Sunday, October 30, 2011

News and Views from Spain

The Castle of Salvatierra, Seen from the Castle of Caltrava la Nueva
Things are happening over here in my adopted homeland. Things of some considerable importance, and not just to the politicians and journalists and professional screamers, but really important, to everyone. There will be a general election on the 20th November, anniversary of both the death of Franco and the execution of Primo de Rivera by the Republicans. Whether there was any symbolism intended in this, an attempt to gather a few votes by association, or it just struck the socialist government as the best date, it is hard to say (because they aren’t going to tell the truth, obviously). The centre-right Popular Party will almost certain win, unless there is some major political upheaval between now and them, and Mariano Rajoy, a moderate man, at ease with normal people, intelligent and an unrepentant smoker (still, I think), will become President of the government. It is possible, but by no means certain, that he will have an absolute majority, giving him some freedom to fight the recession in his own way. What he will do with that freedom, whether it is something that can be solved by politics, is another matter. Cuts in public spending, the encouragement of liquidity, and radical exhortations to work harder, we may take as read. He can’t sack any civil servants, because of the absurd nature of public employment here (a system introduced in the 19thC to try to combat a certain kind of corruption- it’s possible it might be in need of review, but who is going to commit political suicide by telling four million people they don’t have jobs for life any more, and might have to justify their wages like the rest of us?) He will not negotiate with ETA. The PP never has, which is why their local councillors became the target of the terrorists in the 90’s and early 2000’s. He will cut a better figure in the world than Zapatero, but he is not of the clique, as he believes in individual freedom and democracy in a way that many European politicians don’t. Zapatero is not standing. He knew his time was up and left the job of losing to someone else. Typical of the man. Too small in every way. He should never have become President, and he wasn’t meant to be, not even by his own party. It was a fluke. The man who has accepted the job of fighting the election is Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, one of the best and most intelligent of the leaders of the socialist party, a man who is capable of not doing cheap politics when the occasion demands more than slogans and PR. If he takes seriously the job of leader of the opposition we might get some decent government in the next few years. I wonder. The parties are largely financed with public money, and elections are by party lists, meaning that you are not really represented by anybody, not even in the limited way that you are in England. You don’t know who defends your interests and represents your views to the government, who holds it to account in your name. Since MP’s are, because of this system, employed by the party, it is the party that controls their loyalty, their minds and their consciences, and as the party pays them with taxpayers money, the divorce from any real democratic representation is complete. Despite which, it works up to a point. This is a free country. Full of petty bureaucracy, worthless people with little bits of power, prohibitions on all kinds of trivial things, permits for things that should not require permission, and the usual suffocating effects of rampant statism, you can ignore a great deal of it and complain openly and robustly about the rest, you are still allowed to possess, to buy and to sell, to meet and talk to whoever you want, to speak publically and privately and to say and do what you want- up to a point- without having to explain yourself to anyone, and that is probably the closest to freedom it is practically possible to get in this world. In other news, ETA have realised they weren’t getting anywhere by murdering innocent people and have announced a ceasefire. They say it is permanent, but they have said that before. They seem to think that they deserve a prize for this, a prize of their own choosing, which we will have to give them or they will start killing people again. There really does seem to be a mentality among the leaders of ETA that they can make demands about how their defeat and destruction will take place. They are already demanding the release of their prisoners (because Tony Blair let IRA murderers out), and expect to be treated as normal human beings, as though decades of bloodshed could just be forgotten. They have made this announcement because they are weak, and because it is politically expedient. They have not come to realize that random slaughter is intrinsically wrong, that you can’t necessarily kill people just because you haven’t got what you want, that they don’t in fact represent any more than a tiny fraction of the people in whose name they claim to act. They haven’t even realised that they are doomed to continue indefinitely the abject failure of everything they have ever attempted, except for the murders themselves. They have seen that more people voted for their area of the political spectrum when they stopped killing people and formed a coalition with a democratic party. They have dimly perceived that they might do better in the upcoming election if they make a point of not killing anyone between now and then. The new President (anticipating events very slightly) has said he will not negotiate with them, and I hope he means it. There are plenty of democratic organizations and democratically elected politicians who genuinely represent the varied opinions and desires of the Basque people. To treat the terrorists as though they could legitimately speak for others is an insult to them, and to everything they have suffered at the hands of ETA.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In Praise of Beauty

"Miss Josephine Dunbar

Lake District

12th June 2002

Dear Mr Elland,

Thank you very much for your recent letter. It is always a pleasure to know that someone has enjoyed my work, especially a young man like you who might easily find the writings of an old woman twee and tiresome.

It is an interesting question you ask, one that I have never asked myself as such, but I shall now do so and try to find an answer. You ask it of me, perhaps because as a poetess, or simply poet as the younger ones refer to themselves (I think they are right to do so, but for myself I prefer the older form) you imagine I am used to finding beauty. You might even think I know what it is. Let me see if I can help you here.

I have spent my life seeking beauty anywhere it might be found. I have been fortunate in having the means to do this but I can say that I have made it the purpose of my life to find beauty. Or rather I discovered that the only purpose I could conceive of my life having was to experience beauty.

The expression of beauty in my poems is secondary. They are almost a diversion, a pastime, enjoyable (and frustrating) to write, and which serve to set down what I have experienced, and perhaps allow others to feel it too. They may be beautiful in themselves; they are intended to be. But really what I have wanted to do all my life is to contemplate beauty. It is why I live here, and is behind most of what I have done in my life.

It is not at all easy to explain what beauty is. Dictionaries tend to speak of that which inspires pleasure in the senses, or cause spiritual delight. I think it is very hard to define in a way that makes sense to someone who does not understand it. It is more a feeling we all have in our hearts which is revealed by certain things at certain times. We can and I believe we should learn to await and expect those moments, to give our heart the opportunity to see the beauty in something which might otherwise pass us by unenjoyed. Many people fail to notice the beauty around them, much less seek it out deliberately, because they have no time, no freedom of action, of will or of spirit to allow them to do it. It is a great shame that so many people spend their whole lives oblivious to almost everything that would make them meaningful. Perhaps they do not miss it, perhaps they find other things as important to them as beauty is to me. Perhaps they do not think to find a reason, but simply live out of habit. I could not say, and I know that it is very hard to increase the sense of beauty in grown men and women. In children it is easier and highly rewarding. I have frequently had the satisfaction of doing this in schools or with small groups who visit. They are marvellously receptive to beauty and delight in finding it in places they had never previously thought to look.

Fortunately there are people who feel the value of beauty and want to appreciate it more. I could repeat my belief that beauty is the main purpose, at least of my own life, and I cannot imagine another. Most of the people I talk to or correspond with regularly share this view of life, or this passion, in slightly more realist terms. Were you to become one of them I should be very happy to keep receiving and replying to your letters.

You know what beauty is, then. That much is obvious. Trust your instinct in this, because it really cannot be wrong. John Keats said that what the mind seizes as beautiful must be true, a remark I must say I have never been quite certain of understanding. Presumably he referred to artistic truth, which is different from scientific or rational or historical truth, but equally real in its sphere of application. In any case it is certainly true that what the mind seizes as beautiful must be beautiful. So you may have confidence in your own reactions. I repeat, trust your instinct.

Beauty can be found almost anywhere. I don’t, I imagine, need to tell you that beauty can be found in nature, in music, in pictures, in everything we call art, but there is much more to be found. Found, I say, and I insist on this. You discover beauty, perhaps where you or others have not noticed it before, but you cannot interpret or define it into existence.

It is one of the great things that makes us human, together with reason, speech, sense of humour, and very little else I think, but the ability to appreciate beauty is uniquely human because no other creature has anything remotely like it. There are animals that learn from experience, all of them to a certain extent, some of them by trial and error and memory of past failures. Most seem to communicate in some way, all social or sexual animals need to be able to do it. Most mammals, at least, appear to enjoy play and to have fun, especially when they are young. We can see the origin of these things in other animals, but the love and imitation of beauty has no counterpart in the animal world. Courtship displays are an entirely instinctive phenomenon, both in the male creator and the female observer, and are absolutely not precedents or origins. (Cave paintings were not done to impress women, and women did not watch the sunset as they watched the biceps of the menfolk. I think you would agree on this.) Beauty is real and exists in the world, but to see it one must be human, and that gift evolved directly from the human spirit, not from our primitive instincts. That is why I think we are at our most gloriously human when we contemplate and understand beauty. I might also add, as you will have realised anyhow, that it is in my nature to love it above all things.

Where to look for beauty, other than in the places you know of already? Think about these things:

Consider the shape of a blade of tall grass, or an ear of corn, or a branch of a willow tree. Don’t imagine them, go and look at them. Find them when their shape is exactly as it should be, when they are at their finest and proudest, when the weather has been kind to them, and look for the best among them. Observe how the colours respond to the light, how the edges form lines that are sublimely smooth but never straight, how they bend and sway in the wind, however still the air may seem, how they form groups that move not quite as one, but exactly as they should. Enjoy the shape and the movement and the sound it all makes. Do not attempt at first to turn it into anything more than what it is. Do not seek words to describe it or parallels with other beautiful things, less still with works of human creation.

(The idea that man can compete with God is a conceit of those who make art. It is not true, I fear. Human art in any form- when it is anything at all, and it is not always- is an expression of something conceived by the human mind. The beauty of nature, the art of God, if you like, exists for reasons quite different from those we have for creating things, and which are probably beyond our comprehension. They should not be compared, even when one represents the other.)

Do not, as I say, attempt to interpret the sensations which arrive at the senses; just allow them to exist as they are. There is a time later for asking why we love to experience these things, and the answers can help us enjoy them more, but at first you must learn to recognise the inherent beauty. Only we can understand beauty, but it is not a human creation, we did not invent it and we cannot impose it on anything. It is there if we know how to find it.

Look at the human body. There is beauty- do not confuse this with human attractiveness, beauty is far more than that- in many parts of many bodies, in many movements or expressions, habitual or fleeting. Hair can be beautiful, eyes, feet, a gesture. The whole body can acquire beauty because of what it does, and it can do something beautiful while itself being ugly. (Ugliness is quite as real, and at least as common, as beauty. I think it is obvious that one could not exist without the other.) It is curious for example, I thought it most curious when I first observed it, that classical ballet cannot be performed beautifully by ugly dancers, whereas Flamenco can. I have in Southern Spain seen shrivelled old women with twisted limbs make beauty with their bodies to the sound of a Gypsy guitar. Forgive me the rhetorical flourish. It is a distinction I have never been able to explain, something to do with the distance of the performer from the original conception of what is being expressed, I should think, but it is undoubtedly true, I assure you.

There can be, there is, beauty in the shape, the form, the texture, the colour, the pattern of light, the grace of motion, of forgotten parts of the body. Even of parts that a young man like you may not have the habit of looking at. The angle of a heel, the closing of an eye, the way a smile takes shape, the colour of a cheek, the way a sleeve folds around a wrist.

There is in the museum at the Acropolis a series of scenes from the frieze which depicts the Panathenaic procession. One particular moment captured is of a young woman, an unimportant part of that procession, bending to adjust or tie her sandal, which has come loose or is bothering her in some way as she walks. The gesture is not especially graceful, it is rather clumsy, in fact. Yet there is a remarkable beauty in the carving. That beauty is the work of the sculptor, of course, but his skill was inspired by his eye for detail. He undoubtedly noticed what most would not even have thought to look for, a fragment of beauty hidden in the most insignificant part of the spectacle. That is what you must learn to do. You may or may not be a gifted artist, the skill of Pheidias is given to very few indeed, but you can learn to look. You may not have his hand, but you can have his eye.

That last sentence sounds more like a silly old woman trying to be clever than a poetess. I shall leave it in, though, so you know who it is that is giving you this advice. I hope you have written to others as well.

There is a rather absurd notion of found poetry, another conceit of artists, I fear. I object to the name because poetry is created, and can no more be found than can art (unless salvaged from an ancient shipwreck like the Venus de Milo, but that is not what I mean of course.) The expression is used to mean the chance placing of beautiful phrases in technical or other mundane settings. They are no more poetry than Coniston is sculpture, but they may be beautiful. It takes a practised eye, or at least a willing one, to see them and perhaps that is why they are confused with art by some. Do not imagine, then, that there is no beauty in the dictionary, in descriptions of rock sediment, in signs hastily written and pinned onto boards, in the telephone directory.

(As another little aside, I think what these and many other possible sources of surprisingly agreeable language have in common is that they are produced unselfconsciously. The writer is not hoping to be awarded a prize, only to be clearly understood.)

The way the sense respond to the sound of a cricket bat striking a ball must mean that it has some intrinsic beauty, besides being almost unbearably evocative to the true lover of the game..."

On the Search for God

Walking along the banks of the river the other day, and arguing with myself about the truth or otherwise of such thoughts as popped into my head, I was struck by the following, doubtless unoriginal, ideas.

Science will never discover God because one of the axioms/dogmas/assumptions of science is that nothing is, in theory, beyond the reach of human reason. God is almost certainly beyond that reach, being, for reasons of His own, discernible only by revelation. Therefore the scientific method can never find Him as it has defined him not to exist and will always reach that conclusion. It is possible that human reason (groping blindly from paving stone to paving stone, with no knowledge whatsoever of and no way to conceive of what might be off to the sides) is far from being the perfect instrument we imagine, and is even created imperfect for a reason, that it is sufficient for us to recognise and love God, if we choose, and no more.

It is easy to say that there is nothing to suggest the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, being guiing his creation and waiting to judge us when we die, but the mistake that the more vocal atheists make is to imagine that all knowledge must be accessible to human reason. There is no reason whatsoever why this should be so. Militant atheists of the Dawkins/Randi type make rather too much noise, and show up their superstitious horror of anything that lies beyond their ability to discover.

I am a great fan of reason, and a great believer in its ability to provide both knowledge and certainty about that knowledge, but I think it highly arrogant to assume that this rather poor tool of ours- which some wield with great dexterity, it's true- is a universal attractant for everything that is so. Recognise the limits, attempt to push them back, by all means, but do not imagine you can be certain of what is or is not beyond them.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Of Wells

I mentioned the Plaza del Pilar in Saturday’s post. This Pilar has nothing to do with the popular female name Pilar, which comes from La Virgen del Pilar, and refers to a pillar of stone on the banks of the Ebro on which Our Lady allegedly appeared in the 1st C to encourage St James the Great when he was having a bit of trouble converting the Spanish. That pillar still stands, and was incorporated into the magnificent mediaeval basilica that was built on the site, and which lies at a funny angle because of it.

Anyhow, the Pilar in the town here is not a pillar, it’s a different word meaning ‘spring’. The original village came into being because of that spring, and it grew because it was on the royal road from Toledo to Cordoba. People would rest at the spring, eat, buy things, stay overnight, and it became a sort of 10th C Watford Gap.

In the 12thC, after some unpleasantness with the Arabs caused the fortified settlement nearby to be abandoned, the King founded a walled town on this site, more or less guaranteeing its existence, growth and protection. But old names of the place, and still existing names of streets and neighbourhoods, reveal a lot about the intricate relationship between the town and its springs and wells.

One of the earliest names of the village on this spot was Pozuelo de Don Gil, (Don Gil’s Well). D. Gil Turro was the semi-legendary founder. Later it was known as Pozuelo Seco (Dry Well), which is partly why the major settlement in the area moved to a hilltop by the river about 8 miles away. There is a street Pozo Dulce (Sweet Well), at the bottom of which there was once a well of drinkable water. Here it’s common to distinguish between sweet and bitter wells, which is reasonable enough.

There’s another street called Pozo Concejo (Council Well) where the corporation dug a public well to provide for an increasing population at some point. It’s long gone, as has the original spring and the other wells in the town itself, but the names live on, and we remember a little of our history therby.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Memories of 70's Britain

I was talking to a friend yesterday and, looking for an analogy to explain some impression I had of the current economic and political situation in Spain, I was reminded of the case of Britain in the 70’s. A hugely, unsustainably, unproductive public sector, controlled by the unions who more or less dictated their own terms; millions of people paid to burn money; an ever-smaller productive sector struggling to pay for it all; successive governments full of cowards, incompetents and ideologues who could not, or would not, deal with the situation; an increasing number of immigrants willing to do jobs and accept wages that the welfare state, and general prosperity, have made the locals treat with contempt.

The role of the Indian and Pakistani immigrants is being played by the Chinese. Although there have been Chinese restaurants in most Spanish towns for over 30 years, in the last few years there has been an explosion in corner shops and cheap boutiques run by Chinese. They work very long hours, have low overheads and no employees, and offer people what they want when they want it. They give their children Spanish names and make sure they integrate, study hard and don't have to spend their lives working 15 hours  a day 7 days a week to make a living. It all sounds very familiar.

Because of the system of public employment, devised to combat a particular type of political corruption in the 19th C, it is almost impossible to remove the unnecessary, lazy or incompetent. With the problems the country has now there is a need for someone to change a lot of things. Mariano Rajoy, despite his merits (not being Zapatero is a good start), is unlikely to have the guts to do what has to be done. It isn’t just fighting with the unions and losing the next election that’s the problem; it’s also that restructuring the entire economy means a great deal of hardship for many people. In 80’s Britain the result was that by 1988 it was a different country from the Britain of 1979. Without the reforms, without Margaret Thatcher, it would not have happened. But for many people it meant years of hardship before the change caught up with them.

I don’t see any Spanish government in the near future changing the employment conditions of their employees (they certainly won’t ask those of us who pay them what we think). So there will be no 80's in Spain in the near future, but we could do with one.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Town this Saturday (and the Rugby)

There is life in the town today.

There are a number of coloured awnings in the Square. Different groups are doing comedy acts, singing, organising games for the children, handing out leaflets and collecting signatures, in the name of eradicating poverty, Aids, rickets and other bad thin gs. At least they will probably achieve something, however small, and these things can only be done a bit at a time. And they are collecting moent and making their causes known in a friendly way which attracts people to them. In other words, they are decent people giving up their time and energy  trying to do a little good, and with the wit to actually do it.

Unlike the miserable bunch of communists who had attached themselves to a corner of the show. They were spouting the usual rubbish, which I'm sure not even they believe any more, or even listen to. Since nearly all the real poverty in the world is their fault, they can't have much to offer by way of a solution.  And they resolutely fail to appreciate that in order to relieve poverty you have to let people create wealth, when the whole point of communism as far as I can see seems to be to stop that happening.  Still, Viva la Libertad de Expresión!

There was a young evangelist in the Plaza del Pilar, outside the Caja Madrid, standing on a box with what I think were kick-boxing gloveson his upraised hands, speaking about the love of God and how he gives us more than we can possibly imagine. He spoke fairly fluently and confidently and seemed to understand what he was saying. A few people were gathered round, listening, out of curiosity I imagine. I don't think that's the way to make converts, but it gave him satisfaction.

On a different subject entirely, in rugby I'm a Welshman. My great-uncle Cyril played for Wales, it's in the blood. I've seen the Warburton play- it was a terrible tackle, the kind that breaks necks- and I've read the Laws- it is clearly typified as dangerous play- but I'm a bit out of touch with rugby generally as you can't see much over here, and so I lack the context to make any kind of proper judgement. People are saying that, whatever the IRF has decreed, that action is usually a yellow card rather than red. Should I be spitting blood, or just saying 'bad luck' and accepting defeat graciously? Wales should have won in any case; they missed two clear chances near the end. It's a funny old game.

Added: The more I look at that tackle, the less I think Warburton has anything to moan about. It was very dangerous indeed. He lifted the player five feet in the air, turned him over and dropped him on his neck. No, there's no malice, just an excess of adrenaline and poor judgement, but that and bad kicking cost Wales a game they should have won. So if I'm spitting blood it's because the skipper made a fool of himself when he should have known better.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Weekend

Last weekend we were at the farm. Too much work and the painters in the house have prevented me from posting about it, which is probably a good thing since it would read like a dozen other posts on the same subject, but a blogger never lets an opportunity go to waste, so here it is.

There were about a dozen of us. The usual crowd, broadly speaking. Most of them go to the country for the express purpose of getting up late, sitting in the kitchen all morning gossiping, drinking beer, and complaining about their hangovers, rising late from the siesta, and sitting in the kitchen all evening gossiping and drinking sweet rum. Lunch is generally taken in the garden, which is the only occasion on which many of them leave the house, and dinner is a late barbecue which is fun to do but rather pointless as most people are already full of snacks and beer by that time. The dogs appreciate the leftovers.

Your blogger, of course, goes to the country to see the country, to take photos in the (usually vain) hope that one or two will turn out decently, and to walk or ride around the lakes. This time I took one of the group with me. He had asked to join me himself, and said that he often went out cycling with friends, but I suspect he was a bit out of practice. He seemed to flag climbing the final hill past the Cueva de Montesinos*, and for the last few miles home the zest had definitely gone. But still, ‘que le quiten lo bailao’, as they say here.

Everything I could say about the country and the lakes I’ve said before, so here are some photos: new angles, new ideas.

*Don Quijote spent a night in it and had a series of visions which he later admitted were the product of his confused imagination.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Touching Lives- Unanswered questions

Just south of Madrid there is a pair of villages called Pinto and Valdemoro. They have grown so much that there is a gap of only a few hundred yards between them. They have long been used proverbially to refer to a difference so small as to be negligible. Until I checked just now I had always assumed that they were actually linked, and I suspect most people who don’t know the area would make the same assumption.

There is a village down the road from here named after the son of the legendary founder of the town I live in, as though it were a kind of daughter colony, its status reflected in its being given the feminine version of his name. In the last few years it has grown so much that the two towns are now closer than Pinto and Valdemoro.  If it weren’t for the motorway recently built on the municipal boundary, they would by now have coalesced.

I went walking to a shrine on a long hill, a kind of ridge, the other side of that village, on Saturday. The views from the top are not spectacular, but they have a form of beauty, and they fill you with a sense that everything you can see, and which you know so well, is yours. I have been there in the mist, the rain and the wind, but this time it was sunny and I could survey my entire realm.

The shrine is of no architectural interest, but it’s there. Every spring, on a date I can’t remember exactly, the people carry the local Virgin up there, then set up camp and get extremely drunk on cheap wine. I have been there the next morning when they are treating the hangover with fried sausages, seeking the strength to continue the party, and pretending to prepare for the Mass.

On this occasion, as I approached the shrine itself, there was movement. I was vaguely away of people to one side of it. A young couple, I registered, I think. At that I might have noticed no more than the presence of humanity. I stopped to look between the trees to my left at the plain below me and the town I had come from in the distance. A few second only, but long enough for an engine to start up behind me. I turned. It was a moped, riding down the hill from the shrine. The young couple, teenagers, were on it. They both had their faces turned away from me, and the girl, who was the passenger, hid hers with her hands as they passed.

Why had my arrival scared them into running like that? Why did they think I might know them, or care about who they were and what they were doing there? They had gone there to be alone, of course, and I had accidentally interrupted them, but they could have pretended to be watching the crows for a minute or two and I would have gone again. Why were they afraid to be seen? By me or by anyone?

How did it end? Did they find another quiet place? Did they argue? Was the girl angry because the spot the boy had chosen wasn’t as isolated as he had promised? Was the boy angry because the girl had taken fright too easily? Despite their youth, was there a reason they should not have been together?

I can’t answer those questions, because this is their story, not mine. The story, if it is worth telling, cannot be told here. It will be written in their lives, and I will never know it.