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An Old Spanish Custom

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I spent three days in Madrid this week with the Family Online Safety Institute at a conference on internet matters sponsored by Telefónica, the owners of 02.
Spain and the UK has become much closer economically during the past decade with BA’s “purchase” of Iberian Airlines, Banco Santander’s buyout of Abbey National, which has just been rebranded in the UK High Street, Aviva the new-ish owners of Norwich Union and a few years back, Ferrovial who bought BAA.
How Spain has been able to achieve such prominence in the market place is now under question as she tries to avoid “Doing a Greece” inside the euro zone. Indeed, on Thursday, the Spanish Government managed by only one vote (169-168) to push through its £13 billion austerity measures.
The Socialist Government does not have an overall majority and though an election isn’t due until 2012, its PM – Jose Luis Rodriquez Zapatero - cancelled a trip to Brasil to be at the vote. The Catalan Convergencia i Unio party abstained and the PNV, the Basque National Party, voted against. Previously both had been supporters of the Government. Had they lost the vote yesterday there would then have been a vote of No Confidence tabled and though the PM Zapatero would have won it this time, it would have demonstrated a lack of belief in his ability to hold a minority government together for two more years. I hope Messrs Cameron and Clegg are carefully watching this scenario unfold.
I love Spain and most things Spanish. I think their red wines have improved beyond measure and now some of their vineyards are also beginning to produce classy whites too according to my small indulgences during my stay.
In 1988, my then wife and I stayed in a friend’s house on the La Manga site. We had no idea what we were going too and immediately took against its soulless architecture, its over the top costs and the unruly nature of too many Brits rolling home drunk early in the morning.

After three days, we hired a mini-moke and set of rather dangerously, without a map, to find something more akin to Spanish culture and our sensitivities. Ten hours later we’d found Granada. The trouble was we were wearing tank tops and shorts which was a tad eccentric given it was snowing lightly.

We tried to find a hotel and eventually I plumped for a grandly looking four star and went in and in my best Spanish asked if they had any rooms. It was clear they took against my attire and told me rather pointedly that they were full. I doubted their honesty: how could it be full, it was late October……..and so for the very first time ever I pulled rank and took out my Visa Gold Card and surprise, surprise, it did the trick. We parked up, dropped our bags in our delightful room and broke the world record to the shops to buy more appropriate clothing.
Granada is a city you could write a song for. We imbibed the Alhambra, found Lorca, attacked the food with and without relish and enjoyed the odd glass or two. We were blown away with the beauty of the place. Earlier in the year, we’d had a weekend in Seville which was readying itself for Expo 1992. We’d taken against the Cathedral – second only in size to St. Peter’s – which we’d thought monstrously ugly. Anyway, walking round Granada we soon came to appreciate that it too had something to celebrate in 1992 which was the five hundreds years since Christopher Columbus set sail from America thanks to the funding put together by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.

I already knew about Barcelona hosting the 1992 Olympics and what with Madrid being the Cultural capital of Europe also in 1992 it occurred to me then that there was a serious four-part documentary to be made about modern Spain. I called it: A Spanish Inquisition. The BBC who bought it off of Optomen TV (a company I worked for) renamed it Fire in the Blood but at least they allowed us to keep our presenter, Ian Gibson, (the biographer of Lorca and Dali) who was the only Irishman to be given honorary citizenship in Spain.
Earlier in the year, before I moved across from publishing to television, our board at William Heinemann had decided to have its first Spring Conference in Majorca. It wasn’t a difficult decision – a Brighton hotel had wanted £212 a head for three days whereas our Majorcan friends wanted £216 including the flights.

There was only one snag.

All of our books which we had bought to the sales conference (what we called our “Winter” list) were impounded by the Spanish customs authorities on landing. They could not believe we were bringing in books for a conference and then taking them all back to London after it was over. They smelt a rat. Despite our very best efforts, though we had a lovely hotel and the weather was stunning, we simply could not persuade them to allow us access to our books and so our conference was postponed a day.

Our chairman, Nicholas Thompson was doing his nut. We had brought out to Majorca some of greatest writers including Tom Sharpe and Clare Francis. Tom said he found the whole thing so funny that he’d enough material for a new book. Eventually, the authorities relented and at the opening of our conference on Day 2 our marketing director opined that if you didn’t know where the origin of “An old Spanish Custom comes from” you did now.   
I think though my love affair for all things Spanish was started by Lawrie Lee’s As I Walked out One Midsummer Morning and A Moment of War, George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingways's For Whom The Bell Tolls and completed by the likes of Picasso, Dali, Tanguy and Lorca.             


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