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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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Fuel Poverty

Fuel Poverty

We paid our electricity bill this week, or rather it was debited from our bank account without any warning. It has always irritated me that the electricity companies in Spain and the Canary Islands feel that they can take whatever they wish from our bank account without letting us know in advance; it is the same with the water company too. In the Canary Islands, electricity and water bills usually arrive two or three weeks after the payment has been taken from bank accounts, which makes careful budgeting, particularly for those on a low income, very difficult.

I am sure that most people find that monthly electricity bills increase and rarely is there any movement downwards. In our home, over the last few years, we have gradually changed to energy efficient lighting and appliances, but the increase in cost whilst consumption remains steady is often staggering.

It is of course, the poorest in society that are most affected by high electricity bills. Terms such as ‘Fuel Poverty’ or ‘Energy Poverty’ are some of the current meaningless phrases designed to make this serious issue somehow socially more acceptable. For many people, this can mean an impossible choice between keeping warm or eating. In the Canary Islands, those regarded as ‘vulnerable’, as well as large families can apply for a ‘social bonus’, which is designed to ease the cost of such bills by providing a discount. Unfortunately, as is the case with many such schemes in Spain, the system is unnecessarily complicated and bureaucratic, which many families simply do not understand and such schemes often end up causing more harm than good.

The best way of avoiding energy poverty is to reduce the cost of electricity through the promotion and investment in renewable energy. This will come in time, assuming that the oil companies and politicians allow it, but in the meantime, efforts are being made to encourage municipalities to provide emergency fuel aid for those families that cannot pay their electricity bills and the supply is cut off.Local politicians are rightly making the point that that residents of the Canary Islands have a right to receive electricity at a price that is equivalent to residents living in Peninsular Spain, even though the costs of producing electricity on the islands are three times as high.

In the Canary Islands, we have an abundance of sunshine, wind and wave power, but the dilatory manner in which these renewable sources are being utilised is staggering. There are examples to the contrary, of course, with the island of El Hierro leading the way with massive investment in renewable sources, which is already making a huge difference to the lives of islanders, as well as a massive reduction in carbon emissions and is often quoted as a positive example by researchers in other countries.

The Canary Islands are located just a short distance from Africa, and it was interesting to hear researchers recently claim that the installation of huge numbers of solar panels and wind turbines in the Sahara Desert would have a major impact on rainfall, vegetation and temperatures. The action of wind turbines and solar panels would double the amount of rain that currently falls on the Sahara, which would have a huge and positive impact upon the region, allowing vegetation to flourish.

In addition, according to the researchers’ calculations, a massive installation of solar panels and wind farms in the desert would generate more than four times the amount of energy that the world currently uses each year. If such plans were ever to come to fruition, it could potentially end the issue of fuel poverty once and for all. However, one can only imagine the blocking mechanisms of the oil industry and investors in the energy market.

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Red, White or Blue?

Red, White or Blue?

I must first confess to having a very simplistic knowledge of wine. I know what I like and what I don’t like. I will not spend a lot of time and money on fancy labels, nor will I indulge in that ridiculous time-wasting drama of ‘someone who knows wine’ - tasting it before it is poured knowingly by the waiter. If the wine is ‘off’, I would send it back. As an alternative, just sniff the cork; it really is that simple, and saves an awful lot of time.

What colour of wine do you prefer? I like white wine during a sunny lunchtime snack and maybe a chilled red during a warm evening. I tend to opt for a Canarian or Spanish wine, mainly out of loyalty to my adopted country, but I guess that my favourites are the island wines, and particularly those from Lanzarote. Now what about a blue wine?

I had the pleasure of trying a blue wine recently. I was initially a little doubtful, but since blue is my favourite colour and it was glowing temptingly in the sunshine, I didn’t hesitate. After the first tentative sip, I knew that I was hooked. Not only did the deep, rich blue colour look amazing, but it suited my palette perfectly. Yes, it was on the sweet side, but it was the kind of sweetness that fits so well on a hot sunny day by the swimming pool or in a bar overlooking the sea.

To many ‘wine connoisseurs’, the very idea of a blue wine is truly a horrific concept, yet it is already made in several Spanish wineries. I am told that blue wine is a mix of mainly white and a little red wine, as well as freshly crushed grape juice. The blue colour is based upon using two pigments, anthocyanin, which is found in the skin of red grapes, and indigo carmine. It is best described as a blend of technology and the best that nature can provide.

I am also told that blue wine has received mixed reviews, including from the Paris ‘Ritz’, who described it as “surprising”. Whether that is ‘surprisingly good’ or ‘surprisingly bad’, I have yet to find out, whilst the UK’s Telegraph referred to it as “a gimmick”, which probably means it is very nice, but they don’t want anyone else to know about it.

Sadly, in Europe the new blue wine has to be labelled as an “alcoholic drink”, since the authorities have decreed that it cannot be a wine, because it is blue, which leaves me very confused about the status of rosé wine.

Enterprising Spanish wineries are now producing a wide range of alternatives to the usual red and white wines. It is now possible to buy a blue, sparkling cava, a red wine that is infused with Earl Grey tea, as well as a white wine that includes a hint of Sencha tea from Japan, which sound challenging. There is also another newcomer to the range that is red and spicy, called ‘Bastarde’. I am not at all sure about that one, so think I will maintain my loyalty to wines from Lanzarote and the other islands, but I do recommend that you try the blue wine if you get the opportunity.

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Unemployment Good, Employment Bad

Unemployment Good, Employment Bad

I heard a UK economist on the radio this week complaining about high employment levels in the country. Apparently, high employment is bad for the economy, since it forces wage and salary levels upwards, which is bad for UK exports and the overall economy. Conversely, high unemployment level is preferable, according to this economist, since it creates “a competitive employment background”, which results in wage stability and even a reduction in production costs (for this read overall wage stagnation and depression). Thankfully, I am not an economist, but I guess that most people will view this as simple exploitation of labour. Whether or not it is a good idea will no doubt depend upon your political and social views. Personally, I cannot think that anyone in their right mind would find unemployment acceptable under any circumstances. Still, we are told that we now live in a post-truth world where anything goes.

Unemployment is supposed to be at its lowest level in the UK for many years, even though many jobs are of fragile status by working within the ‘gig economy’ or zero-hours contracts. In contrast, unemployment in Spain and the Canary Islands is still at worryingly high levels. Unemployment in the Canary Islands remains stubbornly at around 31 per cent, which is one of the highest in Europe. For those under 25 years old, the unemployment rate is at a shocking 56 per cent, accompanied by severe social consequences, as well as destroying dreams and confidence for a generation of young people.

It was encouraging to hear this week that several new and imaginative schemes designed to reverse the trend are currently being deployed in the Canary Islands. The Government of Gran Canaria has recently announced that 220 unemployed people over the age of 45 years and without previous skills will be trained as skilled metal workers in the Port of La Luz in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, which is one of the largest employers on the island. The main employer on the site, Femepa, operates 1,600 companies that have job opportunities for welders and electricians, but often faces difficulties in finding workers to fill these vacant posts.

Cars, lorries and motorcycles regularly need repairs, and in the Canary Islands there are over 4,500 elevators that need to pass a safety inspection each year. This new project will also provide job opportunities for the refurbishment of homes and the maintenance of hotels. 220 people will be invited to participate in training courses to work in the metal sector, and Femepa and the island government hope that all those who complete the training will be offered jobs. These courses are intended for those who have been unemployed for over a year, are over 45 years of age, immigrants, victims of gender violence or have a low level of education.

The Government of Gran Canaria has also announced that it will employ 50 unemployed people to work full time for six months in reforestation tasks. This programme is aimed at women who are victims of gender violence, immigrants and those over the age of 45 years, so that they can learn a trade in a sector in which there is a real demand for professionals with appropriate skills. This specific group of unemployed people will soon learn how to fell trees, climb trees, provide trees with sufficient water and to use specific machinery for forestry tasks.

Both projects are relatively small scale, yet are an attempt to bring hope for the future and an escape for many people who are desperate to break away from the misery of unemployment. In this ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world, I wonder what the UK economist who spoke so favourably of the benefits of unemployment would think of these attempts to give people some hope for the future?

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​Anyone for a Timple?

Anyone for a Timple?

“How about a timple?” I was asked by an earnest assistant in one of the traditional music shops in Las Palmas. I had just called in for a replacement violin string, and was looking at the range of Canarian traditional stringed instruments for sale. I quickly realised that I was not being offered an early morning alcoholic drink, and that the young salesman, speaking in English, had discovered an amusing way to catch the attention of English-speaking visitors to the shop. I have only recently begun to study early Canarian musical instruments, and as my first passion is the violin, this particular stringed instrument caught my eye, simply because of the beauty and simplicity of design.

The timple creates a voice by the instrumentalist plucking its strings in much the same way as the guitar, but there the similarity ends. It is much smaller than the guitar and usually has five strings, although in Tenerife some timples only have four strings. The timple is mainly used to accompany Canarian folk music and has a loud and rather sharp voice. Due to the success and increasing popularity of this instrument, it has now reached the status of a solo instrument in some circles.

The name of the instrument still intrigues me and I have yet to find a definitive answer to the origin of its name. In line with my initial thought about an alcoholic drink, the timple did used to be called a tiple (with only one ‘p’); before that it was called a ‘camelito camelillo’ because the back of the instrument looks very much like the hump of a camel, although it is less than 40 centimetres in length.

Timples were created in the Nineteenth Century and played throughout the Canary Islands and much of South America. In many ways, they are related to the ukulele, the Spanish guitar and the Portuguese chavaquino. Interestingly, the range of woods used is varied with the most common being pine for the body, ebony for the bridges, holy stick for the mast, and wood from the orange tree for decoration. Creation of these beautiful and interesting instruments was and still is a cottage industry across the islands, offering considerable variation in both design and construction. The island of Lanzarote became the centre for the systematic making of these instruments where one of the last timple makers is about to retire after more than sixty years of timple making.

The Government of Lanzarote has recognised Antonio Lemes Herandez as artisan of the year for his involvement for more than half a century in the production of timples. Antonio, a craftsman from Teguise, has been building small timples since he was a child. As a child, he made them from cardboard and other materials before painting them. He eventually perfected his technique and transformed a range of wood into his instruments, mostly pine, which he favours for timples since it can tune well. Over the years, Antonio has developed his own unique house style, which continues to delight players across the islands and across the world. Sixty years after his first contact with the timple, Antonio’s hands continue to create his unique timples, although he now feels that it is time to retire.

There are many renowned timplistas, as timple players are referred to, playing classical music and jazz and it is often regarded as an alternative instrument of choice chosen by guitarists. During the next fiesta, if you are fortunate enough to hear Canarian instrumentalists, do watch out for and listen carefully to the timple. I am sure that, like me, you will find it to be an engaging and fascinating instrument.

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Brexit Going Bananas

Brexit Going Bananas

I often write about bananas. First and foremost, I like eating them and, secondly, we have a very large banana tree growing and fruiting in our garden, which provides endless entertainment and annoyance for our dog, Bella, who, since she is partially sighted, is obsessed with the banana tree and is convinced that a gentle breeze moving the large, luxurious leaves, is actually a dangerous enemy from which she must protect us. Bananas, and similar crops, have in the past been the lifeblood of the economy of the Canary Islands and the links that these islands have with the UK are symbolised by the creation of Canary Wharf, which was the original recipient of bananas from these islands.

I have always thought that bananas are the real reason behind Brexit. Forget the accusation that “The Brits have never really liked Europe”, it is really bananas that are to blame. Do you remember all the fuss about ‘bendy bananas’ and the myth that was so lovingly nurtured by the right wing press that straight bananas were being insisted upon by the grandees of Europe? Of course, it was nonsense, and most of the population knew it was nonsense. Despite this, it was the banana debate and other examples that became the stuff of nonsense that finally manifested itself into a call for the referendum to take Britain out of the European Union that politicians could not avoid any longer.

Bendy bananas or not, how many children and office workers include a banana as part of their lunchtime snack? The UK supermarket chain, Tesco, has upset many of its lunchtime customers recently by significantly increasing the price it charges for individual bananas. The reason for this outrage is that Tesco are now charging for single bananas instead of its usual practice of charging by weight. This has resulted in the cost of a single banana to have doubled at its Metro and Express stores. Customers were paying around 76 pence per kilogram for their lunchtime banana, which worked out at around 10 to 15 pence depending upon the size of the fruit. The new pricing at 25 pence each is often more than double the original price.

In its defence, the supermarket giant claims that expensive leases on its stores have led to the price increase, which has led to many angry exchanges on social media, leaving Tesco quaking at its very foundations and driving all the customers to Lidl and Aldi, or so we are told.

At the time of writing, Brexit negotiations are in a mess, the Government appears to have lost the plot and the opposition parties appear to be in no position to provide a workable alternative. Of course, the problem will be resolved; they always are, in time. The problem remains of course in how much damage will be done in the interim.

How many banana skins will our leaders slip on before the deal is done? Well, there’s not much that I can do about it, so I’m just off into the garden to pick a nice fresh banana for my lunch. Bananas have a lot to answer for.

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