Welcome To Zelo Street!

This is a blog of liberal stance and independent mind

Monday 30 November 2009

Final Pleading

Tomorrow, we are told, Barack Obama will announce his decision on whether to send more troops to Afghanistan. He has been pressured by the generals, and those of a more right wing persuasion, to vastly increase those numbers. As I’ve previously posted, there is increasing disquiet within the USA about this campaign. But, as with Vietnam, those who speak out to warn of the futility of the adventure get heard too late, if at all.

Adding his voice to the calls for sanity today has been Michael Moore, who has pointed up the mistakes of the British, and then the USSR, in trying to pacify Afghanistan. But Moore omits one name from his analysis: that of Lyndon Johnson.

Johnson was elected President in 1964 in a landslide, and his Republican opponent Barry Goldwater was portrayed as a warmonger. Soon after, more troops were sent to Vietnam and the bombing of the North started. Unlike previous wars, Vietnam, with all the horrors of modern warfare, was captured by the TV cameras and the images broadcast into millions of homes across the western world. Johnson’s reforms, his “Great Society”, counted for nothing.

Eugene McCarthy declared not only his opposition to the war, but his candidacy for the Presidency: his success in early Primaries precipitated the end of the bombing and Johnson’s refusal to run for re-election. Moreover, the spectre of Vietnam split the Democratic Party, and let in Nixon. The parallel with Afghanistan will not be lost on today’s Democrats.

So what is it to be? My suspicion is that Moore’s pleas are in vain.

Sunday 29 November 2009

Camera Obscure

Plenty of railway enthusiasts have been challenged when in the less than subversive act of photographing trains. I am not yet among their number – well, not in the UK, at least – but no doubt my time will come. That time has, after all, come for an increasing number of those innocently snapping city sights, as was demonstrated on this morning’s Andy Marr Show.

The show has a stills photographer, who is normally well out of studio camera range, taking photos for the following day’s papers, who routinely report on the contents of major set-piece interviews. Today he briefly sat on the sofa alongside newspaper reviewers Matthew Parris and Mariella Frostrup. The reason for this brief elevation came last week.

He was taking some late afternoon shots of St Paul’s Cathedral when approached by a WPC, who was in turn accompanied by a PCSO. The officer suggested that his actions could be in breach of Section 44 of the Terrorism Act. Moreover, both WPC and PCSO told that many others had been so advised by them in the past few days, and that none had objected.

If no-one has objected to such a ridiculous suggestion, then they only have themselves to blame for the continuation of such a blatant waste of resources. The idea that terrorists would openly use an SLR – perhaps with a tripod – if engaged in any kind of subversive behaviour is laughable.

Perhaps the police are not yet aware of mobile phones with a high resolution camera inside. Or maybe they believe that Al Qaida will not be tempted by the availability of compacts with a 12Mp resolution, 10X zoom, and most importantly the ability to be fitted into the user’s pocket (I know – I’ve got one). And you can do without a tripod by using a wall or street sign to steady the camera.

Both phone and camera are available over the Internet, and now. Perhaps Amazon will be getting a visit from the law next. It’s utterly cracked. Can someone apply a little common sense, please?

Pull The Other One

At last week’s meeting marking the launch of the CREAM contribution to the debate on the future of Crewe and its railway station (for anyone interested, my photos are at lower left and second from top right), I heard mention of a dissenting voice from the business community. Roy Cartlidge made reference to this, but at the time I was more concerned with keeping warm.

The attempt to pour cold water on the efforts of CREAM was made by John Dunning, who is the chief executive of South Cheshire Chamber of Commerce. He has backed the “master planning process” that Cheshire East Council is progressing, which should present no problem to anyone, but has described CREAM as a “break-away group”.

As CREAM came into existence solely to register dissent to the crackpot proposals of Network Rail (NR), it has not “broken away” from anyone or anything. Perhaps Dunning is trying to infer that CREAM is some kind of rogue or subversive body. Here, too, he would be plain flat wrong to make such a suggestion: the group’s meetings and processes are open to anyone.

What CREAM has done is to focus the dissatisfaction of many in the community with the ideas of NR and the lack of backbone shown by organisations that, one might have thought, are there to stand up for them. If Dunning and those of similar attitude cannot, or will not, address the concerns of the community, he and they should not idly dismiss those who will.

Moreover, he would do well to choose his words with greater care, having gone on the record as saying “ ... we will not be going to this meeting, as we are keeping out of politics”. Given the nature of how organisations work and interact with one another, it will be interesting to see how Dunning manages to lobby with any success for his membership, while maintaining this unequivocally principled position.

Or, perhaps, not. See title of post.

Friday 27 November 2009

Launch Day

This morning, despite the noise and the cold, the campaigning group CREAM premiered its suggestions for redevelopment in Crewe, with of course the railway station being left, more or less, where it is. The noise and cold came from the meeting being held at a very out-of-season time at the Heritage Centre, which has work to do on a whole range of “heritage” railway stuff.

Since my return from the mild climate of the Algarve to the cold and damp of the north west had induced yet another cold (three this year, folks, and counting), I kept myself wrapped up and tucked away at the back. Roy Cartlidge corralled a number of guest speakers, all with differing agendas, but united against the daft Network Rail (NR) proposal for moving the station to Basford.

What I found relieving – and instructive – was that, despite a full diary, CREAM has at least gained sufficient recognition from MP Edward Timpson that he sent a representative, the most attentive Ros, to attend on his behalf. Previously, there was a vacuum here: nobody knew whether he was interested or not. This does not mean he approves of the group, but at least he is in touch.

The “masterplanning” process for the town that Cheshire East Council is going through will proceed, and there will apparently be some kind of announcement early in December. More news then!

Only Kidding

Tory culture spokesman Jeremy Hunt has chosen to get his own particular “policy adjustment” announced well before the General Election – as with Young Dave on the EU – and while there is plenty else to distract potential voters. So forget all the talk about him “ripping up the BBC charter”: he’s now said it won’t happen.

And, like Cameron’s realistic approach to the EU, this is surely right, as is Hunt’s confirmation that TV impartiality rules will not be relaxed under a future Tory administration. So little chance of a UK version of Fox News channel (fair and balanced my arse).

But the best bit comes when Hunt is pressed about any potential quid pro quo with the Murdoch empire. He says there is “no contract” between Murdoch and the Tories.

Does there need to be a contract for there to be influence?

A Distressing Interlude

This afternoon, as one might, I walked into Crewe to do a little shopping. It is not a hazardous or usually eventful journey. But I am still concerned about what I saw on my way there.

I’d crossed the road at the traffic lights where Oak Street and Wistaston Road cross Edleston Road and was near the bus lay-by when I noticed a distressed toddler approaching – or, rather, tearfully seeking his mum. As he passed me, I looked round expecting to see her, but there was no-one in sight.

The toddler carried on going, and yet still there seemed to be no sign of his parent. He kept on going, not just as far as the traffic lights, but right on almost into the middle of the road where cars and commercials were thundering past. By this time I wasn’t the only one watching.

It seemed inevitable that the little boy would get mown down by the traffic, until, from round the corner on Wistaston Road, his mum finally appeared and snatched him away from the danger. What she had been doing I don’t know.

The feeling I got from this incident was that, not only should I feel uneasy about seeing it, but should feel equally uneasy that it happened at all. Another second and everything could have been irreparably changed.

Thursday 26 November 2009

Who Checked The Figures?

At first it looked like Young Dave had scored a seriously heavy blow on Pa Broon yesterday at PMQs: the contrasting of Brown’s constant justifying of the Afghan campaign by saying that it kept terrorism off the streets of Britain with the Government funding of schools connected to Hizb ut-Tahrir. This is an organisation that Tony Blair considered proscribing, although neither he nor Brown have done so.

Then, later in the afternoon, everything in Tory land went quiet. The cheerleaders haven’t mentioned the exchange, and shadow Education spokesman Michael Gove became rather less available for interview. The idea that Young Dave may not have got his facts straight has been meat and drink for Pa Broon’s pal “Auguste” Balls, as has been reported. Cameron has alleged that the schools concerned – run by the Islamic Shakhsiyah foundation – have had trustees that are linked to Hizb ut-Tahrir, but then, that’s rather like saying that, if a school has a governor who is a Tory politician, that makes it a Tory oriented school.

The claims made by Cameron and Balls cannot both be true. And there is the problem that Young Dave and his chaps could end up looking as if they were playing the Islamophobia card to garner votes. The whole exercise looks like the kind of guilt-by-association idea so beloved of the so-called Taxpayers’ Alliance, whose “dodgy dossier” alleging that Government was paying firms to lobby it was so comprehensively demolished by Mick Fealty earlier this year, as I noted at the time.

So who did the research, and who provided the figures (and, hopefully, checked them)? Cameron is still asserting that the schools are run by Hizb ut-Tahrir, and both that group and one of the head teachers involved have commented adversely on his intervention. Come on, Tory politicos and cheerleaders – don’t be shy.

Be There

The campaigning group CREAM are presenting their proposals for the future of Crewe and its railway station tomorrow morning at the Crewe Heritage Centre (it’s behind the Tesco store – you carry straight on instead of bearing right into the Tesco car park).

There will be a number of speakers from across the business, political and trades union spectrum. Also anyone attending will be able to quiz anyone connected with the proposals, including me. Proceedings start at 0930 hours and continue until 1145.

See you there!

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Driving Concerns

We see the usual horror stories about road accidents and lesser tales concerning the usual variety of bad behaviour behind the wheel. But the UK is, generally, one of the better EU countries when it comes to road safety. Bottom of that league has routinely been the preserve of places like Greece and Portugal, although the latter is a lot better than when I first visited.

There is a general acceptance of allowing pedestrians to cross roads at recognised locations, and even to slow down or stop to allow them to make their ground. The almost obligatory tailgating has been reduced, although one of Senhora Eva’s drivers nearly got caught out by a braking shock coming back through the line just after the Ponte Vasco da Gama last Friday. I know this as I was on board.

Making further progress in this area is a hot topic right now in the country, particularly as the GNR Traffic Brigade has been disbanded, with its officers being redeployed to eighteen other traffic units. This has been controversial, and the President of the Portuguese Automobile Club, Carlos Barbosa, has called for the Brigade to be reinstated.

What relevance does this have for us Brits? Well, until recently, car hire companies across the Algarve worked hard to keep the vehicles that had come back in a less than pristine state away from the eyes of prospective punters: the incidence of crashes on roads like the EN125 was grim, and tourists got caught up in too many of them. So the continuing improvement in road safety in Portugal is in our interest too.

Election News

Much has been discussed since the Ipsos Mori poll recently reignited fears of a hung parliament. Many have risen to speak adversely on the idea: no kind of half decent government could emerge from such a result, the sky would fall in, and decisions could not be made in the normal way.

Over on the European mainland, this happens from time to time, and yet the world does not end: Germany hasn’t had one party with more than 50% control of the legislature in the recent past, yet it carries on – rather well. The latest EU member to join this club is Portugal.

Prime Minister José Sócrates and his PS (Socialist Party) won a majority in the 2005 elections, gaining 121 of the 230 seats in the Assembly of the Republic. In September this year, they won only 97. But, again, there was no single party with that coveted majority, so the PS, being the largest party, carries on. They will inevitably have to make alliances and do deals. But their world will not end, the sky will not fall in, and the work of Government will continue.

This should not be a difficult concept to understand: after all, it is only reflecting the will of the electorate as expressed through the democratic process

Easy Gaffe

There is always one thing to read on the aircraft, just in case you forgot to bring your own: the in-flight magazine. So it was no surprise to see the November edition of the EasyJet offering in the seat back on the flight out to Faro. What was a surprise was its absence on the return journey.

And the reason for that absence has meant red faces all round at the carrier: the mag had a photo shoot from Berlin, where permission to use one of the locations featured – the Holocaust Memorial just south of the Brandenburg Gate – had not been given.

EasyJet leave the compilation of the mag to a third party company, but appear to be “considering their position”. Hopefully for the third party, they won’t foul up with December’s edition.

Monday 23 November 2009

Wine With That, Sir?

This blog is all for a bit of feedback, so when my recent thoughts on the supermarket industry away from home were commented on with an emphasis on wine, that gave a very useful pointer.

There are signs in supermarkets that are characteristic to the country in which they are based: the Spanish love their jamón, the French their cheese and paté, and the Portuguese their salt cod, or bacalhau (along with the joke about there being 365 recipes for the stuff). Then there is the wine.

The French (still) major in their own produce here, but then they would, wouldn’t they? Even so, the alcohol advertising ban (why Wales’ rugby shirts can’t advertise Brains’ beers when they play there), and the hated Australian and US produce have taken the edge off sales. Fortunately, some French producers “get it” that we the consumers tend to like wine that is of a predictable standard and good for opening and drinking, well, now. Hence the proliferation of single varietal wines, mainly from the Oc. Buy Couleurs du Sud or Roche Mazet (their Merlot is particularly good) and you get decent value, while knowing it won’t be a let down.

Spain also does a good trade in home produced wine, but, like election results, we tend to find out about only a very few of them. So apart from Rioja (and other Tempranillo based stuff) and perhaps Valdepeñas, this is not known in the UK. So we don’t know that the Madrid region produces some cracking reds – not unless we go shopping in Madrid, that is.

What of Portugal? Well, again, we know very little in the UK, barring Vinho Verde, Dão and of course Mateus bloody Rosé. This is a great pity, because in recent years there has been the development of regional wines: Alentejo, Extremadura, Lisbon region, and of course Douro Valley (where the port comes from) among them. And a good Douro red is in the stonkingly good category. Trusht me.

On wine, as with much else, we still have a lot to learn about Europe. Not a bad subject to major in, mind.

The Voyage Home Once More

Yesterday began with mild farce: there I was, outside the apartment complex that had been home for just over a fortnight, and at the appointed hour (a ridiculously early 0645 hours), when, well, nothing happened. At least, not for a few minutes, until a car bearing the discreetly applied logo of the transfer company pulled up. The driver asked my name. I gave it. It was not the name on his list. I was to be collected by another driver. What to do?

The driver went to talk to the night reception man. He returned with the news that someone else had already collected the person, or persons, with the correct name. The driver, now slightly exasperated, decided to collect me instead, whatever the list told him. We then proceeded via the A22 to Faro Airport, and it dawned on me that this was the “taxi equivalent” service (as opposed to the minibus of two weekends before), and was normally charged at a substantial premium – or, in my case, not.

That was the relatively pleasant part. There then followed the wait for check in to open, followed by the routinely humiliating “security” process, the wait for the gate to be announced, and the wait to board the aircraft. The flight came with half an hour of moderately unpleasant turbulence, and then as we descended towards Liverpool, the realisation that the rain was falling in non-trivial amounts. Welcome home.

But the question can now be answered very simply: folks choose to live in places like the Algarve – and southern Spain – because they no longer have to put up with unpredictable weather (today was not going to be wet, but then it was) or the cold of English winters. Neither is the shortening of the days during that season as extreme further south – today, sunset was at just after 1600 hours in Crewe, but is an hour and a quarter later in Faro. Sunrise is half an hour later here in the North West.

And the clincher is, of course, that people own property in these more southern locations because, as EU citizens, they can. Around 38,000 British expats live in Portugal, with a whopping 760,000 in neighbouring Spain – including Kilroy. Can anyone smell hypocrisy?

Poll Text

Many punters are getting terribly worked up over a poll that appeared in yesterday’s Observer, produced by Ipsos Mori. This is, more or less, down to its findings, showing the Tory, Labour and Lib Dem percentages at 37:31:17, which gives the Tories a lead of only six percent. This is the lowest Tory lead for some time, and the reaction has been predictable: Tory cheerleaders have gone into “rogue poll” mode (which, in translation, means “poll that brings news I don’t want to hear”), and some Labour supporters have gone so far as to predict victory in the next General Election, which is probably the more daft of the two.

What can be said of this poll is that it is one poll, and one only. More usefully, one could put it in context by looking at the trends shown over time in polls carried out by other organisations: if these were to start showing a decline in the Tory lead, then the news would be more significant. What is also clear is that the numbers above do not add up to 100%: there is a significant 15% for “others”, for which read UKIP (taking votes from the Tories), the BNP (taking from both Labour and Tory, but probably more from the former), and Greens (taking votes from the Lib Dems). Any of these, while not capable of winning seats in any numbers, could have an influence where majorities are small.

But Young Dave would do well not to dismiss this poll out of hand: after all, close to the 1992 General Election, more than one poll had an 8% Labour lead, and they ended up losing.

Saturday 21 November 2009

Wrap Up Warm

The time is rapidly approaching for departure from the pleasantly warm Algarve and a return to what looks like a far colder and wetter home climate. I remain optimistic that nothing will be forgotten from the ritual of packing, and will be keeping the second LumpCam (tm) with me at all times. And I will try to make time at Liverpool Airport to check the hold luggage to make sure it’s all there before I walk out of the place and therefore “accept” it.

There may be less posting on Zelo Street for a few days, as I’ve got “only” 363 photos to sift through, group, edit, then upload some to Fotopic and finally title them all. But then, there will also be renewed exposure to the spectator sport that is Politics, so if events intervene, perhaps the photos will have to be sifted through more slowly.

Empty Houses

A frequent topic for debate across the UK is the housing stock, and why it has to be that there are folks with nowhere to live, when there are so many empty properties. It’s another example of how the market does not always provide, although admitting the fact may be distressing to the more conventionally minded of economists.

This is not confined to the UK. I’ve noticed how many apartments and houses across the Algarve give the appearance of being empty, and today I found an entire complex closed up, perhaps for the season, though this will be of little comfort to those living in shacks behind Albufeira’s shiny new bus station.

At first I could only see one row of apartments, but then it became apparent that the complex had three or four rows, taking advantage of the landscape to give everyone the coveted south facing view. How long it will be before one or more empty properties are taken over by squatters I don’t know: maybe the laws in Portugal work against this kind of thing.

Later on, I at last found a development apparently abandoned part way – as with the apartments opposite the entrance to Crewe Works. Not only was it unusual (the cranes and construction are still at work elsewhere in Albufeira), it was also very, very large, spread across the hillside overlooking the marina.

A faded sign on one of the panels fencing off the area proclaims the development – or lack of it – as being a Crowne Plaza resort. Anyone looking for something upmarket from that name would be disappointed: much of the construction was of structural steelwork and breeze block.

Boas Festas

Midweek saw the Christmas lights being put in place across Albufeira. They’re already adorning the streets of Lisbon’s Baixa. It’s another thing that is universal across so many countries, but seems incongruous given the daily sunshine and temperatures still over the 20 Celsius mark. And you get so used to that sunshine that when it clouds over – as it has today – this is considered to be poor weather.

From news reaching these parts from the UK, many folks there would rather like a bit of that poor weather themselves, with torrential rain having caused flooding and broken transport links in the Lake District. That does happen in Portugal too: when I visited in November 2006, there had been persistent heavy rain across northern and central areas, with road and rail links south of Porto cut.

But the instance of extreme weather, like the length of the Christmas retail season, does appear more prevalent over time.

Supermarket Sweep – Same Everywhere

Back in the mid 90s when I first visited Albufeira, there was one supermarket in town, the Modelo just to the east of the old centre, and it was neither large nor inexpensive. Things change: although it’s still there, the Modelo is now larger (and being extended) and has become much keener on price, partly because it’s now part of the Continente group.

Another part of the reason for keener prices is that discounter Lidl has also arrived in town during the intervening time, and with a large car park and seven days a week opening. Many expats from across the more northern European countries shop here: it’s a name they know. No, it’s not merely about competition, but brand awareness and the size of the market: both these stores stay busy most of their opening hours.

Added to the mix recently has been a largish Pingo Doce outlet, which suggests that the market for locals’ custom is also growing: this is a brand that you would normally associate with convenience store and town centre shops, and it’s not one I’ve seen outside Portugal. For instance, you’ll find their stores in the building by Track 5 of Lisbon’s Santa Apolónia station (oriented towards travellers – always a good stock of inexpensive sarnies), and tucked away on the city’s Rua 1. Dezembro (manically busy, and an indication of how many folk live in the Baixa).

There are also the inevitable out of town supermarkets – Continente have one nearby – and other chains (the Jumbo in Faro is part of the French Groupe Auchan). Apart from the absence of the usual British culprits, this is the same kind of retail scenery you might encounter anywhere in Europe (the bus journey from Budapest airport to the Metro terminus takes you past one of the city’s substantial Tesco stores).

All this, we are told, gives us what we want, and, more or less, whenever we want it. But it also enables various large organisations to grab market share, so is not so different across borders.

Thursday 19 November 2009

Not Dead and Still Red

The UK media tends to cover elections in other countries on a distinctly irregular basis – except for the USA, where we get pretty thorough coverage of the Presidential elections, and often the mid-term ones too. Not so with other EU countries, which is odd, given that so many punters and politicians enjoy banging on about that same EU.

So while I know that there is an election happening somewhere on the Algarve some time soon, as I haven’t asked around or tried to unpick the Portuguese posters and fliers, I don’t know what’s up for grabs. But I do know the identity of one of the parties on the ballot.

There are an awful lot of posters for the PCP. Who they? Well, mastery of the language on this occasion is not necessary. The familiar hammer and sickle device at the foot of the poster tells you that this is the Portuguese Communist Party. And they’re hot on dealing with corruption.

Other European countries also have Communist parties active in local and national politics. But then, most of the demands in the original Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels have become part of the mainstream.

A Direct Journey

In more relaxed mode today, and a trip to Faro for a walk around the old town, along with a stroll around the marina. The journey pointed up one of those areas where languages do not easily translate between one another, and the difference in traffic volumes between weekdays and weekends. And there were interesting sights along the way.

Eva put on a so-called Directa bus between Albufeira and Faro on weekdays (altogether, the weekend service offers only a third of the weekday service level). I’d used it before, and wondered what was “direct” about it when compared with its seven days a week “normal” cousin. My assumption was wide of the mark: the use of the term Directa means “limited stop”. This would have been useful information for the bloke who should have got off this morning’s bus in Almancil and found himself carried on to the outskirts of Faro.

Faro’s old town, which is worth the detour, is also no less crawling with traffic than the rest of the city. After all, many of the buildings are residential property, and if you arrange so much of life around the motor vehicle, residents will buy cars and want access, wherever they live. And where many of the expats live can be glimpsed from the windows of that bus as it picks its way around the coastal towns and villages on its way into Faro.

The glimpse is possible as you pass by the golf courses, country clubs and upmarket resort complexes that are Vilamoura. Here, there is also a marina filled with the most upmarket of yachts: the equivalent in Faro has only small motor boats on view, as the bridge carrying the railway over the entrance is welded shut. Those golf courses look unnaturally green, due to regular watering, and their regulars, if they do not live in the resort, have their satisfyingly expensive homes in Vale do Lobo or Quinta do Lago.

They shop at the Apolonia supermarket near Almancil, as there are English speaking greeters, plenty of free parking spaces, and lots of reassuringly familiar brands. The locals frequent the little Minipreço in the town centre, where no English is spoken, there is no car parking outside, and if it’s on the shelves, it’s usually Dia own brand.

Those folks on the golf course may look down their noses at the punters on Albufeira’s “strip”, but the idea is much the same: both want the parts of countries like Portugal that appeal to them, while keeping out the locals.

Pass The Sick Bag

Back in the regrettably brief heady days of British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train (APT), which was abandoned, setting travel on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) back a quarter of a century, argument raged over whether tilting trains induced a kind of travel sickness in passengers. On APT’s inaugural trip from Glasgow to London, many of the assembled hacks thought it did, but then, many of them were still in a tender state after not getting to bed nice and early.

Eventually it was conceded that, when the tilt of the train compensated fully for the increased side force generated by cornering, it was possible for the brain to think that the train was travelling in a straight line, only for the passenger to then look out the window to see that it was not – and thus the occasional sickness. BR sorted this by making the tilt mechanism compensate less than fully for the cornering force, which tilting trains generally all do nowadays.

Even so, the case is made across Europe that tilting trains using the Fiat hydraulic tilt system are prone to make their occupants feel queasy, and I have to confess that during a journey from Lisbon to the Algarve back in 2006 I felt less than comfortable at one point, but it was dark, so the case above should not apply. It was with this in mind that I boarded the Alfa Pendular service on Monday afternoon at Albufeira, worked by a train with the Fiat tilt system. We certainly generated some aircraft style bank angles, given that the train body can tilt up to nine degrees, and the banking of the track has to be added in. But there was no queasiness.

So I was reassured, but clearly not everyone is happy: these trains have sick bags provided, discreetly deployed with any mention of sickness on the side away from the passenger. Knowing that some will not believe me, I took one as proof.

[Trains using the Fiat tilt system include the Italo-Swiss Cisalpino, the Italian ETR 460, 470 and 480, and the Spanish Alaris, as well as the Portuguese Alfa Pendular. Similar trains operate in the Czech Republic, Finland and Slovenia. However, the Pendolino trains operated by Virgin Trains on the WCML use the Swiss SIG electronic tilt system, which is also proving surprisingly reliable. So there]

On The Mark

After checking out of the residencial this morning – not totally straightforward, as the card reading device had to be kicked to get it to work – I had a few photos to take in and around Lisbon and then it was time to head for Gare Oriente for the train back to Albufeira. Oriente is one legacy from the 1998 Expo, and is memorable for its spectacular and delicate looking overall roof. Fortunately it also has waiting areas below the otherwise bare looking platforms, although the toilets, which still look as temporary as they did back in 2001, are routinely disgusting.

The train’s First Class was almost full, many of them British expats or visitors, and we not only left on time, but remained on time all the way: at Funcheira we even had to wait time, and there was enough in hand for the wait at Luzianes for the northbound Alfa Pendular for it not to matter. All this, despite there being an irritatingly noticeable number of temporary speed restrictions, one or two to just 30 km/h. This is a lesson that the coach operators could learn from: most of the rail route is single track, so it’s important for the schedule to be as robust as possible.

Even so, the Intercidade is nothing like as fast as the coach, for a number of reasons: the coaches post over-optimistic schedules which in my experience they can’t maintain, the motorway is straight, and is also shorter by quite a way. Why should that be? The railway was built long enough ago, and to what appears to have been a limited budget, so there are lots of twists and turns: these slow the speed, and add to the distance. But improvements are on the way: a cut off line is under construction on part of the route, and a new river crossing is almost complete.

The new route will be faster, it will add capacity – many more trains right now would cause operational problems – and it will cut several kilometres off the distance. But it could be bad news for the ancient town of Alcácer do Sal, which is bypassed by the cut off.

Crunch in the Soup

I had one of those determined interludes last night: this was to do with food, more specifically eating out. After returning from Entroncamento into Lisbon’s Santa Apolónia station, and walking from there back towards the Praça do Comércio, I passed by a number of eateries. None was particularly expensive, which made them all the more interesting. And then I saw a menu outside a little cantinha that advertised both grilled dourada, and Alentejo style soup.

It wasn’t a particularly challenging walk from the residencial, so that was that. Dourada, simply grilled and usually served with salad and proper potatoes (yes, real ones, not reconstituted chip style shapes), is a regular on the daily specials menu all over Lisbon. As it’s “real” fish, with head, tail and of course bones, a little more effort is required – but is worth it. The Alentejo soup was something else.

I remembered from years ago that it would be a little oily, which it was, and that there would be bread on top, and that was present, as was the egg underneath. What I’d forgotten over time was that the little flecks of crunchy grey material were fresh – and in this case good and strong – garlic. It was only a second or two for the memory bank to recharge, and a relief that I wasn’t expecting close contact with anyone later.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Going South

Tomorrow will be time to head south from Lisbon, across the Ponte 25 do Abril, and ultimately back to the old town of Albufeira. It’s been yet another sunny and pleasantly warm day, and yet another reminder that timing is all: had I made the visit a day earlier, I’d have been considerably wetter by now. And when it rains in Lisbon, you find out about it.

That is part of the difference between the Algarve and the more northern parts of Portugal: once you cross the Tagus from the south, everything becomes a little greener. That means wetter, and is no doubt another reason that Lisbon folk like to descend on the Algarve themselves once in a while.

There will be more from Zelo Street later in the week, then, all things being equal, it will be back to the UK. Where it will probably be even colder than when I left.

Oh well.

In A Museum

When British Rail, as it was then, made the decision to site the National Rail Museum over 180 miles out of London in York, there was an allegedly national outcry. I say allegedly, as much of the grumbling came from London based newspapers and those who found getting to Clapham (Remember that museum? Not very large, and not very cheap) easier and quicker.

The Portuguese approach was also to establish their national collection out of the capital. The museum has opened in the railway town of Entroncamento, which is the country’s equivalent of Crewe, Derby and York in one: the national network, even at its zenith, was far smaller than that in the UK. Whether the assembled hacks based in cities like Lisbon and Porto were outraged I don’t know, but in both cases, the trip to the museum can be easily made by rail – which is supposed to be the point.

Unlike the UK, a charge is levied, but two Euro is hardly an onerous amount. There is a modern roundhouse display – the original one that stood on the site was demolished many years ago – and many photos and models of trains past and present. Sadly, not many takers visited today: it’s no surprise, therefore, that opening hours extend only from 1400 to 1730 hours. Also, be warned that it’s closed on Mondays.

One promising prospect is that there are plans to extend the museum into an adjacent and much larger building, which might give it the “must visit” factor and thereby bring in the punters. It’s certainly worth the effort, and the staff are very helpful. From Lisbon there is a more or less hourly Regional service that serves Entroncamento, and at a return fare of 13.5 Euro it’s not expensive.

Your Money? It’ll Still Cost You

ATMs – those hole in the wall machines that give you access to cash all day and every day – are now a part of everyday life. What the world was like before their coming is for many unknown, or a fading memory, which latter is a good thing: not so long ago, if you came up short out of banking hours, you were stuffed.

But not all has been plain sailing with ATMs in the UK. There were for many years networks that only yielded cash if you were a customer of a particular bank or building society. Then there were networks that worked more flexibly, but you still had to be a member of a particular “club” of banks.

Here in Portugal, the ATM appeared rather later than in many countries, and with one important benefit: they all sit on the same network, and all behave in an identical way: they are called Multibanco machines. This is a big plus for those like me that like the country, but have difficulty figuring out the language – well, at the kind of speed that isn’t going to cause annoyance to the rest of the queue.

Yes, a Multibanco ATM will talk to you, reassuringly, in English. There is also a standard series of animated characters to help pass the time while one country’s network talks to another, to make sure your credit is good.

Monday 16 November 2009

On The Tiles

This evening I have arrived in Lisbon. And it’s been raining – heavily enough to have disrupted transport links further north. This means that special care is needed on the streets, especially those with the unique tiled surface so characteristic of Portugal. Why so? Because when it rains, those little tiles become, as Neil Kinnock once said, absolutely bloody lethal.

Even in the dry, the tiles have a tendency to become shiny and slippery. When it rains, they don’t shine, but merely reflect. They are yet more lethal. So when I came out into the open at the eastern exit from Baixa-Chiado Metro this evening, the downhill slope of traditionally tiled pavement told me to beware.

And here I am at the residencial – that’s the Duas Nações, at the intersection of Augusta and Vitoria. In one piece. Even after a very agreeable feed and drink session at Casa Liège earlier. For those not familiar with the area, that’s the eatery at the top of the Bica funicular, east side. You can manage a good meal with wine for less than ten Euro a head.

But not a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, mind.

Of Course They Speak English

We British can lay claim to one distinction that mainland Europeans cannot (and probably don’t want to), and that is our laziness in bothering to learn even a few words of any other language. I can’t claim to be much different from the crowd on this one, although I generally manage rather more than those holidaymakers who are frightened to leave the confines of area where they can be guaranteed the comfort of English speaking guides, hotel staff and shop assistants.

But then there is a flip side to this problem, which provides a powerful disincentive to make the effort: so many in other European countries speak English, and will use it whenever they encounter English people, that you might as well not bother. This was something I first came across way back in the mid 70s in Vienna: I’d rehearsed my best German (admittedly not very good German) only to find that the reply came back in English. Then, it was in a touristy area, but now it happens just about everywhere.

So no wary Brit should feel uncomfortable about walking into a supermarket in even the less Anglophone parts of Portugal – or buying tickets for the bus or train (the literature invariably comes with an English translation), although some will use the alleged difficulty as an excuse for heading to the car rental office. Where, once again, English is spoken as by default. It’s the proof, if it were needed, that our language is now all pervasive across the EU. English is the de facto first language in Europe.

This fact is generally not mentioned by the more screamingly anti-EU politicians and pundits. But neither is it disputed.

Closed for the Holidays

The number of restaurants closing for “the holidays” – or in a few cases, closing never to reopen – in the old town of Albufeira grows daily. But a close inspection shows that many will reopen next month. To be opening your doors when the days are at their shortest, and the climate less amenable, looks on the face of it to be a perverse move. But this fails to take into account the holiday habits of the Portuguese.

Christmas and New Year are a season in themselves for those from further north, as they look to take a break in the least cold and rainy part of their country. What at other times of the year is merely a weekend thing – travelling south on Friday afternoon and returning late Sunday – becomes a migration. Trains “sell out”, even with more capacity put on (you aren’t allowed to turn up and go without there being a seat available), in both classes, throughout the period. I suspect that coaches operated by Eva, Rede Expressos and Renex will be similarly in demand.

So it makes sense for businesses to take advantage of the influx, especially as the numbers coming from the UK and other northern European countries seem less reliable – or those Brits that have settled here find the exchange rate nudging them towards a rediscovery of cooking dinner, and making their own sarnies for lunch. Those that can afford to kick back for the whole of the holiday period can usually be relied upon to eat out occasionally.

Then, almost as soon as the New Year celebrations have died down, the move back north starts in earnest: the size of the early afternoon Intercidade from Faro on the first day of January is constrained only by the number of coaches that can be rustled up, and the weight limit imposed on anything using the rail deck of the Ponte 25 do Abril crossing the Tagus back into Lisbon. There are never any last minute seats available.

So what happens to all those reopened eateries? That I haven’t yet discovered, but suspect that there will be a further “holiday” closure for many, until the following March brings more daylight, more northern Europeans, and the next temporary migration comes with the arrival of Easter.

Friends Like These

With public reaction to the Sun hatchet job on Pa Broon not turning out as Rupe and his troops had expected, it seems that the Tories are trying to distance themselves from their new best friends: Dame Pauline Neville Jones has gone on the Beeb’s Question Time to comment adversely on the behaviour of the Murdoch attack dogs. Problem is, they can hardly intervene in Sun editorial policy, and it would require a higher level of diplomatic skill than Young Dave possesses to tell Rupe that, if that’s the kind of support he can expect, he’d rather not have it at all.

Thus Brown has come out of this rather well, although he would not have volunteered to be put through the mangle in this way. Making his demeanour yet more sunny, a rare thing nowadays, has been the comfortable Labour win in the Glasgow North East by-election, made necessary by the stepping down of former Speaker Michael Martin. Speculation on a shock defeat has long disappeared, and even the thought that the majority would dip below four thousand was wide of the mark: it was twice that amount.

There has already been much predictable reaction: Tory supporters brushing off the result as another of those “non stories” – for which read “stories that bring news we don’t want to hear” – and the SNP wondering what might have been. As if. Next will be the froth merchants spreading the “postal ballot fraud” drivel that they sent round after the last Labour by-election win.

Now all eyes will be on the next few weeks’ opinion polls: if there is significant movement away from the Tories and towards Labour, expect Young Dave and his team to start worrying about what the next Sun entry into the world of knocking copy will bring. Of course, he could tell his new friends at the Super Soaraway Currant Bun about all his plans for Government. The problem there is, first, he needs to actually have some, and second, that gives Big Al and Baron Mandelson of Indeterminate Guacamole the chance to rubbish them (no encouragement needed there).

But if Dave doesn’t help the Sun fill its pages, he risks the potential backfiring of their next batch of knocking copy. Decisions, decisions.

End Of Another Line

Weekends are sometimes difficult for getting around in the Algarve – unless, of course, you join the herd and drive. Then you face the problem of finding a parking space at a reasonable price – more often than not, parking means paying – unless you’re headed for one of the many out of town shopping experiences.

So today I had to mix and match the transport modes to be able to have a day in the western Algarve town of Lagos. Here the pros and cons of the competitors can be summed up: the bus station in Albufeira has a pleasant concourse, there are toilet facilities (free), but the ticket office has not yet progressed beyond cash transactions. At the railway station, there is a small waiting area, the toilets are generally locked (50 cents for a loan of the key), but both the ticket office and automatic machine will take debit and credit cards.

The train was well filled, with most punters headed for Portimão, a town that now stretches from its old centre inland all the way to the sea. Here and at Lagos the stations are staffed and tidy: most other wayside stops are neither. At the latter, arrival was actually a little late, but nothing on the scale that Senhora Eva manages whenever it’s busy, or when they advertise unachievable timings, as I mentioned the other day.

Lagos has, in fact, recently got a brand new station, but why this was necessary is a mystery. The old one is still there, just behind its successor, and the nicely proportioned red tiled terminus is starting to fall into disrepair. The bar that was opened on the ground floor has closed, the inevitable graffiti has started to appear, and the area at front is now being used by folks sleeping rough.

Which, after a pleasant few hours walking the promenade opposite the marina and taking the obligatory photos, brings me via the Sunday afternoon Transrapido, back to the shiny new bus station at Albufeira. Look beyond the area where buses lay over, and there is a jumble of makeshift dwellings, a mixture of wooden board, corrugated sheet, and tenting. Here are the people who have not made it, or have fallen out of luck. We have similarly unfortunate folks in the UK: merely because the glossy brochures fail to mention them does not mean that they do not exist elsewhere.

Saturday 14 November 2009

No News is No News

Away from home, not constantly connected to the Internet, so am I missing all the happenings in the print media? The question occurs whenever I have the chance to stop by a paper shop, which I did earlier today. It showed that I need not worry about being left behind.

The why-oh-why tabloids were on a health trip: the Daily Mail was considering the plight of what it calls the “Baby Boomer” generation, the currently over 60s, and how so many of them may be blighted by bad diet and lack of exercise. This rather obvious conclusion could be related to the age of the Mail’s legendarily foul mouthed editor, Paul Dacre, who has just turned, er, 60.

The Daily Express, demonstrating that sacking lots of hacks makes your paper into a pisspoor shadow of its former self, leads on the assertion that you can consume more calories than recommended. Hein, rien de merde, M. Holmes! Of course you can – but you’ll get fat (see Daily Mail). Anyone still unsure why the Express is shipping readers should look no further – and ideally read something better, which should not prove too taxing.

The red tops are in minor sleb mode: apparently the supposedly challenging I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here is back, which is a good reason to avoid ITV for the duration. So there is wall to wall coverage of this year’s trawl of the attention seeking and otherwise desperate, which, fortunately for the tabs, includes one Katie Price, aka Jordan, recently parted from the equally vacuous Peter André, and the excuse for plenty of chest shots and boob jokes. Phwhorr!

I’m A Celebrity will presumably be once again brought to the target audience along with Ant and Dec. Which one is which? I’m with the Klingons on this: it’s not important – kill them both. How else to liven up the format?

So is that all? You jest. The X Factor is still going, with the repulsive Simon Cowell snarling all the way to the bank. Who will win? Should I care? There’s more to life than sleb gazing and crummy “talent” shows: for starters, I have to decide where to eat this evening (the choice is good, even with several eateries closed for winter), and need to find the bus station in Lagos tomorrow, as I’ll have to return with Senhora Eva on the allegedly Transrapido. Hopefully this will be better than the similarly branded trip to Faro yesterday, which pitched up at the bus terminal there just quarter of an hour late.

Given the nature of rush hour traffic in that part of the world, I doubt that Simon Cowell’s advocacy and Jordan’s chest could have improved things.

Picture Imperfect

The variety of posts about places in and around the Algarve and Lisbon have, I’m sorry to confirm, contained no photo links – so far. Access to the Web has been sporadic, for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with lack of time, which in turn is driven by a requirement to sample the local hospitality and relax of an evening.

The photos are being taken, and barring an unfortunate relapse of the episode whereby I was relieved of my LumpCam (tm) somewhere between Schiphol and Liverpool, there will be new content on my Fotopic site as soon as I’ve got back, and cleared the backlog. Another post will follow at the time, loaded with hyperlinks and any more information I may choose to deploy in order to point readers in the desired direction.

An Enigmatic Man

The rebuilding of central Lisbon after the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755 would not have happened without the advocacy of one man, the Marques de Pombal, who by all accounts was more brutal and dictatorial than Antonio de Oliveira Salazar.

He got the job done. The city’s central Baixa district is, more or less, as he decreed, with a grid pattern of streets, central to the scheme being the north-south pedestrian axis, the Rua Augusta. Lisbon does not forget his endeavours: a statue of the man on horseback overlooks the Rotunda between the top of the Avenida da Liberdade and the Parque Eduardo VII (that’s the British Edward the Seventh). Just to keep visitors confused, the Metro station there was initially called Rotunda, after the roundabout, but is now called Marques de Pombal, after its statue.

The Marques also founded a new town at the eastern end of the Portuguese Algarve, next to the Guadiana river, which marks the border with Spain. Vila Real de Santo Antonio is now an established and growing settlement with the obligatory complement of expat Brits, but this was not always so. The area was predominantly marshland, so there was no farming, and no port. Consequently there were few takers.

As so often, the arrival of the railway made a difference, and now there is less marshland, plus a port. Nearby Monte Gordo is a recent addition to the list of familiar Algarve resorts. The pleasant town centre features a square bearing the name of its founder: around its edge are orange trees, and behind those on each side are similarly styled whitewashed buildings with red tiled roofs. The Marques might have approved of the symmetry and order.

Unfortunately, the railway that helped to bring the rest of the world to Vila Real de Santo Antonio does not fully appreciate the utility of the place: the station is out of the centre in the “zona industrial”, while the former terminus station by the Guadiana, which is next to the bus and coach park, and adjacent to the ferry landing, lies derelict, home only to a number of mobile caravans. At least, unlike so often at home, there is still a chance that the trains could return, as there has been no haste to build over the site.

Not only in the UK have transport planners repented at leisure.

On The Road Once More

Yesterday, more out of curiosity than desire, I took a coach trip for the first time in several years. After all, the adverts displayed a headline time from Albufeira to Lisbon of just two hours 40 minutes, faster than the train. Which doesn’t serve the centre of Albufeira. So I booked at the Eva office in the new bus station, and turned up for the 0920 coach from outside the bus shop in the old town.

The coach, displaying the kind of timekeeping that I remember all too well in the UK, left quarter of an hour late and lost another quarter of an hour en route, which meant that I had to be quick with my photos and the odd bit of “must do” sightseeing: this was eventually restricted to a ride on the 28 tram through Graça, and a trip up the Santa Justa Tower before sunset.

At least on the way back, the coach was “only” twelve minutes off arriving back in Albufeira, but it’s not good enough. If a time of two hours 40 isn’t achievable, it shouldn’t be advertised. Nor were the coaches especially busy: there was room for all on board to “spread out”, with no more than twenty takers each trip. But the journey was informative in another way.

The A2 motorway, which connects Lisbon with the Algarve, has been driven through the hills of the southern Alentejo by carving out a lot of cuttings and building many more bridges. This makes it straighter and shorter than the rail route, and must have cost more even than Jeremy Clarkson’s taxes. But it is also a toll road, which may partly explain the lack of traffic. This is what motorways in the UK were like decades ago: at one point, the opposite carriageway had two of its three lanes closed for maintenance, with no delays caused.

Hence my contention that the advertised coach timing was not achievable: on the return journey, there was a couple of minutes’ delay through slow traffic. But, once out on the toll road, there is nothing to slow the coaches. There is, however, a desire to capture market share and make money.

Thus the headline timing.

Wednesday 11 November 2009

Like Topsy

Back in the late 90s, there was one place to catch your bus in Albufeira: not far from the centre of the old town, at the south end of the Avenida da Liberdade. It was a little shambolic, and there was little cover from the elements. So now there is a brand new bus station, but it’s at the back of town.

At first, I thought that this site was at the edge of the urban sprawl, but was proved wrong when a journey out of town today demonstrated that the development has carried on, and has reached further inland. The lines of upmarket villas and blocks of apartments go on until you’re two or three miles from the coast.

The building, however, shows little sign of continuing right now. The severity of the downturn may not be as severe as in neighbouring Spain, but then, it may not have worked through the system yet. There are a lot of properties on the market, and many of those are having the asking price reduced.

Moreover, estate agents specialising in “distress sales” are in town. This suggests that repossessions are happening. One would hope that it isn’t the expat Brits that have been daft enough to enter this market at the wrong time, but that hope may be in vain.

Hello, I’m On The Road

Some in the UK still use hand held mobile phones while driving – despite it being outlawed – although the number is dwindling, and each instance of a driver having an accident while being distracted by a mobile serves as reinforcement. Once again, here is a practice that is treated differently across the EU.

The news that hand held mobiles equals distraction (and thereby equals potentially nasty accidents) has not yet taken hold in Portugal. If I was in any doubt about the practice being widespread, this was dispelled by the driver of an Eva bus last weekend: the route and time not advertised, in case the management are looking in.

Since that moment, I’ve been aware of drivers of variously sized commercial vehicles casually using hand held mobiles while negotiating the trickiest of roads, and the routinely heavy weekday traffic. Maybe there isn’t a penalty for doing so – yet. It’s not the most significant detail, but it demonstrates once again that the EU is not one homogenous state.

Attack Dog Bites Man

If there was any doubt that the Murdoch flagship tabloid Sun was going to make things hard for Pa Broon, it has been dispelled by a characteristically nasty and exploitative piece of journalism over Brown’s hand written letter to the mother of a soldier killed on active service in Afghanistan.

Brown writes those letters in a black felt pen, because his eyesight is poor, which in turn leads to the effect looking untidy and scrawled. No checking is done by his staff, as he puts the letters in envelopes and seals them himself. This suggests it’s a very personal thing.

But the recipient wasn’t happy that Brown had made more than one spelling mistake – including, apparently, the dead man’s name – and so that very personal communication has appeared in the Sun. Along with the transcript of a phone call made by the PM to her.

The Sun line is that Brown doesn’t care enough about those being sent to fight, and sometimes to die, on our behalf in Afghanistan. But if he didn’t care, he wouldn’t bother with the personal letters, or he’d get them typed and just scribble a signature. For Sun hacks, this thought is not allowed to enter. They are under orders to kick Brown until they get him out of Downing Street, and Steve Bell has caught their attitude bluntly but accurately in this cartoon.

For Young Dave, this should prove instructive: it is an example of what may lie ahead if he fails to tear up the BBC’s charter, doesn’t take a suitably anti-EU line, or decides not to drop the TV impartiality rule.

Then Rupe will turn the attack dogs on him.

Way To Go, Rupe

You have to hand it to Rupert Murdoch: not only has he exonerated the wayward Glenn Beck, “star” of Fox News Channel (fair and balanced my arse) over Beck’s assertion that Barack Obama was a racist, he has said that Beck was right. Rupe has, however, said that Beck should not have said that, so perhaps we will now see a different form of words coming out of Fox in an attempt to say the same thing.

Maybe not: this is as near to Beck being given the green light by his boss as makes no difference. Murdoch is, effectively, giving the finger to anyone who says his talking heads are out of order, and letting everyone know that there will be more of the same (as if we needed telling) because of course Fox campaigned against Obama during the Presidential race. And Fox lost.

So Rupe, via Fox and whichever of his other media outlets he so directs, will be putting the boot into Obama until they see the back of him. That, given that most Presidents manage a second term, could mean another seven years of the same.

[UPDATE: Rupe's been backtracking, as the Guardian has reported]

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Far From The Madding Crowd

Some of those less charitably disposed towards those migrating to the UK use a variety of language to discourage: one such is that the place is “full up”, which a glance across all that open country shows to be so much drivel. The UK has an awful lot of space, but not as much as some countries on mainland Europe. A journey into the heart of Portugal’s Alentejo region today proved the point.

The Alentejo is, more or less, the region to the north of the Algarve. There are few towns, some smaller settlements, then the landscape is one of few trees, and yet fewer people. At night, looking out from the train speeding its way from Lisbon to Faro, all is dark – completely dark – for many miles at a time. Apart from farming, little else is done here.

At the junction station of Funcheira, I left the well filled and comfortable Inter City train headed for Lisbon, and joined a railmotor – a single coach train – to complete my trip to the Alentejo town of Beja. Along this route, only two services each way are provided daily, operated by vehicles recently rebuilt, but underneath dating from the mid 1950s. After looking at the extent of the refurbishment, one briefly wonders why they went to all the trouble, only to realise that it was rebuilding or nothing: train services in this part of the world enjoy what is called a “marginal” existence.

Indeed, there was only one other passenger on the journey to Beja: there were no takers at the two stops en route. No doubt at holiday times and weekends the services are busier, but there is little money being made here. Lineside telegraph poles, long out of use, have become birds’ nests. There are yet more wayside stations, all now abandoned. No freight – probably the reason for their existence – passes this way any more.

Beja is a typical Alentejo town, smaller than Évora to the north, but also occupying the high ground, and with remains of walled fortifications clearly visible. Here, the dominant civilisation for several centuries was Moorish, and, yes, Muslim. Now the dominant force is the unrelenting traffic, which, coupled with the cobbled streets, creates a constant background rumble, even within the pleasant park which sits below the Pousada de São Francisco.

The return journey brought better loadings: all of nine passengers boarded the railmotor at Beja, and there were even takers for the two stops: how they had travelled into town is unclear. Certainly, having a last train at 1417 hours tends to restrict the social world of anyone so constrained. At Funcheira, the crew changed ends and headed back to Beja: how much longer the Portuguese equivalent of what we in the UK call the “social” railway will continue is not known.

Broadsword to Danny Boy

Time of next broadcast uncertain, as Richard Burton told Michael Hordern in Where Eagles Dare. It’s not wartime here in the Algarve, but the uncertainty is just as fraught. Access, no doubt, will return, and with it there will be more from Zelo Street.

Posts, when they appear, may be the odd day (or two) out of sync. Whatever.

Where Low Season Warms – 2

It’s possible that the influx of tourists was unseen when the Algarve was being opened up to the modern world late in the nineteenth Century. So when the railway arrived from the north, its builders knew they needed to serve places like Faro, where the station is centrally sited, but would only have seen Albufeira as a fishing village, so a station was provided and named after that village, but it was some distance inland, in another village called Ferreiras.

So to access the rail system from downtown Albufeira, you need to either call a taxi or use the connecting bus service run by local provider Eva. The connections aren’t always good, and there is good reason for Eva not to be too keen on delivering punters to the railway: much of the market is in travel to and from Lisbon, and Eva runs its own coaches along the route. Moreover, it has two competitors in the coach market, although fares are no lower than by train.

Meanwhile, back in central Albufeira, it’s clear that many of the restaurants I visited back in December 1996 are closed for the low season this time round. One reason that came to mind is that, in addition to the exchange rate woes, many alternative winter destinations have come on the market in the intervening years. But here is a potential silver lining for the Algarve: those new destinations are invariably long haul ones, and the cost of flying may start to rise, and soon.

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

Actually, tomorrow will mark that twentieth anniversary: two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall, bringing an end to the DDR along with reunification of Germany. Few good things came out of that partitioned city, though the film industry profited through films like Funeral In Berlin, the second in the Harry Palmer series. The need not to know too much about Berlin’s geography is demonstrated when a coffin is moved across the border: the actual spot, the Glienicke Bridge, is on the border between Berlin and Potsdam – it’s nowhere near the former East Berlin.

The wall, despite East German propaganda telling that it was to keep spies out of the East, was clearly built to keep East Berliners – and other East Germans – from fleeing to the West. But it also gave reassurance to the US, UK and French forces who between them controlled West Berlin, because it meant that the Eastern Bloc powers had given up the idea of taking West Berlin for themselves.

And so, from the early 60s until late 1989, anyone caught making an escape attempt from the East was shot, and even if alive after the shooting, the escapee would be left long enough that they would bleed to death. It was a symbol of the cruelty of the totalitarian state in the East, and allowed those who peddled the idea of “monolithic Communism” to prevail.

There were also more bizarre aspects of partition: it was possible to drive from West Germany to West Berlin, by using motorway “corridors”. One condition of this access was that occupants of vehicles using the “corridors” were not permitted to look other than straight ahead: gazing over the fence at the DDR was banned.

Where Low Season Warms

Last week – well, in the North West at least – Autumn drove in with a vengeance: every day it rained, and the wind blew much of the remaining leaves off the trees. The nights have gone cold, and the daylight retreats steadily. The decision was taken for Zelo Street to migrate temporarily to somewhere with more warmth and daylight.

So, after the last EasyJet early afternoon flight from Liverpool to Faro of the current season (filled partly with Benfica fans returning the long way from Liverpool to Lisbon), and a quick spin round the resorts by shuttle bus, I’ve arrived at the crossroads between new and old in the Algarve – at Albufeira. This evening, despite the steady breeze, the temperature is in the high teens, and this afternoon was in the low 20s.

So it might have been expected that the place would be buzzing. It is not. Overprovision of accommodation – which means that a pleasant apartment can be had for just under fifteen pounds a night – and the poor exchange rate is not encouraging Brits to visit. So when the receptionist told me that the bar was closed, because it was low season, it wasn’t totally unexpected.

That, of course, is relative: if those temperatures were recorded in the UK, it certainly wouldn’t be low season. But here in Albufeira, restaurants are struggling for custom, and empty bars blare out their sounds in the hope of drawing in folks to watch the football. In the meantime, I passed by all of these to revisit a little restaurant called O Zuca, at the foot of the Travessa de Malpique, which I last visited almost thirteen years ago, where locals hang around the bar, and the TV shows one of the national channels. This evening featured the Portuguese version of Pop Idol, and I can confirm that the supply of hopefuls whose ambition exceeds their ability is as plentiful as in the UK.

Updates as and when over the next two weeks ...

Major Shooting

We have garrison towns in the UK – places like Catterick, where the military come together in some numbers. But we have nothing of the size of Fort Hood in Texas, home to tens of thousands of soldiers, plus many more who provide retail therapy and otherwise supply the base.

It’s difficult for us to conceive of this scale of operation. Even more difficult is the understanding of why and how a senior officer – a major is as high a rank in the US Army as in ours – should turn on his fellow soldiers and shoot several of them dead.

But it has happened, and now thirteen have died after Major Nidal Malik Hasan’s attack on Friday. This is grim enough, but Hasan, who has survived despite himself being shot, is a Muslim, and the hate mail has already started.

President Barack Obama has called for calm, and in this he has the support of both Democrat and Republican leaders in Congress. This is signally important: the potential for a backlash, perhaps fuelled by paranoia, is ever present. Hopefully, commentators from all sides of the political spectrum will lend their weight to Obama’s call.

Friday 6 November 2009

No, No, No, No, No

Nobody who was there at the time will easily forget Margaret Thatcher’s apparent approach to the EU. Here was a leader standing firm against all those ghastly foreigners: we could trust her to put our interests first, to arrest the intrusion of Brussels into our lives. The fact of the matter, however, was rather different: Thatcher signed the Single European Act, and in 1983 it was Labour, not the Tories, who went into the General Election on an anti-European platform. There was, on occasion, a significant variance between the media image of Thatcher on Europe, and the reality.

This dislocation has apparently been lost on Young Dave, who earlier this week, as he pragmatically dropped the idea of putting the Lisbon Treaty to the electorate in a referendum, told of the powers he was going to repatriate from the EU. It seems that he made his announcement without checking out the terrain first. And some leading politicians across Europe are not at all taken with the Tory approach.

The reason is as straightforward as it is obvious: the negotiations that eventually produced the Lisbon Treaty took several years, and each member state expended a great deal of time on them. Following the second Irish referendum, and the Czech President signing off the Treaty, there has been a sense of relief that the arguments are over, and that the EU can move on – to things that really matter, like trade, the financial crisis, and the environment.

Hence the exasperation with Young Dave (although not universally as forthright as that aired by France’s Europe minister), who gives the impression that he is saying whatever it takes to get voters on side and himself into Downing Street.

Strike? What Strike? – 2

The series of strikes by postal workers has now been called off. I am not surprised. Not only was the impression given, as I posted recently, that the strike may not have been totally solid, but the time of year is also significant.

Some years ago, I was moving house – fortunately an uncommon event, given the stress it causes – and the chain, with its attendant paperwork, was ready to go. Almost all were agreed that we should proceed – except one: it was late November, and the dissenter was a postman. Nothing, but nothing, would stand between him and his Christmas pay packet.

So it is with the current dispute. All will now be well until Christmas is behind us. After that, nobody should assume that, merely because a truce has been called, the state of industrial relations will be any more cordial. The only significant reason for calling off the action is to ensure that postal workers get their seasonal pay day.

Thursday 5 November 2009

Variable Principles

There has been a resignation over Young Dave’s new Euro-policy, but most folks will not have noticed: the show of principle has come from Dan, Dan the Oratory Man, who will be concentrating on pet projects such as localism, and direct democracy. Dan, along with his equally eccentric chum Douglas Carswell, are hot on this kind of thing, and equally hot on telling us all that nobody under the age of 52 has had a chance to vote on Europe.

This, on more than one level, is utter drivel. The reference being made is to the 1975 referendum – the only one in the UK’s history – which was ostensibly to confirm our membership of the then EEC. The reality, however, was that Harold Wilson’s Labour Government was split over Europe, and the referendum was merely a device to allow him to hold the party together.

Moreover, we have had several opportunities to vote on Europe since that time: in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005. That’s seven opportunities. Granted, the issue of Europe is only one of many that are presented to us at General Election time, but the opportunity to register dissent has been given.

Furthermore, if Hannan and Carswell want to be consistent and credible, they might usefully consider other occasions when major decisions have been taken without specific consultation of the electorate. They proclaim a commitment to localism, yet have not told of the lack of consultation on centralising of power away from local authorities, notably by the Tories when the GLC and the Metropolitan Councils were abolished.

They make no complaint about the lack of referenda before committing the UK to a succession of military adventures – a commitment in human and monetary resources more substantial than Europe. There is no comment on the joining of NATO, the UN, the commitment to Polaris, to its update, to its replacement – all commitments made without public consultation. No mention is made of the wholesale tinkering with the UK’s rail and bus networks, made without public consultation, which has seen the railways costing far more, and the bus, outside London, becoming a remaindered transport mode, with most of those who can afford a car switching to one.

Nor is there any complaint about the Thatcher Government foisting the Poll Tax on the country without prior consultation. All of the foregoing impact the daily lives of the electorate more substantially than the EU, yet there is no call from this uniquely eccentric duo for referenda on these matters, and a regret that we have not been afforded one for decades. And until Hanann and Carswell can apply some consistency, rather than becoming hung up over their obsession with Europe, I for one will not be taking them seriously.

Departure Time? – 2

Speaking out against a military campaign is always tricky for members of a governing party: the lesson of what happened to the Democratic Party in the late 60s over Vietnam, that ultimately let Richard Milhous Nixon into the White House, reminds us of the potential for disaster.

So it can be taken for granted that any Labour MP that speaks out against the adventure in Afghanistan will have thought long and hard about the consequences beforehand. Pontypridd MP Kim Howells, who has been in the Commons for thirty years, has had that thought, and has spoken out.

Meanwhile, the parallels with Vietnam continue to stand out: the latest estimate for the size of force needed to “turn the tide” is half a million, more than twice the number at present available – and that includes Afghan troops. It was the numbers put forward to “pacify” South Vietnam that convinced the US Government that, as it was not going to put so many in harm’s way, it could not win.

The re-run Afghan election, pushed for by the US, has not happened, so Hamid Karzai – corruption or no – has been confirmed as President. The observations made by J K Galbraith on those similarly confirmed in South Vietnam may be usefully recalled:

With President Diem, the Nhu family and the politicians that followed as in a revolving door, the impression of villainy was inescapable

[The Age of Uncertainty, p. 249]

Finally, the comparative size of those resisting is similar: in Vietnam, the size of the South Vietnamese army was several times that of the VietCong, yet they could not match them. In Afghanistan, the number of NATO troops is several times that of the Taliban pitted against them, and, again, the resistance has not been crushed.

The lessons of Vietnam are there for those who are willing to learn. For a Labour Government, avoiding the appearance of weakness at times of conflict seems to make for an especially wilful commitment to carry on: thus those lessons, which have weighed heavily on Kim Howells, may be some time permeating the remainder of that particular body politic.

Wednesday 4 November 2009

It’s That Joke Again

Global warming is on occasion a difficult subject to get across: how to demonstrate to the sceptic and undecided how cows grazing in a field can have an effect on the size of the polar ice caps.

Fortunately, Steve Bell has this week brought us an update on the most crude, yet direct humour to explain it all. The final part of the jigsaw appears tomorrow.

Enter The Donkey Trainer

Over the years, calls for referenda on a variety of subjects (usually, but not exclusively, to do with the EU) have been met with a uniform response from those opposing the call: you don’t like what the Government does on any given subject, you can vote them out at the next General Election. The flip side of this argument is that, if your party gets elected, it then has a mandate to deal with a variety of issues – including Europe – as it wishes, without further public consultation, for up to another five years.

This, back in 2007, as I noted the other day, was not good enough for Young Dave. He gave his “cast iron guarantee” that the Lisbon Treaty would be put to a referendum. And he gave it to the readers of the Murdoch flagship Sun. So who has said today – about an hour ago as I write – that a General Election victory would confer a mandate to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU? Step forward Young Dave. Apart from blaming Labour and the Lib Dems for the Tories’ problems – perhaps Pa Broon and Ming Campbell sneaked in and wrote his Sun article without him noticing – Cameron has now all but abandoned the referendum idea.

Well, except for any future transfer of power to the EU, that is. But here there is a potential grey area. Is a change from unanimous vote to qualified majority voting (QMV) a transfer of power or streamlining of decision making? Who decides? Is the accession of more member states, making the six month presidency a rarer event for the UK, a transfer of power or merely an acceptable price for enlargement? What if enlargement means a reduction in the number of each member state’s bloc of MEPs? Is that a transfer of power?

More likely is that a future Government, of whatever stripe, will have sufficient room for manoeuvre to make the Cameron referendum promise meaningless. But his followers will undoubtedly show unanimity and fall in line. I note that Tim Montgomerie at ConservativeHome has expressed disappointment at Cameron’s speech, but expect him to be nodding obediently after he sees which way the true blue wind is blowing.

Had this process involved Labour and Alastair Campbell, the news would have concerned followers being “on message”, and there would have been accusations of “spin” and “control freakery”. Those Tory cheerleaders who routinely assert their independence of thought have already, as I’ve noted, shown that their freedom of expression is in fortunately coincident step with the party leadership when it matters to the latter. Expect nothing different following this afternoon’s speech.

[UPDATE: almost immediately after first publishing this post, Iain Dale has fallen obediently into line. Ee-aw!]

[UPDATE 2: Tim Montgomerie says that there are lots of more important things that a Cameron Government would need to get on with, and he's not going to talk about Europe for a few weeks. Ee-aw!]

The Smearing Rationale

Another day, another forced apology: the Daily Mail has paid out 25,000 notes – plus an undisclosed, and probably far larger, sum in legal costs – to actor Kate Winslet after she sued following another mean spirited hatchet job. Given that those who have the resources will take action to defend their reputations from attacks by the legendarily foul mouthed Paul Dacre’s pisspoor hacks, one could be forgiven for wondering why the paper keeps on smearing, when they know what will follow.

There is, as ever, method in this particular madness. Dacre has, as I’ve told on many occasions, a knack for supplying stories that chime with the views, fears – and prejudices – of his target audience. The idea that actors aren’t very nice people, or are dishonest enough to say one thing for public consumption while doing another behind closed doors – the offending article called Winslet “irritating” and said she lied about her exercise régime – fits the template of sneering envy, that “it’s alright for them, what do they know about how real people live?”

Moreover, the uplift in sales that the steady stream of knocking copy generates means keeping profits up, and therefore maintains the ability of the Daily Mail to charge advertisers top dollar. Put simply, it’s worth the occasional carpeting in the courts to behave like this.

And, the clinching argument for Dacre and his shock troops, is that the apology and court appearance are invariably going to come some way down the line from the article that provokes the lawsuit. By that time, some of the mud will have stuck, and another reputation will have been stained: the idea that there is “no smoke without fire” is central to the Daily Mail mindset. And this will carry on, for one depressingly simple reason.

It sells newspapers. Any higher principles do not enter.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Enter The Refusenik Donkeys

Today, as I predicted recently, push finally came to shove over in the Czech Republic. The country’s Constitutional Court ruled that the Lisbon Treaty was in accordance with the Republic’s constitution, and soon afterwards, President Vaclav Klaus signed. Thus the Treaty has now been ratified by all 27 EU member states and will come into force within weeks.

For UK Eurosceptics, this shifts the focus back home, and on to Young Dave, who as I mentioned yesterday, gave his “cast iron commitment” to a referendum back in 2007, only to give the appearance last week that he is now refining his stance. The idea that a referendum would no longer be necessary, having been spun shamelessly by a variety of obedient Tory propagandists, has been greeted with horror by the party’s awkward squad, typified by Bill Cash, quoted by the Maily Telegraph as saying that the country needs “a full referendum on Lisbon as ... promised. No ifs or buts”. Barry Legg, former Tory MP now with the Bruges Group, asserts that Cameron has “broken his word”.

And now we hear that the most ardent Eurosceptic Tory, shadow Foreign Secretary William ‘Ague, has had to break the news to the world that his party will not be offering the electorate a referendum on Lisbon. Master ‘Ague has conceded, as I noted yesterday, that Lisbon will not be possible to unpick once ratified, and his boss needs to get his fresh policy position out there without further delay, to give him the chance to win over the doubters and head off any transfer of loyalty to the flat earthers of UKIP, whose leader Nigel Farage will doubtless have been toasting the Tory change of tack.

But Young Dave did give an unequivocal promise to hold a referendum. And he gave it in the pages of the Murdoch Sun. His move to map out a new stance on the EU is necessary and pragmatic, but even with the most enthusiastic of spinning, it will be easy for his detractors to accuse him of dishonesty.

Welcome to real world politics, Dave.

[UPDATE: Nosemonkey has an excellent post, Liveblogging The Lisbon Apocalypse]

Monday 2 November 2009

Enter The Nodding Donkeys

The signs of policy reversal were there last Tuesday: Young Dave gave his regular press conference and was quizzed on the R-word – as in Referendum. He was pressed on whether he would hold one if elected, even if, as seems likely, the Lisbon Treaty will have been ratified by all 27 EU member states. And his reply was rather less than the unequivocal commitment he had given readers of the Murdoch flagship tabloid Sun earlier.

Cameron knows that the idea of “un-ratifying” the Lisbon Treaty is not a credible option, and so he needs to take a sensible and defensible policy position – and do so as soon as possible. The longer he leaves it, the less time he will have to work on those potential supporters who were spoiling for a referendum, and the less time to convince a sceptical media that he’s not just backing away from the fight he promised. So he’s not talking of unpicking Lisbon, and far less of withdrawal.

So far, so pragmatic: at first, Nigel Farage and his fellow UKIP flat earthers may think all their birthdays have come at once, but the more time that Cameron has to work on the disaffected, the more chance he has of getting enough of them back on side to see off UKIP dreams of Parliamentary seats. And Young Dave is at this point singularly fortunate to have a sector of the blogosphere which is satisfyingly obedient.

Anyone needing confirmation of this need look no further than ConservativeHome, and its leading light Tim Montgomerie, who has given the Cameron view a detailed, but ultimately craven endorsement. His wriggling around the wording of the Sun commitment, had it come out of Tony Blair’s Downing Street, would have been denounced as the most blatant act of spin. Any lingering thought that ConHome was a source of independent thought has been banished by this shameless act of capitulation.

And Montgomerie is not the only one nodding obediently: I’m sorry to see that Iain Dale (and there is no blogger greater than he) has fallen in line in similarly craven fashion. Iain would do well to consider the less than obedient stance taken by his sometime co-conspirator Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes: Staines is clearly not impressed with the new Tory line (although I note he’s agreeably close to my position on the subject of illegal drugs, right down to identifying the legendarily foul mouthed editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, as what Young Dave might have called a “roadblock to reform”).

Europe, as before, appears to be a less than comfortable place for the Tories. And we’re still around half a year away from a General Election.

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today

Recently I stopped off at Watford Gap services. Just to stretch my legs after a non stop drive from the Channel Tunnel. The place seemed quite civilised, and a far cry from the days when it was operated by Blue Boar and food was served on cardboard plates, the nadir of motorway catering. I didn’t realise that a moment in history was fast approaching.

Because today is the fiftieth anniversary of the day when Ernest Marples, a man whose business dealings may not have stood scrutiny in today’s political climate, opened the first substantial stretch of motorway in the UK (the very first motorway, the M6 Preston by pass, opened in 1958), the M1 from Watford to Crick. The latter was very much in the middle of nowhere, except for the connection to the A5, a return to the old road system, but that was to miss the point. Soon, the M1 drove north once more, not stopping until it had opened all the way to Leeds in 1968.

Photos of the road at the time of opening – the Guardian has a compilation available – show almost empty carriageways. There were in those early years no speed limits, though many cars could not cruise at better than 50 to 60 mph. The speed differential with those that could take advantage of the open road, like the 150 mph capable Jaguar E-Type and Aston Martin DB5, must have made for some hairy moments, even with the light traffic volumes. The 70 mph limit was inevitable.

Also inevitable were barriers between carriageways, warning signals (increasingly sophisticated over the years) and the all pervasive cameras. And all the time, the desire for mobility has risen as the cost of motoring has fallen, so now we can look back fondly at those newly swept, empty carriageways, but we cannot return there.

Thus the march of progress.

Sunday 1 November 2009

The Laws Don’t Work – 6

Another day, another advisor lost, this time voluntarily: Dr Les King has followed David Nutt out of the door, from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Meanwhile, Home Secretary Alan Johnson has been doing the media rounds with the line being that Nutt had crossed over into the political arena and was effectively campaigning against the Government.

Meanwhile, Nutt’s assertion, that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol or nicotine, has not been countered, and it’s entirely possible that it never will be. What may worry the more righteous part of the media, who remain ever vigilant against those who are less than totally “tough on drugs”, is that the assertion about cannabis relative to alcohol and nicotine may take hold – and that the electorate may start asking questions, perhaps even debating the issue in a rational manner.

This, as I noted when considering David Nutt’s dismissal, is what needs to happen if we are ever going to get away from the status quo, where illegal drugs are demonised, the debate is irrationally suppressed, and the misery of the many continues, while the criminally inclined few reap the benefits.

The Full Nelson

While being a little disappointed that I predicted some follow up on the Afghan helicopter situation during the Andy Marr Show today – and there wasn’t any – the appearance of new Spectator editor Fraser Nelson on the paper review was entertaining and interesting (though some on his own area of the political spectrum might have taken exception to the Johnson-family-as-Blackadders remark).

His views on a range of subjects do not coincide with mine: for instance, as seems fashionable with so many on the libertarian right, he has a problem with man-made climate change. But, so what? It’s another subject where debate is to be had, though whether many outside his comfort zone will be converted I doubt.

The subject I previously covered that did come up in discussion of the day’s newspapers was that of currently illegal drugs, and the dismissal of Professor David Nutt. Nelson argued that, whatever the comparative harmfulness of marijuana versus tobacco and alcohol, it was down to how society as a whole views that range of drugs that would decide their future status.

And in this he is right: here, as with other issues, there is a debate to be had. The problem, as I’ve said many times, is that it is not possible for that debate to take place in a reasoned and rational manner. Perhaps Nelson could develop his take on that subject – I’d be more than interested to hear it.