Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Great Escape Part VI: Into The Firing Line

The first issue of The Olive Press
If you are still reading this - well done! You're one of the few who hasn't cut their RSS in disgust. In any case, I promise this is leading up to something that is relevant to the stated aims of this blog.

You can read the other parts by clicking on the links below:

Part I: Maladjusted
Part II: Adjusted for Inflation
Part III: Drifting

One does not simply move to Spain. In fact it took about nine months of planning and several visits roaming around AndalucĂ­a, but by September we were installed in a 500-year-old stone house in a small village perched on the side of a mountain in the most backward part of Spain’s most backward province. We also had a new baby with us, Sofia, and it got so cold in the house during the following winter that we all had to wear several sweaters and gather around the fire every evening just like people must have done for the previous half millennium.

Nobody yet had a mobile phone in the village – there was no point because there was no signal – so instead they stood on their roofs and shouted to one another. In the crisp winter air, scented by olive wood smoke, and looking around at the surrounding snow-capped peaks, I felt like I had arrived in paradise.

We had, again, been able to exploit the property bubble, and our house in Denmark being worth more than when we had bought it (largely thanks to the City deciding to build a metro station next to it and redeveloping the beach area into something that wouldn’t look out of place in Miami) – so we had some leeway to get settled. Property in Spain was cheap – not as cheap as it had been but still very cheap by northern European standards. This was especially so of crooked 500-year-old piles of stone in out-of-the-way villages where nobody spoke English.

Our plan was to live in the small village house until we could find an old ruin on a bit of viable land, which we would then build up into a liveable house and embark on a path of low impact living where we would live until the end of our days. The reasons for doing this were primarily environmental ones – I wanted to walk my talk and hop off the consumer treadmill – but I was also convinced that it would provide a good place for bringing up children, in contrast to what they would experience in rich, highly industrialised northern Europe.

I got into living in Spain like a fish slipping into water. It almost felt like a kind of homecoming and most days I had to rub my eyes to check it wasn’t all some kind of dream.  We had moved to La Alpujarra, a collection of valleys and villages between mountains just to the south of Granada and just to the north of the Tropical Coast. The region had been populated by the Islamic Moors in the 16th century after they were expelled from Granada, and not an awful lot had changed since then (apart from the people, of course). The economy was mainly agrarian and the farmers were all small scale. Old traditions hung on – like the matanza (pig slaughtering festivals), a belief in the duende , or spirit, of flamenco – and nobody had ever heard of an iPhone.

But even in paradise, alas, one must earn a living. I was fortunate enough to be offered a job in an estate agent’s office in Orgiva, the main town. I took it. The job involved driving around the region and photographing properties and putting together a website for rentals. The boss was a louche and sleazy Englishman with a lisp and it wasn’t long before I realized he was crooked and was never going to pay me.

I quit after a month (again, never having been paid a cent). I was moaning about what a scoundrel this boss was to Mary, a young woman from Yorkshire who also worked there, and she heartily agreed. She went on to say that herself and her husband, who had taken to wandering alone in the mountains for days at a time, had planned to start a local newspaper. I said I thought it was a good idea.

One day soon after I had a day at leisure in my village and decided it would be a great idea to walk to the summit of the mountain. Mulhacen is the highest mountain in Iberia and it seemed like a good use of a day. I drove part way up and then walked the last few hours. As I was trekking across the boulder-strewn upper slopes I happened to round a summit of sorts and was able to look out for miles and miles across the southern littoral of Spain and out across the Mediterranean. What I saw shocked me because, despite it being only late Autumn the entire seaboard seemed to be covered in white snow. I squinted at it, trying to look more closely, and could make out delicate filigree patterns in the surface of the white stuff and then I suddenly realized what I was looking at.

It was a shrink-wrapped landscape, smothered in white plastic greenhouses as far as the eye could see. I had read about them, sucking up the dwindling groundwater and replacing it with pesticides and fertilizer – just to provide cheap salad to the supermarkets of northern Europe. 

I hiked further up to the summit, marvelling at the beauty around me but perturbed by what I had seen. By the time I made it down again, late in the evening, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to start a newspaper and draw attention to this landscape-eating monster which was clearly spreading towards La Alpujarra where it would no doubt consume and kill the area. I considered that it might just be a hopeless gesture, but nevertheless I wanted to do something within my power to try and stop it spreading into La Alpujarra and destroying the unique and rich biodiversity. 

Plastic greenhouses spreading across the land in Almeria, Spain

That newspaper, when it appeared, was called The Olive Press. I started it with Mary’s husband, who was eventually coaxed down from his Wordsworthian wanderings. It started off as a local community newspaper, aimed to appeal to the sizeable population of beatniks, hippies, renunciants, New Agers and general misfits who lived in the area. I thought that if we drummed up enough interest in the various environmental abuses going on in the region then it might wake up the sleepy Spaniards, who seemed to be turning a blind eye to all of it. 

We had an office, recently vacated by a lawyer who had gone missing (signs of a fight were there in the kicked in door and abandoned volumes of law), a few desks and supermarket-bought computers, a receptionist and a husky (similarly rescued from said supermarket). Mark, Mary’s husband, said he was a journalist. I didn’t have a clue but taught myself how to design a newspaper with QuarkXpress For Dummies – and we were away.

The newspaper, on its first print run, was very popular. We timed its release to coincide with the local market day and I watched, agog, as people walked around the streets reading it. I even saw Chris Stewart – the person whose book had led me to move to Spain – walking past with a copy (later, he wrote articles for it). We drove it all over the region, delivering it to every inconsequential village we could find. In short, it was a great debut. 

But the thing about newspapers is that you can never rest. Work was frenetic. I did the graphic design, acted as commissioning editor, accountant, features editor, proofreader, restaurant reviewer and distributor. Every week I went out to meet and interview interesting people who were doing interesting environmental things. I met some inspirational people and got to see a lot of Andalucia, which was like a universe in its diversity and its richness. I felt like my whole life had been building up to working in this role.

At the same time as we were working on the newspaper, my wife and I also bought an old ruined farmhouse on a hill called Cerro Negro (‘the Black Hill’) and set about making it habitable. This was to take some two years of hard work just to get comfortable and, being off grid, I had a very sharp learning curve ahead of me fitting all the solar PV, the water system, sewage system and all the other crucial systems that most of us take for granted.

If, before, I had considered I was living in paradise, now I was sure of it. On the land were numerous trees, including oranges, lemons, grapefuits, olives, pomegranates, apples, pears, peaches, figs and many, many almonds.  The land was very fertile and irrigation came from a stream which ran directly from the melting snows at the top of the mountain. Situated up a very poor unsurfaced road we never got any passing traffic and the peace was absolute.

I had found my paradise and now I would have been happy to live out the rest of my days there in rustic simplicity, living ‘away’ from civilization but being very much a part of the local community, cultivating great food and genuine friends and having all the time in the world to cherish and educate my two young daughters. I had found peace and happiness and , what’s more, I had found it at a relatively young age.

Our farmhouse and smallholding on Cerro Negro

*** Fast forward by two years ***

If, God forbid, one day I should die and go to Heaven and St Peter or someone like that is there to tell me what I did right in my life and what I did wrong (tip of the hat to Kurt Vonnegut), I’d imagine that he’d say starting The Olive Press was the one good thing I did. Without going into too many details about what was achieved (that would take an entire book which, by the way, I have actually written and is sitting on a USB stick in my drawer in case anyone is interested to read it – and, yes, I did find a publisher for it after a long search but they said ‘Take out the dull bits,’ meaning the bits about peak oil and wider environmental concerns and I said ‘Sorry, I can’t’.). 

Among its more noteworthy achievements was acting as a catalyst to stop a disastrous golf course being constructed on a UNESCO site by shadowy rich investors. The battle turned into a war of attrition, with one of the supporters on our side, hispanophile writer Alistair Boyd (aka Lord Kilmarnock) actually dying, with the stress of being hit by a 1 million euro lawsuit perhaps being a contributory factor.

The paper was also heavily involved in a scandal involving MP Margaret Moran - one of Tony Blair’s ‘babes’ and, coincidentally, a neighbour of mine-  who had been bullying our newspaper delivery man, and in the resulting conflagration she sued the paper (and lost). This turned out to be one of the first inklings of the UK parliamentary expenses scandal which was a major contributory factor in the downfall of New Labour.

In the end the whole newspaper saga was a firsthand lesson for me in the corrupting influence of money and how it can warp and muffle honest reporting. The original newspaper, as I had planned it, was too local and perhaps too radical to earn enough money to pay the staff. Thus it had to be expanded outside of its original geographical area, into regions where people were not so, well, enlightened. Sales people became involved and bigger advertisers were attracted, who naturally insisted we tone down the editorial so as not to scare the ‘clients’, and desist from putting pictures of mangled and abused animals on the cover. And from my point of view it was difficult to write an editorial about the perils of global warming when on the facing page we had placed a full page advert showing cheap fares for British Airways.

It wasn’t just the advertisers complaining. My business partner too was unhappy with the 'green' label and said he was unhappy being considered ‘a fucking tree-hugger’. Instead he wanted to take the paper more upmarket to attract a wealthier readership - abandoning the original readership in the process. Articles about expensive organic wine were okay, by this way of thinking, but not ‘far out’ ones about the local anarchist community building their own school. Given this uncomfortable state of affairs it wasn’t long before I found myself unwelcome my own office and the paper began its descent first into schizophrenic please-everyone sensationalism and then into celebrity obsessed lowest-common-denominator hackery and faux moral outrage over inconsequential matters, which is where it rests today. 

To cap it all, after all the time, effort and money I poured into it, I ended up penniless and working on a building site to make ends meet. I had to sell my stake in the newspaper and tried to put the whole thing behind me, but the legal ramifications and costs went on for month, if not years, afterwards. Later my business partner simply disappeared, leaving unpaid debts, and our names were displayed on a kind of wall-of-shame in a public place in Granada City. 

The financial crisis hit at the same moment, meaning we couldn’t sell our little village house and were left with a mortgage that needed paying every month. Our life in paradise had rapidly taken a hellish detour and my wife buckled under the financial pressure and almost suffered a nervous breakdown. Eventually she went back to Denmark with the children to try and find work. When they left I felt like an utter failure.

The paper itself was taken over by Jon Clark, a London Fleet Street journalist who had been the ‘Show business Editor’ of the Daily Mail. I got on fine with Jon, who lived in an opulent mansion at a secret address near Ronda (secret, because so many people were after him, not least the desperado family of a local serial killer he had written a book about). Jon was also the first journalist on the scene of the infamous Madeleine McCann case, in which a toddler was abducted in nearby Portugal, and has used The Olive Press as a platform for reporting suspected sightings and other developments in the case ever since. 

There were countless other battles and controversies, proving that a little paper could have a lot of bite. In the early days it was known as a campaigning newspaper, always at the centre of things and getting into trouble by confronting power. Indeed, in 2008 the newspaper was honoured with the Spanish ‘Beacon of Hope’ award for its environmental campaigning (of which there was plenty), so we must have been doing something right.

If, by now, you’re imagining me now as some kind of fearless paladin in shining armour with my trusty sword of valour and a shield of integrity, please cast aside those thoughts immediately. Think of me more as a Bilbo Baggins type character – all I wanted to do was have a fairly quiet life with a local community-based newspaper, Yes, I wanted to draw attention to the menace of the plastic greenhouses - but I had no interest in making a name for myself by taking on British MPs, Russian development consortia or murderous Spanish gangster politicians. Indeed, the fear of thugs coming round to my remote farmhouse in the middle of the night and exacting revenge on me and my family was quite a real one. No, the honour for that lies squarely with Jon Clarke, who either has large cojones or a small brain, or quite possibly a mixture of the two

I was left behind at our house without my family for some months desperately trying to earn enough money to stop our house being repossessed. Some similarly penniless friends moved in with me and brought their kids too and, although it was nice having company, it felt like I was a guest in my own home. They also brought with them chickens, goats and even a donkey.

I worked as a labourer down on the coast, mixing concrete by day and learning skills that will be useful in the future. Leon, my friend and the one I was working for, built ‘organic’ buildings, using plenty of hand moulded plaster, rocks, wood and other natural materials. He taught me that building a house is not all that difficult if you know what you are doing and are willing to spend plenty of time on it rather than going for the industrial indentikit style of building. 

Apart from my income from laboring I tried to sell the produce from the smallholding -but the prices were so low that it wasn’t even worth the petrol money to drive them to market. Thus I left thousands of the juiciest organic oranges and lemons imaginable rot on the ground. 

I did manage to sell the grapefruits, which were popular with foreigners, and I also secured a bizarre online night-time job where I was part of a global 24 hour team writing reports about real-time acts of violence around the world. These reports were then conveyed to wealthy clients who had ‘interests’ in the places where these things were happening. That’s how I learned that at every minute of every day, someone somewhere is dying in a hail of bullets or being hacked to bits with machetes – usually in out-of-the-way countries that don’t make the news but where business concerns lie.

But the money I earned wasn’t enough to pay the mortgage, and what’s more, I missed my family. It was a low point, and when my wife phoned and said she had saved some money for me to come and visit in Denmark, I jumped at the chance.

I flew there one Spring evening approaching my 37th birthday. In the airport I picked up a copy of The Copenhagen Post, Denmark’s only newspaper in English. In it there was a job for a graphic designer to do the layout using DTP software. I had experience of this and so applied for the job, getting an interview two days hence. At the interview I was offered the job as long as I was able to start the following week. Thus I hastily got back on the plane and returned to Spain. I spent a day packing what I considered to be valuable into our tiny Renault Twingo car, borrowed 50 euros off a friend to add to my 150 euros that was all I had to my name, and set off on the three day drive to Denmark.

As I left, a storm was breaking over the mountains and, glancing back I saw a rainbow over the hillside where our house was. I had poured my life, my dreams and the rest of our money into that house, and never had considered we would leave it behind – but here I was. I vowed to return to Spain. It was a defiant vow and one I intend to keep.

I drove to Denmark at 80km/hr to save fuel and made it after three days with barely any petrol left in the tank and no money at all in my wallet. Along the way I had slept in the car and, once, at a free campsite in France and had only a loaf of heavy home-made bread to eat along the way. I was miserable the whole way, but at least I would be seeing my family again.

I did the last leg from the middle of France to Copenhagen without stopping, driving for almost 20 hours without a break and arriving in Denmark at breakfast time on a Sunday morning.  I pulled up outside my mother-in-law’s house, where my family were being put up in the spare room, and rang the doorbell. Footsteps approached the door and it opened. I was let in without a word. There would be a period of shame to pass through, that much was clear.

We were homeless and without money, our dreams shattered and our life in Spain aborted. There was no sympathy for our plight, quite the opposite, in fact, because if you dare to live your dreams you can expect to face the consequences when they go wrong. But at least I had a job and my health, and we were a family again. I sat on the bed in our shared room and hugged my kids, who were full of joy that I had returned. And then I fell into a deep sleep.

Thus began the toughest three years of my life.                   


  1. Jason, so basically you lost out because you took a mortgage to buy your second house in Spain? The first was paid for I assume? So you could have stayed in your first location, theoretically indefinitely, had you not felt the need to open your idealistic mouth about the onslaught of plastic lettuce?

    I'm constantly amazed at the parallels in our lives. The difference being that you have had several successes as viewed from the hologram, and you have traveled the world. I have had no success and traveled mostly just the states with a few ports here and there.

    Yet we are both family men and have arrived essentially in the same place...as far as I can tell.

    From my point of view there is no hope in fixing any of this mess. It truly is a global clusterfuck presided over by a very real hologram.

    I'm continually entertained by your journey (and I hope I don't sound to presumptuous). Reading your story has definitely assured me that my current thinking on the hologram is correct. Thanks for that.

    1. Yep, you're pretty much right on the first point. The market was buoyant, and we had no idea that everything would freeze up so quick. When we bought our house it was on the market for less than 1 day - and we had to bid against two other parties. When we came to sell it again, it took 4 years to get just two viewings - and we ended up selling for half the price we bought it at. Bubble boom and bust, pure and simple.

      And yes, had I not opened my mouth so wide I would probably still be there. Conscience can be the most expensive thing to possess!

  2. Wow. This is great writing. I'm also envious because although we are about the same age, Jason has packed alot into his life.

    The website for The Olive Press is here:


    One minor criticism is that you should have specified that it was/ is an English language newspaper.

    1. Sorry maybe I should have made that point clear. I'd be a pretty lousy editor if it was in Spanish ;-)

      At the time there were something like a million English speakers living in the region, so there were plenty of readers.

      If it were a Spanish paper I would have named it La Prensa de Aceite

  3. It looks like you've lived boomed bust economics Jason. You are clearly a courageous/ mad man to move your young family to Spain like that but respect; both you and your wife did it. Sounds like an unmissable experience even if it turned sour. I'm hooked now and have an extra reason to look forward to xmas day. Is there any sense of catharsis from all this sharing? I truly hope you are getting something positive from it.

    1. Phil - courageous or mad? I'd say 'sensible'. After all, I couldn't find employment or provide for my family in Denmark, so Spain seemed a logical choice.

      I have no reason to regret anything I have ever done regarding decisions about life - as far as I'm concerned it's all grist to the mill of experience.

      I'm going to have to give up promising people things for Christmas - now I have a good 8-10,000 words to write between now and next Tuesday! Argh!

  4. This is great stuff, Jason, thanks. It's great writing and the story is very compelling. You must have a lot of stamina!

    Looking forward to the big announcement. Hopefully it will involve the start of another wild chapter.

    1. Thanks Mark. I'm not sure about the 'wild' bit, but it will definitely be a new chapter!

  5. Hey Jason,

    It's been a long while since I last commented here - it's been a crazy year for us, but I've been reading your blog regularly.

    Your story is very interesting, and like lucid dreams above, I can see a lot of parallels with my life. I think I might have said so before, but having read your story so far, it's been a bit uncanny to note the similarities!

    I'll be interested to see what your announcement entails...reading between the lines of things you've said before I'll take a wild stab in the dark at you moving over to the UK and buying/renting a woodland for you to manage/make a living from. Am I anywhere close??

    If so, I hope it's in a wood near me as I'd very much like to buy you a beer someday ;)

    Though I'm looking forward to the rest of your story, I'd also say don't worry too much on our account if you don't make your deadline!


    1. Nice guess but you'll have to wait and see :-)

      I'd be happy to have that beer - where do you live?

    2. Haha! Well I did say it was a 'wild' stab in the dark ;) - good though as it gives me something extra to look forward to!

      We currently reside in Herefordshire, where the beer ain't bad - between Hereford and Worcester. I say currently because we are still in a state of flux (aren't we all) and may head back to Shropshire next year or even back to our little house in the South of France (though that is very contingent on me actually getting the staircase and kitchen finished...well, more accurately started and then finished - amongst other things).

      Yeah, a beer would be good - at least we can skip the initial soundings of 'does he, doesn't he get peak oil?' and get on to the good stuff! Actually, maybe not. As Dimitry said this week, "collapse has worn grooves in my brain" or words to that effect. Just a straight up normal conversation over a beer with someone who gets it would be nice.

  6. """If you are still reading this - well done! You're one of the few who hasn't cut their RSS in disgust."""

    Really? Oh, well, people are nuts. WAY too serious, not the best attitude to have, facing the coming chaos.

    And be assured, that rainbow was confirmation. ;)


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.