Fermin

The pleasure to be had on a beach in Spain, becoming mayor of Barcelona and other stories

One can only know true misery in hot weather; everything else is at least partially absence of sun. Similarly one can only know true loneliness when surrounded by friends; everything else is at least partially absence of friends. It follows that if you wish to know the truest misery and loneliness possible you must gather you friends and family around you and go to some warm and beautiful place. You could call it a holiday. You might wish to intensify the experience by looking forward to it for a long time, or spending on it a sizable proportion of your wealth - because in a sense the more you suffer on holiday the better; your normal life then becomes - for a while at least - a blissful relief, and you are able to carry on and endure.

Soldiers who die in the line of duty are often described as having made the ultimate sacrifice. But is it? On the plus side it's quick, and glamorous. Is it not worse to lay down your life slowly, doing something you hate, that nobody respects, over and over again, in exchange for a wage so low that it's hardly enough even to cover the rent?

We set off on our holiday before dawn, as is traditional. We'd taken the precaution of getting the house burgled a couple of days before we went; saves worrying about it happening when you're away. The burglar broke in from the garden; my wife and I were upstairs at the time consummating our monkey lust. What timing; he must have been waiting out there for months.

We prized the girls out of bed, gave them a bottle of milk each as consolation and packed ourselves into a cab to the airport. We had just congratulated each other on how well it was going when both girls were sick. Then my wife was sick clearing up their sick. Mid-way through wiping the back seat after arrival I noticed our driver becoming irritated by my efforts. "No no no this cost money" How much? £50. O.K. Plus fare = £85 in total. The sun had not yet risen.

On the plane the air crew were selling lottery scratch cards; as if flying Ryan Air wasn't lottery enough. I repeated the Lord's prayer to myself and we landed safely in Valencia; I do not claim these two events are necessarily connected. Searching for the hire car I repeated to myself my driving-in-Europe mantra : "Drive on the right... drive on the right...". Finding the car I got in and surprised by the absence of steering wheel and pedals amended my mantra to :"Drive on the right... get in on the left..."

Set off following our Spanish friend Marie-Cruz with wife and girls in her car having omitted to form a backup plan; if I lost her I would be truly lost. It's good to have a plan, it's good to have a backup. More than twenty seven backups and you're over-doing it. Rolled a fag whilst driving with difficulty, smoked it with ease. At last arrived at our destination, the small town of Tavernes De Malingna (literally the Malignant Taverns); beautiful ramshackle outpost nestling at the foot of three mountains. My memories of previous visits to Spain came flooding back.

Ah Rioja! The most honestly named wine. For once I stood on Spanish steps, hatless in the noonday sun, raised a litre of blood-red Rioja to my lips and downed it in nineteen glorious gulps. And Rioja I did, all over the steps. And seeing what had come to pass the people of Barfelona wasted no time electing me Mayor. No time did they waste; they did not elect me mayor - and this I discovered when I awoke to find the chain around my neck that I'd been cherishing was still connected to the cistern.

"Your house is my house" I exclaimed in an effort to cut short the formalities as we entered our hosts' casa. Fermin, the hombre do casa, seemed slightly perplexed, nevertheless agreed to take me on a tour of the town. The first thing I noticed was the preponderance of faeces. "Dogs?" I enquired. "No, mi puchero, the mayor. It is part of his re-election campaign". The pavements were extremely narrow, in places no wider than a tightrope, difficult enough in normal shoes but nigh on impossible in the stilettos that all Spanish men are forced by law to wear. Yet somehow they managed; I couldn't help but admire them.

The town was full of taverns. Any stranger entering one is sure to be greeted with a warm welcome; a big-hearted chump will clasp you to his bosom, buy you a drink - whether you like it or not - and begin a prolonged bout of affectionate head pummelling. Meanwhile his accomplice; and he will have many, most of whom remain unknown to him, will be going through your pockets. It's an eco-system; strangers are nutrients.

The next day we went to the cassetta, a beach house, one among many illegal yet luxurious shacks that proliferate among the orange groves near the sea. We took the children to the beach - there were six by now - and the dog. This proved a mistake. I have always had an intuitive understanding with dogs; possibly because I was raised by wolves. Indoor wolves. Spaniels, frankly. On the way to the sand a wild dog followed ours; I shooed him away reasoning that ours being female the owners might prefer an arranged marriage. However on the beach the wild dog, with an accomplice, re-appeared. Now shooing became problematic. There'd been a storm the night before and I found myself standing by a shattered inflatable, sand-logged, embedded in the beach, both flare sockets empty. I spared a thought for it's occupants, then got on with my main business of preventing the wild dogs meeting ours. This proved impossible: The vast space and my diminished running abilities meant that simple cunning was able to triumph over advanced trigonometry. I only caught our dog - Nina - when it was too late. I attached the lead and stood there while nature took it's course; which is a long course with nervous dogs; they had become attached to each other physically and nothing could dislodge them, even sea water. Eventually I decided it was too late to worry about it, rolled one and enjoyed the view - apart from the dogs; I didn't look at them directly, that would just have turned them on more, presumably.

That night Fermin and I discussed the raising of children, the church - I pointed out that it had survived two thousand years whereas Jesus only lasted thirty three - psychology, and people he knew that made top quality honey for their friends. A mountain towered above us, a mountain he had determined one day to climb, but knew he never would.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.