A powerful message

January 6, 2009

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I first saw this cartoon by Pepe Medina on JimenaPulse. Titled Vida regalada, ‘A gifted life’, its simplicity carries a powerful seasonal message as does all of Medina’s work for Público, in print and online. It’s well worth having a look at for it makes you think. That is the job of cartoonists everywhere, to make us think. And a heck of a job it is: a distillation of feeling, requiring a sense of humour, a deft hand probably backed by years at art school, and a secret ingredient I have never been able to fathom but before which I stand, hat doffed, in awe and admiration.

Cartooning goes back to pre-history, or what else are those cave paintings Spain is full of? Indeed, the tradition of cartoons in this country is alive and well. Every newspaper and website of any consideration is crammed with excellent work. The work of Forges published in El País is a good example, although a good knowledge of colloquial Spanish may be needed. Of course, he’s been around since forever. So has Antonio Mingote, who is also a poet and a member of the Real Academia.

Why are there so many good cartoonists in Spain? I don’t doubt for a minute there are just as many and just as good anywhere else, but I happen to live here. The rhetorical answers to my question, only opinions, are that 40 years of dictatorship forces one to read between the lines and thus refines not only a sense of healthy skepticism but also one of irony. (As a young man under a dictatorship in another country I used to buy several different daily papers to get as balanced a view as possible, but I usually found that the cartoonists, often persecuted, had done that for me.)

The other answer is that there is also a healthy comics-publishing industry, perhaps the best example of which is El Jueves, a distant cousin of the old Private Eye. These publications are a wonderful training ground for anyone who breaks out into the perilous world of the freelance. Alas, however, too many of these are unlikely to make a living from their cartoons. A more regional example of this is Ricardo Tejeiro, who publishes in Europa Sur. Ricardo is also a writer and a psychologist, which last may well account for his acuteness on issues that are mostly local rather than national or international. There are so many of them, all of them good, that there is no room here to name each one. How I wish that were possible. But long may they all last. And long may they keep bringing us their powerful messages.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2009

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As I am writing Israel is in its fourth day of devastation on the Gaza Strip. Palestinian dead are conservatively calculated at 360 by the Spanish media, while Israel’s are at four. Palestinian injured are close to 2000, but I don’t have a figure for Israel. Women, children and innocent civilians are predominant in both casualty lists. Palestinian, or Hamas, armaments are home-made missiles with a range of between 10 and 15 km, while the Israeli army is equipped with the very latest in American and French death technology: the equivalent of using a sling shot against someone carrying an Uzi. International aid boats trying to reach the Strip have been rammed by Israeli patrol boats, while medical facilities there have been decimated by years of Israeli embargos and sanctions.

Comparisons may be odious but it is inevitable to mention the Holocaust yet again. The State of Israel was founded before six million Jews were exterminated by the Nazis but it was largely populated, with great difficulty thanks to the British, by refugees from that horrifying period of only 70 years ago. Many of them have died since then, in battle or of old age, yet the Nazi death camps, or the Warsaw Ghetto, are surely part of Israel’s collective memory. Much of what one reads from Israel says things like ‘It will never happen again’. Really?

The full Biblical quotation much in vogue on both sides of the everlasting Palestinian-Israeli conflict reads as follows (Exodus Ch. 21, curiously part of the tenets of both the Hebrew and the Islamic cultures, which are not that different from each other):

And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye’s sake.

Even so, I prefer the Mahatma’s quotation that heads this article.

So why does Israel insist on creating its own holocaust? For starters, their good friend George W. Bush is headed for ignominy next month, to be replaced by someone who’s middle name is Hussein. Coincidence? I doubt it. The American Jewish lobby, powerful and Machiavellian, is unlikely to be in the best of odours with Obama after all, though we probably shouldn’t read too much into that, either. The American Christian lobby, equally powerful and Machiavellian, probably doesn’t like the idea much either (this is Bible land, remember) – nor would the American Cuban lobby, equally etc, be too pleased, for they have a vested interest in right-wing politics, too.

Gaza_Strip_and_West_Bank Secondly, the Gaza Strip has always been a problem for Israel. It is just a strip of land that sticks in their gullet but happens to be populated by Palestinians thrown out of Israel. Its false border with Israel was designed as a buffer zone between it and Egypt. Naturally, it is a hotbed of fanaticism, with Hamas, the de facto government, at the head throwing stones and short-range missiles. Wouldn’t it be neat and tidy if the Israeli border could be straightened out to reach the sea just about there, though? Wouldn’t it be neat and tidy to just get rid of Hamas altogether no matter the cost in innocent lives?

I have absolutely no pity for terrorism or terrorists of any stripe or denomination. I do have pity for the countless millions who suffer any form of it, be it called down upon them by the state or a fanatical faction. I have lived under the former but have mercifully managed to avoid the latter by a hairsbreadth. In a fairly long life I have come to believe that, indeed, an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind. With both my eyes thankfully still in my head, I can’t help looking askance at what is happening in the Gaza Strip right now.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

Sex at Christmas

December 15, 2008

Calvin Klein Euphoria Men reklama 2 I don’t do it often but when I do, I have to admit to a certain frisson, which could be simply a matter of age, though that is what they want me to do. I’m not talking about sex. Well, I am, but on television and in the press. Spanish press and television, for that is what I see more frequently. This picture comes straight from last Sunday’s El País, and there’s more below.

This time of year brings out two of the most expensive genres of the advertising world: toys, including the expensive electronic types,  and perfumes. The former doesn’t use sex very much unless you count the fact that a lot of dolls seem to come complete with genitals and the ability to pee and more at will. And, naturally, advertising for dolls is aimed at little girls, despite protestations from the more ‘advanced’ feminists who’d rather they played with lorries.

The latter, however, is all about sex. Perfume has always been about sex and the attraction of the opposite. Historically, though, it was first used, in Europe at least, to cover body odours I’d rather not imagine much less deal with. Cleopatra may be another story more in keeping with the theme of this article. Mind you, she had to attract the likes of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, with whom she had one and three children respectively. Perfume as empire builder – no wonder perfume is a potent armament. (Would that the Bush empire had sprayed perfume instead of bombs all over the Middle East…)

Back to today and sex in the media. Perfume advertising aimed at either sex -and sometimes what looks like a third- comes up on screen three times a year: Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Christmas. It can be broadly classified as Macho, Muy Macho and I’m Not Too Sure. This applies to perfumes for men and women alike. There are brands that are created for both sexes, others that have a same-name bottle for each. The bottles themselves are another thing: phallic for men and -what’s the opposite of phallic?- for women. Well of course!

I know that sex is a powerful advertising tool: I have been an advertising copywriter for decades, though I never worked on any perfume ads (I wonder why?). Indeed, I have no objection to sex, nor even to Christmas. It’s just that the two seem a bit incongruous together. I don’t object to a little nooky at Christmas time, either; it’s ‘family time’ after all. But I propose that perfume ads become a little more Christmassy and maybe a little less sexual. Or am I just an old fart?

Below are some more samples of what I mean, including a couple of TV commercials that have been placed at this time of year (click on the images to enlarge, if you must, but be warned that some of them may be unsuitable for children – unless they’re going to give you perfume this year, of course): Read the rest of this entry »

Daily_Express I came across a past copy of the Daily Express, not a paper I read often even online. Above the main headline you will see: “EXCLUSIVE: Secret squad preparing us to join euro.” I know what the political inclination of the Express is, so its alarmist tone doesn’t surprise me in the least. On Page 2 is a long article headlined, “X43m is spent on unit plotting to join euro.” (The X should be a pound sign but I haven’t got one readily available on my keyboard. Sorry.) There is even a box for a poll that asks, “Is joining the euro a disaster for Britain?” and phone numbers marked Yes or No – costing at least 25p (or €0.31) per call. The article is full of words and phrases like ‘secretive’, ‘lavished on the project’, ‘will fuel fears’, ‘propaganda’, and so on. Subsequent articles and comments in that paper are much the same (see one here: “Spectre of rule by Europe, etc.”), and that isn’t the only such rag perpetrating the myth.

As anyone living in Spain on a fixed income in pounds will tell you, the exchange rate right now is crap and although I might not be an economist, I can predict that things are unlikely to get any better. Indeed, I figure we’re headed for a 1 to 1 exchange rate and an opportunity for Britain to at last join the euro zone. (Alarums from Express readers.)

What’s wrong with that? As almost any related Express article will tell you, rule by Brussels is anathema. Yet the UK is ruled by the EU already – or why are there constant complaints about it? A favourable exchange rate would surely mean that more British goods would be sold around the world, specially in Europe. And millions of travellers to the continent, that far off place just across the Channel, wouldn’t have to deal with the ‘complicated’ business of changing currencies everywhere. And let’s not even mention pensions for expat residents this side of the water, many of whom can no longer afford to live here in the style to which they’d become accustomed and most certainly couldn’t afford to live the same way in the UK either.

The first glass of wine I ever had in Spain a million years ago cost 2 pesetas (or €0.01) and it came with a tapa of delicious olives. My first wage packet in London, about a year before I took wine and tapas in Spain, was not quite X20 (or about €25 at today’s exchange rate) and wine in the pubs around Fleet Street where I worked was prohibitive, Rioja even more so and the cheap Cyprus variety undrinkable. Things have changed, of course, but in Spain we work in order to live, while in Britain it appears they live in order to work – if they’re not scamming the overloaded benefit system, that is. Not even Brussels can change those attitudes.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

piercing_idiot7jo Call me old-fashioned, a wrinkly, past it – anything you like, but for the life of me I cannot understand why anyone would want to look like this. Okay, the illustration is perhaps a little exaggerated, but the fashion for mutilating one’s body has been going on for too long. The way I see it is that self-mutilation can only be a reflection of someone’s self-esteem and a pretty low one at that.

Pop psychology aside, we are most of us born with reasonably good looking bodies, unmutilated and pristine. Why do we un-do what we’re given by Mother Nature so readily?

When I was young, six hundred years ago, tattoos were pretty much reserved for certain servicemen -not women- and an earring in the right lobe (or was it the left?) indicated to others a certain sexual orientation. I remember someone who was refused a well-paid job that he was more than qualified to do because he had a tiny tattoo just visible under the cuff of his shirt – discriminatory perhaps, but the job involved meeting the public. Would you like to be served by someone looking like him above?

These days, boys and grown men wear earrings in either or both ears, on their eyebrows, in their tongues, lips and genitals. The thought of it hurts – excuse me while I curl up for a second…

Is this fashion, depressingly on the increase, not a clear indication of youth with too little to do and too much money with which to do it? It’s not cheap by any means.

Tattoos1 But don’t get me wrong, a little decoration in the right private place that no-one sees except at (what should be) private moments can be a delightful surprise. Yes, I thought you’d like the picture…

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

It’s the right thing to do

November 30, 2008

Only a few weeks have gone by since Barack Obama was elected the next President of the United States of America, and he is still surprising us. Not least for his choice of Bush’s Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, to remain in his post for the simple reason that Obama believes him to be the right man for the job. He has reportedly settled on Hillary Clinton, formerly his bitter Democrat rival for the presidential candidacy, as his Secretary of State. Can you imagine such a thing in Spain?

If the dividing line between ‘left’ and ‘right’ in the US is fuzzy, this country is still bitterly divided, almost 50-50, between whom are often called Reds and Fascists, depending which side you’re on. Can you see Zapatero holding on to a minister or two of Aznar’s? – there were some good ones, by the way. Can you imagine your local Council keeping on a couple of the opposition’s people on after an election? They’d be called mad! Crazy idea!

No, for the most part, with very few exceptions at local level, whatever the previous lot have done flies out of the Town Hall window as soon as the new lot take their seats. Sometimes it’s even the seats themselves that fly out, too.

Yet these are troublesome times, when talent and experience should be more highly valued than loyalty to a political party – and when the humility of those who have to make these choices should be to the fore when making them.

The problem lies in a confusion among politicians, not necessarily of Spain alone, that distorts the meaning of loyalty to public service with that of a party. It is a shame, for we can hardly afford the luxury of dispensing with the past, if only because we should be learning from it.

And it’s the right thing to do, Mr. President.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

The right to know

October 30, 2008

Unlike almost every other country in Europe, Spain does not have what might be called a ‘transparency law’. Sweden has had one since 1766, but onlySpain, Luxembourg, Greece and Cyprus don’t have one today, while Malta has put one into motion recently. There are 78 countries in the world with one but we can surely guess that Zimbabwe doesn’t and it wouldn’t require a much imagination to take a guess about a few more.

Severiano Fernández, professor of Administrative Law at the University of Cádiz, says,” Spain wants to be a modern country but in these matters it lags well behind countries like Mexico.” Or even Guatemala, according to Access Info Europe, the Old Continent’s branch of an international organization that abrogates free access to information.

In a recent study that followed 41requests for information made to several different level public agencies, Access Info came to a devastating concluson: 78% of them did not receive the information requested. In some cases (43%) the information was actively denied and in 43% there was no reply to the request at all.

So what is a ‘transparency law’? It simply gives the citizen the right to know what happens at, in or about government agencies and their activities. The agencies that taxpayers pay for, be they national, regional or local. It’s a Freedom of Information Act by another name.

In other words, in Spain we don’t have the right to know how our money is spent, how long a waiting list is at the hospital, how many soldiers are in the forces or how many Spanish casualties there have been in Afghanistan, or how many offices our Council is paying rent for, or what the cost of refurbishing them might be. If you’ve ever tried to find out any of these, or almost anything else, you’ll know what I mean.

The law of omertà is prevalent in Spain. The law of silence. Officials, secretaries, functionaries and their ilk have it down to a tee: their excuses for not giving information can be imaginative, but when that fails, there is always something called silencio informativo, or administrative silence. This is probably why letters to ministries, councils or official bodies of any kind remain unanswered. The lower the administrative ladder, the worse it gets. They must all believe they are the guardians of ‘official secrets’.

In most other countries with such a law, the time stipulated for a reply is 15 days. The Access Info report states that the average reply time in Spain (when there actually is a reply) is 38 days, though it uncovered too many cases where a reply had spent over 6 months ‘in the freezer’. Sweden is admittedly an exception, though certainly an admirable one: a reply must be made within 24 or 48 hours, depending on its urgency. By law. If the request is complex and needs a lot of searching, the person requiring it will get a phone call, within 24 hours, explaining the reason for the delay and giving an exact date for delivery. By law.

Strangely, the introduction of such a law was on the PSOE manifestos for the 2004 and 2008 elections. “Impulsaremos una ley sobre el derecho al libre acceso a la información que garantice que todos los poderes, autoridades públicas y entidades sostenidas con fondos públicos faciliten, en tiempo útil, el libre acceso a toda información o documento oficial, con la única excepción de lo que atente a la legislación de protección de datos o de secretos oficiales,” it said. “We shall propose a law on the right of free access to information that guarantees that all government agencies, authorities and entities maintained with public funds facilitate, in useful time, free access to all information or public document, with the only exception of that which attempts against the laws on data protection or official secrets.” We’re still waiting.

President Zapatero only mentioned it in passing some three weeks ago, probably because the Council of Europe is planning the first international treaty on this right at a convention that could be happening as soon as 2009.

It would be ironic if the convention was held in sunny Spain. Of course, we couldn’t find out how much it cost…

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

Once upon a time, in the not too distant past, October the 12th was a celebration of the Discovery of America, but around the 400th anniversary (1992) of Columbus’s famous voyage the Spanish-speaking countries on the American continent rose up in protest with the obvious conclusion that they hadn’t needed to be discovered, thank you very much. The Inca, Aztec and Maya empires had already existed in splendour, if at different times and with a variety of influences on their neighbours, when Spain was still in the Dark Ages.

The fact that Don Cristóbal and the hordes that followed him decimated the native population through tricks, disease and gunpowder would have undoubtedly had some impact on the latter day protests from the Americas. Nevertheless, Spain is proud of its ‘discovery’ and the riches that made it the most powerful ‘European’ empire of the XVII Century.

These days Spain’s trade with Latin America accounts for a very large proportion of its income, however. Language, history and a largely Mediterranenan temperament have also created strong links to all the Hispanic countries from Mexico in the North to Argentina and Chile in the South. But there’s an interesting extrapolation to this.

According to conclusions reached at a seminar for journalists, academicians, diplomats and intellectuals from Spain and Latin America held recently in San Millán de la Cogolla, La Rioja, there will be some 100 million Spanish speakers in the US by 2025, which projection will represent 25% of its population. This would make the United States of America the largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Hispanics, as they’re called there, are already the largest minority, having overtaken African Americans some while ago. And the US is the second-largest Spanish-speaking nation in the world right now.

There is some irony in the fact that if you tell the average only-speak-English American (Northern, that is) that you’re Spanish, they will automatically pigeon-hole you with their neighbours to the South. Indeed, most of them seem to have no idea that Spanish comes from Spain. But then, most of them have never heard of Spain, either, and certainly couldn’t place it on a map (which conjures up a farcical image of a Mexican-American schoolkid pointing to Chicago when asked to identify Spain on a blackboard).

Native Americans (I use this term for lack of another), North or South, are known for their infinite patience, something that might account for their having been downtrodden for so many centuries. But patience, we are told, is a virtue, so I can’t help feeling there is a certain cosmic justice to those statistics. Many if not most of the immigrants from the South to the US, legal or otherwise, have more ‘native’ blood in them than Spanish, but they carry their common language with them. So the justice offers a double-whammy: ‘we were conquered once and now its our turn’.

(c) Alexander Bewick 2008

(Related links: Spanish in the World; Wikipedia; Instituto Cervantes)

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

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