Friday, June 2, 2017

The early 20th Century in Spain

In 1906, on the wedding day of the 21 year old Spanish King Alfonso XIII and his English bride Victoria Eugenie, a bomb was hurled at the royal carriage. People and horses died in the attack but, miraculously, apart from a blood splattered wedding dress, the Royal Couple survived unscathed. The attack reflected the mood of the people of Spain at the beginning of the 20th Century. Ordinary working people were so fed up with the inability of their government to give them decent living and working conditions that they were looking for change and if that involved violence then so be it.

With the dawn of the new century Spain faced serious problems. The rich industrial regions of Cataluña and the Basque Country were agitating for self government whilst downtrodden Spanish workers had organised into trades unions and were taking militant and effective strike action. During the First World War Spain remained neutral and prospered but, as the war drew to a close, inflation, unemployment and unrest rose steeply. By 1921 the government had lost the confidence of the people and, in 1923, an army general called Miguel Primo de Rivera staged a successful military coup. The King accepted the new, unconstitutional, government without a murmur.

Primo de Rivera remained in power for seven years. At first he was popular and people accepted the strict measures he brought in because they were seen as generally good for the country. However, when Spain was hit by the world economic slump of 1929 Primo de Rivera lost much support and there were several attempts to depose him. By 1930 he had even lost the backing of the armed forces and, realising that the situation was hopeless, he resigned and retired to France where he died six weeks later.

With Primo gone King Alfonso was roundly criticised for having supported the dictatorship. The mood of the country had changed and ordinary people were now firmly in favour of a republic. In 1931 when local elections confirmed that the people no longer supported the monarchy Alfonso quietly left the country from Cartagena never to return.

The 1931 General Elections returned a socialist republican government. The new republic was received with tremendous enthusiasm by much of Spanish society. People had high hopes for what it could achieve. The new government made sweeping changes in the first two years including land reforms, limiting the power of the Catholic Church and granting home rule to Cataluña. However, Spain's problems were many and complex and the government soon began to bog down. Alienated groups, such as the Church, landowners whose land had been seized, monarchists and the army began to mount serious opposition. Various right wing political groups emerged including a fascist party, the JONS, and the Falangist party both of which were to play a major role in the later Spanish Civil war and beyond. The Republic was supported by the anarchist and socialist trades unions, the newly formed Communist Party and left wing nationalist parties in the Basque Country and Cataluña

Political instability led to new elections in 1933 which were won by a right wing alliance that set about dismantling the reforms of the previous government. Waves of violence swept the country, led by working people, several of which were brutally suppressed by government troops.


There were yet more General elections in 1936 and this time the various left wing political parties joined together in a popular front that won a clear majority. By now though chaos was generalised throughout the country and right wing factions were actively plotting the overthrow of the government. And so, on 18th July 1936 elements of the army rebelled against the elected government and the Spanish Civil War had begun.

Continue here

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Unbreakable Rule

Despite several rules and conventions about how to pronounce English words, often, the only way we know, for certain, is through experience. Polish for instance could be the stuff to make things shine or it could be an adjective to describe something from Poland. We do it the other way too by spelling words differently but pronouncing them the same. Would and wood for example or sew, so and sow – although sow is pronounced differently for seed planting or a female pig.

Spanish is different though. There is an old and basic rule that says “we have to write as we pronounce and pronounce as we write”. This causes the Spanish speakers major problems when they want to use a word that comes from another language. It's why their pronunciation of some English words sounds so strange to us. In English we just pinch the word. Sometimes we change it and sometimes we don't. We anglicised the Spanish word jerez to change it to sherry but we happily French it up for coup d'etat – as in military coup.

This has been happening for hundreds of years in both languages but the difference nowadays is that the world moves faster. When the Spanish pinched the French word jambon, for ham, it took a long time for it to take over from pernil and to transform into the Spanish style word jamón. Words nowadays can come, and sometimes go, in no time at all; words like selfie or mannequin challenge. Spaniards want to use the words but the foreign pronunciation just doesn't fit the unbreakable spelling/pronunciation rule. On the street this doesn't really matter much - if WhatsApp sounds like wasap to your average Spaniard then wasap it is.

For journalists and bloggers, people who write down current words, this is a bit more of a problem – do they try to be Spanish and write pirsin or do they simply stick with the English spelling – piercing - but pronounce it the Spanish way?

There is, in Spain, and in all the Spanish speaking countries, a learned organisation that tries to maintain the purity and language. They decide which words have lasted long enough to go into the dictionaries in just the same way as there was a bit of press coverage for post truth and moobs getting into the Oxford Dictionary. The idea is to maintain the language so a Spanish speaker in Peru doesn't have any problem with the Spanish of a Honduran or a Spaniard. The Spanish one goes under the name of the RAE, the Real Academia Española.

So the RAE doesn't fret about the mannequin challenge. They will worry about it in the future if it stands the test of time. The RAE follows new words for a minimum ten years before it considers putting them in the dictionary. They can then either push for a direct Spanish translation - desafío maniquí - or they can try to find a way to spell the words so that the sound is reproduced in Spanish. Baseball for example was simply spelled beisbol in Spanish to mimic the original sound. With football they tried a Spanish translation at first -balompié - but ordinary people were having none of that so they went for fútbol which sounds something like the original word but follows Spanish spelling and pronunciation rules.

You can see their dilemma though. Jazz, the word, has been around for ages. Leave the spelling as it is and the Spanish pronunciation is nothing like the English. To get a Spanish spelling that, more or less, maintains the original sound it would have to be spelled as yas. If they were to allow the British pronunciation and spelling they would have to accept that the j at the beginning of the word and the z at the end of the word had two distinct sounds in Spanish. And that would break the unbreakable law.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Franco rules


In 1936 a group of Army officers organised a coup against the elected Spanish Republican Government and started the Spanish Civil War. Three years later the rebels, the Nationalists, won and Francisco Franco emerged as their leader. As the guns went silent Spain was in social and economic ruin. It fell to Franco and his allies, many of whom were members of the Falange, an extreme right wing, fascist, social and political movement, to rebuild it. The onset of the Second World War just months after the Civil War ended added to the complication of rebuilding the shattered country.

The Civil War was over but Franco exercised political and economic repression against anyone who had been on the losing side or who came from social or religious groups that he mistrusted. By 1941 half a million people had fled Spain to escape possible reprisals. Another 380,000 were detained in concentration camps. Summary executions were common and around 35,000 people were killed in peacetime as Franco tried to ensure that there could be no organised opposition to his government.

At the end of the Second World War no European power wanted anything to do with Spain; the country was left isolated. This economic sending to Coventry meant that the Spanish economy stagnated as the country tried to survive solely on its own resources.

As Cold War tensions increased the United States recognised the strategic importance of controlling the way in and out of the Mediterranean. In return for building military bases in the South of Spain the US agreed a deal worth around for $200,000,000 in economic and military aid to Franco. This was an enormous boost to the impoverished Spanish economy. Embassies re-opened and ambassadors returned as country after country followed the US lead and re-established diplomatic and economic links with Spain.

Despite the American money Spain was still in dire financial straits way behind its European neighbours in everything from infant mortality to income. Inflation soared, shortages were common and food was rationed right through to 1952. In the face of such a miserable existence economic migration was commonplace and the black market flourished setting a pattern for corruption, backhanders and cronyism which still echo in today's Spain

Spain was a country mired in the past. Whilst the rest of Europe installed fridges and washing machines Spanish women made do with larders and communal washhouses. Nobody, except the very rich or the very well connected had cars. Then in the 1960s things began to change as the Francoist Government started to market Spain as tourist destination. French, German, British and Swedish tourists flooded onto sun soaked Spanish beaches and brought their money with them.

The change was patchy and unequal, Swedish tourists in Benidorm made little impact on the peasant farmers of Palencia but change was in the air. This was the time when the first SEAT 600s appeared on the roads and gas cookers replaced wood burning stoves.

Social and political freedoms did not accompany this economic development. Franco's repression continued. People who spoke out against the government were arrested. Torture was still commonplace. Public meetings were prohibited but, despite strict control of the media, Spain was no longer completely isolated and social change in other countries influenced what happened inside Spain.

Women were systematically discriminated against during the dictatorship. Women could not work without permission from their husband or father. Women who married had, by law, to leave their jobs. Women were not allowed to work in public companies or public administration. This often meant that women looking for work had to take any job no matter how terrible the conditions or how low the pay

In the last period of Franco's life, between 1969 and 1975, repression tightened in the face of growing opposition from many sections of society. There were protests in the street, there were strikes and all sorts of political and social mobilisations. The challenges to government were so widespread that the authorities found it impossible to punish, or even control, everyone.

When Franco died in 1975 nobody was quite sure what was coming next but, forty plus years later, you know how it all turned out.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Mike, Don and Sancho

When I was a boy there was a book called Don Quixote which, from the picture on the cover, seemed to be about fighting windmills. The name was pronounced as Don Quick Soat – to rhyme with boat. Nowadays Britons seem to pronounce the title with a Spanish lilt - Donkey Oaty. Spaniards call the same book El Quijote. I was a bit disappointed when I found out the key character is not really called Don and goes by the name of Alonso Quixano. Don is a bit like esquire in English; it poshens up a name without really meaning anything. Telephone sales reps often call me Don Cristofer.

El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha is, according to people who know, one of the greatest fiction books ever written. Estimates also suggest that it's the best selling book of all time with 500 million copies sold which is way ahead of the number two book, A Tale of Two Cities, at 200 million. El Quijote was written, and published, in two parts in 1605 and 1615. The book pokes fun at the chivalrous romantic novels which were popular at the time. The hero is a scatter brained fellow who lives in a dream world and thinks he is a gallant knight of noble birth. He wanders the countryside, especially the plains of Castilla la Mancha, on his bony horse, Rocinante, wearing an old suit of armour, armed with a lance and shield and dreaming of his lady love, Dulcinea, He gets into scrape after scrape accompanied by his trusty servant Sancho Panza riding his plodding donkey. Sancho is quite different to his master. He's as fat as his master is skinny and whilst he may be from a simple and humble background he's also a practical sort of bloke with a nimble mind – the perfect counterpoint to his boss.

Miguel de Cervantes wrote el Quijote. He was born in 1547, the fourth of seven children, to a poor travelling medical man. He had any number of brushes with authority, often because he was in debt, and had to do several moonlight flits. At 21 Cervantes was in Italy, then part of the Spanish Empire, working as a servant to a Cardinal. A couple of years later he'd signed up as a soldier with the Christian forces ranged against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Cervantes was at the battle of Lepanto in 1571 where a Christian fleet, largely bankrolled by the Spanish, defeated an Ottoman fleet. It was the last major naval battle fought between rowing vessels. Cervantes was shot three times at Lepanto losing most of the mobility in his left hand as a result. He continued his military career until, in 1575, he was captured, by Ottoman pirates, and imprisoned in Algeria. Over the five years of his imprisonment he tried to escape several times but it was ransom money, sent from Spain, that eventually got him home and stopped him being sold into slavery.

By 1587 Cervantes was in Seville where he worked as a purchasing agent for the Spanish Navy as it prepared the Armada to sail against England. He ended up in prison, once again, when he invested crown funds with a bank that went bust. He got into more trouble in his next job too when he worked as a tax collector because the amount he collected and the amount he handed over didn't quite add up!

Cervantes could only write in his spare time. It is thought that he started to write El Quijote when he was in jail. He'd already written one book and several plays, with very little success, so he was 57 by the time his best seller was published. Even as El Quijote was rolling off the presses, an almost instant success, Cervantes was still trying to find that elusive well paid government job. He may well have already known the truth that he would never see any royalties from the book sales. Scholars think that he was working as a banker or accountant by this time because, somewhere along the way, he picked up a pension from the Count of Lemos which allowed him to dedicate the last few years of his life to full time writing. He died of type II diabetes in 1616.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Monkeys and a Rock

Gibraltar is a British Overseas Territory nearly on the southernmost tip of Spain. Strategically it guards the entrance and exit to the Mediterranean Sea. The rocky outcrop is just under 7 square kilometres and home to about 30,000 people and 300 Barbary macaque monkeys. The post boxes are red, schools follow the British National Curriculum, currency is the pound sterling, the official language is English, there are familiar British stores and, probably for the tourists, bobbies wear the traditional British police helmet. But why is this little peninsula, nearly 2,400 kilometres south of London, a British Territory?

The fourteen British Overseas Territories are a leftover of empire spread around the world from the Falklands in the South Atlantic to Bermuda in the North. They are the areas which chose to remain essentially British when the Empire broke up. The Territories are not a part of the United Kingdom though they fall under UK jurisdiction and sovereignty. The biggest of these territories is in the Antarctic but, as only about 50 people take it in turns to live there, it's not exactly crowded. It's the same, population wise, with the Pitcairn Islands, of Bounty fame. The Cayman Islands have a population nearly the size of  Tunbridge Wells and Bermuda, the most populous Territory, has as many people as Bognor Regis. Many of the Territories, including Gibraltar, have been Royal Navy bases though nowadays tourism and offshore finance are their main industries.

Charles II of Spain wasn't an effective king. He had severe physical, intellectual and emotional difficulties which is why he was called the “Bewitched” and maybe why he died childless in 1700. The big European powers saw their chance to grab the Spanish throne and began to push their own candidates which led to the war of Spanish Succession between 1701 and 1714. In August 1704 the British, fighting alongside the Dutch, captured the Rock. The British actually backed the faction that lost the war but didn't do at all badly despite that. As the hostilities drew to a close the Treaty of Utrecht, signed in 1713, handed the Spanish throne to Philip V, the French King's grandson. As a part of the horse-trading some Spanish territories were dished out to other countries and Britain got Minorca as well as Gibraltar. Minorca changed hands several times over the ensuing decades and was eventually returned to Spain, as part of the Treaty of Amiens, in 1802.

Gibraltar has remained under British control ever since. There have been several attempts to recover the peninsular by the Spanish. First up was a siege in 1727 and, some fifty years later, whilst the American war of Independence was being fought, the Rock was besieged again for the four years. Franco was never a big fan of having the British in Gibraltar. It was Franco who closed the border with Spain in 1969 after years of restrictions on cross border movements and it wasn't entirely reopened until just a little before Spain joined the European Union in 1985.

Nowadays there are occasional territorial scraps with Royal Navy ships squaring up to Guardia Civil patrol boats over this quarrel about fishing rights or that complaint about refuelling just off the coast. On the land border there are arguments about tobacco smuggling and Gibraltar's financial dealings provoke claims of dodgy practices from time to time. Nonetheless it's a bit unlikely that Spain will be invading Gibraltar again shortly even though Spain continues to claim Gibraltar as its own. Referendums in 1967 and 2002 showed that Gibraltarians are overwhelmingly in favour of staying British and it looks likely that Britain will be maintaining this strategically important scrap of Mediterranean coast for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The day the USA dropped four hydrogen bombs on Spain

In 1966 B52 bombers, with a nuclear payload, were always in the air. They left the United States and flew towards the Soviet Union. The idea was that, should the Cold War suddenly become hot, the aeroplanes were already on their way. It was a routine procedure but on January 16th 1966 a B52 Stratofortress heading home after turning around over the Adriatic crashed, whilst involved in its third mid air refuelling operation, over Spain. The tanker aircraft exploded, killing all its crew, whilst the B52 crashed to the ground close to Palomares in Almeria killing several of its crew and injuring others. People on the ground had to dodge falling bits of the huge US aeroplanes.

The B52 was carrying four hydrogen bombs each one a hundred times more powerful than the bomb which obliterated Hiroshima. One bomb fell into the sea but the three others fell on dry land. Two of the bombs onshore exploded but, because the parachutes on the bombs failed to deploy, they had buried themselves into the ground which meant that the force of the explosion, and the amount of radioactive material kicked out, was cushioned by earth. Fortunately the bombs had not been armed so the explosion was not thermonuclear, if it had been Palomares would have been vaporised and large parts of Almeria and Murcia turned into a nuclear wasteland. Conventional explosive serves as a detonator to kick start the nuclear fission in hydrogen bombs and it was that which went off. The result was that the bombs showered some 250 hectares of Almeria with highly radioactive plutonium 239 and other radioactive isotopes.

A disaster control team was sent from the US base at Torrejon. Three of the bombs were quickly located and removed but it took over thirty American ships eighty days to find the fourth bomb which was deep in the Mediterranean. The intact bomb was finally recovered in April.

The whole affair was handled ineptly. At first both governments denied that nuclear weapons were involved, then the story changed, maybe it was nuclear, and finally the truth. Both governments denied that the residents of Palomares had been affected. They said that the amounts of plutonium breathed in were so minute that no special measures were needed. They did admit that the ground had been contaminated with nuclear particles though they played down the levels. The US removed 5,000 barrels of earth and transported it to be buried in South Carolina. They were assisted by Guardia Civil who were not equipped with hazard suits as part of the campaign to prove that all was fine and dandy. Local villagers mistrusted the official story and there is anecdotal evidence that many died of cancers though the Francoist regime suppressed, and later destroyed, contemporary medical records. Amidst fears of the contamination, the tourism Minister of the time, Manuel Fraga Iribame, took a dip, accompanied by the US Ambassador, in the sea off Palomares to prove just how safe it was.


After democracy was re-established in Spain the Palomares Incident became a bone of contention between Spanish and US Governments. In 2008 the Spanish Nuclear Authority confirmed that 4 hectares of land was still contaminated and finally, at the end of 2015, or nearly fifty years after the incident, the American Secretary of State signed a deal for a clean up project to start soon, probably this year.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Official newspapers

I like to know what's going on around me. Living in Spain, and not quite understanding the language, means that sometimes I don't. But the other day I realised that whilst the Spanish system was as plain as day to me I had no idea how the same thing was done in the UK. I'm talking about the BOE or Boletín Oficial del Estado which translates as the Official State Bulletin.

The BOE is the official gazette of the Government of Spain. It's published, every day except Sunday, by the Ministry of the Presidency. Nowadays it's published to the Internet. The purpose of the Bulletin is to provide information about new laws, council procedures, taxes and bylaws – in fact anything that affects the general public. For instance it's where bankruptcies and the registration numbers of cars caught speeding are published so you can't say you weren't told! Private concerns can also publish information in the bulletins.

The Spanish constitution says that the people have a right to be told about new laws and rules produced by any of the three branches of government - the legislature, the executive or the judiciary. Unless that information is published it is not considered to have been legitimately shared. So, although the difference is subtle, the Boletín is not about publishing; it's about about not keeping secrets.

The Boletín publishes Royal Decrees, the laws of the National Parliament (Cortes Generales), made up of the Senate (a bit like the Lords) and the Congress of Deputies (akin to the Commons). The arrangements and decisions of the Regional Governments, the Autonomous Communities, the Provinces and Local Town Halls as well as judicial rulings are also published in Bulletins.

The BOE gets mentions in the Spanish media quite regularly but I had no idea how the British Government officially disseminated information - was it through Hansard or Her Majesty's Stationery Office for instance? I was surprised to find that HMSO has been TSO, The Stationery Office, since privatisation over 20 years ago but I was even more surprised to find that we Britons have an official newspaper - The London Gazette

The Gazette is where all the official stuff, from the Honours List to new laws and army commissions is published. This is the official national record; the exact equivalent of the Spanish BOE. The Belfast and Edinburgh Gazettes provide similar information to Northern Ireland or Scotland.

I thought that the history of the British and Spanish official national newspapers was strangely similar. In Spain there was a bit of a tussle for the crown between Carlos II and Juan José de Austria. The latter thought that if a daily newspaper, a gazette, published his decrees it would be good publicity. The newspaper he instigated, first published in 1661, became known as the Gaceta de Madrid (The Madrid Gazette) a name it used for nearly 300 years being renamed the BOE in 1986.

In England, in 1665, Charles II was King. Like his old dad before him being King had had its ups and downs. When London was ravaged by the Great Plague Charles and his court scuttled off to Oxford. Charles thought a newspaper might be good for his public image so he used a new publication, the Oxford Gazette, to prove he was still working hard. When he moved back to London the Gazette went with him and changed its name to the London Gazette only recently changed to The Gazette.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

ETA

ETA is an armed, nationalist organisation based in the País Vasco - Basque Country or Euskadi - in Spain. It kidnapped, murdered and bombed in an attempt to gain independence for the whole Basque region, which includes Navarre and parts of France. Originally formed, in 1959, to promote Basque culture. ETA stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Basque Country and Freedom in the local Euskera language.

Spanish military, police, prison officers, politicians, judges and prosecutors, critical journalists or university lecturers and ex ETA members who spoke against the group were the principal targets. Guardia Civil barracks, tourist spots, industry and infrastructure were also attacked. Ordinary citizens were the “collateral damage” of many ETA actions. Businesses were forced to pay a "revolutionary tax" or face reprisals. Extortion was the group's main source of funding though ransom and bank robbery also swelled the coffers.

Historically ETA was controlled by a council to oversee three branches responsible for military, political and logistical functions. This structure had to be decentralised because of the success of the Security Forces in infiltrating the organisation and arresting members. Likewise, the small commando groups, which carried out armed operations, were made itinerant to try to avoid capture.

ETA originally had strong social support, particularly during the Franco years, but that dwindled as violence increased and democracy bedded in. By May 2009 polls showed only 1% of the Basques wholeheartedly supported ETA though nearly a third had some sympathy for their aims. There was often loud vocal support for arrested ETA members as a side effect of the Central Government's tactics in fighting them. So much legislation was introduced and so many new powers given to the courts and Security Forces that ordinary Basques perceived this as essentially anti Basque.

Herri Batasuna, the political wing of ETA, was outlawed in 2003 under legislation which made parties that are anti democratic, foment hatred or use violence to achieve their goals, illegal. Since then the Basque Nationalists have constituted several, variously named, political groups, all of which have been declared illegal by the courts, until the formation of EH Bildu in 2012.

ETA began to kill in 1968. Their first victim was a Guardia Civil officer. Since then ETA has killed 829 people and injured thousands. One of their most significant early targets, in 1973, was Admiral Carrero Blanco who was Franco's chosen successor. The years 1978, 1979 and 1980 were ETA's most deadly with 68, 76 and 98 killings respectively. Around that time another paramilitary group called GAL, Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación, began to torture and kill ETA members. When this group was later shown to have Government support it caused a major political scandal. In 1986 ETA planted its first car bomb. The next year the group blew up a Guardia Civil bus, killing twelve, and a 1987 attack on a Hipercor centre in Barcelona killed twenty one and injured forty five. In 1995 ETA failed in an attempt to kill the leader of the Partido Popular, and later President of Spain, Jose Maria Aznar. There was even an abortive attempt on the life of the King, Juan Carlos I. The Madrid train bombings of 2004, now attributed to Moroccan fundamentalists, were originally blamed on ETA. In 2006 it looked as though a ceasefire negotiated by the Zapatero Government was holding until a car bomb exploded at Barajas Airport. Generally though, throughout the noughties, it was the Security Forces which held the upper hand and today there are still some 400 ETA members in prison. These successes were partly due to increased co-operation with the French who had formerly turned a blind eye to ETA  presence on French soil.

A ceasefire announced in 2010, and confirmed as permanent and verifiable by a group of internationally famous politicians in 2011, is still in place.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Zebra crossings

A friend was telling me about the different priorities of different pedestrian crossings. He had been told that red and white or blue and white were mandatory stops and black and white discretionary. Or it may have been the other way around. I thought they probably all had the same force but then I came across some information from a traffic team of the Guardia Civil that showed we were both wrong!

Article 168, section c, of the Traffic Regulations, the Código de Tráfico y Seguridad Vial, says about the marking of pedestrian crossings that they are: a series of wide lines marked on the road surface in bands parallel to the road axis which form a series on the roadway to indicate a crossing for pedestrians where drivers of vehicles and those conducting animals must let them (the pedestrians) pass. Lines of other colours should not alternate with the white ones.

If you want to check my Spanish interpretation the original reads:

Marca de paso para peatones. Una serie de líneas de gran anchura, dispuestas sobre el pavimento de la calzada en bandas paralelas al eje de ésta y que forman un conjunto transversal a la calzada, indica un paso para peatones, donde los conductores de vehículos o animales deben dejarles paso. No podrán utilizarse líneas de otros colores que alternen con las blancas.

So you can see that the legislation is absolutely clear. A zebra crossing is formed by painting thick white lines on the roadway. The colour that alternates with the white bands should be simply the general colour of the roadway.

Apparently the reason that there are coloured crossings came from a report which said that the best way to make pedestrian crossings safer was to make them more eye catching. Experiments with brightly coloured crossings were successful - drivers did, indeed, notice them earlier. The counter argument was that whilst drivers might notice the crossings they could equally well fail to notice the pedestrians about to use them.

The responsibility for many of the roadways, within towns, falls, reasonably enough, to the local town hall. Well meaning councillors may decide on traffic calming measures, road priorities and the like which seem, to them, to make common sense but which don't comply, strictly, with national legislation or regulations. 

If you think about the red or blue crossings that you have seen they are almost certainly on top of the traffic calming speed bumps. The Town Hall has the zebras painted in bright colours to make them more eye-catching in the hope that cars won't hit them at speed and take off. As an aside the bumps have strict design parameters and many of them are not technically legal. That's why it is not at all unusual for over steep speed bumps to disappear overnight in the light of successful actions by someone concerned about damage to vehicles. Nobody worries too much that a blue or red crossing will damage their car so they tend to be more permanent.

To re-iterate, the law is absolutely clear, zebra crossings use white bands on the roadway. Other types of crossing are not strictly legal. Nonetheless, I would advise against ever trying to prove your legal knowledge when you are driving towards someone using one! There's probably a law about knocking down pedestrians.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Some Spanish instruments

I can almost guarantee, with at least as much certainty as if you were outside the East Kilbride Shopping Centre, that if you ever visit the Plaza del Obradoiro, just alongside the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, you will hear the skirl of the pipes. In fact, although they may not be your first thought as a traditional Spanish instrument bagpipes are as symbolic of the regions of Galicia, Asturias and Cantabria as they are of Scotland.

Presuming that we all know what Scottish or Irish pipes look like the Spanish gaita is obviously related but smaller and with only one pipe pointing skyward. Nobody is quite sure what the origin of the pipes is but they are there in the drawings of the Ancient Egyptians and they turn up in Europe in the ninth century. I was surprised to find that pipes are native to countries as far afield as Switzerland, Iran, India and Hungary too.

There are lots of traditional Spanish instruments; Catalunya for instance has several, but taking account of my allotted word count I have limited myself to the most widespread.

If you have ever been to any celebration anywhere in the Valencian Community you will have heard the dulzaina. Although there are similar instruments in parts of France and Hungary this instrument is quintessentially Spanish. It's a double reeded wind instrument vaguely similar to an oboe. There are several types but the most typical is of dark wood, about 30cms long and with seven finger holes. The dulzaina is used a lot by traditional dance and music groups in street fiestas, often alongside drums, as both are very portable instruments. In parts of Spain, just to confuse us, it's called a gaita.

I always find it odd that the English language name – castanets – for one of the most characteristic and widespread of all Spanish instruments is different to the original Spanish name of castañuelas. Castanets are a percussion instrument made of wood with the two shell like halves bound together by a cord. They are played by clacking the two halves together. Castanets are used to accompany many styles of music from folk tunes through to classical pieces. Many Middle Eastern countries have similar percussion instruments and the consensus among musicologists is that the Phoenicians, the pre Christian traders from what is now Syria, Libya and Israel, brought the instrument to Spain.

The Spanish guitar is known the world over and, like the pipes, I'm going to suppose you know what it basically looks like. The traditional Spanish guitar has six cat gut, now nylon, strings and it has subtle differences to the steel stringed acoustic guitars. In Spain it is associated with a number of musical styles but, perhaps, principally with the music from the south of Spain such as Flamenco and Sevillanas.

If the guitar is known, and used, the world over the zambona is not. In fact most of them are home-made. They consist of a container of some sort, the favourite being a clay pot. The open end of the container is sealed with something that can be tautened like plastic or leather. A hole is made in the centre of this material and a stick is pushed through the hole. By twisting or  pulling the stick in and out the skin vibrates and produces a “musical” sound. They are all over the place at Christmas time as a sort of semi joke instrument.

And last, but not least, whilst we are jokey instruments; the anis bottle. Anis is an aniseed flavoured alcoholic drink that is still popular amongst older Spaniards. Lots of the anis bottles, like the famous Anis del Mono, have a ribbed body and by rubbing the bottle with a spoon or something plastic it's possible to produce a vaguely rhythmic sound.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Not quite Strictly

Fiesta night in your village. The band is onstage, they strike up Viva España and lots of couples head for the dance floor. The dance is a Pasodoble and it's danced all over Spain but Levante, the East of Spain, is its heartland. Even though the name Pasodoble suggests a double step it's actually a one step dance. The name derives from the music that was used by the military when soldiers marched at the double - at 120 paces per minute. The military music was later adopted by bullfight promoters and from there it was but a small step(!) to the dance floor.

The Jota is danced all over Spain, in various guises, but the most well known version comes from Aragon. It's fast paced and couples dance, with their hands raised above their heads, playing castanets. This is one of those dances that you tend to watch rather than do and most of the people dancing it will be wearing old fashioned regional clothing.

The Muiñeira is danced to the music of bagpipes, drums and tambourines throughout Galicia and Asturias. Clothes are traditional and often feature red and black. It's a lively dance and it's not uncommon for the dancers to include quite athletic jumps and turns in the choreography. Although the dance is couples based the dancers often form into circles which interact with each other.

Flamenco is a musical and dance style typical of Andalucia, Extremadura and Murcia. It's three main parts are el cante, el toque y el baile - singing, playing and dancing – with endless variations and mixes. There is controversy about its origins but it has existed, at least, since the 18th century. Although it's often associated with Gypsies there is plenty of evidence that the style originated because of the diverse mixture of the religious, cultural and ethnic groups that cohabited in Andalucia. After all there are Gypsies all over Europe but Flamenco was born in Andalucia and not in other Gypsy heartlands. Flamenco dancing is known for its emotional intensity, jutting chin, straight back, expressive use of the arms and rhythmic stamping of the feet.

Zambra is a dance performed by the Gypsies of Granada which has some similarities to belly dancing. The story is that this Moorish dance had to be "Christianised" in the 15th Century when the last Moorish stronghold of Granada fell to the Catholic Monarchs. If you ever visit the Sacromonte cave houses in Granada it's the dance style you will see there. Often the women wear exaggerated versions of the flouncy fiesta dresses.

The Seguidilla is an old Castilian folk song and dance. The name comes from the verb seguir, to follow. The dance is performed in couples, to the rhythm of guitars and drums, with the women dancers playing castanets. The dancers move their feet quickly but keep their upper body stiff. Think Riverdance. One characteristic of the dance, known as bien parado, has the dancers stopping at the end of a musical section while the instruments continue playing into the next.

The Sardana is the quintessential Catalan dance. Dancers join hands to produce big circles with the steps following complicated mathematical patterns. It's a slow dance regularly danced by ordinary people in the streets of Catalonia on their way to the doctors or coming home from the shops.  The sections, or tirades, in sardana music are divided into two styles – for the style called curts dancers keep their arms down and for the other, the llargs, raise them to the shoulder.

The Sevillana, named for the town of Seville, is probably the style of traditional dancing most widespread in Spain. It's the one that tourists imitate by raising their arms, clicking their fingers and moving their hips. Sevillanas can be slow or fast though the livelier versions are much more common. The basic song structure is of  four verses, or coplas, of four lines. The dance also has four types of dance steps though, once again, variations abound. It is often danced in pairs but there are plenty of exceptions and there is lots of choreography for groups.

The Bolero originated in Spain in the late 18th Century. It's a very fast dance, which can be danced in couples or alone with lots of sudden pauses and sharp turns. The bolero is usually accompanied by song, castanets and guitars with each four line verse having lyrics of five to seven syllables per line.

The Fandango is a musical form that appeared in the early 1700s. It's a lively, happy sort of dance for couples traditionally accompanied by palmas - hand clapping - guitars and castanets. By the late 18th century it had become fashionable among the aristocracy and was often included in contemporary zarzuelas, ballets and operas.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Jack of all trades

The Apollo astronauts took digital dexterity devices with them into space. Obviously the spacecraft weight had to be kept down but DDDs sounded appropriate to the payload team. It was an astronaut trick though. DDDs are playing cards. Just like astronauts Spaniards are great card players. Go to any Spanish summer seaside resort immediately after lunch and you will see family after family sitting on their terraces playing tute or mus or any number of card games. My first experience of cards, in Spain, was in the 1980s. I was invited to lunch and, after the meal, to play cards. As soon as the cards were produced I became more confused than Max Bygrave's soldier. The symbols were totally different to the ones I knew.

Like nearly everything playing cards were invented in China. People who know these things assure me that somehow this 12th Century invention migrated to 13th Century Mamluk Egypt and from there to 14th Century Southern Europe. As the cards did the Grand Tour the complex Islamic design of the Mamluk cards was replaced by something less ornate and with symbols more recognisable to European eyes.

The card deck we Britons normally use, with 52 cards, is actually a French deck. The Spanish deck has just 48 cards. The four “missing cards” are because the Spanish deck has no ten pip card. Both packs have three picture cards but, whereas the Jack, Queen and King have values of 11 to 13 The Sota, Caballo and Rey go from 10 to 12.

The first of the Spanish picture cards is called a Sota. In the past, the word sota was used to describe a rough and sometimes undesirable person just like the origin of Knave or Jack. The equivalent of the Queen is a horse or Caballo and for the King, well, there's a King or Rey. The majority of traditional Spanish card games use only forty cards. The eight and nine pip cards were hardly ever used so many decks were sold without them. Nowadays most packs have the eight and nine cards included as that allows a wider variety of games to be played. It's the same with the Comodines or Jokers; cards that can be used as a substitute for other cards. Traditionally there were just two in a Spanish pack but now it tends to be four.

The forty eight cards are sub divided into four suits or palos - "oros" or coins, "copas" or goblets, "espadas" or swords and "bastos" or clubs. These four palos were inspired in the Middle Ages with each representing a social class. The coins represent the merchants and traders, those with wealth and money. The goblets represent the clergy and the Roman Catholic church. The swords are for the nobility and army. The symbol for the workers, farmers and servants is the club. It's noticeable that the Spanish deck has no female figures – the Queen has become a horse and the Sota may look a bit feminine but is decidedly a man.

If the card suits are Mediaeval in origin the current design is 19th Century. A chap called Heraclio Fournier, designed the cards for a competition in the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1868. His cards are still the basis of most Spanish packs. One of his innovations, which makes them different from the Swiss, French or German decks, is that there is a broken line around the edge of the cards. The number of interruptions makes it possible to distinguish the suit without being able to see all of the card. The coin cards have no interruptions, cups have one, the swords two and the clubs three.

So now, if you are invited to play snap with Spaniards it shouldn't be such a shock!

Friday, May 27, 2016

Behind Spanish Football

Football is an old, old game but before October 1863, and the formation of the Football Association in a London pub, nobody had ever managed to produce a set of rules that people were willing to follow. The FA. did and so invented Association Football, the basis of the football we know today.

This new form of football was introduced to Spain in the late 19th century by British immigrant workers and Spanish students returning from British universities. The first, constituted, football club in Spain was Gimnàstic de Tarragona (1886), but they didn't play till 1914 so that two Andalucian clubs - Recreativo de Huelva, originally the Huelva Recreation Club (1889) and Sevilla FC (1990), originally Club de Football de Sevilla (1890), can claim to be the oldest Spanish football teams. Meanwhile in Bilbao, in the Basque Country, two teams, Bilbao Football Club, formed by British shipyard workers and the Athletic Club, formed by students, sprang up at the turn of the 20th Century. The two clubs soon fused to form one team keeping the Athletic Club name.

The first football game played in Spain, under Association Rules, took place in Seville in 1890 when Sevilla FC beat Huelva Recreation Club by 2-0. With the exception of two Spanish players on each team all the players on both sides were British. The Huelva club was formed almost wholly of British mine workers employed by the Rio Tinto Zinc company.

Nowadays, football in Spain is governed by The Royal Spanish Football Association (Real Federación Española de Fútbol) founded in 1913.  The RFEF organises the various ligas or leagues, the Copa del Rey, The Kings Cup and the female equivalent, the Queen's Cup. It also recruits the Spanish national football teams, or selections, for both men and women in various age groups.

There are men's leagues and women's leagues. The masculine leagues are the First Division or Primera División with twenty teams, Segunda División with twenty two teams, Segunda División B divided into four groups with twenty teams in each and the Tercera División with eighteen groups of twenty teams in each one. There are also regional divisions. For the women it's sixteen teams in the First Division and seven groups of fourteen teams in the Second Division with another set of regional divisions.

A First Division (male) season has thirty eight games played between late August or early September and the end of May or early June using the usual home and away game format.

The Copa del Rey is the inter-divisional competition whose roots are in the Coronation Cup played in 1902 by the two aforementioned Bilbao teams to celebrate King Alfonso XIII reaching adulthood. Nowadays eighty four teams take part in the competition: all the First and Second Division teams plus the first five teams from each of the Second Division B leagues plus the champions of the Third Division with the numbers being made up by Second Division B teams.

The first round is played between the non professional clubs with the the Second Division teams joining in for the second and third rounds all played on a knockout basis. First Division teams join in at the fourth round at which point the games become home and away two leg ties with the final played on neutral ground.

The Copa de la Reina is played between the four top women's teams from the First Division.

And the Spaniards seem to have taken rather well to football; their first division being ranked, by the International Federation of Football History and Statistics, as the second strongest European league of the last ten years bettered only by the English Premier League.