Tuesday, 23 April 2019

General election excitement. And good sense

Exciting times in Spain these days.

We’re in the run up to a general election on Sunday 28 April. 

Yes, they hold their elections on Sundays. I know that in Britain we like to have the suspense and excitement of having to get up stupidly early to vote on a Thursday before going to work, school or college, or to dash back afterwards to get to the polls before they shut. But as is well known, Spaniards aren’t that excitable. Or possibly don’t go in for that kind of excitement much. They vote on a day when most people aren’t working at all. So they can do so at leisure.

Dull, I know, but hey, that’s what common sense looks like.

The main street near where we live has been taken over, for its whole great length, by banners advertising the Partido Popular or Popular Party. That’s the equivalent of the British Conservatives. Or at least it was until the Conservatives lurched rightwards and joined a harsher grouping in the European Parliament.

The popular party isn’t actually all that popular at the moment and, unless the polls have got it completely wrong, they’re not likely to do well. In fact, as things stand, it looks as though the PSOE led by the current Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchéz, may pip them to the post.

The PSOE is the equivalent of British Labour. Or at least it was until the Labour Party lurched into left wing rhetoric and Brexit appeasement of the hard right.
Isabel Bonig's face dominating our main street for the (not-so) Popular Party
‘Valor Seguro’ the banners along the main street proclaim, with photos of Pablo Casado, running for Prime Minister of the nation, or Isabel Bonig, running for President of the region that includes Valencia. 

‘Valor Seguro’ isn’t that easy to translate. Maybe the sense is best conveyed by a free translation as ‘Sound Values’.

I can’t help feeling that has something of a Theresa May ring to it. Do you remember the 2017 UK election and her slogan ‘strong and stable’? It didn’t do her much good. And I don’t think Mr Casado’s sound values will do him much good either, especially since, however strongly he may hold them, the banners dont tell us what they are. After all, ‘enrich the financier and beggar the unemployed’ are values, aren’t they? I’m just not sure that most of us are all that happy about governments that are sound about those values, as God knows far too many are at the moment.
Valor seguro: the slogan is from Bonig's party leader, Pablo Casado
To be fair to Ms May, at least you can’t accuse her of lying in her promise to be ‘strong and stable’. Not, at least, if you accept that the words apply only to her and to neither the government nor the party she nominally leads. And even then the terms apply only in the rather restricted sense of ‘obdurate and inflexible’. Certainly, that’s been her approach to the Brexit negotiations, for instance. She has a solution. She presents it to the rest of us, politely at first. And when it’s rejected, she waits a bit and then presents it again, a little more forcefully. As so it goes, until she’s practically shouting in our ears. She’s apparently incapable of understanding that the problem isn’t our inability to hear her, but her inability to listen to us.

Still, that’s strength and stability of a kind, isn’t it?

Thats the problem with soundbite slogans  ‘Strong and stable’ sounds good, but only if you interpret the slogan in a certain way. Give it a different slant, and it’s not so hot. Just like ‘Sound Values’. It all depends on what you mean by them…

Anyway. We’ll see on Sunday how the parties fare in Spain. Fingers crossed that the country may prove once more that sane good sense still prevails in some nations.

The kind of good sense that led to them holding elections on a non-working day in the first place.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

The rain in Spain

It was wonderful having so much of our family with us this week. That’s all three boys, with both daughters-in-law and a granddaughter. The only one missing was our daughter-out-law, whom we’d have been delighted to see too, but she’s a doctor and you know how hard it is for them to get time off.

Our granddaughter’s family came to us from Scotland. It was good to be able to welcome them to our new home in Valencia not just because Valencia’s such a lovely place, but also because it gets such wonderful weather.

Except when it doesn’t.

And it didn’t this week.

Three days of unbroken rain and frankly chilly conditions preceded their return to Scotland. Where the temperatures are pleasantly warm and the skies enchantingly clear. Spring at its best, in fact.
Rain in Valencia is rain with a vengeance
When I talk about unbroken rain, I’m not talking about the kind of fine drizzle that often spoils an hour or two in England, but only returns after a break for better conditions when one can actually get out with the dogs in the dry. No. I’m talking about rain that’s flooding down when one wakes up in the morning and is proceeding exactly the same way when one goes to bed at night. Great sheets of water that the drainage system simply can’t cope with, so that the streets gradually flood and it’s dangerous (as I discovered) to walk past a puddle as a bus races up the road.

I can safely attest that the rain in Spain is too much for the drain.

Ah, well. At least I know it won’t last. In fact, the forecasts are absolutely explicit on the subject. On Tuesday, the fine weather returns. Temperatures in the twenties (that’s the real twenties, none of that ropey Fahrenheit stuff) and sunny skies again.

A return to springtime, in fact. Just as I’m about to leave for Scotland myself. Where the lovely weather is due to break on Wednesday, with steady rain starting on Thursday. Right through to my return on Saturday.

Ah, well. They do say that into every life, a little rain must fall. Looks like my life is set for quite a lot of the dripping stuff for some days. 

In my view, it’s all down to Karma. As I said, I’m not due home until Saturday. Quite late, as it happens. And that’s Danielle’s birthday.

I suppose I can’t expect meteorology to look kindly on me if I treat my wife’s birthday with such casual indifference. I clearly brought it on myself. And this week Im going to pay.

Note to self: plan work better next year.

Friday, 19 April 2019

Cockup not conspiracy. Comedians not clowns

One of the problems with conspiracy theories is that they require a belief in human ingenuity that is way beyond me. Not just ingenuity but also discretion. The latter is an even rarer quality.

The belief that the moon landings were faked, still firmly held by certain people, would have required the active participation of some 400,000 people (as calculated by James Longuski). It seems inconceivable to me that anyone could have maintained that huge a conspiracy, all working to a single end for a twelve-year period. But still more unbelievable is the notion that not one of those people would ever have told the story to anyone else.

Surely some journalist out there would have been able to offer a handful of them sufficient inducement to spill the beans?

What I have far less difficulty crediting is the opposing cockup theory of history. Call me a cynic if you want, but I find it inherently plausible that most of the things that go wrong around us are down to sheer incompetence rather than to ingenious scheming. Human stupidity, it seems to me, is fully capable of explaining most human-made catastrophes.

Take the difficulties the Labour Party is currently facing over anti-Semitism. Now I’m absolutely convinced that there are some vicious anti-Semites in Labour who ought to be kicked out. But the failure of the leadership to act isn’t, I suspect, down to their sinister complicity with the small numbers of real anti-Semites, but simply down to their ineptitude.

Why am I so convinced of that notion?

Well, take a look at the tweet the British Labour leadership sent out – and then had to delete minutes later – to wish Jews a happy Passover. It’s clearly intended to be cheerful, friendly and encouraging. An olive branch, if I can use a Christian image, towards the Jewish community.
Labour leader trying to mend fences with the Jewish Community
and cocking it up...

Alas, one of the festive little icons is a loaf of bread. As rather a lot of Jews immediately tweeted back, the whole point of Passover is that Jews don’t eat bread over the feast. Instead they eat an unleavened equivalent, matzos.

To be fair, I wouldn’t have spotted the error myself, despite my own Jewish heritage. I don’t keep Passover any more than I celebrate Easter, the Christian equivalent. But I don’t run the Labour Party. And I’d like to think that the Labour leadership has the Jewish contacts to ask about this kind of tweet before it sends it out, and the gumption to check with them.

Well, clearly not. Which suggests that their weakness on Jewish issues probably isn’t down to racism, but merely to incompetence. Which is a relief, since it would be appalling to have a racist leadership. Though, frankly, an incompetent one is only marginally preferable.

Similarly, I have no difficulty believing that no evidence exists that Trump actively colluded with Russia during the 2016 election. I think such collusion would require a greater level of skill – Machiavellian skill, certainly, but skill anyway – than I’ve seen him demonstrate at any time before or since. The man who could repeatedly proclaim his enthusiasm for Wikileaks during the campaign, and even call on the organisation to release more of Hillary Clinton’s emails, and now claims he knows nothing about it, is simply too flaky to see a conspiracy through.

That he might have been the beneficiary of one I find far less difficult to believe. That people conducted one and kept him deliberately out of the loop is certainly plausible. But that he conducted one? No chance.
Trump: cockup par excellence. But in the White House anyway
No. Trump’s an exemplary cockup artist, not a fiendishly clever conspirator. Again, however, as with Labour leadership incompetence, that’s not a hugely preferable alternative. After all, he’s in the White House anyway, however he got there.

All this puts me in mind of what’s happening in the Ukraine. It looks as though a comedian, known for playing the role of President on TV, may be about to be elected President for real. A genuine comedian in charge.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukrainian comedian playing President
and now on the brink of being elected
A change, I suppose, from the clowns at the top of the US government or the British Labour Party. Though, once more, it’s not clear that it’s much to be preferred.

Tuesday, 16 April 2019

Faith and politics

Faith-based politics can be a hell of a pain. As heretics frequently discovered at the hands of their fellow Christians, of a faintly different shade, in the Renaissance. Or as gays are likely to discover in Brunei, for instance, since that fine country chose to make gay sex an offence punishable by stoning to death.
Forgiving the trespasses of others
When Christians dealt vigorously with differences in faith
But even before it reaches that point, before it comes to power, a political movement based on faith is pretty dire. After all, there’s always the fear that once in power, it’ll behave as badly as the Sultan of Brunei or Renaissance Christians. You start off thinking that the leader cannot err, and the next thing you know he’s decided you have been erring unpardonably, and torturing you prior to your execution, as many a Russian Stalinist discovered to his cost.

The starting point for these aberrations is to take belief as a starting point instead of evidence. Indeed, any notion that contradicts belief has to be discounted, even if it was previously an article of faith. So for instance I was told recently by a Corbyn supporter (I’m resisting the temptation to write “cultist” or even “worshipper”):

For the first time in decades the poor are dying younger than they used to. Deciding to Remain or to Leave will not do a sausage to help the weak. You used to care. A socialist and redistributive government will help everyone whether we are in or we are out. Jeremy Corbyn is fixated on the main prize.

It’s certainly true that someone hungry is entirely indifferent to whether Britain is in the EU or not. At least, in any general sense. But such such people do care about whether there will be any wealth to distribute in their direction.
Whoops! Did I say that?
Corbyn: object of reverence with no evidence to justify it
Whatever harm he did to socialist thinking, Marx can at least be congratulated for realising that its bedrock has to be economic. What economic principle can be simpler to grasp, than the notion that what makes the nation poorer, makes it harder to haul individuals out of poverty?

So while the poor may not care about the EU, leaving the EU will make it far harder to tackle their problem, because it will make Britain as a whole poorer. That really does matter to the hungry. It doesn’t matter how “fixated” Corbyn may be on the main prize (and this is the first time I’ve seen the notion of fixation presented as a good thing), if the resources for reaching it are reduced, it will be all the harder to achieve it.

To put it in simpler terms, the more you reduce the wealth of the nation, the less there is to redistribute and the less likely you are to end poverty.

My Corbynist friend has clearly chosen to ignore such simple truths. Instead, he has a request for me:

Please do not abuse a man who is working for the many and is trying to reconcile Leave voters and Remain voters.

Another fan of the revered leader added:

I fully support Jeremy’s philosophy of moving the conversation away from Leave/Remain, to what is it that we’re actually looking for out of this situation.

Now I think it’s smart politics to move a national conversation away from a subject that isn’t doing you any good, to more favourable ground. So Corbyn’s not wrong to make the attempt. Equally, trying to reconcile leave and remain voters is a wonderful intention.

But let’s try to remember what the road to hell is paved with. Good intentions? No use to anyone if they don’t deliver. They certainly don’t feed the poor.

And are those good intentions leading anywhere useful? Britain has never been more divided between pro- and anti-Brexit camps. The gulf deepens daily. And as for changing the topic of conversation – does anyone really believe that Corbyn has managed to stop the country talking about Brexit?

Well, maybe his fans believe he has. But then they don’t look at evidence. What they’re proclaiming is simple faith.

Sadly, at the moment, I see no sign of its moving even the smallest of hillocks.

Saturday, 13 April 2019

England their England

It’s been fun to re-read Ben McIntyre’s biography of Kim Philby.

These days, Philby’s name may not be as well-known as it was in my youth. He was the man once tipped to lead Britain’s counter-espionage service, MI6, and who was involved in practically every major operation it had run between 1940 and 1951. Then he fell under suspicion of being a spy for the Soviet Union, and having therefore betrayed every single one of those operations, but the charges weren’t proved at the time. Indeed, four years later he was back in British intelligence and spying for both his masters – MI6 and the Russian KGB – until he was finally and conclusively exposed in 1963 when he defected to Moscow.

The biography’s title is apt: A Spy among Friends. Philby was recruited by the Russians in the 1930s, but waltzed into MI6 in 1940 with barely a question to answer. He had been educated at one of Britain’s great public schools (as we confusingly call our major private schools) and one of the ancient universities, Cambridge. He belonged to an elite of friends or at worst friends-of-friends, who knew that each could trust each of the others.
Kim Philby: a joy to his friends. Whom he joyfully betrayed
His closest friend, and the man he therefore duped most comprehensively, was Nicholas Elliott, who explained his own recruitment into MI6:

There was no serious vetting procedure. Sir Nevile [Bland, a senior diplomat] simply told the Foreign Office that I was all right because he knew e and had been at Eton with my father.

Membership of this elite group simply opened all doors and Philby, like Elliott, simply slid through them into the very heart of Britain’s secret world, where he could betray and harm the most.

That leaves me with some contradictory feelings. I find that sloppy, incompetent elite deeply unpleasant. It runs the country still, chiefly through its control of the top positions in business, the services and politics (principally through the Conservative Party). A fine example of that elite would be David Cameron, who was Prime Minister from 2010 to 2015 and whose legacy is Brexit.

In a sense, then, I suppose I should approve rather than censure Philby. He acted out of communist conviction. A man of the left taking on a deeply entrenched, massively incompetent and shamefully complacent group of rulers firmly anchored to the right. But I just can’t see anything admirable in what he did.

Perhaps it’s because of the cold-bloodedness and cruelty of his treachery. For instance, several hundred young Albanians were sent by the CIA and MI6 into their homeland to foment unrest against the then Communist government of Enver Hoxha. It strikes me as a brainless thing to have done, undoubtedly illegal, and violent in intent. But I can’t bring myself to like the action taken by Philby, who ensure that they went to their deaths by betraying them to the Soviets. Still worse, several thousand others died with them: relatives, friends, sometimes even people unfortunate enough to share a surname with one of the infiltrated subversives.

I don’t know. I don’t find anything admirable in that. In much the same way as I find it hard to admire a murderer, however unpleasant the victim.

Then there’s another reason. Because another possible title for McIntire’s book could have been An Englishman Abroad, had the title not already been taken by an excellent TV film about another of the Soviet spies who worked inside MI6, Guy Burgess. Even when Philby made it to Moscow, he never stopped hankering for English things. Phillip Knightley, from the spy-hunting service, MI5 – MI6’s rivals – claimed to know what Philby longed for in Moscow:

He’s a totally sad man, dreaming of a cottage in Sussex with roses around the door.

When Philby’s third wife left him in the Soviet Union, his gift to her was telling: the school scarf he had kept since his time at Westminster. He clearly felt a deep bond of loyalty to the very institutions he was betraying.

The Soviets recognised his Englishness. When Philby married his fourth wife in Moscow, the KGB’s present was a quintessentially English tea set in bone china. Even Philby himself described himself as “wholly and irreversibly English”.

Strangely enough, I too feel profoundly English. But mine is a different England from his. I recently watched The Happy Prince, a TV film on Oscar Wilde’s decline into death. In it, Wilde at one point describes England as the natural home of hypocrisy. That’s the England that Philby belonged to, champion of deception that he was.

Sadly, it seems to me that Brexit Britain has chosen to become that kind of nation. Certainly, the like of Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, leaders of the Brexit movement, belong to precisely the same type of entitled, self-selected, public-school and ancient university-educated elite that spawned Philby.

I belong, in some deeply-rooted sense, to England. But that kind of England is not where I want to live. Which is why I don’t live there any more.

The story of Kim Philby reminds me of exactly why.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Street Art or the joy beyond graffiti

Remember when graffiti was all about a spray can or even a felt tip pen used by a lone individual, clandestinely and fast, to put up a single word or a brief message, or at most a rough illustration?

Sometimes the results were highly enjoyable. I like the perhaps slightly pompous but nonetheless uplifting “where justice becomes injustice, resistance becomes a duty”, or the rather more amusing “Heisenberg probably rules, OK” and then again “Bill Stickers is innocent”. But a lot was just a name or a rather clichéd declaration of undying love, if not merely lust.

Frankly, much of it was fairly naff.

Today it has become an artform. Banksy may be its greatest exponent, at least in England, but there are many others. Some of them, I have to say, pretty impressive.
Enthusiastic and likeable guide to an artform
Three artists: two in colour with different styles,
framing one pursuing realism in black and white

A forty-minute bus ride out of our new home in Valencia is the market town of Cheste. The council there has decided that graffiti, or more properly street art, far from being a form of vandalism, brightens up the town. So instead of trying to prevent graffiti, it supports it, to the extent of funding the yearly Graffitea festival.

As the guide who took us around the 2019 edition explained, it can take a dull or dirty stretch of wall and turn it into a splash of light and colour, replacing lifelessness by joy. And he was right.
Municipally sanctioned street art
in a poorly proofread poster: Sunday 5 April is next year
We were there on Sunday 7 April. The official poster proudly declared that the tour would be held on Sunday 5 April, but Sunday doesn’t fall on the fifth until 2020, and we suspected that the 2019 festival was planned to happen this year. You know how it is: proofreading, even for posters, isn’t it always quite what it ought to be.

There was a good crowd and the guide was fun and full of passion, which made it a wonderful way to spend a Sunday morning.
A good one for Trump:
an immigrant (see his boat?) ready to jump down from his wall
Another collaborative piece: dream states, signed by two artists
More collaboration and a great way to decorate the wall outside the market
As well as some excellent finished art, we saw attractive pieces that were still works in progress. There was scaffolding to help the artists, and ladders, but the work was still backbreaking. We watched one artist spending minutes mixing paints to get precisely the tone of grey he wanted, before applying it far up the wall with a brush on the end of a long pole.
Street art requires dedication these days
As when any amateur activity turns into an artform, street art has become far harder, far more time-consuming, far more a matter of perspiration alongside inspiration. It also pays a little, these days: our guide pointed out that some of the artists whose work we saw live by it. But that does mean commitment and more resources than the run-of-the mill graffiti artist commands.
Pausing from the portrait of his grandmother
to wave to us all
Why, one of the artists even had a crane to work from, as he painted a colossal mural of his grandmother, working from a photo he was clutching in one hand while he applied the paint with the other. He turned to wave at us, which gave us an uplifting sense of being involved in an act of creativity. 

Altogether, a stunning experience.

Still, it’s a long way from the lone individual working against the clock and against the law with a spray can, isn’t it? Gone is the spontaneity. Gone is the bravado. Gone is the recklessness.

But, dare I say, gone too is the naffness.

Tuesday, 2 April 2019

That scrapbook reminder of an assassination

The other day I came across a scrapbook that I started at the start of the sixties. It was proudly marked ‘File = 1’. Number 1. Clearly, I’d resolved to make this the first in a series of documents that would track my passage through life. But, alas, my character is one that views resolutions, like rules, as made to be broken. File 1 remains to this day the only one created.

First step in a lifelong commitment to documentation
which never reached the second step
At that time, my father was in an administrative position with the United Nations. More specifically, he was in finance. Those were the days when you could still get jobs without a degree. In the years when many today would be studying, my father was helping to fight a war instead, and he never did go to university. He learned accounting on the job, working his way from position to position until he gravitated into the UN, first with UNESCO in Paris and later with the FAO, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, in Rome.

That was where my brother and I were born and eventually started our schooling. Which explains why when I started my first, and ultimately only, scrapbook it was inside an exercise book from the English school in Rome, St George’s.

It was an extraordinary place. It was run by a character who’d been a housemaster at Harrow School, one of the great British ‘public’ schools – i.e. hugely privileged, exclusive private schools. He brought with him all the wonderful sense of entitlement and snobbishness such an institution breeds. It was touch and go whether my brother and I would be admitted, because my father was a Professional grade 3 in the UN and, as a general rule, the school took only children whose parents were at grade 5 or above.

Certainly, being in the school was a wonderful lesson in reward being entirely unrelated to merit. I fell out pretty badly with the authorities there. I assign my lack of ability in football to having missed all sport sessions at a critical time, because I was on detention every single Wednesday afternoon for two years. Indeed, the school briefly made me a fan of corporal punishment: this was the day when the head called me in to his study to tell me I had achieved a unique distinction.

“Out of a school of 500 pupils, you are the only one on detention this week.”

Imagine my pride.

But he hadn’t finished.

“I have no intention of keeping a teacher back to supervise you, so instead I’m going to cane you.”

What relief! My heart sang for joy. I took six strokes of his cane and – at last – could join my class on the playing fields.

As for my father, he too had fallen out with those in authority. His boss loathed him and denied him promotion for fifteen years, a fate he put up with exasperation but stoically, in order to guarantee us a minimum of stability. He then transferred to the United Nations Development Programme, where he was promoted three times in little more than the same number of years, so he ended his career at pretty much the level he would have reached had he been granted some reasonable promotions over his time in Rome.

Sadly, however, while he was able to get into the finance and accounting world without either a degree or an appropriate qualification, he was never able to get out of it. Organisations always need people who’ll keep an eye on the money, and it was known that Leonard Beeson was good at it. Wherever he went, he was cheated of his ambition to move into the running of aid programmes, and found himself spending most of his times with the account books. In the Congo, then called the Zaïre, he did get a programme or two to run, but his main task was still looking after the money.

Talking about the Congo brings me back to my scrapbook.

The Congo was the scene of a major emergency in 1960. The UN sent troops to quell a civil war and large numbers of civilians to put in place a full programme of support and aid. Volunteers were called for and Leonard Beeson was one of just three from the FAO headquarters in Rome. As a married man, he was only required to serve nine months (it was eighteen for those without a family). My mother took it badly, but he felt that it was a duty to step forward when the organisation that paid him needed help dealing with an emergency.
My father's friend
As it turned out, a dead man walking
He took plenty of photos and some of them I included in my scrapbook. One that has always stuck in my memory was of a young man in a security guard’s uniform. My father liked him and took pleasure chatting with him. But then he was sent as a guard on a plane taking the UN Secretary General of the time, the Swede Dag Hammarskjöld, to Northern Rhodesia (today’s Zambia). The plane never made it and an outstanding Secretary General was killed, along with everyone else on the plane, including my father’s friend.

That event was back in the news a few weeks ago, when it was finally confirmed that, as had long been suspected, the plane had been deliberately shot down by a Belgian pilot working as a mercenary.
Dag Hammarskjöld
Iconic Secretary General assassinated in 1961.
Along with my father's friend
It was odd to read that story and remember my father’s time in the Congo. It sent me back to my scrapbook and to that photo. I’m glad I still have it and that, even if I couldn’t make it last, I stuck to my resolution long enough to produce one scrapbook at least.

Allowing me to write this post, as a bit of a tribute to my father, the UN security guard who became his friend, and of course to Hammarsköld, probably the best Secretary General the UN has had.