Andalucia Steve the dream

Why I came to Spain

What am I doing here - well people do ask sometimes!
First Year in Spain 2003
Python sketch comes to mind - Shopkeeper "Why are you here?" Customer "Why are any of us here, its all so meaningless really..."
This might go back a bit further than you imagined. Europe was a mystery to me that revealed itself slowly over many years.
I cherished home a little too much as a kid. I grew up in a working class cottage with dad the janitor, mum the cleaner, grandad the ex-sailor/bricklayer and sister the audio-typist. I didn't know anyone 'foreign' or anyone who had been abroad. The world came to London to play us at footy in 1966 and we of course won. I had a 'World Cup Willie' in my Christmas stocking that year. Everything seemed cosy and local! 
Then something weird happened. One of my sisters moved further away due to her husband getting a better job. I'd never countenanced the idea of moving for such an unimportant thing as work before - what on earth were they thinking of? Looking back on it I had an insular mindset, but that was about to change. It turned out the cottage we lived in was tied to my father's job, and when he retired in 1973, we had to find another place to live. 
By this time I'd become dimly aware of the existence of Europe, primarily through TV There was the Eurovision Song Contest, It's a Knockout and European football, all of which I now know were designed specifically to create the awareness I was experiencing. Also my sister's husband's career was taking him all over Europe and we would get strange phone calls of the type "I'm pulling my hair out here - I've got three Hungarian executives coming around for dinner and I don't have a recipe for goulash!" My horizons were slowly broadening.
Our neighbours in the new house were a nice old couple with two bright young sons, Tommy and David. The boys were both toolmakers which was a much sought-after skill in the early 1970's. Due to Labour's 84% tax rate they both decided to leave Britain. David emigrated to America but Tommy went to live in Alicante in Spain. This fascinated me beyond measure. I couldn't believe this guy was going to relocate to a country the spoke a different language. This was really the start of a new mindset for me where I looked at the concept of international mobility and the pros and cons of living in Britain and living abroad. The subject haunted me thorough-out my adolescence. It seemed difficult to relocate abroad for work but the notion of retiring abroad was something I'd already considered was going to happen, even though I'd not been overseas myself yet.
On one occasion I remember sitting in a very dull A-level physics lesson and a thought struck me. Given current interest rates, how much capital would I need to acquire in order to live off the interest rate if I went to live in an inexpensive Mediterranean country? I did the sums and worked out I'd need about £100k. Though that was a chunk of money back then in the late 1970's it was achievable. Much of the next decade would see me revisiting this figure, adjusting it for various expenses as my naivety about the true cost of living was replaced with experience, as soon after, I started work.
One of my early jobs was a summer spent with the Department of Employment as it then was. I was a temporary administrative officer in the local unemployment benefit office and as such I had to attend a week of training. Part of the course covered the reciprocal rights that existed for workers in Britain and the EU. There were many of these but the one that lept out at me was that as an unemployed Brit, it was my right to sign on as unemployed and receive unemployment benefit was respected by the EU. I remember asking the tutor in disbelief, "So that means I could go to say, Italy for a month looking for work and sign on over there". Yes was the reply. From then on I really started to pay attention to this EU business. This sounded great!
However I didn't actually set foot in an EU country until 1985 when I went on holiday to Lanzarote. Then I was smitten. It wasn't just the weather, though that was pretty good. It was the smells, the taste, the vibrancy of the colours - everything seemed better than blighty. I later learned the vibrancy of the colour in sunny climbs is not one's imagination but a fact due to colour being a function of the quality of light, a fact noted by Leonardo Da Vinci many centuries ago. [Quote from the notebooks of Leonardo]
Since we see that the quality of colour is known [only] by means of light, it is to be supposed that where there is most light the true character of a colour in light will be best seen; and where there is most shadow the colour will be affected by the tone of that. Hence, O Painter! remember to show the true quality of colours in bright lights.
I had many subsequent holidays to Greece, Cyprus etc, and while my wife was busy working on her tan, I'd be looking at the price of property and the work opportunities for possible emigration. The problem always came down to income as I didn't have any easily translatable skill at the time that I could use to find work abroad. 
Then in around 1989 I changed jobs and started working IT. At first I was trained as a small-systems developer but after a few short years I found myself working in the latest 'big thing', the Internet.
While still working in government I started working at home as long ago as the early 1990s. I was running a Unix computer network at the time and there were certain jobs that had to be done while everyone was offline. I'd previously been doing these on the weekend earning a bit of overtime, but I hated the commute - there were less trains than during the week and more likelihood of meeting a group of drunk footy fans on the way to a game. So I had a word with my boss and pointed out that if I he let me dial in remotely to do these jobs from home, I'd only charge him for the hours I was on-line and not for any travel time. He agreed and over the next couple of years I became a part-time teleworker. 
During the decade of the 90's the Internet became vastly more important with the development of the web. I voluntarily retired from government, setting myself up as an Internet consultant, which eventually led to me co-founding a web design agency called Datadial Ltd which is still running today. 
Towards the end of the decade, on another holiday in Lanzarote I met a chap who caused me to rethink my plan to retire abroad. He was a Brit who retired to the island on a police pension. We had a conversation about the Spanish language.  He had been there a number of years and could hold a conversation in Spanish well enough to identify the accents folk had from different towns in the island. He impressed two things upon me.  Immersion was essential and each decade that goes by it gets exponentially harder to learn Spanish. So the notion that one would wait until retiring at 65, coming to Spain to live and starting to learn the language was a fantasy. I've since found that to be true. Clearly the longer I waited the harder it would be. Curiously I went back to the UK, started to learn Spanish, but unlike previous occasions where I'd read a book for a week then put it down out of boredom - I kept the learning up month after month. I'd clearly made a decision that this was going to happen.
I was not very happy working in the company I'd started. My business partner and I had various differences of opinion as to how things should be done. Also the notion that the longer I waited, the harder it would be to learn Spanish was niggling away at the back of my mind. Finally in 2003 I hit upon a solution. I was working at home a lot of the time anyway since my role as technical director meant a lot of time was spent in software development.  I decide to let my business partner effectively take over the reigns of the company while I relocated to Spain. I would keep working part time on a reduced salary. Once agreed the move became very simple. I sold my house and within three months I'd moved to Spain. I was living the dream.
Incidentally I'd been battling away learning Spanish for nearly four years at this point. I wasn't very good. 17 years later I'm still not very good, so I hate to think how bad my Spanish would be if I'd waited any longer. Much to my chagrin, my wife, who had been brought up in a Polish speaking household and excelled at French and German at school didn't do any preparation before moving to Spain but was fluent after about three months of getting off the plane!
A lot has happened since I moved here. I've gone through two long term relationships, lost a house due to the financial crash and been through lots of jobs. I've worked as a software developer, translator, estate agent, labourer and a busker! Today I'm clinging on by my finger-tips, hoping the exchange rate doesn't do any more harm to the tiny income I get from the UK. Like many Brits here, I really didn't believe Brexit would happen, but now it has, I'm so glad I made the decision to come to Spain when I did. Hopefully I will retain the rights conferred on me from the EU by virtue of being a Spanish resident next January which is much more preferrable than if I were living in the UK and about to have those rights stripped from me. The one thing that sticks out as a problem for us expats is Freedom of Movement. It looks as though we're stuck in our chosen country of residence because we're British passport holders. After January 2021, unless a deal emerges to the contrary, I couldn't go to say, Germany and apply for a job as easily as I could pre-Brexit, which is something I had considered as I see a lot of adverts for jobs in Germany with my IT skills.
My battle with the language continues. In another blog post I'll explain some of the issues that make the language in Southern Spain so difficult (possible title - The Gargoyle People - that should get you thinking!)

Fruit picking, a personal perspective.

Thoughts on fruit picking of an ex-pat whose ancestors were agricultural labourers for three centuries.
Fruit picking, a personal perspective.

One of the consequences of Brexit often visited by the media is the future of fruit and vegetable harvesting. The reporting comes in two stripes. The anti-Brexit media report the downsides of course. In a nutshell the 'hostile environment' created by the Tories towards foreigners and Brexit uncertainty has deterred immigrants from EU countries filling the seasonal vacancies in the industry. There are many reports of fruit rotting on the ground and farmers fearing they will be driven out of business completely or forced to relocate abroad. Then there is the Brexit positive media who claim this is all scaremongering. They report on the job opportunities for picking fruit in Britain soaring e.g. "£700 per week job boom" says 'The Sun'. Another common theme in the pro-Brexit media are reports about the development of fruit and veg picking robots, so clearly there is a fall-back in case Britain's youth don't care to relocate to a field in East Anglia to pick strawberries in July.

I've never picked fruit commercially myself. Well I owned a small-holding in Spain for a couple of years but apart from trading several tree-loads of olives to the local co-operative in exchange for virgin oil, I never sold anything, nor was I paid.
However that wasn't the norm for my ancestors. A friend of mine who is a whiz at these things came to stay for a few weeks and her parting gift was a family tree going back to 1740. For generation after generation my forebears were agricultural labourers.
I knew my grandfather was a farm labourer but not that the entire stock of my family were so as well, male and female. All lived and worked in the same village, Froxfield Hants for centuries. Grandfather Alfred though was a little different. He moved where the work was, over some considerable distance.
My father Edmund was born in Tolworth, Surrey in 1908. He told me he didn't see his father very often when growing up. Alfred did seasonal work which meant he was away for much of the year. One month he would be hop-picking in Kent, another harvesting turnips in Suffolk and so forth. Money was good when Alfred came back and my father and his seven brothers and sisters ate well. However one year, Alfred did not return. This was before the welfare state remember, there were no benefits to take care of single mothers with eight children, so the siblings who could work did, while my father and his younger brother George were found a place in Bizley Farm School, a charitable institution for borders, where the children would tend crops, manufacture wickerwork baskets, produce honey, cheese and so forth all of which was sold to pay for their farm education. 
Dad also picked fruit but he did so to survive. In good old Dickensian manner, the children at the school were largely fed on bowls of gruel, apart from Easter when they were treated to a boiled egg. My father and his friends therefore foraged in the countryside scrumping whatever fruit and veg they could find. They would trap birds, game, pigeons etc. A particular favourite was a hedgehog rolled in mud and cooked on a bonfire. It is a sobering thought that this is not a fairy tale from long ago - this is the real story of my father and these events took place less than a century ago.
Anyway, I didn't think too much about picking fruit again until in 2003 when my wife and I moved to Spain. We bought a country house in a small inland village in the north west of Murcia which is very much an agricultural economy. We became friendly with many of the local farmers and after a time, a picture of the black economy emerged. Fruit picking is obviously an activity where time is of the essence. As a crop is about to ripen, people have to be there in numbers not required throughout the rest of the year. In a somewhat 'backward' area of Spain at this time (by which I mean few people had email), there was an unspoken seasonal tradition. Come say, June, the apricots would ripen. A convoy of battered cars would arrive full of itinerant fruit pickers as if out of nowhere. At six in the morning the 'workforce' would gather at a point on the edge of town, and farmers would haggle to get the amount of workers they need at the lowest price. These people were working in black money so they would invariably earn below minimum wage, perhaps two to three euros per hour. After a twelve hour day in the blazing sun the workers would return to their cars, which were normally parked near the river where they could bathe and wash their clothes. This is tough work too. An Ecuadorian woman of my acquaintance appeared one day with her hand in a sling. When I enquired she said she had slipped from a tree and sliced off her little finger. She shrugged and said live goes on, explaining she needed return to work quickly to continue sending money back to her family.
As far as I could gather, the itinerant labourers in Spain have a similar lot to my grandfather. They move about, not just in Spain but in other EU countries, providing work where it is needed, often (mostly as far as I could see) in black money. There seemed to be a mix of Moroccans, Bulgarians and South Americans, all of whom had the common thread of being so far down the food chain they never get out of the black money trap.
However I have since seen another class of migrant workers in Spain with much better terms and conditions. Indigenous Spanish who are already in the system get much better 'gigs'. I knew a builder, a very industrious chap called 'ni' (short for Antonio) who would go to Switzerland each summer picking grapes, for which he got good money, stamp paid for etc. I understand that the building trade is quiet in Spain during the summer months so this is a popular way for workers who would otherwise be picking up unemployment to get some good money in. Now the Spanish unemployment money is not bad anyway so for this to be the case I reckon the Swiss money must be pretty good. I've heard of similar schemes where town halls in Spain organize groups of people to go fruit picking in France and Italy, again on legal money that is high enough to make it worthwhile. One woman told me she will be doing three months at 3000 euros per month and she will be taking most of that home. 
What these subjective, personal and somewhat random observations suggest to me is the future of the farming of fruit and vegetables in Britain is this. With Britain leaving the EU I see it as unlikely that the lot of fruit-pickers in Britain will get any better. On the 19 December 2019 the Johnson government published a revised version of the EU withdrawal agreement which no longer contains clauses on the protection of EU-derived workers’ rights. Robots aside (fruit picking robots are a long way from being viable), a demand for fruit pickers (which has apparently gone from four fruit pickers to each job to four jobs for each fruit-picker) will inevitably drive up wages, so I doubt the British supermarkets will accept the corresponding increase in the price of produce required by farmers for their operations to remain profitable. There are therefore two ways this could go. Either the government will takes steps to make the environment for the unemployed so unpleasant that they will be induced to chase low paid agricultural work to avoid starvation as my ancestors did, or alternative suppliers to British farms will fill the void on the supermarket shelves. The countries that may gain the most out of the latter are non-EU countries with low labour costs that are not the other side of the world and have climates that suit agricultural production. The British government has already had preliminary talks with several North African countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and these may well be smart places for investment in a post-Brexit economy.



The Jewish Question

I was triggered this week. Here's why
The Jewish Question

So it came to pass I was on Facebook this week and a post came up that caught my eye. A friend of mine, someone I knew in real life, had posted a comment on a group that I'm not a member of, claiming the political left had a long history of anti-Semitism.

The comment he made was in response to the daubing of anti-Semitic graffiti on a synagogue in North London on Hanukkah. The post read:

Anti-semitism has long standing roots on the Left - read Marx on 'The Jewish Question' - and please remember that Muslims are brought up, in varying degrees, to loathe Jews and for some indeed - it takes but a few - to envisage a world where they are wiped out. The Left are allies of a certain stripe of Islam so don't immediately jump to the facile conclusion that the 'Far Right' is responsible. The rise of anti-semitism has coincided with large numbers of Muslim migrants into Europe, some of whom deeply resent Judaism and 'nationalist' parties have arisen in response to this and the increasing emphasis on pressing for a monolithic European 'government'. The 'Far Right' was a risible minority until these two processes were underway.

I was immediately angered by this. Triggered if you will. Now the friend in question (no names no pack drill) isn't your typical Britain First thug. He's an educated man with a degree from the LSE of all places. He is well read and has a house full of books. I was aware he leaned to the right as I've enjoyed many late night alcohol-fuelled discussions with him, during which times we've never had too many violent clashes.

In my experience and of what I have read, the very notion that the left is anti-Semitic is a nonsense. The communists famously battled alongside the Jews in the battle of Cable Street against Moseley's British Nazis in the 1930's. It was the nazi's spouting anti-jewish slurs and propaganda during the 70's that necessitated the formation of the anti-nazi league. During 2019 election there was even an anti-Labour proppo starring Maureen Lipman that listed the life-long links that previously existed between the Jewish community in Britain and the Labour party. But then later in the video one gets to the nub. This horrendous piece of anti-Corbyn propaganda is part of a much larger and more sinister campaign by the right deliberately designed to smear Corbyn as anti-Semitic.

Going back to my friend's original post, if you have read 'On the Jewish Question' you'll know that it was far from being anti-Semitic. Marx wrote it in response to an essay by the German philosopher Bruno Bauer, who himself was arguing that Jews should renounce their religion in order to be free in a secular society, clearly an anti-Semitic position that Marx was attacking. If instead of reading the whole piece you only dip in and grab snatches of it one can easily confuse it as being anti-semitic because Marx uses many quotes from Bauer which have anti-semitic language in it. Also the language Marx used is perhaps a little less delicate than we would use today, but one has to consider the essay was written in 1843 in a time when the phrase anti-Semitic had yet to be coined. Marx also used irony and takes Devil's Advocate positions which go over a lot of reader's heads. Let's not forget too, he himself was Jewish! This leads to misconceptions about the piece such that even some Jewish scholars argue among themselves whether Marx was being anti-Semitic or not. It is this has been taken advantage of by the right who have cited the piece many times since around the year 2000. One can see the cited articles in Google Ngram searches and by searching for mentions of the book with the advanced Google search tag site: e.g. "on the jewish question"

Clearly my friend's claim that anti-Semitism has deep roots on the left is completely without foundation. The far right however have been solidly anti-semitic since Hitler wrote Mein Kampf and that has manifested itself in various forms with the rise of the right. My suspicion is, that like many people my friend has been the victim of right-wing gaslighting.

Further clues follow in the rest of his comment which is pure Mainstream Media 'dog-whistle racism' as seen everyday in the Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph, Star etc etc.

1) He suggests Muslims hate Jews. There are about 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet, I'd be surprised if some of them weren't brought up to hate jews as are some Christians, but it's simply a racist stereo-type to regard being Muslim as automatically anti-semitic.

2) The left are allies of a certain 'stripe' of Islam. Hmm, not sure which stripe that is. Does he mean the Palestinian stripe who has had their lands occupied by Israel in defiance of UN resolutions, or does he mean the stripe of Islam opposed to the war being waged by the Wahabbi's on Yemen? Tell you what, we'll leave that for another blog post.

3) The rise of anti-semitism has coincided with large numbers of Muslim migrants into Europe. Has it though? He was saying earlier how old the roots of anti-Semitism were in Europe because of the political left. Is there more anti-Semitism in Europe now than there was in the 1930's? Clearly not.

4) ..'nationalist' parties have arisen in response to this [sic. large numbers of Muslim migrants into Europe] and the increasing emphasis on pressing for a monolithic European 'government'. This is a Brexiteer trope. The increase in Muslim migration to Europe is a direct consequence of American meddling in the Middle East and the notion that there pressure for a monolithic European government is also a distopic fantasy from the minds of Bannon and Farage. Anyone who believes this is barmy but anyone who believes this and uses it to accuse the political left of being anti-semitic is clearly of a dangerously confused mind.

So I politely replied to my friends post rebutting his arguments I also added the following:

"What is a crime against intellectual freedom is the notion that any criticism of the State of Israel is automatically antisemitic, and the recent decision by the Tories to prohibit public bodies like universities and local authorities from supporting the BDS movement. That's worse than Thatcher supporting apartheid."

Of course the unanswered question here is who hoodwinked my friend and the electorate into thinking Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour party were anti-Semitic, but that is a theme for another blog post on another day!


Brexit Compared to Y2K

How Y2K and Leaving the EU have nothing in Common

I, like many of my colleagues in the IT industry had a sober night on December 31st 1999. I was at the time the technical director of a London based web design company with hundreds of clients most of whom had heard of and were concerned about the Millenium bug.

I case you're unaware, the Millenium bug was an umbrella term used to describe the possibilty of software that would cease to work correctly when the year changed from 1999 to 2000. There were several common scenarios in which this issue would manifest itself. If a pieces of software represented the year in a two digit format [97,98 for example] then clearly after 99 the year 2000 could not be distinguished from 1900. There were several other issues some related to hardware representations, others to do with leapyears, but going into detail here would take us off track.

So back to my story, I stayed sober until midnight so that I could login and check that all our systems were working correctly and that the dates had all moved from one millenia to the next without issue. After about an hour I was satisified that all was well and cracked open the champagne.

Fastforward to today, 13 January 2019 and another potential disaster, Brexit is hard on our heels. I have seen several Tweets and comments in online newspaper articles to the effect that a no deal Brexit is 'project fear' i.e. propaganda from the remain side that exaggerates the risks of leaving the EU to fool people into believing that remaining is the only safe option. This say is exactly like the Millenium bug, the danger of which was blown out of all proportion - nothing ever happened they say!

Well trust me on this, there is a big  BIG difference between Brexit and the Millenium Bug. As someone working in IT for a long time I had heard about the year 2000 problem at least a decade previously. As long ago as 1997 the British Standards Institute had published a standard for Y2K conformity. Magazines were full of informative articles about it before that - I think I read about it in Unixworld magazine which ceased publication in 1995 so clearly there was plenty of warnings which meant programmers such as myself had plenty of advanced notice and starting coding 'defensively' so that programs we wrote years before hand were already compliant. Similarly large organizations on whose systems we depend, Microsoft, Oracle and the like were working years before 2000 to make sure there code would work. In the months prior to the big day, most of us in IT were engaged in preparitory testing, taking servers offline, advancing their dates to see if any thing broke and fixing it if it did. Basically the IT industry put the work in years before the event took place.

So it came as little surprise, to me at least, that when the clock struck midnight on the last day of the twentieth century that there were no nasty surprises. However I cannot truly express much confidence that we will be feeling as content come April the first 2019.

The Millenium Bug was contained to software that was date dependent. As such it was relatively straight-forward to search through code looking for date specific commands for checking. Brexit however presents a completely unconstrained problem set. Not only are there a seemingly endless set of rules and regulations that will cease to operate in a 'no deal' scenario, the scope of each issue, who or what it affects, to which degree and how often are all questions that cannot easily be answered. Quitting the EU presents us with an incalculable problem set.

Also preparations for the the problems presented by a 'no deal' Brexit seem late and inadequate. So far the government has been caught on the hop giving a £14million contract to a ferry company that has no ferries, and performed an experimental traffic jam in Kent where only a fraction of the number of trucks expect actually turned up on the day. The governments information on Brexit preparedness was not published until 23 August 2018, those specifically for 'no deal' not until December of the same year and are a scantling compared with the Brexit preparedness papers published by the EU and countries such as Ireland (which curiously rank higher in Google than the governments own website)

Clearly then the idea that 'no deal' Brexit and the Millenium Bug were both project fear and that we should therefore have no fear of Brexit is an ill thought out trope. The Y2K problem was solved years before it would have happened. If only we could be similarly confident about 'no deal' Brexit.


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