Tuesday 27 October 2009

In the Grip of the Gripe

By Richard Morley.
Last week I went with some friends to eat at FrescCo. When the assistant gave me my change she also gave me a 250 ml bottle of Sanex shower gel. Any suspicions that she might be making a pretty overt comment on my personal hygiene were dispersed when I saw she was giving a bottle of the stuff to everyone.

A week before that there was a give away promotion for a household cleaning agent at the Avenida de America metro station; The only way to describe the hoard surrounding the two young ladies hosting the event is “clamouring”.

In Madrid we are being advised on personal hygiene and cleanliness on all sides. Huge posters on the metro and at bus stops advise us how to blow our noses, dispose of the used tissue and to wash our hands.

Many years ago Britain had a campaign that warned us that “Coughs and sneezes spread diseases”. “Tos y estornudos traen enfermedades” sort of rhyme, if not scan; The Comunidad PR division missed out on that one.

We are in the grip of a fever.
The fever is an attempt to stop another. The H1N1 virus, Gripe A (pronounced “Grippay Ah”,) or Gripe Porcina, as it’s known here and swine flu everywhere else, has been elevated to public enemy number one. 37 million doses of the vaccine have been acquired by the government and will be distributed to the young, old, pregnant and those with jobs that might put them at risk. Those of us in the middle have been left to fend for ourselves while being directed how to avoid those who might already have the disease.

Now one would think that in the face of this supposed epidemic the authorities would be doing all they could to protect the public as quickly as possible, yet the vaccination campaign won’t begin until the 16th of November. According to Trinidad Jiménez, the health minister, the date has been chosen for “Logistical Reasons”. But I wonder if she’s had her shot already.

The latest figures on the pandemic show that at the moment the infection rate is quite low with only 101 cases per 100,000 of the population succumbing and most of them recovering with aspirin and bed rest. Since May there have been 54 deaths attributed to the virus, but those were among those most at risk: the old and those already weak from another illness.

However, nearly 23% of the population of Madrid is over 65 years of age. In the city there are 52 hospital admissions a day for respiratory diseases and in Madrid the average number of deaths is around seventy a day, or 690 per 100,000 inhabitants. (I took these figures from the Madrid City Report, which claims that reducing the pollution in Madrid would save 562 deaths a year!)

The statistics for the N1H1 virus are for the country as a whole, so it would seem that given the factors that lead to death now, swine flu will not really make a difference.

Not that I would wish to trivialise any death that the virus brings.

There was a very sad case of a Moroccan woman who died of the H1N1 virus while in the later stages of pregnancy. Her baby was born by caesarean section. However the publicity that surrounded the case was because her newborn was given the wrong treatment and also died, leaving a distraught husband and awkward explanations from the hospital. But it was the one of the first cases and so received lots of publicity.

One doctor I spoke to recently thinks deaths from H1N1 might reach as high as 500 as the winter sets in. In a population of 42 million, that’s probably no more than would be expected from the usual seasonal influenza that comes round each year, and hardly merits the name epidemic.

In 1340 the Black Death, Bubonic Plague, carried off nearly twenty-nine per cent of the population. A reoccurrence around the end of the sixteenth century led to 600,000 deaths out of a national population of just eight million.
Pieter Bruegel's "The Triumph of Death", depicting the Plague in the 16th Century. The picture can be found in the Prado.

The 1884/85 Madrid cholera epidemic caused fifteen thousand deaths.

When the news, and the first outbreaks of Swine Flu reached Spain, I did spy a few people wearing surgical masks in the street. I haven’t seen that for a while, but may well reoccur as the numbers rise as winter approaches.

The vaccination programme, as it should be, is being directed to those most at risk. I have known people who have had the illness over the past few months (they normally moan on facebook,) but have all recovered now. But the Spanish health authorities are right to be concerned. A 33 year old Nigerian woman died of the disease in Majorca recently. Previously to contacting the illness she had been perfectly fit.

The doctor I mentioned above was one of nearly fifty people at one of the English Villages I attend. At the beginning of the week there was one person with flu like symptoms. Four days later almost half the group had been infected. Which means half had not! And of the half two or three had to take to their beds and the rest, aided by aspirin and copious quantities of tissues, were able to carry on. So it affected some differently than others and some not at all. It was this that brought up the subject in the first place.

My macabre side thinks that the grim reaper is selective in such matters, although he gets us all eventually! There will be vaccinated people who will die and non-vaccinated who won’t. The disease is spread by viral contagion, and so the greatest single preventative measure would be to close all the bars and nightclubs where thousands mingle every evening of the week. But that’s not going to happen, is it?

A quick glance through last Friday’s El Pais brought me to a small section called “Deaths in Madrid” (Fallecidos en Madrid), where we are told of approximately a hundred people who have recently died. The ages of the deceased are given and I was amazed to see most of the people were in their eighties and nineties, although they ranged from 67 years to Amador Hidalgo Mansilla who topped the league at 101! Spain has the longest life expectancy in Europe and (I think) only second in the world. The Spanish are made of hardy stuff. They won’t let a little thing like Swine flu see them off.
Swine Flu, Reality or Myth? There is some debate. What do you think? Comments please.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

A Plaza in the Sun.

By Richard Morley.

It is said that there is nothing new under the sun. Madrid can prove that statement to be false.

Standing at the very heart of Madrid, the very heart of Spain, is the Plaza de la Puerta Del Sol, the gateway of the sun. It is the place from where all distances are measured. It is the place where the Spanish gather, or watch on TV, when one year passes into the next. Historically it is a place to meet, to protest – and to assassinate. There is much that is old here, but now, there is a lot that is new.

In the 15th century Madrid’s city walls encompassed a much smaller city. With the steep escarpment and river that encircled it to the west and southwest, its main entrance faced east, towards the rising sun. Some say the entrance had an inscription of the sun on it. What ever the reason for its name, this was where the newly arrived traveller would enter the city. La Puerta del Sol - The gate of the Sun. This was a place of business, both commercial and governmental. Taxes would be charged on goods entering the city. Mail arriving from far off towns would be collected and distributed from here; goods bartered and traded, business negotiated. There would be inns, taverns, livery stables, farriers.

Before the first major remodelling in the middle of the eighteenth century, there stood the church of San Felipe. Its main steps became famous as the Gradas de San Felipe as a place to exchange gossip and rumour. Imagine the hustle and bustle of such a place.

As Madrid expanded the walls were moved out. The eastern gateway became the Puerta de Alcala which was a kilometre further east. The plaza was no longer at an extremity. Now it was very firmly in the centre. And so it has remained, both geographically and spiritually. The Plaza de la Puerta del Sol is at the heart of everything that is Spain, that is Spanish. And like the country and its people, it has undergone many changes.

Two views three months apart. The workmen have been busy.
Before 1766 there was no actual plaza. I imagine timber framed, crooked buildings set around an unpaved square rutted with the wheels of carts and the smell of pack animals. I see a place of loading and unloading, of hardy, strong backed men and small boys running errands for a few céntimos. But that work must now have moved to the new gate. The plaza de la Sol, once rich with the profits of trade would have become neglected, run down. Hardly suitable for the centre of a royal city.
Sol Prior to reformation work that began in 1857.

But in 1766 the architect Jaime Marquet began work on the post office building. To provide security many of the old buildings were torn down and a large plaza created in the space. Over the next century the old church of San Felipe, its associated monastery and the convent of Our Lady of Victory disappeared under the demolisher’s hammer.

Work begins on reforming Sol.

Between 1857 and 1862 Lucio del Valle, Juan Rivera and José Morer gave the plaza its semi circular shape. Like the eastern sun rising over the horizon. Its rays became the streets of Arenal, Preciados, Carmen and Montera. Sol in 1877.

Outside the former post office building is a stone slab, also semi circular in shape. It shows a map of Spain under a compass needle and bears the legend “Origen de las Carreteras radiales”, and the symbol “0km”. This is the point from where all distances are measured. All roads lead out from here. This is the centre of Spain.

Figuratively; the actual geographical centre is thirteen kilometres south south-east in Getafe on the Hill of Los Angeles. But for practical purposes let us return to the Plaza del Sol.

While the larger plaza, the Plaza Mayor, which lays a couple of hundred metres west of Sol might be a place of spectacle, of bull fights, heretic trials and autos de fé, the Plaza del Sol remained a place of trade. Its surrounding street housed all manner of shops and workshops, and all manner of professions. The calle de Montera is still infamous for the oldest! Sol in 1930.
1931. The Second Republic is Proclaimed to crowds gathered in Sol.

Madrid’s first underground railway line terminated at Sol. It ran from Cuatro Caminos where country produce, brought to the edge of the city (as it then was), was loaded on to special goods carriages to be transported into the centre.

Spain’s largest department store, El Corte Inglés, houses itself in several building in Sol and many other shops and hotels surround the plaza. However, while it is still possible to buy a hand made fan, or some traditional pastries, fast food outlets like McDonalds and KFC and a couple of amusement arcades are beginning to dominate.

Sol is where everyone meets everyone else. Meeting Friends? The place to meet is under the clock of the former post office. Or if not there, then “By the Bear”. Madrid’s symbol is a bear reaching up into a Madroño tree, sometimes called a strawberry bush. The fruit of the madroño do look like strawberries, but are nothing like as tasty. A twenty ton bronze of the bear and the tree stands in Sol. A month ago it was moved a few metres to a new location, but it is still in the plaza, but now at the beginning of Madrid’s longest street, the Calle de Alcala.

(Actually, the bear has been moved back to where it was when it was first erected in the plaza in 1967.) The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, over looked by Spain's favourite uncle, Tio Pepe

So why was it moved? Well everything in Sol has moved. When I first came to Madrid, less than five years ago, Sol was little more than a bus station with those radiating roads still carrying traffic. The bus stands were dull concrete, the traffic, choking. Beneath the plaza lay a dingy Metro station, barely able to cope with the passenger numbers of three separate lines and not very pleasant. What is underneath the Plaza Del Sol? This view shows the metro stations and the new Cercanias Station.

Today it is a very different place. Shortly after my arrival it was partly pedestrianised. The streets were redesigned; the bus shelters banished and the metro station got a new, shiny entrance. But that was not the end of the matter. Beneath the plaza a new commuter train station for the cercanías, was being constructed. The work went on for ever. Then we found out that they were constructing Europe’s largest man-made cavern. That opened last June (proving you can have something “new under the sun”) to great acclaim and controversy as the street level entrance, a glass shell in the shape of a great whale, (and called El Pez, the fish, by the locals), was deemed unsuitable and not in keeping with the surrounding architecture, but then neither were the rust stained bus shelters – and they stood there for years."El Pez", The new entrance to Sol Metro and Cercanias stations.

All but one of the radiating streets was closed to traffic and then the whole place was dug up and has been refurbished in completely new clothes. The uneven cobbles are gone, replaced by smooth grey stone. The old central fountain has been replaced with two modern, geometric inverted cones, and the old lamp posts, known as “suppositories” because of their shape, have given way to more tasteful and delicate standards.

Two views: On the left, sometime between 2000 and 2005. On the right, 1970.

After four long years it is nearly finished.

Again the protesters will have somewhere to meet. There will be room for many more New Year celebrators. And the centre of Madrid will have a brand new face. Mind you, while talking of this with a friend over the weekend she remarked that as soon as it was finished, they will dig it up again. “They always do!”

Which is quite true! Since Señor Marquet laid down the basic shape in 1766 the plaza, from the facades of the surrounding buildings to the nature of the land it is built on, has been in almost constant flux. There are photographs showing it with gardens, with trams and trolley buses – and with sandbags. In the centre, unmoved by all that has gone on around him, stands the statue of King Carlos III on horseback. He was known unofficially as “The mayor of Madrid” because of all the changes he ordered to be made to the city, so I hope he approves of his new surroundings. Someone once told me that when the statue, which is actually a copy of the one in the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando, was first erected in 1994 it contained an electrical device that kept the pigeons away. I must watch one day to see if this is true.

Hopefully the new surface will never be stained with blood.

On May the second 1808, an infamous day in Spanish history, the revolt of the Spanish people against French occupation culminated in a fierce battle fought in the Plaza del Sol. The Spanish were defeated and the Grand Duke Joachim Murat, head of the French forces, had hundreds of the rebels shot.

On November 12th, 1912, the Prime Minister, José Canalejas, was gunned down in Sol by the anarchist Manuel Pardiñas. A Plaza named to honour Canalejas stands a couple of hundred metres up the Carrera de San Jerónimo.

April 14th in 1931 Sol saw the proclamation of the Second Republic, an act which led to the Civil war five years later.

The former post office is now the home of the Comunidad of Madrid, greater Madrid’s governing council. Before that is was the Ministry of the Interior and was a feared place, so I am told, during the regime of Franco. People brought here, so the story went, would never be seen by their families again. On its walls is a plaque to remember and honour those who died and assisted on the terrible day of the Atocha bombings on March 11th, 2004.

Now at New Year everyone gathers to watch its 19th century clock, which was built and donated to the city by José Rodriguez de Losada, and as its bells strike twelve, to eat a grape for every chime. This is a great tradition and the atmosphere in the plaza absolutely fantastic. Everyone should celebrate there at least once. With the street works finished there will be more room for the tens of thousands of celebretantes. But before that comes Christmas. There is always a decorated tree in Sol and nearby, and much more importantly, will be someone selling roast chestnuts, which I love, and the lottery ticket sellers will be telling us they have the winning ticket for El Gordo. The rest of Madrid might still be as full of holes as a gruyere cheese, but at least Sol is almost whole again.

Until the next time!

I made this video on October 16th just before midday. You can hear from the sound of jack-hammers the work has not yet finished. I wonder if it will ever be!

Sunday 18 October 2009

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

By Richard Morley.
I have written before about Madrid’s wonderful metro, but I can’t let this weekend go past without mentioning it again as Saturday was its ninetieth birthday.

Their Royal Highnesses Alfonso XIII and Juan Carlos with Queen Sofia use the metro.

On the 17th of October 1919 King Alfonso XIII inaugurated the first line. It ran from Sol To Cuatro Caminos through eight stations and cut the travel time from an hour to eight and a half minutes. That first train.

Since then the metro has continued, and continues, to expand in all directions.

This is being celebrated with a small exhibition on display at the Nuevo Ministerios metro station.

It a little smaller than I expected!

The exhibition at Nuevos Ministerios.

Considering that they have advertised the show at every station and they have been trumpeting their 90th anniversary all year, I had hoped for something on a grander scale. Perhaps they are saving the big one for their centenary in 2019.

Half a dozen boards display photographs of the different types of rolling stock that has been used through the decades, ancient photographs of early construction work, pictures of the metro in use and advertisements through the ages. There are a couple of ancient ticket dispensing machines and a cut away model of Gran Via station. Well the model is named the station of Red de San Luis, but then its name was changed to José Antonio before eventually taking the name Gran Via. But then Gran Via itself wasn’t called Gran Via until relatively recently, so that’s understandable. There are some interesting pictures of early tunnelling. Since the 1960s Madrid has used the “Madrid Method” for tunnel excavation. This is a system that utilises steel and concrete to shore up the surface while men dug out the underlying soil by hand or machine. Madrid stands on a mixture of sand, gypsum and clay, which is known locally as “Peñuela” and is relatively easy to extract.

In more recent years huge Tunnel Boring Machines have done the work that used to be done by man and donkey. When work began in 1917 the system was identical to that used by the mining industry. On some of the lines today, particularly lines 1 and 2, the bare rock walls can be seen as you pass through. Where the natural rock was not strong enough the walls were lined with brick. "Mining" the Metro at the Glorietta of Bilbao.

That first line was just 3.48 kilometres long. Today the system comprised of 284 kilometres of track and the number of stations has increased to 294. However, if I have my sums correct, the cost of today’s ticket is 1113 times more than the cost of a ticket in 1919! However, even if you buy your tickets singly, it only cost one euro to travel on three quarters of the network, with only a further euro supplement to get you to Madrid’s furthest extremes.

Then and Now.

As well as having its own eponymous construction technique, the Madrid metro has been one of the most innovative public transport systems anywhere in the world. It holds many patents for building and control systems. It uses some of the most modern rolling stock in the world, which it is constantly up-dating. For those reading this and are now muttering, “Not on my line, they haven’t”, I can only say that they will.

Madrid metro does have some old sections which were built with a much smaller tunnel size than that used on the newer lines. This, of course, restricts it, without major reconstruction, to what it can do. That major reconstruction, as well as some pretty intensive modernisation, is planned.

With an announced investment of 2,976 million Euros intended for new lines and refurbishment of old stations, I would imagine that when the Metro celebrates its centenary, we will have seen some radical changes.

And they might be able to afford a better exhibition.

The photo just above is the entrance to a much used Metro station. It has since been remodled. Much kudos, and perhaps a beer, to anyone who can tell me where it is.

What do you think of Madrid metro? Comments please.


Monday 12 October 2009

Power to the people

By Richard Morley.Powerhouse of the old weaving factory, Atocha.

One of the questions that cropped up recently on the search engines which send internauts towards this blog was, “What did Spain do in the Industrial Revolution?” And the answer to this, at least to an Englishman who was brought up to regard the likes of Watt, Stephenson, Arkwright, Trevithick, Boulton, and McAdam as national heroes just as much as Drake, Nelson, and Churchill, is Not A Lot. Such a great leap forward in technology requires a spirit of entrepreneurial endeavour and public acceptance that was either lacking or discouraged in Spain at that time.

Much of Spanish manufacturing was rigidly controlled. Usually by the royal household who had a monopoly on many of the processes and balked at the very idea of competition.

This is not to say that Spain had no industry. Far from it; such a sizable and important country with possessions and colonies abroad had need of a diverse and powerful infrastructure. What it lacked was innovation.

While researching the question, at least as far as Madrid went, I was struck by the great lack of records available. In fact, what I have found have been bureaucratic accounts relating to the tariffs and taxes imposed on traders, importers and manufacturers rather than records of inventions or scientific development. In fact it seems much of Spain’s industrial advances used imported technology as opposed to any home grown know-how.

The first thing you notice when visiting the railway museum in the Paseo de las Delicias is a British built locomotive and in the lobby of the Escuela Técnica Superior de Ingenieros Industriales stands one of Watt’s steam engines.

However, before I get comments about how Spanish ingenuity invented the submarine and the mop and probably many other things, compared to Britain at that time most of mainline Europe depended more on an agrarian economy than an industrialised one.

According to industrial historians the one thing that points towards industrialisation is the use of fossil fuels: Coal and oil. While the coal mines of Britain were supplying the powerhouses of increasingly large factories, the industries of Madrid were still fuelling their fires with charcoal and firewood.

How do I know this? Through the official records of the time! All fuel entering Madrid was taxed and one thing the funcionarios of Madrid were good at was keeping records. So I know that in the mid 1800s Madrid imported approximately 36,000 tons of charcoal a year, which worked out at less than half a kilogram of fuel per resident per day, a figure that basically hadn’t changed for a hundred years. Also 16,000 tons of firewood was entering the city at that time. There is no mention of any coal. When Enrique Dolfus established his cotton factory in San Fernando de Henares the steam engine that supplied the power to the looms was fuelled by 29,000 arrobas of firewood a year. An Arroba is 25 pounds or about 12 Kg. (San Fernando de Henares is outside of the city and so this does not figure in the records.)

There was no heavy industry at this time. Large scale metalwork was produced out of the city, but Madrid did have many blacksmiths, tinsmiths, gold and silversmiths who needed fuel for their furnaces. And of course, there were the bakers, the tripe makers, pottery, glass, tile and brick makers who had to heat their ovens and kilns.

The documents show that charcoal was the main fuel used for domestic use. But it seems that there are different forms of charcoal and different industries demanded very specific fuels. As an example, charcoal made from heather was used almost exclusively by the metal industries as, being a very hard wood, produced the greatest heat. Seven hundred and eighty cartloads and smaller quantities carried by mules and donkeys entered Madrid in 1848.

One of the most intriguing types of charcoal was called “Errax” and was made from olive stones. It was only used for use in domestic heating in the houses of the wealthy and never really caught on.

But charcoal was much more expensive than untreated firewood and that was used by many. A special type of firewood, known as “Hornija”, was ideal for bread baking. However, its heat output was not as high as charcoal and when the pottery in Alcorcón began to use it in the kilns it was found that the wood of the broom they were using did not give sufficient heat to vitrify the lead glaze. This had fatal consequences when the pottery came into contact with vinegar and other foodstuffs.

The saltpetre factory in Embajadores used firewood from grape vines and the tanneries would use oak. The earthenware factory in Valledemorillo only wanted pine.

But there was one fuel that was cheaper than all the others. Known as Madrid Peat, “Turba de Madrid”, this was actually animal manure that was mixed with straw and allowed to dry in dung heaps. It was calculated from the forage / manure conversion tables (and I amazed that there are such a things!), which determine how much mierda is produced by how much food, the 230,000 fanegas* of barley and nearly two million arrobas of straw would produce nearly eight thousand tons of manure. Apparently this represented 14% of all the fuel used in Madrid. While much of this was used in the kilns of the brick makers, it was a very cheap fuel for the bakers. Noting that baker’s ovens usually put both fuel and product in the same cavity, as the cooks of cordero (milk fed lamb) do today, I do wonder what the bread tasted of.

*A “Fanega” is a dry measure equivalent to about one and a half bushels or 50Kg. It is also the name of my favourite restaurant in Madrid. Find it at C / General Oráa, 29.

“Madrid Peat” was obviously in very plentiful supply, but its accumulation was discouraged due to fire risk. This did not prevent a large fire breaking out in Santa Domingo Plaza.

Genuine peat, gathered from marshy areas outside the city, was used by the lime makers and also by the confectioners. By law only tanners were allowed to use horn to feed their fires, but this was a readily available commodity from the meat markets in the Rastro and tripe makers would use it to start their fires.

This use of wood had a devastating effect on the surrounding forests. In a defence of “uncooked soap”, (apparently there are two ways of making the stuff – one needs heat, the other, considered inferior, didn’t,) Francisco Cabarrús, a French businessman whose Spanish father-in-law owned a soap factory in Carabanchel, claimed that the traditional method was responsible for the “great shortage of firewood at the Court and throughout the kingdom: it would not be exaggerated to say that the boilers in the villages around Madrid use around 400,000 arrobas of firewood per year, and if the “uncooked soap” is prohibited the scarcity will increase and the time may come when the forests are completely destroyed”.

You don't have to go too far out of Madrid, particularly if you head towards Segovia through the summer trekking and winter skiing resort of Puerto de Navacerrada and over the Sierra de Guadarrama Mountains before you see great swathes of forestry, so perhaps Cabarrús overstated the case, but we are very aware these days about deforestation so perhaps, even for motives of self-interest, he could be regarded as one of the first conservationists.

It was not really until the beginning of the railway in Spain that coal was really required. This is strange as Spain has huge reserves of the stuff, although it is difficult and expensive to mine. Much of the coal used in power stations in Spain is imported.

But why was Spain left behind in the Industrial revolution? According to Leandro Prados de la Escosura, in a paper on Growth and Poverty in Spain, the indicative movement of the population from agriculture and villages to industry and towns did not really begin in Spain until the beginning of the twentieth century.

In his book, “An Economic History of Modern Spain”, Joseph Harrison suggests that the problem with Spanish industry in the 1800s was one of money supply. He states that, “…Spain’s inability to build a sound industrial base must be placed with successive governments who pursued a variety of mistaken and counter-productive policies which proved highly detrimental to the private sector”.

Quite true. It seemed the state could raise money from the banks, which they owned, for any number of schemes, but business entrepreneurs went begging. From 1852 to 1873 the bank of Spain lent twenty million pesetas to private companies, but eighty-two million stagnated in government loans.

While London and Amsterdam were seen as trading cities, Madrid was the model for the political city. Like Imperial Rome, Madrid was described as an economic parasite, consuming the wealth of the nation and its empire without contributing to that wealth. From Madrid ran a political and administrative network that controlled, taxed and shaped commercial activity, but its location, well inland and away from the trading ports, kept it from developing commerce of its own.

When you consider the centre of worldwide trade that Madrid has become today, this history seems very strange, but, with the exceptions of industries under royal patronage, the tobacco and weaving companies, private enterprise was almost discouraged by the government of the day.

But not all the blame can be laid on the government. A report in the London Standard of March 14, 1885, tells how cigar rollers in Madrid revolted over the introduction of machinery into the factories. It seems the populace, like the Luddites of Britain’s own Industrial Revolution, did not welcome the age of mechanisation.

So the answer to what Spain did during the Industrial Revolution is indeed, Not A Lot. However, if someone in a hundred years time asks what Spain did during the Technological Revolution that is happening now, then the answer will be very different.

Spanish companies are at the forefront of technology today. Telefónica takes its expertise all around the world. The Madrid Metro is an example to public transport systems the world over, holding patents that earn huge revenues and just about everyone I know works in the computer of engineering sectors.

The question should not be, “What did Spain do in the Industrial Revolution?” but, What is Spain doing now?
The question of which source of power should drive our world is important today. Should it be wind, water, sun, coal or uranium fired? Or should we return to animal waste? Leave a comment below.

Wednesday 7 October 2009

A Mess Of .... Miércoles

By Richard Morley
I have always thought Madrid to be a clean town. There seems to a huge green jacketed army going around after us picking up our unwanted unsavoury waste. Our bins are emptied in the small hours of the morning by ruthlessly efficient, although noisy, bin men who are followed in turn by a team armed with high pressure hoses who wash the streets and clean the rubbish bins on every lamppost.

Watching the Cabalgada de los Reyes Magos, or the parade of the three kings, which among other things has riders on horseback, I was amused to see that directly behind the horses were three street cleaners, pushing their barrows, ready to sweep up any droppings the horses left behind them. I was amused, but not surprised. With a hoard of marchers on foot bringing up the rear this was a very sensible action to take. Evidence once again that Madrid takes having clean streets seriously – and a good reminder to the crowd.

Before the Puerta del Sol took on the appearance of a perpetual building site, I once watched three protest demonstrations in a row. Each group handed out immediately discarded flyers and left a pile of detritus. But between each demo the street cleaners moved in, leaving a pristine plaza for the next group to desecrate. Within minutes of the last demonstration, all the rubbish was gone.

The same thing happens at the New Year celebrations that also take place in Sol. With tens of thousands of revellers drinking canned beer or bottles of cava and discarding cigarette ends, hamburger cartons, drinking cups etc, the authorities estimated the street cleaners removed twenty-seven tons of rubbish last year. By sunrise on New Year’s Day it was all gone!

A mole on the inside of the Ayuntamiento tells me that a street cleaner’s job is one of the most sought after in the city. I don’t suppose the pay is marvellous or the hours very sociable, but it’s a service the community needs and so guarantees pretty much constant employment. And they seem to have every mechanical aid they need at their disposal.

So what can be swept or washed away never stays around for long.

Other blots on our city’s landscape are a little more permanent.

I have written before about graffiti. Then I was praising those that can do it well.

Unfortunately the truly gifted are in the minority.

From time to time my own apartment block has come under attack from the spray paint fraternity. But no nimbyism here – I think everyone’s backyard should be free from this defacement. On Monday I visited one of Madrid’s least beautiful areas. It was a bleak residential area where efforts to provide a small park and play area had been completely violated by this obscene insanity. What should have been a small haven of peace and beauty had been completely despoiled. Surrounding walls had been covered with nonsensical scrawls, names, insults, and vulgarities, and although there were some that had been painted by someone with a modicum of talent, the content of the work made me feel threatened. I suppose it did not help that the only people in this tiny park, given to the community to provide fun for children and rest to the elderly, were five young men who were encouraging two dogs to fight each other. I will have to visit this street on a regular basis from now on. I will not feel comfortable.

Quite rightly the authorities consider graffiti an act of vandalism; an act that costs the city dear to clean it up. This is reflected in the size of fines given to those actually caught in the act: from a derisory €300 to a more substantial €6000.

That last figure is a sizable sum. I doubt if many of the untalented youth who leave our walls disfigured with their childish squiggles could afford to pay it. So the Ayuntamiento have come up with an alternative: Clean up your own mess.

So from now on, anyone foolish enough to be caught in the act will be asked to remove it and any other “street art” in the neighbourhood. I am not sure whether they are “fined” a particular number of hours of work or square metres of wall space. I would think ten times the area of the wall you are found to be defacing would be sufficient. Already eight youths, aged between 16 and 20, have begun work. “We want to make them wake up to the damage they do”, said Ana Botella, the Ayuntamiento’s environment delegate. I do hope they see the error of their ways.

Included in this programme are young people caught in the antisocial crime, (according to authority), of engaging in a “Botellón”. I witnessed this heinous crime in action a few weeks ago. A few dozen youths spread themselves and sprawled across the Plaza dos de Mayo and wilfully drank Calimochó, a mixture of red wine and Coca-Cola, which they can buy for a couple of euros a litre. Like most teenagers they looked rather sullen. In a corner of the plaza a small squad of policemen with a couple of cars and an unmarked van stood watch over the listless bunch.
“A bit of an overkill”, I remarked to an English friend as we walked past.
“I don’t know”, he remarked. “They ought to arrest that guitar player for offending good taste”.
Other than that, these “criminals” seemed to have far to much lassitude to actually do something antisocial.

Not that that is unknown. Less than a month ago, in the western suburb of Pozuelo, a Botellón did get out of hand and serious crimes were committed. Local residents blamed it on the drinking, but I have heard that something more than a sad evening of consuming cheap alcohol had been organised by someone with an axe to grind. Fortunately this does not happen often.

But I also plead guilty to this crime, I have to admit to taking part in a “Botellón myself. I swear I was the oldest there by thirty years. I was in La Latina and saw this crowd of youths when one of them shouted my name. He had been at one of the English Villages I attend and came out of the crowd to offer me some Spanish hospitality. He thrust a plastic coke bottle in my hand. “Calimocho”, he explained. “Have a drink.” Cheap wine and generic coke; yes it tasted as you would imagine.

But it’s not their drinking habits the Ayuntamiento find troublesome, although the act of drinking in the street IS illegal, but the discarded plastic and smashed broken bottles they leave behind them. They too, if caught, can now be fined a tidy sum, or be sentenced to tidy. I wonder if we can expect to see orange suited youths chain-ganged together, brooms and scrubbing brushes held at the ready.

“Quite right too”, would say the tax payers of Madrid, who have recently received increased demands from the city council to pay for refuse collection. The new tax is seen as unfair as it is based on the size of the property and not on the number of waste producing residents.

Elisha Bartholomew, who lives with his wife in Vallecas, is retired on a pension of €900 a month and claims he produces no waste except for some potato peeling and newspapers. His “garbage tax” is €112. But neighbour Lucas Garcia has four residents in his house and will only pay €94. He says, “It’s very unfair. Gallardón (The mayor of Madrid) has spent a fortune on the M30 (The Madrid ring-road) and the attempt to get the Olympic Games and we have to pay.”

Now, the newspaper report I culled that from did not say if either family had a dog, but if they did they should be held responsible for their share of the mierda de perro that fouls the streets of Madrid all the time.

Near where I live there is a small, sandy area designated for dogs to come and do what is necessary. The Ayuntamiento has provided a bin that also dispenses free plastic bags to assist the owners clean up after their pets. There are signs on every lamp post informing them of this little bit of civic behaviour. And do they? Do they heck! The area is a minefield where you would indeed be foolish to rush in where even angels would fear to tread. I have seen a motorcycle equipped with a vacuum cleaner that dashes about the streets collecting these doggy mementos.
It is a legal requirement to pick up after your animals. There’s a fine of €200 if you do not. But it would seem there’s one law for us and one law for the police. The streets of Lavapies, a barrio in south central Madrid full of narrow twisting lanes, are patrolled by police on horseback. Well horses are animal too and the residents are complaining about the splatters of poop that present a far great challenge to avoid that what the dogs leave behind. Worse, it’s somewhat more liquid and squirts up in smelly jets if a car drives over it. “The law should be equal for all”, commented one resident, remarking he had never seen a cop dismount and clean up after his horse.

Quite right too!
Author's note: Miércoles means Wednesday, but is also used as a humerous euphemism for excrement. It's Wednesday, I am writing about it - and it amused me.
What do you think should be a suitable punishment for the spray paint despoilers? Should the punishment fit the crime? Comments please.

Friday 2 October 2009

A Night At The Opera

By Richard Morley.
I have friends with connections. One of them phoned me and said she had two tickets for the opera and would I like to go?

How many times have I walked down the Calle de Arenal, through the Plaza de Isabel Segundo and been faced with a choice of routes to get to the Plaza Oriente and the Royal Palace? The building forcing me to make that choice is the Madrid Opera house, or properly, El Teatro Real. Built in the shape of a coffin the Teatro Real looms over the plaza Isabel Segundo like a tsunami about to break. From the outside it is not a pretty building.

I had been told that inside it was a different matter. That since its refurbishment in 1997 it was a beautiful place. I wouldn’t know. With opera tickets being the price they are, the only chance I was going to have to see the inside was on the White Night, La Noche en Blanco when, together with other places of culture, the Teatro Real opens its door to the hoi polloi so they can get a look for free. The queues for that usually snake around the Plaza Oriente for hours. I hate queuing, so I thought I would never get the chance.

And then my friend phoned me.

The Teatro Real was opened by Queen Isabel II in 1850 following thirty two years of construction. It had not been an easy building to erect. A theatre must of necessity be large and high. In keeping with the Royal Palace, which it faces, and the expectations of its patrons, who were the elite of Madrid society, it also had to be a grand edifice using heavy stone. But there is a reason why the street that runs from Sol to the opera house is called the “Calle del Arenal”. It was Madrid’s main source of sand for building and the bible tells us not to build our houses on sand. There were problems.

However, in 1850, Queen Isabel attended the opening performance of “La Favorita” by Donizetti and in the decades that followed its reputation as one of the major opera houses of Europe was solidified.

In 1897 one opera goer wrote, “The luxurious decoration of the room, with warm red and gilded tones, shone with light. In the boxes, white shoulders and bosoms, splendid dresses, jewels, muslin shawls. Diamonds shone, fans waved, bald pates shone like marble”. It is curious the author did not actually comment on the performance those bald heads and white bosoms had come to see.

I think I might know why.

Opera in Madrid has had a hard time. It is said that the Teatro is haunted by the ghost of a singer who had failed an audition! Likewise, the Teatro Real’s existence has been haunted by conflicting tastes in culture and politics.

The 1924-25 season ended with “La Boheme”. No more operas were performed until 1997. Why? I refer to my previous mention of the sand the theatre was built on. Deep cracks had begun to form in the building due to its unstable foundation and the place was closed. Shortly after, the building caught fire. It became a ruin. During the Civil War it was used as a munitions dump and was further damaged by an explosion.

In the mid sixties there was an attempt to reopen it as a music hall. Franco has forbidden the performance of opera, which he considered to be decadent. This was hardly encouraging to Spanish opera singers like Montserrat Caballe, Victoria de los Angeles and Alfredo Kraus, who were then becoming famous on the international stage.

After the dictator’s death it was decided to rescue the Teatro and there were hopes that it would reopen in 1992. Like the phantom of the opera mentioned above, the theatre failed its audition. The government had chosen José Manuel Gonzalez to carry out the restoration. He had been in charge of the necessary repairs when it became a music hall and had ignored Franco’s instructions to destroy the stage so that opera would never be performed again. But soon after work began Señor Gonzalez died of a heart attack while showing journalists around the site.

However, in 1997 the opera house reopened. The first opera was meant to be Parsifal. It’s beautiful music, but hardly the stuff of what should be a happy occasion. Besides, it was thought that five hours of opera might not please the King, who unlike his wife, is not known to be a great fan of the art form. So one of the first duties of the new Minister of Culture, Esperanza Aguirre, was to decree that the opening performance should be of Manuel de Falla’s opera ''La Vida Breve'', which as well as being a good Spanish work was a lot shorter than Parsifal.

Last Wednesday I sympathised with the King.

Since then there has been a lot of discussion, and xenophobic comment, regarding the nature of performances at the Teatro. After all, Spain does have its own home grown opera in the Zarzuela. And they tend to be happy, entertaining works which the public would enjoy.

I know I would.

But Opera is regarded by some as “High Art”, which can leave us poor uncultivated wretches a little lost – and bored.

The performance I went to see was “Lulu” by Alban Berg. Berg was an Austrain composer and shared with Schoenberg a love of the “twelve tone” technique, which meant we were not going to leave the performance with something to hum on the way home.
Let me state I am no musical Philistine. I was brought up in a musical family and play several instruments (with differing degrees of expertise) and have always loved music and in particular the classics. But I do like a good tune!

There are no tunes in “Lulu”.

My musical ear enjoyed the sounds of the orchestra and the quality of the singers could hardly be surpassed, but the story of a heartless hussy who goes through three husbands in a life that passes from poverty through riches to degradation is not a happy one. But neither is La Boheme, and that’s got some wonderful tunes.

This four hour, (yes, really!) opera has recently been performed at The Royal Opera house in London’s Covent Garden. Here is a quote from London’s Daily Telegraph: “Some directors have sought to soften its edges with comedy or lard it with visual glamour, but Christof Loy's new production rigorously refuses any such sentimental concession or moral compromise: his interpretation is bleak, raw and ice-cold.”

And London’s Guardian Newspaper: “Christof Loy's mind-numbingly tedious staging of Berg's Lulu achieves the impossible - it allows Berg's masterpiece to come across as a turgid and overlong evening of musical endurance.”

And I would say they just about hit the nail on the head!

So, did I have a good evening? Well, yes I did. Despite the reviews above I did actually enjoy the story – if not the telling. But I really had to put my brain to work. The libretto is in German, but above the stage – far too far above so I was like a nodding donkey all evening – was a screen with Spanish subtitles, which I then translated into English. I would like to thank Gloria Nogué, who the program tells me was responsible for those subtitles, for making it so easy. She just about hit my level of Spanish!

Our tickets were for the VIP section, which meant we had much the same view as the King and The Queen, should they have been willing to endure the performance. It gave me a great view of the great horseshoe shaped auditorium with its wonderfully restored gilt boxes and a great view of the stage, which is huge. This wasn’t actually filled with much and the simple set with much left to our imagination and the choreography basically consisted of the cast ambling round or standing still.

Our VIP tickets gained us entry to the Goya room during the two intervals. They also meant that our refreshments, white wine for me, cava for my companion, and delicious canapés, were complementary. It’s nice to see how the other half live once in a while.

From next year the Teatro Real has a new director, Gerard Mortier. He is quoted as saying, “I aim to fascinate the public. One of the first things I’ve noticed about Madrid is that the Opera House faces the Royal Palace and has its back to the city. I hope to keep the theatre facing the palace but for it also to embrace the city and bring in the people”.

He said he also hoped to attract younger people to the opera and to emulate what he called the Paris Opera's feat of bringing down the average age of opera-goers from 58 to 42.

Ok, it’s not that long a walk from La Latina to the Teatro Real, but he will need to stage something much more entertaining than “Lulu” and try to reduce the normally ridiculously high prices for tickets. I hope he succeeds. It was a great experience, but next time I want to be entertained.