Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Squatting in Vilafranca" -- My latest column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Graffiti wall in Vilafranca: “Enough speculation! The Penedès is not for sale!]
 If global warming is likely to be the biggest problem facing society in the coming years, it will certainly be competing with housing as an issue of great public concern. 

While the situation is probably most severe in Barcelona, the people of a medium-sized Catalan town such as Vilafranca del Penedès are certainly not free from these pressures.

One group who have acted against what they see as a major cause of housing difficulties is a squatter's collective that supports the politics of the Esquerra Independentista [independent left] movement. Recently, they took occupation of a former industrial building in the north of Vilafranca and have re-named it “El Taller” (The Workshop).

“We have done this to protest against real estate speculation,” says their 21-year-old spokesman, who did not wish to be named or photographed. “But we also want to do productive things with this place. We are converting it into somewhere for people to meet to discuss politics, to drink coffee, and to have concerts and theatre performances. We are even creating a studio upstairs.”

According to the collective, the site they have taken over has been empty for at least four years, and is zoned to be eventually knocked down for redevelopment.

“The local people were happy when we moved in because there was a lot of rubbish lying around the building and no one was cleaning it up. But we did,” says their spokesman. “We're making something good out of a place that had no owner and we are doing it without any help from the Vilafranca town council. It was difficult to get this all happening but we will stay here.”

In a very different position to those who occupy vacant buildings are Vilafranca residents, Teresa and Jose. They have a rural property outside the town that is being lived in by a man without their permission. The couple have tried to avoid legal proceedings with the squatter for several years but have recently changed their approach of attempts at persuasion and conciliation.

“We were told we needed a judge's order to get him out of our house,” Teresa explains. “Our decision was to hire a private lawyer because using a public one takes much more time.”

“The procedure has taken two months to get to court and has cost us two thousand euros, but at the moment he's still there and he has smashed up half the house,” says Jose.

Speaking to some other people over lunch in Vilafranca, it is not difficult to find a common theme. There seems to be an acceptance that the government could not or would not do much to solve problems relating to housing. Apart from one suggestion that taxes should be reduced on houses, there is little genuine hope that improvements were possible coming from elected representatives.

“The introduction of the euro was what started our struggles,” says Silvia. “And the price of houses is the other burden. We pay more than double compared to those in southern Spain. The middle class has shrunk completely. Everything needs to be changed!”

Without knowing it, another woman also agrees with the squatters collective on the subject of profiteering in the real estate industry. She suggests that the high levels of speculation now means that for single people it is impossible to buy a house or even rent a decent apartment.
“Everyone has to live with their parents or share accommodation with at least one other person if they are to afford to have any quality of life,” she argues.

There is something here that is beyond dispute, though. Almost anyone would see the common sense in a group of energetic and optimistic young people making good use of a long-abandoned building, as with the Vilafranca squatters group. However, the question that does remain is: How should this happen, both legally and ethically?

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, February 2017.]

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Four middle-aged men talk democracy and rights in Catalonia, Spain and Syria

Click here: http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/203328544.html
This week I was a guest once again on author/journalist Matthew Tree's roundtable TV program, Our Finest Hour.

The other panel members were lawyer and journalist Frank MacGabhann and long time resident of Catalonia, Andrew Spence.

Monday, February 6, 2017

"The role of culture in Europe's crisis" - My translation


Below is my translation of *Marcelo Expósito’s contribution to the session on "Diplomazia Culturale dell'UE", as part of the meeting: “How Can We Govern Europe?” held at the Camera Dei Deputati, Rome, November 18, 2016.

(*Marcelo Expósito is a Deputy for Barcelona from En Comú Podem and is the Third Secretary of the Congress of Deputies.)



Thanks to EUnews for inviting me to this meeting on the situation in Europe and to Silvia Costa, Chair of the Culture Committee of the European Parliament, for agreeing to share this dialogue with me on the role of culture in the European Union.

This is a strange moment to talk about culture in Europe, particularly if under the very name of "culture" we refer mainly to the cultural policies of European national and supranational institutions. And it seems to me a delicate moment for several reasons that can be synthesized into two.

The first is because a slow change of direction has been taking place in recent years in the discourse of cultural administration of Europe. The second reason has to do with the general crisis situation, whose connections with one's own uncertainty about the current role of culture are not always evident in debates like the one that now calls us.

For a long time, the jargon derived from the paradigm of cultural industries has been becoming nuanced. Fortunately, it seems difficult now to talk about the industrialization of creativity without accompanying it with reflections on how culture can contribute to social stability, the integration of the continent or the definition of a new type of European diplomacy. It even appeals to the condition of culture as a common good that citizens as a whole deserve to enjoy.
This is not a minor change, bearing in mind that policies to promote international cultural and creative industries have, over three decades, been the instrument through which an ideology has aimed at facilitating the emergence of what Richard Florida has called the "Creative Class ". This is a curious type of social "class" whose function would ultimately be to contribute their competitive cultural practices to the processes of urban regeneration. As for gentrification and real estate speculation on a large scale, in short: we can now describe it in this untidy way. When the model of cultural policies aimed at fostering creative industries took shape in the 1990s, it did so - not by chance - in the still hard years of neoliberal hegemony and the conversion of cities into brands that need to be emphasized in The Markets of Globalization. T

Theorists such as Angela McRobbie or George Yudice have analyzed in detail how the industrialization of creativity has contributed to the de-industrialization of the peripheries or the commercial devastation of urban centers and how it has thrown the sons and daughters of the middle classes into a life of precariousness labor and existential instability as they contradictorily experienced a bubble of euphoria. It is the bubble of a promise of social advancement and access to well-being through higher education, the acquisition of creative skills and the cultivation of the capacity to innovate, which has been exploded by the shockwave of austerity policies.

But this gradual paradigm change still does not seem enough to me  and this leads us to the reason why many current debates about culture are impotent. I would like to put it in the form of a simple question: what are the reasons for this smooth change of paradigm? Is it possible to promote real change in culture and cultural policies in Europe without finding out exactly why it is, because we feel obliged to consider the transition to a new scenario? When it comes to reflecting on the crisis of the paradigms hitherto dominant in European cultural policies, can we afford to ignore the fact that we are in a general crisis situation?

The critical condition of Europe nowadays overruns any debate about our future, including debates about culture. But it is not always a fact to be revealed. And yet it is not possible to enter into discussing substantive details on the role of culture in the future of Europe without addressing some political and even philosophical problems about the more general relationship between the dubious state of culture, the instability across European, the breakdown of our democratic system and the reasons for the current systemic and civilian crisis.

In an essay written in 1936, Walter Benjamin explained how the soldiers returning home from the frontiers of World War I became mute, unable to relate what they had experienced. Facing mass death and destruction produced such a collective shock that it blocked any capacity for expression. Benjamin thought that this emotional shock marked a historical turning point in our ability to relate personal experience to the construction of a sense of community, because it made it impossible for the traditional figure of the narrator to be reproduced.

There is no possibility of reporting and there can be no artistic phenomenon nor can experience can be transmitted under cultural forms if the expressive capacity of human beings is blocked. After World War II and the Concentration Experience, T.W. Adorno wondered if poetry could still be possible after Auschwitz. Adorno did not question as much, as Benjamin did, about the subjective conditions for shaping a creative expression after the Holocaust. Instead we had the political problem of whether, after this civilizing cataclysm, we could still afford the production of a European story, acting as if the industrialized manufacture of mass death had not happened. And not because this moral collapse constituted a historical exception, but quite the opposite, because the dark side of European modernity had evidently emerged.

It seems to me that these are relevant questions again today, bridging the gap. Is it possible to continue talking about cultural policies after the violence triggered by neoliberal management of the crisis against European social majorities? Can we ignore that a certain change of administrative and cultural language is provoked solely by the way in which neoliberalism has collapsed, crumbling mainly onto the backs of the towns of the South?

We can no longer hide from the fact that the cultural development policies of the past decades have been closely linked to the predominance of financial capitalism through globalization and the evolution of local economies towards a centrality of real estate speculation. We have witnessed enormous growth of museum equipment; the extensive financing of cultural enterprises that has led to the hypertrophy of "creative classes" which, in a backward effect, are now hard hit by the crisis of a model of economic development from which they were fed and, in turn, contributed to oversize.

This relationship of feedback between culture and neoliberalism responsible for a crisis that also affects culture must be highlighted if we really want to move towards a new paradigm of European cultural policies.
As I mentioned at the outset, "culture" is too broad a term, which is not always easy to clear up an understanding of. I propose that we now think above all of three components. Culture would be seen as the behaviors, attitudes, values ​​or aesthetic forms - in a broad sense - through which a society expresses itself. It would also be a tradition of practices recognized by certain institutions. That is why we can talk about the history of literature, music or art: because there are institutions that over time negotiate, with changing criteria, what a society recognizes as cultural goods.

The term "culture" could also refer to policies and rules, manifestly written guidelines or customary behaviors governing the administrative, professional or economic functioning of a specialized field. If we really consider that European cultural policies should be guided by principles such as the safeguarding of the common good and the
political integration of the continent, social sustainability and global justice, what is required is a cultural revolution that more generally contributes to reversing the violence of the crisis which has been experienced by European social majorities. Cultural policies alone cannot cope with a crisis that has been brought about by neoliberalism to which they have been for decades closely linked. This cultural revolution will only be possible if we think in an interrelated way about the three dimensions that I have described. We need, simultaneously, to promote new shared values ​​against the neoliberal culture that fragments and individualises in supposed pursuit of our own benefit. We also must recapture our creative history, taking from the petrified stories of tradition those moments that, when revived, may be more illuminating for our emancipation in the future. As well as all this, we will have to promote public cultural policies aimed not only at the improvement of specialized sectors but above all at the empowerment of citizens in a state of shock.

As is clear from the reflections of Benjamin and Adorno, which I mentioned earlier, European culture has experienced an identity crisis whenever convulsive times have emerged. Why do we have to worry about everything related to culture when the world shakes around us? This has been a question historically recurrent in Europe. And now it is again, for obvious reasons: what is the point of talking about culture when the economy, institutions and value systems disintegrate around us and people suffer? Why must we organize ourselves to deal with the disaster caused by the elites? Does culture deserve to be part of the rescue policies and emergency programs that could overcome the crisis? Can culture be a tool for social majorities to confront the crisis of political institutions?

To find a possible answer to these questions, let us turn for a moment to the figure of Friedrich Schiller writing one night by candlelight in 1793. At his residence in Jena he worries about the distant noise of the contradictions that afflict the French Revolution, while trying to concentrate on writing a letter to his patron, Prince Friedrich Christian II von Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg. In this letter he rightly asks: "Isn’t it reasonable to worry about the needs of the aesthetic world, when the affairs of the political world are also pressing?" Schiller answered himself in his Kallias-Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man - that "to solve a political problem through experience it must be taken by the aesthetic route, because it is through beauty that freedom is reached."

One of the guiding principles of the role of culture in modern European has been the idea that culture can be a field of experimentation where thinking about solutions to social complexity and shedding light on the problems of politics can be. Precisely when reality around us is agitated, there has been an imagining of modernity. The educational function of culture constitutes a central dynamic in the formation of citizenship. This ambivalent emancipatory conception is a persistent matrix, coming from the use of culture in some State policies for the affirmation of a national identity, as well as the conception of culture as an autonomous sphere from which to think about the world, safe from a distance. Equally there its opposite, when art or culture have committed themselves as practical tools in the combative construction of  class consciousness.

Many things have changed since the moment that consciousness became enlightened, and not only because we have verified



the PIGS of Southern Europe in particular - the frightening result of any exchange with the new Prince Trichet-Draghi-Merkel von Troika. But it is still necessary to address this conception rooted not only in what the function of culture is but also in where its legitimacy lies in times of crisis. The institutional use of a progressive language as the paradigm of cultural and creative industries enters into crisis and this is inspired by an enlightened imagination. It is that close relationship between culture and education that builds an emancipated citizenship which is one of the most powerful components of the European Enlightenment tradition. But given the size and the reasons for the current crisis, it can not be recovered merely as a mere resource for the formal recomposition of political institutions still sequestered by elites. Precisely because a cultural revolution has the objective of questioning elitist control of institutions it is even forced to transform the institutions themselves.

To summarize my position: I think that culture must contribute to a more democratic exit from the crisis, spreading power to the social majorities to rescue and transform the political institutions that have been kidnapped by these very elites. Allow me to end up setting out a practical example. If culture can again constitute a place from which to think critically about the state of things, cultural policies should follow models such as the extraordinary exhibition “A really useful knowledge,” held between 2014 and 2015 at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid. Their curators, the WHW Croatian women's group, conceived an articulated work plan between the museographic institution and some artistic practices that developed tentatively but in the open. The project included everything from the Abbas Kiarostami or Straub-Huillet cinema to the collaborative collective art of Iconoclasts or Chto Delat ?, through historical experiences of militant art such as Emory Douglas, the Black Panthers' Minister of Culture.

It is here, in that diversity guided by the same principle of radical pedagogy for citizen emancipation, where I find examples to follow for a profound change in the cultural policies of the administrations in a state of crisis.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"The (re)construction of the Catalan Jewish community"


 "This coming year the Catalan Jewish community will celebrate its Centenary in our country. 

This anniversary refers to the creation, in the years 1917-1918, of a specific organisational structure (community) that served as a social, educational, cultural and religious meeting point of the Catalan Jewish population. 

Numerically, it represents a very small percentage of the Catalonian population, but deserves further consideration. To this end, we must cross many centuries, to ancient times, when the great Diaspora of the Roman times found Jewish populations settling across Mediterranean lands. Not only did medieval Jews assimilate Catalan language and culture, they also played a key role."

Read more from source at Mozaika here.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Video: "The banned 400-year-old Shakespearean speech being used for refugee rights today"

"Some six hundred years ago in medieval England, feverish xenophobia swept through the population as 64,000 foreigners, from wealthy Lombard bankers to Flemish laborers, arrived on English shores between 1330 and 1550 in search of better lives. 

Locals blamed them for taking their jobs and distorting their culture. Tensions reached a zenith on May 1, 1517, as riots broke out in London and a mob armed with stones, bricks, bats, boots and boiling water attacked the immigrants and looted their homes. Thomas More, then the city’s deputy sherif, tried to reason with the crowd.
 
This dark day in history, known as Evil May Day, was portrayed in a then-banned play called The Book of Sir Thomas More, believed to be written between 1596 and 1601. William Shakespeare and two other writers were called to edit the manuscript, with the Bard contributing the 147 lines of More’s emphatic pro-immigrant monologue.

 “Imagine that you see the wretched strangers / Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage / Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation.”  

The play was never performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime because the Queen’s censor, Edmund Tilney, thought it might incite riots during a time when England was once again besieged by another immigrant crisis with the arrival of French-speaking Protestant asylum seekers from France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
 
More’s call for empathy, famously delivered by actor Ian Mckellan who played More on stage in 1964, has since become a clarion call for refugee advocates today.


“Thomas More’s speech to the mob is as relevant as ever,” said US ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power in a Sept. 16 speech at the Lincoln Center Global Exchange to champion refugees. 

“The ‘wretched strangers’ have changed of course, from the Lombards targeted in 1517 in those riots to the Huguenot refugees in Shakespeare’s time and to the Syrians, Iraqis, South Sudanese, Eritreans and others fleeing repressive governments of our time,” explained Powers. She recruited Shakespearean actor Jay O. Sanders to perform the monologue in the middle of her speech.

The text begins with More’s response to the mob...

The Book of Sir Thomas More, Act 2, Scene 4


Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another….
Say now the king
Should so much come too short of your great trespass As but to banish you, whither would you go? What country, by the nature of your error, Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders, To any German province, to Spain or Portugal, Nay, any where that not adheres to England,
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper, That, breaking out in hideous violence, Would not afford you an abode on earth, Whet their detested knives against your throats, Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants Were not all appropriate to your comforts, But chartered unto them, what would you think To be thus used? this is the strangers case; And this your mountainish inhumanity."

"The handwritten manuscript, the only example of a script written in Shakespeare’s penmanship, is on view at London’s British Library."


From source here.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

"Religious education on the decline in Catalonia"

"The subject of religion is attracting fewer pupils in Catalan schools, despite efforts by the PP party to bolster the subject in the Wert education reform.

According to figures from the Catalan education department, in the 2015/2016 school year, 159,311 pupils studied religion, fewer than the 182,687 who took the subject in 2010/2011. In secondary schools, only 30% of all pupils chose the subject (7% in public schools).

In Spain as a whole the trend has also been downward. Figures from the Conferencia Episcopal Española for 2015/2016 say 70% of primary school pupils and 55% of secondary school pupils studied the Catholic religion.

Given the decline, the PP government attempted to boost the subject in its Lomqe educational reform by putting the marks for religion on par with other subjects and getting rid of alternative citizenry classes.

Meanwhile, the Conferencia Episcopal Española took advantage of a government sympathetic to religion to suggest class prayers should be reinstated, something which caused outrage.

In Catalonia, former education minister, Irene Rigau, proposed compensating for “religious illiteracy” among young people by including the subject, culture and alternative ethical values to religion into the secondary curriculum for 2015/2016."

[Article by - Barcelona, Source: Catalonia Today.]

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"The dangers of the sell-off" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

["Grandpa Mark"]
  A new year has begun but not much has changed apart from the date on the calendar.

In Australia, that faraway land that has the reputation of a kind of paradise according to some people here in Catalonia, the national government is up to its usual dirty tricks. 

Someone working at the public's expense recently discovered a sixty six year-old grandfather named Mark Rogers who the government solicitor is threatening with legal action if he doesn't close down a website he runs.

His alleged crime? 

Not corruption, child-pornography or even defrauding bank customers. Rogers, volunteering his own time, dares to host “savemedicare.org” in an attempt to keep the Australian health system in public hands. 

The ultra-conservative Turnbull government down-under has told “Grandpa Mark” that he has broken copyright law through 'misleading or deceptive' use of the Medicare “brand” logo.

The fact that Medicare exists not as a brand but as a taxpayer-funded organisation which is responsible for allocating resources to hospitals has been ignored by the Aussie media. 

What they have rightly pointed out though is that the government is falsely using the law to intimidate a critic of their policy of selling off Medicare to corporations with big profits from sickness as their sole motive. 

Rogers aim is simply to keep the universal health system for all and to publicise the myths that right-wingers in Australia are spreading about Medicare being supposedly 'unaffordable.'

Meanwhile back on this half of the globe, in a progressive move the Slovenian parliament has adopted a constitutional amendment that declares their country's abundant clean water supplies are 'a public good managed by the state' and 'not a market commodity.'

Strangely though, the same centre-left government is planning to employ private security firms to help “manage the flow of thousands of migrants and refugees” travelling through the country toward northern Europe.

If contracting out police work seems a reasonable idea, I would urge you to read British journalist Polly Toynbee's wonderful book about life for the low-paid (titled “Hard Work.”) She spent time in various jobs where, amongst many other shocking discoveries, she found that all across their National Health Service, private agencies were originally used to solve short term staffing but quickly became dependent on them.

The agencies were quick to realise this relationship of dependency so colluded to keep pushing up their fees without paying staff any more than sub-living wage rates. As a result, public service 'managers' were completely unable to manage their teams because they were all being directly employed by companies outside the system.

This has been a business arrangement that only benefitted the companies. And it has now been true for a decade and a half, leaving taxpayers as well as the government and these low-paid workers trapped without a trace of value for money - the exact thing that privatisation is supposed to be so good for.

[This article was was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2017.]

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Monday, December 26, 2016

Orwell's Barcelona, December 1936 (& who really are the "wealth creators:") an edited re-post

It was at a moment of this same month, exactly 80 years ago, that George Orwell chose to open his exceptional book “Homage to Catalonia.”

Orwell was sure that not only could Socialism work but that it was already working in Barcelona during that autumn and winter, however briefly.


In his earlier life Orwell had argued that wealthy Britain was only able to exist thanks to coal miners working themselves to early deaths in underground infernos. They were then the true creators of that nation’s wealth.



As William Blake wrote, the entire modern world is "underwritten by constant, speechless suffering and that 'culture' begins in the callused hands of exhausted children," [to quote historian, Robert Hughes.]



(This reminds me of a line in a song by another Australian expat, NickCave:

"Out of sorrow, entire worlds have been built.")


In the first page of chapter one, Orwell describes how Barcelona seemed to him only eight decades ago…




“The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senior' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. 



Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all.
 
Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers' State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers' side; I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.”

[This post comes with a link to Expat.com, a site about expatriation in Spain (and other countries.)]

Saturday, December 17, 2016

"Portrait of an Asturian miner" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

The coal miner's wife wakes him and he coughs. He shuffles to the small bathroom sink and spits black liquid, washing it away with with the brown tap water.

Last night he slept badly, suffering from stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting again. He had been working in the zinc mine at Arnao in Castrillon but the Belgian company who own the site have let him go to the San Juan mine. He felt himself to be quite lucky. At least there they had a river pool for the miners to wash in.

As he leaves for another day under the earth the miner looks for a last time at the mountains, at their ferns and the tall groups of eucalyptus - – pencil thin, not quite straight, just like the trees in a Dr Seuss book. He sees the houses with their sharp pitched roofs in front of deep gorges and is comforted by the roll of the hills across this green land.

Our miner is living before the era of the chemical plants and big metal factories. He knows others who dig for iron and knows it’s vital for tinned food because electricity and refrigeration have not yet arrived to this part of the world.

His mine, like many mines, is close to a river: a means of transporting the coal for trading this raw material with British towns like Cardiff and Newcastle-upon-Tyne [where my own father was born and also grew up next to a polluted river.]

This miner's children will one day see the construction of chemical industries, thanks to the mines, thanks to his labour. In fact, he thinks, as he makes the walk to the pits, the story of Asturias is the story of the miner and the story of the miner is the story of Asturias. It is one of hardship and scant reward, of growth but also ill health. It is a tale of the deep earth's hidden secrets and humanity’s immeasurable suffering with the open spaces of the valleys and their claustrophobic confines - as unforgiving and back-breaking as any imagined hell in those greedy shafts penetrating ever downwards into the planet.

Today, like thousands of other days, he will launch his body into the ground and probe for hour after hour for that black rock. Finally, at the end of the day our miner will take aspirin for his aching bones, smiling at the ironic fact that it has ingredients made from the very coal he has been digging for. He does not yet know though that, decades later, his children are going eat kiwi-fruits and chestnuts that will come to grow particularly well in the carbon-coloured soil left from abandoned open-cut mines scattered across the nearby hills.

As the miner eats his simple lunch with his hands still blackened by coal dust, he remembers his father, who was also a miner. He too worked to extract the iron that was in such high demand for both twentieth century century world wars – a metal that helped the rich become richer. His father started life as a rural worker and had to adapt from the rhythms of the seasons to the very different rhythm of an industrial timetable. He had to learn to accept days and nights with no sky or trees, down in the mines which lay right next to his cramped terrace house.

Like every other subterranean labourer, his father and he both wondered if life could ever be different for them. He’d heard that things were a bit better at the only mine run by a trade union. But it was on the other side of Asturias and he had never even visited there.

Our miner lives in Bustiello town where all of the aristocrat Marques de Camilla's workers have their neat little houses below everyone else, at the bottom of the valley. It is an orderly, rectangular village and each house has a small garden. Up the hill above them live the engineers and above them is the church, then God of course. This is what he knows: the planning of the town exactly reflects the social and spiritual hierarchy. The Marques is a conservative man. He fears the progressive men who want social change.

Further on in the mountains there are mining zones that suffered from “special measures” during Franco's dictatorship. Around Pozo Fortuna trade union activists were assassinated and their bodies were thrown down an old pit-hole. Our miner speaks about this sadly with his friends and later falls asleep hoping that the bad times will end.

In the morning, he rises and faces another day.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2016.]

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Barcelona Mayor restates role of the city in settling refugees

[Colau with her counterparts from Madrid, Zaragoza and Valencia at the Vatican.  Photo: EFE.]

 "The mayoress of Barcelona, Ada Colau, yesterday [restated] the role that cities can play in the reception of refugees in contrast with the “disastrous handling” so far of the states and the international community in the face of the crisis. 

Colau made these claims at the Vatican during her speech at the international summit ‘Europe: refugees are our brothers and sisters' where she was participating with seventy European mayors including those of Madrid, Manuela Carmena; Valencia, Joan Ribó; Zaragoza, Pedro Santisteve, and Malaga, Francisco de la Torre.

The summit opened yesterday but today Colau and other municipal leaders will be received by Pope Francis, who has also been critical of the management of the refugee crisis. Colau appreciated the role taken by the Pope in the issue and denied the existence of any contradictions in being a representative of a lay and non-confessional institution agreeing with the words of the Pope. 

For Colau, the meeting is focused “on human rights and democracy,” and asked the other municipal representatives to join forces to combat “the growth of neo-fascism” on the European continent as is represented by the presidential candidate in France, Marine Le Pen.

Warning that the European Union is at a crossroads where it must decide to aid refugees or support the far right, she called for safer means of access to prevent deaths when refugees are forced to flee their countries. Colau demanded more resources and authority for the cities to welcome refugees, grant work permits and allow them to pay taxes “like other citizens.”

“At stake is our civilisation and heritage. The EU was born to say no more to the horrors generated by wars, violence and dehumanisation,” the mayoress concluded."

Source: Catalonia Today.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

"Competing for victimhood: Why eastern Europe says no to refugees"

[Slovenia, 25 October 2015. Photo: Janossy Gergely / Shutterstock.com. Source: Shutterstock]

A thoughtful and balanced piece of writing from Slavenka Drakulic that helps explain bigotry in that part of the world...

"The constant meetings of EU leaders concerning the refugee crisis in Brussels have not so far yielded any solutions. Decisions and documents, yes, but the question remains how many of these are going to be implemented in reality. One of the reasons is that former communist states in eastern Europe are more or less openly defying a common approach, in particular the sharing of the burden of refugees through quotas.

Until recently it seemed that eastern and western Europeans were getting closer, that the new EU member states were slowly adapting to western democratic standards not only in form, but also in practice and mentality. 

But the refugee crisis has demonstrated how deep the division among Europeans still is. Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia reject quotas, Bulgaria was first to build a fence along its border with Turkey, Romania is not offering refugees safe havens either, and Slovenia and Croatia claim lack of capacity, while also lacking the will to keep them. 

It looks as if Poland, with its newly elected government, will reinforce this defiance. Not to mention countries outside the EU: if Serbia and Albania are willing to perhaps show a kinder face to refugees while guiding them towards western borders, it is with an eye on possible membership of the Union. Macedonia is in the worst situation, penniless, overrun and desperate. It is obvious that these states are not very eager to, or capable of, demonstrating solidarity, to say the least." 

Read more from source at Eurozine here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Join me in conversation at a workshop

This Thursday afternoon...

"Why We are Losing Our Children & How We Can Get Them Back."

I will be leading a Parenting/Education Workshop near Sitges-Vilanova this Thursday 1st of December at 4.15.

Venue: The Olive Tree School, RAMBLA DEL GARRAF 21
Sant Pere de Ribes.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Video: "TV talk: Trump, Catalan language and Leonard Cohen"

http://www.elpuntavui.tv/video/192005057.html



This week I was once again a guest on Matthew Tree's panel show "Our Finest Hour." We discussed Donald Trump, where Catalan is and is not able to be spoken in Catalonia and Leonard Cohen, before a live performance by Guillem Gené of Cohen's song "Bird on a Wire."

Saturday, November 12, 2016

"Albania's pain" - My latest article for Catalonia Today magazine

[A middle class Albanian family Photo: PETER MENZEL, FAMILIES OF THE WORLD.]

When I was a curly-haired (and more ignorant) twelve year old in the Cold War years of the early 1980s, one day our History teacher asked the class a general knowledge question: “Who is the world’s longest-serving current dictator?”

Nobody had the correct answer, though Chairman Mao was one of the few responses from the students. Mr Lamb (yes, that was my teacher's name) gave us some helpful clues. “Come on now! He’s been in power since 1944 and he’s not from Asia.” But still, there was no idea running through the developing minds of those in the group. “It’s the Communist leader, Hoxha. Enver Hoxha in Albania,” he told us and wrote this strange sounding name on the board.

A decade and a half later (after French-educated Hoxha had been dead for almost ten years) I started to develop a morbid fascination with this country - a place the wider world knew little about. I read Paul Theroux’s harrowing account of a few weeks he spent travelling there and from a ferry leaving Greece I saw part of its coast: rough, dry and barren of buildings. I discovered that both Albania’s past, equally as much as its present, beggars belief and this pulled me into its orbit.

By the time Hoxha had been claimed by diabetes at the age of seventy six, his regime had modernised the economy in a classically Communist way: at a huge cost to the lives of its citizens. All across Albania, vicious historical blood feuds between families raged on and on unchecked and Hoxha’s secret police, the “sigourmi,” used networks of ordinary people as informers on their workmates and neighbours. Tens of thousands were jailed or disappeared (often in the kind of nightmarish circumstances that could come straight out of a Kafka story) and it’s estimated that up to twenty percent of the population were killed or died in forced labour.

When Hoxha’s supposed “worker’s paradise” came to an end there was a long, widespread orgy of general destruction of public property including factories. Combined with mass unemployment, severe shortages of food and fuel meant that the winter cold froze many people to death. Thousands of badly-needed professionals and working age men and women are still escaping to try to find work in neighbouring Greece or taking the short ferry to an often equally poverty-stricken existence in Italy. Some are going further away, including to Britain.

But even the years before Hoxha were no less bizarre. Albania’s King Zog, who survived five assassination attempts, married an aristocratic half-American woman (having seen her in a photo.) The Albanian parliament insisted on seeing the bloody nightgown from her wedding night, as proof of her virginity. Their giant-sized only son Prince Leka moved to Spain, where he trained exiles for a planned guerilla war against Hoxha. Leka’s combat practice became too much even for Franco’s government and the prince’s former royal playmate Juan Carlos was requested to ask Leka and his tribe to leave the country in the mid 1970s. He then took up residence in South Africa and hung around with the King of Zululand after marrying an Australian citizen and former teacher named Susan.

Meanwhile Albania was falling apart slowly. To see the country today is to witness corruption on a scale that makes Greece, Italy or Spain look like amateurish. Because of threats to their lives, the Prosecutor General Adriatik Llalla was recently forced to send his pregnant wife and two children to live in another European country. On top of this, environmentalist groups say they fear Albania will become Europe’s dumping site now that the national government has agreed to take other countries recycling waste.

Albania has some of our continent’s most spectacular scenery and quiet beaches. It has been predicted to become the next big thing in tourism for many of the last few years but somehow it is still largely neglected.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2016.]


Sunday, November 6, 2016

Free rail passes for young Europeans?

[©AP Images/ European Union-EP]
"Young Europeans are on track to receive a free InterRail pass on their 18th birthday in the future. Members of the European Parliament [MEPs] discussed the proposal and overwhelmingly supported it during a debate in plenary on 4 October. 

Millions of young European have travelled throughout the continent using Interrail over the last few decades, but the pass itself can cost up to hundreds of euros.

Interrail is a pass allowing people to travel across Europe’s rail network freely. Users can use it to travel wherever they like on the continent.

Some 300,000 people use InterRail passes to travel across Europe every year.   An InterRail pass cost ranges between €20 and €480 for a month-long pass.
"


Read more from source here.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

"Catalonia drops psychiatric test for transexuals"

[Healthcare reform activists from 'TRANSforma la Salut' in October press conference. Photo: Ferran Sendra / El Periódico]

 "• Move announced as part of a desire to ‘de-pathologise’ transexuality
 

• Special unit set up in Barcelona to handle all gender identity healthcare needs

The regional health service in...Catalonia has dropped its controversial requirement for individuals seeking a medical gender change to first undergo psychiatric evaluation, removing what transgender and LGBT activists in Spain have long protested as a stigmatization that equates homosexuality and the desire for gender change with mental illness.

[Catalan] health minister Antoni Comín announced Monday that individuals experiencing gender identity disorder over the sexual identity they were assigned at birth and who seek hormone treatment or surgery through the...health service will no longer be treated as though they have a mental disorder prior to undergoing therapy.

As part of Catalonia’s push to “de-pathologise” healthcare related to sexual identity and gender change, Comín said, a new multi-disciplinary specialist Gender Identity Unit (GIU) has been established at Barcelona’s Manso primary healthcare center to meet the specific needs of individuals undergoing hormone therapy and sex-change surgery.

Currently, there are 437 people at different stages of sex-change treatment within the Catalan health system, with 93 new applications each year from individuals seeking initial hormonal treatment of two years prior to being placed on the waiting list for sex-change surgery."

Source: here.