My New British Passport: Made in France, Printed in Poland
I never asked for a new passport, but last month I received a demand from the Passport Office to renew my old one. This came as a surprise, since the passport is (was) valid until March 2022, but was being withdrawn due to something called ‘Brexit’. As I later discovered, passports of a certain vintage were to be deemed invalid even if they had many months to run before their expiry date.
I was more than a little sad to send in my old EU passport, filled with many interesting stamps and visas. I had become quite attached to it. As for this ‘Brexit’, I am told it is a famous and well-known thing which has beset the times, wreaking havoc upon man and beast alike (many creatures being stranded in transit between this land and others, even as I write). All of this has been impressed rudely upon me since returning to my home in Wales in early December.
I had been living, since August, in a small and remote Catalan village — my family home from home for nearly twenty years —which has no cases of COVID, and in which the neighbours look out for one another, by and large. It is a close community, and despite the typical village hazards of everyone knowing everyone else’s business, it feels like a safe place to be in these hazardous times. There is a genuine sense of community, something almost unheard of in UK cities nowadays. So Mrs Blanco and I weighed up the pros and cons of returning to Cardiff.
Pros were: (a) we would get to see our daughters for Christmas and (b) we would stand a chance of getting a COVID vaccine far more quickly than if we stayed in Spain.
Cons were: (a) we would have to follow quarantine rules, despite moving from a place with no COVID to an area with more COVID per head of population than anywhere else in Europe — see diagram below indicating COVID rates in Wales as compared with UK and Europe, BBC Wales 14 December, 2020; (b) we would almost certainly have to go into a further period of lockdown — there seems to be a glorious indifference to safety here in the UK and, unlike in Spain, face masks are a rarity except inside shops and offices — which, inevitably, occurred just as we were emerging from quarantine; (c) we would, as a consequence of (b) be restricted to taking exercise and walking our aged dog, Bruno, in a city park near our house. But I don’t want to whinge . . . millions of people have it far, far worse than us. At least we have a roof over our heads, food, a warm house, a loving family . . .
Long story short, the Pros won out, and here we are.
Much has been written about British exceptionalism in recent times, including by me, and I don’t especially wish to add to the growing literature, but I must mention just one thing: it strikes me as rather odd when a police chief announces on national radio that it would be ‘un-British’ of his officers to set up road-blocks in order to question and fine persons found to be breaking the regulations on correct behaviour with regard to COVID, as I heard on BBC Radio 4 on Monday’s Today programme. The man in question was the chief of a Northern English police force, I forget his name. I can find no discussion of this in the media, and yet it seems to me an astonishing pronouncement. Does this man think the COVID virus gives a shit about British exceptionalism?
In Catalunya, if you were found out and about in your car at the weekend without a valid reason — and had failed to fill out an appropriate form detailing that reason — you would be fined 300 €, no questions asked. The system works. Numbers indicate that a relatively large fine is something of a deterrent when trying to contain a widespread and potentially deadly virus. How very un-British.
But this laxity has been the attitude of our leaders since the beginning of the outbreak, when Boris blathered on about the God-given right of the Englishman to go to the pub, and look where it’s gotten us, what with much of the UK in lockdown over Christmas, including the whole of Wales.
Back to the passport.
The new thing arrived this morning. I am in two minds about it. Firstly, and against my better judgement, I approve of the colour on a purely aesthetic, if not a symbolic level. It works better with the golden Royal Arms: a lion wearing a crown and quite possibly laughing (or yawning) — and a unicorn, an appropriately fictional beast. Plus ça change.
My photo — in which, as Mrs Blanco helpfully pointed out, I resemble a criminal gang member, possibly even a Mexican cartel boss — does not flatter, but when do passport photos ever achieve more than a passing resemblance to their subjects? In ten years’ time, when the passport expires, and I am a wizened and decrepit old maniac, I may well find it flattering. Indeed, when that time comes, who knows what the alignment of our nation will be? Almost certainly the United Kingdom will be no more. Scotland will be an independent country and Ireland will be united, and I very much doubt that, as a Welshman, I will want to be a citizen of the residual mess of a nation, torn apart by the regressive fantasies of the Little Englanders, and the associated qualities of prejudice, ignorance and racism that their belief system upholds.
Back to the passport.
A new feature is that the title of the document is written, as you can see, in six languages. English, obviously, and then, in descending order:
SpanishThe first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enou
The first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enough. French is (or was) the official language of diplomacy, but is it still? I doubt it. And besides, for many Brexiteers, it is the French, as much or even more than the Germans, that they object to on principle. Especially Nigel Farage, whose surname, of course, is French, whichever way you pronounce it.
Spanish, ahead of English, is the most widely spoken first language in the world (discounting Mandarin Chinese, which is spoken by more than either of them, if not across so wide an area of the world’s surface). So I guess that would explain the inclusion of the language of Cervantes. All told, it strikes me as a generous and inclusive list, which, given the generally monoglot and monocultural attitude of those who demanded the new passport in the first place, strikes me as somewhat counter-intuitive.
Finally, considering the fuss made by the Brexiteers about ‘taking back control’ — that idiotic phrase: take back control of what precisely? — and asserting the UK’s ‘independence’ from those dastardly continentals, it is deeply ironic that my new passport, rather than being an all-British affair, was actually produced by a French company and printed in Poland.
It transpires that in 2018, following open tender under public procurement rules, the Franco-Dutch security firm Gemalto was selected over British banknote and travel document printer De La Rue to produce the new passports. Hurrah for the free market! I hear you exclaim. However, the success of Gemalto in winning the contract proved highly controversial — after all, we took back control, didn’t we? — and the production of British passports subsequently moved from Tyneside to Tczew, in Poland, resulting in the loss of 170 jobs at De La Rue’s Gateshead factory. For the record, Gateshead voted Leave by a 57%-43% majority in the 2016 EU referendum. Gemalto, meanwhile, has since been taken over by the French multinational Thales, a leading manufacturer of advanced weapon systems and munitions (share price 73.36 €).
The blow to De La Rue employees in Gateshead did not prevent the constituency from undergoing an 11% swing towards the Tories at the 2019 general election. Apparently the lure of ‘Independence’ from Europe was too cheering a proposition to be flushed down the toilet by a vote for anyone other than BoJo, despite the shambles of the new contract for the manufacture of UK passports, and the job losses it inflicted on the local community.
It has become almost a cliché in recent years to remark on the conflation of reality and fiction in the post-truth world — both here on Brexit Island, as well as in Trumpland — but really, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
As we creep towards the New Year, and the promise of further months of lies and dithering from an incompetent government, intent on handing out lucrative contracts to their chums for the running of Test and Trace (remember that?) and much else besides, and the unrolling of the various COVID vaccines, and a seemingly inevitable crashing out of Europe, most likely without a deal, I cannot help but reflect on how this royal shitshow might end, and when, if ever, we might recover from the shame and idiocy evoked by those words, British exceptionalism; or whether indeed those words suffice for a condition that seems to be more adequately described as a sort of collective death wish, inflicted upon them by their Etonian overlords, and readily embraced by a significant proportion of the British people.
Journal of the Plague Year (iii)
Reading over the third set of entries, from May, the events described already appear distant, dreamlike, as though they happened in an adjacent or parallel world. Did Trump really suggest we inject ourselves with detergent? It seems like the kind of thing that would happen in only the most abject of dreams, but then again, much of what has happened these past few months would have been unthinkable last New Year’s Eve. I don’t know whether I will continue my journal. Like everyone else I’m pretty sick of the whole damn thing now. And whether we ‘return to normality’ in any recognisable way is another question engaging media pundits. I offer only the merest commentary on that.
The pandemic in the USA takes a dive to new depths of absurdity when Donald Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, recommends injecting detergent as a cure for COVID-19. We are all aghast at the stupendous ignorance of this claim. Here in the UK, George Monbiot’s tweet summed it up: ‘Two million years of hominid evolution, and it comes to this.’ Trump continues to blame China for the virus, whether it came from their nasty chiroptophagia, or else the nasty people in the famed research facility in Wuhan. ‘Nasty’ — a word infrequently used by English speakers above the age of eight —remains the President’s favourite descriptor for anything he does not like.
Whatever its source of COVID-19, the market in Wuhan does sound like a grim place, reminiscent of the public market in Las Animas bay, in Love in the Time of Cholera, where ‘. . . the offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse was . . . thrown away there — severed heads, rotting viscera, animal refuse that floated, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood.’
But China-hating and the bullying of Sino-American journalists won’t get Trump through this disaster, however hard he tries to shift the blame. The laggardly way in which the US government, and its counterpart in the UK, came to respond to the pandemic will no doubt be exposed to scrutiny, although I do wonder whether those responsible will ever be held to account. Despite plenty of warning, the UK government, under its floundering buffoon of a Prime Minister, refused to take the advice of the WHO, and put business invests before people’s lives.
Yesterday, in Parliament, the new leader of the Labour opposition, Keir Starmer, questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that ‘many people were looking at the “apparent success” of the Government’s approach only to learn that, tragically, at least 29,427* people in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That is now the highest death toll in Europe and the second highest in the world. That is not success, or apparent success, so can the Prime Minister tell us: how on earth did it come to this?’ Johnson replied that it was not straightforward comparing death statistics and added that there will be a time to look at what went wrong. Starmer replied that ‘many people are concluding that the answer to my question is that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on the supply of protective equipment.’ Johnson blustered in non-response; he had clearly found the floundering and intellectually challenged Jeremy Corbyn a much easier opponent that Starmer, an internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer. Starmer then asked why has it taken so long to improve the situation in care homes? Johnson responded that there had been a ‘palpable improvement’. But there has been nothing of the kind; and if the number of deaths has fallen, it is because in many care homes most of the residents have died.
A local effect of the COVID Pandemic is that hostilities between the Scottish and Welsh governments on the one side, and the English administration on the other, have become increasingly perilous. It has emerged that the UK has stopped its Foreign & Commonwealth Office and overseas networks from helping Scotland and Wales to access PPE. Even the New York Times reports that Scottish and Welsh officials have raised concerns that the NHS in England is being prioritised for personal protective equipment, though Downing Street denies the accusations.
* This figure continued to mount. On the 20 May it had risen to 35,704; as I post this, it is over 45,000.
Last week Prime Minister Johnson changed the UK Government’s tagline from ‘Stay at home’ to ‘Stay alert’. The problem is that no one knows what that means. Should one be alert while going out to work, or alert while working from home? Who can go to work and who should stay at home? Must everyone be equally alert, or should some be more alert than others? The Welsh and Scottish Governments do not pursue the ‘Stay alert’ policy, telling their citizens to continue to ‘Stay at home’. The Welsh government then announces that English people, however ‘alert’ they might be, are not welcome to come and take their exercise (walking and cycling) in Wales, or to visit beauty spots in Snowdonia and other of our national parks. The Welsh rural police are delighted: this is their dream scenario. They can now go around with impunity telling visitors from Liverpool and Birmingham to ‘bugger off and stay at home’.
Meanwhile, traditional British values are maintained: sales of alcohol rocket and eating disorders flourish. Thousands of people attempt to acquire a dog or other pet; they want company in their solitude during the lockdown. Animal welfare groups are concerned that when the lockdown ends, many of these pets will simply be abandoned. A female transport worker in London dies after being spat at by a man who claimed he had the virus. It is revealed that BAME people are more susceptible to COVID-19 than others, though no one yet knows why.
President Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, announces that he is taking the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19. ‘I’m taking it for about a week and a half now and I’m still here, I’m still here,’ was his surprise announcement. There is no evidence hydroxychloroquine can fight coronavirus, and regulators warn the drug may cause heart problems. The Donald doesn’t care. Besides, since he lies about most things as a matter of course, why would anyone believe him now? He might be taking it, but then again, he might not. And who cares anyway? Well, millions of Americans do, because if the President recommends it, many will follow his example. Although The Donald has a small investment in Sanofi, one of the companies that manufactures hydroxcholoquine, it is really very small, and has nothing to do with his promoting the drug.
Back in the UK, Captain Tom Moore, who vowed to walk 100 laps of his garden in order to raise money for National Health Service charities, has been granted a knighthood by the Queen. ‘Captain Tom’, as he is universally known in the UK media, captured the minds and hearts of the British people by his valiant walk around the garden. The occasion of his 100th birthday was marked with an RAF flypast as well as birthday greetings from the Queen and Prime Minister. He has been made an honorary Colonel by the 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, in which he served during World War Two, and he has received an estimated 140,000 birthday cards. In all this jollity, you might be forgiven for forgetting that the NHS, ravaged by cuts imposed by successive Conservative governments, should not require charitable donations to keep its doctors and nurses safe and its hospitals in working order. My father dedicated his life to working in an NHS that provided care ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and my daughter is currently following in his footsteps. I am sure Captain Tom is a very fine fellow, but must his story be accompanied by proclamations of gung-ho jingoism, and the lavishing of praise on our National Health Service from a government that has spent the past ten years undermining it?
I am not convinced by the argument put forward at the outbreak of the pandemic that the quality of life might improve afterwards; that our citizens will have been so positively affected by the quiet streets, the clean air, the slow incursion of the natural world into city life, a respect towards others’ personal space and a greater awareness of the benefits of silence — that they will insist on retaining those benefits when the plague has run its course. I am fairly certain that everything will revert to the way it was before, but because of certain restrictions and the necessary intrusion of the state into our private lives during the pandemic — which no doubt will continue, with a repression of certain liberties under the guise that they are no longer safe — things will all be a little bit worse.
Journal of the Plague Year (ii)
Continuing with my journal entries over the first three months of COVID-19, here are two entries for the month of April. During this period the roads around the city were gloriously silent, and many more birds appeared in the garden; indeed, it seemed to me that birdsong was louder than before, though perhaps that was due to the absence of nearby traffic. At this stage we didn’t know quite how bad things were going to get, although it was soon apparent that the UK was overtaking Italy and Spain to become the worst-affect country in Europe, despite having had more time to prepare for the pandemic.
Daughter no. 2 lives in London and works as a fundraiser for several London hospitals, including St Thomas’s, where Boris is laid up. Since just before the lockdown, she has been with us here in Cardiff, working from home, and she receives hundreds of messages every day from companies and individuals wishing to donate to the hospitals administered by her employer. One man wants to donate something specifically to Saint Thomas’s, because that is where Boris is, but my daughter tells him this cannot be done, you can only donate to the NHS Trust of which St Thomas’s is a part. The man doesn’t like her reply. Other companies ring in with offers of gifts, specifically for the Prime Minister. How can they be certain their gift gets to Boris? Can the hospital send a photo of Boris (with nurses) consuming their gift? Can they send a photo of the prostate Boris being spoon-fed their gift?
Daughter no 1, a junior doctor who was at the time of the outbreak working in paediatrics, is re-assigned to a general medical ward at another, bigger hospital, where she will begin to treat COVID patients. But she is given three days off, then another three days off, before she starts. There isn’t enough protective equipment; there aren’t enough masks; there aren’t enough gowns. There aren’t enough tests being carried out, and the tests that exist don’t seem very accurate. The tests show a 30% rate of false negatives, which means patients are being sent back out into the community with the virus. The Welsh government order 5,000 test kits from Roche Diagnostic but they don’t turn up. The Welsh government gets angry, makes accusations. Roche Diagnostics say they never had a contract with the Welsh Government for any test kits. You did; we didn’t; you did; we didn’t. This goes on for a couple of days. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Independence party, attacks the Welsh government for failing to locate the missing test kits and refusing to say where they are. There is reason to believe that the 5,000 test kits have been appropriated by Public Health England. The Scottish also claims that orders for protective equipment have been waylaid by the English. How we love to stoke the fires of old enmities.
On the 12th of April, Boris is released from hospital and retires to the Prime Minister’s official country residence at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire. He admits that while in intensive care things ‘could have gone either way’ and heaps praise on the staff who looked after him. He singles out two nurses, who stood by his bedside night and day, so he says, and saved his life. One is Jenny, from New Zealand, and the other Luis, from Portugal. I cannot help but wonder whether Luis is looking forward to being kicked out of the UK once we ‘Get Brexit Done’, according to Boris’ wishes.
The metaphors of war and battle are being bandied about as though we were re-living the Blitz of 1940. However, we could do without the military metaphors. This is not a war. A BBC documentary on the virus takes us into a COVID ward in London’s University College Hospital, where the correspondent presents his report unequivocally in terms of war: “This is the frontline in a war,” he begins. “Every day some battles are won and some are lost.” During his hospitalisation reports on the Prime Minister’s illness are riddled with metaphors of conflict: “He is a fighter and will beat this virus.” Together, “we will be able to win this battle”. “You fight for a swift recovery.” “You are a fighter, and you will overcome this challenge.” Visitors to London parks have been branded ‘traitors’, which is the same taunt used against Remainers in the Battle of Brexit.
By heaping up the metaphors of violent struggle and resistance, language creates a template, or a cut-out in the mind for an enemy to step in, and once we have an enemy — in this case, the virus — we tend to link it with particular groups of people or individuals. The Chinese. The incomers. The second home owners. The foreigners. The others. It feeds beautifully into the UK’s obsession with Brexit, and Trump’s current discourse on China. On 14th April Trump announces that he will stop US funding of the World Health Organisation, for the alleged crime of being China-centric. In the UK, COVID-19 and Brexit have something in common: both of them target the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
“This may be the last stage of imperialism – having appropriated everything else from its colonies, the dead empire appropriates the pain of those it has oppressed.”
Fintan O’Toole, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain
Ricardo Blanco’s Blog is not, as a rule, a place in which I vent my political views or biases, but today I will make an exception. As a Welshman and a European, I need to express my rage and grief at what is being foisted on us.
To all those who wallow in the Imperial dream and who seek to re-float that pompous and grandiose vessel and bathe in the simulated splendour of an odious nationalism, and all the rascally villains whose pockets are so well-lined that crashing out of Europe will not harm them, and the sorry and misled millions whose poverty and ignorance led them to vote for damnable Brexit, and all the hatred and racism and violence that has been and will be unleashed by it, I dedicate this day my profoundest contempt and sorrow.
George Smiley’s anti-Brexit tirade
Listening to the audiobook of John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies as I drive home from work, I am startled by an extraordinary passage in which George Smiley is reflecting with his protégé Peter Guillam on their past as spies, and the reasons that guided him through the Cold War. At one point, near the end, the normally composed George Smiley utterly loses his cool, in what would appear to be a tirade against Brexit and Brexiteers, and little Englanders of all description:
‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.’
It is impossible to ignore Teresa May’s ‘citizen of nowhere’ jibe lodged in there.
Are these the views of the fictional George Smiley, or are they shared by his creator, John Le Carré? The answer is not hard to find. In an interview with the BBC from 7 September last year to mark the launch of the new novel – a kind of coda to The Spy who came in from the Cold – Le Carré said:
“It was terribly hard to write this book during the period of Brexit and the ascendancy of Trump, and I’d like to think that Smiley was aware of the sense of aimlessness which has entered into all of our minds – we seem to be joined by nothing but fear,” he said.
“Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag in one way or another, feels alienated from it, feels a stranger in his own country, and that’s why we find him and indeed leave him in a foreign place.”
Yes, George has abandoned the UK, and lives in Freiburg. He feels alienated by Brexit Britain, as so many of us do.
Alienated and bewildered. How to account for the fact that Jacob Rees-Mogg, ‘a pantomime toff with unpleasant hard-right convictions’ according to the New Statesman, is the favourite of Conservative Party members to be their next leader, and thus, presumably, our next prime minister?
Desperate times indeed. Within the European Union, Britain would have been able to help shape the destiny of Europe, as George Smiley envisaged. Russia, for example, doesn’t give a toss about little England, but would listen to the UK within a powerful European Union. Outside of the EU, we will be marginalised by world leaders, ignored by the developing world and become an offshore tax haven for billionaires floating off into the North Atlantic. Goodbye to George Smiley’s ‘new age of reason.’
When I check in for my flight to Santiago at Buenos Aires aeroparque, the young woman at the Aerolineas Argentinas desk, who I assume must be new to the job, stares long and hard at the cover of my passport. She screws up her face. I can tell she doesn’t like what she sees. Immediately three possibilities come to mind: she believes the Malvinas belongs to Argentina and disapproves of my passport on principle; she disapproves of its faded state, the extremely faint image of the lion and unicorn, not to mention the words accompanying them; she disapproves of me. Or a combination of these. She asks her colleague – as though I’m not there – whether the bearer of such a document (which she waves beneath the other’s nose) requires a visa to travel to Chile. Her colleague shakes her head. The first woman seems disappointed, but checks in my luggage and dismisses me. Haughtily.
I am beginning to think about the state of my passport as a metaphor of some kind. Following on from Alastair Reid’s theory of ‘Being a Stranger’ (see selected previous posts), I start wondering whether whatever is happening to my passport can be made to happen to me, so that I too – my identity, that is – might gradually fade to a point of being barely discernible, thus achieving the ideal state of the stranger: of not belonging to anywhere. Which reminds me – though I would rather not be reminded – of Teresa May’s comment that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
I cannot, at this moment, with all the shit that is going down around the globe, think of an statement with which I agree less, or a mindset capable of producing such an utterance with which I could feel more at odds.
‘The opposite of love’ and the abuse of power: with Gérard Depardieu and John Berger
I missed the film Welcome to New York, a thinly disguised account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, when it was released a couple of years back, but watched it last night with Mrs Blanco. The film stars Gérard Depardieu as ‘Georges Deveraux’ and the first twenty minutes of the film are pretty ghastly, with a lot of fumbling and groping, forced laughter, ice-cream smearing and buttock-slapping, climaxing in a display of loud, ursine grunting from the gross and panting Depardieu, who hasn’t even bothered to take off his raincoat. Later, we are treated to the formidable sight of the actor stripping in a police cell, his stomach unfurling from his pants like a mudslide, under the bewildered gaze of a police guard, who, as Depardieu struggles to pull on his socks, is heard to mutter ‘quite a workout’. But the later scenes between Depardieu and his wife Sophie (played by an exasperated Jacqueline Bisset) are fraught with a compelling and awful tension. In one their arguments, the Bisset character tells Depardieu that ‘the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference’.
But I have begun with a digression, since the comment that the Bisset character makes to her chronically sex-obsessed husband reminded me of something John Berger wrote, in an entirely different context:
The opposite of to love is not to hate but to separate. If love and hate have something in common it is because, in both cases, their energy is that of bringing and holding together – the lover with the loved, the one who hates with the hated. Both passions are tested by separation.
And, of course, separation can lead to indifference, or else arise from it. Indifference to the object of one’s emotions, whether originating in love or hate, leads to, or is born of, separation.
In and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, Berger wrote of his stay in Livorno during the late 1940s. The city was war-scarred and poor, and Berger learned, he says, for the first time, ‘the ingenuity of the dispossessed.’ And he writes:
It was there too I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a lifelong aversion.
Which brings us back to Depardieu, in his role as a fictionalised Strauss-Kahn. In a peculiar little intro to the film, the actor tells reporters he was moved to take the part because he doesn’t trust politicians and ‘hated’ the person he was playing in the film. Now, I don’t entirely trust this contrived little vignette, but concur fully with Berger’s aversion. I have an instinctive distrust of anyone who wants to exercise power, whether in politics, local government, or institutions such as ‘The University’. Welcome to New York is about the gross misuse of power (Do you know who I am? Deveraux asks the terrified hotel cleaner before sexually assaulting her). The arrogance of that question! It speaks of the assumption of power allowing ugly minds to prosper in the exercise of self-aggrandisement. But it is a question that every tin Hitler wants to ask, across the spectrum, and which might better be re-phrased: Do you know who I think I am?
Notes from a Catalan Village: The Grape Harvest
Late September: the tourists have abandoned the beaches, and only a few resolute locals and French day-trippers can be found on a Sunday at Colera’s platja dels morts, where we spend a delightful couple of hours reading and swimming. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable mid-20s and there are occasional overcast days, even rain. The vendimia draws to a close, country roads still dotted with tractors pulling trailers overladen with purple grapes (mostly garnatxa, although more farmers are experimenting with different varieties now, including the ever-popular cabernet sauvignon and merlot).
In the midst of all this activity, we have elections, purportedly to declare an independent Catalan state.
The plastic hoarding that Bruno the dog is so fond of urinating against – Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a coalition of parties promoting a vote for independence at the elections held yesterday – was installed at the top of the village around a month ago. The result of yesterday’s election – with all the votes not yet counted – is that while the pro-independence parties have gained a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, they did not receive 50% of the actual vote. Which means that if this were to be treated as a de facto referendum – and the Independentistas claimed it was – then they have failed (even though they are, of course, claiming otherwise).
I have three main concerns about Catalan independence. The first is whether Catalunya will remain a member of, or be automatically admitted to, the EU. From the threats offered by both Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish president and – on a recent visit to Madrid – David Cameron, the same attitude is being taken by the larger states as was taken over Scottish independence: that there is no automatic entry and Catalunya will have to join the queue for EU membership.
Secondly it’s disappointing, although not surprising, that all of the faces of the candidates – 135 of them – are white. There are a lot of non-white people in Catalunya, especially in Barcelona, with its large Asian, Maghrebi and Latino population. In the country areas there are many sub-Saharan Africans, working almost exclusively in agriculture. Many of them do not have papers. They are politically invisible. And frankly there doesn’t seem to be much hope of the new Catalan state, if or when it exists, embracing pluralism to any significant degree. ‘Race’ is likely to take on major significance in the Iberian countries over the next 20 years. Which is all a bit worrying within the context of the independence movement: do we really need more nationalism at a crucial time like this, when European countries should be embracing a more internationalist and pluralistic identity? Does regional and linguistic identity really need to be framed as ‘nationalism’?
Thirdly and perhaps of greater concern to most Spaniards of all denominations: what would happen to Barça football club in an independent Catalan state? It would not be able to stay in the Spanish Liga, as it would not be in Spain. Would a new ‘Iberian league’ come into being, to include teams from Portugal, perhaps? Or would the great Barça be reduced to weekend features with the likes of Vilanant, Vilafant, and Vilajuïga?
The Dictator’s Ghost
Yesterday, intending to do my civic duties and pay my annual dues (known as the Xaloc) at the village ajuntament, I plodded up the hill, Thursday being one of the two days on which the village hall opens its office to deal with citizens and their affairs. Once inside the ajuntament complex, I notice that on the door of the office itself, a scrap of paper is pinned to the woodwork, declaring that during the months of July and August, office hours will take place on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings instead of Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. Fair enough.
So today I take myself up the hill, and once again the office is closed. A friendly face at the village shop tells me that today is the assumption of the most Holy Virgin, the day on which the Virgin Mary was allegedly scooped up to heaven. For this reason the whole country must stop in its tracks. However, as a regular visitor to Spain and other Latin countries, I am used to this, and do not so much as flinch a northern European muscle.
Digression: Xaloc, the name of the tax, sounds like a Mexican god, but is in fact, I recall, the Catalan name of one of the sea winds (it comes from the Arabic word shaluq, meaning south-east). A Catalan fisherman’s saying goes: Vent de Xaloc, mar molta i peix poc / Xaloc wind: big sea and few fish. Is this how the term came to be adopted to refer to a form of taxation?
My adventure in trying to pay my civic dues could be represented as a flow chart, or else in bullet points, as follows:
i. Ajuntament office hours are on Mondays 10-12 and Thursdays 16-18.30,
ii. in July and August, when they will take place between 14.30-16.30 on Mondays and 10-12.30 on Fridays,
iii. on Fiesta days during those months, when they will be cancelled altogether.
These are the kinds of qualifications that would send Angela Merkel and any self-respecting northern European Eurocrat into palpitations. It is exactly this kind of thing, don’t you know, which causes these idle Mediterranean countries to crash their economies. No sense of civic duty, no sense of Hard Graft.
On my way down through the village, I see something on the wall that I have never before noticed (and I have been coming to this village, on and off, since 1988). Now, the changing of place names is a well known phenomenon in all countries with an historical tendency to regime change: we once spent an afternoon in La Línea de la Concepción trying to track down my mother-in-law’s birthplace, before realising that the street names had undergone at least two revisions since 1926. Here is what I saw:
What would the Generalisimo have made of it all? Well, the answer is clear: it was with the dictatorship that my little tale begins. Franco was directly responsible for both maintaining a crippling adherence to Catholic dogma and a ludicrously top-heavy bureaucracy that Spain has been struggling to free itself from over the past 40 years. And the more feast days, clearly, the more devout your subjects.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Mexican history, pasties, & the fall of Europe
Perhaps nowhere on earth is the contiguity of past and present more strikingly evident than in Mexico. An ancient wall, cracked from an earthquake, stands before a pair of ascending high rise towers, from one of which emanates a constant hammering and pounding that echoes across the hot afternoon. Through the crack in the ancient wall modernity surges skyward, oblivious.
My last night in Mexico City I watch the Mexican cup final in a taqueria with some friends. The match is between Leon and Pachuca. The second of these is known as Pachuca la airosa (Pachuca the windy) and its football team has a curious history. It is the oldest club in Mexico, having been formed in 1901 by Cornish miners who had arrived in the area to work in mines owned byWilliam Blamey at the end of the nineteenth century. The team was augmented with locals who took to the game, and became one of the country’s leading clubs. It is in the Mexican Premier League and has won five championships as well as four CONCACAF Champions’ Cups, the 2007 SuperLiga and one Copa Sudamericana. One detail that truly impressed me was that the dish for which Pachuca cuisine is famed – harking back to those miners – is a variety of Cornish Pasty, known locally as pastes. On Thursday night, despite the howls of disapproval around me (I was evidently in a hotbed of Leon supporters), the pasties won 3-2.
Next day, at the airport bar in Mexico City a very besoffen German with a shaved head engages me in conversation in unstable English. Europe is finished, he tells me, thanks to the dictatorship of Brussels. Ve haf many dictators in Europ, ze last was Hitler, and before that ze Swedish Gustavus Adolphus and ze other was, er, er . . . – he seems in actual physical pain, struggling to remember another European dictator. Napoleon? I suggest. Ja, ja, Napoleon, he says, relieved at what is evidently a gargantuan struggle against alcohol’s tendency to obliterate memory. But now ve haf Brussels and all is finished.
The gist of his argument, as far as I can make out, is that Europe was better off as a collection of independent nation states with their own laws and their own currencies. So you are against any idea of a federal Europe? Ja, he says, nodding his shiny pate with extraordinary vigour. I want to point out that it was precisely because of the continual warmongering between these independent nation states – his own in particular – that the idea of a Federal Europe emerged, but I fear that his grasp of such a concept is imperilled by the dispatching in rapid succession of two more tequilas. What has he been doing in Mexico? I ask. I haf been doing my work, which I do, he tells me, helpfully. He explains that his plane to Geneva leaves at 9.00 pm and he likes to be the last on board, in order to make the others wait. This amuses him greatly and he guffaws into his empty glass. I leave to catch my own plane. I glance at the departures board on the way. There is no 9.00 pm flight to Geneva listed.
Plus ça change
I don’t usually post about politics, but I spotted this on Facebook, and thought it worth sharing.
As we hear more every week about waves of parasitic immigrants and social security scroungers who ride on the back of ‘hardworking families’ et cetera, it is nice to be reminded that these are not the only ones to play the system.
On a related theme, I came across a letter in The Independent the other morning, in which Barry Richards of Cardiff took the Tories to task for not paying interns. Apparently the Conservative Party is “trying to be a responsible employer”. As Mr Richards remarks in his letter:
A “responsible employer” would show care for its employees and ensure that they receive a fair wage capable of supporting a decent standard of living. But then the Tory ethos, from the aristocracy and landed gentry through to today’s stockbroking, City elite has always been to build wealth and power off the backs of other people’s work at the lowest cost possible.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose . . .
Traveller of the Century
Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here.
I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:
One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.
Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.
But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”
Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature: a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.
This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.