When we returned to the UK to live in 2019, I thought that my tenth book about living and working abroad ‘Letters from the Canary Islands and Spain’ would be the last ‘Letters from the Atlantic’ that I would publish. After all, what would be the point of writing about living on a sunny island in the Atlantic, when we had moved to cloudy, damp Devon? I had another novel to write, which would keep me busy, and I would finally say goodbye to writing about living and working in another country.
It was an email from an editor of one of the magazines that I write for that changed my mind, and is responsible for this book. He asked why I had not recently sent him any submissions for his magazine? When I reminded him that I had moved back to the UK and could see little point in further articles, he responded by saying, “Why not? Many Brits are returning, or attempting to return, to the UK because of Brexit. Share your experiences of the issues that you are facing. I’m convinced that your experiences will be a help to many people, as well as entertaining for the rest of us.”
It is with these words that the idea of ‘Travelling Hopefully’ was born. In many ways, this book is a sequel to my first book ‘Letters from the Atlantic’ which tells of our early life in Spain and the Canary Islands.
This book reflects upon the experiences that David and I encountered on our return to the UK, during a time of Brexit uncertainties, rapidly followed by lengthy Covid lockdowns, amidst a rapidly changing political and social landscape with a potential war in Europe on the horizon.
I compare incidents and our life in the Canary Islands to our new life in Devon, which may be annoying to some, since it is also a commentary on the political and social changes that I see around me; it is a subjective view, of course. Over the sixteen years or so that we have been out of the UK, there have been many changes, with very few for the better, it seems.
Life in Gran Canaria was not as perfect as many may imagine, but looking back, life in the UK now seems more complicated, divided, jingoistic, harsher, and with indifferent concern for other people.
It is also a country in political and social crisis, which those who live here seem unable or unwilling to recognise. There is a paucity of political leadership from any political party, and populism has taken an unhealthy grip on the nation, no doubt following in the steps of the US.
I am shocked at the increase in levels of poverty, the growing number of foodbanks, the rise in racism, knife and gang violence, as well as a growing and deliberately fostered hostility towards Europe, fanned by a powerful group of right-wing politicians and wealthy fanatics, be they known as oligarchs or simply as ‘Tory Grandees’.
I was once asked, “So, why didn’t you stay where you were, if you like Europe so much?” The truth is that often I wish that we had. However, we were already well aware of souring relationships between the EU and the UK, issues with both healthcare and getting older, as well as missing family and friends.
More will be discussed about this later in the book. Has it worked out as well as we had hoped? In some ways, no. Our plans to meet up with family and friends have, so far, been put on hold due to Covid. We miss the island, the healthy climate, the outdoor lifestyle, and the non-judgemental attitudes of those who live and work there.
In many ways, I feel that I have aged twenty years in the short time that we have been back in the UK, and I gather that this is not an unusual comment from those returning from a life in the sun. Above all, we miss our Spanish and European friends. On the plus side, when Covid issues settle, we will once again be able to visit family and friends again.
We will be able to revisit some of our favourite places, and enjoy the beautiful Devon countryside. We will be able to visit garden centres and enjoy cream teas, as well as speaking our native language, which I have missed.
Since I began writing this book, I have been diagnosed with bowel and liver cancer. So far, the diagnosis, tests and surgery have been excellent, and I am grateful to have returned to the UK in time to deal with this life changing chapter of my life.
I know that treatment in Spain would have been at least as good as the care that I am currently receiving, but it is reassuring to have returned to the UK where I can rely upon close family and friends for support, and not have to worry about the language when dealing with complicated medical and treatment issues.
The tragic passing of a dear friend in Gran Canaria has made me realise that I am fortunate to be back in the UK, given my current circumstances, since the lack of end-of-life care and hospice support are sadly lacking in the Canary Islands and much of Spain.
In a tongue in cheek comment, I made the point that this book should not be read by Brexiteers or those who are fans of Boris Johnson, since it is most likely to offend, or at least annoy. I don’t regret this remark, since I believe that both are two of the main factors that are responsible for the current attitudes in the UK. The UK is currently in a state of flux, but the reasons for its malaise stem much deeper than Johnson and Brexit.
Anti-European, and indeed anti-foreigner attitudes, have been developed and cultivated in the UK for the last forty years or so, and have culminated in a whole range of divisive issues that cross over the usual political divides. Brexit, Johnson and Truss, as well as the supporting cabal of Europe haters, are merely the unpleasant discharge from a lingering poisonous boil that will eventually be lanced, treated and forgotten. Maybe, over time, Brexiteers will be proved right, but I doubt it.
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The horrors of slavery remain a blot upon the human conscience and collective human history. However, even in modern times, despite being outlawed many years ago, slavery still continues in various forms, such as prostitution and trafficking, around the world, including in many ‘civilised’ European cities. The Canary Islands have a story to tell about this perfect example of 'man’s inhumanity to man'.
The Spanish occupation of the Canary Islands coincided with the massive deportation of the native Guanches from these islands, many of whom were sent as slaves to Spain and other European countries. The Guanches who remained on the islands were forced to work on the estates and businesses run by their new masters. The ownership of the Canary Islands had been the subject of a long running dispute between Portugal and the Kingdom of Castille for many years. This period of instability resulted in periodic raids on the islands to acquire slaves.
The Catholic Church developed an early form of an anti slavery policy in the 15th century which, to its credit, attempted to rescue many Canary Islanders from the horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade. A papal decree, known as Sicut Dudum, was issued in 1435 by Pope Eugene IV, and sent to the Bishop of Lanzarote, which was intended to prohibit Portuguese traders from capturing and incarcerating slaves from the Canary Islands, and shipping them across the Atlantic.
Sadly, this decree only applied to those who had recently converted to Christianity or were, more likely, tricked into baptism, and threatened much dreaded excommunication to those who failed to return the newly processed Christians to the Canary Islands. This decree appears, at first light, to be an enlightened step during those turbulent times to protect Canary Islanders from the evils of this horrendous trade in human lives. However, although African converts to Christianity were now protected by the papal decree, the same did not apply to Muslims, Jews, heathens or atheists who were still considered to be ‘fair game’ by the Vatican.
Whatever the truth behind Pope Eugene’s original intentions, his successor, Pope Nicholas V, as part of the fight against Islam in 1452, gave the Portuguese king the right to enslave people who were not Christian. Indeed, this agreement was used by the Portuguese to enslave Africans for many years to come. Needless to say, there have been many attempts over the years by Christian academics to credit the Vatican as taking the first steps towards the banning of slavery and crediting Pope Eugene 1V, in particular, with enlightened views about freedom and morality, which many present day historians and academics say he simply does not deserve.
Sadly, the truth in the Canary Islands seems to be that you either converted in a manner dictated by Pope Eugene IV or risked being rounded up by the Portuguese and sold into slavery - not really much of a choice, was it? The religious concept of free will appears to have been forgotten too, and due to be repeated many times in the future, with Jewish and Muslim converts joining the ranks of Christianity to avoid the violent machine of the Spanish Inquisition.
Still, as we all know, the rewriting of history is a popular pastime, as well as a strategy much loved by some politicians, historians and newspapers. Maybe some things will never change.
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724
Following my article ‘Travelling Hopefully’ recently published in ‘The Friend’, I have received a number of emails, enquiries and comments asking for more information about how I am dealing with my terminal illness. They usually ask if I am having counselling or other support? My answer is that I usually find the support that I need within my ‘reserve bank’ of Quaker wisdom and beliefs, together with the love and support of my partner, family and friends. Since my diagnosis in October 2021, I have experienced much the same roller coaster of emotions as many other sufferers. I have no answers, but I hope that my limited experiences so far will be of some help to others in my position.
A good friend of ours passed into the Light recently after dealing with cancer bravely for many years. Although we had corresponded spasmodically over the last thirty years or so, we counted Bob as a good friend. I recall his last letter to me; one that he had written shortly after hearing of my own cancer diagnosis. I recall one sentence with clarity because, at that time, I was a little puzzled by what he meant. “We each deal with cancer in our unique way”, was one of his comments; several months on the cancer journey, I think I now know what he meant.
Following diagnosis, particularly of the terminal cancer kind, there comes a period of acute distress, denial, which is often followed anger and, if we are fortunate, a kind of dull acceptance, often coupled with a determination to fight on. I cannot speak for everyone, of course, but this is my experience so far in this journey. Much, of course, depends upon one’s personal faith, or maybe lack of it, the love and support from family and friends, and the individual circumstances that we find ourselves in. We all hope that, in time, we are given the strength to deal with whatever is finally waiting for us.
From my own experience and observations, I have found that after a diagnosis of cancer has been given, many are either in denial and try to put the issue at the back of their minds, until they are ready, or forced, to deal with it; or they gratefully accept advice and support from whoever is offering it. In my case, I am blessed with an oncologist who understands, and appreciates my need to be told the unvarnished truth with as much clarity as possible. I am supported by a wonderful, caring group of nurses and ancillary staff who do their best to answer my endless questions, whilst retaining both humour, compassion and professionalism in their supportive words. The cancer charity, MacMillan supports patients brilliantly with excellent information, whilst offering support and assistance whenever they can.
Following my own diagnosis, I did as much research as I could on the Internet, quickly recognising not to trust many of the websites and information given. Spurious claims of wonder drugs and alternative therapies are freely available, and I quickly learned only to trust the NHS website and information given by organisations, such as Macmillan. I also read a lot, particularly about personal experiences of those living with cancer. Not all were helpful in my search for information, particularly about dealing with approaching death, which, as a society, we are very bad at acknowledging and facing realistically.
I recall one book in particular. It was one that I read about half way through, but became so irritated and at times angry with the author that I could not bear to finish it. The author was a woman who had her own unique way of dealing with her own advanced cancer, which was to unleash her anger and bitterness upon those who were trying to help her. She claimed that by insisting that she would only attend those appointments that fitted into her own busy diary, that she had access and personal detailed explanations of all scans, tests and drugs, and being generally unreasonable to all those that she came into contact with, empowered her and gave her the strength to fight her cancer. Some of her demands may not seem unreasonable to some, but within the scope of an exceptionally busy, overworked and underfunded NHS, her demands were unreasonable. The author was clearly a very unhappy and troubled woman who had yet to come to terms with the inevitable. I hope writing the book helped her to comes to terms with her anger and eventually result in acceptance and peace.
One of the reasons that I objected to the author’s anger, so vehemently expressed within the pages of this lengthy book, was that, as a Quaker, I try to avoid conflict whenever possible and “fighting cancer” is an expression that does not sit easy with my own philosophy. This is not to say that I do not get angry and depressed at my condition. I do, but I try to channel it in a positive way, recognising that in some ways I am fortunate in knowing the approximate timing of my departure, that I can plan and prepare in the best way that I can for my partner, making the choices and decisions that I want to make for myself, as well as hopefully avoiding the curse of dementia, or worse.
I also try to look at cancer as an organism in a positive way. Of course, I do not welcome its invasion into my body, but I also have to remember that it is a God created organism, created in a similar way to ourselves. The organism lives with its main purpose of reproducing itself as quickly and efficiently as possible. As far as I am aware, cancer cells do not wittingly intend to create untold damage to other cells in order to kill off the host body, but it does so presumably unaware of the consequences of its invasion. In many ways, the life cycle of a cancer cell has some similarity with human and animal life. Its determination also fascinates me, because as one cancer expert recently told me “Cancer always finds its way around the treatments that we use to try to control it. As yet, it won’t be controlled, and it nearly always finds a way through.”
As I progress through my own personal and unique cancer journey, I now understand Bob’s words. In some ways, I am grateful for the clarity and understanding that an ‘end of life situation’ can bring. Of course, I would prefer not to be in this position, but we have to deal with whatever situation that we find ourselves in. In my personal cancer journey, a Quaker perspective is both positive and helpful, which has added clarity and meaning to my life.
This article was recently published in 'The Friend', a Quaker magazine, published weekly.
It was over 50 years ago that I met my partner, lover and best friend, David, when we were both studying at teacher training college. Looking back over the years, I have concluded that we did well to get through it and still be together in a relationship that remains as strong today as it did over fifty years ago. Fifty years ago, relationships between same sex couples were illegal, we were unable to share our feelings to anyone, knowing full well that any hint of our relationship would mean expulsion from teacher training and making a future in our chosen careers impossible.
Over the years, we learned successfully how to hide our feelings, to be vague and non-committal about ‘girlfriends’. We ‘hid’ quietly in a Dorset village, only maintaining a very tight circle of close friends and never discussing the issue with our families. Looking back, it was a lonely and, in some ways, an unfulfilling period of our lives. David’s skills as an organist became quickly known to local vicars and church leaders, who were desperate for both increased congregations, as well as a reliable and talented organist. Despite this, as soon as there was any hint that we might be a couple, the shutters came down, and invitations to church and community events quickly disappeared.
Against this backdrop, and perhaps surprisingly, I was appointed as the deputy headteacher of a Roman Catholic school. Apparently, I was appointed to keep the visiting nuns and headteacher from quarrelling, as well as my skills in debating my long-held beliefs in vegetarianism and animal welfare. Later, both David and I became headteachers of Church of England schools. Once again, secrecy was essential and I recall the school governors looking horrified when I was asked after my interview if I would care to move into the dilapidated school house with my wife. “Maybe she could help with the choir,” began the Lady of the Manor. The governors appeared shocked when I politely declined. I am sure that the Governors wished they had asked that question before appointing me as their new headteacher.
Our busy lives as headteachers provided a period of relative stability, mainly because David and I knew how to play the ‘I am not gay’ game. We could never attend each other’s school functions, or attended staff ‘get togethers’ and or talk about our weekends, as is usual with most school staff. As usual, we had to remain aloof and non-committal. Even our families believed that we were just “good friends”, although this view was dismissed many years later by my nephew who claimed that they knew all along. How we wish they had told us, it would have made life so much easier.
One memorable day, David had a breakdown. He was very ill and was told that he would never work again. Much was due to work-related stress as a headteacher, as well as what the psychologist described as “repressed sexuality”. David was put on permanent medication and retired from teaching. It is one of my greatest sadnesses in life that an excellent teacher and headteacher ended an otherwise successful career in this way.
I continued my working life as a school inspector for OFSTED in England and Estyn in Wales. I enjoyed the job, not only for the privilege of working with so many excellent people, who were committed to doing their best for the children in their care, but the escape that it gave me. I was in a different school every fortnight, leading a different team of inspectors. These were people that I had a professional relationship with, but we rarely had time to talk about our personal lives, and we would probably never meet again; it was the kind of non-committal relationship that suited me just fine.
Working away from home meant that David spent a lot of time on his own, which was not a healthy situation for either of us. We decided to move to Bournemouth, which was one of the best steps that we could have made at that time. My relationship with God had been severely tested over the years. I had explored a number of spiritual journeys, visiting Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, Catholic, United Reformed and other churches. All made me feel that, as a gay man I was not welcome. I was excluded, always on the outside looking in. The best way that I can describe it was searching ‘for the Light’, which was clearly not switched on for gay men and women, and certainly not for me. Neither did I feel comfortable in the traditional ‘White Jesus’ worship, when I had read and began to explore Buddhism, Hinduism and other faiths. Why did I have to choose a particular brand when I had already suspected that we were all sharing similar faith experiences?
One day we found ourselves joining a service at the Metropolitan Community Church in Bournemouth. It was a revelation and a treasured memory that I will never forget. David and I entered the building and spotted a huge illuminated purple cross glowing from the front of the church. The pastor at that time ran down the aisle to greet us, and beaming with arms outstretched. “Welcome boys”, he said warmly, grasping our hands. It was the first genuine welcome that we had ever received in a church, and it was wonderful to experience.
Metropolitan Community Church in Bournemouth was at that time best described as “a church for broken people”. Gay, lesbian, transgendered, the confused, straight, alcoholics, the homeless and the drug dependent were all welcome. It was a wonderful mix of humanity; we learned so much and made many good friends, and many of whom we are still in contact with today. We both felt that we were meant to be there and savoured every moment of our new relationship with the Spirit and our new-found friends. This church was also incredibly supportive of David’s condition, and much of his growing recovery was due to the warmth, support and blessing of this amazing community.
Over time, I became uneasy about taking a white European Christian approach to my relationship with God, or ‘the Light’ as I began to call it. As much as we admired the gifted and inspirational pastor and his team, I had a strong feeling of “Why do I need a middleman in my relationship with God?” Maybe I don’t, but I freely accept that there are many who do, and find this relationship both comforting and reassuring. Who are we to judge? I started being aware of the life and teachings of George Fox and other Quakers. Our pastor was about leave Bournemouth to take on a new challenge in the US, and for us it was also time to take the next step in our spiritual journey. Bournemouth Quakers, here we come!
When we entered the Meeting House for the first time, we were warmly greeted by one of the wardens who took time to explain what would happen at the Meeting. We met many other wonderful, warm-hearted people who took us under their wings. We felt immediately at home and became members in 2000. It was a time when I began to feel the warmth and spiritual support in personal worship that had been sorely missing in my other church experiences. Wisdom shared during Meetings opened new challenges and areas to explore. Of course, these Meetings were always followed by often noisy discussions, as well as laughter over a welcome coffee.
In 2003, we felt that another significant change in our lives was needed. We had often talked about moving to Spain, which was already a favourite holiday destination. I continued to be concerned about David’s health, and continued medication. As for me, I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the OFSTED school inspection process, which had moved from one of supportive discussion with school staff about the best way to move a school forward, to an adversarial system that seemed intent upon breaking down goodwill and making matters worse. I decided to quit my work as a school inspector, and in discussion with David planned our move to Spain.
One of the reasons that David and I get on so well is that once we make up our minds, we simply get on with it. Within a few weeks we had moved to our new home in the Costa Blanca. What a breath of fresh air that was. Our next-door neighbours were a gay couple. We had a lesbian couple living opposite, and a few doors down was a middle-aged couple, who had a gay son and didn’t quite know how to cope with it. Indeed, our new home was in a street named San Gabriel, which we were told is the patron saint of gay people, but that might be an exaggeration. Within a couple of weeks, David was pain free and no longer needed any medication. Within a couple of months, David had been interviewed and appointed as the manager of the office of an English-speaking publication, intended for the British community. I resumed my working life delivering newspapers, and later becoming a reporter and photographer for the same newspaper. The paper was owned and managed by a gay man, and all the staff, apart from one confused secretary, were all gay. A wonderful time of healing for us had begun and we no longer felt like outsiders looking in.
A couple of years later, our boss declared that he wanted to expand the newspaper as it was doing so well. I suggested the Canary Islands, and our boss asked us to prepare a business plan for him to consider. Not one to waste time, three weeks later, David and I were on a ferry to the Canary Islands accompanied by our two dogs, Barney and Bella, and a laptop computer. We were to launch and manage a new English language newspaper in Gran Canaria, and with an intention to launch across the seven islands. Amazingly, Gran Canaria was one places where we had always wanted live, but thought impossible. There we were, with a full-time contract and health insurance. We were indeed fortunate.
The ‘live and let live’ attitudes of people in this wonderful island has always been an inspiration to us, and so much in contrast to the narrow, judgemental and often cruel experiences and attitudes that we had experienced in the UK, some of which very sadly continue today. Our work editing the newspaper was often challenging, but we were always refreshed and invigorated by wonderful people from so many nationalities that we worked and enjoyed being with.
Our thoughts and prayers often returned to Bournemouth Meeting. We would usually sit together with Barney and Bella and a lighted candle at 10.30 am on Sunday mornings, in an attempt to link with Bournemouth Friends. One day we had a knock at the door. It was a Belgian couple, long-term Quakers, who had attended a Meeting in Stuttgart and seen our names as Quakers living in Gran Canaria. They visited the island often, and wondered if we could meet together on Sundays? It was such a strange coincidence, or was it?
As a result, we continued to meet regularly with the Belgian couple in our home for several years until we returned to the UK. We were joined by a Spanish and German couple, a Welsh harpist from the island orchestra and a Russian academic who had managed to escape persecution with his partner. The stories that were shared over coffee after our meeting were true eye openers. During those years, we regarded our house group as a kind of Bournemouth ‘spin off’, and we continued to receive newsletters and newsy emails from Bournemouth Meeting that inspired us and were readily shared between all members of our house group. Although I doubt that Bournemouth friends were aware of their Canary Islands outpost, our Belgian, Spanish, German and Russian friends were certainly well aware of Bournemouth Meeting, and may well visit Bournemouth Meeting one day.
All good things come to an end eventually and, for us, Brexit was the final curtain. We had heard enough of promises from both the UK and Spanish governments to make us uneasy. We had to make a decision, which would mean the end of our amazing life in the Canary Islands, leaving friends and work that we loved, as well as our lovely home. Nothing is forever and we looked to the future with confidence, as well as some apprehension.
As I write this, I have been diagnosed with cancer that will no doubt change my expectations of a long and fulfilled life in the UK. Despite my diagnosis, I am thankful for finding Quakerism in general, and Bournemouth Meeting in particular, and their love and welcoming support has been a comfort over many years. I know my life has been changed for the better by Quaker philosophy and wisdom shared over many years; I face the future calmly, and with continued hope and strength.
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167
“Three rashers, three sausages, two eggs, black pudding twice, fried bread twice and no tomatoes,” boomed the voice in front of me in the queue. “Oh, and two rounds of toast and a large mug of coffee.”
“Beans?” responded the unsmiling automaton in the white overall, a woman with no facial expression whatsoever.
“Goodness no, I’ll have wind all day if I do,” came the reply.
Wind is the least of your worries, I thought, as I watched the layers of cholesterol being piled onto a very large plate. I like a cooked breakfast as much as the next person (albeit the vegetarian variety) when I am on holiday, but I know enough about healthy eating to ensure that for most of the year, fresh fruit and muesli is the healthiest way to start my day at home.
“Yes?” snapped the automaton, looking vaguely in my direction.
“Do you have any fresh fruit, apples or bananas maybe?” I enquired hopefully.
“Bananas, no, but you may find some apples in the basket by the till. They may be a bit old though, there’s not a lot of call for them in here. I may have got some tinned fruit in the back.”
I turned and looked at the two forlorn apples in the basket by the till and decided to give them a miss.
“No, I’ll leave that. Just two slices of toast please.”
“Do you want them spreading?”
After having seen the thick layer of butter spread upon the previous customer’s toast, I declined.
“Do you have some vegetable margarine?”
“Over by the till, but that costs extra.”
“Just the toast then, please. No butter.”
Whilst I was waiting for the toast, I attempted some conversation. I was curious to know the reasoning behind the massively unhealthy diet being served in the hospital’s canteen for visitors. As with so many hospital facilities in the UK nowadays, the hospital restaurant had been privatised, and I was amused to see it being run by the same company that is involved in school inspections, as well as refuse collections in the UK.
The hospital restaurant was in one of the UK’s large city hospitals and I had been visiting an elderly relative in its care. As is often the case with sick, elderly patients, they can only cope with short visits and so I decided to take a short coffee break before returning to the ward.
“Don't you think it is a little strange that you are serving such unhealthy food in a hospital restaurant?”
“I just does what I’m told. They decides what’s to be served,” was the snapped response, although now, at least, the face showed some expression and feeling, which was an encouraging development.
“Yes, I can see that, and I’m not blaming you,” I protested, “but you are killing your customers. Maybe your previous customer could have been offered a healthier alternative? Surely it’s a good opportunity to encourage visitors to consider healthy eating when they visit patients. Maybe some fruit? With a diet like that he’ll soon be in here as a patient.”
The woman snorted. “He’s no visitor,” she laughed. “He has that for breakfast most days, and he’s a doctor here!”
I ate my toast slowly, with a mixture of disbelief, anger and amusement, but wondering if my elderly relative was receiving the most enlightened care in that hospital after all.
From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney
Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167