Thursday, 13 July 2017

Bad day to be an octopus

Hoy es feria.” Three words which every person living here will have said at some point. Today is market day.

Twice a month, on 13th and 28th, the market comes to town. These dates are fixed so that everybody in the tiny villages in the outlying area knows where it’ll be on any given day - on 14th and 29th it’ll be somewhere else in Galicia. It only changes if it falls on a Sunday or a Bank Holiday.

Feria days are among the rare occasions when the village feels busy, particularly in summer. People from the surrounding hamlets combine all the business they need to do in town into one visit, so numbers are up considerably, for a few hours at least.

The market places itself along either side of the roads at the top of the town, the Toral. You see what you’d see in pretty much any market anywhere; cheap clothes and toys, fruit and veg, household goods, ironmongery etc. And of course the ubiquitous knives which all Galician men seem to carry. Last time round, uncle M of Walk in the Park fame bought a penknife to replace an identical one he’d lost. It appears to my foreign eyes that the penknife is an extension of the Galego’s arm - I’ve seen M use if for everything from cutting away plant life outdoors to spooning jam onto his toast! So commonplace are they that I’ve taken to carrying one myself, since I keep being told I need to be more Galician. My own was gifted to my late father by visiting Spaniards, of course, and has elicited approving comments from the penknife cognoscenti here, being as it’s from Albacete, which is apparently a sign of quality.

The fresh produce is, as you might expect in a rural area, startling in its variety, size and quality. We just dragged home a bag containing, variously, about 200g of figs, about the same of cherries, then oranges, tomatoes, plums, nectarines, green chillies, lemons, pears, paraguayos (a sort of flat peach which I’ve seen only occasionally in Britain) and apricots. Over 5kg of fruit for a total of €10, heavy enough to have turned the stuff at the bottom of the bag into fruit puree under its own weight by the time I’d got it home.

One thing the locals look forward to more than anything on market day, though, is what follows it round: pulpeiros. The pulpeiros set themselves up outside all the bars in the town, heating giant cauldrons of water and stacking wooden plates in preparation to serve the one and only dish on their menus - octopus.

The locals adore this - boiled, chopped up and served on those wooden plates with olive oil and paprika, to many they're reason enough to come into town whether you need anything from the market or not. My partner particularly enjoys the bits with suckers on. This is one local delicacy for which I have no time - for me, it's fish-flavoured plastic with a horrible texture, which occasionally, if you get one of those suckers, feels like it's holding on to you. I don't want my food grabbing hold of me, frankly.

This view is of course the subject of some mirth and is yet one more thing that marks me out. Carrying a penknife around and enjoying a vermouth before lunch - which is eaten at 3pm - doesn't make me a local quite yet.

Friday, 7 July 2017

A walk in the park

This morning, we thought we'd join my partner's uncle M on his morning walk in the countryside, a stroll he takes daily for the exercise. At least, it was a stroll in my mind. A country walk conjures up images, in my head at least, of a pleasant amble through rolling fields, perhaps to a country pub for a ploughman's and a rehydrating pint before returning at the same 'speed' whence you came.

This was not that. Uncle M, dressed for autumn as far as I'm concerned - jeans and a long-sleeved lumberjack shirt - had other things in mind. We drove to our starting point, left the car in the cooling shade of a handy tree, and he promptly stormed off at what could only be described as a military march. I, rocking a Roobarb t-shirt, the lightest white T I own (cheers, Ruthy) and a pair of shorts, could see my immediate future mapped out in the first few minutes. Sweating. Lots of sweating. Another T-shirt ruined. (Sorry, Ruthy).

Anyway, the charge. Walk, I mean. I've mentioned already that the water in the lake is low, and our route served only to confirm exactly how dry it is. I'm no photographer - I lack the creative eye, and have no need for a proper camera because I really couldn't do it justice. So what I'm putting here lack quality but serve to illustrate where my words would no doubt not be adequately descriptive.

We were walking along what used to be the road out of town, to the next village. Unpaved and greening quickly where plants are reclaiming the land man took from them when they dammed the river many years ago, it still faintly resembles a road, with two stony tracks divided by a grassier centre, and it's from that road that you get a decent indication straight away of just how much the water has lowered:

The road I took these from would itself usually be under water, so you can see just how deeply that fisherman would be inundated under normal circumstances. It's revealed more of the old medieval stone-walled buildings that once lined the river as people farmed the valley. The trees in the right-hand pic usually have their feet wet - you can see all too clearly where it would normally be.

I confess that occasionally I did wish that we were under water, because at least we'd have been unmolested by the damn insects which buzzed around us constantly. Now I recognise we were kind of on their patch, but lads, please - there's a time and a place. I'd repeatedly warned my partner, anaphylactic as she is, not to flap about and flick her hair around whenever anything winged came even remotely near her, but of course failed to heed my own advice. I don't know if I mentioned that I sweat - a lot? This was obviously acting like those UV lights you see in butchers' shops, because they buzzed all around me all the bloody time, drawn to me by what was obviously an irresistible smell to them. (I know, right? You've never found me so attractive...) 

Using a white handkerchief in a vain effort to moderate the constant stream of sweat I was producing, of course I flapped around in exactly the manner I'd warned C not to. I looked like some kind of insane semaphorist, desperately signalling my surrender to the incessant swarm. Uncle M seemed entirely untroubled by our six-legged botherers. "Look," he said. "I'm sweating too but they leave me alone." He showed me his shirt, which looked about as wet as if it had spent the previous hour in the tumble dryer.

Anyway, back to the walk. Reaching the point where the road vanished and we could go no further, the stepped remains of the vineyards left behind by the Romans could be seen. You can never be quite certain how old any of the ruins are that you see here, but these terraces are, I'm assured, definitively Roman. (Mind you, I was assured by that same person that the battered plug-end housing of an extremely old extension cable we found in the dust was also Roman, so I would not stake so much as a cent on the accuracy of this information). 

So this shot marked the point at which we should have been having that ploughman's and pint, but instead turned more or less immediately on our heels and started the walk back.

We walked for about 5km in total. For me, that represents a proper effort, but I recognise that this is little more than a short jaunt for proper hikers. I think I'd have sweated away to a rancid pair of Converse, steaming and fly-blown, if we'd gone too much farther though. Regardless of my own toil, the insects and the lack of a pub, there is an undeniable beauty about the whole place.

The old road we walked on, near the starting point.
One last shot, if you'll permit me. Right where we parked the car there's a graphic demonstration of the old and the new, which also reiterates how low the water is. The modern road, on which we'd reached the starting point, crosses the river on the bridge above. The old bridge below is usually some 20 feet below the surface. And this in what is typically the greenest and wettest region of Spain.

The old and the new stand high and dry together.
I did at least get that beer, after all. M was kind enough to drive to the nearest bar, a place on that road where the drivers of the big trucks which thunder through the area stop for a drink and a bit of grub.

Even there, though, we weren't left alone. One of our winged companions had decided to come along for a drink with us, and I noticed it on my leg in the bar. A fly of the type that usually bothers cattle, so Uncle M assured me, and not one you want to spend too much time with. "These ones are tough," he said, and he wasn't bloody kidding; this fly really didn't get the message. It was variously swatted off my leg, smacked squarely against M's jeans with his hand, squeezed between his fingers and stepped on, twice, but still kept trying to come back. Only when it was, frankly, smeared right across the bottom of his shoe did it finally go to wherever flies go when they die. (Not a place I'd like to imagine too carefully).

Let me tell you that, when finally in a position to relax and have that drink, the first glug of that caña was one of the sweetest I've ever tasted. 

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Fierce creatures

Growing up in Brighton and then living in London for 25 years, I haven't the faintest concept of how large a hectare is. Or an acre. I've only a vague perception of what a furlong, also originally a rural measure, looks like because of horse racing. So I'm just going to describe the smallholding - the finca - that I visit fairly regularly here with my partner's uncle as 'big'. Very big.

Placed on one of the valley's steep slopes, there are, variously, beehives, an orchard, walnut trees, potatoes, cabbages, lettuces, enormous tomatoes, courgettes, peppers, asparagus, French beans, spring onions the size of your fist, etc. I've no doubt missed some of it.

It's only about a five-minute drive from our house, and I only go, of course, with my partner's uncle Cuqui ('Cookie', to anglicise it). Now usually, in these pages, I abbreviate people's names just to single letters or only refer to them obliquely; it's just a courtesy to them in case they'd prefer not to have their name placed here in full. The people who know them will know them. I don't need to do that with Cookie - he's so universally known as Cookie that I can only use his nickname here. I've probably been told his real name but genuinely can't remember it. Everybody knows him here. His deep voice and splendid moustache are as much features of this village as the fountain in the main square.

He's an amiable fellow, of blunt and freely expressed opinion - often that if it's not Galician it's no good - who, like everybody here, really knows his food and wine. He's been nothing but friendly and helpful to me since the first time I met him, when he tried to get me shit-faced with his home-brewed liqueurs.

So, arriving at the finca with him, you're greeted by a mastiff the size of a horse laying just inside the gate. Fortunately I know this dog already so his low-pitched growling, most effective to any would-be interloper I imagine, doesn't bother me too much. Nonetheless he did his job, giving me the 'abandon hope all ye who enter here' growl when I approached the gate first. He quickly shut up, though, when Cookie approached and greeted him with a cheery 'sod off', and once we were inside the finca's walls, his new tactic seemed to be to drool me to death. A soppier dog you could not meet, once he knows you're no threat.

Another dog, an English Setter, has to be kept inside one of the buildings when his owner's not there because if left to his own devices, unlike the mastiff, he simply fucks off. Released twice daily by Cookie, he charges around like a nutcase, trying to get the mastiff to join in his games and jumping up at any visitor to see if they fancy a run about. A guard dog he is not.

The half-dozen sheep are partly there to trim the grass, because the place is way beyond the size where any domestic mower, even those posh ones you sit on and drive about, could deal with, and much too steeply sloped in any case. Not knowing me, they keep their distance from me as they patrol the finca, eating anything green and trying to find a way in to the walled vegetable areas. They regard me with a cool suspicion, and if I didn't know better I'd say the one in the middle of the shot below is giving me the skunk eye.

Their other function, of course, is to provide lamb for the dinner plate. The one male who looks after the females for this task is distinctive because of his bloody great testicles. Christ, what a pair of nads. I mean, damn... they're like a couple of coconuts in a wet shopping bag.  

There are other animals working there too. The ones you really don't want to approach, which hang around looking like an LA street gang, are the cats. Feral, of course, they're all scarred and tough-looking beasts which scurry past you and look at you challengingly - "Don't touch me, man. I'll cut you. I'll cut you bad." Seriously, all that's missing are eye patches, tattoos and neck ties. One of them in particular, the boss-man, were he to appear on film, would be played by Robert Shaw. Bent-tailed, limping, scraggy and armed quite literally to the teeth, he was the feline embodiment of Quint from Jaws

These could hardly be described as belonging to Cookie. He's merely come to an arrangement with them, whereby he brings them food and they eliminate any rats and mice that may be foolish enough to venture into their postcode and don't savage him on sight. 

Cookie brings, to feed canine and feline alike, offal. An entire set, removed all too recently from a pig - tongue, lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, all still connected in one steaming string which he boils and cuts up for them. Not a meal, or a sight, for the faint of heart. In this, the cats do at least demonstrate characteristics which any domestic cat owner will recognise. While we were busy with something else, one of the cats stole a kidney from the bag and was busy gnawing on it when we came back. When prepared, cut up and served to them, she didn't want to know that same kidney. If it ain't robbed, it obviously tastes inferior. Cat gang culture, I suppose.

There was one other cat there, clearly not part of the gang, since they largely ignored her. This little lady;

Only a few weeks old, she at least was too small to prevent me petting her. Purely to accustom her to human contact, you understand, and not because I'm an absolute softy where kittens are concerned. When we got there, her eyes were fused together with sleep gunk, and her mother being nowhere to be found (she doesn't belong to the street gang), Cookie has to perform the job of her absent mother and wash them every morning to get them to open. She also, of course, gets fed. I hesitated to ask if there were others, but if there were, they've been taken by the eagle that can be seen every day hunting over the lake, or else by foxes. She's either the luckiest or the cleverest of however many of her siblings there were. 

I would, of course, with my English sentiment, take her home and make a pet of her, appalled at her chances. But this is another difference I've quickly got used to - between urban and rural attitudes as much as between Galician and British - such sentiments bemuse some of the locals. For all that Cookie cleans her eyes and feeds her, if she disappears, she disappears and that's how it is. It's certainly not for me to rock up and tell him to do differently. I don't need to learn how to be a local to know that.

(One important point of order in all this - if I get any of this wrong, if I say something here which simply isn't true, it's almost entirely certain that it's down to my language skills, which are sadly lacking. Much more likely than having been told a whopper is that I've simply not improved my Spanish sufficiently to properly understand what I'm being told. Therefore, to coin a phrase, any errors are entirely the fault of the author.)

Monday, 26 June 2017

One week in

While I don't want this to become a sort of public diary, it's worth noting how the first week's been, now it's passed. It still feels, of course, like I'm on holiday here. When that feeling dissipates, and whether I'll notice when it does, remains to be seen. I am going to have to moderate my intake of cerveza from holiday levels to everyday levels, either way.

Anyway. We live downhill - quite steeply downhill - from the centre of the village. As a consequence, the habit among people in our little neighbourhood is not to ask if you're going into town, but to ask simply if you're 'going up'. This morning, tasked with finding Parmesan from any one of the shops, I had to 'go up'. The forecast had been for rain, which if it's coming today certainly feels some way off, and for a considerable drop in temperature. So I left the house dressed, as was my standard attire in London, entirely in black.

There are two ways up. One, the more direct, is up the main road. The other takes longer and involves a twisting footpath which offers some terrific views across the valley. That's the route I prefer. By the time I got to the point where I took this photograph, not even halfway up, I realised I'd made two newbie mistakes.

The lake, created artificially for hydro-electric power generation, is very low, revealing
the medieval buildings and petrified trees which are usually hidden in its depths.

I'd set off at London walking pace. Bad idea. The locals know that, when it's hot, the pace of your walk has to match the pace of life here generally. I'll also have to eschew my usual all-black clothes because by the time I returned to the house I had to treat my T-shirt as a bio-hazard and get a specialist team in to dispose of it. I didn't find any Parmesan either.

Another thing, and bear with me on this, is 'Cowboys and Indians'. Remember that little riddle you were set as a kid, where you had a canoe and had to get a certain number of those enemies across a river but couldn't leave them unattended with each other? The solution involved shuttling back and forth, carrying one or more of them with you in both directions, going back on yourself to get everybody safely across without a fight. That's our current situation with plug adaptors. We've brought nowhere near enough. So we can't boil the kettle while the computers are charging. If we need to use the drill, which is happening a lot at the moment while we put up our pictures from home etc, then I can't make coffee - a catastrophe here. So we're continually switching them around, temporarily plugging something in and then moving the adaptor to wherever it's next required or back to where it's been borrowed from. Anybody who comes to visit us, please bring three-to-two-pin plug adaptors!

We've been welcomed with genuine warmth and happiness, to a village of around 2,800 people, where most people know most people. This can be a double-edged blade of course, and I've already seen a little of how political things can be in a small place like this. But that's surely the same everywhere and, overwhelmingly, it feels like the reasons we came here for will be borne out fully over the long term. When I 'went up' this morning, as a reminder of the courtesies which would be considered old-fashioned in Britain, but prevail here, the few people who passed me wished me buenas dias whether they recognised me or not. What should feel slightly awkward to a reserved Brit feels right here.

I've just seen a headline on the Beeb that the Tories have reached a deal with the DUP - don't get me started on them - and will form the next government in the UK. With that, and the appalling scenes of Grenfell and the recent attacks in London and Manchester, this place feels like a different planet; tomorrow morning I'm going with our neighbour - my partner's uncle - to his smallholding, to watch him let his sheep out(!) run around with his dogs for a bit and learn a bit about cultivating vegetables here. Oh and we found an adder on our patio last week.

We hope to share it - we have friends coming from Britain over the next few weeks, and I'll be going home to 'collect' my mother and accompany her out here for a few weeks next month. We can only reiterate the invitation we've extended to our friends - come and see us. Grab a bit of this tranquility for yourselves.

Two edits: I've been reliably informed that 2,800 is the entire population of our town and all 52 of the much smaller villages in the administrative zone in which we're located, and that the village itself is considerably fewer than that. Head hung in shame accordingly.

And my partner has pointed out, rightly, that the structure of the last two paragraphs makes it sound like we wish to share the adder, not the peace of the village. We don't - that adder's all ours, so hands off.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

There's a change coming

So, months have passed since my last blog entry. It's not like there's been nothing worth writing about - the current diplomatic crises, particularly with Russia and North Korea, our own political shambles and forthcoming election, the ongoing crisis in the NHS - I could go on. But when the will's simply not there, it just ain't there. That sense of despair I wrote about after Tump's election has manifested itself in my turning away from the news - for the first time in my life - and largely ignoring it.

I've still known what's been going on, of course; in the West the news media is all but ubiquitous. But that knowledge has only been broad strokes. I haven't really paid attention. Instead, I suspect like a lot of people, I've focused on personal stuff, and taking great pleasure in things that have gone well in my own life and those of the people I care about.

One of those things has been a long time coming, but is now in the process of happening. For about two years my partner and I have been seriously contemplating selling up in London and going to Spain permanently. We could see all too clearly what some of our family members are experiencing having worked hard all their lives, and hoped to avoid the same if possible and buy ourselves a little more time off work, as it were, than they've been granted. My own father died less than two years after retirement, and for around 18 months of that he was ill. My mum's stroke, which has left her partially disabled. My partner's mum is not in the best of health either, having worked bloody hard herself just as most people our parents' generation did.

Add those personal reasons to the broader stuff above, and you'd probably think we've got a pretty compelling desire to get 'out'. Well, it's a bit more nuanced than that, of course, as I'll explain below. It's taken a year to sell the house - thanks a lot, Brexit - but it's done. We're currently in Sussex, working our notice periods and getting ready to take car and cats out there. The contents of the house are already out there - more on that particular adventure in another entry. It's nearly done. I have two days' work left as I write this.

I've written in these pages before about the village where we're going to live. The work/life balance, the pace of life generally, the character of the people, the tranquility - all are considerably different to London. This is one of those chances that you have to take, I think, if the opportunity presents itself. We know what we're moving to - Viana doesn't change. It's probably not going to for the rest of our lives. Not much, at any rate. Therein lies the appeal, of course. But therein also lies the apprehension.

I said to my workmates, before my leaving drinks last Friday, that I'm extraordinarily fortunate by any measure. I've been blessed with a happy childhood, loving parents, friends that I'm proud to so name, jobs I've enjoyed. Sometimes. A partner I can never adequately live up to or properly explain her meaning to me. I've not suffered poverty or serious ill health. And anybody who knows me will know that I'm baling out on Sussex just as my football team has finally reached the top flight again after a 34-year wait. Complaining about pretty much anything at the moment would be self-absorbed to the point of solipsism and churlish in the extreme. So to be in a position to choose to make such a monumental change, to give up something that's so good anyway. maybe I'm pushing that luck?

What's swayed us, if I can speak for both of us, is the micro and the macro. That personal stuff gave us the initial trigger, and then what's going on at home and abroad seemed merely to serve up daily reminders that it was time to go. The country moving farther to the right, with a convincing Tory victory seeming likely (assuming they don't trip over their own feet as they seem to be doing their utmost to do). The appalling response of some Brits, both triumphalist and xenophobic in equal measure, to the referendum result. The erosion of the sense of tolerance and modern thinking that has always formed part of my pride in being British.

But, in London, and both working, we've been largely insulated from feeling those things personally. It's been more of a prickling sense that things aren't right out there than a jabbing pain of specificity. We've had it pretty good here compared to most. Even my partner, who's returning to her own home town in this move, has admitted to a sense of loss. Leaving a teeming London, where your door is locked overnight but anonymity is blissful and opportunity everywhere, for sleepy Viana, where your door never needs locking but everybody knows everyone else's business, will be a seismic change.

Locals have warned me about how hard it is over winter. Long, dark nights. Cold. Not seeing the sun. (I have to misquote Billy Connolly here - where do they think I'm from? Benidorm? Brits go whole summers without seeing the sun...) But the summers there are long, warm and reliable. We'll be able to travel. Getting back to Britain to see family and friends is cheap and relatively easy. If you're a child, or of a certain age where yoof stuff is no longer important, there can't be too many better places to be than Viana. We hope our friends will come and visit us, so we can share out just a little of that good fortune in our own hospitality.

So there may not be too much happening to us specifically which prompts me to write here, but who knows? I have so much to learn about leaving the London mindset behind permanently and settling in to another culture, that it may prove a rich seam. I'll keep you posted.

Edit: having just posted this, I've just seen the appalling news coming out of Manchester. Exactly the sort of horror that only happens in places where the shock value of it can be maximised. The likely ages of the victims of this atrocity, when they come out, are going to make unbearable reading. My thoughts with families and friends of everybody affected up there.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Complete anus completes annus horribilis

You know those posters some people put up in the office - 'You don't have to be mad to work here, but it helps!' - that sort of faux-cheery, cod rubbish that never made anybody even smile, still less laugh? Well, years ago, when I was just an acne-covered 17-year-old cleaning the offices of American Express in the evening for beer money, I saw one of those on somebody's desk-space wall which has stuck with me. I don't know why - it was no more or less profound than any of the others.

"And a great voice boomed from the heavens, and it said 'Don't despair - smile and be happy, for things could be worse.' So I smiled and was happy. And, lo, things got worse."

That's what it said. Now it may have chimed with my innate pessimism. I may have retained it because, like many teenaged boys, I fancied myself a cynic at the time. I don't know. But for pretty obvious reasons it came back to me this morning, as the news broke from the States.

This has been, by both personal and wider measures, an absolutely fucking shit year. My father's death, our own referendum, the refugee crises, war in Syria, terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere, the rise of the extreme right across Europe and beyond, beloved and influential people like Bowie dropping like flies - I could go on. I was, though, naive enough to hope, still, that Clinton would become the first female President of the US. Female heads of State in both Britain and the UK - even if you don't agree with their politics, even if you accept they're both a long way from perfect, that would have been something, wouldn't it? Some signs for hope, particularly in the States, that a black man could be followed into the White House by a woman.

Well no, obviously. 2016 has decided, in its apparently infinite capacity to bring forth shit, that it hasn't done with us yet. It has, finally, squeezed any last vestige of optimism from me, and left me, like so many others, in despair. I still have nothing but the highest regard for those who won't let it defeat their spirit, of course. I may not be much of a Facebook user, but I see the defiance in people I love and admire, the determination to do good, to be good people. The will not to allow Trump et al to drag them down to his hell of fear, hatred, retrenchment and isolationism. But I've got to tell you, just at the moment, I'm not feeling that. I feel beaten. Hate is winning, everywhere.

We're being told that millions of ordinary Americans felt let down, disenfranchised by a political elite they regarded as corrupted, morally bankrupt and completely out of touch with how they felt. Well I know how they fucking feel! In an America with a right-wing nutcase President-elect, a Republican Senate, a Republican House of Representatives and a Republican Chief Justice, where the hell is the voice of the Democrat, the liberal, the minority, being heard, still less represented? Don't those millions, equally appalled at the state of their nation today, also count?

On this side of the Atlantic, at least, there seems to be a sort of bewilderment that 'it' could have happened again. That a country that can elect Obama, twice, can then put almost his direct antithesis into the same seat. What happened to the America that elected him? How have people that called him a terrorist, a communist, and a Muslim, the last being intended as an insult, have had their way, when this most human of Presidents, this classiest of men, seemed only ever to want the best for his country?

The US seems to have forgotten which way round parody
is supposed to work. The Simpsons, 16 years ago. 

I wrote an entry last July about not letting this sort of thinking - this sociopathic, atavistic, solipsistic ideology that's becoming so prevalent - win. Reading it back now makes me feel like I was Cnut, sitting on the beach, watching the tide advance inexorably but still trusting to the future. He, at least, was able to leave the beach when it was clear he'd been right - there was no stopping it. The rest of us have no such luxury, and we're already in it up to our chests.

Never mind - smile and be happy, for things could be worse.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The 1950s called. They want their vocabulary back.

You know that stuff I was saying in my last entry about everything feeling like it's lurching to the right, politically? I should, of course, have said that some pretty fundamental things have always been right wing. Before the EDL there was the National Front, before them the blackshirts, for example. The tide of xenophobia that the Brexit vote has uncorked mirrors the abuse suffered by black people who came to Britain after World War II, or the anti-Semitism experienced by Jewish immigrants fleeing persecution in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century.

So I'm not claiming to be surprised by some new phenomenon. My main problem with things currently is the fact that so much of what sounds, to me, like extremist thinking has become mainstream, or at least unremarkable. Now I apologise for linking to the Daily Mail in this blog - more on them in a moment - but some of the comments made by readers of this article are genuinely appalling; shocking examples of what I'm talking about. Bad enough that the headline itself somehow suggests that Neo-Nazi thugs attacking immigrants is somehow Angela Merkel's fault. (And there's that phrase again - 'gains by the right-wing populist AfD party'.) The comments below are far, far worse. Any quick read through them exposes the same sort of thinking that has been exemplified by the abuse meted out to Polish people and Muslims in this country lately.

I wouldn't normally link to the Mail here on general bloody principle - it is possibly the most pernicious and regrettably influential exemplum of this political cancer that I can think of. It both amazes and appals me that this is one of the most-read websites in the world. I know a large number of people who read it for a laugh, who share none of its political sentiment. Reading it ironically, if you like. But their hits are still counted. They still help raise advertising revenue and perpetuate this thing.

Take a look at the 'sidebar of shame' down the right. This is a Mail staple, the subject of a type of bingo played by my workmates who look for certain phrases that they repeat in that sidebar - 'pixie-thin legs', 'pours her curves', 'slinky', 'revealing' etc. They cheerfully run this thing alongside articles screaming about 'Paedo filth', 'sex pests' and the like, without any apparent sense of irony or shame. This archaic content and tone informs and feeds back into the thinking of those same readers who left the comments on the main article, excusing the right-wing attackers on the grounds that, in the words of two separate commentators, they were 'protecting their womenfolk'.

Those poor, helpless, bikini-clad waifs, powerless before the rising tide of immigrants with nothing but a few brave Nazis (or 'concerned citizens' according to the comments) to defend them - is this how the Mail sees our future? Well that word 'womenfolk' typifies Mail-reader thinking, and most certainly belongs to the past. A graph tracking its use in English looks like this:

(Google's graph)
Anyway. This got me thinking about the portrayal of women in the media generally. It's a well-trodden path, I know, but worthy of comment here. The sidebar of shame is merely the most shameless of its type and I can't of course begin to understand the pressures women feel when they see how they're represented all over western media. But I do sometimes wonder if even outlets which purport to speak to them aren't complicit in undermining them at the same time. Glamour magazine today named Bono on its Women of the Year list, on the grounds that he does admirable work for the feminist cause. You read that correctly - Bono among the Women of the Year. Was it really beyond their wit to commend him some other way? And to quote one female response to the award, "To be fair, with only 3.7 billion women it must be tough to find a worthy one."

Some of Glamour's readers, appropriately
enough not all of them women, are not happy.
So - neo-Nazi thuggery and the archaic vocabulary of its British apologists, the sidebar of shame and Glamour magazine mistaking Bono for a woman. A depressing enough snapshot of a single day in the modern media landscape and Trump's not even President yet.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The way things are going

Maybe I'm over-dramatising it a bit, but it feels a little like the end times are coming at the moment. I'm sure it's been worse - during the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example - but during my own lifetime I can't quite remember feeling this sense of dread at the way the world's politics seem to be moving.

It feels, for a start, like everything is shifting dramatically to the right. Right-wing political parties are gaining ground across Europe. Barriers are being put up, literally and emotionally - even an enlightened, modern country like Norway is building a fence along its border with Russia, for example. We all know what happened over Brexit. Russia, with a President who seems as close to a dictator as is possible without being named as such by other leaders, is moving nuclear missiles within range of Berlin. They're falling out with the US over Syria, to the point where relations seem as bad as they've been at any time since the Cold War.

Then there's us. (Not all of us, of course, but enough of us that it's horrible.) We seem to be dehumanising refugees to the point where putting up walls seems an acceptable solution to their appearance. I'm pretty sure that anybody with a shred of humanity, if they found a helpless child abandoned outside their front door, would do their best to help that child without a thought for where they'd come from, what colour their skin was, that they needed food from your larder and a blanket from your bedroom. Number those children in the thousands, though, mix them in with similarly needy adults and put them on the news, and the response seems oddly indifferent. Cruel, even; it's apparently OK even for a Prime Minister to describe these people as a 'swarm'. It all seems a bit shitty, frankly.

The most worrying thing of all for me though, is the forthcoming US Presidential election. I normally regard these with only a passing interest - as with party politics in Britain, there's usually a nagging suspicion that basically not much will change regardless of who's in charge. Witness Obama being thwarted at every turn on free healthcare or gun reform. This time, though, with the Americans going to the polls a month from now, one of the possible outcomes is genuinely terrifying.

I'm always slightly wary of commenting on matters of another country's politics - you could argue it's analogous to complaining about a bloke three streets away's lawn being too long - but in this case the prospect of Donald 'can't we just use nukes?' Trump becoming President is too scary, and seems too likely, not to allow some sort of comment from any quarter. You would complain about a lawn three streets away if the lawn owner's proposed solution to his problem risked razing the entire neighbourhood to the ground.

Quite apart from his alarming attitude to foreign policy, there's the fact that the man is, plain and simple, a pig. Is this really the sort of person Americans want sitting in their most powerful seat? The latest stuff to come out - I'm sure you've all heard about the video - is merely the latest in a long line of appalling insults and abuse. He's an Islamophobic, racist, misogynistic, bullying atavist who'd be suitable only as an exhibit in some kind of weird exhibition of antediluvian masculinity, fit only for scorn and laughter, if he were not dangerously close to becoming President of the United States.

He's dismissed much of this latest stuff as ' locker room banter' even during an apology for it. 'This is not the man I am', he explains. Which version of him are you to believe is genuine - the private, unguarded one or the one who's trying to persuade you to vote for him? He's losing backing from within the Republican party, but still many of his 'rank-and-file' supporters seem unmoved. In the case of some of them it'll be down to good old, down-to-earth, honest stupidity. But there's the much more frightening prospect that a significant percentage of the US electorate, whether stupid or intelligent, whether educated or not, whether well-travelled or parochial and insular, share at least enough of his views to be prepared to vote for him. Or perhaps simply hate Mrs Clinton.

I don't know. But I've learned a lesson about thinking that things would be OK, that sanity and humanity would prevail, from our own referendum. As much as I'd like to think that his is merely the side which makes the most noise, the polls still have them close, and it kind of feels like the world's holding its breath waiting for this one to play out, hoping desperately that the 'right' outcome is arrived at.

Can you imagine a world with Trump in the Oval Office, Putin at the Kremlin, Britain isolated from Europe, Kim Jong-un in charge of North Korea and The Muppets moved to subscription-only TV? Three of those things have already happened, one is definitely going to. That leaves Trump as the one that can still be stopped. Please, America. Please - I know she's not perfect, but no career politician is - please vote for Clinton.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

The great British piss-off

We Brits are, in many ways, a pretty stoical lot. Matters that would, in other countries, lead to cars burning in the streets or lorry-loads of cow dung being dumped outside council offices, often elicit an online petition or a sternly worded letter to The Times here.

You don’t need to look too hard for examples of our usually measured response to things we don’t like. In the south at least, we put up with an utterly laughable ‘service’ on Southern’s rail network. Certain areas like London and Brighton voted heavily in favour of Remain, only for the rest of the country to disagree. Result of these two things? Protests, yes, but hardly human sacrifice and mass hysteria.

I wonder how long it’s going to be, though, before the masses march on the offices of Love Productions with burning torches because there are some things which are guaranteed to incite British ire, and messing with the Bake-Off is one of them.

Just look at the front covers of the press and you’ll see the country’s response to what’s clearly a national catastrophe. A frenzy of punning the like of which the tabloids reserve only for the most important matters. ‘Going, going, scone’, ‘Stick your dough’, ‘Bake Off starts to crumble,’ etc. Pretty serious stuff, then.

In that spirit, you have to wonder if Channel 4 have bought a soufflé which is going to collapse the minute it’s served. The two presenters, Mel and Sue, have already stated they’re not going to move with the programme. I suspect the two experts, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, will follow suit. What exactly have C4 paid so many millions for, if they haven’t bought the very pillars around which the show’s character is built? A format which they’ll no doubt change anyway, and into which they will have to insert adverts and possibly those irritating sponsorship devices which bookend ad breaks.

The BBC, meanwhile, shouldn't find it beyond their wit to put together some other show with this same gang of four and a competition format. A colleague suggested, as a spin-off from Masterchef, it could be called 'Masterbake', but I fear that may be too strong a pun. I think, frankly, C4 have been sold a pup. Which the previous owners have put down before they deliver it to them, knowing they can always breed another one.

The fact is that, even if all four of the main ‘characters’ came over, and the format was left entirely unchanged, it sill wouldn’t deliver the same viewing figures it commands on BBC1 - people simply don’t watch Channel 4 in the numbers in which they do the Beeb, pretty much regardless of what they’re showing. Neither the channel nor the production company may give a damn of course, if they can monetise the programme in a way which you’re unable to on the BBC, but that will serve only to drive even more people away from it and make it even less the show that they’ve supposedly bought.

I’m not afraid to confess that I watch and enjoy Bake Off. I certainly won’t bother doing so on Channel 4 because, to reflect a criticism which I’ve seen more than once on the show when something’s gone badly wrong, the baker seems to have forgotten at least two of the main ingredients. They’ve taken a tried and trusted recipe for a reliably moist, delicious sponge, and they’re going to deliver a half-baked sourdough instead. You need only have a look at Channel 4’s Twitter feed to see that the British public are not amused. The online petition which I mentioned typifies the British response to such things has already started, but I fear that when they see what's actually served up the viewing public may, in this case, behave out of character and go straight to the 'sticking the heads of those responsible on spikes and parading them around London' stage. If they didn't know beforehand what the likely reaction would be, it must already be pretty clear to them what they've done.

Sunday, 24 July 2016


If you read my eulogy to my father, posted in an earlier entry, you'll have seen mention of secrets that had come tumbling out of the family during my father's illness. Given the week I've just passed at our place in Spain, also the subject of previous entries, and with the permission of the people involved, I thought it timely to write about it here. Most of the people closest to us already know all this stuff anyway.

You think you know how the everyday stuff works, don't you? You think that the mundane things you've always taken for granted just are, and they ground the certainties around which your lifestyle, and to some extent your character, are built. I'd always thought that my family was the absolutely archetypal so-called 'nuclear' version of that paradigm - long-married parents, two kids, standard domestic set-up. My brother found out, though, having by necessity taken over the running of the folks' banking affairs while Dad was too ill to do so, that this was not the case.

"Come and have breakfast with me before the game this Saturday," he said to me. "I've got something to tell you and it'd be better face to face."

You hear that, and you run all sorts of worst-case scenarios through your mind. Well I do, anyway. You can imagine the sort of shit that had added to our woes in my brain before that breakfast actually took place. I did not, though, guess anywhere near the truth. It turns out that my brother and I - those of us of the 2-kid, nuclear family archetype I just mentioned - are in fact two of three, and we have a half-brother whose existence had been kept from us. For seventeen years.

This took a while to sink in, of course. My brother is the bloke I grew up with. The blond kid with the good heart who's been around since quite literally before I can remember. The baby who threw mum's rings into the fire, who's grown into such a dependable and kind adult, the new pillar of strength on which our now reduced family leans - that's my brother.

But there was now, in fact has been for a long time, a third. Mum and Dad had decided between them that we'd not be told about him so as not to damage our relationship with our father - thereby protecting the same man she'd found out years earlier was father to another child by somebody else. Now my brother G and I have different characters, but we've always got on, and we largely see the world the same way. On the important stuff at least. So it was with this. We both decided, without really having to talk about it, that this brother we didn't know existed was entirely blameless in the whole thing, so was certainly not worthy of any scorn on our part. We also both felt that by far the greatest burden of forgiveness landed on Mum, who'd chosen, as she has with so many other burdens through her life, to bear it. If she had been able to forgive Dad and move on, it was hardly up to us to decide differently.

I first met M, my 'new' brother, while Dad was still alive. That was, of course, a bit odd. This kid I'd never set eyes on before calling my dad 'Dad' - rightly, of course. That was his father he was speaking to. But I got a little jolt every time he said it - for 44 years until that point I'd obviously only ever heard me or my brother say that to him. It was the most immediate sign that something had changed forever.

This first meeting was at the folks' old place in Portslade, in the period when Dad was home from the hospital between his first enforced visit to the ICU and his later surgery. Dad had said to me that he was going to 'be a better man', in what at the time was an inexplicable conversation, just before my brother told me what he'd discovered. He asked me what I thought of M when he'd gone that first evening. His concern about our response, my response in particular as it's seemed since, was still there. What could I say? I'd only just met M and was frankly a bit bewildered, but he seemed like a decent kid.

A decent kid who later had to attend his father's funeral in March, surrounded by people he hardly knew or didn't know at all. I can't imagine how difficult that must have been for him. The teenager, one of those carrying his own father's coffin, who was unknown to most of the mourners. It's things like that which back up our original instincts that we should be trying to build a relationship with him, not rejecting him, Just as my dad remained my dad regardless of his own weaknesses and typically male failings, so this young man is a brother to me despite how little time we'd then had to get to know each other.

Rejecting M would have meant scorning our dad, which would in turn have affected Mum, an entirely innocent victim already, so I don't think it's what would have happened regardless of when we'd found out. It is, though, the version of us, particularly of me, which was painted for M by Dad in the absence of actually meeting us. M has told me that he was nervous about meeting me because of how he'd been led to believe I am, what my likely reaction to him would be.

It's not a version of me I entirely recognise. While I may lack a powerful, instinctive, visceral empathy, and certainly am not slow to express my feelings freely and quickly, I hope my response to M is an indication of at least an intellectual capacity for tolerance, for acceptance of changing circumstance. For generally responding the right way to a given situation because my head tells me that's the right way to respond even when my heart and guts have abstained in the matter and are being fuck-all help. That's essentially what happened over that breakfast, when G told me what he'd learned. My guts just went 'Holy shit!' but pretty quickly, thinking about it, I realised that the only sensible way forward was to try to build a relationship with him, to make up for the time that had thus far been denied us.

So I recently invited M to come to our place in Spain with me and my partner, to spend a week in the peace and warmth of the Galician summer and people. He'd never flown before, and never left the country, so all of this was new to him. I'd warned him that the little village to which we intend to retire is not Ibiza; there's little to do bar sit and enjoy the pool, the sun, the cold beer and top-notch steaks. This did give us time to do a fair bit of talking, and we must both have felt a little bit like we were conversing with some time-displaced alternate of ourselves. I know I did. He looks much more like me than he does my brother G - we both felt that the other looks most like Dad. We both, of course, share some of Dad's mannerisms.*

We share a past with Dad, though those pasts are only now being very slightly stitched together through recollection - they'll never be part of the same whole. As he said to me quite early on, all three of us have a store of memories and experiences of the same man, but ours and his are and always will be separate.

That's where we are, then. Our closest friends, as I knew they would be, have been entirely accepting of him and have simply got on with the new reality in the same way we're all trying to. Can G and I build as close a relationship with him as we have with each other? I don't know. How do you bridge the space between meeting somebody at 17 and having grown up with them, having had them a part of your life for all but 14 months of its entire 45 years so far, as is the case with my brother G? Not to mention the generational gap. Difficult. But it does feel like we're all committed to doing the best job of it possible.

*This must have been a bit disconcerting for Mum in particular, who was also with us last week. (Poor kid - he's got two mums on his back, one of whom isn't even his, no doubt nagging him about his smoking for example!)