Spain dreads return of the 'years of hunger'

As unemployment rises and food queues grow ever longer, it's reminiscent of the 1950s

Two days ago, the main cartoon in the Spanish daily El Pais showed two people staring at a sun which has just one beam left, the punchline being: "Remember when it had a full set?" It is indeed growing increasingly hard to remember such a time in the land of desperation formerly known as Spain.

"Photos for weddings? Down 50 per cent. Christenings? Down 30 per cent," Karlis Mendrano, a long-standing professional photographer in his fifties from San Sebastian, told me. "Ever since the bank cut off the credit, people marry far less, and they want less when they do. I can't put up my prices, so I give them cheaper quality. It's never been so bad."

Chari Peinado, an experienced waitress in an Irish bar in southern Spain, said: "There are periods, like yesterday lunchtime, when it all just shuts down and there's literally nobody. It's eerie. Really bad." And Julio Alvarez, a financial consultant, said: "If things go on like this we are heading towards the abyss" – as if that were the most normal thing in the world. He added: "Most people don't have a clue what an international bailout really is. They just know we're up the creek."

Paradoxically, given that some of the grimmest effects of the crisis can strike anywhere, from Bilbao to the Balearics, it is not always that simple to pinpoint a particular area as recession-struck: it could happen anywhere, on a street near you.

Some effects, though, are unavoidable: every day in the past 12 months that I've walked past a queue outside a food kitchen run by monks near the Puerta del Sol square in central Madrid, the line has invariably stretched round the length of the office block. And, if the three unemployed on hunger strike in a church building in Granada are not on public view, the evicted couple and their two daughters, aged 11 and three, who lived in a Kia car on a vacant parking lot near the same city for two freezing winter months, most definitely were. (The day after the story about the couple in the car was run in the local press, they were offered a job and a house free of charge.)

Beggars appear to be changing as a result of the recession. Rather than 10 years ago, when many had thick foreign accents, the cards asking for money are now written in fluent Spanish. Thanks to the clouds of tourists who still flock to Spain, city centres are perhaps the least different, even if "menus anti-crisis" in popular restaurants, cheap three-course deals for slimmer wallets, are now so common they are no longer eye-catching. More visible, though, are the fluorescent-jacketed touts who now roam the streets offering to buy jewels and gold, no questions asked. Ten years ago they were non-existent; now, sadly, they are as common a sight as pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

Not everybody is doing so badly. Mercadona, a supermarket chain comparable to Sainsbury's, opened 20 new stores in Navarre recently, and its rival Eroski plans to open 60 across Spain in 2012. The country's arms industry is relatively small but is booming (sales doubled in 2011, albeit only in exports), and it seems as if on every street corner there is a new todo a cien – Spain's equivalent of Poundland – or fast-food outlet.

"The scrapyards are making a fortune," adds David Barrales, a car mechanic with his own repair business. "More and more people come to me with used car parts they've bought from write-offs as replacements. Or they'll simply use a bit of wood to keep the window up on a car to save buying a motor."

Not that there are so many cars on the roads these days. "It used to take me 45 minutes or more to get to the local hospital each morning. Now it'll take me 30," Francisco Benitez, a taxi driver of 30 years' standing, told me. "People can't afford the petrol any more. It's as busy as it used to be only when it rains."

Cash payments, once standard in Spain for everything but which all but disappeared in the boom years, are becoming more and more normal again. Just one example: the fuel company that comes to refill the oil tank in my property will no longer take credit cards; according to the lorry driver, they've had too many defaults on the payments.

The lifeboats for Spain's sinking ship of an economy are filling steadily. In 2008, only Bulgaria, Hungary and Turkey had lower levels of English speakers and only 4 per cent of Spaniards said they were learning the language. These days, though, Spaniards are sitting exams in English – effectively, cast-iron proof of knowledge of foreign languages – in record numbers. "Numbers have gone through the roof," said Joanne Lehmann, an English-language school director and teacher in inland Spain for the past 27 years. "We can't deal with all the inquiries. I've never known anything like it. In October 2011 when terms started, we had a 50 per cent increase in adult learners, a 40 per cent increase in people sitting exams. It's up to 2,800 now. Even people who aren't ready want to take them." She has, she says, 50 engineering students, all of them recently graduated, on her books; none of them has a job.

Marisa Arranz, unemployed for nearly five years, said: "This country has been drained of so much. What do they want to take from us next? Kidneys? Lungs? Limbs?" Ms Arranz still has her home, but others are not so fortunate. According to protest groups, about 200 Spanish families are evicted daily from their houses because they can no longer afford the mortgage – total default payments in Spain currently stand at €143bn, their highest in nearly 20 years.

For anybody aged 70 or over in Spain – those who remember the "Years of Hunger" in the 1940s and 1950s, when Spain suffered its worst recession of the last century and the American embassy recorded levels of infant mortality of 50 per cent in Madrid's suburbs – there are enough echoes of that time for them not to wish to be caught out again.

Federico Bahamontes, a sprightly 83-year-old who was Spain's first winner of the Tour de France, is one such case. Every weekend Mr Bahamontes – who started out working on a fruit and veg stall – goes out to his semi-clandestine allotment outside Toledo, where he tends vegetables and has a "good well of water". He is extremely cagey about its precise location, though.

"Why do you think I've got it?" he asked. "It's for if there's a next time like the 1950s again. This is child's play in comparison to back then." Perhaps. But the plea in Friday's El Pais – "let's not go back to the 1950s" – is hardly an encouraging sign either.