Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Memory of Peas

Peas produce a very strong memory reflex in me. Fresh peas, that is. Proust managed to write seven volumes after being set off by a Madeleine cake dipped in sugary coffee*. I don’t think I can manage such a monumental task, but peas remind me of my childhood in an unusually powerful way.

One reason for this is that there are no peas where I live. People sometimes buy tinned or frozen peas for putting with particular dishes, but fresh peas are almost unknown. The pleasure of biting into a newly shelled pea, from a pod you’ve just picked from the plant, and feeling it burst in your mouth, releasing a moist green taste with a tang of something or other I’ve never quite identified, is difficult to convey to those who’ve never experienced it.

Here, peas are grown, but of very poor quality, and they are harvested whole for animal fodder, or not harvested at all, but what is not eaten is left to dry up and die in the field, to add nutrients to the soil. It’s quite common in May and June to pass yellow fields which on inspection turn out to be a carpet of dead peas.

This is not, of course, really about peas. It’s about memories. My father grew vegetables in the garden (and on his allotment) for many years. AT certain times of year we were self-sufficient in peas, runner beans, tomatoes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, radishes, lettuce, cabbage, beetroot, turnips and swedes. The beans were strung from a frame over which a kind of green plastic net was hung, and every spring (early spring, very cold) the process of turning over the whole garden with a fork, and ploughing in the contents of the compost heap, was carried out, mostly by my father, sometimes with the assistance of his more or less willing volunteers.

The Brussels sprouts were big plants, big enough to make a jungle for young boys to play in. The runner beans could be eaten fresh from the plant, crunching in a very satisfying manner in the mouth. And the peas were collected when the time was right and we sat around shelling them into a large bowl. The popping of pods and the taste and smell of the freshly shelled peas left a strong impression on my memory. So when I saw fresh peas in the market the other day, it was not so much the eating of peas that I was looking for, but the recovery of a memory of childhood.

It worked, up to a point. It was fun to shell them, and they were good to eat.

*I read the whole thing a few years ago, in a very good Spanish translation, the first two volumes by the poet Pedro Salinas. I even read part of the first volume in French. Whether it was worth it, I still couldn't say. Reflecting on my death bed, I don't think 'I can go in peace, I have read Proust', will be the main thought in my head. But you never know.

Monday, January 23, 2012


"The boy’s mind lived on a lake. In a big house on a lake. He didn’t see the house as near or next to the lake, but on it. Not floating, just on it. People lived on lakes, after all. Not people like him, to be sure, but people in stories, or people you heard talked about. Pliny had lived on Lake Como. He wanted to live on a lake. And you had to live in a house, everybody did, so the house had to be on the lake. So his mind lived in a big house on a lake...

It wasn’t really a swimming lake. He swam when it was hot or he was annoyed about something. His favourite place for swimming was in the shallow water near the bank with the short, soft grass, because then he could lie in it to dry. But sometimes he swam in the deep water right in the middle, just to show it didn’t bother him. Swimming in pools, or in the sea when they went on holiday, he didn’t like very much. His body felt heavy and the water powerful. In the lake it didn’t matter...

He fished sometimes because there were fish to catch. No one else ever came to the lake to fish, or for anything else, so someone had to catch the fish. Tom didn’t use a rod and line, he didn’t know how to. He fished with his mind, relieving the lake of its excess and passing the time happily, being part of it all. He couldn’t have given a name to the fish, they were just fish. Silver things about eight to ten inches long. Shiny, attractive creatures, with a bit of life about the eyes, moving languorously together in a group that never took any form but always seemed about to. The colours changed too, when they turned sideways and the lighter belly was visible. At times they all did it together, and it was as though a lamp had been shone on the water...

He didn’t eat the fish. He didn’t do anything with them exactly. He fished with his mind and they stayed there until they were forgotten. They went wherever fish do go when the fishermen have finished with them...

...he liked the house on the lake because it was big and empty. Only his mind lived there, and no one ever came to visit, but the house was always clean and warm, and there was always roast beef and buttered buns whenever he wanted them. It was more or less a low box of light grey stone, with a lot of rooms he didn’t use but liked going into, especially the upper ones which were full of chests overflowing with wonderful objects that you could play with, dress up in or just look at for the sheer pleasure of having them. He found old dolls and cricket bats, lace bonnets and leather trousers, yellowed railway tickets to towns he had never heard of, notes and coins from faraway countries some of which he was sure no longer existed, ornate lamps for hanging on brackets or standing on tables, woollen blankets with initials sewn into them, pocket watches that still ticked if you shook them, hourglasses, single earrings, little tin boxes with pictures on the lid, cases made of calfskin and rubber for keeping things that had now been lost, wooden games that children played with long ago and still had most of the pieces, marbles and conkers, rock cakes so hard they were like real rocks, wigs and false moustaches, dried-up paints and tiny mirrors, plastic binoculars and metal knives with blades for doing a hundred different things, books with stories, magazines with pictures, albums half-filled with stamps or cartoons or newspaper clippings or scribblings in unreadable writing. There was always more to be found, always another passageway, a hidden door, and more treasure beyond.

All the rooms had large windows and a view of the lake. Most had the same view, his favourite one; the foreground speckled with water so close he could see the individual drops, giving way to a more even surface, then just a suggestion of silver-grey and in the background the lively green of the long grass that the birds loved to swoop over and which was always in the sun..."

A Question about Bank Accounts*

*Down the bottom. There's some preamble (rambling) first

Something I forget to comment on in the recent post about some of the measures introduced by Mariano Rajoy: it will also become illegal to pay for a transaction worth more than €1000 in cash.

Modern governments hate cash, and probably have done since the dropping of the gold standard. Ideologues hate cash because they fear people may be purchasing unapproved items. Governments fear that they may be losing opportunities to take a bit of tax. Since they have noticed that the need for a physical medium of exchange has been greatly reduced by modern technology they have been looking for ways to limit its use as much as possible. Money cables, credit cards, bank accounts, the interwebs, etc have made trade at all levels a simpler, quicker, more liquid process, and we are all better off for it. But it leaves a trail. That trail should exist for the convenience of the parties involved in the transaction of course, but its existence is a too tempting for the powers that be to ignore. It is the easiest thing in the world to invoke the spectre of drug cartels and Chinese Mafiosi and demand that the trail be preserved for the convenience of the government.

For a couple of years it has been impossible (over here) to have a mobile phone unless it’s linked to an identified bank account. None of that picking one up at the supermarket with a €50 card already in it. You have to go through a tedious amount of paperwork and give out a lot of personal information before the company is allowed to sell you the product you want.

For rather longer it has been impossible to pay in any large sum to your bank account without having to identify yourself and having your details taken. Now it is illegal to pay cash for anything more expensive than medium-sized television.

It won’t work. There are plenty of ways around it, the simplest of which is just to ignore it completely. For decades companies have traditionally worked a kind of double accounting system with their employees’ salaries, industries with anything involving VAT, property registrars with the values of houses, and so on (err, so I hear). The government knows this very well, and they have always been complicit up to a point, and taken it all into account. It would collapse the economy if they suddenly tried to claim all of the tax that the law says is due.

So this new restriction is just a bit of a nuisance, really. It shouldn’t matter very much. Two points, however:
a) It shows the way the new government is thinking- exactly like the old one, but with more freshness and energy (no surprise there),
*b) If the government is going to effectively force everyone to have bank accounts, is there not a case for them supporting banks that should have gone bankrupt, on the grounds that some banks at least must continue to exist?

The answer is almost certainly no, but I can see them using that line to justify something, somewhere, in the future.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Casablanca and Other Westerns

When people ask me about me about my favourite films (and they do, especially children), I usually mention Casablanca, because it’s more or less true. Then I talk about the Westerns I watched in my childhood, and the thrillers- blood, death, crazy people and clever but tortured detectives- that I tend to watch now, because they are entertaining without requiring thought, and Mrs Hickory likes them. Such an answer is what is expected, it’s easily understood, and it doesn’t lead to long and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to explain things to people who don’t want to understand them.

The truth, what I actually watch on those rare occasions when I have the time and the inclination to sit and watch the television with the brain fully engaged and exclusively focused on the screen, is too complicated to attempt to discuss with any but the most enthusiastic cinephile. Italian neo-realism and Scandinavian black comedy are interests so niche that to confess to them is to be dismissed as nuts, or to be asked to pontificate all evening to an audience that thinks you’re nuts anyway.

So I keep my cinematic tastes to myself, at least in real life. But it struck me the other day, when answering a question about those tastes, that Casablanca is really a Western. A Western disguised as an anti-Nazi propaganda film disguised as a romantic melodrama, but at bottom, a Western. Flawed goodies, human baddies, a girl who is too good for all of them, a world too tough for them to live in as they would like, and a battle, a gunfight, that is won by the goodies, and yet not quite won, as the hero of the goodies wins righteousness even as he loses his prize.

Talking of Westerns, I add an idle thought on ‘The Man who Shot Liberty Valance’, a great film even if you don’t like the genre. Liberty Valance is a nasty piece of work, a drunken thug not above provoking men into drawing on him so he can shoot them, a bully and a coward. But he survives by using the decency of those around him against themselves. James Stewart is a moralist, a pacifist (and a bit of a coward too, as I recall) who won’t use Liberty’s spiteful bullying of him as an excuse to fight him, and Liberty knows this. John Wayne is not afraid of him, but won’t kill him just because he can, he will only do it if he is forced to, and Liberty is very careful not to force his hand. The story, and the film, works because the characters are complex, carefully crafted, and coherent. We understand why they behave as they do. Otherwise it would be so much nonsense.

'The Grapes of Wrath'

This is the review I wrote, the notes I jotted down, as soon as I had finished the book. I haven’t changed anything. It would probably have been better if I had, but this way it is authentic (and less work, which is the real reason for leaving it as it is):

I have finished The Grapes of Wrath. Although I know that Steinbeck writes wonderful books, full of dramatic truth and sometimes a kind of magic realism, finely drawn characters and always the feeling that he has written something worth telling and saying, I had never read either Grapes nor Of Mice and Men. This is mostly because I haven't come across them cheap and they are still in copyright so not on Gutenberg. But I found Grapes in a free download and have finally been able to read it.
It is anchored in reality, and apparently reflects how the situation was for the people who had travel in search of work for the first time in generations. Although he explains the reasons they have to go, and is critical both in the voice of the narrator and of the characters of the banks and the big investors who are changing the world and causing such hardship, and although he makes no attempt to understand the true motives of all those involved or to analyse the possible benefits that might derive from the changes- and which did, in the end- (quite rightly. There is no narrative need to do so) the book is not social denunciation or some such rubbish. It is a story, and it never forgets that he is crafting a story.
The hardship, the conditions forced on the workers, the harshness and hard hearts of the powerful, and the cynicism of some of those who take their opportunities at the expense of others are part of the story, not something added on to make a point. It may be a book about its time, but it is still worth reading now, and will be long into the future, because a tells a story about real people- who it first takes the trouble to create- and they are very human and very interesting.
There is more than one narrative voice, aside from the characters themselves and the ostensible narrator. There is one, probably at least two, meta-narrators who appear occasionally to comment on the greater context of the tale, in its historical and human implications.
Steinbeck doesn't wave his hands about in a 'you know what I mean' kind of way, expecting us to imagine all the things that he hasn't been able to create himself, and to gaze in wonder at a mishmash of clichés and transeunt orthodoxy, like many who call themselves writers. He creates his own world, fills it with recognisably human creations of his own, and has them do and feel interesting and coherent things. You live their lives along with them, you can feel what they feel in the sound and rhythm of their words, and it was worth doing.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rajoy's First Days

The new Spanish government has introduced a number of measures to attempt to address the financial crisis. Governments aren’t very good at creating employment, which is the major problem, nor at creating liquidity, especially when they can’t even print money. One of the things they can’t do is force people to spend money, offer, or take out loans- if people aren’t confident they won’t take the chance.

They have increased income taxes, not surprisingly, and closed a number of government agencies, which will have saved a certain amount. Autonomous governments around the country, and not just Popular Party ones, have almost stopped creating new posts for public employees, at least unsackable ones. No one seems to know what to do about VAT. Even the opposition, who reduced it at the start of the crisis, then raised it, then raised it again, aren’t sure what it is they think the government should be doing with it, but they’re pretty sure that, whatever the government does, they’ll find a way to show that it was wrong. Once they’ve finished with their own internal beauty contest, that is.

If you were expecting a more detailed explanation and critique of the measures, then I’m sorry to disappoint. The soap opera of politics has become terribly tedious and I know longer want to waste time getting to grips with the details of it all. If you want to know more there’s a big, wide Internet out there (not much of a sales pitch, I realise, but this blog isn’t in it for the money).

One thing I find a little odd is that the left in general (the Socialist party and the Unions), have accused the government of ‘trying to make the middle classes pay.’ Who do they expect to pay? The working class is doing less work than ever, there are nearly 5 million unemployed, another 4 million are public employees, any working class people left who are lucky enough to make a living are not going to solve the problems between them, and in any case socialists don’t usually talk about taking money from the workers. Therefore I assume they are trying to set the middle class against that nebulous entity, ‘the rich’. But the rich don’t have enough money to solve the problems either, unless you interpret ‘rich’ to include half the middle class and then tax them all into extinction. This is not good policy in the long term. So, the lately governing and now opposition Socialist party doesn’t know what to do. Well, we knew that already. The question is, does the Popular Party have any better ideas. I doubt it, somehow, but we shall wait and see.

Hedgehog News

I read that badger numbers are rising in many parts of Britain, and that hedgehog numbers have been falling sharply and continuously at the same rate. The Independent article (it was ‘drawn to my attention’, but I don’t remember who by, sorry), gives an idea of the extent of the decline and mentions some possible, indeed probable, reasons for it. The article it links to in jstor describes a revealing and high resolution inverse correlation between badger sett density and hedgehog presence (in different areas of Oxfordshire). Not damning, but worthy of consideration.

Many people would consider this to be just another little piece of information about our little island, but in England everyone has to have an opinion about everything. In the comments we find badger-haters, badger-lovers, people who think they’re on a different thread, people who blame their particular political bugbear for the continued existence of badgers/hedgehogs, people who see the writer as part of a government conspiracy, and those who just think he’s an idiot (he isn’t, although the only intelligent comment I read does point out, correctly, that TB is not spread by a virus).

The jstor article is much more difficult for the media butterflies to criticise. It doesn’t claim that it’s all the badgers’ fault, it just observes, and advances interpretation of the findings. Which is what science is supposed to do, often at the cost of not saying very much at all.

Your blogging hedgehog is from North Africa, and knows little of these badgers that so terrorize my European cousins. Back home there are several snakes we have to look out for, as they can unroll us like the badger, and there are a couple of very nasty cat-like things that can just crunch through spines and everything. But not badgers as such. So I have nothing in principle against the creatures.

My bipedal co-blogger remarks that he was brought up in South-East England which is supposed to be full of badgers, but he never saw one. They remain, for him, creatures of myth and fairy-tale, bounteous beings that bring fortune to those who encounter them. Not to me, of course, but I hope I never will.

Friday, January 20, 2012

On Sacking Bad Teachers

I see that the idea of sacking bad teachers has come up again. It won’t happen, it never does. The unions won’t have it and the government isn’t going to pick a fight when they’ll get the blame for the resulting trouble. So I confidently predict, anyway. I would love to be proved wrong.

The fact that it is controversial to suggest not placing our children’s education in the hands of proven incompetents is quite astonishing in itself. There are many jobs that require little more than punctuality, responsibility, personal hygiene and the ability to interact socially (not that it’s necessarily easy to find that combination of skills), and there are invented public sector jobs that could be done by a performing monkey, but teaching is not one of them. In the private sector the lazy, incompetent or unnecessary are very quickly removed, and even in the public sector there is some kind of attempt to make sure that doctors, nurses, policemen and judges (for example) are capable of doing what they’re paid for, but apparently anyone can be put in a classroom and told to get on with it, and no one cares what happens.

The ability to teach schoolchildren is not really a matter of having an extensive knowledge of a subject. It helps to be familiar with and understand it to some extent, and it’s more important at the higher levels, but the real skill of teaching lies in a combination of closely related communication skills, self-confidence, preparation, knowledge of the people you have in front of you and the ability to recognise and respond to their reactions instantly. It’s a complicated process of communication, and part of that process is respect, including making it clear why you are trespassing so heavily on their time and patience. They need to understand the process they are part of.

No, it’s not rocket science, but it’s beyond the scope of quite a lot of people, and unfortunately many of them seem to be teachers.

In Spain, about whose situation I can speak with much greater knowledge, the state education system is full of incompetent teachers. There are two reasons for this, both of which would be utterly indefensible, indeed, inconceivable, if the system were actually designed for the benefit of children. The first is that state teachers are civil servants, and as such have jobs for life. It is almost impossible to remove a teacher who is not buggering boys in the bike shed. There is almost never enough will among the people who could, in theory, move to have a teacher sacked, to follow through the tedious, dense and lengthy administrative and legal rituals to get it done. No will and no interest. They would become extremely unpopular among their colleagues, not to mention in the Union.

The second reason is that the process by which they are chosen to be given that job and pension for life is not intended to assess the candidate’s competence as a teacher. For some years I ran the English department of an Academy that prepared people for the public exams that distributed these lifelong positions; not a diploma which entitled you to apply for a job, but the job itself. I got to know the system very well. I even wrote books about it. It's a terrible mess.

There are two parts to this exam- in the first a subject title, vaguely related to the study of English, is drawn from a list of 75 such subjects and you have to write about it. This is then read to a jury of more experienced teachers who mark it accordingly to a series of criteria which were not even made public until a few years ago (I would have to use my contacts to get some ideas of what they were actually looking for). The second part is to produce and explain a year plan for a specific group, including a detailed description of at least one set of lesson plans. This is also performed in front of the jury.

Guess who wrote the lesson programmes for them? And the first part is divided into sections on grammar, history, literature, didactics, socio-linguistics, and so on, with a number of subject titles in each one. If you got a subject you happened to be able to write well about you could do a good exam, otherwise you’d have to wait another couple of years. Once you’ve passed that exam and got a post there is a notional period of practice/probation, but it’s almost impossible to fail it even if you spend most of it off sick with stress.

In short, the system is not designed to find good teachers and keep them good. It doesn’t care whether teachers can teach or not. The point of the system is to be able to tick boxes in such a way that no one can be blamed when something goes wrong. I know there are lot of incompetent teachers in state schools, not only because in another existence I get paid to do what they are unable to do, but also because I put quite a few of them there.

Any country that lets its government employ bad teachers will get the youth it deserves. And that youth will grow up and let the same thing happen.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

My Thruppence Ha'p'ny on Racism in Football

Málaga FC Undergo Late-Night Sensitivity Training
I didn’t know whether to post this, or merely to tuck it away as a collection of odd thoughts that I might research, analyse, and turn into something worth reading at some point in the future. At the moment it’s more a collection of questions to myself, and if he so wishes, to the reader.

Luis Suárez, a Uruguayan who plays football for Liverpool, has been punished for making racist remarks to Patrice Evra, another football. Punished quite severely, in fact, on the grounds that he made repeated references to Evra blackness in a nasty tone of voice.

It was alleged that he had called Evra a ‘nigger’, (if we’re going to talk about the word I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist), but it then appears that he hadn’t used that word, but a Spanish appellative which is only very broadly similar in its semantic charge and the exact meaning of which in the context has not been properly identified. (In Spain in general, to describe someone as ‘negrito’ is quite harmless and inoffensive, though it probably would be if used as a vocative. How it is used in downtown Montevideo I have no idea).

The fact that Suárez insulted Evra in some way does not seem to be in doubt, but, since Evra had just kicked him in the ribs it’s hardly surprising that he had a go at him. (I have frequently pointed this out to people who say that Spanish football fans are racist because at such and such a ground they made monkey noises at such and such a player. There are, and have been, quite a few black players in Spain, though nothing like the number there are in England, and it has not been unusual to see a black player on the field for over twenty years. Some of them were born here. When fans make monkey noises at a player they aren’t picking on him because of his race, but because they don’t like him. There may have no real reason for disliking him, but it isn’t just because he’s black, not in my experience.)

A young lad at Manchester Utd Oldham also complained recently that a spectator repeatedly shouted racial insults at him when he approached the touchline. It would be nice if the players didn’t have to put up with abuse from fans but football isn’t like that. Also, the player, who appears to have been generally upset by it, and I don’t blame him, has just announce to the entire football world that he’s easily wound up. He may well regret it. And it won’t just be the spectators. In the give and take of the penalty area during free kicks and corners, all kinds of things are said, because the referee can’t hear them, and he only sees the resulting punch from the one who loses his cool under provocation.

Football has far bigger problems of behaviour than a few specific insults which are deemed, for some reason, to be worse than the others that fly about constantly. Football fans are no longer the thugs they were for thirty years, until the football authorities were finally persuaded to do something about it before the whole money-spinning circus got itself closed down, but the fact remains that there is a great deal of menace on the terraces, shouting and singing abuse is still considered a privilege you buy when you pay for your ticket, and parts of many towns are effectively closed down on Saturday afternoon so the crowds can be escorted to the match. The fact that home and away supporters still need to be separated by fences and police lines tells you all you need to know. The problem has not gone away, and it’s a very serious one. Only tradition allows football to continue to do this. I don’t think it’s even the money.

On the field, players constantly try to injure each other, to get each other punished and banned from games by faking fouls, they provoke each other verbally, as I said above, whenever they think the referee can’t hear, they claim goals, penalties, corners, fouls and even throw-ins that they know didn’t exist with an extraordinary passion. The clubs and the media conspire to create an atmosphere close to warfare before any big game, and then deny any responsibility for the resulting violence.

All of these problems are far greater than a few cross words between players in the heat of the moment, but there are risks involved in addressing them, so it’s much easier to pick on a few relatively unimportant but uncontroversially bad things, and declare them to be the root of everything that is wrong with the game.

Much as I enjoy football, I realized long ago that it should have been given an ultimatum to get those involved in it to behave like decent human beings, or, after a period of grace, be abolished. It was never going to happen, of course, and the business of Suárez and company is just the latest attempt to pretend they are doing something by tinkering around with details.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Things I Noticed on the Beach

There is always somewhere people gather to relax, a place associated with exercise, hobbies, activities of great and surprising variety and strangeness. In the centre of Madrid it’s El Retiro; in my little retreat it’s the old railway line; and in Málaga it’s the seafront.

There you will find the usual collection- a large collection, even on a cool January morning- of runners, skaters, walkers, strollers, cyclists, and old people not exactly moving but not exactly keeping still. And among them, and on the beach itself, the more unusual collection; people you weren’t expecting to see but you register without surprise. The sand sculptor who has created a little zoo of flattened animals, a lion painted yellow, a giraffe with darker spots, an unhappy looking elephant, a fat rhino and a rather terrifying crocodile.

There was a girl who appeared to be testing her abseiling kit. She had stretched the belts between two trees and was repeatedly pulling it as tight as possible and checking some aspect of it which I might have been able to define more precisely if I knew anything about abseiling. I hoped that when she’d got it all set up and working she would run into it and do a kind of human catapult thing, but it turned out that that was not the purpose of the exercise.

There was a pair of middle-aged tramps who were trying to work out how to have sex on the beach without attracting attention. If they’d simply got their kit off they’d have had the entire shore to themselves in a matter of seconds but they didn’t think of that. I assume they found a solution in the end.

After the 6th Jan, the front was also full of children on new bicycles and rollerskates, and skateboards and other, more modern forms of locomotion which passed this hedgehog by some time ago. It’s a standard post-Reyes scene, in which parents with hangovers have to take the kiddies out to play with their new presents. Imagine how her eyes will light up when she sees it, they said to each other with joy both paternal and maternal as they bought the new wheels. And they were probably right, but their own eyes did not open with joy, or anything much at all, at six in the morning when they were dragged out of bed to go and watch it being ridden. Such, I imagine, is parenthood. Ups and downs

A great swarm of cotorras- a kind of small parrot, this one I think- flew around in rough formation for a while as we sat eating fish. About thirty of them, a colony formed as a result of a pair escaping from captivity some years ago. They flock, and seem to obey either a leader or a collective, sheep-like instinct to avoid being seen to stand out. As the leader of a flock of sheep at any moment is the one most recently frightened by its own shadow, so these birds seemed to go where the most nervous one was taken by its fear of noise and movement. They are emerald green and strangely compelling to watch. The photo was taken on the phone from a distance and doesn’t do them justice at all.

The fish and the prawns were excellent, too.

Now I’m back at home, working and battling the frost that covers the trees every night. Not everything in life can be selfish pleasure (well, in theory it can, of course, but I’ve never got it properly worked out).

Sunday, January 8, 2012

In the Hills Again

Just a couple of miles north of Marbella lies the Sierra de Las Nieves, a mountain range like many in the south of Spain, imposing from the coast, beautiful when you’re up in it and, despite the name, not actually high enough to be snow-covered, even in winter. It covers a wide area which is crossed by a network of what, for want of a better word, I shall call ‘paths’. They are walkable, indeed they were made by walkers and are intended to be walked, but they are not easy. Mrs Hickory, despite her many merits, is not a mountain goat, and needs a little persuading to get her to join me on these jaunts, but in the end she always comes, and  afterwards when we’re sitting comfortably in a bar at ground level, she claims to enjoy them.

We found a strawberry tree covered with fruit. Some of it was ripe and edible. I don’t know if it’s common for January, you don’t see many of them in my part of the world, but they provided a bit of colour beyond the shades of green and blue.

From the top you can see Marbella, the other mountain ranges which undulate along the coast, Gibraltar (I think), the Mediterranean, and the coast of Africa in the distance. The full effect is made up of the combinations of colours and the physical feeling of being surrounded not only on all sides but also above and below, by the beauty and power of nature, the sensations in the body from the effort of getting up there, and the knowledge that you have to get down again and that it won’t be easy. Photographs don’t give any sense of what it is likely to be there.

There’s nothing particularly special or unusual about those mountains. There are many like them, but they are all worth seeing. Little by little, one by one, we’re getting there.