My weekly blog, ‘Letter from Spain’, now appears on Substack, where you can sign up for free to receive it every Sunday. Click here for a link.
My blogs will no longer appear on this site, so please join me on Substack via the box below!
My weekly blog, ‘Letter from Spain’, now appears on Substack, where you can sign up for free to receive it every Sunday. Click here for a link.
My blogs will no longer appear on this site, so please join me on Substack via the box below!
A murder. A kidnapping. A lost Salvador Dalí painting. Just 36 hours to resolve all three.
I’m delighted to announce the publication of my new book, ‘The Barcelona Connection’, a fast-paced crime-thriller sprinkled with black comedy. Planned as the first in a series of books about an art detective, the book is also in development as a TV series.
Below are some details about the plot of the new book. You can also click on this Books2Read link to find the best way to purchase your copy, either in print or as an eBook.
From now on, I will also be publishing a new weekly blog, ‘Letter from Spain’ (every Sunday) and newsletter on Substack, where I will mix observations about the news and living in Spain, notes on ‘The Barcelona Connection’ while writing the sequel, plus a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look into developing it for the screen. My blog will no longer appear on this website, so please follow me on Substack!
The Barcelona Connection
Benjamin Blake is no ordinary detective …
Specialising in the criminal underworld of stolen and forged art, things don’t always go the right way for Benjamin. But when they don’t, he has a stubborn determination to put them right.
Within hours of being sent to Barcelona to authenticate a possible Salvador Dalí painting, Benjamin is left stranded without his cell phone at a service station alongside a bloody corpse in the early hours of the morning, after being savagely attacked with his hire car stolen, together with the painting.
Helped and hindered by the fiery Elena Carmona, pursued by a psychopathic hitman, Benjamin becomes the prime suspect in a politically motivated kidnap and murder. All this on the eve of Barcelona hosting a G20 summit and UN climate change conference, with the police in hot pursuit fearing a wider terrorist threat.
From Nîmes in the South of France, across the border to the sweltering humidity of Girona, Barcelona, Figueres and Cadaqués, The Barcelona Connection is a fast-paced, gripping page-turner sprinkled with black comedy, blending the real with the surreal, art crime and mistaken identity … and where the clues at the crime scene might just be the mirror image of a long-lost work of art …
There I was in a frutería in a town in Catalonia, waiting behind others queuing at the till to pay for a few things. When it was finally my turn, a lady who’d been standing too close for comfort behind me, suddenly manouevred herself in front. I said something polite about there being a queue and that I was next in line. If she’d apologised and said she was in a hurry, I would have probably said no hay problema, go ahead. But she didn’t. Instead, she said: ‘Yes, but I’ve got coins in my hand, ready to pay.’ I told her that I also had coins in my hand, and I showed her. Before we could get into an argument about how many coins we both had in our hands, her husband – who’d also been hovering and looked embarrassed – beckoned her to step back and take her place in the queue. I couldn’t stop myself from saying: ‘No, you go ahead … but it’s typical.’ She didn’t like the típico comment and refused to go ahead of me. In the end, someone else was served ahead of us both.
With coins in her hand, I’m sure this lady would have managed to get a jab of the Covid-19 vaccine by now, definitely before you or me. If your friend’s uncle’s second cousin’s brother is aged over 80 and lives in a care home, and if you once cycled past that care home when it was being built, about 10 years ago, then you could probably use that in Spain as an excuse to jump the queue and get a Covid-19 vaccination ahead of everyone else. Especially if you have coins in your hand.
I know that vaccine queue jumpers aren’t just in Spain. In the UK, the Home Secretary Priti Patel called queue jumpers ‘morally reprehensible’ last week, after an IT loophole had enabled some people in East London who were not on any priority list to secure jabs. Local government officials in Austria have also been accused of jumping the queue, after the 65-year-old mayor of the town of Feldkirch received a first jab at a care home, even though he wasn’t a priority. Wolfgang Matt said he had merely waited in line in case there was a ‘leftover dose’ once everyone else had been injected. ‘I wouldn’t throw out stale bread either but use it to make toast,’ he told the Austrian public broadcaster.
Cricket Australia recently requested to have its Test stars vaccinated before the tour of South Africa as part of the first rollout of the vaccine in Australia. That was until the chairman of the Australian Cricketers’ Association expressed his personal view that it would be ‘morally indefensible’ for sportsmen to be given priority access ahead of higher risk groups.
In Spain, top government and other officials haven’t been granted preferential access to the vaccine – unlike in some other countries where they’ve been among the first to get the jab, to encourage members of the public to follow suit. So the queue jumping and ‘pushing in’ was always going to happen in Spain, wasn’t it? I mean, if Joe Biden (78), Arnold Schwarzenegger (73), Sir David Attenborough (94), Sir Ian McKellen (81), The Queen (94) and Prince Philip (99) have all had a jab, then the 40-year-old mayor of a village in Valencia should also be first in line, no? Er, no.
Regardless of what other countries are doing, in Spain the population has been divided up into 15 different groups in order of priority to receive the vaccine, with the first doses administered to those in residential care homes and their health workers. Next in line are 80-year-olds (not resident in care homes), people with serious disabilities, and all other health workers. Then, I believe, it will be the over 70 age group.
In Spain, however, we’ve had politicians, local mayors, military officials (and ‘allegedly’ even some of their family members), as well as other well-connected opportunists, all using their ‘elitist authority’ to jump the queue. Some have used the Austrian ‘leftover dose’ argument and others have simply claimed that they should have been on the priority lists in the first place … a sort of ‘do you know who I am?’ argument. It has so far resulted in the resignation of the Murcia region’s health chief, as well as Spain’s Chief of Defence Staff, a top general for ‘allegedly’ jumping the queue. Other resignations are sure to follow.
Okay, there’s an argument to be had about what to do with ‘leftover doses’, but ranging from ‘morally reprehensible’ to ‘morally indefensible’, vaccine queue jumping is just wrong. And even more so when delivery delays have forced some regions in Spain to stop new inoculations and ensure people can receive their second jabs on time.
Anyone who lives in Spain (especially a guiri) has lost their place in a queue at some point to someone else (invariably a native). This is often because there isn’t even a queue. The last person to arrive simply asks who was the last person before them – often confusing for many guiris. On a final note, there’s something about queues in Spain that has always irritated or fascinated me. The pushing in with the coins-in-the-hand obviously irritates. But what fascinates me is how many locals will talk for hours at the counter to the butcher or fishmonger, totally oblivious to you standing in the queue behind them. Once they’re at the front of a queue, no-one and nothing else matters at all.
This article is also published on Spain in English
During our first real lockdown here in Spain, back in March-April last year, a woman went out for a walk with just a dog lead. Somehow, she’d got hold of the lead, or maybe it was just a belt, and decided that it would be enough to justify being out and about. When she saw the police approaching, she started calling out for her dog, as it had ‘suddenly and miraculously escaped’. But what was more miraculous was that the dog was invisible. It hadn’t escaped. It was non-existent. The police fined her €300.
During late March and throughout April, other people took goats, Vietnamese pigs and even stuffed teddy bears out for walks. They were all fined. Here in Catalonia, the Mossos d’Esquadra police even posted a message on social media with a photo of a man walking a goat, insisting: ‘No canaries, nor Vietnamese pigs, nor goats like this one we saw today in Palafrugell are an excuse to go onto the street and break the confinement.’ It was serious stuff. What I mean is that there are lockdowns and lockdowns – and what we had here in Spain during March-April was a no-nonsense lockdown. The no-nonsense lockdown not only meant you couldn’t take an invisible dog for a walk, it meant you could only leave home to buy food, medicine, care for an elderly or vulnerable person, do essential work, or to walk a living, breathing, wagging-tail dog – but even that was supposed to be within 100 metres of home. It was a real lockdown.
The no-nonsense lockdown in Spain lasted 43 days for kids, and 48 days for adults. From 14 March until the first week of May, we were literally banned from leaving our homes. When we were finally allowed to go out, we had specific time-slots during the day when we could walk, jog or cycle, depending on our age and whether we needed to be accompanied or not, and there were still restrictions on how far we could wander from our homes. From what I understand, Spain had one of the strictest lockdowns compared to any other country in the world.
I mention all this because on 4 January, Boris Johnson announced new ‘lockdown’ measures in the UK, under the title ‘National lockdown: Stay at Home’. The ‘national’ bit really meant just ‘England’, because Scotland, Wales and N.Ireland had already put their own plans in place. The ‘lockdown’ bit wasn’t (and isn’t) a real lockdown, at least not compared to what we had here in Spain.
In the current ‘lockdown’ in England, according to the UK government, you don’t even need a real dog to be out and about. You may leave home ‘to exercise in a public outdoor place by yourself, with the people you live with, with your support bubble (if you are legally permitted to form one), in a childcare bubble if providing childcare, or even on your own or with another person from another household’. It goes on … ‘you can run, cycle, walk, swim … personal training can continue if participants are from the same household … it can also continue if it is one-on-one, although this should only take place in a public outdoor place, such as parks, beaches, countryside accessible to the public, forests, public and botanical gardens, the grounds of a heritage site or public playgrounds … ’
Admittedly all this freedom to exercise in the UK ‘should’ be limited to once per day and you ‘should not travel outside your local area’ – but if that means Boris himself could cycle in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford last Sunday, seven miles from his Downing Street home, then it’s really a free-for-all for everyone. It also meant that two women who’d driven five miles from their home to meet for a walk at a reservoir had their £200 fines rescinded by the Derbyshire police. And it’s because it’s not a real lockdown. Just ask the Spanish police.
In Spain, we also don’t currently have a real lockdown – not like in March-April 2020. We all know what happened since then. The lockdown restrictions were relaxed during an 8-week, 4-phase plan in May and June, mainly in order to open the country again for the summer tourist season. It was too early, and it also failed to save the tourist season anyway. Cases of Covid-19 rocketed again in late summer, restrictions had to be imposed during Sept-Oct, until a new yet ‘lighter’ State of Alarm was imposed on 25 October – officially in place until May. The relaxing of restrictions in order to allow Christmas and New Year family gatherings means that Spain now has its worst Covid-19 figures since the start of the pandemic. True, we now have the vaccinations being administered … but fast enough?
The current State of Alarm in Spain is half-hearted. It doesn’t allow for ‘home confinement’, not like the real, no-nonsense lockdown of last spring – and despite several regions of Spain now clamouring for it. This isn’t going to be popular, but I think Spain needs another new, real lockdown. You might argue that the first, real lockdown didn’t work. I believe it did, but it was eased far too early, and at the time the vaccine was still a dream. Spain needs to be able to enforce home confinement again, at least in the regions with the worst statistics, and at least for around 30 days whilst as many vaccinations can be administered as possible, non-stop, 24/7. That’s my opinion, anyway. What’s yours?
This article is also published on Spain in English
Just when you’re thinking ‘thank God that 2020 is all over’, along comes day six of 2021 in the shape of a bare-chested, face-painted freak wearing horns and what look like two dead raccoons on his head, prancing around inside the US Congress with hundreds, if not thousands of other white supremacists wearing red ‘MAGA’ Trump hats. Did you ever imagine all this could happen whilst you’re confined to your own home during a deadly pandemic, or behaving yourself in a face mask and standing two metres from everyone else? Admittedly it was the Three Kings day here in Spain when lots of magical, mystical things happen – but you couldn’t have even dreamt up this script, not even with Borat and Joe Exotic in the leading roles and a whole bunch of redneck extras from Ozark. The USA spends $732 billion a year on defence, but the Capitol Hill building – the centre of the US government – fell in just under two hours to these racist thugs.
The weirdo with the fantasy horns, duck dungarees and Coyote-style fur hat (not Jamiroquai’s Jay Kay) is allegedly a 33-year-old ‘failed actor who lives with his mum’ in Phoenix, Arizona, and who roams around shopping malls shouting out conspiracy theories about ‘FBI paedophile codes’. His name is Jacob Anthony Chansley, also known as Jake Angeli, also known as ‘the QAnon Shaman’, and he is now in custody on charges including violent entry and disorderly conduct.
Some media claim that the Viking imagery of his outfit, combined with the Valknut, Yggdrasil and Mjolnir (or Thor’s Hammer) tattoos, are Nordic pagan symbols frequently used by far-right racists and neo-Nazis. At the heart of ‘QAnon’ itself, is a theory that says that Donald Trump is secretly waging a war against elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles in government and the media. QAnon believers think ‘this fight’ will one day lead to a day of reckoning where prominent people such as former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will be arrested and executed. Had enough yet? No, wait, let me also tell you about Richard ‘Bigo’ Barnett, aged 60, from Gravette, Arkansas …
Bigo is the one who entered the office of Nancy Pelosi, aged 80, and the 52nd Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Bigo left Nancy a ‘nasty note’, calling her a ‘bitch’, and then he said that he ‘put my feet up on her desk and scratched my balls.’ Bigo has since been taken into custody in his home state on federal charges of entering and remaining on restricted grounds, violent entry and theft of public property.
OK, enough. I could go on and on. The more I dwell on it, the more outraged I feel. Five people died during the mob storming the US Capitol. A gallows was erected on the grounds. Explosives and pipe bombs were found. They shouted: ‘Hang Mike Pence!’ Several in the mob carried Confederate flags (a symbol of racism dating back to some states supporting the continuation of slavery during the American Civil War), and wore Nazi emblems or T-shirts with references to Auschwitz.
Yet before his account was finally suspended on Facebook and Twitter, Donald Trump called this mob ‘great patriots’ and ‘we love you’. His daughter Ivanka called them ‘American patriots’, then later deleted her tweet. Donald tweeted a video telling the rioters that he loved them, that they’re special, but that they should now go home, again repeating false claims that the US election was stolen. Later, he tweeted yet again: ‘These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home with love & in peace. Remember this day forever!’
Joe Biden rightly called them ‘domestic terrorists’. ‘They weren’t protestors,’ he said. ‘Don’t dare call them protestors. They were a riotous mob. Insurrectionists. Domestic terrorists. It’s that basic. It’s that simple.’
82 people (only) have so far been arrested. One of the things that struck me about all the images this week is how relaxed and stress-free the mob actually appeared, all strolling around the US Senate House as if they were special guests at a white supremacist gala. It sickened me. Saul Loeb, one of the photographers in the Capitol building on Wednesday, told The Guardian that, ‘Usually the police act very quickly, tackle individuals to the ground, cuff them and take them out – but that’s not what was happening.’
Why? That’s what I’d like to know. We all know they would have been shot if they’d been Black Lives Matter protestors. And isn’t it a bit late now issuing ‘wanted posters’ for them all? The US National Guard should have simpy locked the doors of the Capitol building, locked them all inside, and arrested every single one of them.
Oh, yes, sorry … this week in Spain we’ve had the Three Kings, more restrictions, over 2 million cases of Covid-19 now confirmed since the start of the pandemic, Storm Filomena and one helluva lot of snow. I hope that events in the USA might calm down enough for me to be able to focus this weekly blog more on Spain again next week.
This article has also been published on Spain in English
We’re now in day three of the UK having regained its sovereignty. Other than confusion and chaos, or spending more time in airports or on the M20 in Kent, I can’t really see any difference. I imagine, however, that there are many Farage-worshipping, sovereignty-besotted Brexiteers who are feeling very, er, sovereign-like. I admit that I’m watching from afar, through rose-tinted Specsavers here in Spain, but even from this safe distance it still looks idiotic (and racist). As I was in doubt as to what ‘sovereignty’ really means, I looked it up in the dictionary. It means ‘supreme power or authority’, or ‘the authority of a state to govern itself or another state’ – and ironically, its origin is ‘late Middle English’ from ‘Old French sovereinete’. Middle English or Middle England? Little Britain, Little Brexit … don’t get me started. I can only imagine the Farage-worshippers foaming at the mouth about their ‘sovereignty’ originating from an old (whisper it) French word.
Some people have been asking me over the past week if Brexit ‘affects’ me. Well, it certainly affected my New Year’s Eve. At midnight precisely (11pm in the UK), I received four emails from the UK government whilst I was in Moià, Catalonia, still trying to stuff the traditional 12 grapes down my throat to the chimes of Spain’s Big Ben, and which isn’t easy at the best of times, especially with grape seeds. I could have choked. The first email alert from the UK’s foreign office warned me about ‘changes made’ regarding healthcare arrangements for people moving to Spain ‘under the new rules of the UK’s deal with the EU’. The second told me about ‘changes made’ with ‘driving, pet travel and moving to Spain’. The third email was a warning for all UK nationals living in the EU. And the fourth said that ‘UK Nationals who plan to live in Spain for more than three months must register as a resident and on the padrón at their town hall’. A bit late, no? I mean, they’d been telling us all year that we had to do all this before 31 December.
Yet this very weekend, despite the British Embassy in Spain and the Spanish government telling us for over six months that our old ‘green’ residency NIE certificates are still valid after the end of the Brexit ‘transition period’ – it seems that the only people who really have the power to decide who can ‘return home’ to Spain or not are the ground staff at Heathrow airport. Nine people were barred from boarding flights to Madrid from Heathrow yesterday, despite having the correct residence documents for Spain. Another group, again with the right documents, were ‘deported’ back to the UK immediately after landing at Barcelona El Prat airport. So something’s not working.
Putting aside (for now) whatever might happen with Scotland and Northern Ireland, the communications regarding Gibraltar are also far from clear – despite the last-minute ‘principle of agreement’ on New Year’s Eve and some mutual backslapping between Spain’s Foreign Minister, Arancha González Laya, and her UK counterpart, Dominic Raab. Firstly, of course, both also claimed ‘sovereignty’. ‘We remain steadfast in our support for Gibraltar, and its sovereignty is safeguarded,’ said Raab. Laya said that the new agreement would be adopted ‘without prejudice to the inalienable claims of both sides in terms of the sovereignty [of Gibraltar], which have been safeguarded.’
To avoid a hard border, Laya then explained, the ‘Schengen Zone’ agreement will be applied to Gibraltar ‘with Spain as responsible’, as good as adding that it would be Spain who would be policing who can enter Gibraltar. ‘In order to enter a Gibraltar integrated into the Schengen area, the responsibility for border control is in Spanish hands,’ she said. ‘That is why the final decision on who enters the Schengen area is Spanish, of course.’ Oh, yeah, of course.
But then along comes the cavalry to the rescue in the shape of Fabian Picardo, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, who says, ‘Only Gibraltar will decide who enters Gibraltar and Spanish officers will not exercise any controls in Gibraltar at the Airport or Port now, or in four years time.’ He said, ‘This is our land. Couldn’t be clearer.’ Couldn’t be clearer? Perhaps we should ask the ground staff at Heathrow airport … they’ll know.
As this weekly blog, or opinion piece (or whatever you want to call it) is aimed at also being a reflection on the week – well, we’ve also had the start of Covid-19 vaccinations being administered here in Spain this week, firstly to elderly residents at care homes. So we’ve been inundated with photos of 90+ year olds, bless them, all being wheeled out for the cameras as they receive the jab, yet often with a local, slimy politician in a face mask hovering nearby for a photo op. The new strain of Coronavirus from the UK has also arrived in Spain (no problem with its residency papers). The health ministry has announced they will keep a register of people who refuse the Covid-19 vaccine – and the health minister himself, Salvador Illa, has announced that he is running to become the president of Catalonia in next month’s elections. James Rhodes, a pianist, was suddenly granted Spanish citizenship, whilst others have been waiting over 10 or 20 years. Oh, and the Catalan police (the Mossos d’Esquadra) finally broke up a New Year’s Eve rave attended by over 300 people in Llinars del Vallès, some 40 hours after it started.
Raves and raving Brexiteers seem to be the theme of the week. ‘Sovereignty’ is clearly going to be one of the key words for 2021, despite it being old and French. Last year we had ‘zooming’, ‘herd immunity’, ‘quarantini’, ‘isolation bubbles’, ‘social distancing’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘asymptomatic’. Who knows what next week will bring?
This article has also been published on ‘Spain in English’
This isn’t really a proper blog this week, it is a rant:
I’ve just watched the televised announcement from Boris Johnson twice and still don’t understand it. I think he’s lost the plot. I can’t see how you can have a plan to ease restrictions when the restrictions weren’t put in place early enough or strictly enforced in the first place. His whole ‘plan’ from the outset has been totally half-hearted, at best. I know that many people don’t like me comparing Spain’s handling of this crisis to the UK’s – but it is black and white. This isn’t a ‘political’ criticism of Boris. It’s a question of common sense. Spain had a lockdown. A real lockdown. You could have been fined a minimum of €600 just for going out for a walk for the wrong reasons – during a period of over 43 days for kids, and 48 days for adults. Spain is actually currently STILL in lockdown until 24 May but it is being ‘phased’ out of it in four phases over the next 8 weeks. It all depends on the region and province – and on the progress of all the same criteria that Boris says the UK has to monitor, including the ‘R’ rate. [Please read how the ‘phases’ are structured in the report below, to really understand it]. But you know what? Most importantly, Spain is now able to try and ‘phase itself’ out of the lockdown because it HAD a proper lockdown in the first place. In the UK, it has been a farce. I’m not saying Spain is out of the woods yet, but I really fear for the UK. Just ‘staying alert’ is not going to work. Telling people to go back to work but not use public transport does NOT work. It is absurd. The government of Boris is failing terribly on this issue. To all my UK friends and family, please be careful. Be very careful.
And if you are interested, click here to see how Spain is handling it.
Judging by some of the emoji-style charts and potato-head graphics that I’ve seen in the media over the past 48 hours, if you are a white adult in Spain, or a white marathon runner or a Tour de France cyclist, then you’re now allowed out for a walk and physical exercise between 6-10am or 8-11pm every day.
If you are white and also have white hair, or if you are white, bald, have a white moustache and wear little round spectacles, or if you are white with white hair, bent double or you normally hobble along with a walking stick, then you’re allowed out for a stroll between 10am and 12 noon, or between 7-8pm – but you should ideally have someone with dark hair escorting you.
If you are a white adult and have a white son wearing blue and a white daughter wearing pink – and if you’re all smiling – then you can go out between 12 noon and 7pm, but only for an hour.
The reason I’m forcing the white emoji-stuff here is not only because I feel that perhaps some of us aren’t being treated as adults, but that we should also all know what we should be doing right now, no? I mean, what you’re allowed to do whilst out and about is common sense … isn’t it? Isn’t it?
If you live in Spain, and unless (1) you’ve had your head in the sand for the past 48 hours and you didn’t realise you were allowed to go out; or (2) you’re still recovering from a hangover after another Friday-night-in Netflix-Zoom lockdown-binge; or (3) you’re afraid to go out in case someone sneezes over you (which is perfectly understandable) – then you might have taken advantage of the new ‘freedom for adults’ after seven weeks of confinement.
I went out just before 8am yesterday and today. It was glorious. I intend to do so every day. To be honest, I’ve been very lucky to have been able to go out every day during the lockdown, anyway, thanks to having a dog (although we’ve rarely ventured more than a 200-metre radius from home) – and also thanks to drinking a lot of wine. On many days I’ve forced myself to walk briefly into the village with a shopping bag to buy more wine, simply because I deliberately forgot to buy enough wine the day before – and because I don’t yet have a wine cellar. I’ve always maintained social distancing, stuck to the rules in shops, and also timed most of these journeys to clap the health workers at 8pm, standing around outside a pharmacy and enjoying the ripples of applause coming from all the balconies and windows. One day, oddly enough, I think I might miss those walks.
Because my own potato-head has white-enough hair, I could probably bend the rules to venture out up to four times a day. As an adult, I could go out from 6-10am. With my mad Einstein-like grey hair right now – and because I could easily shuffle along and possibly persuade Juliane to assist and guide me (more than usually, I mean) – I could probably venture out again from 10am to 12 noon. I could then take the dog for a walk at lunchtime to see all the happy, smiling, screaming children going beserk on their bikes and scooters. And then I could venture out to buy wine again …
But you know something? I don’t want to. I’ll walk the dog during my ‘exercise time’ and I’ll still buy some wine (silly not to), but I don’t want to … well, take the piss. And to be honest with you, I don’t think any of us should.
Yesterday, when I ventured out at 8am, I took the dog with me – instead of taking her out later on. I ‘fast walked’ for around an hour – completing half the 10,000 steps I normally like to do, and will hopefully get back to in due course. As I say, it was glorious, but not only just being able to be out and about. What struck me was the pure joy and relief on the faces of others – people who have clearly been in stricter confinement than me. I waved and called out to people I know or recognised. You might have had the same experiences yesterday or today – but for me, it literally felt like being alive again. And I don’t want that to end.
We were all walking, jogging, cycling or skating along the promenade, or on the vehicle-free road alongside. Some people wore face masks – everyone maintained social distancing – at least those who weren’t couples or probably weren’t living together. There was one woman, however, jogging on the beach, along the sand, despite there being police tape to seal it off. At first, I thought ‘good for her’ and that it was none of my business if she didn’t know the rules. But people were shouting at her to get off the beach. People were angry. Very. She ignored them and even waved them away. She clearly did know the rules but had decided to flout them. I quickly thought ‘good for them’ for shouting at her – it is our business that we don’t mess this up, and that we don’t abuse it, and that we don’t go back to square one. There have been 25,264 Coronavirus-related deaths in Spain to date. People have and are seriously suffering. Many have lost their loved ones, family members and friends. Health workers on the frontline have literally begged us to stay at home. But there was someone who had decided it was time she was allowed to run on the beach in a town where it is not currently allowed – and when no-one else was doing so. Get real.
Whilst giving us the instructions on the lifting of restrictions, the Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa appealed to the ‘common sense’ of people – and that overcoming this pandemic and returning to some kind of ‘normality’ would depend on us. How we behave from now on – and how people must take individual responsibility for observing the rules. As I mentioned in a previous blog, I personally feel that ‘party politics’ should be put to one side until we get through this crisis. I’m not praising or criticising the government minister’s words or actions; there will be plenty of time to analyse things later on.
But what I do feel strongly about right now is that someone out there has to set the rules and guidelines of what we can and can’t do, and when, especially over the next two months. After that, it’s up to us as individuals. For me, it is common sense. Let’s not mess it up.
Today in Spain around six million children aged under 14 were finally allowed to leave their homes after 43 days, officially for an hour every day. Earlier in the week, however, it wasn’t totally clear what they’d actually be allowed to do during that hour. Ask your average toddler what he or she would prefer: a trip to see the bank manager to beg for a loan or overdraft, perhaps? A trip to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription? Sit squashed and sweaty in a supermarket trolley for an hour, whilst licking the trolley’s grubby handlebar during this pandemic? Or, wait … what about taking your bicycle or scooter to the park and then kicking a ball around or throwing a frisbee?
It’s not rocket science, is it? Apparently it is, though, for the Spanish government’s spokeswoman, María Jesús Montero – or at least it was. On Tuesday she said that kids would only be allowed to accompany an adult to a supermarket, pharmacy or bank during their daily hour of freedom. But then because everyone in Spain suddenly went on social media to say that was a bit silly (to put it politely), the Spanish Health Minister, Salvador Illa, then had to announce a rapid U-turn and reverse the decision.
So kids were allowed to do things other than go to a bank, supermarket or pharmacy today – and I went out to take some pictures of them for an article. It’s not something I normally do, of course – approach total strangers and ask if I can take pictures of their kids, or ask friends to send me photos of their own – but after 43 days of lockdown, it seemed perfectly acceptable. And you know what? It was great to see kids out and about again. Our dog seems happier, too. She’d assumed that every small person – all those little people who like to stroke her – had left the planet.
This week, too, I picked up a free surgical face mask from a local pharmacy by simply showing my ‘Cat Salut’ health card. I hadn’t expected it to be so simple. I thought they’d require two copies of my birth certificate stamped by a notary in Barcelona and a copy of my passport plus a registered burofax letter signed by Spain’s immigration ministry or something … but, no! I asked the girl in the pharmacy if she at least wanted to know my mother’s maiden name but she looked at me as if I was nuts. It might have been my hair, of course. It’s got even worse since last week. I’ve gone from Einstein, to Brian May from Queen, to one of the Gypsy Kings, to being told that my hair also now looks like Fernando Simón’s – the director of the Spanish Health Ministry’s Coordination Centre for Health Alerts and Emergencies. Google him.
Talking of hair (again), Denmark opened its hair salons and barber shops this week and their Internet crashed from people trying to make appointments. I can sympathise with that. I even tried booking a flight to Copenhagen … anything to avoid being mistaken for Fernando Simón. In the state of Georgia in the USA, not only hairdressers, spas and beauty salons have reopened, but tattoo parlours, too. So that’s something else Zoom will never be able to replace: haircuts and tattoos.
Talking of tattoos, we watched the Tiger King on Netflix last week. Joe Exotic! It was ‘okay’ – I guess it was ‘entertainment’ – but to be honest, I spent most of the time just shaking my head at the TV screen, mumbling ‘only in America’ to myself.
Talking about America and Donald Trump and disinfectant … no, let’s not.
I’ve written here before about April normally being the perfect month to spend time out and about in Barcelona, especially during the magical day of Sant Jordi on 23rd April, or with the Godó tennis tournament or Barça playing a big Champions League fixture. This week I have really missed all that … that feeling. In fact I’ve missed simply being able to go to a tapas bar. I’ve missed roaring with laughter with friends, face to face. I’ve missed hanging out with people in real life and not just on video – but I also know that I can’t complain.
We also completed the third season of Ozark. I spent most of it shouting at Wendy Byrde’s brother to piss off back to wherever he came from. I’ve actually started to enjoy watching people being interviewed on TV from their homes during news bulletins. I find it fascinating to see their surroundings, the bookshelves behind them, the decoration, or a strategically placed award or photo. It’s weird.
One thing I highly recommend: Unorthodox, also on Netflix. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it. But not only is the production quality and overall casting first class, but the main actress, Shira Haas, is quite simply the best actress I have seen for years. I was transfixed by her. I still am. Watch it – and then watch the ‘making of’, if you can.
Stay safe. We’re nearly there.
The last time I blogged here was in July 2018. That year I’d been blogging every week, nearly every Sunday over six months. I’ve missed doing it. I think I’ve also missed the self-discipline that was involved in doing it. So here I am again. I’m back.
I had actually intended to start blogging again on the first Sunday of this year – Sunday 5 January, to be exact. It was one of my many New Year resolutions: to write more regularly (on many projects), to lose weight, to drink less, to read more, to get fit, walk more (at least 10,000 steps a day with the ‘MyFitnessPal’ app), learn the piano, learn to draw or paint, improve my Spanish, learn Catalan, try and perform comedy again (or maybe not), sort out all the old family videos for my kids, spend more ‘quality time’ with them and with Juliane, relax more and ‘de-stress’, try yoga and mindfulness, enjoy life, smile more, enjoy ‘the moment’, enjoy all moments, actually – and to generally be nicer to everyone (seriously) and try to help people who need help (somehow).
I often write some of these aims on yellow post-it notes, especially around midnight before I pass out, just to remind myself what I should be trying to achieve the next day. I often wake up to see a post-it telling me to, ‘Seize the day! Run!’ – and I normally grunt, ‘Fuck off’. The next post-it I usually write is, ‘Go to bed earlier! Do NOT open the second bottle!’ My post-it notes are a bit like Donald Trump tweets, full of exclamation marks!!!! I should just write a post-it that says ‘Do NOT write post-its!’
My hair has begun to scare me. It’s begun to scare Juliane, too. Like everyone else, we’ve just completed the fifth week of lockdown here in Spain and my hair now has a life of its own. My hair is not in lockdown, or at least it’s trying to break free. I have bushy hair that grows upwards and outwards quite quickly, sometimes overnight. I first learned how to plaster it down with Spanish glue or gomina when I was living in Madrid in the late eighties, when for some reason I thought I should try to look like a pijo banker (I think I’m spelling banker correctly).
I was due for my monthly (more or less) haircut on Saturday 14 March, the same day that the Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez announced the start of the ‘state of alarm’ Coronavirus lockdown. My barber normally refers to my mop of hair as the ‘Lion King’ even after not seeing me for just a month. I cancelled the 14 March appointment, thinking it could wait a couple of weeks. It clearly couldn’t. My hair has been in a state of alarm ever since. Two weeks has become five, and it looks likely to become eight.
Because we don’t see anyone, apart from on video calls and brilliant Zoom parties, I’ve mostly given up on the gomina. I asked Juliane to cut my hair but instead she wants it to become a sort of lockdown ‘experiment’, to see how long it can get. Sometimes I look like Einstein or Brian May from Queen, but normally I just look deranged. Even our dog has started to give me funny looks.
I had some of these brilliant Zoom parties last weekend, for my birthday. I’ve already posted about it on social media. It’s a birthday I’ll never forget. With so much sadness in the world right now, I felt very lucky to have had a wonderful day, thanks to amazing friends and family. Many glasses were raised – not just to me at all – but to all the health workers out there and to those whose families have been personally affected by this pandemic.
I didn’t want to start this blog again writing about politics or even current affairs – that can all wait. I personally feel that we all need to help one another to get through this crisis first – and that in the meantime, party politics should certainly be put to one side. For me, the birthday helped to underline the most important things in life: family, friends, love, personal contact, laughter and health.
It was a ‘big number’ birthday, too. I’d never expected to be celebrating it in lockdown and it made me reflect where I’d been for my 50th birthday (Ibiza), 40th (Suffolk), 30th (Seville, via Madrid), 20th (Norfolk), 10th (Hertfordshire) – I was clearly a jet-setter. It also made me reflect where I’ll be for my 70th, 80th, 90th and 100th plus. For the 100th, I’d like to think I’ll be doing 100 laps of my garden like Captain Tom Moore, because that is simply the best thing ever.
When the lockdown was announced mid-March, I thought that I’d be able to finally get round to more of those New Year resolutions above – at least the ones that didn’t involve walking, getting fit or losing weight. I have actually started more of them, mindfulness included – and this blog again, too, now! – but I’m still writing post-it notes to remind me about the rest.
When we come out of all this, how are we going to start conversations again? ‘Hi! I haven’t seen you for two months – what have you been doing?’
I’ll be able to say that I’ve been a guinea pig in a hair experiment.