February 28, 2012
The bureaucracy in Portugal is so perverse that every town has private offices that have been set up to simply get you through it.  They mostly have Portuguese clients who simply cannot cope with the red tape that makes the Victorian Indian civil service seem like a paradigm of a sleek, efficient organisation.  Anyway, the senhora who is dealing with my car legalisation was on the phone yesterday.  Problems, Mr Roger.  Can you come round to the office?  It turns out that the six months to legalise the car starts from the date I left Germany, not my Residência, and the time limit  has expired because of the time taken to do the paper trail.  So, that’s the scam.  There is a way of avoiding the illegal car import tax but the process takes more than 6 months, so usually fails.  I don’t know anyone who has succeeded.  The bottom line is that I could (1) burn the car (2) take it to Spain every six months, (3) take it back to Germany and sell it or (4) pay the tax.  In the end, I chose option 4, with enormous reluctance and much gritting of teeth.  4,784.53€.  I won’t repeat that.  It hurts too much.
When I visited the customs office, I realised how the recesson has affected the Portuguese civil service.  A great, shabby office was manned by only two people; the rest have been laid off.  So, can I console myself that I am helping the Portuguese government get out of the hole thay have created for themselves?  Maybe, but I can’t help feeling I have been mugged.
On the other hand, I have chosen to live in this country and getting frustrated here is a bit like getting frustrated at airports.  You have to get over it because you can’t do anything about it.   But, there are compensations.  Today is sunny and about 17 degrees, spring is in the air, blue skies every day, we have had little rain since way before Christmas, the food is good, oranges cost 1.50€ for 5 kilos, the lifestyle is relaxed and I look out over a garden with a swimming pool.  Things could be worse.
Now that I have surrendered to the bureaucrats, I get my plates tomorrow.  You see how easy it was?  Pay the illegal tax and everything happens.  Smiley faces.  Try to avoid it and you face months of frustration and ultimate failure.  Of course, I will be drafting a magnificent letter of complaint to the EU Ombudsman, who I happen to know is a Good Guy.  It won’t make any difference, but what else can an EU citizen do when a democratically-elected government breaks European law?  I can’t help commenting that, although Salazar died 40 years ago and Portugal is no longer a fascist dictatorship, a lot of the old ways linger.  Witness the local police, the GNR, who spend their time setting up road blocks, fining motorists for trivial supposed offences.  Fines on the spot, straight into the pockets.  No yellow jacket?  60€ faz favor.  Bribes to avoid anything worse.  It all goes on, believe me.  Salaries are bad so they have to find a protection racket to fill their pockets.
In deliberately breaking EU laws on a daily basis, certain aspects of the Portuguese government also seem rather similar to the mafia.  The rot starts at the top and Portugal could do well to look at Germany, Netherlands or UK to see how to do things better.  They need to regenerate the economy but the bureaucracy acts as a road block at every turn.  There is a massive black economy here and I can’t help sympathising.  When the government behaves like mafiosi, why should its citizens comply with the law?  Portugal has a long way to go and only we foreigners are able to see it because the Portuguese think it’s normal.  Welcome to Portugal.  Give me your money.  There I go again…..I’be better get used to it, I guess.

Introducing Elton & trouble in paradise

February 25, 2012

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.  Almost every week Luis brings home some stray dog that he’s kidnapped off the street.  Usually, however, he has to take it back to where he found it the next day because some distraught owner is looking for the escaped mutt.  Elton is different, however.  For two weeks, he has been walking the streets of Carvoeiro where he charmed everyone; he was clearly a house pet, not a street mutt, abandoned, not lost.  It was inevitable that someone would take him home and that was, predictably, Luis.  Now, we have three dogs and Puggie, the one-eyed cat.  And a mother-in-law.  So Elton made himself at home within seconds and likes to cuddle up on the couch when he’s not eating Puggie.  Frankly, he should watch his step as Puggie is far more ferocious than the dogs.  We still can’t believe that people would abandon such animals, seemingly without a conscience.  I guess we don’t know the story behind it all but tend to think the worst of such people.  Perhaps their story was sad and the parting bitter.  Recession has that effect on people.

Trying to legalise my car has now taken seven months, but the light is at the end of the tunnel…maybe next week.  In Germany, this would have taken a few days  but, here in the sun, the Portuguese government has other motives, a lucrative scam.  In a nutshell, they levy an entirely illegal tax on the import of cars.  “If you want your plates quickly, pay us and you can have them.”  Now, EU law says that if the tax has been paid in one member state, it has been paid in all member states.   Not so here, however, but there is a let-out, if you have the tenacity and patience.  If you want to avoid the tax (in my case 4,400€), they make you dance for it; the bureaucracy is utterly mind-boggling but I refuse to pay a tax that is illegal.  The European Commission fines the Portuguese government every year but it makes no difference because the car import tax is so lucrative.  And so it goes on.  I can’t help making the observation that, as long as the government breaks the law, this country will always be a more a banana republic than a fully paid-up member of the European club.   They need the tax money, they say.  Yes, I agree.  If they simply collected income tax and stamped on the black economy, things might improve.

Another scam introduced recently has been to levy tolls on the A22, the Algarve motorway.  Not only that, there are no toll booths, only cameras, and paying for motorway use is therefore fiendishly difficult; stand in a Post Office queue for hours or buy a transponder (they’ve run out, of course).  Local worthies with shotguns have started shooting the cameras as target practise.  Tourists are bemused and the bureaucracy to get the dosh is costing more than the tolls raise because people have stopped using the motorway; it’s basically deserted as most locals refuse to use it in protest.  This road was paid for by EU money and one of the conditions was that it be free.  It brings tourists and their money to the Algarve, which has precious few other ways of earning a living.  Combine this with the imposition of 23% VAT on restaurants and golf clubs and you have the Portuguese government’s answer to regenerating the economy by delivering a number of killer blows simultaneously.  The Communist Party is in resurgence and, for once I find myself thinking that Marx and Engels weren’t so bad after all.

Recession makes fools of us all.

The magic of the new

February 18, 2012

I know I should be working on Book #7 (four chapters written already) but have been tapped on the shoulder and mugged by the magic of the new.  You know how it is when you’ve done it all and got the teeshirt, to use a tired old cliche; each new endeavour was exciting and magical when first started, then as familiarity spreads its cloak, the magic gets stifled by the warmth of familiarity.  I can remember when I first realised (at age 14) that I…I…little me…could design an aircraft that I could sit in and actually fly.  All it took was some basic knowledge of aerodynamics and structures and a lot of common sense.  Plus a lot of wood, glue and an engine.    That was magic.  I designed plenty and eventually built one which flew.  I have always been fascinated by aircraft, of course (40+ years in the industry) but the real magic was the discovery days when I was in my teens.  These days, if I build a model, it will usually be one of those 1960s types or earlier.  I guess it’s the nostalgia, but those aircraft had a magic about them that the latest and shiniest Eurofighter can’t match.  Nostalgia is not what it was.

So, it’s the newness of some new challenge wherein lies the magic but, when you’re 60, what else is there to do that could generate that same frisson?  Bungee-jumping?  Climbing Mount Everest?  I think not.  Then Teresa told me that she was starting piano lessons with our mutual friend, Barney, a professional musician and songwriter (Barbara Dickson, Cliff Richard etc).  Ping.  I was in the process of being mugged.

I’ve always loved music but have never been able to play a musical instrument.  Ping.  Why not?  To cut a long story short, I had my first lesson yesterday and have to say that I enjoyed every new magical moment.  It’s like starting to glimpse behind a curtain that hides an entire new world of discovery.  I know that it’ll take a hell of a lot of effort before I can even bash out Chopsticks or Für Elise but I feel the same excitement that I have when embarking on any new exploit.

Barney teaches in a non-academic way; he’s basically a guitarist.  It’s all about chords, fingering and getting ther brain used to the left and right hands doing different things at the same time.  Later comes the sheet music but he’s a believer in working it out mechanically and visually, then doing it blind, that is, not looking at the keys and doing it by sound alone.  It works.  However, practise is necessary so I’ve ordered a Yamaha Clavinova which arrives on Monday.  I can struggle away getting the right digit on the right key whilst imagining I’m playing the Waldstein piano sonata in Carnegie Hall.  Then I can drive myself mad by bashing away and listening to the musical desecration via headphones.  This way lies madness, methinks.

But I’m planning to enjoy every magical moment of it.

Hurry up and wait

February 7, 2012

After the frantic revisions to Flight Into Darkness, I got an email from Peter Buckman’s office saying that he is on holiday for two weeks!  Oh well, holidays are an entitlement, not a privilege, I suppose but he will need a new best-seller to pay for next year’s vacation!

I am keen, however, that FID, being a very current novel ‘of this moment’ should not pass its sell-by date.  If the Iranians block the Straits of Hormuz, I don’t think it’ll affect the plot, but if the Israelis launch a nuclear attack on Iran, it would.  I recall hearing West-End impressario Cameron Mackintosh talking about the end of the cold war.  It coincided with his east-west cold war musical ‘Chess’ and he was shit-scared that world events would affect its success.  They did, of course.  Please don’t let this happen to Flight Into Darkness!

I don’t think it’ll happen but am aware that getting a novel into print is a long-term process.  After the year it takes to refine to a point where an agent picks it up, we then have to go through the process of revising it in the light of his market feedback.  Ok, this has been done.  Now, when…or if…it gets picked up by a publisher, the process starts apparently all over again until they have a book that they think the market will go for.  Then they have to do the advance marketing and plan a launch.  This may be a muted affair for an unpublished writer and the priority may be low for them.  When they can make a million by publishing the life story of some wannabe Sun celeb with big tits or some inarticulate moron who can kick a football, why take the risk with a book that might get their HQ bombed?

Celeste did a bacalhau dish last might.  Very Portuguese.  Bacalhau is a staple of the Portuguese dinner table.  It’s salted cod that can be stored forever and comes from a time before the fridge.  For Portugal that was probably about twenty years ago.  Anyway, you buy it in great salty slabs from the fishmonger who slices it up with a guillotine, as if he was chopping wood.  You then soak it for two days to get rid of the salt, although this never seems to be entirely successful.  The result, regardless how it’s cooked, is tough and salty and tastes a bit like soggy Bombay Duck (Indian dried fish).  Actually, not that palatable and bearing little resemblance to the moist, succulent cod that we are used to in England.  The funny thing is that this Portuguese staple actually all comes from Norway, from the Lofoten islands, as cod is not caught here any more.  I’d love to taste fresh cod again.  Oh, for an English chippie!

So, with the novel it’s hurry up and wait.  I think I’ll go off to a pastelaria and have some coffee and Portuguese yummies.  Not bacalhau, though.

Flight Into Darkness takes off…again

February 5, 2012

Well, after a full weekend of frantic revisions as a result of the beta readers´comments, Flight Into Darkness is winging its way, again, to Peter Buckman.  Let´s hope he’s happy with the result.  I’ve managed to incorporate all of his comments so it’s over to him.  Now it´s gone, I wonder whether the title is a bit ‘Biggles’.  Maybe ‘The Al-Muzafara Affair’ might be more appropriate although it’s a bit of a mouthful.  Let’s see.  One step at a time.

Now that northern Europe is in the grip of a cold spell, you might get some satisfaction to know that it is cold here as well.  Ten degrees yesterday and no central heating.  Reminds me of when I was a kid!  I see that UK has had about 10cm of snow and has ground to a halt.  That makes me smile because in Germany, that would barely be noticed.  In Cologne, you can get 30 cm and life goes on.  Now, Cologne is not deepest Germany, it’s a spit away from Belgium, Netherlands and France but gets continental weather.  Still, it doesn’t snow every year.  I remember four consecutive years with no significant snow.

Celeste now has seventeen layers of clothes on and is still complaining.  Time for some hot soup.  Or a tumbler of whisky to celebrate!

Almond blossom

February 2, 2012

Damn!  I just found out that what I had thought to be cherry blossom is in fact almond blossom.   Looks the same and I should have known; Portugal is not exactly famous for cherries but its almonds win prizes.  It doesn’t sound quite so comical through Japanese lips, though………

Cherry blossom

February 2, 2012

Yes, I know it’s snowing in the frozen north but I just wanted to tell you that the Algarve greeted February with cherry blossom; yes, they’re now in bloom and we’ll have snow of an entirely different sort; I could write a haiku on the subject if I knew how to condense a world of feeling into a few syllables of Japanese.  Chelly Brossom. 

The beta readers have almost finished their review of Flight Into Darkness.  I’m grateful for their devotion but am aware that this kind of proof-read has its limitations because it’s impossible to be objective about a novel.  Some like it, some don’t and my experience with beta readers is that they usually tell me what I want to hear whereas what I really want is to hear about what’s bad.   I’m no better.  I can recall the number of manuscripts that I’ve sent out, thinking they were word-perect, only to find out that my understanding of the rules of English grammar was not as good as I had thought.  Well, it’s 45 years since I did them at school.  Give a guy a break!

Before I get the MSs back I have time to waste.  One of the things I have always done is to go to the gym.  Most people would hate it, but it keeps me fit and makes me feel young(er) at heart.  Plus, you get the added benefits of endorphins, nature’s little drug that simply makes you feel good about yourself.  And it’s free.  Personally, I find it rather addictive.  You might think it strange for a retired person to be mixing it with the meat-heads but I’ve always done it and am a creature of habit.  I remember when I was about 35 working out in a gym in a hotel in Cairo when this young Egyptian of about 20 told me that he thought it was good for a person of my age to still be doing weights!   When I was 30 I thought I’d stop at 40 and grow old gracefully.  When that birthday came round, I thought I’d see if I could make 50.  Then I thought, why not try 60?  Now, I’m on the wrong side of that and think I’ll try for 70 and grow old disgracefully.  It’s a strange thing, but most men start to fall apart at 35 but I’ve always felt that we have been tricked by our brains into thinking that our bodies were made for sitting in offices, punching keyboards.  Actually, we still have the bodies of hunter/gatherers and, well, use it or lose it.  So, my overall philosophy is not to give up.  Be as good as you can be until you fall off your perch. 

I wonder whether those cherry trees bloom so wonderfully thinking that it’ll be their last chance.  If they could hear me I’d tell them not to give up.  Next year may not be as good as this year but it’ll still be next year.  Never give up.