My favourite time of day

Sunset

The balm of summer drifting towards darkness. What excitement/anticipation/threat hangs in those hours. In fact I think it has to be less than hours, because really the time in which you become aware of the night approaching, of the possibility of fun things and dark things, starts more than an hour and a half before the sun has fully set. In my mind these moments are best encapsulated by deep summer nights spent in London parks. The carefree, innocent fun of playing and lounging about slowly being replaced by thoughts of more sinful pleasures. The heat languishing in the air, the necessary procedures beginning, city lights below an orange sky.

One evening in Cordoba, on my way home at about 9pm, I stopped on the barrier in the middle of the road, waiting for the oncoming traffic to pass, and suddenly some perfect symmetry of headlights, lampposts, tower blocks and the apricot ceiling appeared like a mirage. Stepping out of the present, or stepping into the present really, gave me a small moment of treasured beauty. I’d never seen a sky like that before, and I don’t think I ever will again.

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“If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

Prior to the worldwide recession at the end of the last decade, Spain’s economy was, if not thriving, in a much healthier state. Immigration was increasing, jobs were plentiful, and the construction industry was booming. In the province of Guadalajara, 45 miles from Madrid, Ciudad Valdeluz was built in the midst of this era, when people were dreaming up all kinds of ambitious property developments. It was intended to be a self-containing ‘urbanizacion’, essentially an estate without the sometimes negative connotation of social housing that that term carries in England. An urbanisation is a collection of blocks of flats or apartments, often but not necessarily all sharing the same massive structure. Urbanisations have become hugely common in Madrid since the urban sprawl has put a premium on space and developers have had to build increasingly upward instead of outward (not that inhabitants of Spanish cities have ever been particularly averse to that). They often include swimming pools, sporting facilities like tennis courts, and always a large number of people sharing a relatively small space.

Ciudad Valdeluz is an urbanisation in a slightly different mould. Built entirely on greenfield land, it lies in the rolling hills 10 miles or so from the city of Guadalajara, just off the national motorway N320. In the giddy atmosphere of the Spanish construction industry in the years after the new millennium broke, the town seemed like a great idea. Intended to be a base for young professionals and families commuting to nearby Guadalajara or Madrid (less than an hour’s drive away), people were attracted, and started to buy up apartments there. One of its main selling points was its placement near to Guadalajara station, on which the famous AVE high speed train between Madrid and Barcelona (arguably one of the great success stories of Spanish industry in the 21st century), would stop. Plans were made to build homes for 30,000 people in this settlement.

I visited Ciudad Valdeluz in February, 2015. Today, somewhere between 2000-3000 people live there, a tenth of the planned population. It is an unmitigated disaster.

Valdeluz2

In 2008, the crisis hit and thousands, millions of people lost their jobs. Suddenly, Ciudad Valdeluz was no longer an attractive proposition. Building stopped, in some cases half-way done. Almost overnight, demand had dissappeared. In my brief visit there, I saw very few people (although it wasn’t particularly warm), and lots of space marked out for land that was completely unused, not to mention the unfinished constructions. It is not always easy to read a person’s disposition with one glance, but I found it impossible not to project my own sense of gloominess about the place onto the faces of those I saw. Parents took their children out for walks or bike rides, but their options were severely limited. With motorways surrounding them, there were few places to go but through the streets, and around the half-finished, empty buildings that serve as a glaring reminder of the town’s failings. It must be a hard life there. Without wishing to upset or offend any of the inhabitants, many of them are, for all intents and purposes, trapped. Redundant ‘for sale/rent’ signs are two a penny. Some people, many of them young couples with children, bought properties there at the going price before the recession. I have heard cases of people having mortgages that are now twice the amount of the current house value. Unless something changes drastically, many of these people may well live the majority of their lives and die in a place where they were sold a dream which will never be realised. The promise of a new town, an abundant population, exceptional services… today the town has a splattering of small shops, a cafe (which was closed on the Saturday I arrived), and a golf course. The nearest supermarket is 10 miles away in Guadalajara.

Valdeluz1

The children that have been and will be brought up here will do so in a town that is almost entirely devoid of any sense of character. It is literally just an area for having a roof over your head.

What will happen to Ciudad Valdeluz in the future? Will it eventually attract the people it so desperately needs to turn it into a place? How long will that take? Ten years, 20, 50? Or will it follow the fortunes of many villages in Spain which are dying or already dead? Ghost towns in places like Soria, central Spain, number in the hundreds, and more are being created every year, as the young, discouraged by the lack of work in the disappearing agricultural industry, flee for the cities. Ciudad Valdeluz is somewhat fortunate in that it is less than an hour from the Spanish capital. But if the quality of life there doesn’t improve significantly, people will have little reason to stay. It is not like the villages in Soria where the history of generations of families keep some coming back, sentimentally or otherwise. And if it is eventually abandoned, will people remember it? Will there be anything to mark its existence? Will Valdeluz become the most haunted of ghost towns, unloved, unvisited and unexorcised? If a town loses all its inhabitants, and their descendants, whose lips the name might pass through, are absorbed into the ether by the passing of time, was it ever really there?

Podemos

As the furore over Syriza’s election in Greece begins to settle, and the Greek people prepare themselves for the opportunity to rebuild their society, eyes are turning West towards Spain.

In little less than a year, Spain will go to the polls. Barring a miracle, one of three parties will find itself in power; Partido Popular, those currently in government, PSOE, the other half of the two-party monopoly familiar to voters in many European democracies, or Podemos, the new kid on the block that just might shake, kick and drag Spain into a new political and cultural paradigm.

Podemos are making a lot of people, Spaniards and otherwise, feel very excited. Of course, as is the inevitability of politics to divide people into clans and split opinion, they are also being given a decidedly unfriendly welcome by others. One of the reasons why they are generating such clamour is that they have only been around for a matter of months. Formed in early 2014, emerging from the ashes of the anti-austerity, anti-corruption protests that erupted in Madrid a couple of summers earlier, they share this relative youth with Syriza, who were established by like-minded political activists in Athens in 2004.

Since then, Podemos have taken politics in Spain by storm. A few months after their unveiling, they performed remarkably well at the European elections in May, and have gone from strength to strength, confounding the critics who wrote them off as a flash in the pan. Towards the end of last year, they came first in a poll of voter intentions, dramatically beating the two behemoths who have dominated the Spanish political landscape since the transition to democracy. They are now the second biggest party in Spain in terms of members, ahead of PSOE, who are suffering a meltdown echoing that of Ed Miliband’s Labour in Britain.

If the truly remarkable does not come to pass in December 2015, that of a two year old party winning a general election in a major European democracy, then there are some incredibly encouraging signs to take away from the rise of Podemos. Signs that could, and should, be monitored by all European nations. This is a story of an organisation that has harnessed grassroots politics and social media to galvanise a populace bitter and angry at an unforgivably corrupt elite. There is a new wave of energy passing through Spain, largely thanks to Podemos. It is no coincidence that the fact that its members were those fighting and demonstrating against the government in 2012 is a large part of why they have been so successful. They have demonstrated that it is possible to go from nothing and to shake the foundations of politics – to break through and achieve an opportunity for real change. The political elite (and by proxy, politics itself) is often seen as indecipherable, invisible and omnipotent, especially in a country where the disease of corruption is so endemic that it seeps not only from the wounds of the government and the (previous) opposition party, but also from those of the Royals. The trial involving the King’s own sister and her husband for tax fraud is ongoing, and shows no signs of painting the Royal Family in glory. As a new force like Podemos have begun to make real achievements, the Spanish people and those further afield have been drawn to them.

At the very least, the parliamentary election in December may well see the highest voter turnout in years, particularly among young people, which, largely thanks to Podemos, would be a hugely commendable achievement.

Since you’ve been in Spain

As is the habit when you’re an English teacher in Spain, I was talking to some English teachers yesterday. In Spain. We got onto the subject of the unrealistic expectations your friends have of your life abroad when you go back home to visit. I think when our friends think of our lives here, they just think we’re constantly living the highlights reel; sea, sun, sangria. When in actual fact, our day-to-day lives consist of a lot of the same tedious mundanities; a stressful early-morning commute, ups-and-downs of the job, feeling so knackered by the end of the day that all you want to do is sleep. Not to mention that most English teaching jobs are not terrifically well paid. I’m not trying to dispel the suggestion that general quality of life is better (aside from economic woes); I think it is. But I get the impression my friends think I’m constantly sitting by the sea supping on a San Miguel (check out my sexy alliteration). So I decided to compile a list of some of the mis-informed assumptions and questions of our friends that we came up with yesterday. Think of it as the alternative guide to Erasmus:

– Myth: Your Spanish must be so good by now! Reality: I speak English in my job, with my flatmates, and the people I socialise with. (Unfortunately, when you move to a new city, the people who tend to be most friendly and receptive towards you are not the locals, but the people in the same position; the debutantes, the travellers, the foreigners). As much as I would like to improve my Spanish, I don’t think asking for a menu, a cerveza and the bill a couple of times a week is really helping me.

– Myth: You must be so tanned by now! Reality: Hot? Yes. It’s very hot. The metro is more or less unbearable mid afternoon. Unfortunately our outside hours tend to be early in the morning and the evening after work. Of course there’s the weekend, when you bomb down to the park thinking you’re gonna get yourself a nice tan and then end up moving your picnic into the next bit of shade every half an hour because it’s too boiling to think.

– Myth: So you spend all your time by the beach huh? Reality: No. Madrid is dead-centre Spain. It’s a flipping desert for hundreds of miles around.

– Myth: Tell me one of your stories!.Reality: Now this one should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is generally true that the combination of a new place, change of mindset, and an introduction to new and different kinds of people is generally conducive to new experiences and interesting situations. However, my life is not the plot of Eurotrip.

– Myth: Have you killed a bull yet? Reality: Ok so this one is so ridiculous that I… made it up. Yes I made it up. No-one has ever asked me this. (But if you were to the answer would be yes. 3.)

 

So please guys, stop asking us these questions, you’re only making us feel unfulfilled and like we’re letting you all down. We all know life in London isn’t all fish and chips, Mary Poppins, and red telephone-boxes. In fact I haven’t used a red telephone box in a very long time. I shall have to do that next time I’m back.

Christopher Hubbart

I woke up to some disturbing news this morning. This story: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-27553652 is a report about a Californian man found guilty of raping at least 40 women (and suspected of many more) between 1971 and 1982. He is soon to be released from prison to live in a remote area in California, and as is to be expected, people in this community and the wider area are extremely angry about it. This happens every time a notorious or well-known criminal is released from prison. No-one wants an ex-con living in their community. As much as this attitude is troubling, it’s an absolute inevitability; people don’t want people who have committed awful crimes to be living near people they care about. But when senior political figures like Los Angeles County District Attorney, Jackie Lacey, are allowed to make comments like this in response to the case, without any kind of critical dialogue (because no-one wants to be seen saying something that could be interpreted as defending a rapist), the ramifications are massive and extremely troubling. Here is an excerpt from the BBC article:

Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey spent months fighting the decision to release him to live in her county.

“I am extremely disappointed with the court’s decision,” she said. “Now we are preparing for his arrival.

“We will do everything within our authority to protect the residents of Los Angeles County from this dangerous predator.”

 

Now when normal, everyday people are angry about an ex-rapist moving into their community, it is understandable because they are reacting with their hearts, from places of fear and doubt. But when you have influential and powerful people making statements like the ones here, people you expect to be able to think rationally, with their heads, and produce a reaction that is not guided solely by emotion, they should be met with some kind of criticism. Because what are the logical conclusions of what this district attorney is saying? 

1. That some criminals (or perhaps the majority of criminals, or perhaps even all criminals, or perhaps criminals guilty of certain crimes) are incapable of rehabilitation. 

2. That the district attorney is fundamentally distrustful or downright disbelieving of the judge and the parole board’s abilities to decide who and when it is warranted, justified, and safe to release people from prison.

3. That the justice system is fundamentally broken, as a result of the first two conclusions. 

4. That some criminals should be destined to live out the rest of their lives in jail (or indeed, as the death penalty is still legal in America, that they should be put to death). 

There is another possible conclusion to what Jackie Lacey is saying: 

– That rehabilitation of criminals is possible, she just doesn’t want ex-cons living in this area.

In which case, where should they live? Let’s not forget that the availability of places to re-situate this man is already fairly limited, as the conditions of his release dictates:

Christopher Evans Hubbart, who police believe may have had as many as 100 victims, will rent a small house in a rural area near the city of Palmdale… Doctors there recently concluded he was fit for release, but few options were available – in California, sex offenders must not live within 2,000 feet (600 metres) of schools and other places where children congregate.

 

If this is the case, then it would seem Jackie Lacey agrees that criminals can be rehabilitated and released back into society, she is just not willing to take any part in it. I mean let’s be honest here, what is more likely to make someone’s mental state unstable and thus possibly recidivate? Active ostracisation of him in the community and great efforts to let him know he’s unwelcome? Or an approach which acknowledges the inevitably (and necessary) thorough conditions and restrictions of his parole, and allows him to readjust to normal life? 

This is an incredibly emotive and troubling issue. The nimbyism is hard to avoid for anyone, even for me, whilst I am seeking to defend his release (or at the very least, the idea that serious criminals can be rehabilitated and released back into the wider community, which is what Jackie Lacey and the residents of this Los Angeles community seem to be arguing with). But there comes a point where you have to say, if it’s ok for something to be reintroduced to another area, it should be ok for it to be reintroduced into my area.

 

 

Daniel Rossen

I wanted to make sure I talked about a variety of things on this blog so this post is going to be about bands called Grizzly Bear, Department of Eagles, and my favourite musician in the whole world, Mr Daniel Rossen. I first heard Grizzly Bear probably about 4 years ago. It took me a while, I have to say. Now they’re pretty much all I listen to. I have to force myself not to put them on my Ipod because they’re literally all I will listen to if I do. Listening to Grizzly Bear to me feels like taking the red pill. Music will never be the same again. It’s so hard to get excited about anything else now because I know it just won’t be as good. Before Grizzly Bear/After Grizzly Bear will be a huge defining point for me, not just in music, but in my life. To me, the principal songwriting force in Grizzly Bear is Daniel Rossen. Actually, the band share creative duties between the four of them, with the lion’s share going to the two singers: Daniel and Ed Droste. Ed’s written some great songs (All We Ask, Two Weeks, for example) and they’re all part of what makes GB great. But Daniel’s style is like crack to me. He has a side project who are good enough to be considered alongside GB called Department of Eagles, and last year he released his first solo work, a short EP called Silent Hour/Golden Mile. He’s also released various covers down the years and they’re all fantastic: anything this man touches turns to gold. Today I’m going to talk about just three reasons why I love Daniel Rossen. I’m going to use some mildly geeky technical musical terms, don’t be intimidated.

  1. Interesting and unique chord progressions. The guy has a background in jazz theory, and it shows in his approach to music. One of the most difficult things in music is making chord progressions sound new or different, or even finding new chord progressions. Rossen has this amazing ability to create a song using a chord, or a chord progression you’ve never heard before. Take, for example, ‘Floating on the Lehigh’ from Department of Eagle’s album, ‘In Ear Park’. This song contains 5 different ways of playing a D chord, all on the same melody. To understand why this is amazing you have to understand how hard it is to make something sound original with traditional chord progressions. Most bands and musicians stick to tried and tested chord progressions (this video by the Axis of Awesome demonstrates this perfectly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pidokakU4I). These chord progressions are so popular because they  provide enough musical and tonal harmony and conflict on their own that they basically do the work for you. You could sing pretty much any melody on top of a chord progression like this (the one demonstrated in the video), and provided it’s in tune,  it would sound catchy. Daniel Rossen manages to conjure melodies with chords using the same base note (in this case D), i.e. his chords might change only one or two notes yet he manages to make them sound worlds apart. It’s like if you were a painter and you were only using one colour, and you had to show contrast using the thinness of your brush, rather than the variety of your palate. This is pretty much unique in popular music, at least today. The Beatles and Radiohead are cut from the same cloth. Of course those jazz guys are geniuses, they’ve been doing things like this for decades. Another example is a song from his solo album: Saint Nothing. Most of the time when I’m listening to a song for the first time I can work out at least a chord or two if not the whole progression. This song threw me. I have never heard this opening chord progression in a song before or since. Saint Nothing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wMG2jbvCr0Y&feature=kp. Floating On The Lehigh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUSyLeGxeA8.
  2. Incredibly beautiful vocal harmonies. He thinks about not just which note to accompany the primary melody, but how long to hold it for, when to introduce the next one, whether to introduce more, how long to hold the first one, etc… It’s like a beautiful patchwork of voices. Check out the intro to his cover of Waterfall by the late Judee Sill (who I also urge you to listen to because she’s fantastic): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IoqyxxvdzA. Or the intro to a Grizzly Bear song, Dory: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLlDoKdeG6Q. Another innovative thing Rossen does with harmonies is that, using his knowledge of music theory, he is able to to make the vocals go against the chords the guitar plays, in a harmonic way. By this, I mean he is able to use vocals to make a guitar chord sound completely different to what it is, like making a major chord sound minor and vice-versa. No One Does It Like You is a great example of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cIWMWCcpO_Y.
  3. The last thing in this list is something very specific: something I like to call deceptive root notes. Most guitarists play chords  where the lowest note (also called the bass or root note) agrees with the chord. I.e. in any kind of C chord, C major, minor, diminished, whatever, the root note will almost always be a C. Daniel Rossen’s guitar work rarely follows this rule. One of his favourite techniques is to strum the root note then half a second later, the rest of the chord. However the first note he plays will very often not be the same as the note the chord belongs to. This is very cool because it starts you expecting one chord (and implicitly, one melody, one harmony) and then comes in with a completely different one. The best example of this is the first chord of the chorus (1:10) from this song, Phantom Other: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yd2qRn5Dn-o.

Well done for getting through all that, and thanks for reading! I’m going to see him at Union Chapel in August. I have never been this excited for a gig, ever.

21/05/2014

Hostels are weird places because, unlike hotels, you’re often living in close proximity to the people in charge of them, and, unlike hotels, you’re not really paying them enough to pretend they give a shit about you. They’re the kind of places where you can hear people having sex at 1 in the afternoon in the room next to you, or someone half-playing ‘Ode To Joy’ on a shitty toy keyboard at 3 at night. I CAN’T WAIT TO GET THE FUCK OUT OF THIS PLACE. SERIOUSLY. 

When I first arrived in Madrid, I stumbled into a hostel near Principe Pio late at night having typically not organised myself to book one in the three weeks before I knew I was coming here. I got a room with a TV, a shower, a sink and a double bed all for 25 euros which was pretty decent. However climbing under the covers was not a pleasant experience: even for a long-time smoker the tobacco-soaked odour of those bedsheets was hard to deal with. 

The worst hostel I remember staying in was in Marseilles in 2009. The mattress and bedsheets were more stained than not, the loos were holes in the floor and the flies had more claim to residence than we did. It was made barely tolerable (or possibly worse, I don’t remember) by the generous amount of weed my friends parlaid for 10 euros from a homeless French man and his (homeless French) dog. (I must stress the dog played no part in the transaction, barring the possibility that his intermittent yelps represented some kind of street psychic haggling advice undecipherable to us). 

Anwyway, I high-tailed it out of that Principe Pio hostel and have spent the last few weeks living in a combination of hostels, flats and bnb’s, until I finally found a flat. It’s a little more expensive than I was hoping, and it’s a little further away from the centre than I was hoping, but it’s bloody marvellous. I feel like I can see all of Madrid from my window.