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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​Anyone for a Timple?

Anyone for a Timple?

“How about a timple?” I was asked by an earnest assistant in one of the traditional music shops in Las Palmas. I had just called in for a replacement violin string, and was looking at the range of Canarian traditional stringed instruments for sale. I quickly realised that I was not being offered an early morning alcoholic drink, and that the young salesman, speaking in English, had discovered an amusing way to catch the attention of English-speaking visitors to the shop. I have only recently begun to study early Canarian musical instruments, and as my first passion is the violin, this particular stringed instrument caught my eye, simply because of the beauty and simplicity of design.

The timple creates a voice by the instrumentalist plucking its strings in much the same way as the guitar, but there the similarity ends. It is much smaller than the guitar and usually has five strings, although in Tenerife some timples only have four strings. The timple is mainly used to accompany Canarian folk music and has a loud and rather sharp voice. Due to the success and increasing popularity of this instrument, it has now reached the status of a solo instrument in some circles.

The name of the instrument still intrigues me and I have yet to find a definitive answer to the origin of its name. In line with my initial thought about an alcoholic drink, the timple did used to be called a tiple (with only one ‘p’); before that it was called a ‘camelito camelillo’ because the back of the instrument looks very much like the hump of a camel, although it is less than 40 centimetres in length.

Timples were created in the Nineteenth Century and played throughout the Canary Islands and much of South America. In many ways, they are related to the ukulele, the Spanish guitar and the Portuguese chavaquino. Interestingly, the range of woods used is varied with the most common being pine for the body, ebony for the bridges, holy stick for the mast, and wood from the orange tree for decoration. Creation of these beautiful and interesting instruments was and still is a cottage industry across the islands, offering considerable variation in both design and construction. The island of Lanzarote became the centre for the systematic making of these instruments where one of the last timple makers is about to retire after more than sixty years of timple making.

The Government of Lanzarote has recognised Antonio Lemes Herandez as artisan of the year for his involvement for more than half a century in the production of timples. Antonio, a craftsman from Teguise, has been building small timples since he was a child. As a child, he made them from cardboard and other materials before painting them. He eventually perfected his technique and transformed a range of wood into his instruments, mostly pine, which he favours for timples since it can tune well. Over the years, Antonio has developed his own unique house style, which continues to delight players across the islands and across the world. Sixty years after his first contact with the timple, Antonio’s hands continue to create his unique timples, although he now feels that it is time to retire.

There are many renowned timplistas, as timple players are referred to, playing classical music and jazz and it is often regarded as an alternative instrument of choice chosen by guitarists. During the next fiesta, if you are fortunate enough to hear Canarian instrumentalists, do watch out for and listen carefully to the timple. I am sure that, like me, you will find it to be an engaging and fascinating instrument.

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Brexit Going Bananas

Brexit Going Bananas

I often write about bananas. First and foremost, I like eating them and, secondly, we have a very large banana tree growing and fruiting in our garden, which provides endless entertainment and annoyance for our dog, Bella, who, since she is partially sighted, is obsessed with the banana tree and is convinced that a gentle breeze moving the large, luxurious leaves, is actually a dangerous enemy from which she must protect us. Bananas, and similar crops, have in the past been the lifeblood of the economy of the Canary Islands and the links that these islands have with the UK are symbolised by the creation of Canary Wharf, which was the original recipient of bananas from these islands.

I have always thought that bananas are the real reason behind Brexit. Forget the accusation that “The Brits have never really liked Europe”, it is really bananas that are to blame. Do you remember all the fuss about ‘bendy bananas’ and the myth that was so lovingly nurtured by the right wing press that straight bananas were being insisted upon by the grandees of Europe? Of course, it was nonsense, and most of the population knew it was nonsense. Despite this, it was the banana debate and other examples that became the stuff of nonsense that finally manifested itself into a call for the referendum to take Britain out of the European Union that politicians could not avoid any longer.

Bendy bananas or not, how many children and office workers include a banana as part of their lunchtime snack? The UK supermarket chain, Tesco, has upset many of its lunchtime customers recently by significantly increasing the price it charges for individual bananas. The reason for this outrage is that Tesco are now charging for single bananas instead of its usual practice of charging by weight. This has resulted in the cost of a single banana to have doubled at its Metro and Express stores. Customers were paying around 76 pence per kilogram for their lunchtime banana, which worked out at around 10 to 15 pence depending upon the size of the fruit. The new pricing at 25 pence each is often more than double the original price.

In its defence, the supermarket giant claims that expensive leases on its stores have led to the price increase, which has led to many angry exchanges on social media, leaving Tesco quaking at its very foundations and driving all the customers to Lidl and Aldi, or so we are told.

At the time of writing, Brexit negotiations are in a mess, the Government appears to have lost the plot and the opposition parties appear to be in no position to provide a workable alternative. Of course, the problem will be resolved; they always are, in time. The problem remains of course in how much damage will be done in the interim.

How many banana skins will our leaders slip on before the deal is done? Well, there’s not much that I can do about it, so I’m just off into the garden to pick a nice fresh banana for my lunch. Bananas have a lot to answer for.

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​Living in a Hayloft or a Pod

Living in a Hayloft or a Pod

The severe social and economic consequences of failing to provide sufficient housing for increasing populations is at last beginning to dawn upon national and local politicians in many countries. For far too long, governments of all political shades have ignored the issue of providing sufficient numbers of high quality, low cost housing for sale, as well as for rent. It is disturbing, inhumane and unacceptable to see people living on the streets in some of the most prosperous countries in the world. The Canary Islands and Spain are not immune from this issue, since increasing demand for both permanent, as well as holiday accommodation is a growing problem. A few interesting, as well as challenging ideas, are beginning to emerge that may help.

A company in the city of Barcelona has recently announced a plan to build an apartment that will house 15 people in tiny capsules that will cover an area of just 100 square metres. The idea for the project comes from a Japanese company called Haibu, where clients sleep in a pod that contains little more than a bed and a TV attached to the ceiling. The word ‘haibu’ means beehive in Japanese, with the company commenting that people are social creatures who were meant to live in communities that help each other out, rather like bees in a hive.

These pods are intended for permanent residents of the city and not for tourists. Each pod is 120cm wide, 120cm high and 200cm long. There is a bed and a headboard that can also be used for storage, shelves, a folding table, a wall socket and a USB charger. There are also communal areas, such as a shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. With rapidly increasing rents in the city, the company believes that its charge of 200 euros per month for each ‘room’ is an attractive proposition. The company believes that its pods are a better option than a hostel or sleeping on the streets, and will allow clients some privacy until their financial situation improves.

City authorities are not happy with the idea, commenting that there is no room for such a project in Barcelona, and warn that any housing unit must have a surface area of at least 40 square metres, which means that this company will never obtain the necessary operating licenses. Some commentators have already made the point that there is already a range of similar accommodation available in Spain’s cemeteries, called coffins.

There are other options to consider. For instance, the Municipality of La Orotava in Tenerife has recently developed an imaginative idea that will help to ease the shortage of homes for local residents. The plan involves the renovation of over 300 barns and haylofts across the municipality that are currently abandoned. It is thought that each hayloft could provide a home for a family of up to 10 people.

Haylofts were traditional buildings that were mostly built in the higher areas of the island. They could help to solve the problems of lack of housing, and local councillors assure residents that those who used them many years ago were kept warm in winter and cool in summer. Canary Islanders know a thing or two about unusual housing, since many residents have lived and continue to live in traditional housing, such as caves, across several of the islands.

Over many years of disuse and neglect, many of these haylofts will require careful rebuilding and renovation, but will be a much a cheaper and faster alternative to building new, traditional homes. This imaginative idea of converting 300 barns will not only provide homes for local people, but will ensure that these attractive traditional buildings can be preserved for historical interest in the future.

The difficulties of earning a large enough salary to be able to purchase a property in Spain has led to another dimension within the Spanish housing market, and that is through the concept of ‘bare ownership’, which some say is macabre, yet is perfectly legal. Elderly property owners are selling their homes for half the market value to willing buyers on condition that they can live out their final days in their home. When the elderly person dies, the new owner is then free to move in or sell the property at market value. Despite conditions attached to such a deal there appears to be no shortage of buyers tempted by the longer-term benefits of the seller’s death.

In the future, we will see many new initiatives designed to ease the shortage of housing across Europe. Some ideas will make better use of existing space through good planning and thoughtful design. Other schemes will no doubt focus mainly upon the profit motive, with little thought and compassion for those who will spend their lives there. Having a home is a basic human right and failing to provide sufficient homes demonstrates a breakdown in the traditional, embedded values of society.

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​It’s Very Easy to be Conned

It’s Very Easy to be Conned

The lurid red leaflets advertising his range of 24-hour plumbing services in both English and Spanish have been blocking up our letter box for the last twelve years. Proudly declaring that he has been in the plumbing business for over thirty years, Juan, as I will call him, was clearly a reliable professional, or so we thought. When our toilet suddenly decided it needed some technical assistance, we decided to call him. How wrong we were!

From the moment that Juan and his equally burly henchman walked into our home, I felt uneasy about the two men. My usual well-honed character radar was already flashing warning signs due to their over excitable levels of ‘easy talk', which always makes me suspicious. Recovering from a heavy cold at the time, clutching a handful of 'Kleenex' tissues and after downing the Spanish equivalent of 'Lemsip', I showed Juan to the offending toilet. I was impressed, as well as disgusted, when Juan plunged his hand inside the toilet and appeared to grope erotically around the inside of the bowl with intense satisfaction. I guess it takes all sorts in life, but I was relieved that we had poured substantial quantities of strong disinfectant into the bowl before his arrival. He could at least have worn rubber gloves, I thought.

Juan confirmed my initial diagnosis that the plunger mechanism needed replacing. He nodded wisely, but then went on to explain that the sewage outlet pipe appeared to be blocked. Nothing too serious that would need machinery to unblock the pipe, but suggested that a dose of strong acid would do the trick. I asked how much this would cost and he explained that it would be about 25 euros. I agreed, and Juan and his colleague went off into town to get a new plunger mechanism, as well as the acid.

A short time later, the pair returned, carrying a new plunger, as well as a battered plastic container, which I guess was holding about five litres of liquid. I was presented with a receipt for twelve euros for the plunger, but there was no mention of the cost of the acid. Juan proceeded to fit the new plunger and to pour the liquid down the toilet. Both he and the toilet made impressive gurgling sounds; he was after all, a very large man who I suspect had a very large, late breakfast just before his visit. I was asked to examine the outflow from the inspection chamber in the road. It all seemed to be flowing well. Juan nodded with satisfaction and I asked for the bill.

At this point Juan became very vague and started to jot down a number of incoherent figures. He finally declared that the cost of 25 litres of "very special acid" at a cost of 15 euros per litre, together with 12 euros for the new plunger and his labour charges amounted to the grand total of 550 euros. I laughed, and told him that he had made a mistake. He shook his head seriously and attempted to explain that the "special acid" was one available only to certain plumbers who had authorisation to use the stuff. The alternative would be to employ a commercial rodding service that would cost much more. I asked him to show me the receipt for the acid that he had purchased, but he declined, telling me that it was his own mix (of water, I began to suspect).

As we disputed and argued, the atmosphere grew to a level where we were getting nowhere. I resolutely refused to pay up, whilst Juan and his henchman became more threatening and intimidating. The price came down to 500 euros, 450 euros, 400 euros and eventually to 300 euros. I refused to pay until I had been given a detailed invoice and could check the prices for myself after obtaining a second opinion from a specialist. In any case, I did not have that kind of money readily available, and so the plumbing pair insisted that they drive me to the nearest cash machine to relieve me of the cash. I refused to comply and asked the pair to leave our home, which they refused.

At this point, I called the police to ask for their assistance. When overhearing my conversation with the police, Juan immediately changed his attitude and asked how much I would be prepared to pay for the job. I offered one hundred euros, which I considered to be generous, and suspect it was double the price that the job was worth. Juan accepted, declaring that he was "very angry", and the troublesome duo finally left.

A short time later, two gun-toting Policia Nacional officers arrived at our house. They were polite, friendly and very helpful. I told them the story, which they carefully listened to. They advised me that I could make a formal complaint against the plumber at the police station, as they were undoubtedly committing a crime by advertising their services without an individual or company identification number, giving no business address or full name. However, as I had invited Juan into our home, and did not ask for a quotation of price or see their identification, they had not committed a crime. Indeed, it could be argued that I had committed a crime by paying them 'black money' for the job, which would not be declared to the tax authorities. I accepted their point, and realised that I had created a series of traps for myself by not being sufficiently vigilant in checking their credentials. Usually, I would ask a trusted neighbour or friend for recommendations, but sometimes circumstances force us to stray away from our normal pattern of behaviour.

Nearly every week, I hear stories of expats in Spain and the Canary Islands being victims of fraud, yet I had completely forgotten the key principles of checking the validity of tradesmen before letting them into our home. Admittedly, I was not feeling very well at the time, but this failure could have ended up costing me a lot of money, as well as more unpleasantness. I am now pleased to report that our toilet is flushing well, although I remain flushed with embarrassment. I have learned yet another serious lesson in life.


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