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Spanish Shilling

Some stories and experiences after a lifetime spent in Spain

It's All a Blur
03 May 2021

So what are the rules about blurring out faces in press photographs and TV news and documentaries? Are we protecting the innocent, or maybe the guilty? I’m confused. Is it the perpetuators, the criminals and the revolutionaries we shouldn’t see, or the police who catch them, or the innocent parties that happen to be in the picture? When ex-President Aznar flipped the bird the other day at some students who said he was a monster, we were treated in the Spanish press to Aznar, his raised second finger and the students, but not the surprised fellow with the computer-generated re-touch standing next to the truculent politician.

In England, they would have edited the offending digit.

When they remove the prisoners’ faces in those tedious documentaries about life behind bars in Alabama, I can’t help wondering (as I search for the TV control) why they don’t want us to see them. We might recognise them if we were to later bump into them in a bar in Mijas?

This would be a bad thing?

Sometimes – for our benefit and viewing pleasure – children’s faces will be blurred, if we are talking about children, or perhaps we see them modestly just from the waist down, or then again, the children just appear in the photograph, or video, because we were talking about something else. They are children, nothing more, except on news shows when they become victims or, just sometimes, future prisoners in Wandsworth. Conversely, why could we see Jon Venables as a child, but not as an adult?

Are we protecting them from these sex-lunatics we hear about, who will commit foul crimes upon themselves if left to contemplate this photo (but not that one)? So why are we occasionally covering or distorting their faces and why is it the other way round on the American shows? Or is it?

Lawyers, in a word. Don’t get me started.

It gets worse, the producers now blur out bits of the decoration they don’t like. The fellow’s tee-shirt on the Discovery Channel might have a brand-name written on it, or his cap, for Goodness sake (better not swear!). And what did that footballer just do? Heavens-to-Betsy! Blur it out!

Do you remember the fuss with Justin Timberlake revealing one of the boobies from that Jackson girl during the Super Bowl a dozen years ago? Gosh, what an accident. We had already seen the horror and put our hands over the children's innocent faces before the producers at NBC could hit the Red Button. In fact, and thanks to this dreadful incident, now they have a ‘one minute delay’ system on live broadcasts.

And, as I think further, why do we suppress the sound of swearing in Anglo shows, with a LOUD BLEEP to make sure that the viewers will know that the censors and defenders of public morals are ever vigilant? Now they even put a blurry bit over the mouth so we can appreciate the censor’s zeal – unless you, the viewer, happens to be one of those rare people who can read lips closely enough to have the sound turned off (with the added advantage of not being pestered by those irritating BLEEPs), yet is somehow stirred to violence, wrath and the Old Testament by the prospect of a naughty word. If not, let me tell you all about subtitles.

Of course, beyond a previous agreement with the editor, I must abide by the Anglo rules of printing swear-words in my article with an absurd substitution of asterisks with just the first letter appearing before to give clever adults a guide as to what I might mean, yet confuse those children who look forward to my weekly output and would read them all in one go if only the adults ‘ud let them.

Those same kids are now expected to be in bed by 10.00pm as something called a ‘watershed’ is passed at this time. I am sure that they have watched enough ‘grown-ups’ telly’ long before they blossom into discovering the superior diversions of booze, sex and the other manifold attractions of young adulthood. In Spain, at least, the government control on our viewing is considerably more relaxed – and they don’t usually wait until 10.00pm before switching on ‘the better stuff’. In fact here, even some of the adverts are downright risqué. Unfortunately, the European parliament, again concerned about public decency, has recently managed to hold in check quite a bit of Spain and Italy’s more lusty output on the ‘little screen’, no doubt to keep those sweet little kids pure – those that bother to stay in and watch the box. Telly, come to think of it, is now no longer used at all by the eight to eighteen demographic, which prefers the endless attractions of the Internet where, despite the best efforts of Mrs Whitehouse’s continental successor, we can still pretty much find anything we want and, while the lawyers are busy checking their portfolios, download anything we want as well  – at least here in España. All it takes is a Virtual Private Network, a VPN.

Spain has nevertheless picked up a few ideas from the Anglos and will now blur things it doesn’t approve of. Policeman’s faces are often pixelated here and on occasion can sometimes be covered by a sinister looking black balaclava – particularly in the Basque Country – as if the local population would tear them apart if they only knew who it was that was marching their handcuffed second-cousins from their homes during a dawn raid.

So, as the blurry figures from the Sky TV – and, who knows, maybe YouTube – together with the silly expurgated BLEEPs, flicker and echo through the household, what about Hollywood? Have you ever seen a movie with a swear-word and a blurred mouth? No, you haven’t.

You won’t on Spanish TV either – here, they are not afraid of their language. All those expressive four (five and eight) letter words which pepper the idiom are given their full value, not hidden behind those silly asterisks. Honestly, the children don’t mind.

And, whether we can join the dots or not I don’t really know, but there is a lot less crime and disrespect here in Spain than you will find in Britain. Perhaps because the populace isn’t treated entirely like an idiot.



Like 3        Published at 13:54   Comments (1)


Lost in Translation
27 April 2021

I’ve written in the past about the knotty subject of integration for the Europeans: the foreigners, the ingleses or the what-have-yous. Every one of them with a copy of ‘Teach Yourself Spanish’ stashed under the bed. Unopened.

Perhaps it’s a bit of a pipe dream to suggest that we all learn the language of Cervantes and start waffling about the finer points of Cante Jondo over a glass of fino with the good ol’ boys at the far end of the bar. After all, at 57 years old (the average age for a resident with time on his hands), it’s hard to expect someone to learn ten words of Spanish a day when he can barely remember the name of his wife.

The nation’s barmen and waiters have risen to the challenge and now enquire after the gentleman’s health in English.

It’s actually a bit annoying for those Spaniards who had the misfortune to be born blonde, or indeed those foreigners who have learnt Spanish. They will still be treated to a ‘You wan’ beer?’ There’s not even much point in answering in castellano in these circumstances as the waiter considers himself to be on a roll and won’t want to change gear.

‘Yea, I’ll take a big beer’ says the customer (he gestures so big).

Even in those establishments far from the tourist route (always excepting the town halls), most Spaniards can crank out enough English to save the day. Gone are the times when an outsider was treated like a Martian. Those far-off times when the mayor once asked me to tell a bawling foreign kid to shaddap. ‘But I don’t speak his language’, I said (the child was German). ‘You speak ‘foreign’, so speak foreign to the kid already’, answered the dignitary. He had a point.

Hello mister, I espik ingli very well fandangui’. Laugh if you like, I was told that phrase by a Spanish co-worker.

Now that tourism has apparently taken such a knock, with improbable destinations like Serbia and Bulgaria starting to eat into our bucket and spade crowds, to say nothing of the corona-crisis, the Spanish are waking up – finally – to Residential Tourism. Which is, unfortunately, not necessarily a Good Thing. However, while there’s subject-matter for a few essays down the line, we’ll remain here with the topic of communication between neighbours, because long term neighbours need to be known and understood. In Sweden, the state actually pays that country’s immigrants to learn the language. Here, as we know, there has never been the least interest from the authorities regarding the improvement of our communicative skills. The only comments on this hoary subject come from the Spaniards themselves: ‘They want to live here and they won’t learn our language!’

This is a bit unfair since, as I’ve suggested above, it’s not easy learning a new language when you’re a bit long in the tooth. I suspect that living in the midst of an English-speaking community in a town which is more or less prepared for your presence makes it all a bit easier to get by, especially if you like chip butties – on the other hand, try parachuting into the middle of Albacete or somewhere ‘far from the madding crowds’ and you’d soon pick up some Spanish.

So locally, it’s the Spaniards who have made the effort and attempt to communicate in English: this often means that they employ Rumanians, who can evidently pick up a language in a week. In fact, the problem is more about those visitors here who don’t speak English. Imagine coming to Spain all the way from Jutland and having just ordered two beers in the hotel bar and been served a coffee, a gin and tonic and a bowl of crisps; and saying resignedly to your wife the equivalent of ‘Gerda, ve should not have taken dose Spanish lessons. Ve should haff learnt English’.

Oddly, though, while our affable hosts and neighbours may have learnt some ‘inglés’ – perhaps for commercial reasons as they rarely pop into Fred’s Fish n’ Chippee for a merry bowl of mushy peas and a glass of Abbots – they are not too concerned about writing it properly. We have all seen the ‘This establishement has a complaining sheet’ thing, which has been hanging on the wall, by the way, since 1967, or one I saw tonight on the television - off topic but worth a mention - in homage to Dean Martin singing ‘My Riffle, my Horse, and Me’. One might suggest, since they are trying to catch the English-speaking customer, that they would, um, you know, ask a Brit over a beer to check the spelling, rather than run the risk of losing business and having the customer laugh at you… I mean, you can always pick out a friendly resident over a tourist. He’s the one wearing a parka and having a brandy at 9.00am.

These residents, of course, make up a sizable part of the costal economy, and this is why so many billboards, menus, and peculiar looking property-catalogues are enthusiastically splitting their infinitives at the prospect of doing business with them.

One cool day in November a couple of years back I was walking along London's Bond Street deep in conversation with a Spanish friend who is a councillor in our local town. As we sliced our way through groups of Arab and Russian shoppers we were wondering why there were no British people about. They had, of course, all moved to Spain but I didn’t tell him that. Suddenly, a tall Englishman with a clip-board apparently conducting a survey attempted to stop us. ‘Lo siento’, I said in Spanish, ‘No hablo inglés’. I don’t speak English. And we pushed past him. I actually felt his bemused glare scorching my back and after a few yards, I turned around to have a second look at him. He stared back and suddenly called in pretty good schoolboy Spanish, ‘¿Dónde está el ayuntamiento?’ Where is the town hall?

I think he had me sussed.



Like 1        Published at 17:27   Comments (5)


Buck Naked
20 April 2021

Recently, a gentleman decided to walk from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, a journey of around a thousand miles. It’s a pleasant enough route, I once did it on a bicycle. The news, of course, isn’t the peregrination of this fellow per se, so much as in the way he was dressed. Or rather, wasn’t. The first time I read about him, in a copy of an unsuccessful magazine called ‘News from Home’, I thought it said that he was a ‘naturalist’ and that he was one of those bearded people who wanders about clutching binoculars and wittering on about the sexual habits of rabbits (which I suspect are pretty straightforward) and followed by a patient, philosophical and faceless cameraman whose main job is to not get noticed, leap-frog in front of our hero, and watch for his shadow in the action shots. However on examining the photograph, and re-reading the piece, I found that the ambler was a rucksack-toting ‘naturist’, or one of those people who enjoys wandering about nude in public.

I once got to know another example of this tendency in Mexico. This chap enjoyed diving in the warm Pacific waters in search of lunch. He also favoured what I would describe as relative nudity. He would wear an oxygen tank, a mask, a wheezer, a vest full of handy pockets, a waterproof watch (good to five hundred metres), a weight belt, fins and a large knife strapped to his right leg. Practically the only part of his body visible to the casual onlooker was his knob.

And here we find the difference between nudists and what are apparently known in Spain as ‘textiles’. A nudist is not interested in ‘going as he was born’, but to leave uncovered the parts which are normally covered.

Nowdays, of course, the only item of clothing forced upon them by cruel society is the face-mask.

You can say that someone wearing underpants is dressed, whereas someone who is covered everywhere except for his genitalia is either a pervert or a ‘naturist’. I wouldn’t want to mix the two concepts; perhaps the difference is in the presence or otherwise of a macintosh.

The consideration of the nude body, away from the sexual angle, offends nobody. In fact, the reverse. Michelangelo’s David is one of the most sublime examples of art in the world. There is no championship of the sexual organs: he’s just young, brave and inspirational. The same effect would not have been reached by the sculptor if he’d chosen a fat old gentleman with a pot.

Goodness knows, there is nothing wrong with wandering around naked in your own house or in other private places knowing that you are not going to be seen by unknown people. Nudity bothers no one in a controlled environment. I remember once sitting in the sitting room (what else is there to do there?) with my newly-wed, both of us naked, when someone banged on the door - a Swede as it turned out looking, I think, to borrow some money. The only item of apparel available to me at that moment was a slightly affronted cat which I held (gingerly) in front of my bits. The Swede didn't stay long, I'll give him that.

But here’s the rub about naturism: the entire group (they insist on wandering about in gangs) knows that they are a herd of people highly conscious of the fact that they disturb the majority of society – not in small part due to the evidence of their small parts. Sadly, few of them look like David the Statue or Britney Spears.

‘Ah, but we don’t look’, they say.

Yeah, yeah.

Naturists say that ‘clothes don’t make the person’ and that they can liberate themselves from the mundane competition of appearance. Unless they’ve forgotten to take off their Cartier or Rolex, it’s true that they can successfully manage to hide their position in society. Like anyone cares.

But, everything in its place, as the saying goes. During the eleven and a half months of the warm season, the shops and banks are filled with half-dressed Englishmen, in socks and y-fronts, standing patiently in queues or pushing trolleys full of beers, whisky and digestive biscuits. I’m usually obliged to pretend that I’m Swedish.

That overweight fellow over there sweating into the lettuces isn’t one of ours, and, no Señora, I don’t even speak his language. Actually, he probably feels overdressed, why, just last week he streaked – or at least waddled – across a football pitch.

But that’s my own particular Calvary. I don’t happen to live in a nudist colony and I certainly can’t imagine, as the joke goes, where they keep their money.

For practical reasons, when the weather is hot, I’ll grant that you have to remove some clothing (with the local social limits in mind), but, when it gets cold, I reach for a sweater. No worries. But them?

They eat.

A few years ago, my accountant invited me for lunch at a naturist restaurant on the beach. Despite recommendations to the contrary from the specialized magazines on the subject, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable in the beach-bar, clothed and surrounded by naked Germans tucking into their paella and chips. I hadn’t the least desire to take off my apparel. Apart, that is, for my shirt which I had inadvertently stained with tomato sauce. Everybody was staring at me as if I was the nutter. We were sat – or in some cases fastened by sweat – to metal chairs. Yes, there were a couple of girls at other tables who weren’t bad, but we were eating, for Goodness sake (the moment when I first managed to raise my eyes and see them was, coincidentally, the moment I had the accident with the tomato sauce). Two hundred people staring at me like I’m peculiar and I don’t think it was down to the cigarette handily wedged behind my right ear. Then, during the pudding, a man from the next table suddenly rose to his feet in an evident state of excitability. Jaysus, gimme a light...

I changed my accountant the following day for an Argentinian one. A dressed one. I believe he even wore a tie.

¡Perfecto!

Unfortunately, he soon stole everything I owned, including my clothes.

Which explains why I go around this way. It’s not because I like it, see, it’s because I have to.



Like 2        Published at 14:03   Comments (1)


English as She is Spoke
10 April 2021

A thoroughly modern entity like the European Union should have its own official language. Currently, we have the agreed number of ‘24 languages as "official and working": Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Maltese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish and Swedish’ (Wiki). Since few of us can speak all these, plus the many other tongues preferred in various bits of the union (including Catalonian, Valencian, Basque, Galician and around another ninety palavers and a further fifteen major immigrant languages), we generally settle for English, French, German and (to a degree) Spanish. Everybody, hopefully, speaks at least one of these.

EU rules – designed not to offend – mean that products have to carry the local language on their merchandise, which is why Kleenex for example says tissue, mouchoir, pañuelo and, er, Papiertaschentuch and so on in 24 languages. The main reason, I think, that the EU can’t grow any more is that there isn’t any more room on our boxes.

That’s also why there are three labels of closely-worded text on the inside of one’s trousers saying ‘Do not Bleach’ in a veritable Babel of lingos.

Europeans are generally unfazed by foreign languages (many readers of the Business over Tapas - my weekly news-buletin - have English as a second language). Although this may not be entirely true of the British who always view learning languages at school as a rather futile exercise rather than something which may one day prove useful.

Probably because they started us off on Latin (some of us). Still, we have our pride.

From Connections France this week comes the slightly silly ‘Expat campaigners: Help us bust myth of boozy Brits abroad’. We read there that ‘Britons abroad are not all wealthy boozers who speak no foreign languages…’.

Actually, and take it from me, some of the Brits here in Spain not only don’t speak a word of Spanish, they can barely speak their own language. 

Even when they're sober.

Seriously though, despite the UK no longer being a member of the EU, English remains the first language of use, says Forbes here. It says ‘As of 2012, a majority of EU citizens (51%) could speak English, either as a first or second language. It was the only language that could realistically be used as a mode of communication, given that only 32% can speak German and 26% can speak French’. As we wait for newer statistics, they estimate that around 50% of Europeans can speak English ‘as a second language’ today.

I believe that the language of culture, maybe thanks to Hollywood, is English. Who wants to see Humphrey Bogart in translation, or listen to Frank Sinatra without understanding the words?

But can you have English as the de facto language of 446 million people following Brexit?

There are no countries currently within the EU who use English as an official first language, although we might be splitting hairs here (Ireland has Gaelic and Malta has Maltese as their ‘official languages for EU purposes’). Within the Schengen Area, and we must again tweak the facts, only Gibraltar speaks English as its first language. Maybe one day we shall be obliged by the pedants to say that ‘in Europe, we speak Gibraltarian’.

In reality, of course, we speak American. Just don’t tell Shakespeare.



Like 3        Published at 22:41   Comments (0)


Lunchtime Blues
06 April 2021

There’s something queer about the food these days. You go to a restaurant to eat and half of the menu is designed for some kind of wedding feast. It’s all got cutzey for some reason. Perhaps the Michelin Man is seated at table number seven. What’s wrong with ‘sat’?

In the good ol’ days, food was food. No cream doodah then, no fennel sauces or roasted swedes. Nothing served in a ceramic spoon, for Goodness sakes! Simple stuff. A salad was lettuce, sliced onions and tomatoes with a heavy and oily aliño; now it’s got enough different kind of vegetables rattling around the plate to make a rabbit blanch. The main course used to be a plate of what one hoped were mutton chops (or were they perhaps goat?) or slices of pork, or perhaps a plate of chicken knuckles with chips.

* How to prepare chicken knuckles. Take one chicken, have at it with an axe, then drop result into a sartén with plenty of oil, peppers and garlic. Fry to taste. Riquísimo.

All the local joints could manage this simple fare, and with a bottle of gritty wine, the whole thing plus pan came to around sixty pesetas a head. Thirty cents European. Now, what’s wrong with that?

There was no menu and no price list. If you didn’t know what you wanted, or couldn’t understand the waiter, you wandered into the kitchen and pointed.

In those days, if we wanted a decent roast for home, we’d have to drive to the nearest butcher. He was a blood-spattered German trading six hours down the coast in the Calle San Miguel, Torremolinos’ famous high street. We’d fill up the plastic freezer box, spend a night or two on the tiles, and then head back up the coast with a headache the following day.

The twenty or so who made up the foreign community in the village in those days would be waiting for us on our doorstep when we returned. One of them was a retired air vice-marshal with a plummy accent called ‘Tabs’. My parents had left the door ajar one particular evening and had gone round the corner to the first and only foreign bar for a nip while the roast roasted. Tabs, on his way up the hill for a pink gin, smelt the rich smell of the roast waftin’ on the evening air and stopped by the house to invite himself to dinner. He went in and found no one around, so he checked inside the oven – as one does - to have a look at his potential dinner. Satisfied, he carried on to the pub for a large one and to obtain an invitation from my mother, in which he was successful.

Now our oven was one of those old Butano three burner ones with a lid and a slight wobble. When the hungry party returned an hour later to check on the roast’s progress my mother found that Tab’s tour of inspection had, by briefly opening the oven door, put out the gas. Tabs later recalled that ‘no one from the lower ranks had ever talked to him like that before’.

The milk in those days was undrinkable. It came in two litre glass bottles with a thin neck. There was a slightly blue cast to it due to the fact that the manufacturer had substituted the cream for pork grease and added formaldehyde to keep it stable. This baby could sit in the sun all day. Tea, if we could get it, came in teabags brought out from England loose in people’s luggage, wrapped around the socks. Eggs and chips were the standby at home, and cocido in the restaurant in the square. Tabs would insist on the plates being warmed, without much success from the kitchen-wallah, so he would usually place his plate under his shirt for a few minutes to do the job. ‘Under trying circumstances’, he would say, ‘one must keep up appearances’.

Another dish of the time remains to this day a favourite of mine, although it is now extremely hard to find. You see, it’s too cheap. This is ‘Huevos a la Flamenca’, a small earthen dish with ham or some kind of donkey-sausage served with peas, peppers and a fried egg. The whole, cooked in tomato paste. I happened across one the other day outside Granada: delicious!

Food, back in those days, was scarce and no one was going to mess around with sauces. Actually, come to think of it, it may have been because you couldn’t get cream. Eggs, tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, salchichón, chicken and pork was about your lot. The local grocers, known in a gesture of Spanglish relations as ‘The Foodings’ had a few tins on the shelves plus ‘Spanish’ bread, truly awful chocolate, some rather nasty looking sardines and a rack of wine in returnable bottles (two pesetas back). They’ve still got the chocolate. Credit was extended to favoured customers; a dried lima bean went into your jar for each five peseta 'duro' owed. This system was eventually overturned – literally – by an escaped chicken that broke into the store one night. Reportedly, it ate most of the evidence.

Tapas, even more than today, were the solution. One can always get a bloody good tapa in Andalucía with your quinto or your tinto. A piece of magra - lean pork - with some chips and bread. Two fried cordoñíz eggs on toast. A ham, cheese and alioli cherigan. A small plate of whitebait... a fat chunk of tortilla de guisantes... home made potato crisps (when was the last time?)... a few of those would set you up nicely.

These days, eating at a restaurant can be confusing (without worrying about wearing one's face-mask) Rather than asking 'what's on', you'll be handed a massive sticky book in several languages. The deep-freeze must be huge to store all those things on offer. If you came to talk and enjoy your meal, you'll need your glasses first. I always order what the other person's having - unless, of course, they've got Huevos a la Flamenca.



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Kamping in England
01 April 2021

As the United Kingdom lurches further towards totalitarianism, with a possible tit for tat with Brussels suddenly turning ballistic, Britons living in Europe are beginning to worry for their future.

Thanks to media hysteria and the voters insisting 'that something must be done', the European Union, having never shown much interest in those foreigners who live here more or less quietly, will now be turning its gaze on those people who have abruptly lost their European status through their own apparent collective stupidity.

There are about 1,200,000 Britons living in Europe - that's equivalent to the population of Brussels.

Our leading spokesperson Leapy Lee no doubt doing his best to calm the waters. I wonder, does The Express have his phone number?

Thus, as the British toy with deportation for some or perhaps many of their European residents, can the EU-27 be far behind?

Maybe not.

In the event of mass deportation, will the British send one of its remaining gun-boats down to Garrucha to pick us all up?

I can imagine the captain shouting through his megaphone in a rough Bradford accent, 'Form an orderly queue with passports at the ready. There will be just one small bag allowed, imagine you're on a Ryanair flight ladies and gentlemen. I'm sorry, but there's no room for pets on my ship and strictly no foreign-born companions'.

As we arrive back in the UK, unwanted and unloved, a lucky few of us will have a place to go to. Some others will rekindle an undying love of a close relative with a spare guest-room, but most of us will be homeless. Property prices being as they are, and with our houses in Europe either embargoed or unsellable, we will be obliged to throw ourselves on the Mercy of the State.

How will the Home Secretary receive us? Perhaps we will be placed in the confiscated homes of those Europeans who will have fallen foul of her, but more likely, she will order the construction of a huge camp - maybe located on Salisbury Plain - for all the penniless ex-pats jettisoned from Europe following the forthcoming Westminster putsch on Europeans.

The Poles may be invited to build it before they are sent home, apparently they are quite good with their hands, and no doubt Commonwealth citizens will eventually be chosen to run the place.

We ex-pats won't be very amenable to this treatment, but there will be nowhere else for us to go.

Then, I think, as the Brit authorities notice that many of us are conditioned to drive on the right, they may decide, for our own safety, to keep us within the camp.

Permanently.



Like 1        Published at 13:18   Comments (3)


Barbary Pirates
30 March 2021

I am reading an old book about the Barbary Pirates that used to terrify the coastal villages of Southern Spain. Our village of Mojácar, for example, was so concerned about these raiders who would arrive on the shore late at night and be gone the next morning along with your daughters, your gold and your life, built the village on a high hill a kilometre inland, with a good escape route up the mountains behind, just in case the watchmen spotted the incoming attackers.

The pirates, following on from the traditions of Islam, together with a sense of outrage after the Fall of Granada, were based in various port cities along the ‘Coast of Barbary’ in North Africa, primarily Algiers, Tunis and Oran. They were a loose alliance of North African Moors and Turks from the Ottoman Empire and they preyed on European shipping and coastal towns, with their attacks stretching as far north as Ireland, England and even Iceland in search of slaves or ransom.

The corsarios lasted well into the early nineteenth century and Wikipedia notes – ‘Pirates destroyed thousands of French, Spanish, Italian and British ships, and long stretches of coast in Spain and Italy were almost completely abandoned by their inhabitants, discouraging settlement until the 19th century. From the 16th to 19th century, pirates captured an estimated 800,000 to 1.25 million Europeans as slaves…’.

Another fragment from the same source is interesting: The Americans fought two ‘Barbary Wars’ (1801 – 1805 and 1815) after ‘Payments in ransom and tribute to the Barbary states amounted to 20% of United States government annual expenditures in 1800’.

It gives a better idea of the importance of the old stone towers along our stretch of the coast to warn the local people of sightings of pirates.

The book, in old English print, refers to the treaties at the time between various European states and the Dey of Algiers (1719), with the latter saying ‘that the Barbary Corfairs, being born Pirates, and not able to fubfist by any other Means, it was the Chriftians Bufinefs to be always on their Guard, even in Time of Peace’. The book is called ‘A Voyage to Barbary for the Redemption of Captives’ and tells of how monies were collected by a French charity in 1720 to sail to Algiers to ransom as many Christians as they might. I have just read of how a French ship had been taken off the coast of Barcelona by Ottoman Turks the year before and towed towards Algiers only to be sunk in a storm off Morocco and how one ten-year-old French-girl was sorely treated by the local mountain-men before being ransomed to Algiers, to be ransomed in turn back to the French.

The French expedition eventually returned (in 1721) to Marseille with 62 'Slaves' bought from Algiers and a further 45 from Tunis.

The picture comes from a C.S. Forester book lurking in my library. I've forgotten the details, but I think the good guys win. 



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Who Needs a Car these Days (Who, Who)?
24 March 2021

Thinking of buying a new car? Probably not. For one thing, as you may have read, it will spend most of its life parked. Not being used.

Then there’s the garage or parking space to pay off. Maybe we should stick to running a bicycle, which one can always leave in the kitchen, or the spare bedroom.

The average number of people in a car, when it is moving about, is just 1.6 persons, which, when you think about it, is a lot less economic than a tandem.

Expensive things, cars. They cost a fortune new, are heavily taxed, and then there’s the depreciation – starting from the moment the new owner drives one off the forecourt.

Even at the end of its life, many years later (or when the ITV people have thrown up their hands), it’s still a bother. All those brand new bits, for some reason known as ‘spares’, inside the Old Girl from various repairs, are evidently now worthless. The desguace people gave me fifty euros to sign off my old banger yesterday as being en baja. Fifty euros? That was the price I paid for the novelty screw-on gear-knob I bought last year in Benidorm.

Maybe we should share transport in some fashion, several of us having keys to the same utility vehicle, plus a little lockable drawer inside for personal CDs. Or simply take the bus.

If there is one.

The buses in the countryside, or the small villages, are few and far between – and the ones that go to the house of George and Eunice across the valley for evening drinks are even less so. An electric scooter might be the answer, but after a couple of gin and tonics, and speaking for myself, I’d likely lose my balance and fall off. It looks like I might have to take the local taxi and chat with Antonio about politics.

The vehicle inspection, the painful ITV, is slightly on hiatus these days (45% of cars that should have had their latest inspection, er, haven’t – we’ll put it down to the Covid, shall we?). It’s the case that the parque automovilístico – the cars on the road in Spain (or parked somewhere near it) are getting older. The average privately-owned vehicle is now over thirteen years old.

Unsurprisingly, the sale of new cars has fallen sharply (by 40% it says here) – since we drive around even less these days, what with the pandemic sprawled in the back seat picking its teeth. Added to that, the taxes have risen steeply on buying a new car. 

Sales in second-hand cars are also down by over 16%.

We should be moving towards electric cars, but who will want to buy your old sparkycar with 200 kilometres of autonomy five years from now, when the new ones will be much lighter and offering 20,000ks between recharges? They’ll probably be programmed to do the driving by then anyway, as you sit in the back and munch on a sandwich.

There are those people who own two cars. Since they no doubt drive as much as someone with only one car, then their average vehicle-usage halves. And as we have seen, it wasn’t good to begin with. Maybe we should stick to art – at least it goes up in value unless the item in question is terrible, in which case – with luck – you can probably sell it for what you paid for it (or, failing that, give it to your mother-in-law for Christmas).

Then there’s the status of having a new car – which is a bit like having a gold tooth – there’s not much point unless you use it a lot.           



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A Licence to Hunt Frogs
16 March 2021

In the old days, it was easy enough to find frogs. They would be croaking in some corner of the garden or leaping into a nearby pond. Sometimes there would be hundreds of miniature amphibians, perfect but tiny, wandering around the edge of a pool as if on their first morning stroll. Nice little chaps, frogs.

‘I say waiter, do you have frogs legs’.

‘Oui, monsieur’.

‘Splendid. Hope over the counter, would you, and get me a sandwich’.

I had read in the paper that a large pond in some pueblo in the province was full to bursting of ‘renacuajos’, tadpoles. It would have been what editors call ‘a slow news day’. The reason this interested me was because we have had a lot of mosquitoes lately and if there’s one thing that enjoys a good meal of these horrible insects, it would be frogs. The bugs are out now, and biting. Besides which, the pump in our swimming pool is bust so I can’t empty (and paint) the piscina and I don’t want to get into trouble and be blamed for the clouds of mozzies by the neighbours. I also want to do my bit for the environment, so won’t be buying any nasty sprays. Best thing for everybody would be a shovelful of frogs tossed into the deep-end.

All I needed to make this plan a success was a bucket-load of the little critters collected from the local pond or some handy reserve of stagnant water.

In the old days when I was a boy and first exhibiting an interest in the small animals and insects that surrounded me, I would catch a few sticklebacks with a jam-jar and a bit of string while wearing flannel shorts and Start-rite shoes stuck gamely in some mud. This would be a rather hit or miss affair at best; but now I am glad to say that I am rather more hi-tech in my hunting.

I get my boy to do it.

We are spoilt for choice at the moment, with lakes, ponds, pools, gullies, reservoirs and endless puddles all full from the heavy rains over the past months. This blessing from the skies, apart from causing a welcome surge in the roof-repair business locally, has brought a wondrous crop of wild flowers to stipple the hills and fields with every colour that Nature can imagine, and is now causing the first stirrings of insect-life, bees, butterflies, glow-worms, dragon-flies and, of course, mosquitoes.

It was a warm day and there wasn’t much doing so we went down to the ‘creek’ up past Turre, where the steep and narrow bridge dog-legs over the gulch, at the narrow bit of the Rio Aguas as it splutters its way down from the snowy mountains far inland. There’ll be frogs there. You can park the car off the road at the top in some handy ditch, deep in a patch of wild flowers. The descent to the river-bed is tricky, as it’s all overgrown, but we made it safely to the bottom, jam-jars and bits of string quivering with excitement. Years ago, there used to be small black terrapins living down there and it was worth the odd inconvenience of a shoe full of water to catch them. Now, in a small and localised example of extinction, there’s none left. Just water-boatmen, caddis flies and mosquitoes perched in the branches of the trees. It is a peaceful place down there under the bridge, although something felt wrong, as if we were being watched. A bit creepy. We saw the dried husks of some dead swallows tossed violently around in the undergrowth. There didn’t seem to be any frogs about so, unsettled, we soon left.

We drove back and went down to the riverbed near our house, where the winter rains have collected into what turns out to be quite a large lake. The gravel-grovelers in the rambla appear to have built this for some reason or other with their bulldozers and tractors. There were some large aquatic birds scudding across the surface and I heard the call of a lone bullfrog but we couldn’t find much sign of life once we had climbed down to the edge, apart from the floating body of a dead goldfish. How on earth did that get there?

The town hall will need to spray this expanse of water soon, as the season’s mosquitoes are larger than normal and they are getting hungry. Perhaps the dreaded global warming or something strange in the water is doing it. The story is, and you may have heard this already, the mosquitoes are so big this year that their wings have atrophied and they have lost the power of flight. They are said to run along the ground after their pray, like asthmatic rabbits. Two or three bites from these things can easily empty a leg.

We return home and I feed the chicken some dog-food (which it seems to prefer over rooting around in the garden). The eggs are a trifle gamey but they are regularly laid and the shell is certainly strong. You have to break them with a hammer.

There’s a pond way up above the pueblo towards the top of the mountain, guarded these days by a chain. No biggy. I go up there with a bit of muslin to scoop out some tadpoles for my jam-jar. This time, I have some success and bring home a smear of wriggling pond-life which I toss into the bottom of the mostly empty swimming pool. There is an odd moment of suspense before the water begins to bubble and churn. To my surprise and horror, I can see the insect larvae eating the unfortunate tadpoles in a feeding frenzy like something out of an old Jaws movie. I go quickly inside and close the windows.

They are climbing out of the pool now. Using the ladder. The sky is empty of birds. I’ve got a tin of spray, a fly-swat, a plug-in with a little blue pellet and a loaded shotgun. We’ve nailed pieces of wood over the shutters and put a chest of drawers in front of the fireplace. A blond American woman is making us a cup of tea in the kitchen as the first exploratory ‘thunks’ and bangs start at the base of the door in the front room. There’s a crash from upstairs. The radio is babbling some nonsense about horse racing at Ascot.

Where is that helicopter from the town hall? We need some insecticide down here!



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The Garden
09 March 2021

I’ve never had much interest in gardening. My mother planted ours around fifty years ago and I remember she would spend her time pruning, seeding and either putting things in pots, or taking them out again. She would insist on special earth (wisely, as ours is solid clay) and she would buy her flower pots from a town in the hinterlands called Albox (famous in those days for its Moorish kilns and its industrial concessionaries).

Not to be outdone, my father planted a large number of trees in the field behind and above the house and would water them with big plastic bottles filled at the village fountain and lugged up there in his little Renault.

The property, to begin with, was fed water from a tank supplied by the water-truck from the nearby village of Turre. It would then be noisily pumped into the house as ocassion demanded. Much later, we got mains water from a local agency and, when that company became a part of the current water supplier, all of the 10,000 public shares from the agency, shares that each family or business were obliged to hold in our pueblo, worth 500 euros or so each in modern money (we had nine), were – whoops! – lost in the best local tradition.

Never mind, we had water, and for many years a gardener, Cristóbal, who squirted everything with enthusiasm, explaining that ‘of course the flowers fall off when you spray them, they’re flowers’. Cristóbal fancied himself as being the wise old Son of the Soil and would laugh as my mother lost her temper with him, ‘But Señora, how can you know? This is Spain!’

He had another problem, being partial to watching the women as they lounged around the swimming pool. One time, a scantily clad house-guest marched up to my father to complain that the gardener had been peeking at her while she was having a shower. My dad threw her out, claiming that it was much easier to get another house-guest than it was to find another gardener.

But that was then. My parents both died and, after I married, I took over the estate.

In fact, as far as gardening was concerned, the estate pretty much looked after itself. Between the rare rain that falls here and the even rarer moments of me watering with an increasingly leaky hose, the garden was obliged to make its own way. The smaller stuff died out and the stronger plants survived and spread.

Twenty agreeable years passed and the garden was by this time violently overgrown and, in the opinion of at least one of the larger pepper trees, in need of a miracle.

In the summer of 2009, a brush-fire raced across the entire municipality, pushed along by a high wind. The garden got its miracle all right, and I was left with a sad mixture of charred firewood, soot, dead trees, charcoal and smoking stumps. We lost several out-buildings and some neighbours lost their homes and the cars. 2,500 hectares went up that evening. The town hall reacted magnificently – by doing absolutely nothing at all.

Except asking the Junta de Andalucía to underwrite a press campaign to re-fill our hotels, which had emptied following the blaze. Not an election year, then.

But that’s why we love it here. They only remember you when they want something.

The garden slowly returned as green bits appeared amongst the sludge. A bush survived here and it looks like a tree pulled through over there. Most of my Dad's trees had gone, but we had plenty of firewood to cheer us up. A few months later, I was standing with a few people with axes and saws under a huge dead pine tree which there and then fell over and smashed a half-ruined shed on the other side from us.

Death felt our collers that day, but moved on.

The garden needed lots of work and, in need of some daily exercise, I took to clearing the place up. A dozen years later, it goes on, with me cutting down dead branches, planting, pruning and watering the grown-up seedlings of whatever survived that long-ago fire.

Oddly enough, that pepper tree was right, it does look a lot better now.



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