A bit of a lark

Here he comes, loping over the hills, handsome and unstoppable, gliding across Spain’s political landscape, from somewhere near its centre towards an unspecified place somewhere on the right. Yes, Toni Cantó is Spain’s own Forrest Gump. A witness of calamity. Always on the move, forever jumping off the wagon of one crisis-ridden political party in order to leap onto another with better prospects.

Toni Cantó: Spain’s Forrest Gump.

What are we to make of this strange phenomenon? Cantó has hogged headlines recently after his enlistment as a candidate for the conservative Popular Party, the same party he berated for its corruption and stance against nationalism when he was in Ciudadanos. He had joined Ciudadanos after his previous political home, the UPyD, started to look unviable. And before that, remember, he began his political career in a party called Neighbours for Torrelodones, which was formed expressly to remove the corruption-plagued PP from office in that town.

The former actor’s gallop through four parties in 14 years has made him the target of plenty of vitriol and the butt of quite a few jokes. Madrid president Isabel Díaz Ayuso boasted that Spain owed her one for dragging Pablo Iglesias out of the government in order to run against her in May’s regional election. The rejoinder quip is that Spain owes her another favour for ensuring Cantó will stay out of our theatres for the next four years.

But beyond the gags, what does Cantó’s never-ending tour of political entities tell us, apart from reinforcing the theory that when someone says “I’m neither on the left or the right” they are most definitely on the right?

A recent interview with veteran journalist Iñaki Gabilondo seemed to touch obliquely, but squarely, on the Cantó hoopla. He described the 2008 economic crash in Spain as something that went beyond pure finance. “We didn’t enter an economic crisis, but rather a kind of brutal psycho-social stupor,” Gabilondo said, explaining how it fuelled a kind of turbo-charged political nuttiness in Spain. It’s arguably a trance that the country – or at least much of it – remains locked in today as political trench warfare and noismo dominate. I mention all this because the beginning of that crisis was precisely the time when Cantó was abandoning his b-list acting exploits to embark on a political career.

It is a career that has seen him develop from breath-of-fresh-air silver-fox outsider into a pseudo-centrist permatroll of the left; an anti-advert for social media, peddling half-truths and often no truths at all.

Members of Spain’s political class have faced a frequent criticism over the years: that they cling to their posts and their party lines because they are professional politicians with nowhere else to go but up the party pole. Cantó, however, wandered into the fray 14 years ago with his name recognition already established, from years playing David in the TV series 7 vidas and a role in an Almodóvar film. He represents a totally different problem, one that Americans became familiar with in 2016. It’s the idea of elected office as a bit of a lark, an effective way of expanding your Twitter follower base, or of reminding your agent that you still exist. This, arguably, is the more dangerous trend, because it appears to have no consequences for the protagonist, who can, at any time, slink back to his or her old job or simply seek out a new party.

Where will this particular political tourist’s travels end? On the far-right? Somewhere weird that lies beyond? Or, perhaps, back on the stage in a small theatre in Valencia playing Widow Twankey?

“I’m so happy to see you,” Cantó’s character, the transvestite Lola, says in a key scene in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother. “It’s just a shame it had to be like this.” Right now, many people will be saying the same of Cantó.

A resolution

Practice mindfulness. Cut down on the Rioja. Learn rudimentary Pashto. Take up the bassoon.

As the new year begins, we have a tendency to make resolutions. Many are designed to tighten our waistlines or broaden our knowledge, while others are aimed at providing inner peace. It is the latter I am searching for as I lay out perhaps my most ambitious new year’s resolution to date: to work out who Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, really is.

I know that sounds banal. After all, there are plenty of answers out there already. “He’s a kind of Charles Manson of Spanish politics,” declared Hermann Tertsch, an MEP for the far-right Vox. Rosa Díez, a former Socialist colleague of Sánchez who has just written an entire book about how awful he is, calls him a “psychopath”. And Pablo Casado, leader of the conservative Popular Party (PP), has called him “the biggest criminal in the history of Spanish democracy”.

If you mash all that together, you get a bearded, gun-toting, Scarface character, entrenched in La Moncloa and so barking mad he makes Trump look like a Shaolin monk.

Yet if you ask the same question of those on other points of the political spectrum, you’ll get curiously different answers. Catalan nationalists tend to frame him as puppet-in-chief of a repressive Spanish state. The former Catalan president Carles Puigdemont presented Sánchez as a sinister-yet-confused half-wit when he said the prime minister “seems to think the vaccine is the constitution”.

Pedro Sánchez: a blue-suited prism.

For those on the hard left, meanwhile, Sánchez is little more than part of a wishy-washy wing of the country’s conservatives. Even his own coalition partners, Podemos, have accused his party of being “in step with the right and far right” recently.

All of the above highlights the hyperbole and histrionics of Spanish political debate, which has made great progress in recent years in emptying language of its meaning. But it also underlines the fact that Sánchez has become a six-foot-tall, blue-suited prism, allowing whoever views him to see whatever they wish, depending on their own particular grievances and obsessions. Separatist-appeasing, narco-chavista radical? Neo-Francoist centralist? Conservative wolf dressed up as a progressive sheep? Take your pick.

When he first appeared as an outsider in the Socialist Party leadership primary of 2014, Sánchez’s agenda was vague, moderate and pretty uninspiring – all characteristics that appeared to be exaggerated by his easy grin and tennis-coach looks. His uncontroversial platform and self-declared “felipista” status suggested he was more or less on the party’s right wing, in line with the market-friendly social democracy of Felipe González. Little that he did altered that view of him until, in 2016, he dug his heels in and refused to offer parliamentary support to Mariano Rajoy’s corruption-ridden conservatives as they sought to form a new government. That sudden, unflagged bout of conviction politics led to a lengthy paralysis in Spanish politics and, eventually, the removal of Sánchez from the party leadership by his rivals.

That episode also kicked off a much more interesting season in Sánchez’s political career. His determination to wrest back the Socialist leadership, as he motored round the country in his little Citroën gathering support, looked Quixotic. But he succeeded. Then he performed what is surely one of the most daring and remarkable parliamentary manoeuvres Spain or any European country has seen in recent times: a no-confidence motion which narrowly led to him replacing Mariano Rajoy as prime minister in 2018. The following year, Sánchez, a two-time election loser, resoundingly won the general election. But then he committed a hopelessly clumsy error: allowing familiar old disagreements within the left to prevent him from forming a new government. Redemption of sorts came when he won another election and resolved his differences with Podemos to form a pioneering coalition. Then coronavirus hit.

Apart from reading like the treatment for a racy new Netflix drama, the above highlights the instability of the country’s political landscape. It also provides frustratingly little material from which to build a clear picture of who Sánchez is. His government is undoubtedly on the left – but where on the left? He is in coalition with the neo-communists of Unidas Podemos, but his junior partners have made so many compromises on their way to government that their original radicalism has been heavily diluted. And surely it is a stretch to describe as “radical” a government whose economy ministry is led by Nadia Calviño.

Sánchez’s insistence on courting the support of Catalan and Basque nationalists has provided further ammunition for those who label him a traitor of Spain and a pal of lawbreakers and terrorists. But my impression is that his strategy in this area is a combination of conviction – a genuine desire to defuse tensions in Catalonia – and sheer survival instinct, based on the fact that he needs the parliamentary support of the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV).

For decades, Spain’s leaders had little reason to worry about parliamentary numbers, such was the stability of the two-party system, allowing them to present a coherent “narrative” to voters: González was the centre-left moderniser; Aznar the Neo-Con deregulator; Zapatero the loose-spending promoter of social rights; Rajoy the drab austerity-monger; and Sánchez…what, exactly? Part of his problem is that in today’s highly fragmented Spanish politics, the challenge of keeping things together in congress naturally subsumes any overarching vision for the country that the prime minister may harbour.

For example, it’s hard to discern his policy on the matter of the monarchy, which is reeling from former king Juan Carlos’s drastic fall from grace. So far, Sánchez and his Socialists have walked a thin line between expressing respect for the institution and dismay at the former monarch’s sprawling catalogue of scandals. The feeling you get is that Sánchez is sniffing the wind of public mood before considering a leap onto one side or the other of the republican/monarchist fence.

In the coming months, Covid will continue to dominate public debate, meaning plenty of discussion and dispute over restrictions, testing, PPE and very little in the way of evidence about Sánchez’s political DNA. One exception could be how he and his government manage the 140 billion euros Spain is due to receive from the EU coronavirus fund.

A year from now I hope to have a clearer answer to the question of who Sánchez really is. But I won’t be holding my breath. I’ll save it for the bassoon.

After the second wave, how about a second Transition?

In the summer, I interviewed Pablo Iglesias and most of what he told me did not come as a great surprise. The deputy prime minister’s insistence that the right were now locked out of government for “decades” by Podemos’s coalition with the Socialists seemed somewhat exaggerated but hardly off-message. His welcoming of Angela Merkel’s approach to the Covid-19 EU rescue fund was interesting rather than astonishing. And his claim that some in Spain would go to any lengths to try to remove him from government was a familiar refrain from a man who had become the bête noire of the right.

But his assertion that even if his party, Podemos, had won a general election, Spain’s political and economic powers would have clubbed together to prevent it from leading a government was more startling.

We will probably never find out if he was right, given Podemos’s steady electoral decline over the last five years and its status as the junior partner in this coalition. But Iglesias’s claim is worth taking seriously given that this was a senior cabinet minister saying that Spain’s democratic institutions are too weak to be sure of them following through on an election result.

Pablo Iglesias. Photo: Dani Gago

For some time now those institutions have been shipping credibility. The economic crisis of a decade ago revealed thick seams of dishonesty and amateurism running through the revered financial system. The glut of corruption scandals that followed did much the same for the political class, as well as tainting the monarchy. Meanwhile, the Catalan crisis has put in question the country’s territorial model.

The monarchy took yet another, potentially fatal, body blow this summer when the former king, Juan Carlos, fled to the United Arab Emirates amid a legal storm surrounding his financial activities.

I list these episodes, misdemeanours and screw-ups not in a blithe attempt to give Spanish democracy a kicking, but rather to suggest that perhaps it’s time for a change.

There is a theory that every four decades Spain has a major crisis. It’s a fairly sound hypothesis if you take “crisis” in its broadest definition, to mean a major upheaval or trauma, and if you start in 1898. Four decades on from the military defeat and the loss of colonies of that year takes us to 1938, and the middle of the civil war. Forty years on and it’s 1978, the year of the post-Franco constitution. Move forward again and, like clockwork, you have the current territorial crisis (with the added ingredients of political confrontation and, more recently, a global pandemic).

A full-blown new constitution would be a tall order, especially right now. But surely it is time that Spain faced up to the fact that, beyond the glaring weaknesses of its politics (superbly explained here) and monarchy, the institutional bedrock of any democracy – the judiciary – is desperately ripe for an overhaul.

The Supreme Court’s use of the archaic charge of sedition to hand out draconian jail sentences to Catalan pro-independence leaders last year was just one of many decisions the judiciary has taken which have put in question its objectivity and command of basic common sense. The defendants in that case are also among many who have been the targets of the trigger-happy use of preventive custody by judges. Former FC Barcelona president Sandro Rosell, who spent two years in preventive prison before being cleared of all charges, is another. (As John Carlin has asked: can anyone seriously imagine the president of Real Madrid facing such treatment?).

The Audiencia Nacional, a court created in the Franco era, does a great deal of important work, particularly in the area of anti-terrorism and organised crime. However, it has also spent substantial time and taxpayers’ money pursuing supporters of the terrorist group Eta – which, it should be pointed out, no longer exists – as well as bringing bizarre cases against rappers, singers and other artists for crimes they have supposedly committed through their lyrics and social media posts.

There is also the question of basic consistency. This month, two regional courts, in Madrid and Castilla y León, gave opposing rulings, just days apart, on the exact same issue: whether to ratify restrictions imposed by the health ministry to control Covid-19.

Even its most ardent fans can see that the justice system needs to be more independent, better equipped and more highly regarded by Spaniards, especially if is going to continue playing the prominent role it has held in recent years in public life due to the pathological inability of politicians to “do politics”. The current government has now taken steps in this direction in an effort to end the impasse preventing new nominations to the deeply politicised judicial governing body, the General Council of the Judiciary (CGPJ). But that reform is driven by short-term political needs rather than a long-term vision.

All of which brings us back to Pablo Iglesias. Since I spoke to the deputy prime minister he has become a potential defendant in a case revolving around the theft of a telephone belonging to a former aide. The Supreme Court must now decide whether or not to proceed with the Byzantine “Dina case” and investigate Iglesias for allegedly tampering with a phone card, revealing secret information and falsifying a crime.

Iglesias has said that this whole affair is itself a set-up driven by those who simply cannot abide the fact he and his party are in government. To back up his argument he has pointed to several glitches in the case which would appear to cast doubt on whether it can stand up in court. Perhaps most significantly, he can also point to the fact that José Manuel Villarejo, the disgraced ex-policeman who continues to be at the centre of what appears to be a genuine deep-state apparatus, is linked to the case of the stolen phone.

I don’t know if Iglesias is guilty or not of the crimes he has been accused of – I would like to think that his deep-state theories are mere paranoia. But enough doubts have been cast on this case for it to become yet another barometer of the health and quality of the justice system and, by extension, the country’s democracy. Whichever way it goes, surely Spain should not wait another 40 years before getting itself a judiciary that is fit for purpose.


Screenshot 2020-04-29 at 09.31.06

When I was an English-language teaching assistant in a small town in Castilla-La Mancha in the 1990s, one of the first things students would ask me was: “Do you know Robinson?”. It took me a while to find out that Michael Robinson was an English ex-footballer who had made a living for himself as a pundit on Spanish TV. To my amazement, he had been a striker in the great Liverpool side of the mid-1980s. The reason I, a Liverpool fan, hadn’t heard of him before was that he had been a squad player who rarely got a chance to feature in big games (a couple of players called Kenny Dalglish and Ian Rush also happened to be vying for the same position).

Robinson it turned out, was a talented TV presenter and commentator, who was respected for his professionalism and loved for his enthusiasm and warmth, which helps explain the outpouring of feeling when he died of cancer recently, at the age of 61.

This is the piece I wrote for The Irish Times about his career in Spain.

And here’s something a little less formal I wrote a while back. It’s called ‘Michael Robinson’s Calling’.

The blame game

“Mr Sánchez, you only care about power and we only care about Spain.” – Pablo Casado.

Another crisis hits Spain and once again the country’s political class responds not with unity, statesmanship and deliberation but with tribalism, conspiracy theories and the airing of old grudges.

When Pablo Casado, leader of the main opposition Partido Popular (PP), promised, soon after coronavirus hit the country, to stand together with the leftist government of Pedro Sánchez it was refreshing news. The country’s politics has been so bitterly divided in recent years that it was easy to wonder if only a mammoth national challenge like this could bridge the chasm.

Pablo Casado: Angry, but not really helping. Photo: Partido Popular.

But the truce has not lasted. To be honest, it never really began. According to the PP and Vox, the second- and third-largest forces in parliament, there are two main reasons why Spain has been so hard hit by Covid-19: Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias. They would like us to believe the spread of the virus and, in particular, the deaths it has caused are primarily the fault of the prime minister and his coalition partner.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, affording us a view of where the government may have gone wrong. Allowing the massive March 8 Women’s Day marches to go ahead now looks like a mistake, especially as the government itself suddenly changed tack and closed schools just days later, albeit several days before introducing the full lockdown. Like pretty much every European country, Spain was woefully unprepared in terms of equipment and strategy. Sánchez’s communications strategy, meanwhile, has been an unfortunate blend of heavy spin and high-handedness.

A cool-headed look at where things have gone wrong will be needed. However, a rather more pressing issue is how to overcome the crisis. And that is where the political opposition has lost its way, reverting to type as it desperately seeks to apportion blame while refusing to cooperate in the national response.

Casado, for example, has demanded an apology from Sánchez for allowing the March 8 events to go ahead. He has reprimanded him for not wearing a black tie in Congress or hanging flags at half-mast. He has also reminded Sánchez of how, in 2012, his own house was surrounded by angry leftist demonstrators – using this as proof of the Socialist Party’s radicalism. Casado has dismissed Sánchez’s invitation to form a national cross-party pact as “a decoy” aimed at facilitating a change of regime, apparently transforming Spain into Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela.

You may be forgiven for wondering how any of these proposals or outbursts helps Spain overcome coronavirus. Any country at a time like this deserves – and needs – an opposition that can provide constructive criticism and institutional unity (or “loyalty” to use the Spanish phrase). Few would expect the far-right disruptor Vox to offer such things, and indeed it has not. But it still comes as a shock to see the PP, a party which has itself governed Spain for a total of 15 years, behave like this.

Casado’s party is, after all, well acquainted with the difficulties of national crises. When in government in 2002, it mishandled the listing Prestige oil tanker off the Atlantic coast, contributing to an environmental disaster. The following year, it supervised the misidentification of bodies following the death of 62 Spanish peacekeepers in an air crash in Turkey, compounding the grief of relatives.

It’s also the same party which, in 2004, under then-prime minister José María Aznar, told the nation that Basque group Eta had carried out the terrorist attack that killed 191 people in Madrid. It hadn’t, but the belief that it had was fuelled and perpetuated, like a religious cult, by the party and its ideological allies in the media. The outlandish theory was used to cast the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero as illegitimate, a variation on the Trumpian “birther” strategy before such a thing even existed.

Sounds familiar? Sixteen years on, Spain has another Socialist prime minister whose legitimacy the right is casting in doubt. This time it is because he has needed the parliamentary support of a Catalan pro-independence party to govern and that his coalition partner is Podemos, a leftist force which in the past has had links to Bolivarian administrations in South America.

Podemos’s leader, Iglesias, has further fuelled such hostility with his recent celebration of the anniversary of the Second Republic on social media. It was naïve, perhaps, but hardly the proof many were seeking that he is plotting to overthrow Spain’s parliamentary democracy and install an Andean autocracy.

It seems to be his parliamentary dependence on Catalan nationalists and Podemos which are the reason why Sánchez is drawing so much criticism from the right, more than his handling of the coronavirus crisis itself. The problem is, this betrays a deeply worrying conception of democracy, one that was neatly displayed recently by the singer and TV personality Bertín Osborne, who posted on Twitter a video of himself quaffing wine, praising healthcare workers and Spain in general, while complaining about the country’s leaders being there only “circumstantially”.

What Osborne doesn’t understand is that whatever you think of those who have been elected to lead you, they have been elected to lead you. Eventually you’ll get the chance to vote them out of office. Yet this fact has been impossible to digest for those who share the entitled approach of Aznar and his political offspring, who have insisted on dragging their bitter baggage into the coronavirus emergency.

This political nastiness is one of many sub-plots to the current crisis and it belongs alongside the sinister weirdos who daub doctors’ cars with insults and send letters to supermarket workers telling them to move out of their apartment block due to contagion concerns.

Fortunately, there has been a much more gratifying side to the emergency in Spain, that of the tireless healthcare workers, the eight o’clock applause, the online humour and solidarity. And the political right has not behaved as one in recent weeks. Inés Arrimadas, the new leader of Ciudadanos, has appeared to drag her party away from the masochistic tribalism it had pursued under Albert Rivera, towards something more sensible, combining “loyalty” with criticism.

But what coronavirus has done is to place under scrutiny the tired old word “patriotism”. Unfortunately, it has become so twisted and curdled in Spain that it is in danger of meaning little more than wearing a red-and-yellow bracelet and barking “España es un país grande” over and over. As it faces the enormous challenges of the months to come, the country could do without that particular brand of national pride.

A recent poll published by El País reflected how politics is swaying people’s view of this crisis. Forty-seven percent of those asked approved of the government’s handling of the situation; 48 percent disapproved. Last year’s two general elections gave very similar numbers in terms of the split between the parties on the left and those on the right. A right-wing voter is probably not going to approve of Sánchez’s handling of this crisis, whatever the prime minister does. A left-wing voter probably will. Far from eliminating tribal splits and uniting the country, coronavirus has become yet another political battleground in Spain.

History may eventually judge Sánchez and his government harshly for how they have handled this healthcare crisis. But right now it might be just as relevant to ask: How patriotic are you being, Pablo Casado?

The many lives of Jorge Semprún

“…I believe ardently that real memory, not historical and documentary memory but living memory, will be perpetuated only through literature. Because literature alone is capable of reinventing and regenerating truth.” – Jorge Semprún.

In the early 1940s, as Spain settled into a period of grim dictatorship, one of its exiled citizens was embarking on a series of adventures that would make his life one of the most colourful of the 20th century.

Semprún: Intellect and action.

Jorge Semprún’s biography would beggar belief if it were a piece of fiction. But the facts of it are there in black and white in Soledad Fox Maura’s excellent biography, ‘Ida y vuelta: La vida de Jorge Semprun’, first published in 2016.

The grandson of former prime minister Antonio Maura, young Jorge went into European exile with his Republican-supporting family as the civil war started. Shedding his Spanish skin, the teenager absorbed France’s culture and language before joining the wartime resistance. Arrest by the Gestapo led to a spell in Buchenwald concentration camp. On his release, Semprún fell in with the Spanish Communist Party, which operated out of Paris. For a decade he was an undercover agent in Franco’s Spain, recruiting militants to the cause and reporting on the state of the country. After splitting with the party in acrimony he took on a new guise, that of public intellectual, and he authored (in French) a string of critically acclaimed books, several of them, such as his début Le Grand Voyage, based on his Buchenwald experiences. He also received an Oscar nomination for one of his screenplays and became a prominent member of the Parisian intelligentsia, forging friendships with the likes of Yves Montand and Costa-Gavras. Semprún’s final incarnation saw him make a long-awaited homecoming to Madrid, where he was minister of culture in Felipe González’s Socialist government in the late eighties and early nineties.

Several figures, including Santiago Carrillo, King Juan Carlos and Adolfo Suárez, are frequently touted as representing the vision and spirit of compromise of Spain’s transition to democracy. But Semprún arguably made a more radical journey than any of them: from Communist subterfuge to the institutional pomp of a government ministry. But many also see him as representing something much bigger: the turmoil of 20th century Europe.

Something else which makes Semprún stand out was his cosmopolitanism. Few people travelled abroad in mid-century Spain, yet his embrace of all things French made him bi-cultural (and, thanks to a sadistic, German-speaking nanny, tri-lingual). In addition, with his bouffant hair, good looks and roll-neck sweaters, he had a grace and glamour that were rare for Spanish men of the time. (Fox tells of how he was told to change his cologne while operating undercover in Spain, because his exotic odour risked blowing his cover).

Europe has had few figures who can be placed alongside Che Guevara, yet Semprún’s life and qualities make it tempting to make the comparison: the privileged upbringing, travels to a foreign land where political awakening was accompanied by armed struggle; further travels in which the protagonist, in disguise, attempted to spread the Communist ideology; and in each case, a reputation was earned for both intellect and action. The comparisons end in mid-life – while Guevara died young, Semprún lived until the age of 87.

Fox Maura, who is a professor of Spanish and comparative literature at Williams College, Massachusetts, offers a fascinating insight into each phase of Semprún’s life. She also questions, in a legitimately insistent fashion, whether his venerated status is always justified. One of the patterns of his biography was a repeated falling out with or alienation from people close to him, including his father, brothers, son and Communist comrades. To Semprún’s annoyance, his brother, Carlos, offered what Fox Maura describes as a “Greek chorus” by publicly undermining and downplaying his heroic deeds. The biography is particularly scrupulous in exploring his life in Buchenwald which, the author finds, was more comfortable than that of many fellow inmates, partly due to his grasp of the German language, but also because of his family connections and rapport with Communist prisoners who played a major role in the camp.

Fox Maura carefully examines both the life and literary output of her subject, to find out where fact ends and fictions begins. For Semprún, the most honest way of writing about the horrors of the Holocaust was not through straight reportage, but rather something more embroidered. This leads him to inhabit the very Spanish genre of the pícaro (or picaresque), Fox Maura concludes.

“Through an ingenious process of self-creation, and thanks to the narrative he weaves out of his suffering and personal woes, the pícaro comes to acquire the social status that has always eluded him,” she writes. “The pícaro is a self-made man par excellence, self-made not through work in the capitalist sense but rather through literary ingenuity.” [My translation.]

This is an account not just of one of the most remarkable Spanish lives of recent times, but of one of the most colourful and intriguing European lives of the last century.

‘Ida y vuelta: la vida de Jorge Semprún’ by Soleded Fox Maura is published by Debate and published in English by Arcade as ‘Exile, Writer, Soldier, Spy: Jorge Semprún.’

How to win

Wearing greatness lightly: Beñat Gaztelumendi (left) with the author.

In a culture so often dominated not just by winning, but also those other prized skills of ‘owning’, trolling and tooting your own horn, it’s refreshing to find a radically different mindset. I was recently lucky enough to visit Donostia, where eight locals were competing in the Gipuzkoa provincial final of Berstolarismo.

Bertsolarismo is an ancient tradition in Basque-speaking areas, in which verses of poetry are created on the spot and recited, to a melody, before an audience. After almost disappearing during the dictatorship, it has made a remarkable comeback in recent decades, to the extent that 6,000 people attended the Gipuzkoa final in a sports arena.

As a non-Euskera speaker, the linguistic subtleties passed me by throughout the five hours of competition. But what struck me was the comradeship between the competitors, who clapped each other, chatted and sang along to each other’s verses. When the final results were announced, ranking the participants from first down to eighth, there were no histrionics and no tears, either of joy or disappointment. Instead, each berstolari took turns to sing a final verse as a farewell.

The winner, Beñat Gaztelumendi, could barely have been more unassuming. When I met him afterwards and asked him about this collective approach to the art, he mentioned the fact that a football match had been taking place just a couple of hundred yards away from the competition, between Barcelona and local side Real Sociedad. Beñat and a fellow competitor had watched the teams arrive.

“Real Sociedad’s coach arrived and people were clapping and cheering and then Barca’s coach arrived a couple of minutes later and people started booing and jeering,” he said.  “And we thought: ‘Wow. These guys are going to compete with each other, but it’s so different to us.’ We want the person we are up against to perform well, to help us, to open the path up, so we can continue along that path.”

As well as playing down its competitiveness he was also keen to demystify bertsolarismo, which can look so intimidating to the outsider. Strict parameters mean that the improvised verses must contain a certain number of lines and each line a certain number of syllables. Also, the judges reward complex rhyming schemes. Try keeping that in your head as you perform before a live audience.

“A lot of people believed that bertsolaris were born with a special talent, that they were chosen ones and only these chosen ones could sing,” Beñat told me. “That’s not true. Anyone can learn to sing verses up to a certain level. It’s very useful to help people learning Euskera or working on their self-esteem. Beyond that, it’s like being a football player. We can all learn to play football, but there’s only one Messi.”

The year of the Fachaleco

Facha: a Spanish person whose political views place them on the hard-right of the political spectrum.

Chaleco: a garment, usually without sleeves, which is buttoned up and covers the torso, being worn over a shirt.

Can the fachaleco survive 2020?

Few words contain as much sartorial and political significance as the wonderful compound noun fachaleco. My favourite word of 2019, it has been bandied about over the last 12 months as a mild insult laced with humour and class warfare, but its importance should not be underestimated.

The piece of clothing in question is a quilted, padded, sleeveless coat. In the milder months of the spring and autumn it is worn as a stand-alone, usually with a collared shirt and waxed hair; in the colder months the fachaleco is less prominent, being squeezed beneath a sports jacket or blazer.

The general theory is that it reflects a certain socio-economic status on the part of the wearer, who is usually – but not always – male. The fachalequero tends to be either well-paid or of old money. Moreover, he tends to lean to the right. This garment has been around for some time, gradually making inroads in Spanish society for several years. But I would argue that its arrival, el momento fachaleco, if you will, was February 10th, 2019, in Plaza de Colón in Madrid. There, tens of thousands of well-insulated, right-leaning Spaniards gathered to hear the leaders of the Popular Party, Ciudadanos and Vox denounce Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez as a separatist-loving traitor of Spain.

It’s surely no coincidence that the rise of the fachaleco has mirrored that of Vox, with each sitting comfortably on the shoulders of well-heeled misogyny and Trumpian xenophobia.

In an excellent appraisal of the Spanish fachaleco in which she assesses its long cultural journey, via Marty McFly and the Spice Girls, journalist Carmen Mañana wrote: “The downy waistcoat says: ‘I don’t have anything against immigrants as long as they are honest and come here to work’, ‘I’m not a feminist, I believe in equality’ [and] ‘I don’t read any newspaper because they all lie’.”

Many see this is as new, visible evidence of the troubling division in Spanish society between left and right. But amid all the political chaos and polarisation that last year brought, there were encouraging signs. Mañana reports sightings of Pedro Sánchez, the Socialist leader, wearing a fachaleco. Also, Gabriel Rufián, spokesman for the Catalan Republican Left (ERC) and bête noir for many Spanish constitutionalists, was seen sporting one.

Some have blithely labelled such use of the garment as yet another example of cultural appropriation. Is no totem of identity safe, they ask, comparing the wearing of this garment by those who are not proud right-wingers as akin to white kids wearing dreadlocks.

But I share the more optimistic view, which is that perhaps the fachaleco could hold the key to healing some of the damaging rifts in Spain. What if the leaders of Podemos wore purple fachalec@s as they raised their fists and sang the Internationale? It could be a statesmanlike stretch across the political divide reminiscent of the transition.

Let’s go a bit further: what if Carles Puigdemont, in his Belgian exile, staged a skype address to his followers in which he put on and zipped up a (yellow) fachaleco. Could such an empathetic move melt some of the frost in unionist hearts?

But, as we enter 2020, I worry about the fachaleco’s future. Like any item of clothing that has enjoyed a meteoric rise, it will be vulnerable to the fickle currents of fashion and perhaps, within a few months, it will have lost its cache altogether. More importantly, it could, along with coastal cities and glaciers, become a casualty of global warming.

So, next time you see a man with tasselled shoes, unnaturally groomed hair, a somewhat entitled air and a quilted waistcoast getting into a double-parked SUV, don’t judge. Instead, ponder all the social and political baggage that is stitched therein and remember that it may not be around that much longer.

This article was amended to include tasselled shoes and a double-parked SUV.