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grim-reaper

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.

Here we go again…

Soccer - FIFA World Cup England 66 - Final - England v West Germany - Wembley Stadium

The TFSOM offices are knee-deep in postcards sent in by readers keen to hear more about aquarobics classes, megaliths and dog-mess, and concerned that nothing has been posted for a while.  A number of correspondents have been worried that I might already have died, and will therefore have to give up the blog. I am happy to reassure them that my health is relatively good, but I have been kept too busy to write by the following:

  • We spent a week in deepest France, visiting one of Veronica’s brothers and his wife.
  • We spent a week in Yorkshire, visiting just about everyone else in her family.
  • The World Cup is on.

We have also had the builders in, and now summer is starting in earnest, bringing visits from my daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, plus my son and daughter-in-law will be over from Australia.

But I thought it would be civil to say hello quickly, so here goes a short post.

France, Vendée, ‘La Petite Noisette’

We were in the Vendée, which France-lovers (not quite the same as francophiles) will already know is a very rural area near the west coast, to the south of Brittany (think wheat-fields, huge trees, stone-built villages, duck-egg blue window-shutters, massive stone crucifixes everywhere.) We spent a relaxing time eating and drinking too much and playing off-piste boules around Martin and Cheryl’s big garden. A gastronomic curiosity (apart from being amazed all over again by the French custom of soaking buttered toast in their morning coffee before drinking it) was the fact that the best place we ate out (by far) was a small village gastro-pub run by an English couple (the worst was a place in Nantes, where I made the mistake of ordering steak, and was served the worst meal I have had set before me in many years [i]). The pub was called ‘La Petite Noisette’, and the food was excellent throughout, from amuse-bouche to starters to fish to puddings. An even greater curiosity was the fact that within ten minutes of our arriving, the place was suddenly filled with a party of over a dozen Scottish, English and Welsh people of a certain age, keen to wet their whistles before their dinner. I couldn’t help glancing from time to time at one of the Scots, a stocky, larger-than-life character who looked exactly like Ally McCoist’s overweight dad, until I realised that it must in fact be Ally McCoist. This gang were finally sat down at a long table, but the well-lubricated roar of rosbif banter, gossip and argument stopped a young French couple who came in in their tracks, jaws comically ajar. Anyway, if you are ever near Vernoux-en-Gatine, in Deux-Sèvres, try the place out. Four of us ate extremely well and drank a litre of decent house wine (OK, I drank half of it) for less than 130 euros.

Yorkshire, leafy Sheffield, the moors,

We were in Sheffield, Veronica’s home-town. Sheffield people are up in arms about all the tree-felling over the last year or two, but outside the not-very-picturesque-to-say-the-least city centre (I am being careful here) it is a gorgeously leafy place, where we had a busy family time, once again involving a lot of drinking and eating. On one outing I had excellent cod and chips, scoffed from a paper bag, followed a little later by half a truly succulent pork pie and a small bag of pontefract cakes, before going home for tea and dinner. On the same outing I had asked for a quick trip up to the moors, where everyone else stayed in the car with the windows up while I staggered about leaning into the refreshing summer breeze, before sheltering for a few minutes behind a large rock bearing a sign announcing forbiddingly that this was Holm Moss Car Park.

The World Cup began while we were in Sheffield, which meant when we weren’t eating we were watching football on the telly, so it was a great trip.

It’s all about the football from here on, so stop reading here if you’re already sick of it.

World Cup Diary

Monday 25th

What is the Icelandic for déjà vu?

It’s like watching someone fall off the waggon the moment they have to spend five minutes with people having a drink. The sports press, commentators, anchormen and pundits succeeded for month after month in presenting a po-faced, rational attitude to England’s chances at the World Cup, but all that has gone in a week. At the start of the tournament, no sane money was on England to win it, because they hadn’t beaten a decent team in a major tournament for sixteen years (that was Argentina by a nicked penalty in 2002). The fact that they still haven’t done so seems to have been lost on everyone on telly except Slavan Bilic. England have just about managed to overcome a not-very-good Tunisian team, they’ve scored a lot against some desperately poor Panamanians, and now they are on their way to the final, to judge by Alan Shearer’s irritating ear-to-ear smirk and the unhinged exclamations of the BBC commentator for the Panama game, viz: ‘England four, Panama nil! The last time England scored four at a World Cup finals, Geoff Hurst scored three, and I don’t need to tell you what happened that day!’

What is the matter with these people?

Now half the nation are busy working out which side of the draw England would most like to avoid in the quarter-finals, getting there being a formality. ITV anchorman Mark Pougatch wonders aloud before the Poland-Columbia game whether England wouldn’t be better off losing to Belgium (as if this Belgium team are going to give England much choice in the matter). To their credit, pundits Bilic, Neville and Wright bat away this notion contemptuously (the scowling, sneering, painfully depressed Roy Keane seems too deep in his own reflections to be consulted on the matter, which is a loss) – but everyone except Bilic seems to presume that England will actually get to the quarter-finals. Having seen a very dangerous-looking Colombia thrash Poland 3-0, I’m not so sure about that. René Higuita was at the match, looking fabulous as always.

Careful, Lee…

After the uproar in the twittersphere about Patrice Evra’s condescending ‘That’s very good’ and little round of applause for female ex-pro pundit Eni Aluko, you might have expected Lee Dixon to think a bit more carefully before patronising the African official in the Russia-Uruguay game with a surprised and approving ‘he’s a good ref, this’. But no, it hasn’t sunk in. Lee, try this simple test: would you say that, in that tone of voice, about a European ref? (No, you wouldn’t, unless she was a woman.)

No truth in the rumours

Spain were clearly relieved that they would be facing hapless, clueless, shagged-out-looking Russia in their quarter-final, rather than dazzling, flavour-of-the-day Uruguay, but some authorities[ii] believe they may be counting their chickens early, attributing the Russian team’s poor last performance to an erroneous reduction in their dosage by what the East Germans used to call the team’s ‘sports doctor’. This problem can be corrected in a day or two, these theorists hold, so we may well see the ten-goal Russia back against Spain, who will be run off their feet and beaten in the last ten minutes by an opponent scampering about with their eyes starting from their heads. However, TFSOM gives no credence to such shameless propaganda by Russia’s running-dog enemies.

Tuesday 26th

Snore-draw

I had painted a wall and was just keeping an eye on it while it dried, so I only caught ten minutes of the France-Denmark game, thank God. There is a strong possibility that the England-Belgium game will be as bad. Let’s hope both teams need to win it, for whatever reason.

The finger of God.

The always-classy Diego Maradona excelled himself again, being captured by the cameras making vulgar gestures (using the middle-finger on each hand) towards opposition supporters below his hospitality box. The Bobby Moore of the pampas.

 Toodle-oo!

 

[i] This was an elementary error, a breach of Eating Out Rule 2 ‘Never Order Steak in France’.

[ii]  Boris Johnson

A sort of day…

 

Morning: Barbershop Man

barbershop

As I go down the stairs of my exercise club, I notice a new poster: a fit-looking young woman in gym singlet and knee-length leggings is bending over backwards, so that both the soles of her feet and the palms of her hands (not to mention the end of her ponytail) are in contact with the floor. The legend is an uplifting ‘Acredita em algo mais’ (believe in something more). It isn’t clear in what, but I suspect in Wellness, or perhaps even in Better, which is what Sky TV recommends we Believe in. Anyway, one for the collection.

An hour or two later, I am at my hairdresser’s for a much-needed haircut. It is a minuscule place inside a small, old-style shopping centre. There are three chairs where you have your hair cut, and two which lean right back so your hair can be washed in a basin and your scalp get a free massage while you nearly go off to sleep. There is also a coat-stand, a tiny counter for bookings and payments, an awful little padded bench strewn with magazines, and a desk affair where manicures are done by a fat Brazilian girl with false eyelashes. It is so crowded that people are always getting in each other’s way and dropping things.

I enjoy being here. My hairdresser Teresa is a lady-like, quietly-spoken Portuguese who says little as she goes about her work; the other two are gay Brazilians (one of whom wears his hair in a little ponytail which he’s twenty years too old for), and the general atmosphere is chatty, gossipy, friendly, mildly camp, occasionally raucous. I am mostly ignored, content to sit and smirk. For what I pay here (ten euros), I would otherwise have to go to a low-end men’s barbershop, where I would get no hair-wash and a terrible haircut (straight Portuguese barbers don’t seem to know anything about hair), and would have to endure at least half an hour – probably more, counting the wait – of old-school masculine conversation à portuguesa. I used to go to such places in my first few years in Portugal, and I doubt they’ve changed much (a few weeks ago my son went to a fashionable one in Lisbon called Figaro’s, and his girlfriend wasn’t allowed inside to sit and wait for him.)

In the traditional Portuguese barbershop, people’s clothes smell of stale cigarette-smoke. There is silence, the steady snip of scissors, the occasional sharp hum of electric clippers, desultory chat. Occasionally one of the barbers will pause, clippers in one hand and comb in the other, and say something ponderous. He will be a male type found disproportionately often in Portuguese barber’s, either as the barber himself or as a customer: middle-aged, more opinionated than knowledgeable, completely lacking any ironical sense of himself, bluff of manner but basically humourless, given to holding forth on football and politics.

I met one or two bores like this when I first came to Portugal. My first wife, who worked for a Portuguese company, would be invited to dinner at someone or other’s house and I would go along as her partner. Such dinners would begin with four or five males standing in a circle at one end of the sitting-room, holding glasses of whiskey and talking about Benfica, or in some households about Sporting Lisbon. Other subjects might be the latest conspiracy theory (Portuguese males are partial to these) or a meal someone had recently eaten, but discussion of other topics was not common. When we arrived I would join this  group, rocking gently on my heels, smiling, nodding, studying the ice in my glass, laughing at jokes I half-understood, wool-gathering – and would mostly be left in peace, while I glanced wistfully at the cackling women getting tipsy at the other end of the room, comfortably sat on sofas and in armchairs (the upright phase of a dinner could easily go on for the best part of an hour.) However, if Barbershop Man was present, I could forget about being left in peace: Barbershop Man does not converse but holds forth contentiously, expecting full attention, and if any slackening of my own was sensed behind my increasingly fixed smile, my upper arm would be touched insistently (I dislike this), or in extreme cases grasped firmly (I like this even less), to restore me to a sense of my social duty.

And now there is in fact a touch on my shoulder: I have been daydreaming and the haircut is done. Teresa carefully lifts off the nylon hair-dresser’s shroud, turns through a few degrees to shake out the loose hair-cuttings, and plies her outsize shaving-brush to clean me off around the neck and shoulders. I stand, thank her and pay at the little counter by the door.

 

Afternoon: a bit of fish       

monkfish

Later, I am at the fish counter in our local Pingo Doce[1]. I have come for a bit of fish for my supper (Veronica is away), and am waiting to be served. I have been waiting a minute or so, which doesn’t sound too bad on Pingo Doce’s part, until you consider that I’m the only one at the counter. I have taken a ticket to be on the safe side, and have been waiting for the lady to officially notice me. I know she knows I’m here, but her back is firmly turned while she gets on with some job she has to do. I am reminded of the waiter’s epitaph[2]. If this was in a TESCO or a Sainsbury’s she’d turn with an empty, well-trained smile, and that singsong intonation they have, and say something like “Good afternoon, sir, sorry to keep you, I’ll be with you in a moment” (though even in a posh place like Waitrose she wouldn’t have authorisation to use the modern and very irritating “bear with me, please”, which is restricted-use for people who answer the phone.)

Anyway and be that as it may, I might as well be a fish myself for all the attention I’m being paid here.

However, there’s no great rush, I still have to choose what fish to buy. I am no expert on fish. There are lots of bream-shaped ones on the slab, mostly silvery, though there’s a quite pretty one called a salema which has yellow stripes along its body (only three euros fifty the kilo, but we’ve had it before and it wasn’t great). The usual diagonal-cut sections of scabbard-fish, lots of colourful little tiddly ones that will be full of bones, a few laughably overrated and overpriced salmonetes, a couple of gormless-looking monkfish, very dead and sorry for themselves with their prognathous lower lips and wide toothy mouths, and their little fishing-poles keeled-over and stuck against their heads. It looks like it’s going to be the usual salmon-steak or  dourada[3] again, though the eyes of the douradas are a bit filmed-over, giving them that seedy, morning-after look which  means they aren’t fresh. I see this look in the mirror from time to time.

After another few moments, I say “Good afternoon”.

She turns her head a couple of degrees, no more, and says “Just a moment” (we are speaking Portuguese, of course.)

I am slightly taken aback by the offhand tone, but wait another half-minute and try again. This time she sounds quite irritated, but after a second turns and approaches the counter, in her gleaming white overalls, gauntlets and wellington boots. She is a stodgy, pale woman of about forty.

I smile winningly and say “Good afternoon” again. She regards me implacably, but after a second or two is able to say “Good afternoon” herself.

Knowing I am committing a basic error, but unable to stop myself, I ask: “Are the douradas fresh? Their eyes look a bit filmy.”

What happens next is hard to describe. The fish-lady doesn’t lift her shoulders, turn her palms upward, or pull down the corners of her mouth like a grouper. Her eyebrows remain unraised, her lower lip unpursed, her chin, unprojected, remains in the default position. And yet she clearly shrugs, in a way I have never seen before, not even in Portugal (where the shrug is reputed to have been invented), and she does it without moving a single muscle. I am fascinated. I watch her steadily, begin to feel rebellious, and once again cannot help myself.

“Sorry, is this a bad time?” I ask. “I can come back when it’s more convenient.”

I’m sure she does the invisible shrug again, or maybe it’s a continuation of the same shrug. Did the first one ever come to an end? Is it a lifelong shrug, a life-style shrug, a continuous way of being? I am out of my depth.

“I’ll just have a salmon steak, please,” I say.

 

Evening: leave everything in the tank

victormatfieldangusgardnersuperrugbyc2xwnktdbmgl

Since Veronica is away, I am able to indulge myself with an orgy of catch-up televised sport. There is a club rugby match, some cricket highlights, and a football match.

There is very little to report. The football match is Atletico Madrid against Arsenal , a Europa League semi-final which turns out exactly as everyone knew it would. Before the game, Arsene Wenger demonstrates the challenge which football clichés can present to even the most fluent foreign coach. He starts well, promising that his team will play ‘with the handbrake off’, but makes a cock of his next one, assuring his interviewer that ‘we will leave everything we have in the tank’ . I am still intermittently puzzling over this one when I give up on the game and try the cricket highlights. England don’t do very well and neither does the otherwise very good Ian Ward, who seems to have forgotten his algebra when he informs us that ‘for England to win the match, it’s a simple equation: ten wickets’.[4]

In the rugby match the referee is  a slight, sandy-haired figure, and very young. Most of the players are so much bigger they look as if they could eat him in a sandwich. And yet he controls them like a lion-tamer, warning, explaining and guiding players through his decisions; and these are respected right or wrong in a way which would be unthinkable in football, where referees are routinely jostled, pushed and hounded round the pitch by players having tantrums that would disgrace a four-year old. The ten-metres-back-for-dissent rule has something to do with this, and also the fact that rugby’s better calibration of punishments gives the ref the option of the sin-bin, making the yellow card a far more effective deterrent in rugby than in football (where the red card is almost never used for even gross dissent: not every ref has Michael Oliver’s courage). An alternative view might be that quite a few rugby players are relatively rational, recognisably human beings, while professional footballers tend to be overpaid, under-educated virtual halfwits (just look at the excruciating goal celebrations.) Personally, of course, I do not hold this view.

[1] Pingo Doce- a chain of high-street supermarkets

[2]  ‘God Finally Caught His Eye’.

[3] Apparently, gilt-head bream

[4] In fact, Wenger has mixed two clichés: 1. ‘to leave nothing out there on the pitch’, and 2. ‘to empty (or leave nothing in) the tank’.  I’m afraid I’m lying about the cricket quote, which was on another day entirely.

The Great Dolmen of Zambujeiro

(Continued…)

poblado-edad-de-los-metales

For the last little while the road has been following some kind of watercourse, in a wooded gully bordering the meadow to the left, and when we reach the village of Valverde and turn left down the main street, there is a bridge at the bottom. We park and get out to inspect the little river, which is broad and shallow at this point, divided picturesquely into three or four streamlets between beds of reeds and tall bamboo. When I walk a short way along the bank to have a closer look at some yellow irises, the shrill shriek of the frogs is abruptly replaced by a watchful silence, punctuated by a series of discreet plops as they take refuge.

A kilometre past the bridge, we turn left among a collection of industrial-looking farm-buildings and park beside the final sign for the dolmen, planning to walk the rest of the way. In Portugal all sites of any touristic interest are announced by these brown and white signs. Those directing you to prehistoric sites show a stylised image of something like a wonky three-legged stool. These are called antas (dolmens in English), and are made of big flat stones balanced on other big flat stones, but that’s all I know.

The last kilometre is along a muddy cart-track. We are glad we decided not to attempt this by car, because at two or three points the way is blocked by wide khaki puddles whose depth can only be conjectured. The biggest runs the width of the track, and we have to make our way along the narrow grassy verge down one side, clinging to the fence. It is only on the way back, in an hour’s time, that I notice the sturdy white plastic loops attached to the other side of each fence-post, and the wire which runs through them. The reason for the electrified inner fence must be the short-statured, long-horned bullocks which are grazing on either side of the track, each with its own yellow-beaked cattle-egret picking about by its hooves. One of the egrets is drinking from a cattle-trough near the fence, but before we get close it flaps away, neck tucked in primly. The bullocks regard us blankly.

The track comes to an end at a little wide place where there are a couple of broad-crowned oaks, with space beneath for a couple of cars to park. To my relief no cars are there. Also, the Portuguese aren’t great walkers, so with the track in the state it’s in, nobody is here but us. In single file we cross a rickety footbridge over a swollen stream, flowing brown and dimpled between high brambled banks. The meadow beyond rises gently to the left, towards a low rocky hillock set among mature olive-trees. The land is otherwise flat pasture as before, studded with cork-oaks and more olives.

From a distance there seems to be a farm building set into the hillock, under a pitched corrugated-iron roof, but as we approach it becomes clear that there are no walls, just the high spindly-legged roof, under which is what looks like a mound of huge boulders. Close to, the site resolves itself. The middle of the hillock has been hollowed away on the nearer side, leaving thinly-grassed, shallow banks around a kind of sloping amphitheatre. At the back of this, its rear half set into the steepest part of the bank, stands a massive hollow structure made from eight huge slabs of roughly-fashioned granite, leaning against and supporting each other in a way that reminds me of a house of cards. The stones at the back are almost vertical, while those at the front are inclined about forty-five degrees. The structure is fifteen or twenty feet high and approached at the front by a kind of corridor made from irregular shoulder-high standing stones, some of which have gone missing. Most of this corridor is open to the sky (or rather, to the prosaic pitched roof high above our heads), but the last two or three metres are still roofed with bulky slabs, which are offered extra support by a sturdy wooden structure which also prevents access to the rest of the passage. Peering through, we can see that the passage ends at a small triangular entrance. The floor beyond is sunlit, grey and gravelly.

I scramble up round the side of the dolmen where it is set into the bank, stopping half-way to peer through a slit between two menhirs at the tall, level-floored space inside. Craning my neck upward, I see that Mick has already got to the top from the other side, and is leaning over and surveying the entire chamber from above. When I join him, he shows me where the chamber’s broken capstone lies, on the broad space behind us at the top of the hillock.

After a little while we gather near the front of the dolmen, where there is a fallen menhir to sit on in the sunshine. There is unbroken silence for a minute or two.

“So it’s a tomb,” I say.

“A massive funerary and megalithic monument,” Veronica reads off the information-board. “The biggest of its kind in Iberia. Its purpose was to receive the bodies of the deceased, laid inside it together with several ritual and common use objects. That last bit isn’t quite right.” She rummages in her bag. “Does anybody want their sandwich yet?”

All around us, the colours of the alentejano early spring: yellow sunlight, vivid pasture, pale boulders, the sooty-red trunks of cork-oaks stripped of their bark, the dusty sea-green of olive-trees.

We munch our sandwiches, studying the stones.

“So they didn’t bury the person in the ground,” I say blankly.

Jane, who has been looking at something on her ipad for a few minutes, now speaks. “Ah, well yes they did, in a way. This was a passage-tomb, it says here. When the roof-stones were on the burial-chamber and the passage, it was all covered over with a big mound of earth, with the burial-chamber in the middle and the passage leading to it.”

“So it was all underground, under a barrow, like in The Lord of the Rings.”

“I never saw that.”

“It was only in the book. But anyway.”

I am thinking, these ancient stones are a skeleton themselves, from which the flesh has gradually fallen as it fell from the bones of the dead who lay here.

All the way back down to the stream and over it, past the munching cattle and the water-trough, the puddle and the electric fence, the one bare tree shrill with sparrows, all the way driving home while the others nap, I am wondering how they did it and what they were like, these people who built the burial chamber, the passage and the mound. They must have found the huge rocks for the building-slabs to hand, but even so. Each slab must weigh over twenty tons (I work it out when I get home). They didn’t have the wheel, but would they have known about rollers, and then maybe tipped the menhirs up into holes they’d dug for them?  Getting the capstone on the burial-chamber would have been a tougher challenge. I start sketching out one idea of how they might have done it, but that would have entailed building the mound before the dolmen, and they didn’t have such a thing as a block and tackle, because they hadn’t invented the wheel yet, let alone the axle…

The questions outnumber even the tentative answers. Would this have been only men, or would everybody have been involved? (I imagine the latter.) Was fetching the earth and raising the mound a job for the young ones, then? Maybe once the stones were up, the adults would have pitched in too. Even so the mound would have taken a lot of people a lot of time. A cubic metre of earth weighs about a ton and a half, and the mound would have needed to be six or seven metres high at the highest point, and around twenty metres in diameter, if it was round. I don’t even try to work this out, because it’s got pi in it somewhere, but it’s hundreds or maybe thousands of tons. Could so many people all have been local, or did some of them have to travel? How far, and what did they have to bring? Did they have animals? Did the children moan and ask to be picked up? (I doubt it). If they stopped for a meal in the middle of the day, what did they eat? How big were the settlements they lived in? Was it just extended families, or was there some kind of politics? What might the size of the tomb tell us about that? Did they have slaves? Was there war? What did people wear? Would it all have been based on animal skins, or had they learnt to weave cloth? What did they look like, anyway? In my mind’s eye I see low-set, strongly-built people, with long, tangled hair, square battered hands with chipped nails, bare shins, tough capable faces (for the men I add beards as well). *

By this time we are in the queue for the bridge back over the Tagus, and will be home in twenty minutes or so. This evening I will have the dazed, after-the-magic feeling I get after returning from bright days like this one, my eyes still drenched with the colours of the alentejano palette. I’ll go back another day.

 

*   I did some web-research over the next day or two. I didn’t find as many answers as I was hoping, but I know now that cave-paintings, mastodons and all that belong back in the Mesolithic and Palaeolithic periods (Middle and Old Stone Age), along with a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle (in Europe at least). These two periods together lasted for about three-and-a-quarter million years (or thirty-three thousand centuries) and go back to the earliest pre-human hominins like australopithicus. In comparison, the Neolithic period, with the beginnings of agriculture and permanent settlement, was the blink of an eye, a mere five or six thousand years, beginning about 10,000 BC in Mesopotamia (but a lot later in western Europe) and ending with the invention of bronze. The fullest, most interesting and readable source I could find about everyday Neolithic life was a section in HG Wells’s ‘The Outline of History: A Plain History of Life and Mankind’. Wells bases his description on archaeological study of a site discovered in 1854 in Switzerland. It’s not proper history, and Wells uses words like ‘barbaric’ too freely for a modern sensibility, but I recommend it if you’re interested (link below).  If you’re not bothered, here is a summary of some things Wells says.

  • Neolithic peoples in Europe lived in small communities, from animal-herding and basic agriculture. They also did a bit of hunting and gathering, and fishing with nets.
  • They had stone tools, axe-heads, and arrow-heads.
  • They lived in simple huts with thatched rooves, inside which they also stabled their animals. The floor of the huts was stamped earth or dung.
  • They had oxen, goats and sheep, but not chickens. Towards the end of the Neolithic period they got pigs.
  • They had dogs, but not cats.
  • They hunted and ate deer, bison and wild boar.
  • They cultivated wheat and barley, from which they made flour and a kind of bread, but not oats or rye.
  • Most clothes were made of animal fur and hides, but Wells’s people knew how to make a flax-based cloth.
  • They did not have tables or chairs, but may have had simple beds.
  • They had well-fashioned stone knives for cutting, and increasingly well-made pots (a nicely-decorated bowl, probably from a later time, was found in the dolmen of Zambujeiro, and is now displayed in Evora museum.)
  • Since they had the bow, they almost certainly made music as well.
  • They had no writing.

The Almendres cromlech was raised by such people between 6,000 and 4,000 BC, the dolmen of Zambujeiro sometime over the following few hundred years.  Europe, particularly Iberia, was probably a bit behind the times. At about that time Sumer, in south Mesopotamia, was well into its Bronze Age, had invented cuneiform writing and had the wheel. Uruk, its greatest city, had been founded around 4,500BC and was the biggest walled city the world had ever seen, with 50,000 residents. Iberia didn’t have the wheel, writing or bronze yet, though copper artefacts dating from 3,000 BC have been found near Palmela.

http://outline-of-history.mindvessel.net/100-neolithic-man-in-europe/103-everyday-neolithic-life.html

 

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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.