Sunday, October 25, 2020

"Man of protest: Xirinacs" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine


Pic: Fundacio Randa LL


Do a Google search (or to my preference, a much more private search on for Lluís Maria Xirinacs i Damians in English and you’ll find a decent but short Wikipedia page on him and precious little else. None of his books have ever been translated into English either. 

So, why bother knowing anything about this man? Why should history remember him? Because Xirinacs led a fascinating, varied and ultimately controversial life. A truly unique life. 

Seemingly he is best known in Catalonia for being nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. This was mainly due to his 12 hours a day, solitary, standing, human rights protests outside the Modelo prison in Barcelona during the last decade of Franco’s dictatorship. There, Xirinacs was regularly arrested after being beaten by the police or right wing thugs. 

I spoke to a good friend of mine, one of his former philosophy students. He gave me personal insights I didn’t expect. This is what he told me: 

“Xirinacs was an intellectual academic, a really good teacher. He’d quit being a priest. We’d have big arguments together about Nietzche or Socrates, getting very heated with each other. Two Latins just working it out, I suppose.

During his life Xirinacs was a big supporter of independence for Catalonia but plenty of people here had doubts about him too. He was sentenced to prison near the end of his life for making public statements in favour of ETA, the terrorist group from the Basque country. He gave a speech at that square where they do the annual national memorial at the eternal flame and he basically said that he didn’t agree with any kind of torture but that he was an enemy of the Spanish state and a friend of ETA because their soldiers have to live like secretive rats, in hiding with no girlfriends or children and that they give public warnings before they blow up areas where ordinary people are.

Of course, that contradicted the pacifist views he’d had all his life and in his teaching of Gandhi-style non-violence strategies. 

When Xirinacs was an older man, in his seventies, he said to a small group of his other students, “One day you’ll find my body in the forest.” We didn’t know if it was a hint that he was going to commit suicide or whether he thought he was going to be seized and taken out there to be shot. 

The official autopsy [in 2007] found that he died from natural causes. I accept that because they discovered a note on his desk bitterly criticising Catalan politicians and previously he’d talked to us about Eastern philosophies of wasting away in more of a long, peaceful meditation out in nature.

The funeral at Santa Maria del Mar cathedral was something else too. The head monk from Montserrat, he stood up and said, “Xirinacs was a great model for everyone; a fine example of what we can be in life…but not in death. At that moment, everyone in the church and outside too, started clapping, applauding really loudly. The crowd were drowning him out and also applauding Xirinacs. Maybe. Probably.  

After a minute, the Abbott tried to calm the crowd but they just went on clapping; five minutes, ten minutes; they finally stopped at twenty minutes. That noise was their protest in favour of a great protester.”

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, October 2020.]

Sunday, October 18, 2020


A penetrating editorial from Lenox at the superb news summary service, Business Over Tapas...

"Spain has a political system which allows opportunity.

From the most humble councillor in the town hall (well, with a voice in the local government, that is) to the very top, there is opportunity. One can make use of it or not, as each and every politician must decide. 

Many did, and that led to the eventual fall of the last conservative government: for corrupción (Wiki)!

The famous mantra of ‘…y tú más’, which translates as something like ‘Oh yea? and what about your guys?’  was shattered with the rise of Pedro Sánchez (one recalls how the PSOE apparatus of the time did all it could to get rid of him) and, to the far-left, the arrival of Podemos with Pablo Iglesias.

Neither of these two is well seen by the Spanish Establishment. Business – and opportunity – is not best served.

From this comes the continuous plots and ferocious political opposition. 

This time though, the electorate is more attuned to the manipulation of the media.


In short, their enemies do all they can to find some dirt on either Pedro or Pablo, whose fame rests to a large degree on their integrity, knowing that any sign of having feet of clay will probably topple them.

And for this, the right-wing, much of the judiciary, the media and big business look under every stone and in every sewer, as they seek to manufacture some scandal that would stick, above all in the eyes of the voters."

This editorial was first published through BoT here.

Friday, October 9, 2020

VIDEO: "How Brexit Snuck Up On Everyone"


With Brexit no deal now very likely, this insightful short video shows how since the moment the UK joined Europe (at least politically) there's always been a campaign to leave. 

Also focuses on UKIP's use of fear and national symbols.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

"Slow Travels in Unsung Spain" to be translated into German


Exciting news...

My latest nonfiction book Slow Travels in Unsung Spain, is to be translated into German by Daniela Tannebaum.

It will be available on Amazon via Babelcube next year.


Sunday, September 27, 2020

"Living too together?" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine


Back in mid-July, after more than four months, I (reluctantly) set foot in the city of Barcelona. 

I also made the mistake of driving in the centre, having wisely used public transport in the past.

I love the place and always get a thrill out of going there – we live on the edge of Barcelona province in a small town – but walking through crowds of people in the midst of a contagious pandemic, it was impossible to relax and enjoy myself as I’d always done before.

Yes, most people were wearing masks covering the nose and mouth but around 20 or 30 percent of those in the street were not. Plenty of them appeared to be tourists. The following day, regulations were changed so that it was compulsory to wear a mask in all public places across Catalonia.

I have to say though, the relief I felt when I escaped the absurdly narrow traffic lanes of Gran Via and got the car out near the space and mountains surrounding Josep Tarradellas Barcelona–El Prat Airport was a welcome one.

It seemed almost claustrophobic and unnatural to be in a city of 4.8 million on the day that a city with the same population (Melbourne in Australia) had just been locked down in Covid quarantine for six weeks.

It might also have been in my subconscious but in the days before my unusually disquieting visit, I’d read an article about Barcelona having Europe’s most densely populated square kilometre in Europe. More than 53,000 people inhabit this single 1km² area. (France also has a place with more than 50,000 people in a single km², in Paris.)

The urban zone that breaks this very dubious record lies just south of Barcelona Football Club’s Camp Nou stadium. Unlike older city locals who often refer to places (public squares) as reference points, for me as mainly a travelling teacher, I use Metro stations and recognised this ultra-dense area is between the Collblanc and Torrassa stations on one side. The other corners run along the old N340 national road to near Badal metro stop and down to Santa Eulalia station.

It’s true that technically speaking this compressed cube of humanity is in the “city” of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat but in reality it was originally agricultural land, subsumed by the Catalan capital and (as someone who has spent time working around there) it certainly feels to me like it’s a extension of Barcelona, being only eight stops on the Metro from Barcelona’s centre. When combined, the two “separate cities” make up the second most dense urban area in all of Europe.

It hardly needs saying but this particular part of Barcelona is one the poorest. It has a high number of low-income immigrants but residents say that renting an apartment can still cost 800 or 900 euros a month, which can only encourage overcrowding. This is made worse by the fact that a growing number of people living there are not registered with the local council. This leads to underfunding of social and other services.

Other problems in the area are a simple, natural result of this extreme density: major lack of parking, an almost complete lack of green spaces and related high levels of pollution. Recently, this square kilometre and surroundings have also been a centre of a wider outbreak of Covid-19 in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat.

As a result, I ask the question: If living in each others’ pockets is such a good thing then why aren’t the very richest in society doing it?

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, Sept. 2020.]

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Why do the poor suffer more from Covid19 in Spain? Interview with ABC TV.

Author of "Slow Travels in Unsung Spain" Brett Hetherington talks to Fauziah Ibrahim of ABC TV in Australia about the connection between poverty and Covid 19 in Spain.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Podcast: The surprising Spanish connection: Black Music in Europe (The 1970s)

Clarke Peters uncovers...Black flamenco in Spain, talking to Raul Rodriguez and Black-British flamenco dancer Yinka Esi Graves about how Seville's Triana area, where 15% of the population were once Black and why the dictator Franco used flamenco as a false national symbol.  

Listen here (for the first 6 minutes.)

(Photo: Clark Peters. Credit:: Alexandra Quinn)

Sunday, September 6, 2020

"'We don't know what to do': asylum seekers flown to Spain by Home Office"

      [Guardia Civil at Madrid-Barajas airport arrivals hall. Photograph: Europa Press News/Europa Press/Getty Images]

One of the most disgusting acts against refugees that I can remember seeing. This, from the current British government...

"Eleven Syrian asylum seekers have been abandoned outside the airport in Madrid where a Home Office charter flight deposited them, the Guardian has learned." 

Taken without even their ID documents, according to the story. The "hostile environment on steroids" as one commenter called it.

Read more from source here.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

VIDEO: Q & A on my book "The Remade Parent."


A post for today: #IndieBookstoreDay / #BookshopDay:

In this video I answer questions (in English) from the public at the SUNBOW Art Lounge in Sitges, Catalonia/Spain. Including...

*Why did you write this book? *What are your top tips for parents?

"The Remade Parent" is available at many independent bookshops worldwide and online here.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

"Something remarkable happened this August: How the pandemic sped up the passage to postcapitalism"


"Two days ago, something extraordinary happened. 

Something that has never happened before in the history of capitalism. 

In Britain, the news came out that the economy had suffered its greatest slump ever – more than 22% down during the first 7 months of 2020. 

Remarkably, on the same day, the London Stock Exchange, the FTSE100 index, rose by more than 2%. 

On the same day, during a time America has ground to a halt and is beginning to look like not just as an economy in deep trouble but also, ominously, as a failed state, Wall Street’s SP500 index hit an all-time record.

Unable to contain myself, I tweeted the following:

Before 2008, the money markets also behaved in a manner that defied humanism. News of mass firings of workers would be routinely followed by sharp rises in the share price of the companies “letting their workers go” – as if they were concerned with their liberation… But at least, there was a capitalist logic to that correlation between firings and share prices. That disagreeable causality was anchored in expectations regarding a company’s actual profits. More precisely, the prediction that a reduction in the company’s wage bill might, to the extent that the loss of personnel lead to lower proportional reductions in output, lead to a rise in profits and, thus, dividends. The mere belief that there were enough speculators out there thinking that there were enough speculators out there who might form that particular expectation was enough to occasion a boost in the share price of companies firing workers.

That was then, prior to 2008. Today, this link between profit forecasts and share prices has disappeared and, as a consequence, the share market’s misanthropy has entered a new, post-capitalist phase. This is not as controversial a claim as it may sound at first. In the midst of our current pandemic not one person in their right mind imagines that there are speculators out there who believe that there are enough speculators out there who may believe that company profits in the UK or in the US will rise any time soon. And yet they buy shares with enthusiasm. The pandemic’s effect on our post-2008 world is now creating forces hitherto unfathomable..."

Read more from source here.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Barcelona in the red zone for N02 ship pollution


Air Quality map of Europe above:

Maritime traffic has a significant impact on air pollution as ships release NO2 (Nitrogen dioxide) & CO2 etc. into the atmosphere.

Levels of NO2 detected by the @CopernicusEU, Sentinel5P
from Jan to Jul 2020.

Friday, August 7, 2020

New ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ reader-review for "Slow Travels in Unsung Spain"

I was humbled by the comments of a reader named Louise Davies recently about my latest book (available here.) 

Her online review said:

5,0 de 5 estrellas
"I love the personal sentiments felt by the author and expressed honestly...

 An unusual, inspiring travel book interspersed with literary observations. 

Well-written and researched."

Sunday, August 2, 2020

"Oxford vaccine is safe, according to second stage study data"

[ Rumyana Vakarelska]
"The vaccine builds immunity, but still does not protect against infection."

"We have some really good news; the so-called "British 'A' vaccine being developed by scientists at Oxford University is entering its third phase of testing," Rumyana Vakarelska, a journalist in London, told Horizon's "Before All" program. She works for an American financial information and analysis corporation and covers Covid-19 and the impact on business.

Her comment is that the latest phase of clinical trials of the experimental coronavirus vaccine, developed by the American National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and one of the major biotechnology companies, begins today in the United States. 

This is the first vaccine tested in the United States. The University of Oxford and one of the major pharmaceutical companies are also testing vaccines against Covid 19. This was announced last week from the rostrum of the British Parliament.

"The most important thing from the second stage of the study is that this vaccine is safe. It is likely to be implemented in early 2021 and the team's optimal plan is that most people can be vaccinated by April-May next year. "

In the third phase of testing the vaccine, there are also questions, the journalist believes.

"What is known so far is that the vaccine builds immunity, but still does not protect against infection. That is, if you get sick, you will get sick more easily and deaths will be reduced in the future. The vaccine will attack the virus and create antibodies and will create immunity. '

Rumyana Vakarelska explained that a gradual vaccination is expected , and the vaccine has so far been tested on the age group between 18 and 55. Testing has also begun on people between the ages of 59 and 65 and a second group for people over the age of 70.

The United Kingdom has ordered 100 million vaccines from the company, and the United States has ordered 400 million vaccines, although they are also developing a vaccine, Vakarelska explained.

When asked if there will be access to the vaccine at a good price, the journalism specified:
"The UK will do everything possible if the vaccine is completed successfully and in the third stage the transmission of the infection from person to person is prevented, the UK will help the vaccine reach everyone. The program for the UK provides for its distribution through GPs and will most likely be free. It is not yet known whether pharmacies will be available and available there. "

Vakarelska stressed that anti-epidemic measures, however, must not stop being observed, although we will be able to catch our breath if there is a vaccine.

"14 percent of people in the UK have said they will not get the vaccine, for the United States this percentage is 45 percent," said Vakarelska in connection with the anti-vaccine movements."

Original source from Bulgarian media BNR here.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Sunday, July 26, 2020

"Where (some of) Spain's agricultural workers live"

A video report from LaSexta titled ‘Between garbage and no hot water in old farm-buildings: the inhumane conditions in which the seasonal workers have to live’.

[Thanks again to the comprehensive round up of weekly news at Business Over Tapas.]

Saturday, July 18, 2020

"Black lives matter in Barcelona" -- My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Unlike the UK or USA, one of the more visible ways that many Europeans are used to seeing black people is at work as street sellers, especially during summer in the bigger cities. These are the so-called ‘top manta’ who display their products on blankets in busy places.

In July three years ago, Barcelona’s ‘top manta’ vendors – virtually all of whom are of African descent – decided to set up their own website and clothing brand. Their aim was to turn an illegal activity into a more widely accepted one by “officially registering as a non-profit organisation/union.”
In a piece of good news, they recently finished the first round of their crowdfunding campaign to which almost 2,500 people donated (mainly in amounts of less than 50 euros) to reach their initial target.
(This entrepreneurial move predated the 2015 tragic death of a local man of Senegalese origin who fell from his third floor apartment balcony in Salou during a law enforcement raid. His family sued the police.)
The union collective says the business venture is part of a broader goal to improve their living conditions as marginalised people and because they “want an alternative to the fake products we dreamt we could take off the streets in our city.”
The association was formed by migrants from various African countries who have found a form of daily subsistence in street vending. They argue that they want to have legal employment and residence status but that has been denied them.
Under the slogan “Surviving is not a crime,” their collective had been founded as “a way to support [themselves] in the face of the harshness of selling in the street every day and as a way to defend [themselves] in the face of institutional racism, persecution and criminalisation.” They are also keen to remove the stigma around their jobs and emphasise that they are “creative individuals with ideas and ambition, [just] like you.”
Some members have talked about the dignity of their work even though many earn an income that barely reaches 200 euros a month.
A recent Barcelona council investigation found that, contrary to allegations, there was “no mafia” involvement in the supply of products to ’top manta’.

It is believed that there are organised groups involved in the trafficking of people who bring these immigrants to Spain and there are also “criminal bands” linked to counterfeit goods.
Partly due to pressure from several migrant collectives, in 2010 street vending was “de-penalised” in Spain and it became a minor infraction.

But again in 2015, a penal code reform, carried out by the conservative government of the People’s Party (PP), reestablished street vending as an offence with sanctions of between six months and two years jail.
Legal status of ‘top mantas’ aside, I am interested that these men and their families have an income that allows them a decent life that keeps each of them away from serious crime as a way of making ends meet financially.
Some other members of the public have expressed frustration that ‘top manta’ sellers take business away from established shops and businesses, as well as the complaint that they pay no tax and are selling goods manufactured by children in extreme poverty.
These strike me as probably valid points that need to be worked out, but on a European-wide basis rather than a national or local one. Overall though, we face the problem of what should (and can) be done when people are trapped in the kind of situation the ‘top mantas’ are.
Everyone has the basic right to a decent living. How governments and society deal with this is a huge question that tests how humane we really are.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2020. ]

More info on the Barcelona 'top mantas' here:

Sunday, July 12, 2020

"Think your country is crowded? These maps reveal the truth about population density across Europe"

 "It’s often said that England is the most densely populated large country in Europe – typically in discussions about the nation’s rising population, and the growing strain on public services. But it’s not true...

In fact, Spain could claim to be the most densely populated major European country by this measure, despite its appearance on the map. This also helps explain why Spain has the most densely populated km² in Europe; more than 53,000 people inhabit a single 1km² area in Barcelona..."

Read more from original source here.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

"Barcelona’s Epic Tourism Boom Is Over..."

Apart from the great news that Spain is to prohibit the docking of cruise ships ‘indefinitely’ there's the prediction that the crisis well and truly underway in the tourism sector, is going to get worse, particularly in Barcelona.

Some local people are undoubtedly happy about this but we can only hope that the reliance on tourism in the economy also ends. Then I and many others want to seet moves towards other, better paid employment.

(These stories and many others can be found at the hugely informative Business Over Tapas weekly news service. They give me no payment, BTW.)

Saturday, June 27, 2020

"Both Wise and Valiant" -- Women writers in Spain's history

María de Zayas, novelist of the Spanish Golden Age
 "Centuries ago, Spanish writers challenged gender norms and barriers...

An exhibit at the Cervantes Institute in Madrid focuses on some of the most important — but largely ignored — women writers of Spain's 16th and 17th centuries.

Think "Spanish literature" and you might come up with "Don Quixote," by Miguel de Cervantes. But there's so much more to classic Spanish lit than "Man of La Mancha."

That’s the focus of "Both Wise and Valiant," an exhibition at the Cervantes Institute in Madrid, which looks at some of the most important — but largely ignored — women writers of Spain's 16th and 17th centuries. 

The exhibit opened in March but closed due to COVID-19. Now the exhibit has reopened and will be on display through September.

“What is surprising is that we haven't known many of these female writers until very recently," said Ana Rodríguez-Rodríguez, curator

“What is surprising is that we haven't known many of these female writers until very recently. They are better known now, in the academic world, but not so much for the greater public. I think that’s something we have to keep working on, and that’s the idea of this exhibition,” said curator Ana Rodríguez-Rodríguez, who is also a professor at the University of Iowa..."

Read more (and listen to a podcast of the story at PRI here.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

"Sant Juan:" An explosive night

One thing that shocked me soon after moving here was that there are parents in Spain who are quite blasé about letting their young children play with fireworks. 

We personally witnessed a very nasty example of this at our first Sant Juan’s Day celebrations, over a decade ago.
A (then 5 year old) friend of my son’s had been allowed to play with firecrackers by himself for several hours and with little direct supervision by his parents.

This boy was standing very close to a small bonfire in the square where we were and he threw some kind of cracker into. 

As was likely, it exploded, injuring a girl nearby as well as damaging this boy’s face and eyes. My wife had the presence of mind to throw water in his eyes and he was rushed screaming to a hospital for treatment. 

Judging purely from the size of the blast from the fire, I would say the boy was quite fortunate to have not suffered permanent eye damage. 

(Perhaps the only pleasing result from that is that because our son also saw this happen to his friend, he still has a strong fear of firecrackers years after the event.) 

Another who shares these concerns is Juan Pedro Barret, the head of the burns unit at the Vall d'Hebron hospital in Barcelona. 

Doctor Barret is fed up of seeing injuries caused by the misuse of fireworks, including the need for hands, fingers and feet to be amputated.

He believes that the night of San Juan is always one of the worst times to have to be on duty in the accident and emergency department. 

According to him there is a constant flow of injured people but that after the mid-nineties when safety measures improved the number of those seriously harmed has decreased somewhat.

In one El Pais newspaper poll (of 2165 people) 70% supported the placement of restrictions on festivals with fireworks due to danger.