Organ Döner

I was about half a minute into my first run in seven weeks when the smell hit me. 

It was evocative, like blowing the dust off a hazy memory hidden away deep in the brain’s filing cabinet. Unctuous. Almost salacious. Something so wrong but, at the right time, and in the right circumstances, so right. 

I paused my running app — I wouldn’t let this moment interrupt my heavily-falsified times — and floated toward the scent. 

A familiar face poked out of some dishevelled chef whites. Behind him, a great elephant leg waltzed to the tune of a searing orange grill. Beads of sweat oozing from amorphous beige. We meet again, old friend.

The kebab shop had reopened. 

Well, partially reopened.

It was offering window service only, and you had to phone ahead to place your order. I’m fluent in kebab after a couple of shandies but like any language, it fades with neglect. 

“Good evening Sire, or is it good morning? Please shave me some chicken into a wrap, all the trimmings and both sauces, por favor. And fries. And a beer. I shall eat it in my bed once I’ve finally settled on a show to watch on Netflix.”

For me, kebab eating is not a communal activity. I do not like to be watched. It is something private that should be kept between a man and his kebab. 

I unpaused my app and headed down the street. 

It was my New Year’s resolution to start running. It was perhaps the only one I’d ever stuck with and I racked up 150 kilometres by the time the Spanish lockdown came into effect on 14 March.

I’ve since tried to maintain some sort of indoor exercise regime. 

In the first week, I did at least one routine every day. But my discipline dropped as time progressed. I soon went from one a day to one every other day, then to one every three days, to just two days a week pretty quickly. My wine consumption did the exact opposite.

On 2 May, we were allowed back out again, between 6-10am or 8-11pm. 

I bolted out of my house at 7.59pm and the street erupted into applause. It wasn’t for me, it was for the health workers. But I finally felt what it was like to be a marathon runner. 

As it turned out, everyone in my neighbourhood had the same idea as me. 

It was impossible to run more than a couple of meters before having to drop down to a walk again to navigate between the crowds of people on the pavement. 

Thousands of middle-aged men, seemingly vacuum-packed into lycra suits, had invaded the city’s roads atop their noble steeds as though the streets of Madrid were playing host to the heavy-weight edition of the Tour de France. 

After going so long without seeing other humans, the crowds were overwhelming. 

I found myself running up and down the quietest street I could find, sucking my mask into my mouth on the uphill. I managed just 2 kilometres before calling it a day. 

Seven-weeks of strict confinement has undone a lot of my three month’s running progress. 

But nothing can undo my love of kebabs. I’ll be making an order soon. 

Just as soon as I get over my crippling fear of phone calls. 

 

Workshy of the world, unite!

In my freshly-awoken daze this morning I grabbed my phone to check the time, see if I could still get out for a run. 

I got my days mixed up. Tomorrow is the first day in seven weeks that people in Spain are allowed outside for a walk or some other kind of exercise. 

Now, I’m not here to have a lockdown-off, but ours has been pretty gnarly. 

Every time I check Instagram, folk in the UK are sharing photos of them cooped up at home one minute then taking a run through the park the next. But no, I’m not bitter. I’m not here to have a lockdown-off, like I said. But I think if we did — and I’m not saying we are — but if we did, we all know whose lockdown is a real lockdown and whose is a Lockdown Lite. 

Not that a government-enforced policy of being a couch potato is something to brag about. 

Today is not Saturday, but I do have a day off. Happy International Workers Day. 

I’ve never really been cut-out for work. I think the first time I considered retirement was when I was just half-an-hour into my first-ever shift stocking shelves at the village shop. I was 13 at the time.

I’ve done a lot since then. I’ve worked in a fish and chip shop, washed dishes, served tables, pulled pints, made paninis, butchered meat, and teached English. Now I’m a journalist. 

I would still retire right this very moment if I could. Perhaps I’ve just not found my vocation. 

This lockdown has given me time to reflect on that, though my idea of a dream job has changed several times in that period, largely depending on what I’m watching on Netflix. 

When I watched Drive to Survive, I was convinced I would become a Formula One driver. I just have to figure out the tricky business of getting my license first. Then I watched Baby Ballroom and decided — you guessed it — I wanted to be a ballroom dancer. Then I watched Hitler’s Circle of Evil.

But I count myself very lucky to have a job, especially living in Spain, a country that leans on the shoulders of an army underpaid — or totally unpaid — interns. 

Companies have gotten into the habit of plucking students and fresh graduates and expect them to hand over a couple of years of their lives for anything between 0 and 300 euros a month. The average rent for a room in Madrid is 500 euros a month. They rarely offer them a full-time job when the internship is over.

Another hangover from the financial crisis is an unsavoury ethos in the workplace that you should just be grateful to have a job at all. 

And people wonder why so many of Spain’s adults live with their parents. And why so many of Spain’s adults are forced abroad to find work. 

Then came the coronavirus. Spain’s GDP dropped 5.2 percent in the first three months of 2020, a period that only takes the first two weeks of the lockdown into account, so brace yourselves for the second quarterly report. At least 900,000 jobs have been wiped out by the pandemic, although the government has made it illegal for companies to fire people. 

Europe’s northern countries, the Netherlands in particular, have been vocal in their opposition to splitting the debt for Spain’s (and Italy’s) recovery programs. 

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, was recently filmed in an exchange with a random worker. The random worker tells the PM: “Please don’t give the Italians and the Spanish money.”

“No, no, no,” Rutte replies with a thumbs up and a grin. Almost 25,000 people have died from the coronavirus in Spain. And more in Italy.

Cheers, Mark.

Another thing we’ve confirmed during the lockdown is who is a key worker and who is not. 

Medical staff, street cleaners, carers, social workers, shop assistants, post office workers, food deliverers, they are. We clap for them — if only a round of applause could be monetized. 

I’m wary of the term heroes, though. It’s often used by governments in reference to soldiers, to make the death of young men and women palatable. 

The rich, they’re not essential. Branson trying to get a government bailout from his privately-owned Caribbean island. Bezos firing workers for complaining about the health and safety conditions in Amazon warehouses. DeGeneres comparing lockdown in her mansion to prison. 

Perhaps after all this has blown over, we can have a ruddy good revolution. Then we can all retire. 

Anyone else seen the Cuba Libre Story on Netflix?

Happy International Workers Day. 

 

 

One in. One out.

A Saturday after a Friday night in which we failed to ration our supply of wine.

I jolted groggily into the morning as though a member of cabin crew had asked whether I wanted tea or coffee with my breakfast. My organs reorganized themselves like bubbles in a water cooler.  

Cheap red wine. The kind that has no dimple at the bottom of the bottle. The kind whose grandiose label like, I don’t know, Felipe de los Llanos* — Philip of the Plains —  belies its vinegary bouquet. That’s what does it. 

I washed down any memory of Phillip with a glass of water. 

Saturday has become the big shop day under quarantine. The idea being that you only have to leave the flat once a week and you’re sorted. The reality being that Saturday’s big shop is followed by Tuesday and Friday’s mini-shops.

It’s a five-minute jaunt down to the supermarket and a 15-minute hike back.

I took my passport, a gas bill to ward off any prying police officer, some hand gel, a euro for the trolley and three reusable shopping bags the size of parachutes.

Before I even made it to the street the shop is on, I saw a line snaking up and down the pavement. 

It was odd seeing so many people in the same place. It was also odd to feel the sun on my back.

I joined the back of the line. 

Wait. Shuffle. Wait. Shuffle. Wait. Shuffle. 

Don’t lean on the pole. Don’t touch your face. Don’t cough. Don’t sneeze. Don’t rub your nose. Don’t wipe your eyes. For God Sake, do not cough. 

I felt a tickle in my throat and an itch on my face and sweat began to collect on my now overgrown fringe. 

My body was re-familiarizing itself with our nearest star after what is now four-weeks of proving like pale dough in a cupboard.

And by now the glass of water I’d supped in the morning to knock back any remnants of Phil the night before had well and truly worn off. 

As we rounded the corner and edged closer to the entrance, people became increasingly impatient. It was one in one out. 

Shoppers walked back up past the line, bags laden with toilet roll and olive oil. 

There’s going to be nothing left by the time I get in. 

I’ve familiarized myself enough with the layout of the supermarket that I now consider a Spanish Dale Winton, only incredibly less tanned (see: afore-mentioned dough metaphor). 

The only early hiccup I had in my expedition was someone accidentally social-distancing me from the cheese I wanted by leaving their trolly unattended in the dairy aisle. I wouldn’t touch it for fear of germs. 

I ticked off my items faster than a celibate’s to-do list. 

The only thing left on it was booze. I turned the corner and there he was, Plain Old Phil, sitting on the bottom shelf. 

I tried to avoid eye-contact — it’s always awkward bumping into someone you know in a supermarket. 

Not today, Phil. 

In all my confidence rushing around the supermarket with my trolley, I’d forgotten to bear in mind one important fact — I was on my own. 

The rules in Spain state that only one person can go out for errands at any given time. Mind you, I’ve seen people flout the rules all over the place, mainly couples. 

You’ll often see one person passing by apparently talking to themselves, only to see someone two metres behind say: “What?”

Three parachutes full of food lay in wait as I moved the trolley back to what Google reliably tells me is called a stack. 

I slipped one over my right shoulder, one over my left and held another with my right hand and trudged for the door like Scotland’s gangliest World Strongest Man competitor. 

The people at the door stared me down. 

My thighs were already telling me to stop, to re-adjust, to take a break. I’d gone 10 meters. I couldn’t stop now, the crowd watched on, willing me to leave. 

One in. One out. 

*This name has been altered to protect the integrity of the winemakers. And people called Phillip. 

Dream quarantine

The swifts and swallows are back. Those little harbingers of summer. 

The sound of them screeching and sweeping and tumbling down the street reminds me of suffocatingly hot August mornings in Madrid when you wake up in a pool of sweat having only managed to drift off an hour or so ago. 

Everything in Madrid closes in August, with shopkeepers and bar owners shipping out to the coasts or to their villages — everyone has a “pueblo” in Spain — for their holidays. 

They’re closed now, too. I wonder if the swallows think they’ve arrived late. 

I had a strange dream last night. 

I dreamt that I woke up in my bed, got up, put on some jogging bottoms and an old t-shirt, headed to the living room, turned on the computer and started work. 

Then I woke up in my bed, got up, put on some jogging bottoms and an old t-shirt, headed to the living room, turned on the computer and started work, but for real this time. 

It dawned on me that the quarantine had pierced through to my subconscious, and I’m pretty bloody hacked off by that. If it carries on I’m going to have to start filing for overtime.

The bosses changed my shift pattern the other week from 9 to 5 to 12 to 8. 

ezgif.com-video-to-gif (1)Now the eruption of applause every evening serves as a reminder that my workday is over, and that I can finally pull myself up from my wobbly plastic Ikea chair and make the two steps to my living room balcony to join in. 

It’s a strange phenomenon, clapping from the balcony. The pessimistic devil on the shoulder asks what the point is. Clapping is great, but after all this is over, are we just going to go back to paying health workers far below what they deserve?

I dedicate at least a minute of the applause to my mum, who works in the NHS. And pessimism aside, I always find I have a lump in my throat at some point.

Since the clocks sprang forward, I am able to see the residents of my street in all their glory. 

There’s the woman who looks like an art teacher, the man with the two black and white barrels masquerading as French bulldogs, and the troop of howler monkeys who live a couple of doors down. 

I’m still waiting to catch a glimpse of the person who lives directly above me, to verify whether or not he is, in fact, a giant with a taste for concrete clogs and jogging on the spot.

I wondered what they thought of me, stood out there at 8pm wearing my pyjamas still and my hair twisted and dry like a swallow’s nest. 

WhatsApp Image 2020-03-28 at 14.34.06

The novelty of wearing pyjamas to work wears off around halfway through the shift when you realize that all your adult actions like firing off important emails signed with “kind regards” and your phone calls to the boss are belittled by the fact you look like a four-year-old boy on Christmas Day.

I’m no stranger to funky work clothes.

One particularly overweight summer at uni, I pulled shifts at a sandwich deli that required me to wear a tiny green apron that dug into the overhang of my belly and a tight black shirt that highlighted my curvaceous upper body. 

I spent most of my shifts self-consciously readjusting my garb like some mad game of head shoulders, knees and toes. 

On Monday, I changed things up on the balcony and wore a crisply ironed white shirt and blue trousers, and I’m pretty sure my neighbours thought I was some well-to-do banker who’d broken quarantine rules to come and check on his motivationally-challenged twin brother. 

Wrong. I just had a zoom meeting that day.

 

Spain’s general elections, a litmus test of a nation’s fear and loathing

About a week ago, I was sat having a beer outside a bar in a well-heeled street across from Madrid’s Retiro Park.

At the table next me were three Spaniards, two women, and one man, all of whom were probably around retirement age and had an air of not being too economically troubled.

They were discussing Catalonia within the wider context of the general elections coming up on Sunday, 28 April.

“I don’t know, I think Pedro Sánchez isn’t that bad, he’s good-looking!” one woman said, addressing the man, who I believe was the partner of the other woman.

“He’s a son of a bitch traitor,” came the retort.

“Well you’re not telling me you’re voting for Vox, are you?” the woman asked.

“No, but who can I vote for?”

“I suppose we need some sort of a dialogue with the Catalans, this thing goes back years – whether or not they want to be in Spain – maybe just let them decide,” she said.

Through a screen of smoke billowing up from a graveyard of Marlboro butts in the ashtray that made for the centerpiece of their table, even I could see she was not exactly enrapturing her audience.

“Don’t fuck yourself like that, seriously, don’t fall for their fucking trap, they’re a bunch of bastards, Catalonia is Spain,” he said, voice rising to the point where things were becoming a bit socially awkward.

His partner, the source of most of the smoke, chipped in, trying to lighten the mood.

“Anything other than politics?” she chuckled.

They moved the conversation on, so I stopped listening.

It’s a touchy subject. I sometimes find myself tip-toeing around it in conversations at work or with people I’ve just met for the first time.

Outside of Spain, the reaction to seeing Catalan separatist leaders go on trial to face hefty charges, including rebellion, in a process broadcast live on TV in lieu of having international observers, has been one of muted indifference – whether that is tongue-holding or otherwise – or of cautious condemnation.

As an outsider in Madrid, admittedly one who openly feels uneasy watching the trial at work day-in, day-out, it can be hard to find common ground on the subject, even with people who share most of your political convictions.

“They broke the law, what do you expect? You have to uphold the law or else it’s meaningless,” is a frequent go-to.

Push too hard on the topic and someone might kindly remind you that it is not really your issue to worry about anyway, all the while drawing comparisons with Scotland’s own independence push.

They are right in a way. It is a very Spanish issue. In fact, it has consumed the nation.

The debate is often vitriolic, not only among friends outside bars near the leafy Retiro Park but also at the highest political levels.

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Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera, Madrid. Photo: Jake Threadgould

In February, I went to cover the pro-Spanish unity rally in Madrid’s Plaza de Colon (nothing to do with bowels, it means Columbus Square).

It starred Pablo Casado, leader of the right-wing Popular Party, Albert Rivera, leader of the center-right Citizens (Cs) party, and featured Santiago Abascal, the frontman of Vox, the far-right group whose heady rise can largely be attributed to the Catalan independence bid.

The demonstration was called to pressure the prime minister, the aforementioned “good-looking” Sánchez, leader of the Socialist Party (PSOE), into slating early elections – which he did a few days later – but it also acted as a preach-to-the-choir moment of it’s ok to be proud of your flag.

A compère standing by the huge monument at the back of the square kicked things off with: “Let me see your flags held high, I want to see them.”

And so the flags were hoisted high, red and yellow atop a crowd gathered under the largest Spanish flag in the world.

“Yo soy español, español, español, español” rippled through the audience.

Other people held up signs saying “coup-plotters to prison,” in reference to the Catalan separatist leaders, and “Sánchez = traitor.”

The events in Catalonia back in October 2017 rocked the whole of Spain and, as if prodding a sleeping dragon, revitalized a latent nationalism that blossomed in Madrid’s streets in the form of Spanish flags, which emerged by the thousands on the city’s balconies.

The response from the Spanish right has been reactionary and based heavily on legal arguments drawing from the 1978 Constitution which, as the date suggests, was drawn up as the country transitioned into democracy after Franco’s death.

For many on the Spanish left, such overt displays of nationalism still reek of Franco.

Many people gathered at Plaza de Colon back in February, however, felt their identity was under threat. As if those in Catalonia wanting to tear away from the rest of Spain were forcibly stealing something that did not belong to them.

But that fear often manifests itself as loathing.

“Golpistas,” loosely coup-plotters or putschists, has become a well-accepted epithet for Catalan separatists among those on the Spanish right-wing.

Traitor is a heavy word so lightly thrown.

And yet, standing in the crowd that day under a small sea of Spanish flags, the impression I got was not one of national triumphalism over a political class seeking to breakaway or unilaterally alter the definition of what it is to be Spain, or Spanish, but rather a sense of fragility.

The possessiveness is such that removing Catalonia from Spain would be akin to yanking a block from an already leaning Jenga tower.

In this instance, we cannot forget that Spain’s modern democracy is only as old as the movie Grease.

Spain’s right-wing politicians, backed by favorable coverage in a number of widely-read dailies, have instilled this fear and hatred and have tried to capitalize on it.

The PP, Cs and Vox have therefore positioned themselves as the defenders and saviors of Spain’s geopolitical integrity all the while claiming that the PSOE would allow for it to be destroyed.

However, when the time came for the politicians to address the crowd on the day of the rally, both Casado and Rivera insisted that they could not share a stage with Abascal.

They instead gave short addresses to the press just off to the side of the main stage.

Abascal’s presence loomed in his absence.

Pushing through the crowd to the press pit, I saw a visibly excited woman on her phone.

“I just saw Santi (Abascal), honestly, yeah, he just walked by the stage, yeah I saw him!”

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Leader of the Popular Party, Pablo Casado, Madrid.  Photo: Jake Threadgould

Enter Vox.

“Well you’re not telling me you’re voting for Vox, are you?”

Free from any sort of track record in government and proudly spurning political correctness, Vox looks set to become the first far-right party to enter the national Parliament since the end of the Franco’s fascist military dictatorship with his death in 1975.

Vox proposes a simple solution to the Catalan issue – end all autonomy across Spanish regions and centralize powers in Madrid.

Ironically, this would be unconstitutional, but it is the kind of constitutional change Vox supporters would not mind.

Although careful to keep a distance from imagery harking back to Franco, Vox shares some overlapping rhetoric, with its ideas of a grand nation united under one flag, its push to rid the country of “illegal immigrants,” to downgrade LGBT rights and neutralize feminism.

Abascal also sees himself as the Christian defender against the “Islamification” of Spain and even posed for a photo dressed as a reconquistador, although the helmet he wore was actually from the wrong century.

Like Salvini, he has harnessed social media to amplify his message and play the victim of a wider conspiracy against his party, pushing the idea that his supporters are unfairly shamed or made to feel scared to openly admit they support Vox.

All this not only plays well in the minds of those who feel nostalgic for Franco’s regime but also, and perhaps more importantly, it chimes well with traditional PP voters looking to jump what appears to be a sinking ship.

Whether or not they agree with Abascal’s other policies, they certainly feel at home with his hawkish position on Catalonia.

Casado knows this and has left the door ajar to the possibility of collaborating with Abascal in the future – like the PP did when Vox broke onto the scene taking 12 seats in the Andalusian chamber last year.

Spain’s public research body CIS has tipped the party to take around 11% of the national vote on Sunday but – and this is where this article becomes pretty bloody subjective – based on conversations I have had with people whose ears are pressed to right-wing circles, Vox looks likely to take more.

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Pro-Spanish unity supporter, Madrid. Photo: Jake Threadgould

I would hazard a guess at around 17% (this is a guess based entirely on instinct but so what, it’s my blog – also, bet your grandparents on it).

Should this come to pass, Spain will have three major right-wing parties in parliament, spanning the center-right (Cs), right (PP) and far-right (Vox).

Most pollsters predict the country is on track for another hung parliament although Sánchez’s PSOE, which has campaigned on a message that it is the only party that can stop an unholy trinity of right-wingers, is tipped to take the most votes.

Spain’s left-wing parties, which includes the progressive Podemos, hope to sway the roughly 10 percent of undecided voters if they want any chance blocking a Frankenstein right-wing executive.

Alternatively, Cs might break with its election promises and strike up a conversation with the incumbent PM.

Perhaps the most logical coalition would be between PSOE and Podemos, although Pablo Iglesias’ grassroots formation looks set to be dealt a blow in Sunday’s ballot.

So, the make-up of the future Spanish government looks uncertain.

What is clear, however, is that hordes voters will be heading to the polls with a belly full of rage and Catalonia on their mind.

At a time when emotions are running high and when friends are arguing over their beers outside Retiro, Vox is waiting in the shadows to use the disgruntled right-wing as a springboard to national decision making and beyond.

The tip-toeing around conversations at work is far from over, although with Vox few people mince their words.

“Anything other than politics?”

 

 

 

MAD COOL 2018 (Despair in the departure lounge)

The festival grounds at Mad Cool 2018 were completely surfaced over with verdant astroturf and rose out of Madrid’s city limits like a succulent desert mirage. It looked good enough to eat.

Our desire to graze on fake plastic grass may have stemmed from the fact that we had been stripped of our 1-liter bottle of water at the entrance. It was deemed too large, too thirst-quenching in the 36C heat.

IMG_9241It cost me and my brother, Theo, who had flown out from Edinburgh for the occasion, 90 euros each for the day pass on Friday, which was headlined by our long-time favorites the Arctic Monkeys. We had been too slow out the blocks to grab the three-day pass.

In hindsight, I am grateful for that. Sometimes lack of foresight pays off thanks very much.

The lineup was impressive and the organizers had obviously spent time curating the festival area, which was replete with instagrammable food trucks and boutique merchandise. It was pretty.

However, if, like me, you went through a turd-polishing phase in your teens, then you’ll know it’s not easy. (I’d recommend cream-based polish, rather than liquid.)

This superficiality was compounded by a tangible air of exclusivity. We were ants to the VIP picnic. The first 30 or so rows of space in front of the main stage were reserved for those able to pay more for their tickets. As was the four-story scaffolding tent-come-bar thing plonked squarely adjacent to the main stage.

I’m sure some of the bars were off limits to us, too, but I can’t be certain as my view was blocked by my dothed cap as we shuffled grovelingly by.

IMG_9242It’s no less than insulting to fork out nigh on 100 euros for entry, plus the 60 or so on food and captive-audience beers, only to be told: “here? oh no, you can’t go here, get back over there, sweaty.”

Can’t fault him on the sweaty, though.

We were in dire need of liquids when the card machines in all of the festival bars went offline.

Out of cash, and with no ATM on site, we were forced to move from stall to stall like a bow-legged Mary and Joseph to see if there was room at the inn for our baby VISAs. No, came the reply.

We managed to cobble together our remaining ducats for some #Aperol at the #Aperol Spritz stall.

Despair in the departure lounge. We were trapped, money-less and thirsty.

After the Arctic Monkeys, whose fantastic set we were forced to watch from the safety of the Very Unimportant Person section, we barged out of the crowd in search of the free water dispensary located somewhere in the grounds.

IMG-9235Our bottle languishing somewhere in a bin a three days’ camel ride back through security, we were forced to pick up a couple of used beer cups from the ground but hygiene concerns took a back seat when confronted with the queue for water.

Theo was nominated to take on what could only be described as the writhing hordes of Mordor. The mass of parched souls was dozens wide and dozens deep. Everyone jostled to get a drop of the sacred liquid.

He emerged 20 minutes later with plastic-scented water served in what was essentially someone else’s litter. It was hard to find a reason to stay any longer but Massive Attack were soon to play on one of the smaller stages.

The tent was so overcrowded we couldn’t even get near the door, let alone inside the tent. The Bristol trip-hop lads were late and the air filled with whistles. We left and joined the streams of other heading for the exit with three hours to go until the festival actually came to a close.

I later read on Twitter that Massive Attack had canceled, complaining of noise leaking over from Franz Ferdinand.

Although we are loyal disciples to Pastor Alex Turner, the extremely high quality of the music on display was not quite enough to counteract the overwhelming feeling that we had been completely mugged off.

Take heed.

Mad Cool is neither mad nor cool. Don’t go.

Death of migrant in police raid sparks riots in downtown neighborhood of Madrid

Go Fry Asparagus

Madrid, Mar 16.- A neighborhood in downtown Madrid on Thursday erupted in a flare of collective anger as rioters clashed with hundreds of police officers following the sudden death of a migrant after he had been chased by law enforcement.

The district of Lavapiés was ablaze as dozens of containers were set on fire while protesters lobbed rocks and bottles at police, after Mame Mbaye Ndiaye, a 34-year-old man of Senegalese origin, died of an apparent heart attack when allegedly running from local officers who were pursuing him along with other street vendors peddling their wares illegally.

In the aftermath of Ndiaye’s death, an enraged mob congregated at Lavapiés square and soon began to confront police.

The protests turned into full-blown turmoil when agents from the national police’s riot unit (UIP) rushed to the scene, wearing heavy riot gear and shooting rubber bullets to disperse the crowds.

Antifascist groups spread…

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A Brits guide to the Catalonia independence referendum

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Left-wing protesters demonstrate in solidarity with Catalonia, Puerta del Sol, Madrid. ©Jake Threadgould

I thought that by leaving Scotland for Spain I would be spared constant referenda. Alas, no. Catalonia, a northeastern region of Spain home to some 7.5 million people, plans to go ahead with a separatist poll on October 1.

Rolling news coverage of the events here in Spain is non-stop, but it has also garnered considerable international attention. The other day, I replied to a tweet shared by the Scottish National Party’s Westminster spokesman (and my MP) Angus Robertson in which I argued that the Catalan referendum was not the same as the 2014 indyref in Scotland.  I was swiftly set-up on by a small group of SNP voters telling me what to think about the situation in Catalonia. It got me to thinking: how are they so informed about what’s going on here? Or are they?

I don’t know where I stand on the independence vote in Catalonia, and thankfully, being neither Catalan nor Spanish, I don’t have to. That’s good, I’m all “referendumed“ out. However, some of you — especially those watching on from the post-Brexit ashes of Britain where ‘referendum’ is a swear word — may be wondering, what is going on exactly? ¿Qué coño está pasando? ¿Què està passant?

Like Scotland, Catalonia has a devolved government. Unlike Scotland, Catalonia’s first minister, or in this case president, is a bloke. A bloke who goes by the name of Carles Puigdemont. He presides over a regional pro-independence party called Junts Pel Sí (Together for Yes, JxS) which has a slight majority in the local parliament — with a little help from his leftist friends.

Puigdemont has long dreamed of Catalonia being an independent republic so, earlier this month, he used that slim majority of his to push the referendum through parliament and write it into local law. Sí voters in Catalonia are a vocal bunch and their movement is intrinsically linked to their distinct culture, language and heritage. Furthermore, the number of pro-unity voters in Catalonia is hard to accurately gauge. Those against independence tend to shy away from even non-binding referenda, which they do not consider to be legitimate. Most polls tentatively suggest a roughly even split. This keeps the Spanish government on its toes.

Another engine driving the independence movement is the fact that many Catalans feel they are unfairly picking up the economic slack of underperforming Spanish regions such. Separatists would rather see their money re-invested in Catalonia, which is consistently ranked as one of the wealthiest regions of Spain, jostling for top-spot with the industrial Basque Country and the capital, Madrid.

Some might see a compelling case in Catalonia’s bid for nationhood. It already has many of the foundations required of an independent state: a regional police force (the Mossos d’Esquadra), a judiciary and an autonomous government with all the mod-cons. However, Catalonia’s regional institutions are attached to strings held by officials in Madrid. The process of becoming an independent Catalan state would mean severing those tendrils of power. That hits a nerve. That triggers a response.

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Protesters in solidarity with Catalonia face-off with a group of far-right demonstrators, Puerta del Sol, Madrid. ©Jake Threadgould

The vast majority of Spaniards do not think the referendum should go ahead and this sentiment is reflected in the country’s largest political parties and in the judiciary, which has ruled the referendum to be unconstitutional and suspended the legislation. According to the Constitution (which also enshrines Catalonia’s autonomous status), the separatist ballot would need to be greenlighted by the Madrid-based national parliament. This did not happen.

The Spanish government is currently run as a minority by the right-wing Popular Party (PP) of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (think: Jacob Rees-Mogg/Nigel Farage lovechild). The PP will not sign off a referendum in Catalonia in case it back-fires Brexit-style. Remember those silent pro-unity voters in Catalonia? They are the PP’s damsels in distress.

So, what has the Spanish state done in retaliation to the unilateral independence developments in Catalonia? Several things. First, around 700 Catalan mayors who agreed to make polling stations available for the vote were issued court summons. The militarized Guardia Civil moved in to confiscate all referendum-related material. While ransacking the regional government offices, they took the opportunity to arrest a dozen or so Catalan officials on suspicion that they were involved in preparing the vote. The Spanish interior ministry activated a mechanism to assume control of the Mossos. There was even talk of sedition charges.

How did Catalonia react to this? The mayors kept quiet. The detainees were freed or fired by their peers to avoid fines. The Mossos rejected the national police takeover bid (although that one still hangs ambiguously in the balance). The sedition chat has been put on the back-burner for now.

If it sounds heavy-handed, it’s because it probably is. Yet, although it may be presented by some in the international press as a hark back to the days of Franco, it raises very few eyebrows among Spaniards. Part of that may have something to do with how it is normalized in the national press but another part comes down to the fact that the vast majority of people outside Catalonia simply disagree with the referendum. To them, Catalonia is a region of Spain. A region of Spain cannot just unilaterally declare independence and wander off.

Imagine if Nicola Sturgeon used her Holyrood majority to push through an indyref2 bill and write a separatist poll into local law. Imagine the SNP then vowed to unilaterally declare independence with immediate effect, even if yes voters only won by 1%. How would it feel for the no voters being whisked away from their beloved Blighty? The rest of the UK would be up in arms because you can’t just do that. That’s not how things work.

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Iñigo Errejón, a key strategist and on of the most recognizable faces in Podemos, attends a Catalonia solidatrity rally in Puerta del Sol, Madrid. ©Jake Threadguould

Surely not everyone outside of Catalonia is against the referendum? Correct, there is a group of mainly left-wing movements that have advocated for dialogue and the negotiated legalization of the vote. The grassroots Podemos, the third political force in the national parliament, occupies a funny half-way position between the regional separatists and the common narrative in Spain. They do not back a unilateral referendum, however. The main opposition Socialist Party (PSOE) and the center-right, freshly ironed suit types in Ciudadanos – Spain’s fourth largest party – are in agreement with the PP government on the topic. That puts PSOE in a slightly awkward position.

But the Catalan referendum transcends traditional left-right politics in Spain. It sends shudders down the spine national identity in a country where, for many, even flying the national flag conjures up connotations of the dictatorship.

What is certain is that a huge portion of people in Catalonia have never felt comfortable in Spanish skin. What is also certain is that a huge portion of people in Spain cannot bear to see Catalonia walk away. There’s a good chance the referendum will be blocked. How that will happen is yet to be established — as has my opinion.

If they ever build a fence between Spain and Catalonia, I’ll be on it.

Jeremy Corbyn, beware the personality cult

The most memorable chorus at Glastonbury this year was undoubtedly the chant of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn.” Clips of the crowd singing the Labour leader’s name went viral. Something incredible has happened; June 8 saw the return of a populist Left in the UK. Odd, perhaps, that the shift was spearheaded by one of the country’s traditional parties, which tend to only dip one toe in the extreme while always courting the center ground.
Lacking support from media and even his own party, Corbyn was left largely to his own devices to get his message of hope and alternative governance across. He breathed that message into Britain’s dejected and forgotten corners and Corbynism blossomed into a chorus. He arrived back in parliament an easy-going celebrity, buoyant on a grassroots support and with a whole new Labour Party at his feet; one that belonged to the people.
Across the Commons floor, Theresa May is still standing, albeit with a slaughter date branded on her head. The raucous Tory backbenchers in the driving seat will put her to pasture (perhaps a nice wheat field?) in due course and replace her with another unelected Tory leader. In the meantime, however, they are back to focusing on destroying the country with their pursuit of a hard Brexit. They have decided no to heed the advice of trade experts, economists, academics, and (most) world leaders.
As a side, what era of British history do the rabid Brexiteers so desperately pine for? Is it the post-war idyll of village greens and local butchers? That would be apt, for British global trade was teetering on the brink then, too. But, however nihilistic their venture may be, Tory backbenchers are at least vociferous. The same cannot be said for Labour. Some of the 50 Labour MPs who voted against pulling out of the EU single market in yesterday’s vote were sacked by Corbyn.
Perhaps Corbyn is stifling them as a reprisal for their revolt last year, perhaps the unions are doing that for him, or maybe the centrists are still reticent to accept such a left-wing leader. Whatever the reason, there must be a compromise. The Labour Party as a whole needs to be more vocal. Corbyn needs more teammates.
Although he has support at a grassroots level and looks to be enjoying his new-found life as an internet meme, populism is a bucking bronco and personality cults are fleeting – like fidget spinners. I would ask whether those who voted Labour, voted for the party or for its leader? Furthermore, how many of you have fidget spinners? The latter being of personal interest.
While the populist bubble that holds Corbyn aloft is a truly admirable feat, it has the potential to leave him exposed in the Commons. A shift in public sentiment or a return to apathy would see the bubble pop and send the Labour leader tumbling back down onto an unforgiving terrain. To avoid that, he must continue in his public relations, a feature that really sets him apart from the Tory robots in the government benches. But he must also soften his back-bench in the event of a fall from grace.
Perhaps he should be careful where he points that pro-Brexit stance of his. It could take someone’s eye out.

Dis May

It has been a while since I’ve written anything serious. Seriously. But with just 24 hours until Britain’s electoral crunch time, I thought now more than ever would be a good time to continue that trend.

I’m writing from the standpoint of a British journalist working in a foreign, and soon to be more foreign, land – Spain. The UK is no stranger to Spain; Britain has a centuries-old official claim to the southern portion of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar. Meanwhile, centuries-old Brits have an unofficial claim to the surrounding lands – the Costa del Sol, which in Lancastrian English means “the price uh’ sun;” a question we’re sure to answer in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

But while Brexit gets passed around between campaigning politicians in the UK like a bottle of Tesco own brand champagne, for British workers in Spain, where there is no Tesco, it looms over the horizon of our livelihoods like an embarrassing itch. Could be nothing, could be fatal.

And this itch is scratched and scraped and stretched by the powers that be thousands of miles away, back home. Our futures working in a Spanish office with our Spanish friends drinking our Spanish beers and paying our Spanish taxes is now leverage in a political arena where we have little to no clout. We must sit and wait for the chess master.

At least I had the privilege to up and move to Spain. But what would await me should I be forced to move home? A village green stained with the blood of red foxes?

Even from Spain, we can smell the grizzly breath of the British tabloid media. It creeps into my office from time to time. Its rancid tendrils drift over the continent, picking up comments from Brussels to Berlin, before retreating across the Channel to twist and turn their meaning. It presents those skewed facts to millions, who drink it up like vultures feasting on fear.

A casual gander over to the Express and you’ll see some obscure former MEP from Slovenia SLAMMING Juncker. In the Sun, a comment made by Spain’s top diplomat turned into a call for war – UP YOURS SEÑORS, read the headline said – misspelled. According to the Mail (in fact all of them), the EU will be paying the Brexit bill. Propaganda.

That propaganda holds people hostage and its is powerful. Our own prime minister daren’t denounce the degradation of women, racist fear-mongering, and breaches of privacy proffered by this putrid portion of the press.  Again, civilians have little to no clout in this arena.

In fact, the far-right press coins the language later to be adopted in parliament as if we live in some topsy-turvy world. It bemoans the bremoaners and belittles those who demand proof. Now MPs warn against catastrophizing and insist we need to get on with it.

The propaganda press drives the narrative in Britain to such an extent that one report prompted Theresa May to speak out against Brussels for shining a negative light on Brexit in UK media. It whipped the British public into such a fury over Gibraltar that the Spanish government had to allay fears over the rock’s fate.

A rancid spiral of sensationalism in UK politics and the country’s media would make the most hardened Brussels bureaucrat blush.

Things are only going to get choppier in those Britishest of Isles. No deal is better than a bad deal, says our leader, with her back turned to some of the most intelligent and experienced contemporary politicians on Earth. We will not pay a cent, barks the right-wing press.

But, whatever happens in the future (bad things will happen), the Brexiteers will never take responsibility for their actions. They will always point their crooked claw of blame at Europe.

Remember, just because a political party and its press wing mirrors how you feel or makes you comfortable in your own skin, it does not mean they’re in this with you. Those at the top will happily burn the bridges to the EU for you and walk away unsinged.

The stripes of the Union Jack melt from my skin in utter shame.

Wouldn’t it be nice to just stand back and take everything in with a long exhale? Or, I don’t know, do something crazy like run through a field of wheat.