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Spanish Shilling

Some stories and experiences after a lifetime spent in Spain

I've Only Been Arrested The One Time...
27 July 2021

They were the first billboards for Mojácar. One was a construction company, another advertised the Tío Edy (a small German hotel run by an ex Luftwaffe pilot) and two more promoted Mojácar’s first knick-knack shop, an establishment down to the rear of the pueblo called ‘Jean-Pierre’.

The souvenir shop was owned by Felippe Paccini, an ugly Corsican who had arrived in town in 1970 claiming that ‘he had been thrown out of many places during his life, but he wasn’t going to be pushed out of Mojácar’.

My dad, myself and another Mojácar resident called Tony Hawker had decided late one night in the spring of 1971 to remove these billboards in a daring terrorist action. Not having any useful connections with the IRA, we used saws.

The four signs fell, one after another, around four in the morning following on from a rather heavy night in the Bar Sartén. One sign was in front of a house on the playa and as it fell, we saw a surprised – and we hoped – rather pleased looking man peering out at his suddenly improved view.

We knew the cops pretty well: the Guardia would come by to visit our house once a month on their mopeds to get our signature to prove their patrol schedule and to sample a whisky or two. Relations were most friendly and it was a very chastened corporal who told us, three months after the event, that we were to report to the Vera calabozo, the clink. The two other advertisers had ‘let us off’, but the Frenchman wanted his litre of blood.

My mum packed a suitcase and we went to collect Tony who lived somewhere in the pueblo. We arrived around five that afternoon in Vera only to be told that ‘the beds hadn’t been made yet’ and to go and get a drink in the local bar. The lock-up was in the downstairs of the Vera town hall, looking into the church square. Our cell was ample, with an en-suite thunderbox. One wall was decorated with a large mural of Jesus going about his business clearly chalked by a previous inmate. There was evidently time to kill.

Our suitcase had been searched by another apologetic policeman and the vodka confiscated. We were left with a radio ('Come in London!'), a few books and some lavatory paper. Tony, a thin man in his forties, had some ‘Bustaid’ slimming pills which, it was claimed on the street, would get you high.

My mother visited constantly, bringing my dad vodka in a Casera bottle (well, it fooled the jailers). Otherwise, supplies had to come through the window of the next-door cell, inhabited by a young villain with a street-view, and passed through into our quarters in exchange for a small coin or a cup of good cheer.

The judge saw us on the third day. Our excuses fell on deaf ears. Both me and my dad were returned to our cell. By the time he got to Tony, the judge felt he was on a roll, but Tony spoke no Spanish. a cousin was produced who had once been to Gibraltar: '¿Como se llama usted?' asked the judge with Tony's opened passport in front of him. 'What iss dyour number?' asked the interpreter shyly. 'I don't have a number' said our friend, translated back to the judge as 'he says he doesn't have a name'. 

‘¿Cuantos años tienes?’ was the next question, as the judge looked down his nose at Tony, who was dressed in a rather scruffy leather suit. ‘How long are you?’ translated the interpreter. ‘About this long’, said Tony, holding his hands a generous distance apart. We don't know what the judge said then, but it roughly went along the lines of 'throw this man into the deepest and darkest dungeon we have'.

He was returned to ‘solitary’ - a room which evidently used to do duty as a cupboard - where he complained bitterly through the walls for the rest of his stay. My dad and I were released on bail two days later. Tony was let out the following day.

Franco had an amnesty about that time for evil-doers and we were released from the threat of a three month stay in a proper jail. Well done the Caudillo!

I was seventeen at the time – making me one of the youngest old lags in the business.

The following year, the same Frenchman had a run-in with another foreigner. Paccini lived upstairs from Til, a bad-tempered Swiss sailor who owned a restaurant in the village (‘the customer is always right… except at Tillies’). A misunderstanding arose as to who owned Til’s roof-terrace (the Corsican wanted it for a bathroom) and after Til had tossed Paccini’s bricks, cement and bathroom fittings into the street, Til found himself in our old cell in Vera. The window had been covered by chicken wire and the young felon had departed (or been shot) so Til was unable to get any refreshment during his stay.

Next to visit the Vera clink was Eddie, a film type who had been denounced for some form or other of wickedness. He arrived at the calabozo in his Rolls Royce, leaving it wedged in the narrow street outside. Within an hour, the gaoler had allowed him his freedom, if he would only agree to move his car.

Cheap Pete was a small and very American character who bought and sold antique carpets ‘by the yard’. There used to be, in more enlightened times, a street named after him in the pueblo (‘Calle de Pedro Barato’). He married Josephine and inherited a step-son, a large red-headed bruiser who took a violent dislike to Pete. The subsequent fight was so noisy and bloody that the local police felt honour-bound to put the two of them together in the Cooler for three days. With the calabozo near to capacity, they placed them in the same cell. For one reason or another, Pete lost a lot of weight during his captivity.

Fritz was an American artist. He was known for his loud ‘haw haw haw’ laugh, his beard and his bottomless capacity for booze and illicit substances. For some reason – the accusation was ‘gamberrismo’ – he was locked up in the brand-new Mojácar cell, a small room under the town hall that gave onto the street. By the evening of his first (and last) day, he had managed to decorate his new abode with several paintings, a radio, a carpet and a pot-plant.

By 1980, the cops had appeared to have given up on the foreigners.

I’d call it a long-term truce.

Like 1        Published at 21:54   Comments (2)

Waiter, There's a Stethoscope in my Soup
21 July 2021

I don’t want to sound doubtful here, but – has anybody written a guide to good Spanish hospital cafeterias?
Probably not, since there aren’t any. Good ones, I mean.
Well, I suppose they’re not so bad really, if you don’t mind the slight feeling of not wanting to touch anything in case you catch some foul disease Unknown to Science. Some of one’s fellow customers leave a bit to be desired as well, with various holes, crevices, bandages, missing bits and strange bubbling sounds all in disturbing evidence at the next table.
I’m an old hand at hospitals, having been – as a ‘compañero’ – in most of the clinics, wards, waiting rooms, operating theatres and cafeterias of the nation’s crop of hospitals, excluding the ones in Catalonia and the islands.
Many years ago, a friend was in the Almería hospital. He needed blood. The call went out and many from our village drove into the City to spare a pint. The deal was that they would check to see if your blood was in reasonable shape - red and damp - and they would then relieve you of an arm-full. Most of the donors were found to be in poor health, for one reason or another, and were eiother sent home or to the fourth floor. Successful patrons would be given a chit to spend in the hospital's cafeteria. It quickly became clear that the doctors clearly hadn't thought this through - as most of the foreigners, faint from blood-loss, ordered a large brandy to revive themselves.

I used to take my step-mother (a person straight out of a Grimm’s fairy tale) to the hospitals on regular occasions, often as she needed her stomach pumping after a good suicide attempt; or, at least, if I’d somehow slept through the drama, then I used to have to go and pick her up. One time, after I had spent a long (and anxiety-free) night of reading War and Peace on the hospital sofa - this was back when the cafeterias still had ashtrays and sold brandy - she appeared in the doorway attached to a drip and after a quick transaction at the counter, came and sat with me at the table and drank her black coffee and coñac as the hospital serum gurgled merrily through the tube into her arm.
I believe I had the cheese sandwich…
In the old days, before some busybody changed the rules, hospital cafeterias sold booze. In fact, the old hospital in Huercal Overa had the cheapest gin and tonic in the province and all the nearby Brits would do their drinking there. You could, of course, also still smoke there until 2002.

I was in the new Huercal Overa hospital the other day (the old one fell down) attending a sick companion, and a Spanish friend called to say he would be passing through and to meet downstairs in the café. When he got there he said that we should try the ‘other side’ (where the doctors go) as it would be more comfortable. We went in and ordered two brandies. ‘Sorry’ said the waitress, ‘we are only allowed to sell beer and wine now… and anyway (looking at us closely)… are you two doctors?’

‘Yes’, we said together… ‘Bring a bottle of red’.

Hospital canteens are always – at least in my experience – ‘self-service’ and you can pick up your sopa, tomato flavoured goo and soggy pudding all in one go, together with a Mahou: paying at the checkout. There may not be a TV or any horrible muzac but the assembled diners will certainly put enough noise out to keep even the most jaded person agreeably deafened.

In one canteen in Madrid I know quite well, they do a good pork n’ cheese bun at the bar and another in Murcia offers a nice line in morcilla.

If you can, find a hospital near a good bar/restaurant rather than with one. The exercise does you good and the food’ll probably be better.

Like 2        Published at 11:19   Comments (1)

Driving School
13 July 2021

As the Brits struggle with their Spanish driving licence - here's a completely useless essay on how I got mine.

I found my first driving-licence the other day, in a box in the room that passes for an attic in our house with a flat roof. It was green and came from Nevada. I had bought it off a fellow called Fat Freddy for 100 pesetas when I was 14. The great thing about Nevada driving licences in those far-off days was that they didn’t have a photograph (as didn’t the Belgian ones apparently). All one needed for the driving licence to be an unqualified success was a typewriter and a steady hand.

My next one, four years later and now eighteen, I got from our local city of Huercal Overa. Don’t worry – despite its odd-sounding name, it’s in Almería.

To earn the licence (sixty pesetas plus driving school), I had to go through the tedious formality of learning to drive. My dad had a Renault 4 furnished with that interesting push-pull Gallic gear-stick and in this I took my first lessons. Sammy, a very camp bartender, was delegated to give me classes, or rather, tips on driving. But first, I had to teach him how the gear-lever worked. If you don’t know it, it’s a bit like stirring a bowl of lumpy soup with an umbrella.

Sammy taught me that, if it looks like you are going to crash into someone, then accelerate. That way, you’ll hit them harder that they’ll hit you.

Following these basics, I then went to driving school with a fellow called Casanova. He wasn’t such a big hit as his namesake (at least, in Sammy’s opinion), but at least he kept his hands to himself. I was now practicing with a Seat 600, which is about the size of a loose-fitting suit.  

A line was penciled in under the rear right window, used for reversing into a parking space. One simply had to turn the wheel sharply after passing the bumper of what would be the car in front.

I’ve always tended to park about a metre away from the verge thanks to this piece of basic training.

After studying the book they sell you and taking notes, and following a thumbs up from Casanova himself, the great day for the test arrived. Two elderly nuns and I were called to take turns to navigate the streets of Huercal Overa.

I was told that I could take the written test in English, which I did. They then said that there was a small problem, as they didn’t have the answers, and could I now take it in Spanish. I think the embarrassment may have helped them to allow me to pass on my first attempt. The two nuns? Failed dismally, poor things.

I’ve given a few lessons myself. A couple of years ago, in an old Mercedes driving though the river-bed, to three deaf friends of my daughter. My sign-language is still at a spelling-out-a-word stage, so telling them to S-T-O-P was a laborious affair indeed.   

My most recent classes were to teach my Spanish step-son, who was flunking at school in English. I thought, as we raced around the parking lot, I’ll just speak to him in English while we do this. Remembering Sammy, I taught him the two ways to stop: (‘press the brake firmly, or head for the nearest tree’) and reminded him of the one cardinal rule in driving in Spain:

Everyone else on the road is a complete idiot.

Like 3        Published at 11:03   Comments (0)

A Day in the Life of Lenox Lenoxovitch
07 July 2021

Zzzz. I slowly discover that my dream has once again taken me to a strange bathroom. I wake up with the pressure on my bladder and stumble slowly and carefully – there’s a large dog asleep on the floor somewhere – to our en-suite to siphon the python. My wife wakes up as I fall over Ginger on the way back and she switches on the light.
‘What time is it?’ She asks.
I have a rule. If it’s four o’clock I try and get back to sleep. If it’s six, I’ll get up and make a coffee. I used to have a very good internal clock which could tell me the time to the minute, which is why I’ve never had to wear a watch. These days, it just clanks gently on the hour somewhere in my brain like an old but well-wound railway clock.
Unfortunately, it’s five.
Since it will be six long before it’ll be four again, I decide to make an early start to the day. Coffee, a slice of toast and some orange juice squeezed from the in-law’s fruit.

Well, at least we have water this morning. The other day, fresh – or not so fresh, come to think of it – from our drive home from the Madrid airport, we found that the water had been cut. So, the following morning I drove down to the water company’s headquarters in Vera – across a track and following a road-works gang, and in to sort the thing out.
My first remark, there was an audience of Spaniards waiting their turn behind me, went down well. ‘Lady’, I said, ‘I’ve come to take a shower. Where do I change?’

The water had been cut, it turned out, because they had found an old bill from 2016 and (apparently anxious to cash it before the statute of limitations ran out) had gone to my bank only to discover that I had failed to budget for this eventuality and, despite being a regular customer who wasn’t particularly going anywhere – apart from a well-earned holiday following an alarming brush fire earlier this year – decided to cut the precious life-giving fluid to my finca. The result – whatever hadn’t died in the farm the first time round was shriveled up and dry by the time I was sat in the water company’s office coughing up not just the 230 odd euros they wanted, but another fifty reconnection charge.
Bastards! I got my own back though. I think my audience were appreciative as I noisily filled out my first ever ‘complaining sheet’.

But today, no water problem, no bucket by the loo. All friends again. Instead, a quick and violent shower, followed by me mopping the floor where I’d made a poorly judged squirt.

I went to the shop this morning to get in some food and drinks. The choice was between my usual supermarket, which has taken to playing a grotesque collection of muzak and the other, larger one where the shop assistants interrupt one’s shopping experience by periodically bellowing instructions over the in-house tannoy system like something out of a Butlins holiday-camp. Normally, I’ll shop with an iPod stuffed into each ear.
I had made my way to the queue at the front (I’m in the bellowing-shop-girls supermarket) and was waved past this fellow. ‘You go ahead’, he said in Spanish. ‘Why, thank you’, I answered politely. ‘I’ve just been having a drink with Jacky Mankewitz’, I added, under the impression that I knew this fellow, who looked faintly like the postman, ‘and, do you know, at his age, he’s still playing tennis’.
No, on closer inspection and noting his bemused expression, I decide it's definitely not the postman.
Now I have to queue for another five minutes as the lady in front of me pays for her trolley in patiently counted out pennies, all the while aware that the Spanish bloke behind me is convinced that I’m barking mad. I’m not really; it’s just that, in a tourist town, everyone starts to look alike.

I drive home with my shopping, including a rather suspicious English fish pie which I am already regretting having purchased. Some chap in Pieland has spent millions making this thing, doing the packaging, the design, the flakes of – one hopes – fish wrapped in monosodium glutamate and so on and, lo! There’s a box of it in a supermarket in Spain. The picture looks like Captain Nemo wrestling with a deep-Atlantic squid. I nuked it in the microwave and it was, indeed, horrible. Again I remind myself to eat Spanish stuff in Spain.

Thanks in part to our water-company-induced drought that followed the earlier conflagration, we have lots of firewood. Blackened, sooty and dead. It just needs scooping up, cutting, breaking or uprooting and the chimney is stuffed to bursting for the evening. Our house is a country-house, nice in the summer, cold and drafty in the winter. A good fire in the bedroom to keep everything toasty, but not much use in July. I decide that I shall once again put off for another day any thoughts of sawing, piling and sorting the lumber so kindly donated by a passing pyromaniac. 

Inside, there’s a message on the phone. Our phone number is, unfortunately, very similar to a popular local restaurant. I discover that we are having a party of six at 8.30.

The fan refreshes us as it slowly gets late, and the book falls to the floor. We lie in bed; a stray hair from the cat tickles my nose. The dog growls at some dream-figure and a gecko stirs and stretches quietly behind a painting.

Like 5        Published at 18:29   Comments (3)

Home Maid
28 June 2021

It’s a standard conversational piece at any get-together: a chance to show one’s true worth at the negotiating table, an opportunity to display one’s in-depth arrival into local society.

The hourly price of a maid.
And no matter how wealthy you are, anyone who pays fifty cents more an hour than you do wants their head examined; and as for anyone who pays fifty cents less... ¡Madre Mía!

Every morning, except Sundays, thousands of maids make their way across the Spanish landscape. Poor things. Many of them, known as Las Kellys for some obscure reason, are bound for the hotels, but many others will be making their way to the homes of the gentry (or the parvenus). They arrive by bus or on foot. Some few are long-sufferingly picked up by the patron from their apartment on the other side of town, and then there are a small number of them that arrive in a better looking car than the house-owner has.
These are the unsung heroes of Spain. They make the bed, they wash the dishes, they polish the silver, they do the laundry and they wipe the baby’s ass. They sometimes get into the gin.
They don’t dress up for the occasion, however, like the French ones do. Non.

There are two schools of thought about the preparation of one’s house for the domestic onslaught. The first type has it that the maid should never suspect what a scruff they are dealing with, and so these proud home-owners will set to with a will to make the bed, dust the floor, wash the dishes and hide the empties and all the rest of it leaving the bewildered maid when she arrives with nothing much to do at all. Perhaps they are right – after all, maids gossip freely about their employers.

Then there is the second type of employer, who is impervious to criticism and figures to get their money’s worth. They will leave everything in complete chaos.

Good Lord, I’ve just described myself.

Spanish maids are useful for teaching ‘kitchen Spanish’. There is many a foreign housewife whose command of Spanish might best be described as ‘inadequate’ and who has learnt just a handful of useful words and yet at the same time, and with the additional help of a dictionary, knows the name of more different vegetables in Spanish than the green-grocer himself.

In Madrid, the fancier establishments will have a live-in maid from the Philippines (for no reason that I can fathom) and, if there are children present in the menagerie, then there will be a nanny from Dublin. Furthermore, a ‘lady companion’ for abuela (Granny) will visit every day and will need to speak proper Spanish (and be immensely patient as she takes her out for walks). Ideally, she should be the same height as well. She’ll almost certainly come from Ecuador.

Here in Almería, you might discover after a few months that you in fact have a Romanian maid: but then come to think of it, you might have a Romanian green-grocer, so be sure to check your dictionary.

In the probable event that your maid – or ‘the cleaner’ as they are sometimes called these days – is a local woman, she will likely bring you up to date on the ins and outs of life in the pueblo, as a sort of ambulatory and knowledgeable Who’s Who. When you have finally mastered the history, intrigues and relationships between everyone from your Spanish maid’s barrio, you will be ready to enter into polite society, local-style. Your maid, needless to say, will by this point have become your master (or maybe, to be etymologically correct, your mistress).

Maids often come from extensive families. Their joint estates, pieces of land or tumbled down cortijos way to hell and gone in the hills, inevitably coveted by adventurous foreigners, can make them potentially more wealthy than the Duke of Wellington. The social history of Spain is wrapped up in that land and your maid knows the stories.

Spanish maids are often very useful as babysitters, too. The kids disappear with her for the weekend while the liberated parents go off for a trip or to a party. The children will be returned, spotlessly clean, on the Sunday night having taken part in some particularly bloodthirsty pig-killing at the farm of old ‘Tío Antonio’ and clutching a small packet of sausage as a souvenir.

Christmas can be tricky. Your domestic will expect an extra month’s pay and a day off and you’ll probably end up with an expertly wrapped humorous ashtray from that new Chinese emporium. Decency prohibits you from accidentally breaking such an item until at least Lent. You will also need to budget for saints days, fiestas and other dates in the calendar when no one, maids included, show up for work. On those festive occasions, stick to sandwiches is my advice.

But these are small concerns.
So, aside from the potential problem of language which, as we have seen, can sooner or later be straightened out, the only remaining hurdle is a decent cup of tea. Tricky. While much could be forgiven of a maid back in the United Kingdom (assuming you could afford one there) as long as she could come up with the goods in the char department, here you will just have to make it yourself. Come to think of it, tea doesn’t go down that well with a piping-hot tortilla, which a Spanish maid will happily prepare for you and serve... therefore, for refreshment, you should probably stick to a nice glass of wine.

So, as you climb into your bed tonight, brushing off the chocolate mint from your pillow, consider how lucky you are to have found a teacher, a cleaner, a chum and a companion.
Who doesn’t snore.

Like 5        Published at 12:51   Comments (0)

How to be Taken for a Spaniard
22 June 2021

Forget learning a few words of Spanish and introducing a morning brandy into your café-life, there’s more to becoming a Spaniard than not turning green each time they put a bull-fight on the telly.

First of all, you have to look Spanish. Many people from foreign parts manage this easily enough, and the whole thing is, I agree, down to fate, but, if you look like a Swede, it doesn’t matter how fluent you might be in the language and culture, you will still be on the outside, looking in. In short, Mother Nature can be arbitrary and cruel about our appearance.

Take the case of two Nordic-looking Spanish friends of mine. I once went out to some local dives in Marbella with these two work-colleagues, Alfonso and Juan. Alfonso is blond and has a beard. He comes from Motril. Juan is a redhead and is from Estepona. Me, I look like a Swede. After Alfonso was complimented on his Spanish for the third time (‘not bad – how long have you been in Spain…?'), and Juan was advised to try a glass of ‘we call this vee-no’, we decided to either split up – or to stick to the English bars.

My dad was once drinking in a bar in Murcia with some fellow who, as my father recalled later, ‘looked like a syphilitic Turkish tax-inspector’. ‘Where do you suppose I am from?’ asked the swarthy gentleman as he bought another round of drinks. ‘Denmark?’ suggested my father to his delighted companion, who triumphantly admitted that he was, in fact, a tax-inspector from Istanbul.

‘Spanish’ is not so much a language (it’s called Castilian’ anyway), it's more a cultural identity. There is no point speaking it if you have nothing of value to say. You need context. Please don’t go on about Boris Johnson because no one in Spain has heard of him. Just say the same stuff but switch to Pablo Casado. In fact, try watching Spanish TV which not only helps you with the language, it also helps you with the culture, informs you about what’s going on around the corner and increases your enjoyment and understanding of this country. You can’t carry on living like an exile like a child pressing his nose to the glass of an English toyshop, missing 95% of what’s happening here (and who’s doing it), just for the sunburn.

To assimilate here – and I don’t mean just being able to buy a drink for the old shepherd who lives in the frightful dive across the hill and whose vocabulary is probably around a hundred words (say two weeks of study with a Donald Duck comic in Spanish) – you need to adopt a few new mannerisms. Three things spring to mind. The proper use of swear-words, never using a winker and the correct disposal of rubbish.


These are the Spanish equivalents of those naughty words that Spellcheck doesn’t like. All those three, four and six letter words that we learnt at a tender and impressionable age. Here, they don’t use asterisks. In Spanish – a wonderful language for swearing in – what might be considered as the harsher words to our way of thinking are here used to great and often gentle effect. You will find the most remarkable terms used towards friends and family, and I will, since the subject is considered disturbing in English, limit myself to just one example.

Lorenzo (a vile old boozer who lives across the way) was telling me about his lunatic and alarmingly cross-eyed thirty-year-old son, who had, just that very morning, enjoyed a short conversation with his father about the colours of the sunrise as they briefly melted and blurred into the sides of the hill. ‘Si, hijo mio. Tienes razón coño’, his dad assured him. ‘Bloody right yes, you silly bastard’ would be an understatement as a direct translation, but, in effect, the old boy was really being quite understanding.

Traffic Matters

Never use your winker while driving. No one ever does. On roundabouts a winking car usually means a foreigner is driving, or else the winker has been on for months. Don’t trust it and expect anything. The only time it’s used is probably when the motorist says to himself ‘bugger me, I wonder what this knob does..?’ Actually, in the old days, when driving was a more neighbourly and enjoyable activity than it is today, when we had roads instead of sterile motorways with speed cameras hidden in bushes, when driving half-crocked was considered socially acceptable and people asked for a ride by standing in the middle of the highway, the winker was used by truck-drivers to allow you to overtake. The left-winker meant: ‘the road is empty ahead, please feel free to pass at your convenience’ – or perhaps it meant ‘I’m turning left and there’s a huge pantechnicon bearing down on you’ – or, as I’ve said, ‘help, my winker is stuck’. But that was then. Now, no one uses them. The horn, now there’s a useful button. Very handy for zebra crossings.

A Spreading Waste

The third vital thing to know, if you want to pass yourself off as a Spaniard, particularly one from the south, is the proper disposal of rubbish.
What you do is you throw it out of the nearest window.
This is the hardest of all to get right. Really. And you thought windows were for the view!
Bung it out the window or chuck it on the floor or dump it in the corner...
It’s starting to sound like a song, like the recipe for sangria (‘one of white and one of red…eeyai eeyai ohh'). Everything must be got rid of; and after all, they do use an awful lot of cardboard and plastic in modern packaging.

The ditches are full of rubbish, with abandoned shopping bags gamboling playfully in the wind and empty beer cans rolling noisily across the highways of our province. Dead cats stare reproachfully at the traffic as empty disposable lighters bounce off their crushed skulls. Of course, it’s not just the Great Outside that’s brimming with junk that, all too rarely, receives a cursory scrape by order of the local government.

Although we are beginning to see some small political will towards cleaning up, putting things in containers and bottle banks and generally looking like ‘somebody is doing something’.

I remember being given a gamba when I first came to Almería. I stripped it down, ate it and chooped the brains (as instructed), but then, feeling uncertain, I put the shattered remains, sticky legs and surviving goo discretely back onto the tapa-dish. No, no! On the floor! I learnt. With the rest of the junk. I had noticed that I was standing up to my ankles in paper, tooth-picks, stoppers, used lottery tickets, fines and pictures of Franco. But, soon enough, a drudge scuttled under me with her broom and plastic scoopy-thing leaving the scene fresh for further onslaught.

Nowadays, they either don’t give you a tapa, or else there’s some little baskets invitingly scattered around below the bar, which appears to be a sensible arrangement.

At least, to a fellow who looks like a Swede.

Like 2        Published at 19:56   Comments (6)

Taking a Leak
15 June 2021

I had just discovered that I'll be busy later this week and that, in an attempt to keep my essays fresh, means that I need to write something quickly. But what could I write about? There’s only one place where a man can think about these things, look for inspiration and admire at the same time Mother Nature’s wonderful design and symmetry, and that is while having a refreshing pee off the side of the terrace.

We have the good fortune to live in a country house, surrounded by either lush vegetation or a scorched and arid landscape – depending of course on the time of the year and whether we have had any really good brush fires in the recent past. My dad bought the house years ago, attracted I think, as much by the terrace and its pissing opportunities as by the house itself and its austere marble bathroom.

I learnt from an early age about the advantages of emptying one’s bladder while contemplating the sunset and considering a knotty scientific problem or remembering a bit of poetry from school. It certainly beats staring towards a white tile finish or a vandalised french letter machine where speed seems to be the only concern, while the mind is disengaged and numb. I know that this is a man’s thing – which explains why we are so good at building cathedrals – but there is always room for company I suppose. At least, behind that bush over there.

I don’t think there was any formality to this habit of peeing outside until my dad’s second wife took to planting mint in a planter just below the kitchen window. Until then, any part of the terrace, or even the big eucalyptus would do for a whiz. But from that time onwards, the spot outside the kitchen window has always been my favourite.

As for my step-mother, she wasn’t as sharp as my mum and it took her a year or two before she discovered why the mint never did very well and why the rest of the family never wanted any in our gin.

We are, as I have said, far away in the deepest country and it is rare to see anyone while enjoying my morning’s duty. The first of the day. Today I was lucky to spot our snooty neighbour go past (looking firmly the other way) riding on his roan stallion and trailed by his greyhounds three. I waved cheerily at him, without letting go, but it was probably a wasted gesture. What on earth can I write about for Eye on Spain, I asked myself, idly spelling my name in the dirt below.

My dad would tell a story of drinking in some French bar, now long disappeared, on the playa. It, too, had a terrace. At some point, round about the third run and coke, my dad zoomed in on this feature of the building and decided to take a leak as the barman was otherwise engaged, adding up his bill. It was night time and the terrace looked awfully inviting and anyway, my dad thought, it might help remind him where he’d left the car and also, come to think of it, what sort of car it was. He stepped over to the terrace and, to his momentary surprise, fell off the edge towards the garden, some five metres below. He landed, as he recalled later, in a cactus. Convinced that he’d been pushed by the barman (a story denied later by a very amused Frenchman who presented himself at our house the next morning in search of his twenty five pesetas) and picking spines from his chest, my dad decided to walk home, straight over the hills and navigating by the stars.

The oddest part of this tale, told sometimes late at night around the fire, was when my dad got part way home, fairly lost but with the scent of ruined mint faintly playing in his nostrils, he found that he had to give that same organ a good blowing. Normally he would carry a handkerchief (and a very bloodstained one was indeed offered by the Frenchman in evidence) but – since no one was present – my dad sat down, took off his trousers and then his underwear, and luxuriantly blew his nose on this patient and forbearing undergarment.

Much, apparently, to the surprise of an old peasant contentedly pissing against a nearby algarrobo tree.

So many silly stories from the good old days, before we were obliged to behave ourselves.

Ahhh: a beer from my wife to bring inspiration. Little does she know where I’ll get it. So the other day, a school friend and sometimes writer came over to stay from London. Over his duty-free scotch, we remembered the names of the masters and imitated their accents, we recalled the nicknames of the other boys (I kindly refrained from reminding my old friend of his) and we talked of our lives since.

I eventually went outside for a pee and my friend joined me as a shooting star fizzed its way across the heavens. ‘Gor’, he said, ‘It’s marvellous here. I haven’t done this since I was a kid’.

‘You’ll remember the words to the school song now’, I told him. They were in Latin, a bloody useless language they taught us there. He did, too, and soon we were both bellowing out the old song ‘Floreat, floreat, floreat Rugbeia’!' as the droplets fell.

So there we are; a deadline to beat and nothing to write about. I think I’ll go and have a pee off the terrace and see if inspiration strikes.

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Free Willy (and Edna)
07 June 2021

It rained the other day. You may have noticed it if you live anywhere near me, because it bucketed down with the enthusiasm of an explosion at sea. It poured. Those of us lucky enough to live on a flat bit of land were merely worried about the water coming sideways through the windows, but for those whose homes are built on the side of a cliff, the view from those same windows must have changed from one minute to the next, as their homes spun round and slid inexorably towards the soft warm Mediterranean down below, just past the new and noisy beach bar.

It was a ‘perfect storm’, as the book of that title would have it. It filled the rambla, the dry-river bed which, for a short while, revealed its true function of being one of the province’s major drains. The appropriately named ‘Rio de Aguas’ showed its teeth as it does once every seventeen years.

Our two goldfish must have sensed the rain sluicing under the door. They appeared agitated each time that they circled their comfortably equipped quarters towards the front, where the view of a few books floating across the carpet must have caught their eyes. As they arrived again at the front of their tank, gobbing gently in horror at the scene, their piscine brains may have briefly awoken once again to the prospect of a larger world without. Not even a soggy meal of fish-kibble floating slowly past them towards the bottom of the aquarium where the deshabillé little glass mermaid lies on a bed of sponge would put them off this unexpected contemplation of a world beyond their ken.

The number of animals under our care has risen again recently with the arrival of a small dog which I suspect was once billeted at a PAWS compound and has now, by a roundabout route involving some friend of my son’s, made its home with us. The flood didn’t seem to bother it, nor yet the bad-tempered cat with the long claws and the remarkable aim together with a well-known antipathy towards all things canine, nor indeed the chicken, whose egg-laying capabilities, coupled to a number of outraged squawks delivered outside our bedroom window every morning, have made it a favoured member of the family for providing us with a regular breakfast, an early-morning wake-up call and the prospect of an agreeable Sunday lunch if her other duties fail her. The philosophy of our pets, well-cared for as they might be, is simple. In every life a little rain is going to fall.

I was gently releasing a large and outraged country rat that my wife had found hiding under the sink, now dried and fluffed, back into the garden when a thought suddenly hit me. Why not allow the goldfish their freedom? They could be released into that giant muddy lagoon which the river had by then become, and maybe, if rumours about Edna’s sexuality were true, start a whole empire of goldfish down in the lake.

Well, a short-lived empire. The sun would dry out our rambla in a week or two. Then again, when your attention span is reduced to just a few seconds, a fortnight is a hell of a long time.

We could even sell the untenanted aquarium at the local junk-market, or maybe in the classified section of the paper - no not that one, the other one.

So, I squelched my way across the garden and back inside, trailing mud across the carpet on my way to the kitchen to find an empty jam-jar.

My son wandered in at that moment. ‘Would you like to release Willy and Edna into the wild, to allow them to swim free, to let them go where no fish has gone before? And anyway, we could sell the aquarium at the market’, I asked breathlessly.

Visions of covering himself in mud must have dazzled him. ‘Yep’, he agreed. ‘I’ll do it’.

Willy wasn’t entirely convinced about his departure to another home. There might be sharks there, he may have reasoned, or cat-fish. But, as Edna had already packed her things and leapt into the jam-jar, Willy had soon forgotten his concerns and was quickly wedged in beside her.

My boy climbed onto his bike and was soon skidding his way enthusiastically down the lane towards the rambla, a jar of slightly reluctant fish in one pocket and the bottle of fish-eats in the other. Just in case they didn’t like the local grub.

I was emptying the fish-tank and explaining events to the glass mermaid when he returned, covered as expected from head to toe in mud.

Wait’, he said, ‘I found a terrapin’.

So, now the aquarium and the mermaid have a new guest. For some reason, we call him Noah.

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The Calamar Song (With apologies to Lonnie Donnegan)
07 June 2021

Does your calamar lose its flavour on your denture overnight?
Does your partner say don’t chew it do you whimper back ‘I might,
If the ruddy thing weren’t frozen I would cough it out in spite’.
Does your calamar lose its flavour on your denture overnight?

Does your migas taste like porridge when it’s sticking to your gums?
Do you try to use a finger - but find that you’re all thumbs?
This Spanish plat de jour tastes a lot like baker’s crumbs!
Does your migas taste like porridge when it’s sticking to your gums?

Go on then, one more!

Do your molars go all lumpy when the tapas plates are laid?
Snails and squid and tuna bits, d’they make you feel afraid?
Get a round of drinks aboard and hope that someone paid –
Do your molars go all lumpy when the tapas plates are laid?

Like 0        Published at 11:34   Comments (0)

Feeding the Birds
02 June 2021

Breakfast is, as often as not, a meal shared with lots of friends. Small, feathery ones called ‘sparrows’. Now, British readers may not be familiar with these creatures as apparently there aren’t any left in that great country as they have all succumbed to the fumes from lead-free petrol, rather like the dodo perishing in its day to – apparently - lead. Poor British sparrows, what will the cats do?

Here in Spain, we have either been blessed by an entirely stronger version of this ubiquitous birdie or, more likely, the unleaded gas has as much lead in it as ever.

Proof of this apparently improbable claim came from my old luxury Mercedes 500 – which ran enthusiastically on leaded petrol and single-handedly kept the Arab States in Wellington boots and caviar. In the days of the ‘turn-over’ to unleaded from leaded – this latter having an extra extra tax on it to encourage us to switch – I was concerned because my car wouldn’t be able to run on the unleaded stuff and that I would eventually end up leaving it on the side of the road with the keys in the ignition and a sign in the window saying ‘do not under any circumstances steal this car’.

It turned out, on enquiry at the local petrol station, that it ran just fine on the green stuff, so that was alright, except, they could have told me before and saved me some lolly. Perhaps they were fooled by my apparent wealth, although the Old Girl, who I had bought second-hand off a British dealer in Alicante, actually cost relatively little and the 500 badge on the boot didn’t really have much to do with the 200 badge on the engine.

I’m down at the beach today, as always, sharing my little buns – two doughy things – sugared bread-balls for goodness sake, with a hoard of sparrows who don’t mind a little sweetner in their lives. I have been told that the owner of the cafeteria in question, clearly a keen bird-lover, puts some insulin in his cakes, or at least he should. Otherwise the Spanish sparrow might follow the fate of its British cousin, killed by something we sometimes mix – for odd reasons – into our petrol.

As I watch the diabetic sparrows hopping erratically over to our table, my wife is telling me that you can’t throw rice at weddings any longer, as the pigeons eat it and it swells up in their stomachs giving them indigestion. It is indeed wonderful what concerns we humans have for our fellow creatures, as long as they have either four legs or lots of feathers. Personally, I never feed pigeons anything, as they are little more than airborne rats in my opinion. I do however remember throwing bits of bread soaked in ouzo at the seagulls following the ferry around the Greek islands, and other bits of bread soaked in brandy crossing over to Tangiers. Seagulls enjoy the game and will, after a couple of mid-air catches, fly upside-down for you for a while. Until they crash into the side of the ship of course, or drown.

You had to have been there.

The swallows – actually, I think they are really martins, but judging by the amount of mosquitos they get through, I think 'swallow' is a perfect name for them – spend the winters in Africa and migrate north to Spain in the springtime, returning to the area and even the nests they vacated the summer before. We let our visitors from Africa build their mud nests under our eaves.

We don’t get many birds that wander about on the ground near our porch, thanks to our bloodthirsty cat. The sparrows on our estate aren’t tame, like the ones outside my breakfast café, and other birds are careful not to land in our garden. Apart from Bertha our pet chicken, of course, who is built like a brick out-house. The cat keeps out of her way. Things are better at one of our neighbours whose garden is feline-free and often visited by doves. I was over there the other day and those pretty grey turtle-necked doves were wandering around pecking at this and that, even at our shoes. Who needs a cat, hey?

I saw a hoopoe today while pottering about in the garden. This is a kind of jay, I think, with a crest on its head that rises and falls at its owner’s whim. They are a pretty bird with a remarkable call, from which they get their name. No sugar buns for them – they like insects.

We have an aviary with a number of teetotal ‘love birds’ living there, little brightly-coloured parrots. It gets so you don’t notice their singing after a while, despite the aviary being just outside the bedroom. I feed them a mixture of seed I get from a nearby molino and they reward me by making me smile. It is strange to think that only a few dozens of millions of years ago they used to stomp about the land, tearing each other to shreds and considerately leaving their bones, as dinosaur fossils, for us to wonder about.

I wonder if these distant creatures would have liked those little buns, with sugar on them, which I have for breakfast with my coffee.

Or perhaps they would have preferred something a little stronger.

Like Raquel Welch.

Like 0        Published at 10:32   Comments (0)

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