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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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Avoid the Doctor, Eat Honey

Avoid the Doctor, Eat Honey

We will soon be heading into the season of coughs, colds and flu once again, together with the misery that such conditions bring. In most cases, these illnesses are relatively short-lived, but can be unpleasant, inconvenient and annoying, and also serious in cases where there are underlying health conditions.

Coughs are mostly caused by a cold or flu virus, or bronchitis, and will usually last for around three weeks. Antibiotics make very little difference to symptoms and can have unpleasant side-effects. More importantly, unnecessary prescriptions reduce their effectiveness.As a child, whenever I had a cough or cold, the first thing that my mother would do was to give me a regular concoction of blackcurrant juice and honey to drink. It was a very comforting drink and certainly helped to reduce symptoms. In adult life, I continue to follow this advice, although with the addition of a large tot of whisky for good measure. It is the honey that is the magic ingredient, because it is a natural antibiotic. Doctors in the UK are now asking their patients to eat honey before visiting their local surgery if they have a cough or cold. It is all part of a growing effort to tackle the problem of resistance to antibiotics. Of course, to benefit from honey we must also have bees.

In recent years, there has been considerable hybridisation of bee species with the importation of bees to the Canary Islands that were supposed to be more productive. The native Canary Black Bee is now officially declared to be a breed in danger of extinction. It was only on the small Canary Island of La Palma that pure populations were discovered, and in 2001 a law to conserve the Canary Black Bee population was introduced, and the introduction of foreign subspecies was banned. There are now at least 500 colonies of the Canary Black Bee on the island, which are resistant to many diseases that many bees succumb to. This native bee has very specific characteristics that make it highly productive, gentle and is unlikely to attack others. In Gran Canaria, the Government recently announced that they too were not only going to give special protection to the Canary Black Bee, but to ensure its distinctive survival by selecting a group of island beekeepers who will help to ensure that its genetic purity lives on.

Bees are very important for our very survival; the simple headline fact is that if bees didn’t exist, neither would humans. Bees are responsible for much of the food that we eat, since they keep plants and crops alive. One surprising fact is that around one third of the food that we eat is pollinated by bees.Bees do not pollinate our crops out of a sense of duty to the human race; they simply eat to survive. They absorb the protein that they need from pollen and all of the carbohydrates that they need from nectar. Bees feed from flowers, and as they move from flower to flower they just happen to provide an essential service to humans.

Pesticides appear be the main cause of the problem, although some experts also attribute some of the collapse of the bee population to climate change, the loss of their usual habitat and attacks from a variety of parasites. Popular pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which is similar to nicotine, cause bees to go insane and to abandon their hives; they don’t know how to return home and some experts claim that they develop a form of Alzheimer’s. Maybe this disturbing link with nicotine-based products that attack bees should give a serious warning to human smokers too.

Climate change also can take its fair share of blame with the disruption of the natural synchronisation of bee hibernation and flower opening, which causes bees to die. Despite this gloomy scenario, some positive steps are being made to help to rebuild and sustain bee populations. Measures to address the problem are being taken in a number of countries. Strategies include funding to help farmers to establish new habitats for bee populations, alternatives to nicotine-based pesticides, as well as support from bee keepers, such as those in La Palma and Gran Canaria who are determined to maintain the viability of the species.

In order to prepare for the forthcoming season of coughs and colds, do take my mother’s advice and remember to include a jar of Canarian honey in your shopping basket. It is not only delicious, but it really does help.

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© Barrie Mahoney

Getting to Know a Lizard

Getting to Know a Lizard

She rested silently on the dry, stone wall watching me with her black eyes, studying my every move with careful precision. Her slender body soaking up every ray of the brilliant, warming sun. The long tongue flicked out of her mouth as she savoured every tasty morsel that came her way.

For a lizard, Clemmy is of diminutive size, and I am convinced that she has hardly grown over the three years that I have known her. She only appears on hot, sunny days, when the sun’s rays hit the same spot on the wall of our garden. She usually appears when I am pruning the roses, setting new plants or watering the garden. I talk to her and she appears to listen carefully to my every word; goodness knows what the neighbours think of our conversations. Sometimes, I give Clemmy a small piece of fruit, which she enjoys, and there is always a little water dripping from a tap that needs a new washer, so I know that she does not lack liquid refreshment.

I am not an expert on lizards, so I am unsure as to what species Clemmy is, but these islands are home to some of the most impressive lizards on the planet. It is interesting to know that most of the Canary Islands have their own indigenous species and may best be regarded as a lizard paradise. The islands of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, La Gomera, La Palma and El Hierro are home to some of the largest true lizards on the planet that can grow to around 80 centimetres long, so Clemmy has a very long way to go.

The Giant Gran Canaria Lizard (Gallotia stehleni) is a common sight all over the island if we are quiet and take care to look for them. Lizards are curious, nosey creatures that many visitors and locals simply do not see. Their disguise is superb and they can easily blend into their rocky surroundings. Fortunately, they are a protected species by law and it is illegal to catch or kill lizards. Sadly, giant lizards are either extinct or severely endangered on the other Canary Islands, since they have been heavily hunted over the years by cats and rats and other predators. Sadly, the release of captive snakes in recent years by thoughtless pet owners has led to a reduction in the lizard population, since snakes find lizards to be a tasty addition to their diet.

The Giant Gran Canaria lizard is not to be argued with, since they have a very determined bite if provoked. Although they never attack humans, they do chase and fight their own kind. It is also true that lizards grow new tails if their original one gets damaged or bitten off by a predator.

I am reminded that 14 August is World Lizard Day, and that I have the privilege to share an island with thousands of lizards that have made the islands their home long before man became the imposter in their lives. Lizards, like Clemmy, are the true Canarians and deserve to be free and to roam as they please.

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​It’s a Crazy, Crazy Expat August

It’s a Crazy, Crazy Expat August

The usual August madness has swept across Spain with a vengeance. First of all, it was ‘refreshing’ to see that the reliable Swedish emporium of all things good and wholesome, namely Ikea, haven’t lost their sense of humour in marketing a lavatory brush given the appealing name of ‘Farage’. Sadly, Ikea has since disassociated itself from the toilet brush story and claims it is ‘fake news’, but all is not lost since they are selling a doormat under the name of ‘Borris’, which is the name of a small town in Denmark. It is a great pity about the loo brush though, since I rather like the idea of turning the name ‘Farage’ into a verb and would quite enjoy “faraging” the loo. Forgive me, but I am having an August moment, and I promise that I won’t mention the table (strong and stable) sold under the name of Theresa… Whilst we are on the subject of Ikea, I just wish one could get a decent cup of coffee there and not a mug of luke-warm sludge that appears to have been left over from the weekend. Yes, I know it is cheap, but I really shouldn’t have to strain it through my teeth...

There was the amazing and heart-warming story of the British expat living in Spain (now given the name, ‘Eileen Dover’) who ‘fell off’ a cruise ship during a spin across the Adriatic and spent ten hours in the sea. I will dare to ask the obvious question that BBC reporters carefully omitted from their interview, but everyone really wanted to ask. Was the poor woman so tanked up with gin and tonics that she just slipped off the edge of the ship, or was she pushed? Sorry, it may seem an indelicate question, but I just need to know. In any case, despite thinking that after ten hours bobbing around in the Adriatic she would look rather like a prune, she looked in remarkably good condition and seemed to be very perky when chatting to the press. Maybe I shouldn’t suggest that she looked as if she had returned home after a really good night out with the girls, but I will. Anyway, I am delighted that she was rescued and appears to be making a good recovery from her ordeal. Clearly, she kept well away from sharks.

Some Spanish resorts are so fed up with British holidaymakers that they are posting advertisements and Twitter posts urging tourists to jump off balconies. “Balconing is Fun” the posters declare. Balconing involves jumping into a swimming pool from a hotel or apartment balcony, or climbing from one balcony to another. These sick posters and tweets mock the deaths of tourists engaging in a sport that is apparently growing in popularity amongst some mainly young and impressionable British holidaymakers. This activity often results in an unpleasant death or very serious injury, so is a very unkind way to get the message across.

One tragic incident took place this month when a 20-year-old British holidaymaker tried to “take a poo” over the edge of his balcony before plunging six floors and landing on his head. At the time of writing, the young man remains in a critical condition.

A different approach to unthinking and inebriated holidaymakers is currently being considered by the regional government of the Balearic Islands. The good people of Mallorca, Ibiza and Minorca are so fed up with the chaos that many British tourists bring to their beautiful islands, that they are proposing to ban ‘all inclusive’ drinks, which is a thoughtful alternative to suggesting that holidaymakers jump off their balconies. Maybe this will help to curb Brits from being over enthusiastic drinkers during their holiday? Somehow, I have my doubts that this will work, but it is a kinder alternative.

The story of the elderly British holidaymaker staying in a Benidorm hotel also hit the headlines this month. This holidaymaker did not enjoy her sea, sun and sangria, and reportedly complained that the hotel had too many Spanish holidaymakers staying there and why couldn’t they holiday somewhere else? “I’m not a racist”, she firmly declared. Surprisingly, the tour operator gave her a refund; personally, I would give her a map and point out that Benidorm is in Spain and not the UK. Maybe she had lost her glasses and had planned to holiday in Blackpool instead?

Ryanair also deserves a mention, since an Irish holidaymaker, frustrated following a four-and-a-half-hour delay from Spain, refused to pay for a small tub of Pringles and a bottle of water for his stressed and over tired five-year-old daughter, and was threatened with arrest when they landed. The passenger was entitled to a compensation voucher that would easily have covered the cost of the water and Pringles if he had remembered to collect it from the departure lounge, but he was more concerned about his young daughter. An announcement was made to the entire cabin that police would deal with him upon arrival. The airline rightly commented that they “do not tolerate unruly, disruptive or unlawful behaviour”. Ryanair, please remember to apply this edict on my next Ryanair flight when I am surrounded by abusive and inebriated passengers.

At least EasyJet had the good sense to cancel a flight to Spain at the last minute when they decided that their Belfast crew was too tired to fly to Mallorca. Right, let us all remember that in August, if we are too tired, it is OK not to turn up for work. That goes for doctors, nurses, supermarket staff and hotel receptionists. Clearly, they are sensible people at EasyJet.

There is never a dull moment when watching the Brits at play in Spain during the month of August. Spain is the number one choice for holidays for many Brits and it is easy to see why. The carefree lifestyle, relatively cheap flights and accommodation, easy and cheap access to alcohol and drugs (if you must), beautiful beaches, endless sunshine and friendly locals all add up to a winning combination. The behaviour of Brits on holiday is often hilarious, sometimes embarrassing and occasionally very sad. Soon, August will be over and we can all get back to normal.

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© Barrie Mahoney

​Use It or Lose It

Use It Or Lose It

It was really good to read in the news this week that the Canary Island of Fuerteventura will once again provide a Beach Library at the beach of Los Pozos. It is a simple concept, users can read books and magazines, as well as participating in a range of activities, such as sports and workshops connected to reading. This library will include books in various languages, and readers can even take their book home with them to finish reading. Exciting stuff, isn’t it?

Wait a minute, isn’t this what we used to have in the UK, but admittedly without a view of the beach? Sadly, the last time I visited the UK, my local library had closed and is now a tyre depot. Similarly, many other local libraries are under threat of either closure or have been handed over to well-meaning groups of volunteers who are responsible for maintaining and funding its continued existence.

I have spent most of my working life encouraging children and adults to read, and hopefully nurturing a love of books, as well as teaching how to access relevant information, which has become increasingly important at this time of ‘fake news’. No, I don’t always mean stuffy old print books, but all manner of electronic media, Kindles, e-readers, iPads and the like. When a gift is required, my first inclination and preference is always to give a good book, rather than a stuffed toy or a computer game. Does it really matter? Have I really wasted my time (and money)? Does anyone value books and read for pleasure anymore?

What is happening to all those wonderful (and not so wonderful) buildings that used to be a storehouse of magic and information in the UK? Figures from 2017 show that around 500 libraries have closed in England, Scotland and Wales. Whatever happened to the idea of libraries as information points, which include access to computers, as well as books? Not everyone has access to, or can afford a smartphone or a computer. Knowledgeable and supportive staff are needed to help the elderly, the homeless, and the disadvantaged to access information. One quarter of all library jobs in the UK, which is around 8000 staff, have disappeared over the last few years. I recall the mother of David Cameron, the UK’s previous Prime Minister, campaigning vigorously to keep her local library open; so maybe it does matter.

“Ah yes”, we are told “this is the result of the recession…” During the same period that libraries closed, around 15,000 volunteers were recruited. As well-meaning as volunteers are, they are no longer appointed to assist full-time, professional staff, but to replace them. As well as exploiting the good nature and willingness of volunteers, it devalues the professionalism and dedication of well-trained, professional and experienced library staff. Presumably, the next step will be to replace full time teachers and nurses with well-meaning volunteers?

When a branch of House of Fraser or Marks and Spencer closes, there is a huge outcry and protests at this “hideous distortion of the High Street”, but is there the same outcry and defence of a local library when it is handed over to local volunteers or, worse still, closed? “Oh, we can get it all on line” is the predictable response, but is this true?

A well-run and well-managed library is of tremendous benefit to the whole community. As well as a providing a source of richness and magic, libraries provide easy and ready access to a confusing world of information. I wonder if any reader has applied for the new Universal Credit? I don’t know that much about it, but I do know that there are many who cannot access the information simply because they do not have ready access to a smartphone or a computer. A library with trained and knowledgeable staff on hand to provide help and advice is essential in assisting claimants to negotiate the minefield of this benefit.

Libraries also provide solid defence against the modern scourge of loneliness faced by many elderly, as well as younger people. It is a safe space that offers shared experiences and a chance to be with people, as well as keeping warm during those cold winter days, and without having to spend any money.

If libraries didn’t already exist, we would be busy inventing them. Thankfully, my experiences in Spain’s libraries tell me that they are mostly valued, well used and comparatively well-funded to their UK counterparts. As for that wonderful Beach Library in Fuerteventura; I cannot wait to visit it.

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​The Great Spain Pension Robbery

The Great Spain Pension Robbery

I recently came across many pensioners protesting in the capital city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This protest was just one taking place in a hundred Spanish cities to raise the plight of pensioners in society. In the Canary Islands, hundreds of people took to the streets in La Laguna in Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to ask for support in their ongoing struggle to preserve the public pension system. Pensioners are protesting against the actions of the previous government, and complaining that it had raided the country’s pension funds in order to bail out the Spanish banks during the financial crisis.

Most Spanish pensioners complain that their pensions do not give them enough to live on. Average pensions in Spain are around 1100 euros each month, with the general pension at around 950 euros, which seems generous when compared to UK pensions. Crude comparisons between the two countries are unreliable, since the level of unemployment in Spain continues to be very high, whereas it is very low in the UK. As a result, many Spanish pensioners are responsible for supporting their families, as many of whom continue to live with their parents during troubled financial times. It is within this context that Spanish pensions are seen as necessary to support the wider family and not just a single person or a couple.

Incidents such as this often trigger memories from my childhood, and this encounter was no exception. My memory went back to returning home from primary school one day, and complaining bitterly to my mother about my pocket money. When compared to the amount that my friends told me they received, the amount I was given was miserly and I made my feelings very clear.

Overhearing the fuss that was going on, my elderly grandfather, who was staying with us at the time, quietly took me to one side and asked why I thought I deserved any pocket money at all. I remember giving him a list of reasons, which he carefully listened to, before telling me that he never received any pocket money. His father had died when he was very young and my grandfather had to work from a very young age in order to keep the family together. He remembered the sheer joy and appreciation when he received his very first “Old Age Pension”, as it was called at that time. The pension was five shillings each week, which for many pensioners meant the difference between basic survival or being forced to live in the workhouse. Lecture over, my grandfather patted me on the head, put his hand in his pocket and handed me some coins with his usual comment of “Don’t tell your mother”.

The first non-contributory British pension began in January 1909. The weekly pension was five shillings each week (25 pence) paid to all people over the age of 70, and 7 shillings and sixpence paid to married couples. Five shillings (25p) is about £20 in today's value, but measured by the increase in average earnings it is more like £112, which is less than the current basic state pension of around £130.00 weekly. UK Pensions were kept deliberately low in order to encourage people to make their own provision for old age. In order to be eligible, the applicant had to be of “good character”, earn less than 31 pounds ten shillings a year and have been a UK resident for at least 20 years. There were other conditions too, such as not being convicted of drunkenness, not held in prison or a ‘lunatic asylum’ or habitually out of work; they were harsh times.

Back to the protests in Spain, which were intended to remind everyone that the pensioners’ demands are everyone’s business. These protestors are highlighting the problems faced by pensioners in Spain, such as loss of purchasing power that leaves them feeling helpless. They were also asking for the repeal of reforms in the labour market, which they claim has led to unstable employment opportunities for young people. Government proposals to promote private pension funds are described as privatisation of the public pension system ‘by the back door’.

Looking after the well-being of older people is one of the elements that constitutes a civilised society. Although these issues are within different cultural contexts, the struggles by pensioners in both Spain and the UK have a similar resonance, which is fairness and a desire to be heard.


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