Thursday, 16 April 2015

A squeeze of the shoulder

I come from a remote family – in the sense that we kept our distance. The nearest my father came to hugging me was an outstretched handshake. That’s not a complaint, quite the opposite, although I enjoy the occasional hug with those I like very much or love, I do believe that hugging in the UK is little overdone nowadays and has lost its way. In Spain it is very natural, of course.

My first intimate experience with a Spanish woman dates from our time as smallholders on the outskirts of a town called Woodbridge. New people had moved into the cottage at the end of our lane: he built boats (big ones) in the attached barn, she embraced me as if we were long lost friends or lovers. I quite liked it. Annabella brought a touch of sunny Spain to sombre Suffolk and a friendship which has certainly outlasted the boat builder (never liked him much anyway and have no regrets about throwing him into our swimming pool – boy was he cross).

If I were sitting in a pub in Oxford, or even Stow-on-the-Wold, and some bloke I barely knew squeezed my shoulder , I would be deeply shocked and suspicions would crowd my sozzled mind. Yet here in La Fresneda it is quite normal: often nothing is said, just a squeeze and a smile. And I quite like it. I sometimes squeeze the shoulder of some villager I know and respect. I think my advances are always well-received.

There are, of course, some people that I would not like to be squeezed by at all: the carpenter for one. Eva is quite the opposite: she is the most passionate woman in our village. A lovely woman , she greets us with such enthusiasm: hugs and showers of kisses. Like most Spanish mothers she has taught her charming little daughter  well – the little girls stands face up waiting for a kiss once her mother has finished with us.

On Friday last we were taken on a mystery tour by our near neighbours who are both enthusiastic nature lovers. He is English and she is Swiss so the hugging and kissing is mostly replaced with a firm handshake before they drive us out into the countryside to view waterfowl and wild goats. We had a lovely day. 

Towards the end of it they took us to a village in the Maestrazgo mountain range where they  have befriended a very nice family who run a Casa Rural ( a sort of B&B) in which they often stay. The man of the family is a sort of forest ranger for the area and has two children. With the grandmother who has her own house, they dominate the village: there are just seven occupants in total. Most of the houses are unoccupied or used for tourism. Yet that family posseses a noticeable aura of contentment.

We met the thirteen-year-old daughter – out playing ball on her own.  A slim, tall girl, she presented herself to each one of us to be kissed on both cheeks with such a serious expression that I could only think of as charming.

The day was drawing to a close so we headed back to La Fresneda. Along the way we had one of those inspiring moments: a large male goat was standing proudly on a rock high above us seemingly watching out progress. With the setting sun behind him he provided a wondrous sight. He was a big boy and,  though I have milked many a goat, I would not like to squeeze his shoulder.

Oh, and that same week I saw a pine martin running over the roof that my house overlooks – a rare and thrilling sight. Isn’t nature wonderful.

Friday, 3 April 2015

A handful of chips and naming

The Spanish have solved the problem of inherited surnames. In the UK posh people in the past, anyone nowadays, sometimes combined the father’s and mother’s surname with an aristocratic hyphen. Hence Parker-Jones and Parkinson-Smith – so much more eye catching that Jones or Smith. In Spain this is the norm. The first generation take their surnames from the father and mother – in that order. That is so non-discriminatory in a country famed for its macho image and as a result, my grandson is called Robin Valero Walters.

 Hey, the Walters name goes on, but not for long. Assuming that Robin does marry and does have children, and lets presume that he marries an English girl with the surname Smith and that they decide to abide by the Spanish naming tradition, then what will my great grand children be called?  Valero Smith, of course. Hey, the Walters name has gone, shoved off the end by a Smith or whatever. So, what seems such a good idea and so egalitarian and non sexist is very short lived. The male dominates or, in my particular case, is soon swept aside.

Not that this bothers me much, probably not at all. But does a fair solution exist? Perhaps we should keep adding on all of the surnames at each marriage? That could be quite a burden for future generations. If my sums are correct then the fifth generation would  possess thirty-two surnames!. Alternatively, how about this: since the family is arguably disintegrating anyway we could abandon family names altogether – Bonjovi, Picasso and Björk seem to have managed OK and this would certainly make filling forms a little simpler.

From names to chips. I am glad to get back to our little village of La Fresneda again even though the elements were not welcoming. The rain began in Perpignan, just on the French side of the border and accompanied us on our entire journey south to our village. When we arrived it was raining so much that we slept another night in our camping car rather than attempt the walk up the hill to our house. In the following days we witnessed the damage caused by days of heavy rain: rivers torrential, roadside cliffs slipping, and terrace walls collapsing. However, by the end of the week the sun was shining so we went off to celebrate in the nearby village of Cretas.

We are regulars at the Cretas wine festival, itself accompanied by a Medieval Festival where local people dress up and sell stuff from stalls. Quite a lot of the stuff is edible and quite a lot of that is “ecological”, a word that rings alarm bells for someone as embarrassingly fastidious as myself. My sensitive stomach is not sentient of course, but it does perform a gentle churn when the word  “ecological” turns up. This churn replaces words like “wholesome, natural, organic” in my mind with things like “dirty, unchecked, no sell-by date”. Similarly perhaps, the  phrase “Made in China”  associated with anything that might pass my lips has a similar effect. The sensitive stomach has been to China and only just about survived the experience. Oddly enough, it has also survived many, many years of our own home-grown food which I suppose would now be called ecological.

So, rather than snacking, we sampled the wine and waited excitedly for the medieval breakfast for which we had prepayed seven euros (£5) each and was served by hand at the staggeringly late, but oh so Spanish, hour of ten p.m. I say “served by hand” advisedly. We tendered our tickets at the entry to a vast tent with seating for at least two hundred. In exchange we were given a plastic plate on which lay a lukewarm sausage and a slice of fatty bacon. We then shuffled long to the next server who picked up a fried egg from a nest of the things and threw it onto our plates. She then picked up a handful of chips from a big heap and spread these on top of our medieval breakfast. I could not believe my eyes, she really delivered the egg and chips with her hands: I filmed her doing it! 
video

Fortunately, she was wearing white rubber gloves, consequently the sensitive stomach stayed calm and the food - when washed down with more wine (included in the price together with a sweet course of an apple or orange) - was OK. But, if those gloves had been green, well, I could not have eaten one chip, not one! How I love it here; things are so…so ecological.


Monday, 23 March 2015

Being Famous: meeting a Hairy Biker


I’ve been really enjoying guiding recently. The long breaks in Spain (one of which I am beginning as I write) refresh me, though the first one on my return is scary – will I remember all the necessary stuff? When introducing myself to a tour group I usually tell them that I live in central North Oxford “where all the rich and famous people live”. Some smile, some pout. Then I tell them that I live in a very small flat and am not rich or famous.

On my last day in Oxford before this trip I did rub shoulders with a “famous”, well, actually, we touched toes – whilst sitting in the same punt! This was no accident. The scene was part of a new TV series centring on the Hairy Bikers and entitled something like ‘The pubs that made us’.

How I became involved is not important, and why I was placed in a punt rather than a pub is a mystery to me and will always remain so  - the latter being my more natural environment. My Hairy Biker was Dave and we met at the punt station below Magdelan (prounounced Maudlin) bridge. To my surprise, and despite his ostentation, I liked him. It was a surprise because I am an anti-personality person to the extent that I have a very long list of ‘personalities’ that I heartily dislike. And no, I am not going to list them, it is better to ignore them.


Dave comes across as a avuncular, homely, northerner with a Dali moustache and shapely beard. He wore a mid length brown, herringbone coat with purple pocket flaps and lapels. In a very short time I learned that he had five motorbikes and a Dutch Barge that he kept on the Thames. He also told me that he had recently purchased a chateau in France and was also part- owner of a new brewery in his home town of Barrow. Yet all of this did not strike me as boasting. He was not at all like the “I’m richer than thou” character of the Fast Show who once said, “Sophisticated? Me? I’ve BEEN to Leeds!” No, Dave just seemed pleased with his new toys and somewhat surprised to find himself so lucky. Maybe talking about them was his way of sharing them.

Having met, we had to wait around whilst Graham, the producer, director, cameraman, gaffer, and all else screwed his equipment onto one of the punts whilst ours was prepared by the professional punters. Then we had to meet again – for the camera. So much has to be done for the camera in this artificial world of TV. So Dave strode manfully down the slope towards me, then slipped dramatically and authentically as he stepped onto the jetty beside the river, almost falling in. This was very funny, everyone laughed and he joined in wholeheartedly. As a consequence we had to meet again, and again, and again, until our meeting seemed natural enough  – for the camera.

The filming caught by Graham as we were punted along the Cherwell was deemed to have gone very well by the producer and the director and the cameraman (Graham), but I am not looking forward to seeing it. Dave, in parting, said, “See you on TV”. But I know that might never happen.  Both of my last two interviews have ended on the cutting room floor. Given my previous experience, this time I insisted on being paid for my services at my usual guiding rate. That way I hope to win either way since I got to meet someone famous!!

Some of you may not know of the famous Hairy Bikers and I must confess that I’ve not seen any of their programmes. Suffice to say that they are hairy, they travel around on motor bikes to interesting locations, and they cook stuff. So, why are the Hairy Bikers the bedrock of this programme on the pubs of Britain? Because they are experts on pubs? No. Because they know lots about Britain? No. Because they are aficionados of the world of beer. No, not one of the above. It’s because they are well-known and loved by thousands. They are the personalities that attract the viewers to a series of programmes which presumably would not reach the screen on its own merits. We live in a strange world where the presenter is more important than what is presented. Perhaps it’s just another symptom of the Churchillian description of the importance of a parliamentary speech: first it’s who says it, second it’s how they say it, third, and last, it’s the content.

So, Dave and the other Hairy Biker, Sy, are perhaps the right choice for this series. Dave certainly has transmittable warmth and the actor’s ability to do a ‘take’ over and over and get better each time, rather than (like me) getting worse with each repeat. I liked him and can only suppose that thousands more do so. He is certainly not on my list of hated personalities. In fact, I would have enjoyed a pint with him afterwards. Instead, I cycled home in the rain and he returned his hotel - Oxford’s most salubrious.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Humanists, Jihadists and the Archers

I became a humanist last year, but am still not sure what that means. I have noticed no changes in myself so far. There is a tendency to define humanism in terms of what it is not, for example: not an organised religion, no belief in the supernatural, not racist, not extremist, etc. Friday night, at a humanist lecture on the jihadist mentality, the speaker tried to redefine humanism; I believe his intention was to reach out towards religious moderates and hence isolate the crazies.

His name is Roger Griffin, he’s an historian with a specialism in Nazism which he has now extended to terrorism. He began by describing the modern world’s tendency to rob people of meaning in their lives, particularly the erosion of unquestioning belief (in religion, government, law, morality, etc). This, he said, leaves a hole which can, on the one hand, be filled by an addiction to shopping, watching programmes like the X Factor or gardening, or, on the other hand, by creativity in art, music, theatre or whatever. But for some this is not enough, their search for meaning becomes obsessive and idealistic. In the worst cases they latch on to some extreme idea (e.g. distorted Islam) and become so strongly addicted to that idea that they are willing to kill and be killed for it: hence the Twin Towers, etc.

I’m sure that Roger would regard this as a vast over simplification of what he said, but that’s it in essence. He gave us many examples of terrorists and their bizarre creeds including Brusthom Ziamani, the 19 year old arrested in London carrying a flag of Islam, a hammer and a knife with the express intention of beheading a soldier. This man was brought up as a Jehovah’s Witness and converted to Islam in his teens. In London, he joined a group of followers of some radical Muslim cleric.  His ex-girlfriend said that, “he wanted to die a martyr and do things to get to heaven and to please god”.

That night the audience were clamouring for solutions to the ghastly problems of extremism rather than reasons for it. The speaker’s response was that those who have been turned can be unturned - given the right treatment. He referred to the Danish solution in which radicals returning from ISIS in Syria are treated kindly, rather than being imprisoned as they are here. They are re-educated and once converted released to become educators themselves, thus creating people with the ability to reach out to the terrorists groups that they themselves once belonged to and to reason with them. This was treated with some scepticism, but what really got the assembled humanists off their chairs was a suggestion that the humanist view should be more tolerant towards religion. Here the speaker was, I think, suggesting that the “militant” humanists (he mentioned Hitchens and Dawkins) attacks on religion sent the religious scurrying to their defensive positions and the nutters to their guns.

I think he has a point. There is, to my mind, a large area of overlap between the beliefs of atheistic humanists and the moderately religious. ‘Do unto others as you would have done to yourselves’ is surely an aim to strive for: for oneself, one’s family and the community at large. Unless, of course, you are a terrorist.



Serious as this topic is, there was a lighter side to the evening. The speaker talked of the depressing effect of news broadcasts and suggested this is why BBC Radio 4 has a comedy half-hour immediately after the six o’clock news. Naturally, this led onto the calming effect of The Archers which follows the seven o’clock news. And this sparked a brief debate about the main story currently unwinding in this long-running radio soap. And then to the disclosure (fresh from that night’s episode) that David is not leaving Ambridge. Phew, great relief all round. Sorry if this seems obscure or even irrelevant, but it does go to prove that humanists are human.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Pubs merry-go-round in Stow-on-the-Wold

I suspect that I mention pubs quite a lot in my blogs: they are very much part of my life and I did come very close to buying one – twice. To me they represent many things: a place to drink one’s own choice of poison, a meeting place for friends, a place to make new friends or to chat with passing acquaintances, a place to play the only games that I really like, a place to enjoy live music, and so on (see my pub in the bookshop for more).

I know that I have often written about the two bars of La Fresneda, our Spanish village, but think that I have said little about the bars of Stow-on-the Wold, our Cotswold base. However, there is something interesting going on there at present which reflects the swingeing changes that have rocked the pub trade over the last decades.

Years ago, pubs were owned by the breweries producing the beer, and in those pubs you drank the beer of the brewery that owned them, or lumped it. There were a few, so called, “free houses” where a variety of draught beers might be found, but by far the majority were tied to a brewery. Then, stimulated by government legislation, greed and corporate economics, things began to change: the big breweries sold off their vast estates of pubs and concentrated on brewing and spending their piles of cash. Pub companies bought chains of pubs which then purchased beer from the ever-increasing number of breweries and supplied it, at inflated prices, to the tenants and managers of their pubs. Later again, some of the breweries that had retained their pub estates sold the brewery, usually for housing development, and then outsourced their core competence: brewing. All of this has had a profound effect on the pub trade and, of course, on the pubs of Stow.

There is one area however where Stow does buck the trend and that is in closures. Pubs in the UK are still closing at the rate of twenty a week or more, yet those in Stow have been stable for a very long time. There are ten bars, some of which are within hotels, others are stand-alone pubs and just one is a club. The population of this country town is about two thousand so that is a goodly number of boozers.

When I first began to visit the place, the pubs concentrated almost entirely on selling drink, and were themselves partitioned into public bars for the working-class locals and lounge bars for the rich and the ‘better’ classes – or so it seemed to me. Nowadays the partitions have gone, the bars are mostly food rather than drink led, the classes have merged or drifted upwards and a true local is a rarity, my wife being one.  Meanwhile, some of the pubs remain tied to traditional breweries; others have seen many transformations.


I used to predict that Stow could not sustain so many drinking establishments and that the Bell, the most remote from the centre would be the first to go. It scraped along breaking the hearts of many an aspiring tenant and was an encumbrance to the pub company which owned it. I think the most enduring tenants during that period were two lesbians, one of whom regularly paced the bar draped in a large, live lizard. Even I once offered to buy the freehold of the place, but was turned down.

Finally, a lady entrepreneur did manage to buy it up, spent a lot of money on it, imported a very good chef, introduced well-kept real ale and installed pretty, polite barmaids. She brought with her a load of discerning and well-heeled customers and The Bell is now such a success that a brewery has bought it from her – Youngs’ brewery. Except that Youngs no longer brews beer! It sold its wonderful London production base some years ago and the beers are now brewed by Charles Wells. I presume the company is using cash raised by the sale of the brewery site to purchase pubs like The Bell.

Up the road from The Bell is a pub and hotel which has changed hands, and names, rather a lot over the years. It was the Eagle and Child at one time and is now the Porch House. Like many in this country, it claims to be the oldest in England. It too has now been bought by a brewery – Brakspear. But this brewery has also sold its brewing facility and its beers are brewed at the Wychwood brewery in nearby Witney, and that brewery has itself been bought by another called Marston’s located in Wolverhampton.


And so these bewildering cycles go round, recycling landlords and beers and tossing out dartboards, skittle alleys, pool tables and local characters along the way. Is it bad? Is it a tragedy? For some yes, for others not. 

Nowadays there is a good selection of pubs in Stow that sell a range of beers and a variety of food in restaurant-like surroundings. At present, two of the bars are closed for renovation; they will no doubt open as gastro pubs of some sort. So if you want to play darts or pool in Stow-on-the-Wold, or want to drink with the few remaining ‘locals’ what can you do? Join the club, perhaps.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Another Christmas, another year


After years of action-packed family Christmas celebrations involving plays, games, quizzes, serial present giving and of course food and drink, I spent this one in the pub. Well not the whole of it, but quite a lot of it. Did I enjoy it? ‘Course I did – even the wet walk from the bus stop to Oxford’s Thames side Isis Farmhouse on Boxing Day failed to dent my appetite for real ale and good company. On Christmas Eve, we planned a tour of the pubs in Stow-on-the-Wold and barely got past the Bell, the first one. I met a man there who works for a Chinese telecom company in Bahrain which was really interesting (yes, really). On Christmas morning, we began drinking in another Stow pub which had 7% Christmas ale…and it was uphill all the way from there. Had a nice couple of pints in the Talbot with friends whilst overlooking the delightful Stow square, then returned to the 7% place which was still open (I did lower the alcohol content of my beer selection on this second visit and consequently made it back to the house). On New Year’s Eve, we took in some music at the Wheatsheaf in Oxford from the Pete Fryer band and Redox – Christmas would not be the same without them. And last night I ventured out alone and found Oxford in a hung-over, stay-at-home, post Christmas sort of mood. However, the Rose and Crown, one of my locals, was lively enough though.

You could say that Christmas, for me, is becoming like any other time of the year since I do spend some of my time in the pubs anyway, but that’s not so. There is a different atmosphere over the festive period: people are more relaxed (or more tipsy), they are more generous, more inclined to laugh at bad jokes and smile at annoying idiosyncrasies.

Whilst on the Christmas theme, I, like Father Christmas, have always had a beard. I am therefore amused and bemused to find myself in fashion. Quite amazing how many young men are going hirsute. Where does that come from? I seem to detect a middle-eastern look to these hair-faced youngsters – surely not.

Since my return from Spain, I have taken two groups on tours of Oxford. It is quite scary to do this after a break of nearly four months: will the accumulation of facts, stories, jokes, and so forth – the tools of a guide’s trade – be there? I once told someone of my fears and they suggested that I revise; they had no idea of the enormity of that task. There are thirty-eight colleges and a myriad of university building. There is a history of twelve hundred years. There is a long list of famous or infamous personalities. There is just too much. However, all was well, both tours went swimmingly. I think these long breaks are refreshing: my enthusiasm for the work is strengthened and the visitors respond to that. On both tours, I sold books and received tips. That is not usual.

On the book front itself my Swedish translator, N Christer Frank has just launched Political Chemistry (the Dorothy Hodgkin and Margaret Thatcher book) in his language. It is rather fun to see this book with a Swedish title. This is the third book of mine that Christer has translated and I now call him eagle eyes because he does spot typos that I, and a number of English readers, have missed. Based on his comments I am just now releasing a new version of the English book. Though this is hard work, you cannot believe how much of a relief it is to be able to do so: in the past persuading publishers to produce a new edition was all but impossible.

2015 will be the year I complete, and celebrate the completion of, my stone hut in Spain – the party should be in April or May. Just now, I am beginning to edit the copious notes I have made during nearly five years of work and, that done, I will begin to write a book about my foreign venture. I think it will be my twentieth!

Happy new year to you all.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Home again, where I can write to my member of parliament.

My trip to Spain and back covered nearly 10,000 kilometres this time. Here’s a very stunted and biased review of the countries we passed through: Belgium, boring (but not the beer); Germany, efficient, regulated; Poland, bad roads, nice people; Slovakia, scary, struggling; Austria, see Germany, Italy, exciting, dangerous, historic; France, depressed yet delightful.

And so we came to Spain, our second home. I have lived there on and off for fifteen years, but often find that I am only just getting to know it, just now diving below the superficial. This time I began to understand why nearly everyone in our village owns plots of land: some tiny, some quite large, and often a number of them. More importantly, though I admire the degree of decentralisation – villages have significant local powers in Spain – there is a flaw: Spanish voters have no direct representation.
By Huse Fack March 05, 2013

Years ago, when I was politically active, I wrote a letter to the local paper about proportional representation – yawn, yawn. Wait! In my article I set the scene in a pub; four people were deciding what to drink, they each settled on a different tipple then one of them went to the bar to order. He returned with four glasses each containing a cocktail of all four choices: beer, gin, cider, whisky – a mixture that none of them likes, yet all of them had collectively chosen. That was forty years ago, now I have seen this plausible, but unworkable, scheme in action and it stinks as badly as that awful cocktail. It is the system used to ‘elect’ those anonymous, but very well paid, people whom we call MEPs and it is the basis of Spanish ‘democracy’.

Recently my half-Spanish grandson was amazed when I said that I had written to my MP about some aspect of immigration. He seemed unable to understand the concept and told me that you could not do that in Spain. I assumed that he just did not understand, after all he is young. But he is right, it is just not done. In Spain you are represented by a cocktail of people drawn from the parties who stood for election in your particular state, province or whatever, there is no single representative for your area.

Now, I am not saying that the British democracy is perfect:  far from it, turnout for elections is depressingly poor and respect for politicians and the system they operate in is discouragingly low. However, we do have representatives who hold surgeries in order to hear the views of their constituents and we can write to or email our MP. What’s more, in my experience, they do respond – it is a major part of their job. I wonder what the Spanish congress members and our MEPs do with their time.

There is more. Spain is a Eurozone country so monetary affairs are effectively in the hands of the EU. Other governmental responsibilities are delegated to the various states or autonomies which comprise the country (Galicia, Catalonia, Andalucía, etc) and those responsibilities include health and education. What does this leave for central government? Not much: just things like defence, foreign policy and transport. So, the power of parliament in Spain is severely limited. It is interesting then that regions like Catalonia and the Basque country are demanding ‘complete’ autonomy so that they can attach themselves directly to the mothership: the European Union.


Sunday, 30 November 2014

Corruption: the Spanish disease?

Last week I spent alone here in our little Spanish village; Margaret had returned to England. Embarrassed by my failure to master the Spanish language, I decided that a period of total immersion was called for: speaking, hearing and reading entirely in the Spanish language. It did not work out. John, of Joy and John (see previous blogs), is in poor straights with no job and no money so I decided to give him a little work shifting my rubbish tip. As a result, I spent the Monday with him - speaking English. Then I met Terry at his pizzeria and spent an evening talking to him, in English. Then, on another evening, I bumped into a friend who runs the camping site - he’s Dutch but we speak in English, of course. Following that chance meeting I went to the campsite the next day, hence more English conversation with Joost and his wife Jet. Then my neighbours who live above us invited me to dinner on Friday evening. I accepted with alacrity; my cooking being not so good. But that meant another English night. And so it went on.

However, I did immerse myself in Spanish TV and radio. With the former I usually switch on the subtitles (in Spanish) otherwise I understand little or nothing. “Did your mother have subtitles on her head when she taught you English?” Claire, the daughter of my dinner party neighbours, challenged me when I confessed to this, and I suppose she has a point – I turned them off. I still understood little, but I did pick up some words and sometimes, just occasionally, the gist of what was being discussed.

During that entire week, guess which word stood out most on both TV and radio news? You’ve probably guessed it – immigration. No, not at all, but it was one of the words ending in ‘ion’ (most of these words are identical or very similar in Spanish and England, thanks be to Latin). No, the word of the week was - corruption. The previous president of Catalonia, Pujol, came up for trial, accused of massive diversion of state funds into foreign bank accounts. A number of mayors in Madrid were arrested by the police on charges of corruption. Corruption was unveiled amongst socialist politicians in Andalusia. And so on, and on.

Is corruption endemic in Spain (and its former colonies in Latin America, the Philippines, etc)? I suspect that it is, and that it pervades all levels from the very top (royalty and politicians) to the very bottom where it is conventional practice to avoid the swingeing stamp duty (7%) exacted here on house purchase  by allocating a good proportion of the cost of the purchase to incredibly expensive furniture apparently lying within.

Does corruption exist in the UK? Of course it does, it exists everywhere. Remember MP’s expenses, cash for questions and the bankers manipulating interest rates? But these are, I believe, exceptions and not the rule. And the guilty are chased by the press, and usually punished by the courts.

Spain is my second country despite its woeful lack of real ale and my lamentable attempts to speak and understand the language; I therefore wish it and its people well.  It is a young democracy in some respects, still smarting from its years under the iron hand of Franco, yet still luxuriating in its splendid history. It calls its present parlous economic situation ‘La Crisis’. Whilst it continues to wallow in the gutter of corruption,I fear it has little chance of recovery from that crisis and the youngsters in the cities who are unemployed, which is most of them, will remain so.


Interestingly, a new political party has emerged in Spain recently. It calls itself ‘Podemos’ which I think translates to ‘we can’. I do not know its policies or aims, but it is the symbol of change to many and is gaining traction. Perhaps it will help to eradicate the ‘C’ word from Spanish politics and business.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The last step and my perfect shop

Here  in Spain, things go at a different pace. In England the corner shop has been eradicated by the supermarket and the ironmongers replaced by the sheds: Wickes, B&Q and so forth. I have a love/hate relationship with the sheds, they seem to have everything except the thing you actually want and I, an amateur, often know more about using their stuff than the people who work there. In Spain the process of eradication and replacement is ongoing. Here, in our small village, we have a fully operational carpentry business which can make anything from a bird box to a barn and a blacksmith who once made nice cowl for my fire for a mere fifteen euros, but is more likely to be making or repairing huge agricultural machines to be towed behind tractors. Oh, and we have two bakeries and two corner shops too.

Though an amateur, I do a lot of things myself and in order to do DIY I need bits and pieces, usually small numbers of them. In Oxford, since the closure of the one and only remaining ironmongers in the city, I have been forced to traverse the huge sheds searching for some small item: asking for help but getting none. Here we have Falgas. Falgas is a shop in a village some ten miles away that sells almost anything that you might need, literally. Yes, from a teaspoon to a watering can to a welding machine, they have it all, and they can tell you how things work, and adapt them to your needs.

After the first robbery here I tried to secure the door of my caseta (stone hut) with a swinging arm of my own design. I had it tested by criminally minded friends and finally settled on the Mark 3 version. The  latest thief made short work of my clever design. Finding that he or she could not get in after angrily ripping off the door bolt he, it surely was a he, violently tore off part of the door and simply swept my swinging arm to one side. The Mark 3 had failed. I am now working on the Mark 4 and strengthening the door with iron bars. The Mark 4 will have a ratchet mechanism so that it cannot be swept aside. However, in early tests, I found that the ratchet requires a spring assembly to force it into place. I tried to fabricate something using a hacksaw blade as a spring, but it was no good. So, off I went to Falgas to explain my problem in broken Spanish. In very little time the manager had shown me a few possible readymade solutions but they too were no good. Then, as a team, he and I brought together a spring, two bits of tube, one of which fits inside the other and I had my solution. He even drilled holes in the tubes and inserted pins to keep the thing together. Total cost six euros!




Security aside, progress continues on my project. Two weeks after laying the last stone in the walls, I have completed the external stairs that lead from the main room of the caseta to the terrace above where I am currently building a small stone hut to house water tanks and batteries. For about two years I have been using the slope that now supports the stairs to ascend and descen and to pull up concrete and large stones. During all of that time Margaret has refused to ascend the slope because it is ‘dangerous’. I completed the last of the fourteen steps on Friday and invited her up the steps for a first view of the terrace the next day. I made a table out of concrete blocks, covered it with a white cloth made from a bag in which sand had been delivered then laid out two glasses and a bottle of local red wine. She was touched. Of course, I could have bought a proper table from Falgas…and a wine cooler…and a table cloth…and a bottle opener…and…

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Stoned at last. And stunned.

On Saturday 25th of October, I laid the ultimate stone on a low sloping wall on the new terrace of my caseta. I laid the first on 20th March 2010, nearly five years before. It’s been a long haul. Like Sisyphus, I thought it would never end, and at times, like a quitter, I felt like walking away from the whole thing. So how did I feel when I laid that last little stone? Bathos. Do you remember finishing exams at school or whatever? For weeks you studied and crammed, hardly sparing the time to dream of what you would do when it was all over. Then it was all over and you were at a loss for something to do. Swatting had become your life. Building with stone became mine, so laying that last stone produced a strange sense of loss.





Though it was hard work and often quite boring, there was a sense of progress. At the end of a week the wall had grown a little, another corner stone could be added, maybe the gap between the two halves of the wall could be backfilled with concrete. It has been frustrating at times: the search for the right stone, the careful shaping of a stone to fit into “the jigsaw with no solution” followed by that final smack with the hammer that disintegrated the thing, the amazing tendency for stones to align with those below rather than bond. But there was also a sense of creation. I could see where I had been and, overlooking a few mistakes, there was no going back.

There were times when did feel like giving the whole thing up, but a spell in the UK usually cured that: I came back with the enthusiasm of an absentee returned. I clearly remember finishing the first, the south, wall up to terrace height and feeling rather pleased with myself, then I turned to the north and realised with a sinking heart that I had to do it all again. And when I finished that I had to do the west wall before I could install joists and lay the concrete terrace floor upon them and the walls. And that was not the end I had to build the terrace walls and the little casita above to house batteries and tanks and stuff. The end seemed unreachable. Yet I have reached it – though there is still lost of other work to be done on the project, I have finished stone work.

Skill is an acquired thing, though some people build on an innate ability. You can look at someone plastering a wall, or engraving a glass, or making a pot, or playing a guitar, and think, “I wish I could do that”. And of course you could, but it would take many years of practice to be really good at it. I have served my apprenticeship in stone walling – but would only rank myself as semi-skilled. I currently have a good eye for a required stone and a reasonable feel for the nature of stones: crumbly, workable, fracture prone, brittle, etc. However, those abilities will soon fade if I do not exercise them. What will remain is the stone caseta, or at least I certainly hope it will.

Whilst every cloud might have a silver lining, the satisfaction of completing my stone work has been marred. A few days afterwards, I was burgled again. It happened during my lunch break, a mere hour and half. Fortunately, and most strangely, they only stole petrol (worth less that 20 Euros), ignoring my drill and angle grinder which were both nearby. They made a fearful mess smashing in the door and, most galling, they made short shrift of my clever security mechanism – back to the drawing board.

Stunned and vengeful, I called in the Guardia Civil who were about as much help as a turnip in a training college. Constantly fingering their guns as if the thief might be nearby, and grinning as if at some secret joke they both shared, they told me that I must go to the station and make a report. I said, “That is what I am doing, I am making a report to you”. But they could do nothing they said, for all they knew an animal might have committed the crime or I might have done it myself. “You must make a report,” they reiterated. “And then what?” I asked, exasperated. They seemed confused by this question, as if the answer was too obvious for words. They left, fingering their revolvers and grinning.