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A bright May morning saw Angelica and I in our favourite city of Cádiz once again. Harvey Fink and I have decided it is probably one of the most beautiful, largely undiscovered, cities in Europe. I had to use his full name there; it’s such a gift for writers. Usually, I spend hours trying to make-up names like Harvey Fink for the surreal characters in my tales. I almost made that very name up once. Dr Finkel appears in Pedersen’s Last Dream. He’s a Norwegian psychiatrist, born of Hungarian Jewish parents. Amazingly enough, Harvey is Canadian, born of Polish Jewish parents. And, he actually won an award to study the harpsichord abroad. You really couldn’t make that up. Now I know, I think my Dr Finkel should have won an award to study the harpsichord abroad. At the Academy of Music in Kishinev, Moldova, perhaps. If I had a publisher, he’d tell me to stop right there, so I won’t as I don’t.
I was in Cádiz to change money, Angelica was there because she can’t resist the place, and Harvey Fink was there because he loves it so much he bought an apartment in the old part of the city, which he now shares with the love of his life Carmen, a painter from Barcelona.
These days banks make customers wanting to change currency feel about as welcome as a homeless person trying to sell soiled underwear to a leading Parisian fashion house. Despite laundering money for drug cartels and tax evaders, banks don’t want any old paper money anymore. You have to be a dodgy politician or an international arms smuggler for them not to sniff at you when besmirching their counters with even lightly used notes. They prefer the virtual stuff they can knock out on keyboards in stratospheric amounts, whenever they feel like it, just by adding lots of noughts.
We went to a branch of Bankia, chiefly known in Spain for one of its former bosses. The rather appropriately named Rodrigo Rato, was arrested just the other week for … well, let’s say on suspicion of money laundering, tax evasion and a host of other financial offences too long to fit on this page. Named by Bloomberg worst CEO of 2012, Rato has a chequered history. In his years as Spain’s Finance Minister he helped nudge the country’s economy towards the freefall, which resulted in making it a prominent member of the PIGS group of European nations, and sent unemployment figures rocketing. A bit of fancy footwork led to him being appointed head of the IMF a couple of years before the crash of 2008. With those two achievements tucked under his belt, it was only natural Rato should jump straight back into the revolving doors of the finance world to emerge as head of Spain’s largest bank, Bankia. By the time he left he had managed to rack up €3 billion in losses, a world record. Not that he took much notice of real figures, presenting his term as resulting in a €309 million profit, just before resigning. Rato is the sort of man who treats losing three billion euros like he must have left it in a pocket, and just needs a couple of minutes to remember where he put his trousers last night. His banker and political pals supported him right up to the moment he had his collar felt, when they all forgot who he was.
You might wonder why I chose that particular bank to service my needs good and proper. It was as much out of a perverse sense of humour as anything. Anyway, they’re all the bloody same, and it was the first one we saw, that’s why.
The financial crisis, I’d been holding onto a small stash of Australian dollars to counter, had dawned. It needed converting. Understanding the financial tightrope fellow writers and artists lead, my old pal, Dave Treweek, had sent me some cash from Melbourne a few months before. Dave and I once shared a flat together in London’s Notting Hill. We also worked together. Dave enjoyed a fair bit of success in Australia a few years ago with his novel A Close RunThing. Much of it has to be based on his years on the fringes of the the antiques trade in London. We even ran a bric a brac stall together on London’s Portobello Road for a while. His fictional account, which is centred in Victoria, rather than London, is a very entertaining read.
So back to Bankia. You may not have noticed but banks don’t actually want customers anymore. They have become an unnecessary burden that gets in the way of the smooth running of the financial services industry. Banking now operates chiefly on a updating of the idea of self-service. Banks not only serve themselves in these modern times, but they also help themselves to anything not screwed down. One way they do that is by setting their own currency exchange rates, along with lots of other important rates. These rates have no relation whatsoever to the rates of exchange you might read in your newspaper. In the banks’ version customers are penalised for the sheer audacity of walking through the door. My latest experience reminded me of the visit I paid to Armenia in 1997. In the Armenian capital of Yerevan only a fool would’ve gone into a bank to change money. Making no attempt to conceal their presence, mobs of moneychangers with greasy hair and smiles punctuated with gold, used to hang around the doors with paper bricks of Armenian drams, waiting to peel off oodles more dosh than banks would. Only difference between that and Cádiz is there are no mobs of illegal moneychangers outside the banks in Cádiz. Any criminal moneychangers are on the inside waiting to shake you down. And with no competition they rob you blind. I was offered at least 12% less than my money was worth in the ‘take it or leave it’ way of a mafia racketeer. Then I was charged another penalty fee for having my money stolen. It was like paying to be mugged. I had to count Angelica’s fingers, as well as my own, once we were outside. She needs hers for drawing. I don’t play the guitar so well as to justify every single one of mine in an emergency.
But we weren’t going to let that worry us. The days when banks were the victims of robbery, rather than the perpetrators, are just a distant memory in this topsy-turvy world, we have been forced to accept. Off we went to search out Harvey and Carmen without dwelling further on our ritual humiliation.
Carmen de la Torre (of theTower) lives with Harvey in calle Torre (Tower Street) conveniently enough. It’s hard to forget their address, but we did. Their lovely little flat stands atop a building in the Balón barrio. Plonked on top of that is Carmen’s studio. We ate a lunch of spit-roasted chicken, from the local freiduría, and salad on the rooftop terrace. The golden dome of the cathedral, with its twin towers, shone out from all the other roofs. Sir Francis Drake would’ve seen it when he was said to have singed the beard of Philip of Spain by setting alight the Spanish fleet moored in the city’s harbour in 1586. Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson wouldn’t have missed it either when he blockaded the port in 1797, seven years before he routed the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar in 1805, not thirty miles south of the ancient city, at Los Caños de Meca. Luckily, the locals don’t hold either against me.
Though everywhere has history stretching as far back as time itself, Cådiz always seems to have that little bit more.
Copyright © 2015 Bryan Hemming
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