Perhaps winter is nearly over. Perhaps not. It’s not easy to tell in Britain, or anywhere in Europe for that matter. January seems to go on for an extraordinarily long time, followed by February, with its treacherous glimmers of spring, quickly and cruelly cancelled. It lifts the spirits to get away at this time of year.

It is some time since Anne and I visited mainland Spain; I think it was to Palafrugell on the Costa Brava. So it was delightful to be invited by friends to spend a week with them in Moraira, in the province of Alicante.

A brave soul ventures into the sea at El Portet, Moraira

Between Moraira and Alicante lies, or rather stands, Benidorm, a resort so monstrous that it has become celebrated for its monstrousness: a Manhattan of a pleasure park on the Costa Blanca dedicated to everything that makes your average Brit feel at home when he’s away: curry, fish and chips, kebabs, familiar brands of beer, but cheaper – with the added attraction of guaranteed roasting sunshine. And it is worth seeing from the safety of a bus. Not that I am a snob, I hasten to add. In any case, the things that used to make it stick out like a sore thumb are no longer peculiarly British. Pizza, happy hour pints, fish and chips, and even our take on Indian cuisine, can be found all across Europe. I’ve no objection to any of those things. It is the tourists, or at least some of them, that I deplore. 

I confess, I am an awful snob

On the flight from Gatwick (BA, I’ll have you know) we were obliged to sit a couple of rows behind three gels of a certain age who got progressively pissed, and thought we all ought to join in their fun. We must be the scruffiest, most boorish and ignorant nation in Europe. I am no prude but it is embarrassing.

But Moraira is nothing like Benidorm. It is a rather attractive resort straddling a series of sandy bays, though the (mainly Dutch) tourists easily outnumber the resident Spaniards, even in February. Behind the town are substantial mountains with pretty villages, almond and citrus groves, and waterfalls. There are interesting excursions to be had, but basically it is about sun, sea and sand.

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Alicante (Alacant in Valencian-Catalan) itself is exactly the sort of town I like to visit: not too big, with a good selection of bars and restaurants in the old quarter, a beach, a castle and an art gallery. How could you fail to enjoy a weekend in a place like that?

The Spanish attitude to life is immediately obvious to visitors from northern Europe, and even from France. Even when at work they seem to be enjoying life to the full. They communicate, they smile and laugh. And they want to help you to enjoy your life too. I have witnessed that mentality wherever I’ve travelled in Spain over the last 50 years. Only the Greeks can rival them for joie de vivre. The sun helps, of course, but it’s more than that. Different generations mix together, and get on. Teenagers are less surly. Spaniards like a drink but don’t feel the continual need to get legless, as if trying to escape the boredom of everyday existence. But of course that is just my impression. Spaniards may see it otherwise…

Back to London, then to Wirral to see Mum, then to France

I know, it’s alright for some and I won’t argue with you. But if you are retired and have a holiday cottage in France why stay in chilly London if you have the opportunity to spend more time away? And spend less money on central heating?

Going to La Bréchoire is not just about enjoying winter sun, though that is always welcome. It is about seeing people who have become friends, about doing different things, about walking in the countryside and encountering roe deer, hares, buzzing bees, drumming woodpeckers and flocks of cranes squawking overhead. I even saw an earthworm.

Walking in the woods near La Bréchoire

The weather in February followed the same pattern as during our previous visit in November. It started off cold at night, and hot and sunny during the day. As in Alicante, when you could walk around in T-shirt and shorts and have your meals outdoors. After a week, the days became cooler and overcast until, at last, came a day of steady, unrelenting rain. But it was only for a day or two. It’s going to get even colder, but not wetter. And this is where the depressing part of this blog begins.

The sad reality is that France is suffering a drought

Until a few days ago it had not rained in Charente for 31 consective days. Lovely for visitors, but a terrible concern for farmers. Whilst the vines will happily survive, cereal crops cannot thrive unless the weather changes very soon. Other regions are even more seriously affected. And not just in France.

A couple of nights ago I saw a television report about the canals of Venice drying out. In the middle of winter! And now we are starting to see food shortages in the shops. There is yet another bird flu epidemic. In France there has been a sugar shortage owing to the failure of the sugarbeet crop. Last summer it was mustard that was off the shelves. When there are tomatoes (from southern Spain or Morocco) they are expensive and not very good. Of course, we can manage without tomatoes for a bit longer. But the signs are ominous.

In the UK it’s even worse: supermarkets have started rationing certain fruits and vegetables. Whilst it’s not all down to Brexit, it doesn’t help.

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Whilst Covid-19 seems to have faded into “normality”, there is always a new crisis around the corner. The earthquake that killed over 50,000 people in Turkey and Syria is already – perhaps shamelessly – hardly mentioned on TV. Memories fade quickly. We know that’s how the news media work, but if you are any sort of a human being it will affect your state of mind. If you are not anxious, you really ought to be, because we are going through dreadful times.

The last thing we need is a war in Europe

But the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine has now been with us for a year. Another 100,000 – perhaps 200,000 – people killed. Who can guess the final total? It is clear that Putin and his cronies will never back down, so where will that lead us?

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I have an inexplicable love for Russian art, music and literature. On BBC Radio 4 this week I’ve been listening to readings in English of Pushkin’s novel in verse, Eugene Onegin. Spoiler alert: Onegin kills his friend in a duel and throws away the opportunity of happiness with his true love because he is corrupted, at a young age, into believing that his selfishness, cynicism and vanity are clever, and even admirable. At least Pushkin, still revered in Russia, was around to tell his fellow citizens what that leads to. Onegin could have been a contented man, bringing happiness to others.

Recommended read

To try to understand how Russia has turned into the cynical mafia state it is today, I’ve been reading Nothing is True and Everything is Possible published in 2014 by Kyiv-born, London-based, Peter Pomerantsev. As publisher Faber & Faber says, “This is a world erupting with new money and new power […] where identities can be switched and all values are changeable”. Post-truth…

The reality is that it is not only Russians who believe that everything they hear is just PR, that all governments are as bad as each other, and that black can become white at the flick of a switch. Can we ever trust the police again? Are the most successful politicians invariably liars, hypocrites and charlatans? Were we hopelessly naive to ever think otherwise?

Social media, once a sign of a democratic society, has become a mire of disinformation, conspiracy theories and cruelty. People find so-called evidence to support what they feel they already know to be true. It is not what we hoped it would become.

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This new hyper-cynicism is as depressing to me as the irrefutable (you’d think!) evidence of disastrous climate change, pointless and tragic wars, personal problems of illness, ageing and loss of friends and family.

I’m sitting in France knowing that I am fortunate to have a good life, but I can’t shift the anxiety. Carpe diem by all means but try not to disengage. If we lose our ability to distinguish between science and nonsense, rationality and emotion, and right and wrong – and to care – we are in big trouble.

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