My ‘linguistic repertoire’

The notion of ‘linguistic repertoires’ is not a brand-new one, but it has become fairly central to Sociolinguistics in the last few years. I’d never heard of it until this month as I’d never studied Sociolinguistics before. Now I’m doing a master’s course which includes modules in Sociolinguistics, so terms such as ‘linguistic repertoire’ form part of my…’linguistic repertoire’. So…what’s a ‘linguistic repertoire’? Well, it’s defined in this article (written by some sociolinguists) as the “totality of linguistic resources” available to an individual, so it’s much more than the answer to the question “Which languages can you speak?”. In any case, the term ‘language’ is not all that useful when trying to understand the use of…language through the lens of Sociolinguistics, especially in a global context that is increasingly ‘conditioned by’ (yay!) linguistic superdiversity. It’s impossible to define the boundaries of an individual ‘language’ and designations such as ‘native speakers’, ‘dialect’ and ‘creole’ often serve to mystify rather than enlighten, while any given interaction or text (including this one, zum Beispiel) makes use of an often bewildering range of linguistic codes, styles, registers, varieties, etc. Ya get me? Begorrah.

I was given the task of posting a description of my own linguistic repertoire in the module’s discussion forum, and inevitably my account touched on a lot of the same issues that I’ve written about here, so I thought it might be of interest to regular visitors. (There’s a better-organised and better-informed account of someone’s LR towards the end of the article linked to just above.) Mine is a bit artless and plodding in places, but as they say in Cardiff, plus ça change…. I also forgot to mention that my main ‘foreign’ ‘language’ is…Europanto.

My linguistic repertoire

One’s linguistic repertoire indexes one’s biography, argue Blommaert and Backus (2011). Well, like any biography mine starts before I was born, in that my father left his hometown in Northern Germany at the age of 17 and eventually moved to Sheffield, England with my mum, who somehow came from both Dorchester and Leicester. Thus while most people in Sheffield have a distinctive way of speaking (familiar to anyone who’s seen ‘The Full Monty’), my family didn’t share it, although we did speak (ahem) ‘English’ rather than ‘German’. I was raised with quite a conservative set of values in relation to accent*, in that it was a family trope that pronouncing words like local people did was ‘common’. I rebelled against this to a certain extent, developing a lifelong affinity for what B & B call ‘dirty words’ as part of a far more demotic form of speech outside the house, but ended up speaking with a broadly non-regional accent, although I’ve always pronounced the short vowel in ‘baeth’ and would feel distinctly silly saying ‘ba:th’. I was exposed to German and French at school but the teaching approach wasn’t conducive to learning more than the odd fixed expression and some basic grammar.

At 18 I moved to Norwich (or, as the locals say, up Naarge) to study philosophy and literature, so acquired a fledgling command of academic discourses around post-colonialism, post-modernism and existentialism, etc. I then lived in Dublin for six years, which left a seemingly permanent mark on my linguistic repertoire in that I adopted pronunciations like ‘filum’ and started saying ‘yer man’, ‘graaand’ and ‘yis’. I can still do a passable Roddy Doyle-esque Northside accent, having felt an affinity with that part of Dublin. I later, via work, developed a command of areas of discourse including IT jargon and discourse patterns particular to software corporations.

Living in the north of Portugal I discovered an appetite (and, I thought at the time, an aptitude) for learning ‘foreign’ languages. I quickly acquired a strong regional accent, which didn’t stand me in good stead later in life. Having self-taught myself (well, it was really friends and newspapers that taught me…), I decided to try German, French, and Spanish while I was at it, in what in retrospect was an attempt to expand my range of identities, building up my linguistic capital. I remember a conversation around that time with an English colleague of mine who, having mastered those languages and more while living in ‘target language’ environments, expressed bemusement at my desire to acquire so many languages which she regarded as redundant tools since I was unlikely to need to use them any time soon. That principle hadn’t occurred to me but nonetheless struck me as a mature attitude that I nonetheless couldn’t identify with – what I’d learnt was precious and I was precious about it in turn. I moved to Lisbon and was delighted to meet someone who told me I spoke Portuguese with ‘no accent’. It’s possible they were joking – I’d only been in the country for a year at that point. I realised much later that my command of Portuguese was inevitably limited to vernacular forms in that I wasn’t ever going to be working in the language. I probably also spoke like a newspaper as that was where a lot of my vocabulary came from, and the same goes (it probably is still true) for the other languages I speak. I slowly acquired a command of ELT lingo as member of the very broad ELT ‘community’.

Although my English accent was distinctly non-specific I was astonished to one day meet a particularly perceptive Chicago cab driver on vacation who after I’d said about three words asked me what part of Sheffield I was from. I started to make friends with Brazilians who found my Portuguese Portuguese dialect hilarious and so I tried to start sounding more Brazilian; on trips to Spain I tried to sound like I was from Andalucia (erm…). I began to notice that on visits back to the UK, I felt a refreshing confidence in my ‘voice’. I felt like what Bourdieu calls a ‘legitimate speaker’ rather than someone winging it in a clearly foreign tongue. Living in China, I took pride in my speedily-acquired Mandarin, which was a bit absurd as I regularly met other foreigners who had clearly invested much more in the language. Although I inevitably left most of what I’d learned behind me, I still have an ability to recognise when people are speaking standard Mandarin. I then spent a few months in Madrid, and my Spanish developed much as my Portuguese had: good at speaking informally, advanced reading skills, little else. I’d started to realise at this point that I was depending on other languages as a source of self-esteem and to try to fulfil my lifelong dream of being from elsewhere –when I moved back to London at the start of 2006 I occasionally found myself referring to ‘other (as in fellow) foreigners’. I started a master’s course (in KCL) and developed my command of Academic Portuguese and, for that matter, English. In London through mixing a lot with Latin Americans, my Spanish and Portuguese changed. Thanks to where I was living, I developed an ability to recognise Bengali and Turkish. As for my own accent, I found it remarkable when a long-standing work colleague expressed surprise that I was from the north. Through examining I developed a knowledge of the IELTS register. Outside work my online Twitter interactions had a positive impact on my ability to express abuse and sarcasm in short written form. I visited Brazil and had to make a huge amount of effort to demediavelise my Portuguese – the Brazilians regard the European variety as atavistic and I struggled to fit in.

Through friendships with students I slowly started learning Italian, starting with certain regional swearwords, which as B & B point out can be a shortcut means of acquiring a familiarity with the vernacular. When I met my now-wife (who is Italian) I went through a period of being simultaneously impressed and intimidated by her and her colleagues’ ability to mix languages, code switching effortlessly and endlessly between English, French and Spanish. Getting my brain to think in Italian and my speech organs to not produce Spanish proved a constant struggle. Her job took us to Mexico and I experienced the same struggle in reverse. I also had to master a whole new area of place names, slang, and cultural information and had to work hard to try to Mexicanise my pronunciation. After a year there we spent a couple of months in a university in Thailand where I made a pointed attempt to fail to learn some of the language. I’d put my knowledge of Thai at about the same level as the few dozen words of Greek and Finnish I picked up on various holidays**. (My French and German have been comfortably stuck near the bottom of League 1 for at least 15 seasons.)

Regularly visiting Chiara’s family near Napoli meant my Italian features a few expressions in dialect, and then same goes for Rome, where we spent a year and a half. (Now it was Spanish that got in the way of Italian again.) Through working in a university I acquired (not without difficulty) a knowledge of the formal register of university bureaucracy, and (with a lot of assistance from others) developed my writing in a way I never really had with Portuguese or Spanish. I also had to acquire a command of the discourses around pregnancy, childbirth and parenting. Now here living in London I’ve started to think of my accent as a bit of a ‘Remainer’ accent, specially when I step outside the M25. I’ve also started using the word ‘index’ as a verb, and phrases like ‘orders of discourse’, ‘dividing practices’ and ‘kurtosis’. I’m no longer as dependent on knowing foreign languages to bolster my self-esteem, and I’m also no longer sure if and where a line can be drawn between knowledge of the world and knowledge of language, between knowing a few Greek expressions and knowing where Athens is in relation to Thessaloniki, remembering who the Prime Minister of France is and being able to identify a Colombian accent, or having the command of the necessary discourses to fake it in the world of Applied Linguistics. I can now appreciate that language competence is, as Blommaert and Backus point out, dynamic rather than fixed, and that it’s not a case of acquiring and owning a number of discrete languages but rather of using different forms of language with varying degrees of competence while inhabiting specific roles in diverse situations. Here endeth my linguistic repertoire***.

*And vocabulary – my mum, who we, despite not being officially posh (and absolutely not being rich), kept addressing for far too long as ‘Mummy’, insisted on prohibiting the word ‘wee’ and imposed ‘wee wee’ as a euphemistic alternative, which is…odd because (as any expert in linguistics will happily confirm) the term ‘wee wee’ consists of nothing but the word ‘wee’, twice. This single fact more than any other explains why I still find it I important use so much bad fucking language. N.B. I didn’t include this bit in the module discussion forum post.

**As I’ve mentioned here before I happen to know some staggeringly offensive things to say in Finnish. I once offered to share them with anyone who contacted me via the Contact link. Two people did so, I sent them the expressions complete with fully idiomatic transactions, but oddly enough neither of them ever thanked me. Kuradi pärast!

***Here I drew upon a Biblical register. Thank God I didn’t follow it with ‘Amen’. Amen to that.

A prediction: Trump will tweet in favour of Catalan independence 

Maybe if Scotland had opted for independence in 2014 the international context would now be different. Maybe the Brexit vote wouldn’t have happened and Trump would have lost. In such a scenario, the prospect of Catalan independence would have a very different meaning.

Catalonia is a country with a distinct culture, its own political traditions, a (partially recent) history of brutal oppression by the Spanish state and (most importantly) a consequent desire to be independent. The fact that it isn’t already is a pure accident of history. Nation states come and go; a country is, someone once, a dialect with a flag. As it happens, Catalonia has a very attractive flag, one that makes it look like its national anthem should be composed by Manu Chao. Partly as a result, Barcelona is generally seen as a a left-wing city – it has a radical mayor (who, as it happens, opposes independence). However, especially outside Barcelona, Catalan nationalism is not necessarily a progressive force. The Catalan left has nontheless partly presented this referendum as a vote against austerity and neo-francoist Spanish nationalism. (The spectacle of violent repression has given credence to the latter claim.) Nevertheless, a huge vote for independence will not be interpreted in such terms internationally. Nationalism, by definition, always involves a narrow set of concerns. The fact that deeply reactionary forces outside Spain will celebrate the victory concerns me more than the impact on dynamics inside the Spanish state. In the country where I live, Italy, the result will encourage the far-right to renew their campaign for more autonomy for the rich regions of the north, who have long complained about the burden of having to sustain the filthy peasants of southern Italy. There have been echoes of this kind of rhetoric in the Catalan case.

Hence the support of the global far-right for independence. The Italian fascist leader Matteo Salvini and the British far-right party Ukip have expressed support for Catalan independence; should the vote be tallied and independence be approved, their allies such as Le Pen and the AFD will present it as another Brexit, a vote against the European status quo. The Kremlin’s propaganda outlet Russia Today has made no secret of its affiliation, some of Donald Trump’s few remaining non-bot social media enthusiasts have expressed principled, albeit somewhat selective, concerns about political violence, and Julian Assange has been busy spreading disinformation about events via Twitter. Then there’s Trump himself. As is well-known, Trump loves to be on the winning side. Regardless of his previous stated support for Spanish union, he, seeing his political allies celebrating, will be desperate to join in. Trump is nothing if not inconsistent: witness how quick he was to disavow his support for ‘his’ candidate in the Alabama primary this week. Of course, he’s far too stupid to understand either the ins and outs of the plebiscite’s legality or the consequences of explicit US support for an unofficial referendum over the break-up of a major European power. He won’t reflect on how his actions will affect countries from Turkey to Italy to the US itself (how much does Puerto Rico gain from its status?). Trump has no consistency, no ideology, no loyalty and no strategy, and is in endless need of new distractions. That’s why I believe that in the aftermath of the vote and the near-universal revulsion that the violence has provoked, he will, with no regard for the implications, in between bouts of attacking hurricane victims, berating black sports people and trying as hard as his tiny fingers will allow him to provoke an actual nuclear war, tweet in support of independence for Catalonia. If he does, I hope the Catalan independence movement tells him very firmly ves-t’en a prendre pel cul. That would be a great symbolic statement of the kind of country they would like to build.

Madrid: ¡Hala Madrid!

3469397237_26d975ab27It sometimes feels as though I have cuentas pendientes (accounts to settle) with Madrid, but as it happens I left with a saldo positivo (positive balance) in everything other than pecuniary terms. When I came to live here in September 2005 it was a realisation of a long-standing ambition, partly in that I’d wanted to come to Spain in 1999 but thanks to my peculiar psychological make-up I ended up living in Portugal for five years instead, happily at first and then increasingly wishing it was more like Spain. There then followed a one-year hiatus in China (I’d wanted to go to Japan, but qué vas a hacer) reading Gárcia Márquez and feeling impatient for my life to restart. I had picked up a copy of Cien Años de Soledad in San Sebastián in 2001 and finally finished it three and half years later on the beach in Thailand. It too so very long because my edition didn’t have an árbol genealógico (family tree) and given that several generations of characters all have the exact same names there are only so many times you can read the sentence ‘por aquel entonces Rebeca Buendía tenía doce años‘ without seriously fearing for your sanity*.

My hard work on the language stood me in good stead**. I felt extremely content in Madrid and I found it easier than anywhere else I’ve ever lived to make friends and find 414y9dbpjml-_sx311_bo1204203200_people to do fun things with. I’d always identified with the unholiness, the foul-
mouthedness of the Spanish. It’s no accident that their swearwords are designed to shock God and the Church. I had gotten hold of a handy little volume called
Pardon your Spanish, one of those books which aspire to teach you bad language, and it actually did an excellent job with some superbly phrased insults and some masterfully-translated curses***. I had also been an avid reader of Jueves, the Spanish equivalent of Viz, as well as a long-standing fan of the exuberant melodramas of Pedro Almodóvar. I also loved the fact that they say coño on the news and I really enjoyed trying to make out what gratuitously offensive thing Torrente was saying. All this may sound puerile**** but actually I found the lack of prissiness refreshing after the more, shall we say, tempered temperament of the Portuguese and the fact that in China I hadn’t been able to understand what people were saying (or, so very often, shouting). It was also accompanied by shades of hedonism around alcohol and drugs.

Certainly the Spain and the Spanish I knew were part of the generation influenced by la Movida, who had grown up after the clerico-fascist regime had been rapidly transitioned alberto-garcia-alix-homme-d-images-devenu-imagem177506away from. The proletarian decadence of the 70s and 80s was immortalised in the stunning photos of Alberto García-Alix. The confidence and upfrontness of some Spanish people can grate, like when they are presented with a Colombian and immediately blurt out the one question guaranteed to make them explode with rage*****, or when they think it gleefully original to make slanty eyes gestures at Chinese people. Still, I’ve always quite liked the Spanish insouciance in relation to Portugal. ¿¡Ir a Portugal? Para qué?! Spanish people are apt to think whenever the prospect of visiting their neighbours is mooted, para comprar toallas?! – to buy lace?! From the other side of the border the refrain is ‘de Espanha, nem bons ventos, nem bons casamentos’ – Spain brings neither good winds nor good marriages. Nevertheless there is a long-standing (but not now prominent) movement for Iberismo, the union of the two countries. One notable exponent was the Portuguese novelist José Saramago, who in response to a slight from his own country’s government married a Spanish woman and went to live in Lanzarote. Not that you’d know it from his accent, which remained resolutely and hilariously Lusophone, with no concession made whatsoever to the sounds of Spanish.

Curiously, however, whereas in other countries my desire has meant I’ve wanted to see myself and be accepted as one of Them, I don’t think I felt like that in Madrid. I certainly KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAwanted to fit in but I felt that my foreignness was never an issue. While in Portugal I had always felt a bit like a guest or a novelty, in Madrid strangers happily chatted away to me at bus stops. I was just a fellow human being who happened to have a funny accent and an occasional habit of saying things that didn’t make much sense. I enjoyed telling people I lived in Casa de Campo, a huge park not far from the centre famous for prostitution; Spanish people find that kind of thing titillating, and in any case it was partly true as that was what the Metro stop was called. I have some deathless memories of nights out in Malasaña and La Latina til 6am and tapas bars which turned into shoutalong midnight discos. Ultimately such a schedule was incompatible with the very silly earlybird job I was doing at the time, for which I was paid twice-yearly in actual cacahuetes. Then a Relationship suddenly took me back to London after only four months in Madrid and twelve and half years of what was starting to feel like self-imposed exile from what I was reluctantly beginning to accept was my own country.

Now we’re back for one day and it all feels readily familiar. I remember immediately how and why I liked living here so much. We visit shortly before Christmas 2015 on the way back from Mexico City to Rome. There’s a lot of movement in the centre, and that buzzy chattiness I always used to appreciate. I do notice some changes in the nine years since I
left. After all, in the meantime we’d had a massive global economic crisis, 15M, the rise and possible fall of Podemos, and more recently major terrorist attacks in other European 12308364_10153831308858436_6995415496932279548_ncapitals. There are police with guns but we’re used to that because, as I enjoy telling everyone we talk to, We Live In Mexico Now. I don’t feel threatened by the military presence although it strikes me that if I was Middle Eastern maybe I would. There’s a visible increase in the number of homeless people and I notice that the station in Plaza del Sol is now ‘sponsored by Vodafone’. There are more adverts in English, so often the language of exclusivity and exclusion, so it’s encouraging to see a banner hung from the municipal palace reading (in English) ‘Refugees Welcome’. It’s also freezing cold so we seek asylum in a nearby
bodegón and gorge on familiar favourites like albóndigas and patatas both brava and alioli. For old times’ sake I have a Ponche Caballero, which comes in a silver bottle, is hideously sweet and has since I first came across it on my first visit to Spain in 1988 always seemed like the world’s naffest drink. Immersed as I still am in el mundo hispanohablante, I find it difficult to speak Italian with our friends Michele, Ivana and Eva, who in any case is only one month old so isn’t yet very conversational******, so we stick with Spanish, which I speak differently now because, as I may have mentioned, We Live In Mexico Now, and also because I’m not and never will be Spanish, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’m very much at home.


* On the very last page it turns out that that was kind of the point of the book.

** I also read the serialisation in La Jornada of the novel that Paco Ignacio Taibo II wrote with Subcomandante Marcos and picked up lots of Mexican slang, all of which would come in handy ten or so years later.

*** My fave bit of filthy vocab: zorrero, a burglar who breaks into your house and shits on the floor.

**** The reader may feel the need to nod at this point. In my defence I would like to point out that I was only, er, 14 years old at the time.

***** I’ve had several Colombian students who had the wherewithal and dignity to point out that while their country may produce cocaine, Spain is the number one country for consuming it.

****** She’s growing up both Italian and Spanish, so that will change.




The F Word part 2: In which I become an expert on Real Madrid

In summer 2001 I decided that, having honed my football conversation skills to the enésimo degree, it was about time I got myself an actual team to support. There were three, no wait four, reasons why I, although I was living in Lisbon at the time, didn’t want to choose a Portuguese team:

1)I happened to be holidaying in Spain at the time, and I had decided to Teach Myself Spanish Through Football.
2)Like, in my humble non-fish-or-seafood-eating opinion, Portuguese food, consisting as it often does in either Fish-&-Potatoes-&-Lettuce Combination or Meat-Fried Egg-&-Chips Combination, Portuguese football is Not Up To Much.
3)I am a contrary bastard.
4)It was clear to me that Real Madrid’s policy of buying up the world’s greatest players was going to be a disaster, and that what would follow would make quite an entertaining soap opera.

Why did I think this? Well, even someone as unkeen on sports as me could understand that a team is more than a collection of superstars. Even the most elementary knowledge of group dynamics can tell you that unless there is some team spirit and fellow feeling amongst the players, the group will not succeed.

As if to back this up, my copy of Marca told me that this, now my, new all-singing all-dancing superteam had just drawn their first match of the new era, with a team from Egypt, which is probably at the end of the day, Brian, one of those countries where it’s just too hot and possibly too interesting to waste time and energy playing football.

Another reason, and I will have to briefly revert to technical football language here, was that their defence was rubbish.

El tiempo pasó, and I watched proudly from afar as their policy of buying up the world’s most sought-after soon-to-be-past-their-prime players, while systematically getting rid of any good defenders, curiously failed to bear fruit. Any good defenders, that is, apart from Michel Salgado, presumably because Florentino Perez (a man who evidently knows and cares even less about football than I do, and who was re-elected President with a huge majority last year) didn’t want to get the shit kicked out of him. They resorted to fielding what were basically little more than local kids who, it was clear to me, had never played football in front of more than 200 people before. One of them, Ruben, was cruelly substituted 26 minutes into his debut, which they were already losing three-nil; he responded by, quite understandably I felt, crying a little bit like a girl.

And since then all my predictions have come true – they haven’t won anything for two years, and stand no chance whatsoever of doing so this year, and it is obvious that the players cannot stand the sight of one another. And as for the analysis and criticism filling the pages of the Spanish and foreign press: I could have told you the same information in a cafe in San Sebastian in ten minutes in 2001.

I’m not in the least bit proud to say this, but it would be difficult to say the least for anyone to tell me anything about the last four years in the life of Real Madrid that I don’t already know. I have to consider myself something of an expert, which is a shame because at the same time my Spanish is only Quite Good, and the game of football remains as boring as ever. Other people know and care a hell of a lot more about the sport, however; how was I able to predict with such accuracy what would unfold?

The reason was, I think, because understanding the world of football requires very, very little intelligence. It stimulates very few of your comprehension skills, and talking about it demands very few leaps of imagination. This remains true despite all the detailed coverage and analysis in grown-up newspapers and all the wordy ramblings of Nick Hornby et al. Once you take a step back from boyish enthusiasm and submit it to a good hard look, all analysis of football is a futile intellectual exercise which reveals little we don’t already know about the world.

Today’s conclusion, then: Football – and here I’m talking about the thing we see on TV, not the game played on the beach, in the park or, while we’re at it, on a football field – is on the whole a sport followed by boring and notveryintelligent people, and choosing to dedicate your time to following it can make you a more boring and less intelligent person than you were before.

And neither is it a particularly effective way to learn Spanish.

The F Word part 3

On Serendipity

Although my life has of late been blessed in some ways by a certain amount of serendipity, that has certainly not been the case in financial terms. You get paid less money for teaching English in Spain than the average monkey in a Chinese zoo, which is causing me to seriously reconsider my options ie. you might find me working in Starbucks in London before too long.

In fact it was the realisation that one of my best options for avoiding a life of monkey wages or the need to become a barista and learn how to bombard stoopid people with a seemingly endless succession of daft questions about loyalty cards and biscuits entailed taking an exam which I failed twice half a lifetime ago, and which there is no guarantee whatsoever of me passing this time (I still haven’t figured out what the numerical value of X is supposed to be. I mean, to me, it’s always been more of a letter than a number. I’m quite happy to admit that my mathematical genius is not of Noble Prize-winning standard, I mean I can count to twelve but it takes a fucking long time) that brought me to a level of deep deep despondency on the way back from my insufficiently-rewarded job on Friday afternoon, when I received a rare stroke of financial good fortune – I got a message from my mobile ‘service provider’ (am I the only person who finds that phrase sickening, and its ubiquity quite so depressing?) saying that, for no reason whatsoever, they were going to give me €65 of free credit.

Woo-hoo! You might say. I skipped into the Chinese shop, splashed out on some butter (not literally I should stress) and had a cheery conversation with the less reticent of the two weirdos who work there about different words for broccoli, and positively beamed my way up to the door to my building, where I.




Which started to beep wildly and say something about a ‘error de tarjeta’.

Now I am not in any way a god-fearing person, but I did for an instant get a clear image of a vindictive and scornful bearded face cackling at me from between the darkening clouds overhead. The bastard, or in all sobriety probably just the bastards, had given to me with one hand and then gleefully swept my fortune from me with the other, er, claw. I shook, rattled, swore beautifully at, and eventually fixed! my phone.

Which was a relief.

My confidence boosted, I decided to take my mobile ‘service provider’ (AAARRRRRGGGHHH!) up on one of the promotional offers they have been, despite my very best and at one point even temporarily successful attempts to get them to stop, deluging me with over my last two penurious months. One of those things where they let you phone five numbers for a slightly less outrageous price. This required, along with three spare euros of credit, huge reserves of patience and moral courage, given that to get through to actually speak to someone at Movistar is about as easy as finding your way out of a maze the size of the world, or passing a GCSE Maths exam, if you’re me, except that it takes a lot longer than the seventeen years it’s taken me so far.

I digress. Over 30 separate calls later, and after one mind-bendingly long wait, I got to actually speak to someone. After a brief contest about who could speak Spanish faster, in which after a few minutes I was forced to admit defeat, I asked to speak to someone in English.

When I’d waited quite a bit longer and explained to an extremely German-sounding person what I was after, she asked me to hold on while she got the details, and she seemed to be taking a fairly long time. And when she finally came back on the line she sounded a bit surprised, in that slighty shrill German way, and asked me when was the last time I’d put money on my phone.

I can’t quite describe the level of angst and regret that took hold of my entire head at hearing this question. Evidently by making this torturous phone call, which had by this point drained me of such reserves of time and energy that I would have been pathetically grateful just to be told that the promotion was no longer valid, or just have someone blow a whistle down the phone and hang up, I had drawn the attention of the empresa to the fact that they had inadvertently granted a misplaced windfall to one of their least lucrative clients, and they were about to take my now cherished sixty five euros of credit away from me. For the second time in a handful of hours I, rather than fate, had seemingly just, as they say, totally pissed on my own chips.

I mumbled something as unspecific and incoherent as possible, and she buggered off once again to ‘check out some details’, while I waited, feeling as distraught as someone lost and parched in the desert who has just absent-mindedly upended his water bottle in an misguided attempt to pass his Maths GCSE.

And so to the end of the story, which is … nothing. No more mention of the free credit; I gave her four phone numbers, because it turns out that I don’t know five people in Spain with Movistar phones, which is a bit dismal when you consider that it’s by far the biggest network, and that like in most European countries a population of forty million people somehow shares about 137 million mobile phones between them. And no less than two days later I now have, let’s see, €42 of credit left, because our perceived need to be in constant and immediate contact with other people, and to be seen to be so, blinds us to the fact that we are paying ferocious amounts of money that we simply don’t have for something that, at the level of landlines, is basically free, just like people who live in countries with clean drinking water who ‘only ever drink bottled water’, and whose boundless idiocy is a constant source of awe to me. But, you know, Richard, why don’t you tell us what you really think for a change.

Ho hum. The moral to the tale, then, is don’t look a €65 gift horse in the mouth, or don’t tempt fate when it comes in the form of an serendipitous SMS. And speaking of free gifts, if anyone out there has it within their power to gift me a Maths GCSE, I would be humbly and profoundly grateful. Now how do I set up one of those wishlist things that girls have…

On ¿Qué?

If, as James Joyce said, the useful lifespan of a newspaper is one day, how long does a free newspaper last for? In Madrid, one of the many, many free papers that are scattered throughout the Metro network every day is called 20 Minutos, which seems a fair estimate. As you might expect, you don’t get a very high standard of news journalism from the free press – Metro, Qué!, 20 Minutos and the other ones whose names I forget just tend to feature the exact same news stories written in a fairly clumsy and sensationalist style. But what can you expect – they are free after all. And because of this, it’s not unusual to see people carrying two or three of them to skim through as they move around the city.

As a result, it’s actually quite unusual to see people reading ‘proper’ newspapers, by which I include the generally ubiquitous football papers Marca and As. Which is a shame, because in my opinion Spain has some excellent newspapers. What’s wrong, then, with the free ones? Well, it’s not too outrageous to suggest that when something is free, it’s often because it has no or next to no actual value. Inevitably Qué! (admittedly much better than the others, being a fairly convincing tabloid newspaper with a fair amount of seemingly genuine interest in what the readers think, and which has recently started an aggressive advertising campaign, which is a bit odd considering it’s free) and all the others just exist to sell adverts. At least with what used to be called a ‘journal of record’, you pay your money in return for a certain level of professionalism in terms of how they gather and present information, and you pay to read the considered opinions of experienced people whose opinions actually count for something. With the free ones, it’s pot luck whether or not you get as much as you pay for, so to speak.

I’d hazard a guess and suggest that this relatively new and rapidly expanding phenomen is due to the very low value that we place on news information and commentary these days. There is just so much newsprint out there, any number of TV channels trying to fill up airtime without upsetting anyone important, and besides all that there is the internet, teeming with unsolicited and ill-considered rants like, erm, this one.

Obviously free newspapers and magazines are nothing new in most cities, although I suspect that they are expanding elsewhere at much the same rate. Newspapers and magazines, in fact, of often the most surprising kind. In the National Express ticket office in Sheffield in the summer there was a huge pile of Chinese-language copies of the Epoch Times, and although I wasn’t able to read it much I did pick up an English language edition a few days later in a Portuguese cafe in London. If you’re not familiar with the paper, it’s Taiwan-based and has some connection to the outlawed Falun Gong religious cult, which is why it publishes a great deal of very anti-CCP articles, which although not always very persuasively written, are always good fun to read – some people seem to have a huge problem with the FG, and I don’t know a huge amount about them, but to be honest if anyone dedicates their time to the destruction of the Chinese Communist Party, whether or not they decide to go to the somewhat puzzling extent of setting themselves on fire, they have my wholehearted support, and are welcome to borrow my lighter anytime.

As I say, their newspaper reads like it’s written by someone with a very definite purpose and agenda – but as I said earlier, what the hell, it’s free. If someone picks it up, which is quite possible given the kind of random places where it’s distributed, under the mistaken apprehension that it’s just some normal expat newspaper for overseas Chinese, it will just get jumbled up and/or discarded along with all the other free and mostly useless information they’ve gathered recently. Unlike when we’ve invested money in a publication which we have some reason to trust, with the free press we’re generally I think disinclined to question the sources or the veracity of the information presented, or the motivations of those who are responsible for it.

Speaking, then, of publications for overseas Chinese and for people interested in China, on the bus yesterday I came across yet another free paper, printed in Spanish, with the title of The Mandarin. It is a weekly publication which, surprise surprise, features story after story of very, very good news about the Chinese economy (‘President Of World Bank Praises Social And Economic Progress Of China’, ‘Chinese Outbound Investment To Continue Growing Rapidly This Year’, ‘Chinese Economy In For A Smooth Landing’), along with articles about the mystery of Guilin and Tibet, the exotic and colourful traditions of the ethnic minorities that China is a proud host to, a page dedicated to preparations for 2008, a story about those (trojan) pandas and their long-delayed journey to Taiwan Province, and a special page for people starting to learn Mandarin.

For someone with a mild interest in Chinese culture, it might all seem perfectly innocuous. As I said, when we sit, or more often stand, and read a free newspaper, we don’t usually think in detail about the credentials or the motivations of those who’ve written it. Glossy magazines about China on sale at kiosks or in newsagents around the world contain pretty much the same information, after all.

However, there is for me something about finding publications like this freely distributed in relatively free countries which I find disturbing, and I think it’s the following: in Wild Swans, Jung Chang talks about how the only western publication they could get hold of during the Cultural Revolution was the newspaper of a tiny group of Maoist sympathisers who were ignored or laughed at in the West. Now it seems that the inheritors of that insane tradition are exploiting our carelessness about what information about the world we allow to enter our heads.

Is the value that we place on news information now so low that we will allow the Chinese Communist Party to distribute state propaganda as though it were just another innocent random source of information about the world?

If that’s the inevitable consequence of this explosion of ‘free’ newspapers, I’d prefer to stick with the Guardian or El País – or maybe even Marca or As.