Monday 28 August 2023

A Decent Cup of Tea in Barcelona

The Torre de Collserola is inescapable...

... As is the nearby Tibidabo Amusement Park

I have always enjoyed being "abroad", but these days I have come to hate the business of actually getting there (or getting back home, come to that). How do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways... Quite apart from the wilful absurdity of flying anywhere today on a burning planet, modern-day travel seems to consist of little more than various types of inconvenience, expense, and boredom glued end to end, broken only by episodes of mutual incomprehension and flashes of impotent rage. Travel may broaden the mind (I have always doubted this, myself) but tourism can certainly shorten your life. Grrr... But I've gone on about all this before (see The Trials of Travel) so won't unlock that overstuffed suitcase again.

I mention this because we were away for a week in August, staying in a pleasant hotel in a quiet part of Barcelona. Yes, such a facility in such a place at such a time does exist; it's not all young folk puttin' on the style (though there is quite a lot of that). And, yes, we did fly, with the admittedly feeble excuse that it has been four years since we last fought for luggage-space in the overhead lockers of a cut-price pressurised travel-tube. But I don't propose to bore you with my rather unexciting traveller's tourist's tales and holiday snaps.

But what's that you say? Well, OK then, since you ask, maybe just these few. I'll warm up the magic lantern. Can we dim the lights, please?

Slide 1:

Barcelona in August is by reputation always hot and humid, but was not as badly affected by the latest record-breaking heat-wave as parts further south, and thankfully not immediately under threat from wildfires. Something we hadn't anticipated, however, was that the city goes in for a Paris-style mass vacation during August, leading to streets lined with shuttered establishments of every kind, at least in the less touristy parts of town. It seemed that no sooner had we found an open restaurant that it would shut down the very next day for the rest of the month. No wonder the staff all seemed so cheerfully demob happy. Catalans are not French, of course, so service with a scowl is not de rigueur, but many waiters and bar staff seemed positively skittish, practically high; perhaps they were. That would certainly account for a couple of menu mix-ups, but my shaky Spanish was more likely to blame. At one meal, for example, I got manzana and manzanilla muddled up, receiving a cup of camomile tea instead of the apple tart I thought I had ordered. Being British, of course, I drank the tea uncomplainingly, and as a reward for my stoic / wimpish forbearance slept miraculously well that night. Camomile, eh? Noted. (I know, but I did warn you these adventures were rather unexciting).

Pork with padrón peppers, followed by apple tart
(I remembered the phrase book, this time)

Slide 2:

Talking of food, I happen to like nuts very much. I eat a lot of them under normal circumstances, but when travelling and the prospect of delays is inevitable, I usually put a large bag of mixed nuts and raisins in my bag, together with maybe an apple, which make a perfectly satisfactory substitute for a meal. In fact, I like nuts so much I quite look forward to that eventuality. So you can imagine my reaction when a steward announced on our outward flight that "today we have on board someone with a severe nut allergy, and so no food items containing nuts will be sold or should be consumed for the duration of the flight". Noooo!

It reminded me of how, when he was at day nursery, my son's lunchtime sandwich of choice was invariably peanut butter. Then a new child arrived with, yes, a nut allergy, and peanut butter was henceforth banned. Noooo! It was a first taste of what seemed like an emerging issue in the 1990s, where people could die – die! – from exposure to something as benign as a peanut. Which isn't even a real nut, dammit. I don't recall that ever being an issue when I was a kid, when we happily pelted each other at breaktime with various allergenic food items. Although perhaps children were regularly vanishing from our classes, unexplained, and we just didn't notice. Of course, after experiencing school dinners a lot of people have claimed to be "allergic" to semolina, say, or – argh – stewed plums and custard, but a lifelong repulsion is not really the same thing, is it? To say you would rather die than eat stewed prunes is rhetoric; actually to die as a result is not.

Rules, rules, rules, and petty restrictions everywhere...
What is the point of a museum, I ask you, if you can't even use a megaphone??

Slide 3:

Nearly there...

Talking of delays (yes we were), our two-hour flight to Barcelona from Bristol was extended into a three-hour-plus journey by the encounter with passport control. We arrived around lunchtime, simultaneously with several other flights, and joined an enormous queue of several hundred non-EU residents snaking around a tape-barrier maze that filled a swelteringly hot hall, shuffling forward painfully slowly to be inspected by just two customs officials, all the other four or so booths being closed. That aforementioned stoic British forbearance was being tested to its limit. I, for one, kept getting the urge to jump up onto something and demand, "So which of you complacent shits voted for Brexit?? Come on, show yourselves! Put up your hands! Show us your precious blue passports now!!"

However, it turned out that this was not spiteful euro-retribution for an ill-judged referendum. Because exactly the same thing happened on the return flight into Bristol airport. Our flight touched down at 23:30, as scheduled. As did several other flights. Because of the competition we had a tedious 20-minute wait on the tarmac for transfer buses to arrive, and then, yes, joined an enormous queue of several hundred UK residents snaking around a tape-barrier maze that filled a swelteringly hot hall, shuffling forward painfully slowly to be inspected this time by a row of automated booths, containing machines that failed to read the passports or biometric data of a fair number of us, me included, which meant I was directed to yet another queue which led, again, to the only two booths operated by human officials. We eventually arrived home at our Bristol flat at 1:30 in the morning. What was I saying about modern-day travel consisting of nothing more than various types of inconvenience, expense, and boredom glued end to end, broken only by episodes of mutual incomprehension and flashes of impotent rage?

Slide 4:

But enough of this moaning about "First World problems". Such mild inconveniences are nowhere near a fair price or adequate karmic offset for adding to the unwanted tourist burden of faraway places that were perfectly happy as they were before they became playgrounds for people who want to behave like entitled celebs for a couple of weeks, or experiment with their capacity for drink, drugs, and bad behaviour on someone else's doorstep. Not to mention raising property prices, destroying local communities, and accelerating climate catastrophe. We should all stay at home. Although we won't, will we?

Here's a fun thing, though. Like many well-meaning professional-class Brits, at home we favour brands whose green credentials are at least plausible. One of these is Clipper Teas, whose attractive packaging is very distinctive, and clearly designed to appeal to well-meaning professional-class types like us. Now, one of the fundamental problems of being a Brit abroad has always been getting hold of a decent cup of tea, instead of the anaemic infusions that are passed off as "tea" beyond our borders. So you can imagine the delight with which I fell upon an unmistakable box of Clipper "Organic English Breakfast Tea" teabags in a Barcelona store. It was only when looking closer that I noticed something odd.

At home ...

... Abroad

WTF? It seemed like the most blatant case of copycat brand-theft I'd ever seen, until I discovered that Clipper is marketed as "Cupper" in Europe, because another tea company had already registered the name "Clipper" in Germany (surely "Klipper" in German, though? And no doubt they peddle that instant-piss-in-a-bag stuff, not proper tea). You have to admit that "Cupper Tea" (geddit?) is a smart, economical, and creative typographical move, though, and a classic example of that eternal cliché, turning a problem into an opportunity.

Slide 5:

A final observation, and then I'll shut up. This magic lantern is starting to get a bit too hot, anyway.

I've often remarked that parachuting into an unfamiliar location for a week or two is not a good way to get good photographs. It can work for an experienced photo-journalist, but for most of us it's a waste of time. Your eye is caught by trivialities and novelties, not to mention the touristic eye-candy that everyone wants to photograph (or, these days, photograph themselves standing in front of). So for this trip I decided to take my own advice for once, and restrict myself to the use of my phone, so as merely to document a holiday and nothing more ambitious.

I did in the end pack a small camera as well (Fuji X20) but barely used it: 14 exposures, versus 234 on the phone. I am never the most prolific picture-taker anyway – it's usually a case of one or two shots and I'm done – and most of those 234 phone shots were actually of objects inside various museums that I thought might come in handy for collage purposes. I did have a few regrets (I really wished I'd had a "proper" camera for the dry fountain shot below, for example) but in the main it made for a more relaxing time, just to be able to wander about, behaving and looking just like everybody else, and without the (self-imposed) pressure to find great photographs. Although that fountain is still pretty good, I think: a decent phone camera is a camera, after all. You just have to accept and work within its limitations.

Passeig de Jean Forestier
(most fountains have been switched off this summer)

As an illustration of both principles – that local knowledge beats everything else, and that any camera can be the right camera in the right hands – the best pictures I brought back of the city were probably some postcards made from polaroid photos by a local setup called 4photos, who have managed to hit a sweet spot between the documentation of their own city's highlights for touristic purposes whilst looking for a fresh angle on them. I liked them so much, in fact, that I ordered a whole load more from their website when I got home. Here are a few:

But, in the end, there is no escaping from the fact that for "serious" work – photographs, that is, which are intended to be printed, exhibited, and bought (yeah, right) – a phone is not yet a substitute for a camera with good optics and a large sensor. This will change, I'm sure, and in good light and used with care the results of phone photography are already impressive (after all, the photograph that I did print, exhibit, and sell at the recent RWA show was taken with my iPhone). But in low light, dim interiors particularly, noise becomes a problem that no amount of clever filtration can improve without smoothing away too much fine detail for my taste. Phone JPGs always look great on a screen, though, even if the sky was never really that blue, or the colours quite so intense, and are perfect for sharing or (cringe) memory-making (/cringe), and if you must record and share your restaurant experiences (a habit I have always ridiculed, but our kids demand it, honest...) what better, more discreet way could there be?

A good memory, worth recording...
Squid at El Trapío. Yum.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

To Be In A State

C.R.W. Nevinson, Acetylene Welding, 1917

One of the first things English speakers grapple with when learning Spanish is the fact that, whereas we have only the one verb "to be" (I am, you are, we are crazy), Spanish has two: ser and estar. How this came to be the case is complicated but, although it can be highly nuanced in idiomatic language, the basic distinction is easy to grasp: ser is used for permanent, essential conditions, and estar is used for temporary states.

You can do something of the sort in English, of course. Language, like nature, always finds a way. For example: I am an idiot (permanent), but you are being idiotic (temporary, even if frequently the case). No problem. Other languages make similarly subtle distinctions by other means. For example, an early cause for despair among would-be learners of Russian is the discovery that nearly all verbs come in two distinct versions ("aspects"): one for when an action is ongoing or incomplete, and one for when it has been completed (something Putin must be juggling with at the moment). What, you thought learning a different alphabet would be the hard bit?

As an amateur language-watcher, I find it interesting that a new sort of permanent vs. temporary distinction has been emerging in English in recent times – American English, mainly – particularly when describing certain minorities. When we are urged to speak of "enslaved people" rather than "slaves", the point is clearly to emphasise an unchosen state, potentially if not actually temporary, rather than an essential condition. Nobody is a slave, even if born into slavery; they will have been enslaved by somebody else. Similarly, the homeless are now often referred to as "unhoused people", and the autistic as "neurodiverse", all from the same dignifying, humanising impulse: "see me as a whole person, not as a diminishing label".

It is easy to understand and appreciate the motivations behind these locutions, even if the resultant language can be awkward and has a certain finger-wagging pedantry about it. It reminds me of the two most important lessons that I learned at university from the brightest, most forward-thinking people I encountered (who, it has to be said, did not include the actual teaching faculty), which were these:

First, that one of the main enemies of progress is essentialism i.e. the insistence that a person has a "natural" set of attributes derived from their basic biological configuration – particularly gender, race, and sexual orientation (although as a short, left-handed person I always wanted to add height and handedness) – which wholly determine who they are and what they are capable of doing. You know the sort of thing: women are less intellectual than men, white Europeans are a superior race, etc., etc.; the usual litany of discrimination and privilege. Those of a conservative, reactionary cast of mind love essentialism in the same way they love social class because, especially when deployed in combination, they explain and justify the existing order of society, with the "natural" result that the right people (them) come out on top, for all the right "natural" reasons.

The second lesson was that many of these arrays of allegedly essential qualities are actually social constructs i.e. they have been invented by humans, by imposing rigid patterns of behaviour onto fluid, complex realities. These patterns get embedded into a society's way of doing things, but they are often merely "performative", in the jargon, and almost always give a significant power advantage to one constituency in its relations with the others. Language tends to disguise this constructedness, and to make these prescribed behaviours and power relationships seem, again, "natural" or, even better, invisible. But, being social constructs, they can be changed by society, given the will, sometimes by changing the language, but primarily by political and legal remedies aimed at redressing imbalances. Thus, just as trade unions give workers collective strength in negotiations with employers, so legislation can make discrimination on various grounds not just bad manners but illegal.

Thus far, no problem. These ideas, once novel, have gone on to become commonplaces. But lurking in them is an assumption that, I suspect, some younger people might find "problematic". That assumption is that a short person is and will always be short, a left-handed person is and will always be left-handed, and so on. [1] In other words, these are not, in the Spanish sense, temporary states of being. It is the prescription,  prejudice, and discrimination that are the problem, not the permanent attributes towards which they are turned. I am left-handed, in common with 10% of the population, and I am truly horrified when I consider the damage and distress that must have been done to those poor devils forced in the past to adopt right-handedness as the only permissible normal and natural state. It can still be very frustrating dealing with an overwhelmingly right-handed world, but it has never occurred to me that problems with handedness or height could be remedied by surgery or by behaving as if one were really right-handed or taller. You adapt, and accept that yours is a minority condition.

That relatively clear-cut picture has become blurred in recent times. It's as if the idea that "you can be whatever you want to be" has started to replace, or at least to rival the venerable idea that "you have to make the best of what you are", especially in the minds of the young. This is quite a profound change, with considerable consequences. At some point in the relatively recent past, for example, the words "sex" and "gender", formerly synonyms, went their separate ways, with "sex" denoting biology, and "gender" denoting behaviour and chosen identity.

Of course, there have always been those who took issue with the expectations and restrictions imposed on them by virtue of their biological sex ("Hey, I'm a neurotic poet, why should I be the one to dig and die in these trenches, when my sister is the sensible, sporty one?"), and some – who knows how many? – whose deepest, secret, but forlorn wish was to have been born into the opposite sex. These strike me as issues unrelated to same-sex desire, or indeed to sexuality at all. It seems to me that the current fraught "trans" debate (uh oh, here we go) is really a debate about social behaviour and identity, not about who one does or doesn't want to have sex with. And, at its most explosively controversial, comes down to: how legitimately can one claim a different "gender" whilst retaining one's original "sex"?

As I understand it (which is not very far), full transitioning is not about swapping from one fully-functioning sex to the other, which is not (yet?) medically possible, but about enabling the appearance and social performance of gender for those who wish to take on a different gender identity as fully as hormone supplements and surgery can make possible. As it happens, an old friend of ours has a fully trans son whom I have met several times in recent years, and you would be unlikely to guess that he had not always been male, although there is perhaps an uncanny sense that he had somehow never been a boy. Whatever your views on the matter, he seems far happier as a result, and you can only admire the courage and commitment that such a full transition requires.

A much simpler form of gender-swapping, obviously, is cross-dressing, which has a long tradition in Britain, from boy actors in Shakespeare's day and 18th century molly houses, to Christmas pantomime dames and principal "boys". It is also conveniently reversible, and it seems a stretch to regard this as equivalent to irreversible surgery, unless you think "trans" is just an abbreviation for "transvestite". Does Grayson Perry change from a straight man to a trans woman and back, depending on which getup he is wearing? I don't think so, but perhaps he does; after all, a core credo of the vociferous trans lobby is that "a trans woman is a woman". Cross-dressing is nonetheless fraught with contradiction: I surely cannot be alone in finding drag queens, for example, actually rather misogynistic in their parodic stereotyping of what it means to be female, with every trivial signifier of a cartoonish "femininity" vamped up to the max? It all seems rather hostile, and at its worst surely bears comparison with "blackface". But OTOH there are doubtless permanently and soberly cross-dressed men and women going about their daily business who do not seek to draw attention to themselves and whom nobody notices (unless, presumably, they have occasion to remove their clothes).

But, whatever one's views, no-one should ever insist that there's no place on the decorative fringes of the human tapestry for the camp, the gaudy, or even the downright strange. Which is not even so "fringe", these days: it seems that the desire and pursuit of a certain outlaw status (or at least the performative, outward appearance thereof) is now a major life-goal for many. And why not? The widespread fashions for tattoos, piercings, and hints at BDSM sexuality are not to my taste, but I'm not going to campaign against them, and there is no reason at all why my tastes or inability to "relate" to anything should bother anyone who feels differently. I'm sure they would have things to say about my own conventionally drab clothing, too, which is rather more M&S than S&M. "Judge not, and ye shall not be judged: condemn not, and ye shall not be condemned: forgive, and ye shall be forgiven"... Live and let live, eh? 

But this cuts both ways. For the first time, the 2021 Census of England & Wales asked a voluntary question: "Is the gender you identify with the same as your sex registered at birth?" According to the Office for National Statistics, a surprising 94% of the population aged over 16 answered the question, and 0.5% (262K people) answered "no". By contrast, there were 30,420,202 respondents who identified unambiguously as female: 51% of the population. Now, for reasons that I do not pretend to understand, advocacy of the interests of that 0.5% has become a passionate cause for the intelligent young. Which would be fine, except that when old-school feminists question whether a self-identified trans woman who remains biologically male should really be entitled to access women-only spaces and facilities, or to exert influence over women-only issues [2], they are subjected to organised campaigns of protest, persecution, and "cancellation" – leading in some cases to actual loss of employment – as if they were the moral equivalent of white supremacists, or predatory paedophiles.

The militant trans-activists' war-cry seems to be that those women they label as TERFs ("trans-exclusionary radical feminists") but who self-identify as "gender-critical feminists" are seeking to deny the very right of trans people to exist. Not just the right of some of them to occupy women-only spaces, but to exist. Really? Such over-heated rhetoric helps no-one, and spills over too easily into intolerance and even violence. Indeed, my own partner has disturbing stories to tell about the bullying of female colleagues (death threats pinned to office doors, for example), and has herself had to negotiate packs of aggressive demonstrators, often masked and male, seeking to disrupt the meetings of feminist academics. The irony that feminism is all about challenging the injustices constructed on the biology of 51% of the population seems to be lost on those agitating on behalf of that 0.5% burdened with the "wrong" biology. Strange, isn't it, how it always seems to be women (and in particular women defending the rights of women) who end up getting the rough end of the stick? [3]

I suppose you could see parallels with the equally passionate and uncompromising advocacy of revolutionary politics by the intelligent young in the 1970s. Those bookish, university-educated, would-be Lenins and Trotskys who sought to position themselves as the "vanguard" of an imminent but entirely imaginary working-class uprising, and who denigrated existing working-class institutions such as trade unions (too "workerist"), the Communist Party (too "Stalinist"), or even the Labour Party ("you're joking, right?") are, in retrospect, quixotic figures; naive, presumptuous, and misguided, to put it kindly. It does no harm to remember, either, that "women's issues" and gay rights were always dismissed by those same self-styled revolutionaries as a distraction from the real job at hand, i.e. the pursuit of that fantasy of an imminent proletarian revolution, which would turn out to be the one-size-fits-all solution to, y'know, everything, so just shut up about it for now, yeah?

However, those people were and in some cases still are my friends. At the time, I was happy to play the role of a spear-carrier in their disruptive and sometimes violent student-revolutionary plots and war-games; it was the sort of dangerous fun that the young seek out, and I really gave very little thought to the motivations behind or consequences of the actions I was being asked to take. Although if, as a result, I had been expelled from university or ended up with a criminal record – either of which could very easily have happened – or if I had directly or indirectly caused real harm to somebody – yes, even someone branded as a "fascist" – I doubt I would be looking back so indulgently now. So I have to wonder whether those young activists trying to bully older women with uncongenial views out of a job will one day look back with regret at their actions, too. I certainly hope so.

In the end, I suppose the young are always a solution in search of a problem, and what counts as a suitably soluble problem to the young will probably always be baffling to older generations. As the young Bob Dylan sang in 1965, "Something is happening here, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mister Jones?" Well, you're absolutely right there, Bob, I have very little idea, although in this case it's not so much "what" as "why". To be young is, of course, a clear case of a temporary state, Spanish-style, and not a permanent, essential condition, despite what a slightly older and wiser Dylan wished for us in 1974, and the inescapable and sad fact is that, when it comes to human life, ultimately no condition is permanent. The radical postures of one's youth have a way of losing their glamour as the years pass, as our sympathies broaden and our certainties soften, until the inevitable question arises: what on earth were we thinking? So repeat after me: I was, you were, we were crazy... 

1. I concede that "short" is a relative term, as I once discovered in a bar in the Spanish Basque Country, where to my surprise I was the tallest man in the room. Not having acquired a "tall man" mentality, however, it didn't occur to me to push my way to the front...

2. To return to language, there are for example those who would insist that references to "pregnant women" should be changed to "pregnant people", on the grounds it is discriminatory against self-declared trans men (48K in 2021, 0.1% of the population) or non-binaries (30K, 0.06%) who might find themselves pregnant because of the sex-specific internal organs they have retained.

3. Particularly from "people with penises". OTOH there seems to be relatively little fuss about trans men. Although whether trans men who remain biologically female are demanding access to men-only spaces and facilities is an interesting question. TBH I'd be surprised if they were, and definitely wouldn't encourage it.

[NOTE: I will be out of blogging mode for most of August, so any comments and/or death threats won't be seen, moderated, or posted / passed to the relevant authorities until I return later in the month, or perhaps even in early September if I'm having a particularly enjoyable and relaxing time away from my computer. See you later, alligator / Hasta luego, caimán / Fins després, caiman!]