always grateful for its variety…as every appreciative lover should be.

I may well have to pay in a future life for the good fortune of having a place like this. But as I have grave doubts about reincarnation, I’m not about to get upset about that. I did work very hard to get the house; but then, I know lots of equally talented folks who worked even harder, and didn’t. Humility in such matters is never a bad thing.

By John Ward. Republished by kind permission of the author.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy.

Saturday 22 June 2013

UK: Gaudy

By the time I had parked in St Giles and collected my room key from the girl in the College porters' office, the dinner was ending. Changed into smart casual, I headed for Third Quad and the College Bar, passing wine-loudened stragglers in the dining hall, knots of blacktied alumni on the path and a servant watching a man being helped back into his wheelchair at the foot of the steps.

Second Quad, where the JCR (junior common room) used to be. This comprised four rooms:  first, an oak-lined room for morning toast and newspapers (and a small red-haired mathematician who would complete the Times crossword as fast as he could write the answers). This opened onto a second room with a TV, where we would watch Match of the Day and hold JCR meetings; the year before I came up, the students elected a goldfish as President (because like his predecessors, he went round in circles, opening and closing his mouth) and appointed an interpreter to convey the President's rulings. Across the stairway entrance, the Piggery, where they played poker and table football, and one Welshman would regularly smash the glass top on the Gottlieb pinball machine when he failed to get a replay.

Once, as the dons proceeded from sherry in the Senior Common Room to the dining hall, they were met with a hail of breadrolls from the open JCR windows as they passed; from then on, they simply used the path on the other side of the quad. Late at night, Bill, the medical student and rugby player, would shamble through the archway from Third Quad, stand solus in mid-lawn facing the Junior Proctor's room, drop his trousers and sing the Sheep-Shagger's Song in a hoarse, drink-exhausted voice. A decade or two ago, the bar (smartened and relocated) included a reference to his ritual in its decor, echoing the way that Oxford had become a theme park dedicated to a cute version of its history; missing the jab of atavistic defiance in his nightly bawling against authority. The decor has changed again, now that a new, ambitious generation is in possession and society here is restratifying (as a St Andrews graduate confirmed to us later that night); the low Gini Index days of the Seventies are gone.

Escaping the roar of the bar, I drank my vodka tonics and exchanged news and reminiscences with half-remembered faces. Below the College library (where one used to catch glimpses of a silent, white-haired professor of Celtic) once lay the evil-smelling toilets or "traps", graffitied ("beware of limbo dancers"); and the baths to whose provision an earlier Principal had objected, saying that the terms were only eight weeks long, and besides, he and wife went to Rhyl every summer.

I went out of the massive wooden side gate to get a lamb kebab from the large, clean van on Broad Street (no more dodgy late-night boiled hot dogs on Magdalen Bridge now, I expect) and got back in using the electronic key, for the days of open College premises have passed. "Weren't you at dinner?" "No, you only get to talk to two or three people and you can't hear anyway. What was the food like?" "Not bad, though there wasn't very much." "And the wine?" "Better than last time." The speeches had been few and short; the Principal had said that if this were America, the doors would have been locked and donations solicited. We expect to be invited back more frequently now, the retired and retiring, the greyhairs watching the smartly-attired whippersnappers walk past from their post-Finals celebrations. There is the sound of fireworks, startling a bat; youngsters are collecting each other and working out where to go; the lights come on in the Graduate Common Room.

A few minutes to go before the bar closes; last chance to get one or two more in. My friend strolls into First Quad to find a toilet and look for an off licence; comes back empty-handed and goes down the bar to get a couple of bottles of red. We sit on a bench in the moonlit sky, chatting to the late leavers. Isolated wisps of backlit clouds drift above the parapets; ghostly white birds wheel over the buildings at midnight; the moon's face appears at a crenel. It is Midsummer Night, and the stage is all but empty.

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Saturday 15 June 2013

Poland: Dragons in Krakow

The day we were due to leave, the sun came out and shone on the thirteenth annual Malopolska Dragons' Parade. Organised by Teatr Groteska, dozens of monsters proceeded from the Wawel fortress down to the packed Rynek Square.

(Photographed by author, 2 June 2013)

This picture combines several local elements. First, there is the traditional dress, indicating the strong ties of language and culture that have  kept the Poles together, despite the fact that since 1795, the country has only been united and independent for a total of 45 years. After the interlude of 1918-1939 came fifty years of totalitarianism in two varieties, so for many of the onlookers the habit of celebration is still fresh. The Central Square has a plaque to commemorate the suicide there of Walenty (Valentine) Badylak, who set himself on fire to protest the suppression of the truth of the Soviet massacre of the Polish elite at Katyn. We were fortunate to have seen the Corpus Christi procession ("never seen so many nuns in one place," said my wife) the Thursday before this parade, and the green-clad Army formed part of the march past - neat and steely serious.

Next is the character seen here riding a dragon. His name is Lajkonik and he has appeared a little early, since he has his own festival a week after Corpus Christi ("konik" is Polish for "horse", though Google translates the whole word as "festivities").  Krakow was attacked by the Mongols in 1241 and it's said that a citizen who had killed a Tatar came back into the city mounted on a horse and clad in his foe's robes. The invaders won, but had to break off their conquest of Poland and return home because the Grand Khan had died, forcing the election of another. They came back twice more before the end of that century, and to this day a warning clarion is blown hourly from the tower of St Mary's Church in the square; the call ends abruptly because the guard was killed mid-note by a Mongol arrow. The current trumpeter is the third generation of his family to perform the ritual, a tradition dating back as least as far as the fourteenth century.

Last is the dragon himself. Legend has it that he dwelt below the Wawel rock on which the castle now stands (commanding a bend in the Vistula). Smok ate girls as his tribute until fooled into swallowing a sulphur-stuffed lamb, which made him so thirsty that he drank from the river until he burst. A forty-year-old, seven-headed sculpture of him stands by the castle, emitting flames every few minutes to the delight of passing children (and now he even belches in response to SMS messages). A huge T-Rex-like carnivorous dinosaur, the remains of which were found 100 miles away near Lublin, has been named Smok Wawelski in his honour.

Whether dragons ever really existed is a question for another article, though my answer to that isn't no. Meanwhile, here are some more images from this year's crop of Smoks:


All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy.

Friday 7 June 2013

UK: Green slime

Reading SAS stories, I often come across the nickname "green slime" for the Army Intelligence Corps. I'd hazily thought it was a squaddie comeback at the alien, slightly threatening nature of the people who know more than they'll ever tell you.

It's a bit simpler than that. The Corps beret is a bright green, and so when massed on parade the soldiers will seem to be a moving, verdant carpet.

The kit was devised by its Colonel-in-Chief, the Duke of Edinburgh. The CIC came down to Regimental Headquarters for an inspection shortly after the new outfit had been issued, and asked the Sergeant-Major what he thought of it.

"Bloody horrible, Sir."

"Did you know that I designed the uniform myself?"

"Well then, we've both made a mistake, haven't we, Sir?"

Thursday 30 May 2013

USA: Murder in the chicken shack

Email from America 3: the rural dream, and bloodstained reality

A decade ago, our second son had just been born and I was settling quietly into middle age. My wife had other ideas, and decided that we should move to the country. We bought 9 acres with a house and a barn, our own well and sewage system, and neighbours who leave us in peace. We cut our own wood for winter heat, breed goats for meat and milk … and raise chickens.

It started innocently enough with a call from the main post office on a Saturday afternoon, letting us know that we could pick up a package of live animals. What we got was a small cardboard box, stuffed with 50 fluffy chicks. We cooed over them, moved my car out, and installed them with a heat lamp in the garage. Within a month, they had some real feathers, and looked like badly-dressed inner-city schoolboys. One more month, and they were fully-fledged chavs – pushing, pecking, shoving, and occasionally killing each other.
They were so nasty that I didn’t feel really guilty when we drove them to the processor. They returned neatly wrapped and ready for the freezer, costing only 2-3 times what our local supermarket would charge. But they tasted better, or so we told ourselves.

We are now 8 years into our hobby, and have learned a lot. For example, give a rooster 10 hens, and he will hump and torment all of them. Put 20 hens with two roosters, and the dominant one will fight the other for all of them. It isn’t just the males. Remove all roosters, and one hen will take over, like a bad lesbian prison movie. It is distressingly human.
With selective breeding, we now have roosters who will defend their hens, but (usually) not attack people. In our microcosm of social engineering experiments, that may be the best that we can do. At the very least, it has given our children an appreciation for the convenience of grocery stores, and survival skills that rival those of an Eagle Scout.

Tim is a math professor in Ohio.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy.