Thursday, April 09, 2020

Briefly, a New Beginning

It's kind of interesting what's happening now. We've been in lockdown for a month so far and we have just been told to expect another month of the same ('at least'). The meaning of 'lockdown' seems to be changing as this crisis extends itself: the police are out there because there is almost no excuse left to take to the street (I saw a cop car fining some poor idiot last night at 2.00am from my window - all he wanted was a chocolate bar).
I live on a horse-farm, with stables and a couple of paddocks. There are over thirty horses and no one to ride them. At least I am out every day working on the scut jobs - watering, feeding and moving one from here to there, and another from hither to yon. Bits of horse kit (all with new names en castellano as I learn stuff with my sieve-like brain) and where we left them bent over a fence or on a wall somewhere. Fixing a fence, shouting at the water-heater. Collecting a massive number of eggs each day from the poultry; uprooting taters from the lower forty.
No one to help, because, you know, lockdown.
I had to go to the medical centre because my wife Alicia is still in a wheelchair after an accident in December and we needed a prescription. I'm talking to a nurse through the window of the car and we both have masks on, and rubber gloves and goggles. A fellow is energetically squirting the car with some killer mixture. I get the prescription and drive round the corner to the farmacia, whooping through my lowered mask to get my breath back.
The chemist from behind his sheet of virus-proof glass sells me a potion to wash my hands every time I leave the property.
So, we are fully kitted up, in case of doubt.
The IMF says to expect a recession as important as the Great Depression of 1929. Who the fuck is going to want to pay for riding lessons in a time like that, I wonder, or for livery service (we currently have ten horses that are 'paying guests'). I'd jump out of the window, only we live on the ground floor.
So, for the next month - at least - I will be driving down to the supermarket every once in a while, kitted up like an extra from the Andromeda Strain movie and quickly buying whatever goes well with eggs, or maybe over to the feed store for another truck-load of straw.
We never thought it would come to this, although we knew something was coming (my friend Jesse, an American gun-nut, was hoping for zombies). But, when it's all over, or - to be more precise - when it's as over as it's going to get, we won't be going back to the good old days. They've gone.
Expect more government control, a minimum guaranteed income, no foreign holidays, a highly cautious society (wary of football matches, cinemas, restaurants, bars and shopping malls) and a large number of places, currently closed, that won't be opening again.
Just try and explain all this to the horses.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Maura Settles Down

The whole story started for me back in January 2008, when a phone-call from the BBC asked me to drive over to Vera (about ten kilometres away) and take some photos of a house being demolished. A Brit’s house (otherwise, the BBC wouldn’t have called). The home in question belonged to Len and Helen Prior. They had built in a quiet area outside Vera, not in a flood-plain or a national park or near a beach or on a projected train or road route, or even in a place of particular beauty. The house, in an area where other similar houses stood on their own acreage, had a pool and a garage.
The Junta de Andalucía, in those days controlled by the PSOE and famously corrupt, had produced a rule that towns could only grow by a fraction every eight years. A tiny village by one house perhaps, a city by several thousand. Coupled to this remarkable legislation, which naturally favoured the best-connected constructors, the ecologists (who merrily ignore the huge environmental damage caused by the plastic farms and other profitable sources of contamination) were firm in their opposition to building houses without proper permits (and they didn’t mean town hall permissions) and they had the ear of the government in Seville.
In Andalucía, Seville rules the roost and no one particularly cares what happens in the farther reaches of the autonomous region; and Cantoria, Vera, Zurgena, Albox and Arboleas in Almería were very much off their map – until the ecologists alerted the authorities to the one house per thousand (or whatever) rule, with the result that the town halls discovered that they didn’t have as much power as they had thought. This isn’t the time-share pitch, or the ‘off-plan’ gamble, or many other sucker-scams, since everyone here wanted it to work: the buyers, the sellers and the local business-people – after all, the funds brought from abroad would keep the local supermarket, pharmacy, house-painter and bar in operation...
In 2008, the homes, aimed primarily at foreign buyers, were abruptly deemed illegal and Andalucía discovered that it had 300,000 of these (the size of the city of Málaga) which, the cheques having cleared, they were now noticing. This meant threats, rare demolitions, fines, invalid title deeds, and the water and electric cut. It also meant ruin for many builders and even more so, for many foreign buyers – including the Priors.
The stories of this example of Spanish duplicity were reported around the world, causing the local businesses in the small towns – where there is no tourism and not much of anything else – to lose their chance to grow; and indeed, some of them are now listed as ‘pueblos moribundos’ (dying villages) or even abandonados (empty).
After all, few foreigners want to retire to a Spanish city.
Maura Hillen from the AUAN
A home-owners association from the Costa Blanca – the AUN – had been working on a different but equally trying problem: the ‘land grab’ (roughly: one’s home or surrounding land could be claimed by a neighbour who had obtained papers to form an urbanisation). They helped set up in Albox a sister association called AUAN which, with no official support, eventually managed to get the Andalucian building laws changed, beginning with the cosmetic of changing a vivienda ilegal into alegal (a word that, if it existed in Spanish, would mean ‘sort-of-legal’). Maura Hillen is an Irishwoman and has been at the helm of the AUAN, working tirelessly with endless trips to Seville with the association’s lawyer English-born Gerardo Vásquez and her partner organisations including the SOHA (based in the Axarquía of Málaga with similar problems) and the Chiclana (Cádiz) based FEC and others.
This weekend, a press release from the AUAN began: ‘Maura Hillen has stepped down as President of Abusos Urbanísticos Andalucía No (AUAN), after 11 years in the position, during which she received an MBE from the British government for her work. Maura will continue as an external consultant and spokesperson for the Association, to help the new President, David Fisher, from Chiclana, a city with 15,000 alegal houses, at least during the period of transition...’.
Well done Maura, you worked very hard at this (when all you really wanted to do when you moved to Spain was to retire quietly).
Len and Helen Prior, unknown to Spaniards (who are familiar with few anglo expats beyond the TV football pundit Michael Robinson, the Irish historian Ian Gibson and the Canadian TV English-language teacher Richard Vaughan) became, unwillingly, the world’s best known expats outside of Spain. Their house was demolished (the BBC sent me a cheque for £100) but their pool and garage, for some reason on a separate escritura, survived. Despite it all, the Priors, with their best of British pluck – you can imagine them brewing cups of tea in the midst of the Blitz in 1940 – never left.
Eleven years later, they still live there, in their converted garage.

A fragment from a bitter poem by the late British poet laureate John Betjeman:
‘...That builder caught the wife and me all right!
Here on this tide-less, tourist-littered sea
We’re stuck. You’d hate it too if you were me:
There’s no piped water on the bloody site.
Our savings gone, we climb the stony path
Back to the house with scorpions in the bath’.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Coronavirus: What the Horses Don't Know.

It must be a hard time for those who are currently trapped in a small apartment. A couple of rooms, and someone always on the family computer playing games. The cat ('I told you, we should have got a dog') scratches itself fitfully waiting for what turns out to be the last tin of Whiskas. The beer ran out two days ago. Perhaps there's a minuscule terrace to escape from the mother-in-law, but those poor souls are going crazy under house arrest.
The government said two weeks, then two weeks more. They'll likely have to add another few weeks after that.
How can people survive like this?
Apparently, one third of the entire planet is in lockdown. Every day, famous people - politicians, actors, princes and clowns - are reported to have caught the plague. Probably they will survive. Not for them the gigantic gymnasiums full of beds and harassed nurses, forced to wash their face-masks as there aren't any spare. An ice-rink serving as a morgue. Tearful doctors on Facebook videos. Old people in a residence run by the nuns found dead by the army. No one allowed to attend a funeral for a final farewell.
The government spent years cutting back on health costs, closing down units, research departments and staff. It's all creaking at the edges. It's worse in Italy, and now getting that way all over. In America, a teen is turned away from a Los Angeles hospital and dies miserably a few hours later. Like 27,500,000 of his fellow citizens, he didn't have health insurance.
It's serious. Some people are asking to see how far the limits are, whether they can walk to the second-nearest supermarket, or if they can go there every day. Maybe just a teensy-weensy drinks party with the neighbours. Perhaps if I go outside at night down to the beach and keep well away from others...
Many people have to go out. They still have a job. I feel for them.
There's a page which reports the daily stats for Spain, other countries and for the whole world. Today's stats (Friday 27th March) for Spain are 64,059 cases reported (are all cases reported? Probably not). So far, there have been 4,934 deaths, including today the 48-year-old head of the GAR (Spain's answer to the SWAT). So, evidently it is not just unfit elderly people who are at risk.
I'm lucky. I live in a house in the campo with stables and horses that need feeding. While the business is closed (it's a riding school) and there's no money coming in, and horse-feed is expensive, we were stockpiling before the crisis. Yes, while you've been hoarding toilet paper, we've been hoarding straw.
In our case, we are three. Me, my wife who is the expert on horses but is in a wheelchair, and her large strapping son who is 21 and gets to muck out the stalls. This means, in my case, around four hours a day lugging bales of this and sacks of that, plus watering all the 34 horses under our care - of which 33 of them are extremely dangerous (one of them trod on my foot yesterday) and the 34th is a week-old foal (but with a certain look in her eye...). Without lots of exercise, rather like those poor folk cooped up in a small apartment, horses get aggressive and bouncy. And me, I'm getting long in the tooth.
There's no one else to help because, you know, lockdown.
So, we don't go out, or at least we haven't so far. The chickens provide us with eggs and the bread-lady delivers (for how much longer?) two loaves every day. We have our own olive oil from last winter's crop and we have tomatoes and papaya. It could be worse.
The TV is on, and we watch as the Government makes a hash of things. We wonder if the other lot, the opposition, would have made a bigger cock-up; but with luck, we shall never know.
Try and get through this. Perhaps we will become better people following this terrible time.
Stay safe.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The great Polansky

‘Hello Lenox. Listen, I’ve just heard that poor old Ric is dead’. It’s Pedro del Puntazo on the line. We talk a little as we remember Polansky, a giant among the Mojácar foreigners.
Ric Polansky came to the pueblo from Mason City, Iowa, in the late 1960s. His brother Paul had invited him over. Paul worked with a businessman from Madrid called Manolo de Ayo in a lonely place called Lomos del Cantal on the then undeveloped coast of Mojácar. It is funny how times change. In those days, few people were interested in living so far away from town – and on the playa too. You could pick up land then for a peseta per square meter. Paul was a very blond, tall and attractive man whose job was to look for buyers for the houses that Manolo Ayo had just built and charm them into buying a place. Ric joined the company and shortly afterwards, he and his brother took over the business.
It is remembered as the ‘golden era’ of Mojácar, at least by those who lived it. Years later Paul left the area and went to live first in London, then in the USA and now as a writer and poet, he commutes between Serbia and Italy. Ric on the other hand never wanted to leave Mojácar and he remained focused on the construction business which he (and Paul) had now expanded to the Cortijo Grande in Turre. Years later, with the rise of the Mojaquera families and the extraordinary opportunities and demand in the construction business, Ric complained: "I go to the town hall with a project and I have to wait a year, while other folk get theirs rubber-stamped right away." His business faltered and he discovered that he was obliged to deal with one bank-manager after another, sometimes escorting one out the back door as another waited at the front. He told me that he had to juggle mortgages on his properties, to use some as guarantees to lift the loads off of others. Tricky times, he would tell me.
I knew Ric from the beginning, when, as they say, he had all his hair. He was an active person: he played tennis and golf and he travelled a lot, especially to Peru, where he explored with the best of them, looking for ancient cities and other relics from the Incas. He would tell great tales about his adventures. I remember one where he was caught in a gold mine hundreds of miles from nowhere together with some thoroughly dangerous people and Ric with a broken leg.
In Spain his great passion was bullfighting. He knew many matadors and was well known to local aficionados. He never missed the bullfights in Almería, and with his marked resemblance to Hemingway, chubby, bearded, clutching a wine-skin and wearing a red beret, his presence was highly considered and appreciated in the ring. One day, invited by Canal Sur TV to a recording, he came face to face with the famous Granada bullfighter El Fandi. "You do very well, but you have to get closer to the bull," he said in front of the cameras to the shocked champion. His Spanish was not of the best, but for some reason, everyone always understood him perfectly.
Sometimes he would invite me to go and have a curry lunch. Curry, as some Spaniards may not know, is an Indian culinary invention very popular with the British, and the spicier the better. Its great value is that you have to drink large glasses of beer to alleviate the burning in the throat. There are a considerable number of Indian restaurants in Mojácar and Turre, aimed strictly for the palates of the Saxons. Ric in later years could not drive due to health reasons, but who still liked to have a pint or three, would call me (he would bellow down the phone, 'Say Lenox, fancy a curry?') so I would pick him up from his house - a huge mansion located in privileged heights on the Mojácar road towards Carboneras - to go eat. Well eat and drink. Ric, by now very fat and in need of two sticks to help prop him up, hardly fit in the car and he resolutely refused to wear a seat belt. It is a wonder to me how I always managed to complete my run and return home without a fine after a titanic meal of beer-dipped curry. Over those meals, and the brandies that followed, we spent happy times as Ric always had something outrageous to tell. He wrote up his adventures in many articles which appeared in the local press, both in English and Spanish. The reader never knew what he was going to read, but he knew he was going to laugh.
The last time I was at his house, there was a team from Antena3 TV recording a piece about the Mojácar hippies in the sixties.  Ric, who had never smoked a joint in his life and in those days tended anyway to look like a Coca-Cola swilling Mormon, and I, who was fifteen years old by 1970 when the period in question had come to an end, were perhaps not the most appropriate people to deal with the subject, but we took advantage of our imagination and we gave the reporters what they wanted, that is, orgies, cannabis parties, alcohol ... and whatever else we could invent.
Ric had three children. Jobi, the second, died young a few years ago. He also had two adorable twin grandchildren from his first-born, Luke. He liked to show his prized photos of the little brothers running around Alaska, where they live. His youngest son, Micah, who works in New York, is a passionate marathon runner. And of course, there is Ric's wife, Karen, who for many years has led the direction of Paws, the animal protector in Mojácar.
Ric was one of the greatest of all the peculiar people who arrived in the pueblo in the early days, where everything still needed to be done. He was very visible and boisterous, quite impossible to ignore when present. Latterly he had been in poor health and he preferred not to be seen by his friends. But every day, on Facebook, he gave us a sign that he was still alive.
With the coronavirus we will not be able to go to his funeral. So I must look forward to the day when we can raise a memorial to the Great Ric Polansky. My friend Ric.

Traducido del original en Almería Hoy aquí

Monday, March 16, 2020

Charles Baxter

Charles Baxter had been living in Mojácar since around the time we arrived, in 1966. He had a house in the valley near ours (that's our place in the picture, at the foot of Old Mojácar). He was the doyen of society in Mojácar, being both an obscure American TV actor and gay.
From his valley home, he moved to the pueblo, buying and fixing what would one day become La Muralla restaurant. That's where this picture was taken. Later on he sold the house and moved into and looked after the Castillo, a large house on the top of the village owned by a wealthy American family.
Charles had a 'companion' called Antonio who was a nice young chap from Cádiz. Antonio always managed to look slightly embarrassed, but was mothered by the horde of willing foreign matrons who circled around Charles.
Each year on July 4th, Charles would hold a champagne party in the Castillo where we were all invited (generally speaking, us foreigners that is) to attend, wearing red, white and blue. My dad didn't like him much and took pains to let Charles know, although he would graciously pretend to not notice.
When my dad died from cancer, fortuitously two days before Charles' annual party in 1986, Charles said in his speech (delivered as always from a terrace above his adoring crowd), 'Well, that was typical of Bill, not only trying to trash my party once again, but on this occasion succeeding'.
Barbara Napier, Jan, Charles and Paco Marullo
Poor Charles. When the foreigners demonstrated in 1988 against the ludicrous re-modelling of 'Mayor Bartolo's fountain', Charles was the ringleader of a group of placard-carrying Brits. The Mojaqueros fell on them in the main square (saying afterwards 'we are against the fuente too, but it's no business of the foreigners to complain'). Charles was briefly arrested by the police, until Silvio Narizzano, another gay film-character, gave the mayor a bunch of flowers and a kiss in front of the indignant crowd (much to the mayor's horror, no doubt).  Shortly after this, as the forasteros and the local people broke forever their full integration and concord, a peculiar (and improbable) story emerged of Charles assaulting his gardener.
Joy Angliss with Charles
Charles Baxter disappeared from Mojácar shortly afterwards...
He is reported to have died in Fort Lauderdale in 1998. 

Friday, March 13, 2020

Apocalypse Now

My first end-of-the world experience was a novel read at the tender age of twelve: John Wyndham's 'Day of the Triffids'. You may remember it - three-legged plants which could up-root themselves and stumble aggressively across the landscape. They were equipped with enormous whip-like stings and the world (except for our plucky hero) had all gone blind.
They made a very bad film of it in 1963 and, apparently, various versions came along later. An early Mojácar resident called Daniel Aubrey was said to have been involved in the original film as a co-writer.
The story, like so many others in a similar vein, has a hero (which we must always identify with) and lots of dead folk, either simply dead, or clambering out of their graves and away after you, occasionally muttering to themselves their sickly menu: 'brains'.
There are many other tales of general doom like a cataclysmic asteroid crash, or a mega-volcano or an alien attack from the Planet Clunk. We've read them often enough, or seen them at the movies. Now, we have an Andromeda Strain story; only, this time it's for real. No heroes in this one unfortunately, and any of us could be dead in a few weeks.
I'm sixty six, and egotistic enough to suffer from mild solipsism - the philosophy that the world revolves around me. That's why fiction is so attractive, because it feeds on this selfish trait that we all have. Me, myself and I. So, an elderly fellow like myself, who has had a wonderful life full of rich experience, must now convert myself into the hero from I am Legend (but without the zombies) as I munch on old bits of rice and cackle over my last roll of lavatory paper. Perhaps I'll have a gun and a dog (I certainly do in the fantasy version).
It started a couple of weeks ago. Until then, it was just another scare lurking at the back of the news like Ebola or Sars or the chances of the lunatic Vox party winning the elections here in Spain. Then, with a dozen infections in the country, it was clear that things were going to get difficult. As I've suggested above: difficult, yes, but exciting too. Maybe we shall have some high-old adventures, in the best deserted castle beset by demons tradition, and since I'm 66, maybe it's time to check out anyway while cheerfully singing '...if the cocaine don't get you, the morphine must...'.
A week later, and the cases in Spain had risen to several hundred, while the news today is of many thousands of people infected. I was in the supermarket this morning, buying vodka, and there was no meat, no lavatory paper and queues of people at the till, their carts loaded with dried beans and other disgusting things. A few of them were wearing masks, whether as a fashion-statement, or perhaps to keep themselves from touching their faces. All very exciting.
A few towns and barrios have been isolated in Catalonia and a number of public figures have declared themselves infected. Schools have been closed down and the mad president of the USA has banned flights from Europe (but not, oddly, from the UK, where the equally insane leader Boris talks of tens of thousands of 'loved-ones' pencilled in for the high-jump).
We have horses here that need feeding and watering, plus the usual chores of domestic life to respond to (less food-shopping) like posting a birthday card and getting the car inspected. Life goes on, until, of course, it doesn't.
Just the one question for now: which comes first - the end of the crisis, or the end of the rice?


Friday, February 28, 2020

The Roundheads and the Cavaliers.

It's no secret that I harbour a strong dislike of the newspaper now known as The Euro Weekly (or 'The Weenie' to its detractors). The paper, which started out (both numerically and historically) as The Entertainer, took over its new name in
April 2002, three years after it was 'purchased' from me. To say that, from April 1999, I entered into crippling poverty, coupled with a 120,000€ mortgage on my house for old printing debts as an unexpected consequence, probably explains in some small degree my dislike of the product in question.
Here, though, I'm going to contrast The Weenie with another local English-language freebie, The Olive Press.
When I ran The Entertainer (1985 to 1999), it was meant to help both English-speaking readers (and myself, for that matter) learn more about this beautiful country we had chosen to live in.  Articles concentrated on Spain's gastronomy, its history, its culture, its attractions, its towns and cities, its people and its politics. The Olive Press, particularly in its print edition, leans towards the same philosophy.
The Weenie however, appears more concerned, after the obligatory front page piece culled perhaps from the local diario, plus a regular nod at the local dog-pound, to write about events in far-off England. The editorial this week, for example (Feb 27th), is about a row between several (unheard of) British pop stars at some event in London.
I think the reason for this is that the paper is eagerly read by British exiles, rather than expats (we won't worry ourselves here with those individuals who piously consider themselves 'immigrants', because they'll obviously only be reading El País and El Mundo). Exiles pine for their home, the fatherland, and tend to think that Leapy Lee is a superb columnist, while expats on the other hand are furiously enthusiastic for all things Spanish (bullfights excepted).
Beating the 52/48% by a large margin
Hard immigration to the UK: 76%
Two reader-opinions culled from recent Weenies support my contention of their readers' galloping support for the current political mess in the UK, faithfully reflected in the content. The paper, it seems to me, is ideally aimed at those who advertise full British breakfasts and who like to watch satellite TV shows (what will happen to that after the Brexit deal is sealed?). Otherwise The Weenie seems to strongly contradict its reason-to-be. Maybe I'm being harsh, but how much of the content is devoted to news from the UK; dogs, cars or beauty; or columnists who comment on the 'fings back home'?