148278965_3f704bd715_o

SPAIN’S northwest corner is riddled with “ghost villages”, former communities where the people have gathered their most precious possessions and gone.

Homes are abandoned, tended land runs to weed, and livestock is absent.

There are around 1,500 such villages here out of 3,000 across the country, an exodus towards greater opportunities and an easier life.

Economic migration from rural hardship is nothing new; it has gone on for centuries and is not just confined to Spain.

The Irish, the Portuguese, Italians, Poles, Romanians and many more have seen mass movements of populations in the past and in present times.

The United Nations expects almost 70 per cent of us to be living in urban areas by 2050, up from 30 per cent in 1950.

Hiking through the Apuane Alps in northern Italy a few years ago I saw first-hand the reality of this transitional tide.

Passing through a beautiful stone village I met the only inhabitant, an old woman who kept a couple of dogs for protection and company.

The sense of isolation, of loneliness, of vulnerability was palpable.

Scan the internet on the topic of the empty countryside and you’ll see it’s rife with stories of villages for sale and properties that can be bought for a pittance for those willing to rough it.

Managing without running water, mains electricity and the support infrastructure of the modern world is unthinkable for most of us.

The dream of a pastoral idyll pales quickly when the reality of life without immediate access to supermarkets, healthcare and communications kicks in.

Perhaps the demise of rural communities is inevitable, even desirable when it comes to the efficient delivery of goods and services.

But there are social and societal consequences that have value beyond the balance sheet.

Pride in locality, in connection to the land and to its history helps define who we are. Losing rural communities tears at the fabric of culture.

As villages wither the rich diversity of dialects, foods, music, dance and dress are replaced by increasing homogeneity – and that leaves us all the poorer.

Spain still has strong ties to its folk culture and isn’t embarrassed by its agrarian roots which may be why it’s one of the best places in the world to eat.

Here in Leon we’re coming up on a festival of morcilla, a week-long homage to blood pudding in all its wonderful, grisly forms.

Like it or loathe it, it’s a reminder of a time when most people made their living from the land, hunger was commonplace and nothing was allowed to go to waste.

Rural living still has many lessons for the modern world.

Advertisements

Use your loaf, buy village bread

Posted: September 23, 2017 in Food, Spain
Tags: , ,

The little panaderia round the corner from our temporary home in Leon, Spain sells bread by the names of the villages where it’s made.

It comes in a variety of forms – plump cushioned domes, low-rise pads, crispy truncheons, long and short – and all are delivered daily.

None last more than a couple of days because of the absence of preservatives, but taste trumps shelf-life in this part of the world and frugal habits of the old Spanish cocina mean there’s always a use for stale bread.

Made with only four ingredients – flour, water, salt and yeast – it’s at its best, like all breads, while still warm; definitely not more than a day old.

It’s pleasing, too, to entertain the notion of buying into a traditional, artisanal way of life, that supports a rural community and helps a village survive.

American War – Omar El Akkad

A civil war, crippled infrastructure, rampant corruption, random drone strikes, factional in-fighting and suicide bombers groomed from the ranks of despairing youth.

Such a scenario would normally pass for a despotic regime in the Middle East, but Egyptian-born author Akkad flips it to American soil to show how divisive ideologies and misguided policies create the perfect seedbed for terrorism to grow.

The catalyst for war is fossil fuel use in a country where rising sea levels have forced mass migrations from both coasts.

A bill to ban their use throughout the US is championed by the president and leads to his assassination in 2073 by a secessionist suicide bomber.

The country splits between North and South, Blue and Red, with new reasons for animosity layered onto historic hatreds.

Akkad ups the ante still further, stripping away veneers of civilization to imagine state-sponsored biological genocide, the release of a virus and the murder of 100m people.

If you think that’s unlikely, the world’s emerging superpower is the Bouazizi Empire, a conglomeration of former Arab countries who have thrown off their oppressors and joined forces.

They sustain the conflict in America, working both sides of the divide in what one of the regime’s fixers declares to be purely “a matter of self-interest, no more”.

It’s a cynical denouement, showing the US what it’s like to be on the end of its own foreign policies and the cruel consequences of such interventions.

Akkad’s dystopian vision invites the country to bridge its venomous political divide and return to some kind of consensus politics – or face an horrendous future.

33612876440_84da454bc6_oIf you’ve lived through a period of unfettered market forces like Thatcher’s Britain then you’ll know all about the bankruptcy of that ideology and the social misery it unleashed.

Here in the American oligarchy of 2017 the same failed economic dogma holds sway: get government out of the way and let businesses get on with the business of making money. All boats rise on a tide of wealth creation, right?

Except, of course, they don’t. We’ve seen wealth flow into fewer and fewer hands, the ‘trickle down’ theory exposed for what it is and economic polarity widen to unprecedented levels.

The American Dream, exalting a meritocracy in which anyone can make it if they work hard enough, has become a nightmare; just ask any one of the 43m citizens living in poverty, or those living in “food Insecure” households (feedingamerica.org).

The amnesia of the book’s title references political memory loss about the period and the conditions that created America’s greatest prosperity, 1945 through to the 1970s.

During that time the mixed economy delivered the steepest increases in income, wealth, education, health, longevity, opportunity and security the country has ever seen.

Hacker and Pierson demolish the idea that small government is good government and show with sober, statistical analysis that it is an essential partner in capitalist enterprises.

Their examination of the country’s recent history shows the foundations for prosperity came from public investment in education, science, technology and transport.

Government, done right, serves societal needs, not just shareholder value. It intrudes on rampant capitalism with regulations in areas such as pollution, safety and health.

That these kinds of argument need to be restated given the boom and bust scandals of recent times is profoundly depressing.

Anti-government economic fundamentalists are more of a threat to America’s future than any of the inflated menaces of Moslem terrorism, illegal immigration and democratic socialism.

wallaceAmerican Dreamer: A Life of Henry A Wallace –  John C Culver, John Hyde

It’s fascinating to wonder what the world might have been like had Henry Wallace become president of the United States.

No Cold War perhaps, no arms race with the Russians, no domino theories to defend against global Communism, no Korean War nor Bay of Pigs debacles, no need to engage in the disastrous Vietnam War. No segregation. There’d certainly be no need for a wall between the US and Mexico.

Wallace was undone in a shameful night of chicanery at the 1944 Democratic Convention which opened the door for Harry Truman to get the VP ticket and, ultimately, the keys to the White House.

Until then, Wallace’s progressive ideas had saved US agriculture from the boom-and-bust of unfettered market forces and his wider philosophies helped shape FDR’s New Deal.

Fully two years before WW2 was won, while serving as Roosevelt’s vice-president, Wallace was thinking deeply about the peace.

How would the US switch from a military economy while maintaining full employment, how would it raise standards of education and improve health care, what kind of world would be built in the aftermath and what role should America play?

In 1941, Time magazine publisher Henry Luce envisioned a post-war “American century” in which the US could “exert…the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

Wallace responded with his “century of the common man” speech in which colonialism would end and there would be neither military nor economic imperialism.

By 1944 he was prophetically warning against the dangers of American Fascism, writing in the New York Times:

“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity… They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.”

Widening an existing rift in the Democratic Party, the pejoratively dubbed ‘Dreamer’ was becoming a problem and the conservative, pro-business wing wanted him out.

They persuaded FDR, unwell and still consumed by the war, to ignore progressive advisers and to allow Truman to go up against Wallace as the VP candidate. And even though Wallace won the first ballot he didn’t have enough votes to secure the nomination.

From there, the party machinery went to work, deals were done, Wallace was crushed and when FDR died in April, 1945, the little-known, little-regarded senator from Missouri took the helm.

33745643431_5b4a5133cf_oGrape, Olive, Pig

Matt Goulden serves up hearty slices of life in Spain fusing foodie passions with history, curiosity and the joy of discovery.

The book is part travelogue, part chef worship, part love affair and it’s zested with deep respect for what is now his adopted homeland.

He takes us to the coast of Cadiz in the hunt for endangered Bluefin tuna, a village near Salamanca for ritual slaughter of acorn-fed pigs and to the freezing waters of Galicia for the perilous business of barnacle gathering.

Each of the chapters is a self-contained essay, a stage-by-stage gourmand route map to the heart of the nation’s soul, with stories told through the eyes of shepherds and slaughterhouse workers.

The drama of the almadraba, the ancient method of netting tuna, is Hemmingway-esque and one of the best.

The excitement of what’s about to unfold is tinged with superstition and fear: Will the catch measure up? Will the marine gods be kind? These are the brooding thoughts running through the mind of Antonio Gonzales as he “takes a fisherman’s breakfast of cigarettes and silence”.

It’s the descriptive passages around the events and characters we meet where the book is best, lifting it above a mere tasting menu of food indulgences.

Where it’s not so good are the parts of overblown prose like this description of a meal:

“Adria has long said that he’s not in the business of giving pleasure; he cooks in order to produce emotion. And there was no shortage in the range of feelings he pulled out of us that night. Like a hallucinogenic experience, we cycled through stages of nervous energy and quiet contemplation, inexplicable nostalgia and intense, childlike joy. If I really look back at my romantic life, it can be boiled down to one simple objective: to find the best dining partner possible. And here she was”.

The book is rife with similar passages that would be better served up in Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner and as my rapid and greedy consumption continued I began to experience symptoms over over-indulgence, there was just too much of it.

For that reason it slipped down in my rating which is a shame because, like a curate’s egg, it’s very good in parts though probably best savored in individual chapters rather than gutsed-down at a single sitting.

navyLife in Nelson’s Navy – Dudley Pope

You’ll get more than a whiff of sea air in this richly detailed telling of what life was really like in the “Wooden Walls” of England.

How about inhaling the funk of several hundred men and – yes – women, unwashed for months, living alongside livestock, and crammed into extremely confined quarters.

Fourteen inches were width allocations for hammocks. Floor to ceiling deck heights for hands could be as little as 4ft 10in.

As for toilet arrangements, these were, thankfully, neglected areas in Hollywood’s tales of swashbuckling heroes on the high seas.

Not so for Pope who explains how ‘heads’ in the bows were over-the-side, exposed-to-the-elements affairs. In heavy swells and chilly seas it was constipation that kept the surgeon busy.

The detail is both encyclopedic and entertaining but it’s the context that makes this such an enlightening read.

We’ve all read or seen stories about the floggings, the weevils, the press gangs and the brutality of life at sea; while they are largely true they neglect the context of the times and have to be seen as part of a bigger picture.

Only a small proportion of men were conscripted into the navy: for London the quota was 5,700 out of a population of 750,000. Pope sets that against WWII conscription rates in which every able-bodied man was called up unless they could prove their civilian job was essential war work.

Life was violent and harsh at sea, but life was harsh and violent on land too. This was a time when there was no police system and only a small standing army was retained lest it threatened overthrow of government.

Corruption and nepotism was evident in all areas of the navy – just as it was throughout the country – and disease was rife too.

It’s in the area of plague and pestilence that soldiers and sailors really suffered, especially those dispatched to the tropics where typhus, yellow fever, and fevers and agues took a heavy toll.

In the 20-plus years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the navy lost 1,875 men in a series of battles compared with more than 72,000 who succumbed to disease or died in accidents on board.

I still like reading yarns and seeing movies about the days of sail, but it’s also good to have a grasp of the grim and not-so-glamorous reality too.

BeastThe Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America – D Watkins

Get ready to be deeply offended. No matter how genuine you may be about achieving racial equality and equal opportunity, you’ll feel the heat from the burning rage of David Watkins and you won’t like much of what he has to say.

His perspective is heavily jaundiced and his anger unremitting, understandably so given almost routine cop killings of black people in the most questionable circumstances.

But sadly, he undermines the best justification of the rightness of his views, with emotional rants over more sober rationality.

Take this outburst against a cop jailed for the killing of a young black man. “Hopefully, he’ll get butt- and face-fucked every night until he passes out from his own screams. I hope his anus contusions get stitched every day and re-ripped every night. I hope he wakes up in an ocean of his own blood…”

And so it goes on: Hardly Martin Luther King, and not helpful in efforts to bridge the divide between police and public, the privileged and the poor, black people and white people.

The chapter headed Fuck the National Anthem, is another case in point, though at least his rationale for this provocation is better explained.

Watkins’ invective is at times so extreme it seems almost designed to alienate the very people needed to rally to the cause; the rants show the depth of his frustration but won’t bring about the change he seeks.

Here’s an example: “A racist cop quickly arrived on the scene and helped himself to a young black target. He probably salivated at the notion of killing a black kid, probably dreaming about the awards, medals and Zimmerman love he’d receive as he aimed and squeezed”.

Not all cops are racists, not all cops are targeting black people, not all cops are out of control, not all cops are killers and to suggest they are immeasurably weakens the cause he espouses.

It’s a pity his ire is so absolute because he does have plenty to say and he needs to be listened to. For sure, he is saying what many people think and his aim is to “spark a national dialogue for change, challenging our elected officials and inspiring others to look deeper and to fight the underlying, systemic ills responsible for our pain”.

I reckon we’d all agree with that, I just question how it might be achieved. Inflammatory language only adds fuel to the flames and right now the fire risk is high.

image1 (1)

Will in the World – Stephen Greenblatt

Is there anything new to say about Shakespeare? After reading this piercingly smart assessment on how Shakespeare became Shakespeare I’d say emphatically: Yes!

Amid a void of verifiable information on the topic, an industry in academic analysis has flourished, some good, some weak, but all of it built on flimsy foundations and topped with much speculation.

The perceptiveness of this book comes from the author’s skillful and intelligent construction of arguments that give glimpses into the enigma of the Bard and his genius.

Greenblatt layers intimate knowledge of the plays with a scholarly understanding of the context in which they were written – lines, passages, scenes and whole plays come alive with new meaning.

While we have to accept that we’ll never fully know the man, the gift of this book lets us draw nearer to him, enriching our grasp of the events that shaped his talent and enhancing our appreciation of a body of literary work that has no equal.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

image1Matthew Desmond deep dives into the lives of some of the most wretched people in America and produces findings that are an affront to any civilized society, let alone the world’s richest

Tracking eight families through Milwaukee’s dumpiest neighborhoods we get a first-hand account of the misery and the grinding poverty of their existence.

The reasons why they are there and why they can’t break out are mired in complexity but their prospects are unremittingly grim. Nationwide, according to Desmond, there are millions more like them.

Lack of affordable housing with subsequent evictions, exploitation and ghettoization is the core problem and one Desmond believes should be at the top of America’s domestic policy agenda.

He makes a good case: Not having a roof over your head clearly perpetuates the cycle of suffering and hopelessness.

Had the book given more detailed attention to possible solutions I’d have given it five stars. As it is, there are a scant few pages in the epilogue vaguely outlining a universal housing voucher system and the need for greater legal help for tenants taken to court by landlords.

For anything to really change however, a massive shift in societal attitudes (to this largely black underclass)  is required and that’s a tall order. Still, it’s a start.