Lies that come home to roost

September 30, 2008

That’s it, George W. Bush has had to admit (temporary) defeat for his rescue of the U.S. banking system: Congress did not pass his request for $700 billion to bail out the greedy sharks of Wall Street. The world’s stock exchanges dropped like lead balloons, with Big Brother Nynex falling to hysterical lows that haven’t been seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Dow Jones Industrial Average started to plummet the minute the voting began to be counted and ended the day down 778 points, the worst point drop ever. By yesterday, though, the European markets had begun to creep up, albeit with a beady eye on Big Brother across the water. Spain’s Ibex stock market index was probably the least affected by the Wall Street crash in Europe, though.

What had the Bush administration tried to do? Have the U.S. government take over the bad debts accummulated by American banks and to let them start lending to each other again. And why do the banks have so many bad debts? Because they bought up bonds that were issued by their fellow bankers, based on rubbish mortgages they knew could not be paid. Why does this impact on European banking? Because it, too, bought into the bonds and what amounts to lies. This is simplistic, I know, but it puts things into perspective a little.

I don’t pretend to have any knowledge of finances (my bank manager can vouch for that) and even less so of global economics. But I can smell the shit when it hits the fan. And the whole thing stinks.

Seven hundred million million is what the Americans call $700 billion. That’s a lot of frijoles, as they might say, too. Enough to feed the world’s hungry several times over. Enough to ensure water for all those exploited (largely by America and Britain) countries where the people have to live on less than a litre a week, for many years. Enough to find a permanent cure for malaria without the intervention of multi-national chemical companies making a fast buck. Or AIDS. I agree, it is a simplistic point of view. But when I see the well-suited sharks in their expensive cars heading home to their expensive Manhattan or Chelsea abodes, having had an expensive lunch on their expense accounts and betting expensively on how many expensive points the markets will drop, knowing they won’t have to scramble for water or food… No, I don’t feel sorry for them when they lose their jobs. I don’t feel anything.

Simplistic, yes, but my teeth can’t stop grinding.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

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Politics and priorities

September 28, 2008

My friend Prospero, over at JimenaPulse, was boiling with indignation when we met for coffee the other day. He’s one of those people that get involved, very involved, in any bombardeo that’s going. He’d just come from a second day of demonstrations at the schools in his village, where he’s lived for almost twenty years and where his son goes to class. To make it short, he and his fellow parents had been demonstrating against the lack of a special education teacher for a couple of kids there. If you’ve been following the story on his informative site, you’ll understand.

“I don’t get it, I really don’t,” he said. “The head teacher at the senior school just told me that she’d been notified that she was to accommodate a teacher for immigrant children, so they don’t lose their home culture!” He felt, I think rightly, that that sort of thing should be encouraged at home, rather than at school. “But then they say that those handicapped children can’t have the attention they need so much and are entitled to by law!” he spat out, at risk of spraying coffee all over the bar. I have nothing against immigrants for I am one myself, but what little British culture I have left I acquired at home. But then, ‘immigration’ was not the latest buzz-word in my youth. ‘Immigrant’, indeed, was an insult.

Ah, politics, I thought. Photo opportunities, I said. It looks good on the telly, I reasoned.

It’s not exclusive to Spain, of course, but there seems to be knack here for what I call ‘the disease of the week’. Here today, gone tomorrow, as soon as its off the headlines. As a journalist I understand it, but I don’t accept it gracefully. I accept, because I have to, that our attention span has shortened a great deal since the advent of television and that we’re too busy to read articulate columns about any one thing unless it affects us directly. But what I have trouble accepting are the contradictions illustrated by Prospero’s indignation.

That the Socialist governments of Spain and Andalucía, with their innumerable técnicos sitting in splendid isolation from the daily grind of the people their political cronies … sorry, bosses … supposedly represent, should come up with the farcical idea of a special teacher ‘to encourage the home culture’ of our many immigrants, when there is need, desperate need, for someone to help those other children with politically incorrect handicaps to take part in the basic, essential right that is education – well, it’s beyond my understanding, too. As I write, I am getting as indignant as Prospero. And I have nothing against Socialists for I am one myself.

Then I check some more sites, mostly Spanish, to find several of them reporting the arrival of a specially equipped bus that goes around the smaller towns and villages of Andalucia with ‘information’. No, nothing to do with education, immigration or schools; this bus, which must have cost a fortune to equip with lots of computers, websites that are confusng in their numbers, sides that slide out to make a conference room, and two full-time employees plus driver and co-pilot, is out to convince local business people to market their products and services under a brand name called ‘Parque Natural de Andalucía’. Another brand name and more expenses -it isn’t free- for small businesses that are already feeling the pinch of recession. All well and good: marketing is essential to today’s business environment and should be encouraged.

But a decent, dignified education is much more essential, surely.

If Spain is close to the bottom of the class in terms of education in Europe, Andalucía is at the very bottom of even that comparative list, according to the Informe Prisa on education. So where are the priorities? The cost of that lime green bus, which sports the Junta de Andalucía’s logo so proudly all over it, would probably cover the salaries of at least four special education teachers for a year. And it all comes out of the same kitty: our taxes.

I forgot: children don’t vote.

(Photo credits: (c) Prospero)

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

A very good friend called me on the weekend to tell me about something he and his son had gone through during the week. The boy’s mother has long been diagnosed with bi-polar disease, or what used to be called Manic-Deppressive Disorder. To use his words, “It’s one of those illnessses that tell you you don’t have it, like alcoholism.” I interpreted that to mean that she hadn’t been taking her medication, which I understand is cheap and effective, though nobody seems to know why. Or she had been drinking copiously, which is sometimes her wont. But no, there was a lot more to the story.

About six weeks ago the mother had a psychotic (i.e. manic) episode that needed her to be sectioned, though there is no equivalent word in the Spanish Mental Health lexicon and therefore doesn’t appear to exist as such. In the event, she was finally persuaded to go into treatment voluntarily, albeit through promises to the contrary made by her sisters. But in order to get to that stage, added my friend, their son aged thirteen and her mother aged 80-plus and very deaf, had been trying to keep her out of trouble, most of the time ineffectively. It was, and always is, an exhausting business. My friend does not intervene in such cases as this seems to provoke considerable violence from the ‘patient’ (knowing him, this is understandable, as he’s pretty much at the end of his tether with it). This part of the story ends at the mental health unit of the Punta de Europa Hospital in Algeciras, which she has attended many times, though not before her sisters had made a considerable fuss at the local health centre, where a doctor is the only person able to certify that there is a problem. The whole thing needed several visits from the Local Police, the Guardia Civil and the ambulance service – but the patient had to be taken to the hospital in a private car, from which she has been know to throw herself on previous occasions.

Six weeks later, the patient calls her mother to say she has been released for a few days. Several calls, in fact, some quite desperate. The poor woman couldn’t find anyone willing or able to drive her to the hospital to pick up her daughter, so she had to hire an expensive taxi, in which she also took the patient’s son for support. There was no call from any doctor, nurse or even a cleaner from the mental health unit, so the whole thing could easily have been a hoax from a wily patient -another symptom of her disease. But who’s to know? This was on a Friday afternoon, i.e. reluctant week-end duty for an intern, probably.

That weekend went along relatively calmly, with her son making sure the patient took her medication. But, to quote father quoting son, “I’m never sure she’s not putting the pill under her tongue and spitting it out later.” Fair enough, the son loves his mother in spite of it all, and wants her to be well – is desperate for her to be well. But is it right to leave a thirteen-year-old in charge of someone who can turn violent with the greatest of ease and the slightest perceived provocation?

As it happens, says my friend, by Monday the woman was obviously taking a turn for the worse. She was walking around her small village in bare feet and chanting, turning up on people’s doorstep expecting to be let in with a very large Irish Wolfhound – and so on. Still in charge, as well as they could, were mother and son. The same again on Tuesday. By Wednesday, matters had got much worse.

On the night of Tuesday/Wednesday my friend was woken up by a phone call at 1.35 in the morning. It was the local duty doctor trying to find his son, who was fast asleep beside him. “We need (the boy) to come down to the health centre and give his mother the key to her house, which she lost.” The child being absolutely exhausted from running around the village all day after his mother, there was no way he was going to wake the boy up, and he told the doctor so. In any case, the key was not on his ring. The doctor then gave forth that she was doing the ‘job of a social worker’ and it wasn’t her problem. In that case, said my friend, get her into the hospital right now, from where she should never have been allowed out in the first place. The doctor couldn’t do that, either, though she didn’t explain why.

By morning, my friend was seriously concerned for the safety of his son, who was reluctant to say much about it, very likely thinking his mother would be ‘taken away’ again. But there was one incident that really alarmed him: “I tried to keep him away from the situation as much as possible -I’ve never stopped him from seeing his mother, except when she’s been at her very worst- and that day after lunch, when I was trying to help him get things off his chest, he said very calmly, ‘You know, Dad, I have a rope ready to hang myself with. I just can’t take it anymore.’ He’s said that sort of thing before, as teens often do, but always almost hysterically. This time he even described the slip knot on the rope in great detail. This could be manipulation, of course, but it’s my duty to listen.” My friend was shocked, to put it mildly, and tried  very hard to persuade -an ‘order’ would not have been in order- the boy to do something else instead of seeing his mother that afternoon. To no avail.

That Wednesday evening, my friend gets a hysterical call from his son: “My mother is biting me very hard and  has just pushed Granny!!!” The boy was incoherent with fear. Imagining the worse, my friend swiftly dials the Local Police emergency number, only to be told that they were in another village and unable to attend. The local Guardia Civil number was answered by a recorded message at the station in Algeciras, asking him to dial another number – he slammed the phone down in exasperation and drove like a madman down to the Guardia Civil station in his village, Jimena. Closed. On his way  up the hill to rescue his son, still driving like a maniac, he encounters one of the village’s Councillors, who gets an earful of abuse for which my friend had later to apologise. By the time he gets to the house where ‘the incident’ was taking place, the Guardia Civil was already there, his son having been much more sensible and called 112, the general emergency number.

The ambulance turned up twenty minutes later, with doctor (a different one than the night before) and nurse. The patient was now being charming and chatting with the Guardia, as though nothing had happened. Again, not an uncommon trait among bi-polars. Having been apprised of the situation by my friend, the doctor gets on her mobile phone, hiding around corners so as not to be heard (by whom? the patient? my friend? his son?). Finally, after a lot of speaking into her phone, the doctor approaches the patient and apparently persuades her that it is best for her to go into hospital, for her own sake and that of her son. Needless to say, the tactic backfires somewhat. The patient goes into her mother’s house to pick up a box, sits back down where she had been and says she’s not going. At other times, according to my friend, this has been when she’s made a dash for freedom and not been seen for days, only to turn up in places like Granada or Seville, lost and helpless. Okay, who wants to be locked up voluntarily?

Well, she was finally persuaded -cajoled?- to get into the ambulance, ringed by the Guardia Civil, the nurse and the ambulance driver. The boy did most of the cajoling while his father lurked in the shadows so as not to provoke any reaction that might have turned everything tits up. And off they went to the mental unit at the Punta de Europa Hospital in Algeciras – again – or so everyone thought. On Saturday, with time in between for recovery, the boy calls that hospital only to be told his mother isn’t there. Where is she, then? “Oh, maybe in Jerez. Or Puerto Real…” They had no idea.

In fact, the family still has no idea as I write this, midday on Monday. [A litttle further on in time: a sister finds out by sheer chance that the patient is in the mental health unit at Puerto Real. But that’s another story]

A dark cloud of questions arises:

Is it right for a mental patient to be left in the charge of a thirteen-year-old and an 80-year-old who is deaf? Is it right for a mental patient to be released without any communication at all from her doctors? Is it right for a mental patient to be released into ‘community care’ without a ‘community’? If the local health centre has the numbers to call the patient’s family all over the district in the middle of the night, as they did to find a key and thus get some sleep, can’t they be bothered to pick up the phone and call at least one of those numbers in order to let someone know where the patient is? Why was the first doctor unable to have the patient ‘sectioned’, or the Spanish equivalent, always supposing there is one? And why couldn’t she give a reason?

Should a doctor (albeit a week-end substitute) at the Algeciras hospital have called someone in the family -they too have the numbers- to let them know that the patient is about to be released, or to find out what the situation at home might be? Would they toss a terminal cancer patient out like that?

If the questions above are in a jumble, imagine the state of a young boy’s mind after a week of attending to his mother, her doctors and his grandmother, who understands very little of what is being said.

The state of mental health care is not good in most of Europe. In the UK, I’m told, it is really bad. And Spain is obviously thirty years behind that.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

The age of greed

September 17, 2008

Northern Rock, Fannie Mae, Fannie Mac, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, XL, Alitalia. HBoss, AIG. Morgan Stanley… these are just some of the big names in the news today, most if not all of them global in the reach of their tentacles. Bankruptcies, failures, government rescues (at your and my expense), last minute bail-outs… these are just some of the panic reactions. Billions of dollars, pounds, euros, yen. I can’t be bothered to check all the figures, the dancing numbers simply overwhelm me. One wonders, though, how the executives’ golden parachutes fared. It’s not a wild guess that none of them will go hungry, however contrite they may appear behind their sound bites. Politicians, expert biters of sound, chase air space to explain themselves – for what? To keep their jobs. God knows it might be difficult for most of them to find gainful employment if they lose this one…

Is it necessary here to get into the speculation surrounding the price of oil, which is blamed for almost all our ills rather than the obvious stupidity of lending money to millions knowing full well it may never be paid back? Sub Prime loans, they call them, in the usual sort of euphemism that they think will mask the truth. Do we need to look into the ever more evil speculation on commodities like maize, sorghum or wheat, now predominantly used to make fuel instead of food for starving millions all over the so-called Third World? Must we check up on the  speculative land deals in Alaska, where oil is present in munificent quantities and which are fully backed by U.S. Republican Vice-Presidential candidate all-wrapped-up-in-God-and-willing-to-make-war-on-Russia Sarah Palin?

Is it necessary here to go into the greed exhibited by everything that has surrounded the war in Irak, including some of the soldiers caught pilfering from their victims? Or Afghanistan? The ‘private armies’ that go to war in our names? The sale of arms by global corporations and private enterprise?

The list is long, endless. And so is the greed, the spiritual vacuum, exhibited by what seems to be the vast majority of the world’s leaders, be they in politics or business. They lead by their pockets, and we are forced to follow like lambs to the slaughter – and paying for it like the fools they take us for.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008