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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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