THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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September 2017

A weekend (almost) free of politics

I have not blogged since Friday because my home in Porrera, the otherwise excellent La Icona del Pont Vell did not have wifi. An old friend and I (a German client from my lawyering days in Poland and Russia) shared a two bedroom town house on the village square, conveniently near where the group's bus picked us all up each day for the various activities.

Blog_01The village is small and made up mostly of wineries. In the morning, the local wine makers towed trailers of grapes in from the surrounding vineyards with tiny tractors suited to the narrow streets. Many windows were decked both with Catalan flags and with "Si!" posters making their inhabitants' view clear on the forthcoming independence referendum which, despite the Spanish government's threat to arrest the Catalan mayors organising it, seems likely to go ahead on October 1. This led to interesting discussions with my fiercely pro-EU friends from Poland (you would be pro-EU if you were them as Poland is by far the greatest net recipient of EU funds. A man from Mars might logically infer that the whole organisation is designed to take money from Brits and Germans and give it to Poles).

As someone who believes in small government directly elected by people as close to it as possible, my sympathies are of course with the Catalans. For the record, I also think the unification of Germany was the greatest mistake in European history and that the world would be a better place if its various Länder were independent again. To those of a Napoleonic mindset, however, the Catalans like the Brits (especially the Scots) are a bunch of ignorant tribalists. I rather like them myself, but then I am fond of my Scottish friends too – even though none of them favour Scottish independence as much as I do.

The wedding anniversary celebrations for my Polish friends began over lunch on Friday at a winery. I arrived by car, as did a couple of others, but most had flown in to Barcelona where some had begun the party on Thursday night so were already a little hung over! They arrived on a bus which became our main transport for the weekend. Lunch was followed by a surprisingly interesting olive oil tasting. I am not a cook so don't really have any use for the stuff but I am now trained to distinguish the different types and indoctrinated about its anti-carcinogenic properties. 

Blog_03 Blog_03The main party then headed off by bus to our various accommodations in Porrera to prepare for the evening's dinner. This was held in a ruined Carthusian monastery which is at the heart of the Priorat wine region formerly controlled by the order. It was called the "Priorate" because it was effectively governed by their Prior. The order received the region in the 12th Century as an endowment for the monastery in whose grand Refectory we dined. The monks and their tenants cultivated the crop best suited to the area's rugged semi-arid state - grapes. Priorat and Rioja are (if you are a Spanish Unionist) the two greatest wine regions in Spain carrying the highest DOC appellation. If you are a Catalan nationalist then the Priorat is not Spanish but Catalonian and the appellation is DOQ.

The head winemaker from Perinet Winery, part-owned by one of our party, gave us a talk about the wine and – of course  – some samples for tasting. This kicked off a weekend during which we seemed always to have a wine glass in our hands unless we were picking grapes or sleeping!

On Saturday we had a tour of the winery and some of us experimented with mixing the fermenting grapes. Then (while I rested) most picked grapes to use as a "starter" for the next batch from the harvest currently in progress. We had a picnic lunch under a canopy amidst the vines before adjourning to our temporary homes to prepare for the celebration dinner. This was held in the "Barrel Room", Perinet's incredibly grandiose wine cellar.

We enjoyed a great meal to the sound first of a violinist and then of toasts. I made a speech recalling that not only was I present at the wedding, but at the proposal! The still-happy groom and the yet-blushing bride both worked for me at the time they met. The groom was my assistant and went on to become my partner before leaving for a rival firm. He's now the leading man in our old field in Poland. After the dinner, the dancers danced until the early hours while the drinkers drank, the smokers smoked and I sipped wine, chatted, listened to the music and looked at the stars.

This morning, with a surprisingly clear head (my Russian friends tell me that it's my "large organism" that allows me to bear my alcohol lightly) I breakfasted and set out for what proved to be one of the best drives of my life. I decided I wanted to visit Burgos on the way to my ferry home but that I didn't want to head there along the same motorways I had used to head south. So at Zaragoza I branched off towards Soria to take N roads through a new part of Spain to me. The weather was sunny but not too hot. It was 9℃ in Porrera when I set off at 0930 but steadily rose during the morning. It had reached 16℃ by my first refuelling stop (near Zaragoza) and so I put the roof down. It was perfect weather for a drive in a convertible and I experienced even more intensely the sights, sounds and smells of rural Spain along the rest of the route. Speranza, recently fettled, was in her very finest form.

Blog_02 Blog_02Traffic was light to non-existent though Speranza did find a playmate along the way. A Spanish gentleman in his new bright red F-Type Jaguar (a splendid machine) didn't like being overtaken and decided not to race (as that would be illegal and dangerous) but to show us what his bella macchina could do. With two such responsible chaps at the wheel the whole thing was nothing more than a pleasant diversion. On a motorway the speed limit would have made the exercise sterile but on a winding Spanish N road with trucks, Sunday drivers and the usual family sorts in their infernal mummy-wagons, our cars' acceleration and our own skill made for an interesting hundred and fifty kilometres of overtaking and re-overtaking each other. He had the advantage of sitting on the left so could go in some places I could not. The same advantage speeded him through a toll booth where I fell twelve cars behind him because I had to get out of the car to pay. I am pleased to report that in a happy hour of motoring I overtook those twelve and one more and was ahead when I waved goodbye to him as he turned off at his destination.

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 16.27.24Apart from this amusement, I enjoyed the rugged Spanish countryside. It didn't look very fertile but farmers seemed to be doing their best with it. There's no livestock in the Priorat so it was good to see cattle in the non-too-green fields. The road also took us through wooded stretches and a village that was having a fiesta. I didn't stop to take part but saw part of the parade as I negotiated the traffic it caused. I arrived in Burgos early afternoon and negotiated a very tricky access to my hotel's tiny underground car park. I am trying  not to think about how I turn her around down there to go back up the same narrow, twisted ramp tomorrow morning!

Having brought the blog up to date, I am now off to photograph the famous cathedral etc. and find somewhere for a solitary (and after the weekend's indulgences) frugal, dinner. Tomorrow it's on to Santander and the voyage home. The route of my tour can be found here.


Tilting at windmills

Speranza and I are on the road again. This is her first outing since her recent annual service and the fitting of new shock absorbers, a couple of new tyres, a few other fixes and the installation of a new "infotainment" system. Apart from the fact that it requires a Windows PC to update it (which, being strictly a Mac person I will have to borrow from someone when I need it) it seems like a good system.

Porrera_04This is the very definition of a #firstworldproblem of course but the installation did not go smoothly. I was without wheels for ten days while the splendid crew at Joe Macari figured it out. All was fixed just in time for a test outing to the Goodwood Revival last weekend which went well. Slithering over the Earl of March's wet fields seems to have muddied the wheel sensors however so that – while driving perfectly – she's complaining about clearly imaginary problems with her engine management system. I am hoping that will sort itself out when she's been thoroughly washed and had chance to dry out. 

In the meantime, if I sit up straight and hold my head at the right angle, I can overcome my OCD tendencies, ignore the warning light and enjoy the splendid ride. I had not noticed the effect of the deterioration in the rear dampers as it had crept up on me over 60,000 miles of joyful motoring, but I can certainly detect the improvement. She handles beautifully and feels taut. She has danced along the Spanish autoroutes today, which were well surfaced and maintained and mostly unused. Why is it that Britain's motorways are all crammed with vehicles, badly maintained, strewn with litter and overgrown, despite motorists being milked relentlessly for tax in punishment for their environmental sins?

I am now heading for Porrera in the Tarragona district of Spain, where I will meet old friends from Poland this weekend to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary. They have invited a  group of their friends, many of whom are also good friends of mine. I am really looking forward to it. The celebrations will take place at the winery which I came to Spain to photograph last year.

Porrera_03I set out yesterday to Portsmouth where, made slightly nervous by gale warnings for sea area Biscay, I boarded the MV Cap Finistere for Bilbao. It was indeed choppy but I enjoyed the voyage, had a good chinwag or two with an agreeable fellow passenger who came over to admire Speranza and, when I adjourned to my cabin, slept the sleep of the just. We docked on time at 1245 and I set off for a pleasant run in cloudy and occasionally rainy conditions to my overnight stop for today, which – randomly selected from a travel website though it was – turns out to be rather splendid. It's more a winery with rooms than a hotel, but it's very swish and – probably because it's in the back of beyond – excellent value for money. It suits me well though as it's close to my route and far enough along towards my weekend destination to leave me a pleasant run in the morning to meet all my friends for lunch.

As is usual on these road trips, I am using the "track my tour" app and the map showing my current progress (and some more photos) can be found here.

Narcos season 3 - real life lessons to be learned?

Narcos season 3 finally gets a frustrating show on track - Vox.

I enjoyed the first two seasons of Narcos dealing with the rise and fall of the Medellin cartel and its charismatic leader Pablo Escobar. I found myself on the side of the CIA and DEA, as the writers intend, even though in a sense they are the real bad guys. After all it's hard to sympathise with the murderous scum to whom Drug Prohibition, just like Liquor Prohibition before it, has delivered control of the narcotics business.
So often though in such matters it's not the story that we can see that matters. It's the one we can't. Like the story of the respectable businesses who would replace the scum in a heartbeat if Prohibition ended. How many customers of criminals would be alive today if they could have bought from, say, Boots the Chemist — making clean and reliable cocaine of consistent quality? How many addicts could be helped if cocaine were sin taxed like other potentially harmful products?
I don't use myself but then I don't smoke and drink little. I love my life. It's comfortable inside my head and I have no desire to get out of it. But I know for sure that many of my friends and former colleagues use and I think no less of them. I am happy to have friends who make different choices in all aspects of their life, and love living in a world that permits them to do so. I don't even think myself particularly virtuous in this respect. I doubt anyone reading this would end a friendship because the friend used drugs. They might worry about them, counsel them, even nag them a little. But dump them? No. Yet they certainly would not smile indulgently on a friend they found out as a murderer, robber or rapist. Why? Because those are real crimes; crimes against morality. I think it's a useful libertarian rule of thumb to say that nothing should be a crime that would not lose a decent person's friendship if known. 
I think it was Jonathan Ross who observed that everyone in Britain who wants drugs has them. Swabs taken in the lavatories at the Houses of Parliament suggest many of our political leaders are users. Yet those leaders and the forces they command are at "war" on drugs. Was any war ever more comprehensively lost? So why does it continue? There's a clue to that in episode 1 of series 3, which turns its attention from the destroyed Medellin Cartel to the Cali Cartel that (in collusion with the authorities) assisted in that destruction. The show is based on the true story and the DEA hero mentions that Cali had a budget of $1 billion per annum at the time it's set (during the Clinton presidencies) just for bribes to government officials, police and others. Also to telecommunications staff intercepting phone calls for them, hoteliers and taxi drivers helping them to track their enemies — the so called Cali KGB
I resist conspiracy theories. Conspiracies happen but cock ups happen more (and are easier to cover up). Most government types are too incompetent to keep a crime secret, but it's natural for such mediocrities to cover their mistakes — and necessary for them to cover their corruption. If your prosperity depends on persuading voters to entrust more and more decisions to you, you're instinctively going to cover up the big dirty secret of government as an institution; that state employees are no more honest, noble, intelligent or competent than the people they claim to be protecting. 
Maybe Prohibition began as a sincere attempt to protect the weak from error. Maybe. But the most powerful question for arriving at truth — Cui bono? — must lead us to suspect that the direct corruption of bribery and the indirect corruption of jobs and pensions that depend on the "war" continuing have something to do with the refusal to acknowledge not only that the war is lost but that the only people dying in its trenches are the weaklings it's supposed to protect. Theodore Dalrymple suggests that addiction itself is largely a fiction promoted by the public servants providing "support" to addicts. He says addiction support employees depend far more on the addicts than the addicts depend on them. That's surely just as true of the officials in law enforcement whose mortgages are paid and families raised on the back of the drug trade and whose lives would be wrecked if it were legalised.