Saturday, December 21, 2019

"How to Lose a Country, in 7 Steps -- A Conversation with Ece Temelkuran"

I am one of the early birds… Ece Temelkuran told me, “I saw democracy collapse in Turkey and tried to warn the United States, European Countries and Britain about this.  

I’ve been telling people that what you think is normal, or a passing phase, is part of a bigger phenomenon that affects us all.  Somehow though, European democracies feel they’re exceptional – and too mature to be affected by neofascist currents.”

Ece has seen this all before.  In her incredible 2019 book How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, she notes, “We have learned over time that coups in Turkey end the same way regardless of who initiated them. 
It’s like the rueful quote from the former England footballer turned TV pundit Gary Lineker, that football is a simple game played for 120 minutes, and at the end the Germans win on penalties. In Turkey, coups are played out over forty-eight-hour curfews, and the leftists are locked up at the end. Then afterwards, of course, another generation of progressives is rooted out, leaving the country’s soul even more barren than it was before.”
Ece Temelkuran is an award-winning Turkish novelist and political commentator, whose journalism has appeared in the Guardian, New York Times, New Statesman, Frankfurter Allgemeine and Der Spiegel. She has been twice recognised as Turkey’s most-read political columnist, and twice rated as one of the ten most influential people in social media (with three million twitter followers). In this exclusive interview, we discuss the dangers of populism, authoritarianism and fascism, and why we need to act now.
Q: What are populism and nationalism?
[Ece Temelkuran]:  Today, there is less time to understand the differences between nationalism, populism and authoritarianism.  In Britain, democracy is literally crumbling at the hands of a strange guy with funny hair!  People simply aren’t recognising the dangers that lay ahead, so there’s not enough time to get into definitions
One truth is that you cannot really know what populism is until you experience it.  Populism is the act of politicising and mobilising ignorance to the point of political and moral insanity.  Nationalism as we know, comes from the phenomena of nation-states – and it’s quite ironic therefore that we are now talking more and more about the failure of nation states and the failure of supranational and international institutions as well… and meanwhile neo-nationalism is on the rise." "
Read more from source here.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

"Generation Precarious" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Photo: Oriol Duran]

I saw the best minds of my generation being dog-walkers or asking ’Would you like fries with that?’”

This may well be the sentiment of plenty of young people under the age of 30 across the developed world. 
Certainly, I include Catalonia, and especially those who camped across Barcelona’s main street of Gran Via and into the public square in front of the University of Barcelona.
Yes, they had other issues too that are important to them: the jailing of independence movement leaders, police brutality against protesters, increasing legal restrictions on free expression, but one of their other three stated aims was “a dignified future.”
It’s worth considering what this means. I see no reason why we should simply ignore the different groups who made up the “encampment”. 
When I visited the area in early November I saw groups of surprisingly youthful-looking kids being politically active. Some were in their mid-teens but were confident and obviously happy to be there. One young woman I spoke to had a makeshift stall that was all about a red plastic rubbish bin and her own writing I read was a vague and confusing attempt at satire. Another group were encouraging tweets as a method of expression where you could win a prize.
It’s difficult to argue though, with much of what the main section of the Gran Via campers have said. 
Calling themselves the ‘October 14 Generation’, their manifesto states, “We are a generation without a future. The generation of precariousness. The one that does not have access to housing, the one that is the victim of a system that threatens the very existence of our planet. We are a generation that has been robbed of the most basic social and labour rights.”
To me, that is all clear and true. Only someone living with their eyes closed could dispute it and in fact the far right continue to dishonestly and selectively use these young people’s sense of frustration and alienation for their own political benefit all across Europe.
Of course, it’s easy to write off the street-campers as just some university student vandals and fire-starters who are abusing the privileges that they’ve been given. 
Sadly, even a great writer and thinker such as Antonio Muñoz Molina (considered to be progressive) did this in a recent article for El Pais newspaper. His comments seem to have at least partly come from jealousy when comparing his own strict upbringing compared to “the academic authorities’ paternal and maternal indulgence” over these students’ postponed exams.
To make a comparison, I originally come from a part of the planet (Australia) where the level of political interest in most of the population, but especially the young, could best be described as minimal. In fact, apathy rules. 
I’m filled with optimism (rare for me) when I see young people taking a strong interest in anything outside their own narrow lives, even if I don’t happen to agree in all cases with everything they are on about. If any protester anywhere uses violence against people or private property then I naturally condemn it.
History has taught us that for protest to gain enough popular support to cause meaningful, long-term, lasting change it has to be non-violent. If that means camping out in a public square and main street, then that is a far more humanitarian option than us attacking each other with sticks. It might even help to foster a future that is less unstable.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2019.]

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Meet the Authors -- Sitges, Sunday 8 Dec.

I will be just one of the local authors doing an event tomorrow (Sunday) in the coastal town of Sitges at SUNBOW Art Lounge, Carrer de Sant Pau, 34, starting at 7.30PM. 

*Come & spend a relaxed evening with the local authors of Sitges & surroundings

*Hear them showcase their books, inspire you with their stories & entertain you as you enjoy a drink or tapas

* Ask those burning questions, chat & purchase books for yourself or as gifts

* Have your books signed by the authors

Saturday, November 30, 2019

"Voices fallen from the sky" -- Manu Valentín's history of the Jewish exile in Barcelona, 1881-1954 "

"Voces caídas del cielo [tries] to fill a notable [non-fiction] vaccuum...of the collective memory of a community of Jewish exiles who struggled to establish themselves in the city of Barcelona with hardly any support. 

Based on a vast body of documentation, a lot of it unpublished,...sources that dealt with the crisis of the Jewish exiles in different moments, and interviews with the refugees and their descendents, the historian Manu Valentín manages to rescue the protagonists’ memory and raises their personal experiences to the level of historical events." (Publishers summary.)"

Read more from source at Literary Rambles here.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

"Barcelona launches the Brexit Information Point for citizens and businesses"

 "The Barcelona City Council launches the Brexit Point, a fixed and face-to-face service point in the Business Support Office, in the MediaTIC building, aimed at citizens, companies, freelances and talent to answer questions on the possible opportunities and consequences of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.
This information point works by appointment and from 8:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. from Monday to Thursday and from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Fridays to:
  • Assisting citizens and working for the retention of international talent: clarifying doubts and reducing the concern of British citizens living Barcelona.
  • Building loyalty and retention of investments and projects: informing British capital companies that operate in our territory and other people or organizations that may be affected by the impact of Brexit.
  • Attracting investments and international talent: helping companies that want to establish in the city as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU.
This new service is launched by the Barcelona City Council, in coordination with the Embassy of the United Kingdom in Spain through the British Consulate General in Barcelona and the Ministry of Interior through the Government Subdelegation in Barcelona."

Read more from source here.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Q and A on life as an immigrant in Europe (or "expat" if you prefer.)

From  (November 11, 2019) 
Brett Hetherington
Brett Hetherington (Photo credit:           
Who are you?

My name's Brett Hetherington and I'm a European (Australian/British) journalist, teacher and author (most recently of Slow Travels in Unsung Spain) living in Catalonia, Spain with my partner/wife Paula and our teenage son Hugo.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

Our first move was to Japan in 1999 (where Hugo was born) and three years later we moved to England.

After two years there we moved to live in inland Catalonia in the Barcelona region and have been there since 2006.

What challenges did you face during the move?

Plenty! Languages were a big one because we all had to deal with Catalan as well as Spanish. Hugo was only five when we came, so he picked it up quickly with the help of some great teachers at his Catalan primary school. I've become functionally fluent in Spanish and generally understand Catalan okay, though I don't speak it.

How did you find somewhere to live?

Luckily, a teacher my wife was replacing was leaving his apartment in the town where we wanted to live, Vilafranca del Penedes. I communicated directly with the landlord (in a mixture of his poor English and my even worse Spanish). Later, we bought our own place in a small nearby town, almost a decade ago now.

Are there many other expats in your area?

Very few here, but 20 minutes away on the coast around Sitges (where we used to work) there is a strong expat community.

What is your relationship like with the locals?

Friendly, and some acquainatiances, but few real close friends, I would say. Most small-town, rural Catalan people call themselves "closed." They mean that they're not open to having many new social relationships outside their already established ones.

What do you like about life where you are?

The vineyards and open spaces of nature around. It's a great balance too when you mainly work in the big city of Barcelona.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

Well, I think of myself as an immigrant more than an expat because I don't see who we are as any different to others who came here from somewhere else for a better life. I do intensely dislike the bureaucracy and arbitary kinds of decision-making in Southern Europe. The low salaries that never rise are making life harder every year too.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

This has been our home for a long time now, but if I compare it with where I lived most of my life, I'd say I miss the more spontaneous way people socialise and talk to strangers, as well as the multi-cultural population being a part of the mainstream.

What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?
The food is wonderful: seasonal, fresh, still not too expensive in general. It's a big reason to live here. The range of vegetables is always limited to Mediterranean ones though, unless you want to pay big money for "ethnic" ingredients.

That's the only downside, because the seafood and usual high quality in well-priced "menus del dia" is great. There's fantastic, cheap wine in this area too.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Do it! But be prepared to live in a low-wage economy unless you are very lucky. On the other hand, Spain/Catalonia is a great place to bring up kids, in my opinion.

What are your plans for the future?
Stay until we can't afford it anymore and if Brexit doesn't make life impossible or any more costly.

You can find Brett's book, Slow Travels in Unsung Spain, on Amazon.

Friday, November 8, 2019

"Before the fall of the Berlin Wall -- Vintage home movies show another side of life in East Germany"

[Photo Credit: Open Memory Box]

In our current era of right-wing populism dividing people against each other for no good reason, it's worth remembering that the Berlin Wall was built to separate those who had everything in common...

"After the Berlin Wall came down [or was more accurately pulled-down] on Nov. 9, 1989, the 40-year-old socialist German Democratic Republic dissolved along with one-party rule, the Stasi secret police and the all-encompassing, five-year economic plans. With reunification, a culture disappeared. And while East Germans adjusted to life under a united and capitalistic Germany, many found it was hard to talk about their past lives with West Germans who felt they already knew their story, and framed it usually in victimhood. 

But now, a unique, online archive of home films shot in the GDR is casting a new light on the extinct country and the lives of its citizens..."

Sunday, November 3, 2019

"You can't sleep here!"

The appalling sight of metal spikes to stop homeless people sleeping outside the doorway of a vacant building on Rambla de Catalunya in Barcelona

I took this photo this week. Not in the early 20th century. 

Londoners and New Yorkers will also recognise this anti-human architecture.

I first wrote about this (and a related) theme in this article tilted "Poor Doors" in 2014. 

Friday, November 1, 2019

Now available at Come In Bookshop (Barcelona) -- my latest publication: "Slow Travels in Unsung Spain"

My new non-fiction title is now in-store and online at Come In independent, specialist English language bookshop on Carrer Balmes in Barcelona. 

"a compelling and eclectic narrative full of the unexpected " -- Nick Inman, Rough Guides

Saturday, October 26, 2019

"Brits in Spain resort to Irish ancestry to stay in the EU after Brexit"

[Photo:  (GETTY)]
"On June 23, 2016, Emma O’Sullivan spent the evening in her apartment in the Gràcia district of Barcelona, initially concerned and later shocked by what she was hearing on the BBC: that 52% of her fellow Brits had voted to exit the European Union, leaving her and around 1,300,000 more British nationals living in the EU in a state of limbo.
“After the initial shock, I went through all the stages of mourning,” she recalls. “Denial, fury, resignation…” In fact, according to the Kübler-Ross model for dealing with grief, the third phase is bargaining, and this is essentially what Emma did; she negotiated her own exit from Brexit.
Fortunately, her grandfather on her father’s side was originally from Cork, allowing her to claim Irish citizenship...
(Ireland used to receive around 6,000 applications for citizenship a year before the 2016 referendum. But last year alone it received 25,000, some from British nationals living in Spanish territory.")
Read more from source here.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Now available at Documenta -- my latest book: "Slow Travels in Unsung Spain"

My new non-fiction title is now in-store and online at DOCUMENTA independent bookshop in Barcelona. 

"a compelling and eclectic narrative full of the unexpected " -- Nick Inman, Rough Guides

Saturday, October 12, 2019

"Natsukashi" -- My latest column for Catalonia Today magazine

This morning, with the dying of this summer and noticing the shortening of the hours of light in the evening, I remembered that exactly two decades ago I went with my new wife to live in the city of Kyoto, in Japan.
It became possibly the single most influential experience in and on my life. 
To look at a period of what became three years and see it as one complete experience (or a collection of thousands of experiences wrapped into one) is obviously unusual. But Japan is exactly that: unusual. 
In fact, it’s unique. Living there, I found myself sometimes saying to myself or whoever was near me, “Everything here is different. Everything!”
Of course not literally everything is, in fact, different there but that was how Japan and its people struck you, especially at first sight. 
Essentially, Japanese people want the very same things as you and I, and the rest of the inhabitants of the planet. We all basically want love, food, shelter, respect and satisfaction. But it often seemed that how they thought they would get these wants was a polar opposite to me, a 30-year-old male from Australia, so geographically close to Japan.
The Japanese language is unique, too, like every language, I suppose. There’s a word in Japanese - “natsukashi” - for which the closest translation in English is “nostalgia”. This translation, though, does not do justice to such a complex, nuanced word that is actually a highly emotional one.
In Japan you would find even primary school children saying this word, not just adults. I think this is because from a very young age in Japan you are taught (or at least influenced) by parents, schools, and wider society to reflect back on your actions, your experiences, and even individual moments. This is a mentality not currently in vogue in much of the Western world, partly because Japan is a very formal society.
There is a structure, a ritual, an accepted composed method and set order (and a set order of words in a phrase) for virtually every daily action the Japanese do; whether it is eating, leaving home, getting to or leaving school or work, or even how you conduct relationships with people. 
To my wife and I and our non-Japanese friends, for at least a year or two, this was mystifying, confusing, frustrating but eventually somehow comprehensible. Although it was quite simple to understand and learn the basics of daily routine, having relationships with Japanese people was another matter, despite the fact that almost everyone was extremely kind to us.
The multiple layers of meaning that everything has in Japan can be seen in my current nostalgic yearning feeling towards Japan through the word ‘natsukashi’.
It turns out that my understanding of this word was not quite on the mark though. After researching it, I find that this feeling is better expressed by the longer word ‘mukashiwonatsukashimu’. ‘Natsukashi is apparently a more simple term for someone or something that is dear, desired or missed.
Next month, I plan to write a follow-up article on some specific examples that illustrate the points I’ve made above about Japan, this most unique of unique places. Until then, I’ll finish with a ‘haiku’ I wrote in Japan. ‘Haiku” is the traditional 5-7-5 syllable simplified form of poetry that’s designed to recall a single moment:

Portuguese song voice
Sweet, controlled, but free and light
Heard in a night street.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2019.]

Sunday, October 6, 2019

"The Pickpocket Slaves of Europe"

"The pickpocket slaves of Europe have prompted a major international investigation by the Netherlands regarding the...forced child pickpockets in Europe…

In Eastern Europe, children are living what the Dutch press calls a modern Oliver Twist story.  

Some of the children are being held against their will and forced to beg and steal their way around Western European cities.

According to the findings of an international investigation called Operation 13Oceans, these young thieves, as young as 8 years old, are picking pockets and involved in other petty crimes in the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Germany, and Spain.

Several kids appeared on the radar of the Dutch police when they saw the same faces over and over again, with different names each time. They had picked them up, booked them, and let them out on the streets again, in a never ending cycle. 

Eventually, as the cops ran their faces through the databases of Europol and other international organizations, a list of around 300 kids emerged. 

The children are invisible victims because it is hard for society to see the sinister hand of organized human trafficking that lies behind the petty thievery that afflicts so many European cities, helping to stoke the anger against “migrants,” many of whom are Roma, but many of whom are not.

A Dutch prosecutor said, “What you see is often not what it appears. When you see a mother begging with a child, for instance, you don’t necessarily think about the infant being forced to serve as a prop for a woman who is not its mother at all.”

Another member of 13Oceans added, “As the children get older, they are forced to steal for a criminal organization. We are actively watching four international criminal networks.” More specifics were not given, since the investigation in ongoing.  But the ages of the children range from 8 to 16, he said.

In the past, investigators tended to look at this issue as pickpocketing or so-called mobile banditry offenses…but now in this case the children are considered victims rather than offenders.  Some of the victims are demanded to steal up to [$1,115] a day."
Read more from source here.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

"The Empty Womb: the tale of a precarious and childless generation"

 "I often ask my friends how they see themselves ten years from now. We know what we will do next week, but not in three months. Will I have a job? Will I have a home? Will I have met somebody? 

The capacity to predict our own lives doesn’t exist, because the precariousness has dynamited the possibility of visualising our future. 

The dynamics have been configured to make everything last only a short time: buy that which you will eat for dinner tonight, we will see what it will be tomorrow; maybe in one month you won’t have a job; remember that next year your rental contract will end. 

The uncertainty generated by the crisis [of/since 2008] has not only rocked our expectations, but also our most primitive certainties; those that I thought would always exist even when I didn’t have anything material to hang on to: a child, for example. A panorama that doesn’t allow anything but short-term thinking, pure survival. A scenario in which to think about having children causes panic. But not having them, if you desire to, also causes panic. 

This book deals with putting off having children in the generation of the 25 to 35 year olds. Also about those who when they were about to have a child, they lost their jobs. It reflects on the fear of having children and on the fear of not ever having them. A collective tale that talks about how our bodies have been crossed by precariousness. And about putting it all off until we don’t know when."

Above is the publisher's summary of Noemí López Trujillo's, El vientre vacío. Relato de una generación precaria y sin hijos [The empty womb: the tale of a precarious and childless generation], 2019.

Source: an excellent blog on Spanish and Portugese literature: Literary Rambles.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

"Drought Has Revealed Spain’s Long-Submerged ‘Stonehenge’ "


When I passed through this region only a few summers ago, from a train I wrote in 'Slow Travels in Unsung Spain'... 

"swerving around a hill, a vast body of water suddenly appeared – a statement of abundance and life in this hard land, like something biblical from a Leonard Cohen song.

This was the Embalse de Valdecañas [reservoir] that marks the start of Extremadura province, being connected to the more than 1,000-kilometre-long Tajo (or Tagus) river that sweeps into Portugal: a river that two millennia ago the Roman poet Ovid sang the praises of for its gold-bearing sands."

Now, as ALYSSA MCMURTRY found, this scene is the exact opposite:

"THIS SUMMER HAS BEEN UNUSUALLY scorching across Europe and beyond, and things have only grown more intense in the already hot and dry region of Extremadura in Spain. 

Months into an official drought that could be developing into a mega-drought, local farmers are facing the loss of hundreds of millions of euros. Many think this is just a sign of things to come.

Droughts, and the way that they strip the land of plant cover and drain lakes and reservoirs, for all the problems they cause, are often a boon for archaeologists. 
The water level of the Valdecañas Reservoir in the province of Cáceres has dropped so low that it is providing an extraordinary glimpse into the past.
“All my life, people had told me about the dolmen,” says Angel Castaño, a resident of Peraleda de la Mata, a village just a couple miles from the reservoir, and president of the local cultural association. 
“I had seen parts of it peeking out from the water before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in full. It’s spectacular because you can appreciate the entire complex for the first time in decades.”
The dolmen he’s talking about is known as the Dolmen of Guadalperal, the remains of a 7,000-year old megalithic monument consisting of around 100 standing stones—some up to six feet tall—arranged around an oval open space. It takes hours of hiking to get to the dolmen, which is now a few dozen yards away from the edge of the tranquil blue water. 
Visitors today are more likely to see deer than guards. Traces of aquatic plant life in the sand show that the site is dry and accessible only temporarily."

Read more from ALYSSA MCMURTRY's  wonderful article for Altas Obscura here  and my new book here.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

"Jokerman" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

[Photo: EFE]

Unlike this summer’s extreme weather, which came to Europe then went, extreme conservative governments have also recently come but unfortunately don’t seem to be going.
In the UK, the latest incarnation of this threat to the average person is the new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson (or simply ‘Boris,’ as plenty of his fellow media personalities call him.) 

But there is only one important question to be asked about him. Who will he and his Conservative Party govern for?

The answer is already clear. If we ignore all his populist, nationalistic public language and ignore his long history of incompetence, his almost continual episodes of self-serving immorality and if we also ignore his continuing catalogue of lies and vile racist and homophobic insults, there is still something much more important than all that staring us in the face.

The fact is that Boris Johnson has always represented no-one else other than the exact same kind of young males who he is pictured alongside in the ‘Wall of Fame’ at Eton, the school where only Britain’s wealthiest families send their children.

In other words, Boris Johnson will continue to act only for the richest part of the social spectrum. His first policy announcement after he declared he would run for the party’s leadership was calculated to let the rich know that he was still well and truly on their side. He stated he would give tax cuts to 3 million higher income earners.

As well as that he is arguing for further cuts to business tax, even though UK corporation tax rates are “one of the lowest...among developed economies, with successive reductions taking it from 28% in 2008 to 19% now.”

The great problem with schools like Eton where Johnson (and 20 other former UK Prime Ministers) went, is that, according to Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, it is a major part of “an archaic system that teaches those who belong to it that they are destined for the kind of greatness that others cannot reach.”

The idea of a personal destiny is appealing to people like Johnson because as adults it means they believe that they never have to show ability. “Preparatory” boarding schools such as Eton brainwash their young at a time in their lives when they are highly impressionable, being away from their families for almost the entire academic year. In essence, they instill the value of ultimate self-confidence as superior to expertise. 

This is exactly the root cause of Britain’s wider mediocrity in much of it’s politics and business; it comes from a social class system that virtually insists on taking nothing at all too seriously.

Johnson’s public image as a mumbling, bumbling, patriotic jokester is initially easy to like. He has a light-hearted charm which works with Anglo people who don’t like anyone to be earnest for very long. Comedy is good entertainment, they’d say. 

This tone of amusement was also something Johnson used in his earlier career in journalism and writing. Astonishingly, he wrote a sexist and offensive novel titled Seventy-Two Virgins – A Comedy of Errors (published in 2004) where the main character, obviously entirely based on Johnson, becomes a hero during a terrorist attack. The hand of destiny again.

Ultimately, Johnson is hellbent on “delivering” Brexit at any cost to the middle and working class people of his country. The irony here is that as recently as 2013 he wrote a newspaper article that advised his fellow cabinet ministers “to stop blaming Brussels for all our problems.”

Now though, we have him and his Brexit to more accurately blame. Johnson’s jokes are all the more hollow and the saddest joke is on us.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Sept. 2019.]