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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​For the Love of Paper

For the Love of Paper

“The UK’s National Health Service still relies on archaic fax machines” screamed the headlines this week. Oh well, I guess it makes a change from Brexit and Trump’s controversial visit to the UK. Even so, I couldn’t really see the problem, although I was supposed to be shocked when the article declared that a recent survey revealed that around 9000 fax machines are in use across England, with the Newcastle Upon Tyne Health Authority being the worst culprit with around 600 machines in daily use. Such horror!

I guess the reader was supposed to read between the lines that patients are at risk because of the use of this ‘outdated technology’, and of course the opportunity was used, as usual, to blame the funding crisis for ‘the problem’. “This is ludicrous,” screamed one senior surgeon, “The NHS cannot rely on technology that most other organisations scrapped in the early 2000s”. Clearly, this esteemed surgeon has little knowledge of life in Spain, where the humble fax machine is still used and revered by most hospitals, surgeries, banks, local authorities and businesses.

When we moved to Spain, we were given several pieces of helpful advice from other expats. One of these pieces of advice was to “buy a fax machine” or at least to make sure that we had ready access to one. This piece of advice was invaluable and is still highly relevant. Over the last few months, I recall several occasions when I have been asked to fax a document to a bank, the customs office or local authority department. Indeed, my new mobile phone operator asked for a copy of my residency document to be faxed to them only the other day. Fax machines in Spain are still heavily used, valued and trusted. This is not to say that emailing documents is not possible, in most cases it is, but the Spanish have an ongoing love affair with paper and the fax machine fits the bill nicely.

The Spanish love affair with paper is to blame, of course. Despite the wonders of modern technology, the country still relies heavily upon paper records. I was recently persuaded to change my credit card, which I thought would be a simple process, since it was to be issued by the same bank branch that I have used for many years. The process was indeed simple, and all I had to do was to provide an electronic signature. I made a comment to the bank clerk that this was so much easier than on previous occasions when I had left the bank with a handful of paper. He smiled knowingly and wandered over to his combined fax/printer, which was busily churning out continuous streams of paper. He gathered a handful and asked me to initial the fifteen pages before stamping each sheet with a momentary glint of pleasure and passing them to me. Hmm, so much for the use of technology I thought, as I left the bank clutching yet another handful of paper. Some things never change over here.

In Spain, the fax machine fits seamlessly into the love of paper that nothing else can replace. What can be more pleasurable that stuffing an important document into one machine and pressing a button, for it to appear out of another fax machine some distance away as if by magic. I have to admit that I also still enjoy the process and find it more reliable than battling with emails that may or may not be sent, or sorting out a computer virus, or whatever else should infect my laptop. A fax machine works, just as long as you load it up with paper and remember to top it up with ink and speak to it kindly. Yes, I know, it may jam occasionally, but we are not after perfection, are we?

Do I still use a fax machine? Well, yes and no. Our old fax machine died long ago and I now use an app on my smartphone that does the job nicely. However, I must admit that I do miss the physical process of sending and receiving a fax, knowing that it had been sent and receiving an automatic confirmation of receipt. What’s not to like?

So, to those who bore us senseless about the ‘digital revolution’ and criticise the NHS for not scrapping their fax machines, I suggest the old adage that ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ may be relevant here. Many hospitals and GP surgeries may be quite content with this “outdated technology”. Maybe it offers the security and reliability that emails, WhatsApp and Snapchat cannot provide. Oh, by the way, did I mention that the NHS is also being criticised for using that most antiquated of all technologies known as ‘pagers’!

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​There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

I winced when I read an account of a recent Garden Party hosted by the British Ambassador to Spain at his residence in Madrid in honour of the Queen’s birthday. The party was sponsored by a health insurer, an oil company, several banks, an accountancy firm and a communications company to name just a few. Products consumed at the party were supplied by a maker of pink gin, an ice cream manufacturer, a health insurer, an oil company, a restaurant chain, a producer of tonic water, fish from a Northern Ireland cooperative, a meat processor and a brewery. It made me wonder if the British Government (the taxpayer) had actually paid for anything; some will say that this is the point.

We are told that times are hard and the effects of the recession are still with us, but have you noticed that there always seems to be enough money around for those prestige projects? Then, of course, there is that “Brexit dividend” that we all keep hearing about; surely that would have easily have paid for a glass of cava and a cucumber sandwich without going ‘cap in hand’ to a range of British and Spanish businesses? Yes, I am fully aware of the argument that such events “showcase British drive and ingenuity” at a time when the UK needs to demonstrate to the world that, despite Brexit, it is still open for business, but is this really the way to do it?

I am concerned about the growing sponsorship deals by commercial companies intruding into what should be the business of the state. Surely, we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything comes with a price tag and purpose, albeit often hidden. By accepting sponsorship of such events there is an assumption that the products and services provided by a company are endorsed and recommended by government and its agencies at the expense of others, which should not be the case.

Many years ago, I worked briefly as a civil servant, and it was always made very clear that any interaction between the government and the commercial sector should be at arm’s length to avoid being seen as bias in favour of one company at the expense of another. Over the years, we have seen considerable erosion of such lofty principles, with blurring and, indeed, merging of commercial and government business.

A few days ago, the British Consulate asked if I could help to publicise an event for expats on the island. Ostensibly, it was to be about Brexit, which I am sure would be very helpful for those expats who have not yet left the island in a bid to escape the summer heat. It was only when I checked on Facebook, that I noticed that it was to be sponsored by a currency exchange company, albeit with a free drink and tapas. I realised that, once again, such sponsorship is potentially more about promoting the commercial activities of a business, rather than unbiased information for expats. I am aware of similar events for expats sponsored by a group of financial advisors; there is probably a chain of fish and chip restaurants and an online bookies already lined up to sponsor future events.

By allowing a private company to advertise and promote an event under the auspices of the British Consul, there is an implication that the UK Government endorses their services. The currency exchange company is probably staffed by perfectly splendid and honourable people with lofty company ideals, although I note that their exchange rates are nowhere near as advantageous as those that I currently get from two rival companies, who I guess were not asked to sponsor this event. As they say, there is no such thing as free tapas, which is probably the reason why their exchange rate is not as good as it could be.

No doubt my cynicism will be rewarded with a sharp exchange of views justifying commercial sponsorship of the event on the grounds of the shrinking size of Foreign Office coffers. Despite this, I know that I am not alone in being concerned about the blurring of commercial interests and the public good. I can only imagine what my superiors in the civil service department that I worked for would have to say about that.

I have considerable admiration for the work of the Foreign Office, its embassies and consulates in its protection, advice and support for UK travellers, businesses and expats around the world. Much of its professionalism has been based upon impartiality, and an insistence upon being seen to do the right thing. Might I suggest a move away from freebies provided by commercial companies and instead to continue to focus with integrity upon providing unbiased advice and support to UK citizens and businesses during this disturbing period of Brexit fudge. The implied endorsement of a particular commercial activity is not the business of government and is certainly not the business of the Foreign Office and its consular services.


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​Calima - Gone With the Wind

Calima - Gone With the Wind

Expats in Spain and the Canary Islands will often hear the words “Oh, it’s just a calima” trotted out whenever it is a little cloudy or there is annoying dust in the air. In reality, it is not quite as simple as that, and the true calima is something to be celebrated, as well as to curse, particularly if you suffer from breathing conditions and respiratory allergies.

In the Canary Islands, the calima is often referred to as “Bruma Seca”, which is “Dry Fog”. It appears for up to ten times each year for a day or two, but in the worst cases, can be present for a week, or even longer. People with respiratory problems and allergies often suffer considerably during these periods. It is a time when sensible people try to stay indoors or wear a face mask when going outside for any length of time if they suffer from breathing conditions.

Calimas are usually, but not always, accompanied by very hot winds, and humidity levels increase. Residents are plagued with reddish dust on their patios and cars, which also invades every crevice of their homes. A calima occurs when dust from the Sahara Desert is dragged across landmass by strong winds. Dust can remain suspended for hours and even days; visibility is reduced and the air becomes cloudy as a result of the dust.

The Canary Islands are often regarded as having the “best climate in the world”, but we are not immune from the devastating effects of calimas. The intensity of heat on the islands increases respiratory problems and allergies, as well as general oral health. The tiny particles of dust generated irritates the mucous membranes, which can have serious implications for oral health. Often, as a result of taking antihistamines to control allergies, the immune system fills the hollows of our head with mucus. The cavities that are located above the mouth cause pain and greater sensitivity to cold and heat when filled with mucus, because of increased pressure upon the upper teeth.

Calimas are not all bad, since the Central Sahara was a lake in prehistoric times. The dry sand contains fertile remains of its once rich, organic particles. These nitrogen-rich components within a calima help to fertilise the Atlantic Ocean by promoting the growth of phytoplankton, which forms the basis of the food chain that allows all sea creatures to survive and thrive. Climate change scientists believe that the greenhouse effect is minimised, because the sea’s micro-organisms absorb harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In other words, the more phytoplankton in the sea, the less carbon dioxide in the air. However, it is a delicate balance and too much dust in the Atlantic could create too much plankton and areas of low oxygen, which is not so good.

According to researchers, calima dust from the Sahara also helps to feed plants in the Amazon, since it acts as a fertiliser, which helps the rain forest to grow and thrive. There are also other complex interactions linking calimas to events that we do not yet fully understand. Some studies claim that the damage of hurricanes is reduced due to the effect of calimas cooling the water temperature that is needed for hurricanes to build. Around one third of the natural soils that make up the Canary Islands are based upon Saharan dust that has dropped on the islands over millennia. The rich, fertile soils on these islands have been enriched through the effects of the calima.

Many suffer from the health effects of the calima, or complain about the dust that has landed on their patios and cars. Maybe we should instead be grateful that it is feeding the luscious plants in the Amazon rain forest, fertilising the Atlantic Ocean for sea creatures to survive, as well as reducing the greenhouse effect that has such serious implications for us all.


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