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’.