Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Exposed: British PM without socks

The media 'silly season' got off to a pulsating start with fascinating revelations about British Prime Minister David Cameron’s dress sense while on holiday in the Algarve with his wife Samantha and their three children.
At a time of the year when the British tabloids print even dafter rubbish than usual, The Sun ran the headline: “David Cameron kicks off hols with another fashion mishap.” The paper went on to report: “Strolling around the stalls at the Aljezur market on the Algarve, Samantha looked immaculate in an elegant green dress. In contrast, the PM, who’s become known for his holiday fashion mishaps, was so keen to wear his new shirt he forgot to iron out the creases from its packaging.”
The bit about the ironing was an exclusive. The other papers missed it. Most went so far as to acknowledge that the light denim shirt and knee-length shorts were a big improvement on his past holiday outfits.
“Through no fault of our own, summer dressing isn't something that comes naturally to us Brits,” admitted The Sun.
The Daily Mail noticed that “Cameron appeared slightly awkward in his holiday garb, but at least he’s not wearing those black work shoes again.”
To the Mail’s relief,  during his visit to the Aljezur market “Mr Cameron sported a pair of brown loafers (without any socks).” 
The paper reminded us that last year, the Prime Minister was ridiculed by fashion watchers for wearing dark cotton trousers and smart black work shoes during a family break to Majorca. After coming in for criticism for his stuffy holiday outfits in the past, his Algarve attire was certainly “a step in the right direction.”
The Daily Telegraph was the most effusive of the lot. “David Cameron listens to fashion critics on holiday wardrobe choices,” it trumpeted. It is no less than one would expect from a good Tory newspaper, of course.
News that the Camerons, like so many other budget-conscious tourists, had chosen to fly to Faro with Easyjet was wonderful publicity for the low-cost airline and for the flagging Algarve tourist industry, but one wonders what Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary made of it.
A press photo opportunity had been laid on for the media the day after the Camerons’ arrival. David and Samantha duly turned up casually dressed to be snapped ambling around Aljezur market having a look at a range of seafood.
Surprisingly, they decided to buy some fresh squid. The Portuguese regard squid as a delicacy, but ‘yuck!’ most Brits turn their noses up at it. The photos suggested the Camerons’ were not all that keen but decided it was a polite gesture to the host country to give it a go.
With the cameramen suitably placated, the Camerons drove back to their holiday retreat in the hills of Monchique where any further media intrusion was discouraged by round-the-clock security provided by police from both the Portuguese PSP and Scotland Yard.
Subsequent enquiries have failed to reveal whether the Camerons enjoyed their squid, if Samantha got around to ironing David’s shirt, or indeed what style of underpants he prefers.
In the interests of political transparency, I think we should be told. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Crises, climate changes and calamities

Economic chaos, political scandals, social violence, revolutions and wars punctuated by natural disasters sparked by extreme weather conditions dominate the headlines across the world in the second decade of the 21st century.
So what’s new?
We tend to think we live in unique times, but the world has seen it all before. This fact is vividly portrayed in considerable detail by the distinguished British historian Geoffrey Parker in his latest book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century.
The big events during the unprecedented global crisis back then included the Thirty Years War in Europe, civil war in England, massacres in North America, the cruelty of the Inquisition, expansion of the African slave trade and devastating bubonic plagues.
There are plenty of modern parallels, such as 34 years of war in Afghanistan, civil war in Syria, massacres in Africa, extraordinary rendition and torture in the ‘war on terrorism’, international human trafficking and HIV/AIDS.
At this time four centuries ago Portugal was under Spanish rule, but some would argue that this was less harmful than being a member of the eurozone and succumbing to the Brussels-based ‘Troika’.
There is a familiar ring today to the 17th century Ottoman historian Haji Khalifa’s description of his homeland as being “sick because of corruption, high taxation and oppression of the masses.”
Fairly sophisticated printing presses back then facilitated the spread of opinion from other critical thinkers such as Galileo and Isaac Newton, though not with the same efficiently that all and sundry can now air their views via social media.
The early 17th century was the so-called Age of Reason, precursor of the Age of Enlightenment. Whatever became of it? Much of the world in the early 21st century is still steeped in mythology and superstition.
Compared with troubled countries with much longer histories, such as Egypt and Greece, Portugal still remains relatively calm and organised, but there is no end in sight to the simmering economic, social and political turmoil here.
And then there is the added danger of climate change.
Life in the 17th century was made worse not by global warming but by global cooling. Longer and harsher winters followed by cooler and wetter summers disrupted growing seasons. Famine, malnutrition and disease wiped out an estimated one third of the world’s population.
Geoffrey Parker, a professor of history at Ohio State University, and a fellow of the British Academy, the Spanish-American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Cadiz) and the Royal Academy of History (Madrid), has brought a new perspective to our understanding of economic, social and political upheavals.
According to his publisher, Yale University Press, “Parker’s demonstration of the link between climate change and worldwide catastrophe 350 years ago stands as an extraordinary historical achievement. And the contemporary implications of his study are equally important: are we at all prepared today for the catastrophes that climate change could bring tomorrow?”
From Portugal’s standpoint, the answer must surely be ‘no’.  You don’t have to be a merchant of doom to realise that history suggests Portugal could be facing mayhem.
A few Portuguese academics have warned, for example, that in the decades ahead global warming is likely to greatly deplete water resources, perhaps with a devastating impact on tourism, agriculture and other primary sources of revenue in southern Portugal.
Do such things enter the mindset of today’s decision-makers in Lisbon? Fixated on austerity measures that aren’t working and the possibility of needing a second bailout, most of them can probably think no further ahead than the next visit by Troika assessors in a few weeks time.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Wine corks set to make a comeback

Good news for the wildlife in Portugal’s cork oak forests, for everyone working in the country’s cork industry and for those of us who are fed up with corkscrews.
In the international wine market, the use of screw caps has soared in recent years to the detriment of cork stoppers. The consequences looked dire for Portugal, which produces half of the cork harvested annually in the world. Much of the best quality is harvested between May and the end of August in the Algarve.
A heavy sigh of relief followed the unveiling at the International Vinexpo wine fair in Bordeaux last month of a remarkably simple invention.
So far, revelations about the new “twist-to-open” Helix wine cork have been generally well received. They will “revolutionise the world of corks,” according to the Portuguese weekly Expresso.
“Just when you thought that mankind’s genius could go no further, four years of research has given birth to a new apex in cork innovation,” reported in an article headlined, “They've invented a twist-off wine cork and life will never be the same.”
“Hurrah!” shouted the Huffington Post, adding that the unveiling begged the question - “why has it taken so long?”
The Portuguese cork producer Amorim and the US glass container manufacturer O-I, described their joint concept as “a high performing and sophisticated wine packaging solution.” The response during tests with connoisseurs has been “overwhelmingly positive,” they say, adding that market research shows that 94% of consumers in the US and 90% in France prefer cork stoppers.
In essence, a thread finish on both cork and bottle make opening and closing a Helix stopper as easy as winding a screw cap. Corkscrews will simply become museum pieces.
Crucially to traditionalists - and despite all the talk of innovation - Helix corks ‘pop’ in the same way as the old–fashioned ones.
Noting that cork grows on trees and so “fits with wine's earthiness,” the BBC’s News Magazine commented: “A scientist might talk about the explosive pop of a wine cork in terms of pressure or elasticity. But for wine lovers, the distinctive creak and pop means something good is happening. It triggers associations - social intimacy, relaxation, nuanced aromas, celebration - that go far beyond just a slug of alcohol.”
One of the big claims of screw caps was they did not allow ‘cork taint.’ Well, neither do Helix twisters. The results of extensive testing showed “no alteration in terms of taste, aroma or colour,” say the makers.
They also point to Helix’s ‘green’ credentials. Legally controlled cork harvesting involves harmlessly stripping only part of the outer bark of cork oak trees once every nine years. Glass bottles, of course, are easily recycled.
“We are delighted to offer the market not only a 100% renewable, modern product, but also a solution that enhances the wine drinking experience through opening and resealing convenience,” says António Amorim, chairman and CEO of the Amorim group.
Founded in 1870 and based near Oporto, Amorim is the world’s largest manufacturer of cork stoppers, supplying more than 15,000 customers across 82 countries, through a network of fully owned subsidiaries in every wine market around the world.
O-I stands for Owens-Illinois, Inc., the world's largest glass container manufacturer with revenues last year of $7.0 billion. Headquartered in Perrysburg, Ohio, it employs 22,500 people at 79 plants in 21 countries.
In an era in which almost everyone seems to be in rowdy conflict over almost everything, it is refreshing to hear that “the future of innovation is through collaboration.” So says O-I’s European president Erik Bouts. “Helix is a proven example of what can be achieved for consumers and the wine trade when the world’s leading companies in glass packaging and cork work together.”
A word of warning though: don’t throw away your corkscrew just yet. Helix corks may not be widely available for a year or two. 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A rare exhibition by artist Colin Figue

  Colin Figue, an outstanding artist of international repute who has lived in the Algarve for nearly four decades, is soon to hold his first public exhibition here since 1989.
While best known for large abstract sculptures in marble, his month-long exhibition opening 20th July in the Galeria Santo António, Monchique, will feature paintings and welded iron sculptures.
The Monchique display will be a rare opportunity for those who have not had the pleasure of visiting Figue’s private studio and sculpture garden near Carvoeiro. 
It was while studying at the School of Sculpture in the Royal Academy of Art in London in the 1960s that Figue began to feel a sense of vocation and what sculpture could be.
He describes it now as “the feeling that life was infinitely more meaningful and profound than it appeared on the surface, that everything was somehow connected, the inner space of the mind, dream and reflection fusing with the world at large and the boundless mystery of space and time. 
“Men were landing on the moon and challenging our preconceptions. It seemed that making sculpture could be like trying to split the atom, a continual voyage of exploration and discovery. I bought a magnifying glass and started to look more closely at things and to discover forgotten links already written in stone.”
Private patronage allowed him to travel, study and create in Spain and Brazil as well in England. Through his retired parents who were then living in the Algarve, he discovered the quality of light and other special features still so appreciated by artists here today.
His love of southern Portugal was enhanced in 1974 when the already well-established Irish painter and author Patrick Swift of Porches Pottery fame encouraged him to come and work here.
During many of his post-Royal Academy adventures, Figue was accompanied by his girlfriend, later his wife, Mort, a painter and ceramic artist. In 1977 and again in 1979, the British Council awarded them both scholarships that gave the opportunity of working in the marble quarries of the Alentejo. It was there that he produced his first large-scale sculptures.
Since setting up home and studio near Carvoeiro he has interspersed long periods of secluded creativity with trips abroad to explore foreign cultures and to participate in international symposiums in places as diverse as China, Guatemala, Dubai, Turkey, Korea, Morocco and Germany. He is represented with sculptures in public collections in countries such as Belize, France, Italy, Slovakia, Japan, Taiwan, India and Lebanon.
Meeting other artists abroad has “mitigated the fact that I chose the edge of Europe as my home base. It has taken me out of cultural isolation,” he says.
 “Harmonious, timeless, perfect, the sculptures of Colin Figue are rooted in the classical tradition,” wrote the English painter Richard Caston in previewing a retrospective exhibition of his work at the British Council in Lisbon in 1994. Caston described Figue, who has the distinction of being an elected member of the Royal Society of British Sculptors, as “first and foremost a carver of stone, one of the finest working today.”
A very different side of his work will be on show in Monchique. “A few of the paintings  date back to the mid-nineties and were fired up by my first visit to India in 1995,” he says. “I was overwhelmed by the brilliance of light and colour there and the way they are used in acts of celebration and devotion. Back in my studio I searched for a palette and began to experiment with oils and acrylics and a mix of media.
“The iron pieces are from 2004. In contrast to my usual choice of stone as material for sculpture, these works are like three dimensional drawings, projections into space that cast  changing shadows suggesting cyclic motion and the passage of time.”
Having turned 70 this year, Figue says he is slowing down in some respects. “I am spending more time painting, but with the same sense of purpose and conviction and wonder at the universe we inhabit that I felt as a student.”

* The Galeria Santo António is opposite the post office and near the market in central Monchique. The  exhibition opens at 8.0pm on 20th July. It will run until 21st August, Tuesdays to Sundays 10.0am-12.20pm, 3.30pm-7.0pm. The iron sculptures will remain on show until 20th October.
Anyone wishing to visit Figue’s studio and sculpture garden at Chamuscas, Estrada de Benagil, Lagoa, can either drop by with the chance of finding him at home, or call to make an appointment: 282 341628.

Artist’s website:

Friday, July 5, 2013

The woman at the centre of the storm

No sooner had she been appointed minister of finance than the most senior woman in the Portuguese cabinet found herself at the heart of a political eruption that threatened to bring down the government and derail the bailout recovery process.
Less than 24 hours after the surprise resignation of Minister of Finance Vitor Gaspar, the foreign minister and leader of the junior party in the governing coalition, Paulo Portas, announced he was resigning too.  Real fears of a dramatic government collapse threw European financial markets into turmoil.
Gaspar had had enough of the persistent opposition to his efforts to get the country out of its financial and economic mess.
The reported pretext for Portas quitting was the appointment of Treasury Secretary Maria Luis Albuquerque as Gaspar’s successor.
So who is this previously little-known woman, pictured right, who suddenly found herself in such a pivotal role in the country’s future?
First of all, she is one of a substantial gender minority in the Portuguese parliament. Two years ago, MPs elected Assunção Esteves as the first-ever female Speaker in a parliament in which men outnumbered woman 168 to 62.
Portugal currently ranks 32nd in the world parliamentary gender equality rankings. That is only a little better than Afghanistan, but much better than the United Kingdom, and very much better than Ireland or the United States
Born in Braga in 1967, Albuquerque spent six of her school years in Mozambique. After graduating in economics in Lisbon, she went on to specialise and gain a master's degree in monetary and financial economics.
Having worked in both academia and in public service, in 2011 she became the first secretary of state at the Treasury. As such, she strongly supported the polices of Gaspar to meet the bailout targets. Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho deemed her to be the best person to continue at the helm of the government’s programme to avoid bankruptcy.
While little known to the general public, Albuquerque, 46, is a familiar face to members of the ECB, EU and IMF ‘Troika’. The Financial Times quoted a senior EU official as saying: “She’s got a strong grasp of economic policy and has been a key figure as state secretary through tough times.” The official added that Gaspar’s tenure came “during the most challenging circumstances, which always consumes political capital.”
Whatever Portas’ objection to Albuquerque and the likelihood that she was intent on continuing severe and highly unpopular austerity measures, “a viable solution” seems to have been sorted. “A formula was found to maintain government stability,” Passos Coelho said on Thursday after a series of crisis meetings.
It had been a close call. The opposition had already proposed a general election to coincide with local voting scheduled for September 29. The prophets of doom were warning that on top of the troubles in Greece, Spain, Cyprus, Italy, Slovenia and Ireland, Portugal could be forced to ask for another bailout loan or even forced out of the eurozone.

For Maria Luis Albuquerque, married to a journalist and with three children including twins, life at home may not be quite the same for the foreseeable future. With a summer of discontent looming across Europe, and temperatures in Portugal this weekend forecast to soar to more than 40ºC, relaxing by the pool or sunbathing on the beach will probably not be an option.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Bad to worse: yet another crisis looms

In the swings and roundabouts of public life in Portugal, the on-going economic crisis has produced another political one.
If the present government collapses, which suddenly looks likely, there is no guarantee that an alternative one will fare any better. The country is in turmoil.
As of today in a fast changing scenario, President Aníbal Cavaco Silva is challenged with brokering a deal that will hold the government together and avert the need for another snap election.
The last Socialist government of José Sócrates was forced to quit in 2011 when all opposition parties rejected proposed spending cuts and tax increases as too excessive.
Opposition parties are levelling the same criticism against the current, highly unpopular centre-right government of Pedro Passos Coelho. Unlike Soctares’ minority government, Passos Coelho's coalition looked secure because it had a comfortable majority in parliament.
Even during last week’s general strike and anti-austerity demonstrations, there seemed little likelihood of the government collapsing. But a week is a long time in politics....
Everything suddenly changed with the resignation of Paulo Portas, foreign minister and leader of the coalition’s junior partner, the right-wing CDS-PP party. It came less than 24 hours after Vitor Gaspar resigned as finance minister. Two other coalition ministers are reportedly set to follow. Without the coalition, the government loses its majority.
In a hastily called TV address to the nation, Passos Coelho (right) vowed to fight on. "With me, the country will not choose political, economic and social collapse. There is a lot of work to be done and we have to reap the fruit of what we sowed with so much effort,” he said.
A new election, two years earlier than scheduled, may be the only option open. It would almost certainly return the centre-left Socialists to power, but again probably without a majority.
The other two parties – the Communists and the Left Bloc – are unlikely to do any deals with the Socialists, say analysts, meaning that the next government will again need CDS-PP support.
Amid all the disarray, share prices tumbled and bond yields soared. Meanwhile, hanging in the balance is Portugal’s commitment to the terms of its €78 billion bailout. ‘Troika’ representatives are due to start their next review of the economy in Lisbon on July 15.
The latest developments fuelled concerns in the national and international press. The Spanish daily El País said Portugal was slipping “into the unknown.” The French Le Monde noted that Portugal could be "facing the failure” of its rigorous economic policies. The Guardian reported on Wednesday that “World markets have fallen sharply today and Portuguese government borrowing costs have soared as the political crisis in Lisbon threatens to bring down its government, inflaming the eurozone crisis again.”
The New York Times commented: “"Political unrest in the coalition government of Portugal rekindles tensions growing in many European countries on expenditure cuts and other austerity measures that are being blamed for a series of recessions and record unemployment rates in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal.”
Among the few optimistic voices around is that of Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the eurozone’s finance ministers. “I do not expect any problems with Portugal, first because I believe that the political situation will stabilise, and secondly because the phasing and timing of Portugal’s programme [of EU financial assistance and reforms] is proceeding well,” he said in response to the latest events.