Tuesday, 6 December 2022

A Grumpy Parliament

After a month away (I've been in the USA visiting family), I notice that Spain is preparing itself – already – for the general elections to be held (probably) next December, a year from now. The governing coalition parties are naturally beginning to underline their differences, with an eye on the voters, while remaining united against the troublesome opposition parties of the PP and Vox (Ciudadanos is now practically extinct).

Insults, fake news and exaggerations are the weapons of the right wing in the current climate. Maybe such a tactic can be converted into votes. One headline says that there is an unbearable climate in Congress, ‘with several deputies and political leaders speaking of the spiral of verbal aggressiveness that politics has experienced in recent days’. The President of the Madrid Region, Isabel Ayuso, helps this tactic along with ‘We are on the way to a dictatorship, subjected to a tyrant who endangers the rule of law’. She of course means Pedro Sánchez.

The House-Speaker Meritxell Batet has asked the deputies to tone it down – ‘Parliamentary debate should be used to wrangle, not insult’ she said on Monday.

A witty put-down, known as una zasca, is the best answer to a hostile insult, as the strongest words rain down on the Government from Vox’s leader Santiago Abascal. Pedro Sánchez answered one such recent broadside with the comic reply: ‘You are like la Caperucita Roja – Little Red Riding Hood – saying that the forest is full of wolves’.

For the right or the left to claim the next government, the far-right or the far-left will probably need to (once again) be a fellow-traveller. The PP evidently has an evident problem with Vox’s Abascal, and so, inevitably, does the PSOE with (the increasingly fragmenting) far-left of Podemos, the IU, Más País and Yolanda Díaz’s Sumar. Yolanda might be the most popular political leader at the present time, but she is seen as pulling the far-left apart (as usual).

Before next year’s general elections, Spain will have both municipal and some regional elections to be held in May 2023. These will perhaps bring fresh encouragement to one party or another and will be a step forward to the main prize.


Wednesday, 26 October 2022

Saving my Savings

 The banks aren’t what they were. The quill has been exchanged by the keyboard and now there's a button on the street door and a trickster in the manager's office.

My first encounter with a bank was with un corredor - an agent for the Banco Popular. This was the old mayor of Bédar, who used to keep his useful papers, rubber stamp and a modest wad of cash under his bed in a strongbox. One would be granted permission to enter his bedroom and the business would be done, the mayor concentrating as he filled a line in his ledger, and a receipt for the petitioner. Word was, that the books would be transported weekly by donkey to the bank in Lúbrin, a dozen kilometres away.

Back on the coast in Mojácar, we had a proper bank, of sorts, since it wasn’t a bank so much as a savings bank, or caja. These belonged to the Church and in principle they didn’t take commissions. Ours was the Caja de Ahorros y Monte de Piedad de Almería, a kind of low-lender and pawn-shop known to the foreigners affectionately as the Cage of Horrors.

We were treated well there, and at Christmas, the Caja would fulfil tradition by offering their clients a bracer, usually a glass of anís or menta. It probably helped keep their patrons happy.

Later, allied to the Málaga Caja de Ahorros and rebranded as Unicaja, they began to offer sets of crockery to potential customers. A Sterling cheque would take a couple of weeks to clear, but if they knew you…

There was another bank of sorts in the pueblo, the Banco de Jeréz (part of the Rumasa empire), where I kept a company account. The teller, young Marcelo, used to remove a cheque from the back of my chequebook now and again and treat himself to a meal or a bottle of gin or maybe two weeks in the Caribbean until I caught him out one day. The manager returned my missing funds, kind of him, and I don’t know what happened to Marcelo. He’s probably in politics these days. The Banco de Jérez, for its part, went bust in 1992.  So, back to the Unicaja for my banking needs and its occasional welcome drop of anís.

Banks grew in numbers and employees with the building boom, which started the day Franco died and continued until 2008. Then came the ‘restructure’ when 88 different high-street banks shrank down through mergers into the ten we enjoy today, albeit with 23,500 less branches and 115,000 less employees.

As for my favoured banking option with the passage of years, the Unicaja Banco (renamed again) has now joined up with Liberbank (an operator from Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla la Mancha) and, keeping its Unicaja Banco name (sorry about that, Liberbank), has turned into something far removed from its halcyon days as a simple savings bank.

But hey, money talks. Any business one might have is not about making things, or deals, or dingbats, it’s about making money – and who is better placed to make money than a bank? Alright, the Royal Mint I’ll grant you, but after that…

No more bishops behind the door any longer, now they are run by business-folk, or bankers as they call themselves. Indeed, bank staff are now strongly encouraged to sell products to their customers – home and car insurance, health insurance, house alarms (52,03€ per month with CaixaBank and don’t forget to read the small print), investments, Ponzi schemes, crypto-currencies, ostrich farms, precious stones and sundry start-ups while the bank itself invests in property, bicycle teams and volleyball.

If all fails, and there’s the right government in power, then they’ll get bailed out at public expense.

Meanwhile, the Unicaja, having just raised their charges for keeping and investing my modest account to a whopping 20 euros per month, has a sign in our one remaining local office which says that the teller is only there until eleven thirty each morning, and furthermore that (says the sign with satisfaction in a classic piece of Newspeak) ‘Menos es Más’: More is Less, and the handy cashpoint outside now does all kinds of tricks as the disgruntled queue to be found there will happily illustrate.  

A rival lender across town is only open two days a week (Tuesdays and Fridays). How much do they charge customers I ask?

As for mortgages – and some hard-won advice here for the Reader: just don’t.

You may be wondering if my bank still offers a tipple at Christmastime to its patrons. A flute of Bollinger maybe. I’ll get back to you on that one. 

Wednesday, 19 October 2022

Spain is Beautiful, Mostly

 Spain is a fascinating and beautiful country: indeed, someone once said that it is more like a miniature continent. We have high snowy ranges, deserts, savannahs, lakes, long empty beaches (well, in the winter anyway), cliffs, gorges, rivers, forests and some magnificent city centres.

Those cities are full of nineteenth century buildings: apartment blocks and mansions. They will be close to palaces, cathedrals and monuments to a glorious past. Surrounding them, at just a few stops down on the metro, will be ugly modernist buildings, with frumpy flats equipped with a tiny terrace. It is as if the architects were one day taken by surprise by the accountants.

Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be that many good Spanish architects these days, and while it is one thing to see an apartment block appear to be out of place to the ones next door – as if the designer never came by for a good look – there are some truly horrible creations peppered amongst them. The Corte Inglés in Pamplona plated with tin is a fine example; or the notorious Hotel Algarrobico, abandoned since 2006 (but still not demolished); or the unfinished shells of hotels and apartment blocks, like those in the Canaries; or the ten ugliest buildings in Spain thoughtfully put together by Civitatis, including that odd pyramid thing in down-town Alicante and Santander’s remarkable Festival Palace.  In Almería, the old 19th century building that is the Centro de Arquitectura is encased in glass. Franky, it doesn’t look at all comfy. Nearby, what could only be an architectural prank, we have the council building in Retamar, where the metal skeleton of the edifice is outside: standing a couple of metres out from the walls like scaffolding. I have to look away when I pass it.

Torre de la Rosaleda, Ponferrada

A book called España Fea: El caos urbano, el mayor fracaso de la democracia by Andrés Rubio blames the Franco regime for the cheap housing and the cult of mediocrity which followed the uprising of 1936. Perhaps the better architects all moved abroad.

Spain then, is breathtakingly beautiful, but with some ugly addenda. The coast is all but cemented over with buildings, hotels and campsites. The Government says that it is aware that there are only a few bits left to be urbanised.

On the bright side, even the most humble village has seen some investment: some improvement. Perhaps those who moved to the cities for better or for worse sent some money to fix up the old homestead.

Still and all, it’s not the tower blocks, or the occasional exuberance of a middling architect, or a massive hotel… so much as the apparent indifference to the fate of the remaining Spanish countryside (outside and beyond the huge region of the España Vaciada), and above all, our coastline.

Yet, at the same time – 28% of our land is publicly owned and protected: even (apparently) the bit where the massive Hotel Algarrobico rots gently under the warm sun.