Monday, December 18, 2006

Merry Christmas from Spain

To fully enjoy my first Spanish Christmas with the in-laws I´ll be setting aside my keyboard until January 2. Madrid is very lively at the moment for the madrileños know how to to party in the run-up to the festive period. I had a home-cooked Paella yesterday and I will be having problems curbing what the Spanish call La Curva de Felicidad (literally the curve of happiness but referring to the stomach that newly married men acquire) as I am plied with fine wines and all sorts of food. There is a leg of Jamón Ibérico (almost certainly the best ham on earth) and the collection of cured meats kicking around the house look quite exquisite.

Feliz Navidad, as they say in Spain!

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Taking Charity Seriously

Many of us, myself included, do not donate to charities as much as they should. In the day-to-day battle to get through life, earn a living, pay taxes, fund holidays and buy a new computer, charitable causes can often be overlooked. An argument given by perspectives that oppose high rates of tax is that the funds colourlessly taken by the taxman in the UK end up in Whitehall and local government to be squandered by inefficient and lazy officials. If this rate were lower not only would it take away the disproportionate power wielded by civil servants and politicians but the bonus we are told will happen is we will suddenly become philanthropists. Bill Gates is often toted as the role model example. The Microsoft millionaire will solve Africa’s problems with his money and the value of entrepreneurs being allowed to get on with business away from the dead hand of the state and its ridiculous regulations will finally be proved.

Despite its growth throughout New Labour’s troubled time in power, the state is in disrepute, to the extent that this friendly Economist-style argument to strip it back can tempt those such as myself who love the ideal of the Welfare State. For welfare is in disrepute. In the UK, the NHS, the pensions systems, our schools and the welfare system in general are facing spiralling problems that our politicians shirk from confronting. Bullish critics of the system point to the even more depressing decline of the French and German economies who didn’t go through the seemingly brutal slash and burn dismantling by Thatcher of the unions and her basic call to put business first. It can seem despite our prosperity that we may well be entering the end of a golden age which provided health provision free at the point of care for everyone and was meant to educate all,

To take one key example, the way modern healthcare has progressed also means it has become astronomically expensive. The NHS has serious difficulties providing a free service of the quality we demand and the only way we can supplement it for certain minority problems is by charitable donation. The new doctors’ contract is the second time a Labour government have stuffed their mouths with gold in order to keep this vital heart of the country’s health service on-side. It has succeeded in keeping the NHS plugging on, but, as many of us realise, the £1.2 billion deficit must be related to nearly doubling the salary of the highest paid members of the workforce as well as the cost of our astounding technological advances. The demands on the state to control the spiralling costs of this organisation are shirked by our leaders who realise the political suicide it is to try to bring this spending to heel but who will also refuse to put up taxes.

Come the time, come the individual and it seems it has to be our responsibility to begin taking charities seriously just because the terror our leaders face on the deadly tight-rope, they walk between providing high-quality services and keeping the economy ticking over, looks like it might lead to a catastrophic fall radically changing the basic services we hold dear. The Economist-style argument above has too much faith in private companies, for as we know from bitter experience the profit motive when treated as a religion can often sabotage the basic humanity of many and seems to lead to a fetishization of money, where need is ignored and commodities are endlessly desired. Yet sadly due to the way that governments function, characterised by a refusal to take hard decisions that may displease the multi-faceted group that elects them, yet finally annoying everyone, means that we better have faith in philanthropy because the state is in trouble.

Thank you to Angela Francesco for fearlessly raising the topic of charity and Huntington’s Disease on Frank Fisher’s crazy blog. Huntington’s is an example of a disease for which drug companies are unwilling to fund research in to a potential cure because of its rarity and therefore profitability. Donations to her charity jump to raise money for the disease can be made by contacting her by e-mail at Her blog documenting her mother’s mental decline and her attempts to deal with the disease can be found here

Friday, December 8, 2006

Last Days

Here is a hypothetical scenario from anticant - "You are reliably informed that you are going to die twelve months hence, and that for the first eleven of them you will remain strong and healthy.What are you going to do during that time that you have long wanted to, but have been repeatedly putting off because of all the hum-drum pressures of daily living?"

My wife and I have several plans which would need to be accomplished in that time.

We would like to go to Northern Spain doing an eating and cultural tour from Galicia to Catalunya. The inverse pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Galicia is famous for having the best shellfish in Spain and we would gorge ourselves on Oysters and the Spanish delicacy Percebes, which is a goose-neck barnacle and the Galician variant is so expensive I have never tried it. Other highlights along the way would include the Basque country's unsurpassed Tapas, a stop off in Rioja, walking in Asturias and the beautiful Spanish monasteries and towns of the north.

Ana is desperate to see the tomb of her favourite poet, Luis Cernuda, in Mexico City, so we would need to head there after our three months in Northern Spain. I would love to go back to Palenque in Chiapas and Tikal in Guatemala (both of which I visited on a gap year at 18) allowing us to explore the magic of Central America together. Perhaps we could settle in the countryside of Guatemala for a few months so I could finish and publish my novel, The Man whose Face was Grey (it's on-the-go and I will hopefully finish it by the end of next year) while living in relative isolation.

Then we would head to China where my brother lives and visit him. Something we've failed to do due to lack of funds but I guess this whole expedition of world tourism could be paid for using all the reserves we had in the bank. Exploring China, and Asia generally, would be an alien and novel way to enjoy the last few months of my existence.

Finally I would like to have a good reunion at the end of the 11th month with all my friends and family toasting the crazy joy of life and saying goodbye. Then presumably I would wallow in bed with requiem music playing, watching Bergman films and pondering with Ana why it all has to end.

Feel free to try this thought-experiment out but I have no intention of press-ganging or nominating anyone for fear of sardonic comments.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Ours is not to reason why?

How do we escape the banal pressures of this world? Keeping integrity and being a journalist (or pursuing many other professions, I chose journalism because it’s what I’m doing) seem to be mutually exclusive in this world. Why do we stand for it?

The general logic seems to go like this, so young and upcoming person, to get to a position where you might do something useful you first need to do something that is totally pointless, and another, and another… until you feel the crazy need to perpetuate this Sisyphean cycle of pointlessness.

As a writer the development of blogging has to be regarded as an exciting development simply because of the gradual capitulation of many publications to faff. That this faff is driven by a commercial agenda must be true because it is not the case that the readers stand anything to gain from it. When we buy something to read, our desire to consume things is generally latent in comparison to our desire to be provided with interesting objective information. Yet, even when we buy Time Out or some other listings magazine we want it to provide honest opinion.

Recently one of my journalism lecturers was explaining the way the advertising department and editorial in local papers combine in an effort to tie in the article with a commercial interest. Potential clients drive this trade to the extent a bad review of a restaurant will lead to a stern word from the advertising department. As a reader knowing this, would you want to take the advice of this magazine as to where to eat? Surely, you would begin to realise that the publication only ever writes good reviews. Also, if you ever went to a place that was genuinely bad on the recommendation of an article you would not trust the source again. Even the advertisers lose in the long term with such a policy, for the publication, having been dismissed as useless, will be consigned to the dustbin and any true opinion will be treated with scepticism.

The modern journalist keen to write about things in the world that actually matter, but determined to earn his shilling, is in a dilemma. Endless publications flourish perpetuating cynicism towards the trade, yet because they agree to act as the Pravda of certain companies, these bulldozers of the Amazon for Amazon provide the starving journo with a ready source of cash. On the other hand, the journo can launch out to limbo trying to carve out a precedent of value but with few means of publishing or being provided with payment. The latter has to be the noble option, yet the cycle of madness and its control over us can sometimes seem inevitable. To the writer sitting shivering in the garret the temptation of writing for the quick buck can be overwhelming in the desperation to survive and be read. He reaches for his quill agonized by the way his ideas only seem to have an outlet if they are used to sell something and gradually descends into a useless prose machine. Why do we let this continue? How do we change it?