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Why I am writing this blog

This is a new blog. WordPress say new bloggers should say something in the first post about what their blog is going to be like and what the point of it is.

I live in Portugal. I am retiring from work very soon, and people concerned for my mental welfare are keen that I should keep myself occupied. They fret that I may become depressed if I knock about the house doing nothing. This is nonsense, because I don’t get depressed. However I may become:

  • bored
  • scared
  • gloomy
  • prone to bouts of staring introspection
  • unable to get up in the morning
  • a convert to Catholicism

so I have had to give it some thought. My wife will not be retiring for a year or two, and likes to assure me that a lot of my time will be taken up with cleaning, changing bed-linen, dealing with laundry, planning meals, sorting out the garden, going to the supermarket, cooking dinner, loading and emptying the dishwasher and so on. She also thinks it would be good for me to have an allotment and to spend more time with the grandchildren.

So I have decided to write a blog.

Why a blog?

Two reasons:

  1. I enjoy writing, and a blog may help the time pass more quickly until I can give up without embarrassment and begin quietly waiting for my final ailment.
  2. The other week a colleague at work said ‘Well, you could always write a blog’.

What will the blog be like?

  •  A sort of irregular journal, a way of publishing mockery and sarcasm at the expense of things which annoy or amuse me. There will be quite a lot about living in Portugal, language, sport, and what’s on British television. It will mostly aim to be humorous, but not always succeed. It will avoid complex issues like the plague.* It will not, even intermittently, be Tolstoyan in its seriousness, ambition and moral scope.
  • There will be anecdotal descriptions of incidents, places and so on. The easily-embarrassed reader may wish to give these literary sallies a wide berth, but I enjoy writing them.
  • It will be a ragbag of bits and pieces, reminiscences, jokes, other people’s poetry, critical comment on old pop songs nobody cares about any more…
  • And so much more.

* I don’t have much to say about the plague.

Menhirs, cromlechs, dolmens and all that (1)

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It’s a bright early-spring morning as we head east along the A2 motorway. When it curves south for the Algarve, we take the A6 towards Évora and Spain. Straight away, things feel different. The traffic is light as we take it more slowly across the green, tree-covered plains of central Alentejo, and when we stop for coffee and a bite to eat, the plentiful staff in the service-station cafeteria are jaw-droppingly slow and disorganised. Opposite the counter, so many alentejano products are on sale that it is difficult to get about without knocking something over. There are maps and hats and sheepskin gloves and the usual tourist tat, but also wine, cheese, olives, conserves, big dry-cured hams, and a huge variety of items made from cork. One is a beautiful, well-made umbrella, which I seriously consider buying until I find the price-tag.

After ten minutes back on the motorway we take exit 5 for the N114 and Évora, and almost straight away we turn right again for the village of Guadelupe. Now we really are in the Alentejo. I slow down and lower my window, and the others do the same. We are with my brother Mick and my sister-in-law Jane, who are visiting from England. We are going to visit three of the neolithic sites to be found in the region of Évora, which is as good a pretext as any for spending a day in the Alentejo in early Spring, my favourite time of year to be there.

This little road is a pleasant drive on such a sunny morning. On either side is gently rolling pasture, thinly-grassed and so well-cropped it is a surprise to see not sheep but small-statured, square-rumped cattle grazing among the olive trees, or beneath the broad bushy crowns of cork-oaks.  At the foot of some of the trees are picturesque piles of whitish-grey boulders, some the size of small cars, which must (somehow) have been put there long ago when the ground was cleared. The undulating terrain, cropped grass and widely-spaced trees are park-like in the warm yellow sunlight, the quietly grazing cattle the final Capability Brown touch.

In Guadelupe we turn right, following the sign for the cromeleque dos Almendres. We are now on a dirt road, which will take us to two of the three sites. The road is very uneven but by no means impassable. We go cautiously, and after two or three lurching kilometres come to a wider place where we park under a cork-oak. There is a track, and a sign indicating that it leads to the menhir of Almendres, our first destination.

We make our way down the narrow path in single file. Just beyond arm’s reach on each side are paige-wire fences on stumpy wooden posts, ubiquitous in the Alentejo. It is one of those tracks which double as a watercourse in wet weather. A deep irregular gulley has been scoured in the sandy earth, so that we are forced either to straddle the gap and work along splay-legged, or mince slowly down the middle, placing one foot in front of the other like a model on a cat-walk. At first I adopt the latter method but keep losing my balance, half-falling to one side or the other. Soon my hands and the knees of my trousers are smeared by the damp pinkish-brown earth, and I go the rest of the way in a wide-legged waddle. Beyond the fence it is mixed alentejano woodland: olive trees, cork-oaks and bramble-bushes, with the ground smothered in the bright green and astringent yellow of Bermuda buttercups, which run riot at this time of year but fortunately have the good taste to die down when the indigenous spring flowers begin.

All around is the piping chatter of chaffinches, attracted by the dusty-pink quinces on leafless trees, which remind us that the menhir is within a long stone’s throw of farm-buildings, on private land – though it still feels odd to read later, on the Evora Tourism website, that having fallen in 1964 it was put up again by its owner.  It doesn’t seem quite right for possession of farmland to confer private ownership of a stone raised sixty or seventy centuries ago, though when pressed I can’t explain why.

After a couple of hundred yards we reach the menhir, in the middle of a circular, fenced clearing like the frying-pan to the path’s handle. It is three or four metres high, of pitted grey granite speckled with yellow and ochre lichen. In writings about standing-stones, the word ‘phallic’ is used freely, but this looks more like the top two sections of a giant forefinger, fingernail and all. A small tourist-information notice informs us that there is a shallow-relief carving of a shepherd’s crook high up – crosiers are a frequent motif for animal-herding Neolithics. We peer at the stone from all angles, but none of us can find it. I run my hand over the cool pitted surface of the menhir, while my brother rolls and lights a cigarette. On the other side of the stone, I catch the first fragrant whiff as tobacco smoke drifts by. It is a quiet, still, pleasant spot amongst the olive trees, and the gentle sunlight is warm. We stand gazing for a time, but there is nowhere to sit. After a while we return to the car and drive on to the Almendres cromlech.

The road is now still more uneven, and brown puddles of uncertain depth oblige us to go very slowly, but after two or three kilometres it ends at a rough-and-ready car-park, also with its complement of puddles. Four or five cars are already parked there. We park, get out and walk the remaining hundred yards or so along a broad track which runs through an olive-grove, emerging to find ourselves at the top of a spacious, east-facing clearing on gently sloping ground. Standing on this bare slope are scores of rough, generally egg-shaped stones, each about the height of a person, arranged in two approximate concentric circles. Like the menhir, the stones are of granite.

This is the largest stone circle in the Iberian peninsula, a more famous site than the menhir and far more beautiful and impressive than I was expecting. It is also much busier. There is a large, detailed tourist-information board, and close to a dozen people wander about as if not sure why they have come nor what they are expected to do. It is now mid-afternoon, and this is the post-Sunday-lunch drive and stroll, soon to be followed by a stop for coffee somewhere and possibly a pastry. In the meantime, and without much else to do, young people are taking photographs of themselves and each other, adopting seductive poses or smiling winningly beside the seven-thousand-year-old stones.*

We do much the same for half-an-hour, enjoy the long eastward view, then head back to the car for a sandwich.  Our next stop will be the Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro. (To be continued).

 

* Not everyone takes the cromlech so casually for granted. It is much pored-over by enthusiasts of prehistoric astronomy, who have discovered among other things that a line traced from the cromlech to the Almendres menhir points towards the sunrise in the winter solstice (or the summer solstice, depending on your source).

The site Neolithic Studies adds that it is ‘very popular today with New Agers, Pagans, neo-Druids and neo-shamans’. Unsure what Pagan means in this context, I look the word up. Merriam-Webster offers ‘one who has little or no religion and who delights in sensual pleasures and material goods’, but that doesn’t sound quite right. It’s hard to see this person lasting more than two minutes at the cromlech (I am reminded a little of the young people I saw this afternoon). The dictionary.com site has ‘a member of a religious, spiritual or cultural community based on the worship of nature or the earth.’ This definitely seems to be on the right track, but I feel I haven’t got there yet. It is not until I try the ever-enjoyable Urban Dictionary that I feel I have a really clear picture: ‘a group of religions made up by silly  white guys in the Romantic period when they were playing at being wizards and druids and shit. They all claim to have a really old history but they’re lying cuntbags like any religious group.’  So that’s Pagans.

If like me you are now wondering with some misgivings what neo-shamans might be, I am given a clue by Neolithic Studies with the following report, delivered without irony: ‘A menhir on the south edge of the enclosure has been carved with a large semi-circular cupmark. A local neo-shaman respondent claimed that she and her students (sic) have experienced visionary journeys when they placed their head inside this indentation’.

That probably sums up neo-shamans, but anyone keen to know more would probably enjoy a visit to the http://www.reconnections site below, which is as nutty as they come. I add two other sites I looked at.

http://www.reconnections.net/neo_shamans.htm

http://www.ancient-wisdom.com/astronomy.htm

https://www2.stetson.edu/neolithic-studies/stone-rows/almendres-stone-rows-portugal/

 

 

 

The daily grind 3: You’ve got to take your hat off to play like that.

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It is going to be another day of black, wet, gusty weather. It’s past nine-thirty, but as I wash up my breakfast things, the morning outside the glass kitchen doors is sombre enough for me to leave the kitchen light on.

When the washing-up is finished, there is nothing else to do.  I listen for a long minute or two, dish-cloth in hand, to the soft, close-grained pattering of the rain on the low roof above.

Aquarobics, breakfast and the washing-up are done, the dog’s been out, and there’s no point putting a wash on in this weather. Emphasising the point, the rain intensifies and the pattering quickly swells and deepens to a steady, packed roar. No supermarket shopping is going to get done either, not in this. I wring out the cloth, dry my hands, and walk through to the sitting-room, beyond whose west-facing french windows the rain is gusting and squallish, rattling on the glass like stones and battering the white blossom from our almond tree. On the terrace outside the door, raindrops are splashing white and high like hail, generating large bubbles which are borne for an instant on the water now pouring across the tiles and down the steps.

I pick up the book I’m reading, Heart of Darkness. I started it yesterday, having been meaning to read it for the last forty years, or whatever it has been since Apocalypse Now. Within five minutes I come across the following:

“Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you–smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute, with an air of whispering, Come and find out.” 

I find I can’t read this without hearing Swiss Toni, the car salesman from The Fast Show (“You know, Paul, colonising a vast continent is a little like making love to a beautiful woman”), and as I read on I am reminded time and again of his self-approving drawl:

‘’You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies – which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world–what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose.”

Come to think of it, there might be a bit of Ray Mears in there too, having one of his earnest moments. Either way, I’m having a job taking Conrad’s damaged, raffish philosopher-adventurer as seriously as he takes himself, and this looks like another book, masterpiece or not, which I am going to abandon half-read.

This is becoming a bit of a habit. In the last fortnight I have given up on two, one called ‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ and another called ‘Big Brother’. The second is apparently quite good, but there we are. It can be something quite small which makes me sicken, turn and run, as Seamus Heaney might put it. Many years ago I read Robert Ludlum novels (I can’t explain this) until one day, I came to the words “The door opened, and standing before me was quite simply”. They were at the bottom of a page, and I felt so ill at the thought, the sure knowledge, of how Ludlum would continue the sentence that I closed the book without turning the page, and never read a word by him again.  I also left in the middle of the last two films I saw in a cinema, and I did the same during a performance of the dreary and interminable La Traviata in Sydney Opera House a couple of years ago, though that was a case of not going back in after the interval (I had applauded enthusiastically, thinking it was the end, and had to be told there was more of it still to come.)

The rain has stopped and a cautious sun has come out.  In our small back garden there is a cheerful, omnipresent dripping and trickling and gurgling. Fat water-drops glisten, and a blackbird has started singing.

Coming back indoors, I switch on the television (we are able to receive British channels). I don’t know how last night’s football matches went, so I settle down to watch a re-showing of Manchester United versus Sevilla.  United are playing negative, leaden, clueless football, and as the game goes on the crowd become anxious and quiet, with Gary Neville taking a dim view of United’s ‘low energy levels’. (Appendix 1). At half-time I take the dog out again. Meanwhile, crafty Sevilla are happy to wait their chance, and sure enough they get it with twenty minutes to go, just as I rejoin the game. In a matter of minutes they are 2-0 ahead, and United play even worse from then on, going out of the Champions league without a struggle. It’s the end of a bad seven days for English football fans, with Spurs going out of Europe as well, and England’s only world-class player getting a nasty injury at the weekend.

Outside, it has started raining again.

 

Appendix 1. Punditry and Language: sayings from televised sport.

For what they are worth, the entries below were gathered over the last year or so. I hope to share more in future posts.

Unintended double-entendres

·         “You’ve got to take your hat off to play like that”. An admiring Alan Smith (Sky Sports) produced this all-time favourite a year or two ago (but you wouldn’t even have to take your wellington boots off to play like Manchester United did against Sevilla.)

Vacuous Jargon

·         “Low (or high) energy (or concentration) levels”. The difficulty with this bit of jargon, widely adopted by ex-players, lies in the mystifying use of the plural form. ‘Low’ is fine with ‘energy’, and I suppose we could meaningfully speak of a single ‘low level’ of it, but how many low levels can a person’s energy be exhibiting at any one time? The same question can be asked about concentration levels.

Mixed Metaphors and other malapropisms

·         “He’s thrown his name into the hat” for selection. Ex-rugby player Steven Ferris said this of Lions second-string Courtney Lawes, who had played well in a midweek match. It was a notable feat on Lawes’ part, as he was presumably throwing his hat into the ring at the same time.

·         “This is the environment where you sink or swim, and traditionally we’ve seen Exeter guys who’ve come through the system – when they get in the pressure-cooker they swim.” An Exeter Chiefs ex-player.

·         “Gloucester have been victims of their own downfall’. The sorrowful judgement of a BT Sport rugby pundit after a game in which Gloucester committed tactical and technical errors.

General drivel

·         “For the players of Pochetino, Mourinho, Guardiola, there’s a level of work ethic that has to happen”. (Gary Neville)

·         “Trippier and Davies are two good fullbacks – completely different to a certain extent, but very talented.” (Jamie Redknapp)

·         “As a fan, when you cross that white line, you’ve crossed the line” (Frank Lampard, speaking about the West Ham pitch invasion)

The daily grind 2: dog-walking

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I pull the tall gate to, and it closes behind me with a crash. As always the dog wants to turn right, out of the small largo* where our house is, round the corner, down the steps and then down the hill to the little allotments near the dual carriageway. But we’re going the other way, a five-minute walk past the school to the park.

The road is a quiet one. There are turnings to the right, but these are safe, square little cul-de-sacs, separated from the road by the broad, uneven pavement of square cobblestones, so the dog is off the lead. She trots ahead of me jauntily, sniffing at this and that, stopping now and then to pee or to check that I’m following.

The area is modest, lived-in, more comfortable than prosperous. There are two or three small apartment blocks in need of a coat of paint, but mostly it is one- or two-storey houses. There are red rooves, head-high fences, small gardens, yuccas, a big broad-crowned pine. Here and there along the pavement lie the hard dark bean-pods of carob trees, the broad-mouthed seed-cases of jacarandas. Across the road, behind a chain-link fence, are the worn-looking grounds of the primary school, an unassuming one-storey building. At the open service gate two dinner-ladies in white overalls are smoking. No other life is visible, though in the warm late-winter sunshine I can hear the swizzling call of a serin somewhere nearby. Sure enough, as I finally think of looking straight up, I catch a glimpse of canary-yellow as it flits from the telephone-wire it has been perching on.

The dog has found an especially appealing gatepost, which she is sniffing thoroughly at various angles and heights. If she was on the lead I would tug at it, but now I wait accommodatingly for a few seconds then walk on. She can follow at her leisure. She is a short-haired, plumpish, intelligent little mongrel, with slightly protuberant eyes set in a head which might be considered handsome in isolation (perhaps only by me), but is unfortunately two sizes too small for her body. With her black and tan markings she is often taken for a Jack Russell, but apparently she isn’t one, she is the issue of a spaniel bitch and something else. We took her on after the death of her second owner two years ago, and she came with the name Gucci. She is ten years old.

As we reach the little park we are approached excitedly by Charley, a friendly long-haired terrier with bright black eyes. I enjoy stroking his coat, although after Gucci’s well-covered ribs, he seems skinny and knobbly under all the silky hair. His owner is friendly and open in a way that the guarded Portuguese rarely are. He is Ukrainian, or Moldovan, one of those. When Veronica and I bump into him last thing at night, he has sometimes had a drink or two. The other night he confided that he is lumbered with Charley because his wife bought him as a puppy expecting a lap-dog, and now won’t have anything to do with him because he grew too big. What she probably thought she was getting was a handbag dog like a Maltese Bichon.  A friend of ours has one which she stows in her bag whenever she goes on the train.

The park is unenclosed. Along one edge is a line of plane-trees, and there are a good number of  ornamental species as you walk through: Indian bean-trees, three or four bushy-crowned pepper trees, currently with clusters of tiny pink peppercorns, and plenty of Australian casuarinas, whose needles and tiny, precisely-knurled cones can be found scattered beneath them.  It is an attractive place to be when the sun is out, especially late afternoon, when the shadows are dark and long on the bright green lawns.

We pass the enclosed playground, equipped with a slide, swings, a climbing frame and so on. The council has put up an energetic sign ‘expressly prohibiting’ the presence of dogs in the playground and ordering that the gate always be kept closed, so in my public-spirited way I close it every time I pass. I have taken to doing things like this, tut-tutting my way through the day. In the summer I pick up beer bottles and cans left near the benches by damaged people and dope-smoking youths, and put them in the recycling bin nearby.

On a whim I sit on a bench, close my eyes and raise my face to the warmth for half a minute, like a man with a hangover in a hot shower. When I open my eyes Gucci has walked on, and is looking back at me nonplussed. She returns and roams about sniffing for a little while before stretching out on the asphalt nearby, chin on the ground. Her eyes are closed, but she isn’t sleeping: at the distant pipe of a child’s voice her head snaps up instantly, ears raised like periscopes.

I do draw the line at picking up other people’s dog-shit. There is always plenty of this, even though there are two or three black-bag dispensers in the park. You’ll have to take my word for it, but if there’s anything worse than picking up your own dog’s warm stools, it is picking up another dog’s cold ones by mistake.

Sometimes the turds are piled on top of one another like little cairns, clearly the work of a large animal like the one we bumped into the other morning. He was a huge black thing with a heavy leather collar and a tag bearing his name – Brutus or Hercules or something, one of those big-dog names the Portuguese like – and a phone-number. Veronica thought he might be lost, and wanted to reassure the owners that he was alive and well, but there was no reply to her call or to the text she sent. This of course was because they knew perfectly well he was out, having let him out themselves twenty minutes before. This is quite common practice in Portugal, and is probably the main reason why the country’s parks and pavements are coated in dog-shit; but why put yourself to the bother of taking your dog out, when he is perfectly capable of doing his business without your supervision?

Which is all very well until you consider the case a year or two ago of a woman who was attacked outside her house at seven-thirty in the morning (the time of day is a give-away), by four rotweillers which had ‘escaped’ from the house of a neighbour. She was so severely mauled that a few hours later she died of her wounds in hospital.

 

*Largo:  a small square, sometimes not much more than a wide place in the street.

The daily grind 1: early morning

This is the first of a few posts about what a retired person has time to get up to when other people are at work.

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The alarm hastily silenced, I slide out of bed as quietly as I can, so my wife can get another half-hour’s sleep.  In the bathroom, I put on the clean shirt, underwear and socks I left on the landing last night. I will be having my shower at the gym, after aquarobics at 7.30.  I can’t find my slippers, so I gingerly descend the polished wooden stairs in stockinged feet.

It is still very dark outside as I put on the kettle. I shut the kitchen door because of the noise and get on with washing a couple of dirty pans left from last night. When the kettle boils I make tea. I can empty the dishwasher later. In the sitting-room the dog opens one unfocused-looking eye, but doesn’t stir from her basket. She is ten now, and sleeps in like a teenager.

At 7.15 I head for the gym, these days modishly described as a Wellness Club, though this seems not to have penetrated the thinking of the people who run the small cafeteria on the first floor down. The swimming-pool is also on this floor. The changing rooms are on the floor below. On the stairwell wall there is a hand-written poster saying ‘Be Stronger than your Excuses’ alongside others bearing profundities of the ‘work hard, play hard’, ‘no pain, no gain’ type. There is a poster advertising Zen classes, and one offering something called Body Jam, which I have never asked about but I hope is something you can do.

In the men’s changing-room, insipid pop music plays in the background. The room is empty, but as I am changing other people arrive, giving a courtesy ‘bom dia’ as they enter, in the Portuguese way. None of these will be doing aquarobics, however, which is mostly considered something for women and old men.

It’s a 25-metre pool, in an enclosed space like a two-storey hangar. It is overlooked from the second of these storeys by floor-to-ceiling observation windows, which offer a view from the exercise-machine and weights rooms on the ground floor. The instructor is already at the poolside fiddling with the useless little sound-system, which is finally induced to play muffled 90s dance music to which nobody pays the slightest attention.

There are about a dozen women in the pool and one other man, a regular without much hair under his bathing cap but a thick white pelt of it on his back and shoulders. Most of us are in our sixties and maybe seventies, though some are slightly younger. The instructor is a skinny, bounding, high-spirited young woman called Inês, who models the exercises with great definition and crispness, and keeps an eye on what people are actually doing below the surface. This is invariably quite different from what she is doing, so there is a constant flow of grinning banter, mockery, correction and encouragement, which has no effect whatsoever. Most of the participants continue to make only the sketchiest attempt to replicate the exercises, and around half chat through the entire programme, only breaking off to protest with ponderous girlishness at any exercise they consider to demand unreasonable exertion. There is plenty of laughter. As we work our way through the programme, I wonder what these women are like in their lives outside the pool. In it they behave like insubordinate ninth-graders, enjoying every minute.

As I walk back to the car reflecting severely on slogans, their epigrammatic vacuousness, their  sentimentality, their obviousness, their corrosive effect on thought, my eye is providentially drawn to a new and uplifting piece of graffiti: ‘se caires 100 vezes, levanta-te 101’ (if you fall a hundred times, pick yourself up a hundred and one.)  I think this through doggedly, and discover that it is impossible: once you have risen from your hundredth fall, the only way to get up for a hundred-and-first time is to fall over again. I wonder censoriously if it might not have been better for the young author to carry out this simple thought-experiment before putting pen to wall, but know in my heart that he* has probably got it right: nobody expects slogans to mean very much.

*I know, it could be a she.

Mud, mud…

This might be the first of  a series of descriptive pieces about places I like going to, or it might be a one-off. Apologies for any factual errors.

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The area known as the Lezirias is a cultivated flood-plain bordering the Tagus river, about thirty kilometres north of Lisbon. It is a kind of irregular peninsula, bounded on two sides by rivers – to the west by the Tagus, to the east by the much smaller Sorraia – and to the south by the north-eastern shore of the enormous Tagus estuary, into which the Sorraia also flows. At low tide the southern and western sides are fringed by acres of oozy black mud.

The Lezirias are easy to get to from Lisbon. Take the A1 motorway, turn off at Vila Franca de Xira and follow signs for the N10 and Evora, taking the old iron bridge across the Tagus. Half a kilometre east of the bridge there is a wide gateway on the right and you are there. Just drive in.

Today is a good day for a visit. By mid-morning, the sky has cleared, and there is warmth in the low mid-January sunlight. I am in my nineteen-year-old Citroen Berlingo van, and I take it slowly on the pot-holed dirt road. On each side are deep ditches, lined by rough verges of the rich leafy ground-cover which goes wild in the Portuguese winter. The view of the rice-paddies beyond is partially obscured by tall, faintly rustling reeds, feathery heads nodding and swinging. On a cloudless day like this morning, the rain-flooded fields are sky-blue, dotted and striated with dark bristly rice stubble.  They will remain flooded until they are drained for replanting in April. Feeding there are storks, scores of purple ibis, and slim, high-stepping black-winged stilts, scanning for frogs and crayfish. To the left is pasture.

A vast quiet presides over this broad level place. In the haze to the west, far beyond the fields and the unseen river, there is rising ground on which are visible tiny soundless factories and red-roofed housing blocks the size of cigarette packets. Beyond rise the dim hills behind Vila Franca de Xira.  To the east and south, the view is clear to the horizon, where the spindly electricity pylons dwindle, faint and minute. Three or four miles away is the church of Nossa Senhora de Alcamé, boxy in the surrounding levelness.

Today I take a right-hand turn early on, down a road I haven’t explored before. After a couple of miles and a turn or two, I am following a wide, reed-edged channel. There is a low, scruffy white house ahead, where the dirt road rises to the top of an embankment and stops at a broad gate. Well before I park, a rabble of dogs are barking their heads off behind the house’s makeshift fence, and the racket reaches fever pitch as I walk past and up to the gate. Down to the left, the embankment is pierced by a cement sluice-gate, above which runs the path. Beyond it, the much-reduced channel trickles out between soft banks of dark, glistening mud to join the Tagus.

I turn left above the sluice-gate, bearing water-bottle and sandwich, camera, binoculars and a rolled-up lightweight groundsheet. The sun is now very warm, and I remove my scarf and open my jacket. As I walk along the dyke, the yelping gradually fades behind me, finally disappearing entirely into the  enormous, drenching quietness. There are avocets picking about on the estuary mud, and pied wagtails scurrying and fluttering across the rice-paddy. After a few minutes I unroll the groundsheet, spread it out billowing over the knee-high ground cover, and settle down for elevenses. Around me the sunlight strikes the colours into life: the bottle-green of prickle-weeds veined with bright white, the luminous translucence of the broader leaves nodding above them. My sandwich consumed, I sink back for a snooze.

The flood-plain is farmed by the Companhia das Lezirias, who also contribute to EVOA, the organisation which runs the birdwatching centre near the southernmost point of the flood-plain. I drop in there later for a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. The centre is recent, a pleasant well-run space with a café, lecture rooms and three big artificial ponds occupying the reedy space which runs south towards the estuary. There are three or four hides for those who don’t mind sitting on a bench in a wooden box for hours, but a visit is not cheap, and in fact there is just as much to see on the way to the centre – far more birds than the ones I have mentioned here, and I glimpsed and filmed a sizeable wild boar a few years ago, before the centre was built.

The café has a plate-glass observation window running its width, through which the nearest of the ponds can be observed with the telescope provided, though I prefer my  Polaris Optics binoculars (highly recommended). The cake today is orange and cinnamon flavour, home-made, sweet, and soggy in the middle. The lady who serves me is quick to forestall comment by pointing out that it is a cake that is intended to be moist. Moist is moist and soggy is soggy, I think, but I say nothing and eat most of it.  At the reception desk I ask about a tourist bus I had seen in the distance an hour or two ago, heading north towards the main gate. Sure enough, there had been a visit from a large group. I have mixed feelings about that, as I do in my grudging way every time a favourite place is discovered and developed.

I ask if there are many visits and if they pay for the maintenance of the centre. There aren’t, and they don’t, but my attention flags as the receptionist explains how the place is subsidised, and I am soon wishing I hadn’t asked. In a little while I head back to the N10.

A word to the young

Good morning, everyone. Now, as some of you might know, I will not be here when you return next year, because I am retiring from teaching. And as retiring teachers sometimes do, I am going to say a few words to you, to bid you all farewell and to pass on the wisdom which I have acquired during the course of my long career. I have acquired this wisdom through being what is called a Lifelong Learner. If any of you become teachers, you will hear that phrase incessantly, unless it has become unfashionable by … sorry, have I said something funny? Well, I realise the idea of any of you doing such low-grade work may sound hilarious now, but if things don’t work out for you, you never know what twists and turns life may take.

So what wisdom have I acquired? I am happy to pass it on to you.

(there is an audible click, and a video image of an hour-glass appears on the screen, sand running from the upper flask to the lower).

Study this hour-glass, please. Maria, can I take questions later? All right, what would you like to share?  Yes, you could call it an egg-timer. But the main point is that the sand is running down from the top part to the lower part. And, what, since it seems I cannot discourage audience participation, does the sand represent? May I just go to Veronica, Maria, since she has her hand up? Yes, that’s an original idea, Veronica, but … anyone? Perhaps one of the younger children for a change? Yes, it represents time. It is a symbol, of sorts. And when all the sand has run from the top to the bottom, what can we do? Yes, Veronica, good, but after we have taken the eggs from the saucepan, and cut the tops off quickly so that they don’t go hard in their shells? Anyone? Well, with an hourglass, we can turn the glass round, and the sand can begin running down again. I don’t know why we would want to do that either, Augustas, but the point is that we can. So, what is the big difference between the hour-glass and a person’s life? Well, one big one is this: once the sand of a person’s life has run out, we cannot just turn the glass over and start again. That person is what we call dead.

Now all of you before me today will end up dying: some sooner, some later, quickly or slowly, bravely or not. You must have seen this with pets. Has anyone had a pet which died? Oh dear, can someone pass Daphne a tissue? Thank you. Big blow, Daphne, that’s the ticket. Crikey, that is a big one. Perhaps another tissue, someone.  Or two. Good. OK, now nobody else start, please. Perhaps a joke will cheer us all up. What is the death rate in Portugal?

The usual, one  per person. What is going on here?

Be quiet, can’t stop now. But before that dying day comes you will have a long time to live out your privileged, gated-community lives, unless you are murdered by one of the gardeners first, or die young of a horrible illness. And there is no shortage of opinion regarding how you should set about living these lives of yours. Priests of all religions are an excellent source of ideas, though these often involve following strange rules, and require the ability to believe in life after death. Other people will derive satisfaction from informing you, after Jean-Paul Sartre, that there is no God, nobody watching us and no one keeping score, but that even so we have no choice but to live, and must try to do so meaningfully.

We are condemned to be free.

Thank you, can you be quiet? Yes Max, he was French, excellent, well done! Katie, close your mouth, it’s been ajar for a little while now. Now if you find all that hard to manage, I can only recommend doing what most of us do, which is to spend half our time dreading or enduring the things which hurt, frighten or bore us, the other half looking forward to doing the things we like, and in between as little time as possible noticing how pointless the whole enterprise is. Thus you will probably spend nearly all of your time thinking about the future or the past, but only a tiny portion of it living consciously in the present moment. My own view is …

Excuse me, sorry to interrupt…

Oh for Christ’s sake. Yes?

What is this?

Have you just woken up? It’s a retirement speech.

Yours.

Could be.

This really happened?

It’s happening. As we speak.

It’s, um, how shall I put it? You might want to have a look at it, or is it too late? You can’t say for Christ’s sake in a school assembly, for a start-off.

You interrupted, three times. Look, if it’s all right, I’m shattered.  Can we carry on with this tomorrow?

You’re sure it was the French bloke who said that? Not Siddhartha or Carlos Castaneda or someone?

It was the French bloke. And anyway … look, can we drop this, actually? I’m going to bed now.

Fine by me, keep your hair on. Did you hear the one about the old man going up to bed carrying a glass of water and an empty glass?

Good night.

So they ask him ‘Why are you carrying that glass upstairs?’ And he says, ‘In case I get thirsty in the night, of course.’ So they say ‘No, the empty one.’

And he says, that’s in case I don’t get thirsty.

That’s right, so you knew that one.

Good night.

Good night, sleep tight.

Who else hates the English?

 

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(Continued…)

So Australians don’t get worked up about all that?

Nope. Being descended from a transported convict is a source of pride these days. That’s what I was told.

Pride that your great great great grandfather was arrested for impersonating an Egyptian?

It’s better if he was an Irish political prisoner, but there are only so many of those to go round. Jeremiah O’Donovan was a famous one, he’s on a 19 Crimes label, I think.

Are you telling me Australians don’t even mind the hilarious convict uniforms worn by English nitwits at Ashes matches?

All part of the fun of the fair.

So Australians don’t hate the English after all?

Oh no they do, but that’s because of Gallipoli.

And that was?

Is this a joke? Go and look it up.

OK, so that was in World War 1, when weak-chinned English toffs sent gallant, down-to-earth loveable Anzac boys to certain death in a doomed invasion which the layabout British army was spared, because English toffs don’t give a damn about the lives of Australians and New Zealanders.

Good work, you’ve got it.

Is that what’s known as an entrenched narrative?

It is.

Because of the trenches, right?

Don’t be stupid. Never mind, just be on your guard if you’re in Australia on Anzac day. Or maybe indoors. You don’t want to get king-hit.

And what is that? Simply please, because my brain is getting full.

But we haven’t even started on the bodyline tour yet. OK, king-hitting is a recent Australian custom, when you go and hit a complete stranger in the face, without warning, as hard as you can. It’s hilarious. It can leave the victim with a broken jaw, in a coma, whatever. The urban dictionary has a definition: ‘the most hardcore, damage-maximising, chronicly (sic) solid punch that can be thrown. Send’s (sic) the aggressor off balance if it doesn’t hit the intended target’.

Why do they have semi-educated teenagers writing this dictionary?

Someone’s got to do it, and all the harmless drudges are busy on proper dictionaries.

Who?

Google it, if you can be bothered. Samuel Johnson. Perhaps we’ll hold the bodyline tour over for another day.

Please.

But anyway, it isn’t the Australians who really hate the English.

It’s the Welsh.  

I was going to say the Irish.

And also what about the Scots?

No it’s the Irish all right.

And what have we ever done to them?

Funny man. Plenty, but perhaps we’ll hold that over for another time too.

What about that dressing-room speech Phil Bennett gave before a Wales-England rugby match.

Go on.

“Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon. The English”

Fair enough. Nobody likes us all that much, to tell you the truth.

Perhaps the Americans.

The Americans find us picturesque and patronise us, but they also think we’re alien and untrustworthy because we can speak English properly. That’s why they hire our clapped-out actors to be evil baddies in their films.

OK, so I’ll put the Americans down as not sure.

However, I did check into a shitty little hotel in Sri Lanka once, and when I handed my passport over the owner said ‘Ah very good, British,’ and beamed and waggled his head. He said he didn’t trust the Italian and French hippies, but the British were gentlemen. I found the same in India. In fact, middle-class Indians in hill towns are more English than the English ever were. They wear tweed jackets and cravats.

You did the hippy trail?

I backpacked around South Asia. Sorry, why are you laughing?

You did the hippy trail. When?

Years ago now. I was young, and it wasn’t the hippy trail. Anyway, the big difference between the Brits and the French wasn’t trustworthiness, it was dress-sense.

Well, well.

Yes, funny isn’t it. Brit freaks were just scruffy and looked as if they needed a shave and a wash, but the French would make an effort to turn themselves out properly.

Meaning what?

Hippy full fig: beads, hair, Rajasthani waistcoat, pyjama trousers, shoulder-bag with tassles, headband, or if not a headband a hat with a feather. If funds allowed, a monkey on the shoulder, though once I met one with a slightly uneasy-looking cat there.

Shades?

Oh no, no sunglasses. Or sun cream, ever.

The French aren’t very popular either, of course.

I hadn’t noticed. Perhaps not with everyone.

So who do the English hate?

In the last few months it’s been mostly cyclists, I think. Which is something else we might come back to.