Saturday, October 28, 2017

The wand of collusion

Look at the modern Labour Party and ask yourself:

If each Labour MP had a wand that when waved, would magically create for all their voters reasonably-paid jobs, good housing, well-disciplined and talent-stretching education, and good health practices rather than burgeoning sickness services, with the additional result that the politician was no longer needed...

... which of them would wave that wand?

I'd say, people like Frank Field and Jess Phillips, yes - but Blair, Mandelson etc?

Isn't it the case that some "reformers" do enough to justify the need for themselves, and not so much as to make themselves redundant?

From what I read of the Fabians, they started out as posh people discussing "doing good" unto the lower classes without the slightest desire to elevate the latter to their own level - in fact they had quite an enthusiasm for eugenics. So really it was about power - themselves as gardeners, weeding and pruning their social inferiors.

And as for people like "Tony" - didn't he do well out of "doing good"? Not just what in the Seventies was called an "ego trip", but money and status. Then there's the serpentine Peter, and the other managerial types, both smooth and rough, who had a d**n good career out of it all - the nearest I ever came to hearing from Roy Hattersley was when his megaphone car toured the constituency to say so long and thanks for all the fish.

Yet on the other side of the Commons, what do we see? Friends of property developers and money-shufflers, gatherers of directorships and inside tips. With honourable exceptions, I suspect that many would wave their wand to vanish the great unwashed and make piles of money appear; or alternatively, to create millions more poor, MD-enriching people, so long as they were kept well away from where the ruling elite live.

I'm beginning to see some points of cross-party resemblance.

I'm not clever enough to imagine what the LibDems might magick. Though looking at the education and careers of the Cleggs one can see what the wand has done for themselves, if not for others.

The masks slipped in the Palace of Westminster when Cameron led the applause for Blair, and when both sides stamped on electoral reform (proposed by the LibDems, but mostly for their own purposes).

Getting out of the EU is just the start.

Friday, October 27, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Van Morrison, by JD

No introduction necessary for this man........ "take me back to when the world made more sense"

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Energy Trading: Why We Need Those Big Swinging Dicks

Our host asked me to pen this piece - and even came up with the title ... [BSD is © Nick Leeson - Ed.]

He'd seen reference to how Nicola Sturgeon was being disingenuous when she announced her new publicly-owned Scottish energy company saying it would have the advantage of not needing to pay "corporate bonuses":  but that her careful choice of words meant she knew full well there would need to be the customary big bonuses on offer to the energy traders involved.  How so? - couldn't energy trading be automated?  Might I be able to explain ..?

Well, many commodity markets are indeed already characterised by a lot of algorithmic trading.   But the gas and electricity markets are different (and also, for idiosyncratic reasons of market design, Brent crude oil at the 'spot' end of the market - though not in the longer dated, more liquid forwards).  It was once considered by some academics that gas, and still more electricity, was a paradigm case of a commodity that couldn't be traded (for "reasons" I won't bore you with, because they were fallacious). 

Turns out though, it's not impossible to trade them: this was proved triumphantly by *ahem* Enron, as a pure act of intellectual conviction and commercial will.  But it is more difficult - and in the case of electricity, much more difficult. The primary reason is that in most electricity markets there is virtually no inventory to act as a buffer in the market, so that relatively slight physical events (which happen all the time, with major events not uncommon) within and around the extensive infrastructure can have a rapid and profound impact on the supply / demand balance. In those few electricity markets where there is an effective buffer - which mostly means those such as Norway that are dominated by hydro-electricity, where the buffer is represented by water stored in dams and 'ponds' at the top of the mountain - trading is concomitantly easier.  Gas suffers from a similar, though less pronounced problem of limited inventory.

A secondary (and related) reason is the 'granularity'.   Copper, for example, trades in units of one month: gas is traded by the day; and electricity by the hour, or even the half-hour.  The gas grid needs to be balanced daily; and the power grid requires balancing in real time.  There are many, many other related contributory factors besides, making gas and electricity highly dependent on more than just the usual financial principles.  In consequence, gas and electricity prices (wholesale / traded markets) are hugely more volatile than has ever been encountered elsewhere - an order of magnitude more volatile in the case of gas, and often two orders more in electricity.  Phenomena like the growing amount of intermittent wind power in the 'fleet' only serve to make this more extreme.

Until, then, the advent of that Holy Grail - an effective and efficient form of electricity storage on a large scale(1)  - successful trading in these markets requires a unique blend of classical 'financial' trading skills, plus deep understanding of the very extensive physical / infrastructure aspects and their complex dynamics.   As a rule, financial traders hate getting their hands dirty with the physical stuff; and physical specialists don't understand the financial stuff (which can be deeply counter-intuitive to the novice, even the highly numerate novice, as most engineers are). 

So the winners - who really clean up - are those who can be arsed to acquire both sets of skills.   The amateurs get destroyed.  Some household-name big companies have really screwed this up over the years.  Many companies actually outsource their trading requirements to specialists - and pay a nice mark-up, but can then say "we don't need those nasty traders(2) & we don't pay those immoral bonuses".  But of course they do, really - like retaining an overseas 'agent' to do the dirty business with the backhanders. 

I wonder which route the pious Sturgeon is going down?   Sadiq Khan had promised to set up a municipal energy company for London, but seems to have thought better of it which, in my view, is wise.  Keep those big swinging dicks out of sight of the innocent Scottish politician ...

(1) Mr Musk has a very, very long way to go yet.  He's a great BS-merchant, though.

(2) The traders' culture is abhorrent to the engineering culture that quite naturally dominates the energy co.s.   There are many points of conflict.  When an energy co eventually realises it needs a trading floor (and be willing to pay serious bonuses), it can cause truly dreadful frictions.  Traders and the like have been heard to call the old-timers "Dougs" - dumb old utility guys ...  and since this is a family blog (is that right, Sackers?), I won't relate what the engineers call the traders.

Moving House, by Wiggia

"Having the benefit of readily accessible bacon..."?

This is a short piece on the perils involved in moving house; far away from the daily nonsense about leaving the EU - which in real terms we won't - it was the fact I am in the process of house hunting and this article that brought this on...

The article is a simple rehash of proposals made many times about simplifying the transaction process and as before, little meaningful will be achieved.

Do I have the credentials to write anything on this matter ? Probably more than almost anyone, would be my answer. For reasons never explained, each time I have moved or attempted to move house I have somehow found myself  the guinea pig to all the nefarious items that can arise during the process.

Without detailing all, it started with our first move when after exchanging contracts we were told two hours later we had a “problem”: our contract had been posted and the vendor of the house we were buying had changed her mind and phoned her solicitor who told her he still had the contracts in the office and would not send them if that was what she wanted. All legal in those pre-electronic days, but we were effectively homeless and all with no redress, a rare event even then but it gives a fair insight into what has followed.

You name it and it has happened to us and that includes incompetent solicitors, two of whom we have had to take to court for redress when they failed to do the job we paid them for. So yes, I am qualified to have an opinion on the whole process.

Government action in this area is bound up with vested interests: the Commons is stuffed with legal representatives of all colours. They have no reason to simplify the house moving process as they will lose money. In fairness - and I don’t like being fair to solicitors - they don’t earn much from a straightforward conveyance, which probably accounts for the number of errors and over-sights we have encountered; giving our house conveyance to the office junior and not checking has consequences.

The only government attempt at reform was the disastrous HIPS pack that took four years to clear Parliament and came with more holes than the Titanic. Again as I pointed out to my useless MP at the time, if the Commons stuffed with legal eagles could not in four years issue a document on the simple ? matter of house purchase  there had to be a reason and it would not be a reason acceptable to the public if revealed. He didn’t like that; they never do.

Estate agents, that merry breed of winkle-pickered, tight-trousered and -waistcoated, size-too-small-suited and (in modern times) mainly bearded individuals, also have a large part to play in the process. They are of course supposed to work for you, the person who pays their commission fee, but that will only apply with an easy (i.e. no work involved) sale. As soon as things go wrong - wrong meaning a slow sale for a variety of reasons - you will find them working for themselves: no sale no commission, so they get you to lower your price after four weeks on the market , start telling prospective buyers behind your back you will take an offer much lower than the asking price and start to  tell you of all the factors your now rubbish property has that is affecting the sale and why the price should be dropped further. They have no interest in you, the payer of their commission, only in getting it off the books, whatever.

I am convinced that the ‘feedback’ one has to endure is part of the wearing down process: the conveying of a viewer's opinion on your house is pointless. "Garden too big" - what am I supposed to do? Didn’t they read the brochure? "Too many front steps" - you can count them in the photos. "Dogs can get out" - my problem? Endless drivel that you could do nothing about even if you wanted to and you can add the comments of those professional viewers to whom house viewing is a weekend pastime: they never actually buy anything, just look and say whatever comes into their heads when asked about the place. It is all a wearing down process, that is if you let or are new to the game; personally I now state I do not want any feedback other than when someone makes an offer.

There are certain elements to selling that are very difficult to assess. A good example in the rare event of several offers is the “cash buyer”: there is no way anyone can prove that a buyer is in that position, it puts him at the head of queue as regards offers for obvious reasons and can demand a premium discount for that; but I have had a so-called cash buyer who - when it came to the crunch and everyone was wondering why the sale was slow - turned out to be negotiating a mortgage. I was not happy but you are then a long way down the train of events and are you on principle going to tell him he lied and get on his bike? Nonetheless there should be a way of verifying a person's status; agents claim they can, my experience says they can’t.

The late discovery of an alleged structural problem is another offer-reducing tactic. Despite having had a survey, at the last minute there is a query on your drains! Or "Do you really own that boundary fence?" Anything to delay and hopefully get a further discount. None of this should happen if the survey has been done and dusted and the searches completed; that should be it, but often it isn’t.

Never get involved in leaving deposits to cover a perceived eventuality discovered at the last moment. Most minor problems of that sort if real can be covered by a simple insurance. If a cash deposit is asked for you can guarantee you will see none of it again despite your own solicitor's guarantee you will - got caught with that one myself and the solicitor totally failed in his duty to keep tabs on it, a story in itself; they are only interested in getting the conveyance off the books.

The one thing that has never been addressed in house buying and selling is having a deposit system whereby when someone makes an offer a deposit is given so that in the event of a buyer pulling out the vendor will not be out of pocket in any way. Why should he? He will have incurred costs by that stage and wasted time. It is the buyer's choice to pull out so he should suffer the costs. This is not of course in relation to survey findings and the like, just the change of mind syndrome. This was once actually proposed but a myriad of dubious reasons came up and it was dropped; again there was no interest in protecting the innocent party.
It would also stop an awful lot of chain break downs caused by one party wanting to bail out on a whim, as often happens.  Many people out there treat house buying as a game; it isn’t.

There have been many attempts (and that is all they were) to shorten the time it takes from offer made to exchange and moving in. Many excuses for the drawn out process are made but all are spurious. During the late eighties property boom houses in London were sold and completed by specialist solicitors in less than 48 hours. Yes you had to pay for a lot of running about getting documentation, but it was proved to be possible, so why the long-winded performance we put up with. Is it another example of being seen to be earning the fee by the time spent on the job?

Gazumping and gazundering should not be allowed, - how many times have we heard that? Yet the position remains that until the exchange actually takes place both practices can be employed, usually at the last moment when someone who is desperate to get the whole thing over and done with will capitulate and accept the lower price or be told they will have to stump up more than agreed as another party has emerged (or not) from the woodwork.

The "other offer" ploy is also used by agents when selling. It can be true but how can you know? I had it used a week ago on a property I was viewing: “We have had a lot of interest and two offers on this property, Sir.” So why have you still got it on the market, I asked, are two offers not enough? Silence; the owner who was present told me later there had been interest but no offers. At times like that you can really build up an intense dislike of the estate agent class.

And there lies another problem. Over many years listening and being involved with what is basically a seriously flawed and corrupt system one does become cynical with a big “C”; estate agents' words and blurb, solicitors “solutions”, all are received with an incredulity as to their worth.

So how is the current move going, you ask. Not good at the moment and we have run out of houses to view. There is a shortage of what we want on the market so our sale is in jeopardy. Not for the first time we may have to start over.

Of course many will ask, why do you keep moving. That is another story. Many moves have been simply because of changing circumstances,not necessarily choice. The only thing that helps with all this is I do not get attached to the property I am in; only once did I feel a pang of remorse when leaving a house. As long as the place suits it will be my home whilst I am there, I do not put down roots; just as well!

I have told before about the image at the top of this piece. It appeared in an estate agent's listing by mistake (?)  The photographer took the picture after the house was put up for sale; it was not intended for the house details, but for a short time it found its way onto the site. Yet I had been told about this pig in the house long before that sale came about, as my plumber had been called to the property/sty to do some work there and saw said pig in situ. The world is a wonderful place...

Friday, October 20, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Slovenia's Got Talent, by JD

This week we present the Gimnazija Kranj Great Symphony Orchestra! There is very little information about them on the web apart from lots and lots of videos. The only thing I can say for certain is that they are a Youth Orchestra in Slovenia and they are very good as you can see from the enthusiastic reception given to them by their audiences.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Basque Country, A Timely Visit, by Wiggia

Our trip abroad finally took place this year after several canceled efforts due to ill-timed health problems over the last 24 months. Not that all went well on that front, as the wife managed to twist her knee prior to going and it restricted any walking to slow ambles or none at all; on return, a visit to the local surgery showed this to be not a ligament problem as thought but osteoarthritis which has already struck the recipient in several areas, so this is almost certainly the last of my European tours that we have so enjoyed over time.

Northern Spain was a choice for two reasons: firstly, the last time we went there was exactly fifty years ago, the year before we married; and secondly it afforded to avoid the long tiring drive down through France by using the Portsmouth to Santander ferry, a much more relaxed way of travelling and no need for a day to recover after the drive, plus it takes 24 hrs as against two days by road unless you are young and simply don’t stop as I did the first time we ventured south.

Our first stop was Oviedo where having arrived in the dark our satnav decided to die as we approached the city, drawing us into the centre rather than skirting round it to where our hotel was. Needless to say it was festival week and the place was teeming with people on the streets and traffic barely moving. I persevered, with much swearing at the dead guide, until we cleared the worst of the crowds, stopped in a quiet spot and took great delight in being able to foil the damned satnav by producing my old one from under the seat - nobody likes a clever dick but I was right to be smug as it fired up and got us to our destination.

The dead satnav of course was not dead but for a strange reason the micro card would not sit in its slot and kept coming springing out causing a blank screen, solved with a piece of electrical tape also from under the seat; I will have to have a proper look under there to see what other goodies lie waiting to rescue me.

Nice city. Oviedo, and they know how to put on a festival. It seemed every street in the centre had an attraction going at various times of the day and night and whilst in the covered market area a strange but familiar sound came closer: bag pipes, a marching band proving that the Celts have infiltrated this far south to inflict this strange sound on the populace.

The festival is something that we at home are not generally very good at, with exceptions of course, but there is a vast difference between this week-long indulgence in arts, fairs, street theatre and of course eating and drinking and the local efforts I have been witness to that comprise of three lorries with a motley local WI float, a reluctant 12-year-old Carnival Queen and the inevitable Morris Men who for reasons unknown have gone from being a rarity (better days) to what is now a guaranteed place in all carnivals, such is the desire of grown men ? to wave hankies in the air; but I digress.
I am not going to give a running Trip Advisor report on hotels stayed at but I will say all were top class and the staff to the last in all did their best for us; a long time since I could say that about a trip.

One thing became obvious very early on in this tour: the roads around Oviedo alone comprise of more infrastructure that works than in the whole of East Anglia - yes I know we paid for a lot of it through the EU but they have it and we don’t, something very wrong there.

Oviedo is a good base for the delights of northern Spain's wonderful scenery and coast, trips to the enchanting town of Aviles which at first sight looks like an industrial hell hole on the Ria de Aviles but don’t be deceived: the centre is a wonderful mix of styles in architecture and on the opposite bank is the site of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, largely responsible for Brasilia, an exponent of modernism; it might not be to everyone's taste - "Telly Tubby land" said the wife - but it is very eye-catching and much is stunning in a modernist way.

Visiting there made me realise just how much contemporary design is in evidence in this part of Spain. There are more shops in that style than in Italy, a country I know very well, and the same style can be seen in hotels, offices and in the design of many homes. In Oviedo the hospital that can be seen for miles resembles a huge multi-layer cake.

Gijon with its two beaches and the inevitable working fishing port is also worth a trip for the harbourside area alone and a bit further north the Penas lighthouse in the style of the area, part lighthouse as we know and part house, this one has a very good maritime museum beneath it.

The other outing from Oviedo was to the Picos de Europa, a stunning national park with Dolomite style mountains and beautiful lakes and valleys. This was one trip limited by the other half's problems as most parking is deliberately well away from the best views and sites though with a modicum of “off-roading” and cries of “You're not going down there!” I  manage to get to some lesser and much quieter spots that were worth the risk of never returning up the road we had come down awhile before.

We left Oviedo and our beautiful hotel converted from a castle and headed to the part of the trip reserved for me, though I could not use those words when explaining that  La Rioja was an essential visit on this trip not just for the wine. I lie a lot in these circumstances, in fact it is a classic wine-producing area surrounded by mountains that give it a backdrop to remember, not unlike many other wine-producing areas world-wide that have the benefits of altitude and the water and protection from the elements the mountains provide. 

Bodegas Ysios, LaGuardia (Rioja country)
Rioja also reflects the desire for modernism in its bodegas. There are many fabulous new buildings in the area plus the Frank Gehry-designed Marques de Riscal hotel; whatever you think of Gehry this building is quite a landmark, worth visiting but very expensive to stay in. I suppose the problem with Gehry is as he has said himself, “The first building was the best and it is all downhill now”; not totally true but there is a modicum of truth in those words.

The Marqués de Riscal Vineyard Hotel, designed by Frank Gehry
To dig out suitable bodegas to visit involved some pre-planning before we left home, but my select list were all bar one visited and the wines sampled and purchased when they came up to the mark.

Which brings me to the second hotel we used: totally different from our castle, this was a derelict merchant's house in the middle of a  nondescript village. Completely renovated a few years ago, it provided comfortable rooms, an amazingly good and cheap restaurant and the only bar in the place where the locals gathered. Very drinkable white wine was available for 90 cents in the bar and the same was 6 euros in the restaurant; you could buy the wine in the local bodega over the road for 2 + euros.

Haro, the wine capital of the region is a must as four of the best wineries in Spain are all grouped around the station area and all have tasting rooms. Muga was the best as it was really a bar and you could taste their finest for a modest fee in very nice surroundings. For those visiting these places you will be tempted to buy but restrain yourself as the Simply supermarket down the road has an enormous selection of Riojas on sale right to the top level and lower prices than the bodegas were selling, as much as a third or more cheaper in some cases, so you should taste in the wineries and buy in the supermarket.

Whilst visiting the neighboring Vina Tondonia one could not help notice an event going on in front of the winery: a large batch of young schoolchildren were making their own wine with the help of the owner, miniature grape presses and various jars bottles etc meaning that grape-stained little hands were much in evidence and a great time was being had by all; this is evidently an annual event at harvest time and was the owner's idea as he had been introduced to wine making the same way when young and has carried on the tradition. I can’t imagine the making of alcoholic drinks at that age would go down well with our PC brigade but it went down well here.

Children learning to make wine
There are some very pretty villages in the Rioja area. We only visited a few but Laguardia, Sajazarra, and Najera spring to mind as well worth visiting along with San Vicente de la Sonserra for its hill top location and views that go with that.

The only failed find with my wineries was Bodegas Muriel: whatever I did, nothing on map or sat nav found the actual winery until I saw an arched entrance with the name. Quickly I turned in but soon realised I had simply driven into the vineyard itself down an ever more bumpy earth track; more cries of “You're not going down there!” but more off-roading got me back on tarmac and I never did find the winery. All of that makes a change for the destination I usually end up in when lost: the industrial estate wins every time.

The colours at this time of year are stunning with the grape harvest in full flow; the leaves on the vines are changing to autumn colours - the genre Vitis is known for coloured leaf climbers but the grape vines are not far behind with ribbons of orange and yellow hues adorning the fields.
I could have spent another day or so in Rioja, it is a lot more than just a wine region with its own style of landscape that compliments the rest of this gorgeous region.

Soon it was time to head north to the coast. Getaria was our destination but finding the hotel produced a story of its own. Once again the vagaries of the satnav came into play: whatever version of the address I put into it the result was a dead end. Numerous requests from the natives produced much pointing and "back there" signals but still no hotel. I pulled up in the street we were on and got the map out - it didn’t help - and then espied an ambulance parked up opposite: he must know the area so I went over with the address.

I handed him the address and he looked long and hard and said nothing, eventually he said "Español?" hoping I could converse as he spoke no English; after I said no he gesticulated and I grasped he was going to take us there, so we arrived at the hotel - which was nowhere near where we had been looking - behind an ambulance, a first for me and something I doubt would be repeated in the UK.

Unlike the previous stops this  was a very modern hotel but very well laid out and comfortable with views over its own vineyards towards the coastal outcrop at Getaria and lighthouse and the lighthouse on top.

One can imagine with the huge Atlantic swell all those lighthouses earn their keep and now of course that swell is haven to surfers who are everywhere along this coast. 

You know you are in Basque country here: all the signs and names have unpronounceable names containing lots of Xs and Zs in combinations that baffle and the Basque flag is flown proudly.

Here on the coast you realise how important fish is to these people: all the small ports have boats of all sizes out all day and into the night, the restaurants  all have fish-dominated  menus and it is an insult (as it is all round this coast including Portugal) to ask for anything but fish, so we didn’t. God knows what we spent on turbot, sea bass, sea bream etc all priced by the kilo, but they were the best fish meals I have ever consumed so it was worth it; but it does not come cheap. Saturday night saw the locals indulging in the same fish: they are prepared to pay for the good stuff as in Japan, where fish is of a higher order in the scheme of things food-wise.

Getaria is home to a superb modern museum dedicated to the late fashion designer Balenciaga who was born here. It's not my thing in the normal run of events but I was very impressed with the layout and presentation of some beautiful clothes... have to be careful here I might just step over the the current gender boundaries and be seen in a dress !

Just up the coast San Sebastian beckoned. It seemed much bigger after fifty years and inevitably is but the handsome buildings in the center all shone and the festooned bridge at the river mouth was just as remembered. The place was teeming with people and had that look of affluence you see in big cities, and whilst the outskirts are like those in most other cities. the  central harbour-side part and promenade is still very good. San Sebastian is another foodie paradise but we stayed with the fishing village fair and did not eat there.

Round Getaria and along that piece of coast a white grape is having a resurgence and is drunk with fish by most of the locals. The grape is Txacoli; not seen in the UK, it is a dry wine with natural spritz and is poured using an aerator on top of the bottle, Whilst the “good with fish” meme may stand up, to me it was the nearest thing to lemonade I have ever encountered in a wine: no subtle hints of lemon here, great gobs of it, not unlike but more overpowering than NZ Sauvignon Blancs that have lost the plot and taste only of gooseberry. No, I did not bring any back, even for the novelty value, though the wife did not mind it; I stuck to the Alborino, which is constantly improving here. There are other rare white grape varieties and I tried a few but in honesty they offered nothing out of the ordinary; but I may not have had the best of them. Needless to say, the names of these grapes all started with the letter X !

I saw little TV on this trip but the Catalan referendum was wall to wall with constant shots of the protagonists and the various police forces being shown in good/bad light according to whose side you followed. What little I could gather from the locals - who managed to find three old ETA members who appeared on TV with masked faces and berets, plus one man with a flag - was that it was as much a protest against the government in general: Rajoy along with all the western leaders is seen as a weak self-serving politician (as they all are nowadays; no change there.)

In fact an interesting part of the trip was meeting various people from all over Europe, the States and Canada who all said the same thing: the general consensus was we are not being served well by any of them, as the status quo does not like being shoved even slightly to one side. The full Trump is evil and the farce of Obama care was spelled out in very plain language. None was a good omen for the west as the problems are mutual and are simply not being addressed.

And just one other thing before the last stage of the journey: Spanish TV is ruled by women. One news program I watched did not have single man in the studio or on location, not one. Even the totally over the top football coverage was not dissimilar; and the face of Zinadine Zidane staring out of the screen was almost 1984 in its omnipresence; and if you believe them, Harry Kane is already playing for Real !

Whilst still visualising Spanish women, they still do wear the sexiest shoes - crippling, but sexy.

And one  observation that was puzzling: there seem to be an inordinate number of old “S” type Jaguars in these parts. One we came across was actually out on hire. Were they a big seller in Spain? I have no idea.

As the trip drew to a close the weather turned foul. We were in a cloud with rain for the last two days and when we left Bilbao on the ferry back the harbour could not be seen as the cloud base was so low. As for Bilbao itself we had no time to do it justice, just one venture into the centre and sample a couple of those wonderful tapas bars - some are really amazing - and back to the hotel for an early start to get the ferry.

A final anecdote: on the multi-laned highway to the port there were five visible accidents involving multiple vehicles in the space of less than a mile; this was on both sides. The irony was that huge signs saying "Drive carefully, this is an accident black spot" were evident everywhere; their driving is still appalling.

As JD is more than aware, having spent time in the country, this part of Spain is a foodie's paradise.  I have never eaten so well across the board, not in France, Italy, anywhere. I would love to return but another fifty years hence? I doubt it !

Friday, October 13, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Iris DeMent, by JD

Iris DeMent is another excellent singer/songwriter who is not as well known as she deserves to be. She has a very distinctive voice which may not be to everyone's liking but there is no denying her wonderful talent and she is highly regarded among other musicians.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Terry Downes, by Wiggia

It unfailingly jogs the memory when someone you had forgotten about or presumed dead ! is actually pronounced dead and their obituary appears.

So it was with Terry Downes, a larger than life character who became world middleweight champion when that title meant something, there was only one version and when you won it you were king.

His all action style learnt whilst a marine in the States made him an instant success when he returned home and he filled the newspapers at the time with his success and his personality. Although tagged a cockney he was living in Paddington, west London in those early days and never actually ventured within the sound of Bow Bells, but his accent said otherwise and it was a trade mark of his to use rhyming slang. His career was blighted by a propensity to cut easily and in those days they did not stop fights as today and he ended in some looking as though he was in a slaughter house, his “perishing hooter” being the main culprit.

He was one of the few people who beat Sugar Ray Robinson; Robinson was past his best and Downes said at the time “I only beat his ghost.”

Until his death he was the oldest remaining world champion, and unlike many of his ilk he was shrewd with his money, owning a chain of betting shops that he later sold to William Hill.

In those heady early days after his retirement from the ring he appeared in many films in cameo roles being instantly recognised, such were his characteristics.

Why am I writing about him? Not my sport but at the time he was a huge star in sport and as a nation we were hungry for sports idols and he filled that bill plus in the early sixties.

Behind the scenes he did an awful lot of charity work for which he received the BEM.

And later in the eighties I met him by chance. I was working unknown to me two doors away from his home in Mill Hill north London, a large pile and grounds with a putting green. One day we were out front when he arrived in his Rolls Royce that did not have standard paintwork. A couple of my boys stared at this car and when Terry got out he said “Like the paint?” and a short conversation took place. He was what he was, no side, a bit flash but didn’t care. 

He sold the house later for a large sum for redevelopment on the large plot and that until the announcement of his passing was the last I heard of him, a one off from a different and ever more distant age.

As the picture above shows he was more Rocky in real life than the film could ever be; the last paragraph from his autobiography sums him up pretty well……. 

“I’ve lived the life I wanted, been blessed with a good family, done all the things I ever dreamed of, from birds to booze. I haven’t got a lot of money but I haven’t got to go out and get any. I’m too old to alter. Accept me as I am.”

Monday, October 09, 2017

Catalonia: Cui Bono? by JD

As I have said, there is no point in trying to write anything sensible on this issue as the propaganda war has been won by the separatists. Puigdemont is a journalist so he is well versed in the art of manipulating public opinion. Since last week's 'referendum' the promised Declaration of Independence has not yet been announced. They were thinking about it; then there would be an address to Parliament on Monday; the Constitutional Court cancelled Monday's session; then it was announced the Puigdemont would address Parliament on Tuesday afternoon; latest news is that they have decided to think about it some more. The word farce has been used a number of times over the past week and the longer it takes to make a decision the more it will look like a tragic pantomime!

So while we are waiting for something, anything, to happen here is a synopsis of future events -

Mister Puigdemont in this video explains in detail why he has no alternative but to declare war on the 'oppressors' in Madrid-

On 1st September Puigdemont and other 'separatists' in the Catalan parliament approved la Ley de Transitoriedad which would allow for a declaration of independence from Spain. The law was subsequently disallowed by the Constitutional Tribunal because it did not receive the required number of votes in favour as well as being against not only the Spanish Constitution but also against the Constitution of the autonomous region of Catalonia.

(The law to allow last Sunday's referendum was also illegal in that it received only 72 votes in the Catalan parliament against the required 90 votes.)

Puigdemont intends to declare independence using this particular Ley de Transitoriedad which will allow him to become 'supreme ruler' of catalonia.

Why does this remind me of Arthur Scargill?

"How far he would go in his solitary hall of mirrors to ensure a constitution which placed him at the centre of all things many have reflected on."

It also reminds me of something else-

"Fools dwelling in darkness, wise in their own conceit, and puffed up with vain knowledge, go round and round staggering to and fro like blind men led by the blind."
- Mundaka Upanishad.

'Knowledge' in this context refers to 'lower' knowledge defined by Paramahansa Yogananda as - "The lower knowledge is the knowledge of the phenomenal world. In reality it is ignorance, for it does not lead to the Highest Good."

I can hear Emperor Carles now, standing on a balcony somewhere in Barcelona shouting "Long live Freedonia!"


Well, who knows? It might happen!

Above I wrote that the Separatists have won the propaganda war and a week on the TV and newspapers are still echoing that propaganda, especially on the subject of the Police's heavy-handed, brutal tactics. No dissenting voice has questioned the images presented to us.

Over recent years 'conspiracy theorists' have seized on events in the news and scrutinised every image and film clip in forensic detail to produse their own version of what happened, always finding an alternative. It even happened last week with the gunman in Las Vegas. But nobody has questioned the images from Barcelona last Sunday. I wonder why?

Allow me to shed a little light.

Start with the woman who had her fingers broken one by one. This was widely reported but no details of who she was or which hospital treated her injuries. Well, her name is Marta Torrecillas. She appears in TV images being dragged down a shallow flight of stairs and shortly afterward she reappears on TV waving a heavily bandaged hand and shouting at the cameras. Unfortunately for her the TV networks and newspapers have had great fun over this past week examining the videos and photos and finding very large holes in her story. Eventually she was obliged to admit that it was all lies.

The MSM and bloggers have ignored the truth of this story. The only thing I can find in English is this from the Metro-

There were a lot of photos shared on Twitter showing alleged Police brutality. The most familiar and cited by bloggers and journalists was one of a confrontation between Police and Firefighters. The photo was first published in 2013 and was taken at an anti-austerity rally. All of the other photos, as far as I have been able to ascertain, were taken at other demonstrations going back to 2011.

In the matter of hundreds of injuries suffered at the hands of Police and Guardia Civil, I have been reading and reading and as far as I can see only two people needed hospital treatment and one of those was for a heart attack. Where were the 'hundreds' treated and who recorded the numbers?

It would seem that journalists and bloggers and the twits on Twitter are not reporting things they believe to be true but things they want to believe are true!

It seems time to rephrase that old saying, "There are lies, damned lies and there is Twitter!"

A brief word on the 'politics' of it all. Jose-Maria Aznar said this week that Mariano Rajoy was incapable of making decisions. Felipe Gonzalez said that he would have annulled the Catalan Regional Parliament and transferred all powers to the central government (under article 155 of the Constitution) and he would have done that last Sunday. Alfonso Guerra, who was deputy prime minister under Gonzalez, was more forthright. He said last Sunday was an attempted coup d'etat by the Catalans.

I could go on but the saga is not yet complete so this editorial in El Mundo is a good account of the story so far.

La ola que devora Cataluña ( the wave that is devouring Cataluña):

UPDATE (23:41 8 October) - JD adds:

Don't know if you saw the Catalan parliament session. Within about five minutes of Puigdemont starting to speak I knew he was the one who had blinked first. And so it proved, he rambled on for ages about conciliation and peace and tranquility and this week's most overused word - dialogue! At the end he declared independence and then suspended it for a few weeks to allow for this famous 'dialogue' And then they all made a big show of signing the piece of paper telling the world they were a new 'nation' Ha!

A few brief and hasty obsevations:

Inés Arrimadas, leader of Ciudadanos, and the main opposition leader spoke immediately after Puigdemont."la crónica de un golpe anunciado. Nadie ha reconocido el resultado del referéndum. Nadie en Europa reconoce los resultados. Esto no iba de urnas, va de fronteras. Ustedes son de lo peor del nacionalismo. Son la antítesis del proyecto europeo". "the anouncement of a coup d'etat. No one has recognized the result of the referendum.No one in Europe recognizes the results.This was not a ballot. You are the worst of nationalism. You are the antithesis of the European project." Those are pretty strong words.

Miquel Iceta of the PSC (socialist party of catalunya) said tonight 'the problem is not Europe nor is it Spain, the problem is us, catalans'

The CUP who are the most extreme left party within the coalition called it a betrayal to declare independence and then suspend it for a few weeks. I noticed that the members of the CUP didn't join in the standing ovation at the end of Puigdemont's speech. They are the largest party within the coalition; I think they are, but they are the ones whose support Puigdemont relies on.

This looks as though the members of the ruling coalition will start fighting among themselves and Puigdemont could be replaced. He was not their choice, he was appointed by his predecessor Artur Mas after Mas was barred from holding public office for two years after organising an illegal referendum in 2914. He is currently under investigation for fraud.

Catalan politics is very confusing and trying to understand the shifting alliances is like trying to unravel a plate of spaghetti.
If I were Rajoy or his advisors, I would sit back and do nothing and watch the unfolding farce. It might end up with regional elections in Catalonia. As you are probably aware a lot of large companies are moving their head offices away from the region to Madrid or Valencia or Alicante or Mallorca. The big one is SEAT who are considering moving their assembly plant out of the region and Nissan would certainly do the same. An independent Catalonia would be out of the EU and those two car makers would then be liable for trade tariffs if they remained.

I read somewhere earlier today that Catalans are historically forever picking fights with people and always losing them. Can't find the link now because stories are appearing and disappearing rapidly with the changing events. But it reminded me of what Ortega y Gassett wrote - the catalans are not capable of governing their own affairs and did not have the necessary strength of character to create a unified nation as Aragon and Castilla had done.

It will probably all change again tomorrow :)

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Exhibition Road was an accident waiting to happen

We were there yesterday morning, before the minicab hit eleven people outside the Natural History Museum, and remarked even then how unsafe Exhibition Road felt.

We were visiting the V&A but came before opening time, so strolled up the road past the NHM - already there was a long queue of families waiting to get in there; it was much longer when we came out of the V&A after noon.

For most of its length, Exhibition Road has no curb (so much for "car mounted pavement" in the Guardian and Daily Star) or traffic lanes.

What look like "pavement" demarcation lines in the above photo from the excited coverage in the Daily Mail five or six years ago are actually drainage, and now from ground level they are almost invisible, as seen in the more recent picture below:

Image cropped from Google Maps Street View

The criss-cross pattern in the block paving seems expressly intended to confuse boundaries - and it was! The "continuous shared space" - an idea adopted from Holland - was to make "motorists take more personal responsibility for their own actions and drive more attentively", i.e. make accidents easier to happen. The same logic would have local Councils mist-spraying pavements in icy weather so that people would walk more carefully.

Whichever authorities govern the road, they have resiled somewhat from the bash-nanny approach and now there is the odd metal post and concrete flower box to give us hedgehoggy pedestrians some assurance that we're not standing in the middle of what old Brummies used to call "the 'orse road". But yesterday it wasn't enough.

There may well have been other factors in that collision; this was another one.

Friday, October 06, 2017

FRIDAY MUSIC: Saat Masaale* by JD

*Seven spices (Hindi).

Here is a miscellaneous potpourri of music which defies categorisation but it is all good!