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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Could Labour lose the Oldham by-election?

Sources warn defeat is not unthinkable but the party's ground campaign believe they will hold on. 

As shadow cabinet members argue in public over Labour's position on Syria and John McDonnell defends his Mao moment, it has been easy to forget that the party next week faces its first election test since Jeremy Corbyn became leader. On paper, Oldham West and Royton should be a straightforward win. Michael Meacher, whose death last month triggered the by-election, held the seat with a majority of 14,738 just seven months ago. The party opted for an early pre-Christmas poll, giving second-placed Ukip less time to gain momentum, and selected the respected Oldham council leader Jim McMahon as its candidate. 

But in recent weeks Labour sources have become ever more anxious. Shadow cabinet members returning from campaigning report that Corbyn has gone down "very badly" with voters, with his original comments on shoot-to-kill particularly toxic. Most MPs expect the party's majority to lie within the 1,000-2,000 range. But one insider told me that the party's majority would likely fall into the hundreds ("I'd be thrilled with 2,000") and warned that defeat was far from unthinkable. The fear is that low turnout and defections to Ukip could allow the Farageists to sneak a win. MPs are further troubled by the likelihood that the contest will take place on the same day as the Syria vote (Thursday), which will badly divide Labour. 

The party's ground campaign, however, "aren't in panic mode", I'm told, with data showing them on course to hold the seat with a sharply reduced majority. As Tim noted in his recent report from the seat, unlike Heywood and Middleton, where Ukip finished just 617 votes behind Labour in a 2014 by-election, Oldham has a significant Asian population (accounting for 26.5 per cent of the total), which is largely hostile to Ukip and likely to remain loyal to Labour. 

Expectations are now so low that a win alone will be celebrated. But expect Corbyn's opponents to point out that working class Ukip voters were among the groups the Labour leader was supposed to attract. They are likely to credit McMahon with the victory and argue that the party held the seat in spite of Corbyn, rather than because of him. Ukip have sought to turn the contest into a referendum on the Labour leader's patriotism but McMahon replied: "My grandfather served in the army, my father and my partner’s fathers were in the Territorial Army. I raised money to restore my local cenotaph. On 18 December I will be going with pride to London to collect my OBE from the Queen and bring it back to Oldham as a local boy done good. If they want to pick a fight on patriotism, bring it on."  "If we had any other candidate we'd have been in enormous trouble," one shadow minister concluded. 

Of Corbyn, who cancelled a visit to the seat today, one source said: "I don't think Jeremy himself spends any time thinking about it, he doesn't think that electoral outcomes at this stage touch him somehow."  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.