October 31, 2008


As mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been interested in U.S. politics ever since I lived in LA some years ago. During those 7 years, I avidly followed local as well as national election campaigns. And the current U.S. presidential election is no different.

Whilst I lived in the U.S., I took no particular side, leaning neither to the Democrats nor the Republicans. My interest, you understand, was purely impartial, non-partisan. I simply enjoyed and admired the exuberant tour de force that is American campaign politics. None of the polite, muted canvassing usual in British general elections. Instead you get there the full treatment of in-your-face, barnstorming razzmatazz. ‘Cheerleader’ delegates bullishly brandishing billboards marketing their candidate. Raucous muzak deafening all attempts at speech. Thousands of red, white and blue balloons and streamers cascading from on high.

However, since the arrival of Obama, I have found myself increasingly drawn to his presidential campaign of Change - as indeed appear so many others in the light of the incumbent’s record. So, it was with considerable expectation that I made my way to the American expat community of Andalucia to check out their political allegiances. However, it was politics of a very different kind that’s been preoccupying these ex-pats for the past year of the campaign…

Indeed, less than a month ago, the Nerja Chapter of the American Club held an emergency meeting and voted to break away unanimously from the mother ship - the rest of the organisation - and form a new group, the American International Club of Nerja. I must have looked more mystified than I realised since an official immediately launched into the ‘backstory’.

Apparently, thirty-four years ago a group of Americans used to meet partly for social reasons but mainly to be able to speak in English. Because they didn’t speak any Spanish, he added without the least hint of irony. The American Club (Costa del Sol), he continued, currently has several hundred members divided into five Chapters covering the area from Sotogrande to Salobreña with still some of its original members, now in their nineties, dating from the Franco era.

But why, I was curious to learn, did the Nerja Chapter decide to dissolve all ties with head office now?

Over the last couple of years, it seems, one of the American Club’s goals had been to attract more people and to modernise some procedures which had become outdated. The Nerja Chapter made proposals how the website and newsletter could be improved, how the site could include blogs and a RSS feed and all for less money by outsourcing maintenance.

Nerja was also interested in the philanthropic side of the organisation, keen to integrate and look for Spanish charities to support. This, too, went down like a lead balloon with head office...

So, what of the future?

October 30, 2008


We had already had a taste of life on this huge floating gin palace in the Mediterranean when we used to accompany E and other friends for 14 juillet firework celebrations off Cannes and then skirt the coast westwards to St Tropez or eastwards to Monte Carlo and Portofino. Often if time was short, we would all take a helicopter from Nice airport direct to wherever the yacht happened to be moored to ensure a quick getaway.

On one occasion, paparazzi must have somehow inveigled their way aboard when I later discovered back in the UK photographs of P and myself splattered all over Tatler taken during a spectacular onboard party attended by a number of household names. Champagne must have been flowing very freely that night since none of us had the least inkling we were being snapped…

This time, though, E asked P where we were going to spend the Christmas break that year. When P replied we’d intended to fly to Malaysia to escape the worst of the British winter, E immediately offered him the loan of the 130 foot cruiser! Fully crewed, it could pick us up from Langkawi where we had intended to spend Christmas and take us anywhere in South East Asia!

We were already familiar with the vessel, having often stayed in one of its double staterooms. This time though we had time to explore further her interior and huge sundeck with its bar and lounge area. And the yacht took us along the Malaysian coast to Thailand where we stopped off at any island along the way that took our fancy. And there’s no shortage of those - Phang Nga Bay alone has 67!

And so we lazily cruised the Andaman Sea sailing from Krabi and Ko Phi Phi to the Trang Archipelago and beyond, making the most of the speed boats and wet skis to explore dramatic limestone ‘karsts’ or crags, which rise from the water’s edge and valley floors to sheer vertical heights in excess of 900 meters and the hidden bays - ‘hongs’ - within.

Needless to say champagne again flowed like water and we were consulted daily by the chef about meals that would have put any land-based three star Michelin restaurant to shame.

For a couple of blissful weeks, we lived in a parallel universe. As far from the mundaneness of life as is humanly possible. Waited on by a crew used to providing the highest standards of service concomitant with a pleasure craft of that class. In short, a universe of extreme wealth, supreme luxury.

But like all good things, the trip came to an end and we returned to ‘normal’, everyday life. For P, the invitation had been accepted without fear or favour. But I can quite see how tempting it must be for, say, a politician in a billionaire’s yacht or villa. And, moreover, how difficult not to be seduced by the power and influence such wealth wields...

October 28, 2008


There’s been a lot of hype in the press recently about Peter Mandelson’s and George Osborne’s sojourn on a Russian billionaire’s yacht in Corfu. And how politicians are too easily bowled over by a freebie holiday.

As a result, we have the sleazy spectacle of a Labour Business Secretary and a Tory Shadow Chancellor exchanging insults about who behaved more shabbily on Oleg Deripaska's yacht. As for George Osborne, all he's accused of is trying to find a legal way for Deripaska to donate £50,000 to the Tory party. An amount he'd probably have found down the back of one of the yacht's sofas and which wouldn't have paid for a spin nurse, let alone a spin doctor.

And as for Peter Mandelson, questions are still being asked. The Sunday Times alone has been doggedly gnawing at the bone on its front page for the past three weeks...

Indeed, it’s all too easy to dismiss such behaviour as outright grubby and sordid. Yet should you find yourself in an environment of extreme wealth and utter luxury - an environment to which you are not wholly accustomed - it would take some superhuman willpower not to be wowed. Not to mention seduced.

I mention this since I had the great good fortune to experience this way of life at first hand, albeit for a short period. Or should I say misfortune since, like the old cliché, it’s only when you see for yourself how the super rich live that you start to understand that, yes, they are different

My own brush with the super rich (and quite famous) took place in the heady days of the early nineties when Sloanes and Thatcherite excess went hand in hand. My partner (P) was working as CFO (Chief Financial Officer) for an extremely successful entrepreneur (E) who had set up a large number of companies. Together with the Chairman, P and E formed what came to be known as the Triumvirate running this mini empire stretching across several continents.

As was usual in that pre-credit crunch era - when mergers, acquisitions and MBOs (Management Buy Outs) were commonplace - P worked all God’s hours and then some (as colleagues in the U.S. put it) to ensure the company’s continuing profitability. (A source of tension then as now, it has to be said). Nevertheless he was well remunerated and we also found ourselves in private marquees at all the events of the ‘season’ - Chelsea, Henley, Wimbledon, Ascot - plus seats at Glyndebourne, Covent Garden etc.

Moreover, since P and E also became close friends in the course of all the frantic, highly charged late-night business activity, E also insisted on showing his gratitude in other ways. Namely the loan of his superb ocean-going yacht (pictured above) that has featured in a number of films including the Bond movie, The Living Daylights.

October 26, 2008


I’ve always taken a great interest in U.S. politics, an interest that was rekindled when I moved to Los Angeles so many years ago. Since then, I’ve kept abreast of mainly LA politics since that was what obsessed local TV stations and other media then.

At that time, LA had its first and, to date, only African American mayor, namely Tom Bradley (pictured). A five-term mayor, serving from 1973 to 1993, he held office for 20 years - the longest tenure by any mayor in the city’s history. Indeed, his 1973 election made him only the second African American mayor of a major U.S. city, the first being Carl Stokes of Cleveland, Ohio, elected six years previously.

I’ve always felt a sort of affinity for Bradley, who died ten years ago, since we both attended - he much earlier than I - the same LA law school which was one of the few that catered for mature students on a part-time basis, Bradley while still a cop with the LAPD.

I also met him by chance as mayor. A friend who knew the Hollywood set had asked me if I would take part in a couple of movies that needed an English ‘accent’ as she put it. I agreed and shooting took place one day near City Hall. There were the usual takes and retakes and filming seemed to go on indefinitely. Whilst I was patiently awaiting my turn, I noticed Tom Bradley leave the Civic Centre complex and walk down Spring Street towards us flanked by minders. As he drew level, he gladhanded all in turn beaming broadly and commending each of us for our performance, ever the consummate politician. I recall he complimented me on my accent, although how he could have heard it I'll never know.

He ran, unsuccessfully, for Governor of California in 1982 and 1986 and, having been defeated each time by the Republican, George Deukmejian. The racial dynamics that appeared to underlie his narrow and unexpected loss in 1982 gave rise to the political term ‘the Bradley Effect’ - a tendency of white voters to tell interviewers or pollsters that they are undecided or likely to vote for a black candidate, but then actually vote for his white opponent.

Indeed, in 1982, the election was extremely close. Bradley led in the polls going into Election Day, and in the initial hours after the polls closed, some news organizations projected him as the winner. Ultimately though, Bradley lost the election by about 100,000 votes - about 1.2% of the 7.5 million votes cast. A shame as I'm sure he would have made a great Governor and possibly also Presidential candidate.

And it is this term, ‘the Bradley Effect’, that resonates now with Obama’s Democratic candidacy. He is considered to have encountered both the Bradley Effect, and a ‘reverse’ Bradley Effect - in which black voters might have been reluctant to declare to pollsters their support for Obama or are underpolled - during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary elections.

Indeed it is precisely this Bradley Effect which I am keen to explore here in Andalucia with its expatriates, some of whom, now in their late nineties, stayed on after fighting in the Spanish Civil War. A bit like Hemingway who, in an autobiographical essay, suggested he might have been not only a weapons instructor during the war but also an informant for the Republic…

But more in my next post on my forays among the US expatriate community.

October 21, 2008


Arrived at Spanish conversation class yesterday, late as usual and clutching in my sweaty hand last week’s homework, to find the whole building - the local town hall - closed. No sign of explanation anywhere. It was as I was leaving, despondently and somewhat puzzled, that the euro dropped. The fiesta taking place in a nearby town has been ‘adopted’ by this one and celebrated as a municipal event. Or rather, all the local municipal buildings close down and it’s yet another public holiday!

Jesús, our teacher, must have forgotten to mention it last week but then, he did seem a bit distracted, rushing off at the end to see his ‘abogado’ (lawyer) about some flat he’d bought off-plan. But judging by the dismal look on his usually cheerful face, it wasn't just the plan that was beginning to look off but the flat too. No doubt, it won’t be long before we hear all the details. Jesús likes to use any conceivable current event as a topic of conversation and, apart from the frequent fiestas which he naturally adores, his on-going house-hunting problems must take pride of place in the top ten we’ve discussed to date.

Speaking about records, Spain must occupy a place in the top ten countries of the world for the number of its official national public holidays - 18. Of these, the main ones are Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) which is celebrated with huge religious fervour here in Andalucia; Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings) on 6th January, a favourite with children because that’s the day they get their second helping of Christmas presents; and 25th July, the festival of Santiago (St James), Spain’s patron saint.

Then there are, in addition, the regional fiestas. Of these, the most important are the processions and bonfires of the Fallas of Valencia in March; the bonfires in Alicante and elsewhere on St John’s Day, 24th June; the festival of Moors and Christians in April in Alcoy, province of Alicante and the infamous bull-running in Pamplona, northern Spain, in the first week of July.

But the overall winner of the title of pseudo-Barbara Cartland-lookalike gaudiness of all regional fiestas is without doubt Seville’s Feria de Abril. Women enveloped in the most outrageously and hideously dayglo, skin-tight flamenco dresses vie with each other in flouncing up and down Seville’s beautiful avenues often to the accompaniment of snapping castanets. Or are driven around town in family-owned, horse-drawn open carriages flicking their fans in disdain at those not in possession of such luxury and battling their way through the seething, wine-drinking crowds. And, given that the average Spanish woman is not exactly petite, those skin-tight frocks don’t do any of them any favours - neither the average-looking woman flirting on a Feria street nor the immaculately-coiffed aristocrat in her private entertainment enclosure.

And last, but by no means least, are the local fiestas. In fact, every town and every village throughout Spain, however large or small, will have its own fiesta mayor, when their inhabitants let their hair down with processions, fairs, competitions, music, dancing and consumption of food and alcohol in much the same way as their ancestors have done for centuries. Madrid, for instance, celebrates the festival of San Isidro, the city’s patron saint, on 15th May. And on this single day, the sophisticated metropolis that is modern-day Madrid, turns into a collection of mini fiestas, each with its own village-like atmosphere, the residents celebrating the holiday just as their parents and grandparents before them.

October 19, 2008


Got back from the wedding to find P and Lola, not exactly in separate beds - the celebrations continued overnight - but in separate rooms and as far apart as possible. P in his tiny office at the rear of the apartment and Lola on the terrace at the front. Both seemed somewhat subdued - unusually so for Lola, a boisterous and unashamed flirt at the best of times. Now, though, she didn’t show any of her former enthusiasm to go for a run and meet like-minded bichon frises particularly after being cooped up for so long but merely allowed herself to be scooped up by Sra N. and whisked back to her apartment.

She was so restrained I wondered if P might have added something to her food bowl. This he vehemently denied, attributing her "calmness", as he put it, to the restful night she’d spent in her basket on the terrace - undisturbed by him. After all, I was fully aware, wasn’t I, that any close contact with dog hair made his eyes stream? So this arrangement had worked out best for both parties. He’d been able to get on with his work - he works from home - and Lola had managed to catch up on some overdue beauty sleep.

I didn't want to belabour the point for a number of reasons. Firstly, since P had done me the favour of dog-sitting so that I’d be free to take Sra N to the wedding and meet the love of her life. Secondly, since there is another issue between us, cropping up with increasing frequency of late. Namely that he wants to stay here indefinitely whilst I’m more ambivalent. Much more ambivalent. Let me explain.

Since P can work from home via the internet anywhere in the world, he settles down with extreme ease wherever he happens to be - in Andalucia now just as easily as in LA years ago. Moreover, he’s not as close to his family as I am to mine. When we lived in California, we rarely saw his relatives directly due north in Canada whereas I have a need to visit my frail, elderly mother in north Wales at regular intervals.

In addition to my family, I also miss the variety and buzz of London’s theatres, concerts, galleries and restaurants. Whilst I wouldn’t go so far as to say the only culture here is the one growing in a tub of yoghurt, there is a definite lack of London’s urbaneness, cosmopolitanism, sophistication. But then, Andalucia isn’t Madrid. It’s provincial because it is, after all, a province. Not a metropolitan juggernaut.

The British sense of humour and fair play is another aspect of life I miss. I realise this sounds like a deeply rose-tinted view of the UK which, I am only too aware, has huge problems all of its own. However, when you open a newspaper here and read about yet another mayor or high-ranking official arrested for corruption, you start to ask yourself when is it all going to end. And the answer is always the same: not for a couple of generations. So ingrained is the culture in local life.

The newly installed Mayor of Marbella, Angela Munoz, and her team are gamely trying to root out the corruption that still remains in local government. However, the layer at the top is moving in one direction and the layer at the the bottom in the opposite, both consequently in constant collision with each other. With the result that no permanent change will occur until the old guard, the ancien regime, passes on.

This tension between the two forces seems to me like a shift in the Andalusian tectonic plates. A bit like the current shift in the tectonic plates between P and myself too. But I’ll come back to that - and corruption - in a later post. And more, too, about that wedding and Snr. N…

Now though I’ve got to prepare for my imminent Spanish lessons - the first for a week - with Jesús. (Yes, that really is his name. and not at all uncommon here.) Last Saturday, he telephoned all class members to say that, in addition to the cancellation of Monday’s class because it was Columbus Day, there wouldn’t be any further classes last week because "everyone would be attending the local fiestas". By "everyone", he was of course referring to himself. Ah, such is life in Spain…

October 14, 2008


As soon as we got to the wedding last Saturday, it immediately became obvious why Sra. Noriega had wanted me to escort her and so arrive separately from her 'friend', Juan Antonio, another guest. Whilst she must be in her early seventies, he looked at least twenty five years younger and was clearly not approved of by those members of her family present who kept giving him steely, sideways looks from 'their' side of the church.

The situation reminded me of that of the Countess of Alba, 82, the leading local socialite - an elderly version of the UK's Princess Eugenie - and her boyfriend, Alfonso Diez, 30 years her junior. Whenever these two appear in public, marriage rumours, much to the disgust of her family, start to fly in the Spanish media. Like, for instance, at the recent opening in Puerto Banus of Valentino - attended also by Mark Thatcher and his wife, photographed champagne in hand, smiling and looking very relaxed, thus confirming all reports of his departure from nearby El Padronal to be extremely premature.

Sra. Noriega's relationship with Juan Antonio also laid to rest for good another rumour - that she might somehow be related to General Noriega (pictured above). Although of a similar age and background, that's where the similarity definitely ends.

Sra. Noriega is divorced from her husband who still resides in Colombia. And, as for General Noriega, the deposed dictator, he's apparently still languishing in a Florida jail, having been due for release last September when the French government successfully applied for his extradition to face a 10 year sentence passed in absentia for money laundering. A fierce legal battle is currently being waged between the USA and France to decide his fate since he claims the latter won't honour his legal status as a POW. And this from a man who has also received a long jail term in absentia in Panama for murder and human rights abuses!

On the way back from the ceremony, Sra. Noriega started to open up, doubtlessly moved both by the emotion of the event and her tense conversation with Juan Antonio, albeit briefly snatched amid the resentfully disapproving glances of her relatives.

The apartment occupied by Juan Antonio is, she began, in Los Monteros, an upmarket Urbanizacion or residential estate fronting the coast in Marbella. But it doesn't belong to him but, she ruefully admitted, to her. She had put him there. And hence her great fear now - at not just losing the apartment but him too!

By this time I was completely lost and the confusion must have shown on my face because she suddenly told me to stop and pull into a roadside cafe just outside Ronda. After we had ordered - black coffee for me and a double fino for her - she pointed to the document in her bag that I'd seen her earlier frantically discussing with Juan Antonio and that was causing her so much distress. She explained it was a copy of the latest Minutes of the Los Monteros Property Owners Community (LMPOC), a legal entity with far-reaching enforcement rights representing all the home owners.

LMPOC, it transpires, is desperately trying to get JA's apartment block demolished, together with La Gaviota, the home of Antonio Banderas and his wife, Melanie Griffiths, since both were illegally erected. The apartment block plot was originally designated a green zone whilst the Banderas house - a beacon of whiteness outside and in, the interior design colour palette manifesting all its possible monochrome nuances - sits less than glamourously on a disused sewage plant!

In recent years, Marbella Town Hall's reputation has been shattered by numerous corruption scandals relating to similar illegal property deals and other crimes which I'll refer to in greater detail in a later post. With regard to illegal property development, the policy of the recently elected Mayor of Marbella, Angela Munoz, is to demolish only those buildings which are unoccupied - to the considerable relief of all the ex-pat owners of occupied, unlicenced properties.

LMPOC responded by suing Marbella Town Hall in the Andalusian High Court and winning! But, in open defiance of the High Court's ruling, Marbella Town Hall is still refusing to demolish; the Banderas house together with Sra. Noriega's apartment block is still standing, and LMPOC vows to fight on regardless!

And Sra. Noriega remains distraught - at the potential consequences. For JA told her at the wedding that if he's forced out of the apartment, he's so fed up with all the stress and uncertainty during the past year he'll leave Andalucia - and her...

So one wedding and one threat of 'divorce' on the very same day. All this and problems on my return with P too!

October 9, 2008


Rushed back from exercising Lola to collect my books for the twice weekly Spanish class only to find Senora Noriega in floods of tears. She had in her hand (Senora Noriega doesn't do emails or even mobile phones) a document received from a (younger) male friend of hers. I couldn't stop to listen to all her woes but it seemed to have to do with the current financial crisis in the Spanish property market and simultaneous criminal investigations.

She said she would be seeing Juan Antonio this Saturday at a family wedding at Ronda when she would find out more. I was about to leave when she suddenly grabbed my arm and, somewhat uncharacteristically, asked if I would accompany her as she felt so upset since, as she put it,"Su perdida me afecta mucho". Hastily glancing at my watch, I agreed although as I ran up the stairs to our apartment, I remembered that would mean P looking after Lola for the duration. And Spanish weddings go on for hours - often overnight and well into the next day - and P is severely allergic to dog hair. He only has to be in a room where a dog has been and his eyes swell up and start streaming...

As he drove me to Spanish at the local Ayuntamiento, I thought it politic not to bring up the issue of Lola just at that moment particularly as P and I are currently engaged in an ongoing dispute about another issue of rather greater importance than Lola's welfare. Namely whether or not we remain in Spain. Or, to put it more bluntly, whether or not I do.

More on this when I get back from the weekend's wedding.

October 5, 2008


How different Paul Newman was from fellow celebrity actors was clearly brought home to me whenever I visited The Ivy where I've eaten regularly for the past fifteen or so years - ever since Chris (Corbin) and Jeremy (King) reopened it. Admittedly, since their departure, it seems less 'starry' with actors like Bill Nighy and Charles Dance more regularly seen at one of the pair's new ventures, The Wolseley or Scott's. Doubtlessly, though, if you had kept up to date with the latest boy bands and reality show winners, you'd probably recognise the faces there but since I hadn't, I don't.

During the Corbin-King tenure, however, it was quite usual to find yourself sitting next to any number of A-listers from Lauren Bacall, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, Clive Owen, the Beckhams (Victoria forever picking at oysters) to Joan Collins, Britney Spears, Salman Rushdie etc. Not to mention the regulars such as John McCritrick (always arriving late from race meetings and poring over ripped-out newspaper reviews), Melvyn Bragg and Harold Pinter.

The last two always had the same table on Saturday evenings but, as if by prior arrangement, not on the same occasion. On one New Year's Eve a couple of years ago, it must have been Harold Pinter's turn. He left, though, about twenty to twelve presumably to attend a function elsewhere although, judging by the traffic later that night, he may well have celebrated the New Year in his taxi. And no sooner than he'd left than Chris Corbin arrived for a late meal. A wonderful case of le patron mange ici...

And inside the restaurant, discretion ruled - strictly maintained by Chris and Jeremy - so that a Martian, dining there for the first time, would be totally unaware if his neighbour hailed from Hollywood or Hartlepool, Bel Air or Belfast, so even-handedly were waiting staff focused on the job and diners on the food.

Everyone, that is, except for Britney Spears. From the moment she arrived accompanied by cronies and assorted hangers-on, she took every opportunity to get the restaurant's attention with belly laughs and screeching chatter. Forever swivelling her head in all directions, she seemed, in an eerily insecure, immature way, to be in constant need of the limelight.

Britney Spears apart, then, the unwritten rule at The Ivy is complete anonymity and privacy for celebrities within its walls. Outside, however, it's a different matter. Hordes of paparazzis line up on the pavement opposite for hours, tipped off by agents about their clients' scheduled visit but not their ETA or ETD. So, when flashing lights start to dazzle through the famous leaded windows, you always know when someone "important" has arrived or is leaving and that some smilingly composed face snapped "unexpectedly and off guard" will appear in next day's tabloids. And all part of the game that is PR, of which all celebrities who choose to eat at The Ivy are aware and which they are all more than happy to play.

And as I mentioned at the start, so unlike Paul Newman...