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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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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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Documentoscopia

Documentoscopia

I really have no time for graffiti of any kind. I don’t care whether it has been daubed by that anonymous street artist or vandal, depending upon your view of life, going under the name of Banksy, or if it is Juan or Maria who feel the urge to scrawl their names in appalling handwriting on a newly painted wall. Admittedly, some graffiti can be extremely artistic, amusing, challenging, controversial, but please let us have it on spaces allocated for just that purpose.

Although graffiti is illegal and considered as vandalism in law, some people consider it to be art, because it is a way that people can express themselves and let their voices be heard. Graffiti can be used as artistic expression, or a form of communication and may be best described as drawings or paintings that have been scribbled, scratched or painted, usually illegally, on a wall or other surface, often within public viewand is one of the most common and spatial forms of artistic expression. For many, it is the very act of illegality that is the main attraction. Graffiti writers take over blank (and preferably newly painted) surfaces, which they use as the canvas for new images. Those who study such things consider it to be a ‘sub culture’ and a means of expressing individuality, social and political concerns, as well as some of the most innermost feelings.

In Spain and the Canary Islands, spaces surrounding unsightly areas that are ready for eventual development are often given to specific and proven ‘street artists’ or students as a showcase to demonstrate their artistic skills. These efforts are often inspiring and a pleasure to look at, but the ‘Maria loves Juan’ statement scrawled across a badly formed heart on a newly painted wall of a nearby shopping centre is little more than vandalism. Frankly, if that is the best that Juan can come up with to demonstrate his undying affection for his girl, Maria would be well advised to call off the entanglement right away, and look for someone with a few more brain cells and rather more promising artistic ability.

It pleased many locals recently when police in Arrecife, Lanzarote, decided to act against the widespread graffiti across their city. This new action by police has enabled them to identify 15 local people who have been responsible for causing around 300 acts of graffiti vandalism on public and private property, such as on doors, windows, walls, public benches, canopies and pavements. As well as annoying, some claim that they have caused some degradation of the island’s rich heritage.

Interestingly, and all would-be graffiti vandals may wish to note this, the island’s police have invested in a special unit known as ‘Documentoscopia’, or writing style analysis. This unit was brought into use following many complaints from local residents. Police use an advanced technology called graphonomics that identifies these ‘graffiti artists’ by determining the artistic styles. Police can now successfully identify and prosecute the author of graffiti, which has previously gone unchecked. At the present time, penalties for acts of vandalism are around 600 euros, so would-be Banksys who do not have deep pockets would be well advised to practice somewhere other than Lanzarote.


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Avoid the Doctor, Eat Honey

Avoid the Doctor, Eat Honey

We will soon be heading into the season of coughs, colds and flu once again, together with the misery that such conditions bring. In most cases, these illnesses are relatively short-lived, but can be unpleasant, inconvenient and annoying, and also serious in cases where there are underlying health conditions.

Coughs are mostly caused by a cold or flu virus, or bronchitis, and will usually last for around three weeks. Antibiotics make very little difference to symptoms and can have unpleasant side-effects. More importantly, unnecessary prescriptions reduce their effectiveness.As a child, whenever I had a cough or cold, the first thing that my mother would do was to give me a regular concoction of blackcurrant juice and honey to drink. It was a very comforting drink and certainly helped to reduce symptoms. In adult life, I continue to follow this advice, although with the addition of a large tot of whisky for good measure. It is the honey that is the magic ingredient, because it is a natural antibiotic. Doctors in the UK are now asking their patients to eat honey before visiting their local surgery if they have a cough or cold. It is all part of a growing effort to tackle the problem of resistance to antibiotics. Of course, to benefit from honey we must also have bees.

In recent years, there has been considerable hybridisation of bee species with the importation of bees to the Canary Islands that were supposed to be more productive. The native Canary Black Bee is now officially declared to be a breed in danger of extinction. It was only on the small Canary Island of La Palma that pure populations were discovered, and in 2001 a law to conserve the Canary Black Bee population was introduced, and the introduction of foreign subspecies was banned. There are now at least 500 colonies of the Canary Black Bee on the island, which are resistant to many diseases that many bees succumb to. This native bee has very specific characteristics that make it highly productive, gentle and is unlikely to attack others. In Gran Canaria, the Government recently announced that they too were not only going to give special protection to the Canary Black Bee, but to ensure its distinctive survival by selecting a group of island beekeepers who will help to ensure that its genetic purity lives on.

Bees are very important for our very survival; the simple headline fact is that if bees didn’t exist, neither would humans. Bees are responsible for much of the food that we eat, since they keep plants and crops alive. One surprising fact is that around one third of the food that we eat is pollinated by bees.Bees do not pollinate our crops out of a sense of duty to the human race; they simply eat to survive. They absorb the protein that they need from pollen and all of the carbohydrates that they need from nectar. Bees feed from flowers, and as they move from flower to flower they just happen to provide an essential service to humans.

Pesticides appear be the main cause of the problem, although some experts also attribute some of the collapse of the bee population to climate change, the loss of their usual habitat and attacks from a variety of parasites. Popular pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which is similar to nicotine, cause bees to go insane and to abandon their hives; they don’t know how to return home and some experts claim that they develop a form of Alzheimer’s. Maybe this disturbing link with nicotine-based products that attack bees should give a serious warning to human smokers too.

Climate change also can take its fair share of blame with the disruption of the natural synchronisation of bee hibernation and flower opening, which causes bees to die. Despite this gloomy scenario, some positive steps are being made to help to rebuild and sustain bee populations. Measures to address the problem are being taken in a number of countries. Strategies include funding to help farmers to establish new habitats for bee populations, alternatives to nicotine-based pesticides, as well as support from bee keepers, such as those in La Palma and Gran Canaria who are determined to maintain the viability of the species.

In order to prepare for the forthcoming season of coughs and colds, do take my mother’s advice and remember to include a jar of Canarian honey in your shopping basket. It is not only delicious, but it really does help.

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