March 24, 2008


On the way back we went past the relojería at Lascellas: the digital clock hanging outside said, in bright red numbers, 20:21. I looked at my watch. It was 20:26.

March 22, 2008

Getting away with it

On Thursday morning, coming into Morillo de Tou, we came around a lefthand corner, blind because of the mountainside around which the road was bent, and saw a car coming towards us in our lane, still trying to overtake although he had run out of time and room. I barely had time to notice he was there, let alone to take evasive action. I probably couldn't have done anyway - the road was protected on my right by a barrier, there was a queue of traffic on the left and in front of me, the other driver's car. No room, no time: in fact I didn't even have time to notice, though R did, that he was on the wrong side of a no-overtaking line.

By the time his presence had registered he had found some room, perhaps provided by some other driver braking. He had dipped back into his lane and I was past him, almost in the same movement, almost sharing precisely the same short section of passing time. At least it felt like that - but perhaps the absence of time to react, the absence of time to properly recognise what was happening, the absence of time between those two events, conflated the two and brought them closer to an overlap than they genuinely were. He was gone, as quickly as my life might have been gone: no sooner were we in danger than we were out of it.

They say that sometimes, when accidents happen, you see it in slow motion, as if you had plenty of time but could do nothing to change what was going to happen. Perhaps when the danger passes, when the disaster exists only briefly, only in an unrealised embryo, there is no such slowing-down. No meeting of eyes between you and the other driver - just the briefest space between our observation of potential danger and our observation of its end. Then it's over, gone, there's nothing left. Not even time to get properly angry with them. Not even time to ask yourself what you would have done, had they found no space to aim for on their side of the road and kept on coming, straight towards you.

I drive slowly, by most people's standards, certainly by the standards of Easter weekend in Spain, wanting to give myself more time to see what's happening, wanting also to drive within the law. From conviction or from caution, or from fear - or from observation, that people overtake on the other side of blind corners, on the other side of the brow of the hill, and from calculation that I want an extra second, an extra half a second, if they do. I do not know, quite, what I would do with it, but I know that I might need it. I might have needed it on Thursday. Or he might have needed it, since he was the one caught in the wrong place with little time to get out of it.

I say caught, but he wasn't really caught. He put himself there. It was only when coming back, much later in the day, that I realised quite how irresponsible, how unspeakably stupid and greedy the other driver had been. Neither the corner nor the end of overtaking could have taken him unawares: there was a long, straight stretch of road before the turn and a road sign, hard to miss unless one wished not to see it, announcing the start of the no-overtaking zone. He knew what was happening, knew, not just at the moment he found himself in no-man's-land and couldn't yet get out of it, but for a long time before, when he planned to overtake, when he surveyed the road and the traffic ahead of him and asked himself if he wanted to do this now. He knew he might be gambling and decided it was worth the gamble.

It was when I realised that, when I realised that he'd had so much time to think about it first, that I really became angry with him: that was when it ceased to be mere stupidity and became, instead, sheer wickedness, the taking of risks with other people's lives, the taking of risks with the lives of strangers. Presumably, he thought he could get away with it. Presumably, he thought somebody else would always brake. Presumably, he thought it would be all right.

March 19, 2008

But this is England

It was a very English day this morning: a little cold, a little rain, the raindrops making thin lines on the windscreen like robins' footsteps in the snow. Not really rain at all, more a touch of moisture carried by the wind. That slight dampness, that is England: it's a dampness that I miss, particularly when I feel the hot wind in the morning, a dry wind, something that I never felt in England, where the wind always serves to alleviate the heat rather than intensify it. I do not think I have seen dew here and mist is practically unknown - fog, I've seen, and driven through, thick between Huesca and the village last December, as bad as anything I've seen in England. But even when you see patches of fog thinning out up in the mountains it never seems like mist. The dampness, the feeling of dampness, is not there.

The hot wind should soon start to blow, but not yet: we have been having el cierzo, the Mistral of Aragón, blowing cigarette ends along the edge of the plaza and into the shop doorway, tearing at our notices announcing cuentacuentos. Cold, but dry, too cold to be anything else, blowing into my cheekbones, wrapping me in my football scarf and making me hurry home. But this morning, it was less cold, and a little damp, not too much, just right like a sandwich and a cup of tea.

At which point, I stopped reading

"HR consultancy People Risk Solutions"

[from, via, also see]

March 18, 2008

Mi entierro con María Callas

It was International Poetry Day last Friday and there was a poetry recital at the Civic Centre. I went the year before: I performed Spike Milligan's There are holes in the sky - in English, following with a Spanish translation* that was not my own work. But I have been here two whole years now, two whole years this coming Friday, and I thought that this year I should try and exercise the little Spanish I have learned and write a verse myself.

I have learned little enough in those two years. It has been hard, hard, not only hard because I started from the very beginning, with no Spanish at all save the few words like matador that everybody knows. Not only hard because I started at the age of forty and forty is thirty years too late to start learning a language properly. Not only hard because I have no time, no formal lessons and no time to have those lessons, because I spend most of my day trying to run a shop and much of the rest of it trying to recover from the effort. Not only hard because of flooded flats and corrupt residents' associations, because of insurance companies that pass the buck to one another and take sixteen months to pay, because of water that does not work and post that does not arrive, and because of all the stress and anger that these things produce and the lack of motivation, the lack of a desire to be here and to stay here, that results. Not only hard because of the enormous, unanticipated stress of being without language, of being almost unable to make oneself understood and almost entirely unable to understand. I need to learn and I am not able to learn nearly quickly enough. And because of that, I am tired, and stressed, and angry, and because of that, I cannot learn.

But I have learned enough to write a short verse, to find some sounds in Spanish that chime together. It has taken two years to get there, and two years is two years closer to death. So the subject that came to mind was my funeral, and the music I'd like to have played when it happens. And so I wrote, and then I spoke, and then I left the stage.
A mi entierro
El aria
"Casta Diva"
Cantada por María.

Me gustaría mucho
Como quiero que lloren
La gente

Y tengo
De qué sin María
No haya lágrimas
Para mí.
I didn't say it was TS Eliot. I didn't say it was Joseph Conrad.

[*Hay agueros en el cielo
Donde entra la lluvia
Pero los agueros son muy pequeños
Por eso, la lluvia es fina.

March 17, 2008

How are you kipping?

Manolo asked me just before he cut my hair. How are you kipping? He asked me three times, I think, before I realised what he meant. Can't complain, I said. Musn't grumble. He had no idea what I was on about.

I've stopped teaching English, not in principle, but in practice. (Manolo's not my student. Somebody's, presumably, but not mine.) I'm still open to offers for the right student, but they'd have to be different to most of the students I've had previously. I could never rely on them not to cancel at the last minute: eventually I'd start expecting the text before it came. They couldn't see it: not that I had made an arrangement to see them, nor that I had organised my time to that effect, nor that I might have wanted to do others things in that time which I could no longer do. Nor even that the money they were paying for the class was basically my salary, money I needed and needed to rely on.

I looked around, after a while, for a colloquial equivalent for "messing me about": I couldn't really find one. Odd that the concept should be so difficult to express in the language of Spain.

I wonder whether foreigners are not looked on here as teachers are by younger pupils: who are surprised to see the teacher out of school, who must imagine that the teacher lives in the school and exists only there. Foreigners do not live, as other people live, and do not therefore have the same needs and requirements. They exist only when you see them in their employment. You are surprised to see them outside that role. You did not think of them outside it.

One thing I tried to discourage the students from doing, as it happens, was pursue their interest in learning colloquial English phrases. They all wanted to do so: they thought it would show how much they knew real English, English as it is spoken and therefore English as they wished to speak it. Of course - though I could never get them to understand this - the effect would actually be the opposite. Because to speak a language colloquially, you have to demonstrate your comfort with the language, your identification with it.

You can use and understand its many stock phrases, which do not mean exactly what they say: and you can understand (as Manolo, of course, did not) the responses too. You can ignore its rules of grammar and pronounciation, as colloquialisms do. You can express yourself precisely by avoiding the requirement to express yourself precisely. You can do this because you grasp, from years of living with the language and inside it, what the phrases mean and what they do not mean, when to use them and when they are not used. You demonstrate your confidence with the langauge. You show yourself to be an insider.

But use them wrongly, pronounce them wrongly, and instantly you achieve the opposite: you betray yourself. You show yourself to be an outsider. You demonstrate your lack of confidence. You do not show that you're trying, nearly so much as you show that you're failing. You make a fool of yourself. Naturally you do, when learning a language: it's your function. You are the outsider, the clown, the one who fails, the fool. But who would choose to make oneself a fool? What kind of fool does that?

March 14, 2008

I am spending too much time on the internet

I took the weekly BBC Online news-trivia quiz. I got all seven questions right.

March 13, 2008

Grammar depreciation rates worsening

The current economic uncertainty, coupled with green taxes, are making car depreciation rates worse.

March 11, 2008

Bloody waste of time

I've had quite a few letters printed in the London Review of Books, though the one time they comissioned an article from me they changed their mind and never printed it. I've not had a letter printed since I moved abroad, quite likely for that very reason: by the time I actually recieve the magazine they've probably already had all the letters they want, from British readers or from overseas subscribers who read it on the internet. I don't: it hurts my eyes.

That's the way it goes. The latest issue contains a rather overlong and splenetic letter from Edward Pearce attacking a piece by Eamon Duffy defending (to a degree) the régime of Bloody Mary. Perhaps they should have waited for mine: it made a better point in a rather shorter fashion.
Dear LRB

In his lecture on the religious executions of the Marian Church Eamon Duffy writes, first, that "this was the most intense religious persecution anywhere in 16th-century Europe" and second, that "the case can be made that made that in 16th-century terms the burnings were inevitable". He does not, regrettably, explain how these apparently contradictory claims can be reconciled.



March 10, 2008

Guest post

At the Cedar Lounge Revolution

March 07, 2008

Farewell to the Spanish working class

Apparently the student vote is going to be crucial in the General Election on Sunday. At least, one assumes so, since judging by the cross-section of the electorate interviewed in this BBC story, five out of eight Spanish voters are students.

March 05, 2008

Memories in a box

I played chess on Saturday in the Athletic Club of Huesca: the sets were nice, polished pieces on wooden boards. I have seven or eight sets at home, most of them pocket size or small, portable sets though I do have one expensive set, a marble one, in need of repair. In truth it isn't mine in the first place, though I have forgotten whose it is: I have carried it about, with my books, from place to place for years longer than my meory can cope with. I only play very occasionally with a good quality set: sometimes they have them on the top boards in a tournament, so if I've won a couple of games in a row and find myself temporarily close to the leaders, I can enjoy the privilege of playing with more expensive equipment until it's time to return, the next round, to cheap plastic.

In truth the standard of the pieces doesn't matter, provided that they're clean, unbroken and recognisable in shape. If anything, they were a distraction: they reminded me of the set my father had. For a moment I thought I saw a red mark on the top of one of the white knights, not, in truth, because there was anything there, but because I remembered the red kings that were printed on top of the knights on my father's set. Not on all of them, but only two, one white, one black, indicating the knight that should be placed on the kingside, and, later in the game, identifying the original square of the knight. It seemed to me a pointless affectation - the rooks bore no such mark, nor the pawns, yet one might as well know their square of origin as that of the knight. But I remember it, and for a brief instant on Saturday, I thought I saw it again, like Orwell seeing O'Brien's missing extra finger.

The set had an expensive board, and an expensive lockable box, a veneer outside, green baize within. I was impressed, and coveted the set: my father said that I could have it one day, the day I beat him at chess. I did beat him eventually, winning a rook ending a pawn down, and asked for the set: but he had either forgotten, or never meant it in the first place, and said no, what he'd meant was that I could have it if I beat him, not in an individual game but in a match. It wasn't what he'd said the first time. It wasn't the last time he lied.

March 04, 2008


On Friday morning I looked out of the shop window into the plaza and caught sight of a stork, flying southwards, more than likely from a nest in the cathedral, across the plaza, descending gently, just as the ground descends from the Casco Antiguo towards the plain.

The flight of the stork isn't, to my eyes, genuinely graceful, but it is languid: effortless, unhurried, almost without flapping its wings. It seems almost half-asleep, unaware of its surroundings, unaware of the human life below. Or if it is aware of it, unworried by it, and unfrightened. I like that: not just the absence of fear but the absence of interest, the human world unintrusive, our sole significance to the stork the way our roadways function as a map.

When aeroplanes come over the Pyrenees to Zaragoza, they find the Ebro and follow it: I think the storks navigate in much the same way. At least, when I walked the other day along the Paseo Ramón y Cajal, which stretches long and straight eastwards out of Huesca towards Barbastro and Lerida, I saw a stork above me, flying straight and along its length, apparently, therefore, following the road. There is a crossroads some distance along and when I reached it, I saw the stork, some way off the road and to the left, much higher, and circling: as if it had become confused between the two roads and was trying to decide which one it had wanted in the first place.

March 03, 2008

Lost horizon

We ran on Sunday, for the first time this year, up to the hermitage and most of the way back, until we stopped to avoid running into the pack of farmers' dogs who were on the road around the lower half of the village.

We ran around the hermitage, admiring the white blossom of the almond trees, and as we came around the building and started back the way we'd come, we could see the last remaining snow, the thinnest of strips on the very top of the Sierra. But beyond that, behind the next hermitage on the hill, just to our north, where there is a gap in the Sierra, we could see all the way to Monte Perdido, fifty kilometres away on the border with France. We came back to look at it again a little later, and caught a touch of sun, even though it was only the second day of March: but Monte Perdido was white as the almond blossom, still covered with snow, looking like a giant iced bun on the horizon.